By ROGER ALLNUTT
The Sultanate of Oman, situated on the Arabian peninsula close to travel hubs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, is fast becoming a popular destination for international tourists.
It offers a wide variety of attractions, including water sports along its coast that stretches from the Gulf of Oman around to the Arabian Sea before reaching the border with Yemen. Inland a mountainous range with wildly dramatic rock formations leads in the centre of the country to vast areas of rolling sand dunes.
Sultan Qaboos has been the ruler of the country since 1970 and he has invested the recent wealth from oil and natural gas in a major infrastructure program with the construction of a wonderful network of excellent highways many of which are four lanes which makes travelling in the country safe and speedy.
There has been a focus on education and health with new schools and medical facilities along with new housing and business facilities that have changed the country from a sleepy rural country to a modern nation. The history of the country is also being preserved with extensive expenditure on the restoration and reconstruction of old forts, castles, museums and other places of historical and heritage interest.
The capital Muscat is on the Gulf of Oman coast. It is divided into a number of different areas, the old town, business centre and spreading urban residential areas.
Its old town Mutrah is a small port enclave with forts perched on hilltops, narrow streets and a lovely souq where traders offer a myriad of goods from materials to jewellery, spices to old guns and other weapons. The Sultan has an office palace at Mutrah surrounded by buildings of the Royal court and other government institutions. His residential palace is located further along the coast.
The city is dominated by many mosques. The most lavish of them all is the Grand Mosque built by the Sultan and named after him. It is a marvellous building set in extensive grounds with lovely trees and flowers and a lovely marble courtyard. The huge interior contains an enormous one piece 4,200 sqare metre prayer mat, huge chandeliers and the inlay work on the walls and ceiling is very intricate, delicate and colourful. The Sultan is passionate about flowers and throughout the country they provide a surprising blaze of colour.
If you want to learn more about the history of Oman the exhibition at the Armed Forces Museum in Muscat presents it in fascinating detail. Note that most museums close on Thursday and mosques are closed to visitors after 11am on Fridays.
Development is strictly controlled with no tall buildings dominating the skyline. Buildings are constructed to ensure harmony with heritage attractions. The new Opera House is dazzling while the Seeb International Airport which is located quite close to the city has recently been upgraded.
There are numerous hotels of which the Grand Hyatt and Intercontinental are popular with tourists while the excellent Park Inn, closer to the airport, caters for both tourists and business people. New resort spas such as Shangri-La’s Barr al Jissah offer relaxation and private beaches and there are water activities such as snorkelling and scuba diving and dolphin-watching tours.
Within a day’s drive of Muscat are a number of places that enable visitors to experience the dramatic countryside. A popular circular tour is to travel inland through the mountains; the road is so good that it is fast and easy driving and even self drive is possible.
Nizwa is a vibrant town with a central area encapsulating the lovely fort, mosque and bustling souq. The fort has been beautifully restored and its many rooms contain examples of the town’s history and arts, craft and lifestyle of earlier inhabitants. Try to time your visit for early Friday morning (the museum shuts at 11am) as it coincides with the exciting goat market in the souq nearby where locals, including the Bedouin people, auction and haggle over goats, camels and cows. It is a marvellous spectacle. Close to Nizwa the pre-Islamic fort at Bahla and the castle at Jabrin are worth a visit too.
In Nizwa and other places in the countryside look out for the falaj or water channels that divert the water from the mountains through the villages and towns for drinking, washing and agricultural purposes. They are a marvel of ingenuity.
Driving east from Nizwa stop at Sinaw where in the market you will find Bedouin women selling perfumes made from local ingredients.
Much of the interior is covered in vast, rolling sand dunes and the Wahiba Sands region contains a number of camps where you can stay Bedouin style. 4WD tours are a great way to experience the thrill of riding the dunes and many tours stop at a Bedouin tent for coffee and dates. Date palms proliferate throughout the country and the fruit is luscious.
Surprisingly in the rugged mountain areas you will find lush oases with water pools surrounded by date palms. The best is Wadi Bani Khalid where a dip is recommended to cool off after a day of driving.
At Sur on the coast east of Muscat one boatyard remains for the construction of wooden boats in the old ‘dhow’ style. Once a thriving industry boats are only made now to specific order. Further east at Ras al Jinz on the Arabian Sea coast turtles come in to lay their eggs as they have been doing for millennia; night and morning tours are available.
Roger Allnutt was a guest of Sultanate of Oman Tourism.
There are flights to Muscat from the US via Abu Dhabi with Etihad Airways or Dubai with Emirates. A visitor visa can be obtained on arrival at the airport in Muscat. Best time to visit is from October to April.
For more information look at website www.omantourism.gov.om