Oman - Still an Enigma
by Bala Menon
The Sultanate of Oman is in many ways the ultimate Arabian dream. Unspoiled, enchanting and with a history dating back to the earliest days of human civilization, this vast country on the eastern seaboard of the Arabian peninsula is literally a magical 'treasure trove' from the 1001 Arabian Nights.
Beautiful beaches, lagoons, bays and coves dot the massive Omani coastline that stretches for 1,700km along the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea.
The incredible 'sand seas' of the Wahiba in the east, the forbidding and dusty Jiddat Al Harassis plain, the desolate Rub Al Khali (The Empty Quarter), fertile terrace farming in the Jebel Al Akhdar (Green Mountains), the ragged cliffs of Musandam, the mist-covered hills of Dhofar - which enjoy the region's only regular tropical monsoon. Oman boasts of these and much more.
Open now to what Omani officials say 'selective and quality tourism', the lucky few who get to see the country leave mesmerised and wanting to make repeat visits. Muscat, the capital of Oman, is a fine, modern city - with beautiful winding roads built through the mountains. Some like the Qurm-Darseit highway and the steep road to the lovely Qantab village and beach are marvels of modern engineering..
Muscat can be a focal point for many outings into the hinterland or to the many beaches. The coast of Muscat extends from Qurm to the town of Quriyat and the safe waters are ideal for swimming, sailing, fishing, snorkeling and diving. Just off Muscat are also some beautiful islands like Bandar Khairan and Damaniyat - where the waters are so clear that you can see fish swimming several feet below. The bays of Bandar Jissah are a must for visitors.
The beautiful Corniche of Muscat encompasses the huge Riyam Park and several landscaped areas, over which looms the majestic Muttrah Fort perched on a hill overlooking Muttrah Bay.
Architecture has been given great priority in the Sultanate. The result is a city and a skyline, the like of which you will not find anywhere in the world. There are few skyscrapers and no two single buildings are allowed to be built alike. The Islamic architectural styles lend grace and grandeur to commercial, government and residential buildings. Low slung villas are also now springing up in the several burgeoning townships around Muscat.
The great Fort of Jalali
The old walled city of Muscat, encircled by mountains and the great forts of Mirani and Jalali which flank the dreamy Al Alam Palace of Sultan Qaboos is well-preserved and a must during a city tour. Most houses here have intricately decorated windows and terraces with arches.
One of the most luxurious hotels in the world is Muscat's Al Bustan Palace Hotels, built on a fabulous beach surrounded on three sides by mountains in 1985 to host the summit of the rulers of the Arab Gulf Cooperation Council states.
The beach at Al Bustan Hotel
Owned by the government and managed by the Inter-Continental chain, the property is an attraction by itself. The city has a wide range of five-, four- and three-star hotels to cater to a wide spectrum of visitors. A recent boom has been seen in the inflow of visitors from the GCC countries.
The city has many museums, displaying the great diversity of the country and its rich, ancient heritage. An aquarium gives a glimpse of the abundance of marine wealth in Omani waters. The meandering souq with its mini-shops is richly-satisfying to wander around.
The Sultanate is perhaps home to one of the world's largest number of forts found anywhere. Every village boasts a fort overlooking it from a hilltop and over the centuries some magnificent ones have been built, including some by the Portuguese. The Bahla Fort in the town of the same name in the Interior region is so richly constructed and of such beauty that it has now been included in the Unesco's List of World Heritage Sites. Its 12-k-long wall is stunning. The fort and palace of Jabrin, built in 1675, the forts of Nizwa (the old capital of Oman), Birkat Al Mouz, Rostaq ( a town which is also home to some fine hot sulphur springs) are all well worth visiting.
Oman is the original home of 'wadi-bashing' - now popular all over the Gulf region. The sport involves off-road driving in a four-wheel drive vehilce and because of its rugged terrain, twisting water-courses and astouding sceneries, week-end trips into the outdoors of northern Oman are very challenging and delightful propositions for both visitors and residents.
The little village of Wadi Bani Awf in the Interior
And inhabitants of the small villages and hamlets that you come along on the way are extremely friendly, hospitable and naturally helpful.
Wherever you go into these villages, hidden in the folds of the Jebel Al Akhdar (Green Mountains - although they are brown with small oases hidden away), you will come across the inevitable falaj - that unique water channel rooted in the history of the country. Houses and farms are supplied with water brought in from several kilometers away through craftily constructed stone channels, some of it underground...
The Jebel Akdhar rises at points to 3,000 metres and the terraced farms grow peaches, pomegranate, grapes, roses....
In the east of the country is the ship-building and fishing town of Sur - ideal for a day trip. Beautiful models of the ancient ocean-going vessels of Oman can be bought here. Nearby is the 'lost city' of Qalhat, its vast area strewn with millions of shards of Chinese celedon pottery. There is only one stone structure standing, the Tomb of Bibi Miriam, a local noblewoman. Rich oyster bays and good fishing ground front the small Qalhat village of today.
On the road to Sur is Ras Al Hadd, famous the world over as one of the largest nesting grounds of the marine turtle. Thousands of turtles of many species come ashore every year to lay eggs on its sandy beaches. The site is now protected.
A thousand km down south is the beautiful province of Dhofar and its capital, Salalah. The mountains of Dhofar cover some 220km in a crescent, enabling it to catch the monsoon winds from the Indian Ocean from June to September. Heavy rains and mist cover the green hills during this period and the region is host to thousands of tourists coming from arid countries in the neighbourhood. There are flourishing coconut, papaya, banana and other fruit planatations.
Wadi Darbat, the gardens of Ain Hamran, the Tomb of Job and several picnic spots all over the hills ensure that the visitor will his fill of the region. The Salalah plain is richly fertile and the tropical ambience is at once exhilarating and soothing.
The ruins of Sumhuram from where ancient Oman exported its frankincense to Europe is in Dhofar. The site, on the east bank of the creek of Khor Rori, near the village of Taqa is a World Heritage Site today. The visitor can see plenty of frankincense trees in the hills around Salalah.
A wide network of roads link Muscat with Oman's numerous cities and towns. The highway to Salalah goes straight through the Nejd Plateau and to break the monotony of the desert road, the government has built comfortable motels along the more than 1,000-km route. The rooms are reasonably priced and the restaurants offer good food. Very efficient bus services are also operated by the Oman National Transport Company.
But as Omani officials says, the country does not welcome 'backpackers'. Quality tourism demands that visitors are interested in the wealth of culture, heritage and beauty of the country. And in this, what the Sultanate has to offer is of impeccable pedigree....
(Bala Menon was Deputy Editor of the Sultanate's national English newspaper Times of Oman - in Muscat - for about 11 years.)