You'd be forgiven for thinking that it had come straight out of a fairy tale, this land of charming fortified villages, imposing mountain forts and hidden desert oases. If wandering amongst intricate mosques and grand hotels or breaking out onto 1,700km of untouched beaches with populations of dolphins and sea turtles doesn't make you believe it, the hospitality and generosity of the locals you meet surely will.The anti-Dubai
Think of Oman as an anti-Dubai, where skyscrapers have been banished from city skylines and in their place stands the preserved architecture of past civilisations made comfortable by contemporary design. Add to this sparkling clean streets and white tile-paved markets, and you begin to get the most furtive of glimpses into Oman's urban way of life.Magical Muscat and more
Culture vultures are hard pressed to drag themselves from the wonderful fortified villages and mountain fortresses but the ruins of Muscat are well worth an entire trip. Old Portuguese forts and impressive mosques populate the country's capital, and the sounds of the Royal Opera House without doubt merit a visit. Travel south and you'll arrive in the mysterious region of Dhofar, land of the ancient Queen of Sheba and home to Salahah, traditional home of Oman's sultans.Beyond borders
Leave the cities behind and you'll find a natural paradise of converging seas, deserts and mountains. To the north you'll find the exclave of Musandam, separated from the rest of Oman by the UAE. Here the waters of the Gulf of Oman run into deep fjords which rise into arid mountains. The sails of traditional dhow sailing boats flit in and out of fjords, offering the perfect way to discover this mesmerising strip of coast.Deserts and oases
Back in the mainland, adventurous souls will find endless contentment in the sporadic oases and surrounding deserts. One of the country's best known desert camps, Wadi Bani Khalid offers temperatures hovering constantly around 40C and deliciously refreshing waters in which to cool off. Once night falls, the myriads of stars are left unclouded by light pollution and you're left to contemplate the cosmos from your luxury desert camp.
Surface area : 309500.0 km2
Population : 4419003 inhabitants
In the souks, the stand sellers offer a wide variety of items: foodstuff, spices and traditional medicine, fabric, clothes, kitchenware, wooden cupboards, plastic toys and silver daggers. There is also a little local handicraft: in Muscat, you will find chiselled silver and gold jewels; in Nizwa, you will find some pottery and basketry objects and in Salalah, you will find incense and perfume, small painted clay censers and fine objects such as dishes, wooden chests and jewels imported from India.
In shopping centres, you will find objects which have been imported from all over the world and which are often more expensive than in the UK. Shops are open in the morning from 8:30 am to 12:00 pm, and again at night, from 4:00 pm to 8:00 pm. It depends on the type of goods sold, but supermarkets often remain open over lunch time. Theoretically, the weekly closing day is Friday, but in practice, many shops remain open.
Omani cuisine blends flavours from places all around the Indian Ocean. Rice and chapatis are generally served with meat or fish and cooked with spices. In Muscat, you will find good Indian, Chinese, European and African restaurants, as well as the so-called 'international' restaurants, which are often good for seafood.
Throughout the country, small local restaurants serve excellent value birianis and curries with a salad. Here, you can try eating "the Omani way", sitting on a rug and comfortably settled between two cushions.
Alcohol consumption, which is prohibited in public, is authorised in bars and restaurants with a license. Coffee, flavoured with cardamom, is offered throughout the day, with dates and fruits (honey and spice cakes are traditionally served at night).
Beware, taxes and tips are not always included in the price indicated on the restaurant menus. In that case, an extra 9 % for government tax and 8 % for service will be added to the bill.
In Oman, everything is clean. Modern markets, paved with white tiles and air-conditioned, are progressively replacing the old, malodorous souks. It is prohibited to throw a wrapper or cigarette end on the floor and drive a dirty car through the capital city. Drivers even stop before entering the city, to clean their vehicles.
In the inland regions, women wear the burqah, a veil which covers the entire face, except for the eyes. The veils are often dyed with indigo and decorated beautifully with golden threads.
Taking pictures in the cities is not a problem, as long as you don't aim the lens directly at people (men or women). In the villages, you must be even more discreet and avoid taking pictures of street activity, just stick to landscapes and monuments.
When visiting public places, wear decent clothing: women must avoid wearing short skirts and revealing cleavage. You should also refrain from kissing on the mouth in public (in Muscat, visitors have previously been fined police who judged their behaviour disrespectful).
As a traditionally Muslim country, it's also good to remember that during Ramadan, life comes to a halt and travel can be difficult.
With 1,700 kilometres of coast at its disposal, Oman is a great seaside destination. Choose between the dulcet waters of the Gulf of Oman to the north in Musandam, the Arabian Sea in the east and the Indian Ocean to the south, surrounding Dhofar and Salahah. The coastlines here attract dolphins and sea turtles that come to lay their eggs in the sand, as well as avid divers wanting to explore the temperate waters.
Try to avoid visiting during the period from May to September, and more particularly throughout July and August. Temperatures register between 40 and 50C, leaving locals as well as visitors to keep to the cool of air-conditioned interiors and pools. However, September in Dhofar heralds the end of monsoon season and a transformed countryside, resplendent in green prairies, leafy trees and waterfalls.
With most flights arriving into the capital, other areas of the country can be notoriously difficult to access. Salahah is around an hour's flight from Muscat, though Qatar Airways provides a service from Doha (Qatar) meaning British passengers can easily make a connection through the Qatari capital. Likewise, the governorate of Musandam, though well worth seeing, is an extremely isolated region. No direct flights are provided, meaning that you must either pass through Muscat or Dubai.
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