In the past few years Oman has placed itself firmly on the tourist map, and yet I think it’s only recently that it’s seen a real surge in popularity, especially amongst the younger generation. It has transformed itself from an easy winter sun beach destination (Muscat’s Chedi and Shangri La have been open for over 10 years) to one excellent for hiking, culture and desert experiences. One of the many reasons I liked Oman is because it is so varied and therefore offers a completely different landscape (and experience) often only a few hours drive apart. You can so easily travel from beach to rugged mountains to undulating sand dunes to wadi oasis. It means you can have several holidays all in one, without getting on multiple flights. And it’s only a 7 hour flight from London.
Here’s my advice on where to go:
The Jabal Akhdar Mountains: for hiking and scenery
Only a 2.5 hour drive from Muscat, and yet a world apart. I would recommend make Jabal Akhdar your first stop. If you’ve never been to the Middle East before, or are unfamiliar with the desert, then you will find the landscape en route to Jabal Akhdar very unusual. We were there in November (after a long dry summer), so it was very bare and the mountains lacking much greenery. Which is ironic because Jabal Akhdar actually means Green Mountain. We were told that in December/January/February, when it can rain in the evening, the mountains will be much greener. I can’t quite imagine that.
Stay at Alila Jabal Akhdar, the first luxury property in the Jabal Akhdar mountains, and most probably not the last. Located right on the cliff edge, this is one of the most special hotels I’ve stayed. With its showstopper infinity pool, simple but beautifully designed spacious suites and wonderful service, you can’t go wrong here. Go for various mountain hikes (ranging from 1 – 7 hours), enjoy yoga with a view, relax in the heated outdoor infinity pool or jacuzzi, pamper yourself in their spa or just simply sit on your terrace and enjoy the view. Dinner is included and the food is excellent. Alcohol is expensive, but that’s the case throughout Oman.
Alternatively, if the Alila is full, the Anantara is an option too, though it’s larger and less charming. It is a bit more affordable though, and the location and views are exceptional.
Wahiba Sands: for your desert experience
Who knew that camels could be quite so entertaining? Wahiba Sands is a 3 hour drive from the Jabal Akhdar mountains as well as Muscat and absolutely worth spending a night when in Oman. The sand dunes are breathtaking, especially at sunrise or sunset. A camel ride is of course a must do; ultimately the most authentic way of travelling through the desert. Depending on where you stay there are plenty of other activities you can do, like sand ‘boarding’, dune bashing in 4x4s, sunrise walks and star gazing. The stars really are incredible here.
In terms of where you stay, the most exclusive options are private camping. Canvas Club and Magic Camp offer beautiful private tented experiences, with proper showers (though the heat can’t be guaranteed!) and the most comfortable beds. We stayed at Canvas Club and it was the best sleep I had. The experience here is second to none; arriving at the camp on camel back, enjoying the sunset with a mint tea, and dining under the stars by the fire. If you don’t want to go all out cost wise, then Desert Nights Camp is a popular option too, with 26 Bedouin-style tents and all the luxuries of a five star hotel in the desert.
Muscat: for beach relaxation, dolphins and a city tour
Muscat is the capital of Oman, but feels small, modest and low-rise (buildings cannot be higher than 14 stories) compared to other Middle Eastern capitals. Positioned right on the Gulf of Oman coast, Muscat boasts a stunning mosque, a lively but fairly underwhelming souk, the Royal Palace (of the much-loved Sultan) and a number of excellent beach hotels. Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is the absolute highlight, built in 2001 and no penny was spared to ensure it is the shining gem of Oman (and apparently cost a casual $150m to build). The marble comes from Italy, the rugs from Iran, the chandeliers from Austria. They have a new Islamic Centre there now too, which is worth visiting as the people who work there speak excellent English and welcome any questions you might have about the mosque or Islam itself. A city tour of Muscat can be done in half a day, and is worth tearing yourself away from the beach for. We also did a dolphin watching boat tour which we loved.
The two best places to stay in Muscat are:
- The Chedi. Loved by all, with many guests returning yearly, and I can completely understand why. This monochrome beauty will tick all the boxes for design (and instagram) lovers. The rooms are all mahogany and minimalist, with the hotel’s Asian heritage playing a leading role. Its iconic long pool (ostensibly the longest in the Middle East) is indeed quite something, whether it be sunrise or sunset, or at night when you can dine by it and enjoy a sublime candlelit Japanese Middle Eastern dinner (some of the best food we had on our trip). The dining, the pools and the spa are the big highlights here, and it is the perfect place to unwind and recharge your batteries.
- Shangri La Al Husn. There are three Shangri La hotels about 30 minutes north of Muscat. Al Husn has recently separated from Al Bandar, and it is most definitely a step up. The main perks of staying here is the beach is far superior to the Chedi, and you can snorkel right off the beach, which is wonderful. All rooms have outside space, which is lovely, and we really enjoyed the complimentary ‘add ons’ like the afternoon tea, the daily cocktail hour and the complimentary minibar. It is a much larger hotel to the Chedi and most definitely less stylish, but the service was outstanding.
Also don’t miss:
Nizwa. Reached either as a day trip from the mountains, or en route from the mountains to Wahiba Sands, this is absolutely worth doing. Try and go on a Friday so you can witness the famous camel and goat market. Nizwa Fort has been carefully restored and is interesting to walk around, and you can pick up a few bargains in the souqs too (though don’t expect anything like the souqs of Marrakech/Istanbul).
The Wadis. As close to an ‘oasis’ as I’ve ever been, these watering holes in the middle of arid, rocky land are incredible. Some are more touristy and ‘built up’ than others; the touristy ones tend to be the ones easily accessible (like Wadi Bani Khalid). Try going early in the morning and you should avoid the crowds. The wadis worth visiting are the previously mentioned Wadi Bani Khalid (stunning but has become very touristy), Wadi Shab (you’ll need to hike a bit to get there, but it’s less busy) and Wadi Dumm. En route to Muscat from the south you’ll also pass the Bimmah Sinkhole, which isn’t spectacular (unless someone dares to jump in – a 22m fall) but it’s right next to the road so easily added.
- Plaza Premium Lounge, Muscat Airport. You will need (depending on what nationality you are – check www.visacentral.co.uk to be sure) to get a visa on arrival in Oman. Standing in long immigration queues is never anyone’s preferred choice after a long flight with little sleep. I therefore highly recommend getting the Fast Track Meet & Greet service at the Plaza Premium Lounge at Muscat Airport. As we walked into the terminal before immigration, we were met and whisked to the lounge. Here we gave our passports, paid for the visas and then sat down to enjoy a cup of coffee, while our visas were arranged. This took all of 5 minutes. Then we passed all the queues, collected our bags, and were out of the terminal within 15 minutes of landing.
- Buy alcohol at the airport before flying. Alcohol is expensive in Oman, and in some places they don’t serve it at all (like in the desert where they often don’t have a licence to sell it). We found a few of the hotels also offered a free (non-alcoholic) mini bar, so having a bottle of vodka with us meant we could just mix our own drinks in our room. Wine is even more expensive than spirits (and generally pretty bad too), and I really regretted not bringing a few bottles of my own.
- Pack warm clothes for the mountains. The Jabal Akhdar mountains have much cooler weather than Muscat, despite only being 2.5 hours drive away. Especially if you’re there in the winter (October – March), it can get very cold at the night and in the early hours in the mountains. Bring layers!
- Cover up. Make sure you bring loose-fitting trousers, and plenty of kaftans/shirts for during the day. While staying on the beach you can wear what you want, if you want to go sightseeing it’s best if you cover up. The mosque in Muscat will not allow you to enter as a woman without a scarf covering your hair and the rest of you fully covered! I found thin linen shirts and kaftans generally really useful, also for in the desert.
- Car rental is very expensive. If you want to do the ‘Oman circuit’, you’ll need a car. While petrol is cheap in Oman, car rental is absolutely not, especially as you’ll need a good 4×4 to deal with all the varied terrain. Friends of ours spent £600 on a 9 day car rental. It’s worth looking into a local operator who can provide a driver/guide as they are generally really affordable. Booking through a travel company like Abercrombie & Kent will mean that they can organise all the logistics for you, source the best guide, and make your trip even more enjoyable, while still providing value.