Driving the Sultanate: A Ten Day Road Trip Through Oman

Tucked away from the rest of the world, at the tip of an antisocial peninsula, lies the surprisingly friendly and blindingly white Sultanate of Oman. Landing in Oman, seeing the hundreds of men in long white dishdashas with their turban halos, is like landing in an Arabian version of heaven (less the virgins). The country glitzs with the glamour that only comes from black gold.  Men saunter giving off an intimidating gangster vibe in their traditional clothing of old times, complete with Ray Ban sunglasses and overly tinted luxury vehicles. The women are equally fabulous, clicking through the malls on their leopard print heels, complete with burka and Birkins.


And unlike Americans, who wriggle and squirm out of the governmental hands of religion, Omanis passively accept their ancient and dictatorial faith. With spires with speakers announcing daily calls to prayer peeking out from behind McDonalds, and the prayer room in the three-story mall located next to the bathroom, Oman is an intoxicating blend of modern wealth and ancient tradition.

Because of its developed terrain and wealthy population, there is not much by means of public transportation throughout Oman, and it is therefore best explored by car. For the drivers with international phobia, don’t worry, Oman’s highways are in tip-top shape and well marked, thanks to the benevolent leadership of the beloved Sultan Qaboos. Even if you’ve never heard of him, you will be good friends after a few days in Oman. He hangs from signs and highway billboards, posing and pointing in front of some various national monuments in his dishdasha. Complete with a magazine belt.

Muscat:

Driving tours should begin in the capital city of Muscat, where the majority of rental agencies and airport are located.  When getting a rental car, travelers should be aware that many of Oman’s natural wonders are accessible by four-wheel drive only, so consider this when determining what sights you would like to see.

The city of Muscat is a beautiful blend of Oman’s many terrains. Sharp, jagged, grey rock mountains fill the country and stop only when they reach the intensely blue waters of the gulf. Muscat’s buildings are uniformly bleach white, with various palm trees and well manicured gardens sprinkled throughout, turning the city into a mountain oasis. Some of the main attractions include the sci-fi royal palace, the bustling Matrah souq market, with shisha and hair pieces galore, the enormous incense burner monument, and the watchtower. Don’t miss a sunset walk along the picturesque corniche.

The Jebels (Mountains):

From Muscat there is plenty to see that can be conquered on a day trip. With four wheel drive you can reach the countries many Jebels (mountains) including the popular Jebel Akbar and Jebel Shams. Jebel Akbar is nicknamed the “fruit bowl of Oman” and is especially pretty during the summer when the area is green. The mountain has two plateaus and you will need several days to explore both. Jebel Shams has stunning views of Oman’s own Grand Canyon.

The Wadis:

The absolute must-sees of Oman are its incredible Wadis. Wadis are valleys with pools and greenery left over from rivers that have stopped flowing. There are hundreds all over Oman, with turquoise blue water, surrounded my palm trees at the ravine between mountains.  Wadi Shab, along the Muscat-Sur highway requires a hike to get out to its main pools, but it is well worth it. The entrance can be found just off the highway under the overpass. Park you car in the lot, get shuttled to the other side by boat, and begin the hot hike in extremely dry conditions. Just when you are ready to pass out from heat exhaustion, you will come across the first pool. So blue and clear, you can see all the way to its floor. Resist the temptation to swim, as the first pool is used by the local villages for drinking water. Hike along a few more minutes and the second pool is fair game. Take a swim (in modest clothing so not to offend the shepherds and villages nearby. They are said to be watching even when you can’t see them) and try not to drown in the weighted down clothing. Relax under the shade of the many trees, before continuing uphill to the final pool. This pool is significantly larger, and if you go through a small passageway at the end of the pool you will come up in a cavern with an internal waterfall.

If hiking is not your M.O., Wadi Bhani Khalid is another popular Wadi with no walking required. Park in the local parking lot and simply walk through the main entrance. There is only one pool, but it is large with plenty of space for floating and exploring. The area is popular with locals as a getaway spot, and it is significantly more developed, with built in shade structures, bridges and a restaurant. Be modest, or the staff will scold you.

Towns & Cities:

Aside from the nature, Oman has several lively cities that are worth a visit. Besides the highly developed Muscat, the lovely city of Sur is a quintessential Arabian beach town. With handmade wooden boats floating in the water, psychedelic houses with green glass windows, and a lighthouse in the shape of a minaret, you could very well be in one of Scheherazade‘s many tales. The town has a modern movie theater and plenty of coffee shops and juice stands, for a stereotypical Muslim night out, and you can walk along the pretty corniche, see the factory where boats are still made by hand, and get lost in the tiny alleyways and side streets of the city center, only to end up smoking shisha with a few locals. The nearby beach town of Ras Al Haad is where the enormous Gulf turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. It is recommended taking a tour through a local hotel, so as not to harm the turtle’s environment, or get lost walking the sands late at night. However, if you are talkative and friendly enough, you might meet an Omani willing to show you around.

Other than the beach, Oman as several towns of interest that don’t require swimwear.  The town of Nizwa has an impressive fort and small souq with souvenir shopping. Nearby, the walled city of Bahla has 12 kilometers of ancient city walls still standing, and a restored fortress. Visitors beware: this city is notoriously known by locals at the center of the jinn (evil spirits) so you might come away with more than a few postcards. Just passed Bahla is the pretty castle of Jabreen, surrounded by farming fields, the castle is a pretty sight, although it looks dangerously similar to the many forts in the area. If you are willing to make the drive, the extremely southern cities of Salala are the origin of the Frankincense perfume, and you can stop by and see the tomb of the biblical Job.

Food & Accomodation:

Oman is not a third world country, which is great for Omanis but expensive for backpacking tourists. Hotels can be very pricey, and the rental car costs run similar to renting in the United States. However, Oman can be done on a budget. Gas is extremely affordable (duh), and while Oman has all the modern restaurant chains you can think off, there are plenty of local “coffee shops” which serve all kinds of cheap Middle Eastern foods, such as shawarmas and falafels, as well as cheap Pakistani, African, and Indian food spots.  The costs of accommodations can be drastically reduced if you take advantage of the country’s camping policy…or lack there of. The country is full of large empty spaces just screaming to be camped on, and in Oman it is perfectly acceptable (and safe) to pitch a tent and sleep on the side of the road. One of the many perks to Omani culture is their hospitality and tendency towards nonviolence, making it a perfectly peaceful and safe for outdoor sleeping. Even in a group of three young girls, we never once felt uncomfortable (in the spirit, not literal, sense of the word.)  Be considerate, however, and aware of where (and what) you are camping in, and don’t make our blasphemous mistake of pitching a tent inside a local mosque. (The Omanis were perfectly forgiving in the misunderstanding and extremely gracious as they kindly asked us to leave. Now)

Overall, Oman is a perfectly random and satisfying place to spend some time, the lack of tourists brings out a friendly curiosity in the population which opens the door for a plethora of memorable travel encounters, and the drastic contrast between mountains and wadis results in an a travel experience that can only be had in The Sultanate.

May 20, 2011