A vast slice of desert, mountain and subtropical landscapes covering the south-eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, the Sultanate of Oman has an ancient heritage and is said to have the region's best natural beaches and most fertile coastal waters. Yet it has previously flown under the tourism radar and is much less known than its United Arab Emirates neighbour Dubai.
As the nights begin to draw in, a trip to Oman – where temperatures hover in the balmy mid-twenties even in winter – is the perfect pick-me-up. It's just seven-and-a-quarter hours to summer on a direct flight to the capital Muscat. British Airways starts scheduled flights to Muscat from London Heathrow five times a week from the end of October, and Oman Air does the same route.
As mountain resorts, beach hotels and a rapidly increasing tourism network make the destination more attractive to visitors, I'll be travelling to the mysterious sunny sultanate very soon to investigate for myself.
All the travel experts I've spoken to that have first-hand experience of Oman are keen to point out that it's a very hot country. So hot in fact that locals scurry inside or flee elsewhere during the summer months of June, July and August. But temperatures start to drop in September and by October the strength of sunshine in the sultanate is perfect for a beach holiday and bearable enough for outdoor activities and sightseeing including light treks through the stunning desert wadis to hidden springs and overnight camping Bedouin-style. Daytime temperatures at this time of year are between 25-30 degrees celsius, dropping slightly at night.
One of the purposes of this trip is to experience the aquatic activities on offer along Oman's long sandy coast. The Gulf of Oman is said to be brimful of coral and marine life and there's a good chance of spotting some big hitters such as pods of dolphins, whale sharks, rays, leopard sharks and green turtles.
After a long hiatus, I'm hoping to regain my sea wings while in Oman, scuba diving with PADI-accredited dive centre SeaOman. Apparently SeaOman's dive centre in the Almouj marina of Muscat's The Wave is just an hour away from some of the best dive sites including the UNESCO-protected Damaniyat Islands Marine Nature Reserve and the Aquarium dive site in the waters of Kharabah Island. Apparently the dives are suitable for novices, which I'm hoping means that the Gulf of Oman's reefs are fairly shallow and accessible without any troubling currents. As a PADI open water diver, I might try and push the envelope abit and do a wreck dive or something a little more challenging. After all, divers without previous experience can qualify as a PADI open water diver within a week of intensive diving, so even if you go to Oman as a diving virgin, you could come back a seasoned sub-aquatic explorer.
Oman's wild unspoilt shores are a favoured nesting spot for rare green turtles, making it great for turtle-watching. Apparently green turtles return to Ras al Junaiz beach to lay their eggs, and there are early-morning tours to see the hatchlings make their first foray into the sea. The area is a designated turtle reserve and the best time to spot turtles is apparently before sunrise, so I'm hoping to combine turtle-spotting with watching the sun come up from a remote shore.
Star of the Sea will be taking me on a morning dolphin-spotting excursion, and I'm told there's an excellent chance of seeing a pod breaching the waves. But one of the main aquatic highlights of my trip should be the voyage to the Daymaniyat Islands marine reserve. Beneath the water, the shore is encrusted with colourful hard and soft corals; thriving reefs apparently teeming with marine life from cute nudibranches and large seahorses to leopard sharks and loggerhead turtles. I'm told that whale sharks are often seen here in September, a creature that has long been on my scuba to-see list. The little islets and their subtropical reefs are less than an hour's boat ride from Muscat. There are snorkelling tours as well as dive trips available, and I'm planning to sample both.
Oman is well-known for its traditional Arabian dhows, which are still made in the ship-building yards of Sur. I'll be experiencing a cruise aboard one of these graceful wooden boats at sunset. It's difficult to think of more atmospheric sundowner, aside from perhaps atop a towering russet-coloured dune at Wahiba Sands. I'll also be heading out for a luxury catamaran cruise and snorkel during my stay in Oman, so I should be in a good position to report back on all things sea-based.
Heritage and hinterland
For those who find the glittering artifice of Dubai a turn-off, Oman is an authentic Arabian treasure. It encompasses portions of the legendary Empty Quarter, the ancient incense trail, and its waterfront capital has visitor-friendly souks and cafes. My tour of Oman will include exploring winding desert wadis and springs. I'll be taking a trip to turquoise-coloured Al Khasfa Spring, for instance, close to rolling sand dunes.
The country is also dotted with 500-year-old forts and castles, and I'll be checking out a few of them including Al Hazim Castle, Rustaq Fort and Nakhal Fort. My foray to Nakhal Fort will be followed by a visit to Ain Thawarah spring, just a few kilometers away and set amid date plantations, where I can hopefully take a refreshing dip.
A great way to get the true Arabian Nights experience is to spend the night in a desert camp while in Oman. I'll be visiting one of the best - Dunes by Al Nahda - a luxury desert camp that even boasts a spa and offers a range of adventure safaris.
A waterfront city with an ancient heritage, said to be clean, manicured and safe, Oman's capital Muscat should give first-time visitors a good window on the country's culture and heritage. I'm most curious to visit the souks wafting with locally-made frankincense, one of Oman's oldest and most famous products. I've heard that incense is a big thing in Oman where myrrh is produced as well as frankincense, and there are rosewater distilleries in the Hajar Mountain valleys. The ancient incense road ran through the country, outposts of which have been rediscovered in recent times. Apparently Omani men are even fond of perfume, wearing scarves doused in local scents with their traditional white dishdashas.
Muttrah Souk, close to Muscat's corniche and the port, is said to be one of the oldest and best souks in the whole of the Middle East. I'm sure it will be a top experience during my visit, haggling for soft leather goods, pashminas and incense among its atmospheric lanes.
I'm taking a guided tour of the city that will include some of its chief architectural sights such as Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, the Royal Opera House and the Flag Palace. There will also be time to browse the National Museum, all of which should orientate me enough to explore certain areas in more depth.
Old Muscat apparently contains museums and centuries-old houses, and I plan to stop at Bait Al Luban to enjoy an authentic Omani meal prepared by local ladies and served up in the attractive 150-year-old guesthouse. That said, the Muttrah area is the place to sample local fare, hang out in cafes and people-watch and I'll definitely be exploring the quarter on foot. I'm fortunate to have friends who live in Muscat that are keen to show me around, so I'm looking forward to getting the local scoop on the best places to visit.
Crowne Plaza Muscat
During my trip I will sample several resorts including Crowne Plaza Muscat and Millennium Resort Mussanah. The Crowne Plaza Muscat has an ideal position not far from the centre of Muscat yet in a scenic position atop the cliffs with a private sandy beach. I'm told Millennium Resort Mussanah is a little further out of Muscat, but with a stunning location and its own marina that's perfect for water sports enthusiasts.
Millennium Resort Mussanah
I'll also be visiting Shangri La's Barr Al Jissah Resort, which is not far from Muscat, although it can take up to an hour's drive. I have it on good authority that it's a really nice place to stay. The resort actually includes a luxury spa and three distinct beach hotels – Al Waha, Al Bandar and Al Husn – each suited to a different type of guest.
Shangri La's Barr Al Jissah Resort
It's located in a really scenic spot on the narrow coastal strip between Jissah Bay and the flanks of the Hajar mountains, which reach out into the sea creating wonderful coves and cliffs pitted with tunnels and arches. The long curve of natural sand at Qantab Beach looks ideal for sunning and swimming, plus a few smaller beaches hidden between cliffs. Assuming it's a calm day on the Gulf of Oman, it seems like the ideal spot for kayaking. I've seen some rather seductive pictures of Shangri La's spa: one features a candle-lit path between rocks to a private beach cabana where a woman is enjoying a sunset massage. I'm really looking forward to seeing if it lives up to its image. Aside from massages, I'm hoping to try out some of the spa's range of local hydrotherapy treatments and perhaps try a spot of meditation by the sea. Ah bliss!
To read more, look out for my upcoming blog detailing my Omani odyssey.