Oman is a little-known oasis of calm in the Middle East – a safe and sunny country of stirring landscapes to soothe the soul and lift the spirits. Its exotic eastern souks, shifting sands, Arabian fortresses, starry desert nights, beautiful natural beaches and seas full of exotic fish conjure up tales from "The Thousand and One Nights". It's the perfect setting for an Arabian Nights adventure, with a splash of world-class diving thrown in just for good measure.
Stretched out along the south-eastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, just south of the tropic of cancer, Oman is roughly the size of the UK. Ruled by the Sultan Qaboos – who happens to be rather good friends with the British royal family – the country is abit like the Switzerland of the Middle East remaining neutral in political affairs. Its culture reflects the sultan's ethos of respect and tolerance towards all religions and creeds. In fact the sultan himself is a peace-maker in the region, who played a major role in recent US-Iran negotiations.
In the past the country has barely registered on the travel radar, but its star is finally on the rise. It is fast-becoming a hot winter sun destination as new hotels open up, transport links improve and local tour operators set up shop. Alongside daily flights between London Heathrow and the country's capital Muscat with Oman Air, British Airways recently launched a new direct daily flight to Muscat cutting the flight time to just seven-and-a-bit hours.
Beyond Oman's capital Muscat, there's a world of wild wonders and cultural experiences waiting for adventurous travellers. On a recent trip I got to explore some of them, all doable as day trips from hotels in and around Muscat.
Oman has a long seafaring history, trading across the Indian Ocean and as far south as Zanzibar. Today, traditional wooden dhow boats are still built in the sultry seaside town of Sur and Omanis still turn to the ocean to escape the heat. Activities out on the open water are readily accessible to visitors too with everything from kayaking and jetskiing to windsurfing and dhow cruises easily arranged from hotels and local tour operators.
Going on a dolphin-watching excursion is an absolute must. My first excursion from Muscat was a trip out onto the open water aboard a smallish passenger boat "The Star of the Sea". Although there's an excellent chance (roughly five days in a week) of spotting pods of playful dolphins in the early mornings, this initial voyage drew a blank. I was happy enough though, cruising along Muscat's blonde shores in the sunshine, getting the lay of the land with the wind in my hair and the sea spray in my face. After all, this is one of the region's longest and most beautiful coastlines, indented by natural soft sandy beaches and sea arches, with mountains softly unfolding into the sea.
Oman has an impressive array of creatures in its underwater environs. As well as people-pleasing dolphins, the Sea of Oman harbours green turtles, whale sharks and multi-coloured coral reef communities beneath its calm clear waters. I went on a diving trip with "Oman Sail" to the UNESCO-protected marine reserve centring on Oman's Daymaniyat islands. On the way to the islands we were tailed by a pod of thirty or so dolphins, jumping and spinning in the air.
It felt as if we had reached another Galapagos when the uninhabited islands finally came into view – wedges of rock encircled in angelic halos of turquoise and platinum. The untouched beaches alone looked alluring, and though boats are not allowed to dock here, you could easily snorkel over. But I had some serious business to attend to – my first dive for a few years. Fortunately, Richard who runs Oman Sail's dive centre at the Millennium Al Mussanah Hotel is exactly the sort of experienced and reassuring dive guide that you need in these situations. We made sure I remembered how my equipment worked, practised a few underwater signals and we were off.
I plunged into the sapphire sea beneath a cliff-face and descended into an underwater garden adorned with bright purple antler corals and giant sponges, with sea fans stretching towards the surface like leafless trees. Fan-tailed rays floated past, curious cuttlefish stopped to check me out, a puffer fish eyed me warily and little clownfish hovered above their bright anemone homes. After a brief rest we went for our second dive beneath a rocky outcrop, floating down in a throng of colourful reef fish and making our way along the reef-encrusted drop-off at around 15-18 metres.
I found Dory – a blue tang – scouting out an enormous brain coral, while a leopard-spotted moray eel emerged from a dark crevice and a pair of cuttlefish hung about shifting their skin colour and staring at us with large alert eyes. Nearby, turtles nibbled at sea grass, and as we re-boarded the boat a shout went up as someone spotted a whale shark coming in to feed. Unfortunately I wasn't quick enough to witness it – reason enough for me to return to this underwater sweet spot, which easily rivals the Red Sea's riches.
Oman's Batinah region, roughly an hour north-west of Muscat, is guarded by some of the country's most atmospheric fortresses, which have been restored as tourist attractions. With kid-like relish I explored every nook and cranny of these Arabian sand castles, ducking into hidden stairwells and darkened corridors, as if playing hide-and-seek. At magnificent Al Hazim fort with cannons still pointed at a long-dead enemy above a fig-tree studded oasis, I tapped a wooden door to reveal a narrow staircase and used my phone torch to navigate along dark passages echoing with the recorded sounds of cannon fire. There's little chance of having such a care-free castle experience in Europe where rooms are cordoned off and visitors tightly controlled.
Not far away, we stopped at the turquoise Al Khasfa Spring, said to have curative properties including easing arthritis and common ailments. It bubbles up in a circular pool from deep underground and is routed into a series of baths where locals come to immerse themselves. I stood splashing my bare skin, while an old lady was helped into the water.
Another castle Rustaq, recently-restored and rising from a rocky plain, was originally constructed more than a thousand years ago in the pre-Islamic era, possibly by the Persians. It was extended in the 16th century by the ruling Imam who is buried within its walls. Its crawling room only to enter the castle's dusty old cells, and time-worn stone steps lead down to the bat-haunted bowels of the castle where an old waterway runs in and out of tunnels. The disturbed bats zooming into passages certainly lend the castle a sort of Transylvanian spookiness, though it's hard to feel creeped out in the white hot sunshine. The most interesting aspect of the castle, for me, was the secret tunnels running from the second floor deep underground and all the way to Al Hazim fort and the sea. Apparently they have been closed off for now, but what a thrill it would be to explore them.
After a quick pause at Nakhal Fort, possibly the most photogenic and archetypal of the sand castles, with views across the palm-tufted plantations to the distant rust-coloured Hajar, we visited one of Batinah's most beautiful spots.
The oasis of Ain Thowarah appears like a miraculous mountain stream with banks swathed in green where I felt a little of the authentic sublime wash over me. A family were picnicking under a tree and a few locals luxuriated in a square bathing pool where the spring rushes forth into the ravine. We plonked ourselves down on rounded rocks at the edge of the water and dipped our toes in to let the resident ‘doctor fish' nibble away at any rough skin – easily the best pedicure I've ever had.
A short shaky ride in a hardy landcruiser along the gravelly bed of Wadi Far took us into another world – a Mars-like landscape hemmed in by mini mountains of glittering sand. Here on a sandy plateau we settled in at Dunes by Al Nadha Camp – glamping at its finest. As well as offering luxury tents with all mod cons, the camp makes a convenient base for enjoying the dunes, with phenomenal views from every angle. The chic open-sided dining area is the heart of the camp, but there's also a spa, cosy niches for romantic stargazers and a luxury gazebo where you can just sit and stare in awe at nature's majesty. Strangely I rediscovered my love for bicycles at the camp, taking one of the free hire bikes for a spin and happily zooming up and down the undulating paths as the winds stirred from the desert floor.
But most people come here to take aim at the mighty ochre dunes – whether on a quadbike or in a four-by-four. The sloping valley's sandy humps are the perfect terrain for a thrilling quad-bike ride, though full throttle is needed to make it back up the hill. However the steep gradient of the dunes seemed a little too much even for the highest horse power, as I watched a dune-basher struggle up, get stuck and then reverse all the way back down again.
The shifting sands are always most magical at sunset. As the sun began to sink earthward it appeared to swell into a golden ball of light throwing purple shade across the sands. I watched the silhouette of a dishdasha-clad man stroll across the crest of the highest dune as if walking along the edge of time. And after dark, the place held yet more wonders as the inky sky glittered with a seemingly-endless sea of stars winking at me from across time and space.
We took a shortcut back to Muscat via the new Expressway that's being built across the desert to Dubai. It's not officially open yet so it was a thrilling experience to have eight lanes of empty motorway to ourselves amid endless empty desert. It reminded me of a scene from "Top Gear", nicely topping off an epic experience in the dunes.
Arabia au naturel
My time discovering the mysterious sunny sultanate passed in a succession of long blissful days exploring abandoned Arabian fortresses, relaxing in lush green desert oases, playing Lawrence of Arabia amid shifting sands or bartering for silk scarves in frankincense-scented souks.
When I wasn't chilling out on the beach, I was chasing wild dolphins, snorkelling with green turtles or diving in underwater coral gardens. It's a side of Arabia I didn't even know existed. Safe and easy to visit, it's a natural alternative to the glittering artifice of UAE hotspots such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi.