While I've travelled to regions like Southeast Asia and South America multiple times, I have to admit my knowledge of travel in the Middle East is somewhat lacking. So when my friend Lisa returned to the UK absolutely raving about her holiday in Oman, I thought it would be a good opportunity to learn about the magic of the Middle East, and what is increasingly drawing travellers there.
Read on to find out about the bustling souqs, warm, laid-back people, and stunning wadis of Oman, as well as why this destination has captured Lisa's heart.
Why did you go to Oman?
I've travelled a lot throughout the Middle East, but I'd never visited Oman, and all my friends who had been there told me it's completely different from other destinations in the region. I holiday in the Middle East around once a year, and this time I was up for exploring a hidden gem and having a totally new experience.
What keeps bringing you back to the Middle East?
I love it because there's something for whoever you are and whatever mood you're in. If you love the feeling of pure adventure then there's plenty for you, but you can also just lie on a super hot beach and read and relax.
There's also just no hospitality like the amazing hospitality you find in the Middle East - I've never experienced anything like it anywhere else in the world. It's sometimes a bit of a culture shock coming back to the UK after being looked after so well for a week or two. You just become so used to that higher grade of hospitality. It's also incredibly clean - the floors in the hotels and malls are so well polished I actually slipped a couple of times!
What was your impression of Oman before your trip?
Before I went to Oman I thought it was a lot more conservative and strict than it actually turned out to be. There's always that misconception surrounding travelling in the Middle East; I didn't realise how welcoming it was to tourists and the Western world. Obviously it's more strict than other places in the Middle East, but I was surprised about how safe it is and how welcoming the people were to Westerners. It's not conservative in a way that you're ever worried about your safety or that limits your fun - you just have to know what you can and can't do before you go.
How did you prepare for your trip?
My first step was to look into visas - and securing one turned out to be a simple and easy process. I also made sure to research the laws and etiquette of Oman - I knew it was a pretty conservative country so I wanted to make sure I didn't offend anyone or accidentally breach any laws while I was there.
In terms of packing, I ended up with a seriously gigantic suitcase because I wanted to be prepared for all the activities I had planned. On one hand you need your beachwear and tough shoes for trekking in the desert and up the mountains, but you also need to ensure you have plenty of clothes that you can wear in more conservative areas. If you visit a mosque or a souq, for example, you'll need to cover your hair, arms and legs. I always bring a thin cotton scarf for my head, as well as maxi dresses with no slits in and long-sleeved t-shirts. I also made sure to pack clothes that could be layered, as - this might sound silly but it's true - the air conditioning in the malls is so strong that it's absolutely freezing!
What was your first impression of Oman?
When I first got to Oman, my initial impression was "wow!" There are just so many stunning mountains everywhere - I was overwhelmed by their sheer volume. This epic landscape really gave me the sense of adventure and immersion in nature I crave. In some more built-up parts of the Middle East, you don't get the same sense of the great outdoors that you do in Oman. In Oman, there are no high-rises, and I initially thought the landscape looked a bit like how we imagine Mars!
Is Oman a safe country for travellers?
Absolutely. It's important to be respectful and abide by the rules of your host country - like in any destination - but I felt 100 per cent safe during my time there.
Where did you stay?
I stayed in Muscat, but travelled a couple of hours outside the city for sightseeing.
What were your favourite things to do in Muscat?
The Grand Mosque is an absolute must-do. It was a gift to the nation from Sultan Qaboos to celebrate his 30th year of reign and can hold 20,000 worshippers. It's absolutely breathtaking to see. I also found visiting the mosque an enlightening and fun experience thanks to the local women who volunteer at the Islamic centre to help educate non-Muslims about the religion. Their approach was great - they were obviously very true to their religion, and were also really witty and friendly, making it a really interesting and engaging experience.
The beaches are also great, but if you want to sunbathe in swimwear, you need to go to a private beach, where Westerners typically congregate to tan. At these coves, you can wear a bikini without offending or upsetting anyone - but it's still best to ensure your swimwear is relatively modest. If you don't belong to the beach the private resort is attached to, you may have to pay, but it shouldn't be much.
One of my highlights was Muscat Souq, which is right out of the pages of a storybook. You get that authentic taste of the Middle East and a real sense of Omani culture. I always say the heart of a country is in a Souq: through the goods on sale you learn about a nation's history and natural resources.
Muscat Souq is like a mixture between a food market, street shopping stalls and a museum. You can buy a unending selection of gorgeous materials for super low prices, there's spices and really rare fragrances. I went to one shop that sold snake skin and huge swords which were hung from the ceiling. I bought my fiance some material for his wedding tie, some vanilla pods for my auntie and some frankincense and myrrh for my mum. But even if you don't buy anything, you'd have an experience like nothing you've ever done before in your life. Go to the souqs for the adventure and the authenticity.
Did you venture outside of Muscat?
We travelled out towards the mountains to go trekking. There's several wadis - natural springs - found near the mountains. There are quite a few wadis in Oman. My favourite was Wadi Shab, simply because it's one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. It's just totally untouched. After visiting rural Thailand, I didn't think anything could beat that level of overwhelming beauty, but Oman is definitely - at the least - on a par. When you think of the Middle East, your initial thoughts are desert and malls - I was completely shocked by the stunning greenery in Oman, and the crystal clear water of the wadis.
Talk to me about the food
There's a brilliant foodie scene in Muscat. Even just within the boundaries of Arabic food, there's a vast range of experiences to be had. You can go as authentic as you want - sitting on a blanket in the desert eating goat - or you can opt for gourmet dishes at a Michelin-starred restaurant. That's the amazing thing about Oman: you can get that amazing raw travel feel even if you're just there for a holiday, but if you're after that extravagance, there's plenty of high-end opportunities.
That said, don't fall into the trap of thinking you'll only be able to access Middle Eastern food in Oman. You'll find international cuisine in the country in the same way you do back at home, with a lot of chains such as Costa Coffee, McDonalds and Papa John's all available. The supermarkets sell all sorts of food too, so if you're a fussy eater or don't like spicy food, you'll be absolutely fine.
What were the people like?
The people were so friendly, and there's a really nice relaxed culture that makes for the perfect antidote to fast-paced life back at home. Everyone was so chilled out, and the pace of life is nicely laid back. Whether you're chatting to a waiter or having a conversation with a more conservative local, the one thing everyone seemed to have in common was this laid back, warm and respectful nature.
An example: When I arrived I went to get my visa from the airport desk. The woman serving me mentioned to her colleague that she couldn't wait to eat her Nutella waffles, and I said:
"Oh good choice! One of the best foods."
She smiled intently, walked off and returned with her packed lunch, and insisted I have a waffle while they processed my visa. Definitely the best entry to a country I've ever had.
Any huge culture shocks?
You can really feel the authentic Middle Eastern culture in Oman, meaning that it is more conservative than other destinations in the region that are more firmly on the tourist trail. One of my favourite things I saw was two local men rubbing noses as a way of greeting - that took me aback somewhat as I'd not seen it before, but immediately liked the gesture. As I'd been to the Middle East quite a lot, I probably didn't experience as many of the culture shocks that first timers might - things like seeing ritual washings in malls and restaurants, for example.
What was your holiday highlight?
It had to be a really special moment at Wadi Shab. The whole place was amazing, and the sense of adventure I got from trekking in the mountain and then jumping off the edge into the water was incredible. You get that sense of achievement from trekking and then you can swim under the rocks into the cave too and see the beautiful waterfall.
When we were there, there was a ten-year-old boy with his father, and he was crying because he'd got to the ledge, but the only way down was to jump off. A local man noticed how terrified the boy was so he climbed right next to him, guided him and told him:
"You can do this."
When the boy was still scared, the man climbed right to the top of this absolutely huge mountain and jumped off, to prove the boy would be fine jumping from the smaller ledge. The ten-year-old boy ended up laughing and then finally took the plunge. When it came to my turn, I was pretty scared too - but once I'd faced my fear and made the leap I absolutely loved it.
Will you go back to Oman?
Yes! There's so much to do there I'm already planning my next trip, which is going to include a dolphin-spotting boat trip, a visit to climb the Jebel shams and a trip to Salalah to see the banana plantations and beach.
Do you have any tips for other travellers heading to Oman?
- There are not many ATMs, and you can't use card in a lot of places, so it's best to carry cash.
- Bring hand sanitiser with you, particularly when you're visiting the souq.
- You often have to haggle for taxis, so always research the distance of your trip before hailing a cab. You should aim to price it up at around the same rate as a taxi in the UK.
- If you hire a car, remember the rules of the road are different in Oman. Other drivers tend to go pretty fast, and you'll also find that goats and camels sometimes run into the road. Hiring a sturdy 4x4 is the best way to stay safe on these roads.
- Research Oman's laws ahead of time - there are big differences to UK law, such as not being able to show personal displays of affection in public
- Be mindful that if you visit during religious holidays such as Ramadan that you'll have to abide by extra laws, such as not eating or drinking in public.
Sum Oman up in one sentence.
Adventure, untouched beauty and authenticity.