Talk about a holiday in the Gulf and everyone thinks of Dubai – understandably
so, for the Emirate is by far the most popular destination in the region. But if
you want to see real Arabia, as opposed to a mass of shopping malls and luxury
hotels, there is a far better option: Oman.
Oman – or Muscat and Oman as it used to be called – is a sizeable
country, not a tiny strip of desert. It can offer most of the things that Dubai
can, save the excess, and it does so with self-confidence, grace and charm.
Example: we were in the capital, Muscat, standing in the car park of a
shopping complex one evening, after a very good dinner in the courtyard in the
Kargeen Caffe. We were looking for a cab to go back to the hotel.
Two young women came up and asked whether they could help. We explained the
problem. Oh, one said, we'll drive you. Well, at that moment a cab appeared so
we declined, but you see the point: this is a country where people welcome
foreigners and where women are comfortable going up to strangers to offer help.
There were many other small courtesies, of people going out of their way to
show us things, explain aspects of the society, or simply try to make sure we
had a good time. It was a glimpse of the deep courtesy towards strangers that is
embedded in Arab culture. There is, it was explained to us, a reason for such
empathy. Until a few years ago, when oil wealth began to spread through the
nation, life for most people was very tough. So if you were travelling and got
into difficulties your very survival might depend on strangers. Society only
worked if everybody helped each other – and they still do, even for a problem as
mundane as finding a cab.
Oman runs from the Straits of Hormuz, with a brief pause for a patch of UAE
territory, around the corner of the Arabian Sea, and all the way down to the
Yemen border. Its coastline, scuba divers please note, measures more than 1,000
miles. In land area it is about the size of Britain, but only 2.5 million people
live here. Muscat, the capital, is at the top right-hand corner and has for
centuries had great strategic importance, controlling entry to the Gulf; little
wonder the UK has long sought to be on good terms with the Sultan. It is also
strategically significant for migrating birds, and is "the eagle capital of the
world" – of which more in a moment.
The obvious place to start is Muscat. It is a sprawl, mostly built in the
past 10 or 20 years and with a curious feeling of Los Angeles about it: malls,
villas and freeways.
Muscat can do luxury if you want it. We stayed on the coast at The Chedi, a
combination of designer chic and whatever-you-want-in-the-world service,
expensive but not absurdly so for what you get. Some guests spent all their time
being pampered there, but to get a feeling for this ancient trading society, go
to the two old ports: Old Muscat and Muttrah.
Old Muscat used to be a trading port but now is most notable for being the
location of the palace of the ruler, Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al-Said. By palatial
standards it is not particularly grand, but the process of extending it and the
other public buildings, and landscaping them, has meant that much of the old
town has been knocked down. Nearby Muttrah has a charming Mediterranean-style
waterfront and a harbour now used mainly by cruise liners. It also has a large
souk where ranks of tailors will run up a suit for you, plus a fun-fair.
Muttrah's most spectacular feature, however, was floating in the harbour. This
is the home-port for the Sultan's main yacht. "Yacht" seems an inadequate word
as the Al Said is the size of a cross-channel ferry. In a league where size
matters it is, at 508ft, the second-longest private yacht in the world. Look out
to sea and you know who is running the show.
So what else, aside from going to the souk and ogling the Sultan's yacht, do
you do in Muscat? Well, if you are interested in the country itself, try the
Bait Adam museum, a private house that serves as a repository for the diversity
of Omani culture, from coins to old prints. You can join the family for a meal
as well – just book in advance for supper. The more formal Oman Museum covers
the nation's culture from Bedouin traditions to colonialism.
Food can be very cheap or very good, and sometimes both. The usual Middle
Eastern staples are available: lamb or chicken shawarma, falafel and
Lebanese-style salads, eggs, cheese and couscous. In addition, Indian food is
ubiquitous. On the coast, good, fresh fish is available.
To share the dazzling blue water that flanks Oman, there are several suitable
operators along the coast, including the Oman Dive Centre, where we booked a
snorkelling expedition. If you feel so inclined you can also "wadi-bash",
driving in 4x4s along dry river beds. You also can visit the new mosque paid for
by the Sultan. But the highlight of our trip was none of these. It was going to
the rubbish dump.
If you are a vulture or an eagle, a rubbish dump is where you go for lunch.
So we persuaded a taxi-driver to take us in his pristine Cadillac to the town
dump. The first one was bird-less, but the driver's cousin happened to work for
the municipal cleansing department. By phone, he told us that we had to go to
another one 20 miles out of town. Amid grey mounds of dusty rocks we were able
to see Egyptian vultures and steppe eagles. Most impressive, though, was a pair
of lappet-faced vultures, which have a wingspan of 10ft and are the largest
birds in Oman. The by now very dusty Cadillac then took us back to our own lunch
at The Chedi.
Muscat is rewarding, but it is worth getting a glimpse of the rest of the
country, because the interior of Oman is fascinating. Inland, there are ruined
medieval mud villages and forts, many surrounded by date palm plantations.
You can see part of the "empty quarter", the world's largest sandy desert,
which Oman shares with Saudi Arabia and Yemen, or visit the site of the Queen of
Sheba's palace, where she lived 3,000 years ago.
To witness how man's dreams can decay, seek out the old ghost town of Tanuf
and the fascinating ruined city of Manah. The roads into the mountains from here
are constantly being improved, making high-altitude hikes a possibility. Serious
hikers will want to try the Jebel Shams rim walk: the "mountain of the sun" is
Oman's highest at nearly 10,000ft.
We also visited Nizwa, a couple of hours' drive inland from Muscat, via the
high, rocky plateau between it and the sea. Nizwa is an oasis, as are all the
towns of the interior, since without water no community can survive. It is the
main city of the interior and a former capital of the whole country.
It has one of the largest forts in Oman, and a big, new souq. We went to the
weekly market and watched sheep and goats being paraded round the ring before
sale. The most notable sight was a Bedouin woman in a burka squatting down to
test the udders of a goat and rejecting it as not a promising milker. If you do
the milking you know what you are looking for.
We also went to several smaller towns on the Jebel Akhdar mountains. The
range goes up to 10,000ft but the towns are on a plateau at around 6,000ft, with
each dependent on a spring and the tiny amount of rain they receive each year.
The spring water is distributed through each town by a network of channels,
carefully organised so that each family had access to its share of the water.
The astounding thing is the way a trickle of water, used carefully, can support
a whole village. If that is a lesson in conservation for us all, Oman has I
think a wider message. This is a culture to respect and admire – real Arabia,
not the Disneyland version.