Oman is one of those countries in the Middle East you hardly ever hear about – in view of the current political situation in the Arab world that could probably be considered a good thing.
While opposition movements are constantly nipped in the bud and revolts quelled in many Arabic states, Oman largely comes across as a seemingly safe haven in this troubled world. Sultan Qaboos has been ruling Oman for some 40 odd years and managed to shape it into one of the most developed and stable countries in the region.
Unlike many of its neighbors, Oman has thus evolved into a largely cosmopolitan country marked by an open-minded and humble mentality that has also trickled down to the population at large.
During my travels I encountered friendly, cordial and laid-back people and a place that seemed more Arabic and authentic to me than other Middle Eastern countries.
In my mind, Oman succeeds in striking a subtle balance between tradition and modernity. Unlike its more prominent neighbours Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Oman stays clear of the glitz and glam of multi-billion dollar projects and rather aims to tweak its existing assets to show them in a different, more authentic light.
If you feel like hitting ski slopes in the desert or swanky shopping malls, Dubai is the place to be, however, if you’re longing for Arabic hospitality, traditional charm and tranquility far away from surreal superlatives and pretension then Oman is the perfect getaway.
You should know that Oman is no backpacker-friendly place. Hostels or other types of budget accommodation are few and far between and I don’t recall coming across rooms that wouldn’t set you back at least €40 to €45.
For the most part, Oman is focusing on well-off visitors, so if you don’t have enough cash in your bank account don’t even bother planning your trip…
Oman has a lot to offer: stunning deserts, massive canyons, traditional markets, impressive forts, great surfing spots and above all a unique blend of East and West. Muscat, the capital city, certainly is a good starting point for any Omani adventure. Muscat’s buzzing souk, a traditional market in the old town, is definitely worth a visit and conjures up memories of bygone times.
Shrill yelling, lively haggling, scurrying animals, oriental flavors and herbs and the ever-present smell of incense create a very special and exotic ambiance.
One thing that particularly struck me was that the vendors were far less pushy than in many other Arabic countries – they seemed much more laid back and not that keen on haggling you down at the first opportunity.
Once you’re in Muscat you should also swing by the famous Al Bustan Palace, one of the most luxurious hotels in the world. Just like me, you probably won’t be able to splash out hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a night at this swanky place.
But don’t despair, the hotel offers guided tours at affordable prices; it’s well worth the money if you feel like sneaking a peek at sultan-style digs.
So far Oman has been largely spared from mass tourism and public transport is at best rudimentary in most areas.
The best way to explore the country is by car (here’s a 10 day Oman itinerary). If you want to experience Oman in its entirety from North to South, you should envisage a stay of at least three weeks, ideally between October and March to avoid the sizzling temperatures of the summer. Make sure you also bring appropriate clothes for Oman’s weather.
Despite the overall absence of hordes of tourists there are still some hidden gems waiting to be discovered. One such insiders’ tip is the rugged and sparsely populated peninsula of Musandam which has seen many rulers come and go: the Portuguese, the Brits and pirates. Musandam is the perfect getaway for anyone longing for peace, solitude and pristine surroundings.
Also, I was told there must be some pretty skilled ‘dolphin whisperers’ living in the local fjords that manage to attract shoals of playful dolphins – but that’s something for my next trip…