March 18th - 25th, 2017


This is a blog post about my 6 day trip to the Sultanate of Oman together with my best friend and long time travel companion Lara. I flew from Hong Kong to Dubai on a Friday evening. It is a 9 hour flight which got me into Dubai at just after 11:00 pm local time, while Lara arrived from New York on Saturday morning. We spent a nice day in Dubai just relaxing and getting over jetlag, before we started our trip to Oman on Sunday morning. We had decided to rent a car in Dubai and drive ourselves to Muscat, a journey which ended up quite a bit longer and more difficult than we had anticipated. For anyone thinking about driving to Oman, I have posted the details of the drive including the map of the border crossings in a separate page here:

About Oman:
The Sultanate of Oman is a country located at the southeastern corner of the Arabian peninsula. It shares borders with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Oman has a population of just over 4 million, of which 1.7 million are expatriates. It also has one of the youngest populations in the Middle East, with over 40% of the population under 15. Compared to some of its neighbours the country only has a moderate amount of oil and gas reserves (25th largest in the world). While oil exports are still the largest source of national income, Oman's economy is more diversified than that of most other Middle Eastern countries, and agriculture, fishing and increasingly tourism play a significant role in the economy.

For the thousand years prior to the arrival of Islam in the 7th century the area was ruled by subsequent Persian Empires. From 1507 to 1650 Oman was a Portuguese colony. After the Portuguese were driven out and after several invasions by the Ottomans and the Persians over the following decades, the Al Said dynasty gained controlled of Oman in 1749, establishing a continuous line of rulers that lasts to this day. Since the late 17th century the Sultanate of Oman has been a powerful empire in the region, which at its peak in the 19th century controlled parts of Persia and Pakistan, and reached as far south as Zanzibar in today's Tanzania.

Today Oman continues to be an absolute monarchy where the Sultan can rule by royal decree. Sultan Qaboos has been in power since 1970, which makes him the longest reigning ruler in the Middle East. The members of the lower chamber of parliament are elected by popular vote, but the parliament only has largely advisory powers, with the Sultan having the final say on all legislative and judicial decisions. There were some minor protests in Oman as part of the Arab spring in 2011. Protesters in Oman did not demand the ouster of the ruling regime, but demanded some political reforms and programs to create more jobs. Although the Sultan promised some reforms, there have been increased reports of human rights violations since the beginning of the Arab spring.

We stayed for two days at the Ritz Carlton Al Bustan Palace hotel, which is located a few kilometers to the south of the city. This is an absolutely gorgeous and very luxurious hotel. We didn’t even have to leave our room to go into the pool as the terrace of our ground floor room led directly into the huge pool in front.

After the rather stressful day and long drive to get here, we spent a very leisurely and relaxing first day in Muscat. After a nice breakfast at the hotel, we drove into the old part of the city. We first went to Muttrah, which was the old commercial center of Muscat. Since the old parts of the city were built in the valleys beneath rugged mountains, they are completely separated from the modern urban sprawl we drove through yesterday. So it still has the feel of a very small but ancient town.

We parked near Riyam Park and walked along the shoreline towards Muttrah. The first thing we saw was Muttrah Fort, which looks very imposing and formidable sitting on a small rocky outcropping above the city. However, when you see it from the side you realize the fort was only made to look imposing, and it is in fact not much more than a wall and some towers across a narrow ridge. But I'm sure it would have scared off many would be attackers approaching from the sea.

The other main attraction in Muttrah is the souq, a very busy and narrow traditional bazaar. We spent a bit of time walking through the souq, before we made our way back to the car along the shore and enjoyed the beautiful weather. March is a nice time of the year to travel to Oman, since the temperatures are warm and still bearable, while in the summer months temperatures reach well over 40 degrees.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped in the old center of Muscat, which is a couple of bays to the South from Muttrah. Here the huge and modern palace of Sultan Qaboos dominates the shoreline. The entrance to the narrow natural harbour in front of the palace is flanked by two imposing forts. These are Portuguese colonial forts built in 1580, and which served as prisons during the Portuguese occupation.

We spent the rest of the day relaxing and enjoying the warm ocean water and the huge beach in front of our hotel.

There are many other day trips you could do from Muscat, such as visiting some of wadis (narrow canyon like valleys) or a drive through the Wahabi sand dunes. But we didn't have enough time to fully explore everything there is to do in Muscat, instead we had decided to spend more time up in the mountains.

Tuesday, March 21st
After a leisurely breakfast and another walk along the beach, we left the hotel at 10:30 am for the drive to Nizwa. It is a two hour drive mostly along a wide four lane highway which took us into a much more mountainous region. Nizwa is the largest city in the centre of Oman. It is one of the oldest cities and a former capital of the country. It was here that Islam was first adopted in Oman in 630 AD. The main site to visit here is Nizwa Fort, a large stronghold built in the late 17th century.

Below the fort are Nizwa mosque with its beautiful brownstone dome and minaret, and Nizwa souq. The fort and souqs were extensively restored in the 1990s. We went to see the inside of the fort, which is dominated by its huge central tower, from which we had a great views of the city and the surrounding mountains.

We spent a couple of hours in Nizwa and then drove high up into the mountains to the Saiq Plateau. The Saiq Plateau is a huge highland plateau at an average altitude of 2,000 meters. The plateau has been farmed for over 1,000 years as the temperate climate allows to grow a wide range of fruits and vegetables. The Plateau used to be one of the most inaccessible regions of Oman, until they built the road 25 years ago. I read on some tripadvisor reviews that this was a very steep and precarious road. Those reviews were clearly written by people who had never driven in the mountains. The road was wide, quite curvy but not too steep, much easier to drive than many mountain passes in the Europe. Even though it would be no problem to drive up here in any car, you are only allowed to drive up in a 4WD. There is a police checkpoint at the bottom of the road, which checks your car and registration papers before letting you pass.

Once we got to the top it was another 35 km drive along winding roads to get to our hotel the Alila Jebel Akhdar hotel. This was truly one of the most spectacular and stunning places I have ever stayed at. The hotel is built right on the edge of the huge Wadi al Ayn gorge with stunning views over the surrounding mountains and the deep chasm of the canyon below. The entire hotel is built in the local style using large uncut grey stones and blends seamlessly into the surroundings.

It was quite cool up here with temperatures dropping down to 10 degrees at night and barely reaching 20 degrees during the day. But luckily the stunning infinity pool overlooking the gorge was heated.

Wednesday, March 22nd
We did a guided hike in the morning up a wadi to an old dam and then through an abandoned village. The 100 year old houses were abandoned about 25 years ago (when the road was built). At its peak 50 to 100 people lived in the village, which was built on the steep side of the canyon wall. This was their winter village. In the summer they lived on top of the plateau, but in winter the valley provided better protection from the wind.

There were lots of fury white mountain goats around. They are semi wild and don't belong to anyone. They are tremendous climbers who seem to run up and down near vertical rock walls and they even climbed trees to get to the freshest leaves.

The whole hike took us nearly three hours, and we spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing by the pool and enjoying the stunning surroundings. In the evening I walked up to the nearby lookout point to watch the beautiful sunset over the mountains behind the hotel.

Thursday, March 23rd
Just like yesterday we booked a guided hike in the morning. This one took us about 20km drive away from the hotel. We stopped beneath the Anantara hotel, which is the other luxury hotel up here on the plateau. We parked the car near the village of Al Aqr and then walked to the villages of Al Ayn and A'Sheragah. The three villages seem to cling perilously to the side of the steep walls above the huge chasm of Wadi al Ayn.

The entire mountainside below the villages has steeply terraced gardens, used to grow many types of vegetables, dates and in particular roses. These villages are famous for their roses. We saw some of the rose bushes starting to bloom and we could smell their strong scent, but we were probably a couple of weeks early to see the rose gardens in full bloom. The roses are used to make the famous Omani rose water, which is still produced in traditional style by cooking the rose petals in clay pots and capturing and filtering the steam.

Friday, March 24th
Our last day in Oman and a long driving day back to Dubai. After getting down from the Saiq Plateau we stopped at Bahla Fort, which is the largest fort in Oman. It is an enormous adobe structure dominating the small oasis city of Bahla surrounding it. The fort was built in the 13th and 14th century and became a Unesco World Heritage site in 1987.

Just a few kilometers from Bahla is another famous fort called Jibreen Castle, which dates back to the 17th century. We read that this is worth seeing from the inside, since the interior rooms are the best preserved among all the Omani forts. Unfortunately we did not time our visit here very well. It was Friday, and all tourist sites close at 11:00 am on Fridays in Oman.

About half way between Bahla and the border, we came across one more impressive fort, which wasn't described in our guide book. But we stopped for a view minutes to take some pictures. It was called As Sulaif Fort near a town of the same name.

The rest of the drive was fairly uneventful. We crossed backed into the UAE at the Mazyad border near the city of Al Ain without any further problems this time. We spent one more short night in Dubai, before getting on our early morning flights back to New York and Hong Kong. Oman really was a fascinating and beautiful country to visit, and I feel we only just scratched the surface of things to do and see there in 6 days. We could have easily spent several weeks here and not run out of amazing things to see.

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