Arranging the trip
Before this year we knew little about Oman and had never seriously considered going there. When our planned trip to Sri Lanka was postponed yet again the wonderful Experience Travel Group (ETG) who had organised it suggested that we might like to go to Oman. Some initial research showed that it matched several of our interests: mountain scenery, heritage, and Islamic civilisation and architecture.
ETG specialise in private tours but we had only once done this before as just the two of us. This was when we wanted to travel overland from Luang Prabang to Hanoi in spring 2010. A google search turned up a post about this journey from ETG. We followed this up and were very well looked after in a five-day journey with a driver and guide. ETG kept in touch with us after this and we turned to them for Sri Lanka which is one of their specialisations.
We normally make all our own arrangements for a holiday and try to rent a car wherever possible. Booking hotels on our own would have been fine for Oman but even Martin would not have attempted to drive some of the mountain roads. We would have been in a serious pickle on our own when the flight from Khasab to Muscat was cancelled. And we are not getting any younger.
Researching the Trip
We did our initial research using the Rough Guide to Oman and the Lonely Planet Oman, UAE & Arabian Peninsula, plus of course the Internet. I needed to remember that vowels are rarely written in the Arabic script. They appear in all the English versions of place names but the spelling is not consistent. This means that you have to be quite careful when searching for specific places in an index or online. This was no problem for Martin as he studied Arabic at university and can read the script.
There were several iterations with Becky and Holly at ETG as we settled on an itinerary. Some visitors to Oman just base themselves in and around Muscat. We had read about Musandam in the north and knew that the easiest way to get there was by road from Dubai. We also wondered about Salalah and in the end decided that we should see that area as well. It was really worth doing all of it.
The hotels we stayed at were all high quality, better than what we would tend to organise on our own. In Khasab the Atana Musandam Resort is right by the water and close enough to walk to the big Lulu supermarket. The location of the Sahab Resort on the Saiq Plateau was superb. We knew what to expect at the Antique Inn in Nizwa and enjoyed the experience. The desert tent at Thousand Nights Camp was 5-star. Turtle Beach Resort was fine and the Crowne Plaza in Muscat was everything you can expect from this hotel group plus the lovely view over the beach to the sunset.
The Salalah Rotana Resort would be an excellent choice for a package beach holiday. It’s beautifully laid out and our room was fine, except that we couldn’t turn the temperature warmer on the air conditioning. This hotel is 13 miles from Salalah. As we discussed with ETG later we might have preferred to be in the town. We could have asked them to change the hotel for us when we were planning the trip and just didn’t do this.
Except for the Antique Inn which served mostly Omani food, the food in all the hotels was a mixture of European, Middle Eastern and some South Asian. It was served as a buffet except at the Sahab Resort where there were very few guests. The most extensive buffet was at the Crowne Plaza which is a big hotel with plenty of guests.
We ate lunch at local restaurants when we were travelling with Saqer. He seemed to know every restaurant owner. When it got near lunchtime he would just phone ahead to a restaurant and food appeared very quickly when we got there. It was mostly houmous, chicken, dal, rice and flatbreads which was fine for us. At Sur we were treated at a smarter restaurant by the sea where we had a large fish for the three of us washed down with mango juice.
The one meal we had on our own outside the hotels was at a well-known restaurant in Muttrah. It was a good location but I did not feel that the food was anything special.
The Lulu hypermarkets are huge, equal to any large hypermarket in the UK. They are spotlessly clean and very well stocked. We were able to find sandwiches for lunch there when we needed to as well as a few snacks.
As we rarely have alcohol it did not bother us that wine and beer are not easily available in Oman. Juice, sparkling and still water, tea and coffee were readily available as well as fizzy drinks. The water in the hotels is drinkable and there were tea-making facilities in some of our hotel rooms. We tried the local Omani coffee a few times. It’s more like Greek coffee but not so sweet and is usually served with dates.
Currency and Shopping
The thing you have to remember when shopping in Oman is that the Omani rial is one of the few currencies which is worth more than the UK pound. One rial was worth about £2 or US$2.50 when we were there. You need to double the price number to see what it will cost you in pounds.
Most places took credit cards with a chip and pin or contactless payment and there are plenty of ATMs.
We didn’t do much shopping, but bought a few little souvenirs in the souqs, plus some books in Nizwa. We were never hassled to buy as happens in many other countries and haggling, if there was any, was very polite. Buying dates in Lulu to bring home was interesting as there were so many varieties to choose from. The information board in the date market in Nizwa would have been a big help here.
Phone and Internet
Everyone was using a mobile phone and there seemed to be a signal everywhere. The Internet worked well in all the hotels we stayed in. We even had the internet at the desert camp in the restaurant and communal areas.
Oman has coped with covid very well. There is a very high rate of vaccination and we needed to show proof of our recent vaccinations to enter Oman. Most people were wearing masks indoors and this was enforced by watchful restaurant staff in several places.
We have been to several Muslim countries and seen just about everything from high rise buildings and crazy traffic in Dubai to simple houses, local markets and dodgy electricity in some poorer countries. We did not really know what to expect in Oman.
When Sultan Qaboos came to power in 1970 Oman had 10km of paved roads. He set about modernising the country using oil revenues. He concentrated on developing infrastructure and transport – there is now a network of good paved roads and two very modern airports. Very many buildings are named after him. But he also believed in investing in people. English is now a second official language. University education is free and we were told that the state pays for very bright students to go to university in Germany. Healthcare is also free and excellent.
Everywhere was clean. There was no rubbish lying around. All the goats and camels wandering around must belong to someone without apparently any worry about theft.
His Majesty, as they refer to him, also sought to maintain and showcase Omani culture. All the women and many of the men wear the traditional dress. All new buildings are in the traditional Omani style – the Royal Opera House in Muscat is a wonderful example of this. There are no high rise buildings. We were extremely impressed with the presentation and depth of detail on the information boards in the museums we visited.
Visitors are expected to observe the rather conservative dress code. Apart from at obvious tourist hotels, shorts and sleeveless tops are frowned on. The Grand Mosque in Muscat is the only one which non-Muslims can enter. Women need to cover their heads and legs there.
Apart from weekenders from Dubai in Khasab, we did not see very many other tourists. The Crowne Plaza at Muscat was fairly busy. There were other tourists at Nizwa and some at the desert camp. There were many more for the turtle tours but they weren’t staying in our hotel. There were few or no other people at the other sites we visited. The hotel in Salalah was catering to package tours but was not full at all. This was perhaps because it was the end of the season. It was hot enough when we were there but temperatures reach 38C or more in summer and there is little or no shade.
We were not seriously affected by Ramadan which began towards the end of our visit but this might be another reason why there were not so many tourists.
Visitors to Oman will see plenty of people from other Asian countries working there. The hotels we stayed at were staffed mainly by Indians. Some of the items for sale in the souqs appeared to have come from India. And much of the menial construction work was being carried out by Bangladeshis who were not liked by one of our guides.
Sultan Qaboos died in January 2020 leaving no obvious heir. Oman was just emerging from Covid when we were there. What happens to the country now remains to be seen, but it would be a great shame if it decided to turn itself into another Dubai. Omanis are proud of their heritage and their country. It would be a great pity if this is lost in the pursuit of greater wealth.
All in all I would highly recommend a visit to Oman. It ranks highly on my list of favourite countries. You will be very well looked after and see a variety of interesting things.
As for our plans, the trip to Sri Lanka has been rebooked for next spring. This will be our fifth attempt to get there. Let’s hope bombs, covid and political upheaval are all gone by then and that we will finally see this country. We know we will be well taken care of by ETG.