Five reasons to visit Oman as soon as possible

From world-class hiking to Bronze Age tombs, from the weekly goat souk at Nizwa to beaches where sea turtles spawn, unspoilt Oman on the Arabian peninsula is much more than just its capital, Muscat

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 July, 2016, 4:15pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 July, 2016, 7:16pm

Although it’s fast becoming a hub for Asia-Europe flights, few tourists venture from Oman’s modern capital, Muscat. It’s just desert, right? Try again: a vast mountain landscape containing an irresistible canyon, excellent hiking and unbeatable stargazing, with mud-built villages and prehistoric sites – all these make a trip around Oman a hugely varied journey. There are labyrinthine forts at Nizwa, Jabreen and Bahla, while farther south are shifting sands containing luxury desert camps, and glistening Indian Ocean beaches visited more by giant turtles than by tourists.

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Hike the ‘other Grand Canyon’ at Jebel Shams

Tourists flock to Arizona to gape at the Grand Canyon, but Jebel Shams is almost as impressive – and much easier to enjoy. Although the drive up from Al Hamra is best done in a 4WD, Al Khitaym on the 1,900m plateau of Jebel Shams – the Mountain of the Sun – is where to start an easy and eye-popping eight-mile trek. Clinging onto the sides of the canyon, the three-hour Balcony Walk, officially known as hiking route W6, gives regular views of the intricate canyon walls, as well as of a one-mile drop.

Sounds scary? It’s not; as well as being almost horizontal, the well-kept but quiet path passes only a few places where vertigo can strike. Atop an overhang at the path’s destination is As Sab, a deserted village whose waterfall and green oasis are the perfect place to take lunch and enjoy a fine view of one of the most impressive canyons in the world. Wild-camp or stay at the nearby Jebel Shams Resort (jebelshamsresort.com), and on your way down the mountain be sure to stay at Misfah Old House (facebook.com/MisfahOldHouse) in the lush Misfat Al Abryeen, an ancient area of traditional mud houses, waterfalls and terraced date palm plantations. It’s a paradise.

Explore Nizwa and the Friday goat souk

A gateway to the magnificent Hajar mountains, Nizwa is Oman’s oldest city, and was once its capital. It’s a hugely evocative town, built around a 17th-century fort with an imposing tower. However, the main event is Nizwa’s weekly goat souk, held on Friday mornings from 7am. Witnessing the parading of Oman’s best-loved animal, the bargaining and the bickering, gives a glimpse at a way of life suspended in time. OK, so some deals are done on smartphones these days, but there’s an air of the ancient here. The parade of the goats is around a bandstand, which is a great place to station yourself if taking photos, which no-one minds. Most tourists arrive too late; it’s all over by 8am, so come early. Afterwards – whether you bought yourself a goat or not – you can wander through the rest of the souk, which sells everything from fresh fish and coffee pots to cashew nuts and locally grown dates, the latter an Omani obsession.

Visit 1001 Nights Camp, Wahiba Sands

The huge, intimidating region of Wahiba Sands is all shifting dunes and unbearably high temperatures. It may not sound like a holiday destination, but it is to those prepared to brave the 40km 4WD drive across the desert to the 1001 Nights Camp (1000nightscamp.com). Accessed from Highway 23 at Al Muntarib, about two hours south of Muscat, the journey across the sands to the oasis requires deflating tyres to 18 PSI, a compass and nerves of steel (or you could just ask the camp owners for a pick-up). Holed up in luxurious tents constructed around cineraria trees, there are few better places to get a taste both of isolation and of a delicious Omani barbecue. Throw in a few dazzling desert sunsets, an unexpected swimming pool, the odd sandstorm and a nervy journey back to civilisation, and you’ve got a unique 24-hour adventure.

Witness turtle-nesting at Ras Al-Jinz

After high mountains and dry desert, Oman’s mostly deserted beaches along the Indian Ocean are a surprise. They’re also critically important to giant turtles – four of the world’s seven species nest here. The best place to see them is at Ras Al-Jinz Turtle Reserve (rasaljinz-turtlereserve.com), with two protected beaches where giant green turtles come from the shores of the Arabian Gulf, the Red Sea and Somalia to lay their eggs. Although you can stay elsewhere and take an evening tour, it’s best to take the hit and stay in the Ras Al-Jinz Turtle Reserve itself. The room rate includes preferential treatment on an evening tour of the beaches, and gets you an exclusive pre-dawn visit, which is by far the highlight. Expect to sit dumbfounded on soft sand while you watch green turtles dig huge nests right in front of your eyes. If you’re lucky, you may even witness dozens of hatchlings leave a nest and make a break for the ocean. However, be prepared for nature to take its unpalatable course; at daybreak, many of the babies end up as breakfast for waiting seagulls.

Find beehive tombs at Al-Ayn

An easy 30-minute drive along paved roads off highway 21 between Bahla and Ibri, these 5,000-year-old burial tombs in the Hajar mountains require some careful searching on foot. Situated near the village of Qubur Juhhal, a short walk across a couple of dry riverbeds and along a falaj (an Omani irrigation channel) leads to a small ridge dotted with about 30 Bronze Age burial tombs almost in a line. A sister site to the more famous Bat and Al-Khutm archaeological sites, but more impressive (and less visited), Al-Ayn has the greatest number of standing necropolises, the best of which look like classic beehives. Some are double-walled and in immaculate condition, while others lie in ruins, and all against the splendid backdrop of the razor-like Jebel Misht ridge. The 22km drive to or from Bat passes by hundreds of ridges and hills, each home to tombs, but the hidden, deserted Al Ayn is where to head if you want prehistoric Oman all to yourself.