There’s a well-known folk tale about a king who executes his wife after learning about her infidelities.The bitter experience taints his view about women thereafter and he marries a succession
of virgins who inevitably suffer the same fate.The tale is known under several titles, the most widely remembered being One Thousand and One Nights.You might have heard of it.
The narrative continues with the king’s latest bride, Scheherazade, telling him a story each evening, but leaving them unfinished. The king, of course, wants to know how they end, and thus her execution is delayed. This scenario is repeated night after night until the king eventually realises that he has fallen in love with her. He spares her life and makes her his queen.
During a recent visit to Oman, where parts of the legend were set, I found myself similarly falling under its spell with each successive night. Unlike the king though, I was quick to recognise that I had fallen in love on my very first evening.
My guide, Sulaiman had whisked me from Muscat’s Seeb International Airport up into the Western Hajar Mountains. There, we strolled through alpine villages famed for producing rose water for perfumes, tea and confectionery, and at the end of the day drove to the Alila Jabal Akhdar Oman.
When I checked into my room and opened the balcony doors, the view knocked me for six. Beyond the hotel’s infinity pool was a yawning chasm that plunged for more than a kilometre. The villages we’d visited earlier in the day were somewhere down below, inside that gulch, and the sun was setting behind rows of saw-toothed peaks. I was smitten.
I could have spent days in that hotel, just so I could relax and enjoy its peaceful ambience and spectacular location; the views were reason enough to want to hang around. But Oman isn’t a country you want to remain idle in for too long. That much was evident the following morning.
Every Friday, just after dawn, villagers from all around converge on the town of Nizwa for its weekly livestock market. The market is one of the country’s more lively get-togethers and it attracts hundreds of men and women in traditional attire, all of whom flock around a central auction ring so they can bid for the right to take home a new cow, goat or sheep. It can be noisy and crowded, and a little tough on the nose. But it’s certainly easy on the eye, and 100 percent authentic.
That’s the thing about Oman – it can be a land of contradictions. It’s mostly barren, dry desert, but there are also pockets of paradise. Thousands of date palms sprout from the ground, nourished by subterranean water or ancient irrigation channels known as falaj. The palms surround crumbling houses and towering forts, and they provide much-needed shade. Villages like Birkat al-Mawz or Misfat Al Abriyeen are blessed with plantations and orchards.
Contrasting against these verdant oases are the rolling dunes of the Wahiba Sands.This is what the locals think of as desert, and spending a night here in Desert Nights Camp is the one thing I’d recommend any visitor to Oman to include on their itinerary. The accommodation varies from simple barasti structures (huts traditionally made from palm fronds) to top-end tented camps, and it was the latter I was booked into.
From the camp I trudged to the crest of an ochre-coloured sand dune to see the sun set. Other guests from the camp spread across the dunes as well, but in the morning I was alone. Once again I rose before dawn, this time without anyone else around, to watch the shadows dance across the dunes with the rising sun. The winds overnight had swept away our footprints and the only sound was the whistling of the morning breeze. I commended myself for making the effort to get out of bed.
Later that morning, after detouring into several gorges cradling rock pools that were tailor-made for swimming, I continued on towards Muscat. By the time I reached the town of Barr Al Jissah, just outside Muscat, all those early rises and sunset finishes were taking their toll. I needed to slow down, so a night on the MV Ibra couldn’t have been timed better.
This 26-metre dhow was built at Oman’s sole remaining shipyard, in Sur, and then refitted three years ago for luxury charters. It’s mostly day-trippers who sail on it, so I was fortunate to be able to spend a night on-board, anchored inside a moonlit inlet where the only disturbance was the sound of leaping fish slapping against the water.
I slept down below in the most comfortable bed of my trip, then relinquished my morning shower in favour of a snorkel over a nearby reef. I’d barely fitted my mask when a juvenile green turtle swam past, effortlessly drifting over corals resembling cauliflower bushels. It seemed in no hurry to escape as I duck dived beside it, then found myself surrounded by schools of fish whose names I wasn’t familiar with. It was the perfect tonic for recharging my batteries.
The languorous pace over the next few days in Muscat allowed me to visit the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque and Royal Opera House on my first morning, then laze by the pool at the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa that afternoon. I filled in one evening browsing through souvenir and jewellery stores inside Muttrah’s covered souk, and then wandered through the local fish market across the road the next morning.That
was before I headed inland to explore some of Oman’s magnificently restored forts.
On my last day, I signed up for an Omani cooking course at Bait al Bilad, in the unassuming seaside village of Qantab, outside Muscat. I failed miserably at mastering the art of local bread making, then redeemed myself by helping to prepare sliced kingfish with a delicious coconut gravy. It was one of my more memorable meals.
Before I departed, Sulaiman suggested I should have travelled to Ras al-Jinz, the easternmost point of the Arabian Peninsula, to see turtles nesting on beaches there, telling me about drives through the mountains and fjords rivalling those in Norway and Chile. I replied by saying I’d have to return. My visit this time felt like an unfinished tale – much like those told by the queen in 1001 Arabian Nights I guess.
NEED TO KNOW:
Oman wraps around the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, sharing borders with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Arabic is the national language, though English is widely spoken. Men and women should wear clothing that covers their shoulders and thighs past the knees. It’s also a good idea to cover up when swimming in rock pools in the wadis (i.e. wear T-shirts over bikinis).
The tourist season lasts from late September until mid-May. Temperatures outside this time can be oppressively hot, except in the Hajar Mountains or the Dhofar region bordering Yemen.
MV Ibra can be chartered through Ocean Blue International which can also organise cooking classes at Bait al Bilad.
Contact the Sultanate of Oman Tourism office in Australia on 02 9286 8930 or look them up and click through to the Travel Ideas section. Oman accommodation and experiences can be booked through the wholesale travel programs available at your preferred travel agent.
1 Omani Rial = AUD$3.35
Flights from Australia to Muscat operate daily via Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Doha on Etihad, Emirates and Qatar Airways respectively. Oman Air services connect with direct flights from Australia to Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Manila. Return economy fares from east coast Australia start from AUD$1,229 if lengthy transfers aren’t an issue, or AUD$1,580 if they are.
Alila Jabal Akhdar Oman: Suites and villas start at OMR170 per night. Minimum stays can apply.
Desert Nights Camp: Rooms from OMR180 plus taxes per night.
The Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa: Includes three five-star hotels. Rooms from OMR70 per night, low season.
The Chedi Muscat: Rooms from OMR105 per night.
Photography: Mark Daffey and Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa