Ode to Oman

Forget the UAE. This time around it’s Oman that is stealing the show…

Oman is having a moment. Just ask Peter Greenberg – the award winning travel editor for NBC’s Today Show – who has hailed the Arab state as a hot and affordable (important in these credit crunch times) destination, and one of his own personal favourites.

Frankly this comes as no surprise to me. Oman’s showy next door neighbour – the bling bedecked emirate of Dubai – may dominate the headlines, but if it’s an authentic taste of Arabia that you’re after few places can match Oman.

Blessed with beautiful beaches, rugged mountains, medieval fortresses, ancient ruins and one of the best souks in the Middle East, Oman offers much for the traveller willing to explore and experience more than crowded shopping malls. Indeedunlike the other Gulf States, the country has managed to modernise itself without turning the Sultanate into a strip of gargantuan shopping centres. Buildings have been designed to reflect the cultural heritage of their surroundings; thus developments are all unmistakably Arabic (on the outside at least) owing to details like white washed walls.

Furthermore, visitors will actually come into contact with locals thanks to Sultan Qaboos’ policy of ‘Omani-isation’. In contrast to its Khaleeji brothers Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE, Oman cannot afford costly expatriate labour and subsequently nationals of both sexes are employed in all sectors of society.

On top of all the above you’ve got guaranteed year round sunshine (ideal for anyone wanting to toast on a sun lounger), and an enviable environmental record. For the most part, the Arab states aren’t known for their enthusiasm for the environment – in fact the region is something of an environmental disaster. Happily, Oman is the exception to the rule. The Sultanate was singled out by the UN Environment programme as a country with exemplary conservation measures meaning that this corner of Arabia is a worthy recipient of your patronage. It needs it too. Compared to the rest of the region, Oman has limited oil reserves and consequently the country’s economy is largely dependent on tourism.

Essentially, if you ever wondered what Dubai and Doha looked like before the high rise hotels this could be your last chance to find out…

OMAN'S TOP 10

Muscat

Muttrah souk
This labyrinth like, gossipy market place could keep you contented for days. Even if you’ve run out of riyals, it’s worth going for the atmosphere alone.

Bait al Baranda
Never mind Muscat, this marvellous museum near the fish souk end of Muttrah Corniche wouldn’t be out of place in world class cities like London – owing to its imaginative, interactive displays. It’s a great place to get to grips with Oman’s past and present.

Khargeen café
Take a seat in the picturesque garden of this Madinat Qaboos Muscat institution, and quench thirst with a wonderfully refreshing mint juice before puffing out sweet clouds of tobacco from long hookahs.

The Grand mosque
As any Omani will tell you, this magnificent mosque boasts a ‘Swarovski chandelier and the biggest carpet in the world’ making it well worth a visit.

The Chedi
Checking into this chic hotel – the perfect marriage of attentive Arabic service and modern Asian décor – is easy. The difficulty lies in leaving.

And beyond…
While there’s no denying the capital’s many charms, there is much more to Oman than merely Muscat.

The Musandam Peninsula

Hailed as ‘the ‘Norway of Arabia’, the area’s main draw is its breathtaking fjords, craggy mountains and small fishing villages untouched by modernity. The Peninsula is also the location of the luxurious Six Senses Hideaway Zighy Bay, conceived by the eco conscious Eva and Sonu Shivdasni.

The underwater world

Oman is often overlooked in favour of the Red Sea. While the Sultanate isn’t quite up there with the Red Sea in terms of visibility, the latter can be as crowded as the London underground during rush hour. In Oman you’ll have the sea to yourself save for stingrays, snappers, schools of colourful reef fish, every species of dolphin and possibly even whales and sharks.

Camel racing

Oman is obsessed with camel racing – so much so that the country even has its own Directorate of Camel Affairs. Spending some time watching these ships of the desert (thankfully robot jockeys are now used instead of child jockeys) racing at speeds of up to 60km/h, should feature on any tourist itinerary.

Be an adventure junkie.

The Sultanate boasts of the best climbing spots in the world; particularly impressive are the Al Hajar Mountains, stretching from Musandam in the north of the country to the south-eastern town of Sur. Alternatively check out the extensive corridors, crystal-clear streams and canals of what is reputedly the planet’s second largest cave: Majlis Al-Jinn.

Salalah

Situated in the southern corner of the country, the city of Salalah is known as the “perfume capital of Arabia’ and famed for its Frankincense trees. It’s popular with Omanis owing to its cooler climate and surprisingly verdant, almost tropical landscape.