Nizwa Fort rises from the sand like an Arabian Nights palace. Turrets soar skyward into the searing blue. Grand gates are able to welcome convoys of camels ﬁve abreast. But the 24 slits around the towers hide a sinister purpose. Each once held a cannon that could blast desert raiders intent on capturing this dusty crossroads. And as Nizwa commands the trade route between Dubai and the Omani capital of Muscat, many have tried.
Nizwa’s souk contains all you need for a modern-day conquest of Oman: handmade copper cups, coﬀee pots, spices and leather goods. Plus curved daggers should you meet a masked assassin on the road to Abu Dhabi. Dates are sold by the bucketload, and date syrup is also on sale, although centuries ago it was boiled and thrown at attackers of Nizwa Fort.
On Friday mornings, regional tribesmen descend upon this medieval market as cows and goats are sold for wedding feasts and desert barbecues. Sometimes camels are still peddled as ‘ships of the desert’: millennia-old means of transportation across the Arabian Peninsula.
Indeed, the car only replaced the camel as Oman’s vehicle of choice in the 1960s. As petrol is cheaper than mineral water, I’ve chosen a Toyota jeep as my means of transport. With a population of just four million scattered across an area the size of Germany, the country’s tarmac highways are blissfully clear.
Visitor numbers are also tiny: four million per year compared with over 15 million apiece in neighbouring Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This has allowed Oman to pioneer low-impact tourism, where the ﬁnest sights are preserved for culturally minded visitors. Nowhere is this more apparent than the UNESCO-protected oasis of Falaj Daris.
Falaj are ancient irrigation systems built by hand 1,500 years ago. Each canal courses through orchards alive with date palms and pepper trees, colouring the sandy scrub deep green. As the water is now used for irrigation, not drinking, it’s permissible to swim in the snaking canals. Local children dive in, then pluck dates for a lunchtime snack. Falaj Daris also runs underneath Nizwa Fort, 10km south of this oasis. Instead I’m driving 30 minutes north to the water’s lofty source.
Jebel Akhdar is the highest point in Eastern Arabia. Its name translates as ‘Green Mountain’. Here, rainfall waters terraces of peaches, walnuts, apricots and grapes. At 3,000m in altitude, it’s spellbinding by car – but must be a diﬀerent story by bicycle. The Tour of Oman (an annual cycle race organised by the Tour de France) regularly climbs the route. Top riders Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali have both won the week-long tour.
I’m in Jebel Akhdar to stay in accommodation that exempliﬁes Oman’s tourism strategy. The mountaintop Alila Hotel is a vision of 21st-century Arabia: it combines stone ﬂoors and traditional Omani construction techniques with handmade copper ﬁxtures and luxurious pools.
Aside from morning yoga and starlight meditation, the hotel also pairs guests with locals for a taste of the real Oman. I join a local guide for a ﬁve-hour hike through Jebel Akhdar’s green wilderness, then try a Via Ferrata, a cliﬀside climbing trail that once formed the only accessible route through the surrounding mountains.
Dawn shoots a fountain of golden light over the emerald valley. My jeep and I follow the sun for four hours towards the Arabian Sea, a region of the northern Indian Ocean. Oman’s diverse topography comes into its own along this route. Soaring cliﬀs fade to wadi
rock formations, then endless groves of palms, plus asphalt roads that ribbon like Arabic calligraphy through my journey’s ﬁrst dunes.
The food changes too. Inland cuisine includes harees (wheat porridge) and machboos (fried rice topped with pine nuts and sultanas). Coastal food means fresh tuna hauled in by barefoot ﬁshermen, all seasoned with cardamom and tamarind, a remnant of the Omani empire that once stretched to the spice island of Zanzibar.
Sea life abounds at Ras Al Jinz, the country’s most easterly point. Humpbacks, whale sharks and dolphins bask in the same warm seas that lap against nearby Iran and Pakistan. I’m here to see the thousands of loggerhead, hawksbill and green turtles that lay their eggs on the sandy shore.
At midnight a guide wakes me from my Australian-built safari tent at Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve. We join a moonlight group of eco-tourists to watch the nation’s most magical sight: massive mother turtles laying scores of eggs into sandy hollows, plus baby hatchlings making a mad dash to the safety of the sea.
Another day, another climatic zone. Ask a travel agent to describe Oman and they will talk about the Wahiba Sands, blood-red dunes as high as ocean waves that stretch as far as the eye can see. The topography is Star Wars meets Lawrence of Arabia, with tracks of snakes, desert foxes and vultures dusted nightly by the shifting sands. Some 3,000 Bedouin herders still call this desert home, adding a taste of modernity to a traditional diet of camel milk, coﬀee, rabbit and dates.
This being Oman, my accommodation is ﬁve-star. Desert Nights Camp appears like a mirage from the sea of sands. Turbaned staﬀ oﬀer cold towels and mint tea to visitors stepping out of their 4×4 jeeps. Their ‘tents’ are like boutique lodges, with outdoor beanbags and carpets on which to plan your desert adventures.
At dusk the residents of the entire resort climb a nearby dune for drinks as the sun sets over Saudi. At dawn we’re up for sandboarding (like snowboarding but more painful) before guides oﬀer dune tours via quad bike and Land Cruiser.
Thoughts of rain are far away. But I drive my Toyota into a tropical storm due south in Salalah. Oman’s second city abuts the Indian Ocean and receives the same yearly monsoons as India’s Malabar Coast. A population dominated by migrants from the subcontinent lends a tropical
air. Coconuts and mangoes are oﬀered by roadside sellers, and street curries include layered biryani rice and unctuous lentil dhals. The palm-fringed beaches rival those in Goa, while the archaeological site of Khor Rori is said to be one of the Queen of Sheba’s palaces.
Khor Rori was the main trading port of frankincense. These scented balls of tree resin, known as the ‘white gold’ of Arabia, were exported from Salalah to Rome, China and India for untold centuries. The frankincense tree forests north of the city make up another UNESCO World Heritage Site. I drive there, dodging both clouds and camels. Turbaned workers are tapping the trees for scented sap as views over ocean, desert and ancient city tempt from below. That’s Oman: scratch the surface and centuries of history come to the fore.
5 Senses – Sight MUSCAT FISH MARKET
The 21st century meets the timeless at Muscat’s brand new Fish Market. In 2017, Norwegian design ﬁrm Snøhetta installed this arabesque UFO, which shields 100 seafood salesmen from the searing sun. The daily catch is alluringly photogenic. Giant snapper and Indian Ocean tuna are hauled inside by barefoot ﬁshermen, then hawked to Muscat restaurateurs. Visitors are also welcome in
the new seafood café.