The Sultanate of Oman wraps the southeastern “toe” of the Arabian Peninsula, extending from the Strait of Hormuz in the north to the Arabian Sea in the south, then to Yemen in the west. Sadly, Americans have no idea of the charms that await them in this ancient country, one of the oldest inhabited places in the world. Today, your average American might well ask: Is Oman a primitive country like Yemen, its neighbor in the southwest? Or is it ultra-modern like its glitzier Emirate neighbors in the north? Is it safe to travel there? And, most important, is there anything to see and do?
The answer to these questions is “no,” “no,” ” yes,” and “plenty!” In fact, our recent tour of Oman—which took us from Muscat, the capital, in the north to Salalah in the south—convinced us that this country should be on every traveler’s short list.
Why? For close to five decades, Oman has been ruled by an enlightened, world-embracing sultan who has worked to preserve Oman’s unique Arabic culture while bringing it into the modern age.
A Blend of Old and New
In this country, old and new never clash. New buildings are kept low (rarely more than two or three stories) and are painted white or cream, so villages match Oman’s tawny semi-desert landscape. Even in Muscat, you’ll find no shiny glass towers. (Buildings, by law, can be no taller than about twelve stories in the city. Most, we observed, were lower.)
Yet Oman’s focus on preserving the old doesn’t mean you won’t find modern conveniences. Citizens and tourists alike have access to the internet, cellular service and well-maintained roads. High-end hotels (which include top-of-the-line international brands) are full of luxury amenities. Moreover, Muscat’s new airport is one of the best in the world. We loved its modern design, tech-enabled waiting areas and excellent shopping and restaurants. Apparently, others have noticed. The respected World Travel Awards (founded by the World Travel and Tourism Council) pronounced it “the world’s leading new airport” at the end of 2018.
A Range of Activities
In Oman, adventure can be as challenging or as easy as you wish—from hiking in the tallest mountains of Arabia to relaxing on an expansive, uncrowded beach. Looking for an authentic Omani experience? Spend a morning in Nizwa photographing the raucous goat market. Or sniff your way through the historic frankincense souks in Salalah. Visit the oceanfront ruins of Samharam, center of the ancient frankincense trade, or camp under the stars surrounded by the enormous dunes of the Empty Quarter. Horseback riding, camel riding, snorkeling, scuba diving, and birdwatching are other things to do in Oman.
Now that we’ve piqued your interest, we suspect you have one last, burning question before you book your flight. In a Muslim country, is it possible to enjoy a beer or wine at the end of the day? No worries. Hotels serve alcoholic beverages to international guests. In fact, you might even spot local men standing at the bar, dressed in the country’s official robe, the dishdasha. (As seen in the photo below.)