Oman - Gold, frankincense and more
“This is not good, come back in two weeks, then you will be able to cut the wood again and get the best sap.” Mohammed, our guide, is an expert on a certain milky-white tree sap. We’re in Wadi Dawkah, a valley about 15 miles from Salalah in the Dhofar region in the far south of Oman. The wild desert trees we’re being shown don’t look much. Straggly, in fact. But these are Boswellia sacra trees and they produce a resin which, when dried and then burnt, emits a pungent, heady odour.
This crystallised gum – which we know as frankincense – has been prized throughout history. It was one of the three gifts brought by the Magi for the baby Jesus when they travelled from the East. Today, the Sultan of Oman keeps the best stuff for himself and his ultra-luxe Amouage perfume house.
Visitors to Salalah, Dhofar’s main town, can haggle in Haffa Souk for the next-best grades. Frankincense resin droplets are dried in caves to form small, hard, multi-coloured lumps. The frankincense shops of Salalah – of which there are a prodigious number – will sell you directfrom-the-farmer frankincense rocklets as well as painted burners and charcoal brickettes.
Oman’s Dhofar region produces the world’s best and costliest frankincense because of warm winters and summers dotted with rain showers, an unusual microclimate for a region that contains part of the Empty Quarter, an expanse of desert made famous by post World War Two British adventurer Wilfred Thesiger (or Mubarak bin London as he was called) in his book Arabian Sands, a must-read for any visitor to Oman.
Our small convoy of 4x4 vehicles – led by Mohammed – leaves the Boswellia sacra groves and heads into the sands for some dune bashing. In Arabic this is called tloua al ramel, or “climbing the sands”.
Our drivers show us some of their tamer moves before heading off to the Lost City of Ubar. Clearly, this is no longer lost. Known as “Atlantis of the Sands” by Lawrence of Arabia, this caravan staging post was discovered by under-sand satellite scanning by NASA. It was unearthed by explorer Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, who led the on-ground search team in 1992. In truth, there’s not a lot to see but the walled town was once a strategic transport hub on the famous incense road.
More scenic by far is Khor Rori, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Legend has it one of the Queen of Sheba’s palaces was located here. Khor Rori – to the ancients it was Sumhuram
– dates at least to 300BC and flourished until the fourth century AD. The walled town is impressive, and scenic; it’s sited on a bluff overlooking an Arabian Sea inlet.
The Arabian Sea is a big draw for visitors. Oman has some stunning beach resorts. Some of them are even livelier in the early hours of the morning. But the parties are of the eco variety – small groups of people being shown the night-time egg-laying ritual of green sea
turtles at the Ras al Jinz nature reserve. Guides know the best spots. Turtles can also be found lumbering up the beaches of the Daymaniyat Islands Nature Preserve, offshore from Oman’s capital, Muscat, as well as other areas nearby and around the city of Sur.
Muscat has been much developed since the current sultan came to power; he deposed his father in 1970. However, unlike neighbouring Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Muscat is low-rise, tasteful and really quite chic.
Muscat’s harbour at Muttrah has a 3km-long corniche, or promenade. It’s dotted with statues and canopies and seats. Try to rise early for a corniche amble. At 5.30am, the mountains are black behind the city and the cloudless sky starts its purple-to-red-to yellow welcome to the day. Sprinklers along the corniche add mist, and mystique. At 6am, head along to Muttrah Souk, for the sights, sounds and smells of the fish market. There is also a gold souk there.
Sip your first Arabian coffee of the day as Muscat comes to life. And come to life it does. The city – the 2012 Capital of Arab Tourism – stages a number of spectacular festivals during the year, including music festivals. The sultan is a classical music buff. In 1985 he wished into being the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra, with Omani nationals employed as players at the Royal Opera House in Muscat. There are also yachting festivals – the
Extreme Sailing Series is the world's toughest – and heritage expos.
The Tour of Oman is an annual stage race which attracts the world’s best professional cyclists. Most festivals take place in the cooler spring months. Oman’s National Day is on November 18 and is famous for its camel races.
When to go
The best time to visit Oman is from October to April, with average daytime temperatures of 25ºC-35ºC. Between April and September, it is baking hot and humid on the coast and bone dry inland. From mid-June to mid-September, the Khareef monsoon hits the south.
National airline Oman Air (www.omanair.com) flies non-stop to Muscat from London. Other services include British Airways (www.ba.com) and Etihad (www.etihadairways.com) via Abu Dhabi, Emirates (www.emirates.com/uk) via Dubai and Gulf Air (www.gulfair.com) via Bahrain. Visitor visas can be bought on arrival.
Taxis are widely available in Muscat and other cities. From Muscat, it’s a one-hour flight with Oman Air to Salalah. Flights and fast ferries link Muscat with Khasab in northern peninsula enclave Musandam. Self-drive is available. Take 4x4 excursions into the desert.
Oman now has a host of top-class hotels. They include the Al Bustan Palace (www.albustanpalace.com), Sifawy Boutique Hotel (www.sifawyhotel.com), The Chedi (www.ghmhotels.com), Crowne Plaza Muscat (www.cpmuscat.com) and Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa (www.shangri-la.com) in Muscat, and the Salalah Marriott Resort (www.marriott.com) in the Dhofar region. You can also stay in Bedouin-style tents in the Desert Nights Camp (www.desertnightscamp.com) in the Wahiba Sands desert.
Tour operators featuring Oman include Shaw Travel (www.shawtravel.co.uk), Omantravel (www.oman-travel.co.uk), Audley Travel (www.audleytravel.com), Elegant Resorts (www.elegantresorts.co.uk), Peregrine Adventures (www.peregrineadventures.com), Kuoni (www.kuoni.co.uk) and Tropical Sky (www.tropicalsky.co.uk).
Oman Ministry of Tourism: www.omantourism.gov.om
All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you travel to Oman.