In case you are not aware, Oman is the only country in the World which starts with “O” … I never noticed it until my friend pointed it out to me.
I had visited Oman before, in 2013. At that time, the focus was only in and around Muscat. At that time, I had felt that Oman would be a perfect Family getaway destination. Six years, and 27 countries later, I was back in Oman. This time, for a cross-country road trip, from Muscat to Salalah.
Country Counter: https://gattokaran.com/2019/01/22/country-counter/
We did this road trip in May 2019. Why did I pick May? For one, it was Summer Holidays for the kids. Secondly, I had to use up my remaining airline vouchers by June, and Oman was one of the airline destinations. Thirdly, Oman was a country I had previously earmarked for a family road trip. After some deliberations, we decided to go to Oman this time, even though it was very hot in Oman during May.
Another challenge was the fact that the trip was smack in the middle of Ramadan. Oman is an Islamic country and Ramadan is strictly followed. The fact that we traveled during Ramadan came with advantages and disadvantages. Since food and water is not allowed in public during Ramadan, one cannot eat out during lunch. All restaurants and eateries would be closed. Due to the intense Sun, it was best to avoid being in sunlight between 10AM and 3PM anyways. We managed by having a stock of snacks (Chips, Energy Bars, Fruits Etc.), which we ate in the car, in secluded areas 🙂 We tried our best not to hurt local sentiments by not eating and drinking in public. The advantage was that we had pretty much all the sites to ourselves. For e.g. I never imagined having Bimmah Sinkhole (pretty much) all to ourselves!
I have been to several countries in the Middle-East. I can categorically say that Omani people are the nicest people I have come across in the Middle-East. When I spoke to my friends who have been living in Oman for 20+ years, they all echoed this sentiment. I can recall at least 20 instances of interactions with local Omani people, from which I came out being impressed with their humility and decorum. I would not be surprised if it has to do with the Ibadi culture, as Ibadis form 75% of Oman population. Ibadi school of Islam is dominant in Oman and is different from the Shia and Sunni forms.
When I was researching for the trip and was asking around, I could easily figure out that this was not a trip many people have attempted. Many of Oman’s best destinations were within a 150-kilometer radius from Muscat. So at best, folks would travel as far as Sur and then make their way back to Muscat. I wanted to get a true experience of Oman and decided that the only correct way to do it was to rent a vehicle and drive from Muscat to Salalah. If one were to drive straight from Muscat to Salalah, by taking the shortest and fastest route (“Route 31”), it would take around 1000 kilometers and 10 hours. Because we took several stops in between, took several coastal roads, and took many detours to see the major sights along the way, overall, I ended up driving close to 3000 kilometers.
Oman has a fantastic road system. Even the most remote towns have pretty decent roads. There are 6-8-lane major highways and also 2-lane (without divider) highways (mainly called “Truck Routes”).
Because we had to fit it all into 11 days in Oman, we could not factor in Jebel Shams area. Because the main areas we intended to visit did not require a 4×4 vehicle, I had rented a regular sedan. Because I was picking up the rental car from Muscat and returning it at Salalah, the rental company charged a “One-way Fee”. I was familiar with the concept as I have done similar rentals during other trips as well.
We happened to stay not far from Muscat Heights and the 1st time we drove through the area, it was by accident 🙂 We missed an exit and had to go along the hilly roads to finally be able to take a U-turn and get back on track. Next day, we made an intentional trip to enjoy the panoramic views of Muscat.
Muttrah Corniche and Muttrah Souq
Though I had explored Muttrah area in detail in 2013, this time it was with the Family. Unfortunately, the Fish Souq was closed (Ramadan). Unlike in 2013, I noticed that there were 2 Sultan Qaboos Yachts moored in the bay.
It was very interesting to explore the various lanes of Muttrah Souq. Amazingly, there are a lot of Indian origin shopkeepers in the Souk. Perfumes, Frankincense, Omani Khanjar Etc. It was all very enticing.
We had made a dinner reservation at Bait Al Luban, based on online reviews and Mark Wiens’ video on Oman. The dinner was very nice, especially the desserts. Though I am not a desserts person typically, looking at the choice of desserts, I decided to go easy on appetizers and main courses and throw my energy into the desserts. Among desserts, Middle-Eastern desserts are my favorite.
Wadi Al Khoud
Our first Wadi experience was a disappointment 🙂 Other than getting to see the Al Khoud village, which is very nice, we did not get to see a single drop of water as the Wadi appeared all dried up. Considering the heat, I was not surprised to see the dry Wadi Al Khoud.
Please note that the location marked for “Wadi Al Khoud” in Google Maps is not accurate. It took us to a dead-end! It is easiest to get to Al Khoud village (which is correctly marked in Google Maps) and then drive on to the end of the village, where one will find the car park for the Wadi.
Nakhal fort is beautiful, especially when it is lighted up at night. Though we made two separate attempts (just a 20-minute ride from the town of Barka, which is where we stayed), we could not see the inside of Nakhal Fort, as it seemed to be closed (Ramadan?) and there was no one around to ask. We explored the exteriors of the Fort though.
Nakhal Fort is originally from the 7th Century and was refurbished in 1834. The fort is named after the town of Nakhal, where it is located. As with other Forts/Castles in Oman, Nakhal fort is surrounded by Palm trees. The fort is on top of a small hill and is around 120 kilometers from Muscat.
Bahla Fort was amazing. The best part was that we were the only visitors! (due to Ramadan, I assumed). The Fort is pretty big and has many floors, rooms, towers Etc. We went through pretty much every area of the Fort. The surrounding Bahla village is also very nice. The contrast of the “brown” of the Fort and the houses with the “green” of the Palm trees was just spectacular! Inside the fort, there are several areas where the underlying rock is visible (the Fort was made on a rocky base). Mud bricks have been used a lot. Ceilings are made of wood. Most of the rooms are quite cool inside, despite the scorching heat outside.
Bahla Fort is the only Fort/Castle in Oman that is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site (in 1987). Banu Nehban tribe was dominant in this region, especially between 12th and 15th centuries, and they made the Bahla region what it is today. The Falaj (or “Aflaj”) system of irrigation, where water is brought through channels from distant springs and oasis, provides water to Bahla. Oman’s Falaj system is yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site and it was recognized for the water management innovations it incorporates.
Al Ayn Beehive Tombs
By the time we reached Al Ayn’s Beehive Tomb, which is roughly an hour’s drive from Bahla Fort, the Family was tired. So I explored the Beehive Tombs on my own. The walk through the nearby small village was very nice. There were quite a lot of Palm trees and water channels.
The beehive tombs are from the Bronze Age! (3000 BC – 1200 BC). UNESCO recognized this region as a World Heritage Site in 1988.
Wadi Dayqah Dam
Wadi Dayqah is roughly 1.5hr drive from Muscat. There is a spectacular valley we have to cross to get to this dam. This dam is supposedly supplying a lot of water to Muscat and Quriyat. The dam was constructed in 2009. It is interesting to see the artificial lake in the middle of the desert landscape.
The park within the dam complex is very well maintained, with neat restrooms. We had the entire place to ourselves, as was usual during our road trip 🙂
What a beautiful sinkhole … The turquoise waters and the surrounding brown rocks make for a spectacular picture.
When we got there, we were shocked to see a fence and a locked gate. What a bummer, or so we thought … Then we noticed that the gate was unlocked. Whew! Because, it is a sinkhole, we do not see it until we get to it.
There was a small group of 3 guys and an Asian couple when we arrived, but they left soon after and we had the sinkhole to ourselves. (Though there are several noticeboards requesting people not to jump from the edge into the sinkhole, the Asian lady almost did the jump, before backing out at the last minute). The maximum depth of the sinkhole is 20 meters. Because my swimming skills are quite minimal, I stayed near the shore. The zillion small fish gives you free pedicure. I was experiencing the fish bites for the 1st time and it takes some getting used to. Even then I could not bear the tiny bites under the feet (tickles like crazy!). The water, surprisingly (considering the general hot weather and the blazing Sun), was lightly cold.
“Fins” White Sand Beach
We drove through the town of Fins and did see the beach. I am not sure about the sands being white, though 🙂
Because our kids were tired by the time we reached this Wadi, we only did some light exploring of Wadi Shab.
The oasis is beautiful … With brown hills/rocks and green Plan trees and other shrubs.
Sur is the hometown of the fictional character “Sinbad the Sailor”. During the 17th Century, Oman was a Super-Power in the Middle-East and a lot of its maritime activities were focused in and around Sur.
Sur has a beautiful Corniche. One gets to see many white/light-colored Omani houses in this area. The lighthouse is also beautiful. Around sunset, the view of Sur from the lighthouse is really worth it.
Al Wasil & Desert Nights Camp
We wanted to experience a couple of days in a desert camp. After extensive online research (poring over online reviews), we decided on Desert Nights Camp. We made the right choice! We thoroughly enjoyed our 2-nights stay at the camp.
Upon reaching Al Wasil, we were instructed to park at the Al Maha Petrol Pump and call their number. Upon informing them, within 20 minutes, a 4×4 SUV was sent to pick us up. We left our rental car at the Petrol Pump. The 4×4 zoomed through the desert sands and we reached the camp in 2o minutes. After checking in, a buggy took us and our luggage to our Deluxe Cabin #41. We were blown away by the cabin. It had a master bedroom, a 2nd bedroom, a living room, fridge and coffee machine, restroom with shower and a sit-out area. There was also a blazing fast WiFi! Our package included breakfast and dinner. For lunch, we had brought several eatables with us.
In the evening, at around 17:45, another 4×4 SUV took us up the nearby sand dune. We experienced severe desert winds for the 1st time. Even though I was wearing wrap-around sunglasses, there were times I had to fully close my eyes as the wind was that strong. We watched the sunset from the sand dune and later on the SUV took us back to the camp.
After taking a shower (our hair had stocked up on a lot of sand!), we had buffet dinner at the restaurant. There were grilled Chicken, Fish, Lamb, and Mutton, various breads, fruits, Middle-East desserts Etc.
We spent the 2nd day just relaxing in the cabin. Naps, surfing the Internet Etc. In the evening, I went for a desert hike. Took a lot of pictures of the camp as well as the sand dunes, while the Family entertained themselves in the recreation room, which had board games, pool table, a small library Etc.
Wadi Bani Khalid
Wow! Wow! Wow!
Supposedly, the easiest Wadi to visit in Oman. I can attest to this claim. It is indeed very easy to access this particular Wadi (just a 5-minute walk). It is around 125km from Sur and is around 50km from Al Wasil. Yet again, we had the entire place to ourselves. Because it was very hot and more importantly because the fish were slightly bigger than the ones in Bimmah Sinkhole (I am not a fan of the fish bites:-)), I did not venture too much into the water. The Oasis, with its Palm trees, irrigation channels and the turquoise waters was spectacular. The Wadi has a small restaurant and restrooms.
Rub’ Al Khali (“Empty Quarter”) is the largest contiguous desert in the World, predominately encompassing Saudi Arabia and Oman. It was a surreal feeling to drive through the vast desert. The desert covers some 650000 Sq.Km.
Between Al Wasil and Duqm, we experienced our 1st Sand Storm. The Sand Storm lasted for some 100 kilometers and at several points, the visibility was not more than 15-20 meters. It was challenging, as suddenly one would see an 18-wheeler come right at you from within the Sand Storm 🙂
I thoroughly enjoyed the drive. Because we were advised to keep the vehicle petrol tank regularly filled (apparently some folks had run out of fuel smack, in the middle of the desert), we stopped every hour (or whenever we saw a Petrol/Diesel Pump) to fill up (and also use the restroom). Though we were getting mobile phone signal and though there was occasional traffic, I definitely did not want to run out of fuel.
Our longest drive was a non-stop drive (almost, as we did stop for fuel) from Duqm to Salalah, approximately 700 kilometers in 6.5 hours.
Frankincense Natural Park (Wadi Dawkah)
Frankincense (“Desert Tears”): The resin from the tree is dried up to make crystals and oil, used as fragrance, body oil Etc. Oman is famous for Frankincense and the Dhofar region (Salalah is the Capital) is famous for the quality of Frankincense. There are various grades, depending upon the plant, time of harvesting Etc.
The “Frankincense Trail” is yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Oman. The Frankincense Nature Park is around 40 kilometers from Salalah and we drive to Salalah from Muscat (or Sur or Duqm), it is on the way. As you must have guessed by now, we had the site to ourselves … We spent some time examining the Frankincense shrub/plant closely.
Later, in Salalah, we made sure we bought some different types of Frankincense to take home.
Salalah Sultan Qaboos Mosque
When I visited Oman in 2013, I had explored Muscat’s Sultan Qaboos Mosque in great detail.
The experience was almost on par with Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi. I noticed that all major towns in Oman has its local version of Sultan Qaboos Mosque. Not surprising, considering Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said is the ruler of Oman. He has been ruling for almost 50 years! Considering the great job he has done for Oman (Looking after the people, preserving the Culture, fantastic Infrastructure Etc.), it is not surprising.
Salalah is a beautiful town with excellent roads, huge malls, souqs and nice restaurants. We had a blast in Salalah.
Due to Ramadan, we could not enter the Mosque though.
Al Balid Archaeological Site
It is a huge archaeological complex, in the southern coast of Salalah. It is interesting to drive through this part of Salalah, as one gets to see many Coconut trees (reminded me of Kerala :-)).
There were 6-7 security guards in the Complex and we were the only tourists 🙂 The Omani guy at the ticket counter spoke excellent English and was very helpful. I loved the Museum. Though it is not big by any means, they have presented what they have in an excellent manner. If you spend enough time in the Museum, you will come out with a high level understanding and appreciation of Oman and its history. Especially interesting were:
- Excellent models of Oman Dhows and Ships
- Models of Bahla Fort, Sultan Qaboos University, Falaj Irrigation System Etc.
- History of Frankincense
- Historical artifacts from BC time period
The Frankincense Museum, a part of the Frankincense Trail, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We explored the complex a bit, while using our umbrellas. At various points, there are information boards describing the attractions.
Al Mughsail Beach & Al Marneef Cave
Mughsail Beach is a 40-kilometer ride from Salalah. Part of the road was damaged (literally broken off) and we had to take a detour. The white sands, the turquoise waters (blue, in the deeper areas) and the brown hills were just amazing! I took so many pictures that my fingers were paining with all that clicking … 🙂
One of the evenings, we returned to the Mughsail Beach for a quick swim. We did not stay too long as the beach was deserted and there were no lifeguards nearby.
To be frank, I could not locate any “Cave” … I assume the overhanging limestone rock is the Al Marneef. Though we could hear the sea water in the blow holes, the water did not actually rise up through the blow holes … We did not mind much, as we were mesmerized by the scenery.
Mirbat town is around 70 kilometers from Salalah. The highway, as usual, was excellent. We had the Mirbat Castle to ourselves. Most of the rooms in the Castle were air conditioned. There were very good information boards or TVs, giving us all the information about the usage of various rooms of the Castle and also about the life in the Castle.
Though the Castle is quite small, it is definitely worth the visit, as there are several other attractions on the way from Salalah.
Gravity Point is around 15 kilometers from Mirbat Castle.
We were totally taken by surprise at the Gravity Point. Having been to “Mystery Spot” in California, we had a rough idea of what to expect. When I put the vehicle in neutral, it was going “up the hill” pretty fast … Very cool!
Jabal Samhan Viewpoint
Jabal Samhan Viewpoint is around 30 kilometers from the Gravity Point.
Due to some road maintenance (By the by, we noticed a lot of infrastructure repairs all over Oman. I am guessing that the Government used the off-peak season to get all the repairs done), we had to get to the viewpoint using another road. It did not matter much, as the views were very nice either way.
Tawi Attair Sinkhole
Tawi Attair is around 25 kilometers from Jabal Samhan Viewpoint. We have to cross a couple of small towns on the way.
As with most areas of Oman, one gets to see many Camels on the way. I read in a book about Oman, that there are rarely any “wild” Camels. Almost all the Camels are owned and being trained for various activities like Camel Races.
The Sink Hole is pretty deep and actually, I could not see the bottom. Because of the warning boards and lack of other tourists, we did not take any risks like climbing outside the walls to get a better view. We could see a lot of birds flying in and out of the Sink Hole.
Sumhuram Archaeological Park (“Khor Rori”)
Khor Rori is around 25 kilometers from Tawi Attair.
Yet again, we were the only tourists at Khor Rori 🙂 The Omani ticket counter person waved us in for free …
There is a small Visitor Center with some basic information about the Archaeological Park and also clean restrooms.
Khor Rori housed an ancient civilization between 3rd Century BC to 4th Century AD and the Archaeological Park has allowed the discovery of many ancient artifacts. This region was critical for the region’s trade with Mediterranean region and with India. The City of Sumhuram was completely enclosed with walls and had a harbor.
There are walkways one can use to explore the Archaeological Park in detail. The view of the Arabian Sea was very nice.
Taqah Plateau and Taqah Castle
Taqah Castle is around 12 kilometers from Sumhuram Archaeological Park. The Castle has a unit at ground level and also a unit on top of a nearby hill. One can do the 100-stairs climb and enjoy a nice view of the Tawah town (all the way up to the sea).
Some miscellaneous pictures …
At the end of this trip, after a lot of thought, I decided to replace Jordan in my personal Top-5 list, with Oman. The main reasons:
- Respectful and cultured locals
- Majestic desert landscapes
- Awesome food (Kebabs and Middle-Eastern Desserts! Yum!)
- Turquoise beaches
- Beautiful sand dunes
- Eye-popping wadis
- Pristine forts
- Historic Culture