The Sultanate of Oman straddles the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, bordered to the west and north by Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). To the east and south lie the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. It's a large country in a very strategic location, yet many people don't know exactly where Oman is, or they confuse it with Amman, the capital of Jordan. It's a fascinating destination which is increasingly open to tourists.
Note: Oman is not a travel destination which openly welcomes LGBT travelers. Oman ranks #133 out of 197 countries on the Spartacus Gay Travel Index, which is still far ahead of neighboring countries. Be aware that is a conservative society to which change comes slowly. I highly recommend not to push the boundaries. In reality, as a tourist you won't have that many opportunities to peek behind the curtain of local culture and will be treated respectfully, but as an outsider.
Our visit to Oman was a brief eight days. We were extremely impressed and wished we had stayed longer. We arrived in Muscat, the capital of Oman, on a short flight from Dubai, UAE, where we had spent a few days shopping, eating, and dune bashing. You can also travel overland from UAE in a private vehicle or bus, or on a direct flight from Europe or Asia. Oman introduced an e-visa system in 2016 – You can find more information and apply at https://evisa.rop.gov.om/
Under Sultan Qaboos, over the past several decades Oman has used its relatively modest oil revenues to focus on development, including infrastructure, schools, and hospitals. This is quite evident in Muscat, where we spent our first four days in Oman. For a tourist, the level of development outside of the capital is most notable in the highway system, which is modern and efficient.
Muscat offers quite a bit for tourists, although many seem to come for the beach resorts or activities further afield. Although there are many accommodation options in Muscat, we also stayed at a resort, the opulent Al Bustan Palace (Ritz Carlton), but luckily we managed to escape the property to visit the following:
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque – An extensive complex, with a huge central mosque, gardens, covered walkways, and numerous other buildings. Stunning is the only way to describe it. Be sure to check the limited visitor hours and note the dress code.
Royal Opera House - A state-of-the-art performance venue with a truly amazing interior inspired by Arab traditions and design. We managed to catch a jazz performance, but it's worth it just to take a tour.
Corniche and City Center – Spend some time just walking along the waterfront in Muscat, stop in the shops and stroll through the Mutrah souq (bazaar). There are also some nice cafes in this area.
Governorate area – Be sure to take a stroll around this area to get photos of the amazing architecture, especially the Al Alam Royal Palace (sorry, only open to royalty and VIPs) and the Al Mirani Fort. This area also includes the National Museum of Oman.
After a few days in Muscat we had a rental car delivered to our hotel. The rental costs are relatively high (around USD 80 per day), but with gasoline running at less that USD 1 per gallon, it turned out to be a reasonable proposition. We also required a sturdy vehicle for our planned trip into the mountains.
Before leaving Muscat, we took the short drive to Sifah, which offers a marina, a beach, shopping, and dining. It's also a place for scuba enthusiasts to head out on dives. I didn't find Sifah to be particularly impressive, but the 45 minute drive gives you an idea of the stark landscape of Oman.
The following day we headed out of Muscat for the two hour drive to Nizwa, through a dramatic landscape of desert and mountains. We spent a few hours exploring the oasis of Nizwa. The historic area is well maintained, offering shops, cafes and museums.
But our ultimate goal was above Nizwa, so we headed up into the mountains – and I mean UP! Our destination was the stunning Alila hotel in Jabal Akhdar – perched on the edge of an immense canyon with jaw dropping views!!!! The rooms have wonderful views and private outdoor sitting areas, and the restaurant is world class.
They claim that you need a four-wheel drive to access the high mountain area due to the
winding mountain road, which is an amazing feat of engineering. We did see smaller cars on the road, but there are plenty of warning signs and checkpoints, so be sure that you have a sturdy vehicle at a minimum.
While staying at Alila, we had the opportunity to explore the surroundings. This area is part of a sustainable tourism development plan, and you can still find villages and farmers tending their flocks. At one point we ended up in a tiny village, sitting on the floor of a simple community center drinking Omani coffee (a mix of coffee beans, cardamom, and cloves) and eating dates with the village elders and a group of younger men. One of those experiences you never forget.
Oman offers so much more than we were able to see in one week, including wadis, sources of fresh water which were traditionally kept secret and highly protected, the vast central desert, and the southwestern coast with a more tropical and humid climate. We'll definitely go back.