Can we go swimming here?” I’m screaming out to Sulaiman, our driver and guide, from the back of a Toyota doing 150 mph on the spectacular highway. I sound like a kid in a candy store. Sulaiman momentarily plays the beaming parent introducing me to that store.
“Yes, yes. In the sea, the oasis, the sinkhole. Swim where you like,” he says. With a stupid smile on my face, I go back to staring at the mountains.Now, I’m not much of a swimmer. My freestyle looks like a battle with water that’s trying to pull me down. And my floating technique is non-existent. But standing in a picture-perfect oasis, my feet instinctively push off the edge of the water. But not before my head has the sense to grab a floatation ring.
From cool oases to sand dunes that look like desktop wallpapers, from city souks with intriguing smells to brilliant highways running along endless turquoise seas, there’s a lot to do in Oman. Here’s our list of must-dos.
Eat, pray, smell
Every city has a smell and Muscat smells of frankincense. The incense is as old as the country’s seafaring history, and you’ll find its sweet, intoxicating fragrance in every shop, home and hotel lobby.
Visit the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque by day. Tourists are not allowed at night. The mosque may not have a lot of history (built as recently as 2001), but makes up for it in magnificence. The advantages of modern architecture are an air-conditioned main prayer hall and state-of-the-art acoustics.
Try shawarma at roadside eateries along the Corniche (Muscat’s Marine Drive) and ask for the tender, spiced Shua (lamb roasted in a pit) at Kargeen, one of the fanciest restaurants in town.
Head to the hills
As you drive up towards Jebel Shams (Oman’s highest mountain which is 3,000 m above sea level), the temperature starts to drop. The average 40-degree day is below you, and the nights get pretty chilly. Part of the fun, though, is getting here. If you enjoy off-road drives, that is. For halfway up, the metalled road gives way to a rocky, dusty track. Once there, get a
bonfire started or just lie down under an open sky and wonder why this place has a million more stars than Mumbai does.
“Buckle up,” Sulaiman says. He’s realised that Indians and seat belts don’t get along, but he’s insistent. I begin to understand why as the car makes a steep climb up a sand dune and rolls down the other side. Dune bashing is a lot of fun, if you don’t mind the feeling of being inside a tin can being shaken rapidly.
In the evening, find the largest dune (they can be as high as 100 m), sit on the edge, and admire the sun going down over the vast tracts of sand. Settle down with a hookah afterwards and stare at some more stars.
Keep the swimsuit handy on the drive back from Wahiba Sands to Muscat. You will be spoilt for choice as to where to jump into the water. The white sands and crystal clear waters of Fins (no allusion to sharks) could rival the finest beaches in the world.
Wadi Bani Khalid, tucked among rugged hills, is a sudden surge of greenery. The clear waters flanked by date palms are cool and inviting. Just “dress properly”, as the signs warn.
But save some of your energy for the Bimmah Sinkhole. For nothing is going to prepare you for the breathtaking sight of a pool of water 20 metres below the surface.
I sit in the tempting water, surrounded by extremely friendly fish. My freestyle’s still bad, but my back float’s somehow gotten better. I push off the edge. The water’s kinder this time. I can float. This is the Oman moment I will preserve.
(The writer travelled as a guest of the Oman Ministry of Tourism)
Where to stay
Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa (shangri-la.com/muscat)
Sunrise Resort (sunriseresort-om.com)
Arabian Oryx Camp (oryx-camp.com)