Exploring Oman: Arabia with a twist
Not quite usual Cheapo territory, we know, but when did you last consider Oman? The Arab world is in the news and ripples of revolution wash over some parts of North Africa and the Middle East. But canny travelers realize that it’s still business as normal across much of the region.
A dash of history
For English speakers, Oman is the best possible introduction to the Middle East and offers a hassle-free first taste of Arabia. But expect Arabia with a twist, for the Omanis have over the centuries been legendary seafarers and Omani mercantile influence extended east to the subcontinent of India and south to East Africa. Omanis brought back a smattering of African and Indian culture and cuisine, helping underpin Oman’s modern reputation as one of the most cosmopolitan territories in the Middle East.
But it was not always so. This is a country that within just two generations has leapt from a near-medieval society to being a very modern state.
Head to Oman and you’ll find some of the friendliest faces on the planet; fabulous mountain, coastal and desert scenery; Cheapo-friendly prices for gas, food and accommodation; and, in the Greater Muscat metropolitan area, a vibrant city that cuts a dash in the arts world and shimmers in the summer heat.
What you conspicuously will not find in Oman are the towering skyscrapers that characterize Dubai (in the United Arab Emirates). Oman is a country that has kept faith with the past, a place where it is even still possible to catch the flavor of old Arabia that so fired the imagination of early western explorers.
Oman is easy to reach. The national carrier Oman Air provides direct service to Muscat from five cities in western Europe. Travelers from North America can fly direct with Etihad Airways to Abu Dhabi from where it is just a short hop on a connecting local flight to the Omani capital of Muscat. Only last month, we sung the praises of Etihad here on EuroCheapo. Etihad fly from Chicago, New York and Toronto (and from a dozen European airports) direct to Abu Dhabi.
Oman is a great stopover on round-the-world itineraries and combines particularly well with visits to India. Citizens of over 70 countries, including most European states, Canada and the US, can obtain a visa on arrival.
What to do
Auto rental is cheap and the driving is easy, so grab a car and head off down the coast or into the desert. The new coastal highway to Sur is Oman’s answer to California’s State Highway 1. Both are among the world’s great coastal drives–just as cruising on the freeway around the Muscat region is one of the world’s great urban drives.
For a taste of the desert, make tracks for the Wahiba Sands, where you can mount a camel and engage in a few desert fantasies. Take to the interior for great Arab fortresses at Nizwa and Bahla, the women’s market at Ibri and the long haul south to Dhofur for frankincense and (at Salalah) lush plantations of coconut, mango and papaya.
Five great Omani mysteries
1. Does anyone ever actually use those well-appointed bus shelters that line the main highways in the interior? They are little architectural gems.
2. How does the Sultan keep his beard looking quite so immaculate?
3. Has anyone ever actually seen any of the coins which are allegedly in circulation? We have traveled the length and breadth of Oman without ever once receiving any coins in change.
4. How do Omanis come to be such accomplished linguists? We were mightily impressed with the ease with which folk slipped from Arabic to English, and often had a good command of other languages.
5. Why is this country, a little larger than Italy with a population of less than three million, so little known?