Nudging the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman, this country — stub your toe and you’ll strike oil— juxtaposing old and new, with its varied landscape of ravine, desert, mountain, ocean and wadi, advanced in just 44 years from isolation to modern state.
I leave London on a grey, wet November day to emerge in hot, sunny Muscat, its motif those breathtaking cream and white, low level buildings, gently sweeping corniche, interspersed by roundabouts adorned with huge model sculptures, and a lovely, assiduously watered planting scheme set against a rippling seascape.
The magnificent Grand Mosque, its five minarets representing the five pillars of Islam, boasts a high, central dome, an enormous single -piece, exquisitely hand-woven Persian prayer carpet, stained glass windows, 35 crystal chandeliers, Carrera marble tiles, tranquil open-air arcades and a stylish ablutions area.
A speedboat whisks me beyond the harbour, affording glimpses of the Sultan’s elegant residence, Al Alam Palace, past natural, technicolour rock formations, high-perched 16th century Portuguese fortifications, and etchings on the cliffs of ships’ names, including that, in 1775, of HMS Seahorse, so maybe midshipman Nelson scrambled up to immortalise the vessel.
Regal in vanilla marble, the Royal Opera House rises from a flower-bedecked site. Instead of a strident bell announcing the end of the interval, handsome young men in traditional Omani dress — laundry-white dishdashas — approach the audience gently urging them to return to their seats. The Galleria, an opulent, high-end shopping mall flanks the Opera House while the Bait Al Zubair Museum, once the home of a wealthy sheikh, displays a riveting indoors and outdoors collection, reflecting Oman’s fascinating heritage. And in the bustling, spice-scented, labyrinthine Muttrah souk, one of the oldest covered bazaars in the Arab world, one can haggle for anything from sewing needles to carved wooden doors.
The coastal expressway leads to the picturesquely smelly fish market of Barka, not far from Sinbad’s birthplace, where the dawn’s exotic catch is on sale, beached on stone slabs, and then farther away I wander up and inside the mighty forts of Nakhal, set in a gorge ringed by mountains, and Rustaq.
I venture to the east coast, via incredible white sand beaches. At the fresh water Wadi Al Arbaeen, I cool off with a dip, defying the warning notice Drowning accidents are now popular then on to Bimah sink-hole, a huge limestone crater where intrepid me descends 74 steep steps to float in its clear turquoise water, before ending up in Sur, hub of the ancient dhow building trade that endures to this day. Along the way I glimpse traditional mud and thatch dwellings, a legacy of Oman’s feudal past, browsing donkeys with sleek bronze skin, and nimble-footed furry and flat haired goats.
For me, the highlight of Oman is the Wahiba Sands, home of the Bedouin. As the 4x4s approach the desert they stop at a garage where tyre pressure is deflated to 18 (on the way out, pressure is reinstated to 35). The sands are soft and deep, shimmering copper, gold, ochre, white, black, great dust clouds thrown up as the convoy spins across to the campsite (black goat-hair tents with all mod cons) for an overnight stay. As evening falls I’m witnessing the glory of the setting sun from the crest of a sand dune and strings of camels, scimitar horned white oryx and Arabian horses drifting past evoke images from the film “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Reluctantly I abandon the desert’s magic for a precipitous drive up to the green Al Hajar mountains where remote villages nestle and orchards and natural springs afford a striking contrast. Five hours later Nizwa, celebrated for its date plantations, looms. Here I indulge in a spot of consumerism, hoovering up handicrafts, including the spectacular khanjar, a sheathed, curved dagger, savour twenty different kinds of dates and, while cracking nuts, watch the hugger mugger of a goat and cattle auction.
Of Oman’s 4 million population, 1 million are expats, drawn largely from the Indian subcontinent. Food’s a melting pot of the Middle East, Turkey and India, accompanied by freshly squeezed fruit juice (lemon with mint and then pomegranate being my top choices). Hotels, where alcohol is available, and most restaurants also offer Western cuisine.
After Bahla Fort, known for witches, sorcery and genies (alas, none pops up when I rub a lamp) I linger to marvel at potters’ throwing skills then fly to Salalah on the south coast. Here lie the ruins of the palace of the Queen of Sheba (who had hairy armpits and beguiled King Solomon just as her country beguiles visitors today), groves of scraggly frankincense trees, aromatic creamy resin leaching from slashed bark, and the tomb of the prophet Job.
As the song goes, “memories are made of this” and you bet Oman will inspire my next romantic novel.