The manifold fragrances of Oman
Welcome to the Arabian Peninsula's most alluringly diverse travel destination
ROBERT LA BUA
The nose knows. The first thing one notices about Oman is how good it smells. With aromatic countries in short supply these days, the exotic wafts of Omani fragrances such as the fabled frankincense are that much more appealing. Equally agreeable are high-desert mountains forming the backdrop to ethereal landscapes where tawny sands meet verdant oases, an organised society where infrastructure is first class and friendly people welcome a growing number of visitors; all this and much more can be found in the Sultanate of Oman.
More highly prized than even Playstation, frankincense is the sap of a gnarled, stubby tree that only grows in extreme desert conditions in such countries as Oman, Yemen, Somalia and Ethiopia. Oman's frankincense has been coveted for centuries and remains sought after to this day; that produced in the south, grown in the mountains of Dhofar, is especially prized. So why not plant a lot more there? The trees are considered sacred by the locals, who never engage in their removal, destruction or sale. This only serves to make the hardened sap that much more esteemed.
Frankincense is not alone in Oman's array of aromas; fellow mystical scents myrrh (also derived from a tree) and orris (the aromatic, dried root of a cactus) stand their own ground in the nose-pleasing stakes. To sample them all, start a visit to Oman in Muscat's Amouage perfume factory located near the airport in the city's Seeb district. Amouage is the pride of its owner, His Highness Sayyid Hamad bin Hamoud al Busaid. The company began as a manufacturer of perfume for the royal family but its products are now sold in exclusive shops across the globe to an elite clientele to whom the price tag for the most valuable perfume in the world is not an obstacle to smelling royal. Amouage's tasteful showroom displays various fragrances in beautiful, hand-made, crystal bottles in decorative gold mountings; the containers for men's perfumes are shaped like the hilt of the khanjar, the traditional Omani symbol of manhood, while those for the ladies honour classic Arabian architecture by taking the form of a mosque. Unique to Amouage is a "perfume bar" where scents can be sampled and are bottled to order.
The other attractions of this evocative capital are nothing to sniff at either. A visit to Bait Al Zubair, an enlightening little museum of Omani life, allows visitors to get a whiff of the subtleties of traditional dress, jewellery and hairstyles; features intended to communicate the origin and status of the wearer. Directly across the street is Bait Muzna Gallery, a chic place to shop for select antiques, gift items and modern Omani art - as well as the aforementioned Amouage perfumes.
Another establishment, known as the Omani-French Museum, offers a look back at the little-known history of relations between the two countries. It is housed in the former French consulate and while the displays are a bit unimaginative the place is worth a whirl if you're in the neighbourhood.
Beyond Muscat, Wadi Shab and Wadi Tiwi are both lovely spots along the coast road to Sur, turtle-watching capital of Oman. The construction of a Chinese-assisted elevated highway across both wadis will offer breathtaking views of the landscape to passing motorists, though the view from the wadis to the sea won't be as scenic. For the adventurous, it's possible to stroll or trek into the interiors of these microclimatic ecosystems so characteristic of Oman's rugged topography. Another point of interest on the way to Ras Al Hadd is the dhow-building boatyard in Sur, a haven for windsurfers and parasurfers riding the breeze blowing off the sea here at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula.
Ras Al Hadd and Ras Al Jinz are among the busiest nesting sites in the world for green turtles who come ashore to perpetuate their genes. If you think standing around on a pitch-black beach staring at a flashlight-illuminated turtle's behind is no fun, you don't know what you're missing! Visitors come from far and wide to see these massive creatures drop their rubbery, ping pong ball-sized eggs into small pits they've dug in the sand. Before returning to the ocean the turtle fills in the holes to protect her young against the harsh sunlight and marauding crabs, birds and foxes. If you're an early riser, get to the beach to see this spectacle in daylight; but you may just be lucky enough to catch a matine'e, too.
Not all of the sultanate's attractions are found along the coast. Wahiba Sands is a big lure for lovers of high-desert adventure. Riding the dunes is a popular pastime here, where the seemingly endless undulations of sand can yield surprise encounters with animal and plant life. Nizwa, once the capital of Oman, is home to two sights redolent of the past, Nizwa Fort and the souq. The fort is large and well positioned for extensive views of the surrounding landscape. The old souq is where ordinary Omanis shop for staple items, but tourists can have fun here, too, browsing for souvenirs and observing the goings-on.
Birkat Al Mawz is an unexpectedly lush settlement next to Nizwa. One of the country's most picturesque locations, it's a postcard-perfect realisation of the stereotype of a desert oasis.
Nor should you miss Salalah in the southern Dhofar region. A 90-minute flight from Muscat, Salalah is a world apart. Historically linked closely to Zanzibar, a former Omani territory, Dhofar attracts European visitors eager to escape the cold and greyness of winter at home; in summer (June to early September), it is the cold and grey of the misty khareef (southeast monsoon) season, rolling out a green carpet of lush vegetation, which attracts visitors from across the region.
It is in Dhofar that the treasured frankincense trees ooze with charm and sap; they can be seen along the spectacular mountain road beyond Al Mughsayl, whose beach would be reminiscent of a strand in Ireland if it weren't for the camels ambling along it. Crystals of frankincense resin are readily available at the Al Husr souq, where perfume ingredients are displayed to allow you to have a fragrance prepared and bottled to your specifications.
The most impressive sight in Salalah itself is the dense vegetation in a farming area between the city and the sea. With the profusion of coconut palms and tropical-fruits trees, you'd be forgiven for thinking you were in Kerala after the monsoon rains. Locals and visitors alike revel in the cornucopia while it lasts.
Several wonderful excursions can be made into the high mountains along the coast to the city's west, to the cool mists of the north during khareef season, and to archaeological sites in the ancient trading cities of Sumharum and Al Baleed to the east. The Al Mughsayl blowholes are also a popular attraction; be spry or get sprayed. Similarly wondrous is the "anti-gravity road" to Tawi Attir; along one stretch, cars put into neutral gear accelerate as they go uphill - an optical illusion in which you, too, can take part.
Oman is an extremely safe country with one of the lowest crime rates in the world, a fact which doesn't surprise anyone who has interacted with its friendly and hospitable people. The sultanate is the perfect destination for thrill-seekers, visitors in search of the exotic and those intrigued by an Islamic culture which has changed little in centuries.
Oman Air flies non-stop from Bangkok to Muscat. Another fine option is Etihad, the national carrier of the United Arab Emirates, which flies directly from Bangkok to Abu Dhabi and has connecting flights onwards to Muscat. Single-entry visas, valid for one month, are issued upon arrival in Oman.
For more details, visit www.omanair.com/ or www.etihadairways.com/.
Land: Hotel rooms in Oman are relatively affordable. There's no shortage of deluxe accommodation in the capital, where such upper-end stalwarts as the Shangri-La, Intercontinental and Grand Hyatt offer high levels of service in lavish surroundings.
The Grand Hyatt is particularly notable for its (some would say) over-the-top decorative tribute to Arabian culture, where a rotating statue is part of the fun. The Shangri-La's idyllic beachfront location on the city's edge makes it a favourite for aquanauts. For those who prefer to be closer to the action, such as it is, the Intercontinental is within easy walking distance of the Oman Heritage Gallery, a handicrafts centre, and its related shopping mall (cosy compared to the behemoths elsewhere in the world). This is the expat hangout, with the requisite Starbucks and upscale fashion shops.
For details, visit www.shangri-la.com, www.interconti.com/, www.hyatt.com/ or www.omaniheritage.com/.
See: The sights of Oman, a traditional society with modern conveniences but few contemporary worries, are best accessed by car, given the considerable distances involved. Having the independence of your own vehicle saves time and allows you to visit many places which are not accessible by public transport. Zahara Tours is a professional outfit that can arrange an SUV and a driver to take you anywhere in the country _ a facility preferred by those who want to ride the sand dunes or go to remote locations where local knowledge is invaluable.
FOman's Ministry of Tourism maintains an excellent web site (www.mot.gov.om) offering a bonanza of information about all things related to your visit.
FLonely Planet has just released the latest edition of a guide book entitled Oman, UAE and the Arabian Peninsula. Check it out by visiting www.lonelyplanet.com