Kicking off 2017 the same way I did 2016 with a trip to the Middle East! This is now my fourth time being to this part of the world. There is a certain allure to this vastly untravelled, unexplored area of our planet that seems to appeal to me. An area that dates back to the beginning of civilization and an area that is building entirely new modern cities faster than anything the world has seen with construction that looks like it is out of a futuristic, post-apocalyptic movie. This time it was off to the countries of Qatar, Bahrain and Oman!
I’ll be writing about Qatar and Bahrain at a later date but really want to put together a piece about Oman as this was definitely the highlight of this trip! Having done some research before the trip and talking with a few friends who are from or have lived in Oman before there was much I wanted to see and do outside the city of Muscat. Unbeknownst to me before, Oman has incredible mountain ranges, vast expanses of Desert and awesome beaches being that it borders the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea.
It was almost midnight when we landed in Oman. The plan was to rent a car and drive around Oman for a few days and then spend our last day before out flight home in the capital, Muscat. There wasn’t much point in renting a car at that time of night and heading all the way in to the city for a hotel, only to leave again a few hours later when the sun comes up. So, we ended up spending the night in the priority pass lounge in the airport. Luckily, Oman is one of the few airports i’ve seen where there is a lounge in the airport BEFORE you even get to the immigration desk after disembarking the plane. It was nothing fancy as far as the priority pass lounges go especially when you compare it to the incredible Dilmun lounge we had just left in Bahrain before flying here but it was quiet, there were showers and comfortable chairs to sleep in for a few hours before sunrise.
Renting a car in Oman is relatively cheap. It cost about $200 total to rent a car for 4 days so about $50/day for a mid-sized car. We could have got one of the compact cars for cheaper but we were planning to spend at least one night sleeping in the car while we drive out towards the desert so to have a little more room we opted for the mid-sized. Going on a road trip in the middle east is fantastic if for no other reason than the price for petrol is so incredibly cheap! In the USA, the average price per gallon of fuel on the west coast is $2.68 USD but in Oman it costs a mere $0.44 USD/gallon making Oman is one of the cheapest places for petrol in the world according to globalpetrolprices.com!
For our first day in Oman we planned on visiting the Al Hajar mountains southwest of Muscat. The airport is already on the outskirts of Muscat so getting here is just a matter of jumping on the highway and driving the open road towards Nizwa for about an hour and a half. Once we got to Nizwa, our first stop was the Nizwa Fort. This is quite a large, well preserved fort with many different Souq’s inside from the vegetable souq to fish souq to gold souq and everything else in between. Stepping inside the walls of the fort seems to transport you back in time away from the hustle and bustle of the surrounding Nizwa.
After wandering around the fort for a little while we continued our journey up the same road to the Tanuf ruins. As the name implies, they are indeed ruins and not a whole lot to see but its definitely worth a quick stop here to climb above the ruins for some nice panoramas of the surrounding towns and mountains. probably the coolest part about the view here is the landscape of rock and sand that will suddenly give way to a grove of palm trees like an oasis in the middle of nowhere.
After Tanuf we drove a little further down the road and turned off on to a smaller, winding road up the Al Hajar mountains towards Bald Sayt. Judging by the map before we got here we thought this would be a pretty rough road, possibly even a dirt road and making our way up this mountainous road in the small car we had would be difficult but it was surprisingly easy to navigate and climb even in a small car so. It takes about 30-40 minutes to get up towards Bald Sayt following this road depending on how many stops you make along the way but the view from the top is absolutely incredible! We even saw a few friendly mountain goats while we were here who came running right over to us as soon as they saw us!
Once you’ve had your fill of the scenic views head back down the same road towards Al Hamra. There’s not much to see in this little town so we continued through to Bahla and the Bahla Fort. This was my favorite fort we visited. It’s so well preserved and reminiscent of an age living in castles and the surrounding panoramic views made it even more incredible.
We explored this castle for a little while enjoying the break from the car and then headed a little further up the road to Jibreen Castle just outside Bahla. With both Bahla Fort and Jibreen castle there is a very small fee of 0.5 Omani Riyals (OMR) or about $1.3 USD to enter.
By this point the sun was starting to set so we grabbed some dinner and then drove for the next few hours to Bidiyah out on the northern edge of the Wahiba Sands desert. Arriving here we used the satellite view of the area to find our way out in to the desert on some small local roads since the roads were not marked on the regular Google maps view. Even in our small car this was still fine as roads were paved most of the way and the last little stretch for several hundred meters we just took slow on the dirt roads but even these dirt roads are packed and not soft sand so again a 4×4 would not have been needed. We pulled off the road a bit, surrounded by sand dunes, a starry night sky above, the lights of Bidiyah in the far distance and an eerie quiet that was only occasionally interrupted by the groan of a camel somewhere out in the darkness. This was the perfect place to park the car for the night so we could get up early the next day for sunrise over the desert!
Sunrise in Bidiyah is at about 6:50AM this time of year so on the second morning of this Omani road trip we set our alarms for 6:00 so we’d have enough time to climb some of the nearby towering sand dunes and watch the sun rise over this vast expanse of golden sand. As it turns out we had ended up parking right next to one of the largest dunes in the area the night before so it wasn’t long before we were atop the desert enjoying a mild breeze in our hair and cool sand beneath our feet.
After sunrise we figured we’d try and find the places nearby that had quad bike rentals so we could rip around the dunes for a while and get that adrenaline fill. Unfortunately in this area the quad bike rentals can run you about $50/30 minutes for a small 100cc quad but we were already aware of quad biking closer to Muscat (see day 3 below) where it was the same price but for a full hour and a 400cc quad.
Opting to wait until we were back to Muscat for the quad biking we continued our road trip with the next stop about an hour away which was Wadi Bani Khalid. Wadi is the Arabic word for valley and this particular Wadi came highly recommended all over the interwebs as being a beautiful oasis. Before heading to Oman I was worried that this Wadi might be too far off the beaten path to get to using a non-4×4 vehicle but again to our pleasure there were paved and well maintained roads the entire way. We drove as far as we could towards the Wadi where there was a parking lot at the end of the road. From there it’s just a couple minute walk to the main area.
This whole area is basically a dried up riverbed with a small oasis and some areas where you can go swimming and even a bit of cliff jumping. We spent a couple hours here swimming, relaxing and enjoying the tiny fish in the water that would nibble at your feet eating the dead skin cells. Free fish pedicure!
As the morning turned to afternoon we left the Wadi and headed for the Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve/Turtle beach where sea turtles were purported to be nesting. Unfortunately there were none at this time of day although you could see their deep nesting holes all over the beach. Apparently they only come up to the beach in the overnight hours and are usually gone again during the day.
After a nice sunset stroll along the coast of the Arabian Sea we went to the nearby town of Al Hadd where we parked the car on the beach where the Gulf of Oman meets the Arabian sea to spend the night. In many of these small towns there aren’t much besides coffee shops, laundromats, tailors and barber shops. Since there wasn’t much else to do after dark here we stopped by one of the barber shops for a nice shave with a straight razor for a mere $1.5.
Day 3 of this Oman trip was a little bit of a letdown in the beginning to be honest. We woke up for sunrise on the beach which was great and then proceeded back towards Sur. Our first stop was at the Bimmah Sinkhole which looked amazing in the pictures we had seen (tropical blue waters and all). However, the night before there was quite a rainstorm in this area so the waters in the sinkhole had lots of mud and debris on top so no swimming and not much to look at. We then proceeded to the Wadi Dayqah Dam but the path we had followed at the time on Google maps was a dirt road and one that did not look to bode too well for non-4×4 vehicles so we decided to pass and head back to Muscat for some quad bike riding.
Doing a little more research now it appears that there is indeed a paved road all the way to the dam from the main highway near Ramlah so a car would also be just fine to reach the dam.
Heading back towards Muscat we made our way to the area of Bawshar where quad bike rentals were reported. Once you get to this area, just make your way to the towering sand dunes where you will see several rental shops along the side of the road. We went to one of the places where there were less people renting from and they ended up giving us a 400cc quad for the same price as a 350cc. A little extra power never hurts! The cost of quad biking here was 15 OMR (~$39 USD) for 1 hour of riding. The biggest thing to remember when riding quads in the sand is keep the throttle on especially on any uphills or softer sections of sand otherwise you will get stuck like we did a couple times!
For the rest of the day we went to the annual Muscat festival at Al Amarat to relax and enjoy some local Oman cuisine.
The final day in Oman! Today we spent the day bumming around the city seeing whats what in Muscat. My favorite part of Muscat and definitely a highlight of the trip was the corniche! This waterfront promenade was so beautiful set along the coast it felt like the Mediterranean. Muscat itself is also a beautiful city with gorgeous white buildings as far as the eye can see and is a very clean city too. Most of our time today was spent around the corniche and the nearby Souq. There is also a small beach near the corniche which had awesome views and nice calm, warm waters to go for a swim in.
Al Alam was definitely one of the most unexpected sites in Muscat we visited. I did not expect this very colorful, eastern European looking palace here but definitely a must see when is Muscat. We tried to go to the Grand Mosque in the afternoon but arrived too late and non-muslims were no longer able to enter for the rest of the day. I would have also liked to visit the Opera house but it too was only open for a couple hours in the early morning and the national museum closed in the early afternoon as well.
In the early evening we went to the Muscat festival again, this time checking out the other venue near Seeb. Unlike the night before, this particular location required you to be more covered as is the culture over here so I was not able to enter wearing shorts. Pro tip: always a good idea to carry a pair of pants or zip-off pants with you in the middle east!
Before returning our car to the airport we had to clean it or receive a gross cleaning fee from the rental car company. The great thing over here is that they have car washes where for 3 OMR (~7-8 USD) you can get your car washed, underside washed, engine washed and the interior completely vacuumed and wiped down along with that new car smell everyone loves! Gotta love the services you can get here for such low prices!
There you have it. 4 days in Oman and our itinerary/road trip map. I feel like Oman is such an overlooked destination but there really is a lot to see and do here especially when compared to its middle eastern counterparts!