Oman a destination that's full of Middle Eastern promise
A rough-hewn jewel in the otherwise showy crown of the Gulf States, Oman has its sights set on becoming an eco-tourism destination. Sarah Marshall found heart-stopping views, natural wonders and sparsely populated beaches. Just don't mention the war
WRAPPING my leg nervously around the cornerstone of a mountain outcrop, I'm almost doing the splits to reach my next foothold. Below the vertical drop, a rugged canyon tears through charred, flaking rock, burst open like an overcooked pastry. Retreating mountain goats splay plumes of dust with their hooves and silhouettes of swallows wheel from shadowy caves.
As I complete the final section of a via ferrata at Oman's Alila Jabal Akhdar hotel, I'm bathed in the shimmering marigold light of a setting set – along with beads of anguished sweat.
Although attached firmly with ropes and a carabina hook, I'm convinced my legs will jellify and cheat me, and my head is filled with nothing but my next step.
Wild, pristine and sparsely populated, Oman is a destination ripe for adventure. Like most Middle Eastern countries thrown off kilter by the falling price of oil, tourism is becoming a new economic interest – although it's still very much in its infancy.
Less flashy than Dubai, more progressive than Saudi Arabia, it's the gentle Gulf state where 47 years of absolute rule has maintained peace and stability.
It's hard to imagine civil war once waged through the Al Hajar Mountains in the north of the country – although, fearing any rebellious reprisals, the Sultan has banned all mention in local history books.
Opened in 2004, a road now winds up to the plateaus and most of the crumbling 300-year-old shepherds' villages have been abandoned. Constructed using stone from the mountain, the design of the low-lying Alila hotel is based on one of these settlements, As Sarab.
On a hiking trail to explore the ghostly ruins, only tiny geckos keep me company; set apart from other developments, this section of the mountain range is wrapped in a cocoon of silence.
Overlooking the vast chasm where the via ferrata winds around, Alila's views are heart-stopping. The watchtowers and sandstone forts of Bahla and Nizwa hover on the far horizon, and at night, stars spray the sky silver.
Sensitive to the environment, the property is partly powered by solar energy, uses its own water source, has achieved zero waste to landfill, and buys produce from a collective of farmers based in the mountain.
Pomegranate kernels glisten like rubies on a pillow of smoky baba ganoush at the dinner table, and silky mushroom slithers wallow in a bath of thick tahini.
Many crops are grown on ancient terraces in the nearby Unesco-listed Saiq Plateau, visited by Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1986, when they flew in by helicopter for a picnic. Now though, a clinical hotel owned by the Ministry of Defence sits on the Diana viewpoint, and over consumption of water has led to one of the mountain springs drying up for the first time in history.
Rose farmers, whose velveteen pink petals are irrigated using a traditional stone aflaj system, have been the most affected, and finding a solution to the problem is one of the many challenges facing a rapidly modernising Oman.
Vast areas of the country, such as the life-ravished Empty Quarter, are inhospitable, but other desert regions have been adapted to tourism. Stretching 80km from the interior to the coast, Wahiba Sands takes just four hours to cross. A sand storm is brewing when we arrive at the 1,000 Nights Camp, where glass-fronted cabins are decorated with billowing circus top roofs and embroidered trims. Shisha pipe smoke trails curl from the husk of a cushion-filled dhow boat, a reminder of how close we are to the sea.
Picking up speed, funnels of wind wriggle like snakes through the sand and spindrifts fill the air with fine dust.
Curving through the sculpted dunes like surfers on a wave, we drive to a high point to watch bolts of lightning shatter the sky until torrents of rain begin to fall – something I never thought possible in the desert.
The next morning, I awake to birdsong, and find camels happily chewing on vegetation sprouting from the dust. Lifting their heads curiously as we approach, the calm creatures gaze at us wide-eyed and wide-mouthed.
"I call that the Polo expression," laughs my guide and driver Abdullah, a young Omani dressed in the traditional dishdasha robe with a turban swept around his head.
Continuing our journey, we head to the coast, passing coffee shops that don't seem to sell any coffee and cafes serving thin pancakes basted with cream cheese and runny honey.
Along the water's edge, picnicking families huddle beneath shady wooden pavilions decorated with posters of their beloved Sultan. Dressed head to toe in black flowing robes, no-one is seeking a suntan.
Set between the Khawr al Masirah and the Arabian Sea, Masirah is Oman's largest island and a nesting ground for loggerhead turtles. Although popular with local people, it's still relatively undiscovered by tourists with only one major hotel, Masirah Island Resort, in the north.
During the one-hour ferry ride from Shana (3 Rial/£5 one way), I'm ushered into a single-sex seating area. Typical of Masirah, women wear a silky face mask, leaving only their kohl-lined eyes visible, and many shy away from public view. In fact, this is the closest female contact I have throughout my entire stay.
Fringed by fine sand beaches backing onto a mountainous interior, Masirah is Oman in microcosm. Most visitors come in July and August when turtles are hatching, but out of season it's oddly empty and we pass barely any vehicles on the main tarmac ring road, which only takes a couple of hours to drive.
Bedouin fishermen in pick-up trucks disappear into narrow wadis, and at times the migrating bird population easily outnumbers people. At the moment, anyone can wander along the turtle nesting areas, although there are plans to introduce a marine conservation area.
Standing in the glittering surf washed up from the warm Arabian Sea, I can easily imagine boutique resorts finding a happy home here. For now, though, burrowing hermit crabs have the place to themselves, erecting wizard hat pinnacles in place of sandcastles.
Exciting times may be ahead for Oman, but selfishly, I hope those unpredictable deserts, treacherous mountains and wild seas will always be a little out of reach.
The Ultimate Travel Company offer tailor made tours to Oman. Visit theultimatetravelcompany.com or call 020 3811 6830