When I told friends that I was going to Oman, the most frequent response I received was, “Wow you are going to love Petra!”
“No, I’m not going to Petra” I would reply. “What…. you are going to Amman and not going to Petra?!” they’d ask, in shock.
I know that I’m often accused of having a broad Australian accent but it seems I had to spell out this little-known Middle Eastern country again and again, prior to my Discover Oman trip with Intrepid Travel. Most of the people I mix with knew little about Oman and the truth is, while I have lived and worked in the Middle East for close to eight years, I was in for a surprise as well.
Honestly, I think I expected a cross between Jordan and the UAE, but after several days and many messages of “What’s it like” coming over Facebook Messenger, I could only reply that “It’s like itself.” It has an individuality that is equal parts refreshing and intoxicating.
Whilst its close neighbor UAE is gaining popularity for ultramodern urbanity, Oman’s capital presents a peaceful alternative. Muscat’s white-washed buildings reflect a mix of modern and ancient, a mix that’s also evident in the stately Opera House and the magnificent Sultan Qaboos Mosque. There’s not a building in the city more than eight floors in height – a direct contrast to Dubai or Doha.
Here, you can stroll the Mutrah Corniche (tip: it’s particularly captivating at sundown). You can explore the Mutrah Souk, where the scent of frankincense fills the air. You can watch the elegantly-attired Omani gentlemen in dishdashas (robes) and Kumas (hand-sewn caps) greet each other by rubbing noses. And then there’s the well-dressed women in Abayas, with eye lashes that I can only dream of and their children in colourful attire. Here – it seemed to me – society is embracing modern ways but holding steadfast to its traditions and culture.
“We like peace. My family is Ibadi (a school of Islam prominent in the country),” our Intrepid Leader Said tells us. “But there is no difference in Oman, we are all Muslim, we are all the same.” This attitude is evident from the way the Sultan Qaboos Mosque, with its capacity to hold 20,000 worshippers, allows tourists to venture inside. It is an elegant and exquisite example of contemporary Islamic architecture, a place for all sects of Islam to worship.
A highlight of my visit to Oman was visiting the information centre in the mosque complex. I’ll always remember the joys of talking about life and drinking Omani coffee with the volunteer women there. Visit, if you can.
The village of Misfat Al Abryeen was another highlight for me. It’s one of Oman’s oldest villages and is located in the foothills of the Hazar Mountains. This village had amazing terraces, date palms, banana groves, and was all irrigated via a network of canals that use the force of gravity to distribute water. It felt peaceful here, traditional.
Visitors to the village are asked to respect the local customs and the locals provide a list of ways visitors to their home should behave. Dressing respectfully is recommended throughout Oman and the local residents in Misfat Al Abryeen are keen to remind the visitors of this, and to sustain their way of life. And why wouldn’t they? This is a place where you can escape the chaos of everyday life, where time seems to stand still. There’s no over-tourism to be found.
My Intrepid travelling companions in Oman were a mixed bunch: Swiss, German, English, American, Canadian, and then me, an Australian living in Istanbul. We all shared a love for travel, of course, as well as food and culture – as most Intrepid travellers do. And after eight days together, we all had something else in common: Omani dates. I think it’s safe to say that not one of us left Oman without a kilo or two of them.
“Dates are intrinsic to the culture of Oman,” our guide tells us. “They are a sign of hospitality, served both in greeting and after every meal, served with Omani coffee.” He also tells us that to taste real Omani coffee, you have to visit a local home. So, he takes us to one.
Sharing dates and coffee in the home of Masoud, we sit on the floor and delve into Omani culture. Indulging in handfuls of dates from Masoud’s family plantation and finally learning how to get that date pip out before it went in my mouth proved to be yet another highlight of my week.
It’s true that after a few days in Oman I could be heard saying, “That’s it, I am dated out” only to reach for another the next morning at breakfast.
Confession: three weeks later I am still eating Omani dates – I am officially a fan. Did you know that, apparently, just 15 dates satisfy the daily requirements for essential vitamins and minerals for adults?!
I travelled to Oman looking for lush wadis (valleys) and I was not disappointed. I got majestic mountains that just appeared as if someone had taken a large serrated knife and cut into the earth’s crust. I got stretches of clean, unpopulated beaches with turtles nesting. And, of course, I got desert adventures intrinsic to life in the Gulf.
But, also, I got so much more…I got dishdashas and dates. I got memories that’ll last a lifetime.
Tempted to visit this awe-inspiring country? Check out Intrepid’s small group tours in Oman.
(Hero image c/o iStock/dani3315. All other images c/o Jen Hartin.)