As the second largest country on the Arabian Peninsula, Oman is a Muslim state, headed by an omnipotent Sultan but it’s a moderate and tolerant regime and the people are charming, friendly, generous and welcoming.
Omanis are rightly proud of many things and especially of the just opened new blacktop motorway that snakes up from their capital city of Muscat and the coast to open up Oman’s wild and mountainous interior – so much so that I came across a long line of cars parked on the hard shoulder so the occupants could decamp and take in the truly spectacular view,
The country is in many ways as stridently modern – if with far better taste – as the likes of Dubai, Qatar and Abu Dhabi but strike off into the interior and you discover an environment that is almost biblical, apart from the incongruous rash of satellite dishes that seem to multiply overnight.
Date palms and donkeys, white bearded old men and bright-eyed kids, donkeys and beekeepers and stunning views keep cameras clicking, with my companions calling on the unpaid modelling services of our ever-smiling driver Nassr at every opportunity and one snap happy chappie only taking time out from constantly consulting his faithful Blackberry to whack off yet another of more than 2,000 clicks he made on his massive-lensed Canon 50D.
It was he who kept prompting Abdullah, our ever-smiling guide, to open up and tell us all about the Omani version of Islam – neither Sunni nor Shiite – and his two wives, while the girls in our crew ribbed Abdullah over a culture of polygamy that, he assured us, is unlikely to survive beyond the next generation.
4x4s on the first day and a bus on the second whisked us along well engineered and smoothly surfaced highways before we plunged off down byways roughly paved with chunks of broken white rock, winding their way through deep wadis (dry river beds).
These narrow, sheer-sided gorges are subject to flash floods, making them totally impassable after big storms but the rains that had fallen in the days just before our arrival had served only to create a handful of green puddles, just deep enough to attract happy local 10-year olds for a splash.
Many more youngsters were on hand to enjoy swimming in the famed hot springs at Nakhl, with its ancient fort and four-kilometre stretch of date palm plantations.
There were many highlights to our all too short two-day out of town adventure. A group of Egyptian ladies and their menfolk smilingly shared their picnic with us, though we’d already demolished the formidable hotel-provided lunchboxes; we visited a fascinating, if smelly, seashore fish market at Seeb and wandered inside the vast 500-year old fortress at Rustaq, with its dozens of rooms and many different levels, and we stood on the rim of a dizzyingly deep crater that is – depending on who you are talking to – evidence of either a comet strike or a collapsed cavern. We passed by Jabel Al Akhdar, at 10,000 feet, Oman’s highest mountain, rising straight from the sea.
Contrasts are many, ranging from vast desert expanses and awe-inspiring rugged mountain ranges to a lush green south and broad beaches of virginal golden sand.
We learned of bullfights that pit bull against bull and of professed Muslims who never attend the mosque because they like to drink and face a 40-day ban from prayer whenever they do so, and we gained an insight into the Sultanate’s colourful history. It was a real insight into country life, Omani style.
Back in Oman we found a fast-growing city with dazzlingly white, mostly modern, buildings designed in a distinctly Arabian vernacular style.
Shopping figures big on the shopping agenda here, with gold, spices and silks among the sought after items in the bustling Muttrah Soug indoor marketplace.
Sightseeing musts include the magnificent Grand Mosque, with its towering minarets, the intriguing National Museum, the busy fish market down on the Corniche and the Royal Al Alam Palace, flanked by the 16th Century forts of Jalali and Mirana. There’s also the opportunity to take a ride aboard the world’s fastest ferry boat, run by National Ferries Company (+968 2447 2123, nfcoman.com), which reaches speeds of 104 kph and opens up superb views of the dramatic coastline.
Roger St. Pierre flew to Muscat from Heathrow with Oman Air (08444 822309; omanair.com) – the world’s first airline to offer in-flight mobile phone and wi-fi connectivity, allowing passengers to make voice calls, send text messages, check e-mails, use instant messaging or access the internet. The airline flies a fleet of spacious Airbus A330 aircraft.
Accommodation was provided at the newly opened Millennium Resort (+968 268 71600, millenniumhotels.com), set on the Gulf of Oman at Mussanah. There are 234 spacious guestrooms and 74 fully furnished apartments, as well as a 54-berth marina.
For further information on Oman, go to omantourism.gov.oman.