When my husband suggested visiting Oman last year, I balked because I'm the Ann Coulter of wives. All I knew was it was sandwiched between Yemen and Saudi Arabia; since I'm racist, that didn't sit well with me. Flash forward a few months. Rob and Chyna had their own TV show. Doha had me longing to return to the Middle East, and I found Alila Jabal Akhdar, so I regretted my rash decision. According to Instagram, the country looked like China in some parts, the Maldives in others, and I could easily eat vegan and gluten free. Some called it the Switzerland of Arabia. En fait, it's just as safe and clean, yet far more exciting than Switzerland. I can't compare it to any place I've ever been, so alien is its landscape. The best way I can explain is this: As far as Persian Gulf nations are concerned, Oman is that sister you were always jealous of and stopped talking to for a few years, cooler, naturally more beautiful, with better clothes, a nicer personality, better decision making capabilities, etc. It's the Poppy to the UAE's Cara, the Gigi to its Bella (or is it the other way around? I deleted Snapchat so now I don't know). Oman has everything from wadis, mountains, dunes, meteorites, fossils, and green valleys to glistening caves, largely uncontaminated waters, and pristine beaches. An astonishing array of flora and fauna testify to the country's biodiversity. Dolphins, schools of tuna, and endangered whales can be spotted at sea, while oryx, leopards, tahr, hyenas, and gazelles roam freely. The Wahiba Sands alone boast over 16,000 invertebrates and 150 species of native flora, including gorgeous white camels resting under ghaf trees. For nerds, the Queen of Sheba's palace at Sahmaran, Sinbad the Sailor's birthplace in Sur, Job's tomb in lush Dhofar, lost "Atlantis of the desert" Ubar, and the only readily accessible stretch of the famed Frankincense Trail satisfy any Ibn Battuta aspirations (both he and Marco Polo reference Oman in their writings).
Development is slow, but they like it that way. Environmental conservation and cultural preservation are paramount to the easygoing, laidback Omani, whose brusque friendliness and warm hospitality are totally endearing. As for their looks and clothes, they are more diverse than neighboring nations, a perfect mosaic of Portuguese, African, and Indian / Asian features (Aladdin was Chinese btw). The hijab is more interesting, to me at least- more colorful. Beautiful Omani headscarves and sculptural leather sandals in particular must have influenced Rick Owens. Props to the sultan's engineers for Oman's fantastic roadways, which twist down limestone cliffs through ancient riverbeds, semi-arid savanna, and otherwise undisturbed coastline like a contiguous, well-paved apple peel.
I have a very suboptimal fitness level and don't drive much anymore so I was scared when I read the terrain challenged even experienced adventurers. We still managed to hike wadis and canyons and mountain bike and jump off a bunch of cliffs and get a few cool bruises to show for it. My husband was amazing navigating Jabal Akhdar's harrowing bends and the Empty Quarter's towering dunes, even if we did forget to deflate our tires first. Want to follow snake tracks to a swimming hole in the middle of the desert? Play football with a bunch of soldiers on the edge of a gorge? Go-cart in an oasis? Eat pomegranates straight from the tree? Explore bat caves and bellyflop into wadis with a bunch of Instagramming Omani teenagers wearing Nike snapbacks? Or exit the stunning marble halls of Muscat's Grand Mosque into a seemingly endless grove of palms and flowering cacti rivaling the gardens of Versailles? How about climbing red clay cliffs high above Turtle Beach, the white robe of your new Omani friend flapping in the wind as turquoise waves crash into the rocks below? From hustling Saudis in a game of nine ball and getting a pedicure in a sinkhole to riding a jet ski out into the Arabian Sea, spotting turtles and dolphins and waving at passing fishermen in a dhow, Oman offered experiences most people only read or dream about or see in Christopher Nolan movies. I'm sorry my white-piece-of-cornbread heritage stopped us from visiting sooner, because I don't know if I've loved anyplace or any people more.
As with any country, there are glaring human and animal rights inequities. Migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal live in subhuman conditions, often crammed in discarded shipping containers that reach soaring temperatures in the hot Arabian sun, clothes fading on clotheslines near garbage piles. Cats frequently starve and dogs die due to prevailing attitudes and a refusal to create animal shelters. Non-Omani residents did comment that they prefer Omani to other peoples in the region because, and I quote, "They still work, they're still kind, and they haven't been spoiled by money."
Hitchhiking is common and safe. We picked up passengers who spoke no English whatsoever (some of whom didn't speak Arabic, but rather a mix of indigenous tribal, African, and Portuguese languages) but had no problem high fiving me, listening to Jay-Z, and sharing snacks. Taxis are government controlled and only driven by Omani, so you can trust them not to scam you.
The Chedi is underwhelming for how expensive it is. It's the luxury hotel equivalent of Zoolander 2, or a film adaptation of the Divergent series. I was so excited for it, and on paper it sounded like an amazing idea, but the rooms are dark and the service not as good as Sur Plaza. Al Bustan Palace's rooms are also not my style, although I guess after Alila Jabal Akhdar, everything else will suck forever. For the best value in Muscat, stay at the (technically still unopened) Grand Millennium, where I preferred the modern rooms and rooftop infinity pool / ladies only pool. Then eat at Al Khiran terrace or the Chedi by night.
There are plentiful vegan / gluten free options thanks to a unique blend of regional and colonial cuisines. Here's how good the food in Oman is: Nothing ever needed Sriracha. In Muscat, we went with locals for traditional Arabic at Kargeen Cafe and dined under greenery before drinks overlooking mangroves at The Bank on Qurm Heights Road. The Bank is also attached to an excellent posh Indian restaurant. Dress code: I covered up but if pneumatic girls in chaps were any indicator, anything goes.
Visit Ras al Hadd at night, not 4AM. You can actually take pictures on night tours, but visit alone by day to see the waves, octopus, and crabs.
We recommend staying in Sur (a great jumping off point for wadis and sinkholes) instead of an expensive turtle or desert resort. The Sur Plaza Hotel is really clean and nice, with great food, a bar with live music and billiards, and a pool / gym area where a family of cats resides. The concierge belong in a five star hotel too. If you prefer camping in the desert, 1000 Nights is in a particularly remote part of the Empty Quarter atop a spectacular dune, offering a pool and motorbikes. Before driving yourself, deflate your tires and get an Omantel SIM for GPS- the service is excellent. Don't worry about getting lost. Bedu women are used to rescuing tourists.
We liked Wadi Bani Awf, Wadi Bani Habibi, Makul Cave, and Wadi Bani Khalid better than the more famous Shab and Tiwi. Less punishing hike, and only locals, at least when we went (locals also dream of trips to Salalah). There's an interesting graveyard on the road from Bimmah Sinkhole to Wadi Shab though. Pictures of Bimmah Sinkhole are kind of misleading, since you can't actually jump from the top, but it's especially nice if you go early so you can swim into the cave alone.
Typical road signage in Oman: "Please be cooperative not to call the villagers' children to carry your luggage for you." Another: "There is a statue of a tiger around the bend. It is not a real tiger. Please do not be alarmed and lose control of your vehicle."
Food is kind of pricey, but not activities, gas, or car repairs. Jet skiing and ziplining cost practically nothing. We punctured a tire and it cost like 7 euro to patch it.
Getting around: You have to drive, and it has to be 4WD with a cool box. The drive from the Royal Opera House (a must visit) to Al Bustan Palace along Muscat's cliffs and beaches is particularly rewarding, thanks Olivier for the tip!
Pack: I brought a long sleeved linen button up shirt, a black tank, a white tank, a black lace-up top, a black t-shirt, jeans, shorts, and a sturdy bikini I was sure wouldn't budge jumping and jetskiing. I also brought a bar of soap, bamboo toothbrush, my safety razor (no one cared), baking soda, linen towel to use as a blanket, a black midi-length sleeveless dress for nights out, and cotton moto jacket to cover my shoulders. Espadrilles, sneakers, and high heels were a must, but I actually didn't use sunscreen. I'm not advocating risking your health or anything, I'm just saying, I covered up with clothes and didn't burn, but my husband slathered himself in La Roche Posay and turned pink. As for modesty, I brought shorts and tanks for the hotels, wadis, desert, and swimming, not public streets, but Omani people- both men and women- told me bikinis and shorts were ok and Americans just hear things that are untrue. Still, it's probably better for both genders to cover at least underarms, shoulders, and knees.