Remember last year when I mentioned my alter ego? The one I call Tina?
You know – the annoyingly responsible “it’s chilly out make sure you grab a jacket” kind of twisted sister. The one who always somehow has whatever you need on hand whenever you need it. Hand sanitizer? Check. Safety pins? Check. Aspirin? Check. Clean underwear? Double check. An EpiPen despite the fact you have zero allergies whatsoever? Check.
Yep. That’s Tina. My alter ego I sometimes also refer to as Mom.
She’s the one responsible for all my practical posts. While the real Kristen is out getting lost in Paris, accidentally crashing both Guatemalan funerals and 20 year farther/son reunions in Scotland, and hiking up volcanoes she’s nowhere near fit enough to climb just to impress a boy, Tina is the one at home typing up useful things Kristen should have read in order to avoid the aforementioned misadventures. Tina is smart and prepared. Tina does not lie.
Be like Tina.
The one claiming full responsibility for this comprehensive guide to the Northeastern region of the Middle Eastern country of Oman.
Things to Do in Oman: A 7 Day Itinerary
Upon return from the Middle East last April, I wrote a post detailing the many reasons you should visit Oman – a country bordering Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates – in a post titled Oman: The Paradise You Never Knew Existed. I waxed poetic about the cerulean waters of the Persian Gulf, told tales of traversing the untouched fringes of Ancient Arabia, and gushed over hospitality the likes of which I’d never known before. If you’re in search of inspiration or just browsing through looking for pretty pictures and general destination reading, I would start there. If storytelling in the form of nonfiction travel narrative is more you’re thing then Riding in Cars with Omanis might be more your style.
If you’re in the planning stages for a trip to Oman (or if you’re seriously type A and get off on reading practical advice and flipping through itineraries) then you’re in the right place and please do continue on.
Know Before You Go
There was a lot I wish I had know before traveling to Oman. That’s part of the reason I’m writing this in-depth guide. I’ve included everything from safety concerns to car rental advice to cultural etiquette know-how and proper tipping practices. Once we dig into the actual itinerary further down the post I include opening hours, where to stay, how to get there, and what you should wear for each activity.
When To Visit
October to March: weather-wise this is the best time to visit Oman as temperatures can be quite mild. This is high tourist season but visitors are far fewer here than in places like Europe – though tourism is on the rise in Oman and I suggest visiting before the masses find out how incredible of a country it is. Germans, Brits, Italians, and the French are the most frequent Western visitors while Saudi Arabians and other Gulf nationals make up the largest chunk of incoming tourists.
April: I visited in mid-April which is shoulder season. My friend and I were pretty much the only tourists though we did run into a few Westerners at the more popular attractions. Trust me – there is nothing like sleeping in the desert with zero people or other camps in sight. Beware though, April can be hot hot hot. We were lucky as it was quite mild. Never once did I sweat beneath my conservative clothing. If you do plan on visiting Oman in April I recommend inquiring into any tours you want to do ahead of time as a lot of tour operators stop running towards the end of the month.
May – September: best to avoid the majority of Oman (including its capital Muscat) during this time as temperatures are scorching and many tour operators do not run.
July – August: high season for visiting the area in and around Salalah in the south. Salalah is home to an annual monsoon that alters the desert terrain, turning it into a verdant, green playground. Accommodations and bookings should be made well in advance as this is the most popular vacation time for members of the GCC states (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman).
For American citizens and US passport holders, 30-day tourist visas are available upon arrival whether you enter via air, sea, or land (with the exception of Mazoonah and Sarfait on the Oman-Yemen land borders). There is also an option to extend your visa for another 30 days need be. If arriving be plane into the capital of Muscat, upon exiting the aircraft follow signs to the Visa counter, pay 20 Rials (apprx $52), get your visa and you’re good to go. For more tourist visa information check out Oman’s official visa website.
If you are not from the United States I suggest checking with your local government to see what your specific visa requirements are.
Oman is one of the safest countries in the world and barely sees petty crime, much less violent acts such as murder or rape. I felt much safer here than when journeying through my own country of America which is saying a lot considering my female friend and I found ourselves in the middle of nowhere – and at the mercy of male strangers – several times while in Oman. One day we purposefully left our packs (full of iPhones, wallets, and clothes) in a public place for hours so we could swim deep into rocky canyons. If that doesn’t convey how comfortable we felt I don’t know what will.
Unfortunately the Middle East in general has a “dangerous” stigma attached to it. However, it’s a vast region and not every area is defined by violence, strife, and conflict – Oman being a prime example as there is no terrorism here period. The country has a history of social and religious tolerance dating back to the 4th century thanks in part to their seafaring trade interests. As these interests expanded into a marine empire that once governed ethnicities ranging from Persian to East African, Southeast Asian to Indian; the Omanis have peacefully coexisted with non-Muslims for centuries.
Their modern infrastructure isn’t conducive to breeding extremists. There hasn’t been one recorded terrorist defector found fighting in Iraq or Syria; nor any evidence of Omani citizens joining ISIS. If you’re interested in learning more about the lack of radicalism in Oman – this article is an incredible resource and makes for an interesting read.
If you are visiting Oman, I would recommend using the same basic precautions you normally would at home or when visiting other foreign countries.
Cities and towns in the country of Oman are vastly spread out – including the capital city of Muscat which was a complete surprise to us upon arrival. On average, it took around 12 minutes to drive between tourism sites and restaurants in Muscat which was something of a shock since we were used to cities with walkable streets and efficient underground transport. Taxis and rental cars are the best options for travel within Oman as even the surrounding towns are an hour or two apart from one another.
The official orange and white Omani taxis are the easiest way to get around. Private or “engaged” taxis are relatively expensive for the Middle East. In Muscat, the cab ride from the airport to our hotel cost 12 Rial or $31 (we stayed further outside the city center than most people do so this may be cheaper for some). Try to avoid taking the blue and white ‘airport taxi’ as it will cost you 18 Rial or $47.
Prices for travel between places in Muscat will vary depending on where you stay but we never paid more than 7 Rial ($18) to get anywhere and taxis were never difficult to find. These prices are inflated for tourists but I’m not sure there’s much of a way around that. Considering my friend and I were splitting these costs in half, we didn’t try hard for the “local” rate. Every taxi we rode in had a meter (these began being introduced in 2015) but if a meter is absent you should negotiate the price with the driver before getting into the taxi.
Shared taxis and baisa buses are a cheaper alternative for travel between large cities but we never used this service as we exclusively traveled by private taxi in Muscat and hired a rental car for places further afield. From what I’ve heard, tracking down these shared taxis and minibuses is often more trouble than its worth. If you do plan on doing this please note it’s customary for women to seat themselves in the back next to other women.
By far the easiest way to get around – even in Muscat. There are only a few main roads in Oman once you get out of the capital. Driving from town to town is pretty much a straight shot over one or two streets. Traffic was rarely a problem outside of Muscat and routes are clearly marked, gas is cheap, and parking lots are aplenty. A few helpful tips below:
- Get a GPS. We rented from Hertz at Muscat International Airport and they did not offer any. We tried to Google Map directions from our phones and while most of it was in English, the street names on the app were written in Arabic making navigation tricky. Most of the actual signs to popular attractions lining the highways were in English though so we didn’t have too much trouble finding the right exits.
- Speaking of exits – try not to miss them. Sometimes it can take ages before you get the opportunity to turn back around on the highway.
- Make sure your car has a “Cruise Control” option. The cars make an annoying beeping noise every time you exceed 120km – which for us happened A LOT. This may have been specific to the car we drove but I can’t be sure so I thought it was worth mentioning. It would have been nice to have cruise control so we could set it right below the limit and avoid the terrible beeping noise.
- Carry cash for gas. The gas stations in Oman have attendants that fill your tank for you and only accept cash. A few that we came across did not have credit card machines inside for drinks or snacks either.
- You may or may not need a 4WD Vehicle. We did not have a 4WD vehicle and didn’t have any problems. You will only need one if you go off-roading (especially if you’re heading towards the desert). This will be touched on more later in the article.
- Be aware of hidden rental fees. This will be dependent of which company you book with but Hertz has a 130km mileage limit meaning we were charged for every km after this. Our 50 Rial ($129) rental turned into 94 Rial ($243). It was our own fault for not reading the fine print so make sure to always check before you book.
- Consider going on a guided tour before renting a vehicle. My friend and I booked a three day guided tour into the desert (more on this later in the post) before renting a car for the rest of our trip. I’m so glad we did this as it allowed us to get our bearings, observe how gas stations operated, and familiarize ourselves with the Omani driving culture. Besides, we got lost for a couple hours in the desert WITH an experienced guide who has been camping in the same few spots his whole life. I can’t imagine what would have happened had we been on our own. If you’re unfamiliar with Oman or inexperienced in off-road navigation, I would not recommended traversing the desert alone.
Inter-city buses are available for travel between Muscat and the surrounding cities. Services run from the capital to places like Salalah, Sur, Nizwa, and even Dubai. The official bus system is run by Mwasalat. Their coaches have a reputation for being air-conditioned and comfortable. They also provide public transport services within Muscat though taking the bus isn’t as popular as using taxis in Oman.
Culture and Etiquette
Despite its openness to Western tourists and the remarkable hospitality of its people, Oman is still a deeply traditional and conservative country. When traveling through it’s important to remember this and respect the country’s societal norms despite your own personal beliefs and way of life.
Oman is a Muslim-majority country with most citizens adhering to the Ibadi sect of Islam. It’s a country known for its tolerance as basic law restricts religious discrimination and the government protects the peoples’ right to practice their own faith.
Arabic is the official language of Oman but English is widely understood in urban areas. We did not experience any problems getting around and communicating, though we did have a local guide show us around the more isolated, rural areas. It’s polite and helpful to know a few basic Arabic words.
As I mentioned earlier, Oman is a conservative country and this extends to their unofficial dress code.
- For Women: wear loose clothing that covers your shoulders and arms past the elbows as well as pants or skirts that cover you legs past the knee (though its best practice if your pants/skirt go all the way to your ankles). Tight pants, tank tops, and shorts are highly discouraged. A head scarf is necessary if you wish to enter the Grand Mosque in Muscat or other conservative sites.
- For Men: long pants and a regular shirt (not a tank top) without suggestive imagery or text. Tight, thigh-length shorts should be avoided in public areas. There was a recent case where a man was forced to leave an Omani mall for wearing shorts.
There is some loosening of the rules in areas such as the desert or at touristy swimming holes. On the flip-side there are also places where the rules are stricter. Because of this, I’ve provided the recommended dress code for all activities I mention in the full itinerary section coming up later in this post.
Traveling as a Female
Before my trip to Oman I had never been to the conservative Middle East (minus 2 nights in Dubai – but considering its 90% expats I don’t think it really counts). I wasn’t sure what to expect as I was traveling alone with one other woman. While we felt completely safe and had little trouble exploring on our own, we still found ourselves startled by the stark cultural differences. Here are a few things women should expect:
- If you’re a female traveling alone or in a pair you will attract attention. Not in a bad way, but rather in a curious one. It’s unusual for locals to see women traveling without a male escort. Every time we met someone new, the first question asked was where is your husband?. Locals were often shocked my friend Betsy’s husband let her travel all the way from America alone. They were even more shocked upon finding out I was still single at my age.
- You will get asked about your sons. After the inevitable marriage question, their response to Betsy’s “yes” was always do you have sons? Not children. Not daughters. But sons – every single time.
- Uncomfortable incidents can occur. I want to stress that these incidents are extremely rare and should not stop you from traveling to Oman or thinking it’s unsafe. I’m including this because I think it’s important to always be aware of your surroundings when traveling. Betsy and I camped at one of the local beaches far off the tourist trail. It was daytime and we decided to enjoy the sun by pulling up two beach chairs close to the water, though we kept our bodies fully covered in appropriate dress. We had come to the beach with a local named Khalid but he wasn’t visible from where we were sitting. A group of boys around the age of 12 approached us. My guess is they were curious about two females on their own since it is super rare in small villages such as the one we were at. At first it was very civil with the kids circling around us and giggling. Until one of them got bold and decided to poke me with his index finger causing more riots of laughter. At that point Betsy and I got up to retreat back to our campsite. In true boys-will-boys fashion the mob dared the one boy to poke me again. So he did. As we moved up the beach, the rambunctious group followed. I was officially annoyed and Betsy was angry on my behalf – the boys completely ignored her. I’m not sure why they singled me out but I’m chalking it up to my long dark hair and tanned skin no unlike their own. Khalid and one of his friends eventually saw what was happening and raced down to the beach to lecture the boys before sending them on their way. Khalid apologized profusely and said that was entirely disrespectful and uncalled for. He mentioned he’d be having a talk with the boys’ parents about their bad behavior. This was the only incident we had happen to us while in Oman.
It is possible to purchase alcohol in Oman. Certain bars, restaurants, and clubs have liquor licenses though they’re almost exclusively located in hotels much like Dubai. There are a few local liquor stores but they’re for non-Muslim expats who applied for and successfully obtained an alcohol license. You must be 21 to purchase alcohol in Oman and the laws on drinking are strict – even for visitors. Public intoxication can lead to jail time and those who are caught drinking and driving are severely punished. No alcohol is served at all in Oman during the Holy Month of Ramadan.
Oman has a reputation for being an expensive destination. I’ll be the first to admit I readily forked over the cash to experience it. However, there are cheaper ways to enjoy Oman. Flights and accommodation are the most costly items but once you arrive you’ll find eating at local restaurants and shopping within Oman is cheap. The biggest way to cut down your expenses is by camping. There are no laws or permits restricting the boundaries of your camp ground so you can pitch a tent (or sleep outside on a mat like we did) anywhere you want.
Tipping is not customary in Oman. Below is pretty standard:
- Restaurants: most bills already include service tax so tipping is not necessary. If for any reason it’s not included, 5-10% should be more than enough.
- Taxis: round up the bill to the nearest dollar.
- Gas Station Attendants: round up the bill to the nearest dollar.
- Hotels: tipping is not expected.
- Tour Guides: this is a bit of a gray area. Some say do. Some say don’t. Some say go with your gut based on your personal experience with your guide. 5 Rial ($13) per full day seems to be a standard amount for guides in Oman. We payed more mainly because Betsy made me. Westerners (especially Americans) have a soft spot when it comes to tipping but it can actually be damaging to tip in countries where it is not expected. This is an argument for another day!
Things To Do In Oman: A 7-Day Itinerary
Now that the boring practical information is out of the way we can finally get to the main event – the incredible things to do in Oman! The below details exactly what we did during our seven days there last April. I’ve also provided advice on how to get to each destination, activity costs, what to wear and more.
Day 1 – Muscat and the Gulf of Oman
Betsy and I arrived into the capital of Muscat from Dubai around mid-afternoon with no plans for our first day.
This has become a habit when traveling to a new city. I prefer to take it easy and get my bearings the day I arrive rather than embark on a prescheduled activity. Besides, 7 times out of 10 my flight gets delayed. I seriously have the worst airport luck ever. Case in point – while writing this very sentence from the Delta terminal at LaGuardia airport, a text popped up informing me my flight’s been delayed 2 hours.
So no. I skip the planning and wing it on arrival day.
The Gulf of Oman, Muscat
Oman is bordered by the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, and the Gulf of Oman. Their waters churn in blended shades of blue and green before lapping onto the shore in a scene straight from the Caribbean. Whoever said the Middle East was nothing but desert had it dead wrong. Hotels and resorts in Muscat take advantage of Oman’s coastline, building their properties upon its sands and establishing private beaches for guests. Betsy and I stayed at one such place – the Al Bustan Palace.
Frankincense wafted around us as we checked in and accepted fresh dates from the receptionist. With formalities out of the way we chucked our bags in our room, threw on swimsuits, and spent the afternoon at the resort’s private beach on the Gulf of Oman. We strolled the rocky shores, swam in the enormous pool, and drank martinis – the only alcoholic beverage we consumed the entire trip.
If you’re not staying in a resort, there are plenty of public beaches in Muscat you can visit including Aviation Beach in Al Azaiba and Qurum Beach. The latter is closest to the city center and access is easy with a road lying behind the beach and free parking nearby. The beach offers watersports rentals such as kayaking, parasailing, and jet skiing. Kitesurfing, snorkeling, and diving trips are available from Muscat as well.
Practical Info for Visiting the Gulf of Oman
Where to Stay: we stayed at the Al Bustan Palace Hotel in Muscat. Other resort hotels on the Gulf of Oman include The Chedi, the Grand Hyatt, and the Crowne Plaza. Cheaper options along the gulf coast include the Beach Bay Hotel and the Al Qurum Resort.
What to Wear: if within the confines of a private resort it is okay to wear Western clothing and a two piece swimsuit. I did cover myself up as best I could when returning to the lobby or inside resort restaurants. The public beaches are frequented by locals so please be respectful and cover your arms and legs. If you’re a female swimming, it’s best to wear a one piece at the very least though you will still get stared at for not being fully covered. I went in the water with a tank top on over my suit at busy public beaches.
Transportation: most beaches outside of hotel resorts are public and can be reached by car or taxi.
Entry Fee: public beaches are free as is parking.
Water Excursions: these can easily be arranged through most hotels. For kitesurfing check out this company here. For snorkeling and diving check out Nomad Tours. These two companies were recommended by the online travel community. I did not do any organized watersport tours.
Dinner and Hookah at Kargeen Caffe, Muscat
Kargeen Caffe was a recommendation from a friend and I could not be more grateful to her for leading us here. This was one of the best dining experiences of my life. From the bustling atmosphere in the outdoor garden to their delicious Arabic breads and Omani Shuwa to their calming shisha. It’s the perfect end to a relaxing travel day and an afternoon at the beach.
If there is one place you eat in Muscat you MUST MAKE IT HERE.
Practical Info for Visiting Kargeen Caffe
What to Wear: both tourists and locals frequent this establishment so it’s best to be respectful towards the Omani culture. I wore a flowy maxi dress down to my ankles with a cardigan that covered past my elbows. Some visiting women were wearing short sleeves but I tend to err on the side of caution so wouldn’t recommend that. Men are fine wearing pants and a short sleeved top.
Transportation and Hours of Operation: open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner 7am – 1am. The best way to get to Kargeen is by taxi or rental car. There is a taxi line outside the restaurant so you’ll have no trouble getting back to your hotel.
Cost: our meal cost 14 Rial ($35) per person which was cheap considering everything we ordered. We split 2 appetizers and 2 entrees along with juice, tea, and we each had a hookah pipe filled with fruity shisha.
Day 2 – Ruins of Ibra, Wadi Bani Khalid, and Camping at Wahiba Sands
As I mentioned earlier this was my first trip to the Middle East and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was unsure about how to navigate a culture and area so different from anywhere I traveled before. Because of this Betsy and I agreed it’d be smart to book a tour guide for our first 3 days before renting a car and branching out on our own.
I am so glad we did this and I advise any first time visitors to do the same. It allowed us to get a feel for the culture and to acclimate ourselves to new surroundings. We booked this 3 day, 2 night organized tour with Bediyah Safari (UPDATE Jan 2018: the offered tour has since changed and looks like it now visits a turtle reserve and sleeps in desert camps instead of alone on the desert floor with no people around. Bediyah Safari is flexible though so I would ask if it’s possible to sleep independently in tents away from the resorts and hotel camps) which took us to local wadis, showed us the bedouin way of life in the vast desert, let us camp at local beach villages, and much more.
You can do most things included in the tour on your own (though traversing the desert should only be done by experienced off-roaders) so below I’ve included practical information for going at it solo as well.
Ruins of Ibra
As with any country harboring a long and detailed history, remnants of days gone by are scattered throughout Oman. Our first stop on our first full day in Oman was Ibra – a modern town built around crumbling mud houses from the country’s once prosperous colonial era. A time when seafaring interests reached the far nethers of Zanzibar in East Africa allowing wealthy mariners to send money home to Ibra for plantations and high-class residences.
The ruins of these houses comprise the town’s Old Quarter and are best explored on foot.
Practical Info for Visiting the Ruins of Ibra
Where to Stay: we were on this 3 day, 2 night organized tour with Bediyah Safari (225 Rial/$585 total for 3 days – UPDATE Jan 2018: the offered tour has since changed and looks like it now visits a turtle reserve and sleeps in desert camps instead of alone on the desert floor with no people around. Bediyah Safari is flexible though so I would ask if it’s possible to sleep independently in tents away from the resorts and hotel camps) so we slept in the desert this night. The modern town of Ibra does have a small selection of hotels if you’re going at it alone. You can find a few options here.
What to Wear: this is not a super touristy area and the Omani people still inhabit this ancient village. It’s respectful for female visitors to cover up their arms and legs. I wore long pants with a loose fitting tank top and linen cardigan with sleeves that went past my elbows (see pic from Ibra above). A maxi dress with cardigan would also work well here. Men can wear long pants with a short sleeve T-shirt.
Transportation and Hours of Operation: you can easily self-drive to the old town of Ibra from Muscat or en route to Wahiba Sands. Or of course visit via an organized tour.
Entry Fee: Free
Wadi Bani Khalid
Oman is rich in sandstone cliffs that give way to slender mountain ravines. The rainy season fills these winding basins to the brim, creating an oasis that attracts locals and visitors alike. These wadis are found throughout the country and afford a pleasant respite from the arid Middle Eastern heat. Families can be found barbecuing in the rocky coves; teenagers tempt gravity as they cliff jump into the waters below; and friends set off to explore hidden grottoes.
Wadi Bani Khalid is one such oasis an hour and a half from the ruins of Ibra and marked our second stop of the day. A hidden cave rests at the end of a winding swimming path that runs through the canyon. Here you can brave the dark, confined spaces and make your way toward the supporting rock that upholds a waterfall. The loud vibrations of it rushing overhead will make you utter silent prayers that the rock is sturdy enough to hold its weight.
Spending a couple hours swimming and hiking through Wadi Bani Khalid is worth it and is a less-crowded alternative to the popular Wadi Shab (though I think it’s worth visiting both as we did – more on Wadi Shab later).
Practical Info for Visiting Wadi Bani Khalid
Where to Stay: we were on this 3 day, 2 night organized tour with Bediyah Safari so we slept in the desert this night (UPDATE Jan 2018: the offered tour has since changed and looks like it now sleeps in desert camps instead of alone on the desert floor with no people around. Bediyah Safari is flexible though so I would ask if it’s possible to sleep independently in tents away from the resorts and hotel camps). The Oriental Nights Rest House is a good option for those exploring on their own. It is a popular base point for those exploring Wadi Bani Khalid, Ibra, and Wahiba Sands. Wadi Bani Khalid also makes a good day trip from the town of Sur an hour and a half away.
What to Wear: the entrance to the wadi consists of a short hike past a local village. It’s best to cover up on this walk with something past both the knees and elbows. However, once you reach the swimming area it’s fine to wear your bathing suit on the rocky shore and throughout the winding swim to the cave. I wore a two-piece but honestly would have felt more comfortable in a one-piece or even swimming with a tank top over my suit. There were a few local families also enjoying the wadi and I felt a bit rude. Men can wear typical beach attire however speedos are not recommended.
Transportation and Hours of Operation: there isn’t an official opening or closing time but the general rule of thumb is to honor daylight hours. Trust me – you would not want to swim here at night. The best way to get to Wadi Bani Khalid is either by rental car or a guided tour from Sur. A day tour can also be done from Muscat, however keep in mind it’s a 3 hour drive away.
Entry Fee: Free
Unspoiled is a word too often used in travel writing yet there is no truer way to chronicle Oman’s deserts and the natural panoramas that remain unblemished by tourism or development. Wahiba Sands is one such place. Plains of sand drift in continual movement creating a desolate playground of knolls and dunes. You can ride your 4-WD Toyota up and over the desert slopes for hours before seeing the first sign of life – normally the occasional goat or camel.
Camping is a deep part of the Omani culture whether it’s on the shore, the desert dunes or atop rugged cliffs. Ask any resident what their weekend plans are and nine times out of ten they’re taking their 4-wheel drive vehicle to the terrain of their choice and cooking chicken, rice, and red tea over an open fire before rolling out the sleeping mats. This is exactly what we did at Wahiba Sands (our last stop for the day) and it was the highlight of our trip.
Wanting to immerse ourselves in it, we cooked chicken and rice over the open fire, smoked Oman’s version of marijuana, drank ounces of red tea and coffee, learned our guide’s favorite Arabic dances (after which we taught him how to Whip and Nae Nae), and slept without a tent beneath the twinkling of 1,001 Arabian stars. The best part? It was just the three of us with no one or anything insight. I’ve never felt that kind of isolation before and I loved every second of it.
For an indepth travel narrative on my full Wahiba Sands experience bookmark Riding in Cars With Omanis for later.
Practical Info for Visiting Wahiba Sands
Where to Stay: we were on this 3 day, 2 night organized tour with Bediyah Safari (UPDATE Jan 2018: the offered tour has since changed and looks like it now sleeps in desert camps instead of alone on the desert floor with no people around. Bediyah Safari is flexible though so I would ask if it’s possible to sleep independently in tents away from the resorts and hotel camps) and slept on a mat in the desert this night. I’m so glad we did this as we were the only people in the desert. For those that prefer not to rough, nearby glamping camps like the Desert Nights Camp and 1000 Nights Camp are great accommodation options. We heavily considered both sites before deciding on our tour. For those on their own it is legal to camp anywhere in the entire country – no permit necessary – so you can pitch a tent anywhere at Wahiba Sands.
What to Wear: Wahiba Sands is an expansive desert where it’s unusual to see anyone around besides the Bedouin tribes that you may pass on the drive through to the dunes. Therefore it’s acceptable to wear what you please as you camp for the evening. There is a chill in the air at night so be sure to pack layers.
Transportation and Hours of Operation: there is no way to get to Wahiba Sands unless you rent a 4WD or hire a local guide to take you. I would not recommend self-driving here unless you are very familiar with the terrain as it’s extremely easy to get lost or stuck if you don’t know what you’re doing. We even had a moment where our guide (who has camped here throughout his entire life) got lost due to the overnight shifting of sands that completely covered our tire tracks that marked our path back to the main road. Not to mention there’s no one out in the desert to help you out (at least not where we were as we went very deep into the desert which I recommend doing). We were completely isolated. Wahiba Sands is open year-round.
Entry Fee: Free
Day 3 – Camel Rides, Coffee with Bedouins, and Beach Camping at Ras Al Hadd
Our exploration of Wahiba Sands didn’t end with the rising sun. We spent most of Day 3 tackling the dunes from behind the wheel of our guide’s vehicle before spending time with local Bedouin tribes as we made our way to the coast.
Several nomadic Bedouin tribes permeate Wahiba Sands and their transitory encampments lie scattered throughout its expanses. They’re a friendly people who herd goats and camels, preferring the traditional lifestyle of their ancestors over the booming working life of Muscat. The Bedu live off the desert yet aren’t above making a dime or two off tourists. Some sell trinkets along popular desert routes while others offer camel rides.
I won’t lie to you – riding a camel was the only thing in Oman that made me feel a bit cheesy (albeit I’m sure it beats the more famous camel rides of the UAE as there aren’t other tourists at all. We never saw another tour group the entire time we were on this 3 day excursion). Oman hasn’t yet mastered how to cater to tourists which is what I love most about the country. Nothing we did – apart from the camel ride – felt fabricated. Even our tour wasn’t so much an organized spectacle as it was just driving around and doing what our guide would normally do on a weekend off. I go a bit more into this later on in the post.
As underwhelming as the camel ride was, it’s still an experience I don’t regret doing. For a richer camel experience I’d recommend attending (and betting on) one of Oman’s popular camel races. It’s a truly local experience. Our guide must have showed us a thousand youtube videos and we were sad no races were taking place while we were there.
Practical Info on Riding Camels at Wahiba Sands
Where to Stay: we were on this 3 day, 2 night organized tour with Bediyah Safari (UPDATE Jan 2018: the offered tour has since changed and looks like it now sleeps in desert camps instead of alone on the desert floor with no people around. Bediyah Safari is flexible though so I would ask if it’s possible to sleep independently in tents away from the resorts and hotel camps) and slept on the beach this night. Nearby “glamping” camps like the Desert Nights Camp and 1000 Nights Camp are great desert accommodation options if not on a tour. They both offer camel ride excursions and you can book directly through them if staying there. For those on their own it is legal to camp anywhere in the entire country – no permit necessary – so pitch a tent anywhere.
What to Wear: life under the desert sun is hot so lightweight, albiet conservative clothes are best. Most camels are provided by local Bedouins so you should be respectful of their culture. A maxi dress is not recommended as you are straddling the camel! I loved my breathable lightweight cotton pants.
Transportation and Hours of Operation: most organized tours provide the needed transport. Mid-morning or sunset camel rides are recommended times to go. If you’re traversing the desert on your own, most Bedouins offer dates and coffee for weary travelers. You could try asking (and of course offering a fee) for a camel ride.
Entry Fee: included in the price of the tour. Sorry, I’m not sure what they would cost on their own outside a tour! I’m sure the rates vary depending on the tribe and your negotiating skills.
Coffee with Bedouins
Omanis in general are renowned for their unmatched hospitality. Hometown pride runs deep and sharing their alluring country with tourists is a joyous pastime – especially when it comes to Americans. Americans are a rare commodity in Oman and despite our guide’s line of work he had never crossed paths with an American before. After camel riding we continued traversing the desert en route to the coastline, answering our guides endless barrage of questions along the way. A few hours in, our vocal cords needed rest so we pulled off to one of the temporary Bedouin encampments for coffee and dates.
A Bedu woman and two children greeted us in Arabic. A silver tray holding a carafe and three shot glass-sized cups rested on the ground next to them. Slipping off our shoes we hunkered down on the carpeted floor and accepted their offerings. It was a welcome and relaxing break. Using our guide as a translator we were able to learn more about Bedouin culture. Word of warning – your cup will continue to be filled with strong Omani coffee the minute it’s empty. Shaking your glass slightly in your right hand before setting it down on the tray will signal that you are finished. It took me about 5 cups before I realized this!
Practical Info for Having Coffee with Bedouins
Where to Stay: we were on this 3 day, 2 night organized tour with Bediyah Safari and slept on the beach this night. Nearby “glamping” camps like the Desert Nights Camp and 1000 Nights Camp are great desert accommodation options if not on a tour. For those on their own it is legal to camp anywhere in the entire country – no permit necessary – so pitch a tent anywhere.
What to Wear: life under the desert sun is hot so lightweight, albiet conservative clothes are best. When visiting Bedouins you should be respectful of the culture so covering up past the elbow and knees is recommended.
Transportation and Hours of Operation: these encampments are temporary and may change but they lie along long routes from the desert to the coastline. During daylight hours you’ll usually pass one or more temporary Bedu tents offering refreshments and a respite from the heat.
Entry Fee: along the popular dirt “roads” some tribes sell coffee and dates for less than .50 Rial ($1). Others will offer you these for free although if this is the case it’s polite to buy a cheap trinket or bracelet from the women. Even our guide purchased a key chain.
Important Note: it is considered rude to snap photos of local people without their permission so please ask before doing so. The Bedu woman would not allow her photo to be taken but she did let me snap a couple of the less-shy children.
Ras Al Hadd Beach
You want to truly live like a local in Oman? Head to the tourist-free Ras al Hadd Beach – the real beach, not the private ones found behind the few resorts in the area.
I mentioned earlier that their isn’t much structured tourism in Oman. Upon exiting the desert there was no plan for what happened next. So we drove for a couple hours, stopped in a small town for lunch at a Pakistani restaurant, and then continued driving again – our guide stopping at three or four of his favorite coastal camping spots along the way.
Settling on the local fishing village of Ras al Hadd, we set up camp, pulled two lounge chairs up to the water, and spent the evening lounging around and basically doing nothing. If you’re an action-packed, fully fleshed out itinerary type of person, I would recommend a 2 day tour as opposed to the 3 day tour we were on. You could still do everything listed above (minus Ras al Hadd) and then branch out on your own.
As for me? I’m a total Type B personality and love just chillin’ like the locals who were camped out around us. It was nice to catch up on reading, edit my photos, and sleep on the beach. Ras al Hadd is also home to a mid-1500’s coastal fort that’s worth a visit if you’re in the area.
Practical Info for Visiting Ras Al Hadd
Where to Stay: we camped directly on the beach – no tent (UPDATE Jan 2018: the offered tour has since changed and looks like it now visits a turtle reserve and sleeps there this night) . Just us on our mats. Please note camping is only permitted in the north section of town as the east is closed due to the numerous green turtle nesting sites. There are a few hotels in Ras al Hadd such as the Ras Al Hadd Guest House and the Resort Ras Al Hadd Holiday. Ras al Hadd is also a short (40 minute drive) day trip from the town of Sur.
What to Wear: this is a local fishing town with hardly any tourists so conservative dress for women is recommended – your typical elbow and knee covering. Men can wear shorts and a T-shirt or just swimming trunks. Swimming attire should be modest for women. I did not feel comfortable wearing my swimsuit here so wore a skirt that reached down to my ankles along with a long sleeve tank top.
Transportation and Hours of Operation: rental car or guided tour is the best way to get here. The town of Sur is a 40 minute ride away. North end beaches are open 24 hours a day.
Entry Fee: Free
Day 4 – Sur, Wadi Tiwi, and Muscat
The last morning of our tour took us through the touristy city of Sur, onto yet another local wadi, and then back to Muscat where Betsy and I stayed for another night before renting a car and venturing off on our own. If I knew then what I know now, I would have done the 2 day, 1 night tour and just done Sur on my own and skipped Wadi Tiwi.
Sur and the Maritime Museum
Dominated by the simple lines and characteristic bright white exteriors of Oman’s low-lying concrete homes, the seaside retreat of Sur glistens beneath the glow of the midday sun. The azure waters of the gulf resting in the background complete the scenic panorama. Once a bustling maritime trade center, Sur still shows signs of its seafaring past. Historic forts and watch towers keep lookout high above the harbor while the Maritime Museum below scurries with activity.
The only shipbuilding facility of its kind in Oman, the Maritime Museum crafts traditional wooden dhows and allows you to walk right over and watch how its done. While these ships once ruled the Gulf of Oman, they’ve since been replaced with modern vessels. The ones recently (and currently) being built are used to give tourists a spin around the harbor.
A beautiful coastal path runs the length of Sur’s beaches and I wish I had spent 2 days here.
Practical Info for Visiting Sur
Where to Stay: there are many hotels in the area that you can check out here. We passed through with our tour on the way back to Muscat so did not stay the night in Sur.
What to Wear: Sur is a little more touristy than other cities in Oman so you can get away with a dress or pants that are a little shorter. I would still recommend they pass the knee and elbow but they don’t need to go all the way down to your ankles or wrists.
Transportation and Hours of Operation: you can either go with a tour from Muscat, take the local bus, or hire a rental car.
Entry Fee: Free
An hour and a half outside Sur lies another water-filled canyon known as Wadi Tiwi. Out of the three wadis we visited on this trip, Wadi Tiwi was by far the most local. A small village surrounds the immediate vicinity and their residents compromise the majority of swimmers. Women rarely swim here as tourists are fairly nil and local females must remain fully clothed when taking to the water. Therefore they typically prefer sunbathing on the nearby rocks.
Betsy and I had the place to ourselves but felt uncomfortable stripping down to our swimsuits due to the locals known to scatter about. Besides, we planned on spending an entire day at Wadi Shab later on in our trip and we had loved Wadi Bani Khalid so we didn’t feel like we were missing out. Wadi Tiwi can easily be skipped if you’re planning on a trip to either of the aforementioned wadis.
Practical Info for Visiting Wadi Tiwi
Where to Stay: we were still on this 3 day, 2 night organized tour with Bediyah Safari. As this was the last day of the tour, we spent the night back in Muscat at the Al Bustan Palace. The town of Sur makes a good base for visiting Wadi Tiwi.
What to Wear: Wadi Tiwi is in the middle of a local village so it’s best to cover up past both the knees and elbows. We did not swim here as there were several locals out and about and I didn’t feel comfortable with only my two-piece. Men can wear typical beach attire however speedos are not recommended.
Transportation and Hours of Operation: there isn’t an official opening or closing time but the general rule of thumb is to honor daylight hours. The best way to get to Wadi Tiwi is either by rental car or a guided tour from Sur. I preferred Wadi Bani Khalid and Wadi Shab to Tiwi.
Entry Fee: Free
Mutrah Souq, Muscat
Our tour officially came to an end around midday when we were dropped back off at our hotel in Muscat. Not wanting to waste a moment, we dumped our bags in the room before hopping into a taxi and making our way to the heart of the city – the marketplace.
One of the oldest markets in Oman, the Mutrah Souq is a winding maze of narrow alleys with shops hawking anything from silver tea sets to regional spices to traditional fabrics to aromatic frankincense. Some alleys cater to tourists while others sell wholesale items to locals. Unlike other markets found throughout the world, the proprietors beckon you in without the added side of harassment providing for a pleasant market experience. Items are reasonably priced and become more so if you can master the art of haggling. This is where I bought the majority of my gifts for family and friends as well as for myself.
Practical Info for Visiting the Mutrah Souq
What to Wear: both tourists and locals frequent this establishment so it’s best to be respectful towards the Omani culture. I wore a flowy maxi dress down to my ankles with a cardigan that covered past my elbows. Some visiting women were wearing short sleeves but I tend to err on the side of caution so wouldn’t recommend that. Men are fine wearing pants and a short sleeved top.
Transportation and Hours of Operation: the best way to get to the souq is by taxi or rental car. There is a taxi line near the main entrance so you’ll have no trouble getting back to your hotel. The market is open 7 days a week from 7am – 11am and then again from 5pm – 11pm.
Entry Fee: Free
Day 5 – Muscat’s Grand Mosque and the Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve
With one more morning left in Muscat, we made a pit stop at the only mosque in Oman that allows non-Muslims to enter through its doors before picking up our rental car and venturing off the watch Oman’s wildlife in action.
The Grand Mosque, Muscat
Without doubt the shining star of Omani architectural style lies in its 500+ mosques. Each mosque carries its own unique twist showing influences from a range of cultures. Some reflect the style of the Ottomans while others embrace Moroccan or other North African elements. In keeping in line with Islamic law, all mosques showcase a simplicity that is as aesthetically pleasing at it is spiritually important.
The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat is the most impressive with the understated elegance of its exterior and its impeccably manicured gardens. Holding room for up to 20,000 worshippers, its one of the largest mosques in the Gulf and the only one in Oman open to non-Muslims.
Practical Info for Visiting the Grand Mosque
What to Wear: women should wear loose clothing that covers down to the wrists and ankles. Women will also need to cover their hair so a head scarf or pashmina is a must. Please note if your shirt or pants are too tight – they will deny you entry. Men are fine in long pants (no shorts) and a shirt that covers their shoulders.
Transportation and Hours of Operation: the mosque is only open to non-Muslims Saturday through Thursday from 8am to 11am. Plan on getting there by 10:30am at the latest as they kick you out right at 11am. The easiest way to get there from within Muscat is to arrange a taxi with your hotel (make sure it’s a local orange and white taxi as they’re the cheapest) which should cost 5 to 8 Rial (12-20 USD) depending on where you are staying. Rental cars are also a good option.
Entry Fee: Free
Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve
Oman is a country where camels cross the road, desert goats interrupt your breakfast, and turtle reserves are set up to protect hatchlings.
At Ras al Jinz approximately 20,000 female green turtles return home every year to the exact beach in Oman where they first hatched. Why do they return in adulthood? To lay their own eggs. As the green turtle currently rests on the endangered species list, the Omani government has taken it upon themselves to protect their nesting sites. At Ras al Jinz you can join a regulated tourism group to witness these turtles laying and hiding their eggs before slipping back into the sea. If you’re lucky (like we were) you may even see a few new hatchlings as well.
Practical Info for Visiting Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve
Where to Stay: we stayed onsite at the Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve in one of their glamping tents. I highly recommend staying in one of these as opposed to their regular rooms.
What to Wear: there were a few local families who took part in the turtle viewings. I wore cargo pants, a loose tank top, and a linen cardigan. I would cover yourself as best you can for this reason alone though there were Westerners in shorts.
Transportation and Hours of Operation: timings can change depending on the season. July through October is the peak time to witness this spectacle. I heard it can be too crowded during this time so I loved that we went in low season (even though there was a chance we wouldn’t see any in April). Typically viewings start around 9:00pm and 5:00am. We went during both times and preferred the 5am viewing as there were only 4 of us so it felt more intimate. Renting a car is the best way to get to the resort.
Entry Fee: free for those staying at the reserve. For those staying elsewhere, turtle viewing is 5 Rial ($13) for adults, 1 Rial ($2.50) for ages 5 to 12, and free for children 4 and under. If you are an Omani citizen, there is a discounted price.
Day 6 – Wadi Shab
Pre-departure I was over the moon about visiting Wadi Shab. Aside from Wahiba Sands, Wadi Shab was the place I was most excited about visiting in Oman. However when the time came to actually drive there I could have cared less about going. Maybe it was because I was tired or maybe it was because I had already visited two wadis and had swam in the gulf on more than one occasion but whatever the reason I almost backed out of going.
Thankfully Betsy kicked my ass into gear and wouldn’t let me ditch her.
Turns out Wadi Shab is just as amazing as I had originally thought. The swimming portion of the wadi comes at the end of a not-so-easy 45 minute hike through mountainous terrain. A beautiful walk but not easy to do barefoot and one in which you want to have your camera along for. This left us in a bit of a pickle upon reaching the twisting stream. We wanted to swim to the end but had all our clothes, shoes, iPhones, and wallets with us. With Oman’s reputation for virtually no crime we decided to leave all our stuff on a random rock and jump in (and yes – it was still in that exact spot upon our return.)
We spent the rest of the day swimming deep into the heart of the wadi determined to make it to the rumored cove lying at its end. It was well worth the long swim. Inside the cavernous rock a man-made rope dangles over a cascading waterfall. Locals use it to scale the falls and disappear behind the rocks – never to be seen again. The burning curiosity is enough to make you follow suit. Which Betsy and I did. It’s an absolutely rewarding yet undeniably stupid and dangerous idea. I won’t spoil the rest but I will say this – what goes up, must come down.
Wadi Shab is best visited on your own rather than on a guided tour. It’s definitely worth giving yourself time and spending at least half a day here. We stayed for about 5 hours and had a blast.
Practical Info for Visiting Wadi Shab
Where to Stay: we stayed nearby at the Wadi Shab Resort in Tiwi. Organizing a day trip from your hotel in Muscat is another option for visiting the wadi. A range of hotels in Muscat can be found here.
What to Wear: this is by far the most popular wadi in Oman and because of this, the dress code can be pretty relaxed due to the higher number of tourists as well as the fact that it’s not within the confines of a local village. I wore a tank top and shorts over my two-piece bathing suit (though I still would have felt more comfortable in a one-piece). There is a long hike prior to reaching the water-filled canyon and once you do get to the wadi, the rocks are slippery and can hurt your feet. I would have killed for a pair of watershoes and will 100% pack them the next time I visit Oman.
Transportation and Operating Hours: open during daylight hours. Rental car and organized day trips from Tiwi or Muscat are the best way to get to Wadi Shab.
Entry Fee: free unless you take the roundtrip boat transport for 1 Rial ($2) per person.
Notes: the only way to get through the wadi is to swim which sadly meant we were unable to capture photos of our favorite part of the wadi. If you have a GoPro definitely bring it along or invest in a waterproof bag to carry your belongs if you’re not as trusting as us. Leaving your valuables in your car is also a good idea. You do not need any money (apart from 1 Rial for the boat transport) or credit cards.
Day 7 – Bimmah Sinkhole and Back Home
Described as the “World’s Most Beautiful Sinkhole” (I’d love to meet the person responsible for judging the whole world’s sinkholes) Bimmah is located just off the main highway. Betsy and I had an afternoon flight so decided to stop by on our way to Muscat’s airport.
The emerald green waters filling the hollowed-out limestone in the middle of nowhere is a sight to behold. Would I make a special trip just to see the Bimmah Sinkhole? Probably not. While you can swim and go snorkeling in the postcard-perfect waters, it’s still a sinkhole in the middle of nowhere. It was the perfect stop on the way back to the airport though and if you’re passing by, it doesn’t take long to visit.
Practical Info for Visiting Bimmah Sinkhole
Where to Stay: we stayed nearby at the Wadi Shab Resort in Tiwi and visited the Bimmah Sinkhole on our way back to Muscat Airport. Organizing a day trip from your hotel in Muscat or Sur is another option for visiting Bimmah. A range of hotels in Muscat can be found here.
What to Wear: both tourists and locals frequent this establishment so it’s best to be respectful towards the Omani culture. I wore a tank top over my two-piece to swim.
Transportation and Opening Hours: open during daylight hours. Rental car is your best option to get here. I would not make a special day trip just to see the Bimmah Sinkhole as this is all there is here. It’s best as part of a multi-destination tour or as a stopover on your way somewhere else.
Entry Fee: Free
Alternative Sites and Activities
The above itinerary is exactly what we did over our 7 days in the country but these activities are by no means the only things to do in Oman. You can tailor your trip to fit your interests and travel style. Below is a list of a few alternative sites with links that I wish we had had time for:
- The Forts of Nizwa – “The historic town of Nizwa, two hours from Muscat along a good highway, lies on a plain surrounded by a thick palm oasis and some of Oman’s highest mountains. Marked by a grand new double-arched gateway, the town forms a natural access point for the historic sites of Bahla and Jabrin, and for excursions up the mountain roads to Jebel Akhdar and Jebel Shams.” – Lonely Planet
- Jebel Shams – “Oman’s highest mountain, Jebel Shams (Mountain of the Sun; 3009m), is best known not for its peak but for the view into the spectacularly deep Wadi Ghul lying alongside it. The straight-sided Wadi Ghul is known locally as the Grand Canyon of Arabia as it fissures abruptly between the flat canyon rims, exposing vertical cliffs of 1000m and more.” – Lonely Planet
- Salalah – “…a colorful, subtropical city…From mid-June to mid-August, monsoon clouds from India bring a constant drizzle to the area and, as a result, the stubble of Salalah’s surrounding jebel is transformed into an oasis of misty pastures. Year-round, Salalah’s coconut-fringed beaches and plantations of bananas and papayas offer a flavor of Zanzibar in the heart of the Arabian desert.”- Lonely Planet
- The Musandam Penisula – “…dubbed the ‘Norway of Arabia’ for its beautiful khors (rocky inlets), small villages and dramatic, mountain-hugging roads. Accessible but still isolated in character, this beautiful peninsula with its cultural eccentricities is well worth a visit…” -Lonely Planet
Ok so that marks 10,000 WORDS ON OMAN!! I hope this guide helps you with your trip planning to this fascinating country! Have you already been? Am I missing any of your favorite activities? Let me know in the comments below!
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