Hot stuff

RIGHT from the start, Oman challenged my preconceptions. I imagined the northern city of Muscat would be something like Dubai: shiny and high-rise, full of six-star hotels with gold-plated taps - and squatting at the foot of all this wealth would be poverty, grime and squalor. I couldn't have been more wrong.

The Sultan of Oman has ensured that as his country has galloped into the 21st century, his people have remained true to their culture. New buildings must conform to the traditional style of architecture and the number of floors they have is limited. So Muscat, surrounded by rocks, is a city that seems unusually comfortable in its own skin. Omanis are encouraged to wear traditional dress. Not only is this a stamp of their identity, it keeps them cool in this hot, harsh climate. Muscat itself is in competition with Tokyo as the cleanest city on the planet; it's the kind of place where you get fined for having a dirty car.

Most of the tourist sites are within a day's travel from Muscat, so if you only have time for a short stay it's a good base. The city's Grand Mosque was built by the current Sultan and completed in 2001. It features a 10m-wide Swarovski crystal chandelier and a Persian carpet that took 700 women six years to make. At last, the nauseating opulence I was expecting.

This is one of the few mosques non-Muslims are allowed to enter, and the only place where I had to cover my head with a scarf. Walking into the main prayer room - a light airy space with a huge dome inlaid with lapis lazuli and gold mosaics - was an incredibly uplifting, almost spiritual, experience that left me lost for words.

Leaving Muscat, we drove up into the mountains, or jebels, to Nizwa, a place of fascinating geological formations. At this time of year the drought leaves the bare earth on display, but it's not always like this. While northern Oman is best avoided from the end of May to September because of the extreme heat, temperatures are quite pleasant, with a little rain, for the rest of the year. Conversely, the summer months are the best time to visit the south, around the Salalah area, as the monsoon rains cool the atmosphere and give the Dohfari mountains a lush, rainforest feel.

Next on our itinerary was Nizwa, with its signature blue-and-gold-domed mosque, a two-hour drive through the mountains from Muscat. Historically, this is where Oman's silver originated, and it is the best place to buy the precious metal. The souks here are still a central part of the community, and the weekly cattle and goat market is a fascinating mixture of shouted bids, dazzlingly white dishdasha (robes), glittering Khanjar knifes and some of the glossiest and most well-tended cattle I have ever seen.

I had heard the term wadi-bashing, and thought it sounded like my idea of fun. A challenging off-road driving experience, it involves following dry riverbeds (wadis). The wadis here are deep and narrow (think Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) due to the flash floods that carve their way through the dry ground in the rainy season.

Dotted around at the base of these gullies are villages built on ancient terraces filled with lush date palms, vegetables and fruit trees. The local people are very friendly. Children skip along, showing the way, and women gather round to discuss visitors' jewellery and dress; mass tourism has yet to hit Oman, and the people we met were as interested in us as we were in them.

Another off-road challenge is dune-bashing. We drove into the Wahiba Sands, a perfect sea of rolling red desert to stay at the Thousand Nights camp. The accommodation here was in traditional goat-hair Bedouin tents pitched under cineraria trees. Using this camp as a base you can venture into the desert on 4x4 expeditions, take camel treks to where the dunes run into the sea or visit Bedouin camps to barter for wonderful coloured blankets and keepsakes.

We took an exhilarating drive on the dunes one evening, screaming up the slopes in low gear, slowing down at the crucial moment to bump the belly of the car on the crest and surf down the other side. Our host, Saud, laid on a fantastic feast - hummus, Arabic bread and barbecued meat, with Oman's version of Turkish delight, halwa, for pudding. All of this was followed by the ubiquitous thimbleful of hot, sweet coffee and some fresh dates.

As part of Oman's bid to maintain its indigenous culture, the government spends a great deal of money restoring the forts that stand defiant against the mountains. Typical of these is the one at Jabrin, an ochre-coloured walled castle full of false staircases - to confuse attackers searching for the main keep. As well as being a military fort, Jabrin also served as a religious school. Its ceilings are richly painted in patterns similar to those seen in Persian carpets, and the carvings on the doors are so intricate that it is hard to believe they have been there for nearly 400 years.

Having done a circular route in the north, we flew on to the southern town of Salalah. This region is surprisingly different from the north of Oman. Characteristic Yemeni architecture lends it something of an African feel.It is more tropical, with coconut plantations and fruit trees of various shapes and sizes.

Another source of Oman's ancient wealth is frankincense, and it is here, deep in the Empty Quarter to the north of Salalah, that the best resin is produced. Made from the sap of the Boswellia tree, frankincense is for sale everywhere and is still used to perfume homes and clothes. This is the realm of the Queen of Sheba, a frankincense tycoon, and we visited the ruins of one of her palaces, in Wadi Knor Rawi at Sumhuram. It was here that the frankincense was loaded on to dhows and exported east and west.

Accommodation throughout our trip was varied - from five-star luxury in Muscat to clean and basic in the provinces. Oman is a Muslim country, so alcohol is restricted in where it can be sold. It's a remarkably liberal place, however, and there are bars in every hotel and well-stocked mini-bars in the bedrooms.

While the Middle East may seem a strange place to go on holiday in today's political climate, I can recommend Oman to anyone who wants to experience a culturally different, unexploited and immensely rich part of our world. But go now, before everyone else finds out.

Fact file: Oman

Gulf Air (www.gulfairco.com, 0870 777 1717) flies from Edinburgh or Glasgow, via London, from 500 return. British Airways flies from London Heathrow, via Abu Dhabi. The flight time to Muscat is nine hours.

Edinburgh-based Farside Africa (www.farsideafrica.com, 0131 315 2464) offers tailor-made private tours (self-drive or guided) in Oman. A week-long guided trip, based in Muscat, starts at 1,250 (not including flights).

Safari Drive (01488 71140, www.safaridrive.com) organises self-drive tours, and Responsible Travel (01273 600030, www.responsibletravel.com) offers group tours.

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