Hello from somewhere over Saudi Arabia. I’m writing this on board an Oman Air A330-200 featuring their fantastic Apex Suites.
I’ve just finished up 10 days in Oman. It’s come at the end of a month in the Middle East, so I have a few other countries in the region to compare it to.
I had very high expectations of the country going in, as I’ve never heard a bad word about it, so what was my experience?
It’s safe, peaceful, relaxed and very clean
As expected, it was a very laid back 10 days, which was great after so much chaos in Egypt and Morocco. From the sparkling new airport to the streets of Muscat to the desert highways connecting the cities, the country is very clean and well organized.
Oman is known for having a remarkably peaceful modern history despite being geographically located in a region that has seen a lot of conflict. I felt completely safe the entire time and would have no hesitation walking through a poorly lit area alone at night.
In regards to traveling as a same sex couple, we had absolutely no eyebrows raised and at our first hotel just outside Sur we had booked a twin bed, and were offered a free upgrade to a much larger room with one king size bed.
Every local we interacted with was welcoming, respectful, friendly and very relaxed. It’s worth noting that as in other wealthy Arabic countries, most service staff were not locals, I believe they were mostly from India, Indonesia and the Philippines.
There were fewer tourists than expected
We visited in mid-November which is, I understand, the start of their peak season.
It was extremely hot during the days, but not unbearably so. I thought there would be plenty of tourists everywhere but other than at a couple of the most popular attractions in Oman, like the Kaboos Mosque and Wadi Shab, we rarely saw other tourists.
Wadis, forts, mosques and beaches
These seemed to be the main things to do in Oman.
There are loads of wadis (valleys) that can be explored, and it was fun to hike through the valleys and then swim in the cool water during the hot days. Wadi Shab was my favourite as it has a secret cave with an indoor waterfall that can only be reached by swimming through an extremely narrow gap in the rocks. This certainly wasn’t for anyone claustrophobic.
There are historical forts and castles to explore in towns all around the country. Jibreen Castle just outside Nizwa was our favourite because it was beautifully restored, had a great audio guide and was very affordable to visit.
Like every Muslim country I have visited, there have been impressive mosques open to tourists. We chose Sultan Kaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, which was well worth a visit.
The thing about the wadis, mosques and forts was that they are all quite similar, and once you’ve seen one wadi, for example, there’s not a big huge need to see other wadis, so you may get bored.
As for the beaches, I’ll discuss them below, as that was a big part of why we chose Oman.
It was far less developed for tourism than expected
This was both a positive and negative thing for us personally. It was great that everything felt authentic, and there were no tour buses around, or being herded like cattle through attractions.
Other than when we were deep in the Muscat Souq we were not once hassled to buy anything — Oman is a wealthy country, and it didn’t seem to be in their culture to sell, sell, sell to tourists.
The downside of this is that there aren’t as many facilities for tourists as we expected, or often wanted. Outside of a few five star resorts on the northwest coast, the hotels weren’t great (or cheap).
The buffet breakfast at the (3-star) hotel we stayed at in Muscat was the worst hotel breakfast I have ever had. The only reason I braved it the second morning was to see if anything had been improved from the previous day (it hadn’t).
Outside of the Radisson Blu I would not return to any of the hotels we stayed at.
It was also difficult to find somewhere to grab lunch on the go each day. There were a few western fast food chain restaurants (KFC, McDonalds, Burger King, etc.) in major towns, and while there were plenty of signs advertising photos of lunch type food outside (burgers, shawarmas, falafel), when we would walk inside we were often uncomfortable with the hygiene of the venue, or they would not actually sell what they advertised in photographs outside.
We were hoping to be able to have a meal or a drink at some of the tourist attractions we visited but there would often be absolutely nothing around it at all.
Oh my goodness I loved the hats. This was probably my favourite thing about the entire country. Omanis are incredibly proud and patriotic of their country and one of the ways they express this is by most local men wearing traditional kuma hats.
They are bright, colorful, beautifully made and I think they look terrific.
I’m not sure when (or if) I would ever wear it, but I may have bought one from a souq in Muscat…
It was both expensive, and affordable
Accommodation, for what we got, was expensive. Car hire was also fairly expensive. Oman is not what I would consider to be a cheap destination.
There are a few five star resorts that are ideal to arrive at and not leave for a week. We spent 48 hours at the Radisson Blu Sohar and did not leave the property the entire time because it had everything we needed in the one place. But everything there was quite expensive.
If you did want to go somewhere to just relax and unwind for a week in a luxury resort you can certainly do that, but your money will go much further in, say, Southeast Asia. I have been spoilt growing up in Australia with Asia at my doorstep, which has everything I want in a holiday at a very affordable price.
But Oman was unexpectedly affordable in that we didn’t have much opportunity to actually spend money. Outside of resorts there wasn’t alcohol for sale in many places (it was reasonably expensive at resorts though), so even though we would have liked to have a few drinks at the beach there was no opportunity to do so.
Our big hotels in both Muscat and Nizwa did not sell alcohol at all.
Local restaurants, while they had great food, were mostly deserted and we would be served very quickly so would be in and out within 30 minutes. It didn’t seem to be a thing to linger over a long dinner so we never spent much time or money on meals. We found one of the best restaurants in Muscat for our last night and were in and out in 40 minutes.
We found the food to be a mix of Arabic and Indian flavors, though most tourists we saw seemed to be South Asian so this may have influenced the cuisine.
Outside of Muscat and Nizwa there also were not many souvenirs. Driving from attraction to attraction there would often be no shops along the way outside of coffee shops, barber shops and the occasional supermarket.
Petrol, by the way, is incredibly cheap in Oman.
The beaches… weren’t amazing
Being Australian I’m used to some of the best beaches in the world, and I am obsessed with a good beach. Many of my trips have centred around finding amazing beaches. While the beaches in Oman were usually completely deserted and a few did have white sand, they weren’t otherwise somewhere we spent a huge amount of time.
Though the country is very clean, there was rubbish floating in the water in most of the beaches we went to. The water also was so hot that it was like taking a bath, and we could only stay in the water for short amounts of time. The water was pretty cloudy and the ocean floor was rocky, so not particularly pleasant to walk on.
They were often located just off a major highway so we didn’t feel comfortable lying in just swimwear with lorries hurtling past constantly. We noticed the locals only seemed to visit the beaches in the evenings when it was cooler.
You can drive your car right onto the beach, which is great if the beach is deserted, but can lead to people racing their 4WDs down the beach past you at any time of the day or night, which is not remotely relaxing. Also, be aware that there were absolutely no facilities at any of the beaches we went to — no cafes, shops, vendors, bathrooms, etc.
Oddly there are bins everywhere in the country (even in the middle of nowhere) which helps keep the country so clean.
You need a car, but it was very easy to get around
We hired a four wheel drive, which was nice to have, but we could have also managed fine with a two wheel drive/compact. This was because we didn’t go much off road driving as we had spent time doing that in both Morocco and Jordan, so didn’t feel the need to do it again in Oman.
We could have also done a night in a traditional desert camp but we had done this in both Morocco and Jordan, and it was much more expensive to also do in Oman, so we skipped it.
The roads are very well maintained and well signed. There was quite a bit of traffic in the main towns, especially around prayer time, but otherwise it was very easy to get around. I would highly recommend either a GPS, or local sim card to navigate.
By the way there are fixed speed cameras absolutely everywhere in Oman on the main highways — I had never seen so many in my life.
Overall, I would say I really liked Oman, but I didn’t love it.
I had very high expectations (perhaps unreasonably so) and unfortunately I don’t think they were quite met. Perhaps I just had some ‘Middle East fatigue’ after spending so much time in the region.
There were several days there when we struggling to find something to do (especially in Muscat), and we could not revert to our standard relaxation, like going to the beach for the day, because the beaches weren’t quite what we were looking for.
It’s a big county, and each attraction was quite spread out, so we spent many hours driving each day, but some attractions we arrived at and were underwhelmed. I guess as such a wealthy country they don’t really need tourists so haven’t invested that much into what tourists want?
Even though this is harsh to say, as its a beautiful country with beautiful people, but we found it a little… boring perhaps?
Oman is certainly an easy and relaxing place to visit, but if that is all you are looking for there are other countries that are easier to get to, provide better value and have better facilities for international tourists.
I would say I slightly preferred Jordan of all the places I’ve been in the Middle East, as it is a relatively small country with easily accessible, impressive attractions and facilities.
Have you visited Oman? What was your impression?