Oman may not be the first country to come to mind when you think of thrilling vacation spots, but its mountain, desert, and wadi adventures are highly underrated. By Rahul Jagtiani
“Fasten your seat belts. We’re about to begin our descent into Muscat. Thank you for flying Oman Air.” My forty winks were shattered by the pilot’s booming voice on the microphone. After a little over two hours of flying from Mumbai, I was about to land in a country that I’d been eyeing for several years—primarily because its countryside made a strong case for an adventurous holiday.
Kareem, my sartorially savvy chauffeur and guide, greeted me genially at the arrival lounge. Dressed in a dishdasha, a traditional white Omani gown, he would be my travel buddy for the next few days, witnessing first-hand my zest for the great outdoors.
A few minutes into the city, I realised I’d got Muscat all wrong. Devoid of shiny glass and steel skyscrapers, with none of the buildings more than 10 storeys high, it was in stark contrast to the picture I had in my head. It was time to reacquaint myself with the Middle-East.
We arrived at the palatial Shangri-La Al Husn Resort & Spa—a property I chose as much for its stunning cliff-top location, overlooking the spectacularly turquoise waters of Gulf of Oman—as I did for its splendid architecture, a nod to the traditional forts of the country. Moreover, this hotel is for adults only, with the family-friendly Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa a stone’s throw away.
As I sauntered through the lobby and a serene courtyard into my spacious, sea-view room, I was struck by a sense of ‘Arabian opulence’. Staving off the temptations of the mini bar, I opted for a healthy Omani seafood platter at the al fresco Bait Al Bahr restaurant, on a private beach.
The port town of Bandar Al Khayran, merely 20 minutes by road, was a gateway to all things aqua. Gary, an Indian from Manipur who worked at Euro Divers Oman, turned out to be perhaps the most thorough instructor I’ve ever had. His beginners’ diving tutorial on the boat was as informative as the 40 priceless minutes spent underwater in his company. Gary eagerly pointed out honeycomb eels, broom tail wrasses, clown fish, lion fish, and sea urchins in the aquamarine world. The ones on the boat who were yet to earn their PADI stripes settled for a snorkelling session, their bare backs swathed in sunblock, and came back equally mesmerised by the corals in the shallows.
The next morning, we drove through the splendid countryside for four hours, pulling into a parking lot in the tiny village of Al Khateem, where I was to trek the Jebel Shams mountain, which offers beautiful views of Wadi Ghul—popularly nicknamed the ‘Grand Canyon of the East’.
Meanwhile, Mohammad from Rove Adventures and his smiling team of two—both named Sayed—waited patiently in the parking lot under the relentless sun. With pleasantries out of the way, he announced, “I’m going to make you sweat,” echoed by both the Sayeds before they let out a sadistic chuckle.
A hike all the way to the summit was ruled out by the team—a decision I wasn’t entirely disappointed with. It would have taken at least five hours, and we risked stumbling into an Omani military base as the sun set—never a good idea. Instead, we opted for a ‘balcony walk’, equally popular and relatively easier.
The sheer beauty of the massive natural wonder made me stop in my tracks on several occasions as we navigated the rugged terrain, a few hikers and the occasional mountain goat for company. One of our stops was a village, abandoned nearly 50 years ago, with dilapidated stone huts that seemed to have been built strategically under the jagged edges of a cliff, providing much needed respite from the scorching Oman sun as well as from monsoon showers.
The bottom of the rim seemed to be the right spot to take a break, but the older Sayed, with more than a hint of grey in his hair, showed little hint of slowing down as he strapped on a harness and a rope to my tired torso. There really is no rest for the wicked! Abseiling, which involves coiling a double rope around the waist as one slowly descends off a rock surface before a sharp vertical drop, was a bit daunting yet exhilarating, and I had an adventurer’s obligation to try it out.
A quintessential Middle Eastern experience is a couple of nights spent deep in Sharqiyah Sands, a desert region in Oman. Kareem hurtled towards a sand dune, a devilish smirk on his face, guessing, accurately, that I wasn’t a fan of the wobbly ride. A sandstorm and several anxious moments later, we finally arrived at our next accommodation.
The Thousand Nights Desert Camp was a revelation. An authentic yet well-appointed dwelling, each ‘room’ was covered with a tastefully decorated tented roof and afforded breathtaking views of golden sand ripples in every direction, especially aesthetic during sunset. My innate desire to show off my new dig online was, however, dashed. There was no access to the Internet.
Digital detox seemed to be the theme, and I took it as a blessing in disguise after I noticed a small group huddled by a bonfire. Bedouins regaled the select audience with their local music and folklore. My own sense of rhythm kicked in as I joined the celebration, with one of the Bedouins handing me a cup and pouring a generous portion of freshly brewed Omani coffee. That balmy Arabian night beautifully captured the desert’s mystical essence and the life of its nomads for me.
The next morning, my plan to wake up before the sun rose went awry—I had fallen into the deepest of slumbers. The Bedouins were now gone, barring one, who, after considerable pleading, allowed me a brief camel ride. I wasn’t denied my Lawrence of Arabia moment, but it was not the camel-ride-across-the-Sharqiyah-Sands story I wanted to brag about.
Sensing my indefatigable pursuit for one last adventure, Kareem swerved off the highway towards Wadi Bani Khalid. A stark contrast to the arid landscape of the desert, it turned out to be the ultimate afternoon refresher. A natural river valley boasting a stunning backdrop of mountains and surrounded by lush palm trees, the wadi is a sought-after spot, especially when the mercury soars.
It was easily a 15-foot jump into the cool emerald green waters in the wadi. The only question was: could I make it? It took a few deep breaths and several self-affirmations before I finally mustered the courage to leapfrog in. “I could get used to this,” I said to myself, gently paddling through the narrow streams nestled between large white rock formations, blissfully unaware of the school of tiny fish swimming around me.
Less than a week and an evident tan later, the real world waited with a smug grin.
Fly Oman Air direct from Mumbai, Bengaluru, New Delhi, and Chennai.
Shangri-La Al Husn Resort & Spa is an exclusive cliff-top retreat, inspired by traditional forts and overlooking the stunning turquoise waters of the Gulf of Oman. The hotel only encourages guests over the age of 16. Doubles from INR 30,000.
Thousand Nights Desert Camp offers a variety of adventures and desert experiences. Stay in traditional rooms or tents of varying styles that offer a glimpse of the Bedoiun way of life. Rooms from INR 16,079.
Zahara Tours provides a diverse range of tours, including heritage, adventure, golf, and turtle watching. You can also book a cruise with them.
Thousands of turtles migrate to the beaches of Oman every year to lay eggs. The hatching season is from April to August.