’Round the world in 72 days: Oman

By Philip Wagenaar
This item appears on page 61 of the June 2011 issue.

by Philip Wagenaar, M.D. (Part eight of a series)

In the March 2011 issue, I described the Indian tribal markets that my wife, Flory, and I visited as part of our ’round-the-world tour. This month, I continue with a story about our travels in Oman.

Before checking in with Oman Air in Mumbai, India, we had thrown away the few sleeping pills we normally carry, as the Omani website listed them as prohibited imports and made it clear we could be jailed or deported if the drugs were found in our possession. To our surprise, when we arrived at Customs, we were just waved through.

The Oman part of our ’round-the-world journey was superbly organized by Barbara Sansone of Original World (Mill Valley, CA; 888/367-6147). The cost of our 10-day visit in November 2009 was $7,270, which included private touring for two, vehicles, driver/guide, hotels and breakfasts.

The Crowne Plaza Hotel

After arrival at Seeb International Airport in Muscat, Oman’s capital, it was as if our world had turned upside-down. Gone was the cacophony of life in India. Instead, we were enveloped by the overall serenity of Oman.

Our Omani guide took us from the airport to the Crowne Plaza Hotel (Muscat; phone +968 24660660 or fax +968 24660600 or, in the US, phone 800/227-6963), one of Muscat’s top-rated accommodations, at which we stayed several nights and used as a base for excursions. (I’m only mentioning hotels that I feel are superior and worth staying at.)

The restaurant’s food was delicious, but the cost reflected it. (We paid for our own dinners.)

One evening, at a seafood buffet, the chef initially prepared two local lobsters for Flory. Figuring that two of the crustaceans weren’t enough for her, he kept bringing additional lobsters to the table every 10 minutes during the next half hour. Breakfast was so sumptuous that it took me half an hour to collect all the treats for the two of us.

Before discussing our tour, I would like to provide an overview of this wonderful country, which should be on everyone’s travel list.

Geography, history & when to go

Most of Oman is desert. The majority of the population lives along the Batinah Coast, a flatland that extends from Muscat to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It is separated from the rest of the country by the Hajar Mountains in the north, where travelers encounter primeval villages connected by ancient donkey trails and footpaths. At the coast, you may find steep coves and unspoiled white-sand beaches.

The best time to visit Oman, which is about the size of Kansas, is between November and mid March, when it is cooler. (In December, daytime temperatures in Muscat vary between 64°F and 80°F).

While, 40 years ago, Oman suffered tribal wars and had only one secondary school, this changed in 1970 when Sultan Quaboos bin Said became the country’s ultimate authority and started to modernize the country.

Although modernization is ongoing, Oman takes pride in preserving its past, as is evident from the many restored forts, the numerous whitewashed and sand-colored buildings and the relative lack of high-rises.

Thanks to the Sultan’s benevolence, the country is now peaceful, has a low crime rate (our guide left his engine running and his car doors unlocked while we were sightseeing) and possesses excellent hospitals. Universities are free to those with good grades; roads are mostly paved, and electricity has reached remote villages. There is no personal income tax, even though Oman has fewer oil reserves than many other Arab countries.

We found the Omanis polite, helpful and respectful of each other. They wouldn’t think of touching anything that belongs to another person.

Omani dress

Omani men wear the dishdasha, an ankle-length, collarless, long-sleeved robe, usually white, that buttons at the neck, in combination with a mussar (turban) or a kumma (embroidered cap). The dishdasha blends in well with the Omani landscape.

Contrary to the norm a few years ago, many Muslim women today wear the abaya, a long-sleeved dress, usually polyester, which covers the whole body except the face, feet and hands. The abaya can be colorful and fashionable and may even be transparent. Other women wear gorgeous traditional dresses.

A hijab (scarf to cover the head) complements the outfit. A veil is optional. The Sultan has forbidden the covering of employees’ faces in public office.

Landscape and natural environment

Oman has many places of natural beauty, most of which can be visited only by navigating unpaved roads and wadis, which requires the use of four-wheel-drive vehicles and an experienced driver.

Wadis are riverbeds that are dry except after sporadic heavy precipitation, when flash floods may occur. However, some wadis have springs and streams, giving rise to oases around which people have lived for thousands of years.

Irrigation in all of Oman is provided by an ancient system of channels (thought to date from 2,500 BC) known as aflāj (singular, falāj). These originate in wells near the foot of mountains and often run underground. The water is propelled by gravity. Numerous watchtowers protect the irrigation system.

UNESCO collectively designated the aflāj a World Heritage Site.


Every trip we took in Oman was a highlight.

On some tours, our driver demonstrated his skills by coursing up and down the boulders of the hilly desert… until he realized that we were not thrilled with his machinations.

On others, we maneuvered on hard-packed beaches near Muscat, where the cooling wind provided relief from the muggy heat.

On a dunes excursion, our driver had to let some of the air out of the 4WD SUV’s tires to prevent its getting stuck in the soft sand.

When driving through wadis, we frequently had to cross streams and circumvent rocks. On occasion, our car was submerged in deep ponds, with the water reaching the bottom of the side windows. Afterward, as a reward, we would picnic in the shade provided by trees in an oasis located in the riverbed.

Wadi Bani Awf

The day after our arrival, we took a superb round trip through the Hajar Mountains from Muscat to Wadi Bani Awf.

Inside this wadi, a steep, bumpy, 43-mile road — the first six miles of which traversed a narrow, 300-foot-deep canyon — switchbacked up to the Sharfat al-Alamayn viewpoint, after which a long descent led to the marvelously located ancient village of Ha’at. Wires, on which the courageous can cross the wadi, were suspended between the two rims.

While the road at the beginning of the wadi was full of mango trees, the last part wound through pools, rocks and waterfalls toward Bilat Sayt. This picturesque village, surrounded by date palms and terraced fields, has stone-and-mud homes, some two to three floors high, which are set like steps on a hill and are connected by narrow alleyways.

Water, originating in the mountains, feeds the two main afla¯j of the village. In summer, villagers hunt in nearby mountain caves for honey stashed away by wild bees.

Watch for details of additional exciting Oman excursions in the next installment of our ’round-the-world trip.