Published: March 2011
If you’ve seen the award winning TRAVEL CHANNEL GUIDE TO OMAN, you’ll know that Oman is a country of dramatic landscapes, forts and palaces and ancient cultures. It’s very different from other Gulf States and in recent years has seen a huge increase in the popularity of adventure sports tourism. I visited in January of this year to enjoy a couple of my favourite activities, sailing and bicycling.
You wouldn’t immediately associate Oman with sailing. However, it does have a remote and secluded coastline and some accessible islands worth exploring. For sailing enthusiasts who’ve “been there, done that” in terms of ubiquitous Caribbean or Mediterranean cruising, Oman feels new, exciting, undiscovered. You’re not going to spot hundreds of other boats (on my two day trip we didn’t encounter one other yacht) or fight for anchor space at some allegedly deserted anchorage. Although bare boat charters are available, I joined a skippered cruise on board an Orana 44’ catamaran. Used to sailing a mono hull and used to doing my fare share of chores, cooking, helming etc it was a treat to have everything done for you. However, there were plenty of opportunities to help out the skipper, and the Omani boat boy (a former fisherman) brought a wealth of local knowledge to the experience. Catamarans are far more stable and relaxing to sail and ideal for a family or group of friends. We set off for the Dimaniyat Islands on Oman’s east coast, a marine nature reserve with extensive coral reefs. These totally undeveloped islands seem incredibly isolated even though they’re not far from shore. They’re stunning (although unimaginatively named D1 to D9) with tiny coves of pristine white sand. We had them entirely to ourselves bar what we assumed to be turtles from the marks in the sand. Sadly no turtles were spotted that day but we did enjoy some excellent snorkelling and a face to face encounter with a leopard spotted moray eel. A big plus in this part of the world is the wind speeds which increase in the afternoon averaging 15 -16 knots, so there’s always a chance to do some proper sailing as opposed to just motor cruising.
Every sailor dreams of the next great adventure, leaving it all behind and heading for distant shores. I felt I really got a taste of this on my short cruise. Other places you can explore on a longer sailing itinerary in Oman include the fjord scenery of Bandar Khiran, home to hundreds of species of marine life, coral reefs and turtles in the aptly named Turtle City but if you fancy a more historic journey, you won’t be disappointed with Oman’s capital Muscat. Muscat with the colourful Mutrah Corniche is easily accessed by boat as are the country’s coastal forts, fishing village, souks and colonial landmarks.
My second love, cycling, is also a relatively new tourist activity in Oman. It’s a well know fact that in 1970 there were only 6 miles of paved roads in the country and there’s still only one bicycle shop in Muscat. However, with the Tour of Oman now in its second year, (Oman’s answer to the Tour de France took place this year between 15th and 20th February), the popularity of cycling is on the up.
Wadi Bashing (a 4x4 drive tour through a dried-up river bed) seems so 20th century. I prefer to go back even further and do it under my own steam on a bike. For those used to sit up and beg style biking and smooth, flat urban roads, the shingle roads in Oman take some getting used to. Think how difficult it is to ride a bike in a gravel drive and imagine doing that for miles on end. There’s also the heat, hills and potholes to contend with. However, a day’s mountain biking in the Western Hajar Mountains provides a unique take on the country and its people. Travelling by bike means you get to meet locals and you can stop to photograph a view as and when you want, not through the window of a jeep; there are also lesser known villages to explore and ultimately, that sense of achievement knowing you’ve made it from A to B under your own steam. OK it’s not quite as adventurous as that sounds as you’re followed by a back-up vehicle albeit at a discreet distance. The vehicle carries the cool box, the well deserved delicious picnic lunch, and a first aid kit. For non experienced mountain bikers like myself, the one tip I’d share is don’t pull too firmly on the front brake on a steep decline; it results in a very inelegant tumble straight over the handle bars. The sport in Oman is very much in its infancy but a fascinating roller-coaster ride is guaranteed.
Unlike adventurous me, most first time visitors to Oman stick to the capital Muscat but not getting out and about is a sin. There’s the stunning Musandam Peninsula in the north and the Dhofar region in the far south. The latter’s only an hour’s flight away, but it’s like visiting a totally different country. There are coconut palms as opposed to date palms, the Indian Ocean as opposed to the Arabian Sea and three different kinds of culture – coastal, mountain, and desert. The lush, tropical coast reminds me of Southern India whilst the desert dunes, the start of the famed Empty Quarter, rivalled anything I had seen in Namibia. The Empty Quarter is one of the largest sand deserts in the world. It swallows up most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula including southern Saudi Arabia and parts of Oman, the UAE and Yemen. Salalah on the coast is the administrative capital of the region and Oman’s second largest city. World famous explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes has a soft spot for the city having been based there during a stint in the army. He describes it as “simply the most beautiful place on earth”. I visited Salalah in January but it’s a favourite bolthole for escaping the heat of Muscat in the summer months. From May to September, monsoons hit the area around Salalah making it lush and green. This season is known as the khareef and it’s popular time to visit for its food festival and cultural events.
Everyone’s heard of the Silk Road but the frankincense route passing through the Dhofar region was once equally, if not more, important. Frankincense has been popular since biblical times and was once considered more precious than gold. This aromatic gum resin can be found throughout Oman but particularly in the South where visitors also come to see the frankincense trees. It’s used in a lot of Omani perfumes and is a great gift, though in its resin form, it’s primarily burnt and is a popular way of deodorising Omani homes. Personally as a Catholic, I’ve had my fill of sweet smelling incense. It will forever be the smell of school!
2010 was an important year for The Sultanate of Oman as the country celebrated 40 years of Sultan Qaboos Bin Said’s successful and progressive reign. With modest oil reserves, the tourism industry in Oman is now seen as a critical sector for growth and has a direct impact on the country’s economy. New hotels are springing up including the recently opened Millennium Resort in Mussanah, an exciting addition to the country’s luxury hotel portfolio. The government is also focusing its resources on adventure tourism and it was good to sample a little of what is available as well as explore the lesser known Dhofar region. There’s tremendous tourism potential and I’d highly recommend a visit to holiday makers who perhaps find Dubai now a little over-developed or to adventure junkies looking for an alternative destination and one that’s only a seven hour flight away.
Petra joined Travel Channel for its launch back in 1994. She looked after research and worked on all original productions. Petra was one of the most recognisable faces in the the travel industry and when not on the canape circuit promoting the channel, she spent every free moment travelling. She's visited over 80 countries, mainly as a back packer as opposed to in 5 * luxury, unless of course it was in the name of research!
Petra travelled to Oman with Oman Air and stayed at Millennium Resort Mussanah, Salalah Marriott Resort and the Hilton Salalah Resort
Her sailing trip was organised through Oman Charter and her mountain biking excursion through Global Tours
To find out more about Oman Air visit
To find out more about Millennium Resort, Mussanah visit
To find out more about Salalah Marriott Resort visit
To find out more about Hilton Salalah Resort visit
To find out more about Oman Charter visit
To find out more about Global Tours visit
To find out more about Oman visit