Imagine a country where visitors are treated like guests, where people wholeheartedly welcome you to their beautiful country – sharing their sweet chai and cardamom flavoured coffee – and where you will fully emerge into the magic of the Orient. A country where ancient irrigation systems channel water running from the high mountains into date-filled lush oases and farmland, where glittering waterfalls await you at the end of walking and swimming through wadis, and where you can reach rugged mountains, clear sea and golden deserts all within a few hours' drive.
We recently found such an awe-inspiring place on a holiday in the Sultanate of Oman – a country on the Arabian Peninsula, more than 25 per cent bigger than the UK and with only four million inhabitants.
The best way to travel around the country is by 4×4 with a local guide, who will help you to understand the culture, but most of all who can easily build bridges between seemingly different traditions and people.
On day one of our tour, our charming and knowledgeable English-speaking Omani guide Salim proudly showed us Muscat's Sultan Quaboos Grand Mosque – the fifth largest mosque in the world – and smoothly navigated us through the frankincense-filled narrow alleys of Muttrah Souq, helping us to bargain for super soft pashmina scarves.
The prettiest camel of them all
Different from other Gulf States, Oman has a rich and diverse landscape and nature. One of the most amazing experiences during our trip was one evening seeing a covering her freshly laid eggs before slowly disappearing into the nighttime ocean. At the same time, we watched a freshly-hatched baby turtle zigzagging across the beach towards the safety of the water.
Every day, long-furred goats crossed our paths – so careful driving was paramount. There is a simple rule regarding goats and incidents with cars: during the day collisions are the drivers' fault, while after dark the farmer is held responsible. Luckily we didn't have to test this rule!
We also met some pretty camels preparing for one of the beauty contests that are held regularly across the country. Every Friday, the strongest and best goats and oxen are auctioned at Nizwa animal market – a real spectacle where different tribes from near and far come together to exchange their goods, including animals and crafts, herbs, (flying?) carpets, fruit and vegetables, or just to catch up over a tea after visiting the Friday prayer in Nizwa's mosque. Seeing local people in their traditional dresses, including some men wearing a kahnjar – a traditional j-shaped dagger – around their waists, really made history feel alive.
Anke Winchenbach visits Oman and finds exhilarating landscapes, fascinating wildlife and extraordinarily friendly people
Magic of the Orient
The UNESCO World Heritage site of and the sites of Nizwa Fort and Jibreen Castle are well worth a visit too, and add to the feeling of being a time traveller. But of course Oman is far from backwards, with a well-organised social welfare system including free health care and education (including universities) for all, women driving cars, and an increasingly diversified economy not only relying on oil and gas, but also engaging in tourism and other service industries.
Tea in the desert
Spending a night at the beautifully designed Sama al Wasil Desert Camp in the vast Wahiba desert made us connect with the wonders of the night sky. There was even a telescope for guests to use. Before dinner the chef unearthed banana palm leaf-wrapped lamb meat that had been cooking for 26 hours while covered under the sand. We've never eaten such mouth-meltingly richly flavoured meat ever before – yum!
One thing we learned during our trip is that an invitation for tea from an Omani doesn't necessarily mean you're actually getting a tea at all. Instead be prepared for large quantities of Indian-flavoured vegetables, curries and rice followed by deliciously sweet halwa, dates and fruit, while resting on comfy cushions on the floor. If you're lucky, you may even get a tea. You certainly won't ever get hungry while in Oman!
In Bait Al Safrah – the old village of Al Hamra – an entrepreneurial young Omani has had the excellent idea of converting his late fathers' house into a charming living museum. Inside the house, elder women demonstrate traditional practices like weaving, coffee milling and bread making, and invite visitors to give it a go too. I received a mini spa treatment with bright orange natural make-up being applied to my forehead – a look that I may or may not take up when back at home.
Oman Grand Canyon
From there our tour continued up to the rugged mountains, offering breathtaking views behind every bend while spiralling up to the abyss of the Oman Grand Canyon, our home for that night. Think the American Grand Canyon – but grander, steeper and with only very few tourists, some staying at the local hotel, and many camping at the cliff's edge. Breathtaking, stunning, humbling, amazing, beautiful – none are big enough words to describe how it felt when walking along the canyon. For the brave, there is even a walk inside the canyon with an overnight stay in one of the caves possible – we opted for a proper bed though.
The next day we left the mountains, taking the most exhilarating drive along the bending dirt tracks through Wadi Bani Anif, a valley with steep cliff edges and few settlements in the fertile patches of land.
After six days of adventure, we finally spent a few relaxing days on the beach at the Millennium Resort in Al Batina coast north of Muscat.
Oman for us was one of the most inspiring, tasty, humbling and simply wonderful holidays we have ever experienced – a holiday where imagination became reality. We had the pleasure of spending a great week with the friendly, fun and knowledgeable tour guide Salem and made lots of new friends along the way. We'll certainly be back for more!
Anke Winchenbach travelled to Oman with award-winning travel operators Travel Matters () and Go Barefoot Travel ()
Anke Winchenbach currently works as a sustainability consultant and trainer at , supporting organisations in the journey towards a new sustainable economy. Understanding clients' needs and collaboratively building knowledge and creating solutions is at the heart of what she's doing and is what she enjoys most. She previously managed the innovative ' project for The Travel Foundation in partnership with PwC, which measured TUI Group's holistic impact in Cyprus. In addition to her consultancy work with a diverse range of clients from the private, public and third sector, Anke is also working towards a PhD in Tourism & Hospitality Management at the University of Surrey, and is passionate about exploring different cultures, pilates and the arts. Contact:
Green Adventures February 2016