MUSCAT/NIZWA/AL JEBAL AL AKHDAR/WAHIBA SANDS/WADI BANI KHALID/SUR/WADI SHAB/SALALAH
- When: 16 December 2021- 2 January 2022
- Where (accommodations): Muscat: Kempinski Hotel Muscat, Al Bustan Palace, A Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Novotel Muscat airport; Nizwa: Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort; Hail Al Shas Al Hamra: The View; Wahiba Sands: Desert Nights Camp; Sur: Al Ayjah Plaza Hotel; Salalah: Salalah Rotana Resort
- Transportation: Turkish Airlines from Boston to Istanbul and from Istanbul to Muscat, Oman. Oman Air from Muscat to Salalah. Rental car: Muscat airport: Europcar; Salalah airport: Budget
- Sights/attractions: Muscat: Half day snorkeling trip to Daymaniyat Islands (Mar Mar Boat), Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Royal Opera House, Al Alam Palace, Mutrah Souq and Mutrah Corniche; Nizwa: Nizwa Fort; Jebel Akhdar: Bahla Fort, Jibreen Castle; Al Hamra: Bait al Safah museum, Old Town; Wahiba Sands: Dune bashing excursion; Wadis: Wadi Bani Khalid, Wadi Shab, Bimmah Sinkhole; Sur: Al Ayjah Lighthouse, Bibi Maryam Mausoleum; Salalah: sunset cruise with ABT divers.
- Food/drinks: Muscat: Zale (Kempinski Hotel Muscat), The Pavilion (Al Bustan Palace, A Ritz- Carlton Hotel), Caramel Restaurant & Lounge (Royal Opera House), Bait al Luban Omani Restaurant (Mutrah Corniche), Theatrum Restaurant (Novotel Muscat airport); Al Jabal Al Akhdar: Bella Vista and Al Qalaa (Anantara Al Jabar Al Akhdar); Nizwa: Dynamite Lab Cafe; Sur: Zaki Restaurant; Salalah: Sugar Pause Cafe.
Why Oman? We got asked that a lot once we told people our plans for the holidays. There is a little back story for ‘why’. About a year ago, vacationing in the most beautiful country in the world (in our opinion)- French Polynesia, Sean and I met a couple of travelers. We started chatting and, since they’ve seen a lot of the world, we asked what was their favorite country – “Oman!” The answer came without much hesitation. O-what? We could not believe it. I think I had to check the map to even confirm where this country exactly is. That’s how it got put on ‘the list’. We don’t have an actual list, but there are always places in our minds that we’d like to eventually visit. With Covid still spreading like wildfire, and lots of countries being closed for tourists, it was a fairly short tally to consider for this Christmas/New Year’s break. One requirement was that it would be warm. The other- that there would be a beach. There is of course the Caribbean, but that felt too close for a two week trip. And then we remembered Oman! Luck would have it, this country has a great vaccination rate, very low Covid cases, and reopened for tourism in the fall of 2021. The Middle East is also a somewhat convenient place to meet up with my sister and brother-in-law, who live in Germany. They agreed to vacation with us for the whole two weeks and so it was settled- we are going to Oman!
2 week Oman itinerary
16Dec2021- Departure from Boston, via Istanbul, Turkey.
18Dec2021- Arrival to Muscat, Oman. Check into Kempinski Muscat hotel early in the morning (around 3am). Morning/half day snorkeling excursion (9am-2pm) to Daymaniyat Islands. Afternoon relax at the hotel.
19Dec2021- Pick up rental car from the airport, collect Agne and Cosimo from the Novotel Airport Hotel and drive to the mountains (2hr15 min)- Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort.
20Dec2021-Enjoy beautiful resort and the surrounding nature.
21Dec2021 Drive to Nizwa Fort (1hr drive). Visit Al Hamra Old Town (45 min drive). Arrive to The View hotel- 4×4 is a must (20min drive). Make sure to arrive before sunset for incredible views.
22Dec2021 Go to Bahla Fort (45min drive) and Jibreen Castle (15 min). Drive to Desert Nights Camp (2.5hr drive), deflate the tires before driving on the sand!
23Dec2021 Dune bashing in the Wahiba Sands.
24Dec2021 Drive to Wadi Bani Khalid (1hr20min), swim in the warm canyon waters, go to Sur (2hr20min), stop at the Lighthouse and check in Al Ayjah Palace. Christmas Eve dinner.
25Dec2021 Go by Bibi Maryam Mausoleum (40 min), hike/swim in Wadi Shab (15 min drive) (make sure to bring water shoes), stop by Bimmah Sinkhole (25 min drive), arrive to Al Bustan Palace in Muscat for Christmas dinner (1hr 30 min).
26Dec2021- Sightsee Muscat.
27Dec2021 Fly to Salalah, Salalah Rotana Resort.
27Dec-1Jan2022 – Enjoy the beach, go on a sunset cruise, celebrate New Year’s. Relaxing part of the trip!
1Jan2022- Fly back to Muscat, spend the night at Novotel Airport hotel.
2Jan2022- Flight back to Boston.
This may seem like busy two weeks, but for us it probably was one of the most relaxed/laid back itineraries to date 🙂 . With different Covid restrictions for various countries we did not attempt to add anything else to the mix. One e-visa, one PCR Covid test (no more than 96hrs before travel), one online form to fill out and the entrance to Oman was fairly easy. I have to mention that both PCR test, and the vaccination records that had to be uploaded to the Oman government website prior to travel need to have a QR code.
Useful facts about Sultanate of Oman
LOCATION: This Middle Eastern country is situated in the Arabian Peninsula, sharing land borders with Saudi Arabia, UAE and Yemen. Official language is Arabic, but we had no problem with English whatsoever.
MONEY: 1 OMR (Omani Rial) is around 2.6 USD, so we did not feel rich by any means 🙂 . Take out some cash at the ATM upon arrival. Credit cards are widely accepted, but there are places that cash only will be needed (such as taxis).
ATTIRE: For the most part only light clothes will be needed, especially if you don’t leave Muscat. However, in the mountains we were glad to have brought jackets and warm leggings for the evening. I’ve read a lot about the dress code before traveling and updated my wardrobe accordingly. It is not a super strict country, but a lot more traditional compared to Dubai. Both my sister and I brought longer than we usually wear skirts/dresses, did not wear any skimpy shorts or revealing tank tops, but other than that it was not a place to be covered head to toe. Of course, locals were dressed mainly in traditional clothes, but nobody stared/pointed or made any requests to cover up when it comes to tourists. The only exception was the mosque- our long skirts were not long enough and the arms needed to be fully covered, so we purchased abayas and got wrapped with the head scarves to be appropriate. Men on the other hand had no restrictions to be wandering around in short sleeves. While you are in a hotel/resort you can wear whatever you want- from Brazilian bikinis, to short dresses- no rules apply when it comes to wardrobe.
DRIVING: Renting a car and driving is super easy. All signs are in both Arabic and English (we learned Arabic numbers while watching the speed limits). Roads are wide, smooth and with very little traffic. Locals drive fast, so if you notice someone tailing you, just get out of the way. There are a lot of speed monitors/cameras, so obey the speed limit if you don’t want a ticket. Rental cars actually have an alarm installed- it was beeping once we reached 120km/hr and it took us a while to understand why is the car making this annoying noise 🙂 ! If you plan to do a similar itinerary, rent a 4×4. That is the only way to get up to the mountains and to drive in the desert. Also, watch out for speed bumps! A lot of times they are unmarked and sneak up on you by surprise.
Now that you have a general idea about Oman, more about our trip in detail.
Capital city is the most populated in Oman and very spread out. There are several areas that you can walk around, but from one to the next you will definitely need a car (or taxi). Parking is very easy to find and it was free everywhere we parked, so once again, having a rental came in handy. We spent only a few days in Muscat- a day on each end of the trip, so I cannot say that we saw it all, but there are a few places not to miss.
SIGHTS AND EXCURSIONS
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
Absolutely beautiful. One of the most gorgeous mosques we have had a pleasure to visit. If you choose one sight in Muscat, this should be it. Make sure to arrive early- it’s only open for tourists from 8.30am until 11am all days of the week except Fridays.
Can you even believe this chandelier? Weighing 8.5 tons it contains 600,000 Swarovski crystals and used to be the world’s largest chandelier (now it’s second largest after the mosque in Abu Dhabi). Another grand feature is the carpet- hand woven, made using natural dyes this carpet is a work of art.
To visit the mosque you have to dress appropriately. For women it means floor length dress or pants, covered arms and head. Colorful robes are sold right at the entrance and they help you put them on over your own clothes. It was pretty hot, that’s another reason to go early in the morning. For men, the only requirement is pants. Short sleeves are allowed.
Mutrah Souq and Mutrah Corniche
Who doesn’t like to do some shopping while on vacation? We checked out both Mall of Oman and the more traditional Mutrah Souq. The mall is nice and spacious, but to be honest no different from your regular Western mall. Maybe with exception of the amount of stores that sell perfumes. It seemed like a third of a mall was dedicated to perfumeries.
The Mutrah Souq on the other hand is much more fun (until you get tired of saying “no, thank you”). Vendors were not too pushy, but prepare to bargain and to stand your ground. We purposely went into a store where nobody tried to sell us anything and did all our shopping there.
The Souq is located right near the beautiful path along the harbor called Mutrah Corniche. The path is long and you could spend the whole afternoon there. We did not have much time, but liked strolling around for a bit.
Royal Opera House
We did not see the opera of course, but walked around the spectacular building. I’ve read that it’s best to visit at night and I could not agree more. Shiny tiles around the Royal Opera House makes it look like it’s reflecting on water. We got slightly too close and security came out to tell us to back off, but we managed to snap some nice pictures 🙂 .
Al Alam Palace
Located in the Old Muscat, this palace is one of six residences belonging to the Sultan and was used as ceremonial palace by Sultan Quaboos bin Said al Said. The Palace, along with the government buildings and the fort looks beautiful lit up in the dark, so we came here after sunset.
If you are in Muscat for more than one day, for SURE book this half day snorkeling trip to Daymaniyat Islands. While the beaches near the hotels in Muscat were fine, the water color, marine life and overall experience in the islands was by far more amazing.
Unfortunately my sister and brother-in-law arrived a day later than us and missed this excursion, but Sean and I had a great time. We booked it through our hotel’s concierge, but you most likely can do so directly. We went with Mar Mar Boat and they were excellent. There are other tour companies as well with the similar itinerary. It was super convenient to stay at Kempinski Hotel for the first few nights in Oman, because the marina where this tour starts is less than 10 min walk away from the hotel. We got on the boat at 9am and were back before 2pm.
It took about 40 min to reach the islands where we snorkeled, swam, relaxed on the beach and saw a ton of colorful fish and numerous turtles! Sandwiches, water and soda were provided for lunch, the water was calm, so the speed boat ride was super pleasant each way. There were not many people and we saw plenty of healthy coral- it really is an incredible uninhabited, marine protected nature reserve. Just the fact that it’s reachable in such a short time from the capital city of Oman is so convenient! The price was 30 OMR pp (approximately 78 USD each) and we would do it again in a heartbeat.
ACCOMMODATION AND FOOD
There are plenty of excellent hotels in Muscat. But as I mentioned, the city is not condensed, so you just have to decide what you’d like to be close to. Since we arrived at 1am, we wanted to be close enough to the airport and the marina, because we knew we’ll do the snorkeling excursion. Kempinski Hotel Muscat fit the bill. Great location (right on the beach), swimming pool and excellent spa. We had couples massages and it was heavenly after sitting on the plane for almost twenty hours. The spa also has sauna, steam room and the jacuzzi, so you can enjoy the facilities before or after your treatment.
Sunrise was spectacular by the pool, for those that like to get up early on vacation, or are simply jet lagged like I was.
We spent two nights there and had good experience.
For Christmas though, we wanted to try something different, and decided on the Al Bustan Palace, A Ritz-Carlton Hotel. I am glad we experienced both, so I can compare. Just the driveway and the entrance to the Al Bustan is so grand and magnificent that Kempinski sadly faded away.
It really felt like staying in a Sultan’s palace! Multiple pools, also on the beach (however, if you compare beaches, I’d say Kempinski’s is slightly better), we truly enjoyed our stay here.
We tried their spa and that was a slight disappointment- great massages (they did not have availability for couples), but steam room was closed and no jacuzzi (not complaining, just stating the facts 🙂 ) .
Even though Kempinski’s location is better, Al Bustan Palace wins overall (in our humble opinion) by far.
For our very last night, after the flight from Salalah and before our international flights home we stayed (not even a full night) at the Novotel Muscat Airport hotel. It’s not right at the airport, but very close, around 8min drive and is super convenient before the flight. Has a pool (we did not see it, since we only came to rest) and a few restaurants on site (again, very convenient if you don’t have much time). Extremely reasonably priced (especially compared to the previous two hotels in Muscat).
When it comes to food in Muscat we had mixed experiences. All breakfasts this whole trip was from the hotels. Some were better, some worse, but we did not have a bad breakfast in any place we stayed. Both Kempinski and Al Bustan had huge breakfast buffets, fresh juices and plenty of fruit. You could order eggs multiple ways and even have fresh coconuts!
Hotel lunches were evenly meh and overpriced at both Kempinski and Al Bustan. We ate by the pool, maybe other restaurants on premises would’ve been better. On one of the days that we went sightseeing Muscat we tried Bait al Luban Omani Restaurant located near the Mutrah Corniche. It was excellent! Every dish was delicious, restaurant’s interior was beautiful and the price was nowhere near what hotel restaurants like to charge.
For dinners in Muscat we had very good luck. Three were in the hotels that we stayed, one near the Royal Opera House. Zale (Kempinski hotel) had a cool vibe (and a DJ!), it was one of our first nights in Oman, so we were super happy to be seated in a warm weather outside.
Oman is predominantly Muslim country and alcohol is not widely consumed, though various options were available at the resorts. I did not find any good cocktails-literally returned every single one and stuck with wine or beer at the end.
There was a big Christmas Eve celebration at the Al Bustan, but we arrived on the Christmas day so we missed it. We booked ourselves dinner at one of their restaurants- The Pavilion. It was great- the service, the food, the table right near the water. For sure not cheap, but it’s Christmas!
When we went to see the Royal Opera House it was dinner time and we saw a few restaurants near by. Some required prior reservations to get in, but Caramel Restaurant & Lounge was available and we got a table on their balcony. Food was excellent, we even considered coming back here for our last night in Oman.
Interestingly enough, they have a side balcony that has a nice view of the Royal Opera House. Yet we were seated on the different, much darker side. Afterwards I asked how come we were not in front of the view and the server explained that that side is too open and they cannot serve alcohol there! Definitely different customs than what we are used to.
On our last evening of the trip, we briefly considered leaving the hotel to get dinner, but my sister’s flight was at four in the morning, ours was at eight, so we decided to stay put and eat at Theatrum Restaurant located right at the Novotel Airport hotel. Turns out it was great- the drink I still sent back (despite looking pretty it tasted like soap), but the food (especially their maki rolls) were very tasty. So much so that I did not even take any pics.
MOUNTAINS ARE CALLING
ANANTARA AL JABAL AL AKHDAR
Just a little over two hours drive from Muscat the scenery changes dramatically. That’s one of the things that we were so amazed about Oman- you could potentially stay in the capital and with day trips be able to see the mountains, desert or the ocean. It would be a lot of driving in one day, which we did not want to do, so we planned sort of a loop. Muscat- mountains-forts- desert- wadis- Muscat. It allowed us to experience incredible nature and at the same time to relax and be able to enjoy the luxury of the resorts.
FYI- to get to Anantara you will need to have a 4×4 vehicle. There is a police check point going into the mountain region where they confirm that you have 4×4. The road is curvy with steep downward angles, but other than that it was not complicated drive at all.
There are numerous activities you could do while in the mountains- hiking, rock climbing, visiting the forts and the castles. We knew we’ll hike later on this trip, so staying two nights at Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar we really just took in the sights of the canyon, woke up for sunrise (some of us) and admired the sunset.
And of course took advantage of the facilities- spa, gorgeous pool, jacuzzis and tennis courts. It was not crowded, no need to reserve anything in advance. This resort is really a dream come true.
Breakfast buffet- similar to the Muscat hotels- fruit, juices, eggs made to order, indoor and outdoor seating available. We had our lunch by the pool and it was delicious and beautifully prepared.
There are a few restaurant choices for dinner depending on a day. We tried Bella Vista– Italian fare, which also had an acrobatic pizza show- totally unexpected treat.
No, we did not eat the pizzas that were thrown around in the air, they made us fresh ones and they came out delicious!
On our second and last night at Anantara we went for the Arabic theme. Al Qualaa was very expensive and we did not find it particularly amazing. Once again I returned the cocktail and had the wine. It was not bad food, just seriously overpriced.
Overall, this resort left a big impression- the views, the service, the amenities. It was sad to leave, but we have a lot more to discover in Oman, so back on the road we go.
On the way to The View we saw Nizwa Fort and the Old Hamra village, but more about that in the next chapter.
You HAVE to get to The View hotel before sunset. The time when the shadows of the mountains get longer, and the sky changes color, it is simply magical. We arrived as the sun was setting and were incredibly grateful to be able to experience it.
To reach this resort you also need a 4×4. The last 7.5km is unpaved road, which is steep, bumpy and yet still a fun adventure.
This is a 4 star hotel with a lot simpler accommodations than Anantara, but nonetheless spectacular. The fact that it’s built in the middle of the mountain is mind-blowing. Nowhere else did we have views like this from the bed/shower and even sitting in the bathroom 🙂 .
Breakfast (buffet) and dinner (also buffet) were simple, but the view made up for any lack of the food variety.
If you can- wake up for sunrise. No need to go anywhere, we watched the mountaintops light up on fire right from our balcony.
It was less than 24hr stay, but since we got to see both sunset and sunrise, it felt complete.
Side note- there was no wifi seemingly anywhere, except the reception. However, our room (they are all individual little houses), room 22 had excellent service! My sister was cut off from the world for the whole stay, while I could stream videos if I wanted to (I did in fact do a quick workout on the patio)!
Just as from Anantara, The View is a great base for hiking and exploring nearby forts and castles. We had enough (is it ever really enough?) mountain views, it’s time to dive into some rich Omani history!
GOING BACK IN TIME
One hour drive from Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar and 1h 10 min drive from The View, this fort is convenient to visit from either location. Built in 1650s this castle is a popular tourist destination. Nizwa Fort is one of the oldest forts in Oman and has a unique round shape. It costs 5 OMR ($13) for non Omani to enter.
We spent about an hour wandering around, climbing the towers and checking out the near by Nizwa Souq. A lot of the stores were closed mid-day and it was hot- bring some water would be my advice.
Since this fort is only 1hr45 min away from Muscat, it could easily be visited as a day trip as well. For sure not to be missed if you are in the mountains!
OLD AL HAMRA VILLAGE
Located 45 min from Nizwa, 2 hrs from Muscat and just around 25 min from The View stands the abandoned Old Al Hamra Village. Falling apart houses made of mud bricks, ruins that still have beautifully decorated doors, some trash, but overall not too bad- it’s like you are wandering around in some post-apocalyptic movie set.
Al Hamra town is around 400 yrs old and is well populated, lively town. It was built around this 700-1000yrs old village, which was simply abandoned! People wanted to have modern houses, so they left and the ruins remained. There was no disease or a bomb that was dropped here- they wanted a more modern living, that was it! We were kind of hoping to hear some mysterious story, but there was none 🙂 .
While you are in the village, make sure to visit Bait Al Safah– living history museum. Even though we had it marked in our Google Maps as a place to visit, we completely forgot about it while wondering around the ruins. We saw the open door and heard people, so we went in to ask more about this abandoned place. Turns out we ventured into a museum dedicated specifically to demonstrate the old Omani lifestyle!
Locals that work there showed how traditional Omani bread was made, how they prepared the coffee, explained to us (and you could purchase) about the oils and perfumes. It was very interesting and informative, we couldn’t stay for tea because we wanted to make it to The View before sunset, but it was a well worth the stop.
After breakfast with the view (at The View) we went to check out another important historical landmark- Bahla Fort. It was only 45 min drive, we mapped our route so that we wouldn’t have to sit in the car for hours on end.
One of the oldest fortresses in the country, this 13th century fort underwent significant renovations in 2012 and is UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987.
You don’t need much time here, there are no rooms with artifacts (Sean was complaining about that 🙂 ). It’s still interesting to visit and fun to explore. Again it was hot, so try to time it up for earlier in the morning/late afternoon, unless you don’t mind sweating a bit.
Whatever tour you are on- personal or with a group, you cannot miss Jibreen (also spelled Jabreen or Jabrin) Castle. It was our favorite. Only 13 min drive from Bahla Fort this beautiful 17th century castle is an excellent place to learn about Oman history. The cost differs if you are a resident, I tried to say we are Omani and the girl at the entrance literally snorted from laughter : ) .
There were PLENTY of artifacts for Sean to look at 🙂 . Make sure to take the audio tour- as you move around the castle, different areas/objects are numbered, so you can hear interesting info about them and learn more about the history of Oman Sultanate overall.
One of the fun facts that I recall is about dates. This fruit is very valued and traditional to Oman cuisine and culture. Dates are served as a welcome symbol (we had them at pretty much every hotel upon arrival), but that is not all. In Jibreen Castle, date juice/thick syrup was also used for defense! Crushed dates juice would trickle down the special groves into a container, where it could be heated and poured over the invaders (ouch!). We really enjoyed this monument and got enough of the history fix for the rest of the trip. Time for some fun in the sand!
2.5hr drive from Jibreen Castle, that’s all it took to reach Wahiba Sands Desert. Well, not even the desert, but the actual Desert Nights Camp, where we’ll spend two wonderful nights. There are other camps, but we chose this one based on the proximity, cost and of course great reviews. There are a few things to know before getting there. If you don’t have a 4×4, the camp staff can come pick you up at the gas station, where you would leave your car. That cost extra and you basically abandon your rental for however many nights you plan to stay in the desert. We didn’t want to do that, and we had a 4×4, so the only thing we had to do is to go to the closest gas station and deflate the tires a bit (I think it was to level 21). We didn’t even need to get out of the car, gas station employees are used to this, so they took care of the tire pressure while they refueled the car at the same time. The reason behind this (for those that do not know), is that with softer tires it’s easier to drive on the sand.
DESERT NIGHTS CAMP
Unpaved stretch of sand is about 10km long and was a bit scary at first. The car is swerving like on ice, so I kept yelling to Sean ‘slow down! slow down!’. Later on we found out that it’s actually BETTER to go fast. That way the car is making its own path, rather than trying to fit into the mold of the previous cars tracks and starts going sideways.
The camp is huge, it offers several different accommodation options from a standard room (that’s what we had) to the super luxury tents with private pools. Our rooms were very comfortable, clean and had incredibly fast wifi. I was shocked to see that the connection was better in the desert than in some of the Muscat hotels 🙂 .
Breakfast and dinner were included in the price of the stay, lunch we paid extra. It’s not like you can go anywhere else while you are surrounded by sand 🙂 .
One might wonder what is there to do in the desert? You won’t be bored for sure. I know we were not. First evening (we arrived just before sunset) we walked around the camp, enjoyed dinner, fire and starry night sky. In the morning we woke up just before sunrise, but did not climb up the dune, so there was not much view. The fog hanging in the valley was cool and the dunes changed color as the sun was coming up.
You could ride a camel (we’ve tried it before, so did not do it now), you can rent ATVs (my brother-in-law really wanted to), you can climb the dunes and then roll down- our first activity after breakfast 🙂 .
Our favorite though was dune bashing! Experienced local driver took us on a rollercoaster ride through the dunes. It was SO much fun. We screamed, we laughed, we went up, down and sideways- I cannot recommend this activity enough!
This excursion took about one hour, but was a perfect afternoon. These dunes are up to 100m (300 feet) tall, so looking down (especially in the front seat) was definitely thrilling.
On our second (and last) evening in the desert we made sure to go see the sunset from the top of the dune. The camp gives free rides up (or you can climb). Sean and I climbed and were kind of cursing our decision 🙂 . It was quite hot and the dune was particularly steep. Well worth it at the end. The color of the dunes during sunset are simply out of this world.
HIKES, WADIS AND BACK TO THE COAST
Adventure in the sand is over, how about some water now? Who’s ready for a swim in the warm, turquoise water pools in a desert oasis? We sure are!
WADI BANI KHALID
Wadi typically means a dry riverbed that contains the water when it rains. It’s also valley in Arabic. Wadis in Oman have water flowing all year round and we could not believe the clarity/color and how warm these streams/pools were! From the Nights Desert Camp to our first wadi experience- Wadi Bani Khalid – was 1hr and 20 min drive.
This is a popular place for locals, so don’t expect to have a place to yourself. We read online that the first pool is the busiest and to walk up a bit, so we did. It was great advice. Most of the families with little kids were swimming in the first pool, while just a short walk up there were way less people.
The place is spectacular. We thought the water in the canyon would be cold (coming from New England and being used to the freezing mountain streams), but it was pretty much the temperature of the heated pool. Tiny fish nibbling the toes, crystal clear and turquoise – it’s a dreamy desert oasis for sure.
There were signs posted about attire. We read before that due to lots of local families spending time in the wadis tourists should dress modestly. We didn’t swim in leggings or T-shirts though. Both me and my sister (and other foreigners that we saw) had one piece bathing suits and it was fine. Nobody stared at us or pointed fingers. But we did not see string bikinis either, which made me think that people read about the rules prior to coming.
What you should absolutely bring is water shoes. Preferably the type that has a good grip on the wet rocks. I had sneakers and put on water shoes just before going in the water, because mine were not fit for a hike. Sean had a pair that was almost like sneakers, but were suitable for both hikes and water, so it was ideal. There is a bathroom close to the entrance, so I’d suggest changing into your bathing suit there and then wear a cover up until you go swimming. This wadi does not involve much hiking, it’s very close to where you park, easily accessible for pretty much all fitness levels 🙂 .
We did not have a specific reason to come to this port city located in the eastern side of Oman, but we needed a break from driving between the destinations that we wanted to visit. Sur is a coastal city and is famous for building traditional wooden boats ‘dhow‘. There is a fort, museums and other tourist attractions, but we arrived pretty tired after swimming the the Wadi Bani Khalid and the drive from there was quite long- almost 2.5 hours. Before checking into hotel we stopped by the famous landmark- Al Ajyah Lighthouse.
I don’t know if that was a random incident, or if other areas of this city are different, but we saw A LOT of trash. Especially along the water. It was quite shocking and sad, because we found Oman very clean everywhere else we traveled. For this reason alone Sur is my least favorite place in this country.
Al-Ajyah Plaza Hotel was simple but clean, very wallet friendly too! I believe it was around 65 USD per night, so total steal.
We had a nice sunset view from the window and they served buffet breakfast in the partially covered patio overlooking the bay.
This was also a place where we celebrated Christmas Eve. After the video calls with our families in Lithuania and Italy, we went out for dinner to the best rated food establishment around- Zaki Restaurant. Tucked in near the beautiful mosque this restaurant from the first glance looked like a hole in the wall. We started doubting our choice until the friendly staff served one of the best Indian meals we’ve had in a long time.
I enjoyed delicious fish curry, we loved palak paneer and other plates. My brother in law mistakenly ordered chicken burger instead of a regular one, so that was a slight disappointment. I guess you have to say you want a beef burger, or else you’ll end up with chicken 🙂 . Not a traditional Christmas Eve, but still a very nice one!
In the evening we checked out Sur Souq. We somehow ended up in the Ladies Souq- gold and textiles were everywhere!
Christmas Day was a busy one for us. A lot of ground to cover and km to drive. We tried to get on the road early, because it was a weekend day, which means the place we are going to might get busy. On the way to Wadi Shab we stopped (literally on the side of the road) to see Bibi Maryam Mausoleum.
It’s a tomb with a not very clear history. Some say that it was built by Baha al-Din Ayaz, king of the Hormuz Empire for his wife Bibi. While others state it was her that built it for him. I don’t know if there is a way to get closer, but since my phone camera has such a great zoom function, we figured there is no point in wasting time trying to find a road to get near by. This view was just around 30 min from our hotel in Sur.
Another 15 min and we reached the parking area for Wadi Shab. We were glad we got up early- there were very few cars when we arrived at 9am (and the lot was completely full when we were leaving around noon). Besides people we saw some other friendly visitors- goats that were not afraid to come near cars in search of food!
Before you can start the hike into the gorge, you have to cross a little body of water. I don’t know if it’s a river/lake or a pond, but it’s literally a 2 min boat ride. The cost is 1 OMR per person (cash) and they go back and forth constantly. The first one is at 8am, last one around 5pm.
Very important- wear comfortable, non slippery shoes and bring water shoes for swimming. The start of the hike is flat and easy, but later on it gets more rocky/steep and in some parts challenging. This is not a hike for elderly or with small children. Carry water.
When you reach the first pool, that is not a swimming area yet (though some people were actually in it). Keep on walking further up, past the fake waterfall (water coming out of a pipe) and when you reach the sign that says “Dear tourists..” look for a most convenient place to get into the water and start swimming up. At the start the pools are very shallow, so you can stand and rest if you need to. Rocks are very slippery, even with water shoes, so just take it easy and slow. Eventually it gets deep and you need to be able to swim for a bit if you want to see the final part (and most exciting) – the cave with a waterfall inside of it!
We left all our clothes on one of the rocks and put the phone/car keys and wallet in a waterproof backpack (it floats if you leave some air in it before closing). We brought GoPro camera, otherwise it’s too long of a swim to hold the phone above the water.
Entrance to the cave is very narrow- your shoulders have to be submerged under the water, head turned sideways and then you squeeze through:) . I thought for a second that we won’t be able to fit through such a small opening, but it went fine! All of us, including the waterproof bag safely made it inside. There is nowhere to stand, so if you need to rest a bit, you have to hold on to the somewhat slippery walls. I am making it sound a lot more difficult than what it is, but you have to be a fairly good swimmer to do this part. We were so lucky to come early- we had the cave all to ourselves. I can’t imagine how messy it gets when a bunch of people line up to squeeze through that narrow opening into it. As soon as we were making our way back, a big group of guys was coming. We just beat the rush!
This hike/swim/cave was one of the top five experiences in Oman for all of us.
About 20 min drive from Wadi Shab we reached another popular tourist attraction- water filled limestone sinkhole. It’s right off the highway, no hiking required, easy walk up and therefore perfect for families with little kids as well. We had enough swimming for the day, so it was just to see, take a few photos and go. It looked nice and if we had not experienced the wadis it probably would’ve been a lot more exotic. It reminded me of cenotes in Mexico.
And with this we end our driving loop. Next stop (1hr 30 min) is back to Muscat where we’ll enjoy Christmas at the Al Bustan Ritz Carlton, sightsee the capital and two days later fly to our final destination in Oman- beautiful Salalah.
NEW YEAR, NEW BEACH
For five blissful nights we’ll relax in the south of Oman – no more running around (unless it’s a run on the beach), no more touristy sights or attractions- just pure happiness and long swims in the warm Arabian Sea.
There are several ways to get to Salalah. One of them would be driving (about 9 hours from Muscat). Daily hour long flights that even serve food are a much better option. We took Air Oman and were very happy with the service. While at the airport we noticed that there are a lot of direct flights from Europe too (no wonder half of our resort was full of Polish, Slovakians, Slovenians and Czechs). We even met one family from Lithuania!
For full disclosure I have to admit that the start in Salalah was not as smooth as the rest of our stay here. We booked Crowne Plaza Resort based on great reviews, which rarely fail us. Of course, coming from The Ritz it was quite a shock. But from the check in, to our rooms- we all felt disappointed. Resort that claims to be 5-star property has A LOT to work on. As an example, initially they tried to put us in a ‘villa’, which we later on saw- the most basic property, far away from the pool/restaurant, with no charm whatsoever and claimed that we ‘will love it there’. Once we found out that it does not have equal type of rooms (we booked ocean view with balcony), we right away declined this ‘upgrade’. When asked about setting up a Covid test for our travel back, we were told to call the local hospital. What is the number? “You can Google it”!
The rooms that we got were outdated, smelled like mold and what broke the camels back was the most annoying loud sound that was reverberating to the point that even earplugs did not help. It was especially loud in my sister’s 4th floor room and, after seeing a few more options that the manager tried to show us, we decided to leave. We’ve never done this before on any trip. But we could not end our magical vacation in a smelly room with loud humming sound. Plus this is where we would celebrate New Years! Sean and Cosimo both got online and found a resort 20 min away- they had two rooms next to each other and were ready to welcome us! At midnight 🙂 ! Our spirits lifted as we piled the suitcases back into the car and left Crowne Plaza behind.
As we talked about this later, we realized how lucky we were to rent a car. We didn’t book it for Salalah in advance, as we planned to just relax at the resort. But once we landed and did the math- we’d need two taxis to get to hotel and to come back to the airport, plus if we want to leave the resort for whatever reason- it made most sense to have that freedom. We were so glad we did! To get a cab in the middle of the night would’ve been problematic and I am sure very expensive.
At Salalah Rotana Resort we instantly felt like home. Authentic Omani style decorations, clean, quiet and also modern- now this is five star hotel!
It was wonderful to wake up here and to start our last week in Oman stress free. Delicious buffet breakfast (not enough fruit and juice options was my only complaint 🙂 ), huge pool (we barely jumped in once), great spa (we got massages twice) and plenty of chairs/umbrellas at the white sand beach.
We swam, played tennis, read, relaxed, ate delicious lunch and it was magical.
Resort was full of Europeans (I believe the owner is Polish) and had a lot of kids, but there was so much space everywhere, that it never felt loud or crowded.
We tried one place for lunch outside the resort (just a few min walk away at the Hawana Salalah Marina) – Sugar Pause. It was excellent!