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Oman: A Fantastical Arabian Adventure for all the Family

Oman: A Fantastical Arabian Adventure for all the Family

Oman represents a treasure trove of experiences for families. Let’s get children’s priorities straight; swimming does come before souks and henna before history, but with careful planning, a fun balance is easily struck. Oman is sunny, clean, has next to no crime, is exceptionally friendly and over half the population speaks English. So much of Oman is familiar to little ears; tales of Sinbad and Ali Baba, treasure souks, Aladdin and his Genie and the Queen of Sheba. Children watch camels mingle with limousines; spotting satellite dishes on ancient forts and see how the past can live hand in hand with the present.

For millennia water was the Sultanate’s most precious commodity, but when oil was discovered in the 1970s, Oman enjoyed new prosperity. Keen to protect its culture, it moved at its own pace, slower than its neighbours, taking time to observe and learn. You could be left unaware of many modernisations; the telephone exchange looks like an old fort; new buildings are built in traditional style and the government has laid over 700 kilometres of pipelines under the sea, to preserve the views. Oil brought the car industry, which in turn meant roads. At the start of the Sandhurst-trained Sultan’s  reign there were only ten kilometres of tarmac anywhere in the land; today over 10,000 kilometres of treacle smooth surfaces stretch across Qaboos bin Said’s nation. And they love him for it.

Strong traditions

Tradition still reigns strong in Omani society. It is commonplace to light frankincense and sprinkle rose water on the hands of guests in honour of their visit. Men are elegantly dressed in cool flowing white dishdasha with scented furakha or tassel and intricate filigree-worked silver khanjar hanging from the waist – purely for decoration our affable guide Hussain assured. In comparison women are predominantly dressed in black abayas and gold or indigo burkhas emphasising flamboyant eye make-up, colourful jewellery and diaphanous veils.

In a land made rich on trading there are plenty of shopping opportunities for local produce from each region. From the tenth century, dhows sailed to far reaching shores creating an Omani empire that stretched from exotic Zanzibar to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, trading in everything from silks and spices, to warriors and slaves. Hussain knew how to hook the children’s attention as he engaged them in tales of Sinbad the Sailor and his travels in search of treasure across the globe.

Muscat’s a singularly sanitary city where you’re fined more for a dirty car than for speeding – the spotless roads are lined with whitewashed villas, manicured municipal gardens. Locals are particularly proud of their new mosque. Finished in 2001 and costing more than three hundred million dollars, its cool shiny marble exterior defies the intricate grandiosity that lies within. Home to the largest carpet in the world, an Iranian masterpiece, which took six hundred women three years to weave, not to mention the seven-tonne Swarovski crystal chandelier whose droplets radiate a golden light over the 6,000 all-male congregation – Islam is very much alive. Children over ten are allowed in but need to cover their heads with the scarves provided at the entrance. Muttrah’s fish market is a real eye-opener for children. Packed to the brim with white-robed men touting a ‘stinky’ array of giant gambas, waist high tuna and eponymous trumpet fish. The nearby souk is good for souvenir shopping and local produce such as pink rose buds, painted perfume bottles of precious frankincense, simple kunjas and cotton dishdasha (at a mere ten dollars an irresistible buy).

Dramatic and memorable

Muscat now has two luxury family-orientated hotels. The newest is the vast Shangri-La Barr al Jissah Resort, which is really three hotels rolled into one mega-resort. For families the best choice is the Al Waha section with its complex of interconnecting shallow pools where kids can let off steam to their hearts content without upsetting anyone. However, our favourite hotel was a little further down the coast. Arriving at the Al Bustan Palace Hotel at night was dramatic and memorable. It sits in an oasis between beach and mountains like a knight’s sanctuary, its opalescent dome, turrets and archways shimmering as searchlights criss-crossed the starry skies. The Chinese restaurant was particularly good and amazingly well set up for children, who decided that Chinese, eaten with chopsticks held together with elastic bands followed by novel fortune cookies, was their new favourite food.

Each day we snorkelled with the resident turtles, and, just as we despaired of seeing dolphins in the bay, we spotted three gracefully dipping and diving only metres from the shore. Al Bustan’s scenic beach is great for kids – hundreds of metres of private paradise. You literally walk the red carpet down to the shore, rolled and unrolled each day to save you from scorching your feet.

A two-hour drive from Muscat, through the dramatic Hajar Mountains, lies the fortified town of Nizwa, Oman’s old capital. Make sure you go early on a Friday morning, market day, when hectic scenes of cattle and goat trading display locals in full swing. Auction fever is everywhere.In the vegetable souk, blind men, not privy to eye-medication in the pre-oil days, handled knobbly green pumpkins, huge vats of fresh limes and mountains of coriander and garlic. Interestingly the Bedouin tribes, who spend all day working in the sun, have no eye problems due to the henna-like substance called Kyhal they paint on their faces.

After a wander around Nizwa we proceeded through the ruined village of Tanuf to Jabrin, one of hundreds of forts being restored throughout Oman. We wound our way through the lovely town of Bahla and its famous pottery factories stopping to stare at the old fort currently being renovated by UNESCO. In Jabrin we delved into a seventeenth-century castle with wonderful hideaways and painted ceilings. The children found some young Omanis to play hide and seek with, as they chased along the Falaj, the ancient irrigation system, which flows through its ramparts.

Aladdin and the Genie’s cave

Other overnight trips included four-wheel-drive Wadi bashing, camping under the stars on a hundred-metre-high wave of sand in the Wahiba Dunes in a tent made of goat’s hair; swimming in the Wadi Shab – a lush oasis of palm trees, mangos and bananas – and watching turtles hatch under a full moon. The second largest cave in the world has been discovered in Wadi Bani Jabir – the size of seven aircraft hangars – and is said to be the home of the Genie (think Aladdin). Covered in colourful stalactites and stalagmites it’s a thrilling sight.

At the other end of the country, Dhofar’s lush greenery, cascades and streams are unique in the Gulf, brought about by the hydrating Khareef monsoon. From the first to third centuries, this part of Oman was actually the wealthiest region in the world due to ancient trade in Arabian horses and pure frankincense. Situated on the coast, Salalah’s unspoiled beaches are ideal for a plethora of water sports and diving activities. Several luxury family-friendly resorts have opened along the stunning stretch of coast – and dozens more are planning to throw open their doors over the next few years. But this quiet land is wise to stay clear of pseudo tourism. Its charm lies in its subtle and rather unassumingly gentle way of introducing tourists to its natural wonders and age-old Islamic-cum-Bedouin culture, secure in the fact that once tasted it is never forgotten.