There is really no better way to experience the beauty and diversity of Oman than through a road trip. So, when I have visitors from out of town, that’s always the first thing I plan. Securing a 4WD vehicle is the second.
This year, I had a houseful, with both my husband’s family and my mother in town at the same time — for the first time. We wanted to give them the full Oman experience: Hajar Mountains, sandy desert dunes, and pristine coastlines. We knew what to do and where to go, but I couldn’t help but feel a sense of dread whenever I imagined five adults packed into a car together for four days. It was the perfect opportunity to do a full-fledged road test of the new Ford Explorer sport, which ended up being the saving grace of our trip.
I hadn’t driven an Explorer since the late 2000s. Despite being an American (or perhaps because of it), I hadn’t driven an American-made SUV since then, aside from rugged Jeeps, opting for more luxurious foreign models. But, let me tell you, as we drove the fully loaded 2016 Explorer Sport over 1,000 kilometres of varied terrain in less than a week with five adults in-tow, my mind was completely blown.
My husband was likewise won over by the thoughtfully designed SUV, which comfortably sat the lot of us plus our luggage, which we neatly packed in the half-row storage space under one of the back row seats, thanks to convenient push-button optional third row seating. There were separate temperature controls for every part of the vehicle along with the added lux touch of seat coolers (and seat heaters for freaks like me who are cold in the middle of summer) for the driver and front row passenger. And it was a dream to drive, starting with the 10-way adjustable driver’s seat, adjustable pedals, and telescopic adjustable steering wheel, to performance-enhancing, touch-of-a-toggle Terrain Management System, which we tested on the steep inclines and declines of Jebel Akhdar, the sandy stretches of Bidiyah, and on a strange winding road through the eastern Hajars that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a freeway or an off-road adventure.
The best thing about all the bells and whistles (check out all the specifics on page 24) was the fact that they all worked exactly as you would want them too. Adaptive cruise control not only decelerates when a vehicle swerves ahead of you, it also speeds back up when you change lanes to pass the crazy yahoo. The navigation, so long a useless source of frustration for me that I had totally stopped trying to use in-car systems, ended up saving us on this trip when we lost our cellphone signals (and along with it our Google route map) between some towering peaks on an unmarked road. The hands-free “kick-open” trunk entry, made loading and unloading a breeze (and it is fun to use) and the keyless entry, which allowed us to walk away from our keyless machine, while taking photos or sightseeing, without our keychain, were simply marvellous.
Other less useful, details, like the colour-customisable interior lighting (nightclub in the car?) worked as advertised and were admittedly fun touches. The days flew, and all five of us, no matter where we were sitting, were relaxed, comfortable, and at ease in what ended up feeling like a luxury tour bus.
So, what about our ultimate overview route? We opted for what I consider the first-timer’s best hits, highlighting the surprising diversity of Oman with excursions to mountain top and seaside, enjoying both luxury to adventure, in true Oman-fashion.
Everyone had a great time. For our families, it was a trip they will never forget, and for my husband and I, it reawakened us to the wonders of this country as we saw it anew through their eyes.
So, next time you find yourself with guests to entertain; grab this itinerary, hop in an SUV, bypass the mall, and head for the open road.
DAY 1: HEAD FOR THE HILLS
There is nothing more stunning than the drive straight up the side of Jebel Akhdar, so be sure to leave in enough time to make the ascent in the daylight. While most camp on the mountain, it is worth a stay at the spectacular Alila hotel, one of the most luxurious properties in the entire country, perched atop the scenic cliffs. They often have special rates for Oman residents, so it is worth checking ahead of time.
12:00pm Have lunch in Muscat and then drive towards Nizwa. Programme Alila Jabal Akhdar into your GPS or Google Maps and enjoy the transforming scenery for the next two hours.
2:00pm Stop for sweet karak tea and Omani bread with cheese from the tea shop at base of Jebel Akhdar before beginning your accent. You’ll soon find out why four wheel drive vehicles are required to get up the hill. (If you don’t have a 4x4, Alila will arrange to pick you up from the checkpoint near the bottom of the mountain for a fee.)
2:30pm Drive up the mountain, pass the turn for Alila and park where the road dead-ends just before the walled-off radio tower, to get some super photos of the stepped orchards of the villages below.
4:00pm Turn back and make your final climb up to Alila and check-in.
A stay at Alila is something truly memorable. It is 25 degrees cooler at the top of the mountain than in Muscat, and it is quiet. Dead quiet. The boutique resort was constructed from local stones and materials and thus it nearly vanishes against the rocky backdrop, adding to its remote air. Amble slowly up a rocky path from your cliff-side suite to the stunning main building where you can soak in an indoor or outdoor Jacuzzi, take a lap in the infinity pool, visit the stellar spa, and enjoy a fresh, thoughtful menu at Juniper Restaurant or at the bar.
5:00pm Get settled into your room and watch the sunset as you enjoy a long soak in your oversize bathtub.
6:30pm Re-joining your group for a three-course dinner overlooking the ravines at Juniper Restaurant.
8:30pm Watch the stars and enjoy a nightcap on the terrace or back in your room on your private balcony.
DAY 2: FROM MOUNTAIN PEAK TO DESERT DUNE
No visit to Oman is complete without seeing the historic town of Nizwa, tucked among the date palms below the towering Hajar mountains, or without a trip to the rippling golden sands of the desert. It is perhaps most dramatic to see them in one day, travelling through the drastically transforming terrain in between. If you aren’t travelling during the summertime, the desert can be a fun place to stay overnight, so long as you don’t mind “roughing it” a bit. Otherwise, it is a long, but well-worthwhile drive to the coast, so you can wake up to a sea breeze the next morning.
8:00am Take a swim and do some sunbathing on one of the four-post outdoor beds arranged around the pool to work-up an appetite for breakfast.
9:30am Head back to Juniper to indulge in the lavish combination of their ala carte menu, breakfast menu and the generous buffet.
11:00am Pack your bags, check-out. Programme “Nizwa Fort” into your GPS or Google Maps and take your time winding back down the scenic mountain road to the ancient village of Nizwa.
12:30pm Park in the large lot in front of the souq and take a stroll through the antique silver shops, souvenir shops, peruse local pottery, and ask about local specialties like smoked rose water. Pass by the fort to read placards about the deadly vats of boiling date juice that were poured down murder holes to ward off invaders.
2:00pm Grab a quick bite and coffee from the small café across from the fort, but don’t linger too long in Nizwa, because you have a date with the desert to get to.
2:30pm Head south, Programme ‘Shell, Bidiyah, Oman’ into your GPS or Google Maps and watch the landscape transform once again on your two hour drive towards the fabled sands.
4:30pm Get gas at the petrol station, and if you are travelling between September and April, then head to one of the Wahiba Sands desert camps (book via agoda.com or booking.com for the best deals) for the night. If you are travelling during the summer, it’s better to just take a quick ride into the sands that begin where the main road of Bidiyah ends. Go spy on the lounging camels and if you linger long enough, a friendly Bedouin is sure to come over and invite you for coffee and dates.
6:00pm If you are not staying in Bidiyah, continue southeast along the main highway, Programme ‘Ras Al Jinz Turtle Beach Reserve’ into your GPS or Google Maps. There are some desolate plains to get through before emerging at the coast, so pay attention to your navigation. You’ll bypass the twinkling lights of the famous port city, and continue on to the turtle haven of Ras Al Jinz.
8:30pm Check in at the turtle reserve, and if you made good enough time, go straight for the 9pm turtle tour where you may get the chance to see one of the great wonders of the natural world — giant sea turtles laying their eggs, and their hatchlings running for the sea. If you didn’t make it, then have dinner and go to bed early, the next tour is at 5:00am.
DAY 3: COASTAL TOWNS AND OUTDOOR ADVENTURE
The ancient dhow building port townof Sur has retained much of its maritime character. Seeing the Dhow ship museum, and the factory where the traditional vessels are still made, is well worth the stop, and Sur is a good rest stop on any coastal journey, as it has a fair number of restaurants, coffee shops, and petrol stations. Close by, Wadi Shab is a particularly beautiful example of the wadis, or riverbeds, that are one of the most important natural wonders in Oman. After a long day of sightseeing and driving, a quiet, boutique hotel awaits you in the small village of Sifah.
9:00am Either sleep in a bit and have breakfast at the reserve, or if you weren’t lucky enough to catch the night show, get up at the crack of dawn for pre-breakfast turtle watching.
10:00am Check-out and Programme ‘Al Qanjah Boat Yard, Sur, Oman’ into your GPS or Google Maps. Take a drive around the small city: Check out the dhow building museum, the fish market, the beautiful Corniche, and shop for souvenirs at one of the many 300 baisa gift marts in town.
12:00pm Have cuttlefish (giant squid) biryani for lunch at Sur Sea Restaurant, then continue north and Programme ‘Wadi Shab Parking, Tiwi, Oman’ into your GPS or Google Maps.
1:00pm Just off the highway, Wadi Shab is accessible by passing through Tiwi village. Once you reach the river (you will see lots of other cars) you can just park and start your hike towards the falls. Sometimes locals will pass you on boats and will offer rides to the mouth of the partially submerged caves for a few Omani rials.
3:00pm Continue north. Programme ‘Sifawy Boutique Hotel, As Sifah, Oman’ into your GPS or Google Maps. After about an hour, start really watching your navigation. You are about to have a semi-off-road adventure. The road to Sifah is unpaved in many parts, and runs straight through some of the spectacularly desolate areas of the Eastern Hajar Mountains.
4:00pm Drive via the very hard to find routes that link the interior road to the Sifah-Yiti Road, this is a good time to swap your cellphone maps for your GPS. Stop along the way to take photos in what looks like total wilderness.
5:00pm Arrive in Sifah at the lovely Sifawy Boutique Hotel. Check in and freshen up before heading down to the restaurant for an alfresco dinner.
8:00pm Spend the evening enjoying music and the lapping of water at the beach bar.
DAY 4: LEAVE ON A HIGH NOTE
While no trip to Oman is complete without deserts, mountains, forts and wadis, it is equally incomplete without a touch of the opulent, Arabian-Gulf-style luxury offered at the gold-leafed, frankincense-scented, five-star hotels around the capital city. Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa, a glittering, Arabian fantasyland perched above the perfect azure sea just outside of the city, offers the opportunity to give your guests a taste of the ‘good life’ in the Sultanate.
9:00am Wander down to breakfast and enjoy a view of the marina with your morning coffee.
10:00am Rent some bikes or take a walk around the quiet bay before checking out and heading for your last, and perhaps most other-worldly, destination. Programme ‘Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa, Oman’ into your GPS or Google Maps.
10:45am Arrive at Shangri-La and check in at the Bandar Hotel reception desk to retrieve your Day in Paradise passes (book your day passes ahead of time), then go down and find a row of shaded lounge chairs overlooking the beach.
11:15am Cabana boys will bring you fluffy towels and coolers full of ice-cold water. Order iced cappuccinos and luxuriate in the sun. Take a dip in the crystal clear waters and work up an appetite for lunch, which is included with your pass.
2:00pm Dry off and go to Al Tanoor for a show-stopping buffet lunch featuring Persian mixed grill stations, pasta stations, fresh Indian, Chinese, and Continental, as well as a staggering salad and cold appetiser spread.
3:00pm Head back to your lounges to spend the rest of the afternoon overlooking the perfect royal blue sea and relaxing in the lap of luxury.
6:00pm As evening falls, head home via the Sidab road. Point out the Al Alam Palace in Old Muscat, the iconic incense burner of Riyam Park, and if you’re feeling up for it, stop for a quick stroll through the Muttrah Souq before returning to home sweet home to let your guest, no-doubt minds still spinning from their whirlwind adventure, get packed for their own journeys home.
THE DETAILS: ESSENTIAL ROAD TRIP STOPS
Alila Jabal Akhdar
+968 2534 4200
At the base of Jebel Akhdar, just before you make your ascent, there is a small cluster of buildings, including an old castle, Bait Al Ridaydah. Stop at the little karak shop for Omani bread and sweet tea.
Pass the turn for Alila, and continue towards the town of Saiq. Pass the petrol station and to the right of the Sahab hotel, where the road dead-ends, park and take in the incredible views of the cliffside orchards below.
Nizwa Fort/ Souq
(Google Nizwa Fort, the Souq is next door)
When you reach the town of Bidiyah, turn right when you reach the Shell Petrol station. This main road will wind through the small town and end at the entrance to the dunes.
Sur/Ras Al Jinz/ Wadi shab
Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve
Ras Al Jinz
+968 9655 0606
Dhow Museum and Factory
Sur (“Boat Factory, Sur, Oman”
on Google Maps)
Sur Sea Restaurant
Sur (Near the Souq)
+968 2554 2516
Sur Gift Market
Sur (main street/ 23)
+968 9111 1951
Outskirts of Muscat
Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa
+968 2477 6666
Al Alam Palace
Corniche, near Fish Roundabout