It’s that time of the year again. While people across the rest of the Middle East brace for a blistering summer and a scorching sun, there is much celebration on the streets in the south of Oman as the Dhofar region welcomes the Khareef season.
Running from June to August, Khareef is an annual monsoon that turns the otherwise desert- brown landscape of the governorate into a cooling, calming, stunning green expanse.
Rolling fields of carpeted green grass, misty mountains, their peaks hidden by dense cloud, swaying palm fronds, dancing almost in tune with the refreshing rain, and cool, bracing breezes that fill you with a sense of wonder and delight so potent that they disperse your troubles and melt your worries away.
The rains that comes to the Dhofar are due to the scudding overhead clouds that are headed to India for their traditional monsoon season. With only a couple of months’ worth of truly fantastic weather for you to witness this amazing land, here are some of the best places to visit in Oman’s Dhofar region this Khareef.
Salalah would be the perfect place to experience the cool winds, pleasant mists and lingering drizzle of the Khareef season. The capital of the southern Dhofar Governorate and the heartbeat of the region, Salalah is a city which is bordered by mountains to the north and the sea to the south, making for some amazing weather all year round.
Salalah is one of the oldest settlements in this part of the world, with people having settled the surrounding region during the time of the ancient Romans, which means that the city is home to a history that is thousands of years old. While you’re in the city, do visit Al Husn Souq, which sells plenty of traditional Omani goods, including dates, coffee, and of course, the frankincense that Dhofar is renowned for across the world.
Head to Al Hafah Souq, which is located in the midst of Salalah’s old neighbourhoods, where many flock to browse for incense, resins and gum, as well as traditional textiles and gold and silver jewellery under the open sky and swaying palm fronds.
While you’re in the regional capital, go to Mughsayl, where one of nature’s wonderful anomalies mean there is a series of blowholes that shoot water several feet into the air. Stay back when they erupt because they are powerful enough to launch you quite high up. They make for a memorable visit and a stunning reminder of the amazing feats that nature is capable of. Also visit the nearby Marneef Cave, which is an explorer’s paradise during Khareef, with its sapphire-blue waters, its lovely view of the mist-covered mountains and the emerald green landscape.
Purva Kewlani, a tourist from Dubai, has fond memories of his time in Salalah. “Marneef Cave is very close to Al Mughsayl beach. It is beautiful to visit during Khareef, the blue waters look mystical with the overlooking misty mountains. If you have travelled from any other part of the Middle East to this place, you will really feel the dramatic change here.”
Al Baleed is the nexus from which Oman exported its frankincense to several empires of the ancient world and is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site called the Land of Frankincense.
This UNESCO site consists of four individual locations, including Samharam, an ancient city where the Dhofaris of yesteryear lived, as well as the twin ports of Khor Rori and Al Baleed. From here, the precious frankincense resin was exported to ancient empires such as Rome and Egypt, where it was used to honour royal families, as well as Ancient China, a fact that is not surprising, given that researchers date the city back to 3,000 BC.
The other two areas of the Land of Frankincense World Heritage Site are the groves of Wadi Dawkah, where the Boswellia sacra frankincense trees grow to this day, and the caravan oasis of Ubar, where traders and growers would halt before heading to the ports to flog their wares.
“The frankincense trees of Wadi Dawkah and the remains of the caravan oasis of Wubar and the affiliated ports of Khor Rori and Al Baleed vividly illustrate the trade in frankincense that flourished in this region for many centuries, as one of the most important trading activities of the ancient and medieval world,” said a statement by UNESCO.
“The four components of the Land of Frankincense dramatically illustrate the trade that flourished in this region for many centuries. They constitute outstanding testimony to the civilisations in south Arabia since the Neolithic,” added UNESCO.
“The group of archaeological sites in Oman represent the production and distribution of frankincense, one of the most important luxury items of trade in the Old World in Antiquity,” said the organisation.
“The Oasis of Shisr and the entrepots of Khor Rori and Al Baleed are outstanding examples of medieval fortified settlements in the Persian Gulf region.”
Located high up in the mountains overlooking Salalah, the little town of Ittin is an amazing place to feel the effects of Khareef at its peak. The road to Ittin also has some stunning views of the city below, and as you enter the mountains, it is not uncommon for all your troubles (or some of them, anyway) to get washed away in the cool, refreshing rain, and then taken far, far away by the uplifting, cooling breezes. The area near Ittin is also reported to be the final resting place of the prophet Ayoub, one of the leading figures of the Islamic faith. Those who do visit the humble, simple site claim to experience an overwhelming sense of peace and calm. “The tomb was a quiet, peaceful place in a green landscape with a beautiful view,” recalled Dutch visitor Sophie van Duiven. “There was also a little place next to it to pray, which also looked very peaceful”. Swedish tourist Michael added: “It is located on a hilltop; it is a nice setting with a splendid view. It was interesting to see scholars sitting next to the grave when visiting.”
The route from Salalah to Ittin also includes a restaurant and café that over time, has become as famous as the town itself. Ittina Café serves various varieties of delicious cuisines at affordable prices to everyone, including a frankincense ice cream that is a favourite among both locals from the area and visitors.
Suraj Parsi remembers the time he was able to “spend an evening with nice food, not for heavy dinner but for shawarma and black tea. It has a very relaxing garden and the servings are pretty good,” with Salim Omar, who lived in Salalah, adding: “The location of this café is really good, especially during the daytime. You can enjoy your meal with outdoor scenic views.”
Located an hour’s drive away from Salalah, the coastal fishing town of Mirbat is one of several regions in Dhofar currently being developed as part of the country’s sustainable tourism plans.
Being such a short distance away from the Dhofari capital makes Mirbat an extremely convenient – and required – trip to explore the south of Oman. If you come in the late morning and early afternoon, which is when the first fish catch is being sold, you could find yourself feasting on some of the freshest seafood Oman has to offer.
You’ll find restaurants selling you grilled versions of delicious, finger-licking fish dishes with a special spice rub mix that is often a recipe seldom shared with visitors.
Describing Mirbat, Oman’s Ministry of Tourism said: “East of Salalah, the coastal town of Mirbat was once the capital of Dhofar, trading in frankincense and Arabian horses. Today, visitors can spot dhows heading out to fish, or explore the old merchant houses near Mirbat Fort.”
Another spot that is a must-visit in Mirbat is the anti-gravity point, an area so famous that word of mouth alone has resulted in people from all over the world come to experience it when they travel to the Dhofar region, according to Oman’s Ministry of Tourism.
About halfway between Mirbat and Salalah, the town of Taqah has a little bit of something for everybody. Taqah is home to Hawana Salalah Aqua Park, part of the massive Hawana tourism development project currently underway on the outskirts of the town. It is the first water park in the Dhofar region and contains plenty of fun water rides for both children and adults who want to bring out the child in them.
Built by Muriya, a joint development between Omran, the Sultanate’s tourism development arm, and Egyptian company Orascom, Hawana Salalah Aqua Park contains 12 slides, a wave pool, a family pool, a toddlers’ aqua play area, and a whole lot more to entertain families.
“This wonderful, family-friendly, temperature-cooling, world-class aquatainment centre is the new focus of the area, covering a total of 65,000 square metres,” said a representative from Orascom. “Various pools, rapid water slides and a kid’s pool with smaller slides provide endless fun and thrills for all. Adrenaline junkies are particularly fond of the slide tower, from where you can plunge into adventure from the very top of a palm covered gallery.”
While you’re in Taqah, make sure you pay a visit to Taqah castle as well. Built in the 19 th century, the castle has been painstakingly restored using local, sustainable materials and practices, and reveals to visitors how the fishing communities of the past lived in this region. Primarily built to ward off raiders who would come to these coastal villages by both land and sea, mainly to loot and plunder, Taqah castle was constructed to keep them at bay and provide the locals with a safe haven to take refuge in during such attacks. Today, the castle is open to visitors and opens a window into a world we may have since left behind, but never forgotten.
“Built in the 19th century, Taqah Fort is in the heart of Taqah and a good example of how people used to live in the area. The castle has been restored and is open to the public,” said Oman’s Ministry of Tourism.
Another area people might want to explore while in Taqah would be Khawr Taqah, a lagoon featuring freshwater plants, as well as those that thrive in more saline soils, leading to an area that teems with marine life as well as many species of birds.
If you’re the sort of person who’s looking to camp in the mountains during the Khareef, then Jabal Samhan is your best bet. A bit more than an hour’s drive away from Salalah and with its highest peak at about 2,100 metres, the Jabal features several camp sites for those who want to experience the great outdoors.
It’s also a beautiful place to go mountain climbing, hiking and trekking, if that’s the sort of thing that interests you. However, make sure you take care and have packed the right equipment before you set out. The rain can also make things a bit slippery, so ensure you are familiar with the terrain, or have climbed mountains during similar climatic situations previously. “Visitors can explore a host of attractions ranging from the Tawi Ateer Sinkhole to the round houses of the indigenous Jebbali tribe, before setting up camp on the peak’s plateau,” said the Ministry of Tourism in Oman.
The mountain is also home to the Jabal Samhan Nature Reserve, which is part of the Government of Oman’s efforts to conserve and expand the indigenous Arabian Leopard population. However, it is best to check with local tour operators if you are hoping to see the majestic big cats within. “A special permission is required to visit the Jabal Samhan Nature Reserve, which is home to some of the last wild Arabian Leopards and other rare species such as the Arabian Wolf and Striped Hyena,” said the Ministry of Tourism. “The road leading to the reserve, however, is rewarding in its own right, passing large baobab trees and traditional Jaballi settlements to Jabal Samhan’s breath-taking escarpment.”
Kuriya Muriya Islands
Located some 200 kilometres from Salalah, the Kuriya Muriya Islands are situated off the coast of the Dhofar and are known for their rich and diverse marine life. Many tour operators will organise trips to and from the island, but if you can engage a local boatman, he too will take you there for a modest fee.
The island is sure to be a nature lover’s paradise and is a wonderful way to spend a day at sea, although overnight stays are not recommended, because only the largest of these islands, Al Hallaniyah, has any form of human habitation.
Consisting of five separate islands – Al Haskiyah, Al Sawda, Al Hallaniyah, Qarzawit and Al Qibliyah – they are a wonderful place for those who are curious about the world, and also offer amazing opportunities for diving and snorkelling. “Salalah is a good starting point for diving and snorkelling excursions offered by local tour operators,” says the Ministry of Tourism. The islands contain many dive sites, many of which are located in areas containing pristine coral formations and marine reefs, and newer ones are being discovered all the time.”