It’s hot in Muscat at the moment. Forget Muscat, it’s hot across all of the Middle East right now. And if there’s one thing that links people in the Middle East with the British, it’s not their love of tea and biscuits. It’s talking about the weather. The oppressive heat, which starts out with the sun choosing to beam down rays that can be considered “warm” in May to dialing it all the way up to “oppressively hot” in July, is all anyone can talk about. People find their own ways to escape the heat. Many expats choose to go home on holiday, some stay indoors and crank up the air-conditioner, some, though, choose to head to Salalah and take in the cool weather, fine drizzle, and refreshing breeze of the Khareef.
The Arabic word for “autumn,” the Khareef season, lasts from about the first week of July to sometime around the last week of September. During this time, the normally dry swathes of Oman’s southern Dhofar Governorate are transformed into a lush green paradise, providing a stark relief from the sweltering heat across the Arabian Peninsula. We recently had the chance to experience the uniqueness of the Khareef and all that it had to offer, and truth be told, it didn’t disappoint. Far from it — Salalah’s Khareef is an experience everyone must enjoy at least once in their lifetime, if not more often.
Nearly 650,000 visitors came to Salalah during the 2017 Khareef season, spending around OMR66.3 million, and that number is expected to double, as existing visitors return to Dhofar and as the popularity of Oman’s southern governorate spreads. Word of mouth, after all, is the best form of advertising. While experiencing the Khareef firsthand is one thing, the anticipation you develop as you head closer and closer to what is a truly one-of-a-kind phenomenon is another. If you’re making the long drive to Salalah, it’s only natural for your face to light up in eagerness, excitement, and awe as you see the fog rolling across the plains of the Dhofar for the first time, its lush green mountains providing the perfect canvas for you to beat the heat, accompanied by the gentle pitter-patter of rain on your windshield, your eyes widening in wonder as they cascade down the windows in the form of gentle, graceful rivulets.
It is a journey people from across the Gulf actually take more often that you’d think — Salalah sees 4x4s with registration plates from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, and even Qatar roll up during the Khareef. Arabs do, after all, love to drive, and the epic road trip they take to and from (and across) the Dhofar makes their Khareef journey all the more worthwhile. If you’re flying in, do book early, because this is not a journey you’d want to miss. It’s only natural for the inner child in you to peer out the window and look at the fog blanketing the Dhofar, the green tree-tops of mountains poking through them. Do look out for areas where the fog breaks, though – there’s some stunning natural beauty just waiting to be seen. But don’t take out your phone just yet, as you’ll be landing soon enough.
If Oman is known as a “cool” place, then Salalah during Khareef is the very definition of “chill.” Everyone is in a holiday mood — both the locals as well as those who come to Salalah to unwind. With the weather being this awesome, many take to pitching tents in the outdoors, some of them comfortable enough to accommodate a large family and all their stuff. Others, though, prefer to stay ensconced in luxury, as they choose to enjoy the full extent of the Khareef in a different manner.
Nature lover’s paradise
Nevertheless, there is plenty for everyone to do in Salalah. There are many who choose to rent a four-wheel drive, buy some barbecuing supplies, pick up a few choice cuts of meat, and drive up into the hills, the sizzling of the meats on the hot grill contrasting nicely with the gentle drizzle. Others choose to dismount and travel the city and its outlying areas on foot, soaking in the greenery as they walk around. Salalah is a nature lover’s paradise, with many indigenous species of flora and fauna being found there. Chief among them has to be the boswellia sacra, more commonly known to all of us as the frankincense tree.
The frankincense from Dhofar is among the finest in the world, making it the nexus of the frankincense trade of the ancient world, when the famed resin was exported to places as far as the Roman Empire and Ancient Egypt, as well as to Chinese emperors. Today, the Land of Frankincense is one of Salalah’s most popular tourist destinations, and features four ancient settlements that form part of the Land of Frankincense Unesco Heritage Site: Sumuharam, Ubhar, Khor Rori, and Ubhar.
Salalah is a city that delicately balances both the traditional and the modern. One of the standout landmarks in the city has to be the Sultan Qaboos Mosque, named after His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who spent many of his formative years in Salalah. Another must-visit is Taqah Castle, a fort located some 33km from the Dhofari capital, which was built in the 19th century. But if you’re the sort of person who likes to stretch his legs, kick back, and enjoy all the comforts of the Khareef, don’t be disappointed.
Salalah is also the Sultanate’s agricultural heartland, and every harvest season, a large open-air bazaar sees farmers set up stalls replete with the freshest produce, including coconuts, mangoes, bananas, and a host of other delicious farm-fresh fare.
The region’s hotels also have plenty to offer. We were able to sample some of the region’s tastiest Arab fare, which came in the form of some delicious manakeesh, the traditional unleavened bread, folded in with melted cheese and savoury herbs and served with pickled veggies (excuse us while we swoon), creamy hummus and garlic sauce, as well as crunchy arayes, little pita pockets that feature the finest cuts of lamb and a smattering of Arabic herbs. Don’t eat too much of that though. Salalah’s kabsa (the Arabic version of pulao) is a delicious, hearty combination of flavourful rice and zesty chunks of meat, served with some cooling mint raita. There are other options available, too: Oman’s grilled chicken is a melt-in-your-mouth delight that goes best with the vibrant lentil soups Salalah is famous for, unless you’d rather wash it down with water from a tender coconut, brought to your table just minutes after being cut down from one of the thousands of coconut palms in the region.
Of course, you mustn’t leave out the desserts. From your traditional Arabic um Ali to a Western favourite, brownies with strawberry ice cream (unless you prefer chocolate lave cake), Salalah has every ingredient you could possibly imagine to elevate you towards paradise. There are, of course, a multitude of other dining options available, ranging from Indian to Chinese and everything in between.
However, if you are invited into a local’s house for lunch, do accept the invitation. Traditional Omani hospitality is renowned the world over, and an afternoon spent with a local family is an event that will live long in your memory, providing you with the perfect cherry on top of the richest of Khareef cakes.
“Given its location in the GCC, Oman is one of the few countries that truly enjoys a winter season, with significantly lower temperatures up in the mountainous areas,” said James Hewitson, General Manager of the Al Baleed Resort by Anantara Salalah. “In Salalah, temperatures rarely exceed the mid-30s and a rain-free, balmy environment is maintained throughout most of the year. The Khareef season, which usually stretches between the end of June and September, provides a nice respite as well, with its cooler temperatures and misty air. Nature lovers from around the GCC flock to Salalah for Khareef to experience the beauty and escape the heat of the rest of the Middle East.”