Flying south from Muscat with Gulf Air confirmed my suspicions that Oman is indeed a desert kingdom. All I could see below me was a vast landscape of mountains and rocks with little evidence of life, until I approached Salalah.
The terrain is different here due to the yearly monsoon season. A coastal paradise, Salalah has shrubs, trees and wildlife. It’s a combination of fine sandy beaches that stretch for almost 100 miles, archaeology, cultural history, natural diversity and Omani food that attract visitors from all over Europe and beyond.
Salalah is surrounded by a half-circle of mountains and the desert of the vast Empty Quarter. Both have acted as a fortress for thousands of years, protecting the people of the frankincense lands.
SALALAH: THE FRANKINCENSE LANDS
In the year 2000, the United Nations declared the region a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the unique historical legacy of its frankincense, the designer scent of Salalah, available for purchase in many grades. The lighter the colour, the better the quality.
There’s nowhere better to sample frankincense than the Haffah Souk next to the Palace of His Majesty Sultan. The souk is a little rundown and awaiting demolition, but this seems to add to its charms. There’s no glitz and glamour of some of Oman’s Middle Eastern competitors, but that could be about to change, as the focus changes to tourism.
Another thing that struck me, was the gentle way that Omani sellers approached us from the sidelines. No pressure given, just nice men trying to earn a living and teach us a little bit about the culture that they are very proud of.
WHAT TO SEE & DO IN SALALAH
After visiting the Haffah Souk in the morning, we hopped back in the van with our knowledgeable, funny and passionate guide, Ali al Shahri from Salalah Safari Tourism, and headed for the beach.
When we arrived, rather than jump out of the van we drove over the white sands for 20 minutes before stopping for a quick dip and the imperative Instagram shots.
Now I’ve seen some beaches in my life, but none so stunning and peaceful as Salalah. We didn’t see another person and the beach seems to go on forever.
After the short downtime it was time to drive into the Western border Dhofar mountain range for Omani food at Al Madiyaf, devouring an array of salads, hummus, halwa, chilli dip and kebabs on the outside terrace. The service was incredible and we left feeling like we’d made some new friends.
‘Now I’ve seen some beaches in my life, but none so stunning and peaceful as Salalah’
I fantasised about pitching a tent and spending a couple of days just gazing at the mountainous, rocky landscape, but Ali had other ideas.
We drove further into the hills to see Prophet Job‘s tomb, An Nabi Ayyub. He must have cut an imposing figure as his resting place is three metres in length. Admittedly, the building that his tomb resides in is a little underwhelming, but it’s a popular Muslim pilgrimage destination.
Our drive back to the Salalah Rotana Resort took a little longer than expected – it would seem that camels rule the roads and the countryside without a care in the world, not cars.
The next morning we decided to explore the Eastern part of Salalah. It was a scorching hot day so we didn’t spend as long in Taqah Castle – once home to a tribal leader, Sheikh Ali bin Taman Al Ma’shani, in the 19th century – as we’d have liked to.
We drove further east to explore the fortified ruins of Samahram, marvelling at the frankincense trees sprinkled randomly across the rugged landscape.
The city of Samahram dates back thousands of years. It was formerly one of Southern Arabia’s major important ports for the international frankincense trade.
There are two conflicting theories about the origins of the city, based on the inscription found at the gateway. It was either founded in the 3rd century BC by a local ruler named Sumhuram, or by King Il’ad Yalut I of the Hadhramaut (now Yemen) around 20 AD.
‘The ruins of Sumhuram have been thoroughly excavated and the natural setting of the city between coast and hills adds to its sense of magical beauty’
The city started heading towards abandonment in the 5th century AD, due to the formation of the sand bar across the mouth of the Khor Rori, which closed the creek.
The ruins of Sumhuram have been thoroughly excavated and the natural setting of the city between coast and hills adds to its sense of magical beauty.
Our trip ended with a guided walk along part of the Frankincense trail among mountains and valleys and views of the picture perfect sea and beaches.
WHERE TO STAY IN SALALAH
Stay at the five-star Salalah Rotana Resort in Oman from 38 OMR (around £76) per night inclusive of breakfast based on two adults sharing a Classic Room.
Think about spending a couple of nights in Muscat, named by Lonely Planet as the second best city to visit in the world in 2012, since you’ll be stopping at the airport to pick up your connection. Stay at the four-star Sundus Rotana in Muscat from 30 OMR (around £60) per night inclusive of breakfast based on two adults sharing a Classic Room.
Oman Air flies to Muscat twice a day from Heathrow and daily from Manchester. Economy Class fares start from £459pp (Business Class from £2,498pp) return from London to Muscat.
InsureandGo offers single trip travel insurance to Oman from £35pp, covering more than 50 activities (kids are covered for free).
Follow James Clark’s adventures on Instagram @jamesclarktravels