O - What???
What was that again? Oman? Where's that?
And why would you suggest such a destination for a road trip? People bring their family on road trips you know? Why don't you recommend New Zealand as a self drive destination instead???
Our 1L rental Suzuki made it up the Omani mountains.
Yes, I am recommending Oman as THE "Road Trip" destination every should try at some point in their life. Everyone, including those with families, with elderly folk or young kids.
Now, "The Girl" & I have probably self drove in a good number destinations across the world; in Australia, The USA, in Europe, Africa, Asia, and even in the Middle East. And after all that, I can declare, that as far as "Road Trip Destinations" go, Oman ranks right up there with the very best of them.
Exploring the country of Oman by car, is a truly incredible experience, and without doubt, the best way to visit this country.
Read on and you'll see why.
The general route we drove
Oman is a huge country. And I mean HUGE.
The country's main attractions are scattered a good distance apart, and because renting a car is really cheap and fuel costs next to nothing (it's the Middle East, duh), many people drive. As a tourist, your other option would taking a tour because public transport isn't getting you to the parts of the country worth experiencing.
This particular route we took is very comfortable for a week, and covers most of the Oman's main highlights. One of the major highlights we missed out was Salalah, in the south of Oman where the coast is supposed to be magnificent, but for that, you'd probably need about 10 days.
So, if you've got about a week, this itinerary will suffice. You'll get to experience the mountains, beaches, local markets, city, deserts and of course, trekking and swimming in the Wadi's.
Day 1 (Muscat)
View of the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque from the gardens
We arrived at Muscat International Airport at 12:35pm, bought a local SIM Card for data (MapsMe), picked up our rental car, and headed straight to our hotel.
Once we had checked in, it was time to visit Muscat's (Oman's capital) No.1 attraction, and also the 3rd largest mosque in the world; The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque.
The entrance of the mosque
Wow. Just look at that.
The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque was absolutely stunning. Because it's only open to tourists/non Muslims between 8-11am (we arrived at 2pm), we could only walk around the gardens and view it from the outside.
I comforted myself by thinking "well, not everyone goes to Paris to climb the Eiffel Tower to the top. Many just stay at the bottom and take a selfie."
Another angle of the mosque
Still, we spent an hour (it's HUGE) walking around the gardens, snapping pictures, admiring the beauty of it all while hoping there was another way in; there wasn't.
By now, it was around 3pm in the afternoon and the heat was getting unbearable. It was time to seek refuge in one of the many shopping centers to enjoy some much needed air conditioning, Krispe Kreme donuts and a much needed drink before heading to the next major attraction, the Qasr Al Alam Royal Palace.
Qasr Al Alam Royal Palace
The Qasr Al Alam Royal Palace is the office of the ruler of Oman, something like our Istana in Singapore, but prettier. Tourist's aren't allowed in, but you can snap pictures without having to face the wrath of any guards.
View of Al Mirani Fort
Near the Royal Palace are another two of Muscat's key attractions, the Al Jalali & Al Mirani forts (in the pictures above and below).
We drove to a nice shady spot where we could sit and chill by the rocks as we watched Dhow's (local boats) sail by against the backdrop of the forts (closed to public), while soaking up the beauty of it all.
View of Al Jalali Fort
The Mutra Corniche
Next on our agenda was the Mutrah Corniche.
It was perfect for an evening stroll and watching the locals go about their day. We took the chance to pop by a money exchange and change some USD for Oman Rials before finally settled down at a cafe for an iced watermelon drink (no beers sold in public).
Here at the Mutrah Corniche is Muscat's most famous souk, the Mutrah Souk, the local market which is basically a maze of local shops where you can shop till you drop. We didn't take pictures here though, because we'd already experienced way better souks in our previous travels.
Nonetheless, if you've never wandered about and gotten lost in a souk before, the Mutrah Souk offers a decent enough experience. We spent the rest of the night smoking Shisha's and having a waterfront dinner right by the corniche, before driving back to our hotel.
Day 2 (Jebel Shams)
We've finally arrived after a 5 hour drive!
Today, we left the city of Muscat behind and headed for Jebel Shams, the Omani mountain range for some cold mountain air in our 1L Suzuki Maruti.
The route by MapsMe (not google maps) took us through some really awesome scenery. For the most part, the quality of roads were great, and the highways took us through the desert and a smattering of old towns, before finally hitting the dirt road.
I gritted my teeth, and silently prayed that our 1L Suzuki would be able to make the accent. The car shuddered as we drove over the rocky mountain slopes and the engine groaned as I shifted between 1st and 2nd gears to give the car a fighting chance to battle against the steep accent.
Think of it as driving up to Genting Highlands with twice the steepness and swap the nice asphalt road for a rocky mountain road; in a 1L car. Is a 4WD compulsory? Well, probably not, but highly recommended if you can an afford it.
The entrance to Sama Heights, our hotel at Jabel Shams
We finally arrived at our resort by noon, settled in and enjoyed the cool mountain air.
It was a pretty decent mountain resort (Sama Hights), no where near the best, but one of the more decent ones in the Jabel Shams region I believe (but with poor wifi). Still, it was nice to have no Whats-App messages flooding my phone for a change, and I actually felt like I was on holiday.
Free upgrade from a tent to a room!
As luck would have it, though we initially booked an Arabic Tent, but we got upgraded to a room because the hotel happened to be at 50% occupancy that very day.
We had lunch, refreshed ourselves, and prepared to set off for the highlight of Jebel Shams; a hike through the "Grand Canyon of the Middle East", also known as, the "Balcony Walk".
The start of the balcony walk
Jebel Shams is the highest mountain in Oman at around 3000m. Height wise, it's nothing on those we trekked in Nepal and altitude sickness was a non issue (Nepal was a nightmare for us).
The balcony walk is a 7km hike to and fro, and based on the unfit walkers we are (I fail IPPT 2.4km), it took us roughly 3 hours.
Meeting other tourists along the balcony walk. Pretty easy trek.
The "Balcony Walk" is safe enough even for kids and the views you get on the hike are awesome. It's not simply the "Grand Canyon of Oman", it's more like the "Grand Canyon of the Middle East".
We've been to a good many parts of the Middle East but nowhere came close to the canyon views here at Jebel Shams.
Posing with my Gaston Luga backpack. First time using it for real since they sponsored us.
No walking needed for this viewpoint. You can drive right up!
Still, as magnificent as the views are, it does get repetitive as you would expect from a 7km walk so if you don't want to walk a whole 3 hours, an hour and a half is good enough.
To complete the "Canyon experience", we had a persistent mountain goat which practically trod on me in an attempt to steal our "Oreo cookies" for its lunch. I never thought I'd ever be running from a goat, but I did (before more of its fellow goats arrived).
Day 3 (Niwza/Ibra)
Nizwa Souk, right beside Nizwa Fort
It was 7am, and we were preparing to descend Jebel Shams with less than a quarter of fuel in the tank. Running out of fuel was yet another worry on top of us bursting a tyre on the way down.
If your reading this and planing to visit Jebel Shams, remember to top up your fuel at the last petrol station before the mountain road. We had half a tank of gas when we started our accent and it was barely enough.
The entrance of Nizwa Fort
Nonetheless, we successfully descended, filled up our tank, and carried on. We were headed to Sur, which was a good 4 hour drive through the desert.
At the bottom of Jebel Shams, is the city of Nizwa, home to one of Oman's best preserved forts, Nizwa Fort.
It cost us 5 OMR (20 SGD) to enter, and we spent about an hour exploring the many rooms in the fort and reading about the history of Oman and the fort in particular. From the battlements at the top, we were well rewarded with a very good view of acres upon acres of palm trees, the city and the mountains beyond.
Guards for show or for real? I didn't know.
Is Nizwa Fort worth it?
Well, 5 OMR is a pretty steep price to pay for what's on offer. 2.5 OMR (10 SGD) would be a more acceptable price to pay. Still, Nizwa Fort is a "must go", it just doesn't offer enough value for the price it commands.
The inside of Nizwa Fort. Many rooms to explore. It has it's own museum
The view from the battlements. Acres and Acres of palm trees. Beautiful!
This angle of Nizwa Fort is the exact one featured in the brochure. We went around the fort hunting for this location!
Another view of the Nizwa Fort
After a couple of hours in Nizwa Fort and the surrounding souk, it was time to set off again. We drove through Ibra, the place where desert tours begin.
Ibra is the place where you can get an "Instagram-able" picture of you riding a camel in the middle of the desert. However, because we'd already experienced camping overnight in the Sahara Desert on our adventure in Morocco years ago, we didn't feel the need to camp in Ibra to "relive" this experience.
As with all tourist attractions, there's always a souvenir shop somewhere.
Usually, after a night in the desert, most people head for the most popular "Tourist Wadi", Wadi Bani Khalid for a relaxing swim in the waters before continuing their journey.
Image Credit: Lonely Planet
This particular Wadi is popular among tourists not only because of it's proximity to the desert at Ibra, but because you can drive pretty close up to the big pools of water. That makes Wadi Bani Khalid "tourist friendly".
It's easily accessible for families as there's minimal walking, say 5mins walk from the car park. The drawback of Wadi Bani Khalid though, is unless you go really early, say at 9am, it gets extremely crowded with rowdy children (a draw back of being accessible).
Image Credit: Agoda.com
Our plan was to visit the other "popular Wadi" the next day, Wadi Shab. This also popular Wadi would require over an hour of trekking over boulders and across some pretty "child unfriendly" paths. We wanted a "mini Wadi bashing" experience (like jungle bashing in the army) without the kids.
But if you haven't yet experienced camping in the desert or gotten your camel riding picture posted on "The Gram" though, you really should spend the night here in Ibra instead and head for Wadi Bani Khalid after.
As for us, we gave the desert camp a miss and carried on to our next destination for the night; the seaside town of Sur. We would visit Wadi Shab the next morning.
Day 4 (Wadi Shab/Tiwi)
The journey to Wadi Shab starts with a boat ride
A "Wadi", basically means "valley" in Arabic. In Oman's case, these Wadi's are valley's of water.
Beautiful turquoise colored water, perfect for relaxing in after a long trek under the hot sun. Oh, and perfect for pictures of course.
We paid 1 OMR for a 1 minute boat ride across to where the trek would begin. It was a good appetizer of what would eventually feel like an "Indiana Jones" experience.
The way to Wadi Shab. Not too child friendly but easy enough for adults
The hour long trek started over flat sandy ground.
Next, the flat ground made way for narrow paths along side the steep edges of gorge (which "The Girl" slipped up at and almost fell over the edge into the water below).
Around 20mins to the end, the trek is pretty much clambering over boulders.
Wadi Shab! We have finally arrived! Time to dive into the cool waters and escape heat!
Wadi Shab is perhaps the most beautiful Wadi in Oman, at least among those visited by tourists.
There are surely even more beautiful Wadi's in Oman way deeper inside which would require a 3 day trek. But for us, Wadi Shab was beautiful enough. Swimming in Wadi Shab was a truly refreshing experience.
The "Wadi Shab" experience eventually ends in a "secret cave" (because there is a short swim underwater before you surface in a cave) with a waterfall running through it.
The path leading to another pool and eventually, the hidden cave and waterfall.
The 2nd pool in Wadi Shab. There are 3 pools and a cave that make up Wadi Shab
The water isn't particularly deep, but I would suggest googles for a better experience. At least you'll be able to see and gauge the depth when you swim.
I'm (The Bald Guy) a strong enough swimmer but I must say I started to tire towards the end and I decided to borrow "The Girl's" floating aid to boost my confidence when attempted the swim into the secret cave.
Time to place my ego aside here. If were to have a sudden cramp in my leg, I didn't want it to be my last swim.
On the way to the hidden cave!
The final pool. Swim around the corner and the hidden cave awaits. No pictures though!
All good things have to come to an end.
After such an amazing swim, reality kicked in. It was time for the hike back. Yet another hour of climbing over rocks. Wadi Shab had been half day event. And as for the remaining half? Well, all I wanted to do was have a good meal, and wash that down with bottles of cold beer.
Yes, they have beer & bars in Oman, surprise surprise.
Not in the open though, but in some of the hotels which cater to international guests. It was an interesting experience having beers and smokes with the locals of a country where I thought such activities were taboo. It turned out they were a lot more open minded than I thought.
Day 5 (Sur/Qalhat)
The view from the bridge of the seaside town of Sur with the Ayjah watchtowers.
By now we'd experienced swimming in the Wadi's, trekking in the mountains, the deserts, exploring souks and the old forts and towns, but we'd yet to actually spend time enjoying the coast.
You can see the "Dhow" sailing out toward the "Gulf of Oman"
So, on "Day 5" of our trip, we decided to spend a lazy day under the sun, chilling in the coastal cities of Sur & Qalhat.
In Sur, there is a Dhow museum. The Dhow is a local boat typically used in Arabian regions.
It was pretty fun reading and learning about how Dhow's are built, what they used to be used for, and their current use in the modern world.
And if you believe the stories, Sur was the place where Sinbad the Sailor's Dhow was built.
Looks pretty much like Mediterranean Italy I thought.
The coast/corniche was beautiful in its own rugged way. In place of white sandy beaches was a rocky, gravelly coast.
Somehow though, I thought it added to the "feel" of the place. Not every beach destination needs to be turquoise waters and white sand.
Another view of Sur, this time from the foot of the Al Ayjah lighthouse
One of the key attractions in Sur are the Al Ayjah lighthouse and watch towers where we managed to enjoy a great view of the city.
Sur is a pretty quiet town, and half a day is actually more than enough.
If you're interested in watching turtles (we weren't) in their natural habitat hauling themselves along the beach and digging holes in the ground to lay their eggs before swimming off, Ras Al Jinz Turtle reserve is where you'll want to visit.
Looks like Greece doesn't it? White buildings against a blue sea. Except that it's Oman!
Restaurant at the Wadi Shab Resort. It's supposed to resemble the deck of Dhow.
Sunset in Sur, waiting at the restaurant for our seafood dinner of Kingfish!
Grilled Kingfish for dinner!
We spent part of the day visiting the other seaside town of Qalhat. Nothing much to see here but I thought it actually looked a little like Mediterranean Greece!
And in any coastal city, seafood is certainly a must try. Bored of all the Briyani's and Prata's we'd been having, it was time to sample some of the country's finest delicacies freshly caught from the sea while enjoying the magnificent sunset.
Sometimes, a vacation is not only about seeing/doing stuff. And if you're planing on doing nothing but chill and enjoy a good book by the sea, Oman's seaside towns are the place to be (as far as the Middle East is concerned).
Day 6 (Bimmah/Muscat)
View of the Bimmah Sinkhole from above
Today, we would visit one the key highlights of our trip, the "Bimmah Sinkhole". The locals believe it was caused by a meteor falling from the sky.
The truth? Well, we're not that into science. All we knew, was we had to visit this surreal highlight of Oman.
Isn't the water beautiful? It's full of small fish though!
From pictures, the Bimmah Sinkhole looks like its in the middle of nowhere, and seemingly might be pretty difficult to get to.
But in reality, this sinkhole is a very family friendly attraction. From the car-park, it was just a 5 minute walk away.
Floating in the sinkhole with her "swimming noodle"
Like Wadi Shab, the water in the sinkhole was refreshing. The only annoying thing were the fishes, which made us feel like we were swimming in a giant fish spa.
Image Credit: Financial Times
After a couple of hours, we headed back toward Muscat.
We would suggest going on a Dhow sunset cruise at this leg of the trip. That was our plan at least, but we felt a little under the weather that day, and decided that possible seasickness from going on a cruise might not be the best remedy based on our current state.
No matter, it cost slightly over $50 SGD (15 OMR), so it didn't feel that painful a loss not to be going.
The Royal Opera Theather Muscat.
Instead, we visited another of Muscat's key attractions, the Royal Opera Theater.
It's nowhere as impressive as the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque we visited on the first day, but is still a must visit. And, it makes a great backdrop for photos!
Very different sort of Opera house from the famous one in Sydney
Besides being a place to watch the opera, it's also a great spot to finish up last minute shopping if you're in to luxury goods and also a way to experience the more affluent side of Oman by sipping expensive teas and having a conversation with the rich locals.
The tea was too expensive for us, and they didn't have the watches I wanted in stock. So after an hour of taking pictures and exploring the place, we decided to head off to one of the popular points along the Muscat coast for a good dinner and to smoke more Shisha before finally calling it a night.
Day 7 (Muscat/Home)
Parts of Muscat actually look like Australia. The typical cafes by the beach
Our flight back home was at 5pm in the afternoon, so we still had plenty of time to have a relaxing breakfast by the beach as well as do some last minute shopping.
What's There To Eat?
Lunch at a local coffee-shop on the way from Muscat to Jebel Shams
Dining out in Oman is not expensive. In fact, I would even go as far as to say it's pretty cheap, so long as you stick to the coffee-shops, opened by people from India or Pakistan. These coffee-shops cater to the lower income workers.
The above was what we ate most of the time for breakfast and even lunch at times; a crispy flatbread with a sort of vegetable curry. It tasted delicious, and even after we threw in a coffee and tea, it cost less than 4 SGD for both us.
When we were feeling a little richer, we would treat ourselves to Briyani, which costs between $3.50 - $7 SGD depending if we dined in a coffee shop or actual restaurant. The portions were so huge we could even share!
Another example of a coffee shop, this time at Nizwa. No beer so have to drink fruit juice.
Burgers and milkshakes at the famous Shake Shack. Not in the USA but in Muscat!
For dinner, we either had a proper Omani meal like seafood which would cost anywhere between $8- $30 SGD depending on what we ate.
And yes, it's not just curry and seafood. If you're craving a western meal like burgers and fries, there are American Diners like the famous Shake Shack Burger, but at ridiculous prices like $15 SGD per person for a full meal.
In short, food in Oman can be really cheap especially if you share the huge portions. We budgeted $30 SGD a day per person for food, never had to share meals to save costs, and it was way more than enough.
Hotel Resort Sur Beach Holiday. Weird name, but decent hotel. They sell beer!
Accommodation standards I know are a pet peeve of us Singaporeans. The most important thing about a vacation is possibly not what there is to experience but rather, the quality of where we sleep.
Well folks, you'll be glad to know that accommodation standards in Oman (in fact most of the Middle East) are surprisingly good value for money. It's not uncommon to find 4 Star hotels for $60 - $100 SGD per room. Split that in two and it could get as low as $30 SGD each!
Move aside Bangkok!
The hotel lobby. Not too shabby
$55 SGD per person. Balcony room, sea view. Good enough for me.
Our room in Sama Heights, Jebel Shams mountain.
Sama Heights, Jebel Shams mountains. The "Hotel Lobby"
Sama Heights even has a playground. Very family friendly.
Al Maha International Hotel. Considering this cost $35 SGD per person, it was decent.
We like a good nights sleep in clean rooms as much as anyone else. But to pay $200 a night for it? No way, I'd rather stay in a hostel for $20. After all, traveling is about experiencing the country, not the room.
But with the quality of hotels at such good value? Well, let's just say we'd never sleep in a hostel here.
Car Rental. Do You Need A 4WD?
This was the burning question I had before I visited Oman because no one could give a definite answer. Well, I can give you an answer.
No, you don't need a 4WD, not even if you're visiting Jebel Shams. You saw the pictures of the 1L Suzuki Maruti we drove up in. A little bit of a worry here and there, but definitely do-able. If you've at least 4 people to a car and have more cash to spend then we did, go for the 4WD for a more comfortable experience. But otherwise, a 2WD is perfectly fine.
Google Maps are terrible here. No idea why, but we used MapsMe, an offline map which was also recommend by my hostel when I was in Lebanon.
Data SIM Cards are available at the airport. Get one, because most restaurants don't have WIFI.
Is Oman Safe?
Well, we saw a local use his Handphone to "Chope" a seat while he queued up at the food court to buy lunch. Not even in Singapore do people have this level of confidence.
I would let "The Girl" visit Oman on a solo trip if she wanted to, no worries at all. I felt way safer here than I did in Paris.
Indicative Price Breakdown
We did a stop over in Qatar for a couple of days on this trip. I've removed the costs spent there, and what you see here, are our costs and rough itinerary for Oman.
Can It Be Done Cheaper?
Well, of course it can be done cheaper, way cheaper in fact. We're here to enjoy a vacation, not compete for the "most miserly traveller award"; it's all about balance.
To cut costs further, you could
1. Camp instead of staying in hotels like we did (Oman is the camping capital of the Middle East)
2. Share meals (it's cheap enough, so don't bother cooking)
3. Renting a car is a must, but rent a Manual instead of an Automatic and you'll save even more.
Oman is truly a magical place to visit. I grew up on stories like Sinbad the Sailor, Ali Baba & The 40 Thieves, and Aladdin. If you did too, or want to experience a travel destination right out of the tales of the Arabian Nights, make Oman your next destination.
Oman will be one of the top travel destinations on the future.
It will be the next Iceland, Turkey, Egypt, or Morocco.
If you've been reading our blog since we started, you would have read that I predicted that Morocco would become "the next Iceland". 5 years ago, no one knew or cared about Morocco (amazing destination). Today, Morocco is on almost everyone's bucket list.
Visit this fascinating country before before the tourist hordes arrive. When they finally arrive, prices will shoot up, the locals will change, the overall experience will change.
About to pay for that European vacation? Put that credit card back in your wallet, turn on your lap top, start googling and reading about Oman. Then trust us, and book it.
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