Road Trip with Friends Discovering ... Oman
Wide open roads traversing an epic landscape under a piercing blue sky – Oman is the perfect destination for a road trip adventure. We describe a classic road trip itinerary…
Day 1Arrive Muscat and begin your adventureOvernight Muscat
Day 2Discover the ancient port city of MuscatOvernight Muscat
Day 3Head south along the coast exploring the wadis
and villages, before turtle-spotting at Ras al JinzOvernight Ras Al Jinz
Day 4Head west into the desert of Wahiba SandsOvernight desert camp
Day 5Find adventure in the desert dunesOvernight desert camp
Day 6Travel via Nizwa to the mountainsOvernight Jabal Akhdar
Day 7Explore Jebel Shams, the mountain gorges and
the ancient tombs of Bat and Al AynOvernight Jabal Akhdar
Day 8Meander through the old villages of the Saiq plateau
and visit the forts and castles of Jabrin and BahlaOvernight Jabal Akhdar
Day 9Return to Muscat via Rustaq, Nakhal or SawadiDepart from Muscat
This nine day itinerary takes in the top highlights of this fascinating country, with a clockwise loop of approximately 900km, plus daily excursions, and is best achieved in a comfortable 4WD.
Begin by hiring a car upon arrival at Muscat International Airport. Unlike many cities, having a car in this capital is actually a help, not a hindrance, as the distances between sights are significant, and having your own transport gives greater freedom and efficiency in getting between them. In addition, driving and navigation are simple, traffic is fine, and parking is free and right outside the door of many of the attractions. Plus, many hotels offer free overnight parking. All the usual car rental suspects are in the arrivals hall of the airport, and rates appear to be no different to their downtown branches.
It makes sense to begin your road trip with a day or two Muscat, to see some of the small but worthwhile attractions that will give you a useful introduction to this intriguing destination. While two full days would obviously allow a leisurely pace, many of the key sights can be visited in a 24-36 hour stopover.
On the afternoon of your arrival, we would recommend visiting the Mutrah Corniche, for a lovely stroll along the waterfront lined by classical latticed architecture, cooled by breezes from across the harbour. The atmospheric fish market is still closed for renovation, and the much lauded Mutrah Souk is definitely a take-it-or-leave it experience, but the Corniche itself is pretty and offers views of the surrounding hilltop forts and watchtowers. If you are feeling up to something informative, we can recommend Bait al Baranda, a small museum on the northern aspect of the Corniche – in particular, the interactive geology exhibits help make sense of the dramatic and distinctive landscapes you will be seeing in the rest of your Omani journey. As the sun sets, consider milkshakes or fruit drinks in the al fresco area of Café Chef A, or a delicious dinner at the stylish and traditional Bait al Luban.
The following morning, rise early for a visit to the Grand Mosque, most photogenic in the early morning light. Remember to have skin and hair covered (legs to below the knees and arms to the wrists) and allow enough time for a good exploration, including the succinct but useful audioguide, before the mosque closes to non-Muslims at 1100. There is not much else to explore in the vicinity of the Grand Mosque, so head to the coast and drive east along the beach front streets of Qurm and the other suburbs until you reach Old Muscat. Here the Sultan’s Palace sits on the natural harbour surrounded by watchtower-topped hills, and the modern and impressive National Museum showcases key aspects of Omani heritage. Afterwards, as the sun sets and the heat recedes, consider a drink at one of the rooftop bars of the Western hotels (only tourist hotels can serve alcohol) before heading out for a traditional Omani dinner.
Begin your Omani roadtrip in earnest the next morning. Leave Muscat to head southeast on the Muscat-Sur highway (route 17). The total journey today is 250km. While occasional intersections and interchanges in the capital can be confusing, once on the open road, navigation is simple – all signs are in both Arabic and English, roads are modern, well paved and well lit, and the limited number of destinations in this sparsely populated country means it is hard to get lost.
The first recommended stop on today’s itinerary is the Bimmah sinkhole, just after the village of Dibab, approximately 1.5 hours drive from Muscat. This beautiful geological fault, imperceptible from the surrounding plain, has formed a natural swimming hole, filled with emerald green water. While definitely worth a stop to admire the site itself, we would save your swim for the next stop – the canyon known as Wadi Shab.
Wadi Shab, a further 20 minutes drive south on route 17, is one of the most beautiful wadis in Oman. At the parking lot, use the bathrooms to put your bathers on under your walking clothes, then stow your valuables and make sure you are carrying enough drinking water, as there are no facilities at all within the wadi. A short boat ride and a hot but simple walk of approximately 50 minutes brings you a series several beautiful swimming holes. A waterproof camera comes in handy here, as it is possible to swim a long distance further up the wadi, to locations that are difficult to access on foot, including a cave. The water in the pools is cool and clear, and is welcome relief from the midday heat.
Once refreshed, walk the return journey to your car, and continue south along the coast to the village of Sur, a drive of approximately 40 minutes. The suspension bridge at the eastern edge of town gives lovely views back onto the waterfront of Sur, while schools of fish and stingrays cavort in the waters below. The neighbouring village of Ayjah is atmospheric, and its lighthouse photogenic.
While in Sur, consider stocking up on picnic supplies (plus gin accompaniments like tonic and cucumber), as alfresco dining at your next destination is much more enticing than the tourist-filled on-site restaurant. From Sur, it is another 45 minutes drive east along the coast to Ras al Jinz Turtle Reserve, but don’t feel under any hurry to arrive, as there is not much to do in Ras al Jinz besides the night time turtle watching – this is not a swimming beach, and the hotel is pleasant but not a destination in itself.
Since you are in Ras al Jinz to see the turtles, staying on site is definitely recommended, as accommodation includes evening and dawn turtle watching sessions, with first priority for tour departures (and while the evening departure is crowded with tour groups, the dawn viewing is blissfully quiet in comparison). But forego the mid-range mediocrity of the main hotel and secure one of the luxury eco-tents nestled in a rocky ravine nearby. These twelve permanent tents, complete with ensuite, bar fridge and a (massive) airconditioning unit, have their own small outdoor decks, but the best idea is to haul your chairs to the central terrace between tents 23 and 24, to look out over the valley and seashore below. Hotel staff are happy to bring ice for your drinks, making this a lovely spot for a gin and tonic and a picnic dinner as the sun goes down and you wait for your evening turtle tour.
Like all wildlife experiences, turtle watching is not predictable, and staff at the turtle reserve must balance conservation principles with the expectations of increasingly large hordes of tourists. Our evening visit at 9pm was crowded but successful, witnessing turtles digging their nests, turtles laying eggs, a large exhausted turtle returning slowly to the sea, and baby turtles making a dash across the sand. Our 5am excursion was a much quieter affair, with only a fraction of previous night’s participants, and although no more turtles were seen, their flipper tracks could be seen crisscrossing the beach in the dawn light, while a hungry fox pawed at the nests for any straggling hatchlings. At sunrise, fishermen in traditional dhows set off for their days work, creating an iconic silhouette against the blood-red sun.
Since you are already up, grab a hearty breakfast at the restaurant buffet (open from 6am) before making the most of your day by hitting the road early. Choose between the scenic but longer route along the coast via Al Ashkharah, or backtracking via Sur, before rejoining the expressway from Ibra to Sur (route 23). About 45km from the town of Al Kamil, look out for the signs to Wadi Bani Khalid. This large fertile wadi forms a dense green slash across the rocky landscape, filled with date palms and vegetable gardens. Take the winding road adjacent to the wadi, admiring the views from the plateau down onto the multiple villages that are sustained by this oasis. At the end of the road, park the car and follow the felaj (irrigation channels) to the popular swimming hole – while you certainly won’t have this wadi to yourself, and it may feel a bit commercialised, the turquoise water is still delightful. Head upstream for waterfalls and a more natural (and peaceful) experience.
Consider a picnic lunch here, or pop into the café for a bite to eat, before leaving the wadi and returning to the Sur-Ibra highway. Continue along the barren rock-strewn plains, punctuated intermittently by small pockets of lush vegetation and surprisingly green children’s playgrounds (obviously, and pleasantly, a priority for irrigation in this parched country). Eventually on the horizon you will see where the dusty, craggy scree gives way to the more prototypical image of a desert – rolling orange sand dunes. Welcome to the Wahiba Sands.
Hidden amongst the dunes of the Wahiba Sands are several desert camps, ranging in authenticity, ambience and indulgence. Most are permanent structures, some canvas, some concrete, with varying degrees of harmony with the surrounding environment. We stayed in a mobile camp by Hud Hud travels, a luxurious but temporary encampment erected on a bespoke arrangement for each group of guests (see our separate review).
For whichever camp you choose, if you are self-driving, a representative will meet you at a designated location on the Ibra-Sur Highway, and guide you into the desert. Enter the dunes in the late afternoon, with the waning light showing the colours of the sand in all its shifting glory. Once you reach camp, find a spot in the surrounding dunes to set up your deck chairs, mix a gin and tonic, and watch the sun set on this amazing vista. After a traditional dinner in the majlis, lit by candles and oil lamps, venture a short distance from camp to truly appreciate the incredible night sky.
The following day, make the most of your time in the desert. Make sure your camp can take you four wheel driving in the dunes, an awesome, if nail-biting experience. Don’t forget to let your tires down, and ensure your designated driver is bold enough to not get bogged! Some camps also offer trips to local Bedouin communities or homes, for dates and Omani coffee. Dune hikes, sandboarding and camel rides are also available, but equally acceptable is to pitch a chair or a blanket on the dunes and simply appreciate the view, as camels lope past in the distance. By night, explore around camp by torchlight, and watch the critters emerging from the seemingly lifeless sand – eerily pale camel spiders, wide-eyed lizards, and disconcertingly large scorpions.
In the morning, after sunrise highlights the dunes in gold, re-inflate the tyres on your 4WD and hit the road again. Head northwest towards Ibra and follow the signs to Nizwa, a historic and prosperous town at the base of the Al Hajar Mountains. If you arrive before 1pm, explore the souk, a much more atmospheric and traditional affair than that in Muscat, with an emphasis on spices, vegetables and handicrafts. After lunch in a traditional restaurant, venture into the Nizwa Fort, fabulous not only for its elegant (if restored) architecture and fantastic views over the surrounding fields, but also for the displays in the downstairs rooms that show timelines of events in the history of the region.
Suitably sated on the highlights of Nizwa, leave town before it gets too late in the day, as an epic mountain climb awaits, and the views of sunset from the top are not to be missed. From Nizwa, head towards Birkat al Mouz, and then through to the checkpoint just beyond this village. From this point onwards, it is 4WD only – not because the road is bumpy (it is modern and well paved) but because of the sheer inclines involved. Allow an hour to ascend the 40km to the Saiq Plateau – an exhilarating hour of switchbacks, hairpin bends and precipitous plunges, ascending to an altitude of 2000m. While there are several hotels in the region, look no further than the exceptional Alila Jabal Ahkdar – in our case, it was images of this hotel, dramatically perched on the edge of the mountain cliffs, that instigated our Oman adventure, and the reality lives up to the expectations (see our separate review).
Once the adrenaline surge induced by the drive has been soothed with a welcome drink of pomegranate juice, watch the sun set over the mountains, and the canyons progressively descend into darkness. At this altitude the stars burn brightly, and a guided astronomy tour, perhaps between drinks and dinner, is worthwhile. Despite the isolation, the meals at Alila Jabal Akhdar are sublime, accentuated with local dates, pomegranates and rosewater, and we can highly recommend the Omani tasting menu.
While it is tempting to luxuriate in the lavish environs of the Alila resort, there are adventures to be had in the surrounding mountains. An excellent, if extensive, day trip, takes in the major highlights of the mountain of Jebel Shams (and the adjancent Wadi Ghul), the ancient tombs of Al Ayn, and the castles and forts of Jabrin and Bahla.
Begin by descending the mountain back through Birkat al Mouz, then take route 21 via Al Hamra, to the small village of Misfat al Abriyyin, one of the most picturesque villages in the Hajar Mountains. Explore its narrow alleyways and terraced stone houses, interspersed with date palms and irrigation channels. As you leave, take a short detour along the opposite hill for a photogenic view of the whole village nestled into the mountain.
Descend the switchback road from Misfat and then follow the signs to Jebel Shams, the highest peak in Oman. At the summit, the views into the adjacent Wadi Ghul are spectacular – admire them from the fenced balcony near the trinket sellers, but also head a bit further along the road to the more isolated (and unfenced!) outcrops for the most striking photography experiences. When you have had your fill of the vertiginous views, head partway back down the mountain, but keep an eye out for the narrow turnoff towards Sint – take this unsealed but graded road to detour across the mountain pass (that’s why you have a 4WD, isn’t it?), saving many kilometres. Once back on the sealed road, follow the signs for Al Ayn.
Its unusual to have a Unesco World Heritage site all to yourself, but that’s what you are likely to find at Al Ayn. You know you are getting close when you can see small ruined tombs scattered atop the adjacent hills, but the series of beehive tombs arranged linearly across a ridgetop at Al Ayn is by far the most evocative site. The isolated locale is unmarked and unfenced – walk the narrow path adjacent to the fields and across the gully, and then the atmospheric ruins are yours to explore.
It is now time to begin the long journey back to Jabal Akhdar, but much of this driving is done along the route 21 and route 15 motorways, so the return leg is easy going. If time allows, make short detours to see the castle at Jabrin, and the fantastic walled city of Bahla, with its fort now restored and granted Unesco World Heritage status. Even if you miss the closing time of 4pm, it is still worth seeing from the outside, with its turrets and battlements nestled against the mountain backdrop. Finally, re-ascend the slopes of Jabal Akhdar and return to your hotel for a well deserved rest.
After the expedition-like endeavours of day 7, take things easy and explore closer to home on day 8. Consider a walk through the nearby villages of Al Aqr and Al Ayn (a different Al Ayn to yesterday!), traditional terraced farming villages growing roses and pomegranates, or the atmospheric abandoned village of Wadi Bani Habib. Alternatively, for the more adventurous, Alila has a series of via ferrata courses around the resort. Or enjoy more sensual pleasures with an Omani cooking class or a visit to the world renowned spa.
Your final day in Oman is likely to be dictated by the time of your outbound flight. From Jabal Akhdar to Muscat International Airport is a simple 2.5 hour drive, and after the descent from the mountains, it is all easy cruising on motorway route 15, with few delays. If time allows, its possible to incorporate a long detour via Nakhal and Rustaq, to see two of Oman’s most dramatic and evocative forts. Alternatively, linger longer in the delights of Alila, before your final journey directly to the airport, to depart this atmospheric and beguiling country.
We hope you have enjoyed your roadtrip.