Camels clearly rule the roads beyond the city of Salalah.
Story and photos by Travel with a Challenge editor, Alison Gardner
Flying south from Muscat truly confirms that Oman is a desert kingdom. Sand and rock dominate the landscape for 600 miles or 1,000 kilometers, until you glimpse Salalah. In the fabled Governate of Dhofar close to the border with Yemen, the monsoon – that rare and beautiful seasonal visitor to this small area of an ever-thirsty Arabian Peninsula – has given Salalah a moderating countenance of green with splashes of vivid color from flowering shrubs and trees, and thousands of birds that migrate through this seaside oasis.
The Salalah monsoon season, June to September, transforms the Dhofar region into a uniquely green vision with waterfalls, rivers and plant growth not seen at other times of the year. Oman Ministry of Information
Salalah is surrounded on land by a half-circle of mountains and behind that by the classic sand desert of the vast and infamous Empty Quarter. It has served as a natural fortress for thousands of years. Along with favorable harbors, it is the Khareef, the cooling, renewing annual monsoon that has drawn rulers and merchants, to visit or settle the shores of Frankincense Land. Even the Queen of Sheba fell under the spell of the area’s treasure far greater than gold and sent gifts of frankincense to impress Solomon! Today it is the fine sand beaches, the cultural history and archaeology, and the natural diversity that draw visitors to this ancient paradise, mainly from Europe and the Middle East.
Enormous incense burners along main roadways declare that visitors have arrived in the land of frankincense, once a more valuable commodity to the Arabian Peninsula than oil is today. My evening stroll through the city’s aromatic souq revealed dozens of stalls with mysterious ingredients waiting to be blended into fragrant combinations. Bathed in the characteristic scent that accompanied me throughout my stay in Salalah, I selected brightly-colored pottery incense burners of different sizes and packages of lumpy raw incense to burn in them.
This gnarled Frankincense Tree has been, over centuries, worth many times its weight in gold!
Frankincense is the signature scent of Salalah, available for purchase in many grades, just like fine wines.
Next day I drove to the source. Marvelling at the survival of such gnarled little trees sprinkled randomly across the rugged landscape, I imagined how many centuries of incense sap has been carefully harvested from each hardy little warrior. In 2000, the United Nations declared the region a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the unique historical legacy of its frankincense.
Al Balid Archaeological Site on the Salalah waterfront is a new model for archaeological tourism with guided site tours, a museum, gift shop and café.
When fine white sand beaches bordering the Arabian Sea lose their attraction, history offers a stimulating substitute. Premier among the sites is the newly-opened Frankincense Land Archaeological Park (Al Balid) on the Salalah waterfront, an impressive early-Islamic excavation site where the government has built a world-class museum for local artefacts, a gift shop, restaurant and snack bar, and a botanical garden of indigenous plants.
Or for a less organized archaeological adventure, explore the fortified ruins of Samahram dating back thousands of years. Its exports of frankincense reached Egypt, Greece and Rome from ancient harbors below Samahram that are today vivid blue estuaries and rivers [khor] attracting dozens of bird species. Or drive 28 miles or 45 kilometres into the flowering hills where Jacob’s tomb [An Nabi Ayub] is a popular Moslem pilgrimage destination once you navigate around herds of haughty camels that rule the road and the countryside. Major hotels and the Salalah tourism office will recommend guide/drivers for any of these worthwhile attractions.
The comfortable government-sponsored Salalah Hostel provides low-cost, high quality accommodation for independent travelers and family groups.
Crowne Plaza Resort is one of a number of multi-national resorts along the pristine warm and sandy shores of Salalah.
Salalah is blessed with the widest choice of accommodation anywhere outside Muscat. It ranges from five-star multinational resorts like the 45-acre Crowne Plaza Resort, to oceanside vacation villas and apartments, to the finest hostel I have seen anywhere in the world. If there is such a thing as a five-star hostel, the 2004 government-built Youth Hostel Al-Ashkhara surely qualifies, with spacious brightly-furnished rooms and modern private bathrooms starting about US$40 or €30 or family suites for only a little more, though it is not near the beach. Cafeteria meals are inexpensive and high quality.
Most Omanis happily speak English because it has been a mandatory subject in school for three decades, and all signs are in English throughout the country. Foreign visitors are welcomed as special guests.
Best tourism websites: www.omanaccess.com/explore_oman/tourist_info.asp and www.omantourism.gov.om/. The annual Muscat Festival in the capital runs for roughly a month straddling January and February, http://muscat-festival.com/, featuring regional cultures, colorful costumes, dances, music and cuisine from around the country.
Seasons: Visit Oman between October and April when temperatures are 75 to 95 F. by day and 65 F. at night [20 to 30 degrees Celsius]. Muscat is hot and humid between May and September, not recommended. The south Salalah coast is drenched by monsoon rains from June to September, keeping it surprisingly green and gorgeous in a region otherwise surrounded by sandy desert. This is the Arab visitor’s choice of time to visit Salalah, when temperatures rarely exceed 30 degrees Celsius.
Public transport: Public road transportation is small-scale and somewhat casual in timing, making it more invisible than in most countries. For very reasonable fares, modern mini-vans and taxis dash along the highways between communities or into the capital. You can go a long way on five or ten dollars in an oil-rich country!
Driving: Highway driving between towns and sites is a pleasure in Oman with well-engineered roads and all signs in English and Arabic. Traffic drives on the right. The maximum speed limit on the open road is 75 miles or 120 km per hour and seat belts are compulsory. Visitors may use an international licence. Women driving in Oman is common.
In-country and international tour specialists: a catalog of operators, contact information, and tour expertise is found at www.destinationoman.com/touroperators.html. I particularly recommend Mark Tours and Car Rentals, www.mark-oman.com/welcome.htm. Their guide services both on road and 4WD off road are excellent.
Enjoy two accompanying articles about Oman in this web magazine:
Oman’s Forts and Castles: heritage architecture restored.
Travel Oman: a Middle Eastern haven of peace and hospitality.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching alternative vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women travelers of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine. Email: email@example.com.