Salalah; an Omani oasis of natural beauty
It is that point in the year when many of us are near breaking point. The stifling summer seems to have been going on a very long time indeed, the heat has been pretty unbearable for weeks now and just to really hammer things home, humidity levels have recently risen.
So what if I were to tell you that a mere 90-minute flight away from the UAE is a place where you can escape all that and touchdown at a destination where the average temperature currently hovers at under 30 degrees Celsius and, at this time of year, there’s a very real chance of rain. Not only that, the landscape is green and lush, the topography is dramatic and fresh produce grows abundantly. It might all sound to good to be true, but I can assure that Salalah, in the southern province of Dhofar, Oman, is very real and ripe for the exploring.
There also just so happens to be a flight that leaves Dubai around 5pm (early finish at work, anyone?), which will see you descending into Oman well before 7pm rolls around. If you choose to stay at the very conveniently located Al Baleed Resort Salalah by Anantara (our top pick in the region), you can be sipping an al fresco drink at their beachside restaurant Sakalan before the clock strikes eight. From there, enjoy dinner and an early night so that you’re firing on all cylinders the next morning.
If you visit anytime from July through to early October, one of the first things that will strike you about Salalah is its greenery and natural beauty. Not only does the air feel fresh, there are rugged tree-topped mountains, verdant grassy hills, deep, water-filled wadis and gushing waterfalls. This is all due to the khareef (southwest monsoon) which barrels in from the Indian Ocean around mid-June, bringing dramatic rainfall and a drop in temperature that transforms Salalah into a lush, tropical paradise with an untamed jungle feel.
As well as being geographically diverse, Salalah seems, for the most part at least, relatively untouched by time and certainly hasn’t been tainted by the trappings of tourism. As a result, it offers a sense of old Arabia that’s actually new to many expats.
“For those who enjoy exploring outdoors, this region offers much”
A jaunt into the centre of this small city is a pleasant, informative way to spend a couple of hours. The dusty, quiet roads are lined not just by the occasional dilapidated building, but with an abundance of coconut trees as well as numerous market stalls selling sweet, freshly picked local fruits such as bananas, coconuts and papaya. It all feels a world away from the modern metropolis that many of us inhabit and forces you – in the best possible way – to simply take a step back from all that.
The meandering, bustling alleyways of Al Husn Souk are filled with small shops and stands selling frankincense (in all manner of different forms: resin, moisturiser, essential oil and incense), nuts and spices, perfume and traditional Omani clothes. Convivial chatter between the traders fills the richly perfumed air, as do heady plumes of smoke from the smouldering frankincense. Once you’ve made your purchases, pull up a plastic chair at one of the open-air cafes and sip hot sweet tea while enjoying local bread cooked seconds before over an open flame and drizzled with prized Yemeni honey. The atmosphere is genial, the people watching fascinating and the food simple, cheap and tasty – there are far worse ways to while time.
It might not be for everyone, and is certainly not the squeamish, but a trip to the nearby meat market offers a real insight into local life and trade. The large, clean area provides a lesson in thrift and economy: the place hums with productivity as animals – mostly cows and goats – that were slaughtered mere hours before are butchered expertly and efficiently, with nothing going to waste. At a time when we tend to buy our meat ready portioned and shrink-wrapped from the supermarket, it is fascinating to see such skill and efficiently first hand. While you could also opt to visit the fish market, far better – and more romantic – to head instead for the harbour and purchase the catch of the day there. Take your spoils into one of the nearby restaurants and for a few rials they will happily cook it for you.
For those who enjoy exploring outdoors, this region offers much. At some point during any trip to Salalah a few hours spent traversing the scenic mountains located to both the east and the west is a must. You can navigate your way along the craggy roads by car pausing, as the locals do, for a stroll and a scenic picnic. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife: Arabian leopards, hyenas and gazelles have all been spotted during khareef. While not perhaps quite as exciting, do look out for the doe-eyed cows that tend to wander unconcerned into the pathway of oncoming cars. Cyclists may wish to make their way up on two wheels, although be warned: the incline is steep so this is one for serious enthusiasts, rather than the occasional hobbyist. If you’re a keen hiker, there are plenty of mountain tracks of various lengths and difficulties to check out and local guides can be hired to ensure that you start and end your walk at the best possible vantage points.
“Frankincense has long been a hugely prized commodity in Oman”
Head east from Salalah for 35 kilometres or so and close to the fishing village of Taqah you’ll come to Wadi Darbat. Visit during or soon after khareef and you’ll discover land awash with greenery, dense undergrowth and, most popular of all, waterfalls that carve their way down the mountain side filling the wadi below and creating smaller rock pools which are perfect for paddling. Stop for a picnic or barbecue (there are a few restaurants and stalls selling food as well), treat the fishes to your leftover sandwich crusts and take a boat ride out on the lake afterwards.
If sunbathing is essential to your holiday, it’s perhaps best to visit between February and early June, when Salalah’s beaches really come into their own. The area boasts vast stretches of white sand fringed with coconut trees, turquoise blue seas and a tropical vibe. Al Mughsail beach – around forty minutes drive from the centre of town – is one of the most stunning of those spots. That’s not to say that visiting at other times of year, particularly during khareef, doesn’t have its benefits though. While the ocean is often too choppy for swimming, you’re more likely to witness one of the areas most loved attractions in full, dramatic action. Providing the sea is rough enough, three blowholes send explosive jets of water high into the air, soaking and delighting those in close proximity (particularly young children). Part of the joy here is that even if you keep a close eye on the powerful waves below, it’s tricky to predict as and when the blowholes will start to fire.
From Al Mughsail beach venture a few miles further along the aptly named zig-zag roads, which ultimately lead to the Yemeni border. As you traverse along the highway – all hair pin bends, sharp twists and turns and plunging descents – you’ll spot Oman’s famous frankincense trees dotted around the mountain side and end up at a stunning vantage point that feels almost above the clouds.
Frankincense has long been a hugely prized commodity in Oman; it established the country as a place of trade in the ancient world and was once considered more valuable than gold. Today it is still highly revered and grows in five different areas throughout the region. To learn more about the history, significance and farming of the ancient tree resin plan a trip to the Land of Frankincense Museum, which is located within the large Al Baleed Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that certainly warrants a visit.
From the diverse landscape to the amenable temperature, the sense of history and culture to the abundance of outdoor pursuits, not forgetting the gorgeous beaches and proximity to the UAE, if Salalah isn’t already on your list of long weekend getaways, it really should be. www.tourismoman.com
WORDS: SARAH PRICE