Why this epic country of mosques and mountains should be your first post-lockdown holiday

Sarah Rodrigues
·4-min read
"We alternated between scrambling along rocks and diving into deep, clear pools" - Getty
"We alternated between scrambling along rocks and diving into deep, clear pools" - Getty

In response to the pandemic-related dearth of tourism, Oman has relaxed its entry requirements so that citizens of more than 100 countries, including the UK, can visit visa-free for up to ten days. This is subject to various conditions, such as proof of onward travel, confirmed accommodation and Covid PCR testing on arrival. 

Travellers must cover the cost of their own test, which is about £47; a month-long visa, back when we needed one, was around £40. A destination that takes the safety of travellers and residents seriously is obviously reassuring; even so, there are many other reasons why Oman should be top of your post-lockdown list. 

Thanks to its accessibility – the flight from London to Muscat is less than eight hours – Oman’s capital is doable as a long weekend. Yet, as alluring and majestic as the city itself is, it’s also the gateway to deeper exploration and wilder adventures – and a period of up to ten days, as per the new visa rules, provides an ideal window of opportunity to experience both. 

Muscat is a blissful base - Getty
Muscat is a blissful base - Getty

Muscat is by no means compact, and long days of exploration require a blissful base to which one can return. From the Kempinski Hotel, with its decadent spa and choice of restaurants, as well as its pools and modest stretch of beach, we wandered the early morning Muttrah fish market, agleam with slick floors, bulging eyes and silvery scales, before sampling super-sweet dates at the adjoining fruit and vegetable market.

Walking along the corniche, low mountains lay in dark folds across the water, on which dhows and fishing boats were moored. In this deliberately low-rise city, the occasions when something spikes the skyline stand out: here, a modest medieval tower; there, a bulbous white structure modelled on an incense burner. Cross the road to enter the fragrant realm of the souk, where metal upon metal – genie-esque kettles, swords, helmets, jewellery – lies beneath hanging woven bags and T-shirts; higher still, decorated beams, stained glass and painted ceilings add to an Arabian Nights atmosphere. The vast Grand Mosque, with its interminable carpet and ornate chandelier, plus the architecturally splendid Opera House and Palace, also make it worth rousing yourself from your sun lounger for. 

Lamps in the Mutrah Souq - Getty
Lamps in the Mutrah Souq - Getty

Ah, sun. We may not have had much of it during this last year. Activity? Possibly even less. On my visit, local outfit Husaak Adventures took us into a lesser-known Muscat, where evening kayaking in Bandar Khyran saw us rhythmically dipping our oars into sunset-stained fjords, before returning to the upmarket beachfront setting of Kempinski’s Zale Lounge. The following morning, we set out before sunrise to Wada Tiwi, where we alternated between scrambling along rocks and diving into deep, clear pools to float, face up to the sky, to observe towering limestone cliffs fringed with palms. 

With your taste for adventure whetted, drive 115 miles on to the Anantara Al Jabar Al Akhdar. Teetering on the edge of a canyon, 2,000m above sea level, its elevation makes it a popular weekend destination for city dwellers seeking to escape the heat of Muscat. In the morning, light dawns upon a view like a smoky potion simmering in a cauldron; later, as the sun rises and the clouds dissolve, the base of the canyon was revealed beneath our uncertain feet, navigating a 200m-long via ferrata along its inner edge, part of the resort’s Activity Wall. 

Adventure can be found in Oman's vast canyons - Getty
Adventure can be found in Oman's vast canyons - Getty

For those who prefer a view from a more stable footing, Diana’s Point – so called because the late Princess of Wales visited in 1986 – plays host to yoga in the morning, and cocktails at sunset. Yet despite this glamorous sheen, the harsh reality for long-time inhabitants of this area has always been a lack of water. Lined by a chain of winding, uneven paths, three all-but-abandoned villages can be reached on a guided walk from the Anantara, their former inhabitants only returning (from the recently established and purpose-built ‘New Town,’ where services, including schools and hospitals, are on hand) to tend to their farms of pomegranate, pears, garlic, olives and Damask roses, hydrated by a network of aqueducts – falaj – fed by mountain springs.

Many of us will have become accustomed to keeping our distance from others this year. How marvellous to do so, without awkwardness, in a country where both the climate and people are warm and welcoming, and where vast and astonishing landscapes are populated by fewer than 5 million people. Visa fee or no visa fee – I will be back in a heartbeat. 

Oman Air flies direct to Muscat International from London Heathrow for £762 return in April.