GETTING THERE Forget the Arabian Gulf. Oman is what you call a proper country, with real people, a sandy coast, high mountains and miles of desert. Your parents’ friends remember when it was just a sleepy Gulf port. Now it’s a bit sprawling, tidy and not too tall. No high-rises or shopping malls, just some of the globe’s last lonely places – only slightly less remote, thanks to dual carriageways and cheapish airfares.
GO In winter, before March, when it starts hotting up.
STAY The grandparent of Omani hyper-luxurious resorts, the Chedi Muscat, opened in 2003. But you like to get away from the 5-star hotels and go camping. Nowadays the Bedu live in breezeblock compounds but they are among the world’s most experienced tent-dwellers and Oman still allows wild camping.
The Empty Quarter is 250,000 square miles of rolling dunes, a few oases and total, bewildering, soft silence. The shifting desert sands are a myth – the ridges only ever move a few feet so the dunes stay put. For a luxury version, sip lime and mint sodas in the Wahiba Sands, followed by a dip in the oasis and a proper bed.
READ Wilfred Thesiger mapped large parts of the Empty Quarter, including the mountains, and tells his story in “Arabian Sands” (1959). Jan Morris’s “Sultan in Oman” (1957) is another classic, a royal progress through the desert. “Earth Weeps, Saturn Laughs”, a modern novel by Abdulaziz Al Farsi, an oncologist from Muscat, offers a glimpse into contemporary life.
SEE Crumbling towers, villages that cling to the mountainside and the hidden pool at Wadi Shab. The mudbrick Fort Jabrin, built in the 1600s, stands at the edge of the desert south-west of Muscat: whitewashed walls, painted ceilings and a hot wind blowing through the windows.
BUY Before Chanel No. 5 there was frankincense. Hoja’i is the best-quality frankincense resin, and the world’s finest is tapped from stubby trees in the valleys of Jabal al Qamar – the Mountains of the Moon – outside Salalah.•