HOT TO TROT
Oman’s new tourism boom
Salalah might sound like a magician’s command from the Arabian Nights, but in fact it’s a historic city in the south of Oman with a tropical climate and super beaches.
What’s more, it’s tipped as the next holiday place-togo, with a recently opened top-notch resort and a new airport ready to open. So I go to check it out.
On my flight from Muscat, capital of the sultanate on the southeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula, the desert blazes orange for a full hour before the captain announces, “10 minutes to landing”. This prompts the local lad next to me to point out miraculous-looking green hilltops, and by the time the wheels hit the runway Mohammed has shown me a picture of his Mustang and offers to drive me wherever I need to go.
I encounter more eccentric hospitality at the Taqa Fort museum the next day. It’s as cute and crenellated a castle as you could imagine, with sand-coloured walls, heavy wooden doors, and a governor’s quarters with bright cushions and a four-poster bed. In the middle of the guided tour, the curator lifts a 19th-century rifle from its display brackets and hands it to me so he can take my picture holding it.
Even the air is welcoming in Salalah — much gentler than the nostril-scorching heat of Dubai or Muscat. Temperatures here seldom reach beyond 30C, the humidity stays mild. Plus every lobby, shop or restaurant has a heady perfume — sweet and rich, a curious fragrance suggesting wood, honey, lemon and even caramel.
I breathe deeply and trail towards the source of the smell — a small earthenware burner containing yellowyorange globules. My guide, Hamed, reveals that it is frankincense.
“Salalah was once the centre of the world’s frankincense trade, when it was more valuable than gold or silver,” he says. “I burn it at home at least three times day.”
Like all local men, Hamed wears an immaculate dishdasha — a plain robe that shades the wearer from neck to toe. And like most Omanis, he is educated and courteous.
The marble lobby of the new Salalah Rotana Resort is especially strong smelling — I pass through again on my way to the bar (serving alcohol, incidentally) and sit outside for dinner at the Silk Road Restaurant. The resort softens the desert starkness with man-made canals, arched footbridges and palm trees. At night it feels even more exotic, with the moon’s flickering reflection on the water, a warm reviving breeze and arabesque silhouettes.
Salalah town centre, about 30km away, is less attractive. There is a small souk, but it’s a little forlorn, though the Land of Frankincense Museum pluckily reveals, with maps and wooden models, the history of the commodity that made the area rich.
Along the beach is the fabled city of Sumhuram, once home to the Queen of Sheba’s palace. It’s a shadow of any former glory, ruined to little more than head height. On some roadsides are wizened frankincense trees with
Salalah is tipped as the next holiday place-to-go, with a new resort and airport
twisted branches. Past the imposing wall of mountains that curtains the town are green hills that look more like South Africa than Arabia, and a simple white and green tomb of that biblical prince of patience, Job.
Arab tourists from the Gulf region come to experience the hills in bloom during a mini-monsoon season known as the Khareef. This modest southeast monsoon lasts from July to September and creates hazy skies and drizzle. The earth erupts in grasses and wildflowers, and temperatures dip well below those in Muscat or Dubai.
However, most western tourists want to drive the other way, into the largest sand desert in the world. It begins a couple of hours inland from Salalah and is called the Empty Quarter, famously traversed by the British explorer, Wilfred Thesiger, with Bedouin companions in the 1940s. The Rotana can organise a night at a desert camp here, or you can hire a four-wheel drive and get kitted out with a rooftop tent-box, a satellite phone and a Bedouin guide for the trickiest bits of off-roading.
With the Land Cruiser perched atop a 120m dune and the sand cooling swiftly in the evening, the utter stillness makes me conscious of my hearing, like when emerging from a nightclub. The sun setting behind kilometres of rolling dunes is a magnificent sight.
Oman’s gentleness can make your home country feel a bit fast and loose. During my drive I have two flat tyres fixed free of charge, am handed ice from some fishermen, and more than one driver leads me to the nearest petrol station so I don’t miss it.
I am pondering this while swimming from a speedboat in the bay off Taqa on my last day. A dolphin breaks through the water about 6m away and breathes out with a noise like a cough through a snorkel — then another half a dozen arch by gracefully. I gaze at the blue sky, pale green water and purple mountains.
The Taqa seafront is a line of palm trees and houses shimmering in the noonday sun; its fort sits squat and reassuring in the distance. Salalah is a real place all right — yet there’s no shortage of Arabian magic. • rotana.com • tourismoman.com.au
Clockwise from main: dunes in the Empty Quarter; ruins of the Queen of Sheba’s palace; desert camels; burning frankincense; and Salalah Rotana Resort