HOT TO TROT

Oman’s new tourism boom

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - RICHARD GREEN

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

GETTY IMAGES

Clock­wise from main: dunes in the Empty Quar­ter; ru­ins of the Queen of Sheba’s palace; desert camels; burning frank­in­cense; and Salalah Rotana Re­sort

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