AS PROGRESS continues its relentless march across the Emirates, and Dubai matures into an established winter sun destination, it’s only natural some clients will want to explore beyond the customary dune drives, Bedouin dinners, and air-conditioned malls.
As visitors become more familiar with the region, flydrives and twin centres combining Dubai with neighbouring emirates Fujairah, Abu Dhabi, Ras Al Khaimah, as well as Oman, have become increasingly popular.
Petrol is as cheap as chips, road signs are in English as well as Arabic (and roads often arrow straight) and car rental is affordable – making self-drives a feasible proposition.
Hotel development too, is helping put smaller emirates on the map. Hilton is among a number of groups establishing a network of properties across the region that enable guests to come away with a handful of different experiences.
Dubai/Ras Al Khaimah and Dubai/Fujairah twin centres are already popular, but Hilton regional marketing manager for the Arabian Peninsula, Samantha Wood said the all-inclusive Hilton Ras Al Khaimah Resort and Spa, opening this December, should act as a springboard into the lesser-known Musandam peninsular.
“Oman and emerging Ras Al Khaimah are great alternatives for UK holidaymakers who have visited Dubai and are looking for a more authentic cultural experience,” she said.
“Our second property in the area will give guests the opportunity to experience Musandam’s spectacular backdrop in a resort environment.”
Tucked beneath the towering Hajar mountains on the northernmost tip of Oman, this rugged coastal region is notable for its limestone cliffs that plunge dramatically into Musandam’s fjords.
A sleepy and isolated enclave geographically separated from the rest of Oman by the east coast of the United Arab Emirates, Musandam juts into the Straits of Hormuz like the tip of a rabbit’s ear disjointed from its head.
From the air, the fissured landscape resembles long-fingered pools of ink spilt into a desert, and its topography justifies its nickname, the Norway of Arabia. But comparisons with Europe stop there.
Musandam’s quirky geography makes it the perfect add-on for visitors to Dubai looking for a slice of the real Arabia. Its appeal is not lost on Dubai’s expatriate community either, which packs out Khasab’s sole four-star hotel at weekends (see hotel check), making forward planning or a resort-based stay in neighbouring Ras Al Khaimah, essential.
From Khasab’s port, visitors head out on Omani dhows that sail past tiny fishing hamlets to explore hidden inlets by kayak, or dive or snorkel to the distant wail of a minaret.
Sightings of cormorants, manta rays, reef sharks and dolphins are not uncommon – about 20 of the world’s nearly 80 known varieties of dolphin have been spotted in Omani waters and our dhow was barely out of the port before a playful pod broke the surface.
Thomson Worldwide and Travelpack both feature the Hilton Ras al Khaimah and a day trip to Musandam’s fjords costs £82 through Thomson Worldwide.
Around 30 dolphins trailed our boat for 15 minutes and, bar the odd speedboat that sped past in a blur of white jelabahs – schoolchildren off to class and villagers heading to Khasab for supplies – there was little other traffic.
We motored along Ash Sham fjord to Telegraph Island, named after the British-built telegraph cable laid in 1864 between India and London.
Here, we snorkelled in absinthe-green waters among shoals of grouper, butterfly and flapping batfish. Musandam is also flush with virgin dive sites and 63 other named sites include an aircraft wreck. A two-tank dive from the Golden Tulip hotel costs around £41.
After a day in the fjords most visitors head off in a four-wheel-drive vehicle to explore Oman’s highest peak, Jebel Akhdar, or Green Mountain.
The drive up the dramatic mountain-hugging road affords spectacular views across a gaping canyon that stretches to the fjords and ocean beyond.
The stratification of these gorges, canyons and wadis reads like a geological timetable. The Hajar are speckled with fossils, and at the abandoned settlement of Tawi our guide pointed out the remains of an ancient mud and stone village and pre-historic rock drawings of warriors and boats.
At the 6,000ft high Saiq Plateau, a flash of green arable land in an otherwise arid landscape, were groves of walnut trees and orchards of almond, apricot, nectarine and pomegranate trees.
Oman has no need to ship in sand, build ski slopes in the desert or erect hotels that scrape the clouds. It has mountains that plunge to the sea, spectacular coastal fjords, virgin dive sites, canyons, hidden valleys and millennia of history.
For clients wanting the real Arabia, Musandam has it in spades.
Self-drive: from Dubai it’s an easy drive via Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quain and Ras Al Khaimah to Khasab.
From the UAE border at Dahra it’s a further 23 miles along the spectacular coast-hugging, sealed E311 that winds its way to Khasab in the shadow of the area’s trademark mountains.
At the UAE border tourists must pay a small exit fee and purchase an on-arrival tourist visa (£6) to enter Oman, which takes minutes. No visas are required for one-day trips from Dubai or Ras Al Khaimah.
Flights: from Muscat there are flights on Thursdays and Fridays to and from Khasab on Oman Air. The scenic flight takes just under an hour.
Hotel check – GOLDEN TULIP RESORT KHASAB, Musandam, Oman
Where is it?
The only building on a completely unspoilt seafront location, just off the road that leads in from Dubai. Dubai is 100 miles away; Muscat 400 miles. Khasab Airport is a 15-minute drive. Score: 5 / 5
What’s it like?A 60-room four-star catering to the short-stay excursion market. Score: 3 / 5
Sleep tight?I arrived to find a jug of juice, finger sandwiches and a fruit basket in my sea-facing room. It also had cable TV, air-conditioning and a balcony overlooking the pool. The bathroom was basic but adequate. Score: 3 / 5
Eat in or out?Both. It’s worth dining like a king in Khasab one night, for local seafood at local prices. The coffee shop serves light snacks and the Dibba Café Restaurant does a good buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner. I avoided the Darts English pub. Score: 3 / 5
Anything else?There’s Internet access for a small charge but the slow connection wasn’t worth the effort. The pool has a children’s area and the extensive restaurant menu is available poolside. There’s a tour desk for mountain safaris, dhow cruising and fishing, and an on-site dive operator. Score: 4 / 5
Smiley service?It was refreshing to find Omanis working throughout the hotel. I received a warm welcome and plenty of assistance with free bus transfers to Khasab and reconfirmation of flights. Score: 4 / 5
Recommend it?A small, friendly and well-run hotel with a local flavour. It’s not luxurious but you don’t visit Musandam to stay indoors. The essentials – service, comfort and food were consistently good.
Sample price: an excursion to Musandam from Dubai costs £628 per person with Elite Vacations, including private transfer and vehicle, full-day mountain and fjord trips and three nights’ bed and breakfast at the Golden Tulip.
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