Omanis are known for their hospitality and the country makes an exciting and interesting family holiday destination to explore with children, says Helen McClure of Expat Explorers. If you still hanker for a family adventure holiday, Oman is the place for parents traveling with kids looking for the thrills that are a little off the beaten track, without getting lost. Adventurous travel in Oman with kids means not standing still: hiring a car and exploring, settling in a different place each night. In five days you can explore mountains, sand dunes, the coast and the city, says Helen, mother of Madeleine (6) and Tilda (4). Where else in the world is that possible? Now is the time to go, before it gets over-developed and risks losing its innocent charm.
If you’re looking for variety, Oman offers it all. Take four days or four weeks; at every bend of the road you will discover something new and exciting. The sights keep children of all ages interested, and the hospitable nature of Omanis means you’ll take home memories to last a lifetime. Get planning – there aren’t many places on the planet where you can hike through mountains and watch the sun set over a sand dune on the same day. This is an ideal family road trip and a fun way to do the Middle East with kids.
The peaks of the Al Hajar Mountains are peppered with tumbling villages and groves of pomegranate trees linked by snaking falajs (traditional water courses). This not only makes the steep terraces accessible, but creates short walks, full of intrigue, suitable for young kids who will easily tire. Wandering through wadis and scrambling over crumbling abandoned villages keeps children of all ages entertained. If you’re feeling adventurous you can walk from Sayh Qutnah, on the Saiq Plateau,to the deserted village of Wadi Bani Habib. If you don’t fancy a long walk it’s accessible by car except for a short, but steep, meander down a path where the road ends. The stone and mud structures, abandoned in the wadi, are like gravestones marking a disappearing and isolated way of life.
As couple of hours’ drive from the rocky slopes is the wide, flat plain to the Wahiba Sands – a huge orange sandpit. There is something magical about watching the evening sun sink; even the children, who stood open-mouthed, were struck with awe. Rough it or glamp it, there are several canvas-based options to choose from. It’s always funny seeing a flushing toilet in a tent in the middle of the desert. It gnaws at your environmental conscience.
Wildlife is a little bit of a theme on this trip. Camels roam around, shackled with ropes to prevent them from straying too far, and donkeys nibble at the sparse shrubs surrounding the ruins at the side of the road.
But the star of the show lives wild on the beaches at Ras-al-Hadd: turtles. Rather shy, it’s best to see them at night and tours are easily organised through local hotels. It’s a breathtaking sight, especially when you compare the metre-long adults to their six-centimetre babies. The circle of life can be strange.
Heading back along the beautiful coastline towards Muscat, there are a couple of sights worth stopping for. Keep your eyes open for the tiger rock: on the left side of the road towards Sur Just, after the Khawr Jirama Lagoon, is a naturally shaped rocked painted in orange and black stripes. Another quick break on the side of the new highway, at the ancient fishing village of Qalhat, after Sur, is the thirteenth-century tomb of Bibi Maryam, a startling monument that has stood the test of time.
And the best stop is left until last. Wadi ash Shab is billed as one of the greatest walks in Oman. Once you’ve crossed the wadi by boat the path is reasonably easy for even the youngest child with various wadi pools to cool you en route. Eventually it narrows to a rocky ledge but the finale is, however, not suitable for children or weak swimmers. At the last rock pool you can swim 50 metres to a narrow gap in the rock face where you will discover a small cave with a secret waterfall.
The mosques and minarets of Muscat signal the end of the trip. The city offers the sights and sounds of rambling souqs, the hustle and bustle of the fish markets and the glittering attractions of shops dripping in gold. At every turn your senses are stimulated.
This trip takes a bit of planning. If you like package holidays it might not be for you (there aren’t yet many tour operators offering this kind of trip). However, once you’ve hired a 4x4 and booked your accommodation, you’re ready to explore.
Sahab Hotel, Sayh Qutnah, Saiq Plateau. Breakfast with a breathtaking view, famously visited by Princess Diana. There are 27 well-appointed rooms opening on to a fossil garden with a beautiful mountain top swimming pool. The Rustic Suite has one bedroom and a lounge with a sofa that doubles as a bed for the children. The restaurant offers an a la carte menu at lunchtime and in the evening there is a buffet.
Desert Nights Camp, 11 kilometres from Al Wasil. This is an oasis in the middle of the dunes. The permanent ensuite tents, with electricity and water, are more about glamping than camping. The site has 26 tents, a bar and a restaurant. The kids will love the camel rides.
Turtle Beach Resorts, Ras al Hadd. A quaint place to stay hidden away down a dusty track. The rooms, made to look like barasti huts, are very basic but some have ensuites and air conditioning. If you want your children to stay in your room you’ll have to make do with mattresses on the floor. There is a family-friendly evening buffet on the veranda of the dhow restaurant overlooking the bay. The resort arranges nightly trips to a nearby turtle beach.
Take your pick of Muscat. From five star resorts to business hotels, you’ll be able to find something to suit your budget. The city is opening its eyes to tourism and new hotels are opening all the time. The Shangri-La’s Barr al Jassah is a great resort with a lazy river, splash park and kids’ club.
It’s easy to get lost and the roads are underdeveloped so make sure you have a map and a GPS. You’ll also need to hire a 4x4 which are available from any car rental company. Before you enter the Al Hajar Mountains you will need to stop at a police checkpoint and your car will be checked for suitability.
The winter months (October to February) are the wettest and wet weather in the mountains is dangerous as it can cause flash floods. However, floods can happen at almost any time so check the weather forecast.
Adhere to cultural sensitivities by dressing conservatively: Women should keep their knees and shoulders covered at all times. (This does not apply to children). This includes wearing shorts and t-shirts. Try to travel light and ditch the buggy. Take a backpack if your children are very young – strollers don’t get along with steep mountains or soft sand.
Keep healthy by only drinking bottled water and lots of it.