The southernmost governorate of Oman is a world away from the industrious north and separated geographically by an interminable gravel desert. Edged by the sand dunes of the Empty Quarter to the north and an escarpment encircling the main city of Salalah in the south, this region is a fascinating place to visit, particularly during or just after the khareef (rainy season) when mists and light rains transform the hillsides from desert brown to luscious green.
If travelling between July to September, try going overland to Salalah and returning by plane. This is the best way to sense the full spectacle of the khareef across the top of the escarpment; after eight hours of gravel plains, Dhofar seems like a minor miracle. With lots of historical interest – from the city of Ubar in Shisr to Al Baleed Archaeological Park in Salalah – Dhofar is a must on most itineraries of Oman.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Dhofar.
Archaeological SiteAl Baleed Archaeological Park
Well-labelled and atmospherically lit at night, the ancient ruins of Al Baleed belong to the 12th-century trading port of Zafar. Frankincense was shipped from here to India in exchange for spices. Little is known about the port’s demise, but the excellent on-site Museum of the Frankincense Land charts the area’s settlement since 2000 BC and illustrates the nation's maritime strength, including its recent renaissance. The site includes several kilometres of landscaped paths and the adjoining reed beds make for good birdwatching.
ViewpointJebel Samhan Viewpoint
The upper plateau of Jebel Samhan suddenly ends in a vertiginous drop more than 1000 meters to the coastal plain below. Barely a ledge interrupts the vertical cliff, and it seems impossible that there should be any route down from here that didn't involve a rope and crampons. But in fact that is not the case: locals, armed with nothing more than a snake stick and a kettle, have been climbing from plain to jebel for centuries along their own hidden paths.
A popular picnic site during the khareef and a great place to enjoy the jebel in any season, Wadi Darbat is a grassy plateau in the hills marked by Oman's largest natural permanent lake. This is the source of the estuary that flows into Khor Rori, and during a good khareef, water cascades through a series of limestone pools before tumbling over the plateau's edge in a long drop to the plain below.
Archaeological SiteSumhuram Archaeological Park
Looking across one of Dhofar's prettiest bays at peacefully grazing camels and flocks of flamingos, it’s hard to imagine that 2000 years ago Khor Rori was a trading post on the frankincense route and one of the most important ports on earth. Today little remains of the city except the painstakingly excavated ruins of Sumhuram Archaeological Park. This fascinating park is part-museum and part–archaeological site, and you can wander around the ruins and watch the archaeologists at work.
The Sarfait road, which links Salalah with the Yemeni border via Mughsail, is one of Oman's many impressive engineering projects. Zigzagging nearly 1000m from the Salalah Plain, it reaches the top of the cliff via 14 steep bends. A few kilometres beyond the road's summit there are stunning views back towards Mughsail and inland across some of the wildest wadis in Arabia. Just beyond the turning to Fizayah Beach, there's a police checkpoint preventing tourist access to the Yemeni border.
DunesEmpty Quarter Viewpoint
The sands of the Empty Quarter begin to curl around the road on the approach to Al Hashman, then very quickly coddle into small mounds and ergs (wind-blown dune) around the settlement. From here, a track leads north along a soft sand corridor with dunes rising dramatically either side and offering superb desert vistas from their summits. This is the fringe of the largest sea of sand in the world, and the landscape is exquisite in its silence and enormity.
Oman’s most spectacular bay ends in a set of sheer cliffs that reaches towards the Yemeni border. Immediately below the start of these cliffs the rock pavement is potholed with blowholes that are active year-round, but particularly volatile during the high seas of the khareef. A path has been paved around these petulant vents allowing for a close encounter with the jets of sea spray; the woofs of water against rock is a memorable part of Mughsail's soundscape.
The most striking of all the springs scattered across the Salalah Plain, Ayn Razat flows copiously from the hillside at all times of year and rolls across the limestone pavement in something close to a permanent river. The water collects in a set of lily ponds, the pink and blue blooms of which attract bright-orange dragonflies, which in turn are watched by kingfishers with beaks of a similar hue. There's a beautiful garden here, popular with picnicking locals.
Ubar is an archaeological site of potentially great importance. Lost to history for more than 1000 years, the rediscovery of the remains of this once important trading post on the frankincense route caused great archaeological excitement in the 1990s. It may be hard for the ordinary mortal to appreciate what all the fuss is about, as there is little to see. An insightful video, however (in the small information centre, opened in 2017), helps in interpreting the site.
Whether it’s a guided tour of a historic landmark, private tasting of local delicacies, or an off-road adventure — explore the best experiences in Dhofar.