This easternmost region of the Arabian Peninsula holds some of Oman’s main attractions, including beautiful beaches, spectacular wadis, turtle-nesting sites and the strawberry-blond Sharqiya sand dunes. As many of the sites of interest lie en route rather than in the towns, it’s worth having your own vehicle, although tours cover the whole area.
Salalah, the capital of the Dhofar region, is a colourful, subtropical city that owes much of its character to Oman’s former territories in East Africa. Flying into Salalah from Muscat, especially during the khareef (rainy season), it is hard to imagine that Oman’s first and second cities share the same continent.
This dramatic, mountainous region is one of the biggest tourist destinations in Oman, and for good reason. The area has spectacular scenery, including Jebel Shams (Oman’s highest mountain), Wadi Ghul (the Grand Canyon of Arabia) and Jebel Akhdar (the fruit bowl of Oman). In addition, some of the country’s best forts can be seen in Nizwa, Bahla and Jabrin.
The capital of the province is small but far from sleepy. Its souq resounds to a babble of different languages, including Kumzari (a compound language of Arabic, Farsi, English, Hindi and Portuguese), and its harbour bursts with activity, much of it involving semi-illicit trade with Iran.
Separated from the rest of Oman by the east coast of the United Arab Emirates, and guarding the southern side of the strategically important Strait of Hormuz, the Musandam Peninsula is dubbed the ‘Norway of Arabia’ for its beautiful khors (rocky inlets), small villages and dramatic, mountain-hugging roads.
This flat and fertile strip of land between the Hajar Mountains and the Gulf of Oman is the country’s breadbasket and most populous area. Interesting sites include the old castle towns of Nakhal and Rustaq, exhilarating off-road destinations such as Wadi Sahtan and Wadi Hoqain, the fishing towns of Barka and Sohar, and the pristine Damanayat Islands, an hour out to sea.
The historic town of Nizwa lies on a plain surrounded by a thick palm oasis and some of Oman’s highest mountains. Marked by a grand new double-arched gateway, the town forms a natural access point for the historic sites of Bahla and Jabrin, and for excursions up the mountain roads to Jebel Akhdar and Jebel Shams.
The rumoured home of two famous sailors, the historical Ahmed Bin Majid and the semifictional Sinbad, Sohar is one of those places where history casts a shadow over modern reality. A thousand years ago, it was the largest town in the country: it was even referred to as Omana, though its ancient name was Majan (meaning 'seafaring').
This small village on the edge of the dunes is an important navigational landmark for visits to the Sharqiya Sands. Camp representatives often meet their guests here and help them navigate (by 4WD only) the route to their site – usually impossible to find independently. Al Mintirib has a picturesque old quarter of passing interest for those breaking the drive from Muscat.
Despite some interesting old architecture, including a fort and watchtowers, this small town is more commonly known as an important junction with Al Ashkharah Rd and the Muscat–Sur Hwy, punctuated by local-style cafes. It is something of a rarity in Oman, however, for being one of the few towns in the country surrounded by trees.
Ibra, the gateway to the Sharqiya Region, enjoyed great prosperity during Oman’s colonial period as the aristocratic locals set sail for Zanzibar and sent money home for plantations and luxury residences, still in evidence in the old quarter of town. The tradition of farming is continued today, with rich plots producing vegetables, bananas, mangos and, of course, dates.
With its rocky interior of palm oases and gorgeous rim of sandy beaches, Masirah is the typical desert island. Flamingos, herons and oyster-catchers patrol the coast by day, and armies of ghost crabs march ashore at night. Home to a rare shell, the Eloise, and large turtle-nesting sites, the island is justifiably fabled as a naturalist’s paradise.