■ The weekend: A long, exotic weekend with a difference
■ Requirements: A group of friends looking for adventure both in and out of the water, and great food
■ Fits the bill: Exploring the Musandam Peninsula, Oman
■ Budget: From £1,350 per person, including flights
Astonished shrieks wake me from my post-lunch reverie. Posited on giant cushions, my belly full with grilled fish and my system rocked towards slumber by the gentle motion of the dhow (boat), the urgent excitement seems surreal and slightly hysterical.
Reluctantly, I rouse myself and make my way to the side of the boat, arrowing along the coastline towards the Straits of Hormuz, to investigate the source of the fuss. Judging by the ecstatic looks of my companions and the frantic motioning towards starboard by boatmen Omar and Abdullah, it seems we’ve company. The school of dolphins appears to be racing us. Throwing their streamlined silver-blue bodies flamboyantly out of the turquoise ocean alongside us, they just have the edge on our bulkier motorised dhow.
“Very beautiful,” says Omar. “They don’t come out every time, sometimes they are being lazy. But there’s usually a good chance something like this will happen. It’s what many of our customers come here for.”
Fantastical sights like these are not uncommon in this neck of the Arabian Peninsula. Located in the far north of Oman and separated from the rest of the country by the UAE, the Musandam Peninsula is a gloriously remote tract of land where towering mountains tumble down to a coastline indented by deep, snaking khors (fjords).
Until recently its isolation meant it was known to few people, aside from locals, intrepid explorers and smugglers from nearby Iran — just 40 miles away across the Strait. However, its proximity to holiday hotspot Dubai — a three-hour drive away — and its world-class diving opportunities meant it was never going to remain a secret for long. The unveiling in 2008 of the plush Six Senses Zighy Bay resort on the peninsula’s east coast helped put the area on the tourism map. But despite rumours of further ambitious luxury developments, the area remains the antithesis of the glitzy tourist meccas south of the border in the UAE and, increasingly, around the Omani capital, Muscat.
Needless to say, I fell for the region’s rugged charms. Not every British visitor has been quite so enamoured with its otherworldly beauty, however. During the British Empire’s 19th-century heyday, for example, an island off the Musandam coast housed a repeater station linked to a submarine telegraph cable in the Persian Gulf that was part of a London-Karachi cable. Unsurprisingly, the little chunk of rock wasn’t the most coveted posting for officers. A postition here was treacherous, not least because of hostile local tribes, while the relentless heat made life very uncomfortable during summer. It was here the phrase ‘to go round the bend’ is believed to have originated — a reference to the addled sense of desperation experienced by most of the men who spent time confined to the obscure island, nestled in the crook of the inlet.
Into the mountains
Fevered escape fantasies couldn’t be further from our minds as the dhow drops anchor in the silent waters surrounding the rock — known to the outside world as Telegraph Island. After the excitement of the duel with the dolphin pod, it’s time to return to the theme of languid relaxation that typifies a dhow cruise in these parts.
With the surrounding peaks of the northernmost spur of the Hajar Mountains sheltering us from the broiling heat of the afternoon sun, we use the dhow as a makeshift diving board, flinging ourselves headlong into the deep, tepid water.
This is the second occasion I’ve visited Musandam. The first time, I was based in Dubai and the peninsula provided welcome respite from the boozy brunch blowouts that epitomise expat living. On that occasion, our dhow cruise took us all the way out to the Strait of Hormuz, to the village of Kumzar. The northernmost inhabited settlement in Oman, the village is only accessible by boat and is practically deserted in summer as most of its inhabitants leave to stay in their second homes in the local capital, Khasab.
On my last visit, the village was derelict. Most of the houses, made of packed mud, lay empty, while the dusty alleyways were patrolled by goats, toddlers and the occasional huddle of gossiping locals, chattering in Kumzari — the only Iranian language native in the Arabian Peninsula.
While the encounter with this centuries-old culture was compelling, and is recommended to anyone who’s keen to learn more about its ethnic make-up, this time it’s primarily leisure on the agenda. Much of my down time is enjoyed at the Golden Tulip Khasab Hotel Resort. Although untroubled by much in the way of competition, the four-star hotel has well-appointed rooms, a perfectly proportioned pool and a tremendous clifftop location. There’s even a fairly hilarious nightclub if Moroccan belly dancers and liquor is your thing.
For most visitors, a dhow cruise is Musandam’s prime draw, although there’s more to the area than going head to head with bottlenose dolphins and drifting down storied waterways — certainly enough to fill a long weekend.
In fact, if you’re a diver, chances are you’ll be too busy plumbing the depths to even bother with a dhow cruise. The waters around the peninsula are rich in life and there are around 30 dive sites in the area, ranging from coral gardens to sheer submerged walls. Various companies run dives from Khasab, the best of which is reputed to be Extra Divers, which has three boats — including a giant catamaran — a well-equipped dive shop, and villa accommodation for divers.
Without a PADI certificate, I decide to head upwards instead, on Musandam’s other major draw, a mountain safari to Jebel Harim — the highest peak in the area, just shy of 7,000ft. The word ‘safari’ is attached to a number of activities in the Middle East, despite the relative paucity of animal life. Nevertheless, the expedition is worth the absence of anything that prowls, barks or bites.
Following a typical Middle Eastern breakfast of tomatoes, cheese, cucumber and creamy hummus mopped up with flatbread, Omar collects me in his 4WD. Khasab — a tiny port of low rise-buildings, a few businesses, run mostly by Indians from Kerala, and the occasional mosque — passes us by in an instant and we’re soon gaining altitude.
As we climb higher and higher, the vehicle swings around switchback bends and past Bedouin cottages and rag-taggle herds of goats and donkeys. The violent movements are slightly jarring, as is the loud skirl of Arabic pop emanating from the stereo system, but the increasingly vertiginous views over the khors are worth the physical and aural discomfort.
The cinematic outlook undoubtedly grabs the lion’s share of the attention but the trip is notable, not just for its visuals, but also for the historical insight it offers. The Hajar Mountains are speckled with fossils, and at the abandoned settlement of Wadi Tawi, Omar gives me the lowdown. The remains of an ancient mud and stone village are barely discernible but the prehistoric rock drawings of warriors and boats seem apt in a destination that feels ancient yet remains completely fresh.
■ 9am: Try a typical Arabic breakfast of hummus, mutabbel (aubergine dip), bread, tomatoes and cucumber, washed down with some strong coffee.
■ 10am: Book a dhow trip to explore the tranquil waters of Musandam’s khors (fjords). A buffet lunch of fish, meats and salad is all included.
■ 4pm: Return to the hotel for an afternoon dip in the outdoor pool, then enjoy sundowners looking out over the Gulf.
■ 7pm: Khasab may not brim with top restaurants but the Al Shamaliah Grill Restaurant serves up delicious local favourites. T: 00 968 2673 0477.
Musandam traditions: Omanis are legendary for their hospitality, so don’t be surprised if at some point you’re asked to try some halwa and kahwa. Halwa is a dense sweet made from rose water, ghee, eggs, cardamom and nuts, while kahwa is a type of coffee, typically flavoured with cardamom
Must do: For epic views of the Musandam Peninsula, try a 4WD excursion to Jebel Al Harim. The highest mountain in the region offers tremendous views over the khors
For Musandam fly from the UK to Dubai, then hire a vehicle for the two-hour trip north. At the border, you’re required buy an Omani visa (around £8.50) and Omani vehicle insurance (around £17). Emirates flies from Birmingham, Glasgow International, Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester to Dubai, while British Airways and Virgin Atlantic fly from Heathrow to Dubai. An alternative is to fly into Oman’s capital, Muscat, and take one of the daily morning flights to Khasab with Oman Air. British Airways and Oman Air fly from Heathrow to Muscat. www.emirates.com www.ba.com www.virgin-atlantic.com www.omanair.com
Average flight time: 7h30m to Muscat.
There’s no public transport in Khasab, but there are taxis (not many) and it’s possible to hire a car or 4WD vehicle.
When to go
The best time to visit is in winter and spring, between November and April. Summer can be unbearably hot and humid, although the occasional ocean breeze cools things down slightly.
Need to know
Currency: Omani rial (OMR).
£1 = 0.61 OMR.
International dial code: 00 968.
Time difference: GMT +4.
Golden Tulip Khasab Hotel Resort. www.goldentulipkhasab.com
Dolphin Khasab Tours. www.dolphinkhasabtours.com
Six Senses Zighy Bay. www.sixsenses.com
Berlitz Oman Pocket Guide. RRP: £5.99.
How to do it
Kuoni offers a three-night stay at Six Senses Zighy Bay from £1,350 per person on a B&B basis, including flights to Dubai and transfers. www.kuoni.co.uk
Published in Nov/Dec 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)