Cool (and green) as a cucumber
IMAGINE trekking through lush green countryside from June to September in a part of the Arabian Gulf and enjoying temperatures in the mid 30°C while the rest of the region is boiling in hot dry temperatures of +40°C.
Imagine a land where the constant cooling summer rains transform the land so much that you would be forgiven for thinking you are in England’s Yorkshire Dales, rather than the arid Arabian Peninsula.
In the Sultanate of Oman’s southern region of Dhofar this kind of paradise really does exist. Travelling through Oman’s rich diverse terrain ranging from rugged mountains and rocky deepwater fjords in the north, to the spectacular dunes of Wahiba Sands, the visitor eventually reaches the green hills of the Dhofar region in the south. The impressive coastline stretches some 1,700 km from Musandam in the north down towards the Yemeni border in the south.
Here the Qara Mountains attract light monsoon rains during the mid-summer months, turning them green with vegetation - these roots help delay the effects of erosion. The result is a soft rolling landscape more akin to central Africa. A narrow fertile coastal plain lies between the mountains and the sea, and this is where Salalah, Oman’s second largest city is located. Surrounded by lush vegetable farms, banana plantations and dense coconut groves, this attractive city is best known for the Salalah Tourism Festival (formerly known as the Al Khareef Festival) the time during mid July to the end of August when more than 300,000 visitors flock to experience the cooler, cloudy summer climate with refreshing rains.
The city of Salalah is packed with visitors from around the GCC who come to experience a wide range of activities centred on the whole family. Traditionally popular with GCC nationals, the Khareef season now also attracts resident expatriates who are looking to explore a distinctly different part of the Arabian Peninsula.
Exploring Oman is easy, either independently or on one of the summer guided tours. Visitors who have an appreciation of history, arts and architecture, will find plenty of examples here. With a civilisation dating back 12,000 years, travellers can explore ancient forts and castles, beautiful palaces and historical archaeological sites.
Salalah is home to frankincense, or olibanum, (the aromatic resin obtained from scraggly but hardy trees of the genus Boswellia,) the signature scent of Oman. What once used to be a more valuable commodity than oil is today, frankincense is like a fine wine, it can be purchased in many grades, and the best quality is obtained from the countryside surrounding Salalah. Even the Queen of Sheba fell under the spell of frankincense’s aroma and believed it to be a treasure far greater than gold and sent it as gifts to impress King Solomon.
In Salalah, the narrow alleys of the Old Souq are the place to buy frankincense. Between Al Balid - a medieval ruin, itself built on the ruins of an ancient Sabaean city - and Sultan Qaboos's Al Hisn Palace, concrete niches have replaced stalls roofed with palm fronts, but vendors of 'luxuries and incense' display open sacks of frankincense crystals, as they must have done for centuries.
One of the most renowned tourist attractions in Dhofar is the ancient ruins of Samhuram, which date back more than 2,000 years. Samhuram, 30 km east of Salalah, acted as the main port and the main trading hub of Dhofar in ancient times. This ancient port is known locally as the place where the Queen of Sheba had her palace.
One of the best ways to explore the surrounding countryside of Salalah and the impressive lush green mountains is in a 4X4 vehicle. Organised tours are always available and a tour guide should be able to show you how the frankincense is extracted from trees, as well as the ancient ruins of biblical sites dating back more than 3,000 years.
A drive up the mountains to more than 1,000 metres above sea level will introduce the visitor to scenery like no where else in the Gulf region. Beyond the impressive mountains is the empty-quarter, a vast desert landscape, perfect for an awesome desert safari.
Salalah is home to two five start resorts, the Hilton and the Crowne Plaza.
From now until the middle of July, when the Khareef season officially begins, Salalah is attracting both leisure and business travellers with hotel packages. With rates in the five star resorts starting at only $175 per room per night, this is a great time to take a short break.
A four night package is available from Leisure, the holiday division of Bahrain International Travel. The package, available until mid-July, is offered from Bahrain to Muscat and Salalah, and includes return air fare on Oman Air to Muscat, overnight at a hotel there, followed by three nights accommodation in Salalah, plus all return airport-hotel transfers in both cities. Total price: $734.
The rest of Oman is making an extra special effort this summer to welcome visitors from around the Gulf region. Whether Arab nationals or resident expatriates, activities have been planned to ensure that everyone experiences the best of what Oman has to offer from June to September.
Many of the finest hotels in the region can be found here and the capital city of Muscat has a good choice. All hotels and resorts are air-conditioned and most have temperature controlled swimming pools. This, complemented by lush tropical gardens, many shaded areas and activities for children, means it is still possible to venture outdoors in the summer months.
Many hotels are offering visitors savings of around 50to 60 per cent of their high season rates. Also, hotel rates have been packaged with many value added options to create amazing deals. These include free breakfasts, early check-in, late check-out and free room upgrades. Packages also combine family activities, spa services, soft adventure and other sightseeing options.