Verdict: An Arabian adventure with varied landscapes, camels, turtles, dolphins, wild swimming, jeeps, friendly people, a million goats and lovely beaches without the ££ price tag or the long-haul flight.
So, October 2019 we opted for O for Oman. Partly because a family poll revealed wildlife was a key requirement of our next trip and we liked the idea of seeing turtles hatching on the beach, and partly because the flights were good value and we couldn’t afford a safari. So, after a bit of the usual obsessive internet research we landed on an itinerary we liked the look of with Stubborn Mule travel. For once, we thought it might be kind of nice to let someone else do the planning — we have a history of excellence at the initial stage of booking flights / accommodation but complete failure when it comes to organising anything after that.
What we loved
1. The Wahiba Sands desert
We had some concerns about finding this place (it’s properly remote — 50 minutes driving from any tarmac and we were having some navigation issues, more on which later), so we phoned ahead to the camp to ask for an escort to guide us through the dunes to the camp (if you miss the turn you have to literally go up and over a big dune — something not recommended for numpty novices). So pleased we did that as it turned a potentially stressful drive into one of the best bits of the trip, passing camels and goats and dune bashers on a drive that would have made Jeremy Clarkson proud.
The Wahiba Sands desert was NOTHING like I imagined. Less messy, less scrubby, more golden, more camelly and definitely more beautiful. We were all honestly blown away.
It’s a landscape of epic proportions, with plenty of fun stuff to do — riding camels, climbing up and sliding down the dunes, dune bashing in a battered old jeep (actually great fun, especially if, unlike me, you’re brave enough to open your eyes!), visiting a bedouin camp, or just swimming in the gorgeous pool with a VERY fine view.
2. The turtle reserve at Ras Al Jinz
Before our trip, the one place we knew we wanted to go in Oman was the Turtle Reserve at Ras Al Jinz, and it did not disappoint. Luckily, we were able to see a little of every stage of the process: hatchlings, eggs being laid, and a couple of turtles heading back to sea.
We took part in two turtle watching trips. The first was in the evening. At 8.30 pm we assembled ready for our 10 minute walk in the dark to the beach, hoping we would be lucky enough to see a turtle laying her eggs, or maybe even a hatchling or two. We had to be quiet, and only our guide was allowed to use a torch because if the mother turtles don’t feel relaxed they return to the sea without laying their eggs.
On the walk down our guide pointed out a baby hatchling. Confused, he was heading the wrong way, so he picked him up to put back in the sea. I was relieved he didn’t just let it keep going as I had read that if you see hatchlings you aren’t allowed to help them, even if attacked by foxes or birds.
When we arrived at the beach small groups were invited to approach a small adult turtle who was in the middle of laying her 100 or so eggs — a powerfully rare and precious moment. Eggs laid, she started covering up the eggs by flicking her fins, an exhausting process that can take up to an hour — and that’s before she digs a decoy hole to confuse predators like crabs, foxes and birds, who like to eat tasty turtle eggs.
We left her to it and, as there were no other turtles on the beach that night, we made our way back to the hotel, keeping an eye out for hatchlings on the way back.
Our second trip was just before dawn. This was an early start with alarms set for 4.30 am, as we wanted another visit to the beach to see more turtles or hatchlings. There were much less people this time as in winter you are more likely to see turtles in the night than in the morning. So, we felt lucky to see another 2 turtles completing the egg covering process, turning around, hauling themselves back down the beach and slipping away into the dark waves.
Sunrise came pretty quickly — these 2 turtles must have been cutting it fine — and in the early light of dawn we made our way back to bed.
It’s tough being a turtle, and a miracle there are any left at all. Observing this miracle was am unforgettable, moving privilege.
3. The beach camp, Fins
One of the joys of asking an expert (in our case, the crew at Stubborn Mule) for holiday help is the unusual extras, so when Liddy suggested we try an overnight beach camp we said yes, picturing one or two small dome tents with some dodgy camp cooking, surrounded, perhaps by other small dome tent encampments full of tourists like us doing their own beach camp night.
We could not have been more wrong; arriving instead to find this full-on Bedouin style encampment with server, chef, barbecue, 2 proper frame tents, even a toilet tent .. and not another person in sight.
After a delicious 3 course dinner we lounged by the campfire, telling consequence style stories (John the minuscule mushroom emerged as the standout hero).
We went to bed to the sound of the waves (well, most of us did — I had an attack of tsunami-related anxiety so may actually have heard every wave that lapped that night!) and woke up to a scrummy breakfast of freshly cooked omelettes, grilled halloumi, cereals, croissants, juice. A quick dip in the sea and off we went, waving goodby to the lovely Victoria and Yassah, who were also off after a week of hosting British campers.
4. The Jebel Shams mountains
We began our road trip at Sama Heights, a laid-back eco retreat in the bleak mountains with lovely friendly staff and easy to organise activities. We booked the family balcony walk in the awe inspiring Grand Canyon, abseiling in the afternoon, and the sunset hike with hot chocolate in the evening — we packed quite a lot into our one full day there!
The walk was interesting, with an old abandoned village at the end nestled into the rock, but it took us around 4 hours in total, in the heat, with a fair amount of climbing at the end. We certainly would not all have managed it without the lovely Dana, our guide, who played Greatest Showman tunes, and managed to keep even the shortest legs moving.
The abseiling was an instant hit for all 3 kids and the the sunset hike was also fabulous, with just the right amount of walking, panoramic views and a stunning sunset (with all important hot chocolate) at the end.
4. Wild swimming at Wadi Shab and the Bimmah Sinkhole
Wadi Shab is a delight, especially as it is a bit of walk to get there so you arrive hot and ready for cool dip! As usual, we were hazy on the details of the walk, which was hotter, longer and harder than we expected — and trainers might have ben better than flip flops, in hindsight — but the reward was a beautiful, cool, fresh river swim among the bleached rocks of the steep valley. We ran out of time to go to a cave with a secret waterfall further up the valley but I’m not convincerd any of us would have been brave enough to swim under the rocks to see it anyway. One for next time, maybe.
The Bimmah sinkhole is a must-do here. It’s super easy as it’s in its own park with car parking and the sunken water is lovely to swim in. We were very early (the beach was too hot to stay on for long) and arrived around 9am — before the tour buses and other Toyotas — so we had it almost to ourselves.
We didn’t stay long because we were all very much looking forward to our final stop, aka Nirvana as it became known over our lovely but quite adventurous, busy and hot 8 days. So, we phoned ahead, got an early check in and set off for the last 2 hour leg of our road trip….
5. The beach resort at the end 🙂 (including wine, and wifi .. also many dolphins and one turtle)
The surprising thing about this drive was how remote the Jebel Sifah resort is. It’s a new marina-based complex, the first of its kind in Oman, apparently, and I think we had pictured a coast road with plenty of resorts. What we got on the drive was a mountain pass with the odd bit of unexpected off-road (we think from where the wadis flood) and not much else — the odd fishing inlet and flash of blue — and then, nirvana. Lawns and flowers and birds and a glorious pool. And did I mention wifi and wine 🙂
Although there is plenty to do on this large resort, we were pretty lazy and only managed one trip; a dolphin watching and snorkelling trip from a marina 45 minutes away. Seeing dolphins and a turtle was an added bonus (just don’t ask about the snorkelling nonsense — SO much fussing with the kit in our family, and one melt-down over seaweed…. the joys of family travel).
6. The car’s the star … our jeep, and self-drive or driver? and, how we became the numpty family on a self-drive trip with no map or satnav…
The only way to travel in Oman is by big white 4WD truck, often with a driver, or at least a guide, like Mr Abdullah pictured here, who we followed into the desert to find our remote desert camp.
We opted for self-drive because of the usual too many of us for a family-plus-driver in one vehicle issue. As a lifelong Top Gear fan, Garry was instantly smitten, and never have we taken so many holiday photos of our transport!
Unfortunately, we were the numpty family who missed the vital instructions from the lovely Liddy at Subborn Mule Travel to a) get ourselves a good road map b) bring a decent satnav (we both thought the other one of us was on it. Neither of were anywhere near on it).
While we like to travel, our adventuring is generally pretty mild, so the result was a slightly stressful day spent attempting to add a new sim to our only unlocked phone (Isaac’s), log on to the WiFi in various Grand Malls on the way and asking for help. We were slightly panicked because, apart from being in the Middle East for the first time ever, we knew our drive up into the mountains would involve quite a lot of off-road on unpaved (and possibly) unmarked tracks and we did NOT want to do that without some help or, worse, in the dark.
So, rather than making any of the recommended stops on the way (souks and forts) we focused on just getting where we needed to be by the end of the day and mostly eating KFC in air conditioned shopping malls. Not terribly immersive or authentic but they do a good mall in Oman 🙂
However, apart from our self induced issues and the odd slightly hairy moment, this is certainly easily do able as a self drive with a few caveats: be prepared, have water, make sure you have a 4wd and do get an escort if in doubt.
It’s not great quality, but this photo sums up our Oman trip. Why? Because … it has camels (Boris and Doris to us), a white Toyota truck (very important and we came to love ours like an old friend), a rocky empty landscape (yes, it is a bit like a quarry) and very friendly Omanis (you can’t seem them but we had hours of fun with the 2 guys in this truck. We must have overtaken each other ten times, with frantic waving and huge grins every time we did it, which certainly livened up a long drive).
What do you know? 8 days of mild adventuring is the perfect amount of days for this mildly adventurous family. We were challenged a few times and all the stopping, starting and early mornings for turtles and camels did mean the odd scratchy moment — for example, whose turn it was to sit in the middle of the car (something those with 2 kids won’t have to continually deal with) or who sleeps in a room with whom (again, I guess this is something particular to families who rarely fit in one room or suite) — even, where the air blowers are pointing in the car (yes, this was a thing this holiday) but packing so much in and absorbing such a new type of country and landscape felt like way more than 8 days of holiday.
A note on landscapes
When we first left the bright lights and Westernised Muscat I honestly thought for a moment that we were driving through a quarry and it turns out that, except for the desert, most of our driving was through landscapes that can only be described as quarry-like in that they were rubbly and bare. With exceptions — the odd town, a herd of goats, maybe a camel or two, or a pair of donkeys — mainly our driving consisted of miles of very very little except rocks and rubble.
Hints, tips and essential info
Come prepared if you’re self-driving a decent map and satnav are useful!! Data is expensive, so you may like to consider buying a sim card so your calls are charged at local rate.
Ask for an escort if you’re worried about driving into the desert. This is easy and inexpensive.
Wear proper shoes for the walk to Wadi Shab and allow plenty of time to get there with children!
Carry plenty of water with you — just in case.
Book Ras Al Jinz turtle reserve accommodation as early as possible (we built the trip around this) because it seemed that the hotel guests get a much better experience.
If alcohol is important to you I think that you can buy some at the airport to take with you. Otherwise you can’t buy any — all but one of our accommodations was completely dry.
We flew with Air Oman from Heathrow (because they were offering a deal).
Our trip was organised beautifully by Stubborn Mule Travel and Tour Oman — would recommend both in a heartbeat.
We stayed at all these fab places
Coral Suites, Muscat
Sama Heights resort, Jebel Shams
1000 Nights Desert Camp, Wahiba Sands
Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve
Sifawy Boutique hotel