A 4-day family itinerary for exploring the highlights of Oman
It’s with much excitement I introduce today’s guest blogger, long time reader and also friend Lynette Fortey-Burnett.
A UK expat living in Abu Dhabi, last year she undertook an exciting adventure road tripping from Abu Dhabi to Muscat via Al Ain and Nizwa. After countless curious questions (OK, endless badgering!) from me, she has finally relented to my requests and shared her adventure with us all here on the Globetrotters blog!
This post is part of our series Discover the Middle East.
You can read more on UAE to Oman Border Crossing here, and this detailed guide to Places to visit in Muscat with Kids
From Abu Dhabi to Nizwa and back again: Our 4-day Oman Road Trip
I remember sitting at Manchester airport when I was about 10, reading all of the destinations on the departure screens. A few names stood out for me; one of those was Muscat. Years later I was reminded of this fascination by my husband’s aunt and uncle who had worked in Oman in the 80’s; I was always in awe of their stories and wonderful teapot collection whenever I visited them. Moving to the country next door (UAE) meant that not visiting Oman would be a real crime.
When my father-in-law (who doesn’t like shopping and isn’t good at sitting around relaxing) decided to pay us a visit, we took the opportunity to leave Abu Dhabi behind for a few days and head to Oman. With a bag full of snacks, our two-year-old and Grandad in the back we took off for a four-day road trip that we’ll never forget.
Day 1: Abu Dhabi – Al Ain
Drive Time 1 hour 45 mins; Distance 170kms
We arrived in Al Ain fairly early, we had a full day of site-seeing to do. We started the day at the Al Ain Zoo, which gave my little one the opportunity to run off some steam (after being stuck in the car for two hours listening to grandad’s singing). I know that zoos are not everyone’s cup of tea but I personally really like Al Ain zoo. There are lots of different animals to see and the enclosures are large and well maintained.
After the zoo we headed to the Camel Market (next to the public abattoirs behind Al Bawardi Mall). My little girl absolutely loves camels and there is arguably nowhere else that you can see as many camels (on a daily basis) as at Al Ain Camel Market.
We opted to drive around the market rather than getting out to avoid too much attention from the camel traders. The site is huge and it’s still possible to take good close up photos from the car.
No trip to Al Ain is complete without a visit to the Sheik Zayed Palace Museum and Oasis. As the name suggests, the Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum was once home to the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the father of the modern nation of the United Arab Emirates. The palace was constructed in 1937 and is built in traditional Emirati style.
My little girl loves running around the palace grounds pretending that she is a princess and is always greeted by a handful of dates on arrival (the neighbouring oasis provides over 100 different varieties). There’s no café but the vending machines at the centre of the site are able to provide a mean cup of German coffee and strawberry milk so that kept all of us happy!
After a very informative walking tour around the museum we headed inside the Oasis. It is possible to spend several hours walking around the Oasis, exploring the forts and falajes. Al Ain was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2011 and a new high-tech visitor centre and Eco-centre by the west gate have opened as a result. My daughter’s favourite new feature is the working model of the oasis’ irrigation system (complete with mini-forts or fairy princess castles as she likes to call them) that can also be found outside the west gate.
As daylight began to wane we headed towards Jebel Hafeet where we would spend the night at the Mercure Hotel. Watching the sun set as we drove up the mountain was magical, we stopped at all of the viewpoints along the way so that Grandad could take photographs (undoubtedly his favourite hobby).
We’ve actually stayed at the Mercure a few times (due to its convenient and impressive location) and as we enter the carpark my husband and I always joke about how it looks like the lair of a James Bond villain. The internal décor is what I would describe as ‘retro’ but the rooms are comfortable and clean and the pool area is great for families. Most if not all of the Mercure’s restaurants are to be found in the Entertainer, making dining here just that bit more affordable.
On this occasion, we chose to eat at the al fresco Al Khymer restaurant which offers tasty unpretentious food. The sheer drop down the mountainside may set some parents on edge and the fact that smoking (both tobacco and shisha) is permitted might also put some people off, although the restaurant was pretty much empty when we were there so this did not affect us. Other options are the poolside restaurant which offers reasonably priced a la carte dining or the main restaurant in the hotel foyer which is buffet style.
Day 2: Al Ain to Muscat
Al Ain to Sohar drive time 1 hour 30 mins; distance 125kms
Sohar to Muscat drive time 2 hours; Distance 210kms
As early risers, we got to enjoy the first of the morning light from our balcony with views over the oasis and surrounding desert below.
There is something special about Jebel Hafeet, particularly at sunrise; the singing of the birds, the fresh air all add to the sense of being away from it all. We prepared to get ready for breakfast whilst our little one watched TV coverage of the camel races at Al Wathba (on the road between Abu Dhabi & Al Ain); we’ve been to the camel races before and I would highly recommend it but couldn’t fit it into this trip.*
After breakfast in our hotel, we began our descent of the mountain and drove towards the UAE border. Crossing the border was relatively straightforward; you will need to make sure that all of your documents are in order (you may need additional car insurance for driving in Oman, see footnote) and be prepared to open your boot and declare its contents.
Depending on what crossing you use, after passing over the UAE border you may drive for a considerable distance before reaching the Omani immigration office. All travellers need to enter the building and have their documents checked and stamped before being allowed to continue through more checkpoints in the car.
* Camel racing takes place between October and March at Al Wathba Camel Race Track. Note that there are two tracks; races take place at both. Racing starts as early as 5am and is usually over by 8am (contrary to what is publicly advertised!)
As we entered Oman I was captivated by the craggy mountains and small fortress towers that topped them at every turn; the clear blue sky contrasting with the pale rocks. Camels roamed in abundance giving us the opportunity to play spot the camel with our daughter.
There’s no denying that it’s a long distance between Al Ain and Muscat, but my husband had planned a stop for lunch in the coastal town of Sohar to break up the journey.
It took around 2 hours from Al Ain to reach the relatively pretty town on the edge of the Indian Ocean. By the time we arrived we were very hungry, we spotted a restaurant that looked reasonable on the seafront and went inside. There was an extensive menu in English and we made our selections only to be told (in French) that none of what we wanted was on offer. They did, however, have shawarma. I have to say it was some of the tastiest shawarma that I’ve ever had.
Other than an opportunity to eat, Sohar boasts a fortress (currently under maintenance) a small, well-designed souk (closed in the afternoons) and a traditional fish market which is well worth a visit.
Want to arrange an overnight stop in Sohar? Try the Radisson Blu Hotel Sohar
We continued along the road to Muscat and arrived around 4pm. We drove along Al Qurm Street, a long boulevard which flanks the famous Qurum beach, stopping at Starbucks for the obligatory coffee and mug purchase that my husband likes to make, before heading to the Al Shatti area of the city.
We checked into our hotel, The Grand Hyatt (an exotic juxtaposition of Middle Eastern, African and European design) just before sunset and took a swim in the hotel pool before dinner. We ate at the Indonesian restaurant by the pool where the food (and cocktails) were just divine.
Following dinner, we took a stroll along the beach promenade where there are a few local cafes and where everyone and his brother seemed to be having picnics. Everyone seemed very relaxed and friendly and I had no qualms about walking down there in the dark.
We didn’t stay out too late as we were tired after the long journey and wanted to get back to relax in our lovely hotel room. It is a shame that we were only booked in for one night at the Hyatt as I would have loved to have tried the Italian restaurant (said to be the best in Oman) and spent more time chilling out by the pool or even building sandcastles with my daughter on the beach.
Those looking for a longer stay and luxurious retreat may enjoy the Chedi Muscat. Shangri-La Al Jizzah is slightly further out of town but gets a big family thumbs up for its family play areas, slides and lazy river (it is actually three hotels in one!). Cheaper in town option but with a nice beach option still is Crowne Plaza, or check out other Muscat hotel options below
Day 3: Muscat to Nizwa
Drive time 1 hour 30 minutes; Distance 158kms
We started our day with an amazing breakfast at the hotel. Nowhere have I seen so many cakes in a breakfast buffet!
After checking out we took to the road. Our first stop was the old town of Muscat a sweeping crescent of whitewashed houses and winding streets flanking a busy harbour. The old town is architecturally very beautiful and it would be easy to spend an entire morning exploring the souks. The souks can get very busy as a number of cruise ships enter the port on a daily basis.
It’s worth taking time to wander through some of the back streets as there are lots of bargains to be found especially if you have a fondness for haberdashery like I do! Neither of the forts in the old town are open to the public, probably a good thing as both are only accessible via very steep steps that aren’t really suitable for a 2 year old, or a Grandad for that matter.
After visiting the souk and strolling around the harbour we drove to the Al Alam area to see the Sultan’s Palace. Visitors are not permitted inside the palace but it’s worth taking a look in order to admire the mushroom-like architecture and pristine gardens.
Before leaving Muscat we had a morning tea break at the Al Bustan Palace; a gorgeous hotel set in lush gardens. The hotel was built as the venue for the 1985 GCC summit and rivals some of the finest hotels in the UAE in terms of luxury. (NB Currently closed for extensive renovations – Summer 2017).
Still full from our breakfast, lunch for the grown-ups was a samosa and some chai purchased from a petrol station en route to Nizwa. The drive took about 2 hours and I had to recite the whole of ‘The Gruffalo’ along with a number of fairy tales to keep my little one happy on the way – after all there’s only so much camel spotting that you can do!
As we arrived in the mountain town of Nizwa we passed through an impressive city gate before heading towards the fortified old town. Unfortunately, it was Friday afternoon and the main fort was closed (despite what the guidebook tells you, the fort is closed from 11am on a Friday).
We were still able to appreciate the impressive architecture from outside the castle walls and enjoyed strolling through the souk where it is possible to find lots of local handicrafts.
We were all ready for a swim when we reached our hotel ‘The Golden Tulip’ on the road heading out of town. The hotel is comfortable although a little dated and boasts a lovely outdoor area with pool. We didn’t eat in the hotel in the evening as there was a big tour group staying in the hotel with us, instead, we headed to Nizwa Mall which provided a cultural experience in its own right.
The mall was really busy as it was Omani National Day and many people were dressed in the colours of the Oman flag. There was live entertainment and a general feel-good vibe. The mall isn’t massive but has an ice-rink and a decent food court along with (you’ve guessed it) a Starbucks! We opted to get food from an Indian outlet in the food court and I have to say it was some of the best Indian food that I have eaten outside of India; I can’t remember the name of the place but I would definitely give it 5 stars!
Accommodation choices are fairly limited in Nizwa, but do check out these options from Trip Advisor including B&B and guest house options in addition to hotels
Day 4: Nizwa to Abu Dhabi
Nizwa to Al Ain drive time 3hrs; Distance 285kms
Al Ain to Abu Dhabi drive time 1 hour 45 mins; Distance 170kms
Breakfast at The Golden Tulip was pretty much what we expected. There was a standard buffet of middle eastern and western fayre and a guy making (very good) waffles and pancakes.
We hit the road just before the tour groups and made our way towards Jebel Shams making a stop at the Al Hoota Cave. The car park and visitor centre is situated some distance from the cave itself which visitors enter by train (Entrance fees applies). Once alighting from the train visitors are given a 45-minute guided tour by very knowledgeable guides.
Our two-year-old loves caves and as soon as we entered she couldn’t control her excitement. The cave is huge with beautifully lit stalactites and stalagmites and other impressive rock formations. In the lowest part of the cave there is a small subterranean lake, home to a unique species of blind fish. The cave is also home to an eight-eyed spider but I’m pleased to say that we didn’t encounter any!
Our cave visit was one of the highlights of our trip but there were a lot of steps involved and some slippery surfaces so it’s a good idea to wear shoes with a decent grip. In the visitor centre there is an impressive geological museum, a shop, café and toilets – probably the best toilets you will find for miles around (read interesting experience at a petrol station later that day).
Only 750 visitors are allowed to visit the cave in any one day so it’s a good idea to book your trip in advance; details of how to do this can be found here. Note no camera equipment is permitted in the caves.
We had planned to drive to the top of Jebel Shams and look down into Wadi Ghul the gorge below (known as the Grand Canyon of Arabia) but time was running short and we still had a number of other points of interest on our itinerary before heading back to Abu Dhabi, the first of these was Al Hamra village.
Al Hamra is one of the oldest villages in Oman and has a very traditional feel. Built in the Yemeni style the mud-brick houses with their gullies of running water give an insight into how life has been lived for hundreds of years. This insight is complemented by the surrounding agricultural area where it is possible to see farmers tending their crops of cucumbers, tomatoes and bananas.
A visit to the village provides a very rich cultural experience whether or not you manage to visit the Bait Al Safah living museum where you will find various demonstrations from the people of the village such as bread making, oil extraction and coffee grinding.
On the road home, we passed through the oasis of Bahla home to another impressive fort (also a UNESCO World Heritage site). The fort is currently undergoing restoration work and only open on Fridays and Saturdays.
Sadly we didn’t have time to explore this famous ‘City of Magic’, this was a real shame but I know that it will be high on our list next time we visit Oman. As will the town of Ibri (also on the road back to Al Ain) with its impressive castle, the Bat necropolis of prehistoric beehive tombs and Wadi Dham.
What would you do differently?
Four days really wasn’t enough to take in all of what Muscat and Nizwa, let alone Oman, in general, has to offer. There are loads of things to do in Muscat that we didn’t even consider, such as visiting the modern Corniche and the Grand Mosque. Our trip was only an introduction to Oman and I’m sure that we will return again in the near future to fully appreciate more of this fascinating country.
Top Tips for an Oman road trip
- Opening times vary so it’s best to phone or email in advance to avoid disappointment
- Be prepared for the fact that not everybody speaks English
- Take plenty of snacks for the journey
- See the Globetrotters top tips for Road Tripping Oman here – including current documentation and fees for border crossing
Oman resources to plan your trip
Thanks to Lynette for sharing her Omani adventure. It’s definitely high up on the Globetrotter bucket list and now we have a brilliant itinerary to work from!
The Al Ain border crossing is fairly equidistant from both the city centres of Abu Dhabi and Dubai so you can easily substitute this itinerary for a round trip from either city. If you are coming to the UAE on vacation it would be quite reasonable to take a 4 day Oman side trip, though as Lynette points out it’s probably not quite enough time to do it justice, allow 5-7 days.
Update on driving to Oman from UAE and insurance documents
Since Lynette’s family undertook this adventure in late 2016, some hire car companies have changed their rules on being able to provide insurance coverage crossing from UAE to Oman. We are currently researching who exactly is impacted by these change in rules and whether it applies to insurance policies on privately driven cars too. We will update here as soon as we understand more but please bear this in mind and read your policy fine print.
Have you undertaken a more unusual family adventure? We’d love to share your story too. Email [email protected] – we’re helping create confident world travellers!
Disclosures: This post contains affiliate links that cost you nothing extra but help this website continue to operate as a free resource for parents. Facts correct at time of publishing but please always check things like opening times and border crossing rules before you travel as they are known to change.
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