Travel lessons learned: Oman with kids
I’m used to a few raised eyebrows when I talk about my travel plans with my daughter – Cambodia, Burma, even Cape Verde aren’t always on people’s family travel lists (totally should be though). But announcing that I was going to Oman was met with a whole new range of surprise.
Was it safe? (Yes) Wasn’t it scorching hot? (Not in October) Was there even much for families there? (Yes – as our itinerary shows) I’ve heard Oman called the ‘Sweden of the Middle East’ – safe, friendly, tolerant, which meant we were far from the only family exploring over half-term.
As something of a spontaneous booking, there was plenty for me to discover along the way too – from the practical to the personal, these are my Oman travel lessons learned from our family holiday.
Oman travel lessons #1 – the visa
You can get a tourist visa online for Oman for your visit – after managing to leave it until the last minute and getting slightly confused about the child applications, I ended up doing mine in person at the airport. And it couldn’t have been easier: there are several money changing spots in the arrivals hall where you can get Omani rials and the visa before joining the immigration queue. It’s 20 rials per person (approx £40) including children.
We found a little booth to the right immediately to the right as you enter, although I then noticed another slightly longer queue for the booths straight ahead. After an overnight flight and an early start, I’m still not quite clear if I jumped some kind of queue but the lady happily sorted both of ours out. Families were then being directed to a separate line for immigration which speeded up entry even more.
I have heard that if several flights land from Europe at around the same time, you can face long queues – as one of the first flights of the day, we couldn’t have been through much faster.
Oman travel lessons #2 – Dubai isn’t always king
Every Omani we talked to seemed delighted that we were visiting their country – they are justifiably very proud of it. What surprised me more was that they all assumed we would also have been to Dubai ‘of course’. We haven’t and I can’t say it’s high on my list: give me the history, culture and authenticity of Oman over glitzy skyscrapers any day (I know there’s more to Dubai than that, but still…)
Oman travel lessons #3 – pick your Muscat base wisely
As a capital city, I’d expected Muscat to be big – but I hadn’t realised quite how sprawling it is. Spread out along the coast with the mountains behind, there’s less of a single centre so work out where you’re likely to want to visit and try to find a base nearby.
Mutrah and Old Muscat are lovely and one good option, or you can stay closer to the airport and the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque as we did but you can’t avoid travelling across the capital at least a few times… and the traffic here was gridlocked if you hit rush hour.
Oman travel lessons #4 – save your pennies
Unlike my trips to Jordan and Lebanon, Oman is definitely at the pricy end of the Middle East – the exchange rate to pounds is approximately double the number of rials. A 10-15 minute taxi ride cost £10 (there are no meters so this rate was based on advice from our hotel, some haggling and an insistence from taxi drivers both ways that this was the absolute minimum) – when I emerged from my jetlagged haze on day 2, I realised our quick trip to Mutrah to wander around the souk and along the Corniche had set us back £20…
A lot of hotels also tended to offer buffets at dinner which ranged from around 8-15 rials – given the spread on offer, it’s not bad if you’re planning to eat your fill, but pricy if you’re paying for a five-year-old to pick at some rice and bread! Local options are cheaper but if you’re staying at somewhere more isolated, as we normally were, a rate including dinner or negotiating a free kids’ meal is a good plan.
Oman travel lessons #5 – the food is fabulous
I was in biryani heaven during our trip – our standard lunch, even my daughter munched happily through the gently spiced meat as well as trying to eat her own bodyweight in bread. I couldn’t blame her; from flatbreads to chapattis, parathas and other Indian-style breads, they were all fabulous.
Although mezze and kebabs cropped up once or twice at the evening buffets, I found the food had more Indian influences than what we in the UK tend to think of as Middle Eastern though. And if you love seafood and fish, you’ll be very very happy with what’s on offer by the coast.
Oman travel lessons #6 – the desert is dry
Oman is a Muslim country so it’s no surprise that alcohol is limited, although it is legal – and most of the places we stayed in were unlicensed, until we got back to the coast at Sifawy Boutique Hotel. Even there, there are restrictions at times.
If you want more than an alcohol-free beer or virgin mojito, stock up at Duty Free as you leave the airport in Muscat – after passport control but before baggage reclaim, with a maximum of two litres. Unless you’re a resident with a license, or you are at a licensed hotel, don’t expect to be able to buy any booze along the way.
Oman travel lessons #7 – but there are dates
The traditional Omani welcome is to provide dates and qahwa – coffee with cardamom, served in little cups. My daughter loves the former, I love the latter and it made for a very civilised check-in all round. Nescafe is the only usual alternative to qahwa, although there was sometimes filter coffee at breakfast in the hotels and gloriously, a Nespresso machine at Sifawy Boutique.
Oman travel lessons #8 – respect tradition
Something I’d always recommend, wherever you’re visiting but tradition is particularly important in Oman – pictures of the Sultan are everywhere (everywhere) and he is genuinely loved by Omanis. You’ll often see men wearing dishdasha, the long white robes, as well as a masar (or muzzar) or kuma as the turban and hats are known locally. Even those in more modern dress will be covered up, and conservative clothing is expected from tourists too so avoid uncovered shoulders, ultra-tight outfits or anything too revealing.
Everyone we met in Oman was welcoming and friendly, but it’s simply polite: loose trousers and a T-shirt didn’t attract any second glances so you needn’t be covered from head to toe. The exception is if you’re visiting a mosque, where women need to cover their heads, arms to their wrists and legs to their ankles. Abayas are usually available to hire if you don’t have a long shirt or headscarf.
Younger kids are exempt from all of this – Minnie was in loose trousers or leggings until we hit the coast anyway as it was more practical, but we saw plenty in shorts and dresses.
Oman travel lessons #9 – driving is not for novices
There’s nothing to stop you driving in Oman if you’d like – but it’s not something to attempt without a bit of forethought. We arranged a driver as part of our trip with Stubborn Mule and it was definitely the right move for us – new roads are constantly being built, which means some routes change on a regular basis, while there’s no data in the mountains or desert so you’ll need a good map (and ideally a good navigator) as signs are also few and far between.
If you’re venturing beyond Muscat and the coast (and even some places along the coast), a four-wheel drive is going to come in very useful if not essential – roads are steep and twisting and don’t always have tarmac. And that’s before you get onto the sand… Incidentally, if you do fancy hitting the desert, I learned that you need to let half the air out of your tyres first.
Our Globetrotters has more tips if you are planning to get behind the wheel yourself, as well as some useful information on distances and times to get around Oman.
Oman travel lessons #10 – there are surprises on the way
Even away from the sand, the mountains are one of the driest, most forbidding landscapes I’ve seen – dramatic and fabulous to explore, but the kind of pitiless scenery which makes you wonder how anyone could live here. And then suddenly we’d pass a village or an explosion of lush green date palms.
Because tucked away in these mountains are natural springs, diverted to channels or falaj to irrigate the trees and provide water for the people; running right past the front doors of Al Hamra, the water is so clear we could see little fish swimming. Rarely, sudden torrential downpours flood the wadis as well, while some have natural pools year-round. We stopped for a paddle at Wadi Bani Khalid on the way from the desert to Sur and Ras al Jinz, our swimming costumes sadly tucked away in the depths of a suitcase.
Expect the unexpected here – and keep your swimsuits in a day bag… just in case.
Oman travel lessons #11 – and you can play spot the camel
I’d lie if I said my daughter’s attention didn’t wane during several hours’ drive through the mountains (good job we had Audible and BookBeat to entertain) but playing count the camels is definitely more exciting than who can see the most red cars… We found 100 on one day. And if there are no camels? Goats are at least as exciting when you’re five – and there are always goats. In the most unlikely and isolated spots, we still found goats.
Oman travel lessons #12 – camels are best from afar
My daughter couldn’t wait to ride a camel. We’d talked about it before we left, she counted down the days until we got to our desert camp where she could do a mini camel safari – she even bounced excitedly when she spotted the camel in question curled up and waiting.
Then it stood up. I’d forgotten quite how jerky camels are when they stand up. And quite how big they seem when you’re five, watching it rise up above you. She flatly refused to be lifted up or even come near… so off I went in solitary splendour around the camp instead. Good thing I like camels!
Oman travel lessons #13 – some experiences can even silence a five-year-old
Some experiences are even better in reality though – we’d both been looking forward to our stay at Ras al Jinz and the chance of seeing turtles on the beach. With the evening guided walk starting at around 8.30/9pm, a small girl who is never at her best when over-tired, no apparent volume control and instructions that everyone needs to be quiet on the beach in order not to alarm or distress nesting turtles, I did wonder how she’d manage.
I even came prepared with my own torch in case we needed to make a quick getaway… But far from the only child in the group (including some friends she’d made from another family), we were all on our best behaviour as we watched a turtle laying eggs, another covering her nest with sand, and a newly hatched baby making its way into the waves.
A truly amazing experience, one I’ll never forget and which she still talks about – and which awed us all into silence at being able to share it. And for a super chatty five-year-old, that really is magical…
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