Salalah is a low key resort town where many from the Gulf go on their summer holidays. Here's why...
Beach in front of the Salalah Rotana. Photo Rotana Hotels
‘Salalah’ might sound like a magician’s command from the Arabian Nights, but in fact it’s an historic city in the south of Oman with a tropical climate and super beaches. What’s more, it’s tipped as the next holiday hotspot, with a recently opened top-notch resort and a shiny new airport. So I went to check it out.
On my flight from Muscat the desert blazed orange for a full hour before the captain announced ‘10-minutes to landing’. This prompted the local lad next to me to point out miraculous-looking green hilltops, and by the time the wheels hit the runway Mohammed had shown me a picture of his Mustang and offered to drive me wherever I needed to go.
I encountered more eccentric hospitality at the Taqa Fort museum next day. It’s as cute and crenellated a castle as you could imagine, with sand coloured walls, heavy wooden doors, and a governor’s quarters with bright cushions and a four-poster bed. In the middle of the guided tour, the curator lifted a 19th century rifle from its display brackets and handed it to me so he might take my picture holding it.
Living quarters in Taqa Fort. Photo My Bathroom Wall
Even the air is welcoming in Salalah – much gentler than the nostril scorching heat of Dubai or Muscat. Temperatures here seldom reach more than 30°C the humidity stays mild. Plus every lobby, shop or restaurant, has a heady perfume - sweet and rich, a curious fragrance suggesting wood, honey, lemon, and even caramel.
I breathed deeply and trailed like a Bisto Kid towards the source of the smell - a small earthenware burner containing yellowy-orange globules.
The Rotana Resort pool area. Photo My Bathroom Wall
My guide Hamed revealed that it was frankincense. “Salalah was once the centre of the world’s frankincense trade, when it was more valuable than gold or silver,” he said. “I burn it at home at least three times day.” Like all local men, Hamed wore an immaculate dishdasha – a plain robe that shades the wearer from neck to toe. And like most Omanis, he was educated and courteous.
Hamed the guide, and friend who walked out of the desert. Photo My Bathroom Wall
The marble lobby of the new Rotana Resort & Spa was especially strong smelling – I passed through again on my way to the bar (serving alcohol, incidentally) and sat outside for dinner at the Silk Road Restaurant. The resort softens the desert starkness with man-made canals, arched footbridges and palm trees. At night it feels extra exotic with the moon’s flickering reflection on the water, a warm reviving breeze and arabesque silhouettes.
Pool and Rotana resort at night. Photo Rotana Hotels
Salalah town centre, about 18 miles away, is less attractive. There is a small souk, but it’s a little forlorn, though the Land of Frankincense Museum pluckily reveals the history of the commodity that made the area rich with maps and wooden models. Along the beach is the fabled city of Sumhuram, once home to the Queen of Sheba’s palace. It’s a shadow of any former glory, ruined to little more than head height. On some roadsides are wizened Frankincense trees with twisted branches.
Past the imposing wall of mountains that curtains the town are green hills that can look more like South Africa than Arabia, and a simple white and green tomb - one of several contenders for the burial place of that biblical prince of patience, Job.
The entirely undeveloped Mughsail Beach, and a wild frankincense tree. Photos My Bathroom Wall
Arab tourists from the Gulf region come to experience the hills in bloom during a mini monsoon season known as the Khareef. This modest southeast monsoon lasts from July to September and creates hazy skies and drizzle. The earth erupts in grasses and wildflowers and temperatures dip ten degrees below those in Muscat or Dubai.
Most western tourists however want to drive the other way, into the largest sand desert in the world. It begins a couple of hours inland from Salalah and is called The Empty Quarter, famously traversed by the British explorer, Wilfred Thessiger, with Bedouin companions in the 1940s.
The Rotana can organise a night at a desert camp here, or you can hire a 4WD from a company like Safari Drive, who’ll kit you out with a rooftop tent-box, a satellite phone and a Bedouin guide for the trickiest bits of off-roading.
Self driving the Empty Quarter; Wilfred Thesiger would be loping in his grave. Photo My Bathroom Wall
With the Landcruiser perched atop a 400ft dune and the sand cooling swiftly in the evening, the utter stillness made me conscious of my hearing, like when emerging from a nightclub. The sun setting behind miles of rolling dunes was a magnificent sight.
Oman’s gentleness can make your home country feel a bit on the fast and loose side. During my drive I had two flat tyres fixed free of charge, was handed ice from some fishermen, and more than one driver led me to the nearest petrol station so I didn’t miss it.
The low key and low rise skyline of Taqa, 35 kilometres east of Salalah. Photo My Bathroom Wall
I was pondering this while swimming from a speedboat in the bay off Taqa on my last day. A dolphin broke the water about 20 feet away and breathed out with a noise like a cough through a snorkel - then another half a dozen of them arched by gracefully. I gazed at the blue sky, pale green water and purple mountains. The Taqa seafront was a line of palm trees and houses shimmering in the noonday sun; its fort sat squat and reassuring in the distance.
Salalah is a real place alright – yet there’s no shortage of Arabian magic.
One more thing: Salalah is famed across the Middle East for the 'Khareef', a colloquial term for the most unlikely of monsoons. Called rather drearily the 'Southeastern Monsoon', winds draw colder water from the Indian Ocean, which in turn cool the air above. The moisture-ladened air then is blown up the side of the Jibal Dhofar mountains to cause the extraordinary phenomenon of a dependable drizzle in the desert.
I visited during the Khareef some years ago and drove up into the mountains. It was amazing to see everywhere carpeted in grasses and wildflowers. I had a simple chicken byriani sitting on a misty mountain terrace and took in the strange sight of Arab men wearing their long flowing dishdashas not with a backdrop of a fiery sun and parched desert, but instead amongst the verdant hillsides.
Reasons to be cheerful: the Salalah area is delightfully low key and genuine. Yet with a new airport and several new resort hotels, the region is improving tourist options.
You can't always get what you want: choosing the right resort here is essential, as you'll be spending most of your time there. The town is pleasant enough, but a bit scruffy, and certainly not somewhere you'll be heading to look for diversions or nightlife.
Fitting Salalah into a holiday: the resorts of Salalah make for great winter sun fly and flop options for northern Europeans, while GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) tourists tend to arrive specifically to experience the Khareef - some even driving their families off-road through the desert to reach it. A short trip into the Empty Quarter is easy to organise locally, or it is possible to make longer driving holidays from Salalah up to Muscat.
Getting there: Salalah Airport opened a swish new terminal in November 2015, with flights from Dubai with FlyDubai and Oman Air, from Doha with Qatar Airways, from Muscat with Oman Air and Salam Air, and from Sharjah with Air Arabia.
When to visit: the somewhat surreal Khareef effects the coastal fringe of the Dhofar region - including the mountain behind Salalah - between June and September.
More info: UK based tour operators featuring Salalah resorts include Steppes Travel and Original Travel, and Safari Drive can organise self-driving into the Empty Quarter, and throughout Oman. Or there's the locally based Al Fawaz Tours. For more info on the resort see Salalah Rotana Resort and for country info there's Oman Tourism
Visa and safety: always check your government's travel advice before booking, and ensure that your travel insurance is valid in this part of the country. See the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice.