It's known as one of the most lush and green places in the Middle East. We hit salalah to find out more about it
Salalah’s always been one of those places that’s held a certain exotic appeal – it was one of those destinations that I’d filed under the ‘I’ll go before I leave the Middle East’ category. Getting there had always been the issue – until Gulf Air started direct flights and cut out the need for a 12-hour drive through the albeit beautiful Oman landscape from Muscat down the shoreline to Salalah. So really, I’d run out of excuses to put off a trip to the little tropical paradise on Oman’s southern coast. And anyway, the promise of the Khareef (monsoon) season and the almost-certain precipitation that came with it was far too tempting to escape to, taking Bahrain’s oppressive heat into consideration.
It’s a hop, skip and a jump from Bahrain to Salalah’s quaint little airport, and it was like landing in another continent as I stepped off the plane. Glossy pine-panelled walls oozed a ’70s vibe as we entered the airport – there was half an expectation in my mind to see a rather glam Jaclyn Smith doing a Charlie’s Angels impression in the immigration queue before me. It was a pleasant surprise to see the Omanis in their national dress – smart dishdashas and muzzars, an intricately tied, colourful turban – they take incredible pride in their country, which is evident from the get-go.
One noticeable difference between Salalah and the rest of the GCC is the greenery – every road around the city seems to be lined with grove upon grove of coconut palms, banana trees and huts selling locally-grown fruit, sugar cane and fresh coconut juice, a local specialty. It’s this lush greenery that draws people to Oman’s little gem, as the Indian Ocean creates an entirely different climate to the rest of the region; palm trees, prolific in Bahrain and even in the rest of Oman, will not grow here, and of course the Khareef kick-starts three months of lush vegetation springing up in the otherwise barren desert.
It’s also incredibly peaceful. Bahrain may be laid-back, but the impression you get from Salalah is on a whole other level; everyone seems happy, and they’re keen to help in whatever way they can. Spoken English is very good, which is understandable considering the number of Western tourists that stop in for a day or two as part of their world cruises. Omanis are very keen to discuss the benefits of living in their country when compared to the rest of the GCC too – get comfy over a cup of steaming gahwa and some cashew nut halwa, and you’ll have a conversation to last for hours. Well, if you’re a guy, anyway; a lot of traditions are still upheld by the locals, and it might be considered impolite to chat to women, so don’t be offended if you’re not included.
The major draw to Salalah is the exquisite shoreline – which, I might add, has real waves, unlike the piddly ones that lap Bahrain’s meagre beaches. The crashing surf is particularly agitated at this time of year as a side effect of the Khareef, so it’s not recommended that you go into it unaided, but simply sitting and staring from the hotel’s beachside restaurant or while sitting on the fine sand is more than enough to appreciate just how beautiful it is. And with such mild weather all year round (the temperatures don’t get much higher than 30°C), sunbathing is possible all the time, so long as you don’t mind a bit of humidity.
Heading out into the desert, though, to explore the wadis is by far the most exciting thing to do. Mountainous crags jut up at angry-looking angles on the horizon, and hidden within their weathered crevasses are sparkling little gems – little oases, which appear so suddenly and in such lush surroundings that it’s almost as if they’ve been staged. The water is always crystal-clear, giving a perfect view of the pebbly bottoms and the silvery flashes of fish darting back and forth – some of which are cheeky enough to come and nibble your toes if you succumb to the temptation to dip your feet into the cool water.
Outside of the water wildlife is equally abundant; in three shorts days in Salalah, I saw more wild species than in nearly 20 years of living in Bahrain. From snakes to rock hyraxes (apparently a distant relative of the elephant, despite them looking like overgrown guinea pigs with particularly sharp teeth), flamingos to birds of prey, and even the numerous herds of ropey-looking cows, camels and the occasional donkey that roams freely in the desert (garnering plenty of angry fist-shaking from my tour guide as they stand blocking off the road – hitting one incurs a massive fine), the animal population is as easily accessible as the human one.
Booking a tour guide is essential if you’re going to explore all of the best places. While the roads in the desert are very good and would lead you to civilisation eventually, getting around and discovering all of the natural beauty spots is only possible if you go with someone who knows their way around.
From the third century CE Khor Rori archaeological site set atop glorious cliffs and overlooking a spectacular bay to the Tawi Attair sinkhole with its thousands of bird inhabitants, Salalah is a nature-lover’s paradise that just begs you to spend longer so that you leave no leaf unturned and no nook undiscovered.
Need to know
Get there Gulf Air offers direct flights to Salalah three times a week, with prices from BD113 return. See www.gulfair.com for details.
Al Fareed Tourist Restaurant July St. Serves up Arabic and Indian food.
Dolphin Beach Restaurant Crowne Plaza Resort Salalah, +968 235 333
Omar Al Khayyam July St. Offering great Indian and Chinese food, with decent service.
Palm Grove Restaurant Hilton Salalah, +968 211 234
Land of Frankincense Just out of town are the UNESCO protected frankincense trees of Wadi Dawkah.
Lost City of Ubar Sumahram Falcon Tours (+968 928 885 91; www.sumahramfalcon.com) can arrange a guide to drive you two hours to the edge of the Empty Quarter, where you can explore the site of the Lost City of Ubar, climb the desert dunes and spend a night under a blanket of stars at a Bedouin camp.
Al Hafah Souk The place to head for gold, rose and frankincense.
Mutra Souk The oldest market in Salalah.
Nizwa Souk Good for antiques, silvercraft and pottery. Sinaw Souk Shop here for Bedouin crafts.