Having toured the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for a month, a friend suggested, "Why not visit Oman? You will be impressed!" He added, "Just drive to Ras Al Khaimah and cross into the country. All you need are your passports."
Taking his words to heart, early the next day at nine o'clock sharp we were at Tibat, the border crossing between the UAE and Oman's Musandam
Peninsula. Red tape and bureaucracy prevailed despite "All you need are your passports." We paid $22 US each for a visa and auto fee, and spent half an hour filling out papers, but soon that tedium was forgotten as I navigated the winding but well engineered coastal highway. Every few minutes, the bare mountains seemed to change colour. On one side of the road, the clear blue ocean, lapping here and there over small beaches of sand, created an emerald-like carpet set at the foot of the Musandam Mountains, which rise to 2,000 metres (6,560 ft).
The Musandam Peninsula consists of low rugged mountains that form the northern-most extremity of the Al Hagar al Garb (Western Hagar) Mountains. The northern-most part of the Sultanate of Oman, the peninsula covers approximately 3,000 square km (1,158 sq mi) of land and includes four wilayats (provinces): Khasab, Bakha, Diba Bayaa and Madha.
The landscape is dramatic. Majestic mountains hug the coastline with a series of inlets, towering craggy cliffs and spectacular barren-rocky fjords that give Musandam the nickname, 'Norway of the Middle East' or 'Norway of Arabia.' The Peninsula overlooks the 60 km (37 mi) wide Strait of Hormuz, which links the Arabian Gulf (Persian Gulf) with the Gulf of Oman, a strategically important water channel, where 90% of oil from the Gulf region passes on to the rest of the world.
Every few miles we drove around inlets on the edge of which small hamlets gave life to the barren landscape. The humble homes of these tiny villages appeared to be neat and clean and there was not a piece of garbage in sight. With fishing dhows anchored in the inlets overshadowed by whitewashed structures gleaming in the sunlight, the scene was that of a naturally created postcard.
A little more than an hour after leaving Tibat, I turned a curve on the road and entered
Khasab, the largest town on the Musandam Peninsula, capital of the province. Famous for its steep fjords, bird and marine life and diving sites, the town of some 18,000 inhabitants is noted for its Portuguese fort, built at the beginning of the 17th century.
The surrounding area is fertile (khasab means 'fertile' in Arabic) and many fruit and vegetable crops are grown on the occasional flat ledges of land that have been terraced for small-scale agriculture. Low walls are built round the cultivated areas to trap surface run-off.
We drove around town, impressed with its attractive Arab architecture and clean streets edged by majestic structures. After the tiny hamlets we had just passed, Khasab appeared like a huge metropolis, truly earning the name 'Queen of Musandam.'
After touring the town, charmed by its many new majestic homes, we rested a while in the Khasab Hotel and reflected on Musandam's breathtaking mountains, dramatic fjords, year round sunshine and seas teeming with fish. It was easy to see why this part of Oman is fast becoming a diving and a winter holiday destination for international travellers.
Habeeb Salloum has authored numerous books, his latest: Arab Cooking On A Saskatchewan Homestead: Recipes And Recollections - winner of the Cuisine Canada and The University of Guelph's Silver Canadian Culinary Book Awards in Winnipeg in 2006. He contributes to Forever Young (Oakville), Contemporary Review (Oxford, UK), Canadian World Traveller (Quebec) and the Toronto Star.
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