On an isolated peninsula of Oman, the colours of the limestone cliffs and soaring mountains change by the hour
Under a clear blue sky, the narrow dirt road climbs straight up the barren rock of Jebel Harim, the highest peak in Oman's northern Hajar mountain range. Look down, and you can see the sparkling turquoise waters of the Arabian Sea. With our air-conditioned Hummer just centimetres from the road's edge, it was a beautiful but terrifying sight.
Turning to look landward was not more reassuring. The road was seriously steep. Concentrate instead on the driver? Scariest option of all. Our elegant Omani guide was so used to ferrying tourists up and down Jebel Harim, a dizzying 2,087 metres above sea level, that he felt little need to keep even one hand on the steering wheel.
This was part of a mountain "safari" in the Musandam peninsula, the northern a tip of a land mass that projects into the Gulf of Hormuz and is cut off from the rest of Oman by the United Arab Emirates.
For much of the last century, this isolated, rocky land was closed to the outside world. Sixty years ago, the British explorer Wilfred Thesiger wrote of travelling in disguise through Oman, one of the first Europeans to dare travel in a land where foreigners were not welcome.
Today, tourists are free to travel wherever they want. Roads built by the military wind their way up limestone cliffs, leading into the one town of any size, Khasab, a port and the centre of a small tourist industry.
Where Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the best known of the United Arab Emirates, have hurtled into the modern era, trailing debt and high-rises in equal measure in Dubai's case, Oman is moving more carefully.
So far, its tourist industry has consisted mainly of a few luxury hotels at or near its capital, Muscat, and a scattering of accommodation in outlying regions, some luxurious, some less so. This is set to change: Last spring, Oman announced $15 billion in spending on 10 new resorts. Instead of the sleek, glass-walled hotels of Dubai, Oman's tourism will showcase its nature and history.
In Musandam, tourists come to see the soaring mountains, prehistoric paintings and tombs, millennia-old fossils, and the extraordinary beauty of its fiords. Turtles, dolphins and even whales gather in the transparent waters. Underwater diving is said to be stunning and uncrowded.
To reach Musandam, visitors can drive up from Dubai, a three-hour trip, or fly in from Muscat. The drive is spectacular, with rock cliffs towering overhead and water lapping a few metres from the road. Coming by boat - a ferry travels up from Muscat twice a week - is another option. However one travels, the cliffs and mountains change colour by the hour, providing a starkly beautiful panorama.
From the water, Khasab, like most Omani coastal villages, tends to blend into the background, its white- and sand-coloured buildings nearly indistinguishable from the rocky cliffs. On land, sights worth taking in include prehistoric rock paintings at Wadi Tawi and Khasab's 400-year-old Portuguese fort.
Full- and half-day excursions in traditional dhows leave from Khasab. It is also from this port that cigarette boats come racing in from Iran, carrying their cargo of sheep and goats. At the point where it reaches farthest into the Strait of Hormuz, through which 90 per cent of the Gulf region's oil and natural gas production is carried, Musandam is just 55 kilometres from Iran. Headed back to Iran, the boats are said to be laden with electronic goods and cigarettes.
Chugging slowly along the arid coastline, you could see Bedouin villages, traditionally inhabited only during the summer fishing season. Not so long ago, fishermen would race each other to the ships passing through the strait, to sell fish in return for food and clothing.
Musandam is home to the Shihuh. They are believed to be the original inhabitants of Arabia, although their ethnic background remains a mystery.
Today, these Bedouin, who spend the winter months in the mountains, are provided water by the state, which wants them to stay where they are. ("Bedouin" means nomadic, or semi-nomadic, Arab.)
Dolphins leaped around our excursion boats and, unfortunately for purposes of swimming, a stunning array of jellyfish also appeared - pink, purple, transparent, various shapes and sizes, all equipped with stingers. The boat's guide said late March, when we were there, was unusually early for them. People went swimming anyway, some emerging with angry-looking marks. My brief swim was uneventful, and the water was wonderful.
We stopped at Telegraph Island, which served as a base in the 1860s for British technicians laying an underwater telegraph cable connecting India to Basra, Iraq. Their camp was tucked away around a bend on the fiord, hence the expression "going around the bend."
That night, back on land, we dined on fish, lamb and delicately spiced rice dishes on a terrace beside an in-ground pool at our hotel, the Esra Apartment Hotel, lower on the glitz scale than the nearby Golden Tulip resort (or right off it, depending on one's definition of comfort).
The swimming pool seemed (and, in fact, was) an extravagance in the desert, its crystal water lit up at night by Arabian lanterns casting shards of yellow and red across its surface. The water was freezing when I dove in earlier in the day. I asked the concierge why it was so cold. She said several truckloads of refrigerated water had been driven across the arid land and pumped into the pool that morning.
The mountain excursion led us into another world, of cave-like stone houses deep in the rock face and pre-Islamic tombs. Halfway up Jebel Harim, an oasis appeared as though by magic. In this small village, green fields, of wheat and dates, are ringed by stone walls and houses. Goats and donkeys grazed, kept in by the walls.
On our way up the mountain, we asked our guide, Hani, about himself. Was he married? He laughed. No, he was only 24. Would he have an arranged marriage? He said he had a choice: he could choose his own bride, who would then have to be vetted by his family, or he could let his family choose. He was inclined to the second option, he said, adding in excellent English that he was in no rush.
A military installation sits off-limits at the top of the mountain, but before that point, we stopped to see an astonishing piece of natural history: a plateau of perfectly visible fish fossils.
Our final treat before plunging back down the mountainside was one of the most spectacular views in the world:an opening in the rocks through which can be seen the Hajar range stretching out forever, the red light of a falling sunset dusting it with a divine glow.
IF YOU GO:
Most major carriers fly to Muscat via European cities such as London, Paris or Amsterdam. The best months to visit Oman, November to March, are mostly off-season and therefore cheaper, with the exception of Christmas.
Getting to Musandam:
Driving from Muscat to Khasab takes almost five hours, half of it through the mountains. It's about three and a half hours from Dubai. In both cases, the process of crossing borders (from Dubai, from U.A.E. to Oman; or from Muscat, to U.A.E. then back to Oman) is time-consuming.
Flying from Muscat is the easiest option. The most scenic choice is to go by ferry.
Where to stay:
The Golden Tulip Hotel at Khasab (www.goldentulipkhasab.com) has 60 rooms and 12 chalets with views over the Straits of Hormuz.
The Khasab Hotel (www.khasabhotel.net) is cheaper than the Golden Tulip. Khasab Travel also offers apartments at Esra Hotel Apartments.
The most luxurious option is Evason Hideaway and Six Senses Spa (www.sixsenses.com/six-senses-hideaway-zighy-bay) at Zighy Bay.