Oman is the country of 1001 Arabian Nights, with Sinbad the Sailor hailing from Sohar, just north of the capital Muscat. Or so legend has it. What’s certain is that Oman is packed full of history and culture, and is lucky enough to have incredible natural beauty ranging from white beaches lining the Indian Ocean to vast deserts and imposing mountains all held together by lush oases.
Whether you drive yourself or hire a driver, it is best to have a car handy in Oman, as there are countless sights within an hour’s drive from the capital, Muscat, that are absolute must-sees and dos when visiting, and while there are plenty of organized tours, a road trip is still the best way to enjoy some of the scenery and sights.
But, however beautiful, there is no getting around the fact that Oman is mostly a desert country, and it does get hot and humid in the summer. The best times to visit are fall, winter, and spring, with winter sometimes a little too chilly for sea-bathing but is perfect for a road trip. As long as you avoid mid-June to mid-September, you will be absolutely fine.
As most people fly into Muscat International Airport (formerly Seeb Airport), and most hotels are based in and around Muscat, this itinerary will assume that you will start off in the capital. You can do this trip in one day, but if you want to stay outside of Muscat, be aware that you’ll have limited options. Most hotels are either along the coast or on the other side of the Hajar mountain range from Rustaq, which would mean taking a lengthy detour or some treacherous driving through the mountains, which, unless you are going with a local, I would not suggest for first-time visitors.
This road trip, called the Rustaq Loop, incorporates a handful of main sites and is easy to navigate, as the loop takes you off the main coastal road, guides you around the sites, and deposits you straight back onto the same coastal road. I have chosen to do this trip in a counterclockwise direction, starting off with a beach visit and ending with a picnic, but you can easily reverse it, as it is literally a loop.
Muscat To Sawadi
Less than one hour’s drive north of Muscat along the main road, Route 1, just after the town of Barka, you will see a turn-off to the right to Sawadi Beach. The beach is famous for its island just off the coast and within easy walking distance at low tide. The little island has a watchtower you can climb up to (it’s moderate exercise), but that is not necessarily Sawadi’s main attraction. The beach at Sawadi is simply teeming with an incredible variety of shells. Take a bag, as you will want to collect some treasures to bring back with you. There is also a small beach resort where you can have coffee or breakfast before you go on your way again.
Sawadi To Al Hazm
Turn right once you hit the main route again, and after roughly 15 minutes, turn left onto Road 11 toward Rustaq. Your second stop, roughly 160 km (100 miles) into your road trip from Muscat, will be Al Hazm, which has a lovely fort dating back to 1711. The outstanding features of this fort are its intricately carved wooden doors, which are enormous and very impressive, hidden passageways, and extraordinary defenses. It also has a fine example of a bathroom and water system inside the fort, which are things you don’t usually see.
Al Hazm To Rustaq
Hot on the heels from Al Hazm Fort, and only a few minutes’ drive away, is the truly magnificent Rustaq Fort, built in the seventh century, and thus in pre-Islamic times. Its occupation extended into the 1700s, and it was a befitting fort for the then capital of Oman. The fort, with its four sturdy towers, the highest reaching 50 feet tall, is the second oldest fortification in Oman and offers numerous rooms across three stories, with an armory, a prison, a mosque, and living quarters.
Next to the fort is the traditional souk, or market, which is well worth stopping at for fresh produce, traditional pots and pans, and the odd goat.
Rustaq To Wadi Bani Ghafir
An interesting side trip from Rustaq, only a 30 minutes’ drive on Route 10 into the Hajar Mountains. is one of the many wadis that bisect the mountains here. A wadi is basically a valley, usually dry and rocky, but in the rainy season in January and February, the wadis can fill up and become at times proper torrents. You will need a four-wheel-drive car for any explorations, but this wadi is one of the easier ones to visit, so even novice wadi-bashers, as the local expatriates call them, can manage. You will see proper Omani wadi living, with all its beauty and ugliness: This is not a tourist attraction. You will notice that people dump their garbage along the otherwise scenic tracks, and you’ll see the ruins of an old town that are slowly but surely falling into disrepair. But, if you want authentic Oman, this is how the small settlements are in the mountains, among palm tree plantations and rustic houses and tiny mosques, and Wadi Bani Ghafir is definitely worth having a look at.
Wadi Bani Ghafir To Ayn Al Kasfah
On your way back to Rustaq, and the main road, stop off at the ancient hot spring at Ayn Al Kasfah. It has proven healing powers due to its sulfur content and offers bathing facilities, should you be brave enough for a dip. But beware, when they say hot springs here, they mean it. The water reaches up to 113 degrees Fahrenheit and can be uncomfortably hot
Stay The Night In Rustaq (Optional)
You can tell you are off the beaten tourist track when you have very few options for where to stay the night. Rustaq has one hotel, and while it is rather basic, it’s absolutely fine for a night. The Al-Shomok Hotel is alongside the main road, Route 10, from Wadi Bani Ghafir on the right-hand side.
Pro Tip: Remember that, should you Google hotels in or near Rustaq, the hotels that come up are on the other side of the mountain range and would involve either a three-hour (or longer) trip via Muscat to get there or a drive through the mountains, which is inadvisable for inexperienced first-time visitors who do not know the area.
Ayn Al Kasfah To Nakhl
Your next road-trip segment takes you from Rustaq along Route 13 via the small town of Al Awabi to Nakhl. It should take just under an hour’s driving time. Nakhl Fort, whose origins date back to pre-Islamic times, has been added onto and expanded upon over the years and was fully restored in the 1990s. It sits high above an oasis stretching behind it and is just lovely to meander through, with great views from the tower and great examples of what life was like inside.
What makes it rather unique is that the fort was built on and around an existing rock, which is now part of the building. If you are visiting on a Friday, don’t miss the goat market nearby. And, talking about goats, look out for goats in the trees. Yes, really. The local goats are known for climbing into the thorny local trees to nibble the few green leaves available to them, and it is amazing to see. I am still not sure how they manage, but they do.
Nakhl To Al Thowrah
Driving along the track right next to the fort, off Route 13, you’ll pass lush green plantations watered by the ancient falaj system (mini canals), a veritable little oasis in the mountains that’s virtually shut off from the outside world. Al Thowrah is a small settlement alongside a stream fed by warm rather than hot springs and is the perfect place for a family picnic. Children are usually paddling in the stream catching frogs, while further down is a spot where the women do their laundry, taking advantage of the warm water. On the weekends (Fridays and Saturdays), this is a bustling picnic spot, but don’t let that put you off, as you will be surrounded by locals rather than tourists.
Al Thowrah To Muscat
For your last one-hour leg back to Muscat, follow Route 13 until you reach Barka and hit the main Route 1 again, the one you came along when you first set out. Turn right and you will be back in Muscat in no time.
Pro Tip: Remember that the weekend in Oman falls on a Friday and Saturday, with Friday being the holy day, and many businesses will be closed.