Discovering Oman: the old and the new
AFTER landing in Muscat, the capital of the Sultanate of Oman, I had to pinch myself to make sure I was really here.
To my surprise, it's quite a hilly city with very few high-rise buildings but with Arabic features on the dwellings such as a dome or window that portray the Omani tradition.
I board a yacht in the historic port of Old Muscat and we pass fishermen catching dinner along the beaches of Shatti al-Ourm, which is just a small section of the sand that stretches from the capital to the border of the United Arab Emirates, just over 200km away.
Muscat has been, and still is, an important port where many cruise ships moor for the day and tourists add to the already booming economy which, although dominated by trade and petroleum, enjoys having visitors from around the world.
Often referred to as the walled city, the main part of Muscat is the site of royal palaces, the citadel and the Matrah Souq or market place.
At the largest food stall, I buy hummus and dried figs to nibble on while I walk around the mazed aisles full of souvenirs and homemade wares.
With only three million people, Oman is a country of 310 square kilometres with the most diverse landscape.
It's one of my favourite countries for its striking mountain scenery, desert dunes, beaches, beautiful rocky coastlines and the knockout-looking capital.
A new international airport is due for completion soon, as well as a new city marina and 10 integrated resort developments in various parts of the country.
With more than 500 forts, towers and castles in differing architectural styles, the past is well displayed, and activities such as dolphin watching and four-wheel driving through desert sand dunes are real hits.
After exploring Muscat, now I'm ready for the long drive to Jabal Shams (Mountain of the Sun).
At 3075 metres, it's the highest mountain in the country with a view into Wadi Ghul which lies alongside. This steep valley is known locally as the Grand Canyon of Arabia and I can understand why when I peer at the spectacular vertical cliffs that reach up to 1000 metres.
Fortunately for me and my guide Salim, an iron railing has been erected to illustrate the deepest spots where it was once possible to drive directly into the chasm. Salim assures me it's safe as we carefully make our way around the rim, stopping at some of the best viewpoints.
In one area I'm pestered, although nicely, to buy a carpet from a seller who appears out of nowhere carrying stocks of rugs, mostly made from goat hair.
I buy a small red and black door mat which is not too heavy and perfect as a reminder of how the weaving industry in this area is the livelihood for many locals.
Many of the roads in Oman have been recently constructed, and we reach Nizwa after a smooth, easy drive.
The famous fort and citadel are crowned by a massive tower, and sitting in the shade under a huge tree I see a man selling pomegranates, one of the staple fruits in this part of the world and used profusely in salads, often with quinoa.
I explore a date plantation with an intricate, ancient irrigation system that keeps the date palms watered year round.
I linger over a most memorable sight of the sun setting behind the mountains in what is a fascinating country full of incredible museums, exquisite architecture and vibrant, hospitable people.
Oman, I will be back for more.
For details on booking, planning and organising a trip to Oman call your closest Helloworld store on 131415 or visit the website
Lauren Bath's trip was organised and planned by Helloworld.