OMAN – The road from Dubai to Oman passes through four other Emirates. There are no maps. There are only a few signposts along the way and we've been given scribbled directions that say things like: Continue forward 100 km and turn left at the tree.
We begin on the wide highways beyond Dubai, leaving the glass and concrete towers of commerce behind. We pass through Sharjah, where the pre-mixed gin and tonics concealed in water bottles in the boot of our car (yes, we're English) become a vague source of concern when someone points out that people are stoned to death for minor infractions in this dry state. Some Emirates we pass through are completely unmemorable, except for obvious signs of a lack of prosperity compared to oil-rich neighbors. The last Emirate before the Omani border is Ras Al Khaimah, which is dominated by a large cement plant and a ceramics factory. The only sign of life is a skinny goat trying to find shade under a shrivelled, leafless tree.
Lou, a lifelong family friend, lives in Dubai. Her parents and I are visiting for Christmas. There are two checkpoints at the Omani border, and the fees vary from person to person. It's a bit of a long-winded kerfuffle that leaves us feeling jaded. But the gloomy drive suddenly turns out onto a coastal road that winds around the Musandam Peninsula. The change is instant and breathtaking.
The sudden landscape of mountainous rock plunging dramatically down into the sea looks like the result of a volcanic eruption. Because of these fjords, the Musandam Peninsula is known as the Norway of Arabia. There are barely any buildings — just the mountains, the sea, and a gleaming tarmac road that winds along and up, slicing cleanly through the rock on both sides. It's a marvel of engineering, even to someone who has absolutely no interest in engineering.
The Musandam Peninsula, which is separated from the rest of Oman by the United Arab Emirates, is still relatively unvisited, except by divers looking to explore the pristine coral reefs. The new road has made it possible to go where few have ever been. Still, we don't see any cars in front or behind us, even in Khasab, the capital city. There is a fledgling tourism movement — most people end up at the Golden Tulip Hotel, one of three hotels in Khasab. There's also a petrol station, an airstrip (no international flights yet) a couple of restaurants, and a population of 18,000, though we count only four people.
Besides driving, the other mode of transport is via dhow: a traditional wooden Arab sailing boat. These have been used for everything from pearl fishing to cargo, but now often carry people. A dhow cruise isn't anywhere near as touristy as it sounds, and I am thankful we are the only Westerners on our boat. We pass fjords and inlets while lying back on low patterned tapestry cushions, drinking hot sweet tea, and eating fruit and dates. Dolphins swim and play alongside us. From the water we can see remote coastal villages only accessible by boat. At Telegraph Island we strip down to our swimsuits and jump into the water. The rest of the women in our group politely queue for the boat's loo, so that they can change into modest head-to-toe bathing suits in a space the size of a picnic hamper. They all make it into the water eventually.
We decide not to stay at the Golden Tulip, which is a bit dilapidated and lackluster — possibly due to the lack of competition — but still expensive (£14 for a gin and tonic at the bar). Instead, we take our smuggled booze to an apartment to drink in private. (Alcohol isn't banned in Oman, but driving with alcohol on board without a permit is not allowed in the UAE.) On a friend's recommendation we stay at Esra Hotel Apartments in Khasab, which is basic, but clean enough. (Khasab Travel and Tours also arranges dhow cruises.) Our apartment is rented to us by an Omani woman who is so elegant in her black abaya that we feel like apologizing to her every time we tromp past her in our Western swimsuits to get to the pool.
We get a few funny looks from the neighbors — but these are of bemused interest, not hostility. The Omani people we meet are incredibly kind and hospitable, and they are keen to tell us about all the improvements being made to the infrastructure by the sultan: roads first, then hospitals, then schools.
At dusk we watch the mountains turn shades of lilac I've never thought possible, and it feels that we are at the edge of the world.