MUSANDAM, Oman, Nov. 5, 2009 — -- Along the Strait of Hormuz, where the waters narrow to just 20 miles between the southern coast of Iran and the northern tip of Arabia, lies rugged beauty of the Musandam peninsula -- a pristine paradise located in the heart of the Middle East.
Jutting out into the supremely strategic passage -- the strait sees 40 percent of the world's shipped oil pass through en route to the Indian Ocean -- Musandam hosts gorgeous beaches, dramatic vistas and water so clear that you can see bustling marine life in the depths below.
The Musandam peninsula is an isolated enclave of Oman; the UAE separates it from mainland, much the way Canada sets Alaska apart from the continental U.S. Its red-rock Hajjar mountains seem to melt into the ocean -- an avid geologist can find fossils of marine life from when the jagged terrain was below sea level. The clear, blue-green waters of Musandam have some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in the region, while on land lies a fascinating corner of the Middle East just emerging on the tourist map.
Like the place itself, the people of Musandam stand alone. A cousin of the Omani Arabs on the mainland, the centuries-old inhabitants include the Shihi tribe, who speak a hybrid of Persian and Arabic and live in mountain and coastal villages on local fare of honey, fish, and dates. Musandam's capital city of Khasab is a haunt for Iranian smugglers, stocking boats with American-made cigarettes and traded goods.
Dhows, the traditional wooden boats of the Gulf, are a common sight, some chartered by tourist passengers on day trips to secluded beaches. Overnight passenger dhows, outfitted with comfortable cabins, offer good value and the best way to see the craggy coves and secluded bays of Musandam. On-board chefs prepare buffet meals, while the boat makes a series of swimming stops designed to maximize scuba and snorkeling -- visitors routinely spot dolphins and massive underwater turtles. Musandam Sea Adventures can arrange three-night trips at for up to 30 people per vessel. They can also arrange overnight camping trips on beaches and islands, some with Oman Folklore & Music programs.
Adventures on Land and on Water
Adventure sports prevail in Musandam. In hikes along the jagged Hajar mountains ("hajar" means rock in Arabic), desert plants and wildlife make for a serene, but invigorating climb. For the courageous driver, renting at 4x4 can get you around unpaved desert and mountain roads for incredible views of skyline layered with rocky peaks. Jebel Harim, the highest mountain in Musandam at 6,800 feet, is a good day's excursion.
Kayaking and canoeing are ideal, in waters often clear enough that you can see down to the seabed from the surface. At Zighy Bay, an idyllic inlet with a pristine beach, Al Marsa Musandam will take you paragliding from the tip of a mountain to the soft sand below. Parked in a soft chair, strapped to an expert glider, you'll slowly float in a zigzag pattern down to the water. They also do paramotoring, using a small engine to help you go higher, for longer.
At the bottom of the mountains, sitting beside a sleepy fishing village, the boutique Six Senses Zighy Bay Hideaway makes for barefoot luxury in an eco-friendly setting. Each of the 65 private villas is built as an Omani home from the outside, with five-star amenities inside. Buildings are made from local materials, palm tree wood with stone floors, while local trees green the landscape.
Prices are steep by design, with rack rates starting at $1,050 per night in the summer low season, to $1,520 in the January to May high season. What you get is a deluxe beach vacation and total privacy -- a private butler, a private plunge pool, and if you opt for a beach-front villa, a private piece of paradise. In effect, you hide away, in high style and the stunning natural beauty. The hotel grounds breed a sense of serenity and exclusivity; even on arrival you first stop at a desert welcome center before a speedboat or 4x4 takes you to the hotel's hidden oasis.
'Its Own World At Its Own Pace'
More accessible in price and in reach are the family-friendly Golden Tulip resorts in Dibba and Khasab. Starting at $240 during high season, $160 from May through August, the four-star Golden Tulip is perched on stunning beaches with excursions that will get you well around Musandam. The Dibba property is somewhat dated, but you can enjoy the beach and watch the sunset from your private balcony.
The more polished Golden Tulip Khasab is directly on the Strait of Hormuz, and a great place to take a boat ride around the "khors," or coves. The hotel also has a dedicated diving center, where you can take beginner's level lessons before you plunge. From Khasab you can arrange a boat trip to Kumzar, a town of stone homes where villagers speak Kumzari, a mix of Arabic, Persian, Portuguese, and Hindi.
The best way to reach Musandam is by flying into Dubai or Sharjah airports, roughly 1-2 hours away. If you're already in Dubai, a weekend in the wilderness of Musandam is a welcome break from the concrete heat of the city. Musandam is its own world at its own pace, and a taste of Arabia that lingers in delightful memory.