North of Muscat stretches the Al Batinah region, a narrow coastal plain bounded by the sea on one side and the Hajar mountains on the other. This is one of the most fertile regions in the country, covered in innumerable date plantations, while fishing is another important source of employment, with endless lines of boats pulled up on the beaches which dot the coast. This was formerly the wealthiest and most cosmopolitan part of the country, centred on the great port of Sohar, one of the major trading emporiums of its day. Things are a lot quieter now, although a great sequence of forts still stands guard over the region, commemorating its former economic and strategic importance.
Getting around the Batinah is straightforward, thanks to the fast (if dull) dual-carriageway coastal highway which runs from Muscat via Seeb, Barka and Sohar and on to the UAE border, a total distance of 270km (168 miles). Unfortunately, the highway runs a couple of kilometres inland, out of sight of the sea, although smaller local roads can get you down to the coastal beaches. Inland, another major road runs to Rustaq, as the heart of the so-called Rustaq Loop, a rewarding inland detour in the shadow of the Western Hajar, via some of the country’s finest forts, and with a number of exhilarating off-road routes to explore on the way.
Heading north out of the capital, the coastal highway passes Muscat International Airport before reaching Seeb, the first major settlement along the Batinah Coast. This is one of the most personable towns in Oman, centred on the lively Wadi al Bahais Street which loops through the centre, flanked with a colourful selection of shops selling gold, perfumes, textiles, furniture and so on. There is also an extensive, breezy corniche, always busy after dark, beyond which lies the town’s harbour, with dozens of boats moored up within a curling breakwater.
About 5km (3 miles) beyond Barka down the main coastal highway (and then 2km/1 mile down a side road on the right) is the atmospheric Bait Na’aman, a fortified house dating from the 1690s, which formerly served as one of the country residences of the ruling Imams. The interior is particularly interesting, beautifully restored and with a wealth of furnishings and artefacts which give a powerful sense of what life was like here back in former times.
Out to sea, 16km (10 miles) off the coast, is the Daymaniyat Islands Nature Reserve, comprising nine limestone islets. Between April and September, thousands of migratory birds nest on the islands, including the rare sooty falcon. Large numbers of hawksbill and green turtles also nest in the sandy inlets protected by rocky overhangs. Diving and snorkelling trips to the islands can be arranged through the dive centre at the Al Sawadi Beach Resort, as well as via several dive operators in Muscat. A permit is required to land.
A narrow fissure in the mountains marks the start of the spectacular Wadi Bani Kharus, now easily accessible thanks to the construction of a new black-top road stretching all the way to the end of the wadi. A sequence of seven villages lines the floor of the wadi, with old-fashioned mudbrick houses and date plantations squeezed in below the towering cliffs. The wadi is also of particular interest to geologists, with layers of sedimentary and mineral strata spanning over 500 million years, from the Cretaceous period to the Late Proterozoic era, exposed with textbook clarity in the cliffs above.
Sohar is a pleasant town with clean streets lined with white houses and tropical gardens. At one time it was one of the most important trading centres on the Arabian peninsula. The most dramatic sight in town is a whitewashed fort at the eastern end of the corniche. Almost next door to the fort stands the large Sultan Qaboos Mosque, with its eye-catching gold dome. A five-minute walk inland is the town’s modest handicrafts souk (signed “Omani Craftsman’s House”). Heading north along the corniche brings you to the town’s striking modern fish market, designed in the shape of a traditional dhow. A couple of kilometres further north you will find the Sohar Beach Hotel and a spacious swathe of public beach. Next to the beach lies an attractively shady park arranged around a large lake.
Sohar Beach Hotel
Sohar and the Batinah Coast
tel: 2684 1111
Suave hotel restaurant serving up a well-prepared selection of Continental, Chinese, Indian and Arabian mains, with seating either on the attractive candlelit terrace overlooking the gardens, or inside during hotter months.
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