Just a 90-minute direct flight away from the UAE, or a gruelling drive of more than 1,000 kilometres from Al Ain or Muscat, Salalah and the wider Dhofar region offers a glimpse of an Arabia many Gulf expatriates have been missing. In the far south of the country, closer to Yemen than Muscat, visitors can revel in a unique microclimate in which the area catches the Indian Ocean monsoon, known locally as the khareef. Between the end of June and the end of August, annual rain and mist turn the mountains, meadows and plains green. Wadis are filled and tourists gather around waterfalls. Even during the rest of the year, there is some water in wadis and lakes and extensive groundwater supports fertile groves of coconut, banana, sugar cane and papaya. Long stretches of the coastline are fringed by coconut palms and small, crumbling buildings, making it look much more like Goa than Abu Dhabi, Dubai or Doha. In terms of atmosphere, the slower pace also makes for a relaxing break. While much of the town is sprawling and unattractive, the surrounding area has enough to warrant at least three full days. A beach or diving holiday is a good idea outside the khareef season.
A comfortable bed
Many of the town centre hotels are in scruffy and unattractive areas close to busy roads. Until a boutique hotel arrives, you're better off at one of the beachside resorts. Hilton Salalah Resort (www.hilton.com; 00 968 23 211 234) is a 15-minute drive west from the airport and is quiet, comfortable and not too big. It sits in landscaped grounds behind a stretch of beach in view of a huge container port and has a good selection of restaurants. Double rooms from 49 Omani rials (Dh468) per night including taxes. In the opposite direction is the Crowne Plaza (www.ihg.com; 00 968 23 238 000), which has bigger grounds and a beachfront unblemished by a view of the port. Double rooms are from 63 rials (Dh600) per night including taxes. Another attractive five-star resort option is the Juweira Boutique Hotel (www.juweirahotel.com; 00 968 23 239 600); double rooms from 56 rials (Dh534) including taxes.
Find your feet
A good place to start a tour is the excellent Museum of Frankincense Land (www.omanwhs.gov.om). Two halls, "history" and "maritime", chart the country's Stone Age origins and long seafaring and trading history (Omani merchants travelled to India, China and the United States, among other places) with paintings, model ships and archaeological specimens. The production and distribution of frankincense is also covered. Even more impressive is the presence, next to the museum, of the Al Baleed archaeological park, which comprises the remains of a medieval coastal trading post complete with a perimeter wall, great mosque and freshwater khor. Both Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta recorded visits here; museum staff can take you on a tour by golf buggy. Evidence of a much older trading city beneath and near this site have been found.
Meet the locals
Haffa Souk (also known as Al Husn Souk) in the centre of town is a good place to strike up a conversation with local traders, both male and female. To catch people on their leisure time, head to Wadi Darbat during the khareef to see families enjoying a leisurely picnic in the drizzle, or the dramatic cliffs and blowholes of Mugsail, 48km west of town. Even Job's tomb (in Arabic, the Nabi Ayoub Tomb), on a scenic hilltop overlooking the city, is a good place to take a stroll and strike up a conversation; there are various small coffee shops along the drive where locals relax while enjoying views of the mountains.
Book a table
At the Hilton, the open-air Palm Grove restaurant, with views of the Indian Ocean and the sea breeze, is a great place to relax, and the seafood is excellent. An Arabian mezze costs 4.5 rials (Dh43), a seafood bisque 3 rials (Dh28), fish and chips 5 rials (Dh47) and the seafood platter, including lobster, hammour, calamari and huge prawns, plus one side dish, is 18 rials (Dh170). At the other end of the spectrum, head to the roadside area of Ateen on the outskirts of town to have fresh camel meat cooked in a variety of ways from a cluster of different makeshift restaurants (prices from 4 rials [Dh38]) for two. Similarly, your choice of fish can be prepared in the way you want it at the fish market. For Omani food in a proper restaurant, Bin Ateeq (www.binateeqoman.com) is reliable.
The central shopping area is the Haffa Souk, a well-organised and well-mannered collection of shops specialising in frankincense and bukhoor and attar perfumes. It's worth haggling sellers of pashminas, walking canes and other trivia down to 50 per cent of their stated price (meaning a pashmina should cost from 1.5 rials [Dh15], and a decorative walking cane from 3 rials [Dh28]) but expect to pay between 15 rials (Dh143) and 20 rials (Dh190) per kilo of frankincense. Myrrh, bukhoor and attar can be had from 2 rials (Dh19) for a small container.
What to avoid
To avoid being charged double the normal room rate during the khareef, book your hotel room well in advance and be flexible with your dates. Swimming in the sea is not advised during the khareef because of high waves and strong currents.
To get the most from a short break, hire a guide with a driver to take you to pre-agreed sights, rather than rely on taxis. Ali Amer Al Mashani (00 968 9929 8896) is recommended for Arabic or English speakers.
flydubai (www.flydubai.com) offers return direct flights from Dubai to Salalah from Dh825 return including taxes.
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