Crossing the UAE border at Shams Village, en route to Khasab in Musandam, isn’t just entering another country. It’s like entering another world. The stamp in my passport is proof that I’ve left the traffic-clogged roads of Dubai behind; even the drive through dusty, sprawling Ras Al Khaimah soon fades from memory as the Omani border checkpoint shrinks in my rear-view mirror.
I’m just minutes into Musandam when the car turns a corner and I catch my breath. With the craggy Hajar mountains on one side and the emerald sea on the other, the winding Khasab coast road ranks as one of the most picturesque in Arabia, hugging the foot of the mountains as it snakes its way north.
After 45 minutes of scenic motoring, I cruise into Khasab: the ‘capital city’ of Musandam. Yet far from being a city, this destination is more like a typical Arabian town, full of low-rise, traditional dwellings and an imposing mosque at its centre.
It’s a reminder of what Dubai must have been like way back when, before the expat invasion and the construction boom. I circumnavigate the town before my interest is piqued by the cannons marking the entrance to Khasab Castle, a 16th century fortress built by the Portuguese. Handing over the 500 baisas (Dhs5) entry fee, I venture inside, expecting little; yet my planned five-minute visit soon turns into two hours of fascinating discovery as I tour the immaculate little museum, learning the history of the region, stopping to pore over books in the reading room and admiring the view of the bay from the castle’s main tower.
With the afternoon sun pounding overhead and the perspiration forming rivulets down my back, I’m soon drawn to the dhow wharfage down the street, with the promise of a sea breeze and a dip in the sparkling Gulf waters. Managing to secure myself a spot on the next departing dhow cruise, I climb aboard and kick off my shoes as the huge wooden dhow chugs out towards the fjords. It marks the start of four hours of blissful relaxation, reclining on deck, leaping into the water and paddling around with a snorkel, in the hopes of spotting the indigenous dolphins for which these fjords are famed.
Today, it seems, our flippered friends are proving elusive. Yet as the dhow turns for the return journey, the captain gives a triumphant shout. ‘Look!’ he yells. All aboard rush to the starboard deck just as a pair of dolphins leap out of the surf and follow the boat back through the fjord. Smiling, sun-bronzed and a little windswept, I head back to dry land and stroll into town in time for a quick, hearty kebab from one of the roadside diners opposite the mosque, before securing a room at the Khasab Hotel (one of the few bed-and-board options in town), and collapsing gratefully into bed.
After an 8am wake-up call and a snatched breakfast in the hotel’s canteen, it’s time to hit the mountains. Much of Musandam is dominated by the craggy Hajar peaks, which separate Khasab from Dibba in the east (Khasab itself was inaccessible by road from the south until the coast road was built a few years ago). The mountains have also dictated local life in the region for thousands of years; even today, many villagers still choose to live in isolation high up in the peaks, while those settling along the peninsula’s rocky coast rely on boats to transport them back to civilisation.
As my tour guide and I crawl up the mountainside in a battered 4x4, he points out the water bowsers nestled among the rocks, provided by the government and refilled daily to give hardy residents access to fresh water. At one point, we pull off the rocky track to inspect some unusual markings on the rock; we’re already touching 1,800m, yet my driver explains that these are fossilised fish, formed millions of years ago when this part of the country was underwater. Gazing at the craggy mountains around us, it almost defies explanation.
As we finally reach the summit of Jebel Harim, some 2,000m above sea level, I turn and look back over the rugged rural scenery, breathing the unpolluted air and feeling the breeze on my back. Standing atop this breathtaking, mountainous paradise, it’s hard to believe I’m little more than two hours from dusty, construction-ridden Dubai. At this moment, it seems more like two thousand years.
While Khasab itself isn’t a destination for those in search of five-star luxury, the isolated village of Zighy, on the other side of the Hajar mountains, houses one of the most luxurious getaways in the GCC. Six Senses Zighy Bay is a plush resort with traditional architecture and an eco-conscious theme – the small bay, which the hotel shares with 100 or so local villagers, is accessible only by boat, a 4x4 drive down the mountains or a tandem paraglide. Each villa has its own private pool, and the in-villa dining is so extensive (in-house barbecue anyone?) that you’ll rarely see another soul while there. While it’s tempting to lounge by the pool, there are plenty of diversions for active types – the resort offers diving trips from Dhs420 per person (minus equipment), or for Dhs400 you can hop in a microlight.
Rates start at Dhs3,305 a night for a pool villa. www.sixsenses.com (+968 26 735 888)
Need to know
Rather confusingly, there are two ways to enter Musandam from the UAE. The route you take will depend on where you’re heading.
For Khasab: follow Emirates Road north, through Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah, following signs to the Omani border. You’ll need your passport and Dubai car insurance documents (valid in Oman). It’ll cost Dhs35 for the UAE exit stamp and OMR3 (Dhs30) for the Omani entry stamp. The return journey is free.
For Dibba and Zighy Bay: take exit 119 off Emirates Road towards the east coast. Once on the E87, continue past the cement factory, then turn left and follow signs to Dibba. The border here is a lot less strict: just show your passport and the guards will wave you through.
Where to stay
Golden Tulip Khasab
The most upmarket option in town, featuring a pool, restaurants and a lone bar.
Doubles from OMR64 (Dhs640). www.goldentulipkhasab.com (+968 26 730 777)
While this basic hotel is far from luxurious, it offers large, clean rooms and is a good base from which to explore the area.
Doubles from OMR38 (Dhs380). www.khasabhotel.net (+968 26 730 267)
What to see
Dhow cruise Try a leisurely half- or full-day dolphin-spotting trip.
Khasab Travel & Tours, www.khasabtours.com (+968 26 730 464)
Khasab castle Don’t miss the fascinating museum detailing Musandam’s history.
Open Sat-Thu 9am-4pm; Fri 8am-11pm (+968 24 588 820)
Mountain safari Many of the local tour groups offer 4x4 mountain drives from Dhs150.
Dolphin Travel & Tourism, www.dolphintour.net (+968 26 731 855)
• Musandam lies on the Straight of Hormuz, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes – 90 per cent of the Gulf’s oil travels through it.
• It was ruled by the Portuguese from 1515 until 1650.
• The area has always been popular with smugglers, who allegedly still shuttle loot back and forth between Khasab and Iran.
• The peninsula’s mountainous terrain ensures that many residents continue to live isolated lives.
• The local Shihuh people survive by living by the shore in summer, catching fish and picking dates, then migrating to the mountains in winter to cultivate fields.