Salalah’s Sweet Secrets
Written by Sarah MacDonald
Omani resident and writer Sarah MacDonald reveals the secrets of Oman’s southernmost city, Salalah, which is famous for fragrant frankincense, majestic landscapes, and soft monsoon rains.
Oman is laden with mystique and charm, found most often in the capital Muscat, historic Nizwa, and along the rolling sand dunes, but venture south and be lured by the hidden gems of Salalah, with its monsoon rains, rich history, and frankincense.
Salalah, the Sultanate’s southernmost city and the capital of Dhofar Governorate, is a quiet beachside town on the Indian Ocean but one with special features that make it unique in the Arabian Gulf region. Home to the treasured frankincense, it has a history that dates back nearly 3,000 years, and in the summer it comes alive under gentle monsoon rains, or khareef.
A visit to Salalah should include stops at its historical museum and archaeological sites, lush banana and coconut orchards right in the city, and the Haffa Souk, a market which comes to life in the evening, offering among other things all the different grades of frankincense, the sought-after musky pine-scented resin, which has been harvested for thousands of years. Venture into the surrounding areas and you’ll find beaches, mountains, ancient archaeological ruins, and the renowned frankincense trees.
To delve into the city’s history, visit the UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the Land of Frankincense Museum, which is right in the city. Dhofar is home to several important archaeological sites, such as Al Shisr (once called Ubar), which prove that frankincense was harvested as far back as the Stone Age. In the year 2000, UNESCO granted World Heritage Site status to the sites of Al Shisr, Al Baleed archaeological park by the coast of Salalah, Sumharam (located in the Khor Rori area on the coast and easily accessible by car), and the Wadi Dawkah Frankincense Nature Reserve, which, along with Al Shisr, is located over the mountains beyond Salalah. Many of the artefacts found at the sites date back some 2,500 years.
One of the best ways to explore Salalah is to rent a car, since many breathtaking views are just a 20- to 30-minute drive from the city. Wadi Darbat is one of the most popular attractions. The lush valley is at the bottom of a rocky cliff whose 100m-high waterfalls flow in June, when the khareef begins. Surrounded by lush trees, flowers, and other vegetation, the long, narrow pool of cool water attracts families to its banks for picnics and play. During the khareef there are stalls selling cups of sweetcorn, skewers of grilled meat called mashkik, other snacks and drinks, and toys for children, including colourful kites, many of which end up decorating the trees.
Drive southwest of Salalah for about 20 minutes and you’ll come to Al Mughsayl Beach and the Al Mughsayl Blowholes. During the khareef, rolling white caps splash onto the beach, making it too dangerous for swimming but picture-postcard pretty. Along the rocky cliffs, just beyond the beach, the waves work their magic by causing three natural blowholes to spray every few minutes, soaking curious onlookers who venture a little too close.
By September the khareef crowds have gone home, the streets are quiet again, and the resorts and hotels seem almost private. There is warm weather and sunshine along the coast, but venture up into the mountains and hills and the mysterious fog still hangs down, tickling the trees and leaving drops of dew on the grass and purple blooms. The shades of emerald, jade, and lime still seem to glow, lush with moisture. The last traces of the khareef offer a sweet escape for a few more days.
While the khareef season attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors from the Arabian Gulf countries and is considered the ideal time to visit Salalah, the city and its surrounding areas are worthwhile visiting at any time of year. The winter months are ideal for relaxing on the long white beaches, scuba diving, and exploring the mountains. Many Europeans enjoy visiting from September until April, when the sun shines brightly over the land, and the beaches – on which you can see herds of a hundred or more camels pass by – are a perfect escape from the cooler temperatures in their home countries.
With a new airport, new hotels, roads, and shopping malls being built, the booming developments in Salalah are making Oman’s southern city more attractive for tourists. There are a number of five-star resorts in and around Salalah, including the Crowne Plaza, the Hilton, the Rotana Salalah Beach, and the Marriott, located 80km east of the city in Mirbat. The Juweira Boutique Hotel, in the Salalah Beach development, is also a lovely place to stay. The city also has a range of lower-priced accommodation, ranging from one- to four-star. If you plan on visiting Salalah during the khareef, booking ahead is essential. The city becomes so crowded that vacancies are impossible to find, so many visitors end up renting space in private homes or camping on the beaches.
The Arabian Peninsula may be associated with glitzy cities and sand dunes, but the Dhofar Governorate and city of Salalah offer something a little different to escape to in the south of Oman. Long after you have left, burn a little frankincense and the smoke will take you right back to Salalah and all its sweet secrets.
Long before oil and gas, frankincense was the lifeblood of Oman’s economy. The gnarled, hardy frankincense trees have survived for generations on the rocky terrain around Salalah and they continue to be bled for their resin, which is used as an incense, perfume, flavouring for food, and even as a medicine to relieve aches and pains. The trees are bled three times a year using a special curved blade to scratch through the bark. Up to 3kg of resin can be collected from each tree. For thousands of years the frankincense trees in Dhofar were Oman’s link to the world, with an important trade in the dried resin. From port settlements along the Dhofari coast, including the ancient site of Sumharam, now a UNESCO Heritage Site which is fascinating to explore, frankincense was shipped to India, Egypt, Iraq, and even as far away as China.
As Samak Restaurant
Salalah is known for its succulent seafood, and a must-try restaurant is As Samak. Dine on fresh hamour (grouper), plump prawns, or Omani lobster, all caught locally, and sip on fresh juices like lemon and mint or pineapple, while enjoying the serene views of the Salalah Beach Resort marina and Indian Ocean.
(Located at the Juweira Boutique Hotel, +968 2323 9600)
Located along the Ittin Road which heads up into the mountains behind Salalah, the Ittina Cafe offers beautiful night-time views of the city lights. It’s a lovely place to smoke shisha (the water pipe), have a cup of chai hakim, as the local tea mixed with spices and milk is called, or indulge in frankincense ice cream made by Trygve Harris, a US resident of Salalah who runs a frankincense distillery called Enfleurage. (Ittin-Garziz Road, +968 9814 1067)
Fresh Fruit Stalls
Sampling fresh fruit is one of the simple, sweet pleasures of any visit to Salalah. Orchards are scattered throughout the city, their majestic coconut palms lining street-side stalls that sell freshly picked bananas, papayas, limes, sugarcane, and other fruits. Sipping on sweet water from a coconut and then having it cracked open to taste the white flesh inside makes for the perfect snack, any time of day.
Buy a brightly painted frankincense burner, Dhofari thobes, tassled turbans, perfumes, hand-woven baskets, and other crafts in the handicrafts market. It’s a great way to support local artisans and take home a unique souvenir. (Located on Al Tanmiyah Street)
Distance: 958 km
Flight Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Frequency: 3 flights a day