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As the world’s largest international air travel hub, chances are you’ll pass through Dubai at some point, be it for business or pleasure. But when you’ve grown weary of whizzing down oversized waterslides, sipping overpriced cocktails and gazing up at the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, what is there beyond the artificial glitz and glam?
Enter the Musandam Peninsula of Oman. This lesser-known nugget of land is separated from the rest of the country by the east coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It lies to the northeast of Dubai, occupying a glorious spot on the Strait of Hormuz, a curve of water separating the UAE and Iran. Here, mountains tower more than 2000m above sea level, while below the water colourful corals are home to thousands of different fish species.
Many describe the peninsular as the “Norway of the Middle East” because of the rocky inlets and surrounding fjords. Khasab is the main town in the region, which was connected to the rest of the peninsula by road in 1980. A few other small towns and fishing villages dot the peninsula, populated by the Shihuh people who still live traditionally, fishing and goat herding being their primary livelihood.
Across the peninsula, where land meets sea, apricot-hued cliffs give way to a pale green-blue ocean the colour of recycled glass. Calm and cool, the water swells and fades into pale froth as tiny birds run along the surf, pecking at the bubbles. When the sun sets, the cliffs take on a dusky lilac hue and the last light catches the clouds rolling gently by above the ocean, illuminating them gold for a moment before twilight sets in.
It’s a far cry from the big city lights of Dubai, but in reality only a two-and-a-half-hour drive away making it ideal for a weekend break. The easy journey starts on the immaculate, Bugatti-filled streets of the city centre before stretching through terracotta sand dunes scattered with camels, and on through the craggy Hajar mountains and the Omani border.
If Dubai is a man-made playground for grown-ups, the Musandam Peninsula is a natural one. Along the coastline you’ll find secret little bays that can only be accessed by boat, underwater diving wrecks (Discover Nomad offer tours) and steep mountain roads that will delight any 4×4 drivers. The best route in the region is the 42km stretch from Khasab to the UAE border at Tibat, which provides wonderful views of the Strait of Hormuz. Along the way is Bukha Fort, a sand-coloured structure built by the Portuguese in the 17th century as a strategic point to supply their sailors with water and fruits as they passed through the Strait.
In the capital of Khasab the lively harbour buzzes with jovial bartering between locals and Iranians over a realm of random items, from spices to washing machines. There are banks, a post office and pharmacies here, and Khasab is a great hopping off point for sailing trips. Take a dhow boat tour (we used Khasab Tours) from here to Khor ash Sham, a pretty inlet filled with tiny fishing villages that can only be reached by boat. A day’s excursion involves snorkelling and swimming with the many dolphins who live around the peninsular and are more than happy to show off, leaping in and out of the water.
As yet, there are only a few places to stay on the peninsula. In Khasab, Atana Khasab sits outside the centre of town next to a large public beach. It’s a simple place with small showers, decidedly sombre décor and slow service, but rooms are (relatively) cheap at around £150 a night and the location is beautiful. The most luxurious option, however, is the Six Senses Zighy Bay. Accessible only by 4×4 down a series of hairpin bends, it lies in a tranquil little bay next to an old fishing village. With a private soft sandy beach, two huge swimming pools, organic menu and daily sunrise yoga classes, it is the ultimate Dubai retreat – but with villas designed to resemble traditional Omani houses, it is a world away from the lavish exuberance of Dubai’s flashy offerings.
“People come here because it’s totally different from Dubai,” says Six Senses supervisor, Mr Mubarak. “It’s totally relaxing and natural. People compare this place to the Maldives.”
And it’s true. Sitting on a deserted beach with crumbling cliffs behind like watchful elders, it’s a refreshing change to get neck strain from gazing up at birds streaking across a dusky pink sky, rather than towering skyscrapers on man-made sand islands.
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