“This is a perfect photo stop,” announces our guide Adnan, pulling off the the snaking road. He’s right – again – and we roll out of the air-conditioned saloon to snap another picture of the azure blue Arabic Sea framed by deserted white beaches.
Salalah-born and bred, Adnan is justifiable proud of the southern Omani province. As well as being his home, it’s also the birthplace of Oman’s leader, Sultan Qaboos bin Said.
Our tour takes in the Sultan’s palace on the corniche, which is closed to visitors, but still worth seeing for the elegant blue mosque and clocktower (pictured) that peer over its fortress-like walls.
Colourful sub-tropical Salalah is all about the great views. From the towering Dhofar Mountains, to the unspoilt beaches, the absence of skyscrapers puts the peaceful emirate in stark contrast with Dubai.
So it follows highlights for visitors are mostly from the natural world. They include the Al Mughsayl blowholes (pictured below), where blown out of the holes can reach up to heights of 30 metres if the weather conditions are right. It isn’t when we visit, and the distant gurgling is intriguing, but more like a bath being drained.
Heading into the mountains, through the rugged landscape, leads us to Zig Zag Road. Designed by British engineers, it carries us up and down the hillsides, home to herds of perilously teetering goats and native Boswellia sacra trees (pictured below), dripping their rich syrup of frankincense.
Frankincense is what historically made Oman famous, and sticky bags of it are on sale at Salalah’s Haffa Souk. The fragrant gum is burnt for its heady scent, used as an antiseptic and even mixed with water and drank as a health tonic.
We prefer to sip on sweet coconut water from nearby plantations and buy a bottle of local perfume instead, which is mistaken for a designer fragrance when we’re being massaged at our hotel’s luxurious Zen spa.
This tranquil setting, with its temperate weather and the annual ‘khareef’ monsoon season from July to September, pulls in visitors from the GCC and beyond.
Salalah’s photogenic new airport receives direct flights from Dubai (a short hop at two hours), as well as regular charters from Germany and Slovakia. Five-star resorts to accommodate them are now spreading over the stunning coastline.
Just over 20km from the airport, the luxurious Salalah Rotana (below) is one of Oman’s largest free-standing hotels, with 400 rooms and suites set in a connecting network of waterways.
Its jewel is the private beach, fringed with palm trees. There we jump waves crashing in from the Indian Ocean and stroll along a promenade to see if we can spot the dolphins that frequent its coastline.
Afterwards we gorge on platters of fresh sushi under the stars on the terrace of the hotel’s Silk Road restaurant (pictured), which overlooks the resort’s pool – also the biggest in Oman.
For true fans of al fresco dining, the Rotana cheerful staff are happy to set up a candlelit meal on the beach to mark special occasions. Blissfully romantic, but be sure to layer on insect repellant though, as mosquitoes also fall in love here.
Or the nearby Beach restaurant serves up equally good fresh seafood with Arabic flair – we are smitten with the watermelon feta salad drizzled with pomegranate molasses (pictured).
Arabesque touches extend to the rooms. Our premium ocean view suite is spacious and elegant, with graceful geometric designs, stone-hewn furniture and delicate Mashrabiya latticework windows that remind us of the UAE’s older quarters.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember that Oman shares the same continent as Dubai, but Salalah is the perfect place for weekend trippers to celebrate the difference and drink in the similarities.