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As the hordes who now sail from Dubai will attest, cruising the Middle East may be fascinating, but it's not very picturesque, given that vast tracts of scrub desert are not especially easy on the eyes.
Salalah, Oman's second-largest city, is an exception. While not as beautiful as the country's capital, Muscat, Salalah has considerable charm as a cruise port of call. Its annual Khareef (monsoon) gives the city and the nearby al Qara Mountains a temperate climate, creating an emerald oasis amid the sand dunes.
If you want pretty Arabia, you'll find it here -- complete with leafy boulevards, lit by black and gold filigree lamps and lined with elegant, low buildings that have been created in traditional Islamic style, with elaborate latticework balconies and lovely, curved windows.
It also has some very pretty beaches, is a haven for SCUBA divers and birdwatchers, and is steeped in Biblical tradition, with some notable ancient sites -- including a ruined palace believed to have belonged to the legendary Queen of Sheba and the tomb of the prophet Job.
And then, of course, there are the fragrant groves of frankincense trees, which have earned Salalah the title of "Arabia's Perfume Capital" -- and which supply the wares for the pungent stalls at the city's atmospheric spice souk.
Salalah lies on Oman's southern coast, about 1,000 kilometres from Muscat. It is a popular call on winter cruises, often appearing on world cruise schedules and on Middle East and Arabian Gulf cruises, operated between November and May by Costa Cruises and smaller, destination-oriented lines like Spirit of Adventure and Regent Seven Seas Cruises. Most cruise visitors take ship-sponsored or independent tours there, as local taxi rates can be high.
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Other Middle East Cruise Ports:
Aqaba • Dubai • Haifa • Jerusalem (Ashdod) • Muscat • Salalah
Incense is the main product in Salalah, though it also produces coconuts, palm trees and bananas. Prices vary according to the quality of the incense, but $6 will buy you a basic kit -- burner, charcoal and a bag of incense -- at the handicrafts souk.
Also worth buying are traditional Omani Khangar daggers or Saifs (long swords). Just check your airline's rules about checking these items in your luggage, as you'll likely not be allowed to carry them onboard.
Arabic is the main language, but a local variation called Shehri is widely spoken. Most of the locals will speak at least a smattering of English.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the Omani Rial; see www.oanda.com or www.xe.com for the latest conversion rates. Although you won't be able to withdraw or exchange local currency at the port, ATM's can be found at the Hilton and Crowne Plaza Hotels (about five minutes by taxi from the dock).
Where You're Docked
Salalah Port itself is just scrubland and is very dusty, with containers stacked high. It's a long, hot, grubby walk to the dock gate, but most ships will shuttle you there. The port is a 15-minute drive from downtown.
There are no facilities at the port, and there's nothing to do nearby, but you'll find a Crowne Plaza and a Hilton en route to town (about five minutes' drive from the port); both have Internet access and ATM machines.
Downtown shuttles are not allowed into the port area by the protectionist local taxi drivers association, which offers its services at the port gates. Many cruise lines offer a tour that's essentially roundtrip transportation to the souk.
A taxi ride downtown costs about five Rials by taxi. It's hard to get a firm idea of rates from the port gate drivers, but do negotiate; our booked-in-advance driver quoted five Rials (about $12), but the port agent quoted $20! A roundtrip ride to Job's Tomb (including time for you to look around) should cost about 20 Rials.
Watch Out For
Salalah is prosperous and well-cared-for, with broad streets that are lined with verdant, grassy verges. (Money is clearly no object where maintenance is concerned.) When walking about, though, you may (literally) stumble across some uneven paving stones, so take care, and wear flat shoes for exploring.
Also, keep a lookout for stalls selling milk bananas and lady finger bananas. Locally grown, they are about half the size of typical bananas; they're sweet and definitely worth tasting.
Haffa (or Al Husn) Souk, only ten minutes' drive down pretty, tree-lined boulevards from the port, is massive and split into various sections. The spice souk -- heady with incense, staffed by mysterious black-burkha-clad women and wonderfully exotic -- is particularly worth seeing. Stalls selling Western gear and football shirts are rather more mundane, but there are lots of tailor's shops where you can get outfits made to measure and shipped to you.
The Al Husin Sultan's Palace, just around the corner from the souk, is the most spectacular of the three the sultan has in Salalah. It's not open to visitors, but it is lovely to behold, particularly the blue-domed roof of his private mosque.
The Corniche is a beautiful, long scimitar of golden sands. You can wear Western swimwear there, but you may feel naked compared to the modestly dressed locals. Overlooking the beach is a selection of cafes where local men go in the evenings to smoke bubble pipes filled with shisha (aromatic tobacco). Head inland from there, and you'll find the food market, which sells coconuts, dates and all things banana (including banana juice).
The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, which lies between A'Suq Street and 23rd July Street, opened in 2009 and is a lovely building, resplendent in shades of cream, pale jade, green and gold. Visitor hours are from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., and access is limited; women are allowed only into one area and, even there, should ensure that their heads, arms and legs are covered. It's worth a stop to admire the prettily carved ornamental windows on the building's exterior.
A trip down A'Salam Street, Salalah's 20-km-long main thoroughfare and a shopaholic's delight, will lead you to a wide range of goods for sale, including jewelry, perfume, books and the very latest computers and mobile phones. (The Omanis like their technology.)
Been There, Done That
Job's Tomb is a gold, white and blue edifice set high in the Qara Mountains, with spectacular views over the Jubriah Plain. A bus ride there costs only three Rials (a big savings, compared to the 20 Rial cab fare). But, there is a snag -- buses don't set off until they're full, so you could face a long wait. For cruise travelers, the best way to see Job's Tomb is as part of an excursion.
For real local colour (and smell), pay a visit to the fish souk, worth seeing for the amazing variety of fresh-caught fish -- from gigantic halibut to red mullet and pomfret.
Take a tour around the UNESCO World Heritage sites associated with Salalah's frankincense trade. The most notable is Samhuram, which lies on the picturesque Khor Rohri creek. This ancient town dates from the 4th century B.C. and was at the heart of Salalah's frankincense region, so its ruins are surrounded by groves of fragrant trees. There, you'll also find the ruins of the Queen of the Sheba's Palace.
If you like to eat as the locals do, typical Omani dishes include mathpe (barbecued meat) and gabole (cooked rice, enriched with meat juices). If you're feeling brave, you could try camel meat (quite gamey but not unpalatable), or have a slurp of camel's milk, which has half the fat of cow's milk and is recommended for diabetics because of its low sugar content. But in cosmopolitan Salalah, it's also possible to enjoy a wide variety of international cuisine.
You'll find many ethnic restaurants if you stroll along July Street in the heart of town; they include the Al-Fareed, which has an Arabic theme but also serves Indian dishes, and the Omar al-Khayyam, which serves both Indian and Chinese cuisine.
If you're not an adventurous diner, play it safe by eating at one of the city's hotel restaurants, including the Hilton's Al Maha, Palm Grove and Sheba's restaurants, or the Crowne Plaza's Al-Luban, Darbat and Dolphin Beach Restaurants.
Locals say that Bin Ateeq restaurant, just one street up from the Corniche, serves the best Omani food in Salalah; offered are thick chicken hares (stew), spicy lentil broth and melt-in-the-mouth halva . And, it's served on silver trays to guests seated on big floor cushions. If you can't find it, ask someone on the beach to give you directions.
For a less adventurous meal, grab a kebab at Al Kutaini, a fast-food restaurant near junction eight of A'Salam Street. You'll find skewers of grilled or barbecued lamb, beef or seafood, served with a pita, salad and tahini sauce.
Kargeen, located in the Madinat Qaboos Shopping Centre courtyard, serves a wide range of international dishes. You can dine on French onion soup, salad Nicoise and yummy chocolate cake, while sitting on cushion-lined benches in a pretty, tented setting.
Staying in Touch
You'll find Internet facilities near the port at the Hilton and Crowne Plaza hotels, as well as downtown, along A'Salam Street. (There are several around the junction with A Nahdhah Street.)
Best Overview Tour: On the half-day "Tomb of Job" excursion, the drive up into the mountains will show you the peculiar topography -- part arid desert, part verdant oasis -- of the area around Salalah. You'll also see the spectacular cliffs overlooking Mughsail Beach, which are home to plenty of fragrant, if rather straggly, frankincense trees. The highlight is a visit to the Tomb of Job, with its spectacular views over the Jubriah Plain. The tour ends with a visit to Salalah's Al Husn Souk. Some lines include visits to the Al Balid frankincense Museum, Manreef Caves and Mughsail Beach itself, for swimming and sunbathing.
Best for History-Lovers: The half-day "On the Frankincense Trail" tour will show you more frankincense trees than you can shake a stick at -- but also the fishing village of Taqah and lovely Khor Rohri Creek, which opens onto the sea and is the site of the ruined ancient city of Samhuram and the twin-domed medieval tomb of Mohamed Bin Ali, a leader who died in 1135 A.D. Afterward, the tour visits the Al Balid archaeological site, Salalah's old Haffa district, once the hub of the city's horse trade with India.
Best for Outdoorsy Types: The go-getting "Wadi Off Road" tour is a good choice if you like to get off the beaten track -- literally. A convoy of 4x4 jeeps starts out heading east of Salalah to the old fishing village of Taqah, then on to the ruins of the Queen of Sheba's Palace (Khor Rohri), the ancient centre of the frankincense trade. Stretch your legs at the spectacular Wadi Darbat, a dry riverbed that's surrounded by lakes and lush vegetation and which is home to camels, goats, cattle and donkeys. Bird-lovers will enjoy a visit to Ain Hamran, where ancient trees and shrubs attract many species of birds throughout the year. The final stop is the Natural Springs of Ain Razat, where you'll find stunning cliff views and more birdlife and flora.
For More Information
Oman Ministry of Tourism
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Africa & Middle East
Independent Traveler Forums: Middle East
--by Maria Harding, Cruise Critic contributor