THERE ARE OVER 3,000 KILOMETRES of coastline that sandwich Oman between the desert (Rub’ al Khali, ‘The Empty Quarter’), and the Arabian Sea. Its geography affords the mainly Ibadi Muslim Omanis with a buffet of desert plains, mountain peaks and astonishing oases. While modern tourism is fresh, Oman was long ago dubbed the Cradle of Scent, a trade centre distributing what was once more precious than gold: frankincense.
Cities have a smell – any traveller knows that straight-out-of-the-airport sensation, the first inhale of breath from outside an artificial air supply. Coming out of Muscat airport, that smell is undeniably frankincense. But the dry desert heat that bounces off bleached white walls makes every scent in the city radiant, otherworldly. A taxi driver apologises mildly for the lack of colour. Creamy jasmine blossoms are scattered across his dash “for the natural”, he says.
For a first time visitor, the palette seems pure, timeless.
For those who have adopted Oman as their home, such as entrepreneur and essential oil expert Trygve Harris, the city’s languid brightness is addictive. And so is that prized Omani resource, the tears of the boswellia sacra tree that thrive in the incredibly harsh climate of the Dhofar region. Sliced open to bleed out its resin, frankincense has been traded from Oman’s rocky ports since Hatshepsut’s time. Harris is a scent-obsessed American, owner of Enfleurage in NYC and an expert in exotic oils from oud to sandalwood. She describes the scent of luban, as the locals call it, as having “piney strength softened by sweet green butterfly sparkle and underlying florals.”
Western misconceptions of earthy, pungent, “Arabic” perfumes are swept away by the purity of scent in Oman. In Muscat’s calm Muttrah Souk, groups of young Omani women with YouTube-worthy winged liner framed by their hijabs negotiate the price of kilo bags of frankincense to burn. Their scent could be bakhoor, or Chloe. But fragrances with a powerful sillage (the trail of perfume left in the wake the wearer), form a force field against the heat, and the warm woosh of bright incense, sweet oud and smoky rose from a crisp white dishdasha or the folds of an abaya becomes an anticipated experience for a tourist, and demonstrates a nose for scent totally surpassing the Western sensibility of clean chemical concoctions or wispy florals.
Against the vast, almost alien backdrop of rock, sand, clear sky, and calm seas, Omani-selected scents are like bursts of olfactory colour. Anything less just flies off the skin.
At Amouage, the luxury perfume house that originated in the Sultanate, a tour guide confirms that Omani preference. ‘Epic’ is the most popular local seller, and true to its name, its huge, with notes like a roll call of the silk road: pink pepper, cardamom, saffron and nutmeg. Myrrh of course and the legendary frankincense, oud and patchouli and leather.
The spices make their way into everything on an Omani menu, from cardamom-spiked coffee to rich ginger-spiked dates, technicolour lime juice to enliven and thick black halva laced with saffron and rose. But how do you grow a rose in the desert?
Leaving Muscat to drive up the surreal pass to Jabal Akhdar (self-drive is super easy in Oman), the temperature drops slowly but surely from burn-to-a-crisp to pleasantly warm. Gazebos sit in little clusters at each staggering view, and local sellers recline behind trays laden with fat pomegranates.
The landscape morphs from white to golden and deep aubergine, rock twisted over time like candy. It’s a constant monolithic reminder of the tiny tenure of humans and the donkeys don’t help, nor do the plethora of fossilised fish that confirm that this stone, now elevated to over 2000m, was once under the sea.
It’s popular to tour abandoned villages and it’s here you’ll see the ancient Aflaj irrigation systems that allow shady walnut trees and pomegranates and fragrant damask roses to blossom along the terraced cliffs. Come April, the Green Mountain turns pink as the roses bloom and local families work day and night to pick the petals pre-dawn, and distill them into the golden smoky rosewater famous in the mountains. Heated in traditional clay ovens, the petals are pressured into releasing their liquid without any additional water, and the result is a typically Omani intensity.
It all feels ancient, but Tariq Alriyami, a composed guide from Alila Jabal Akhdar resort, has a sparkle in his eye as he reminisces about his own childhood herding goats and picking pomegranates here. Rosewater is no livelihood, but the importance of tradition is always front of mind in Oman. The balance between old and new, it seems, is a carefully practiced art.
Back down the mountain again, the luxurious Shangri-La Al Husn Resort is just minutes from Muscat but boasts views of sea and stone interrupted by nothing except the occasional turtle-seeking pleasure craft (they’re handy to give a sense of scale, really).
It’s an ideal base for a last stop and must see in Oman: paradise.
The heron that flies lazily over the scene at Wadi Shab is yet another cast member in the unreality campaign the country seems to have nailed. A frog hops under a ledge in the worn-smooth limestone and little iridescent dragonflies hide amongst the stalks of the bulrushes that surround a pool of impossibly pure, turquoise-tinted water. It sparkles in a surreal fashion and the appearance of a water nymph wandering down the trickling stream that connects the string of pools would not surprise at this point. The scent in the air is aquatic, mineral, almost futuristic in its purity. All that’s to be done is float away.