The towering rocks of Musandam form the apex of an ancient elbow, the southern side of the Straits of Hormuz, a 65km wide strip of water separating the Arabian land mass from Asia Minor. On the horizon, tankers and container ships stream in and out of the Persian Gulf ports; closer to land, there are fishing dhows and tiny speedboats carrying goats from Iran and returning at night with contraband – mostly cigarettes and household appliances.
The main port of Khasab has some 20th century features, but elsewhere on this sparsely-populated rocky peninsula little has changed. The mountains of Musandam plunge straight down to the sea, and many of the villages are only accessible by boat.
Fishing and limited cultivation sustain the few inhabitants. Before the 1980s, there were no roads, just mountain paths. The fissures between the mountains resemble Norwegian fjords, transposed in sandstone.
Travellers are attracted by the scenery, the sense of isolation, the snorkelling and the diving. The main town is Khasab where 18,000 of the 27,000 inhabitants live. Khasab sits on a wide bay and overlooks both the Gulf of Arabia and the Gulf of Oman.
There are huge date plantations behind the town, protected by a fine, preserved Omani fort which also serves as a museum. People make a living from fishing, agriculture, crafts (mainly palm-work and basketry), boat building and trading.
A dhow cruise is the highlight of a stay in Khasab. The dhows journey along the coast, taking passengers down one of the main inlets, past several tiny fishing villages.
En route you stop for swimming and snorkelling at Telegraph Island, named for its telegraph station, which serviced the cable linking Britain to India.
Large pods of dolphins often follow these dhows. A traditional lunch is served on board. Cruises should be pre-booked to ensure a place on one of the better dhows.
The mountains are populated by the semi-nomadic Shihuh people. In the winter, they tend tiny fields on the high plateaux, coming down to coastal settlements to fish and tend date palms for the summer months. The mountain villages have experienced steady depopulation and today as few as five inhabited villages remain.
It is a thrilling drive up the mountainside, and fascinating to see the fields on the mountain-top plains of the Sayh Plateau, the cave-like dwellings and the cultivated terraces carved into the barren limestone. The road was built for the Omani military. It is precipitous and requires a 4WD and experienced driver. We recommend that you book this half-day excursion in advance, to be sure that you have a professional driver/guide.
The Golden Tulip Resort Hotel in Khasab has a respected PADI dive centre, which provides access to over 25 dive sites. The area is closed to commercial fishing and the waters teem with large shoals of fish. Divers can explore drop-offs and caves, and there is plenty of wreck-diving. Equally attractive is the low number of divers.
Although part of Oman, the Musandam Peninsula is isolated from the rest of the country. You can drive up from Muscat – it takes four hours on tarmac from Muscat to the border at Dibba, then three hours on steep tracks to Khasab. There are elaborate border formalities when leaving Oman and entering the UAE, repeated on leaving the UAE to re-enter Oman. It’s far easier to take the short Oman Air flight from Muscat to Khasab, though if you have the time there is also a ferry.