The heat was the first thing that hit me. The smiles came second.

My taxi driver handed me a sweet coffee before guiding me to the car. It burned my tongue, the flavor mixing with the dates a new friend had given me while we waited in the luggage lounge. Only moments after landing, the Omani hospitality was living up to its reputation.

The stars twinkled across the night sky as my taxi sped toward the old city. With Indian takeaways and grand Mosques lit up in all colors, the mixture of a warm welcome and dry air had me hooked. I already knew one thing: I was going to fall madly in love with this country.

Muscat, the capital of Oman, is a maze of laneways and building works. Traditional stores sit alongside elaborate malls. The beaches, although not the best in the country, make for good people-watching. In the souks (local markets), people barter amicably over fitted hats and lingering incense.

As you walk the streets, you can’t help but notice the diversity of its residents. With an ever growing international community, the food, stores, and clothing shift from street to street. It feels safe and welcoming for a capital city. The smiles appear friendly, not forced.

The impressive architecture around the city is no more evident than at the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, its doors open for all who wish to visit. On the Muttrah Corniche as the sun sets, I stroll past families and friends laughing over coffee and dates, an occasional person offering me one. I watch the last of the day’s sun from a bench by the Fort, excited to discover what else Oman has to offer.

As far as swimming pools go, one was a clear winner. I stumbled upon the Bimmah Sinkhole, a natural limestone depression filled with water that looked photoshopped from above and felt heavenly in the dry midday heat. I could count the other visitors on one hand, and “Where are all the tourists?” became a common question on the road trip.

In the blistering heat in the middle of the desert, a collection of oasis known as Wadi’s became a regular stop-off. Not only did it provide the perfect balance of relaxation and refreshment, but it also doubled as an attraction in its own right. Wadi Shab, accessed by a little boat from the main road led to an impressive trek, after which we were rewarded with clear channels embedded in the rocks to swim through.

That night, we danced along the coastline with fluorescent plankton at our feet, high on life after having seen giant sea turtles burying their eggs on the beach at Ras Al Jinz. The next morning we set off into the desert and were greeted by wild camels while searching for Arabian leopards.

The sheer diversity of Oman was mind-blowing. Being able to see wildlife from both land and sea in the space of a few hours was something I haven’t experienced in many other places.

The Wahiba Sands provided more silence, and our question, now the joke of the group, went unanswered Where were all the tourists?

As we pitched a tent in silence, surrounded by sand dunes and the occasional wild camel, a beat-up, yet super-charged four-wheeler pounded over the desert toward us. The Bedouin women who jumped from the front seats gestured with hand signals, checking to make sure we hadn’t broken down. With smiles and laughter, they offered us tea before leaving us to drift off under the stars in the most blissful silent sleep of my life.

The next morning we bathed in Wadi Bani Khalid, washing away the dry sand of the desert in the bright blue and green pools of the popular oasis. Local children jumped from the top of the rocks, while a handful of guides took tourists through the caves.
A quick pit stop in the Old Town in Ibra revealed colorful doors, forgotten ruins, and more stray cats than visitors. It was a stark contrast to Nizwa, a vast and popular tourist spot.

Inside Nizwa Fort, an annual celebration took place and we ate until we couldn’t anymore. I marveled at the Mosque’s rooftop against the backdrop of the mountains, before treating myself to more Halva, a sweet treat I couldn’t stop eating.

The final stop on our trip was to Jebel Shams, often referred to as “The Grand Canyon of Arabia” because of its grandeur. The highest mountain in Oman is a popular hiking and camping spot for locals and tourists alike. The dizzying distance from the top can be easily avoided by simply hiking through the canyon itself.

After pitching our tent in the upper part of the rim, we became immediately surrounded by an abundance of goats who climb precariously up and down the mountains. We laughed and the people in the next tent over shouted an invitation to join them.

Coffee, dates, and watermelon were shared by our new friends. The Omani hospitality that had started my trip had become a recurring theme.

I hadn’t just been allowed to visit Oman, I had been treated as a guest.

When I left the next evening, I had only two questions: Where were all the tourists? And when can I come back?