Bidding with the big kids

I’m interrupting the blog posts about our adventures for a minute here to talk about something that is a big deal and the cause of a lot of stress in the Foreign Service: bidding.

I’ve mentioned bidding previously, but this is a horse of a different color. As a Foreign Service officer, your first two tours are directed assignments. That means that you put together a list of where you’d like to go and then other people decide where you actually go. Dhaka and Muscat were our two directed assignments.

After you finish your directed assignments, the training wheels come off and you have to start bidding along with everyone else, whether they’re also newly minted mid-level officers or they’ve been in the service for 20 years. The first step is looking at the projected bid list. This is a list of all the possible job openings, and it gives you an idea of what jobs will be available when bidding starts.

Everyone has different priorities that will dictate their bidding strategies, whether it’s pets, kids, hardship differential, specific jobs, tandem couples, medical needs, etc. In our case, here is what we’re generally looking for:

  • Someplace that won’t be nearly impossible to get Athena to. So, no long quarantines and no extraordinarily complicated dog entry requirements.
  • Someplace with affordable household help. Let’s be honest, in this household, having a nanny and housekeeper makes everyone’s lives better.
  • Someplace with minimal terrorism risk. We learned that lesson the hard way in Dhaka
  • Someplace where I could potentially get a job in public health. I miss it a lot.
  • Anything but DC. We want to stay overseas.

So you look at what’s available versus what you want, and you start to craft a draft list. Maybe you start to reach out to incumbents, and you start seeing what connections you have to the jobs that you’re interested in. Friends who have friends that they served with previously that are now in the country you’re interested in, friends from A-100 at a particular post and know the incumbent, a colleague who knows the Deputy Chief of Mission, that sort of thing. Anything that could give you a potential “in” when the time comes.

Eventually, bidding officially begins. The bid list goes live and you can start entering your bids, and posts will begin to out for interviews. Hopefully you can use the contacts from the previous paragraph and you have kept a good corridor reputation (which is basically formalized gossip).

Within the State Department bidding website, you can see how many people are bidding on each job. Some jobs will have 25+ bidders, some will have 2 or 3. It all depends. Not every job you bid on will want to interview you, especially if they have a lot of bidders.

After the interviews are finished, you  might find yourself on the shortlist. This is the point that we’re at right now, and frankly, I have no idea what happens next. Nate’s in the “meat market” and there could be air kisses, shoot-outs or handshakes (seriously). I don’t know what most of that means, except for handshakes, which is what you ultimately aim for because it means you got the job.

If that all seems confusing, nebulous and vague, that’s because it is. We never really know exactly what the next step is, and luckily we’ve got good friends and colleagues that are helping us navigate third tour bidding.

Next assignments are officially announced on October 29, and hopefully we won’t have to wait that long to find out where we go next. In the meantime I’m trying to not get myself emotionally attached to any particular potential post or get my hopes up. You never know. As long as we don’t wind up back in DC, I’ll be happy!

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Driving around Dhofar: camels and cyclone damage

Camels everywhere!

While we were driving around Dhofar and Salalah, I was struck by three things: how green it was, the extraordinary number of camels everywhere, and the amount of remaining damage from Cyclone Mekunu.  I was prepared for, but still surprised by, the first two, but I was shocked by latter.

Waze tried to make us take this road

We drove down some roads that probably shouldn’t have been open, and Waze tried to take us over a bridge that had been completely washed out.

Close-up of the photo above. See how the bridge is washed out?

Cyclone Mekunu struck Oman (and Yemen) in May earlier in the year, and apparently dumped over 10 inches of rain in Salalah in one day, and more than 24 inches over a 4-day period. It was the biggest natural disaster that Oman’s seen in some time, and the water rushing down the mountains caused a lot of damage. I guess I thought that they would have made all the repairs and so forth by now, but it was only 3 months ago.

I’m surprised this road wasn’t closed.

Also, I don’t think it’s possible to write about a trip to Salalah without mentioning the camels. They are everywhere. In the traffic circles, the highways, the hillsides, the ruins, you name it. I read that during the khareef the camels come down off the mountains and into the plains closer to the coast to escape the biting flies.  Whatever the reason, there are camels all over the place and they give zero shits if they are in your way. They will literally walk out into the middle of a freeway without a care in the world. It definitely makes for interesting driving!

Camels in the road

Camels don’t care

We tried to drive down this road, but we gave up (and got yelled at by the camel herder)

“WTF are you guys doing here”

Ruins and a camel

I tried to convince M this was a two-headed camel. He didn’t believe me. He’s no fun.

More camels

That one’s a non-conformist.

Our summer in Oman

How can you say no to water like this?!

Oman in the summer gets kind of a bad rap. It’s too hot, there’s nothing to do, it’s too hot, blah, blah, blah. Lots of expats leave during the summer, but we stuck around. We took a few vacations, but for most of the summer we were here. And you know what? It was pretty great.

Oman knows how to do a nice coastline

We spent a lot of time in the water. We explored some new beaches and returned to our old favorites, where the water was cool and the temperature wasn’t unbearable as long as you avoided the mid-day heat. M finally got used to wearing his arm floaties and now he loves being in the water. Before he liked the sand and splashing in the waves, but now he can actually swim. He’ll jump off the side of the pool and swim to whichever adult is closest, and he doesn’t freak out when he goes under water.

We also completed our Advanced Open Water scuba diving certification. Of all the times we went scuba diving this summer, the heat was truly terrible only once.

When you do more than one dive in a day, you have to spend a certain amount of time on the surface between dives, and this is called the surface interval. Standard practice is to have a 60-minute surface interval, and luckily we were diving someplace with decent snorkeling because I was about to either pass out or start vomiting, I got so hot. So I jumped in the water and snorkeled for the remaining 45 minutes of the surface interval.

I also learned early on that when it’s hot outside and you have to wear a wetsuit, the best thing to do is to put your wetsuit on and immediately jump in the water. Pull it away from your body so that water gets inside, and you’ll be so much cooler while you’re getting your BCD and everything else ready.

Air tanks and Fahal Island. We spent a lot of our summer here.

We went camping at a beautiful white sand beach near Fins towards the end of August. We arrived around 3:45 pm, and it was surprisingly pleasant out. Athena came along with us, and she immediately found a shaded spot under a rocky outcropping in the sand. She loves swimming and playing fetch, and she tired herself out running around in the water and swimming through the waves. The next morning, the minute the sun crested over the horizon it got boiling hot out. We were rushing to pack up camp by 7 am, and I think we finally left around 8:30 after we took a break to go swimming and cool off.

Athena living her best life

Campfire and the moon, with the lights of Fins in the background

Athena protecting the beach tent

In August we went on a snorkeling trip to the Daymaniat Islands and on the way there we saw whale sharks! Swimming with whale sharks is on my Oman bucket list, and finally getting the opportunity to snorkel with them was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done. There’s nothing like jumping off a boat into the water when a 20-foot long shark is swimming straight at you with its mouth open. That was really something else.

A whale shark!

You’ll almost always see turtles at the Daymaniats

An enormous Arabian Angelfish

Another big thing that happened this summer was that a lot of our friends departed Muscat. In the Foreign Service, lots of jobs end in the summer, so you get lots of folks departing from June to August. It sucks and it can be really hard. Luckily, the world is a surprisingly small place and I know that we’ll see them again! It’s easy to get bogged down in how much it stinks when friends leave, but it’s also fun to meet new people and welcome folks into the community.

We did an overnight trip to Ras Al Jinz, and we took several trips up into the mountains. Then we capped the whole thing off with our trip to Salalah. All in all, it was an awesome summer, and I’m glad we stuck around. I’m glad we still have one more summer left before we have to leave next August. There are lots more fun times to be had, even though it will be hot out!

Exploring the abandoned villages of Jebel Akhdar

Oman’s Grand Canyon, Jebel Shams, on a particularly overcast day

Camping in Dhofar (and Oman beach camping notes)

Our campsite at a random beach in Northern Dhofar before we cleaned up all the trash

For our second night of camping on our Salalah road trip, I had pre-selected a spot that another blog said was nice, but we would have arrived later than we would have liked to have time to set up camp and make dinner. Instead we drove to a beach that looked promising and not too windy, let the air out of the tires to 15 PSI, and kept driving until we found a good spot.

Once again, Nate got started on the fire while I set up the tents and M buried his plastic dinosaurs in the sand. One of those dinos is still buried, and luckily M is too young to care or realize that it’s gone forever.

The tide when out and a patch of pink shells appeared

The temperature on the beach was perfect, and I actually had to wear long sleeves and sleep inside my sleeping bag. There’s nothing like eating a yummy campfire meal and watching the sunset over the ocean, and then falling asleep with a gentle breeze to the sound of waves on the shore.

It was cold enough that I actually had to sleep inside my sleeping bag!

We’re not beach camping experts by any stretch of the imagination, but we have some wisdom to pass on to others planning to go beach camping in Oman. Here are some of our tips:

  • Bring a table. We also bring plastic bins, one for cooking gear, one for other stuff, and they also function as tables. There are no picnic tables here.
  • Buy firewood ahead of time. You can buy it reliably at the Sultan Center in Muscat (one bundle costs 2.500 OMR), and apparently at the OmanOil on the freeway by Quriyat. Do not plan on being able to find firewood or kindling at your campsite.

Beach sunset and the campfire

  • Bring an axe or hatchet to split your firewood. In the absence of an axe/hatchet, bring some fire starter.
  • Bring garbage bags. We always try to leave the campsite cleaner than when we arrived, and unfortunately in Oman you’ll find a lot of plastic garbage on almost every beach.
  • Bring a tarp or mat to put on the ground. You’ll want someplace where you can set things and they won’t get covered in sand. You can buy one of those large plastic mats at Lulu for less than 2 OMR.
  • Be prepared for late-night parties. The As Sifah beach is notorious for this. People will go to bed around 10 pm and then around 2 am the partiers will show up, playing music and making lots of noise until the sun comes up. We prefer to camp in difficult-to-access or off-the-beaten path areas for this reason.

Essential beach camping gear: beach tent + sleeping tent, plastic mat, plastic bins, cooler and water bladders

  • Embrace the sand. You’ll never get rid of all of it. It’s impossible. We keep a towel inside the tent by the door so we can wipe off our feet, but when we get home everything is still covered in sand.
  • Bring a beach tent. If it gets hot, you’ll be grateful for the shade, and if it’s windy, this is where you can prepare and eat sand-free meals.
  • Close your tent zipper fully, with both the zippers pulled up as high as they will go together (rather than pulling the two zippers together along the bottom of the tent). You don’t want scorpions in your tent!

Pork sausage and potatoes for breakfast

  • Don’t plan on finding ice anywhere after you leave Muscat. We bring a cooler with ice packs and we freeze what we can to help keep everything else cold. There is ice at the convenience store/gas station next to the freeway right by the Bimmah Sink Hole exit, and that is the only place I have ever seen ice.

Do you have any other beach camping tips? Let me know!

Ras Al Markaz

Ras Al Markaz: where you feel like you’re on a different planet

Ras Al Markaz feels like the setting for a seaside Mad Max movie. With the wind-blown cliffs, expansive beach, rust-colored water, and abandoned fishing boats, it’s otherworldly.

Ras Al Markaz is so insanely windy, the South Asian fishermen wander around wearing pants and jackets, with fabric wrapped around their heads and faces, for protection from the blowing sand. The wind blows so hard, the sand stings any unprotected skin.

Post-apocalyptic looking fishermen

We drove down to the beach, and while Nate was letting the air out of the tires, I got out of the car to take a few photos. Almost immediately, my hat and sunglasses blew off my head and my camera got covered by blowing sand. We had hoped that it would be a nice stopping point where we could have a picnic and M could get out of the car and run around, but instead he stayed strapped into his carseat while I hesitantly ventured out every few hundred meters to take more pictures (leaving my hat and sunglasses inside).

Rusty water at Ras Al Markaz

Fishermen’s boats at Ras Al Markaz

The wind blows the tops of waves in the other direction, and the beach is littered with fish skeletons. The mineral deposits in the cliffs along the beach make the water in the nearby stream run red. There are definitely lots of interesting and fun photography opportunities!

Waves actually blowing backwards

To get to Ras Al Markaz, take highway 32 south from Duqm towards Ras Al Madrakah. Before reaching Ras Al Madrakah you’ll see a sign pointing to the left for Ras Al Markaz. I would not recommend this beach for anything except for photography. I’d only drive down the beach with a 4WD vehicle. It’s far too windy and the sea is too rough for camping, swimming, picnicking, anything. The views are scenery are stunning and it’s a nice beach to drive along!

I half-expected War Boys to be driving those trucks

The Duqm Rock Garden

Rocks. Yes, this is actually a tourist attraction.

Duqm, a coastal town in the middle of Oman, is an interesting place. And I mean interesting as in “Hmmm… that’s, uh, interesting….” Not “Wow, that’s so interesting!”

Oman is marketing Duqm as a “special economic zone,” and a bunch of fancy new (by which I mean expensive) hotels have been recently constructed there as they try to build up the shipping industry. I’ve been trying for a while to get a full picture of what exactly is the big deal with Duqm, and I guess the objective is to turn it into the port that everyone stops at on their way up towards the Strait of Hormuz or the Indian Ocean. Right now Dubai is the big hub, but Duqm is centrally located in a strategic position closer to shipping lanes.  That’s my understanding of it, anyways. I could be wrong.

We drove through Duqm on our way down to Salalah, and I’d read about the Duqm Rock Garden. It’s a huge space full of interesting rocks, and it seemed like a good place to stop and stretch our legs.

First, however, we had to figure out how to access it. It’s surrounded by a construction project, and finding our way to the parking lot involved driving through construction sites and turning where it looked like we probably shouldn’t.

Surprise! There is a real parking lot and even a sign.

Eventually we found our way to the parking lot, put M in his hiking pack, and walked into the park. At which point we discovered that the park has been overrun by aggressive feral dogs.

Nate and I are dog people, but these ones were scary. They started barking and running towards us, and we made a beeline for the car. You can drive into the park, so we decided we’d just drive around instead and enjoy the park from the safety of our vehicle.

We reached one particularly interesting area, and I decided to get out of the car for a few minutes to take a few pictures. I was maybe 100 meters from the car and I heard a dog barking, so I started hurrying back to the car. The barking got closer, and I started sprinting. I got to the car and could see I a dog perched on an outcropping, watching my every move.

The second of the two photos I took before I sprinted back to the car.

Between the mess that was figuring out how to access the Rock Garden and the potential mauling that one could get there, I’m going to say that a stop here is absolutely not worth it. But it makes for a good story.

Al Khaluf: The Sugar Dunes

The white Sugar Dunes of Al Khaluf

The white sand dunes of Al Khaluf, also called Ras Bin Tawt or, more aptly, the Sugar Dunes, is one of my new favorite spots in Oman. It is amazingly beautiful.

The Sugar Dunes and the coast on a cloudy overcast morning

We left Muscat around 10:15 am and arrived in Al Khaluf 3:45. The majority of the drive is painfully boring, and it took a lot longer than we thought it would. But once you turn off the main road for Al Khaluf, the scenery changes into rocky dunes and the drive is beautiful.

The rocky sandy dunes of Al Khaluf

After leaving the paved road, we let the air out of the tires down to 15 PSI. We used the route in Oman Off Road to reach the dunes, and even with the GPS coordinates, it would have been impossible without the maps.me app. Luckily I’d downloaded it months ago and when we were getting lost with Waze and Google Maps, maps.me came through for us.

First you’ll drive along the Al Khaluf beach, and then you’ll have to drive inland a little ways. Eventually you’ll hit the coast again, at which point you’ve reached the Sugar Dunes. We drove along the dunes until we reached a spot that looked nice, where we pulled over and started setting up camp. We tried to angle the car a little for wind protection, and we set up the tent as close to the vehicle as we could.

We tried to use the car as a wind breaker along the beach

Nate got started on the fire while I set up the beach tent and the sleeping tent. The beach tent came in particularly handy here as a wind shelter. We could eat meals and prepare food without getting sand blown into everything.

That night I slept like crap. We had to put the fly on the tent because we didn’t want the fine-grain sand getting into everything, which turned the inside of the tent into an un-ventilated oven. Plus, it was so windy, the tent was making tons of noise, and I felt like I kept hearing someone outside our tent. We woke up the next morning and there were little fox prints all over our campsite. Thank goodness we put all our trash and food back in the car overnight!

The sky shortly after sunrise. Luckily that storm never blew our way!

After packing up our campsite we explored the dunes a bit more and then headed out. Oman Off Road said there was a neat fish farm to check out at the end of the peninsula, but it looks like it’s now defunct. And if you get out of the car there you’ll be attacked by a pack of dogs. The dogs came running at our car and kept up with us at 25 mph for several minutes, barking their heads off. So, don’t get out of the car!

We are definitely planning to back to the Sugar Dunes. Camping between the dunes and the ocean is an amazing experience, and the white dunes are just gorgeous. I kept running up the dunes to get more pictures as the light just got better and better. (Although now that I’m looking at the photos, I realize I still have some editing to do with the colors.) I’ve heard that the winter is less windy, and that seems like the perfect time for a return trip!

Sunset over the Sugar Dunes

The Great Salalah Road Trip of 2018

The Wadi Darbat waterfall near Salalah

When you go on a trip, it falls somewhere on the vacation-adventure spectrum. During a vacation, you have not a care in the world, and ideally you’re lying on a beach in the middle of nowhere with a good book in one hand and a drink in the other. When you’re on an adventure, you hit the ground running, and you don’t come up for air until the whole thing is over. Most trips are somewhere in the middle, especially when you have kids (because, let’s be honest, taking a proper vacation with small children is impossible).

We recently took a road trip down to Salalah, Oman’s largest town in the south, and it was 100% an adventure. We drove on beaches and off-road, camped in beautiful remote areas, hiked, lost part of our car on a windy mountain plateau, got chased by wild dogs and camels, explored ruins and waterfalls, got nearly blown over by wind, waded through parasite-laden streams, took thousands of photos, and had an awesome time.

Salalah during khareef: mountains, muddy roads, greenery, and clouds

Every year there is a monsoon season in the southern part of Oman, called the khareef, and it turns Salalah into a desert oasis. Plants spring out of the ground, streams and waterfalls with bright blue water appear out of nowhere, and the entire area becomes Oman’s #1 tourist destination.

So much greenery and turquoise water!

The khareef runs from June to August, and we were initially planning to visit over the long 4th of July weekend. But Nate went to Salalah for work in April, and the hotel receptionist told him that the best time to visit is actually September. It’s less rainy, the mountains are at their greenest, and there are less tourists. That receptionist was spot-on 100% correct: September was a perfect time to visit the region.

We took the coastal route to Salalah rather than the inland route, and we spent two nights camping on the way down, followed by 2 nights at a hotel in Salalah. Rather than drive back to Muscat, we opted to fly home and ship our car back with a vehicle transportation company. The total cost of shipping the car and plane tickets was less than $260, which was very much worth not having to drive 12-14 hours back.

Camping at the Sugar Dunes near Al Khaluf

I’ll write more about where we camped and what sites we saw on the way down, plus what we did and where we went in Salalah. For now, here’s a color-coded map of what we did, with the red pins marking camping spots and the blue pins indicating places of interest.


Here is our general itinerary:

Day 1: depart Muscat around 10 am, arrive at Al Khaluf at 3:45, reach campsite in the Sugar Dunes by 4:30

Day 2: depart campsite by 8:30 am; stop at Duqm Rock Garden, Ras Al Markaz beach, and the pink lagoon; reach Dhofar coast campsite by 4:45

Day 3: depart campsite by 8:30 am; stop in Hasik to see waterfall and ruins; stop numerous times along the route to take photos of the coastline; arrive at hotel around 5 pm

Day 4: visit Wadi Darbat: go to hillside viewing point for waterfall and travertine curtain; hike to waterfall; drive up to see ponds, streams and little waterfalls; hike to see travertine curtain from above; drive to see Tawi Ateer sink hole; drive to baobab tree forest; lunch in Mirbat; visit Ayn Tabruk and Ayn Athum

Day 5: visit Sumhuram ruins, Ayn Khor, Al Baleed archeological park and Land of Frankincense museum. Drop car off with vehicle transport guy at 5 pm and take taxi to airport

Also, if you’re planning to do this road trip, you may want to download the maps.me app. You can download the Oman map and it’ll still work well even when you have zero cellular service. Maps.me has all the tiny little tracks through dunes, mountains, and random fields that most people wouldn’t even consider to be roads. But when you want to go off the beaten track, even if you have GPS coordinates, it is very helpful.

Make sure you also have plenty of water, a towing cable, a tire deflator with a  gauge, a battery-powered tire pump, and a shovel. Also make sure you know where your jack and spare tire are. It’s always good to be prepared on a road trip to remote areas!

Camping at a random beach in norther Dhofar

An overnight at Ras Al Jinz

A mama turtle heading back to the sea, with a baby turtle following behind

About a month ago we visited Ras Al Jinz, a turtle nesting and research area on the eastern-most tip of Oman. Ras Al Jinz is a protected nature reserve, and it’s one of the few places in the world where green turtles nest year-round. Peak nesting season is June to August, and peak hatching season is September to November.

We departed Muscat at 10 am, and by noon we’d reached the white sandy beaches of Fins. After a nice lunch and swim, we got back on the road around 2:30. We arrived at the Ras Al Jinz turtle reserve and research center around 4:30; after we checked in, we made our way up to our tent. If you do the drive straight through, without stopping, the  trip from Muscat to Ras Al Jinz takes about 3.5 hours.

Camels along the road en route to Ras Al Jinz

There are two lodging options: eco-tents and a hotel. I can’t speak for the hotel, but the tents are pretty great.  There are tents for 2 or 4 people, and whichever tent size you pick, they are surprisingly large. We got a tent for 2 people, and there was plenty of space for M’s travel cot, plus a table, chairs, an A/C unit, television, and a minifridge.

Our tent

One strange thing about the tents: there is a long paved walkway leading up to the tents (it’s a bit of a hike), and there are signs saying you’re not allowed to drive on the walkway. But then there’s a large parking area up by the tents. We off-roaded a bit to drive up the tents, keeping to the unfinished area next to the walkway. I don’t know if a low-clearance vehicle could do it, but we had no problem in our Jeep.

A view of the tents from a nearby hill. Note the lovely parking area!

There was some down-time between getting settled into the tents and dinner, but there was space for the kids to run around and play. After spending several hours in the car, M was happy to finally be free, and Nate and I were happy with the bottle of wine and snacks that we’d brought with us.

Dinner at the resort starts at 7:00, and the price is apparently negotiable. It was a decent spread, with Indian and continental options. Nothing particularly special, but not bad either.

When you’re staying at Ras Al Jinz, you have two opportunities to see turtles: once at night, around 9 pm, and again in the early morning, around 5 am. I’ll tell you now that I enjoyed the morning viewing a lot more;  it’s also the best one for taking pictures and kids will find it more interesting too. At night you basically just get to see the turtles laying eggs, and there are mobs of people because the tour is open to people who aren’t staying at the resort, whereas the morning tour is only for those staying at the resort.  In the morning you can see the turtles in nests laying eggs, and also making their way back to the sea.

The resort and buildings are set quite a ways back from the beach, and for either viewing, plan on walking at least half a mile out to the beach on a dirt road or in the sand, tromping around in deep sand once you get to the beach, and then walking half a mile back. It’s not strenuous or anything, but it might be difficult for anyone with mobility issues.

A mama turtle digging a pit in which to lay eggs

Around 8:45 pm we elbowed our way through crowds of people and made our way down to the beach with a tour guide. The guides would message each other with the turtle locations so that we could (ideally) quietly and slowly, in a single file line, walk along the beach and see the turtles laying eggs and flapping in their sandy pits. With that many people, you can’t keep everyone quiet and following directions. If I were one of those turtles, I would have been pretty annoyed. But it was a neat experience, and definitely something I’d never seen before!

Another mama turtle heading back to sea after laying eggs

The next morning we woke up at 4:15 am to make it down to the main building by 4:55 to head back out to the beach. Poor M did not want to wake up, and eventually I told him we were going to see turtles. He leapt up and practically jumped out of bed, wide awake and ready for action!

The sun was rising as we walked back down to the beach, and we spent about 90 minutes at the beach, watching the mama turtles make their way back to the ocean. Our guide also had two baby turtles in his dishdasha pocket, which he set free on the beach. Those little guys frantically made their way to the ocean as quickly as possible, and it was one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen.

Another mama slowly making her way out of her sand pit towards the sea at 5 am

All the turtle tracks leading down to the beach

Our guides on the beach with another mama turtle emerging from her nest

After watching the turtles in the morning, we headed back to the main building for breakfast. It was a good spread, but the definite highlight was the espresso machine. I need a solid 8 hours of sleep to function, and 5 hours just won’t do it for me. Coffee with added espresso shots to the rescue!

The view down towards the beach from the main building. It’s maybe a half mile walk each way.

We trekked back to the tent, packed up, and hit the road by 8:30 am. On the drive back we stopped at Ras Al Hadd, the ancient city of Qalhat, and Wadi Tiwi. Other options could be stopping at Sur, Wadi Shab or Bimmah Sinkhole, or even checking out more of the beaches around Fins. There’s so much to do in that area!

If you wanted to make a whole weekend out of it, you could go to Bimmah and then camp at Fins one night, go to Wadi Shab and Sur on your way to Ras Al Jinz the next day, overnight at Ras Al Jinz, and then do Wadi Tiwi on your way home.

I’d highly recommend Ras Al Jinz, especially to those with children. In fact, we’re planning to go back again later in the year!

Nakhal Fort and Al Thowarah Hot Springs, revisited

One of the first day trips we took out of Muscat last year when we arrived was a visit to Nakhal Fort and the Al Thowarah Hot Springs. I won’t say it was a disaster, but the drive took forever and it was so hot we didn’t want to leave the car.  Eventually the weather got cooler, and we decided it was time to revisit Nakhal (and now, six months later, I’m finally writing about it).

The fort is a lot of fun to explore, and, even after visiting Jabrin Castle, Bahla Fort and Nizwa Fort, it’s still my favorite. It’s so scenic with the date palm plantations and the Hajar Mountains, it’s practically impossible to take a bad photo. It’s also fun with little kids because there are fewer ledges, outcroppings and steep stairs than you’ll find at some of the other forts and castles around Oman. M loves running around and exploring, especially in the “children’s rooms” and on the rocky foundation on which the fort was built.

If you’re looking for lunch, there are some sandwich shops across from the fort and a biryani shop near the hot spring. You could also pack a lunch and there are some nice shaded tables and benches at the hot spring. The hot spring is a five-minute drive down a windy paved road through the date palm plantations.

There’s a nice big parking lot, but be careful: everything that is wet or damp, including parts of the parking lot, is very slippery. You can climb down the stairs into the spring, or you can take a dip in the soaking tub. I would strongly advise against wearing only a swimsuit; no one else does and you’d get stared at relentlessly. Instead wear clothes that you can get wet, similar to what you’d wear if you went to a wadi. I usually just roll up my pants and sit on a rock so that I don’t get wet past my legs. Also make sure you wear water shoes. If you tried to walk on those rocks barefoot you’d fall in no time.

There are little fish in the hot spring that will nibble on anything that is submerged. It feels weird, like little razors are skimming your feet, and tickles like mad but you get used to it after a while. If you’re lucky you’ll also see my favorite bird: the Indian Roller. They like the trees and the water, and they are stunningly beautiful in-flight.

Between the warm water and the animals (goats, cats, birds, fish, etc), kids and toddlers love it here. M eventually sits down in the neck-deep water and shrieks at the fish, tosses small rocks and has a great time. It’s a particularly pretty place in the late afternoon sun.

Whenever we have guests that want to do some adventuring on their own during the week while we’re at work, this is my first recommendation. It’s a beautiful little slice of Oman and it’s only as intense as you want it to be. If you’re jetlagged you can leave around noon, the drive is super-easy,  you can get lunch there once you arrive, the fort is open until 4, you’re at the hot spring at the prettiest time of day, and then you’re back at home or wherever you’re staying right around dinner time. Plus the fort only costs 500 baisa (about $1.25) per person and the hot spring is free!