North of Muscat lies Al Batinah region, which stretches along the coast beyond the capital all the way up to the UAE border. This was once the most vibrant and cosmopolitan region in Oman, thanks to its wealth of natural resources and proximity to the great civilizations of Mesopotamia and, subsequently, Persia, although the gradual emergence of Muscat as the country’s principal city and port led to a steady decline in the Batinah’s economic fortunes, and things are a lot quieter now. Away from the main coastal highway, most of the region is pleasantly comatose, with a sand-fringed coastline, dotted with fishing boats and old forts and backed by endless date plantations.
At the southern end of the region lies the personable town of Seeb, within hailing distance of the capital and international airport, and sleepier Barka, home to a fine fort, the absorbing old Bait Na’aman and occasional bull-butting contests. Both Seeb and Barka make good bases from which to explore the Batinah’s main attraction, the so-called Rustaq Loop, a fine drive between the coast and the foot of the Hajar mountains, taking in the superb forts at Nakhal, Rustaq and Al Hazm, with numerous dramatic wadis shooting off into the hills en route, offering myriad off-road opportunities. Back on the coast, the Sawadi and Daymaniyat islands offer some superb diving, although otherwise there’s not much to detain you before you reach Sohar, Oman’s former commercial capital and still the largest town in the north, although there are disappointingly few physical reminders of its long and illustrious history.
Inland from Al Batinah, Al Dhahirah region covers a wide and largely featureless expanse of desert. Few tourists make it here, unless transiting between Oman and Al Ain in the UAE via Al Dhahirah’s main town, Buraimi, home to a pair of fine forts and with a lively mercantile atmosphere. Further down the road lies Ibri, home to yet another fort and the remarkable old mudbrick village of As Suleif, while clusters of Bronze Age tombs lie scattered around the nearby hills at Bat and Al Ayn.