At then end of each trip I like to give you an overview of the practicalities of travelling to the country I've just visited. So this is a guide to Iran and Oman from my limited experience.
It's obvious as you travel through Iran that the tourism industry is only just reawakening after such a long period of isolation. I'm sure things are rapidly improving. Hospitality staff are often either inexperienced or are foreign imports, but English is common. I've heard that you really need a tour operator in Iran to do your bookings for you so that you have someone on the ground if things go wrong. It's also said that hotels can't be booked a long way in advance which makes accommodation uncertain. For that reason alone, I'd go with an organised tour group. But many of you I know are strictly do-it-yourself travellers.
Oman's tourism industry particularly in the country areas is young too, but it's easy to book things by yourself.
TIMING OF VISIT: We went in early September which is out of tourist season but quite hot in the mid-30's. I'd rather go later in October, or in spring. Winter would be too cold. Rain isn't a problem!
PACKING FOR IRAN:
I took raincoat, umbrella and disposible poncho. If I had my time again I'd only take the disposible poncho. The chances of needing it are minimal.
The dress code is not optional. I covered this in #2. You soon get used to wearing a hijab to cover your head and throat. So if you also stay covered from ankle to wrist you'll be fine. Men don't wear shorts (we did see one or two trend setters, but it's not common) but otherwise dressing in Iran for a man is the same as here. Take off your shoes to enter a mosque and carry sox if you'd prefer not to be barefooted.
PACKING FOR OMAN: It's really the same as Iran except you don't need to wear a hijab. It's still a muslim country so I preferred to be modest in my dress and it meant I had the same clothes for both countries. Mosques require you to be covered and without shoes. Of course at hotels like Al Bustan and Alila, you are much more in a bubble and can wear swimmers and less clothing if you wish.
AIR TRAVEL: We travelled Emirates via Dubai.
WIFI: wifi was extremely basic everywhere in Iran, better in Oman.
ACCOMMODATION: Our organised photography tour was a budget one, so I was prepared for lesser accommodation. The hotels were mostly 3-4 star. On a couple of occasions we were pleasantly surprised. Here is a list of our hotels, and a list of better ones.
TEHRAN: We stayed at the Ferdowsi Grand Hotel which is in a perfect CBD position, but the standard was only just adequate - remember the Middle Eastern bordello style? The better choice is the Espinas Hotel in the CBD, or if you don't mind commuting, the more luxurious Espinas Palace way out in the suburbs. Traffic in Tehran is very congested especially in peak hours so allow plenty of time to get to attractions outside the CBD. There's a good metro system.
SHIRAZ: We stayed at the Park Saadi and I wouldn't recommend it, although the room was large and clean. The staff were poorly trained and our air-conditioner didn't work well. A better choice would be Zandiyeh Hotel.
YAZD: We stayed at the Moshir Garden Hotel, and I think it's the best in Yazd. A pleasant garden. Wifi worked only in the lobby.
ISFAHAN: We stayed at the Ali Qapu -:(. The first room we had was small and grubby. The second room, a 'suite', was big and grubby. Stay instead at the Hotel Abbasi with average rooms, but very grand palatial historic common areas.
KASHAN: We stayed at the Ameriha Hotel which is a converted historic mansion, and apart from the high step risers between courtyards, I'd stay here again. It's a wonderful experience, and make sure you have a guided tour. Morshedi House and Iran House are also old mansions and get good reviews.
MUSCAT: We stayed at the Ritz Carlton Al Bustan Palace, a very nice generic luxury hotel with great pool surrounds and on the ocean. I'd stay here again. The other choices in Muscat are the Chedi, or the Shangri La which is further down the coast.
OMAN DESERT: Like most desert experiences, it's really a 'tourist' desert. We stayed at the Desert Nights Camp, which is the most upmarket of the desert camps. It's not really luxurious but pretty viewed from the dunes above. The food was good.
JABAL AKHDAR: We stayed at the Alila which is remote from Sayq which is the biggest town up on the mountain. I would definitely go back to Alila. The child-friendly Anantara has just been completed in Sayq - we walked through it to view the terraced gardens, and just appearance-wise, I preferred Alila by far. But it's a possibility and has the advantage of having the town to wander through. And an amazing view as well.
NIZWA: If you want to go to the goat market early, the Golden Tulip gets the best reviews for Nizwa. It's a huge family resort with a big pool etc but it's quite a long distance from the centre of town and the souq. If I stayed in Nizwa again I'd try to find something closer to the souq in the middle of town. Good luck with that.
Our time in Tehran was fairly brief, so there was much we didn't see. Don't miss the Crown Jewels, Golestan Palace, National Museum, Tablat Bridge. The bazaar is a must just from the historical perspective. I could skip the two towers - Azadi and Milat, which for me didn't exceed the photographs I'd seen. The Saadabad Palace was a little disappointing. I'd much rather have gone to the Carpet Museum and the Glass Museum. Allow time for wandering by yourself to places like Shahr Park to do a little people-watching.
The itinerary for the rest of Iran covered most attractions, although I wouldn't go to the Tower of Silence in Kashan.
I enjoyed where we went in Muscat and needed another day to see the Opera House, Bait Al Zubair, an art museum and take a dusk cruise along the coast. I'd also like to go to a horse show and a camel race in the desert next time.
TOUR GROUPS: Two respected tour companies who are doing tours in Iran are either Abercrombie & Kent, or Martin Randall. Iran seems to be flavour of the month, so there are probably many more reputable companies running tours. I can't comment on how easy it would be to drive yourself, but the roads were surprisingly good.
GUIDE: For Oman we hired Abdullah, a photographic guide for a dawn and a dusk shoot in Muscat, Oman Photo Holidays, www.omanphotoholidays.com. He was knowledgeable and had a passion for his country as well as photography. He does trips through the entire country too. For our five days driving through Oman, we hired a guide and his 4WD. Ali works at Alila so would not always be available but I'd be happy to supply his email on request. If I went again, I'd visit Qatar in the south as well.
If you have any questions, just leave them in the comments section or email me.
I'd like to leave you with an interesting quote, this one from G K Chesterton:
The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.
That's it buddies. Now to get planning on our next adventure!
Until then, I wait you.