Why travel far and wide when some of the world’s most scenic sites are right here in the Middle East? From Lebanon’s mysterious winding cave system to the crystal clear waters of the Musandam Peninsula, these local destinations are world-class natural beauties.
White Desert, Egypt
The Middle East has no shortage of desert, with its many sandy landscapes beautiful in their own right. However, in Egypt’s White Desert, some 45km north of the town of Farafra, the monotony of the dunes is broken and something even more spectacular emerges. A stark contrast from the usual burnt orange desert tones, much as its name suggests, White Desert is made up vast swathes of brilliant white chalk.
While the area’s distinctive colour is reason enough to visit, the main attraction has to be the mysterious rock formations, created as a result of thousands of years of erosion from wind and sandstorms, leaving only the toughest pieces of rock standing – often in unlikely, almost alien-like positions.
Jeita Grotto, Lebanon
You would never think it while immersed in the hustle and bustle of Beirut, but just 18km away from the Lebanese capital lies one of the most beautiful natural wonders anywhere in the world: Jeita Grotto.
Spanning a length of almost 9km under the Nahr Al Kalb Valley, these karstic limestone caves are home to the world’s largest known stalactite as well as an underground river, which provides fresh drinking water to more than a million of the area’s inhabitants. Aside from its geological importance, Jeita Grotto is also a boon for the local economy, as it hosts some 280,000 visitors ever year, who explore its cavernous interiors by boat.
Mount Damavand, Iran
At more than 5,600m above sea level, Mount Damavand is the highest peak in Iran and the Middle East. With its lush fields of green populated with a wealth of flora and fauna, including wild horses and the Iranian red sheep, and icy peaks towering high into the sky, the area is undoubtedly one of outstanding natural beauty.
However, there’s a potential sting in the tail of this stunning spot, as Damavand just so happens to be a potentially active volcano (although the last time it erupted is estimated to be around 7,300 years ago, so don’t worry about it too much). Popular with everyone from serious climbers to tourists taking a dip in the hot springs, the mountain even has a great cultural significance, featuring prominently in Persian mythology.
Musandam Peninsula, Oman
With its crystal clear, still waters surrounded by the breathtaking landscape of the Hajar Mountains, it’s easy to see why the Musandam Peninsula is often dubbed ‘the Norway of Arabia’. Set in the northernmost tip of the Arabian Peninsula and completely cut off from the rest of Oman by the UAE, Musandam boasts the most pristine section of ocean in the Middle East, with dolphins regular visitors to the area.
The sheer, unforgiving mountain terrain doesn’t lend itself to walking, so the best way to experience Musandam is aboard one of the regular traditional dhow cruises, which offer snorkeling, fishing and visits to the area’s famous Telegraph Island – the one-time location of a British repeater station used to boost telegraphic messages between London and Karachi during the days of the British Empire.