Muscat, Oman: An Undiscovered Middle Eastern Treasure
By Linzi Hill
Photos by Sue Hutton
We were beginning our descent into Seeb International Airport, Muscat. At this point deciding I would have another flick through my guide book, I discovered a whole paragraph dedicated to the hassle of getting a tourist visa in Oman, advising visitors to expect to wait up to four hours. Not what I wanted to hear and I weighed up in my mind whether to break the news to my husband.
As the doors were opened, 108 degrees Farenheit (42 degrees Centigrade) hit us and it was only 7 am! What chance did we have in the midday sun? We began to realise why we had got such a good deal, clearly no one travelled to Oman in June.
By 7:45 we had made it to the hotel. We simply couldn’t believe our luck, straight through arrivals, visas no problems and a taxi driver who understood where we wanted to go who corrected our pronunciation. Apparently Chedi doesn’t rhyme with Jedi!
Despite having only driven from the airport, I had fallen in love with Muscat. The sky was the most brilliant blue and all of the buildings in a very traditional style sparkling white in the relentless sunshine. It was exactly what I had imagined.
The hotel staff were so pleased to see us simply because we were English – not something you find in many countries of the world and we were quickly led through to the lobby with it’s enormous tented roof and a seating area in the centre the size of a small football pitch piled high with cushions in vivid reds and oranges. I felt like I was part of a fairy tale. How would we ever explain this to anyone?
A local delicacy is a mixture of orange juice and mint and sitting on the Arabian Nights bed with an ice cold drink and an icy cold towel, England had never seemed so far away. This was pure bliss.
Laying on the deserted beach just a couple of hours later we made our plans, a city tour, a dune safari in the desert, a visit to the Grand Mosque and of course we must check out the local Souq or market.
One lazy day on the beach was all we had time for and so the following morning when the unfamiliar alarm sounded at 7 am to cries of “I thought this was supposed to be a holiday” we were ready to start to explore.
Muscat is wedged between the Arabian Gulf and the mountains so it seems no matter where you are the scenery is spectacular. The city is a sprawling mass and walking around to see the sites would be almost impossible. Mutrah has the main sights, but even they are spread out over a few miles. Although the city is modern, there are no high-rise blocks and even new buildings are required to be built in traditional Arabic style. Most roads don’t have names so people use landmarks to get around.
Our first stop was “The Grand Mosque of Sultan Qaboos” where in 104 defrees F (40 degrees C) I was required to cover my head with a sarong and tie another one around my neck. Walking into the prayer hall, I was in awe of the colors and the thousands of lights. So much so that when given the chance to ask questions all I could think of was, “Do the lights ever go out?” to which I was told about the computer which can identify which bulb has gone.
Once the tour was over we were allowed to have a look round on our own so long as we didn’t cross the carpet. I felt strange being in such a place. It was hard to imagine this room filled with the 6000 men it could hold for prayer and odd to think the whole thing was televised every Friday to allow the women to stay at home.
It’s trips like these that brings the cliché “It’s a different world” really into its own. Fridays at home are a day for trying to finish work early and planning for the weekend.
Although the Grand Mosque impressed me in a way I didn’t think possible I was relived to be outside the gates to remove my head coverings. I’d never felt so incredibly conscious of my every move in the mosque, being careful not to let my coverings slip, and believe me keeping your head covered in over 104 degrees is uncomfortable
The City Center
We went back to meet our guide, and in the sheer relief of the air-conditioned 4×4 we drove back on onto the highway, a feature in itself with immaculate grass verges and plants, and headed into the walled city center. The azure Arabian Gulf in constant view we arrived in under half an hour, first stop the port and local fish market (open from sunrise till 10 am) where we saw some amazing huge and unrecognizable fish.
Despite not buying any fish, I was determined that we would have some souvenirs to bring home, so we headed back up Mutrah’s main street to the famous Mutrah Souq, the oldest market in the capital.
As we entered the Souk I was beginning to wonder if we were in the wrong place. This certainly didn’t live up to the markets I had visited in other countries. But as we walked deeper, the shops changed and ahead of us was the gold Souk with beautiful Omani jewels in every window.
My husband had slowed down a little at this point and I wondered whether he had forgotten it was my birthday. Maybe he was just remembering my knack of taking him into a jewellers in every country we visit. Sure enough, an hour and a lot of haggling over a couple of dollars later, we left with a golden souvenir of Oman.
The Sultan’s Palace
A little further along the waterfront we were standing in front of His Majesty the Sultan’s Palace, probably the most unimpressive building we encountered, I was expecting something regal and maybe a bit glitzy but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Flanked on both sides by now unused forts (Al-Jalali and Al-Mirani) built in the 1500’s the view was again amazing and you could certainly appreciate how well protected the Sultan would be here. I mentioned my thoughts to our guide who assured my Sultan Quaboos had many homes with his main palace being South of the country in Salalah.
Before we left the walled city our guide insisted on taking us to the Al Burstan Palace Hotel “just to have a look,” an amazing hotel billed as the top place to stay, buzzing with every nationality. A stunning location with the most fantastic view, the gulf to the front and the mountains to the rear, another fantastic photo opportunity.
A White-Knuckle Dune Safari
With no time for relaxing the following morning saw us again meeting our guide in the lobby at 7 am ready to head to the desert for a 4×4 dune safari and then a visit to a wadi (a dried out river bed to you and me). There were six of us today in three vehicles. We drove for about an hour having a short break at a camel stud.
We took the camera out for the first shots of the day but the heat was too much for it, either that or we’d let it get too cold with the essential air conditioning in our room. Panic set in.
I love to travel but my husband just likes to take pictures. Asking our guide if we could buy a disposable camera anywhere (sacrilege when you usually use a Nikon with half a dozen different lenses!) we were taken to a tiny little shop and, without a common language, managed to convey that we needed a camera – $5 later we had a point and shoot camera and we were heading towards the desert.
As we turned off the main road into the desert the heat just seemed to intensify. We made a brief stop to photograph some camels while the drivers let their tires down to allow them to cope with the sand dunes we’d soon be bouncing over.
From the moment we turned off the road I was fascinated how the drivers knew where to go. It all looked the same to me. For about an hour and a half we carried on across the dunes and every time we reached the top of the dune I started to feel ill. I think it was sitting in the back and not being able to see when we would tip over the edge.
Going down backwards was the final straw and I was relieved when we could see the road in the distance. I never imagined that dune safaris would come in the category of white knuckle!
Our next turn off the main road took us into the wadi. Looking around at the dried out river bed with the sun beating down it was so hard to imagine there ever being any water in it. As we got deeper there were more plants and we reached a tropical oasis where we got out to walk. The heat was amazing with no shelter from the relentless sun. We found a small pool of water and within a couple of minutes all of us were paddling.
Dining Dos and Don’ts
Moving on, “a traditional Omani restaurant” they told us and so it was time to check out the guide book or the rule book as it was beginning to be known. We knew that eating with your left hand was rude (right hand for food and left hand for other things!).
We arrived at the restaurant; shoes off and were shown into a room with cushions all around the edge. We sat down on the floor and drinks were ordered. Iit was soft drinks all round – alcohol is not sold outside of the major hotels. The food arrived. Steaming platters of rice and then an amazing selection of meats each cooked in a different way.
My favourite was one which was cooked in a hole in the ground. The only problem was that nobody would tell me what sort of meat it was. You could tell the visitors: we were the ones using cutlery.
Our guides were just shovelling food into their mouths, only using their right hands of course. Omani’s do not eat desserts but the meal ended with some amazingly strong Arabic coffee and dates.
All too soon it was time to pack our bags and the four-foot high coffee pot we had bought, convinced it would fit in our luggage. Heading back to the airport, unusually for us, we both agreed that although we had without a doubt seen the highlights of Muscat in just a few days we wanted to explore more of Oman and would definitely be back in the future.
Read more GoNOMAD stories about Oman
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