A glimpse of Oman’s five finest features
By Josephine Rose
Marvelling at the miles of crag and crater, you may wonder where the world has gone when you visit Muscat, Oman. You may for a moment entertain the idea that you have landed on the Moon. But a row of white buildings; low rise and gentle in their geometry; peppered with bright bougainvillea will quietly tell you otherwise. The lack of traffic in Muscat’s mountain roads may also be a surprise.
But if you’ve ever traveled North from the Seventies sway of Acapulco, Mexico, you’ll instantly recognize the scent of a barely-touched beach. Undisturbed by the glare of skyscraper, grasshoppers greeting with a double zz; there is air to spare, the winter heat shielding it all in a haze.
I was expecting something else. For a start the temperature is bearable. Morning sun greets as we wander early onto the city-center sand, its location in Muscat –just meters from the city’s main roads — as unusual as the mix of bathers.
Visitors dive bikini-d into the waves; robed grandparents bend to accommodate the yelps of the young while herons fish stoically, nearby. Elegant walkers have hitched up their dishdashas to tread the tiny grains and converse.
Rapid connections grease the cogs of Muscat’s clock which moves with a steady grace.
“Peace upon you, And on you, welcome, welcome to you, praise be to God, and blessings, blessings to you.”
My guide and I are entering the arched splendor of the Al Bustan Palace Hotel. The formality of this greeting in Arabic is not limited to such opulent surroundings. In a country the size of Italy, barely more populated than an English county, people have the space to be friendly.
On a highway heading home from the mountains, our 4X4 starts flashing a low petrol warning. There has been no filling point for miles. What to do? My companion pulls into a roadside police station.
An officer approaches the car.
‘Peace upon you, And on you, welcome, welcome to you, praise be to God, and blessings, blessings to you.’
‘How can I help?’ he continues as windows buzz and explanations begin.
My friend and he swap numbers. Soon we are back on the road assured that should we run out of petrol before his recommended spot, we must phone without delay.
With a full tank, my friend later calls the policeman to thank him, “Ali, hi, it’s me, Peace upon you, And on you…”
There is a paradox in the way that Oman approaches the regional trend towards the lavish. They do it with bold and stylish understatement. We are back at the Al Bustan lobby, a few miles out of the city center, a gem in the dust of the mountains.
The entrance hall speaks of opulence in powdered tones of antique rose and green; vast Middle Eastern arches frame a central sitting area; a cozy space reflected in the marble-walled grandeur. Local people swathe through the lobby in robes and scarves; holidaymakers wear the ease of affluence.
Paradox two: Regal in their serenity, the robes worn by men of the region – called dishdashas – are as equalizing as a uniform. I muse how life might be in Rome had the likes of Armani not made the cut, citizens choosing instead to don the ancient senatorial toga on a daily basis.
I imagine how having history hanging from its limbs – rather than shut away in the dust of museums – might change the flavor of a nation.
Lime and Mint and Fluttering Flatbreads
On winter days grand hotels such as Al Bustan or The Chedi cater to guests and local business people, who can be found at the pared-down beach-front tables dining on steak cooked within a whisker of one’s preference, sipping limoun-al-omani; a mix of dried citrus, herbs, and honey.
Rumor has it that the first to start the lime and mint trend was Kargeen, a restaurant which modestly refers to itself as ‘café’, a place which draws deeply from the local food culture, providing Omani cuisine and Middle Eastern staples.
If only for the flutteringly thin traditional flatbread, it is worth driving to this restaurant in Madinat Qaboos. Kargeen’s lighting -Moroccan chic – intensifies the desert flavor, sprinkled generously throughout the restaurant via shared platters and the staff’s efficient handling of large parties.
Song of the inland waterway
In this land of flourishing Frankincense, where time appears abundant, the mutter of audible water accompanies us on our final hike through the rural village of Misfah. Here the deep and unwavering falaj – (one of an ancient network of man-made channels of well and groundwater) – is coursing through undergrowth and yellow rock, carrying clear liquid from source to resource the nearby village.
Shaded by the parasol of plume and palm, quickstepping along the tiny canal, we reach a clearing between barely navigable rocks. We set down our bags, bend and touch the shiver of the shaded pool.
A busy flight path breaks the static for a moment. After the crackle, a breeze reinstates the scent of foliage. The rattled croak of mountain frog tests the air, like the slow, deliberate winding of a clock. Soon the evening call to prayer will mirror the darkening of the day and it will be time to turn around and follow the falaj home.
When to go
October – March, temperatures fall to (a pleasant average of) 25 degrees centigrade
How to get there: Qatar Airways (via Doha), Oman Air flies non-stop to Muscat from London. Return flights in December 2014 start at £416.
Flight: 7 hours 30 minutes from London Heathrow
Zone: Muscat is 3 hours ahead of London during the Summer (Winter, 4 hours)
Where to stay:
The Chedi, P. O Box 964, 18th November Street, Al Khuwair Muscat 133 Oman, +968 24 524400
From £187 (Price per night for two people sharing – May 2014)
Ramada Qurum Beach, Muscat, PO Box 1011 | Ruwi Sarooj St, Shatti Alqurum, 112, Oman, +968 24 603555
From £136 (Price per night for two people sharing – May 2014)
Eating and drinking:
Kargeen Caffe, Al Bashair St, Madinat Sultan Qaboos, Oman, +986 99253351
Main courses: £7
The Beach Restaurant at The Chedi P. O Box 964, 18th November Street, Al Khuwair Muscat 133 Oman, +968 24 524400
Main course: £14 – £20
Al Bustan Palace Hotel PO Box 1998, Muscat, 114 Oman, Phone: +968 24 799666
Free to visit
Rooms from £197
About 121km from Muscat, 2 hours, 12 minutes driving time
Josephine Rose writes poetry and travel pieces; her most recent publications include: ‘Going into a Flat White Spin’ – a review of three independent cafes for the Cambridge News, UK (2013) and ‘Coffee, Ground’ a poem in an Anthology called ‘Survival of the Hardworking’ (2013)
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