Oman Muscat City Guide – An Essential Read
By Mike Pedley
Frankincense sellers and chic café culture sit side by side in the Gulf’s most fascinating city. The ancient kingdom of Oman has come a long way in a very short time. The unruly medieval fiefdom once ruled over a vast territory sprawling as far as Zanzibar and East Africa, and stayed unchanged for centuries. Merchants and fortune-seekers came to trade in its famous dates and frankincense, always in danger of attack from fierce warrior tribes.
The modern world began for Oman when Sultan Qaboos kicked his father off the throne in a rather polite coup in 1970. It’s hard to imagine now, but until this time the city gates of old Muscat were still locked at dusk and there were almost no tarmac roads anywhere in this vast country. But you should never underestimate the power of vast oil wealth in the hands of an enlightened ruler. In a few decades Oman has been transformed : the modern Omani may look biblical in his flowing white dishdasha robe, but he’s certainly carrying a mobile phone beneath it. He might even keep the odd camel too, but the timeless ship of the desert has been made redundant by the beefy 4X4 parked outside his smart contemporary villa.
The spectacle of a medieval sultanate hurtling headlong into the 21st century is one of the most riveting aspects of Muscat. As I headed into Muscat from the airport along the main artery of Sultan Qaboos highway, dicing with frenetic traffic zapping over flyovers and hurtling past immaculately-kept lawns and flower beds, my first impression was of a thoroughly modern Gulf city. All the Pizza Huts and KFCs almost had me fooled into thinking that Muscat is just another theme-park Gulf state, but while there’s no denying that this is a country that is developing at lightning speed, Oman is very much in touch with its roots and traditions. Unlike unlike its blinged-up, high-rise neighbours in the Emirates, Muscat is in the safe hands of a Sultan who harbours no ambition to smother his land in concrete and build it skywards into another Arabian Gulf version of Hong Kong.
The layout of Muscat baffled me initially. Jagged mountain spurs slash the city into distinct neighbourhoods, but after a few hours of poking around I soon realised that much of this sprawling suburbia holds little of interest. I spent most of my time in the fascinating harbourside pockets of Muttrah and Old Muscat, while the glitzy beachside hotel strip of Qurum delivered the goods when it came to eating, drinking, sleeping and generally hanging out in cafes.
The top-end hotels on the Qurum beach strip are world class and dining out is equally top-notch. In fact, many visitors seem to pitch up in Muscat and never stray beyond their swish hotel except to grill on the faultless golden beaches and subject the plastic to a strenuous work-out. And that’s a great shame, because they miss the chance to get a taste of authentic Oman. From my base in Muscat, I headed inland to find another world of Arabian Nights romance: bedouin camel races, ancient fortresses, lush oasis villages and a taste of traditional Omani life.
Useful link: www.omantourism.gov.om
MUSCAT AND NORTHERN OMAN – TOP THINGS TO SEE AND DO
Haggle over silver and frankincense in Muttrah souk Arrive early at the fish market, then carry on around the harbour towards the landmark turquoise minaret, and dive right into the souk – whatever you’re after you’ll find it here in a one-stop shop. Pick up gold, frankincense and myrrh, henna and spices and the inevitable stuffed camel. Have a break in the Al Ahli coffee shop and refuel on fresh pomegranate juice and a mutton burger, before following the bay round to the elegant houses, 16th-century Portuguese fortresses and the Sultan’s palace in Old Muscat town.
Learn about Omani crafts and culture in Bait al Zubair This excellent museum is a perfect place for a briefing on Omani life at the start of your trip. When you need to know your saif (a straight sword)from your khanjar (curved dagger) accept no substitute – Bait al Zubair is the place to sort you out. It’s an essential cultural port of call, and a crash course in how to tell the tat from the treasure when you’re shopping in the souk.
Marvel at the staggering opulence of Sultan Qaboos grand mosque This staggering building could only have been realised by someone with pockets as deep as Oman’s Sultan. Imagine commissioning a contemporary St Paul’s cathedral with a blank cheque, and an unbeatable bling factor: within a vast acreage of marble courtyards is a prayer hall with the world’s biggest Persian carpet and massive crystal chandeliers that kept Swarovski’s workshops busy for some time. Remember not to turn up in shorts or revealing clothes or you might not be allowed entry.
Visit the magical turtle nesting sites at Ras al Jinz Call in at the dusty town of Sur, to see the remnants of Oman’s ancient fleet of dhows where these sinuous sailing boats are still being painstakingly hammered and hand-stitched together with coconut fibre rope in primitive boatyards. However, the real reason for heading this way lies around an hour’s drive south along the coast at the rugged cliffs and beaches of Ras al Jinz. Endangered green turtles have their nesting sites here. Turn up for a close-up view of the wheelbarrow-sized female leviathans coming ashore to lay their eggs beneath wierdly-eroded sandstone cliffs – an unforgettable scene. If you’re up at the crack of dawn, the hatchlings scuttle like clockwork toys to the pounding waves.
Experience desert solitude in the dunes of Wahiba sands Among the 21st-century gloss, it’s easy to forget that Oman’s history and culture are defined by the deserts all around. The wind-sculpted dunes of the Wahiba Sands are an elemental experience, so whether your transport of choice is a camel or a Toyota 4×4, spend a night beneath the desert for an unforgettable and essential Omani experience.
Soak up the atmosphere of Nizwa’s souk For an unforgettable taste of Old Arabia, head out to ancient Nizwa on Friday when the livestock market comes to town. The atmosphere is positively biblical as farmers and bedu nomads come to trade and the air is heady with the aroma of dung and the chorus of bleating goats whose fate is soon to become dinner. The old market is also one of Oman’s best souk experiences for hard-core hagglers, and it is all within easy reach of Muscat. MUSCAT – A walk around the old port of Muttrah
In Muscat, the car is king. In fact the whole sprawling city is designed to get around by car, except for the port of Muttrah where the only way to get around is to ditch the wheels and – hooray! – get walking. Kick off nice and early at the fish market, where walnut-faced old greybeards haggle over the night’s catch. Huge tuna lie in ranks in a slick carpet of gore and flies, and curtains of silver sardines tumble from nets shaken by fishermen into rowing boats that double as stalls. You could pick up a bag of a hundred fish for just 1 riyal, but persuading your hotel to cook them might be a bit more tricky. Look across the harbour to the turquoise minaret: this ornately-tiled landmark looks like it was lifted straight from the Silk Road city of Samarkand and it marks the entrance to the labyrinthine souk. Make sure not to go through the gateway of the walled Lawatiyah quarter, as this is the portal to a quarter populated by a Shia sect and off-limits to outsiders.
Muttrah’s fantastic souk would have made a handy one-stop shop for the biblical Three Kings when they needed to pick up their gold, frankincense and myrrh – all are on sale here, and if you’re used to the pushy sellers of North Africa’s souks, the laid-back stallholders in Muttrah are among the least pushy, and most polite merchants you’ll ever do business with. This is quite a posh souk, after all, kept orderly and clean, shaded by an ornate carved and painted ceiling and scented with smouldering frankincense burnerrs. Inside Aladdin’s cave shops you’ll find mounds of henna and spices, curtains of colourful sari cloth, and chunky ropes of amber, jade and coral jewellery. Look for the silver Hapsburg coins that were once sought after as investments by savvy Bedouin. Take your time rummaging through dusty jumbles of tarnished Bedouin ankle bracelets and earrings – that Omani silver buffs up a treat when you get it home. And of course you’ll find that must-have clockwork camel or mosque alarm clock to delight your friends back home.
After a good hit of retail therapy Omani-style, track down the Al Ahli coffee shop to refuel on fresh pomegranate juice and a tasty mutton burger, before you leave the cool shade of the souk for a sweaty stroll round the bay to Old Muscat, the historic centre which is now a peaceful enclave of ministries, embassies, museums and the Sultan’s rather camp gold and blue waterfront palace. You pass beneath crumbling watchtowers perched on rocky crags, then the forts of Jalali and Merani built during the 16th-century Portuguese occupation flanking the once-walled city come into sight. Make sure to visit the Bait Fransa museum for a peek at Omani-French history in an elegant 19th-century mansion that housed the former French consulate, and finish in the outstanding Bait al Zubair heritage museum for a crash course in Omani culture, arts and cratfs.
MUSCAT MUST SEES
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is built to impress – after all there is some stiff competition across the dunes in the Emirates. The mind-boggling scale and staggering expense of the craftmanship here could only have been funded with pockets as deep as those of the Sultan. Imagine commissioning a contemporary St Paul’s cathedral with extra-added bling factor, and a blank cheque to pay for it all. The exquisitely beautiful ladies’ prayer hall is a mere hors d’oeuvre beside the splendour of the main hall. Inside, the place is a list of superlatives: it is the largest mosque outside Saudi Arabia and can hold up to 20,000 worshippers on the world’s biggest Persian carpet. This colossus of the carpet world weighs in at 21 tonnes and kept 600 Iranian weavers busy for 4 years with its 2 billion hand-tied knots. Swarovski must have been pretty made up too when they won the contract for the titanic chandeliers – the centrepiece alone is quite staggering – it weighs 8 tonnes and comprises more than a thousand lights. The Grand Mosque is quite a way out of the centre along the road to the airport, so to avoid being refused entry, don’t turn up in shorts or revealing clothes.
Bait al Zubair is a fine museum dedicated to Omani traditions and culture. If you need to know your saif (straight sword) from your khanjar (curved dagger), this is an essential port of call. You’ll also learn all about the Omani wardrobe – the billowing white robes are a dishdashah, and the embroidered turban-style headgear is a msarr or musar, by the way – and get up to speed on Omani customs; useful, if you’re lucky enough to be invited into an Omani home. The collections of weapons and handicrafts such as intricately-chased incense burners, rosewater sprinklers, coffee pots and beautiful silverware are great for helping you know what to look for when you’re filtering out the tat from the treasure in the souk.
The Sultan’s Armed Forces Museum in the 19th-century Bait al Falaj fort might sound a touch dry, but it fills you in on essential aspects of Oman’s military history – after all, it hasn’t always been peaceful around here. The country’s strategic position has dragged it into quite a few scraps over the years, most recently in the wars with communist-backed rebel forces in the southern region of Dhofar through the 60’s into the early 1970s. British forces, including SAS units, have seen action here numerous times – in fact British forces fought in a covert campaign that helped put Sultan Qaboos on the throne. Interestingly, there’s no reference to this crucial action in the museum.
Useful website for info on museum opening times and entry prices
NIZWA – an unmissable, easy-reach day trip from Muscat, Ancient Nizwa offers one of the best souk experiences in Oman. It’s not that long since any Christian trying to enter Nizwa would have been shot on sight! When fanatical imams ruled the roost, the danger was real enough that just fifty years ago, the great explorer Wilfred Thesiger travelling in disguise as an Arab tribesman gave it a wide berth, fearing for his life. You’re pretty safe nowadays, although the merchants in the souk might rob you in an entirely legal manner if your haggling skills aren’t up to scratch.
Nizwa certainly looks the part as an Arabian Nights film set: the squat cylinder of the 500-year-old fort is an unmissable centrepiece – essentially it is a guntower bristling with 24 cannon pointing out at the camel-coloured Jebel Akhdar mountains and date plantations that crowd around the town. Go for a scramble around the ochre battlements, where you get great bird’s eye views down into the courtyards of the old town and the souk. You’re also in the perfect spot for shots of the jewel-like sapphire and gold-dome of the mosque next door. Schedule your trip for Friday when bedu nomads and farmers all converge on the livestock market and the air is soupy with the aroma of dung and bleating goats blissfully unaware that their fate is shortly to become a holy day barbecue feast. Finish with an atmospheric wander among the alleyways of the old town, ambling through knots of crumbling medieval mud houses, some being restored with camel-coloured stucco and crenellated roofs.
More fascinating sights lie a short drive away. Take the road towards Bahla, where the splendid wall of Jebel Akhdar rises in chevrons of orange, charcoal and amber. The mud-brick ruins of the ghost-town of Tanuf look like an ancient site, but it was only abandoned in the 1950s after Sultan Qaboos’ father, Said bin Timur, invited the British RAF to bomb it in reprisals against a rebellious tribe. In Hamra you can track down ancient two- and three-storey mud houses similar to those found in Yemen, then climb into the mountains to explore Misfat al A’Briyeen, a primitive hill village plastered against a rock face. Steep stone stairways lead to a lush oasis at its heart, where ladies do the washing in the falaj irrigation channels and the air is perfumed with orange blossom.
Ras al Jinz – turtle nesting sites. Sur’s dhows and Ras al Jinz turtle nesting sites are an easy excursion from Muscat.
There’s not a lot going on in the dusty town of Sur, but you can see the remnants of Oman’s ancient fleet of dhows that once sailed the Indian Ocean and beyond, trading in the world’s goods. The sleepy whitewashed port coils around a lagoon flanked by a brace of forts, where graceful wooden dhows are moored. Incredibly, in a modern world of leviathan container ships, these sinuous sailing boats are still being built and in regular use, their beams and planks painstakingly hammered and hand-stitched together with coconut fibre rope in Sur’s primitive boatyards.
But the real reason for heading this way lies around an hour’s drive south along the coast at the rugged cliffs and beaches of Ras al Jinz. Endangered green turtles have their nesting sites here. You need to turn up around 9-10pm (admittedly not a convenient time given that the nearest hotels are over an hour away back up the coast in Sur) when National Park rangers escort you for a close-up view of the females as they arrive. These wheelbarrow-sized leviathans come ashore to lay their eggs beneath wierdly-eroded sandstone cliffs – an unforgettable scene that you can observe by torchlight from the edge of craters excavated with agonising slowness and effort by the turtles as sandy cradles for their babies. If you’re up at the crack of dawn, you might be rewarded by seeing the hatchlings scuttle like clockwork toys to the crashing waves, running a gauntlet of hungry crabs and gulls. If you can fit it in, don’t leave Oman without visiting the green turtle nesting sites at Ras al Jinz. The visitor centre now offers accommodation on site, which makes visiting less of a logistical pain.
Three Forts Circuit – a great day trip from Muscat
The fortresses at Nakhal, Rustaq and Hazm make an easy day trip through spectacular mountainous landscapes to the west of Muscat.
Heading in a clockwise loop, you’ll find the first of the restored fortresses in a jaw-dropping location at Nakhal. It’s easy to see why this impregnable position was chosen: crowding all around are sheer rock faces rising from the fertile Batinah Plains. The ancient stronghold has been there in one form or another since pre-Islamic times although the six towers teetering on a rocky spur date mostly from the 19th century. Its restored interior is plushly furnished with carpets and cushions to give a feel of how it felt to live there. Despite the searing heat, the breeze that sighs through latticed shutters is deliciously cool – the men’s quarters catch the best of the natural air conditioning, of course!.
The route onwards to Rustaq slashes through a biblical wilderness of shattered rubble, with the dragon’s back crests and razor-cut rockfaces of the Hajar mountains as a wild backdrop. Rustaq was once Oman’s capital but it’s a snoozy backwater town now, eerily quiet with the shutters closed against the heat, and street dogs snoring in the shade. Before you climb up into the fortress, check out the ornate plaster mihrab prayer niche in the tiny mosque by the entrance gate. The four-storey fort is large and labyrinthine enough to get completely lost among its tunnels, stairways and galleries, but you should eventually make your way up to the roofs of the Tower of the Wind and the Red Tower, both heavily-armed with ancient British cannon. If you have a torch to hand, you can explore the depths of the fort where warm water still runs through an ancient falaj channel.
Next stop, and last of the trio is the fort at Hazm, a squat desert castle on the plains. This impregnable fortress is a maze of rooms and passages inside ten-foot thick walls. Finish the day on the sandy beaches of the Batinah coast around the fishing village of Barka, or consider staying the night in Sohar, where there’s a heavenly beach of dark sand and a whitewashed fort dating from the 13th century. Near here is an enclave of little Indian tailor shops whose entertaining signs read ‘Tailoring of men-wearing apparel’. NORTHERN OMAN – WAHIBA SANDS A night under the desert stars and a day at the races
Spending a night Bedouin-style under a canopy of stars in the vast copper-red dunes of the Wahiba Sands is one of my fondest memories of Oman.
Any of Muscat’s hotels will sell you a trip to Wahiba Sands where you can go thrashing around in a 4X4 – and I’m not knocking it: the adrenaline rush as you climb and fall down the dunes at unfeasible angles is a real buzz. But there are more insightful ways to go about it, where you not only have a bit of fun, but come away with a better grasp of what life is like for ordinary Omanis in the 21st centry.
I arranged with Oman Travel to spend a day with Salim, a school teacher who moonlights as a local guide in the village of Bidiyah This is home to over 400 of Salim’s relatives, all members of the very extended al Balushy clan. We met at the edge of the village and kicked off with introductions to Salim’s immediate family in his home, before lunch was served (by the ladies, of course – sorry girls, but that’s just the way it is done in this part of the world!) In a room scented with smouldering frankincense and oud, we tucked in Omani-style, cross-legged on the floor, to a feast of fish and chicken with rice scooped up with fingers and flat bread, and rounded off with sticky dates and cardamom-scented coffee.
One of the amazing things about Oman is that amid this vast sea of sand are verdant oases that must need a lot of water to stay alive – but where does it come from? On the way to Wahiba Sands, Salim showed me the answer. Oman’s falaj irrigation system ought to count as one of the wonders of the world: it is an amazing network of wells that taps into the waters of a vast underground reservoir sitting deep beneath the dunes to feed an oasis of dates, papayas, bananas and mangoes. It is a quite staggering achievement in a country that sees almost no rain.
Next, the mountainous two-tone amber and honey dunes, sinuously sculpted by the wind beckoned – come and have a go if you think you’re man enough. So it was time for a spot of dune bashing, and we put Salim’s old Toyota 4×4 – the iron workhorse of the desert – through its paces before finding a likely spot to camp for the night. As we foraged for bits of dried scrub wood to get a fire going and began to prepare a feast in the middle of nowhere, I looked round: other than our tyre tracks, not a sign of humanity anywhere on the horizon. Then a bunch of Salim’s friends materialised out of the dunes, spilling out of their jeep up in billowing white robes and traditional embroidered pillbox hats known as kumah. How they found us there, I’ll never know – perhaps it was mysterious Bedouin navigation by stars and winds, but I suspect it had more to do with the modern miracle of GPS sat-nav and mobile phones. The wind whipped up as we settled down to a convivial evening of barbecued chicken and campfire debates about our very different lifestyles, families, and Allah. As the desert chill descended, we settled down to sleep under a dome of stars in total silence.
The sun peeked over the dunes to prod me into a crisp start to the day, but it was soon up to its fiery old tricks as we ploughed over the sands to the Bedouin camel races – a truly special experience. The bedu nomads make a very fat living from breeding and training racing camels these days – the Red Rums and Desert Orchids of the camel racing world exchange hands for phenomenal sums of money among the racing-crazy sheikhs of Arabia. But this was nothing like the huge organised camel races in places like Dubai: not only was I the sole tourist there, I was the only man wearing trousers. Once camels were raced by small boy jockeys, but that is now outlawed; these days, a remote-controlled robot device is attached to the camel’s rump to thrash the beasts up to a full gallop. So there’s lots of milling around and chat – and not a woman in sight, by the way – then they’re off! Everyone piles madly into Toyota pick-up trucks and follows the race alongside the track in an insane motorised scrum of churning wheels, whooping and shouting in a blinding, choking cloud of dust. Health and Safety inspectors would have a heart attack on the spot as the Mad Max convoy jousts for position just inches apart. And bookies have no place here as Islam forbids gambling, so this lunacy is all about the fun of pure sport and pride in owning the fastest camel. After the races were over, we headed back to Salim’s for a brunch of kidney bean stew and chakchoukah – a tasty hash of scrambled eggs and vegetables – before I said ‘ma’a salama’(goodbye) to Salim’s family and left with a unique insight into Omani life.
OMAN – GETTING THERE
Oman Air and BA flies direct from Heathrow to Muscat, or there are flights via Dubai and Abu Dhabi with Emirates who fly from Heathrow and Gatwick via Dubai
If you prefer to talk to a tour operator about sorting out a visit to Oman, the following specialists are members of the Association of Independent Tour Operators and offer a good starting point:
www.oman-travel.co.uk www.discoveregypt.co.uk www.audleytravel.co.uk www.bushbaby.travel www.coxandkings.co.uk www.regaldive.co.uk www.seasonsinstyle.com www.kudutravel.com www.lajoiedevivre.co.uk www.martinrandall.com www.walksworldwide.com www.wildfrontiers.co.uk www.silverbird.co.uk www.diveworldwide.com www.familiesworldwide.co.uk www.cadoganholidays.com www.explore.co.uk www.mountainkingdoms.com www.ramblersholidays.co.uk www.keadventure.com www.transindus.co.uk www.aceculturaltours.co.uk www.beachcombertours.co.uk www.migrationsafaris.com www.kirkerholidays.com
Getting around Muscat is a city that is designed around the car. Taxi fares can mount up, so hiring a car makes sense, particularly if you intend to travel out to the sights in the surrounding area.
The Chedi is part of a global group of sleek designer hotels where you’ll find style slave paradise. The location is not exactly convenient – it’s quite a way west of the main Qurum beach area, but if you can afford to stay here you’re probably not going to worry too much about a few extra quid for taxis to get out and about. And to be honest the Chedi is the sort of luxurious haven that you come to in order to stay put and pamper yourself rotten. The private beachfront area is lined with cosy yet classy cabanas kitted out with basketwork furniture, while the interior is a serious designer piece of work, with public areas exuding a Japanese-influenced Zen minimalism. That’s not to say it’s all stark and stripped out: plenty of trendy colonial touches such as cane furniture and velvety cushions soften the hard edges. The huge bedrooms work the same blend of minimalism-meets-colonial chic; naturally, they come with all mod cons – luxurious rain showers, flat screen TVs with endless satellite channels, Bose sound systems, iPod docks etc. If you can’t be bothered to go out in search of dinner, the classy (and suitably pricy) restaurant serves a wide-ranging array of Arabic, Mediterranean, Indian and Asian dishes and has been a fixture at the top of Muscat’s cuisine ratings for years on end.
The Chedi, Muscat, PO Box 964 Al Khuwair, Postcode 133, Muscat
Contact: 00 968 24 52 44 00
Cost £280 – £400
Services High-speed internet; 24hr concierge; fully-serviced beach area; two pools; two tennis courts; library; boutique and fine arts gallery; fitness centre
The Coral is that rare commodity in Muscat: a pleasant, clean and comfortable hotel at the budget end of the spectrum. It’s just a 15-minute drive from the airport in a peaceful enclave of embassies and posh hotels, and although the bargain price doesn’t buy you a beachfront location (the swanky neighbour the Grand Hyatt hogs all of the beach) the sand is just a few minutes walk away. The whole place has been renovated in recent years in a light and airy style with plenty of Arabic ambience. Simple bedrooms don’t aim to make any grand style statements, but many have oblique sea views through glass walls that open onto balconies, and are kept faultlessly clean. Staff are very welcoming too. The Beituti restaurant serves Lebanese cuisine, and you can relax with a hubbly bubbly pipe on the shisha terrace afterwards.
Shatti Al Qurum – Hayy as Saruj, PO Box 3951, Ruwi PC112, Muscat
Contact 00 968 24 69 44 04
Services: satellite TV and wireless internet in rooms; 2 restaurants; business centre; beauty salon; conference room
You want bling? The Grand Hyatt has enough to keep your average visiting oligarch or Emirati squillionaire in grand style. At the western end of the Qurum beach area, this is a palatial extravaganza with lashings of Arabic flavour and all the restraint and subtlety of a Las Vegas showgirl. Built on a scale that never fails to impress, you walk into vast marble acreages in the lobby, where a life-sized revolving statue of an Arab horseman takes centre stage. All around are some of the best restaurants in town, including the Tuscany Italian, the Middle Eastern Mokha cafe and the rooftop Grill House. After the blizzard of unrestrained glitz in the public areas, the bedrooms are surprisingly modern and minimal – and dare I say it – quite tasteful. Glamorous bathrooms with vast marble baths and walk-in showers boost the feelgood factor further still. While you’re at it you might as well go for broke and get a room with a sweeping view over the Gulf of Oman.
Shatti Al Qurm PO Box 951, Muscat
Contact 00 968 24 64 12 34
Cost £170 – £260
Services: 5 bars and lounges; 4 restaurants; business centre; bank and foreign exchange; bookshop; hairdresser and beauty spa; fitness centre; Davidoff cigar shop; fine art and jewellery shops; laundry and valet; babysitting
The Muscat Intercontinental is never going to win any prizes for good looks, but once you’re inside this is one very slick and polished hotel with a sky-high feelgood factor. You can’t beat its plum location in 35 acres of lushly exotic gardens right on Qurum beachfront, and those in need of retail therapy will appreciate its being right next to the Jawharat a Shatti shopping complex. Triangular black glass lifts glide silently up and down in the cavernous marble atrium lobby, where there are a half dozen restaurants and cafés spread around on ground and basement levels, covering all the culinary bases from afternoon tea with French pastries, to Italian, French-Polynesian and Mexican. The bedrooms have more than enough room to swing a cat, in fact a cat might get lost in some of them. Decor is as posh as you could ask for, done out in an impeccably plush style that makes maximum use of opulent fabrics. All rooms have balconies and French windows over the entire width of the room opening onto panoramic views over the swimming pools and the beach, or overlooking the Hajjar Mountains inland.
Al Kharjiya St, Qurum Al Shatti, PO Box 398 Muscat 114 Contact 00 968 24 68 00 00
Cost £130 – £360
Services Business centre: travel agent and car hire desks; day care and babysitting services; laundry; outdoor swimming pools; beauty salon and spa; various shops; the 900 sqm Palm Beach Club features 2 swimming pools, jacuzzi, steam room, sauna, plunge pool, gym and an aerobics studio. 6 outdoor floodlit tennis courts and 2 squash courts.
Ramada Qurum Beach
If your budget doesn’t run to a stay in the Chedi or the Grand Hyatt this sensibly-priced, business-oriented hotel is in the peaceful embassy area just off Qurum beach. Pleasant staff run the Ramada Qurum Beach Hotel with efficient friendliness to compensate for any lack of character in the building itself, which is built around an atrium lobby. Bedrooms are a touch bland, but perfectly clean, modern and comfortable. Most importantly, you can’t fault the price which is quite a bargain(by Muscat standards, anyway). Nearby, the Al Masa mall sorts out shopping, local coffee shops and shisha cafes, and there are plenty of restaurants in easy walking distance
Ruwi Sarooj St, Shatti al Qurum, Muscat
Contact 00 968 24 60 35 55
Cost £90 – £120
Services Restaurant; coffee shop; 24- hour room service, 24- hour business centre with free internet access, foreign currency exchange, laundry, WIFI, gift and jewelry shop, excursions and sightseeing organizers office, car rent, beauty salon
Shangri-La Barr al Jissah Resort
First impressions are that you’re rather out on a limb in this classy resort village on a stunning stretch of mountainous coast 30 minutes outside Muscat. But that’s hardly a problem as the Shangri-La Barr al Jissah is effectively a self-contained village replete with everything you could possible need, from a multitude of multinational dining options (South American, Omani, Indian, Italian, Spanish tapas) to shops, bars and cafes. The sprawling complex spreads along its own vast beach area in Al Jissah bay, with a spectacular rugged mountain backdrop inland. Effectively, this is three luxury hotels in one: Al Waha (“The Oasis”), is aimed at families, while Al Bandar (“The Town”) has a broad appeal, and Al Husn (“The Castle”), is the most exclusive section with prices to match. For aficionados of pampering, the Chi spa claims to be the largest and most luxuriously appointed spa in the Sultanate of Oman; treatments takes place in one of twelve private spa villas. All bedrooms are spacious and designed to reflect a taste of the traditional Arabian style of Oman, with artworks and imagery created by local artists, and many come with views of the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Oman and the dramatic coastline that you’ll remember long after you return home.
Al Jissah Bay PO Box 644, Postcode 100, Muscat
Contact 00 968 24 77 66 66
Cost £230 – £420
Services 8 restaurants; 7 lounges and bars; Chi spa and beauty complex; nightclub 24-hour Room Service; Babysitting / Child Care; Business Centre; Car Rental Service; City Shuttle Service; Complimentary Shoeshine Service; Conference Facilities; Disabled access; Florist; Foreign Currency Exchange; Gift Shop; Laundry & Valet Service; Library; Pastry Shop; Taxi & Limousine Service
Kargeen is an old Omani word for a wooden cottage, and an apt title for this laid-back and atmospheric oasis setting. The original Kargeen Caffe in the area of Madinat Qaboos (there are 2 more branches in the Al Harthy complex in Qurum, and City Plaza in Al Khuwair) is a taste of old Arabia where you sit outdoors in a delightful garden on cushioned benches in the shade of tamarind trees. On the menu are traditional Omani grills with Arabic bread eaten to a backdrop of bubbling water-pipes and fragrant smoke. It’s a particularly romantic setting when candlelit at night. But if it’s too hot for comfort outside you can move indoors to a chic East-meets-West air-conditioned room decorated with oriental rugs, wrought iron, high-backed leather chairs and squishy sofas. The menu trots the globe from local Middle Eastern staples such as hummus, falafel, labneh and foul (not as bad as it sounds – it is garlicky broad bean purée!) to old favourites including salads, burgers, jacket potatoes, pasta and pizza, and barbecued chicken and lamb.
Address Madinat Qaboos, PO Box 107 Al Wattayah, Postcode 118 Contact 00 968 24 69 22 69
Cost Main courses 3.500OMR – 6.900 (£6 – £12)
Indian food in Muscat is as top-class and authentic as you will find in Birmingham, Leicester or Southall thanks to Oman’s large expat Indian community. And nowhere comes more highly recommended than Mumtaz Mahal, a romantic and upmarket hideaway set on a hilltop among the mangroves of the Qurum National Park. With glass walls all around, the superb views from its lofty perch sweep across the coast and night lights of the city, while laid-back live music from a trio playing traditional tabla and harmonium accompanies a menu packed with old favourites and excellent treats from the tandoor oven. Go for machli masaledar (spiced kingfish), leg of mutton slow-cooked in the clay oven, or murg methi kebabs (minced chicken with fenugreek leaves) to start, then follow with something like Chennai murg masala (a south Indian dish of chicken cooked with coconut, curry leaves and black pepper. The wine list is pretty impresive too. For a bit of tabletop theatre, finish off with their famous ‘snake coffee’, flambéd at the table.
Address: Way 2061 near Qurum National Park
Contact 00 968 24 60 59 07
Cost Main courses 3 – 8 OMR (£5 – £13)
O Sole Mio
This smart Italian place has a pleasantly authentic Mediterranean ambience with Italian-styled frescos on the walls, terracotta-tiled floors, and waiters smartly kitted out with black jackets and bow ties. It sits in pole position in the Jawharat al Shatti complex, an easy stroll from the strip of swanky Qurum beach hotels. And before you think that Italian food in the Arabian Gulf can’t be much good, be aware that the Italian chef sources his materials diligently and knows what to do with them. You’ll find all the usual Italian suspects on the menu – Parma ham, calamari fritti, seafood or wild mushroom risotto, and pasta in its many forms with seafood and meat sauces including penne arrabbiata, tagliatelle with lobster and good old spaghetti Bolognese. Mains include grilled fish and meats such as lamb shanks or roast quail.
Address Jawharat A’Shatti
Contact 00 968 24 60 13 43
Cost Pasta dishes 4 – 6 OMR (£6.50 – £10) Main courses 7 – 12 OMR (£11.50 – £20)
Sometimes you just fancy something quick, simple and familiar to eat, so join the homesick expats who flock to D’Arcy’s for comfort food in the form of yummy sandwiches, burgers, soups and salads on the terrace outside the Jawharat Al Shatti shopping complex. The Omanis are not immune to the seduction of westernised nibbles either, judging by the cosmopolitan mix of clientele. It’s all there, from Greek salads to fish and chips, burgers, panini and all-day breakfasts, and apple pie or choc chip cake for pudding. Call in at any time of day, and if it’s scorching outdoors, the air-con interior is an attractive spot done out in summery Provençal shades of sky blue and lemon – perfect for settling into a comfy seat with something to read from the well-stocked rack of English language newspapers and magazines and whiling away a pleasant hour over a cappucino and cake. And – three cheers! – their prices are easy to navigate and include all taxes.
Address Jawharat A’Shatti
Contact 00 968 24 60 02 34
Cost Most dishes range from 1.5 – 4 OMR (£2.50 – £7)
Tuscany at the Grand Hyatt
There’s not a pizza in sight at this authentic Italian – far too downmarket for the swanky location in the oligarch-friendly Grand Hyatt. Predictably, then, this is not a place for those on a budget, but if you do splash out, what you get for your rials is an upscale romantic setting modelled on a Tuscan villa, and a kitchen that justifiably lays claim to turning out the best Italian food in Oman. Luxury ingredients abound on a menu that brims with interesting dishes – tuck into antipasti such as duck prosciutto, pan-fried scallops with truffles, or snails with garlic and lemon. Pasta dishes might include lobster ravioli, or spaghetti with seafood, while secondi run to the likes of fish stew with garlic and olive oil or roast pork with wild fennel. Book one of the wrought-iron tables on the alfresco marble terrace perched above the lush gardens for an extra touch of romance. Service from mainly European staff done up in their best black-and-whites is polished and professional.
Address Shatti Al Qurm PO Box 951, Muscat
Contact 00 968 24 64 12 34
Cost Antipasti 6-9 OMR (£9 – £15); pasta dishes 8-12 OMR (£12 – £20) Main courses 9-16 OMR (£15-£26)
Time difference GMT +4 hours
International Dialling Code 00 968
Exchange rate £1 = 0.60 Omani Rials (1 Omani Rial = £1.66)
Visas Obtain visa on arrival in Oman (6 OMR/£12) When to go January to April is the ideal time for winter sun. Temperatures are perfect for exploring by day, and soothingly cool in the evening. The summer months from June to October are witheringly hot.
Recommended Guidebook Bradt Oman £15.99 ISBN 1-841621-68-4
Further Information www.omantourism.gov.om
For the latest travel advice make sure to check the Foreign & Commonwealth Office website www.fco.gov.uk
EXPLORING OMAN – ESSENTIAL INFORMATION
Driving in Oman You can drive on a UK licence without a problem. If you book a hire car from the UK remember that most Omani hire cars are automatic, so specify if you prefer manual. Tarmac roads are generally in good condition, in fact most of Muscat’s roads put England’s cratered network to shame – you certainly don’t need an off-road vehicle unless you intend to leave metalled roads and explore the scenic wadis. Needless to say, you had better know what you’re doing if you want to venture off-road. Omani drivers are generally good by Gulf region standards, but tailgating is a national pastime. Although on-the-spot fines are given for using a mobile while driving, Omani drivers approach this with a cavalier attitude, travelling with one hand on the wheel, while the other holds a mobile phone permanently glued to the ear. Predictably in a muslim country, drink-driving is treated as a serious offence, and it is even illegal to carry alcohol in a car. A normal 2WD hire car is fine for all the ground I’ve covered here, but if you’re not confident driving overseas, you could sort out organised excursions from your hotel.
Shopping Haggling is the norm in souks and most small shops. Smarter boutiquey places in malls, department stores and supermarkets have fixed prices. Haggle for treasure and tat in the hole-in-the-wall Aladdin’s cave shops of Muttrah souk and Nizwa. These places are festooned with chunky ropes of coral, amber and jade and you’ll have endless fun rummaging through dusty and tarnished jumbles of Bedouin ankle bracelets and earrings – but bargain hard over prices. For designer clothes and more mainstream fixed-price shopping, try Muscat city centre mall or the Jawharat a Shatti centre in Qurum. If your flight to Muscat goes via Dubai, use stopover time to shop for cameras, clothes, jewellery and electronic items.
Eating out Don’t be deceived by menus that look cheap at first glance – remember the bill will be a touch heftier after you add on 17% in taxes and service charges. Although Omani cuisine is very meat-oriented (think kebabs, and more kebabs) a thriving Indian population means there are Indian restaurants all over the place, and that means vegetarians are sorted. The smart hotels in Qurum Beach offer a multinational cast of cuisines.
Hotel prices Don’t be a mug and pay hotel rack rates – look online to find the best deals, or consider sorting out a package with a specialist who can tailor-make any itinerary you like.
Ramadan A word about Ramadan. During the holy month and the following Eid festival, normal life grinds to a halt. Cafes and restaurants open at different times or sometimes not at all. It does no harm to be sensitive to the fact that Muslims are fasting, by avoiding eating, drinking and smoking in public outside of the tourist hotel strip of Qurum, where westernised lifestyles are the norm. On the other hand, Oman is in tune with its non-muslim visitors’ lifestyles and has gone as far as lifting the ususal ban on drinking alcohol during Ramadan, allowing certain tourist hotels to serve non-Muslims during the Islamic fasting period.