Calm, welcoming, quiet and probably what Dubai would have been (without the evident modernisation) about 20 years ago. This was my first impression of Muscat, Omans’ Capital city. My last impression was of a little Arabian Utopia. Oman is a subtle blend of old world charm and modern development. It has everything that Dubai does – on a much, much smaller scale and in a far, far more understated manner! Good shopping, great nightlife, lovely hotels, good beaches, excellent food, and none of the razzmatazz! Plus, you can head out to the countryside and explore a whole lot more from little mudbrick Omani villages to towering mountains and remote valleys with canyons and lovely wadis, from quiet little luxurious coastal hamlets to beautiful sand dunes, from seeing sea turtles nesting to experiencing old world culture.
From not really knowing what to expect when I got in, I was impressed!
The much revered Sultan Qaboos of Oman has brought about a sea of changes in this country – not only developmental and physical changes but also psychological changes in the minds of the Omani people. To them, he is a miracle worker. The history books tell us that Sultan Qaboos bin Said overthrew his apparently archaic and old-fashioned father in 1970 and has ruled the country ever since. Oman, 40 years ago, was backward and people lived in poverty. No electricity, no education for women, blind faith in religion, lack of infrastructure, no healthcare. All this has dramatically changed since he came to power. It is a modern, wealthy nation today. While he has an unusually tight grip on power in the country, he seems to have done wonders for it. The Sultan has no kids and is now over 70, so when I asked our guide about his heir, he said they don’t know. However, he said they trust him enough to know that he would have thought it through and will let them know when he’s ready to let them know! They have a lot of freedom and it was so uplifting to see so many women in the work force, including high level positions. The Omani’s pay no tax, get free housing and get paid to study! They have enough oil reserves to last them a couple of generations. A benevolent despot, one would think! We met a couple of French, Lebanese and Indian expats on our trip and they all had the most wonderful things to say about their life in Oman.
We started our trip in Muscat and stayed at the unbelievably beautiful Shangri La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa on the outskirts of Muscat. A 3 hotel property, this is THE place to stay! Secluded, with a beautiful beach, its own marina and just 15 minutes from town. We did see other hotels too, like the Ritz Carlton and were told The Chedi is probably the best. So there are no dirth of luxurious hotels in this city.
Our first visit was to the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat. And grand it is. Calm, peaceful, magnificent. The mosque has incorporated Islamic architecture from the world over. It’s one of two main attractions in Muscat – entry is free but its open daily only from 0830 to 1100 hours, except Fridays. So you have to get there early. You don’t want to be late anyway because as they day weard on, it’s hot, hot hot! Women must have the head, hands and legs covered while inside the mosque. It’s a stunning piece of architecture and should not be missed.
The other beautiful building in Muscat is the Royal Opera House in Muscat. Opera House? In an Islamic country? Sounds strange? It did to me too! The opera house is really beautiful and reflects contemporary Omani architecture. It was built on the royal orders of the Sultan Qaboos, who is an ardent music lover. The opera house is a premier destination for musical events from across the globe. To make it accessible to both the rich and poor, the cost of the tickets are kept deliberately low so as to allow everyone to enjoy and appreciate global music. We went to see the Welsh Orchestra while we were there and it was really grand. People were dressed up in formal wear and it was an evening to remember! It’s wonderful to be part of any performance, just to see the opera house. It does not have tour like the mosque does.
While in Muscat, we made a day trip to the 400 year old Nizwa Fort. If you are in Oman for a week, its well worth a visit. It is after all, the biggest fort in Oman. However, we in India, are a little spoilt when it comes to forts. Our impression of a fort is grand and a place where one can relive a bygone era of chivalry, romance and tragedies. No doubt Nizwa is a lovely fort, but not in the same league as the ones we see in India. Sorry Nizwa, I had to put my two-bit out there! Nizwa also has a lovely souk and livestock market where you can watch fervent bidding on camels, cattle and goats.
On Day 3, we headed out of the city through stunning, rugged mountain scenery towards Ras Al Jinz on the easternmost point of the Arabian Peninsula. The road network in this country is fabulous. So our travel through the country was seamless. Enroute, we stopped at Wadi Bani Khalid (about 200 kms from Muscat), one of the most famous wadis in this Al Sharqiyah Region of Oman. And no wonder! Crystal clear blue pools and beautiful waterfalls. It’s a popular place for adventure seekers and nature buffs. Try and go early morning before all the tourists descend here. If you’re hungry, it has a basic little café.
(Wadi bani Khalid is also possible enroute to or from Wahiba Sands. More on that a little later)
After lunch by the little green-blue pools, we headed off to what was the undoubted highlight of my trip to Oman. Ras Al Jinz. A must-visit place. It is home to the famous Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve - a nesting site for green turtles. Ras Al jinz means Circle of Life - so aptly named. Due to its unique location in the Indian Ocean, it is world renowned for nesting endangered green turtle. The public can watch this spectacular natural phenomenon twice a day and almost throughout the year. This eco-tourism activity is conducted under the hawk-eye supervision of the Ras AI Jinz Turtle Centre.
It is an unbelievable sight to watch a giant sea turtle emerge from the ocean (almost always at night) and lay about a 100 eggs in a deep sandy nest, almost through the night. Before dawn, she covers her sand nest so the eggs are not visible and makes her way back the ocean never to see her eggs hatch. Two months later, when the baby turtles hatch, it’s a wondrous site to watch them make their way to the ocean. Nobody to teach them how to walk or find their bearings. It makes you think of our babies who are hand held and fed for many years to come. And here are these little ones, who never get to see their mommy or daddy! Of a 100 eggs, less than 10% actually survive to make it to the ocean. On the same night, you can actually watch the mother turtle lay her eggs in one spot, and move over to another spot on the beach to see hatched turtles make their way to the ocean. The Circle of life! It was amazing to see!
Post my overnight philosophical musings at Ras Al Jinz (we stayed in their new luxury tents that night) we headed out to the deserts of Wahiba Sands the next morning. Wahiba Sands is a massive desert with big towering dunes, reaching almost 100m in some places. This was my first desert experience and it was outstanding! Quad bike riding on the dunes, dune bashing in a 4x4 and sliding down the dunes – awesome and highly recommended! I can’t wait to do it again – and take my kids too! I am a soft adventure person so this suits me! For the more adventurous, you could head much further into the desert and camp under the stars. Here it’s likely to be more untouched than on the fringes of the desert, where we were. What I did miss was a visit to a Bedouin camp – it would have been good to get a glimpse of their way of life in the desert.
Food: There isn’t really anything special about Omani food. It’s a blend of Indian and Arabic food. Outside Muscat, other than the hotels, you wont get really good food or find too many restaurants either. We were in Oman on invitation by the Tourism Ministry (the executive incharge of India is a lady!). No, I wasn’t asked to write this and I am not being paid for it. I wont say no if they offer though! So, if you asked me the cost of an average meal there, I would have no idea – my meals were all taken care of – by the Shangri-la, by the Intercontinental, by the basic café at Wadi bani Khalid…. But if you have a currency where Rs 160 is 1 Omani Rial i.e. double the Euro, you know its not going to be cheap!
The Omani’s are a warm, welcoming people – they love their Sultan and they love their country. Wouldn’t you if you lived tax free, got paid to study and got free land?! As I said earlier, a little Arabian Utopia! Don’t expect magic here – just simplicity and you’ll get that in abundance!
A few tips:
• Muscat is just 2 ½ hours from Mumbai – how convenient is that! You could hop across for
the weekend if you want!
• Getting a tourist visa for a single person (male/female) is near impossible. So pair up, gather
a few people or take the entire family with you!
• With 1 Rial = Rs 160, you can imagine it’s not a cheap country! Beach resorts tend to be 5
star but the ones in the city and out in the country are 4 star. You don’t need to stretch your
budget too much but don’t expect it to be cheap.
• Places to visit: Muscat, Ras al Jinz, Wadi bani Khalid, Wahiba Sands, Salalah & the
Mussandam Peninsula, Jebel Akhdar.
• Try not to miss Wadi al Nakhar in the Jebel Akhdar mountains, not far from Muscat. This is
• Oman’s answer to the Grand Canyon and where its highest mountain peak, Jebel Shams is
• Single travellers (male or female) will have difficulty getting a tourist visa.
• Most Omani’s understand and many of them speak Hindi. A little heads up!
• Adventure tourism is growing in popularity in Oman and it may be something you may want
to visit the country for - Trekking, desert camping, big game fishing, sailing and diving
• Best time to go: September to April, when the weather is at its coolest. Avoid July and
August at all costs.
• A week in Oman is ideal, so long as you’re not heading to Mussandam or Salalah – just
covering the area around Muscat.