From serene retreats and bustling markets to great snorkelling
The area With its dramatic setting in the Hajar Mountains, Muscat feels somewhat stuck in time. The pace of life here crawls compared to that of the rest of the Gulf. Yet this makes the capital an alluring destination. The city faces the azure waters of the Gulf of Oman with a vast expanse of desert lying between it and Salalah in the south, affording spectacular, dune-studded scenery equalling any on the Arabian Peninsula. Add to this the tapestry of jaw-dropping landscapes and a population that is as proud as it is friendly, and it’ll soon become clear why an ever-increasing number of visitors find themselves helpless to resist the country’s beguiling spell.
There are historic ruins, old forts and mosques aplenty – Barka Castle and Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque are well worth a visit. The souks, where you can buy anything from frankincense and fridge magnets to cushion covers and khanjar daggers, also should not be missed. But that’s not to say Muscat is entirely stuck in the past. The capital’s latest shopping centre, the Muscat Grand Mall, opened its doors in March 2012 and is the first mall in the Omani capital to feature a multiplex cinema. It also houses the largest food court and a children’s entertainment area, among the many international fashion brands.
The Chedi The Chedi is an exclusive retreat on the outskirts of Muscat. Perched on the shore of the Gulf of Oman, the hotel feels spacious, with its 158 rooms dotted around 21 acres of impeccably landscaped gardens adjacent to a vast private beach.
The low, whitewashed Omani-inspired architecture has a distinctly Asian influence and the grounds feature numerous giant, crystal-clear, shallow rectangular ponds, broken up with paths and mazes of topiary. Wafting into the reception via the complimentary airport chauffeur service is a seamless experience and the suite is elegant and expensively understated. The uncluttered interiors are stylishly restrained and feel like a testament to minimalist design.
At sunset, the arty lighting throughout the grounds creates a magical atmosphere. A relaxed, romantic destination, it’s not primarily a family hotel and, although there’s a large pool for kids, there’s a sense that Zen-like serenity takes precedence.
In terms of food, there’s a selection of options, including poolside, al-fresco locations, and a wide variety of good-quality but expensive restaurants. The hotel also features three spectacular pools and a recently opened, world-class Balinese spa and health club.
Out on the water Once I wake from my slumber, I arrange an early-morning boat trip from the Marina Banda Al Rowdha, where I’m rewarded with the surreal sight of dozens of dolphins feeding on a school of sardines. Cruising back, I’m shown the bright blue and yellow retro palace of the Sultan and the adobe colonial Portuguese Al Jalali and Mirani forts. Al Jalali is perched atop a rock face where previous visitors to the port would graffiti the name of their ship, creating a logbook that dates back hundreds of years. Next stop is the popular Muscat Corniche, where the Sultan’s imposing super-yacht is moored. The trip also takes in a small cove, set against the backdrop of an old Portuguese graveyard – the calm, shallow waters and coral reef offer perfect conditions for snorkelling. Sidab Tours arrange dolphin-watching trips for approximately BD15 with hotel transfers. www.sidabseatours.com (+968 9946 1834).
Sightseeing Once ashore, I head to the old town for a wander around the Muttrah Souk. Due to Muscat’s strategic position between China and India, Muttrah is thought to be one of the oldest markets in the Arab world.
Everything from frankincense to fake football shirts, silver jewellery and traditional Omani costumes is for sale among the warren of makeshift stands and tiny shops. Gastronomes should also keep their eye out for the wide array of exotic spices and other cooking ingredients on offer.
In less than half an hour’s drive, I’m at the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque – the serene, sandstone landmark is one of the largest mosques in the world. Commissioned by the long-serving sultan in the 1990s, it’s worth remembering to dress conservatively (women need to bring pashminas) and that it’s only open in the morning – it’s also closed to visitors on Fridays.
The mosque features an enormous, intricate hand-woven carpet (the second largest in the world). The main minaret reaches 90 metres high and the mosque contains a library and a school for Islamic studies. A glimpse of the formidable Opera House on the way back to the Chedi causes me to pause again, as I reassess my initial assumptions about the Sultanate’s casual contentment – it seems I’ll have to visit again before I can make true sense of this jewel of the Middle East.
Need to know
Getting there Gulf Air flies direct to Oman from BD71. Muscat International Airport is a fair way from the city centre, so expect to pay around BD10 to get to your hotel. It is also possible to drive from Dubai to Muscat, which takes about five hours.
Where to stay The Chedi Muscat is offering a deal for two nights in a Serai room for BD325 or a deluxe room for BD380 per person, based on double occupancy. Valid October 1 to December 23 2012. Al Khuwair, Muscat, www.ghm.hotels.com (+968 24 524 400).
What to see Visit in January for the annual Muscat Festival, which includes Muscat Fashion Week and Oman Food Festival, as well as Arabic concerts. Dates for the 2013 festival are yet to be confirmed: keep an eye on the website for details. www.muscat-festival.com.
Visas Visitors are required to purchase a tourist visa for approximately BD5 upon arrival. This can be obtained at the airport.
Bahrain to oman
Flight time: One hour 30 minutes from Bahrain. Time difference: One hour ahead of Bahrain BD1 = 1 Omani rial