Rowena Carr-Allinson shares the secrets
of one of her favourite destinations…
Oman, wedged between Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the Indian Ocean, is pristine and mystical. Almost entirely arid desert and mountains, the rugged golden rock formations tumble into the turquoise ocean below. Its most famous city, picturesque Muscat, founded some 900 years ago, is set on the edge of rough desert landscapes overlooking sparkling emerald seas and smoulders with traditional charm.
Today it’s a sought-after holiday spot for those in search of pristine diving waters, all-year-round sunshine and an authentic Arabian experience. Nothing like its glitzy neighbour, Dubai.
This was my third visit in a decade, something of a pilgrimage. Muscat will always hold a special place in my heart: the place where my now husband chose to spring a proposal on me, one knee in the sand…
Prayer Hall, Grand Mosque Sultan Qaboos
1. See The Sights
On the ‘must see’ list are the Mirani and Jalali Forts, both built in the 16th century by the Portuguese and the Sultan’s Al Alam Palace. A vision in turquoise mosaic and gold leaf, behind impressive black gates adorned with the Sultan’s coat of arms bearing a traditional Omani dagger, it was built in 1972, and apparently has a bowling alley in the basement.
The Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, or the king, as his people call him, is incredibly popular and we hear that he reinvests a substantial part of his oil income back into the country… which explains both the happy Omanis and the sleek infrastructure including giant roundabouts featuring huge golden coffee pots, dolphins and other assorted national icons.
2. Relax At The Shangri La Barr Al Jissah
We’re soon in the perfectly manicured wonderland that is the Shangri La Barr Al Jissah resort. Whitewashed buildings sit beyond a row of palm trees, wedged between the emerald sea and the jagged ochre mountains. The resort is made up of three properties, including Al Waha (the oasis), geared towards families, Al Bandar (the town), with several bars and restaurants, a glorious beach, giant swimming pools and a lazy river, and the smartest of the three properties, Al Husn (the castle) where, rumour has it, Kate Moss and Tom Cruise have stayed. Not together, you understand.
The six-star plush palace sits high on the cliff side and oozes luxury. The all Arabian golden décor is pure opulence, especially the vast lobby’s water features, complete with gold mosaic flooring and flamingos.
Our room, overlooking the beach, is sumptuous. Rich damson silks, marble and latticed mahogany panels set off the gold and bronze colour scheme. As part of a stay here one can laze in the sun, hit the beach or get pampered at the zen Chi spa…
3. Hit The Souq
The Muttrah Souq – a maze of tiny winding streets, where the heat, the hustle and bustle and the exotic aromas are dizzying – is the perfect place to pick up a souvenir or two. It’s a sea of black and white. Women are swathed in black ‘abayas’, while men wear white ‘dish-dash’ robes and embroidered ‘Krum’ hats. Small enough not to get lost in, it’s worth venturing off the main drag for better prices, and more authentic experience. Haggling is part of the fun. Shopkeepers are extremely friendly, and a smile and joke goes a long way, as does reverse psychology! The best buys include spices like saffron, kohl make-up, silver charms and the aromatic frankincense which, to me, has become synonymous with this country.
4. Go To Qantab Beach
Qantab, just a couple of miles from the Shangri La, has a beautiful tourist-free beach. On Fridays it’s busy with families out playing cricket, swimming fully clothed and picnicking. The sun is so strong it’s hard to stay long, but it’s a beautiful spot in which to sit a while, take in the natural beauty and sip a Seven Up from a can with an old-fashioned ring-pull. There’s not much else on this beach, so go for authenticity, not for a St Tropez style experience!
5. Go Diving Or Dolphin Watching
Oman’s waters are so unspoilt that the marine life is unique. It draws the world’s most die-hard diving fans, including Prince Charles. The waters are rich with reef and whale sharks, sunfish, barracudas and turtles too. If that sounds too ‘deep’, then head out to see dolphins frolicking in the surf, instead. There are plenty of excursions available, departing from Muscat or the big hotels and resorts along the coastline, which allow you to get up close and personal to the local flippers.
A great way to admire the coastline and see these friendly creatures in their natural habitat.
6. Drink At The Chedi
Another Muscat must is a visit to the Chedi. The all-white Moorish architecture and killer attention to detail make it one of the region’s most luxurious hotels. Each piece of furniture, each bit of greenery is pristine. The glamorous restaurant with its crystal chandeliers over food stations encased in glass is a mouth-watering odyssey – from Sushi to Patisserie. The desserts look especially scrumptious, from colourful rainbow layered cakes to delicious macaroons… but if budget is an issue, stick to a quick drink on the terrace. It’s a beautiful spot despite the still stifling heat at sundown…
7. Shop The Mall
For a more contemporary shopping experience, head to the Muscat City Center Mall just beyond the airport. The huge space has a great collection of western brands like Gap and Zara, but also US favourites Forever 21 and Banana Republic. You can also pick up a bottle of Oman’s favourite and very pricey perfume, Amouage.
8. Indulge In Gourmet Food
For dinner, the idea is to push the boat out. Well, almost. La Sultanah, one of Muscat’s finest restaurants is a kick back to the glory days of cruising. Set up in a chic ocean liner style with 30s inspired décor and views over the bay below, it feels plush and elegant. Details like the metallic banisters and swirling carpets in greys and blues add to the ambience, and the menu ‘sails to a different city’ every night – stopping in Sydney, New Orleans or Tokyo. Go local with Braised Omani Kingfish with a red pepper confit, or travel to Japan with a sampling menu of tuna tartar, tender beef Teryaki and miso soup in cute china coffee cups. The food is just as good as the staff, grinning from ear to ear.
9. Sample The Nightlife
Apparently the Park Inn’s rooftop bar is a hot spot, but as it’s shut due to a recent typhoon, we head to the new ‘Zouk’ at the Crowne Plaza. Its cosmopolitan crowd and the décor is Miami cutting edge cool. The girls leave their abayas behind, and just as in London, the smokers congregate outside, groups of lads queue in hope, and the wealthiest hang by their white Porsches to impress the ladies…
10. Celebrate With The Locals
Catch Oman’s National Day on 18 November when the celebrations for the Sultan Qaboos include camel races, traditional dancing, and light shows.
Muscat is a delight. Enjoy it as a destination in its own right, or take in more of Oman:
On the wish-list is a visit to the Musandam peninsula ‘up North’,
a trip to Salalah, the capital of the Frankincense trade, with a few days in the desert – and plenty more of those Omani breakfast pancakes…