Destination: The Sultanate of Oman
As part of our two-week trip across the Arabian Peninsula, Carrie and I traveled by car to the Sultanate of Oman. We spent the first week traversing the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates and the second week we split between Oman and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Oman ranks as a popular travel destination for the region, because of its unique architecture, storied past and traditions, and genuine hospitality. The Government of Oman has made tourism a central part of its economic development and the Ministry of Tourism has appropriately developed the slogan, “Beauty has an Address ~ Oman”. Over our three day visit we discovered just that, a spectacularly clean, safe, and welcoming country.
Oman and Tourism
For as long as I can remember I have dreamed of traveling to Oman, a seemingly alluring land isolated in the the far southeastern corner of the vast Arabian Peninsula. I had always envisioned my first experience walking along the Mutrah Corniche in Muscat, with the ever present rugged mountains looming in the background, and the fisherman in their dhows floating in the calm bay tending to their catch, as the afternoon call to prayer echoed throughout the city.
Travel and trade have long been a central part of life in Oman, which is situated perfectly at the confluence of the Arabian Peninsula, the Gulf of Oman, and the Arabian Sea, making Oman a natural point of embarkment to South Asia, East Africa, and destinations beyond. The impact of its position as a center for travel and trade can be felt today, with its diverse population, rich variety of food, and a genuinely friendly and welcoming people, making Oman a comfortable, safe, and inviting destination for travelers.
In an effort to diversify the economy away from oil, the Government has taken a proactive approach to promoting tourism to the country, which if you have seen photos of the country’s sweeping beauty, should not be difficult. Oman offers some of richest cultural experiences in the region, as well as a diverse landscape ranging from a rugged mountains interior to a near tropical landscape in the far south bordering Yemen, plus 2,092 kilometers of coastline. The Government has actively implemented policies that protect its environment and wildlife, signaling the importance its has placed on tourism as the future engine of socio-economic development.
We entered Oman through the Khatam Malaha crossing with the UAE, just south of Fujairah in our rental car from Budget-a white Nissan Sunny. Travel by car from the border crossing to Muscat is a relatively easy, scenic three hour drive as long as you are not a timid driver. Our experience with driving in Oman was fairly similar to that of driving in the UAE; fast, aggressive, and at times dangerous. Oman, like the UAE sadly has a very high traffic fatality rate so be careful when driving. The roads, I am happy to say, are in excellent condition, thanks to major investments by the Government, with nearly all of the country’s roads built in the past 30 years. An important note, when taking a rental car out of the UAE you are required to get special Omani insurance, have a car larger than an economy-size, and ensure you have paperwork stating you have permission to take the car out of the country. You will be asked for all of that at the border crossing, oh and it’s against the law to bring alcohol into Oman.
Where to Stay in Muscat
Crowne Plaza Muscat
I chose to stay at the Crowne Plaza Muscat (booked on hotels.com at $264 a night), not far from the Royal Opera House Muscat, because of its spectacular location overlooking the city, its coastline, and the Gulf of Oman. The hotel had received glowing reviews. I redeemed a free night stay that I had earned with hotels.com, and since I saved on the overall cost I opted for an upgraded room that came with a large balcony overlooking the pool area and the Gulf of Oman. The balcony was the best feature and perfect for the gorgeous sunsets each day. The hotel offered direct access to the beach, as well as a large pool and a bar, and was ideally situated a short distance from Mutrah, the old section of Muscat.
Our first evening we enjoyed the warm late November air with drinks on our large balcony as the lights of Muscat flickered off in the distance and the waves crashed below. We toasted our arrival in the Sultanate of Oman, the perfect start to a memorable destination.
Accommodation in Muscat is very expensive, $120-$265 a night for a mid-range hotel. Our stay at the Crowne Plaza was not the most impactful aspect of our trip, but our decision was driven by the value the hotel added to our stay (location, pool, and beach), plus the redemption of a free night made the trip much more affordable for us.
Where to Eat in Muscat
For breakfast one morning we were determined to find a local bakery outside of the tourist area in Mutrah and eventually ended up at a Pakistani bakery, that offered an affordable and traditional selection of Pakistani breakfast foods. Carrie having just flown in days before from Lahore, Pakistan was familiar with the food. We grabbed several pieces of warm chapati, a bowl of daal, sweet rice, and two samosas all for about $1.50 and ate on a bench along the Mutrah Corniche overlooking the harbor and several dhow.
Al Boom Restaurant
One of the aspects of traveling to Oman that I most anticipated was the food. The food scene in Oman, a product of its location, beautifully blends a mixture of Arab, East African, and South Asian. After reading a positive write-up in Time Out Muscat, we decided to have dinner at Al Boom, located along the Mutrah Corniche in the Marina Hotel. The rooftop terrace restaurant that overlooked the lit-up corniche and harbor, is one of the few restaurants that serve alcohol outside of the major international hotels. The warm evening breeze, the hum of the vibrant corniche below, my aromatic seafood biryani, and cold Heineken were a perfect conclusion to our last night in Muscat.
Partially intrigued by the name Lulu (the name of one of our cats) and by what local foods we would find at a grocery store in Oman, a stop at Lulu was necessary. For lunch we grabbed some samosas and a chicken tikka roll from the bakery. We also bought Oman produced dates as gifts , and some maamoul. The rich diversity of the country was apparent in the store as foods from South Asia, the Middle East, and Europe were readily available.
What to See and Do in Muscat
Mutrah Corniche and Souq
Easily the most iconic image of Muscat is the moon shaped Mutrah Corniche. Mutrah, the old port area of Muscat, isolated from the rest of the city by the looming rugged mountains, is a must see in Muscat. The capital has long outgrown mutrah and is now a sprawling city hemmed in by the Arabian Sea to the north and east and the Al-Hajar Mountains to the south. The ever present rugged mountains are a common feature throughout the city.
The Mutrah Souk, a dense labyrinth of market stalls that for centuries sold frankincense, myrrh, and spices and goods from across the world, now to a large extent sell tourist trinkets, such as ornate frankincense burners and traditional Omani male Kuma and Massars. If you wander long enough though the souk you eventually make your way to the area where the locals shop and if you are in need of essential items this would be the best place to get them.
A short drive south along the coast from the Mutrah Corniche is the administrative heart of Oman and the Sultan’s Al Alam Palace. In between Mutrah and the administrative area is Muscat’s Old Watchtower. Given that it was designed to protect the city from invading armies from the sea, the Old Watchtower now provides spectacular panoramic views overlooking the Gulf of Oman, the rocky shoreline, and the Mutrah Corniche. As we climbed the stairs to the top of the tower a fisherman speeding by in his boat shouted to us “Welcome to Oman!” That act of genuine hospitality was constant throughout our time there.
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
Along the main highway in Muscat is the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, free to enter and a must-see for any visit to the city. The mosque, built as a gift to the people of Oman from the Sultan, is unassuming from a distance, but absolutely breathtaking inside the main prayer hall. The sheer expanse of the main prayer hall and its intricate Persian rug, gleaming chandeliers, and the Islamic architectural design of the windows, walls, and ceiling will leave you in absolute awe. The mosque once known for possessing the largest Persian handwoven carpet in the world (that accomplishment now rests with the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque), can accommodate 20,000 worshippers.
As the tourism slogan suggests, Oman is indeed a beautiful country. Travel has long been a part of life in the country and Omanis are well accustomed to travelers. We made the most of our trip by eating in local restaurants.
Backpacking with the Bonds