OMAN, LOOK AT THIS

Mus­cat, with its moun­tains and minarets, is a sight to be­hold

Sunday Herald Sun - Escape - - DESTINATION MIDDLE EAST - R O W E N A R YA N

Com­ing in to land at Mus­cat air­port I peer out the plane win­dow and in­stantly ex­pe­ri­ence the feel­ing I like to call my travel but­ter­flies. De­spite my jet lag, I am sud­denly alert as ex­cite­ment rises from the pit of my stom­ach be­cause I’m look­ing at one of the most spec­tac­u­lar sights – an in­cred­i­ble arid moun­tain range met by a white­wash of Ara­bian-styled build­ings.

Not ev­ery des­ti­na­tion will do this but when you ar­rive some­where like nowhere else you’ve ever seen it hits you, hard. Wel­come to Oman. The moun­tains I have seen are in the sandy-coloured Ha­jar Moun­tains which tower over Oman’s cap­i­tal city and they’re met by the daz­zling jade colour of the Ara­bian Sea. It’s dra­matic and the colours bold and beau­ti­ful. I’m in­stantly hooked.

Mus­cat is one of the Mid­dle East’s old­est ci­ties and so has an in­cred­i­ble an­cient his­tory – its 1700km coast­line was an im­por­tant trad­ing route at­tract­ing sailors and mer­chants from ev­ery­where. It’s dot­ted with forts and ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites dat­ing back to the third mil­len­nium BC.

For­tu­nately, my love of an­cient his­tory was in­stilled in me at high school by a pas­sion­ate teacher and I’m soon to learn that Oman’s her­itage is a source of im­mense pride for its peo­ple. I’m keen to learn more.

MUS­CAT

Mus­cat has rapidly trans­formed from a col­lec­tion of coastal vil­lages into a thriv­ing mod­ern city of 1.5 mil­lion peo­ple.

Ruled by its much revered leader, Qa­boos bin Said al Said – who suc­ceeded his fa­ther in 1970 af­ter a palace coup – he is cred­ited with mod­ernising the coun­try, cul­ti­vat­ing in par­tic­u­lar its arts and cul­ture.

I find my­self stand­ing on the rooftop of the Grand Hy­att ho­tel, in heat I can only liken to that of a fan­forced oven, gaz­ing back to­wards the hum­bling moun­tain range. Mus­cat’s sky­line of domes, minarets and white-painted build­ings are lit with a pink glow from the set­ting sun and I can con­firm I have ar­rived at my most favourite travel des­ti­na­tion yet. Here’s what not to miss.

SUL­TAN QA­BOOS GRAND MOSQUE

Per­haps the most fa­mous and big­gest land­mark of the city is the Sul­tan Qa­boos Grand Mosque. Built in 2001, its ex­te­rior shines with a gleam­ing, pol­ished, creamy pink In­dian sand­stone and its arch­ways and mo­tifs are a bril­liant ex­am­ple of Is­lamic ar­chi­tec­ture. With a ca­pac­ity for 20,000 wor­ship­pers, the mosque is enor­mous. What is even more daz­zling is the Swarovski crys­tal chan­de­lier hang­ing from the rooftop dome of the main prayer hall. One of the big­gest chan­de­liers in the world, its light re­flects the white, blue and gold dec­o­ra­tive mo­saic tiles around it.

An­other statis­tic for the record books is the Per­sian car­pet cov­er­ing the prayer hall floor.

Span­ning 4200sq m and weigh­ing 21 tonnes, it took 600 women four years to weave. It is the sec­ond largest hand-loomed car­pet in the world, beaten only by the one made for Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (a friendly sore point with the lo­cals).

The mosque opens ev­ery morn­ing, ex­cept Fri­day, to non-Mus­lims.

MUTRAH SOUK

This maze of al­ley­ways is at the heart of Mus­cat his­tory with store own­ers sell­ing their wares much like those hun­dreds of years be­fore them. Oman is fa­mous for its sil­ver­ware and you’ll dis­cover stalls of sil­ver jew­ellery, home­wares and in­tri­cate scab­bards made by lo­cal crafts­men.

Walk past hes­sian bags of spices, han­dle tra­di­tional Omani curved dag­gers called khan­jars, marvel at an­tiques and pot­tery while the un­mis­take­able scent of Oman’s fa­mous frank­in­cense lingers in the air. Af­ter hag­gling with stall own­ers, do as the lo­cals do – or­der a freshly squeezed lime and mint juice for the most re­fresh­ing sum­mer drink.

ROYAL OPERA HOUSE

Shin­ing starkly bright un­der the desert sun is the 1100-seat Royal Opera House. It opened in 2011 and is said to be the first of its kind on the Ara­bian Penin­sula.

Roy­ally dec­o­rated with red vel­vet seats, dark wood and gold mo­tifs, its cal­en­dar of events in­cludes bal­lets, mu­si­cals and opera. I am warned to ad­here to the for­mal dress at­tire (no ex­posed shoul­ders or dresses above the knee) and at­tend a mati­nee per­for­mance of Sail­ing through Time by Car­calla Dance Theatre.The story fol­lows the path of the Old Silk Road through Mus­cat, In­dia, Per­sia and Venice, il­lus­trated by more than 700 colour­ful cos­tume changes.

If you don’t catch a show, vis­i­tors can join guided tours Satur­day to Thurs­day out­side per­for­mance times.

WHERE TO STAY

It’s not of­ten that you ar­rive at your ho­tel only to be ush­ered in via the side door as burly look­ing se­cu­rity stands guard out the front. I’ve ar­rived at the Grand Hy­att Mus­cat and am shar­ing my stay with the Pres­i­dent of Pales­tine. I’ve never felt safer ly­ing by the pool sur­rounded by his armed forces. But once the pres­i­dent de­parts I can prop­erly take in this fa­mous ho­tel that lines a stretch of sand with views over the ocean and a de­sign that show­cases Ara­bian ar­chi­tec­ture.

If you’re look­ing for a ho­tel out­side of the city, Shangri-La Al Husn Re­sort & Spa is about 20 min­utes from Mus­cat and stands ma­jes­ti­cally on a clifftop over­look­ing the turquoise wa­ters of the Gulf of Oman. Its rooms look straight out on to the ocean.

Snag a daybed by the pool and staff will bring you a cool box with drinks and Evian wa­ter spray. Re­lax with a book or day­dream as yachts with coloured spin­nakers sail by.

In the evening, com­pli­men­tary cock­tails and canapés ac­com­pany en­ter­tain­ment from a lo­cal band.

THE WRITER WAS A GUEST OF BENCH AFRICA AND OMAN TOURISM

PIC­TURE: SUPPLIED

Find a gleam­ing pol­ished ex­am­ple of Is­lamic ar­chi­tec­ture in the land­mark Sul­tan Qa­boos Grand Mosque.

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