OMAN, LOOK AT THIS
Muscat, with its mountains and minarets, is a sight to behold
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 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.
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
Find a gleaming polished example of Islamic architecture in the landmark Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque.