The city that gave the world Sinbad the Sailor feels like a fairytale and
smells fabulously of frankincense. Muscat, the capital of Oman, is perched on
the horn of the Persian Gulf, surrounded by a 2000-kilometre coastline. Muscat's
history dates back 5000 years, which gives the city a timeless feel, though in
recent years it has been cantering at a steady pace into the 21st century.
Muscat is just 400km and a comfortable 45-minute flight from the skyscraper city of Dubai, although it could not be a more different neighbour.
It was a proud runner-up for the "cleanest city in the world" title and this
enchanting capital, with a population of 600,000, is normally quiet, peaceful
and green, as though the tidy fairy waves her wand over the pristine houses each
morning sprucing them up for yet another day.
The battering and loss of life caused by the 176kmh winds of cyclone Gonu
last month were a terrible shock to a country proud of its reputation for safe
travel. But Oman, which has a population of 3.2 million, is recovering quickly.
It seems little structural damage was done and with these next few months being
low season (it's even too hot for the locals) by September, when tourists
return, business should be almost back to normal.
Muscat is ideally located on a narrow coastal strip with the clear waters of
the Gulf of Oman on one side, dramatic mountains on the other. A drive along the
corniche evokes the Riviera but the architecture, with its clean, square lines,
is pure Arabian, an example being the studded doors. No new building can be
higher than six storeys, dirty cars incur a fine and home owners have to comply
with certain house paint colours in specific areas.
Shady date palms under-planted with manicured hedges or colourful lower beds
trim city streets as they meander around magnificent roundabouts. Street
directions and locations are often given with a specific roundabout reference.
Notable among these are the Al Bustan roundabout with its replica of the dhow
reputedly used by Sinbad on his journey across the seven seas, a giant brightly
coloured traditional frankincense burner, an over-sized Omani-style coffee pot
and another depicting three golden jars spilling over with water.
Visitors throng to central Mutrah Souq where, as in decades past, burning
incense wafts through narrow alleyways, antique silver amulets and necklaces
cram narrow shops, bolts of glittering fabrics and braids from India are on
display and finely decorated khanjars, or daggers, ceremonially worn by men in
their belts line shop walls. This dagger is also the national symbol.
Market folk would rather chat than hassle for sales. There is an almost
lethargic feeling of: if you want to buy it, you will.
Men wear delicately embroidered caps called kumas and gather in cafes, often
sipping on strong Omani coffee flavoured with cardamom, saffron or cinnamon.
Their dishdasha, or long shirt-dress, is different to others in the Middle East.
It's trimmed with an elegant neck tassel, which they spray with perfume. In this
land of frankincense and myrrh, Omani men love perfume and will have three or
four at the ready.
Frankincense was once considered more precious than gold and is produced from
the aromatic resin of the Boswellia tree that grows in neighbouring Yemen but
excels in the harsher monsoon-lashed mountains of Dhofar province in the south.
So prized was this Dhofari incense, it is said that the Queen of Sheba hand
delivered some to King Solomon herself and, of course, it was among the
legendary biblical gifts of the Three Wise Men, along with gold and myrrh -
another locally produced incense.
Frankincense is the must-buy souvenir from Oman; you can smell its gentle
perfume everywhere. It is burned daily in homes to rid them of cooking smells
and is used in locally produced perfumes. In fact, Oman is the home of Amouage,
marketed as "the most valuable perfume" in the world - "we don't take into
consideration the expense" - whose blends of scents include those biblical
ingredients along with flowers, fruits, spices and petals from rock roses that
grow wild in a hidden valley in the mountainous Jebel Akhdar near Nizwa.
This is a Muslim country where the majority of Omanis. Go early to the Grand
Mosque whose imposing frame houses massive European crystal chandeliers, one of
the largest carpets in the world and can accommodate up to 20,000 people. The
women's prayer room pales into insignificance somewhat after the men-only main
prayer area. Sultan Qaboos built it at his own expense to mark his 30th
anniversary in power.
Oman is considered by the United Nations to be the Gulf's safest country. It
is listed number 22 on the 2007 Global Peace Index - the highest of all Gulf
countries and three positions higher than Australia.
Once occupying a much larger area with outposts in Zanzibar and Mombasa,
today it is bordered by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to the west
and Yemen to the south, with enviable coastlines that edge the Gulf of Oman to
the north and the Arabian Sea to the south-east. Its clear waters produce
excellent sardines and lobster.
Its strategic location on the southern entrance to the Gulf has only ever
been seriously eyed by the Portuguese, who invaded in 1507 and took over the
coastal stretches for some 150 years. Their defensive forts became the blueprint
for Omani forts that today dot the desert and mountainous countryside. The
Portuguese-built forts of Jalali, Mirani and Mutrah remain prominent on Muscat's
Following internal bickering, the division of the country into north and
south sultanates and the reluctance of the then Sultan Said bin Taimur to invest
oil revenues in infrastructure, his son Qaboos bin Said led a bloodless coup in
1970 and started a modernisation program as soon as he was ensconced in the
palace. The English-educated Sultan Qaboos, has provided free education up to
tertiary level and medical care, delivered electricity to outlying villages,
offers land to his subjects on their 24th birthday and has instigated an
"Omanisation" policy to employ and train Omani staff in all facets of business,
from car washes to hotel managers. The Sultan is not warfaring by nature,
despite the cross swords and traditional khanjar on the national flag. Stories
of his generosity abound, such as marking his 25th anniversary in office by
presenting his 24 government ministers with brand new Audis.
While the rest of the Gulf is billiard table flat, Oman has a varied
landscape with majestic rocky mountains that buffer the northern coastal plains,
a huge golden sandy desert that stretches south from the Western Hajar mountains
to the Arabian Sea and lush palm-filled wadis, or dry creek beds, that become
flowing torrents after rain. In the dry season, these wadis are virtual oases
where children love to swim.
Most visitors stay for a few days and visit the north-eastern corner around
Muscat, Nizwa and Sur, or stay for eight days or more and see the whole country
down to Salalah in the province of Dhofar.
However, with limited time, we cover good ground in the north via Qurayat,
lunching on the snow-white beach at Bamah before venturing up Wadi Shab,
considered one of the most gorgeous destinations in Oman. However, with the
summer temperatures in the high 30s, we decide not to trek very far into the
gorge but hear from other walkers emerging from the shaded path about water
holes, abundant birdlife and a rewarding cave at the end of the path.
Our route is along the half-sealed new highway, a joint venture between the
sultanate and India and China, with imported labour from both those countries
working on it in exchange for gas. In the fishing village of Tiwi, we spy a
date-picker in a makeshift safety harness up a laden palm tree. We stop and
beckon him to throw a few down. My driver and guide, Ali, catches them in his
dishdasha, held up like a kitchen apron, and we savour them as we head for Sur.
Dates feature strongly in Omani cuisine in dishes such as halwa - the national
treat made from slow-boiling dates with rosewater, cardamom, saffron, nutmeg and
almonds to create a gooey sweet that is served off a spoon with strong Omani
Sur is primarily a fishing village and spreads around a lagoon where 20 or
more mosaic-topped minarets punctuate the low skyline. Famous throughout the
Gulf region for its unique hand-crafted dhows, it has the only remaining
ship-building yards of their kind in the world. Where once there were five
ship-building enterprises strung out alongside each other, today Juma Hassoon
Al-Araimi is the sole survivor.
The easterly point of Ras al Jinz is one of the few nesting sites in the
world for the giant green turtle. In the moonlight, we witness two large females
struggling up the beach as they search for nesting spots. Each year, about
20,000 turtles come to lay eggs, which hatch after two months. The site ranger
releases a hatchling gently into the shallows in an effort to outsmart
The heat haze next day almost blanks out the mountainous backdrop as the road
carves its way through the arid countryside where wild camels and goats make
light of the 40-degree day. We cross dry creek beds scattered with date palms
and small sand-coloured villages that blend in with the harsh environment.
At Nizwa, the former capital of Oman, we tour the circular fort built in 1643
to defend the adjoining castle that dates back to 851. Invaders were deterred by
seven barricaded doors; five with overhead shafts for a surprise dousing with
boiling date syrup, and booby traps below. The town is also famous for its
lively Thursday morning livestock market. Nearby is beautiful Jabrin Castle
built in 1670 to protect the local henna plantations. More than 20 Omani forts
are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Accommodation in the country is modest but clean and comfortable. With
tourism increasing, several new up-market city hotels have opened in recent
years. Foremost among these is the exclusive Chedi Muscat resort which has won
numerous awards for its food, service and architecture including a Conde Nast
Traveler Reader Award for two years in a row.
With the country's basic infrastructure now in place construction has begun
on a new airport, reputedly to be the largest in the Middle East. It will open
in 2010, ready to welcome up to 12 million visitors a year.