an Arabia peopled by civilised Omanis, for aromas of frankincense, the
glittering Arabian Sea against a dramatic mountainous backdrop, date-palms,
watchtowers, elegant men in kummah (embroidered caps) and flowing dishdasha
(long robes), and a souk by the sea. Muscat brings all these together on a human
scale, despite snaking highways joining the dots of what was once a string of
fishing villages. Above all, the Omani capital presents a gracious and
accessible face of Islam: Oman will undoubtedly be one of the destinations for
What do you miss most when you are away?
sense of order spiked with quaint idiosyncracies, the climate (hot yet dry,
which a taxi-driver once told me was "useful") and the courteousness of the
people, who are educated enough to know that their oil will run out.
What's the first thing you do when you return?
for Muttrah bay to watch the dhows, catch the breeze on the corniche, and watch
old men sitting cross-legged, smoking and playing dominoes. For instant
fortification, I indulge in gooey-rich halwa made from black Omani cane-sugar,
butter, almond and saffron, which I wash down with a bitter local coffee at one
of the waterfront coffee shops.
Where's the best place to stay?
Hotel rooms in Muscat
are like gold dust, but I usually stay at the friendly Omani Beach Hotel, 116
Mina Al-Fahal, Shatti Al Qurum (00968 24 696601; www.motifoman.com; doubles from
£90 per night). Nothing fancy, but with a great location near the beach and a
cluster of little restaurants, so I can actually use my feet for once.
Where would you meet friends for a drink?
central Grand Hyatt in Shatti Al Qurum (24 641234) is a local favourite for a
discreet tipple, either in the calm recesses of the John Barry Bar (named after
a local shipwreck) or the Safari Pub, which really buzzes later in the evening.
For a more authentic atmosphere, I'd choose the rooftop bar of the Marina Hotel
in Muttrah (24 711711/879), which has fabulous sunset sea views to the tunes of
Where are your favourite places for lunch?
Café in Madinat Qaboos (24 692269; www.kargeencaffe.com) has ethnic designer touches, unusual for
Oman, despite its shopping-centre location, and a lovely courtyard garden. The
home-made breads, salads, houmous, moutabel (a spicy aubergine dip) and
barbecued meats are excellent and there are plenty of international dishes for
nostalgic expats too. The ever-expanding Turkish House at Al Khuwair (24 680306)
dishes up Turkish/Mediterranean cuisine with an Omani flavour, and though low on
style has a cheerful, fast and furious pace. It's functional, relatively cheap
and hits the spot. Be prepared to queue for a table.
And for dinner?
Mumtaz Mahal (24 605907) beats them all
hands down, and has awards to prove it. Located on Qurum's hilltop, it has
sweeping views of the coast and city below. This makes it an unrivalled
nocturnal spot, so booking is essential. The Indian cuisine is top-notch,
service friendly and professional and the wine list very respectable. It excels
at seafood but I rarely resist the Chennai murg masala (boneless chicken with
coconut, curry leaves and black pepper).
Where would you send a first-time visitor?
Grand Mosque (completed in 2001) is a stunning showcase of expertly crafted
Islamic design features. It also contains the world's largest Persian carpet, a
blindingly extravagant Swarovski crystal chandelier and surprising hi-tech
What would you tell them to avoid?
Any hypermarket or
shopping mall that a local tells you is fantastic: it won't be.
Public transport or taxi?
With a distance to cover of
about 25 miles from west to east, you really need wheels. Taxis are easy to come
by, safe and reasonably priced.
Handbag or moneybelt?
Definitely a handbag, as chic as
can be in this prosperous society. Many women in full black niqab clutch Chanel
What should I take home?
jewellery (old Bedouin silver or glowing 24-carat gold, both sold by the
weight), a khanjar (beautifully crafted Omani silver dagger), or attar
(essential oil) in a whimsical glass bottle and spices. The best place for all
this is the Muttrah souk, though bargaining is essential. For dazzling modern
necklaces of semi-precious stones go to the Rawabi Craft Shop (24 712500).
And if I've only time for one shop?
Muscat Turath, the
proverbial Aladdin's Cave at the heart of Muttrah souk, which has a wonderful
array of antiques, silver and chunky jewellery - you can spend anything from a
few pounds to a few thousand.