Located around 550 kms from Dubai makes Oman a preferred destination for short vacations and enjoyable road trips. My visit to Muscat over the Eid holidays introduced me to the glory of the Sultanate of Oman, although I was soaked in the sweltering heat of summer in June!
A relaxed and peaceful country, Oman offers several avenues to explore, unwind and rejuvenate. We began with Al Alam Palace which is one of the most popular tourist spots in Muscat. The palace of Sultan Qaboos presents a striking image at the end of a long boulevard with beautiful trees lined up on either side. Built in 1972, the palace is decorated in striking blue and gold colours and presents a majestic look as you approach it. One is allowed access only till the gate and you can admire the flamboyant architecture and palatial presence from the iron gate.
The palace is surrounded by Al Jalali Fort, which was built in 1580s by the Portuguese and guarded the Muscat harbor. While earlier it was used as a prison, it now holds the private museum of Omani heritage. The fort is located on a hilltop close to the corniche. It has a steep flight of steps and presents a beautiful view of the harbor.
Across the Al Alam Palace is the National Museum. A magnificent white building, the museum holds artifacts that display the heritage of Oman through its journey as a nation. This includes people, maritime history, arms, currency, world as well as several exhibits like the first royal throne. In a way, one could call Oman the land of Museums because it holds several other museums including People and Place Museum, Bait Al Barandah Museum, Children’s Museum, Natural History Museum, Omani-French Museum among others.
A picturesque drive down the road adjacent to the National Museum brings you an excellent view of the Marina at Bandar Al Rowdha. The drive gives you a spectacular view of the coast as well as cruises and boats while a spot atop the hill called Marina Views lets you sit and soak the glory in.
A short drive brings you to Muttrah Corniche which is best enjoyed in the evenings. Stroll down the corniche soaking in the view of the large ships, the lights, and the port on one side and lights, fountains, mountains and the city on the other side. There are restaurants lined up across the road and you can eat and take in the view as well.
Across the road lies the Muttrah Souq which is the market with Omani artefacts, antiques, jewellery and clothes. Stepping into the souq gives you a sense of the chaotic market vibes especially since I visited it during Eid! The souq is decorated with beautiful glasswork and paintings. Watch out for the glass artwork on ceilings! Understanding that Muscat was a trade harbor, location of the souq close to the corniche makes sense. You can pick up khanjar (dagger), Omani pottery, jewellery, kummas (skullcaps), Omani halwa (sweet), shawls, incense, spices and souvenirs.
A 20-minute drive brought us to Royal Opera House which is a majestic white building with ornate flower arrangements that give it a regal look. Hosting most cultural shows in Oman, the Royal Opera House has a concert hall, auditorium and art centre among other facilities. The architecture is striking with decorative designs even on the doors and signature chandeliers in the corridors. Operational since 2011, it represents the ruler’s affinity to classical arts and has hosted several dignitaries from the fields of art and culture across the world.
An addition to the coastline is Qurum Beach that is an ideal beach for evenings. Located in the hustling neighborhood of Qurum, the beach is filled with families and people playing and enjoying an evening in the waters.
While Muscat is dotted with several beautiful mosques, Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is the most splendid and magnificent mosque in Muscat. Landscaped with exquisite gardens and stunning architecture, the Grand Mosque is open and free for all. Made of sandstone with a capacity of holding over 20,000 devotees, the mosque is adorned with colorful mosaic designs. One of the most celebrated aspects of the mosque is its chandelier made of expensive crystals that add to its glory. The mosque is a splendid site and even at night, stands apart in the Muscat skyline. While closed for access at night, one can still move around the courtyard and soak in splendor and take photographs at night.
Oman is the land of the Wadis i.e. dry riverbeds and one of the popular haunts is Wadi Al Shab. Quick boat ride (1 Rial per person) across the waters followed by a grueling (especially in the heat!) long trek into the wilderness brings you to the wadi. The waters are a welcome respite in the heat and surrounded by large gorges give it a mystique of its own. There is a waterfall from the depth of a cave and crystal-clear waters to dip in or simply enjoy the view. The natural formation and being outdoors adds to the joy of exploring a wadi. There are several wadis that can be explored in Oman.
Enroute to the Wadi is Bimmah Sinkhole which is located 113 kms away from Muscat and located inside what is now called the Hawaiyat Najm Park. It is claimed the sinkhole was created by a meteorite and hence the name Hawaiyat Najm (caused by a falling star). With width of 50 meters and depth of 20 meters, the sinkhole is filled with turquoise water caused by erosion and collapse of rocks. It is a beautiful natural formation with approach steps to the water. One can swim in the waters too.
Muscat is designed with interesting squares and each square holds a distinctive motif/statue/artwork including anchor, boats, and water fountains in the shapes of large Dallah (Arabic coffeepot) pouring water into teacups, modern leaf designs, dolphins among others. The city is also replete with clock towers. Sea, coastlines, boats, sun, khanjars and dallahs are recurring motifs in Omani art and representation.
While it was a short stay, one of my most lasting images of Muscat will be the mountains and palm trees that line both side of the streets. Presenting an amazing mix of green and brown, they lend an authentic and distinctive identity to Oman.
If you can sustain the heat, do visit Oman to know its history and culture.