We’ve had Oman on our radar for quite some time. The opportunity to join a friend in Muscat for a long weekend came about so we went for it and with it the idea of scuba diving in the Gulf of Oman. We bought flights 48 hours before the departure. We flew Qatar airways, with a brief stop in Doha, in total taking about 10 hours from London. Although unplanned, the timing of the visit was fortuitous being from November to March is considered winter and temperatures are at the lowest. Our flight was relatively easy and we couldn’t worry less about a sleepless night because we were leaving a cold grey London behind and meeting the sunshine in Muscat.
Our first surprise in Oman was when drawing cash. The currency has a very high value – 1 rial is just over 2£. While there are airport taxis waiting outside they are generally more expensive so search for the local orange and white taxis. Meters don’t really exists so work out a price before. We paid 10 rial ( 22£) to the Grand Hyatt hotel where our friend was waiting for us. The drive on the big highway was quick and easy, taking us about 15 minutes. We were surprised with the location and the layout of Muscat. Set between the Gulf of Persia and mountains in the near background, we found out the city stretches for many kilometres. It is relatively sparsely populated for such a vast city, with extremely well organised rows of houses, buildings and highways. Without having a preconceived idea of what to expect we didn’t know whether we like it or not. It almost looked a bit sterile. I’ve never driven within the city so long to get from A to B. The only comparison to Muscat I could think of was Baku, Azerbaijan which is also by the water ( Caspian Sea ) and features impressive buildings.
We hopped in a cab again and drove good 15-20 minutes to the suburb of Muttrah for lunch, an area known for its souks (markets). Our taxi driver was quite confused but we managed to find the restaurant thanks to our loyal friend Google. We managed to bargain our taxi fair from 20 to 10 rial in 5 seconds (another trait that we noticed that driver will often suggest you pay what you think is fair). We immediately found Muttrah more charming than the sterile, yet extremely well organised, modern part of Muscat where our hotel was. We went for lunch at restaurant Bait al Luban where we indulged in local fish dishes – for a first meal in a new country it was an absolute winner!
This area is right by the Sultan Qaboos Port, where his two new personal gigantic cruisers are docked. We’ve never seen such genuine admiration and respect for a ruler as in Oman so the people don’t seem to mind these luxuries. Many locals were strolling around and to our relief we saw just a few tourists. The souk is not as interesting as souks in Marrakech or Grand Bazzar of Istanbul for example, speaking from my own experience as a professional souk navigator and bargain hunter. Most of the things for sale were imported and/or overpriced. The only original things are dates, spices and men’s traditional dresses and hats.
We took a short taxi ride to Old Muscat to Al Alam, ceremonial palace of the sultan. Sultan Qaboos images followed us all around – on buildings, gates, on street poles, cars… The palace is extremely impressive and well worth the visit ( from the outside at least ). From the palace we walked to the main road and visited the The National Museum – Sultanate of Oman, a great representation of the Omani heritage and one of best designed museums we’ve ever visited.
We stopped for a snack of very colourful juices and ice creams in a local coffee shop. Bare in mind, when it says ‘Coffee shop’, you’ll probably find only instant coffee, juices and fast food. We were surprised by the prices in Oman – even for London standard it’s expensive, from taxis to accommodation, shopping and restaurants (excluding the ‘coffee shops’).
We noticed that Muscat itself is wealthy, clean and organised. People are calm, friendly and open to foreigners. Its noticeable to see that tourist and foreign business is increasing in the city and that the infrastructure is keeping up.
After a whole afternoon wandering around and covering about 20 km of Muscat that day, we were dead tired from a sleepless night on the plane and sightseeing. We met a nice taxi driver that could speak decent English and we organised a desert tour with him for the following day. To be continued…
Oman: 4,155,125 people – Omani citizens stood at 2,325,982, expatriate numbers 1,892,143 (2015)
Governorate of Muscat: 1,3 million people (2015)
Currency: Omani rial
Best time to visit: November to March when the temperatures are at its lowest – daytime 23-26°C, evening about 18°C