As a schoolgirl in Mumbai, I often stood at my window and peered past buildings and dusty trees at a patch of silvery grey. The Arabian Sea sparkled even on those dreary afternoons filled with logarithms and English grammar. And I often wondered where I would arrive if — instead of swotting — I jumped into the sea and swam and swam till I hit land.
The Atlas supplied the answer. I would reach Oman.
The problem was, I didn’t particularly want to go to Oman. I wanted to explore Harrods and eat hamburgers in America. Oman hardly figured in movies, books or the average travel fantasy. And for many years it remained an unobtrusive land across the waters — a Gulf country that was not razzle-dazzle like Dubai, controversial like Saudi Arabia or cricket-crazy like Sharjah.
Then one day, three decades after I contemplated that swimathon, I crossed the Arabian Sea. As the Oman Air flight travelled along familiar latitudes and disgorged us into an airport loud with Hindi, I reviewed my meagre store of notions. Rich Sultan. Islamic nation. Desert. Dates. Oil.
So I’m utterly unprepared for Muscat.
The car whizzes along a distinctive cityscape of white and black, blue and gold. Squat houses — a Legoland in cream and beige — merge into lime-stone hills. Nothing detracts from the black mountains, aquamarine sea and big, big sky. No glitzy highrises, no discarded packet of chips, no graffiti. The rare pedestrians are men in bright, white dishdashas. And only the cheery petunias stray from the colour palette.
“Our tallest building is just 14 floors,” explains Sumit, a guide with Zahara Tours. Sumit is a Delhi lad, but seven years in Muscat have granted him bragging rights. Indeed, he is so Omanised that he worries about traffic if he spots five cars. And has even undertaken a two-year-long diet of watermelon and 27 dates a day. “We Omanis don’t believe in blocking the mountains and sea and spoiling our natural beauty,” he announces. “In 2011, Muscat was voted the second cleanest city in the world. This place is not about nightlife. It’s about peace.”
As the car passes hills topped with crenellated watchtowers and Portuguese forts, Sumit lobs facts and stats at us. The new Muscat airport will be the largest in the Middle East. The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is the third largest in the world. It has the biggest Persian carpet and second largest chandelier. “Others want to outdo us,” he shrugs. “But we are not interested in competition.”
We proceed along the Sultan Qaboos Road past the Sultan Qaboos Port and then onto the Corniche, a charming stretch lined with Gujarati-style houses and the Swarovski-scattered sea. We catch a glimpse of the Sultan’s yacht — the one with the helipad and orchestra. Next comes Sultan Qaboos’s latest building project, a grand Parliament House. And finally we reach the Al Bustan Palace Hotel — built, of course, by the Sultan himself to host a conference in the ’80s. “I have travelled in 17 countries,” says Sumit. “But never seen a hotel lobby this beautiful.”
Bloated with facts and impressions, we step into the opulent lobby with an octagonal atrium — gleaming with carved wood, gold leaf, gilded twigs and cascading chandeliers. Everywhere, gobsmacked tourists are clicking away. Sumit beams.
Up in my room, snacking on a complimentary rose-flavoured chocolate and gazing at the Parliament House, I ponder. Why does an absolute monarchy need a snazzy Parliament House? Why does everything here seem so new? Why would an Islamic ruler build a Royal Opera House? How come not one person wants to paint her house sunflower yellow? Or hang a potted plant?
That evening, I have dinner with friends — old Muscat hands — at the pretty Kargeen Restaurant. Sitting in the garden and sipping a lemon-mint drink, we watch tourists and Omani men in dishdashas and turbans puffing away on sheeshas. (‘Pleasure without Regret’, promise the advertise-ments). And I feel increasingly intrigued by this oasis of tranquillity in the Middle East.
The next morning, armed with questions, I stand outside the blue and gold Al Alam Palace. Sultan Qaboos doesn’t live here, he merely uses it for ceremonies. But, this is the closest I’ll get to Omani royalty.
The Al Alam Palace is a modern structure built by Shapoorji Pallonji as recently as 1972. But then, in the years between 1932 and 1970, Oman was paralysed by the feudal Sultan Said. That Sultan, who was educated in Ajmer, isolated his kingdom. Newspapers and radios were banned. The country’s oil resources were neglected. Even wearing spectacles was frowned upon. “There was nothing. No roads, no schools,” the Omanis agree. “Muscat was a small port visited by Gujarati boats.”
Meanwhile, Sultan Said’s son, who had studied in Pune and the UK, was placed under house arrest. In 1970, the prince staged a coup. Then the new Sultan Qaboos started building a modern nation — complete with palaces, perfumeries, orchestras, 1,500 schools, universities, bump-free roads, curly-twirly street lamps, sports stadiums and grand mosques. He made education free and compulsory for boys and girls. He insisted that women learn to drive. He introduced stern rules: No littering. Houses must be painted white, cream or beige. Houses cannot be built in the sloping-roofed, “European style.”
Although Sultan Qaboos’ portraits and handi-work are everywhere, the man himself is a mystery. Nobody knows if he is married or has an heir.
This story may sound like a potboiler, but it explains why Oman is only now emerging as a travel destination. Why so few people know about its stark beauty — the interplay between harsh sunlight and looming shadows; velvet sand dunes and twisted volcanic rock; the impenetrable silence of a night in the desert. And why, even when the world fits into a hand-held device, Oman is as full of surprises as dyspeptic camels.
On our first morning in Muscat we glide into the Gulf of Oman and spend an hour with about 100 dolphins. We are close enough to identify a flashy Spinner (clearly the local Shah Rukh Khan) and a peppy baby Bottle Nose. The experience is so spectacular that, although we are a bunch of veteran travel-writers, we shed our ‘been there, bought the T-shirt’ demeanours and agree that this is the triple sundae of dolphin watching.
Later, we head to Mutrah Souk, the covered marketplace of old Muscat. Once this bazaar by the sea must have bustled with sailors from India, and caravans from Iran and Yemen. It must have been piled with dried fish, dates and frankincense. Today though, it’s crammed with Colaba Causeway maal. The salesmen are Indian. And even the Abna Haji Bin Beri Traditional Coffee Shop advertises aloo wada and ‘samusa’.
But then, for hundreds of years, Omani dhows hitched a ride with the brisk monsoon winds and made the trip to the Malabar and Gujarat coasts — returning months later with the retreating monsoon. And the Indian influence has only gotten stronger. Most Omanis speak some Hindi.
Many have visited India for medical treatment. Every restaurant buffet features butter chicken or Madras curry alongside the pita and grilled fish. And there are Indians everywhere — repairing the satin smooth roads, working for Bedouin families in the lonely desert, jostling for Vandana Luthra products at the Lulu Department Store.
If parts of Muscat are pure Mumbai, however, the Royal Opera House feels distinctly European. As we stand gawping at the glimmering lobby with its golden interiors, elegant women in black abayas — most in a trendy kimono style with billowing sleeves — glide to their seats. Otherwise it’s difficult to remember that we are watching this impassioned Romeo and Juliet in the Middle East.
This surreal feeling returns a couple of nights later in the desert, amidst sand that ripples like caramel sauce. We are staying at the Arabian Oryx, a cluster of Bedouin-style tents, and the Bangladeshi manager mentions that a music festival called Sandstock is being held a few dunes away. We pop across — and find laser lights, boozy expats, cheesy pick-up lines and `Tainted Love’belted out in an Australian accent. A truly unexpected Arabian night!
During the days, we drive along orderly, garbage-free, pedestrian-free roads. From Muscat to Nizwa, the heart of historical Oman, with its fort and 1,200-year-old souk where we buy dates. The trinkets, however, look suspiciously Indian, despite the Ministry of Tourism certificate. “Everything made locally,” the shopkeeper maintains. “By six Rajasthani craftsmen.”
As Nizwa settles down for its siesta, we continue to the Jebel Shams mountain, overlooking one of the great canyons of the world. That night we spend in a tent at the lip of this precipice; the next amidst the sand dunes; and the third in wind-whipped tents at the Ras al Jinz beach where green turtles lay eggs.
During long drives, we gaze at the sunbaked countryside, with its scatter of houses. And we chat with Mohammed, our shy, 29-year-old driver who is saving money to get married and build a house on his land. All Omanis — male and female — are given a 600 sq m plot on their 24th birthday. “We go to the office and pick a chit from a big box,” he explains. “Earlier, we got our land when we turned 18. But the Sultan realised that many youngsters were selling the land to buy fancy cars, instead.”
Often, during the journeys, we stop at ridiculously pretty oases and beaches. The whitewashed town of Sur. Wadi Bin Khalid with its jade waters. The subterranean Bimmah Sinkhole where the adventurous swim into a bat-infested cave, and the lazy enjoy a free fishy pedicure. Fins Beach, with its white sands and pastel pebbles. Wadi Tiwi, abuzz with violet and orange dragonflies and date palms sporting punky hairdos.
Then it’s back to Muscat, where we buy baklava and agree that this unexpected country has been — in the words of an unknown Omani copywriter — pleasure without regret!
Back in Mumbai, I again gaze at the Arabian Sea. But this time I can almost smell the coffee and glimpse the Corniche across the waters.
Air India, Indigo, Jet Airways, Oman Air and SpiceJet have direct flights to Muscat from several Indian cities. A round-trip from Mumbai starts from Rs 15,000.
Tourist visas must be organised through a local sponsor or Oman-based travel agent. It costs RO 6.
1 Omani Rial (RO) = Rs 156
Where To Stay
Muscat - The opulent Al Bustan Palace Hotel(from Rs 15,000; +968-24-799666, ritzcarlton.com) is a Ritz-Carlton property with a wonderful pool and private beach. The City Seasons Hotel (from Rs 10,000; +968-24-394800, cityseasonsmuscat.com) is in a buzzing area and offers great rooms and service. The Midan Hotel Suites(from Rs 6,000; +968-24-499787, midanoman.com) is central, clean and functional. Ruwi Hotel(from Rs 3,500; +968-24-704244, omanhotels.com) is central, popular with budget travellers and has recently been spiffed up.
Jebel Shams The Jebel Shams Resort(from Rs 7,800 for two, including taxes, breakfast, dinner; +968-99382639, jebelshamsresort.com) has a spectacular location but basic food and tents. Sharqiya Sands Arabian Oryx(from Rs 9,500 for double tent; +968-99518882, oryx-camp. com) and Desert Nights(from Rs 10,000; +968-92818388,omanhotels.com/desertnightscamp) are luxury camps in the middle of the desert. Ras Al Jinz The Ras Al Jinz Scientific Institute(from Rs 13,000 for a double room, including taxes, breakfast and turtle watching; +968-96550606, rasaljinz-turtlereserve.com) boasts tents overlooking a stunning beach and exciting encounters with huge green turtles.
Taxis are available in Muscat. For longer journeys you can choose a package with tour operators like Zahara(zaharatours.com) or self-drive a rental car (about Rs 7,000 for three days).
What To See & Do
Day 1In Muscat, start with dolphin watching (about Rs 2,500) and then visit Mutrah Souk, the City Palace, Grand Mosque and Amouage Perfumery. Then end the day at the elegant Opera House and Kargeen Restaurant.
Day 2 Drive from Muscat to Nizwa. Explore the fort and souk, picnic at a wadi and then head for Jebel Shams and a night on the mountains.
Day 3 Swim at the Wadi Bin Khalid and then enjoy dune-bashing at Sharqiya Sands before soaking in the desert night.
Day 4 Explore the castle and dhow factory in Sur, before heading to Ras Al Jinz for a night of turtle-watching.
Day 5 Drive back to Muscat, stopping at Wadi Tiwi, Fins Beach and Bimmah Sinkhole.