Oman - Beauty with an address
With an abundance of natural beauty, from spectacular mountains, wind-blown deserts and a pristine coastline, Oman is the obvious choice for those seeking out the modern face of Arabia without the distorting lens of excessive wealth
Muscat, the capital city of Oman, has come a long way from a non-descript patch of land in the Arabian peninsula, from a stretch of half a mile of coastline between Al Jalali and Al Mirani Forts, an Asphalt road no longer than 7 km and a landing strip for small aircrafts, to the present-day Muscat – covering an area of 3,900 sq km and 200 km of coastline, state of the art infrastructure in a clean and inviting environment and a city that is internationally acclaimed for its architecture, cleanliness, beautification, landscaping and infrastructure.
A very short flight of 2 hours from Delhi, Oman Airlines managed to provide a taste of Omani authentic in-flight experience. I landed early morning at the gleaming Muscat International Airport. It looked like an oasis of calm with striking interior designs and chic furniture that will grab one's attention instantly. While admiring the airport facilities, I realised the baggage hasn't arrived at the designated belt despite waiting for thirty minutes. After a little bit of confusion and running around, I spotted my orphaned baggage standing alone at the remote corner belt. I ran to grab the luggage and rushed out, as our tour driver was waiting more than his due time.
I apologised for the unexpected delay, to our driver Ahmed, a shy and soft-spoken Omani with a teethy and innocent grin flashing through his dental braces. Immaculately dressed in an ankle length, collarless gown with long sleeves called dishdasha in spotless white colour and a round shaped rich embroidered hat called Kumma, Ahmed, ushers me into the land cruiser vehicle. It was the crack of the dawn in the city and the outside weather was pleasant aidede with a cool and gentle breeze.
The driver sped the vehicle from the airport on to the city roads to my hotel located in Jebel Sifah – a 75 km distance covered in less than an hour's time. I sat next to the driver, to soak up the views flitting through the windscreen and the side window. People rushing to work and cars speeding at 100 kmph gave me a sense of modern road infrastructure in place. As we zipped past the intersections, fly overs, and town squares, my long-awaited Arabian travel adventure to the country of Sindbad finally started to unfold in front of my eager eyes.
The initial impression are often said to be the truest and unadulterated impulses. I realised with in few minutes of driving into the Muscat, that it is going to be a very refined, culture-rich, tranquil and uncharacteristically different Arabian experience, unlike any other.
Honestly, Muscat doesn't seem to have any vertical ambitions unlike its rich gulf neighbours such as Dubai and Doha. Nor is it in the race of achieving superlative epitaphs of being the tallest, biggest, largest etc for itself. Oman is a quiet, confident and unpretentious country where anything they do is rooted in authenticity to their ethos and tradition. In the first glance, Oman seems to have successfully preserved its culture and tradition with a rare pride. And that steadfastness to remain rooted makes this tiny gulf country of Sultanate of Oman even more appealing and a must visit for any traveller.
Oman has many hidden wonders up its sleeves. A six days trip seemed woefully short and discourteous to a country that is filled with natural beauty, adventure and known for its warm people and legendary hospitality.
I decided to make the best of the time and shortlisted an itinerary that gave me an immersive, wholesome, adventure-filled and off-the-beaten path, cultural experience. Looks like a lot to ask for, isn't it! Nevertheless, the next few days proved to be well spent and on-schedule covering few of the many surprises Oman has to offer.
Oman has the most pleasant weather from September onward till April months, except for the summers which can be hot and sticky (June and August) to travel.
Oman has one of the most enchanting shorelines I have ever seen. The waters around Oman are filled with rich marine life and dolphins thrive in the pristine waters of Muscat. Taking a boat ride and spotting the elusive and shy dolphins was a thrilling encounter from close quarters to experience.
The next day I headed for Wadi Bani Auf situated in Al Hajar Mountain range. After a stomach girdling off-road drive with steep inclines and climbs on the rocky, jagged and brittle mountains, steep drop-offs and spectacular views of several canyons, it not only proved to be a nerve wrecking journey, but also the most dramatic and memorable off-road experience straight out of a cow-boys movie thriller backdrop.
Our smart and tactful driver, sporting Prada sunglasses safely navigated the treacherous drive and sharp angles up the mountains to reach Oman's own Grand Canyon in the village of Ghul that lies in Jebel Shams region (Mountain of Sun) and is the highest mountain peak in the Hajar mountain range. The mountain is also known as Grand Canyon of Arabia and is also considered by some, to be even better than Arizona in US, and is one of the top attractions in the country. The canyon is around 1km deep and with panoramic views of the majestic mountains and villages below. As the saying goes you only live once, and I wanted to fully adhere to the dictum. I finally seem to have understood what the phrase "life on the edge" fully meant after visiting this place!
After a strenuous day trek, I reach my camp on top of the Jebel Shams. The location offered a window to the sky above and a beautiful frontline view of the valley and city below. A perfect setting and a balcony view to gape at the sky, stars and mountains in the clearest blue sky, I have witnessed in a long time. After a quick nap to relieve the stress, I ventured out armed with my camera to the remote spot to capture the breath-taking flaming red, orange and purple coloured sunset. A celestial symphony my eyes still can't get over. With each passing minute the sky would change its hues and formation, a visual spectacle that had put me in raptures.
The next morning, I headed for a unique place called Misfat Al Abriyeen, a touristy village over the cliffs, with narrow alleys and mud houses surrounded by palm trees. Small canals, gurgling water flowing through it and terraced vegetable plots was like seeing a little oasis amidst the dry and deep mountains and water bleached stones. It is a wonderful site to appreciate how with even minimal natural resources the villagers have created a paradise of their own.
After the alluring trip to the rugged adventures of the Arabian mountains came time to soak up the subtlety and elegance of the understated Muscat.
The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is an imposing structure in an otherwise dwarf looking buildings of the city. It has a hand-woven carpet measuring 46,750 sq ft, a single piece covering the prayer hall with a seating capacity of 20,000 worshippers. The other feature that struck me was he 8.5 tons chandelier decked with 6,00,000 Swarovski crystals. Interestingly, 3,00,000 tonnes of Indian sandstone was used sculpted by 200 craftsmen from India to build the mosque.
The next stop of the day was the Royal Opera House Muscat. The building is a mix of contemporary Omani architecture giving it a fort like modernist appearance. It is surrounded with formal landscaped gardens. It has rich and opulent interiors and a fully modular and automated stage for custom built operatic performances. It gave me a sense of this modern gulf nation that is carving a niche of its own and is keen for cultural engagement with the outside world.
Oman's national emblem is Khanjar superimposed upon two crossed swords. It is also a favourite souvenir for the tourists. I see people jostle with each other at Muscat favourite market Mutrah Corniche for buying Omani dates, the famed frankincense, silver jewellery, beads, pottery, carpets, lamps and the halwa. It is like entering an Aladdin's cave filled with artefacts and antiques for cherry picking. After the chaotic shopping I enjoyed great view of the sea waterfront at the Corniche across the road with ships and yachts moored in the clear waters.
Oman's scenic diversity is uncharacteristically different from any of the other Arabian countries. Blessed with unique natural wonders and warm and humble people, Oman truly seems to typify that "beauty has an address"!