“Night comes, stealing the shadow of the twilight, casting spectral moonlight over the dunes. We lie on the sand still warm with the memory of the midday sun, drink sweet ginger tea and watch campfire smoke drift and dissolve among the stars” – Oliver Smith, Lonely Planet
Over Christmas 2014, we spent an unforgettable three weeks traveling in Oman.
At the end of big trips like this, I write a quick summary that I can share with any friends and family who follow in our footsteps. I won’t be challenging Lonely Planet, but I like to think they capture some helpful information.
Here are my notes from Oman, written in January 2015…
Firstly, we found Oman to be among the friendliest places that we’ve visited, so you can expect lots of people talking to you about where you’re from and what you think of their country. They may even offer you their phone number in case you need any help during your visit. We flagged down drivers in the middle of nowhere and drank chai in bus station cafes at 5 in the morning and never once felt anything but welcomed. The usual rules apply about not being complacent, though.
Other than some confusing signs in Muscat, the roads in Oman seemed navigable, and if we go back we will definitely rent a 4×4, but the buses and taxis were reliable and easy.
Muscat is very spread out, so when you’re exploring it’s best to try and group things together. We recommend a visit to the mosque, which is only open to tourists until 11am Saturday to Thursday, and if you’re in that area also stop at the opera house. Not far from there, in the district called MQ, is a restaurant called Kargeens, which we visited quickly but liked.
You can easily spend half a day in Old Muscat and Muttrah, walking from one to the other along the corniche and to the souq (which is closed between 1 and 4pm). In the souq, there’s a good juice bar called Al Ahli. Expect to barter for scarves and frankincense, etc, but not as hard as, say, Marrakesh.
Taxis charge a fixed price from the main tourist hotels in Muscat, and you can barter to get them for about half the price on the way back (though, of course, if you’re staying in one of the 5 star hotels, your driver won’t be too sympathetic!) Agree a price before you get in and don’t expect them to come running after you if you walk away from negotiations!
Hotels in Muscat
There are three ‘top notch’ hotels in Muscat – the Al Husn (the no kids part of the Shangri-la), the Al Bustan (Ritz Carlton) and the Chedi. We stayed in the first two (well, it was our honeymoon!), and while we were having dinner at the Chedi we got them to show us some of the rooms.
The Al Husn was our favourite (staying there includes some extras like afternoon tea and an evening drinks reception every day). There’s a private pool and beach, and the attentive staff will give you a cool box with water and juice, and then bring you fruit and sorbet throughout the day. They will even offer to clean your sunglasses! Water sports, such as kayaking, start from the various beaches, and there are fitness activities organised throughout the day, including a multinational, mixed-ability game of volleyball on the main beach each night. All of these are included. There’s a charge for the diving, which is relatively expensive, so enquire about the visibility first.
The Chedi is very beautiful – lit with hundreds of candles and fire pits every night – and is worth visiting for a drink and maybe dinner, even if you don’t actually stay there.
The Al Bustan, where the Sultan has a residence on the top floor, has an impressive entrance and large grounds, but we didn’t think it compared to the Al Husn, even though the prices are often similar.
The restaurants at all three hotels are expensive, so it’s worth factoring this into your budget.
We also stayed at the Intercontinental for a couple of nights at the beginning of our trip. It’s immediately behind the opera house and cheaper than all of the above. It has nice grounds and direct access to Al Qurm beach. There’s a parade of shops and restaurants next to the hotel. Try the Lebanese on the corner, but beware the enormous portions.
Nizwa used to be the capital city and is about a two hour drive from Muscat. It has an impressive fort that you can look around and a souq that’s a bit calmer that Muttrah. If you happen to be there on a Friday, there’s a goat market. They are rightly proud of their irrigation systems – aflaj – and there’s a good explanation in the fort museum.
There are at least two ONTC buses from Ruwi in Muscat each day – plus smaller shared microbuses. Prices are in the Lonely Planet. You can explore Nizwa in a day, and it is the gateway to the mountains – Jebel Akhdar and Jebel Shams. We stayed in the Falaj Daris Hotel, just outside the city, which was basic but served its purpose. If you take a taxi, be clear you want the hotel, otherwise you might be taken to look at a hole in the ground with the same name. (Yes, that happened.)
Our guidebook implied that it was going to be a treacherous drive to the mountains, so we arranged for our hotel to pick us up, but in reality, if you’re a competent and safe driver you should be ok. A 4×4 is compulsory though, and there’s a police checkpoint on the approach road. We stayed in the Sahab Hotel in Jebel Akhdar, which has a large, tranquil fossil garden with a very cold swimming pool and a very warm jacuzzi overlooking the valley. Note that in winter the temperatures drop considerably at night. The hotel will give you a map for a two hours hike to the surrounding villages. This is a proper hike – not a stroll. They will pick you up at the end if you don’t want to trek back. There’s a new hotel called Alila nearby, which is apparently very nice, but with prices to match.
Many of the desert or nomadic experiences are in Wahiba Sands, and the groups rendezvous on the road between Nizwa and Sur. We stayed at the Nomadic Desert Camp, which is among the most ‘authentic’ – i.e. cold showers and no electricity. They arrange a sunset trip deeper into the desert, as well as a camel ride. Dinner is communal and tasty, and bedouin musicians play traditional music late into the night. We were concerned that this would be a bit touristy, but it was actually one of the highlights of our trip. One night was sufficient to get the experience, though!
We thought Sur was a bit overplayed in our guidebook (and we actually cut short our time there), but our hotel, the Sur Beach Hotel, was a useful base to visit the turtle beach and the nearby wadis. This was probably the best of the few hotels in Sur, which isn’t saying much, but it fills up in peak season, so book early. If you find yourself here, try the restaurants and juice bars on the opposite side of the road – especially on a Saturday night when they are also full of Omanis celebrating the end of the weekend.
All taxis in Sur are 200 baisa per person (a bit different to Muscat) though some may try to charge you more. The walk over the suspension bridge (yes!) is nice and you can see some tradition dhow making yards. The turtle beach is about 45 minutes from Sur and you normally need to book tickets in advance for the evening and early morning visits – just send them an email. In the summer there are apparently hundreds of turtles each night. In the winter, when you’ll probably want to visit, you may just see a handful of turtles, and maybe no babies, but it’s still an incredible experience, especially at sunrise.
Wadi Tiwi and Wadi Shab are both nearby on the coastal road to Muscat, and Wadi Bani Khalid is on the road from Nizwa/the sands. We visited Wadi Shab – essentially a valley that only fills during the rainy season – which is a fun way to spend a day. Take a picnic and swim wear. There’s a boat at the entrance that will take you to the ‘start’ of the walk for one rial, but if you’re already dressed for a swim, you can just wade across. If not, check what time the last boat back is. It’s a rocky hour walk to the final pool, where you can swim to an enclosed cavern at the very end, and there are plenty of places to stop, swim and relax along the way.
We’re confident that you’ll enjoy your time in Oman – just plan and budget in advance!