Oman is an Arabic country in the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, a historically strategic location – and not one that is commonly on the radar for many travelers. However, with increasing flight routes and its proximity to the UAE travel hub, travel to the peaceful coastal sultanate is easier than ever and worth a look. We spent only a couple of nights in Muscat, an add-on to our time in Dubai & Abu Dhabi (a get-away to a get-away). With 1,000 miles of coastline and about the size of Kansas, the Omani kingdom is bordered by UAE, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The capital Muscat is about a 6-hour drive from Dubai or Abu Dhabi on a paved road or a quick one-hour flight.
Everywhere I looked in Muscat, I saw mountains and sea. Coming from frosty New York, the heat and sea breeze was a much welcomed change. Leisure travelers who do come to Oman seek sun and beach time in the Arabian Sea. A couple of hotels are built just outside of town along the coastline and a few more are on its way. For those who wish to have cultural and historic context with your leisure, there are many things to do and see, in and around town:
Grand Mosque: Right in the heart of Muscat is the Grand Mosque, arguably the most exquisite in Oman. It can accommodate up to 20,000 worshippers and consists of a main prayer hall, ladies prayer hall, covered passageways, a meeting hall and library. Visitors are welcome and should observe the same dress codes and manners as in other Arabic countries. We had visited on a quiet morning and strolled around the marble courtyard and flower garden.
Bait Al Zuabir Museum: This particular museum consists of a concise collection reflecting the splendid Omani Heritage including traditional Omani weapons such as swords, daggers, rifles and their accessories, as well as jewelry, cosmetics and costumes from various regions of Oman. There is also an amazing display of ancient coins and stamps in the upper galleries. Outside of the museum was an exhibition of decorated Arabian Oryx statues, a rare antelope indigenous to the area, each painted by various local artists to promote conservation efforts.
Dolphin Watching: If the afternoon heat is too much, head down to Marina Bander for a variety of boat tours and water activities. It is not commonly known that Muscat and Musandam are famous for dolphin watching, particularly the acrobatic spinner dolphins. There were multiple pods of dolphins out that day so we fortunately didn’t have to go far to spot them swimming and jumping. Turtles are also known to lay eggs on the beaches and some hotels have hatcheries and education programs.
Old Muttrah Souq: The souq is a great place to get souvenir shopping done and get a sense of the chaotic energy at a traditional Arab market. There are many small shops all selling a mixture of Indian and Omani textile, hardware, spices, oils and frankincense which grows in the south. The shopkeepers aren’t as aggressive and happily share their wares. Expect to bargain but if only for the custom and experience as the discount will be small.
Al Alama Palace: This is the official palace of His Majesty Sultan Qboos. When the sultan is in the palace, the flag is raised. This is where he meets dignitaries but his place of permanent residence is further outside of the city. During his rule of over 40 years, Sultan Qaboos has built schools, infrastructure, hospitals, and industry for his country. Free schooling and healthcare is available to all Omanis.
Daytrip to a Wadi: Take a scenic drive out of town and spend the day outdoors. We went to Wadi Arbaveen, 1.5 hours from Muscat deep in the Hajar Mountains. A wadi is a riverbed, which usually has some water in it seasonally—some wadis have water year round. In contrast to the dry stark limestone mountains, wadis are usually lush and the water clear and refreshing. A wadi is a welcome respite from the desert heat and visiting guests have the opportunity to swim, hike, camp or simply enjoy the natural beauty of the wadi. We had a delicious Arabic feast in a Bedouin-style tent next to a crystal clear pool of water. The setting was gorgeous and our hosts were outstanding cooks.
Our scenic drive to and from the wadi wound through date palm plantations and small remote villages. Our guide showed us the way these remote places use the natural topography and gravity to irrigate crops and have fresh drinking water through the ancient water system called a falaj. Near the wadi, we happened to spot a frankincense tree which didn’t typically grow in the north. It had notches all along the branches as several people have already drawn resin from this tree. After creating a cut in the tree, the resin needs to be collected and dried before it is ready to be heated over charcoal.
Near the wadi, we happened to spot a frankincense tree which didn’t typically grow in the north. It had notches all along the branches as several people have already drawn resin from this tree. After creating a cut in the tree, the resin needs to be collected and dried before it is ready to be heated over charcoal.
Bimmach Sinkhole: If you do visit Wadi Arbaveen, make sure to stop by Bimmach Sinkhole nearby. The crater is surrounded by a public park and visitors are invited to swim and picnic. The sinkhole was formed naturally due to underground erosion from the sea and rock falls. The crater is connected to the sea by a small tunnel, but one needs to be a diver to explore it fully. Leaning into the sinkhole, I spotted a German family taking a dip. Our guide said the show-offs jump from the top of the sinkhole. These were only a few places and experiences that made Muscat such a memorable and pleasant destination. This is not to mention the kind & gracious local people, the fact that Muscat is ranked one of the cleanest cities in the world and the amazing fresh seafood amongst other things.