From Qatar, it was just a short 90 minute flight to Oman. The main city of Muscat is a long narrow strip along the coast, running 40 miles east to west. It was once four towns but they’ve grown together to be considered Muscat in general. The airport is in the western 1/4, and the Grand Mosque is in the next 1/4 (the Saeeb area or Al Zaiba). Muttrah, where you can find the old souq and the palace, is in the next 1/4, and the beaches and resorts are in the furthest area east around Wadi Al Kabir and Bustan. One long highway called Sultan Qaboos Street stretches almost the whole length of the city.
If you arrive in daytime and evening hours, the public bus system is very easy. The buses are red and white and say “Mwasalat” on them. They cost about 200 baisa (about 50 cents USD. Oman uses the Omani Riyal, and the riyal is made up of 1000 baisas) and one bus can get you from the airport all the way over to the main transfer hub of Ruwi (maybe 20 km away). Stops are well marked and the buses have electronic screens in front showing the next 3 stops that are coming. You can see the bus stops on Google maps in the “transit” layer. A section for women and families is at the front of each bus; solo men sit in the back. At Ruwi, you can change to another bus line to visit either the old town Muscat area (souq, the museum, the palace) or the line that heads towards the coast or the area of Al Amerat. A bus comes along every 15 minutes, with a little bit of lag at Friday prayer times. Quite efficient! A taxi in Muscat, for a foreign tourist, will run you anywhere from 5 OMR to 15 ($12-40 USD).
Our first two days in the city we stayed in the central area of Saeeb and visited the Grand Mosque. It’s open to visitors every day of the week except Friday, and it’s free to enter. People of all faiths can visit, and they provide abayas for women, although if you just wear loose trousers or a long skirt with long sleeves, that’s fine as well. You will need a scarf to cover your hair (ladies). The mosque itself, named after Sultan Qaboos who took power in 1970, is just beautiful. It is supposedly the 3rd largest mosque in the world and features the largest Swarovski crystal chandelier, weighing 9 tons, and the largest hand-made Iranian carpet, weighting 21 tons and taking 4 years to complete, with 600 women working on it. In addition, the mosque is beautifully adorned both inside and out, including a long portico displaying tiled friezes from 12 areas around the Islamic world. There is a library as well as an information center, and a separate prayer room for women. It’s open from 8-11 every morning to visitors, and there’s a Mwasalat stop out in front. I highly suggest visiting it if you are in Muscat.
After a day and a half of city viewing, we took a Mwasalat inter-city bus up to Nizwa, which was the capital of Oman in the 6th and 7th centuries. The bus ride was about 90 minutes and cost 3 OMR for the two of us, round trip (about $8USD). Several buses leave each day from Muscat to Nizwa, with some going on to Salalah. There aren’t really any hotels inside Nizwa, but there are 8-10 on the road just before Nizwa begins. We stayed at the Majan Guesthouse and it was very nice. We spent the first afternoon exploring Nizwa fort, which was bombed by the British in the 1950s and subsequently rebuilt. It’s a bit overpriced (5 Riyals, which is $12.50 USD) but I think they are still paying for its reconstruction. It’s worth paying for if it’s the only fort you’re entering, but if you’re heading on to Bahla, you might want to just look at it from the outside. There is a large souq surrounding the fort, and is an excellent place to purchase dates for very cheap at the date market, where they had about 25 different kinds, and you can sample them until you find the varieties you like best. Um, the fruit. Not dates like going out on a Friday night.
Our second day in Nizwa, we took a baisa bus (small shared van) into Nizwa, and then to Bahla. Bahla is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is the home of the oldest fortress in Oman. It’s huge and only costs 500 baisas to enter (about $1.25 USD). The pottery from Bahla is quite famous, although it is dying out as an occupation. From Bahla we wanted to visit three other places that are a bit out of the way, so we hired a taxi driver for the rest of the day for 30 OMR. His starting price was 50 and maybe we could have agreed on 20 but we’re terrible hagglers so we settled at 30 OMR. He drove us through the old mud-brick town of Al Hamra, then to the oasis of Misfat Al Abriyeen, a still-living village where the residents use the centuries-old falaj water irrigation technique to grow fruit trees. Then he took us up to Jebel Akhdar (the Green Mountain), where we visited Jebel Shams (Sunrise Mountain), the highest point in Oman. There is a resort up there, which supposedly has amazing stargazing, but at $1000 a night it’s out of our price range. In other seasons you can also camp there- it gets quite cold in the winter at night at that elevation. Along the way we had interesting conversations with our driver, Abdallah (telephone 00968-950-40503), who we peppered with questions about Sultan Qaboos (like is he married? Children? No one knows! It’s a secret!!), styles of dress for the men and women (confused about hijabs, niqabs, and abayas? Here’s a handy guide to women’s dress) and what it’s like living in a country that has no taxes, provides free medical and education for everyone, et cetera. He was a great driver and guide, and also owns a beauty salon in Muscat. If you’re not up for arranging it all yourself or don’t have time to spend overnight up at Nizwa, try the tours from Alwan Travel– they’ll pick you up in Muscat and return you the same day for a pretty reasonable group tour price.
After he dropped us off, it was time for dinner, so we went to an Iranian restaurant a couple of blocks away-delicious. The next morning, we returned to Muscat, but this time we stayed in the farthest eastern quadrant of the city, to be close to the beaches. Here we were close to the Muscat Souq, the city gates, and the National Palace, as well as the National Museum. It’s a little pricey, at 5 OMR per person, but worth going to if you have the time- and it’s air conditioned. The museum has great artifacts and history of the area, and there’s a short video about Oman that has excellent aerial photography and video in it. That video made me wish we had made time to visit Sur, a city four hours away on the coast, or one of the wadis, or the endless sand dunes. However, we’ve done desert camping and dune bashing in other countries, so that wasn’t our focus on this trip.
On Saturday we went diving with Extra Divers, who operate out of a small marina next to Shangri-La Resort in Qantab. I had emailed three dive shops and they were the only ones who responded- too bad for the rest! We each did two dives with them, at Mermaids Cove and Seahorse Cove. The water wasn’t too cold (the temps outside were generally 65-80 while we were there in December, a very nice winter escape; in fact, December to January is their high season because it’s just too danged hot in the summer to visit). We saw a few eels, a nudibranch, some lion fish, a huge school of barracuda, a million spiny urchins, and three cuttlefish and a torpedo ray, among others. I loved the giant starfish that are about ten times bigger than the ones we sometimes find on the beach. I didn’t think it was the best diving we’ve ever done, and at about $80 per dive it wasn’t the cheapest, but it had been a year since we’d been diving and I don’t like to let too long pass between dive excursions, so I was glad we went.
We didn’t get up to much for New Year’s Eve, as we were in a dry country (although actually you can drink at the bars of the big international hotels) and we had a six am flight and had to be up at 4 am. So we just had dinner at a Turkish Restaurant near our hotel, and went to bed pretty early. The next morning we took the same connecting flight to Qatar, and then I flew home to get back to work, while Chris took a flight on to Kuwait, where he will stay for a couple of days before visiting Bahrain, Eritrea, Jordan, Lebanon and Cyprus. Check back in a month and I’ll do a brief write up of his travels there!