We explore the merits of Muscat and end up bewitched
‘Everybody believes in jinn,’ mutters Khalafan, and a delicious chill runs down my spine. It’s taken some coaxing, a bit of wheedling and several furtive glances out the car window, but my Omani guide has finally mustered up the nerve to speak about jinn: Oman’s version of the boogieman.
Lowering his voice, he tells us the tale of his first experience with jinn – fiery spirits that can take on human form. Years ago, he awoke in the dead of night to see a very old woman shuffling towards the mosque. Puzzled, he followed her to make sure she was alright when suddenly, she disappeared. He searched in vain, fearful the old woman had hurt herself; but she was gone. Vanished into thin air. ‘There was nowhere she could have gone,’ he wails mournfully, forever scarred by his brush with the sultanate’s paranormal.
Later that day, we talk to a local cab driver who points out Muscat’s haunted house, a large villa opposite the InterContinental hotel. ‘There are strange lights there every night,’ he hisses conspiratorially. ‘But nobody lives there!’ Shooting me a wry expression, my companion looks sceptical, but I’m not so sure.
If ever there was a land of legends, it has to be Oman. From jinn and the Tales of 1001 Arabian Nights to the Lost City of Ubar in the south of the country, no matter which part of the sultanate you visit, a mysterious, fantastical story can be found.
Local folklore will have you believe that Sinbad (the funky Japanese animé sailor) hails from Sur, a coastal town a couple of hours south of Muscat. Being from Basra and all, it’s highly likely that Sinbad was Iraqi (shhh – don’t tell the Omanis), but it’s a fantastic legend – and it’s pretty easy to believe once you glimpse Muscat’s shimmering coastline, a seductive cosmos of blue. Down at Marina al Bandar, where dolphin watching and snorkelling expeditions depart, we join a tour, watching a local fisherman haul in a tuna so huge it could feed an entire family of jinn.
It’s impossible not to feel slightly giddy by the water – or Muscat’s beauty. Especially at the Oman Dive Centre’s whisper-quiet bay, a favourite hangout for local expats and divers, who take PADI courses during the day and watch the sunset dip behind the mountains at night from their barasti huts, mojito in hand. Or at Qurum beach, where you can stroll along the palm-fringed pathway that winds past toothpaste-white villas (painted so according to local law), strewn with splashes of fuchsia-coloured bougainvillea.
Even the corniche overlooking the port, which for all intents and purposes should be ugly, is magical – especially at night, when Omani families, tourists and expats mill around, heading to nearby Muttrah Souk. It’s here you can buy silver trinkets, old khanjars (Omani daggers), and packets of frankincense, a scent that permeates the country. Omanis burn frankincense by tradition every day, using it to scent their homes, government buildings and even their clothes to ward off (surprise, surprise) jinn.
If you fail to fall in love with Muscat’s peace and quiet, the landscape or the culture (which is unlikely), we guarantee you will fall in love with the people. Relaxed, modern and generous, Omanis have to be the most likeable souls in the Gulf, and the best part is that you encounter them every single day.
The sultanate’s Omanisation policy means locals are employed everywhere, from the souk to the supermarket. Should you buy a tube of toothpaste from Lulu’s, for example, you’ll probably hand over your rials to an Omani cashier.
It’s a sore point for any cash-strapped traveller, but Muscat taxis are meterless, although the cabbies will happily chat for hours and undoubtedly have you in stitches. Most of these masters of fast and furious haggling speak English and all are keenly curious to know where you are from and your opinion of Oman.
Any Arabic words you can muster will, of course, come in useful for communication, but if you run out of small talk, just ask the cabbies what they think of Sultan Qaboos. You’ll be hard pressed to find an Omani who isn’t utterly enamoured with the dignified, well-groomed leader, who has ruled Oman since 1970 and regularly travels across regions and ‘wilayats’ (local districts) to hear out his people’s woes with an open door, face-to-face policy. The sultanate is one of the only countries left in the world to be ruled under an absolute monarchy, and it does seem to work for Oman. The mere mention of Sultan Qaboos’s name is a sure-fire way to evoke an enraptured monologue from even the most timid Omani – either that, or probe them for a while about whether they believe in jinn.
By air Oman Air, Emirates, Gulf Air, Saudi Arabian Airlines and Etihad all fly to Muscat, with prices starting from Dhs1,405.
By car The journey takes around five hours from Dubai. Take the Dubai-Hatta Road and, once you reach Hatta, cross the border into Oman. Car insurance and visas (OMR3 for UAE residents, OMR6 for non-residents) can be arranged at the border. The route from here is straight down a well-signposted coastal highway that leads directly to Muscat.
Where to eat & drink
Mumtaz Mahal Judging by the number of diners packing out Mumtaz Mahal most nights, we’re obviously not the only ones who think this Indian eatery (which overlooks Qurum Park from a hilltop perch) is top notch. Near Qurum Park and Nature Reserve (+968 24 605 907). Open Sat-Thu noon-2.30pm, 7pm-11.30pm; Fri 1pm-2.30pm, 7pm-11.30pm. Average OMR15. All major credit cards accepted.
Vue by Shannon Bennett This slick, contemporary French restaurant has become the Muscat Mack Daddy of fine dining. Headed by Australian star chef Shannon Bennett, the food is divine, but the real highlights here are the carefully crafted molecular gastronomy displays, which take your breath away at your table. Al Bustan Palace (+968 24 799 666). Open Sat-Thu noon-3pm, 7pm-10.30pm; closed Fri. Average OMR80. All major credit cards accepted.
Kargeen Caffe One of the most atmospheric and picturesque places in town, ‘Kargeen’ is an old Omani word for ‘little wooden cottage’. Wooden structures abound and the entire place is kitted out with carpets and rugs surrounded by a canopy of foliage. Madinat Sultan Qaboos (+968 24 692 269). Open Sat-Thu 7.30am-midnight; Fri 5.30pm-midnight. Average OMR15. All major credit cards accepted.
What to do
Amouage Perfumery The House of Amouage produces some of the world’s most elite perfumes, which are sold at Harrods in London. A tour of this Omani perfumery is a fascinating insight into the process – the tour lasts about an hour and is free of charge. Near Muscat International Airport (+968 24 565 591). Open daily 8.30am-4.30pm.
Bait Al Baranda Located in a historic building on the Muttrah seafront, this new museum traces the story of Muscat from more than 100 million years ago (really!) to the present day through innovative, interactive exhibits. Muttrah (+968 24 714 262). Open Sat-Thu 9am-1pm, 4pm-6pm. Closed Fri and public holidays. Adults OMR1; children 500 baisas.
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque One of the few mosques open to non-Muslims, this one lives up to its name: it’s so huge it can accommodate 20,000 worshippers. Remember to wear appropriate clothing (no shorts for men, while women should be well covered, including a headscarf). Al Sultan Qaboos Street, Al Khuwayr. Tours held on Sat-Wed 8am-11am. Children under 10 not permitted. Muttrah Souk If you’re a hard-nosed haggler, you can find tourist gems here at cutthroat prices. Aside from traditional frankincense, there’s a huge variety of jewellery stores that sell antique silver earrings and necklaces in intricate Arabesque designs. Muttrah, near Fish Roundabout. Most shops are open Sat-Thu 9.30am-1pm, 4.30pm-7pm; Fri 4.30pm-7pm.
Oman World Tourism Whether you want to try game fishing, kiteboarding, snorkelling or even camping, wadi bashing or trekking, the guides at this tour company are, without a doubt, the best in the sultanate. Qurum (+968 9943 1333; www.omanworldtourism.com).
Where to stay
Barasti Bungalow These gorgeous beach bungalows in Muscat’s most secluded bay wouldn’t be out of place in an upmarket resort in Koh Samui, with thatched roofs and wooden slated floors, luxurious interiors and arguably the best beach bar in Oman. Oman Dive Centre, Bar Al Jissah (+968 24 824240; www.omandivecenter.com).
The Chedi Muscat When it comes to relaxation, The Chedi is to other hotels what an eiderdown comforter is to a scratchy old blanket. Its meticulously manicured grounds, immaculate beach and sumptuous spa provide a little taste of paradise for chic travellers. Al Khuwair (+968 24 524 400; fax +968 24 494 486; www.ghm.hotels.com). Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa Perched picture-perfectly along Muscat’s rugged eastern coastline, this rambling complex boasts three five-star hotels set on a private alcove of spotless sand. The resort has no less than 19 restaurants, a world-class spa, an Omani Heritage Village and even a souk. Qantab (+968 24 776 666).