With a culture/leisure balance to make Dubai blush, Muscat is quite simply the best Gulf destination Time Out Kids has holidayed in yet – and the 55 minutes’ flying time means even the peskiest of kids won’t have a chance to whine, ‘Are we there yet?’ before touching down. October temperatures hover around a very clement 25-30°C, making autumn (or Eid) a great time to visit. Here’s how we recommend you make a three-day mini-break there truly blissful.
For a chilled-out introduction to Muscat, it doesn’t get much better than the Oman Dive Centre, located about 20 minutes’ drive from the city proper. A small entrance fee buys you a day of relaxation on the pristine private beach, set in a secluded cove, and there’s also a restaurant serving great grub (the locally caught fish is divine) – but don’t go if you’re in a hurry. This place is so laid-back it’s walking on its head, and it has service to match. On the plus side, you really do feel like you’re on holiday, as divers stomp in after a hard morning’s underwater exploration and the chatty, relaxed Swedish owners stroll around without a care in the world.
If your kids aren’t the types to be content with mere sandcastle construction and frolicking in the shallows, you’re in the right place for some action: the centre runs two daily snorkelling trips and also offers myriad scuba diving excursions. Junior will need to be a competent swimmer because the boat stops in the middle of the water (you just jump overboard and swim over to the rocky coastline), but it’s worth it: on our last trip we spotted a turtle. No words can describe how awesome it is to watch these majestic creatures in action. Be warned, though – you shouldn’t go expecting a leisurely cruise down the coast. You and your fellow day-trippers will be packed onboard like sardines, with barely enough space for everyone to sit down, and whisked across the surf at hair-whipping speed. We can safely say the destination is what counts here: the bumpy ride is worth it for an afternoon’s blissful fish-spotting.
So, the snorkelling’s over – time to head back into Muscat. While far from ugly, the city isn’t beautiful per se, but it’s charming, not least because of the lack of high rises, the people – who are lovely, welcoming and adore kids – and the old forts, Al Jelali and Al Merani, which will hold great interest for little history buffs. Due to being part of the palace precinct, they’re not open to the public so can only be admired from afar, but couple this with an early evening stroll along the Corniche, from where you can get an impressive perspective of the towering 16th-century edifices, and you won’t regret it. If you want to continue soaking up the view, which is made all the more splendid by the dramatic Hajar Mountains soaring above, grab a terrace table at the Blue Marlin Restaurant for some relaxed international fare. It’s probably worth giving the nearby souk a miss, though – frankly it’s unremarkable and, if you’ve already visited Dubai’s assortment, will yield nothing new.
The city was originally three separate towns that gradually conjoined over time, it is sprawling and so taxi rides are long. The good thing, though, is that journeys are pretty cheap, especially if you perfect your haggling technique (the cars don’t have metres), and the drivers are far friendlier than your average Dubai cabbie. Alternatively, if you’d rather get around under your own steam, there are several car hire companies dotted around the city, a few with bases at the airport.
One journey that is best done with a guide, though, is the next day’s mission: a trek around Wadi Shab. (For the uninitiated, a wadi is a dry riverbed sometimes dotted with freshwater pools and streams, flanked by steep cliffs that were eroded away by the former river over hundreds of years.) We went with Muscat Diving and Adventure Centre, whose guide picked us up in a 4x4 from our hotel and drove us the two- to three-hours (depending on how speedy your driver is) to the site. Now you may have visited wadis in the UAE before and been distinctly underwhelmed, but you ain’t seen nothing yet: Wadi Shab is a truly spectacular natural wonder.
At its foot, an expansive pool of emerald green water sits peacefully, fringed on one side by palm trees, hugging the sides of the vast rock crevice on the other. Your guide will lead you upwards on foot and, although it’s neither risky nor a particularly tough walk, there is a certain amount of springing from rock to boulder and having to think about where your next step will land, so it’s not one for very young kids.
After about 45 minutes, you will arrive at a crystal-clear pool. It would be rude not to jump in – and also a trifle foolish, given that a quick swim upstream, a slightly painful shoeless sprint over spiky pebbles and another splash through a second pool leads you to an experience you’ll remember for the rest of your life. At the head of the pool, there’s a gap in the rocks so narrow that a human can only just fit through it. Almost as if the wadi had known its touristic fate, there is a little ridge just above the surface handy for gripping onto while passing through the corridor of rock. Claustrophobics needn’t worry, though: it only goes on for a few metres, then you emerge into an incredible cave, with sunshine slanting through the opening at the top, transforming the clear water into a startlingly luminous green, which simply has to be seen to be believed. Nimble as mountain goats, locals clamber up the slippery rock face with the help of a raggedy old rope and plunge into the water from on high – kids will absolutely love watching and the lads doing it will happily perform for their audience, throwing in the odd back flip for added ‘ooh’ factor.
A trip to Muscat wouldn’t be complete without wandering around the incredible (and enormous) Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, which can accommodate 20,000 worshippers. Under-10s aren’t allowed in, so if this includes your nippers, leave them splashing around in the hotel pool under the watchful eye of the kids’ club (see ‘where to stay’, p25) while you escape for an adults-only morning. The approach to the mosque, which was completed and opened to the public in 2001, is awesome, but the interior takes it to a whole other level. Magnificent domed ceilings and glittering chandeliers look down upon the world’s second largest hand-woven carpet (first place goes to the rug in Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi). Be sure to wear long, limb-covering clothes and take a head scarf or pashmina if you’re a woman – you won’t be allowed in otherwise, and there are no spares there that you can borrow.
Spend your final afternoon kicking back at the hotel, and raise a toast to Muscat – the city that really does have it all. If you want to know more when you get there, Time Out Muscat is available throughout the city – check it out for things to do, restaurants to eat at and local news
Return fares from Sharjah to Muscat with Air Arabia cost from Dhs605 per person. 06 558 0000; www.airarabia.com
Return fares from Dubai to Muscat with Oman Air cost from Dhs1,405 per person. +968 2453 1111; www.omanair.aero
Contacts & prices
Oman Dive Centre (+968 248 2420; www.omandivecenter.com). Entrance to beach OMR1.5 Sat-Wed, OMR3 Thu-Fri; morning snorkelling trip departing at 8.30am and visiting two sites OMR16; afternoon snorkelling trip departing at 3pm and visiting one site OMR12; snorkel, mask and fin rental OMR4; diving and boat trips also available.
Blue Marlin Restaurant (Marina Bandar Hotel; +968 2473 7288, ext 210). Average cost of a meal for a family of four OMR25-30; licensed. Open daily 9.30am-10.30pm.
Muscat Diving and Adventure Centre (+968 2448 5663; www.holiday-in-oman.com). Wadi Shab trek OR42 per person based on four people in a car. Price includes pick-up and drop-off from your hotel in Muscat, lunch and soft drinks. Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Al Sultan Qaboos Street, Al Khuwayr. Tours Sat-Wed, 8am-11am. Free. Children under 10 years not permitted.