With its dramatic setting in the Hajar Mountains, Muscat feels somewhat stuck in time. The pace of life here crawls compared to that of the larger emirates in the UAE. Yet this makes the capital an alluring destination for visitors. The city faces the azure waters of the Gulf of Oman with a vast expanse of desert lying between it and Salalah in the south, affording spectacular, dune-studded scenery equalling any on the Arabian Peninsula. Add to this the tapestry of jaw-dropping landscapes and a population that is as proud as it is friendly, and it’ll soon become clear why an ever-increasing contingent find themselves helpless to resist the country’s beguiling spell.
There are historic ruins, old forts and mosques aplenty – Barka Castle and Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque are well worth a visit. The souks, where you can buy anything from frankincense and fridge magnets to cushion covers and khanjar daggers, also should not be missed. But that’s not to say Muscat is entirely stuck in the past. The capital’s latest shopping centre, the Muscat Grand Mall, opened its doors in March 2012 in
Al Khuwair, and is the first mall in the Omani capital to feature a multiplex cinema. It also houses the largest food court and a children’s entertainment area, among the many international fashion brands.
The Chedi is an exclusive retreat on the outskirts of Muscat. Perched on the shore of the Gulf of Oman, the hotel feels spacious, with its 158 rooms dotted around 21 acres of impeccably landscaped gardens adjacent to a vast private beach.
The low, whitewashed Omani-inspired architecture has a distinctly Asian influence and the grounds feature numerous giant, crystal-clear, shallow rectangular ponds, broken up with paths and mazes of topiary. Lines of palm trees and stylish seating areas complete the look, all creating a chic, relaxed, glistening white symmetry.
Wafting into the reception via the complimentary airport chauffeur service is a seamless experience and the suite is elegant and expensively understated. If you’re looking for an ostentatiously opulent environment, the Chedi isn’t for you. Its uncluttered interiors are stylishly restrained and feel like an obsessively scrutinised testament to minimalist design.
At sunset, the arty lighting throughout the grounds creates a magical atmosphere. A relaxed, romantic destination, it’s not primarily a family hotel and although there’s a large pool for kids, there’s a sense that Zen-like serenity takes precedence over more raucous or noisy activity.
In terms of food, there’s a selection of options, including poolside, al-fresco locations, and a wide variety of good-quality but expensive restaurants. The hotel also features three spectacular pools and a recently opened, world-class Balinese spa and health club.
Out on the water
Once I wake from my slumber, I arrange an early-morning boat trip from the Marina Banda Al Rowdha, where I’m rewarded with the surreal sight of dozens of dolphins feeding on a school of sardines. Cruising back, I’m shown the bright blue and yellow retro palace of the Sultan and the adobe colonial Portuguese Al Jalali and Mirani forts. Al Jalali is perched atop a rock face where previous visitors to the port would graffiti the name of their ship, creating a logbook that dates back hundreds of years. Next stop is the popular Muscat Corniche, where the Sultan’s imposing super-yacht is moored. The trip also takes in a small cove, set against
the backdrop of an old Portuguese graveyard – the calm, shallow waters and coral reef offer perfect conditions for snorkelling.
Sidab Tours arrange dolphin-watching trips for approximately Dhs143, or Dhs162 with hotel transfers. www.sidabseatours.com (+968 9946 1834).
Once ashore, I head to the old town for a wander around the Muttrah Souk. Due to Muscat’s strategic position between China and India, Muttrah is thought to be one of the oldest markets in the Arab world. A dark maze of narrow winding streets and dimly lit alleys, the souk has a ramshackle Arabian charm. Everything from frankincense and perfume to fake football shirts, silver jewellery and traditional Omani costumes is for sale among the warren of makeshift stands and tiny shops. Expect hawkers to call out to you as you wander past, and be prepared to haggle as prices are often inflated for tourists. Gastronomes should also keep their eye out for the wide array of exotic spices and other cooking ingredients on offer.
In less than half an hour’s drive, I’m at the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque – the serene, sandstone landmark is one of the largest mosques in the world. Commissioned by the long-serving sultan in the 1990s, it’s worth remembering to dress conservatively (women need to bring pashminas) and that it’s only open in the morning – it’s also closed to visitors on Fridays.
The mosque features an enormous, intricate hand-woven carpet (the second largest in the world), which covers the entire floor of the giant main prayer room. Ornately decorated, with a sense of inspiring serenity, the sheer scale and ambition of the mosque make it an essential stop if you’re visiting the capital. The main minaret reaches 90 metres high and the mosque contains a library and a school for Islamic studies.
A glimpse of the formidable Opera House on the way back to the Chedi causes me to pause again, as I reassess my initial assumptions about the Sultanate’s casual contentment – it seems I’ll have to visit again before I can make true sense of this jewel of the Middle East.
Brush up on history at Bait Al-Baranda
Translated as ‘villa on the varanda’, Bait Al-Baranda is a great place to head for a crash course in the history of Muscat. Within walking distance of the Mutrah Souk, the museum covers everything from the geology of the region and the earliest human settlements from 10,000BC up to the early Islamic origins of the country and more recent history. Opened in 2006, this small museum is definitely worth a look. Check out its Facebook page for more details.
Need to know
Time Out flew with Flydubai (www.flydubai.com, 04 231 1000) direct from Dubai to Muscat from Dhs500 return. Alternatively, Oman Air (www.omanair.com) flies from Dubai and Abu Dhabi direct to Oman, and you can also consider flights from Emirates or Etihad. Oman’s Muscat International Airport is a fair way from the city centre, so expect to pay around Dhs100 to get to your hotel. It is also possible to drive from Dubai to Muscat, which takes about five hours.
Where to stay
The Chedi Muscat. Al Khuwair, Muscat, www.ghm.hotels.com (+968 24 524 400).
What to see
Visit in January for the annual Muscat Festival, which includes Muscat Fashion Week and Oman Food Festival, as well as Arabic concerts. Dates for the 2013 festival are yet to be confirmed: keep an eye on the website for details.
Visitors are required to purchase a tourist visa for approximately Dhs48 upon arrival. This can be obtained at the airport.