Until a month ago, If you asked me where Oman was, I would have quite possibly pointed somewhere between Kuwait and Bahrain, north of Dubai, probably inland. Despite my traveller reputation, my geographical knowledge of the Persian Gulf was atrocious. If you are curious, I was wrong. Oman occupies a small chunk of the eastern Arabian Peninsula between Yemen, Saudi, the United Arab Emirates, and even shares a marine border with Iran.
To my surprise, I found myself booked on a very last minute trip to Dubai. Jumping to the opportunity to add a few more stamps to the two empty pages left of my passport, I decided to spend my free weekend somewhere in the area, possibly with beach loungers, keen to relax and get a glimpse of the local culture, not so evident in Dubai. At least, this was the original idea. What happened next, was a completely different story.
On a Thursday morning, 4AM on the dot, I am checking in at Dubai Airport Terminal 2, to board a low-cost Flydubai (The Ryanair of the Gulf) flight to Muscat, capital region of the Sultanate of Oman. One hour into the panoramic flight over the red dunes of the Arabic desert and the sapphire blue sea of the Omani Gulf, our pilot announces that the airport in Muscat is closed, due to an aircraft blocked on the runway.
I have flown enough hours in my life to know that very rarely an airport shuts down if a Boeing has a flat tyre that needs replacing. This is not good news. In an attempt to be helpful, the first official adds that, this of course shouldn’t be a problem at all, since we have at least half hour fuel autonomy.
We fly over the dry Muscat region, one, two, three, four times. From above, I see the Omani capital, wedged along a narrow strip of land between mountains and sea. A few aircrafts follow our same route at different altitudes. In a very casual way, an Omani passenger sitting behind me, quite annoyed for the delayed landing of the flight, turns on his mobile phone, and starts chatting to someone on the ground.
Great, not only we now have 10 minutes of fuel left – yes I did count every minute – but it doesn’t matter, because now we are going to crash because of this silly man intruding into the delicate aircraft navigation systems. Fortunately, we don’t crash, and 5 minutes later, we are miraculously safe on the ground.
After a lengthy queue to pay for my entry visa, I walk out of the airport, in the 37C heath, and find an air-conditioned taxi to my hotel. And it’s not even 8AM yet. I check myself into the Grand Hyatt Muscat, an ostentatious and slightly tacky, but pretty spectacular building, located in the diplomatic district, by the beach.
I spend the day snoozing on the loungers, walking on the beach, dipping my toes into the warm sea water, taking lazy swims, reading and sipping virgin cocktails by the pool. At sunset, I finally gather enough energy to take a shower and hail a taxi to the old town for a walk. That’s when I suddenly realise I haven’t had any food since the night before, almost 24 hours of unconsciously self inflicted fasting.
A brief taxi ride takes me to Muttrah, where I am planning to visit the souq. Having spotted a charming café, I climb the stairs of the arch at the entrance of the covered market, the oldest in Oman, and find a table by the terrace. A fantastic spot to enjoy some interesting people watching, while having my solo dinner, washed down by a delicious non alcoholic pomegranate beer.
I love markets, and souqs even more. It’s where you discover the local food, where you see how people live and interact, and get a feel of the real life. It’s the place that quintessentially captures a nation’s essence. Markets are one of the first things I visit anywhere I travel to, from NYC Farmer’s market in Union square to the Bird’s market in Hong Kong, Taipei night market, La Boqueria in Barcelona or Mercado Hidalgo in Tijuana. Each one of them is a fascinating and eye-opening experience.
After dinner, I venture into the maze-like streets of the souq, browsing the overstocked shops selling frankincense, perfume oils, silver and spices. Really interesting antique shops selling a mixture of Indian and Omani artifacts catch my eye.
I am way too tired to bargain, and I finally head to my hotel. On my way back to my room I stop by the pool, lie on a lounger and watch the stars, enjoying the warm breeze of this enchanting Arabian night.
After a long resting night of sleep, on Friday morning I wake up excited at the thought of visiting the famous Big Mosque. Sadly, my planning was rushed, and I didn’t consider that on a Friday the mosque is closed to non Muslim, for religious celebrations. A bit disappointed at my amateur mistake, I take a long walk on the Corniche, the coastal road, stopping by Muttrah fort, Ryam park, and the panoramic point, catching glimpses of cute sea turtles resting at the water’s surface whilst happily swimming in the harbour.
Well into the afternoon, after a fresh strawberry juice, I head back to the hotel to collect my luggage, and catch a taxi to Ubhar, a restaurant recommended by a fellow blogger based in Muscat, to enjoy my second and last Omani dinner.
Not surprisingly, they don’t have any tables available, but after a long negotiation, I finally convince them to reserve one, whilst I take a quick look at the Opera House.
The Royal Opera House is an incredible building completed quite recently, in 2011, hosting Oman’s premier venue for musical arts and culture. It was built in 4 years, on the royal orders of Sultan Qaboos, the Omani ruler and notoriously big fan of classical music, reflecting contemporary Omani architecture.
The grand Opera complex includes a theatre, an auditorium, luscious gardens, luxury shops and a few top-end restaurants.
When I head back to Ubhar, just across the road from the Opera House, where I had shamelessly left my entire luggage and my blackberry to charge, a table is waiting for me. Ubhar is a small restaurant in the Bareeq Al Shatti Mall. They serve Omani food with a twist. Being on my own, a bit stretched for time, partially jet lagged, I don’t feel particularly hungry, but I order a delicious traditional dish, recommended by my waiter. It’s Omani rice served with Omani lemon pickle, and chicken.
At 10.30PM I realise, I am actually really late and need to head to the airport quickly to board my midnight flight. Total time spent in Oman: 36 hours. Next stop: the expat paradise and petrodollars capital of Abu Dhabi where P is waiting for me.