48 Hours In...
Having soaked up the atmosphere in a souk, go dolphin spotting or relax with a fresh mango juice in Oman's capital by the sea
Saturday 07 October 2006
WHY GO NOW?
Come October, the heat of summer in the Omani capital has eased. The winter months of November to January - when you sunbathe by day and wear a cardigan at night - is the best time to visit. Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, continues until around 22 October: visitors relax at the resort by day when everything is shut, and explore Muscat after dark when it comes alive.
Muscat's Seeb airport is served non-stop from Heathrow by Gulf Air (0870 777 1717; www.gulfair.com), and one-stop by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com). You can also reach it from Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow on Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com). Visa rules have been eased and British passport holders can now buy one at the airport for 6 rials (£8.40). Grab a map at the airport information desk as there's no tourist office in town - or see www.omantourism.gov.com. A taxi to the centre takes around 20 minutes and costs about 8 rials (£11).
GET YOUR BEARINGS
The city sits serenely on the turquoise shores of the Gulf of Oman to the north, with a backdrop of dramatic mountains to the south. Muscat's peaceful suburbs of whitewashed low-rise architecture, with lush gardens, palm trees and pink bougainvillea, sprawl across small rugged red hills. A freeway connects the airport in the west with the commercial centre of Ruwi and characterful Old Muscat and Muttrah, the areas of most interest to travellers, in the east. As Muscat is spread out, taxi fares can add up quickly, so unless you're staying in Muttrah and focusing your energies there, you might want to rent a car.
Muscat's newest resort, the magnificently situated Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah (1) (bookable through 0870 128 6000; www.shangri-la.com) is really three resorts in one: exclusive Al Husn (The Castle), opening this month; elegant Al Bandar (The Town), for couples and corporates; and Al Waha (The Oasis), catering for families. Despite being 40 minutes from the airport and 20 minutes from Muscat, its spectacular setting among red mountains with the aquamarine sea lapping at its shores, makes it worth the drive. Spacious doubles from 95 rials (£130), include an expansive buffet breakfast. The city's only boutique hotel, The Chedi (2) (00 968 24 524 343; www.designhotels.com) is a fine example of the genre. Its chic interiors and architecture successfully meld traditional Omani influences into a Zen minimalist style amid tranquil gardens, ponds and fountains. It's a 10-minute drive from the airport and a further 10 minutes to Muttrah. Stylish doubles from 164 rials (£225) include a delicious breakfast.
One of several indistinguishable budget places to stay on Muttrah's Corniche (waterfront), the Marina Hotel (3) (00 968 24 713 100) is the cleanest. Doubles that have seen better days start at 40 rials (£56), including breakfast.
TAKE A HIKE
A morning visit to the Muttrah fishmarkets (4) is a must. Start at the bustling market where fishermen wheel their catch straight from the boats. Then set off along the Corniche, admiring the restored dhows bobbing on the harbour and the whitewashed merchants' houses with pretty balconies across the road. Follow the Corniche around the bay to the surprisingly green Riyam Park (5), where you'll spot the wonderful Muttrah Fort (6) (under renovation) and crumbling Portuguese watchtowers. Follow the road until you reach the Sultan Qaboos' striking Palace (7) with pillars resembling golf tees. Unfortunately you'll have to just imagine what the interior looks like, as it's not possible to go inside.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
No eateries are open in the day during Ramadan; non-Muslims have to eat in their hotel room or in private dining rooms established by big hotels. For the rest of the year, head for the no-nonsense Food and Juice Centre (8) (00 968 24 320 750) on Muttrah Corniche, near the entrance to the souk and the ideal place to refuel. Pull up a plastic chair and enjoy a freshly squeezed mango juice and wood-fire pizza for about 1 rial (£1.40).
Most of Muscat's museums are in need of renovation. One in Old Muscat that is worth an hour of your time is on Al Saidiyah Street, near the Muscat Gate (9): Bait Al Zubair (10) (00 968 24 736 688; 9.30am-1pm daily except Friday; admission 1 rial/£1.40). It has intriguing exhibits of Omani handicrafts, antique jewellery, weapons and model boats. On the same street, the fascinating Omani-French Museum (00 968 24 736 613; 9.30am-1pm daily except Friday; 0.5 rial/ 70p), in the lovely former French Embassy, documents the relationship between the two countries.
An evening stroll through the exotic Muttrah Souq (11) is the ultimate retail experience. For many, soaking up the atmosphere is enough: Omani men enjoying coffee and gossip; elegant black-clad Omani women bargaining for textiles; and the air heady with the fragrance of Arabian attars (essential oils). Best buys are traditional Omani silver jewellery; old khanjars (traditional intricately decorated knives), and a kumma (embroidered cap worn by Omani men). The best shop in the souk for Omani handicrafts and antiques is Muscat Turath (00 968 24 715 373).
You don't have to be a guest to chill out with a crisp glass of white at the tranquil poolside bar at The Chedi (2). Indeed, if you're not staying there, a drink is a must.
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
For a memorable meal, ask for a table by the Moroccan musicians at Muscat's newest and best restaurant, the sumptuous Shahrazad (12) at the Shangri-La's Al Husn Hotel (00 968 24 776 666). The chefs and waiters are Moroccan; the Pastilla Bil Haman (pigeon pie) is tasty and the Tagine D'jaj Mkelli is delicious for about 35 rials (£49) for two with wine. While it may be a chain restaurant, Automatic (13) (00 968 24 487 200; Al Khuwair) offers the most affordable and deliciously authentic Lebanese food in the Gulf (5 rials/£7 for two with juices).
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO A MOSQUE
While mosques are generally out of bounds to non-Muslims, Oman's Emir has opened the splendid Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque (14) to the public. The enormous edifice, with its exquisite marble interior, can accommodate 20,000 worshippers praying on the world's largest Persian carpet. Entry is possible anytime except during prayer; your hotel can provide prayer times. Women should wear long, loose-fitting clothing and a headscarf, while men should wear trousers and a long sleeved top.
A WALK IN THE PARK
Take a taxi to the idyllic Shatti Al Qurm waterfront (15). From here you can stroll along a narrow stretch of grass, with the turquoise waters just a few metres away, lapping the shores of a fine creamy sand beach. Shaded by palm trees with a smattering of picnic tables and palm frond shelters, it's a peaceful place for a walk.
OUT FOR BRUNCH
Stop at the Marina Café (16) (00 968 24 567 825) for seafood (5 rials/£7 for two) overlooking the sea. Finish at the bay beneath a rocky headland near the Crowne Plaza hotel for a well-earned swim.
TAKE A RIDE
Dolphins can be spotted swimming in the cobalt sea a short boat ride from Muscat. Sea Thunder (00 968 95 256 416) offers 90-minute trips including a spectacular coastline tour (18 rials/£25). Boats leave from Marina Bandar Al Rowdha (17), near the Shangri-La Resort.
ICING ON THE CAKE
Oman has many beautiful ancient forts, which are often magically situated in the middle of an oasis, by the sea, or at the heart of an old town. The most impressive are Jabrin, Barka and Nizwa, which can all be visited in a day. It's best to hire a car, otherwise your hotel can organise a driver for anything from 40-80 rials (£56-112) depending on how far you wish to go.
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