POST 14 – March 8th 2019 – Destination
Beautiful Oman !
Each continent seems to have a particular place or country which became a trendy destination. In Europe, Portugal and Iceland became very popular in the recent few years. For South America, Peru seems to be the place to be nowadays, and Namibia scores one of the biggest increase in tourist numbers for the African region, with more direct flights coming from Europe and middle east than ever before… (athough the infrastructures of the country haven’t evolve as fast as the tourism increased), while Vietnam and Cambodia seem to be have become recently very appreciated destinations for western tourists visiting south east asia.
For the middle east region, Oman has picked up in the past few years to be a very authentic touristic destination, charged with history and in a region where safety could be a concern, the sultanate has the reputation to be called « the Switzerland of the middle east » and has no particular security issues a regular tourist should be concerned of, as long as you respect some local customs and have a minimum of common sense… As a matter of fact, the French Ministry of foreign affairs classifies most of the country in Green, same as Iceland for example, and has a better safery rating than most of the European countries and the United Arab Emirates… The Sultanate of Oman has been for a long time considered as a neutral, independant and moderate country in a very complicated region geopolitically speaking and has remained in peace with all its neighbours (Saudi Arabia and Iran for example) for many decades. It is for example, one of the handful countries in the region to still keep diplomatic ties with every country, such Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, and it’s head of state, the Sultan Qaboos (full name being Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said) is often considered as a negociator to solve regional crisis. As of the time of writing, he has been the longest current serving-ruler of a middle-eastern state.
In the shadow of Dubai and Abu Dhabi when it comes to tourism numbers, I was certainly very looking forward to visiting the Sultanate of Oman…
As usual, a summary of my short flight on Swiss International Airlines and the lounge experience in Dubai airport can be read on my flyertalk trip report.
I arrived late at night in the brand new airport of Muscat, the country’s capital, and was picked up by the driver of the bed and breakfast I booked for a couple nights next to one of Muscat’s municipal beaches. This friendly Pakistani man who has been living in Oman for almost 30 years, confirmed to me that the country has changed quite a bit in the last few years, with the new (and very pleasant) airport being a perfect example of those changes. A lot of new international hotels have also opened recently, mostly to accomodate business travelers but also higher-class travellers in quest of discovering the rich heritage of the country.
After a first restful night at the B&B « Lana Villa » (which I decided to call « the German embassy », as I was the only person there not speaking German), I picked up my rental car in the luxurious Chedi hotel nearby and was ready to explore the country for the next 5 days…
Although Muscat is the country’s biggest city, with a bit less than 2 million inhabitants living there – and also the Sultanate capital – you will not find many skyscrapers unlike in the U.A.E for instance. Most of the buildings are only a few stories high, but the city is really spread : From one end to another, I think that we are talking about 50 kms in length and maybe about 10 km wide, from the coast to its hills. It reminded me, to some extent, cities like Los Angeles, but without its skyline. Which meant a rental car was a must to have as relying on the public transportation in such a city would certainly be a mistake and taxis would have exploded my budget ! During my 40 minutes ride across the city reach the national museum and the Sultan’s residence, I quickly noticed that red, white and green colors were present all across the highways, bridges, buildings (official or not) and more often than not, the portrait of Sultan Qaboos was displayed as the father of the nation. After discussing with a few locals, it appears that everyone I spoke with was really grateful and loved the Sultan for all the achievements the country has made since he gained power after overthrowing his Father in 1970. But there was another reason for this massive display of the national colors : The National day of Oman was coming soon, on November 18th and this was during my stay in the country.
My first day was spent visiting the old Muscat, where the national museum of Oman is located and walking around the Sultan’s palace. I also spent the afternoon and evening visiting the Bait museum and wandering in the Souk and the city’s corniche…
Fun fact : I discovered at the same time that my last name was also the name of one of the civilizations which built this country during the Bronze and copper era 5000 years ago !
I found the national museum of Oman to be very informative and pleasant to visit for a few hours, with the staff working there to be very welcoming and accessible ! While the museum present lots of historical pieces from the country, it also focuses in explaining the diversity present in the country and the more modern and open-minded aspects of its culture. (I remember seeing a priest and a church in the presentation movie for example).
In front of the national museum is located the Sultan’s residence. It is impossible to visit it but you can walk around the building between the city and the sea. Certainly a nice place to live in ! Considering most of the Omanis were on holidays the week I was there due to the National day, a lot of families were visiting the area, wearing flags and with children wearing the national colors.
Another museum located in the old town, the Bait Al-Zubair museum, features some interesting displays of traditional Omani housing in a lovely scenery…
The days in this part of the world are usually very warm, if not hot… Although I visited the country in November, which is not as bad as during summer months, the sun was alone in the sky during the day and the temperatures could easily reach 35 or 40c under it. So like every middle eastern country, the outside life really picks up at the end of the day, with all the people (and tourists) gathering in the souks, parks, beaches and the popular city corniche.
On the second day, I spent a few hours in the morning visiting the Grand Mosque of Sultan Qaboos, which is one of the city’s highlights and the national Mosque of the country. Unlike the Grand Mosque of Abu Dhabi, this mosque is open for non-muslims only a few hours a day in the morning, except on Fridays. Guided tours can be arranged on site, although I prefered to visit it by myself. Pictures are allowed, and welcomed.
While this Grand mosque is less impressive and gigantic than the Abu Dhabi one, it remains a beautiful site to visit and the architectural design chosen differs a bit from the Abu Dhabi grand mosque.
On my way out of the capital, as I was travelling south, I decided to stop at the Opera house as it was a recommended place to visit. Unfortunately I could not visit it as some preparations for the national day celebrations were ongoing… Next time. The opera house is also one of the highlights to see, and is located near one of the nice beaches of the capital, which appears to be located right next to a bird reserve.
It is no surprise that the country is located in the middle of the desert, and for centuries, humans had to adapt to live in such harsh conditions, especially when it comes to water supply. While modern techniques nowadays provide consistent water supply pretty much everywhere in the country, an ingenious system of open-air aqueducts is still in operation in some parts of the country side, mostly for agriculture (palm and date trees…). Those canals are called « Wadis » in Oman and some of the villages are real hidden gems to visit. One of those mountain villages I enjoyed visiting was called Wadi Tiwi, and with the help of a friendly local in exchange of a few ryals, I discovered this beautiful place with a waterfall in the middle of the desert where only a 4×4 and local knowledge can bring you to ! We also picked up a nice couple of tourists from Sweden (actually she was German and he was from Slovenia) on the way up !
On my way to Sour, at the eastern part of the country, I also had the opportunity to enjoy some nice places, such as the Bimah hole and also get lost (litterally !) in the mountain. Fortunately, the locals were friendly and although communication in English can sometimes be complicated outside of the cities (no problems in that respect in the cities), there were always helpful to help me find my way…
My third night in the country was in Sour, a popular destination to see sea turtles nesting. Unfortunately, I did not have enough time to join a turtle watching tour. I happened to be in Sour the evening of the National day of Oman and the streets looked like if the country just had won the FIFA world cup !
The third day was spent on the road to reach Nizwa, one of the historical places of the country, in the mountains about an hour and half away from Muscat. Nowadays, the region of Nizwa is the second most popular touristic destination in Oman, after the capital Muscat. But this has not always been the case, as Nizwa had (and still has to some extent) the reputation to be one of the most conservative regions of Oman, and one story says that no later than 50 years ago, Wilfred Thesiger, a British explorer was prevented to visit Nizwa by his bedouin guides as they thought locals were so conservative that they would not accept to see a foreigner ! Nowadays, it is nothing less than the second touristic destination of the country !
Nizwa is home to one of the nicest fortress in the country, and when I visited it, national day celebrations were still ongoing.
Like every Arabic town, the souk is one of the best places to discover local delights and buy some souvenirs… I got to try some honey, dates and dates juice and some other stuff I could not really qualify !
The afternoon was spent visiting the Al-Hoota caves (unfortunately, no pictures were allowed – I cheated to get a few…) and visit the mountain village of Misfat al Abriyyin. While I think I could have skipped the cave visit, walking around this small village was very pleasant. If you ever decide to go there, just make sure you park your car before the entrance of the village, as the village is basically a dead end, with a single narrow road to get there and the traffic can be chaotic.
Finally, one funny thing I noticed in Oman (which I haven’t seen that much in other arabic countries) is that most of the store descriptions are translated in English on the building front, which is somehow helpful if you are not able, like me, to understand or read Arabic. But funny part is that the translations are approximate, especially in the country side, and can lead to funny descriptions. I noticed also an impressive number of hair dressers at gas stations in the middle of no-where !
Those few days in the Sultanate went fast, and it was soon time to head back to Muscat for my last night before taking a flight to Qatar and Singapore the following day.
While my discovery of Dubai and the U.A.E will not leave me with some unforgettable memories (It was a nice stopover though…), Oman is a country I would like to visit again, and for a longer period this time
ID Card : OMAN
- Capital : Muscat
- Currency : Omani Ryal (1 OMR = 2.30 Euros)
- Visa needed ? For most if not all EU citizens, a visa on arrival is required. This visitor visa can also be arranged on the Royal Omani Police website (http://www.rop.gov.om/). Price : 5 OMR for 10 days, 20 OMR for 30 days.
- Language(s) : Arabic, although English use is widespread, especially in the cities and all signs are written in English.
- Must to see in 5 days : Muscat old city and Grand mosque, Wadi Tiwi, Nizwa.
- What I would like to see next time : Spend a night in the desert, the Omani fjords in the Musandan peninsula, and the deep south in Salalah
- What I loved : The culture and history, the landscapes, the authenticity.
- What I liked less : The heat (well… it’s the desert !). The long drives – although this was due to my schedule.
- Cost of living : Eating out tends to be cheaper than in Europe and the quality/price ratio is good. Accomodation prices are similar to Western europe. Transportation (i.e gasoline) is significantly cheaper, although the distances between places can be important.
- Transportation : Renting a car seems to be mandatory and the road network is good. Due to long distances, travel by air could be an option, with Oman Air having the monopoly on domestic flights.
- Safety and security: No concerns in that respect.
- Best season to visit : During Northern hemisphere winter.
- My rating : **** – Highly recommended destination
(* : OK destination / ** : Nice to see once in your life / *** : Recommended / **** : Highly recommended / ***** : Go there ! Now !)