WE MISSED the exit to Oman while venturing into the unfamiliar and far corners of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Though we left Dubai early, by the time we reached the border, there was already a swell of tourists.
Feeling the weight of exhaustion from driving, Dinah, along with Pam, Pinky and Len, were enervated and a little lethargic even before entering the Sultanate. It was when our passports were stamped that we heaved a sigh of relief and felt alive, again.
The highway ran through the golden sandy desert and meandered down the arid craggy mountains, sometimes dotted with wandering camels or goats from local farms.
Hit the road
Oman, a multicultural nation, attracts guests from the neighboring Middle Eastern countries. Where most of the population lives, Muscat remains quiet while keeping pace with the changing business of today. Although in better shape than it was decades ago, the humble pleasures of Muscat offer the right balance of nature and culture.
In the historic heart of the city, the main road, named after the Sultan of Oman, is where significant highlights and cultural heritage have evolved. Dotted with medical facilities, hotels, schools, business centers and mixed-use buildings, Sultan Qaboos Street helped develop the urban fabric of the city.
The landmark that caught everyone’s attention, amidst a sprawling garden for rest and contemplation, was the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque.
It was once home to the largest chandelier and single-piece hand-woven carpet in the world (now second only to UAE’s Sheikh Zayed Mosque). Taking residence alongside it is the public Grand Library that offers visitors a unique glimpse into the fascinating past and present, of life back in the olden days and of snapshots through time.
Put on center stage in the urban zone is a site nothing short of an architectural marvel. White-washed in marble, the contemporary Mohammed Al Ameen Mosque is a visual delight at night that glistens during the day. Meanwhile, the night-time haunt tourists are more excited about Amerat Hill. Overlooking the city lights below, its winding streetlights glow most magical.
Muscat, the commercial hub for business, is fitted with a large deep-water port in the Muttrah district, which has made an impact on its economy. Like any peaceful and relaxing seaside boulevard, Muttrah Corniche becomes a favorite hangout for locals and tourists alike. It is a bustling food scene replete with restaurants, cafés and tea shops.
We walked into its most charming souq to feel the soul of the old bazaar. The colorful alleyways had plenty of hidden gems, captivating stalls and killer deals. No wonder it is frequented by tourists and expats for just about anything, from garments, vintage wares, spices, to jewelry and carpets.
The next unclouded day, we escaped to the south of Muscat for some down time. After an hour-and-a-half drive, we reached the wonder of nature, a site perfect for lovers of picnic and desert camps.
Most-visited by tourists travelling around Oman, Bimmah Sinkhole, believed to be a meteor pit, is a place of interest. A sunken oasis on the face of the Earth, hundreds of meters from the beach, it was given a makeover by the Sultanate and now includes a public park, gazebos, playground and restrooms.
Feel the pulse
A trip to Oman is incomplete without taking a dip in the fresh and saltwater-filled hollow, a one of a kind pool in the Middle East. It was our first time to go down a sinkhole and venture near the small lake, but none of us dared to swim in the dark water. Although tiny fish offered a free foot spa in the shallows, its dark depths was frighteningly more unnerving.
Those scared to put their feet in the water enjoyed taking photos and cheering on daredevils cliff diving from the top. Local boys hoisted themselves on the ledges and some audacious tourists stole the show. While it was amusing and exhilarating, any stunt could be a painful experience if not properly executed.
Far and away
On our last day, unexpected pleasures in remote villages were full of breathtaking views and fun. Over two-hour’s drive westward from Muscat, through steep slopes and hairpin turns, the scenic beauty of the date palm trees and greenery made an extraordinary background against the rugged, picturesque cliffs.
For adventure travellers with a zeal for trekking, Jebel Akhdar invites tourists to the majestic Hajar Mountains. Enthralling during spring, the vineyard is at its greenest while a waterfall adds a touch of spectacular. With hotels somewhat built into cliffs, people come for nature and cool temperatures. In fact, the late Princess Diana enjoyed this magnificent vista on her visit in November 1986.
With a rising sense of excitement, we clambered down a cliff to a wadi (dry riverbed), ignoring the midday sun. The rough trail, thick undergrowth and sound of insects along the way almost made my companions turn around until nature greeted us with a tranquil sight, a forsaken village in the clearing, visible from afar. The ruins seemed to have been slowly reclaimed by nature.
While riding off into the sunset, we cherished the scenery and the calmness of the small Muslim country.