There are a few tips and tricks you pick up on as a university student who cannot seem to give up their love for traveling. Firstly, make the best of your generous end-of-term holidays, as you are constantly told by warning adults that once you reach the “real world,” month-long spring holidays will be a laughable thing of the past. Secondly, if you have a friend, lab-partner, course mate or housemate who jokingly invites you to come and stay in their beautiful country, make sure to pounce before they can take it back.
This is how I found myself rushing back from uni, dissertation freshly submitted, suitcase in hand, ready to jump on the train to Heathrow with my two housemates. Between a flurry of essays, lab reports and long shifts working student jobs, we found a way to plan a trip to Muscat to visit our friend, Alla, the fourth member of our “cosy” student home (as we like to refer to it) and our personal ambassadress to Oman.
There is therefore a small disclaimer I feel I should note in writing this, as I realise not everyone has a generous Omani host at their disposal, willing to accommodate them the way she did for us. We were incredibly lucky to have her take us around, but she has been kind enough to divulge some of her knowledge as a local by contributing to this post with me and allowing everyone to have the best experience possible when visiting her country. Throughout writing this post we have therefore highlighted helpful tips that we feel may be useful knowledge when planning a visit of your own.Only a few trips in my lifetime have left me as speechless and awe-struck as the days I spent in Oman have, so I would urge you to take my word when I say that thisshould be the next trip you plan. It is a gorgeous country, lined with over 3,000 km of coastline all set against the backdrop of the reddish rock of the towering Al Hajar mountain range. With vast roads and sparsely populated regions, you will feel at times like you are the only people in the world. This type of seclusion came with an overwhelming sense of peace, leaving me eerily calmer than I have ever been before, and absolutely under the spell of Oman.
DAY 1 | DURING THE DAY: SIFAH BEACH
Fresh off the 6am plane, we arrived at Alla’s home and were treated to a traditional Omani breakfast. We were presented assorted plates of feta, olives, dates, sliced cucumbers, fragrant olive oil and warm flat breads to round it all off. To a daily porridge-eater like myself, this was indulgent and luxurious but I was told they were in fact all Omani breakfast staples that could easily and cheaply be found at the supermarket.
(Tip #1) I would therefore recommend this as a trusty meal option for anyone on a budget or who wants to try their own traditional breakfast, as a package of flatbread, feta and olives won’t cost you more than two pounds at any grocery store you stumble across.
Following a much-needed power nap, we were groggily ushered into the car on our way to Sifah, a public beach just about an hour away from Muscat.
(Tip #2) You will definitely need to rent a car or hire a driver throughout your stay in Oman. Not only is Muscat very spread out as a city, but many of the beautiful places you will want to see are just outside of the capital, making it very difficult to get there via taxi. Other than renting a car, you have the option of finding a tour guide who can easily arrange transport for you.
Sifah beach was the perfect way to spend our first day; not only was the gorgeous drive through the mountains a splendid introduction to scenic outskirts of Muscat, but as a jet-lagged, sleep-deprived bunch, nothing could beat floating lazily in the gulf of Oman and laying in the sun on what felt like a private beach, because there was no one else around us.
(Tip #3) Visit Sifah between Sunday and Wednesday because it gets a little busier around weekends (which in Oman are from Thursday to Saturday). As long as you have a blanket, a good book, and a packed picnic (ours consisted of falafel, hummus, flatbreads, and a hearty cooler filled with ice and water), you are more than set for a splendid day at Sifah. It is also possible to camp on the beach, so if you’re adventurous and up for it, make sure to bring a tent and spend an amazing evening watching the sun set and stars come out from the beach.
Dress code: feel free to wear anything you’re comfortable in, as this is a very secluded place.
IN THE EVENING: ROYAL OPERA HOUSE MUSCAT
If you’re a bit less adventurous but still want to end your night under the starts, head to the Royal Opera House for dinner. Unfortunately, we didn’t catch a show ourselves but it’s worth looking up the website beforehand. Otherwise, you can do as we did and head upstairs to the Caramel Restaurant terrace for some drinks and shared plates. The menu ranges from small bite-sized shwarma rolls and lamb and harissa sliders to California rolls and fried calamari, so there is something for everyone’s tastes. Together with an extensive drinks menu, you can sip on cocktails and nibble on food with a view of the opera’s plaza below you, and Muscat by night before you.
(Tip #4) Alcohol is available in almost every restaurant in Muscat, but there may be times where they won’t be serving it. We arrived during the prophet’s ascension, meaning it was a “dry weekend” for us. That being said, Caramel offered an exciting list of mocktails so we were not left wanting!
DAY 2 | DURING THE DAY: MUTTRAH AND NATIONAL MUSEUM
On our second day in Muscat we truly assumed our roles as tourists and headed for the Muttrah area, to visit the old city and discover the Souqor market. As one of the large sea ports in Oman, Muttrah is one of the oldest centres for commerce in Muscat, filling it with so much history and lively bustling. Start by walking along the water, to get a great view of the harbour, then cut inside once you see the entrance of the Souq. Once in the market you’ll find all kinds of stalls selling spices, terracotta pots, incense, scarves, jewellery, and rosewater. Make sure to take your time to truly sift through all the treasures they have to offer, but I would definitely recommend coming out with some frankincense and incense burners, and perhaps some za’atar spice as these have personally been my favourite souvenirs.
If you’d like to stop for lunch somewhere in the area, I would recommend Bait Al Luban, in the harbour. You’ll enjoy great views of Muttrah with fresh seafood caught specially for the fish market that morning.
From Muttrah, you can continue driving along the coast until you reach the Sultan’s Palace, and right across from it, the National Museum. Though the Palace is not open to visitors, it is worth getting a photo in front of the incredible building, as it is home to the Sultan Qaboos, arguably one of Oman’s most influential leaders. Just a few steps away from it is the National Museum of Oman, an absolute must-see for your first few days in Muscat. It sets the backdrop for the rich history of the country, starting from traditional pre-Islamic Omani tribes and how this evolved throughout British colonial occupation and up to independence. I would especially recommend the exhibition hall filled with large Arabian wooden boats, as it is enough to get a sense of the grandeur Muscat held as a seaport.
Dress code: Preferably, cover your shoulders, chest and legs as this is a busy place, and it is preferable to be respectful.
DAY 3 | DURING THE DAY: AL MOUJ AND KEMPINSY
Our third day in Oman was spent at Marina Al Mouj, where we went for a stroll along the sailboats and the restaurant promenade. There are quite a few restaurants to choose from but the real treat here is the Kempinksi Hotel. Head down to their ground floor terrace to sit down for a meal with a gorgeous view of the pool and further ahead, the gulf.
(Tip #5) Almost every major hotel in Muscat gives you the option of buying a “Pool Day” pass, for 10-15 Riyal (20-30 pounds). This allows you to use the hotel’s swimming facilities, and gives you access to their private beach. I would recommend going to a private beach if you were planning on having a swim.
Though it is not strictly forbidden, wearing revealing clothes or swimming costumes on public beaches might result in some staring or a few disapproving looks. Apart from Sifah, where there is no one around, I would recommend going to public beaches to have a stroll along the water at sunset and save the sunbathing and swimming days that you decide to get a hotel pass.
This is a neat trick to get around having to pay the nightly room fee of some of these pricey hotels, yet still enjoying the luxury of their restaurants and pools! Much like many places in Oman, the pools are rarely busy, so it is a great way to relax and feel a little indulgent during your holiday.
Dress Code: As the Marina is a public place, wearing something semi-long might make you feel more comfortable. At the Kempinsky, however, feel free to dress as you please.
DAY 4 | DURING THE DAY: SULTAN QABOOS GRAND MOSQUE
After a day of lazing around a pool, we were ready to be resume our roles as cultured tourists as we made our way to one of the most anticipated sites of the trip; The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. We were truly given the full experience as Alla’s mother brought out her gorgeous abayas for us to borrow for the occasion. This is of course not a requirement of the mosque, but as women are expected to cover their harms, head and legs, we thought we might as well wear what a traditional (and elegant) Omani woman would wear to the mosque should she be going herself. For those who aren’t familiar, abayas are beautiful long, black cloaks, often worn over floor-length skirts or trousers. I should note that not even your ankles should be exposed when you go into the Mosque, as a woman in front of us was turned away at the entrance for that very reason.
Once inside, you’ll be blown away by the splendour of the mosque. There is a sophistication and symmetry to Islamic architecture that is mesmerising, and you’ll find this everywhere as you walk through the main prayer hall from the vast tapestries on the floor to the opulence of the hand painted gold details in the ceiling. Definitely take your time to walk through all the halls around the main mosque, making sure to appreciate the small alcoves and their mosaics. You can also then walk along the mosque gardens and fountains, where you can literally stop and smell the roses (and the frangipanis, and the bougainvillaea, and the hibiscus, etc.)
(Tip #6) The Mosque is open to visitors from 8:00am to 11:00am every day except Friday, when the men meet to prey.
Dress Code: Both men and women must be dressed conservatively: long trousers and covered shoulders for men, covered head, covered arms, and long pants or floor-length skirts for women.
IN THE AFTERNOON: POOL DAY AND DINNER AT THE HYATT
The only thing you’ll note if you choose to dress in abayas for your visit to the mosque is that you will find it unbearably boiling by the end of your tour! Red and sweaty as we were, we decided to try the pool at the Grand Hyatt to cool off. This hotel was definitely something special in its own right. Built in 1998, it doesn’t have the same shine and sparkle as some of the newer, glitzier hotels in the area, but it has something more. It is built in a Yemeni architectural style, and has the glamour of a neoclassical building with its lavish entrance and many palm trees. You can grab a drink by their pool bar, sitting on chairs submerged underwater, and watching the waterfall features around you.
I would also highly recommend trying their buffet, if you’re looking to stay until the evening. I found that many hotels and restaurants in Oman served continental food, but the Hyatt set itself apart in staying authentic to Arab cuisine. Either grab a seat inside if you’re keen to have a look at the beautiful statues and stain-glassed windows that the restaurant boasts, or grab a table on the terrace to enjoy a candlelit dinner under the palm trees.
Dress code: Anything you feel comfortable in.
DAY 5: ONE NIGHT STAY AT SHANGRI LA AL JISSAH
This is not exactly a must, but we definitely enjoyed ourselves staying at the Shangri La for one night during our trip. The reason we decided to go was because the hotel itself was beautiful, but a bit of a drive outside of Muscat. We therefore decided to rent a room between the four of us, and make a day out of it. Our car journey there was a scenic drive through the mountains, with various view points at which we could stop to see the sea. The hotel itself is built right between the foot of the mountains and the beach, making it the perfect place to swim in the gulf with a gorgeous view of the sun setting behind the mountains. Perhaps a guilty tourist pleasure that you might enjoy is also going for a camel ride along the beach. There is also a water sports club for the sailing and kayaking enthusiasts, rounding it off as the ideal place to go as a family or to take part in a few activities!
Dress code: Anything you feel comfortable in.
DAY 6: WADI SHAB AND SINK HOLE
Now this was without a doubt, the best part of the entire trip. Day 6 was the day we packed a picnic and jumped in our car, direction Wadi Shab. Wadis are found in many Arab countries, and can be described as ravines or small valleys in the dessert, that have collected rain water to form small lagoons. We had heard so much about the place, but did not have a clear idea as to how we would get there, so this was definitely a journey of discoveries.We drove to a small village just off the highway, where a parking lot indicated we had arrived at the beginning of Wadi Shab. After finishing our packed picnic in the car we walked to the bank of the preliminary ravine, where we were instructed that a small boat would take us to the opposite bank for 2 Riyal (4 pounds) each. Once off the boat, we started our 45 minute walk through the desert, with the sun all the while high above us. This is where I would recommend a few tips;
(Tip #7) bring a small backpack or bag where you can carry some water, sunscreen and your (waterproof) camera.
You might feel like Lawrence of Arabia throughout this walk, as you’re really just wading through rocks and sand without much clear direction. You may also start to doubt as to whether this was all worth it, and question why you ever listened to the person who suggested you do this. When you finally reach the Wadi, all of that will fade a way as you realise; boy, was it worth it. I won’t give too much away because part of the beauty was the mystery, but I would definitely recommend swimming up the ravine with your waterproof camera in hand. You’ll encounter a few cascades and shallow streams but what lies at the end will absolutely blow you away.
There is also a sink hole, said to have existed for thousands of years already, where you can stop on the road back from Wadi Shab. It’s great for adrenaline junkies who fancy a 50m jump into deep water, but I personally would recommend just going straight to the Wadi.
Dress code: Perhaps longer pants and t-shirts covering shoulders for women. Work-out leggings would be ideal, and tennis shoes and a cap are definitely a must!
DAY 7: DOLPHIN WATCHING AND SNORKELING
On your last day in Oman, round off your trip with a boat trip to Bandar Khayran. We organised ours through Nomad Tours, initially wanting to take a trip to Daymaniyat Islands, but were informed that the sea would be too rough for us to make the 1 hour trip to the islands. We were however not left wanting, as they offered us an alternative of dolphin watching and snorkelling with turtles.Dress Code: Anything you feel comfortable in
The boat ride back took us along the coast of Muscat, giving us one last view of the Sultan’s Palace, the old harbour, and Muttrah, for one last scenic goodbye.
By Sarah Derveeuw