By Conor Purcell
Oman is at once the forgotten country of the Middle East, and paradoxically, the most quintessentially Arabian. It might not boast the mega-projects of Dubai or the industrial strength of Saudi Arabia, but it does give visitors the sense of being at the very heart of the region. At the centre of Oman, both culturally and economically, is Muscat.
Oman's capital is an unusual place. A capital city built around mountains, you get the sense the local population are quite happy that nature can be used as an excuse against giant developments.
The dark peaks give Muscat a beauty it would not otherwise have, although it is true the city has retained much of its history - you will be hard pushed to find a building more than five storeys high.
Muttrah - probably the most interesting part of Muscat - is what all Middle East port towns should be like. Forget the cluttered impersonal nature of modern ports and picture a labyrinth of back streets and alleyways which spill out onto a beautifully maintained corniche.
While the maze-like backstreets served the practical purpose of confusing any rampaging pirates who happened to come ashore, the corniche's condition is simply a reflection of the civic pride that seems to run through Oman. Litter is nowhere to be seen, and there are signs at traffic lights warning motorists against honking.
One theme that crops up in almost all tourists' retelling of their Omani trip is the friendliness of the local people. Ignore the fact that the "friendly locals" tag is used to describe the inhabitants of almost every popular tourist destination and simply enjoy being in the presence of a people who have no ulterior motive. For an example of this, walk through the Muttrah Souq. The first thing you notice is the noise. There isn't any. No hawkers rambling on about fake watches or bootleg DVDs, no cries of "good price", or "one minute sir." No, the local vendors are remarkably calm, almost to the point where you want to tell them to a bit more proactive.
The lack of tourists gives Muttrah a sleepy, almost dilapidated air, but the air of calm is a welcome respite from the hectic nature of life in the UAE.
About five minutes' drive through the mountains from Muttrah lies the Sultan's palace. It somewhat resembles a drink mat propped up onto four massive golf tees - and sums up the kitsch Arabian feel of much of the architecture.
Huge Buckingham Palace-style gates keep out the riff-raff, while sentries - who are probably the friendliest official guards in the world - keep a watchful eye over the diplomatic district. The seventies-style white-washed architecture is one of the most striking features of the city, particularly when contrasted against the stark brown peaks.
Kuntub Beach is a 15-minute drive away from the Palace - a drive that is quite spectacular, particularly at sunset as the mountains turn orange and purple. The beach is almost always empty, and is surrounded by rocky slopes that plunge into the sea. With the azure sea and lack of noise, it's the perfect place to spend some quality time. If you get tired of sitting around, there are always a few locals who will take you out in their boats - Dh30 should do the trick.
So what else is there to see? In truth, not much. But therein lies Muscat's charm. The friendly locals, relaxed atmosphere and spectacular scenery add up to one of the Middle East's most tranquil spots.
From the UAE
- Return flights from Dubai to Oman start from about Dh250.
- If you are driving through the border, make sure you have valid motor insurance.
- Allow at least ninety minutes for the border crossing; immigration formalities can take time and there can be long queues.
Where to stay
- The Crowne Plaza Muscat was built in the mid-seventies - a lifetime in Dubai, but in Muscat, the slightly retro exterior fits in with the rather mellow feel of the capital. The hotel features its own private beach - a first for the city - as well as the usual facilities one would expect from a four-star deluxe. Prices are reasonable, but the hotel fills up quickly, so book well in advance. www.ichotelsgroup.com
- For those looking for something a bit more plush, check out the Shangri-La's Bar Al Jissah Resort. Nestled at the edge of the Bar Al Jissah Bay, the hotel comprises over 300 rooms and some spectacular views. Arabian architecture and top-notch service add up to make this hotel one of the finest in the Middle East.
What to do
The Oman Dive Centre is the perfect antidote from Dubai's brash consumerism. The accommodation is spartan but comfortable and with the sea lapping the shore a few feet away, it's impossible not to have a good night's sleep. A favourite with backpackers travelling around the region, the resort features a number of barasti-style beach huts, a dive centre and a restaurant. Barbecuing fish on the beach as the sun goes down is the perfect way to end a day of doing, well, nothing. www.diveoman.com.om
Source: "Gulf News" Dubai daily, "Explore" supplement, 25 November 2006