Text by Ugo Cei. Photography by Ugo Cei and Massimiliano Cremascoli.
What can you do in Oman in just five days? Apparently a lot. Having recently had the opportunity to take a week off and a handful of frequent flyer miles to spend before they expired, I looked at my options and realized that I could get two award return tickets to Abu Dhabi.
I’m not a fan of the modernity and of the exaggerated luxury of the Emirates, so I definitely didn’t want to spend a week there. Luckily, you can fly for cheap from Abu Dhabi and Dubai to Muscat, Oman. I had heard great things about that country from a friend, so I had been wanting to visit it for a long time and this was just the perfect opportunity to finally do it.
The capital of Oman is a bit like Los Angeles, in that it has a mountain range running through it that divides it into three separate cities: the old port of Muscat, with the Portuguese forts and the royal Al Alam palace, the Muttrah district, with its own port and the souq, and the financial district of Ruwi.
In addition to those areas, much of the new Muscat stretches westward along the coast, following the route of its main artery, the The Sultan Qaboos Highway, up to the airport and the neighboring city of Seeb.
With such a disconnected and potentially confusing layout, it’s hard to include more than a few sights, when all you have is 24 hours. We decided to focus on the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque and on the Muttrah Souk.
The former is, I believe, the only Omani mosque that can be visited by non-Muslims and one of the few that can be visited in the Arab world, other notable exceptions being the The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, UAE and the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco.
This is by all standards a remarkable building, being the third largest mosque in the world and sporting a 21-ton Persian carpet and a 24-meter tall Swarovski crystal chandelier.
The Muttrah Souk is, just like any other Arab souk, a covered market with various sectors, each one dedicated to a specific trade. If you’re looking for jewelry, the Gold Souk boasts an impressive number of stores where Omani men accompany their women when they want a present.
Here’s a funny story. Our guidebook advises tourists to stay away from the Sur al-Lawatia neighborhood, which lies adjacent the western side of the souk and is inhabited by the shiite al-Lawati community, who seem to very jealous of their privacy.
However, when I instructed the GPS navigator in my rental car to drive me to the souk, at some point it made me turn into a narrow side street which started twisting and turning, until it became a passage so narrow that I risked getting stuck if I had proceeded further. It was night, everyone was dressed in traditional Omani garb, and there wasn’t a tourist in sight. I had entered Sur al-Lawatia without even noticing.
So I had to backtrack (not an easy task in those streets) and find my way out. Surprisingly, every one around us tried to help me maneuver and drive to the nearest exit. Also rather surprisingly, everyone we asked directions to spoke perfect English! Sometimes, you don’t have to take everything guidebooks say seriously.
The coastline south of Muscat is dominated by the Al Hajar mountain range. Creeks (wadis) that originate from the mountaintops have cut deep canyons though the limestone bedrock to reach the sea. One of the most beautiful of those canyons is Wadi Shab.
The mouth of the wadi reaches the sea near the town of Tiwi, about 150km from Muscat on a modern 4-lane highway. From the car park, you have to pay someone to be ferried to the other bank on a boat and then you can hike up the canyon.
After about 40 minutes of hiking on uneven and rocky terrain you get to the first of a series of freshwater pools which can feel like a blessing on a hot day.
From there you can swim upstream until you reach a waterfall at the end of a cave. Definitely recommended, because it is beautiful and reasonably accessible. Just avoid public holidays, as it can get quite crowded.
At the edge of nothingness, the Wahiba Sands area marks the beginning of Oman’s empty desertic region. This area is characterized by a series of sand ridges that extend up to 180km north-to-south, running parallel to each other. It’s a fascinating place that is inhabited by tribes of bedouins, some of whom have traded their camel-herding jobs for tourist-herding ones and transformed their encampments into resorts.
Some of those have masonry huts, running water and electricity, but for our night in the desert we chose the more eco-friendly Nomadic Desert Camp, where huts are built from palm tree leaves and lighting is provided by candle light and solar energy. A typical stay at a camp like that involves a jeep ride up and down the dunes, sharing tea and dates at sunset, a nice dinner around the fire and a quiet night below a canopy of stars. This was my third time sleeping in a desert camp and each one of them was visually stimulating and spiritually thought-provoking.