Monday, January 20, 2014

DAY EIGHTY TWO - Oh me, oh my, Oman!

Doug has been so busy and consumed with his job at NYU Abu Dhabi that it is not surprising that some personal matters have slipped off his radar. Thus this conversation one evening a month ago:

Doug: S**t! I just realized I have some frequent flyer miles with Etuhad that are going to expire tonight. 
Me: Tonight?!?!?!
Doug: Yup. Guess I'll just have to lose them.
Me: No way! Let's book a flight. Somewhere. Anywhere. Doesn't matter. 

And just like that we booked an overnight trip to Muscat, Oman. 

Oman is about the size of Italy 

Oman borders the U.A.E. to the East, and it's only a short 50-minute flight from Abu Dhabi to the capital city of Muscat. I had a window seat so I could see the desert below me for the first half of the trip. At first the dunes were small and in shades of beige, and then they abruptly changed to a rusty red and grew dramatically in size. I knew we'd reached the border with Oman when the desert gave way to jagged mountains. 

The view from my window as we went over the mountains. I've flown over the Rockies many times, and these mountains are very different.

As we approached Muscat, we descended through the clouds. The mountains were close enough to reach out and touch. Not really, but it felt that way to me. 

It didn't take us long to pass through the airport. Step 1 was to buy our tourist visa. As I stood in line I heard a cellphone go off right behind me, and I smiled as I recognized Elvis Presley's crooning. "Ah, another American", I thought, but then I heard the owner of the cellphone answer in an unmistakable Arabic accent. When reached the counter Doug and I went up to one attendant, and the man behind me walked to the attendant right next to us, so I was able to glance over and see that he was a middle-aged gentleman in Western business dress. The first question we were asked was our country of origin, and I heard the gentleman answer "Iran". Apparently The King's fans know no borders. I like that. 

Once through Passport Control, we collected our one bag, got a cab and pulled out into the bright blue sky and sunshine of Muscat. The city is long and narrow, situated between the mountains and the shoreline of the Arabian Sea. Like Abu Dhabi and Dubai, most of it is fairly new construction, but unlike those two cities, Oman made the very deliberate decision to not go the high-rise route and imposed a strict height restriction. As we flew down the very modern highway I was taken with the low-slung, white-washed architecture, the traditional crenelated roof-lines, mosques with blue-tiled domes and minarets (a very different style from what I've seen in the UAE), and beautiful landscaping of palms and flowers and swaths of green grass. The city of white and green contrasted sharply with the mountains, but at the same time it fit right into the landscape. To me Abu Dhabi feels like it was dropped from the sky onto the flat sands bordering the Arabian Gulf, but Muscat feels like it grew out of the earth. 

A fellow ex-pat had advised me to find a hotel in the city rather than on the outskirts, saying Muscat was fascinating to explore, that it had a more "Old Arabia" vibe to it, far different from Abu Dhabi and Dubai. So I heeded the advice and almost randomly picked the Grand Hyatt. I had company for most of the past month and didn't have a lot of time to do research. 

When I checked in I was surprised to hear the concierge tell me she was giving me a room upgrade. I loved the place already! Doug and I followed the bell boy as he trundled our suitcase down hallway after hallway, for what seemed miles. Finally we rounded the final corner, and as he unlocked the door he said, "You will love the view".

I walked into the room and gasped. The room was the biggest hotel room I've ever been in, and through a large french door opening to a balcony I could see the blue expanse of the Gulf of Oman. I think I danced across the room, flung open the door and stepped out. All I could hear was the gentle roar of waves crashing on the beach. 

This was the view from our 4th (top) floor balcony. The main pool was beneath our window, and the beach was a short walk away. 

This sounds crazy even to me, but when I booked this hotel, I had failed to notice that it was actually on the water, so to find this outside my window took me completely and utterly by surprise. Instantly my plan to drop our bags in the room and head back out to the city evaporated. The sound and sight of the water and the tranquility of this place enveloped me. Exploring the city could wait till tomorrow.

It was the right decision. Look at Doug, pants rolled up and shoes in hand. And doesn't he look so relaxed?

We explored the pool area and the gardens, and then we walked to the shore. It was clearly a public beach, and it stretched from horizon to horizon. We took off our shoes and waded into the water. By Jersey Shore standards, it was warm. The air temperature was maybe in the low 70's, so with a brisk breeze blowing, it was a bit cool for swimming. Good thing too, since I had failed to pack swim suits! 

We walked and walked and walked, and apparently I was still in bird-watching mode as I found myself checking out the terns and gulls. We even spied a heron wading in the waters, and I am proud to say I identified it as a Western Reef-Heron, having recently seen it with Linda at the wildlife sanctuary near Dubai. I emailed Linda this photo and several others, and she confirmed it. 

Western Reef-Heron on the hunt. 

After our long walk we stopped by the hotel poolside bar/restaurant for a drink. I was feeling tropical what with the water and palms and all, so I had a Mai-Tai. By this time it was cooling down, and I was very glad I had packed a wrap in my handbag. 

We stayed put that evening and dined at one of the hotel restaurants, an Italian one called Tuscany. It was fabulous. The service was excellent, and the food absolutely delicious. That evening we slept with the french doors open so we could hear the sea. 

We slept in a bit the next morning as Doug was seriously sleep-deprived. This will surprise no-one who knows him. After coffee we got a cab and headed to the Mutrah Souk, which is pretty much the #1 place to go when visiting Muscat. 

This is the Mutrah neighborhood. This picture (off the web) shows how it's tucked right between the mountains and the water. There is a sizeable port to the left (out of frame), and I am told small cruise ships come in regularly.

I like this photo as it clearly shows the blue-tiled minaret of a mosque. Most of the mosques in Muscat are decorated in similar fashion, which is quite different from the mosques I see in Abu Dhabi. Note the street lamps - they are very pretty. And look how close the mountains are! This is not an optical illusion - they are that close.

This is the main entrance to the Mutrah Souk. Do not be deceived by its modest appearance as the souk stretches beyond this in all directions, like branches off a tree trunk. It goes on for blocks and blocks. 

The souk was dimly lit, the floor irregularly paved, and it was lined with colorful shop after shop. Small alleys went out in all directions, and it was packed with locals and tourists. Oh yes, this was the real McCoy, just as I'd imagined it.

I loved the brightly-colored pottery and brass coffee pots stacked up on an alley stairway

All along the way the vendors called out to me, "Madam (accent on the 2nd syllable) I have a beautiful pashmina for you!" Another approached me with a bottle of perfume, offering to dab some on my wrist. Yet another gestured toward a table saying "Buy some frankincense, Madam!" 

This made me think of Carrie in the "Sex and the City" movie. Didn't she end up buying a pair of these????

Oman is more traditional than the UAE, and the shopkeepers follow the custom of closing at 1:00 and re-opening at 4:00 for evening hours. We had only 1 hour to shop before the souk closed for the afternoon, and Doug appeared greatly relieved. A shopper he is not. I suggested we walk along the roadway to the historical district of Old Muscat, which I thought was just around that bend. Note the pretty plantings. Most of the main roads looked nice like this, even well beyond the city limits.

It turned out Old Muscat was not just up the road. After a few kilometers we came upon a small park and this bike share. I immediately thought of my friend, Mary Jo, who loves to bike and took this photo for her. I would deem Muscat and the surrounding area very "bikeable" indeed.

Finally we came upon this - the gate to the city of Old Muscat. An honest-to-goodness city gate. I loved it! I read in my guide book that up until a few decades ago, these gates were actually closed at night.

As it turned out, once we got into this old section of Muscat, we discovered that it's not just the shops that close down in the afternoon. It's pretty much everything. No museums were open. None of the historical sites either. Big bummer. Doug was hot and a bit cranky by now, and we were hungry for lunch, so when he saw a cab coming in our direction, he raised his arm. And that's how we met Hassan. 

In the U.A.E. the majority of the population, 80%, is ex-pat, and they comprise most of the work force. In Oman it is the reverse. As a result you find Omanis in all lines of work, including driving cabs. I was delighted to actually meet and talk with a local. And talk we did. 

We told our young cabbie that we wanted to go for lunch, and Doug had the idea we should drive out to the Shangri-La Resort for the sake of the ride and the scenery. The cabs are not metered in Oman, so you always ask first about the cost. Hassan said it was about a 20-minute ride and would cost 10 Rials, which sounded fair to us. His English was very good, and he chatted all along the way, which is totally unlike the cabbies in Abu Dhabi who say nothing. Hassan wanted to know where we were from and what brought us to Abu Dhabi and how long we were staying. He told us about Muscat and pointed out different sights along the drive. When I exclaimed about a particularly breathtaking view, he immediately pulled over to the side of the road and ushered me out so I could take a photo. He loved that I loved his country and positively beamed when I told him how beautiful I found it. "You come back again," he told me. 

I took this photo as we approached the Shangri-La Resort which is several miles south of Muscat. The land is rugged, and there are many coves such as this one. Hassan pointed out several marinas - sport fishing and diving are very popular in this country.

When we reached the resort, Hassan asked how long we would be. He said he'd be happy to wait for us. We hesitated because of course in NYC the meter would be running, and we were quite sure it would be easy to get another cab at the resort when we were ready to leave. But as it turns out, it is not customary to leave the meter running - they don't have one - and cabbies routinely wait for a customer, whether they are dining or shopping. So we said sure, and when we were done, there was Hassan at the entrance as promised. 

On the way back to the Hyatt, Hassan asked if we "had time" because he had ideas of places we might like to see. By now we were feeling comfortable with him and thought why not. Our flight wasn't till late that evening, and we for sure had time. 

Hassan pulled up to the entrance of the Bustan Palace, an opulent hotel, and instructed us to "Run inside and look. Two minutes. I'll be here." So we ran in as instructed, and oh my goodness! It was absolutely amazing. I gawked, but for only two minutes. Then back we ran.

Next up was Old Muscat, which was where we'd hailed Hassan to begin with. It was after 4:00 pm. so everything was open, and Hassan suggested we go into the Bait Al Zubair, a private museum complex which contained Omani artifacts that spanned centuries: clothes and jewelry, swords and daggers and antique firearms, pottery and weaving. It was fascinating and beautiful. 

The front entrance

The palm frond house and gardens

There were also gardens with a traditional palm frond house, well and irrigation system. In and about the garden and in the courtyard was a temporary art exhibit of painted goat (I think) sculptures.

I really liked this "King Tut" goat

When we were done we walked back to the street but could not find Hassan. Did he get tired of waiting for us? We wandered around, found a parking lot, but still did not see him. Then there he was walking toward us. He'd gone into an adjacent mosque to pray, he said. 

It was dusk when we got back to the hotel, and Hassan asked when we were going to the airport. He'd come back and take us there when we were ready. He gave us his card, and several hours later we called him. It seemed the right thing to do.

I've been in this part of the world for almost three months now, and this is what I think. If you want sparkle and glitz, and if clubbing or shopping is your thing, then Dubai is your destination. If you want to visit a capital city that has lots of sporting opportunities and events and tons of 5+ star hotels and restaurants, then go to Abu Dhabi. But if you want to go to a place that is smaller and quieter, that manages to feel old and new at the same time, where you can simply relax amidst incredible natural beauty, then I recommend Muscat, Oman. 

I love Oman. 

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