Oman’s unique blend of medieval charm, Arabian culture, world class hotels, buzzing souqs and glittering waterfronts make it the perfect gateway, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY
A giant majmar (frankincense burner), Oman’s cultural icon, stood on a rugged hillside near Muttrah Corniche. As the evening wind gently swept across Muscat harbour, the waterfront promenade slowly stirred into a swirl of activity. Men dangled fishing lines in the clear blue waters for a catch. Women in flowing abayas (robes) accompanied by men in spotless dishdashas (cloaks) ambled past a slew of Gujarati mansions. Others trawled souqs brimming with dates and Omani halwa, silver trinkets, Turkish plates, Moroccan lamps and traditional souvenirs like khanjars (ornamental dagger).
Wherever we went, shopkeepers with kohl-rimmed eyes graciously offered us cups of kahwah or platters of dates. At perfume stalls lined with vials of amber fluid, Malayali men with thick moustaches and thicker accents lured prospective customers with daubs of Amouage Gold and Water of Salalah. Vendors hailing from Bangladesh and Pakistan offered to tie a keffiyeh (checked scarf) over a kumma (embroidered Omani cap) into a neat turban.
Though immigrants make up a third of Oman’s 3.6 million population, the country has managed to preserve much of its Omani identity. Its people are gracious, proud yet humble, with none of the Emirati ostentation. The houses are hued in muted, earthy tones and you will find no skyscrapers in Oman. Often the highest structure in town is the local mosque.
For centuries, frankincense, dates and perfumes from Oman were traded for food grains, teak and spices from India. The country also enjoyed cross-cultural ties stretching from Persia, Yemen and Zanzibar to China, besides ancient Rome and Greece. Set at the crossroads of three continents and four seas, Oman’s rich history was shaped by the waters that wash its shores. Hemmed by the Sea of Oman and the Arabian Sea and protected by the jagged Al Hajar mountains and the Rub’ al Khali (a vast desert literally meaning ‘Empty Quarter’), its strategic location was insurance against foreign invasions. As a result, Oman remains one of the few tourist destinations in the Middle East with its Arabian culture largely intact.
Drawn by Oman’s maritime links and its strategic location at the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, the Portuguese battled the Persians and Ottomans for control of the lucrative Indian Ocean trade. After a brief occupation of the coastal areas, the Portuguese were finally expelled in 1650 leaving behind a series of seaside forts. Today, Muscat’s troika of forts – Muttrah, Jalali and Mirani, besides the Muttrah souq – stand proof of the erstwhile Portuguese presence in the Gulf.
At one time, ships unloaded their cargo on the wharf, which eventually developed into an open-air market. The Portuguese reclaimed land from the sea, added structures of mud and palm and transformed it into a makeshift souq. Over the years, the market evolved into a labyrinthine maze of shops. The stretch from the Al-Lawatiya Mosque to Khour Bimba is so tightly packed with stalls that even sunlight does not pass through during the day. Locals call it Al Dhalam or the ‘Market of Darkness’ as shoppers in the past often carried lamps to wander in its alleys!
Oman literally stepped out of the Dark Ages after the present Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said brought a wave of modernization in the 1970s. Oman’s main link to the world was by sea and recognizing its naval legacy, Muscat Port or Port Sultan Qaboos was developed into Oman’s premier maritime gateway and the main commercial port. The royal luxury yacht Al Said was moored at sea and it was hard not to catch the Sultan’s imprint everywhere.
The road wove through rugged mountains as we reached the town of Old Muscat. Watchtowers on lofty crags stood testimony to a time when they served as defense and signal outposts. Beyond a complex of government buildings amid wide boulevards was Qasr Al Alam or the Flag Palace, one of the six royal abodes of the Sultan across the country. Barred to visitors, we made do with a peek through the grilled fence at the blue and gold building constructed in contemporary Islamic style.
Nearby, the Omani French Museum and Bait Al Zubair were great repositories of Omani heritage. The Zubair family served as ministers and advisers to the sultans and their residence was converted into a private museum in 1998. The very next year, the museum received His Majesty Sultan Qaboos’ Award for Architectural Excellence, the first time it was awarded in Oman. Brightly coloured Warholesque Arabian Oryx lined the cobbled path leading to the museum entrance, where portraits of various sultans of the reigning Al Busaidi dynasty were displayed on the ground floor.
The museum ranks among the best private collections of Omani artefacts – khanjars, swords, firearms, jewellery, attire, coins, stamps and household articles. In the garden were replicas of a barasti (palm frond hut), falaj (ancient water distribution system), a souq, Bedouin stone houses and various types of boats denoting Oman’s nautical tradition.
Equally impressive was the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, towering above the Muscat skyline. Four flanking minarets of 45.5 m marked the cardinal directions around a 90 m high minaret and a spectacular dome. This was the only mosque open to non-Muslims and women had to cover their hair with scarves and dress conservatively. The cynosure of the main prayer hall was the stunning German-made chandelier, which hangs above the second largest single piece carpet in the world. Spread over 4,343 sq m, the Persian carpet had 1.7 billion knots, weighed 21 tonnes and took four years to weave.
The Sultan’s love for art and music and the need for a world class venue resulted in the Royal Opera House Muscat, Oman’s premiere performing space. After Cairo, it is only the second opera house in the Middle East. In its brief career since 2011, it has showcased traditional Omani arts, ballets, musicals, military brass bands, flamenco and artists as diverse as Wynton Marsalis, Placido Domingo, Al Jarreau, London Philharmonic Orchestra, L Subramaniam, Yo Yo Ma and Yossou N’Dour!
But we were in store for more luxury. Driving past sandstone cliffs, stunning seaside views of the harbor and the Omani Dive Centre, we reached Shangri-La Barr al Jissah Resort, a complex of not one, but three plush hotels – Al Waha, Al Bandar and Al Husn. Our balcony overlooked the majestic cliffs, a large swimming pool and the tranquil Sea of Oman. While the beach was close at hand, it was more fun floating in the currents of the Lazy River, a waterslide encircling the hotel.
Oman has a 1600km long coastline, perfect for swimming, kitesurfing, diving and sportfishing. The coastal highway from Muscat whizzes southward past old towns like Qalhat to the ancient dhow-making town of Sur and Ras al Jinz where the annual nesting of green turtles takes place between July to October. The unexpected pleasure of swimming in the turquoise waters of wadis (freshwater streams) left us rejuvenated while dune bashing, sandboarding and quad biking at A’Sharqiyah Sands (formerly Wahiba Sands), added a rush of adrenaline. Under a starlit sky we savoured the lilting notes of the oud (traditional stringed instrument) and the Bedouin charms of Desert Nights Camp, the ultimate glamping (glamour-camping) experience.
Jabal Shams, Oman’s highest peak and the tallest in the Arabian Peninsula, often compared to the Grand Canyon, was 240km west of Muscat, so we flew north to Khasab in the northern governorate of Mussandam. A dusty 4-wheel drive took us to Jebel Harim, the Mountain of Women where we discovered fossil rocks! A dhow cruise along the scenic fjords of Mussandam revealed playful dolphins and some of the best snorkeling sites in the region. Who would’ve imagined, there was so much to see and do in Oman?
With an untouched coastline, white sandy beaches, towering mountains, stunning desert and rich culture, Oman is fast emerging as an exotic locale for destination weddings. From private ceremonies by the Omani shores to a picturesque backdrop of mountains, the desolate beauty of sand dunes or an intimate wedding aboard a luxury yacht, one is spoilt for choice in terms of outdoor venues.
Besides Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa, nearby luxury hotels like The Chedi and Ritz-Carlton’s Al Bustan Palace transform into ideal venues for nuptial vows with a wide choice of dining locations and stunning ballrooms bedecked with crystal chandeliers. Oman’s proximity to India and its unique blend of medieval charm and world class hotels and infrastructure are added advantages.
For a quintessential Omani meal, we hopped by at Kargeen Garden Café in Muscat. Literally an Omani hut or wooden cottage, Kargeen offers indoor dining in a sit-down majlis or an open-air garden where smoke from grilled meat platters and flavoured sheeshas (hookah) hangs in the air. We tried everything from Arabic staples like moutabel (aubergine dip) to crispy Zatar bread (flatbread seasoned with herbs) and shuwa (slow cooked lamb shank). The meal ended with Moroccan tea and Turkish coffee and apple and julash (watermelon) sheeshas in a delicate dance of aromas and flavours. Oman was truly a sensory experience…
Jet Airways and the national carrier Oman Air fly direct to Muscat International Airport, Seeb from Mumbai (2h 50m), besides Delhi, Bengaluru, Kochi and Trivandrum (3h 30m).
www.jetairways.com or www.omanair.com
Where to stay:
The city has several 5-star hotels that double up as ideal locations for a dream wedding.
Shangri-La Barr al Jissah Resorts: A troika of hotels with date palms, traditional Dhofari architecture & Chi spa offering 4-hr Serenity Ritual with frankincense scrub
The Chedi: Luxurious 158-room hotel with Omani style rooms and villas, six restaurants, three pools and a Balinese spa. www.ghmhotels.com/en/muscat/
Al Bustan Palace: Opulent Arab-Art Deco resort with luxurious rooms, majestic 38m domed atrium lobby, five pools and 1km private beach, the longest in Oman. www.ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/oman/al-bustan
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the May 2016 issue of JetWings magazine.