Category Archives: Oman

Stags Only: The best bachelor holidays

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Planning a bachelor party with the boys? Skip Las Vegas and Bangkok and try these holiday ideas from ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY.

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So you’re getting hitched and your wild lifestyle is threatened by an Extinction Level Event (read marriage). Mad drunken parties with the boys, binge eating, dirty weekends, scanning dance floors and bars for fun, checking out the ‘scene’, ah the joys of bachelorhood… All this might seem history to the groom apparent, however, your friends couldn’t care less. They just want you to ride into the sunset of marital fidelity with all guns blazing. The idea is to go out and have fun. Here’s how to make it a bachelor party to remember… or forget!

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Get high in Dubai
What better way to celebrate with your mates than getting high together? And what better place than the world’s tallest building and the loftiest observation deck? Just short of a kilometer (828 m, 160 stories) At The Top in Dubai’s Burj Khalifa is as high as it gets. Make it special with a signature taster menu (caviar, truffles, foie gras) at the stylish SKY lounge and Atmosphere restaurant at level 148, manned by top chef Jerome Lagarde.

But there’s no reason you can’t get higher! Feel the adrenaline rush as you skydive from 13,000 ft over Palm Jumeirah or get on a hot air balloon, chopper, gyrocoptor or a Sea Wings seaplane for an aerial tour. Dubai is the place for bad boys to have a good time, with dune-bashing, belly-dancing and adventures like Ski Dubai (Middle East’s first indoor ski resort) and iFLY Dubai (indoor sky diving and wind tunnel experience).

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Easy rentals make it easy to zip around in your dream luxe car or set sail on the Persian Gulf in a luxurious yacht with Jacuzzi, barbeques and champagne. Pimp it up with model hostesses, resident DJ and bouncers. And if you don’t mind getting wet, strap on a hydrojet equipment and get set for shred sleds, jet packs and jet blades.

Stay in style at Palm Jumeirah at Anantara Resorts as you go party-hopping at Sanctuary in Atlantis nearby, Zero Gravity, White Dubai, Trilogy, Rattlesnake, Ku-Bu, Cyclone or Ibiza club Blue Marlin, a weekend-only beach bar. With Dubai’s diverse expat mix, it’s like attending the UN’s sorority bash.

Jet Airways flies to Dubai and Abu Dhabi

For more info, www.visitdubai.com

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Get lucky in Hong Kong
For King Kong fun, head straight to Hong Kong. Terrific street food, night markets, rooftop bars, a vibrant ‘scene’ and the world’s largest permanent light and sound show Symphony of Lights; what’s not to like? The central party district of Lan Kwai Fong, Wan Chai and SoHo buzz with bars and clubs like Magnum, Volar, Play, Dragon-i, Ce La Vi, the world’s highest bar Ozone at Ritz Carlton and Aqua Spirit rooftop bar overlooking Victoria Harbour.

To up the ante, take the hour-long ferry to Macau, a mecca for boys who like to party hard. Like HK, a Special Administrative Region (SAR), the Portuguese presence in Macau over four centuries gives it an exotic appeal – from its food, culture to architecture. Having the world’s highest population density (20,497 people per sq km), two islands south of the mainland Coloane and Taipa were joined in a massive land reclamation project to form the Co-tai Strip, a 5.2 sq km gambling haven.

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In 2007, it turned the tables on Las Vegas as the world leader in gambling revenue. Most of the 30 million visitors to Macau are drawn by 24-hour gambling at the 33 casinos and integrated resorts – Venetian Resort, City of Dreams, Sands Cotai, Galaxy Macau Resort and Wynn Palace, which opened this year. Event planners like Ludih can help you organize the ultimate stag bash with stretch limos, VIP access at clubs and private parties in luxury hotel suites.

Jet Airways flies to Hong Kong

For more info, visit www.macaotourism.gov.mo

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Go beer guzzling in Germany
Beer by the tankards or ‘ein mass’ (one measure in a large mug), pigging out on red meat (sausages to steaks) and busty bier mädchen (beer maidens) dressed in dirndls (Alpine peasant costume) and tight-fitting bodices that make Hooters seem like a church choir; Germany is custom-built for a boys’ week out. Beer Bike Tours combine two of the best German specialties – beer and engineering – plonk with your pals on stools around a small bar and quaff beer while pedaling your beermobile. It’s a good way to burn off what you’ll put on.

Drive from north to south Germany on the Deutsch Fachwerke Strasse (Half-Timbered House Road), checking out local brews at the 1200 breweries between Bremen and Munich. Pop in at Munich’s famous beer hall Hofbräuhaus and the Bier & Oktoberfest Museum. Or head straight to Berlin, legendary for its hedonistic club scene and endless party hours. There’s hardly a block in Berlin without a bar though the top spots are in the hipster district of Kreuzberg.

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Check out Berlin’s oldest biergarten Prater or rent a raft and float down the Spree River. Go dancing at the open-air Club der Visionaire off the Spree or Matrix in an abandoned train station – almost every club in Berlin is built in an abandoned something! Split up into smaller groups to get into clubs like Sysiphos or the infamous techno haven Berghain.

The German love for kink is apparent in strip clubs like Golden Dolls or CP Club and adult entertainment venues like Artimis and Kit Kat Club. For a mad time, visit during the 16-day long Oktoberfest (mid-September to first Sunday in October)! Don’t forget to take home a stein (no, not a stain but a stoneware mug) as a memento.

Jet Airways flies to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, from where its codeshare partners Etihad and KLM have several connections to Frankfurt, Munich or Berlin.

For more info, visit www.germany.travel

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Rum tasting in Mauritius
If you were considering Mauritius for your destination wedding or honeymoon, your bachelor party might be a good way to scope it out. Sensuous Sega dancers and fire-eaters by the beach, endless rum tasting sessions at rhumeries like Chateau de Labourdonnais, Chamarel, L’Aventure du Sucre and Saint Aubin and riding out to reefs for diving or snorkeling with the boys; Mauritius is not your average lazy tropical paradise.

There’s a lot for the adventure enthusiast – SeaKart, UnderSea Walk, Sub Scooter and Submarine tours with Blue Safari (the only sub operation in the Indian Ocean), the world’s third longest zipline and Quad Biking at La Vallée des Couleurs and Casela Nature Park. And if you’re into golf, there are over a dozen world class courses.

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With all the action packed in a relatively small island nation (65km long, 45km wide) and plush beachside resorts like Shanti Maurice, Sofitel Imperial and Radisson Blu Azuri, no adventure is far away. Dine on the best of French, Caribbean and Creole cuisine and wash it down with rum macerated with tropical fruits and spices.

Jet Airways flies twice a week from Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai to Mauritius

For more info, visit www.tourism-mauritius.mu

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Bar hopping in Dublin
Few cities have the pulse and vibe of Dublin where the pub, the poet and the pint are seemingly inseparable. The Irish are a friendly lot and it’s easy to strike up a conversation, make new friends and party like a local. Start your pilgrimage with a visit to the Guinness Storehouse and their St James Gate Brewery where they teach you everything from how to pour the perfect pint o’ Guinness and how to drink one!

For a traditional Dublin pub experience with a live band, Irish music and food, The Merry Ploughboy Irish music pub is a must do. Wowing audiences since 1989, they even have a pick-up and drop facility from town. Go on a Dublin Literary Pub Crawl with quirky book-themed tours in the footsteps of famous authors through Dublin’s cobbled streets. Professional actors double up as guides performing from the works of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.

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Sounds too dense? Hit the Temple Bar area to wet your whistle at Kitty O’Shea’s, The Hole in the Wall and The Brazen Head, Ireland’s oldest pub that opened in 1198. Not into beer? Take the scenic Giant’s Causeway Coastal route and head for an Irish whiskey experience at The Old Jameson Distillery (reopening after a makeover in March 2017).

Jet Airways flies to London, from where you can fly to Dublin or Belfast.

For more info, visit www.ireland.com

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Go Down Under in style in Australia
If you’re all set to change your FB status from Single to Married (or It’s Complicated), go down under in style by celebrating Down Under. Base yourself in Melbourne’s Central Business District (CBD) and you’re just a hop, skip and jump from all the entertainment – bars, restaurants, gentleman’s clubs and a variety of shows. Plus, in CBD, the trams are free!

Stay at Citadines on Bourke Street or check into luxe tents at St. Jerome’s with scenic views and bespoke brewery tours run by the Temple Brewing Co. For whiskey tastings, there’s The Humble Tumbler, Bar 1806 and Whisky & Alement. Australia is the perfect place for XXXX fun and we don’t mean Castlemaine!

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Take the fun out to sea with a stripper cruise or have a poker party with topless barmaids and nude waitresses. Drive out of town with your mates to Philip Island for surfing and to watch penguins, seals and wallabies in the wild. The Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit which hosts the Moto GP in October also has a 720m go-karting track. Continue the party on the Great Ocean Road past the Twelve Apostles to Sydney if you have more time… and stamina!

Jet Airways flies to Singapore, from where its codeshare partner Qantas flies to Melbourne and Sydney

For more info, www.visitmelbourne.com

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Island hopping in Indonesia
Imagine this. The moment you land in Bali, you and your Wolf Pack is whisked from the airport to your private pool villa in Semenyak where party girls welcome you with chilled Bintangs. Your pool party has its own DJ, with VIP access to top clubs at night and cruising on a luxury yacht with your bevy of beauties. Yes, in Bali, everything is possible.

If you don’t want to depend on an event planner, DIY, but don’t DUI. Choose a regular hotel in the main tourist hub of Kuta so you’re never far from action. Catch the sunset at beach shacks like Ku De Ta, Potato Head, Cocoon or Mozaic, then go late night clubbing at Sky Garden in Legian. The next day, recover with Balinese massages and foot reflexology. In the posher precinct Semenyak, you can have your own pool villa with party spots like Bounty, Mirror and Koh close by.

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Fly out to Labuan Bajo in Flores, where you can go diving and deep sea fishing or head out on a boat trip to Komodo Island to watch giant reptiles. With getaways like Sulawesi, Lombok and nearly 18,000 islands (of which 8844 are named and 922 permanently inhabited), you are indeed spoilt for choice.

Jet Airways flies to Bangkok and Singapore, from where its codeshare partner Garuda Indonesia flies to Bali

For more info, visit www.indonesia.travel

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Glamping in Oman
Oman may not seem like the most obvious choice for a bachelor party, but if you’re looking for good clean fun, the Desert Nation has quite a few surprises. Smoke sheeshas on the sands like a Bedouin, swim in wadis with barbecue parties at Wadi Bani Khalid, trek in the Al Hajar mountains or go dune bashing, quad biking and sandboarding with your buddies at Sharqiya Sands.

But perish the thoughts of basic ‘Abdullah and the Camel’ sort of tents, Desert Nights Camp will spoil you silly with glamping (glamour-camping). Tents fit for sultans dressed up with plush rugs and drapes, the nomadic strains of the darbouka (stringed instrument) and oud (percussion) and the tantalizing aroma of barbecued meat, Oman is as sensory as its aromatic frankincense. Fly from Muscat to Khasab for 4X4 drives across rugged terrain and luxury dhow cruises with dolphin spotting and snorkeling at Telegraph Island.

Jet Airways flies to Muscat

For more info, visit www.omantourism.gov.om

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Explore the coffee shops of Amsterdam
Amsterdam has all the ingredients to threaten your marriage, so go at your own peril. A lot of the stuff illegal elsewhere is legit here. Much as the city likes to shrug the tag, over half a million tourists are drawn by visions of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. Amsterdam’s legendary coffee shops, currently trimmed down to 220, come with elaborate menus offering everything from Moroccan Ice to Malana Cream for a Cheech & Chong stoner holiday.

There’s no better example of Amsterdam’s drug tolerance than Bulldog Leidseplein, formerly a police station, decorated with criminal artifacts! Scour the top forty listed in the local Mellow Pages: A Smoker’s Guide to Amsterdam and pop by at the award-winning Green House, The Grasshopper or Barney’s for a hit. The Cannabis Cup in November used to be a great time to visit until the recent clampdown. Another mandatory pitstop is Amsterdam’s red light district De Wallen, where you’ll learn a new meaning to the term ‘window shopping’. For those racked by guilt, look out for the “Pimp Free Zone” sticker.

Jet Airways flies to Amsterdam

For more info, visit www.holland.com

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Get unreal in Montreal

With its trendy bars, nightclubs, strip clubs, every sort of club, Montreal is not called Sin City of the North for nothing. Get party girls to go clubbing with you, visit lap dance bars, try naked sushi or get your freak on at Kamasutra Club and Club Supersexe. St Laurent is a buzzing entertainment quarter while Crescent Street has great bars like Mad Hatter and Churchill’s, which has daily happy hours.

Montreal has a certain French flair and many time their bachelor parties in time for the cold winter sports season (thus justifying the need for warmth) or events like the jazz festival. Looking for an all-expense paid pre-arranged tour? Connect with www.connectedmontreal.com

Jet Airways flies to London Heathrow from where its codeshare partner Air Canada flies to Montreal, Toronto and other destinations

For more info, visit www.canada.travel

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unabridged version of the article that appeared in the October 2016 issue of JetWings International magazine.

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Enchanting Oman

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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 

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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…

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FACT FILE

Getting there:
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.

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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
www.shangri-la.com

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

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For more info, visit www.omantourism.gov.om
To book hotels and tours, contact www.khimjistravel.com or www.touroman.om

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the May 2016 issue of JetWings magazine. 

Starry Bedouin Nights: Sharqiya Sands, Oman

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The largely untouched desert region of Sharqiya Sands in the Sultanate of Oman is a perfect spot for camping and experiencing the nomadic way of life, discover nomads ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

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A gentle wind rippled through the desert, displacing its fine grains of sand. Like an artful shape-shifter, the landscape was always changing. Behind us, the 12,500 sq km expanse of the Sharqiya Sands stretched till infinity. Measuring 180 km from north to south and 80 km east to west, this desolate tract in Oman’s Ash Sharqiyah province (literally, Eastern region), was also called Ramlat al-Wahiba, named after the predominant al-Wahiba tribe who populated the region.

The area has been home to several tribes like the al-Amr, al-Bu-Isa, Hikman, Hishm, Janaba and larger clans like the Bani Khalid, who claim descent from Khaled ibn Al-Waleed, a companion of the prophet Mohammad. Each year, between June and September the Bedouins congregate at Al Huyawah, an oasis near the desert border, to gather dates. For centuries the geographical isolation ensured that their lives remained out of bounds to visitors, until an expedition by the Royal Geographical Society in 1986 drew the world’s attention to this remote yet, stunningly beautiful land.

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As the sun sank over the crest of the hill, it bathed the dunes in a golden hue. Our guide Mohammad bin Dawood bin Khamees al Zidjali from Khimji Travels remarked, ‘You get seven coloured sands in Ash Sharqiyah – golden, yellow, red, pink, brown…’ as we saw the changing hues at sunset. Reluctantly, the tourists scattered across the dunes got down from their perch and drove down the sandy tracts back to their camps.

We decided to slip and slide down the dunes to our base Desert Nights Camp, whose lights twinkled against the seeping darkness as if stars had fallen from the sky. In this vast wilderness, the luxurious tents seemed like a mirage. This was glamping (glamour camping) at its best and easily, the place to stay at Sharqiya Sands.

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We drew towards the strains of the oud and darbouka (goblet drum) that emanated from the open-to-sky camp. The soulful tune of the stringed oud held a tragic story. According to a Biblical reference, Adam’s sixth grandson Lamech invented the oud. The legend tells that a grieving Lamech hung the body of his dead son from a tree and the shape of his son’s bleached skeleton inspired the creation of the instrument!

The bedouins played well into the night as we helped ourselves to a lavish Arabic platter of barbeques, rice, shuwa (meats), Zatar bread seasoned with sumac (tangy spice) and washed it down with a choice of drinks – labneh (salty buttermilk), date milk and camel milk.

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The next morning we enjoyed a complimentary camel ride within the campus and exhilarating 4X4 Dune Bashing and Quad Bike adventures. The expert drivers displayed amazing control as the tyres churned out sand waves and swooped us down the slopes. Negotiating the dunes is tricky business and even four-wheel drive vehicles get stuck in soft sand. Weather, wind, location and skill of the driver become paramount in this sport. Serious adventurists can go sand boarding, trekking on dunes or camel safaris at sunset.

We barely had time to visit to the local souq (shopping area) for exotic souvenirs or try the unique Ladies Souq on Wednesday at Ibra (literally ‘many wells’) or the weekly souq every Tuesday at al Mintrib, which has an old fort. Visitors can absorb Omani culture at a Bedouin family house where they can watch them rear goat, camel, donkeys and weave carpets from the sheared wool of their sheep. Mintrib is also an ideal base for longer forays across the desert.

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As our vehicle left a swirl of fine dust behind, we rushed past Al Wasil and screeched to a halt near a tyre shop. We had deflated the tyres to reduce air pressure before heading into the desert but had to fill up again to zoom across the tarmac towards Wadi Bani Khalid, the best-known wadi in the Ash Sharqiyah region. Locals flock to its aquamarine waters for a relaxing swim and barbeque picnics in an amphitheatre of sandstone ridges and burnished mountains gleaming with rich copper deposits.

Wadi Bani Khalid forms part of the eastern chain of the Al Hajar mountains which soar up to 2000 m. Till the 1970s there were no roads, so people got here on donkeys or by foot. As Sultan Qaboos slowly developed the country, an offroad access was created. Today, one can get here in a small car, like the crowds who flock here on weekends.

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Young kids deftly maneuvered little wheelbarrows to ferry visitors’ luggage on the narrow cemented walkway that lined the irrigation channels. Natural springs with crystal clear water emerged from the mountain, which were channeled for farming through an extensive network of falaj (canals). The short walk past date palms and green vegetation contrasted against the stark landscape as we reached a series of clear green pools with depths ranging from 1 to 10 meters.

Some pools are considerably safe for swimming. People bobbed ensconced in inflatable tubes while others set up picnic tables by the water edge and dangled their legs in the pool. The tantalizing aroma of smoked meat emanated from the shaded groves of palm trees where families clustered around barbecues.

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Thankfully, a small restaurant overlooking the largest pool served grilled meat and biryanis for hungry visitors like us. After a bite, we hiked to the entrance of Muqal Cave, a 20 min walk over the rocky landscape. The cave narrowed steadily and one had to enter it crawling like a baby, swim a bit, and take a short walk before finally entering a large cavern. Time and a torch are all that you need here.

There are many wadis in the region, like Wadi Shab and Wadi Tiwi on the Sur-Muscat coastal route. Between January and March, Europeans come here in droves for treks and the 14 hr hike from Wadi Bani Khalid to Wadi Tiwi is a popular route.

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We had to resist the intangible lure of these aquamarine pools and turn back as our guide Mohammad explained ‘When you see the water a little foggy, you know it has rained here. And when it rains, you have to be very careful. It might only be a light drizzle here, but in the mountains it might be a heavy downpour. There can be a sudden flash flood and you don’t want to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.’

As if on cue, we spotted road signs warning travellers about sudden changes in water levels and danger prone areas, and gulped nervously. Mohammad caught our expressions in the rearview mirror and smiled, ‘Don’t worry my friends, right now you’re in the right place at the right time!’ as we drove off to discover another gem in the Sultanate of Oman.

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Fact File

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Oman’s capital Muscat, from where Sharqiya Sands is 203 km by road. Take the M23 or Muscat-Sur highway towards Bidbid, Ibra and Al Wasil. Just 500 m after the village sign, turn right at the small sand coloured mosque and follow the dirt road for 11km to Sharqiya Sands.

Where to Stay: Desert Nights Camp, Ph (968) 92818388, 99477266 http://www.desertnightscamp.com

Tip: Women and bedouins are sensitive to being photographed so it’s polite and respectful to ask before clicking.

For more info, visit http://www.omantourism.gov.om

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the February 2015 issue of JetWings International magazine.

A Date with Muscat

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Much like its Gulf counterparts, Muscat offers a glimpse into its luxurious ways and rich culture, as ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY find out in the Omani capital

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The heady smell of ripe dates, Omani halwa, perfumes, old leather, fish and frankincense burning from majmars (receptacles) emanated from the narrow alleys of Muttrak Souk, believed to be one of the oldest marketplaces in the Arab world. For centuries, these aromas have tantalized visitors and traders to dock at the crescent-shaped harbour of Muscat. ‘It’s Musk-ath’, intone the locals with strange guttural seriousness. We flounder and carry on, stumbling from the scent shops selling Amouage, Dunhill, Eternity, Escape and 212 (sans the branding and bottles) to boutiques spilling with khanjars (daggers) and handicrafts. Pakistani salesmen volunteered to teach us how to wear the chequered tasseled headscarf. Malayali shopkeepers daubed our wrists with perfumes and handsome Omanis wooed us with silver jewelry that overflowed from caskets and barrels.

Located on the strategic trade route to India and China, Oman was trading in dates and frankincense from the Dhofar region in the south since antiquity. Ships unloaded their goods on the wharf and that developed into an open-air market. When the Portuguese arrived on these shores to bolster their trading presence in the Strait of Hormuz and counter the Persians, Ottomans and Egyptians, they reclaimed land from the sea and transformed it into a makeshift souk made from mud and palm. Protected by the Hajar mountains hugging the coast, today the only Portuguese relics are the 16C seaside forts of Muttrah, Mirani and Jalali.

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Dominating the Muttrah skyline is the mosaic onion dome and blue minaret of Masjid al-Rasool al-A’tham (Mosque of the Great Prophet) or Al-Lawatiya Mosque. The narrow stretch from the mosque to Khour Bimba is so tightly packed with cheek-by-jowl stalls that even sunlight does not filter through during the day! To the locals, it is Al Dhalam or the Market of Darkness. Not too long ago, shoppers needed lamps to find their destinations at a time when Oman was literally living in the dark ages!

There was no electricity, locals walked 10-15km for water, transportation was mainly on camels and donkeys while in some regions around Nizwa people still lived in caves. In 1970, the present Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said deposed his father to usher a wave of modernization. Born in Salalah, and schooled in England and India, the Sultan brought home his amassed knowledge while keeping the rich Omani culture intact. Natural reserves were tapped, roads were built and a vast hinterland dominated by bedouins and controlled by imams was integrated into the Sultanate of Oman. Today, the Sultan’s imprint is everywhere.

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We walked by some Gujarati mansions down the waterfront promenade of Muttrah Corniche. The sultan’s luxury yacht Al Said, believed to be the most powerful in the world, sat still like a serf awaiting a royal decree. Perched on a hillock was a giant frankincense burner, the cultural icon of Oman. The road ascended past rugged mountains as we headed to the town of Old Muscat. Watchtowers on lofty crags once served as defense and communication; flags were used during the day while smoke/fire was used to send signals at night.

Muscat has quite a few museums – Bait al Baranda, Muscat Gate Museum and Omani French Museum, though we stopped by at Bait Al Zubair, the house of the Zubair family who served as ministers and advisers to the sultans. Renovated into a museum in 1998, it houses one of the finest private collections of Omani artefacts. Four galleries on the ground floor displayed portraits of various sultans of the Al Busaidi dynasty, khanjars, attire, traditional weapons, antique jewellery and household articles. In the garden stood specimens of a barasti (palm frond hut), falaj (ancient water distribution system), a souq, stone houses and boats denoting Oman’s maritime tradition. But it was the row of brightly coloured Arabian Oryx that stood outside in Warholian splendour that caught our eye.

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Nearby, surrounded by wide boulevards and a complex of government buildings stood Qasr Al Alam or the Flag Palace, the Sultan’s ceremonial residence. Though the palace isn’t open to the public, the iron gates at the front afforded a good view of the cuboid building with flared blue and gold columns supporting the overhanging roof. Built in contemporary Islamic style, it was one of the six royal abodes spread across Oman.

Before long, we were driving towards our hotel past sandstone cliffs on one side and stunning seaside views of the harbour and the Omani Dive Centre on the other. We waited at a traffic signal outside a man-made tunnel through the mountain as if we were about to enter Ali Baba’s cave of treasures! The light turned green and we were transported to the amazing realm of 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 rugged cliffs, a large swimming pool and the tranquil Sea of Oman. More than the sea, floating from pool to pool in the currents of the man-made Lazy River was sheer joy.

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Dinner was an elaborate Arabian meal at Kargeen Garden Café (literally Omani hut or wooden cottage). We chose the smoky open-air garden rather than the sit-down majlis with indoor seating. Mezze platter with salad, a mixed grill with Za’atar bread (flatbread seasoned with dried herbs), shuwa (slow cooked lamb shank) and fresh lemon mint disappeared in no time with apple-flavoured and julash (watermelon) sheeshas, ending the evening with some Moroccan tea and Turkish coffee.

The next day we were off to see the second opera house in the Middle East after Cairo! Thanks to his western education, the Sultan had set up the Royal Opera House, much to the consternation of his people about this profligate enterprise. Over time, the venue has silenced its critics, serving as a showcase of traditional Omani arts as well as ballets, orchestras and military brass bands. In its brief tenure, it had hosted Wynton Marsalis, Placido Domingo, London Philharmonic Orchestra and L Subramaniam. It was heartbreaking to learn that Yossou N’Dour had just performed a day earlier!

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Muscat’s main attraction was the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, its dome and 90 m high minaret towering above the skyline. This was the only mosque open to non-Muslims though women visitors had to cover their hair with scarves and dress conservatively. Four flanking minarets of 45.5 m marked the cardinal directions. The women’s prayer hall was simple as if the sculptor was warming up before the real thing – the main prayer hall. Ornate niches in blue and grey combos looked stunning while the jaw dropping German-made chandelier was a14 m suspension. The 70 × 60 m handwoven Persian carpet was the second largest single piece carpet in the world. Spread over 4,343 sq m, with 1.7 billion knots it weighed 21 tonnes and took four years to produce.

After our grand tour, we were ushered into the office where a friendly gentleman in a spotless dishdasha offered us books on Islam, hot kahwah (Omani coffee) and a platter of dates. We sipped the bittersweet decoction flavoured with cardamom but declined the dates. ‘No, no, I insist’, he urged. ‘There are nearly 700 types of dates known to man and we in Oman have about 150-200 varieties. But this is our finest. It’s called khalaas (over), because once you start, it’s soon over!’ We saw the friendly twinkle in his eye and at the near empty plate. We grabbed our handful knowing that our date with Muscat would also be Khalass. The End.

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FACT FILE

Getting there: Jet Airways flies direct to Muscat from Mumbai, Kochi and Trivandrum.

Where to stay: The city has several 5-star hotels like Intercontinental Muscat, Al Bustan, Chedi and Shangri La Barr al Jissah Resorts.

Where to Eat: Try local and Arabic fare at Kargeen Garden Café and Al Tarboosh or Indian cuisine at popular restaurants like Mumtaz Mahal and Bollywood.

For tourist information, visit http://www.omantourism.gov.om

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the May 2014 issue of JetWings International magazine.

Forts, Fossils & Dates: Exotic Mussandam

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go snorkelling, off-roading, dolphin sighting besides other adventures as they explore Oman’s northern-most Governorate Mussandam 

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Suffused with tales of Sinbad the Sailor, born in the ancient capital of Sohar to the Queen of Sheba whose palace near Salalah stood witness to the ancient frankincense trade; Oman is a tapestry of magical experiences and rich Arabian culture. A 3 hr drive from Dubai and an hour’s flight from Muscat, the northern-most governorate of Mussandam is fast emerging as Oman’s hottest destination. Set in stunning terrain of red mountains and Prussian blue fjords, the finger like projection separates the Persian Gulf from the Oman Sea, overlooking the strategic Strait of Hormuz. Here are some unique adventures…

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Visit Portuguese-built forts at Khasab & Bukha
Like Muscat, Mussandam’s seaside forts were built by the Portuguese on the site of older fortifications. At Khasab, the capital of Mussandam region, the fort has been renovated into a stunning museum. In the courtyard are specimens of a coffee-making room, kitchen, arish (summer house), granary and a grinding shed with bread oven. The upper level has theme rooms like a Ladies’ Majlis, Qur’an Study room, Wedding Chamber and Traditional Medicine, besides costume, jewellery and khanjars (Omani daggers). On one side of the central tower housing the museum, three traditional boats appear as if they had washed ashore… Or take the Coastal Road to the fort at Bukha.

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Dolphin sighting on a dhow cruise
Bobbing like a wooden chariot on the water, the traditional Omani dhow beckons one to sprawl against its plump cushions and striking rugs to enjoy a long cruise. While friendly staff plies you with fruits, cool drinks and a buffet meal, sit back and absorb the natural splendor of the scenic fjords of Musssandam, described as the Norway of Arabia. Nothing beats the thrill of dolphins cleaving through clear blue waters alongside as they outrace your dhow with graceful leaps.

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Snorkelling at Telegraph Island
Named after the undersea telegraph system set up by the British in 1854, the lonely island once housed an old repeater station that boosted telegraphic messages along the Persian Gulf submarine cable from Karachi to London. Today, snorkelers flock around the abandoned Telegraph Island to view the rich marine life and stunning tropical fish. Swim with hammerheads, leopard whale sharks, mink whales, mantas, eagle rays and turtles. With the country’s best dive sites located along the stunning coastline of Kumzar, Mussandam is making waves as a diving destination.

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Off-road drive to Jebel Harim
According to legend, local women often flocked to a lofty hill to escape pirates when their husbands were away fishing, hence its name Jebel Harim or the Mountain of Women. A half hour 4×4 offroad drive from Khasab deposits you at Khor Najd. The fjord is one of Oman’s many natural gems and offers a mesmerizing view of snaking roads and clear blue waters. Like an open jaw of jagged brown teeth, the hills form a stunning backdrop! The winding drive towards this 2,087 m high mountain is peppered with isolated cave dwellings of Bedouins who inhabited them till the 1940s. Each humble space had a sleeping area and a rudimentary kitchen.

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Hunt for fossils and petroglyphs
Defying its earlier avatar as a sub-oceanic range that rose up when the Arabian and Eurasian tectonic plates collided, one hardly expects to find ancient rock art and fossils high in the mountain. In the remote settlement of Qida, intriguing human, animal and abstract figures indicate the presence of early man. Many of these petroglyphs (stone carvings) can be found along the wayside. Equally fascinating are fossils of sea creatures frozen on rocks 65 to 800 million years ago! Travel guides sprinkle a little water to accentuate the contrast of hard white skeletal remains in the grey crags.

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Pick up dates and Omani halwa at the local market
In a region baked relentlessly by the sun, the desert-friendly date palm is the tree of life. Besides Omani hospitality of serving coffee with a platter of dates, according to old traditions, planting a date palm marked the birth of a son! The plant was insurance against any eventuality since its lifespan matched the average age of a person, hence promising life-long nutrition. It is believed that eating 15 dates a day fulfills the nutrient requirements of any adult. Try Khalas, Khasab or Farah from the hundreds of fine varieties of dates and delicious Omani halwa available at every souk and corner.

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Go cormorant spotting
Surrounded by large water bodies, Mussandam is a great perch for several species of aquatic birds. The gilded high ridges are studded with large flocks of nesting cormorants feeding their young in an endless dance of beating wings. A dhow cruise takes you closer to their rocky perches as they dip, dive and emerge to dry their wings along the coast. The Sayh Plateau in the mountains south of Khasab is an excellent winter base for Evermann’s Redstart while Wheateaters, Buntings and Rock thrush visit in spring.

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Smoke a medwak
While sheeshas and hookahs have enjoyed patronage in urban bars and rural settings, the slim medwak or Arabic smoking pipe is lesser known. A pinch of flaky dokha, an Iranian tobacco-based product mixed with bark, herbs and aromatic leaves is filled into its tiny bowl, lit like a regular pipe and allows no more than 2 puffs and a short heady buzz. If you don’t smoke, the medwak is a fine handcrafted souvenir that can be made of wood, bone, metal, marble, gold, silver, plastic or even glass.

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Try local cuisine
Enjoy hamour fry and fresh catch from the sea at the Golden Tulips Hotel, recently rebranded as Resort Atana Khasab. The hotel allows you to catch your own fish and they’ll cook it for you. Enjoy Arabic platters with Zatar bread, hummus, falafel, moutabel (seasoned eggplant with olive oil) and salads perked up with the magical ingredient sumac (lemony spice). Wash it all down with laban (salty buttermilk) or date milk.

Fact File

Fly 2½ hrs from India to Muscat and take a 50-min domestic flight by Oman Air to Khasab. For dhow cruises, offroad safaris and local excursions, contact Khasab Tours www.khasabtours.com. For more info, visit www.omantourism.gov.om

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 17 May 2014 of The Hindu.

Oman: Scents of Arabia

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A long coastline flanked by deserts and mountains, lush wadis, souks brimming with artefacts, sumptuous cuisine and warm hospitality, Oman embodies the exotic Middle East. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY get a whiff of Omani culture as they unearth its connections with India

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‘Zilip Kumar, Zhammi Kapoor, Rizhi Kapoor, Dharmendar, Zeenat Aman, Salman Khan’, our driver Waleed Amir rattled off names of Bollywood stars faster than his Landcruiser. A month-long visit to Bangalore in the 1980s had made such an impression on him that he repeated ‘MG Road, Cubbon Park, Mazhestic’ like a password that would unlock the doors of our friendship. And to profess his love for all things Indian he launched into ‘Pardesi pardesi, jana nahi’. It was funny; in Oman drivers had Bollywood videos on their smartphones, Indian restaurants were as popular as Arabian eateries serving curries and ‘khadak chaya’ while barbershops sported images of Shah Rukh Khan! Though the impact of Bollywood is palpable, Indian cinema has only recently taken note of Oman.

Vikram’s popular song Excuse Me Mr. Kanthaswami was filmed in Oman at Al Sawadi, Sohar beach, Qantab, Yacht Club and Oman Dive Centre. En Idhayam from Surya’s Tamil film Singam was shot at Qantab Beach near Muscat and the old capital of Nizwa. More recently, bits of Once Upon A Time in Mumbai Dobara were shot at Qantab Beach, Qurum Corniche, Muscat’s Central Business District and the luxurious Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa, a destination by itself. With the last schedule of Aditya Chopra’s Priyanka-Ranveer starrer Gunday slated to be filmed in Oman, curiosity about the Sultanate is on the rise.

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But Indo-Omani relations go way back than Bollywood. For centuries the two countries were linked by trade, with grain, teak and spices from India exchanged for frankincense, dates and perfumes from Oman. This was the legendary land of Sinbad the sailor, born in Sohar in the north and the Queen of Sheba whose summer palace graced Salalah in the south. It was frankincense from Oman that she gifted King Solomon and what one of the three Magi carried to infant Jesus. Flanked by the Gulf of Oman, Arabian Sea, Rub’ al Khali (Empty Quarter) and the Al Hajar mountains between coast and desert from Mussandam to Sur, these barriers protected the country from foreign invasions and kept its culture largely intact. Oman’s only link to the world was by sea…

Oman’s trade links with Indo-China and strategic location at the Strait of Hormuz drew the Portuguese to seize control of the lucrative Indian Ocean trade. After a brief occupation of Oman’s coastal areas, they were finally expelled in 1650 leaving behind a slew of seaside fortifications that were further developed by Omani rulers. Today, Muscat’s troika of forts Jalali, Mirani and Muttrah besides the Muttrah Souq stand testimony to the Portuguese presence in the Gulf.

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The earliest migrants from India were traders from Gujarat and one name towers above all – the House of Khimjis. Traditionally dhow merchants from the coastal town of Mandvi, they reached Sur by the mid-1800s. In 1870, Ramdas Thackersay set sail from Kutch to Muscat to expand the family business to nearby ports. His son Khimji Ramdas, laid the foundation of one of Oman’s largest business groups that has an annual turnover of $1 billion. Over time they adopted the Omani way and Khimji’s grandson Kanaksi Khimji was conferred the title of Sheikh by the Sultan!

Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, schooled in Pune and France, used the country’s oil and gas reserves to usher in a wave of modernization in the 1970s, as the country opened up to trade and tourism. It embraced people from Delhi and Dongri to Kozhikode as Kutchis, Malayalis, Balochis and Bangladeshis stood shoulder to shoulder with Omanis selling wares in souqs and building the nation’s infrastructure. The fact that immigrants make up a third of Oman’s 3 million population, speaks volumes of its inclusiveness.

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Our guide from the Khimji House of Travel announced ‘I’m Mohammad bin Dawood bin Khamees al Zidjali. That’s my name, my father’s name, my grandfather’s name and the name of my tribe. We have 500 tribes, as many forts and seven hundred types of dates in Oman’, he said with a smile as he took us around Muscat. The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque dominated the buzzing capital with sights like Royal Opera House, Bait Al Zubair Museum, Al Alam Palace and Muttrah Corniche. Mosques, shops, hotels, wherever we went, sweet Omani hospitality would present itself with a platter of dates and cups of kahwah, Omani coffee without sugar or milk flavoured with cardamom.

Low-lying buildings in earthy tones of sepia and off-white summed up the quiet humility that is Oman’s hallmark. Unsullied by the obsession of some countries to build skyscrapers and hotels that are ‘the world’s tallest or biggest’, in Oman it’s tough to find buildings higher than the minarets of the local mosque! Ostentation was not the Omani way. Raising your voice, honking on streets or even expressions of anguish and exasperation, things that come naturally to people in India, are frowned upon. Music icons like Salim Ali S’aid are at best considered ‘gifted amateurs’. The Omanis can disarm you with their modesty and understated charm.

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The most famous Omani singer in India is undoubtedly the young girl Asma who participated in Sa Re Ga Ma Pa in 2009. The daughter of well-known Balochi singer Mohammed Rafi al-Belushi, she was sent to India for music training against her mother’s wishes. Her father motivated her to participate but ended up getting a divorce. When Salman Khan hugged Asma and gave her an affectionate peck on the cheek, her father saw it on TV and promptly brought her back to Oman. ‘Here, the culture is very different’, explained Mohammad. ‘It’s not radical, nor liberal… it is modern yet conservative.’

He continued ‘Today if people want to experience traditional Arabian hospitality where do they go? Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, there’s problem everywhere. Saudi Arabia is orthodox. Dubai is too liberal and cosmopolitan. After a few days, people say, now what? But Oman is a perfect balance of development and tradition, offering great diversity.’ Here, Turkish, Persian, Lebanese and Omani flavours have coalesced into a composite Arabic cuisine, best experienced at restaurants like Al Tarboush or Kargeen Garden Café with flavoured sheeshas (hookah) and mixed grill platters.

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The 1600 km long coastline, dotted by plush seaside resorts and hotels, is ideal for swimming, kitesurfing, diving and sportfishing. The coastal highway from Muscat weaves past old towns like Qalhat to the dhow-building hub of Sur. Wade in picturesque wadis (fresh water streams) in cool emerald waters or take a dhow cruise in the fjords of Mussandam for snorkeling and dolphin watching. Witness the amazing spectacle of turtle nesting at Ras al Jinz. Go dune bashing, sandboarding and quad biking at Wahiba Sands while staying at the plush Desert Nights Camp. Scale Oman’s highest peak Jebel Shams, described as the Grand Canyon of Oman. Try caving, explore amazing sinkholes or just relax by the white sands of Fins Beach.

Hypermarkets are lined with boxes of dates and Omani halwa while souqs brim with silver trinkets, Turkish plates, ornate Moroccan lamps and traditional souvenirs like khanjars (ornamental dagger) in silver or leather. Heady smoke emanating from majmars (incense burners) signal stalls selling frankincense. Eager salesmen lure passersby with daubs of perfumes like the ethereal Water of Salalah and Amouage.

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The warmth of its people is a perfect foil for Oman’s rugged landscape that bears the starkness of Ladakh and the aridity of Rajasthan. If you’re considering a desert trip this winter, try Oman. Because travelling has never been easier! A 1-month tourist visa normally costs 20 Omani Rial (Rs.3200), but to draw more travellers, a 10-day tourist visa costing just 5 OMR was introduced. Direct flights to Muscat from Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Kerala offer a quick escape for Indian tourists. With a generous 30 kg limit in Oman Air shoppers are making full use of their baggage allowance! Over 2.21 lakh Indians visited Oman in 2012, indicating a 35.6% hike over the previous year.

As we cut across the corniche towards the scenic harbour, a sportscar graciously stopped and the driver smiled, gesturing us to cross the road. It’s easy to see why it is a good Oman!

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 2 February 2014 in  Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald.

Travel in Style: Around the World in 2014

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY pick out 14 exciting destinations and new ways to explore the world in 2014 

River safaris, luxurious cruises, coastal drives, seaplane ride to private island resorts, salt mine tours, sightseeing on the run, Vinotherapy holidays, wildlife watching tours and spectacular festivals; the new year promises many new experiences for the global traveller. 

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Poland 
Besides Auschwitz, Sobibor and Oskar Schindler’s factory in the old capital of Krakow, Poland has a lot more to show than its war wounds. Listen to legends of dragons, mermaids and fairytale castles as you discover the legacy of composer Frederic Chopin. Visit the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw where his heart is enshrined or take the Royal Route from the reconstructed Old Town to Łazienki Park lined with palaces for a meal at the Belvedere. Try hot chocolate at Wedel’s Chocolate Lounge or warm your cockles with a glass of mulled wine, Polish mead and smoked Oscypek (mountain sheep cheese) served with cranberry sauce. But for something truly spectacular, head to Wieliczka’s Kopalnia Soli, the world’s oldest salt mine still in operation and perhaps the oldest corporation! Marvel at its jaw-dropping saline architecture with altars, statues and chandeliers carved out of rock salt by mine workers, ending the tour with dinner in an underground chamber. Head south to the winter capital of Zakopane for a funicular train to the top of Mount Gubalowka for snowmobile rides against the stunning backdrop of the Tatra mountains. At the unique Bukovina Hotel, bathe in therapeutic thermal pools channeled from 2400m deep geysers! With ICE Krakow, a new convention centre slated to open in 2014, Poland makes for a great destination for holidayers and corporate groups alike.

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Ireland   
After clocking a million visitors at Titanic Belfast, Northern Ireland takes its maritime legacy a notch up with the renovated SS Nomadic, the feeder ship used by first-class passengers to board the Titanic. Get a dose of adrenalin at SKYTrek, a new outdoor high ropes activity centre near Belfast and head out to the Coastal Causeway Route. The 120-mile drive along the North Antrim Coast ranks among the world’s top road trips. Stop over for English tea and scones at the Londonderry Arms Hotel, once owned by Winston Churchill and try Irish cuisine at Bushmills Inn. En route visit Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge over a deep chasm and Dunluce Castle, a medieval structure dramatically perched on a cliff. At Giant’s Causeway marvel at the hexagonal basalt columns formed 60 million years ago, when molten lava cooled suddenly on contact with water. Enriching the scenic walk are excellent audio guides explaining Irish folktales behind the distinctive formations like the Camel, the Wishing Chair and the Harp. The recently opened £18 million visitor centre has a great interactive exhibition and souvenir shop. The Causeway Crossing Marathon in May, Adventure Travel World Summit at Killarney in October and Giants Causeway Coast Sportive cycling tour in November make it a great year to visit Ireland.

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Oman 
Just a 2½ hr drive from Dubai and an hour’s flight from Muscat, Mussandam is emerging as Oman’s hottest destination. With a rich sea-faring tradition, Oman’s northern-most governorate overlooks the strategic Strait of Hormuz, with Portuguese-built forts-cum-museums at Khasab and Bukha. Go dolphin sighting on a dhow cruise in the fjords of Mussandam (described as the Norway of Arabia) and watch amazing marine life while snorkelling at Telegraph Island, named after an undersea telegraph system set up by the British in 1854. Head on an off-road drive to Jebel Harim (Mountain of Women), named after local women who flocked to the hill to escape pirates when their husbands were away fishing. Hunt for fossils and petroglyphs high in the mountain caused by the collision of the Arabian and Eurasian tectonic plates. Enjoy Arabic platters and fresh catch from the sea at Golden Tulips hotel and pick up Omani halwa and dates at the new Lulu Hypermarket.

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Alligator Snapping Turtle, River Safari © Singapore Tourism Board

Singapore
Embark on a journey of discovery at the brand new River Safari, Asia’s first and only river-themed wildlife park in Singapore. Explore eight freshwater habitats with over 5,000 aquatic and terrestrial animals representing 300 species. Meet rare giants such as the giant river otter, giant salamander and the Mekong giant catfish. From the mighty Mississippi to the majestic Yangtze, stroll through freshwater galleries and walk-through exhibits. Watch giant pandas at the lush Giant Panda Forest, Southeast Asia’s largest panda exhibit and witness the annual flooding of the Amazon jungle at the Amazon Flooded Forest, the world’s largest freshwater aquarium. Located between Singapore Zoo and Night Safari, it has all the makings of a wild holiday.

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© Shangri-La Bosphorus Hotel

Turkey
With films like Skyfall, Ek Tha Tiger and Race 2 shot in Istanbul and the sea resort of Antalya, Turkey has captured the imagination of the Indian traveler. Roam around the iconic Blue Mosque, spice-scented bazaars and narrow streets around the Golden Horn, gaze at the soaring dome of Hagia Sophia, soak yourself in a hammam (Turkish bath), drop by at the upscale boutiques of Nisantasi or visit the Dolmabahce Palace with opulent chandeliers and rooms built for Ottoman sultans. Go on the perfect romantic holiday or opt for a stylish wedding at the Shangri-La Bosphorus Hotel. Travel Shop Turkey’s new Hop On Hop Off Bus Tours offer a new way to discover the country beyond Istanbul – boutique cave hotels in the underground city of Cappadoccia, the battlefields of Gallipoli, the Trojan Horse of Troy, one of the Seven Churches of St John at Pergamon, the ancient city of Ephesus, the calcium pools of Pamukkale and the beautiful scenery of the Mediterranean coast.

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Run Cape Town © South African Tourism

South Africa
Ever done Sightseeing on the Run? Run Cape Town offers Running Tours of the city through its streets, with Western Cape Tourist Guide Philippa sharing anecdotes and history of major sights. With a backdrop of Table Mountain, an incredible coastline and great weather, Cape Town is the perfect city to discover on foot. The Historic City Centre tour can be adapted to routes of 5km, 8km or 12km (1 hr 40 min) with new running tours at Darling, Lions Head and Gugulethu. Stellenbosch Wine Festival from 24 Jan–2 Feb 2014 promises tasting programs from over 75 wineries in the beautiful surroundings of Die Braak. But don’t just sip your wine; try vinotherapy, South Africa’s hot new trend with treatments inspired by merlot, chardonnay and pinotage. Librisa Spa at Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town offers a special head-to-toe Vine Secret Vintage Experience. Or perhaps Your Highness may prefer Constantia Uitsig’s signature treatment Les Aromes Du Vin?

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Holi in Berlin © German National Tourist Office 

Germany
With special focus on its 38 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Germany is celebrating the ‘Royal Heritage Route’ in 2014 to mark the 300th anniversary of Hanover’s succession to the thrones of UK and Ireland. The year also marks the 300th birth anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s illustrious second son CPE Bach, about whom Mozart remarked to a Viennese patron “Bach is the father. We are the children!” The six ‘Bach cities’ of Weimar, Leipzig, Frankfurt, Berlin, Potsdam and Hamburg where the composer lived and worked are planning year-long celebrations. With concerts, exhibitions, conferences and festivals celebrating his life and work, it’s Bachanalia of another kind! Germany’s exciting electronic scene is abuzz with clubs and nightspots in Berlin. Let your hair down with thousands of revelers during Holi at Olympic Park. Events like the Berlinale International Film Festival in Feb, the Long Night of Museums in March and Long of Night of Opera and Theatre in April promise a lot of action for any visitor.

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Magical sunsets © Royal Caribbean Cruises

Royal Caribbean Cruises
From dramatic landscapes of the Arctic to South America’s beaches, rainforests and tango salons; ancient temples, open-air markets and cuisine of the Far East to culinary trails in Australia and New Zealand, Royal Caribbean Cruises is a great way to explore the globe. Get aboard the largest and most innovative cruise ships in the world including Allure of the Seas in the Caribbean and Asia’s largest cruise Mariner of the Seas that sails from Singapore. The 7-Night Argentina & Uruguay Cruise aboard the Splendour of the Seas has several fixed departures in Jan-April. On-board amenities include surf simulators, ice skating rinks, zip line, sports courts, casinos, aqua sports and Broadway-style entertainment. Tirun Travel Marketing, India’s premier cruise counselors in 2013, offer exclusive holidays and exotic Spa at Sea packages. Choose from Elemis Aroma Spa Seaweed Massage, rasul organic mud baths on Royal Caribbean International or award-winning AquaSpa treatments aboard Celebrity Cruises.

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Private pool © Song Saa Island, Cambodia

Cambodia
Siem Reap, Cambodia’s fastest growing city, serves as the gateway to the world famous Angkor temples and ruins of a string of Khmer capitals between the 9th to 15th centuries. But there’s more to Cambodia than Angkor Wat, the world’s largest single religious monument, the massive stone faces of Bayon at Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm’s Buddhist temples entwined by roots. The once inaccessible Koh Ker has been recently de-mined and reachable by a new toll road. But for something truly offbeat, visit Song Saa, the first and only private island resort in Cambodia. Arrive in style by a private seaplane from Siem Reap (1hr 15min) or Phnom Penh (1 hr). Luxuriate in Jungle, Overwater and Ocean-view villas built from sustainable materials with private pools as you indulge in the Sanctuary spa. Try watersports, nature walks and excursions to 20 deserted islands nearby like The Sweethearts that spans two islands connected by a footbridge over a marine reserve. The best part, there’s wi-fi all over the island!

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Canada by VIA Rail © Canadian Tourism Commission

Canada 
North America’s oldest tourist attraction, the legendary Maid of the Mist retires in 2014 after 165 years of service. Replaced by a Frisco-based company, the Hornblower will take tourists to Niagara from the Canadian docks past the base of the American Falls into the basin of the magnificent Canadian Horseshoe Falls. For a different perspective, take a Heli-Tour or ‘Journey beyond the Falls’ in a lift. However, as the second largest country in the world, Canada offers much more. Traverse the country on a budget with great deals and circuits from VIA Rail and try the recently launched Canadian Signature Experiences. Relive Canada’s railway building heritage and castles at Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. View wild polar bears at Churchill by all-terrain Tundra Buggy or saddle up for the Calgary Stampede, billed as ‘The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth’. Go dog-sledding, glamping in forests, culinary boot camps or Aurora tours to view the Northern Lights, which will be at their best in 2014. If Toronto’s CN Tower Sky Walk seems too urban, go for a Cliffwalk at Capilano Suspension Bridge Park in Vancouver. And if all this seems too much, just chill with some Inniskillin Ice Wine!

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Thailand
Beyond the known haunts of Pattaya, Phuket, Koh Samui, Krabi and Bangkok’s 426 bejeweled temples, the famed City of Angels now offers a range of immersive experiences. Learn to prepare and feast on a full course of delicious traditional Thai fare at Amita Thai Cooking Classes run by Tam Piyawadi Jantrupon. Set in a cherry wooden cottage and organic garden by a canal, the sprightly cooking expert gives you a hands-on approach to a range of dishes. Get a good workout with a round Thailand’s famous martial art – MuayThai Kickboxing classes at S.Vorapin Boxing Gym. Soothe your tired muscles as you learn the intricacies of authentic Thai massage – traditional Wat Po or relaxing hot stone massages at RarinJinda Wellness Spa. Immerse yourself in the luxury of Siam Kempinski Hotel, a stone’s throw from Siam Center’s buzzing malls (MBK, Platinum and Pratunam). Shop till you drop at Asiatique Riverfront and dine at Baan Khanitha or Supatra River House, a ferry ride across the Chao Phraya River to gorge on exotic Thai fare. A short drive to Kanchanaburi lets you pay tribute to those who lost their lives building the Death Railway to Burma during WWII at historic sites like the Bridge on the River Kwai, the War Cemetery, Jeath War Museum and Hellfire Pass Memorial as you unwind in swanky tents at Hintok River Camp, a former Japanese military base.

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Daranshi Oreum, Jeju © Korea Tourism Organization 

Korea
Psy’s global success after Gangnam Style has elevated not just K-Pop but Korea Tourism into instant international stardom. In a witty Wiki Korea campaign, Psy introduces concepts like Gi (universal energy) and Heung (inner joy), besides tourism icons like Korea’s famous dish samgyeopsal (pork belly), Myeongdong Cosme Road and Jeju Olle Trail. The largest volcanic island in Korea, Jeju recently won the Global Geopark certificate and ranks among the New7Wonders of Nature. Visit its famous sites like Hallasan National Park, Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak and Manjanggul Cave, the world’s longest lava tube recognized as a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site. A high-speed train connects Korea’s capital to its largest port city Busan, which hosts famous international fireworks and film festivals. But with historic sites like Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung Palaces and the traditional Bukchon Hanok Village, Korea’s surely got Seoul!

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Zell am See © Austrian National Tourist Office

Austria
Stunning mountainscapes, green pastures, lakes and ice; the alpine beauty of Austria’s Zell am See and Kaprun circuit is breathtaking. Besides the country’s highest mountain Grossglockner and the Kitzsteinhorn glacier, Austria boasts 267 peaks over 3000m, nearly 342 glaciers and mighty waterfalls like the 1,247 ft high Krimml Waterfalls, the tallest in the country. The newly opened waterfall center Wondrous Worlds of Water offers interactive experiences with an aquatic theme. Experience the world’s biggest ice caves at Eisriesenwelt or visit the 900-year-old castle of Burg Hohenwerfen, with a falconry centre, weaponry and museum. At Saalbach, a 20 min hike along the highest treetop path in Europe takes one to the end of the valley in Hinterglemm. Combined with the Golden Gate Bridge and a newly introduced high rope course, it’s an unparalleled alpine experience. Visit the baroque city of Salzburg, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a fortress, cathedral and church steeples.

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Felicite and Sisters Island © Raymond Sahuquet

Seychelles
Thrumming with the strains of Creole music, Seychelles is a tropical paradise with 115 unique islands. Hop by plane or ferry between the 16 islands that provide stay options. Victoria, the world’s smallest capital, is so tiny you can explore it on foot while the largest island Mahé alone has 65 beaches! Nearly a fifth of Mahé’s landmass constitutes the Morne Seychellois National Park, named after the country’s highest peak. Enjoy dramatic views from Mission Lodge and Tea Factory as you learn the secret behind Seychelles tea – the cool crisp air of Mount Morne Blanc. Praslin, Seychelles’ second largest island once had such dense vegetation that explorers mistook it for the original Garden of Eden! Explore Craft Villages, Takamaka Bay Rum Distillery or go birdwatching for the Seychelles Black Parrot, one of the rarest in the world, besides the best fishing, snorkeling and sailing!

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 5 January 2014 in  Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald.