Tag Archives: Oman

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. 

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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.