A visit to Oman is a high priority on my bucket list. And when I had to go to Dubai for meetings, I thought this is the chance to add a side trip to Oman since I am going to be in the region anyway.
It did not take a lot of effort to convince Andy to join me and so we booked the trip which turned out to be such an amazing and unusual one.
Andy flew in from Zurich and me from Dubai, so we met at Muscat Airport at midnight and where picked up by the Premium Plaza staff that helped us to get the visa and go quickly through immigration. It actually costs very little and is money well invested as you can sit comfortably in the lounge while they do all the admin work for you. Once we picked up the bag and went through customs, a driver from our hotel was waiting for us.
We had booked the first 3 nights at The Chedi Muscat, we had confirmed a Club Room which would give us access to the Club Lounge and some more additional features. When we arrived, meanwhile it was about 1am, we were greeted by a very friendly and easy going front desk employee who had drinks and cool towels waiting ready for us. That was really nice, and it turned out being even nicer when he told us that the Club Rooms are sold out and we were upgraded to a Chedi Suite. Of course, we gladly accepted that upgrade and the Suite we got was spectacular. Like the entire hotel! They have 3 amazing pools, delicious food is served in various restaurants and lounges, the architecture is a great mix of modern yet traditional styles and, most importantly, the staff go above and beyond at all times. We had the chance to talk to the GM of the hotel who happens to be a Swiss and used to work in a few other 5 star hotels and he agreed with us saying that the hotel can be as fancy and chic as it may be, but you need to ensure outstanding service to make a visit worth it.
The first day we chilled at the infinity beach pool, relaxing, having nice fresh fruit punches, working on the sun tan and reading about the history of Oman. As a coincidence, the same day as we arrived, HM Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said (Qabus ibn Said) returned from Germany where he spent 8 months in a clinic. The Omanis were celebrating his return not only that day, but the entire week we were there. Most big companies had full page ads in the daily newspapers welcoming HM back, some wanted a day off and guess what Sultan Qaboos told his people: if you want to celebrate my return properly, go back to work, instead of taking a day off. He leads his country with a tough hand, but people love him for what he has done for them. When he took over the power from his father back in the 1970’s, Oman was not developed at all and he ensured that the country would be brought back to its former glory. And now they have found their way between traditional and modern living and as a visitor, you can feel how proud they are of what they have achieved together the past 40 years. The entire history of Oman is very interesting; I recommend reading about it. There are various interesting books, but also some travel guides have informative chapters about the people, history, economy, etc.
Later in the evening, we first enjoyed a drink and some goodies at the Club Lounge and then went to the Seafood Restaurant right at the beach. The meals we had were fantastic, freshest seafood and fish were served. I ate so much, I almost needed a golf cart taking me back all the way to the other end of the park where our Suite was.
The next day, we hired a taxi and first went to the Muttrah Souq and Corniche. The area is very nice and the Souq offers everything one expects from an Oriental Souq: Souvenirs, Spices, Clothes, Shoes, Household Stuff, Rugs, Fabrics and much more. We bought two very nice lanterns for the balcony and a tiny silver tin (no idea what we are going to do with that one, but it looks so nice, we had to buy it). The really pleasant fact about the all the Souqs we visited in Oman was, that the vendors would invite you to have a look at their merchandise but were not insisting on selling something.
The taxi driver was waiting for us and he took us along the Muttrah Corniche to the old town of Muscat where the Sultan lives in his gorgeous palace. The old town is very clean and tidy; it looks a bit like Disney Land and kitschy.
On the way back to the hotel, we passed along the famous Opera House and countless Mosques. We did not visit the Grand Mosque as it was prayer time and in most Mosques it even says for Muslims only. The whole trip which lasted about 3hrs did cost us 20 Rial, about CHF 50. Cheaper than Uber!
The next day, it was already time to check out and go to the airport to pick up our SUV for the next few days and our adventure trip through Oman. When we planned the trip we were contemplating hiring a driver versus driving our own car, but after having read a few blogs and tips online, we decided that driving ourselves would be easy. And it was. I can only highly recommend doing a self-driving tour, but you need to rent a 4WD as many roads are restricted to SUVs only. So, off we went in direction Jebel Akhdar, meaning Green Mountain, which is part of the magnificent mountain range of Al Hajar. The first part was driving on a highway, but from Birkat al Mouz, the road becomes steep and is winding up the mountain range, up to 2100m above sea level. And we started at 0m!
We had booked 2 nights at the Alila Hotel, a spectacular place to be. The hotel is built at the edge of a canyon, they call it the Omani Grand Canyon and it is equally impressing. Again, we were not only impressed with the architecture of the hotel, but especially with the staff. When we arrived, we were offered Omani Café and Dates in the lounge overlooking the mountain range and the canyon. The man who checked us in explained us who designed the hotel, what aspects of Omani Culture were built in, etc. It was really interesting to see that a lot of the details have to do with the culture and tradition. Such as the carvings on the wooden doors, the cast iron roses representing rose water used for drinks and cosmetics and so on. We got a very nice room there as well and enjoyed the afternoon at the pool.
That evening, after another healthy drink at the bar (many hotels and restaurants in Oman do not have a licence to serve wine and spirits) we enjoyed an outstanding meal at the Juniper Restaurant. As starters, we had various Mezze and then we enjoyed lamb which was cooked for 24hrs and seafood.
The next morning, we drove the steep road back down and visited the City of Nizwa which used to be Oman’s capital. It was a Friday where there is also the cattle market. Too bad we arrived too late for that, but we visited the other Souqs instead. We went into one booth as we saw a really wonderful coffeepot and I also wanted to buy a wonder lamp. Funny enough, the owner of the shop used to spend some time in Berne in Switzerland and realized immediately that we were Swiss. And his German was not bad at all. So we ended up buying the pot and the lamp there. He recommended to visit the spice Souq and told his nephew to show us the way. The Omanis are really very nice and helpful people and they do not expect baksheesh at all, they are genuinely friendly, open minded and talk to strangers. Women might be wearing Burkas and may be veiled but are an important part of the society. Over 50% of the students at Universities are female and they have good jobs. While it looks weird seeing women totally veiled in Europe, it is most natural in Oman.
At the spice Souq, we bought dried limes, Za’atar (Middle Eastern Herbs, similar to Thym) and pistachios. We also walked through the fruit and vegetable Souq and finally ended up in the Date Souq, which was paradise for me. I bought about 1.5kg of different Omani Dates.
As it was already 11h00, the Souqs were closing down as the time for Friday prayers at the Mosque had come. It was totally amazing to witness how quickly the streets emptied and where there was hustle and bustle a minute ago, suddenly it was all calm and only a few non-Muslims were in the streets.
We drove back to the Alila Hotel and while Andy took a nap, I had the best ever Cantaloupe melon-ginger drink and a Fattoush salad, followed by a massage at the Spa of the Alila. The Alila sits at 2000m above sea level and the most amazing thing for me was the quietness of the area. One would not hear anything and at night, the sky was so clear and the stars much brighter than when looking at them from polluted places like a city.
The next morning, we enjoyed a healthy breakfast on the terrace overlooking the Canyon before heading back down that winding road again. We drove to Al Mintirib where we had an appointment with an Escort who would show us the way through the Sharqiya Sands (formerly known as Wahiba Sands) Desert to our Camp for the next night.
We arrived there a bit too early and I called to see if he could pick us up earlier which he did and so we started our adventure of driving 50 km through the desert. We first had to deflate our tires, we met this cool Indian guy at a tires shop who did that for us at no costs, we promised him, should we survive the adventure, we would come back the next day and have the tires inflated again and leave him a tip.
The trip was amazing, we saw camels on the way and the dune landscape seemed to be never-ending. After about 1 hour we reached the 1000NightsCamp, a camp, far away from civilization, yet offering what one needs for a night in the desert. In the afternoon, I walked up the dunes (better than spending an hour in the gym for sure) and enjoyed the breathtaking views and the quietness. Andy preferred to watch me from our tent, sitting comfortably outside. The view was spectacular and I couldn’t stop taking pictures. Of course, it looks much nicer in reality than on any photo.
After that “dune trekking” I really felt that I deserved a refreshing drink, so we went to the pool (yes pool in the desert) area where they have transformed an Arabian Dhow into a bar. We enjoyed a really refreshing lemon-mint drink and relaxed for a while. We also did visit the zoo of the camp, where we met Onyx, Camels, Bunnies, Horses and all kinds of Birds.
Dinner was served in a nice open air restaurant and we enjoyed an Arabian-Indian Buffet, it was quite nice considering that they have to get all the food to this remote place every day.
There was a show of singing and dancing girls, we decided that that was way too touristy for us and we escaped to our terrace in front of the tent and marveled at the starry sky.
The next morning, after a surprisingly nice breakfast and a photo session with Mr and Mrs Camel we drove back to Al Mintirib. Our escort realized that Andy knows how to drive in the sand and so he took a more adventurous route back including dune riding which was really fun. We also saw many more camels on the way back, even a baby.
Of course, we went back to the tire shop to visit our Indian friend; we had a long chat with him about the life of a foreigner in Oman. He said, it is a good life, although he needs to pay taxes (yes, Omani don’t, they do…but don’t we all?) and schools are expensive. He’s been living there for 36 years and would not go back to India. We left him a tip and he was really thankful and wished us a good continuation of our trip. Again, all the people we met were incredibly nice and helpful, and one can tell it comes from their heart; it is not superficial at all.
After our tires were inflated again and a stop at a grocery store (where I bought more spices) we drove towards Ras-al-Jinz at the northeastern tip of Oman. The route led us all the way along the desert and every few kilometers the landscape would change. From flat and desert to very sparse and rocky areas, then suddenly you would see high mountains again. We made a little side trip to the Wadi Bani Khalif, a really nice oasis with various natural pools and a gorge. We walked to the little restaurant and had a coffee there, later on a curry buffet lunch which was quite nice.
Later in the afternoon we arrived at the Ras-al-Jinz Turtle Reserve. This is a nature reserve established in 1996 in order to better protect the sea turtles and their natural environment. The protected area stretches over 120 square kilometers with a 45 kilometer coastline, extending for one kilometer into territorial waters. It is also a hotel, but a very basic one. So if you go there, do not expect a 5* luxury hotel but keep in mind that the main reason for going there is observing turtles.
We booked an Eco Tent which is located a bit removed from the hotel/science center and offers a comfortable tent with own bathroom and a nice view over the bay.
Before going to the beach at night, we visited the very informative turtle museum and had dinner at the hotel. Well, it was a lot of curry again but it was ok, just the restaurant itself lacked quite a bit of charm; it was more a canteen than a restaurant to be honest. But then again, we came because of the turtles.
At 9pm we were picked up and went to the turtle beach. Taking pictures was forbidden which is a good thing as the turtles need to be protected from lights and noise. Although March is not a typical month for lady turtles to lay eggs, we saw two turtles that were at the beach, one just finishing laying her eggs and closing the hole again, while the other just started digging the hole. These holes are usually 50cm deep, it is quite a tough job for those giant turtles to dig this hole. She had to pause a lot and it certainly takes a few hours until she is satisfied with her work. Once the work is done and she has lain the eggs, closed the whole and gone back to her natural habitat, the sea, the turtle will not look after her brood anymore. The baby turtles will hatch after 2 months.
Then, we were asked to quietly walk over to another spot where the guides just had spotted baby turtles hatching. Oh my, was that ever amazing to watch them dig themselves out of the sand. Usually, they need to find their own way to the water from the nest. First, it takes them 3 days from the day they hatch until they reach the surface of the sand, and then they quickly trip through the sand into the ocean. The most dangerous time of a green turtle’s life is when it makes the journey from nest to sea. As many turtles do not find the way to the ocean, the only help the guides offer is leading the way. Unlike in other centers, they do not take the eggs away from the sand holes and hatch them in the center, nor do they let the turtles swim in a tank after hatching and before taking them to the ocean. It is kept as natural as possible (with about 50 tourists watching them, it is stressful enough). So we witnessed how the baby turtles made their way to the ocean and off they went. Unfortunately, we were told only 1-2 babies will survive.
This was a very emotional moment for me and I felt deep satisfaction and gratitude for being able and allowed to do all these outstanding trips and experience the beauty of this planet.
So there are no pictures of turtles laying eggs nor of baby turtles, I keep these fond memories closed in my heart though and will never forget how I felt that night.
The next morning, we left the reserve and drove back to Muscat. We decided to once more stay at The Chedi, although there are other nice hotels in Muscat, but we really liked it so much there.
The trip back to Muscat leads along the shore but also goes inland again and through rocky landscapes. We stopped for a coffee and tea and had a chat with a Bangladeshi boy who probably would have preferred we pay him in Swiss Francs rather than Rial, he was really cute and wanted to know a lot about Switzerland, although I did not understand half of what he was saying.
Back in Muscat, we enjoyed another nice dinner at The Chedi, this time at the Long Pool Bar. The room I had booked was a basic one this time, and guess what, we got an upgrade again. Not to a Suite but to a Deluxe Room which was nice and overlooking one of the many small pools in the garden.
The next day, we simply relaxed at the pool and came to the conclusion that one week in Oman is not enough. It gave us a flavour and a good idea of the country and its wonderful people, but there is so much more to see and do. We have not been to Jebel Shams the highest mountain, we have not seen Dhofar, the Southern part of Oman, nor have we been to Musandam . So there is much more to do and we definitely will be back.
And if I had one wish to make, I would want to tell the Sultan that he and his government should do everything possible to protect the environment and have an efficient waste-management put in place. We saw too many plastic bottles and bags in the desert, at the beaches and up in the mountains. Their slogan is: Beauty has an address-Oman. If they want to keep it that way, they will have to implement measures to ensure it stays like that.
After a last delicious dinner at the Serai Pool Bar, we left to the Airport and flew back home. Back from an Arabian Fairy Tale into the real world again.