Muscat, Oman’s capital, is a relaxed coastal city with a dramatic mountain backdrop and an attractive blend of modernity and tradition. It is made up of a series of districts, once separate villages, stretching for 35 kilometres from the airport at Seeb to the Old Town. For holidaymakers, Muscat’s favourite feature is its beach – miles of soft sand lapped by the warm waters of the Gulf of Oman. A stay in one of Muscat’s luxury beachfront hotels seems to form a part of every Oman holiday
Muscat means ‘anchorage’ and the historic heart of the city is arranged around the harbours of Muttrah and the tiny inner city of Muscat. We recommend a walk along the Muttrah Corniche, lined with old merchant’s houses and teeming with life.
The long, crescent shaped harbour is full of small dhows bringing in their catch to the fish market at one end, whilst at the other end, the Muttrah souq is still primarily focused towards local people – there is no high pressure selling. There are spices from India, silks from China and cottons from Egypt. Charcoal burners with little pots of locally produced frankincense, sandalwood & myrrh, make popular gifts, and the silver shops have a good range of modern and antique jewellery.
The original Old Muscat had a strategic position at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, and until 1929, when British engineers hacked a road through the mountains, it was only accessible by sea. Old Muscat is tiny and most of the available space between the bay and the mountains is taken up by the ever expanding Sultan’s Palace painted in an eye-catching turquoise and blue.
Old Muscat and Muttrah retain their old-Arabia feeling, but modern Muscat is a rapidly developing city, its wide roads lined with date palms, well-maintained grass verges, and low-rise buildings in spotless white. There are spacious parks and shopping malls.
Here you will find the Sultan Quaboos Grand Mosque. This jaw-dropping example of modern Islamic architecture was completed in 2001. One cannot help but be impressed by the shimmering lines of white marble, its five minarets, its archways, arcades and courtyards. But none of this prepares you for the interior, a vast glittering domed hall which can hold 7000 worshippers. The Persian carpet is the largest hand-stitched carpet in the world, and took 600 weavers four years to complete; the crystal Swarovski chandelier holds more than a 1000 lights. This mosque deserves recognition as a true a wonder of the modern world.
It makes sense to make Muscat the base for your holiday. From here you can take day-tours inland to see all the main sights of the region. Or you can combine a few days by the beach here with a two- or three-night into the interior.
The Gulf of Muscat offers excellent scuba diving, and this can be organised by most of the hotels. There are also independent dive centres – the Omani Dive Centre and Bluzone in particular.
One of the most popular dive sites is Fahal Island, about 30 minutes by boat. There are ten dive sites here, which vary in depth from 10m to 42m. Stingrays, honeycomb eels, angel fish, sea turtles and black-tip sharks (harmless) are commonly sighted.
Other boat trips can be arranged for snorkelling, dolphin-watching, whale-watching and game fishing. Or you can simply take a scenic dhow cruise at sunset.