After traveling through Sri Lanka for 2 weeks, we arrived at noon to the modern, luxury-casino-like airport in Oman and breezed through customs at the strangely empty airport. Everything felt new, like the place was built for millions of visitors who had yet to arrive. We got lost on our way to the rental car area, which sat atop a nearby parking garage, and were confused when all the employees seemed to be on their first day on the job, running around searching for rental cars amidst the sea of desert-worthy white SUVs.
Arriving in Muscat
We drove from the airport along a perfectly manicured highway, which felt straight out of an upscale Florida resort, but there were no tourists, or even locals, in sight. Once we got closer to Muscat, the traffic picked up a bit, but it felt more like we were in a new-ish city in the United States, with lots of malls, big American cars, and high-rise condos. However, once we passed the giant, intricately decorated mosque and surrounding gardens, we finally felt like we were somewhere new.
We started our exploration in Muttrah, the former center of commerce in Oman (before the discovery of oil) lying along the coast of the Arabian Peninsula. We sat outside at a local juice bar, where we lunched on falafel, hummus and pitas washed down with fresh passion fruit and melon juices. Next, we walked along the seaside corniche path, mixing old and new with construction sites for luxe high-rise apartments next to crumbling ancient fortification walls topped with cannons. We watched the sunset over Muttrah atop an old fort with views to the desert mountains on one side and the Gulf of Oman on the other.
Once darkness set in, we decided to explore the souk, which is one of the oldest marketplaces in the Arab world. The market was a source of supply for Omanis for hundreds of years, as it sat strategically on the trade route linking China, India and Europe. We explored shops filled with spices, incense, frankincense, lanterns, trunks and more modern shops selling everyday clothes, dresses and beauty products. We were particularly taken with the antique shops selling intricately carved doors and furniture, but we held ourselves to purchasing an incense burner, an intricately beaded long dress (for our visit to the mosque the following day) and a few small souvenirs.
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
The following morning, we headed to the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, a palatial series of structures and gardens built from 300,000 tonnes of Indian sandstone which can accommodate 20,000 worshipers. Dave rented a djellaba from a cabbie to comply with the strict dress code, and Erin covered her head and shoulders with a shawl (in addition to the long dress purchased the day before which covered her wrists and ankles).
We walked along the immaculate gardens, polished halls and corridors into the main hall, which included a prayer carpet made of 1,700,000,000 knots, weighing 21 tonnes that took four years to produce and is among the largest carpets in the world. We marveled at the intricate carvings, space-ship-like chandelier and crazy attention to detail throughout the structure. One of our favorite features were the various basins and wash areas built into the indoor-outdoor structures, so worshipers can have clean hands and feet before praying.
We stayed to listen to the late morning call to prayer, then headed out to the Chedi, one of the poshest hotels in Oman. Originally, we planned to drive our rented SUV out into the desert, to check out some castles and swim in some mirage-like wadis, filled with crystal water and cliff jump spots. However, neither our portable wifi nor our phones would work, and despite our decent navigation skills thought better of driving blind into the desert with only a map and no communication ability just hours before our red-eye flight home.
Instead, we practiced one of our favorite budget travel skills - infiltrating luxury hotels. We started by making a lunch reservation at the hotel, to get us through the doors, and then, once we were in, high-tailed it past the series of pools to the private beach. We changed from our nice, lunch outfits into swimwear in the ultra-fancy beach-side spa bathrooms and enjoyed a nice couple of ours walking along and laying out on the beach, using the hotel amenities and listening to podcasts in the sun before changing and sitting down to lunch. After a delicious multicourse feast, we tried our luck at getting pool access, but were shut down as the pools were only open to guests. Despite this small hiccup, we were able to spend the day at the hotel for just the cost of lunch, and we were happy to get the luxe Omani experience before hopping on our flight back home.
We headed back to the airport early and hung out in the swanky lounge, enjoying dinner and drinks before hopping on our overnight flight back to Germany. We had a great intro to Oman and definitely plan to visit again to check out the desert, wadis and less modernized parts of the country.
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