Our ship slowly inched its way into the Port of Muscat, a tableau of stark contrasts. Arid, parched mountains flanked ancient forts. Gleaming, white buildings produced brilliantine sparkles and multi-million dollar pleasure cruisers languished in the harbour.
Beyond the sanctuary of the port gates eager taxi drivers proffered services at inflated prices. We ventured independently towards the small horseshoe harbour and within ten minutes had discovered the heart of the city, the Mutrah Souq.
This traditional old Arab souq or bazaar attracts mainly international tourists but we were securely anchored in the Middle East by the evocative aromas of burning frankincense, sweet cinnamon and spicy cardamom.
Turban clad store traders haggled gold, carpets, head scarves, colourful cloth and burnished souvenirs. Kohl-eyed and dressed in ‘thawb’ (full length, white, traditional Arab garb) they more resembled spirits than shopkeepers.
The Souq opens around 10 am, but is busiest in the early evenings. Don’t miss glancing up at the intricately carved roof in the oldest sector of this captivating labyrinth.
At the far end of the Souq we stumbled across a barber who beckoned us to his salon. A haircut, beard trim, face peal and a slightly painful hedge trim around the eyebrows, with expertly twisted string, was a bargain at US$10.
Feeling fresh and fabulous we made our way to the waterfront for sweet coffee and homemade felafels. With only three hours left before the ship’s horn sounded ‘all aboard’, we negotiated a US$60 two hour taxi tour through the ancient and new quarters of Muscat. This was a steal compared with the Hop On, Hop Off Bus which costs about US$70 each.
Our first stop was the old city, set in a small valley protected by two 16th century forts perched high on rugged hilltops. This was also the site of the Sultan’s Royal Palace. The surrounding grounds were scrupulously manicured.
The ornate gold and blue tiles on the highly imposing main gates created a sense of grandeur and splendour for what might be secretly concealed beyond this extravagant facade.
It was Friday. Men here were busy praying at the local Mosque in the grounds outside the palace. We enquired about how many times they prayed and a charming, friendly man (something we found to be common among the people we met in Oman) said, “Five times a day starting at 4:30am”.
The taxi headed to a nearby private beach called the Capital Area Yacht Club. For an entrance fee of US$8 we had access to a stunning, pristine, sandy beach with sun lounges and umbrellas. There were also cafés and change facilities available.
This was the perfect place for people watching while topping up the tan. Unfortunately, we had more to see and time was quickly running out.
Next on the tour was the drive into the new quarter, along endless ribbons of roads through ultra-modern urban areas with sculpted glass and concrete buildings that dazzled in the blazing desert sun.
Palatial hotels, which our driver explained were very reasonably priced, punctuated the withered landscape along the way.
The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, a magnificent Indian sandstone building with a central dome rising to a height of 50 metres, a main minaret towering to 90 metres and four flanking minarets 45.5 metres high, was completed in 2001. The mosque can hold up to 6500 worshippers.
This is truly a building of sheer opulence and majesty which the public is free to inspect, except on Fridays. Consequently, we only saw the outside. Perhaps the best reason for another visit to this fascinating location?
The return route to the port area took us via Muscat’s luxurious Grand Shopping Mall where we stopped to look more closely at the magnificent Royal Opera House.
Designed by the same architect as the Grand Mosque, this white marble masterpiece was a fitting landmark to conclude our brief tour of the city, simultaneously representing the richness, splendour and elegance of this exotic destination.
Our taxi tour ended, our ship awaited and our short stay in Muscat had been a total delight.
As we departed, the ship followed the shoreline which uncovered even more treasures best viewed from the sea under a powder pink sunset, a delicate palate to match this exquisite gem.