Friday, March 26, 2010
Arriving in Oman you get the feeling that you’ve just landed in the country of Disneyland. Every building is shiny and new, every car is less than five years old, and every highway is flanked by decorative street lamps just like those on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom. Only this kingdom—er, sultanate—is real.
My boyfriend and I arrived in Oman from Amman and drove into the city to find our hotel, the Nomad Guest House. Tired of staying in huge corporate hotels, I couldn’t wait for the homey goodness of a B&B. Decorated in bright colors, the guest house and its friendly staff lived up the good reviews I had read online. The guest room doors were even numbered with birthday candles.
We settled in and spent our first evening in Oman doing what we do best: eating. Our first stop was The Chedi, a gorgeous hotel right on the water in Muscat. We met a friend of a friend there for sundowners on the outdoor terrace and revelled in the warm evening air while sipping our drinks and munching on olives.
From The Chedi we headed to Mumtaz Mahal, a restaurant recommended by our drinking buddy. The Mumtaz was situated on a hill overlooking Muscat, and we enjoyed some good Indian food while listening to live music.
Our second day in Muscat was a busy one. We started out at the Muttrah Souk, a labyrinthine maze of a covered market. My boyfriend bought an ironic T-shirt that wasn’t meant to be ironic, and then we walked along the waterfront across from the massive sparkling new port. With the wide promenade and old fort on the top of the hill, I had Disney deja vu again.
We drove from the souk to Old Muscat, where we spent some time driving past the government buildings in their monumental grandeur and the space-age looking palace that could have come straight out of Tomorrowland. We tried to visit the two new-looking historic forts perched atop the hills on the coast, but one seemed to be closed and the other inaccessible.
Confused, we took off for Nakhal, a town about an hour outside of Muscat. Nakhal was reputed to have a nice old fort. It did. It too looked like it had been built yesterday. It wasn’t. It dates back several centuries.
We arrived in Nakhal in the late afternoon and spent some time climbing the towers, exploring the rooms, and enjoying the breathtaking views of the palm trees below and the dry, rocky mountains in the distance.
The next morning we were off to Sur, an area on the coast of Oman about three hours south of Muscat. As we drove down the wide, newly-built highway, we passed by miles and miles of stunning desert and mountain scenery. We felt like we were in Southern California. Well, except for the goats.
We reached the sleepy town of Sur and kept driving until we got to Ras al Hadd, the easternmost point in Oman. Our hotel that night was the Turtle Beach Resort, the best of a not-so-spectacular set of accommodation options in the area. The resort was comprised of a row of huts on a small sandy beach. We splurged on a “luxury” hut with air conditioning and its own bathroom, which was basic, but nice.
After relaxing at the resort’s boat-shaped al fesco terrace for a few hours, we got in the car at 8:30pm to go to watch green turtle babies hatch on the beach. The research center where this takes place was thirty minutes from our hotel, and we arrived at the ultra-new facility in Ras al Jinz right before our tour started.
Packed in with thirty German bus tour pensioners, we started our walk down to the beach where tens of thousands of green turtles come to lay their eggs every year. Within minutes of arriving, we started to see tiny little sea turtles paddling their way across the sand. They were adorable.
A few minutes later we were able to watch an adult green turtle, which had a 120cm long shell and weighed in at a healthy 200kg, lay around 100 ping-pong ball eggs in the sand. She was surprisingly similar to the turtle we saw laying eggs on the beach in Madagascar a few months ago, only much bigger.
After watching the egg-laying process we were herded back up the beach, shuffling the whole way to make sure we didn’t accidentally step on one of the growing number of tiny turtles plowing through the sand on their way to the ocean. I wanted to take one home with me, but wasn’t sure what I would do with it when it reached 200kg.
The next morning we were back on the road for a long five-hour drive through the desert. Our destination was Nizwa, home of another famous fort. Like the previous day’s drive, this one took us through more beautiful desert landscapes. Again we were convinced we were in Southern California. Well, except for the camels.
We didn’t get to see much of Nizwa that night, so the next day we left our perfectly-nice-but-nothing-special lodging, the Al Diyar Hotel, and headed into town.
The parking lot of the Nizwa souk was about as big as the one at Epcot Center, and as soon as we walked through the welcome gates I was convinced we were in Orlando. A far cry from the rambling alleys of the souks of Marrakech or Old Dubai, this was “Souk: Disney-style”.
The fruit souk was huge and resembled an American grocery store except for the giant floor space on the top level that was covered in pita. The date souk (yes, dates have their own souk in Oman) was an enormous room full of burlap bags of sweetness, and the goat souk (yep, a goat souk) was a giant parade ring with tethers for the auction.
We made our way to the craft souk, which was so clean and nice and new that it felt like a souvenir shop at Epcot Center’s World Showcase. So thorough was the renovation that it was hard to believe that the souk was actually historic.
Moving on to the fort, we had the same experience. The museum on the ground floor had some interesting informational exhibitions on the history of the fort and the greater Nizwa area. The room that particularly caught my attention was the one dedicated to “before and after” photos of the fort’s renovation in the 1980′s and 90′s. I couldn’t help feeling like I preferred the crumbling ruins and exposed brick walls of the “before” pictures to the smooth stuccoed surfaces of the “after” ones.
After the exhibitions, we spent some time climbing up into the tower. In doing so we learned interesting facts like how enemy invaders were killed when the army of Nizwa poured boiling date syrup through “murder holes” in the top of the fort. Now that’s something you wouldn’t see in Adventureland. Not the date syrup part anyway.
Speaking of date syrup, we were surprised to find that in a town as full of tourists as Nizwa, there were surprisingly few options for food. No cafes, no coffee shops, no Disney employees selling fourteen dollar Cokes. We found one small hole-in-the-wall restaurant, which had good food—even the French fries in my Biryani rice were tasty—but no women besides myself. It was odd. It was turning into Bizarro Disney.
Moving on from Nizwa, I finally got my official ruins in the small town of Tanuf. Just a handful of kilometers away from Nizwa, Tanuf—or what’s left of it—is a city that was bombed by the British at the request of the sultan during a civil insurrection in the 1950′s.
The crumbling buildings of Tanuf remain as they were after the bombings. As we wandered through empty golden shells of houses and walked along streets full of rubble, we were surprised to find that the aqueduct that brought water to the city was still intact. So much so that there were local people there bathing and collecting water.
The late afternoon heat was getting oppressive, so we got back in the car for the hour-and-a-half drive to Muscat, where we headed straight for Istanbuli Shawarma. Well, not straight there. Without an address, we drove around the neighborhood we thought it was in for awhile and finally asked for directions at a hotel after my manlier-than-thou boyfriend was sufficiently browbeaten into pulling over.
Istanbuli came highly recommended by our friend that used to live in Oman, and we weren’t disappointed. We shelled out the last of our rials to pay for two large shawarmas and sat outside in the pleasant spring heat munching creamy garlic-sauce-smothered chicken wrapped in warm pita. Soooo good.
After shawarma we found ourselves with some time to kill before our midnight flight back to London. We headed back to The Chedi, where we put real shoes on for the first time in days and had some very lovely drinks on the terrace. It was the perfect way to end our trip to Oman.
Actually, it wasn’t the perfect way to end our trip to Oman. The perfect way to end it was the triple upgrade from economy to First that I managed to snag in-flight on our way home thanks to some helpful BA strike breakers. A classic Disney ending.