A city of contrasts
Museums with modern technology and old-world marketplaces are found in the Omani capital. -ST
By Deepika Shetty
Muscat is the capital of Oman, an Arab country on the south-east coast of the Arabian Peninsula. With a land area stretching across 309,500 sq km, it has a population of 2,567,000 and is an absolute monarchy.
The capital is set against a dramatic mountainous backdrop and has impressive mosques, museums and a souq (market place) by the sea.
With 3,165km of pristine coastline and a rich cultural, historical and geographical heritage, the city has a lot to offer, says Singaporean Alinah Aman, who runs a business providing IT training, consultancy and e-learning.
Ms Alinah, who is married with a seven- year-old daughter, calls Muscat a city of contrasts. Here, modern buildings exist harmoniously with traditional Omani houses. These are tucked everywhere between the rugged mountains and the emerald-green shores of the Gulf of Oman.
'I fell in love with this wonderful land and its people when I first came here in 2005. I felt at home instantly and decided that I wanted to come back and explore business opportunities,' she says.
The best way to get around is...
By renting a car. Another great way to see what the country has to offer is by renting a boat and seeing the coastline and the numerous islands and coves along the way. Visit www.zaharatours.com to pick a tour that suits your style.
The best way to explore is by...
Getting a copy of the Oman 'off-road' map. This detailed map helps drivers discover the city's outback.
The best time to visit is ...
From October to March as it's cooler.
What's the weather like?
Cold and dry in winter and hot and dry in summer.
Which places excite you?
Hoota Cave. This is Oman's second-largest cave and is located in the central Hajar Mountains.
It has been illuminated with lights and there is a walkway with iron railings and stairs for easy access. The main chamber has many exquisite cave formations.
I also like the Hoti Cave in the same area. Its main chamber is about the size of a grand hotel ballroom and it is quite impressive. Visit www.alhootacave.com
Must one know the native Arabic language to get around?
English is widely spoken and road signs are in English.
Your favourite cultural stop is...
Bait Al Baranda. This museum is dedicated to the history of Muscat. Dating back to 1931, it was renovated in 2006.
It includes around 13 halls equipped with state-of-the-art interactive technology. It chronicles ancient life in Muscat, the earliest human settlements from 10,000BC to the early Islamic era; and Muscat as seen by geographers and travellers.
You should also visit Muscat's Grand Mosque. Ceramic floral patterns adorn arch-framed mural panels set in the marble. The dome comprises a series of ornate, engraved stained-glass triangles. You will also find a Swarovski crystal chandelier with gold-plated metalwork.
A major feature of the main prayer hall is the handmade Persian carpet consisting of 1.7 billion knots. Made in a single piece measuring 70m by 60m, 600 weavers from Iran's Khurasan province took four years to complete it.
One can't leave without visiting...
The Fish Souq at Muttrah. The choice of fresh catch is simply amazing.
Any key festivals to work into one's travel plans?
The Muscat Festival runs from end January to end February. This is the biggest annual event in Muscat. It focuses on the traditional arts, culture and heritage of Oman.
Along with the cultural extravaganza, it also showcases the arts, food, handicrafts and music of the region. Drama groups, singers and famous bands from neighbouring countries also perform here.
What's the best place to shop?
Muttrah Souq. This is the oldest and most well-known souq in Oman. It is a shoppers' delight. You can get everything from silverware to antiques to garments.
What I like about this souq is that it retains much of its old-world charm with rows upon rows of matchbox-size shops set in tiny winding lanes. You can see nomadic Bedouin women in traditional dresses selling fragrances combining various raw materials such as sandalwood, frankincense and natural oils.
One should not leave the place without trying...
The Turkish House at Al Khuwair (tel:968-2448-8071).
It serves Turkish/Mediterranean cuisine with an Omani flavour. It's functional, cheap, cheery and not too high on style, if that is the kind of place you are looking for.
Be prepared to queue for a table but the food is worth it. Try its special salad made with pomegranate sauce and served with fresh oven-baked Turkish bread. It goes very well with the eatery's lemon mint juice.
The fresh fish and mezze platters are very good too.
The best breakfast is...
The traditional Indian parata. You can get this at most Indian coffee shops. It's done just right. Light, fluffy and not too oily.
The best brunch is at...
The Kargeen Cafe in Madinat Qaboos (www.kargeencaffe.com). Though located in a shopping centre, it has some nice ethnic touches and a nice courtyard. Try its homemade breads, salads, moutabel (a spicy aubergine dip) and barbecued meats.
Also try the grilled meats at Samba, located on the ground floor of Al Waha at the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort (tel: 968-2477-6565).
The best dinner is at...
Tropicana at Crowne Plaza Hotel (tel: 968-246600660, www.crowneplaza.com). It serves the best fish and chips in town and also freshly caught hammour (grouper) fish.
What's the one must-try drink?
Lemon mint and Omani kahwa (coffee).
The one place you always take your friends to is...
Qantab Beach and Shatti Beach - they are perfect spots to watch the sunset and do barbecues.
What's there to explore and what sites would appeal to Singaporeans?
Castles, forts and nature reserves such as the Green Turtle Reserves at Ras Al-Hadd and the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary, an animal sanctuary in the Omani Central Desert and Coastal Hills.
This article was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 8, 2008.
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