Easter in the Middle East

May 09, 2017 0 Comments

Easter in the Middle East

Oman is often overlooked as a tourist destination.  We were mostly met with vagueness as to where it was 'You're going to Amman ?' Most assumed it was just desert and too hot. Well, yes it does get unbearably hot in the summer but spring is a great time to visit with an average temperature of 28C and a cool breeze blowing in from the coast. The weather varies from region to region with deserts, but also cool mountains, rain and beautiful almost deserted beaches.

Situated on the Arabian Peninsula and bordered to the south by Yemen and to the north by Saudi Arabia and UAE, Oman is nothing like any of its neighbours. If you are looking for ski slopes in shopping malls you won't find them here.     Oman is an ancient country, the source of frankincense and the legend of Sinbad.  Muscat, the capital where we stayed is a captivating city with the ever present back drop of mountains and a glittering blue green sea.  The buildings are uniformly white and modern but with a nod to the past with Arabian details. There are wooden dhows in the harbour and men dressed in dish dashas makes for a fairy tale like setting.  

 

Long an ally of Britain, Oman has embraced modernity with excellent infrastructure, hospitals and education.  Women are expected to cover their shoulders and not wear short skirts in public places which aside from respecting local custom makes a lot of sense.  I was far cooler wearing midi sundresses than shorts and vests.   

Things to do

With four children ranging in age from four to fourteen and two parents who needed to recharge their batteries our expectations of what this holiday would offer varied greatly.  We had to strike the balance between finding adventure but also time for relaxation.

First on the the list was sightseeing.  Much to the chagrin of the children, whenever venturing somewhere new I like to get a sense of the place I am in, whilst they prefer to find the wifi and the pool.  An easy way to see the sites of Muscat is to take the city bus tour.  The major sites are largely not open to the public but are definitely worth a visit for their stunning architecture, sense of history and scale.  The air conditioned and partly open top bus visits every major site, except the Grand Mosque.  Tickets last for 24 hours and you can hop on and off at the sites.  You are given an audio guide which is comprehensive and free water.  You will visit the centuries old forts close to Sultan Qaboos Palace, the Souk and stunning Opera House among others.

The Grand Mosque  Of all of the sites in Muscat, the one that I wanted to visit most was the Grand Mosque.  The scale is immense and the beauty from the outside is breathtaking yet never ostentatious, the same of which can be said for the whole city which is understated.  Dazzling white marble, minarets and peaceful and beautiful gardens, this building evokes the Arabian tales and the exterior alone is worth a visit.  Alas, we never made it inside where the world's second largest chandelier and carpet reside.  Beware there are very limited opening hours, 8am - 11am at the time of our visit (to non Muslims) and in respect to the Muslim religion clothing must cover the body including wrists and ankles, men and women alike, this applies to girls over seven too. I thought I had it covered bringing a head scarf and 3/4 length trousers but not so.  Do come prepared if you don't want to be disappointed.

The Souk  The Old Muttrah souk is a well known attraction and for many a must see. Labyrinth alleys that you will get hopelessly lost in and with the ever present smell of incense the souk is full of old world charm.  My boys enjoyed it immensely, running from shop to shop excitedly searching for the perfect khanjar (Omani traditional dagger). Eventually after much pleading we managed to convince them to buy ornament sized ones, although there are full sized swords for sale too !  The girls bought pretty jewelry boxes whilst I was more taken with the gold, frankincense and myrrh that was for sale. I personally found the sale of modern toys and clothing among the more traditional fair a little disappointing, but the souk is an authentic market, not just an attraction frequented by tourists, locals shop here too, so it caters to all.

Dolphin Watching and Snorkelling  Oman probably doesn't conjure up images of water based activities but you'd be wrong.  We spent a lovely morning watching dolphins frolic in the sea, diving in and out of the water.  Truly captivating. The best place to spot dolphins is close to the Crowne Plaza hotel.   In the latter part of the morning we ventured further up the coast for a spot of snorkeling.  The whole family took part, including the four year old.  We snorkeled over reefs where we saw pretty coloured fish, two turtles and eels, although my son is convinced that they were sea snakes as the area is known for them.  Our guide for the day was undoubtedly one of the coolest people we met.  He snorkeled with us, directing us to the best spots and let my eldest son and daughter steer the boat.  We organised our trip through our hotel.

Muscat Hills Dive Centre  We'd been told there were coves devoid of tourists close to the famous and immensely luxurious hotel the Al Bustan Palace   Unfortunately our taxi driver spoke little English and we spoke no Arabic.  He ended up dropping us off at the dive centre which turned out to be a good thing.  Think Club 55 in St Tropez.  All white architecture, palm leaf topped booths with sofas, day beds facing the sea, swanky terraced restaurant and pumping music.  If you want to wear an itsy bitsy bikini on the beach and feel like you could be part of a Slim Aarons photo shoot, this is the place for you.  As for being child friendly, the beach is small so you can easily keep an eye and the water is shallow for some distance.  There is a kids menu at the beach club restaurant where lunch is served straight to your lounger and towels are provided in the entrance price. The children played happily in the crystal clear water, played beach volleyball, hunted crabs on the rocks and watched fish jump out of the sea - I kid you not, whilst us adults enjoyed a glass of wine with our delicious lunch.  It does look as though it belongs in Europe but we had a good time here which is rather the point. However, this place is not cheap, there is a steep entrance fee and an eye watering minimum spend on food and drink if you choose to sit in a booth. Skip the booth and choose a lounger which is just as luxurious.

 

Around Muscat

4x4 Driving amid the sand dunes is an extremely popular pastime and by all accounts an exhilarating way to spend the day.  This wasn't for us but I know this tops the list for many people.

As we were in Muscat for only a week we were unable to do a few activities that sounded truly amazing.  Here's a round up of definite must dos on a return trip.

Top of my list of things to do was to undertake a family hike to a wadi, in particular Wadi Shab.  Approximately 2 hours from Muscat, this wadi has everything, date palm trees, blue green water and unlike most wadis, this one has a waterfall.  One drawback, parts of the wadi are only accessible if you can swim, this included the waterfall.  My four year old is rather hardy and has hiked before but cannot swim, I was also worried that a long hike might not be sensible in 27C heat.  I'm still regretting not taking the boys who at eleven and fourteen would have loved it, but it didn't feel fair to make my husband miss out.  Next time.

Camping in Wahibi Sands.   A night spent under the starry night sky sounds romantic and adventurous.  If we had more time we would have done this.  There are camps to suit most budgets, from basic tents to pull out all the stops high end.

Turtle watching  Not strictly close to Muscat at about 90 miles away, but if you are visiting between July and October is perhaps a must see.  Many people organise an overnight stay.  Oman is home to the five of the seven species of turtles and thousands flock to over 250 beaches to lay their eggs.  The Sultanate is keen to protect this endangered species so organise strictly guided tours to non public access beaches.  

Eating Out

As a family of six turning up without a reservation in London during peak hours is often ill advised, not enough large tables being the main culprit.  In Muscat large families are positively encouraged.  All of the restaurants we visited had large tables and one table even had seating for twelve !  On the weekend it was refreshing to see families of three generations dining into the night and then taking a stroll along the beach.  Unfortunately Oman is not famous for its cuisine but with influences from Africa, the Far East and other Middle Eastern countries there are plenty of good options including burger joints and well known western pizza chains. 

Shandiz - Shatti Al Qurum  Hands down Shandiz serve what is probably the best shishlik I have ever tasted. A Persian restaurant in the upmarket district of Al Shatti, it provides an authentic taste of the Middle East.  Succulent lamb imported directly from Tehran and the portions... absolutely huge. I'm rather used to cubes of lamb on a stick but these were whole lamb chops on a ridiculously long skewer.  Soups and salads added for free for starters and a very reasonable price per head easily made this restaurant a favourite.  Great service and a very knowledgeable and friendly manager made for a fun night out. £

Trader Vics  This may seem like an odd choice but many of the nicer restaurants were located in hotels.  Frequented by tourists and locals the overall ambiance was fun.  It has a beautiful setting over looking the sea, so request a table on the verandah.  Again, the staff made an extra effort to accommodate children.  The menu has a wide choice of food and even my fussy girls were happy with the options.  £££

Accommodation

It has been quite a few years since we last stayed in a hotel.  As a large family we usually prefer the informality of a villa or apartment and the cost is usually lower.  Whilst there were options available on Airbnb we all felt we needed a little pampering.  The idea of not cooking anything for a whole week appealed greatly and the kids were beside themselves at the prospect of not one but two swimming pools.  We booked the Inter Continental which was laid back.  It was nice to see an equal mix of Westerners and Arabs using the hotel.

The Crowne Plaza.  It has its own little beach but the hotel was undergoing work at the time of our stay.

Shangri La  Luxurious hotel with a beautiful private beach

Al Bustan Palace.  Described as a 'hidden jewel among luxury hotels'.

Muscat Hills Dive Resort.  A new type of resort for Oman, this boutique style hotel has swoon worthy beach huts.  Apparently over the water villas are planned for the future.  

The Chedi For a return trip without children

Overall Impression

Oman was full of surprises.  From the climate resulting in a varied, often beautiful landscape to an ethnically diverse population who I must add were most welcoming, this is a must see country.  I only wish we had more time to explore the mountain region and the Unesco world heritage sites.





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