Looking to embark upon a family adventure devoid off excessive tourist influx, Travel+Leisure India & South Asia’s contributor found herself uncovering the many treasures of Muscat.
While the rest of the country flocked to Vietnam, my family and I sought a more under-the-radar destination. Predictably, our plan to holiday in Muscat raised many eyebrows amongst friends and family. In reality, the city was a hushed secret bursting with an unimaginable wealth of attractions.
Sometime in the midst of our trip, we drove down to the outskirts of the capital. A few hours into our journey, I asked the driver, “When will we be out of the city?” He quickly responded, “Madam, the city is long gone. You’re in the deep interiors of the country.” We were bang in the middle of, what can be best-described as, the poshest villages I’ve encountered. With swanky roads, manicured gardens, veterinary hospitals and well-equipped gyms — one could hardly call it a village. Sure, we would occasionally be greeted by herds of camels, but never by a bumpy road.
A closer peek
Oman and India have a connection that dates back to antiquity. Yet, it’s often under-appreciated and overlooked by Indian travellers, many of whom may write it off merely as a place of work and business. On the contrary, the country’s charm is more than what meets the eye. All it needs is a leap of faith.
Muscat is a refreshing change from the glitzy, hyper-modern skyscrapers that dominate most of its neighbours in the Middle East. Instead, you’ll find low-rise, white-washed architecture with a distinctive Omani feel. Every corner of the city echoes legendary tales of the late Sultan Qaboos. High-rise buildings are banned here. But, there’s no shortage of modern amenities.
From the lavish promenades of Al Mouj dotted with luxury yachts, to upscale French patisseries and some of the swankiest five-star hotels, expect to be spoiled for choice.
Azure waters, natural pools and plankton spotting
Oman is a treasure trove of natural lagoons, pristine wadis and beaches that are on par with the Mediterranean.
A 40-minute boat ride from Muscat takes you to Al Daymaniyat Islands, which are known for night camping — and if you’re lucky, glowing planktons. Its turquoise waters and dazzling marine life make it a favourite snorkelling spot for locals and tourists alike.
Cradled by miles of staggering mountains on one side and lush coastlines on the other, even the drive to Bimmah Sinkhole was a sight to behold. “Stop the car! Stop the car! I need a picture for my Instagram!” I screamed in excitement. Next thing I know, we’re standing on a rocky cliff, gazing out at a tucked-away beach with not a soul around; only rippling blue waters as far as you can see.
Bimmah Sinkhole is one of the most scenic wonders of Oman — a natural pool, located not far from the capital. It’s a major source of tourism, drawing visitors from around the world. Surprisingly still, it doesn’t have an entry fee. You’ll find families swimming leisurely in its emerald-green waters, while braver folks dive off its towering cliffs.
Cafes steeped in stories
From coffee shops inside forgotten forts to rustic eateries tucked in the nooks of ancient castles, there are stories to be heard at every stop. You’ll find the most decadent halwa coffee at Hissen Al Misfah Inn, built inside a traditional Omani guesthouse. Crossing labyrinthine pathways, curving staircases and dilapidated stone houses, getting here was an adventure in itself.
Rozna is a fine-dine restaurant serving authentic Omani cuisine, with interiors that are reminiscent of a historical fort. Inside, you’ll also find private rooms where guests can dine traditionally on the floor. A generous woman kept us company, making fresh rakhal (Omani flat bread), as we relished authentic mutton and lamb curries.
Meet the locals
The locals are the heartbeat of the country; they are the kindest people you’ll meet. From our cab driver, Kamran — who went above and beyond to ensure we experience the city to the fullest by taking a detour that cost him extra time and petrol, just to show his favourite spots without additional charges — to the hotel staff that bid us farewell with warm hugs.
For first-time travellers:
From a female traveller’s perspective, Muscat proved remarkably safe. Even as I weaved through the heavily-crowded Mutrah Souq, an old antique and handicraft market inundated with tourists. Or, the time I stood out from a traditionally-dressed crowd in my Bermuda shorts. I recall being the only one in the entire four-storeyed mall wearing anything above the knees and not receiving a single glance of disapproval.
Getting to Muscat
A significant advantage of flying to Muscat is its affordability and proximity to India. We booked a direct two-and-a-half-hours-long flight from Mumbai a week before our departure. It cost us approximately INR 15,000, per adult for a return journey. In fact, if you fly off-season or book in advance, you can get them for as cheap as INR 11,000!
Our visa process was a quick one that didn’t take more than three business days. Since we had a sponsor in Oman, we were exempted from visa charges. The embassy informed us that even some hotels offer sponsorships to Indian tourists.
By the end of our trip, my Instagram stories were flooded with emojis, reactions and enquiries. The city’s old-world charm, modern luxuries and natural landmarks captured the attention of many — so much so that six of our friends have visited it since then!
All photographs courtesy Katha Nauriyal
Featured image/Hero image courtesy: wallpaperaccess.com
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Answer: Muscat is the capital city of Oman, a country in the Middle East.
Answer: Muscat is home to many souks and delectable seafood. It also thrives as a popular beach destination, courtesy of its golden sands and turquoise blue waters.
Answer: Yes! In fact, the country was recently named one of the safest countries in the world for women travellers by the World Economic Forum.