Arabian big surprise

Costa Rica

Just two hours from the frenzy of Dubai is the Arabian peninsula’s great surprise. Bigger than the neighbouring emirates, Oman has many more wonders on which to build its still small tourism industry. The writer toured castles and forts and sampled the sound of silence in 1000 miles of beaches and headlands, and mountains with yawning canyons and emerald green wadis, to compile his must-do list in the land where ancient courtesies and kindness run deep. Picture - Gareth Huw Davies

Castle retreat

They send a Bentley to pick you up from the airport for the ride to
Shangri-La’s Al Husn (The Castle) hotel, on its own private headland over a big
barricade just north of Muscat. In this low rise, skyscraper-free city, we saw
nothing taller than blue and gold mosques, topped with four pencil-thin floodlit
minarets. We signed in in a cool marble foyer scented with frankincense, under
horseshoe arches lined with gilt, and giant bronze palm trees. Decorative
flamingos browsed in a mosaic pond. They rearranged the coast to build this,
the Barr Al Jissah resort, but there’s green pay back. The hotel’s resident
ranger shows you nesting green and hawksbill turtles protected on a beach
within the resort. Don´t miss free tea and cakes at 4 pm in the lounge, among
the great decorated vases and sumptuous carpets. October to April is the
best time to avoid the heat.

Smell sensation

Frankincense is Oman’s special, beguiling aroma. It wafts everywhere, in
markets, hotels, and restaurants. Muscat city celebrates this vital detail in the
Omani home with an illuminated giant frankincense burner. In the land that still
resists ripping you off, our best bargain on this theme was in Nizwa market,
where a handmade incense burning pot cost just £1. The tree they tap
frankinsense from grows in the green, abundant lands 600 miles south of
Muscat around Salala. Wilfred Thesisger set off from here on his epic crossing
of the Arabian Empty Quarter in the 1930s. Today desert travel is day-trip
easy – available in Muscat, too. Marvel at the vast, golden expanse of sand
from a comfortable Land Cruiser. Drivers still like to test your nerves. Their
party trick is the let the vehicle drift in the soft sand down a near sheer 200
feet high dune.

Swift boat

Oman comes in two parts. The northernmost mountainous peninsula,
Musandam, is on the Strait of Hormuz opposite Iran. Dolphins play in the
aquamarine waters of the fjord-shaped bays. But it´s a long drive, separated
by 45 miles of the United Arab Emirates. Now the Omanis, always fine
seafarers, riding the monsoon winds to trade with far-flung lands, have found
a nautical solution. A new service by the world’s fastest diesel-powered
passenger ferry connects Muscat to Khasab, Musandam´s main town, in a
few hours at up to 60 mph. Splendid views on the way. In Musandam they
take you out in wooden dhows to swim. This is the Gulf, so there are three
classes - Tourist, First Class and VIP. About £50.00 one way.

Seek the souk

You want an Arabian lamp – with or without a genii? Head for Muttrah Souk in
old Muscat. Best time is dusk, when the old enchantment is at work. We
inched down the narrow ways between stalls crammed with the staples of the
traditional Arabian market. You can find, in no particular order, gold, bread, T-
shirts and jeans, hijabs, spices, stands for holding the Koran, bronze statues,
jewelry, and traditional curved daggers, khanjars. Then over the road to join
the sunset fashion parade along the corniche. Men wear the dishdasha, a
fetching ankle-length, collarless gown in white, black, blue, brown and lilac.
Subtle variations denote their tribe. Headgear on this catwalk is the mussar, a
coloured woolen scarf woven tightly into a turban around embroidered caps. A
short taxi ride away is Old Muscat, where two 16th-century fortresses tower
over the harbor.

Ancient daze

Oman beats the middle east opposition hollow with the power of its beautifully
austere grey-red mountains. We took the fast new road from Muscat to
Nizwa (90 minutes), to one of the many newly restored ancient citadels, as
solid and imposing as our castles.
I remember a blur of whimsical details on the way there. The doleful look a
camel gave us as it sped past, safely tied down in the back of a pickup. A
shepherd dressed head to foot in red, striding across an ochre hillside. A fly-
past by delicate doves, each with a flash of maroon on its neck. And the first
sight of Nizwa, the ancient capital, edging out from behind a crocodile-shaped
line of hills. In the castle we saw decorated ceilings, and cool carpeted
interiors strewn with cushions, then peered over crenellated battlements onto
neat white homes and date palm plantations.

Spice riot

Omani cuisine is a riot of spices, herbs, onion, garlic and lime, with meat and
fish marinaded and spit-roasted or slow cooked in underground clay ovens.
The Barr Al Jissah Resort offers traditional Omani seafood at the sea front Bait
Al Bahr
restaurant, as well as a wide international choice including Latin and Italian.
Our culinary high point was the resort´s Moroccan restaurant Shahrazad.
My dish of the trip was their Pastilla Bil Hamam, a pie of pigeon meat, crushed
almonds, scrambled eggs covered with cinnamon and sugar. Then to the Piano
Bar for a nightcap, and live music from the resident pianist. The waitress
carpet bombed our senses with strawberries dipped in chocolate. Far below
the moon lit up the Indian Ocean, crashing at the castle’s foot.

Barr al Jissah resort (Shangri-La Hotels)
00 968 2477 6666. Etihad fly Heathrow to Muscat.

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