One of the particularly rubbish things about getting older is when bits of your body stop working properly. Having taken my spine for granted over the years, I was most annoyed when it unexpectedly decided to go wrong, causing me lower back pain that made the prospect of spending 15 hours crammed in economy decidedly unattractive. So, rather than making a return visit to South East Asia as planned, I found myself trawling the internet for destinations that were hot in April, yet involved a flight time of under 8 hours (I figured I could medicate the pain away for this long). Oman was never really top of my list of holiday destinations, but I was finally swayed by a great deal at the Chedi Muscat, particularly as I’d stayed at the Chedi in Chiang Mai some years ago, which was breathtakingly good.
Flight time from London to Muscat: approx 7 hours
Direct flights: Oman Air
Airport to Muscat: 15 minutes
Where to Stay
I stayed at The Chedi, a serene oasis of manicured minimalist chic, with contenders for the world’s most photogenic pools (3 of them). It’s a cab ride away from the centre of Muscat, and taxis are plentiful, and whilst not cheap, they’re very reliable. Speaking of not cheap, the price of food and drink inside luxury hotels is on the eye wateringly high side. I’m unsure how anywhere can justify charging £25 for a burger or a Pad Thai around the pool, but seems to be the norm in Muscat’s luxury hotels. If you’re going to be drinking booze, it’s probably worth getting a club room. The ones at the Chedi include a generous mini bar with spirits, and a 2 hour drinks reception with canapes in the Club Lounge every evening and afternoon tea, which makes the overall food bill a bit easier on the Amex.
The Long Pool at the Chedi, which lives up to its name of being, erm, long
Whilst looking at hotels, I stumbled across the website for the Alila Jabal Akhdar, a 3 hour drive from Muscat airport. It’s properly gorgeous, but it’s also set in the mountains on a cliff edge. As my fear of heights extends to feeling giddy if I so much as mount a step ladder, I thought better of it. Someone please go, and let me live it through you.
Slow Sight Seeing
The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is imposing and breathtakingly beautiful, built as a gift from the Sultan to his people in his 30th year of reign. Visitors are allowed, but must dress modestly. For women, this includes covering your arms, legs and hair. I’d taken a couple of large silk scarves and some safety pins in preparation, and spent the night before watching YouTube videos on how to style a hijab, by women who made it look laughably easy and glamorous. Hours of practising later, I was still rubbish at it, and looked more as if I were planning on robbing a bank…
Go early in the morning to avoid the heat and the crowds, take water and wear footwear that’s easy to slip on and off, as shoes must be removed in the prayer halls. Afterwards, return to your hotel and immediately remove all your clothes, don a bikini, and spend the rest of the day around the pool, revelling in the pleasure of not being draped head to toe in black fabric in the 30C heat.
Intricate mosaic work of the Qaboos Mosque interior
The Mutrah Souk is a labyrinth of narrow passageways which entice you in and then spit you out several hours later, disorientated and laden with frankincense, silver bangles and boxes of dates. Go once the sun has set, when the market is at its liveliest, yet coolest. Afterwards, head to Bait Al Luban (see Slow Food) and thank your deity of choice that someone invented air conditioning.
Next time, I’m planning on a boat trip – the waters around Muscat are beautiful, with plenty of snorkelling and dolphin watching. I’d also like to visit some of the wadis, but first someone will have to convince my partner that there are no snakes there (I plan holidays, she googles the number of species of deadly snakes in that location).
The hotel restaurants at the Chedi were wonderful, but also ruinously expensive, and sadly didn’t feature much in the way of traditional Omani food. One traditional Omani restaurant that’s definitely worth a visit is Bait Al Luban, located near the Mutrah Souk. Restaurants outside of hotels don’t serve alcohol, but Bait Al Luban has an inventive range of juices, including something I hadn’t had since a trip to Egypt many years ago – karkade, made with hibiscus petals and sweetened with enough sugar to give you the sort of buzz normally associated with a strong gin and tonic. I drank so much of it in Egypt that the pool waiters used to call my partner and I “Two Karkade”. Arrive hungry enough to work your way through savoury stuffed pastries, aromatic spiced curries, and a range of puddings mainly featuring dates. I still have FOMO from not finding room for a second pudding, so need to plan a return trip for the date cheesecake.
Muscat is perfect for slow travellers, lazy hedonists and adventurers alike. Short flight times and proximity to the airport make the travelling process relatively simple. The city is easy to navigate, with enough local sightseeing to make it properly slow and stress free.
The Omani people are LOVELY. Helpful, respectful and so proud of their beautiful country. As two female travellers, we weren’t entirely sure what to expect, but all our encounters were positive and we received no hassle whatsoever. It can be expensive, but there are some bargains to be had during the shoulder seasons, or indeed the low season, if you are resilient enough to cope with the 40C+ heat in August.