By Sudipta Dev
The Sutanate of Oman is a perfect destination for different kind of a traveller – someone who has seen the world and now wants to enjoy a languid vacation amidst simple people and their simpler culture.
Oman is a modern principality that holds close to its heart its heritage and traditions – it is not a destination that symbolises development and modernity through towering glass skyscrappers and glitzy malls. This is a country of beautiful landscapes and sublime architecture that will not fail to fascinate those tourists who are looking for a destination with a difference.
The capital city of Muscat still retains the charm of another era – from the expansive architecture of several government headquarters to the quaint villas that are ubiquitous. The grandoise Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is one of the key architectural highlights of the city. It is in fact the emperor’s own personal mosque that he has gifted to the people. A modern mosque, it has separate prayer halls for men and women and can accommodate 20,000 people. The main prayer hall has the largest single piece Persian carpet in the world. Covering an area of 4,200 square metres, and weighing 21 tons it took almost 27 months to create the unique piece of craftmanship. People of all faith are allowed to enter the mosque from Monday to Thursday. Another key architectural landmark of the city is the Al Alam Palace that happens to be the official palace of the Sultan, who however lives elsewhere in Oman. Visitors are not allowed inside the palace, so you have to be content with taking a few photographs of the complex. The palace that was built in 1972 is flanked by two 16th century Portuguese fortresses - Al Mirani Fort and Al Jalali Fort. Both these forts overlook the Sea of Oman.
The recently opened Royal Opera House Muscat is the latest attraction in Oman’s capital. Royal Opera House Muscat happens to be the only one of its kind in the region and will give a big boost to cultural activities. This expansive architectural feat comprises of a concert theatre auditorium, gardens, art centre, et al, and can accommodate 1100 people for an event.
A short drive away is Marina Bander in Muscat where one can board a speedboat or catamaran to go a few miles into the sea for dolphin and whale watching. Muscat and Musandam are the most popular dolphin watching locations in Oman. The rugged beauty of the coastline becomes all the more visible from the sea – and for those interested in snorkelling there are equally if not more beautiful vistas visible underwater to explore and appreciate.
The Mutrah Souq is one of the oldest and certainly the most frequented market in Muscat. The lanes of the souq are lined with shops that sell everything - a great collection of handicraft items and antiques to the best of dry fruits. It is a hub of exotic aromatic delights - from the smell of frankincense and traditional perfumes to herbs and spices from the Middle East and the subcontinent. It is a place where you can spend hours browsing through the bric-a-bracs and still want to return again to buy some more.
Enroute to Sur
The route to the resort township of Sur is through picturesque mountainous terrain. Sur has traditionally been an important port city that was known for shipbuilding. The two hour drive from Muscat is punctuated with many attractions, namely fishing village of Quriyat, Wadi Arbayeen and Biman Sinkhole. Biman Sinkhole is a limestone crater filled with blue green water. There are steps leading to the bottom of the crater and is a unique swimming spot for the interested.
On reaching Sur, you have to discover one of Oman's most famous tourist attractions only at night-time. What brings hordes of tourists here are visitors of another kind - this time from the sea - who make a short trip to the shore with a singular purpose - to give birth to their young ones. The beach of Ras al Jinz greenback turtle conservation in Sur is frequented by as many as 10,000-15,000 female turtles every year, which come at night, lay their eggs, cover them up and then dig a hole to fool predators before going back to the sea. The whole process happens within a span of two hours. If you are lucky you can also see in moonlight baby turtles taking their first steps to the sea after being hatched.
The return to Muscat is through the fascinating landscapes of Eastern Hajar mountains. Passing through quaint villages one reaches Wadi Bin Khalid - the oasis in the mountains with its clear water and palm trees is a perfect picnic spot. Finishing the trip is dune bashing in Wahiba Sands and a visit to the simple but colourful home of a Bedouin tribal family.
Oman Tourism has been focused on the India market for sometime now. Lubaina Sheerazi, India representative of the ministry of tourism, Sultanate of Oman says, “We see a lot of potential in the Indian market for Oman as a comfort and luxury holiday destination. Today more and more Indian travellers are opting for luxurious destinations that are short haul and have good air connectivity. The excellent air connectivity from 10 cities in India and lesser travel time makes Oman an apt destination for Indian travellers. Apart from being a short haul and good air connectivity, there is a lot of cultural affinity between both the countries and this adds to its desirability.” Sheerazi also points out that with the launch of IndiGo’s Mumbai-Muscat flight, tourism of Oman will get a boost from the Indian market.