KENYA TO OMAN
We added Oman to this trip as our New York friends Joanne and Bruce would be stopping there on their way home from Jordan (and, we were doing Jordan next). Oman is not a place we knew much about. A little research told us that we had to stay at the massive Shangri-La hotel complex. Three separate hotels on the Gulf of Oman with every amenity you could possibly think of.
The flight from Kenya via Abu Dhabi was uneventful but made for a full travel day. Just our luck, the Oman soccer team had just won a big match and the highway was packed with celebrating Omanis. I guess that’s how you party in a Muslim country where going to the local sports bar isn’t an option. After over an hour, we were way out of the city of Muscat party central and on a daunting road that climbed up one side of the mountains and down the other hills and through tunnels The Shangri-La was finally revealed and it was something quite rare to find after not seeing a tree or even a bush for 90 minutes. Lush and lit up the whole length of the bay.
Oman is a Sultanate and Sultan Qaboos himself is a benevolent character of 77. He has never married and has no heirs. They have oil, if not as much as their neighbors. Enough to provide free healthcare and education for all of its citizens. And, there aren’t that many. Just 4.5 million people in a country 100 times the size of Singapore. Since it is mostly desert, the population is largely on the Gulf in the North separated from the rest of the country by mountains. In the south there are a few small towns. They border the UAE in the North, Saudi Arabia in the middle and Yemen in the South. Like so much of the Middle East, water is gold and there is very little of it.
The Shangri-La complex has three hotels. Some might call them family, adult and luxury. I would simply say 4 star, 5 star and 7 star. We started off in the 5 star, Al Bandar. Nothing to write home about. Big pools, beach and tons of Brits with kids. Ellen kept eyeing the 7 star next door. A quick trip to the lobby and a meeting with the lovely Philippine's concierge got us into the Al Husn (The Castle in Arabic) for just an upgrade fee. What a difference!!! A giant one bedroom suite, balcony full length over the water, Nespresso machine, butler, amazing shower with 10 shower heads and no kids allowed. We only intended to stay one night. We never left.
We intended to tour around the day before Joanne and Bruce arrived. We never left the hotel. Why would you? Restaurants were gorgeous, pool was heated and hanging on the terrace of our suite was a perfect remedy for 12 days on the road and 6 airport stops (so far).
Our friends arrived but they were exhausted. We did the Muscat City tour without them. First stop was the Grand Mosque. An amazing place that holds up to 20,000 worshippers. On the floor of the mosque is a handmade Iranian carpet that took 1,700,000 knots to make and weighs 27 tons. Our excellent guide remarked that all the marble in the mosque and courtyards was Carrara. It is apparently the only marble, the only stone that maintains a maximum temperature of 27.5 degrees no matter how hot it gets. And, it gets bloody hot in Oman, summers reaching 50 degrees C. Brutal in a country that gets, on average, 4 inches of rainfall a year. I did say water was gold here.
Next up was a walk through The Muttrah Souk, one of the oldest in the Middle East. It is a maze, a labyrinth of alleys that all lead from the sea. The only way to find your way out is to pick an alley that is slightly downhill. Tons of stuff in here: gold, frankincense, myrrh, some antiquities, lots of fakes and generally a big pile of things you really don’t want to take home. So, we didn’t. Add on a visit to the local fish market (remarkable by just being spotlessly clean), a look at the Sultan’s two enormous yachts and a walking tour around the Royal Palace and that was it for the day. We missed our room.
Our big tour day was a 2 hour drive south to Nizwa, the former capital and religious center of Oman. The main attraction is the Nizwa Fort with its circular tower. Built in the 1600’s it was actually bombed in the early 50’s by the Royal Air Force who were called in by the Sultan to assist in putting down an uprising. It is a grand old pile, built over a river with wells over 100 feet deep and booby trapped stairwells to keep invaders on their toes. Next to it is the Nizwa Souk, a smaller and actually more interesting version of the one in Muscat. A lot of pottery, silver and, of all things, ancient guns. Several gun stores selling rifles dating back before WW 1. Then, there are dates. Millions and millions of dates. I tasted more sample dates than I have had in my entire life. Some sweet, some not, some coated in date syrup or sesame seeds in enormous bins.
Nimaz was cute, not worth the trip but cute.
Our last day was spent at the hotel. I went to the desk the night before to ask for a later check out as our flight didn’t depart until around 9:00PM. Just our luck, the German General Manager was at the desk and told us we didn’t need to check out until our car took us to the airport at 7:00PM. I told you it was a great hotel.
In summary, Oman is lovely. The people are charming and friendly. The place is spotlessly clean. The architecture has rules preventing any new builds more than 12 stories and every building has to adhere to an Arabic style façade no matter what is inside. Add to that, the Al Husn is one of the nicest hotels in the Middle East, maybe the world. Now, if Oman wasn’t so damn boring it would be perfect.
On to Jordan.