Ahlan wa sahlan to my home city of Muscat, the capital of Oman, and if you ask me, the best place to celebrate National Day.
As the great Arab navigator Ahmed bin Majid al-Najdi established nearly 600 years ago, Muscat, even to this day, has a character quite different from neighbouring capitals. While Dubai offers glitz and a glut of high-rise buildings, Muscat remains deeply traditional and has a beautiful mix of scenery (ocean, mountain, desert and greenery), luxurious hotels and a pace of life that’s neither too hectic nor too slow. It’s perfect on all fronts – then again, I’m a little biased because I’m local.
You’ve probably noticed that our streets are currently filled with fluttering flags, festive lights and images of our supreme leader (- just in case you’ve been living under a rock, his name is Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al Said.). He wants Oman to be a peaceful and prosperous place. And it’s certainly that. His birthday is on November 18 and is celebrated as Oman’s national holiday. I’ll be enjoying my day off with my family. What about you?
My Favourite Place: Muttrah Corniche is an interesting part of the city thanks to its twinkling harbour and historic souq. Housed under modern timber roofing, it’s an Aladdin’s den of jewellery, cashmere, and crockery operated by very persistent vendors. Remember the local custom of haggling for a bargain. The discount may be small but it’s expected. Then ponder your spoils as you stroll along the picturesque waterfront. That massive yacht is the Sultan’s. Magnificent isn’t it?
Highlights: The Grand Mosque is an amazing example of Islamic architecture and a spiritual home to many of Muscat’s residents. It can accommodate around 20,000 worshippers, including 750 women in the private musalla. If you’re visiting, make sure you check the opening times beforehand, as it’s not always open for non-Muslim tourists. Dress appropriately and look at the main prayer hall with its glorious chandeliers and Persian carpet – it’s the second largest hand-loomed Iranian carpet in the world.
If you’re eager to soak in some of Muscat’s all-year sunshine, go to the beach. Qurum beach stretches from the Crowne Plaza to Azaiba and beyond. It is particularly popular. Personally, I prefer Sifah for its white sand and turquoise waters. During low season, it’s also a bit quieter.
Souvenirs: If you love perfume, and I do, then you must buy a bottle of Amouage. It’s expensive but you’re worth it. Less heavy on the pocket, however, is a kanjar key ring. You can buy one in most supermarkets and souqs for less than a rial.
Where to stay: There are lots of five-star hotels in this city – from The Chedi, an airy, palm fringed minimalist hotel with spa and private beach to The Grand Hyatt with its fantasy Arabian décor and handy location. A little bit out of the city you’ll find the Al Bustan Palace and the Shangri-La hotels, which are both beautiful and very grand. If you’re on a budget, you’ll find a less costly bed at the Ibis or Golden Tulip.