Middle East 2016: Introduction

We’ve long wanted to visit the UAE and Oman, and we’ve really wanted to try out the Etihad First Class apartments. When seats became available this winter we booked a relatively quick trip for the weekend after Easter that would take us to Muscat, Oman on Qatar Airways, then return us on Etihad with an all-day layover in Abu Dhabi.

oman-map

Oman was a beautiful country to visit with a great contrast of blue-green sea abutting rock headlands along the coast, and large dusty mountains and canyons in the interior.

Unusually for us, the flights themselves were a draw on this trip.

Grand Hyatt Muscat

The Muscat hotel market is fairly high-end and expensive, so after looking around we reserved the Grand Hyatt with a combination of a free night plus cash and points.

About two weeks before our trip we emailed the hotel to book Friday brunch, a popular activity in Muscat. However, the first responder told us that brunch was closed for a private event, and that there would be an option for an Italian Brunch. We had to email a second time to discover that the price was higher (24 OMD). We found it quite surprising that the hotel was so indifferent and wouldn’t have a better option for hotel guests, but I think it sums up their general attitude.

We arrived to the front entrance where they had free valet parking, a nice perk. The doormen took our bags and pointed us to the front desk. Thankfully our room was ready, and we did receive a nice upgrade to a suite. The front desk clerk originally pointed the direction, but after we got lost he escorted us – thankfully – because the hotel is quite large and rather maze-like after a long flight. Once we got there we found a very large, if a bit dated, room.

the ginormous bedroom
bedroom side of the suite

The bedroom itself was huge, with two large closets and a comfortable bed. Complimentary water bottles were located in several spots around the room, and we were quite grateful for them over the next few days. The bathroom was similarly massive, with a tub and separate shower, though the sink area could have had more room for our toiletries.

our entry lounge  spacious bathroom
living room; master bathroom

The living room had a desk with convenient plug access for charging our electronics, plus a nice seating area as well.

Just off the bedroom was a nice patio with a view toward the ocean.

our view toward the sea
view from our balcony

Overall our room was quiet and comfortable, more than enough for us.

The pool area was fairly nice, with lots of seating both in the shade and sun. Getting to the ocean was quite easy, but the beach itself is very small and public, so it was better for walking rather than lounging. The Grand Hyatt does have a private lounge chair area on a grassy spot but it just wasn’t that interesting to us.

Being a resort, food and drink are way overpriced, so after looking at a menu we skipped dining at the hotel altogether in favor of other restaurants.

Overall we liked our stay at the Hyatt, as it had a decent location and the rooms were comfortable. We’d consider staying there again the future.

Middle East 2016: Nizwa

Much of the two hour drive to Nizwa was scenic, but marred occasionally by power lines.

Sama'il Gap

Sama'il Gap

Though overcast by the coast, by the time we arrived in Nizwa it was bright and sunny. Unfortunately, the souk was partially closed on Saturday afternoon, leaving open only the more touristy trinket stores. Leandra was appalled at the starting prices she was given for a few items, so she did her shopping at a fixed price shop inside the fort that benefits a local nonprofit cultural association.

Nizwa Souk

Nizwa Souk clay pot   Nizwa Fort window

Just up the street from the souk is the Nizwa Fort, a commanding structure with a large round tower. Refreshingly, you can access most of the site, even the stairs to the roofs, so the views are great. The tower itself has some interesting designs to prevent intruders including trick steps (no longer in use of course!), iron banded doors in tight staircases, plus numerous murder holes! I pity the soldiers that had to try taking this fort.

Nizwa Fort

The basement of the fort had lots of explanations and exhibits on Oman life when the fort was in use.

It was now 2p, and we needed to get out of the sun for a bit. On the way into town we had seen a Carrefour shopping center, so we decided to find some lunch. This turned into a multi-mile u-turn adventure, as the entrances is only on one side of the street, and getting to the proper side of the street is a challenge with no traffic circles. However, we persevered and found plenty to eat in the grocery store.

Refreshed, we made our way to Jabeen castle. Unlike Nizwa we were given a nice pamphlet at the entrance. Though a little smaller, the inside felt more refined. Once again, roof access was possible, with some amazing views (and incredible wind!).

Jabeen Castle

Jabeen Castle   stack of books

windy!   Jabeen Castle

From here we decided to drive up to the mountain village of Misfah. As expected, the drive up was very twisty, with several viewpoints (and turnoffs, rare in Oman). Great view of date palms across valley.

desert views

views from Misfah   Misfah village

We eventually made it to the parking area of the village itself. While there are some nice hikes from here, the sun was starting to set, so after a long day of dry sunshine we took that as our cue to start the drive back to Muscat. Traffic got a bit heavier after dark as people came to town for the weekend, so we stayed a bit more to the right than normal given the slower speed of our rental. Our showers were well earned back at the hotel, as was our savory Indian dinner.

Middle East 2016: Wadi Shab

We knew that Wadi Shab tends to become more crowded as the day progresses, so we decided to leave Muscat by 7am. After about 30 minutes of driving through the various suburbs of Muscat we enjoyed the views of the rugged coastal hills for the next 1.5 hours. Our timing was fortuitous, as we stopped for breakfast at Bimmah Sinkhole just after they opened the gates at 9am. We had the park to ourselves, and so we enjoyed the calls of the desert birds with a view of the sinkhole as we ate our breakfast.

Bimmah Sinkhole

After another 30 minutes we reached Wadi Shab and parked under the highway overpass. There are several boats that take you on the 30 second trip to other side of the pond for 1 rial each. At least you only have to pay once!

boat ride across the wadi
You could swim but why bother?

From the drop off point we started the hike into the canyon along the waterway. Near the entrance are small walled gardens, followed by some rock hopping and a more explicit trail that took us along the cliffside.

I am still mostly covered even for a hike on a hot day!
Leandra still mostly covered even on a hot hike!

Wadi Shab

Wadi Shab

Even in the morning we were thankful for SPF and pockets of shade (as were these donkeys).

two donkeys... just wandering around...

After about 45 minutes we reached a wider part of the canyon with a water spilling over a rock face.

Wadi Shab

Leandra hiked up the shaded side, and I hiked up the sunny side. Wow, it was hot! The trail continued up the canyon for some time, but well above the creek without an easy path down. Eventually I turned back around  having earned a dip under the waterfall.

Eric cooling off under a waterfall

There is a third option from the waterfall area where you could wade/swim up the creek to a small cavern, but we weren’t too interested. Instead, we turned around, and the hike back was uneventful.

Just a few miles up the road is Wadi Tiwi, which has a paved road. We drove partway in and noticed lots of red pillars that are used as warnings for water depth measurements – this road must be fun after it rains!

On the way back to Muscat we took a detour near Fins to check out White Beach. Leandra was a little suspicious of the two mile dirt road, but our little rental car did just fine. Only a few other cars were there, including one that appeared to have set up a tent site and was diving off the beach. Lots of rocks and interesting shells lined the beach and we enjoyed looking for fun colors.

Fins Beach (great for shells)

We also managed to capture this nearby scene of a few goats attempting to reach the tastiest part of the desert bushes.

the best nibbles are at the top

We stopped one more time on the way back to get some photos of the amazing hills south of Muscat. I may have climbed one of those hills for a better view too…

Oman landscape

mountains

Tired and dusty, we continued the drive back, eventually rewarding ourselves with a chocolate (me) and a banana (Leandra) milkshake by the beach. I don’t think they lasted more than 5 minutes! A dip in the hotel hot tub was our second reward for a nice day of exploring.

Middle East 2016: exploring Muscat

In between our daytrips to Nizwa and Wadi Shab we explored Muscat itself. One of the most iconic sights in the city is the Grand Mosque Sultan Qaboos. This is a massive complex that can apparently hold upwards of 20,000 people!

Sultan Qaboos Mosque

Sultan Qaboos Mosque

Sultan Qaboos Mosque (prayer tower)    Sultan Qaboos Mosque

Sultan Qaboos Mosque

The perimeter of the mosque is a shaded corridor with niches demonstrating six Islamic art periods in the tilework. We did recognize the Turkish ottoman and the Mamluk tiles type from trips to Istanbul and southern Spain.

tiled niche @ Sultan Qaboos Mosque  tiled niche @ Sultan Qaboos Mosque

Sultan Qaboos Mosque  Eric in the alcoves

Inside was similarly beautiful, with an airy main room dominated by an enormous chandelier. The rug was also quite special, with non-repeating patterns across the room.

Sultan Qaboos Mosque interior  Sultan Qaboos Mosque carpet

Even with its size the mosque still has an Omani feel, beautiful but still functional and understated, and we quite enjoyed our visit.

We also visited the port in Matrah, home to a famous souk. Parking was a bit more difficult, but we found a spot on a side street eventually without too much issue. We got there around 12:45pm and the Souk closes at 1:30pm, so we had 45 minutes to browse. Given the labyrinth of alleys here it is easy to get lost, but we managed to find several lantern stores and barter for a nice keepsake. There were also lots and lots of scarves!

Mutrah Souk (we bought a lantern here)

Further down the coastal road we stopped for a climb up to the Old Watch Tower to get better views of the Riyam Monument (aka the incense burner). It was incredibly windy!

Old Watch Tower

SO WINDY.

Riyam Park

And after a full day of exploring Muscat we were rewarded with the best sunset of the trip on Shatti Beach.

sunset on Shatti Beach

Middle East 2016: Muscat dining

Friday

Perhaps our most memorable meal in Oman, we both enjoyed the expansive Friday brunch at the five-star Chedi Hotel. All the western hotels have a buffet brunch on Friday, and since the Grand Hyatt’s was closed for a private function we decided to try the nearby Chedi instead.

The food spread was expansive and once you have a table, you can park yourself in a comfy chair for hours (typically 1pm-4pm) — relaxing, talking and eating as much as you like. Considering the cost is about $70/person without alcohol, I appreciated the time to browse and snack. Since we opted for the non-alcohol option, we had the choice of a variety of delicious juices and, of course, sparkling water. My favorite items were the raw oysters, salmon sushi and the multitude of desserts!

Friday Brunch @ the Chedi Muscat

chedi_brunch   Friday Brunch @ the Chedi Muscat

Friday Brunch @ the Chedi Muscat

Once we decided that we could not eat another bite, we walked to their private beach and strolled along the waterfront for a half hour before heading back to our hotel. The pool area was quiet, with lots of little places to relax so you didn’t feel like you were surrounded by people. Basically, perfect.

Saturday

Shakespeare and Co in Waves was open early for breakfast on the morning we drove to Nizwa, and we stopped again before our flight out of Oman because it was right by the airport.  Eric got the American breakfast (I took his coffee drink) the first time and pancakes on the second visit, while I ordered the Lebanese Zatar Lebbneh (twice) which had a nice spice to it. Everything was tasty and they are one of the only places we found that opened at 7am, very rare in Muscat – even for breakfast! The only downside, perhaps because of the location to the water, we noticed a ton of flies when we sat outside.

Shakespeare and Co. @ The Wave Muscat

We decided on Indian for our first proper dinner in Oman and, of course, it was a bit of an adventure finding the address and then a parking area. Begum’s served us a great meal for a surprisingly good price. We ate upstairs which is where most of the foreigners seemed to be seated. Service was prompt and portion sizes were spot on. Eric had the Chicken Tikka Biryani, while I had a Paneer Curry – mine had just the right level of spice. We also split a 1.5 L bottle of water, all for under $20.

Begum's = excellent and inexpensive Indian food

Sunday

Knowing we were going to need snacks for our trip to Wadi Shab the following day, we hit up the Carrefour at night – a massive store with crazy amounts of dairy. As usual, wrong turns and u-turns were part of the experience of getting anywhere in Muscat and the 30 minutes I gave us to make it to dinner almost wasn’t enough time!

We found a good parking spot again and our dinner at Ubhar improved from there. I selected the Omani sampler appetizer (which turned out to be plenty of food for me) which had a mix of a meat and veggie filled pastries, kebob, hummus and salad. Very tasty. Eric had the beautifully presented Qabuli mahshi (qah buli ma she) – beef, cashews, golden raisins and rice in puff pastry. It was quite savory, with flavors of lemon and cinnamon, probably the best tasting item of this trip. At the end of the meal, our waiter brought over a sample of Omani coffee for us – rich tasting and spiked with cardamom.

appetizer sampler @ Ubhar   Ubhar Restaurant

Monday

Our last dinner in Oman, was, unfortunately, disappointing. We choose Grand Lounge as it was Turkish and we were craving some of our favorite flavors from that trip. We arrived to a nearly empty restaurant (bad sign) but were shown to a table surrounded by some fish tanks in a smaller, raised seating area. The language barrier seemed to be a problem here but we finally got the message that they didn’t have the two main dishes we came here for — Manti or Lahmacun. Instead, we ordered the hummus (with a massive bread covered in sesame seeds) and the Urfa Kebab. It was reasonably smoky but I would have preferred a stronger flavor. To top things off, their credit card machine was broken and I was down to my last few rials (we were leaving the next day) so we had to be extra mindful of prices.