Ian McCurrach jumps in a taxi for a whirlwind tour of the capital of Oman, and gets an insight into sacred architecture, local marine life and haggling in exotic bazaars
1. Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
In 35 years, Muscat has metamorphosed from a sleepy backwater to a 21st-century international capital of commerce with an infrastructure to match. Oman has steered clear of creating a world of glitz, favouring a culture upholding traditional values and heritage. As a result, the sprawling capital is a clean, green, low-rise metropolis stretching along the Gulf of Oman, and every building is required to reflect convention with an arabesque window or a dome.
The best way to see the city is by taxi, which all hotels can organise. Book through the concierge, who will work out in advance how much your journey will cost, and then inform the driver that this is what you intend to pay before you set off. Expect to pay about 10 rials (£15) per hour, although your concierge may be able to negotiate a cheaper rate. Most drivers speak excellent English and will be happy to act as your guide.
Built between 1995 and 2001, the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque makes a sublime starting point to a city tour. Situated on Sultan Qaboos Street in the Al-Ghubrah suburb, on the road from the airport to downtown, it is open to non-Muslims from 8am to 11am Monday to Thursday. Enter the mosque through immaculately landscaped Islamic gardens and immerse yourself in a sacred world of gargantuan proportions that can accommodate up to 20,000 worshippers. Make sure you take a look at one of the world’s largest hand-woven silk carpets and the colossal Swarovski crystal chandelier.
2. Al Qurm National Park and Nature Reserve
Fine city and sea views are the big draws of Muscat’s hilltop expat and diplomatic district. The other main attraction here is the city’s largest park. Al Qurm is named after the reserve’s nursery of mangrove trees, which attract rare species of birds and enhance fish breeding. Your sense of smell will be stimulated by the sultan’s rose garden, and during the early morning, before the mercury rises too high, you can follow the many footpaths past waterfalls, shaded areas and a sizeable boating lake.
If time allows, drop down to the Beach Promenade, which stretches from the Intercontinental to the Grand Hyatt Regency, and enjoy a brief paddle. For a pit stop, make for the Marina Café, overlooking the sands.
Head for the Muttrah end of the curving Muscat Corniche, looking out for the pretty fishing dhows heading for the nearby historic port. It is here you will find Muttrah Souq, arguably the closest you will ever come to the labyrinth of winding streets of old Arabia. Black-clad Omani women bargain for textiles, while the men enjoy a coffee and a gossip. It is a densely packed hotbed of pashminas, frankincense (make sure you bag a traditional clay burner on which to burn it), household goods, dishdashas (Arabic robes) and beautifully embroidered Omani caps, but be mindful that the traders firmly target tourists. Rummage deep through the bazaar to find dusty antiques, including quality local silverware and gleaming khanjars (traditional intricately decorated daggers). Haggling is expected, with the final price often being given by the seller when you start to walk away.
4. Marina Bandar Al Rowdha
This thoroughly modern marina is home to Oman Sail, a year-old project set up by the sultan to reignite Oman’s strong maritime heritage. Dame Ellen MacArthur officially launched the scheme and sold the Sultanate her record-breaking round-the-world B&Q trimaran, which was rechristened Musandam.
Oman Sail, with its eight-strong Omani team, has already set new standards in the iShares Cup and Extreme 40 competitions. If you fancy setting sail yourself and playing at Sinbad the Sailor, this is where you can join a dolphin and whale watching trip. Operators rate the chance of sightings as high, as these beautiful creatures bask only a short distance from the coast. The marina has recently been bought by worldwide luxury operator IGY. Visit omansail.com; marinaoman.com
5. Al Bustan Palace hotel
Set against the dramatic backdrop of the quintessentially Omani Qantab mountains, and overlooking the glittering waters of the Gulf of Oman, savvy expats head to the Intercontinental Al Bustan Palace hotel, which has hosted prestigious events such as the Gulf Co-operation Council summit.
The luxury eight-floor property reopened last year after a multimillion-dollar refurbishment, and the scene is firmly established when you enter the palatial lobby, the atrium of which incorporates a stunning wood carving filled with dazzling mother of pearl and gold leaf inlays.
If you’re feeling peckish, there are numerous restaurants and bars to choose from – the Beach Pavilion is recommended for lunch, with its covered outdoor terrace and dishes of deliciously fresh seafood. Another option is Seblat Al Bustan, which serves traditional Omani cuisine Bedouin-style.
The 200 acres of nurtured grounds are an oasis of peace and calm. Wander around and listen to the gentle trickle of water from its fountains, infinity pools and lagoons. Don’t miss the 2km private beach, the longest in town. 114 Muttrah; tel +968 2479 9666; ichotelsgroup.com