24 hours in Muscat

This jewel is yours for the exploring, writes Kerry van der Jagt.

Psst, wanna hear a secret? The Arabia of your dreams really does exist: it has the requisite number of mosques, mountains and minarets that poke at the sky, and enough camels, carpets and coloured cushions to keep Ali Baba happy. But what if I told you this magical land also has 2500 kilometres of pristine coastline, was safe and strife-free in a region not known for its peace, and has been ruled since 1970 by a much-loved and benevolent leader, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who famously guards his country against what he calls "visual pollution".

While its more flashy neighbours (Dubai, Abu Dhabi, I'm looking at you) fight it out to see who has the biggest toys in the sandpit, the Sultanate of Oman has adopted a slowly, slowly approach, taking pride in an ancient, frankincense trading past, preserving its rich heritage while looking forward to a prosperous future. Muscat, which means "safe anchorage", could describe Oman as a whole.


Rise with the sun and head to the Mutrah fish market to see the daily catch being hauled ashore as it has been done for centuries. It's a muddy, bloody visual feast of flying knives and banging buckets, where tuna sparkles like quicksilver and white dishdashas flap like sheets. Open 6am to 10am at the harbour end of the Mutrah corniche.


Muscat is on the coast, so it makes sense to start your day with a dip in the warm waters of the Gulf of Oman. Most of the flash resorts (The Chedi, Grand Hyatt Muscat, Hotel InterContinental) are along the sandy stretch of beach west of Mutrah. For a public beach try Qurm, one of the city's best for a swim or stroll (though female visitors wanting to rock their latest bikini should stick to the resorts). The surrounding area has a good range of cafes where you can grab a bite if you missed your hotel's morning buffet.


It won't matter if your hair is still wet from your swim, you'll be covering it up (a must for females) for your visit to the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. Don't dawdle, as it's only open to non-Muslims from 8am to 11am (every day, except Fridays). You'll need to take a taxi and dress modestly (long sleeves, trousers or long skirts).


There's every chance your driver will offer some style advice, even pull a spare scarf out of his long sleeve like a magician. You'll also need sunglasses; the bone-white marble mosque glares like a lighthouse. Inside, the 14-metre crystal chandelier is just as dazzling with its 1022 light bulbs.

Other statistics defy belief; an area of 416,000 square metres, a capacity of 20,000 worshippers and a 70 metre by 60 metre hand-loomed prayer carpet that took 600 women almost four years to weave.


After the razzle-dazzle come back to earth gently, with a spot of shopping - for a cause. The not-for-profit Omani Heritage Gallery trades with more than 200 artisans from all across Oman in a bid to keep Omani crafts alive. "Our aim is to preserve the past, while creating a sustainable future for Omani artisans," says Muna Ritchie, founder and one of the partners of the organisation.

You can buy everything from hand-woven Bedouin camel rugs to hand-beaten copper pots, in this delightful one-stop artisan shop in the Jawaharat Al-Shatti complex near the Hotel InterContinental. See omaniheritage.com.


There's only one place to be at lunchtime and that's Mutrah's historic corniche, the elegant waterfront arc lined with gleaming domes and minarets near the Sultan Qaboos Port.

Restaurants serving traditional Omani fare are rare but many serve hybrid versions of Middle Eastern and Indian food. Kurkum Restaurant, right on the corniche not far from the souq, serves modern Indian with some traditional Omani dishes. See kurkumoman.com.


For a history lesson head east to Old Muscat with its sandcastle landscape of towers and turrets, forts and gates. Driving south from Mutrah the entrance to Old Muscat is via a spectacular double carriageway gate, the site of the current Muscat Gate Museum.

From the 16th century until as recently as 1970, Old Muscat was a walled city where the gates were locked at sunset and anyone failing to carry a lantern illuminating their faces was arrested.

Al Alam Palace was built in the 1970s and looks it; with its squat Lego shape and garish blue and gold trumpet pillars, it's art deco meets Disney meets a sultan with a theatrical streak. Since it isn't open to the public, a peek is all you'll get.


Not far from the Al Alam Palace is the privately owned Bait Al Zubair Museum (House of Al Zubair) one of the finest museums in Muscat.

Known as "the house that became a museum", the collection is spread across three buildings - House of Gardens, House of the Dalaleel District and Grand House. The wide-range of exhibits, all collected by the Zubair family, tell the history of Omani culture, customs and craftsmanship. Open Saturday to Thursday, 9.30am to 6.30pm (closed on Friday). See baitalzubairmuseum.com.


Now you've paid your religious, historical and cultural dues, it's time to get extreme and step inside the Mutrah Souq, that rabbit warren of stalls whose sole purpose is to convince you to buy stuff you don't want. "Another scarf?" I'll take three. "Frankincense?" Give me a bagful. "A silver dagger?" I'll buy two for the kids. Like all major expeditions it pays to tell someone where you are going and what time you'll return, that way they can send in a search party if you don't make it out. Open daily, 8am to 1pm and 5pm to 9pm, Saturday to Thursday; 4pm to 9pm on Friday.


You'll be famished by now but don't think of sitting down to eat - not on this tour. Do as the locals do and grab a shawarma (meat-filled wrap) and a fresh fruit cocktail (from the Fast Food 'n' Juice Centre, near the entrance to the Mutrah Souq) then step out along the promenade.

The corniche stretches from the fish market, past the Mutrah Souq to the Mutrah Fort and old watchtower. It is a lovely walk at any time but evenings are magic; an ocean breeze, craggy mountains spilling into the sea, lights reflected on still water.


Muscat is not known for its nightlife, but you can have a drink at any of the luxury resorts, some even have piano and jazz bars or nightclubs (try Trader Vic's at the Hotel InterContinental or John Barry Bar at Grand Hyatt Muscat.)

If your taste runs to classical, the Royal Opera House Muscat offers a range of world-class performances including ballet, opera, orchestra, soloists and traditional Omani music. See rohmuscat.org.om.

The writer was a guest of Oman Tourism.