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The problem with a lot of the ports featured on a typical Arabian Gulf cruise is that they're pretty similar. Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, for example, are all shining skyscrapers and shopping malls, glittering temples to excess. But Muscat, the capital of Oman, stands for completely different values: tradition, history, restraint. Although the country is far from lagging economically, it is deeply conservative and has always placed an emphasis on careful, controlled development. So Muttrah, the old waterfront part of Muscat and the first view to greet cruise passengers, has been carefully preserved, presenting a blend of traditional architecture and rugged natural beauty that many visitors find enchanting.
Muscat couldn't be in a more beautiful setting. The old part of the town, hemmed in by terracotta-colored mountains, spans a graceful waterfront. Its corniche is flanked by a 16th-century hilltop fort at either end, remnants of the time the Portuguese occupied Oman, protecting their trade routes to the east. As well as the cruise ships, container ships and private yachts that moor there, old-fashioned wooden dhows (sailing ships) potter around the busy harbor. If your ship overnights, the sight of the mountains turning pink while the early-morning call to prayer echoes across the old rooftops is unforgettable.
Modern Muscat sprawls out behind the mountains, away from the sea, but for independent exploration, the old part of the city is easily walkable and safe; it's there that you'll find the winding alleys of the souk, or market. Beyond the city, there are tours into the mountains and wadis (dried-up riverbeds) for 4x4 rides along the coast to visit fishing villages or inland to explore some of the medieval forts.
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Other Middle East Cruise Ports:
Aqaba • Dubai • Haifa • Jerusalem (Ashdod) • Muscat • Salalah
Terracotta incense burners with little fabric bags of frankincense from Salalah in the south of Oman make great gifts. Traditional Omani Khangar daggers or saifs (long swords) are impressive looking but have to be transported home by air, so make sure you can fit anything you buy in your checked luggage.
Arabic is the official language, but tour guides speak good English. Do not expect shopkeepers to understand you; sign language works perfectly well when haggling in the souk. Many people living and working in Oman are not native Omanis, so you will encounter Indians, Pakistanis and Emiratis in your travels there.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the Omani rial. (See oanda.com or xe.com for the latest conversion rates.) There are ATM's in a few of the banks and shops along the corniche and in most petrol stations (which double up as loo stops on coach tours, so there will be a chance to get money). In the souk, traders will accept U.S. dollars and euros, but you'll get change in rial and are likely to lose on the exchange rate.
Where You're Docked
The pier faces the old town, with wonderful views of the mountains and their ancient forts. You're not allowed to walk through the port, as it's an industrial area, so free shuttles are provided to the gates.
There's nothing to do at the actual cruise terminal, which is pretty rudimentary. From the shuttle drop-off at the port gates, it's an easy walk to the souks and the corniche.
As previously mentioned, the old part of the city by the waterfront is quite walkable.
Taxis line up at the gates of the port, but before you take one, agree on the price and make sure the driver understands where you're going. A one-way transfer can easily morph into an expensive "city tour."
If you want to explore farther afield, a cruise line tour or a private driver and guide are your best bets. Renting a car is not practical for a day, as you're likely to get lost either in the city or the mountains. Many people on our cruise booked private guides and drivers, some of them in groups they'd formed on the Cruise Critic message boards. Everybody agreed that these tours were extremely worthwhile. The mountain and desert safaris are expensive compared to coach tours, regardless of how you book, as you're paying for a jeep with only five or six seats, each vehicle with its own driver and guide. A privately booked jeep for two would be costly, but if you can assemble a group of six, an independent tour would undercut what the cruise lines charge.
Watch Out For
Oman is safe, and the people are gentle and polite. Be aware, however, that there has been some unrest in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, and you should stay away from demonstrations. Alcohol should not be consumed in public (you can get it in hotel bars and some restaurants but not in regular shops), and the penalties for drugs are severe. Oman is a conservative Muslim country, and women should dress modestly; if you want to visit the Grand Mosque, you need to cover ankles, wrists, neck, head and most of your face; there is an inspection at the entrance.
The Muttrah Corniche that sweeps around the edge of the harbor is the center of all activity, especially on a Friday night after evening prayers, when locals take to the streets to promenade, meet friends, eat and drink coffee. By day, there are frequent shady places to rest, and the whole promenade is lined with cafes and restaurants, some with outdoor seating.
About half a mile from the port shuttle drop-off point is the Muttrah Souk, the old Arab market, which is part-tourist attraction and part old-fashioned shopping mall. You can smell the incense even before you plunge into the narrow alleys, a treasure trove of spices, artifacts, silver daggers, pashmina shawls and all manner of incense burners. Most of the tours don't allow much time in the souk, but it's easy enough to go back on your own, as it's open until late in the evening. Compared to other markets you may have visited, the hassle is minimal; although traders by nature, Omanis are gentle and dignified people and will not harass tourists.
The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in the modern part of town is breathtaking and is a feature of every city tour. If you go independently, it's open to non-Muslims from 8:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. every day, except Friday. The dimensions and the detail are awe-inspiring: 20,000 worshipers; acre upon acre of cool, white and grey marble reflecting the harsh sun; an exquisite Persian carpet in the main hall that took 27 months to hand-weave; chandeliers bearing thousands of crystals; and tranquil gardens with tropical flowers and splashing fountains. It's essential to dress modestly to enter the mosque -- women must cover absolutely everything.
A trip to the mountains presents a different face of Oman, bumping in a 4x4 along dusty riverbeds between towering cliffs of red sandstone, stopping to swim in deep, crystal-clear wadi pools and picnicking under shady trees at lunchtime. Either book through your cruise line (they all offer this tour), or consult the Cruise Critic message boards for recommendations of independent operators. There are countless tour operators in Muscat offering this tour to travelers, and they all follow much the same itinerary.
Been There, Done That
Head inland and tour some of the ancient forts built by the Portuguese. Nizwa is the old capital of the interior and offers the unlikely combination of a solid, 17th-century fortress with an enormous tower and sweeping views of the desert and mountains. There's also a new, air-conditioned souk. This is the place to buy dates, herbs and spices, silver daggers and Bedouin jewelry. It's also the place to inspect, rather than take home, fresh fish.
Oman is known for its whale- and dolphin-watching; the sea is deep and clean, with an abundance of food sources, so the chances of a sighting are good within relatively close distance of Muscat. Most cruise lines offer day-trips. Muscat-based tour operators also offer this trip to independent travelers, but always check that your operator conforms to the guidelines suggested by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society , which help protect the wildlife.
Separate trips offer snorkeling on the coral reefs, combined with a spell at a beach resort. All the beach resorts are located out of town (there are no swimming beaches in Muscat itself), and a typical tour involves a boat trip with snorkeling, followed by beach time at one of the resort hotels. You can purchase refreshments from the hotels, as well. Although Oman is a conservative country, normal swimwear is acceptable on the beaches within the confines of the resorts, although sunbathing topless is a definite no.
With an overnight in port, take a private tour to the Wahiba Sands, the desert landscape of movies: rolling dunes, green oases and camels galore, overnighting in a Bedouin camp or in a hotel.
It's also possible, on a separate trip, to overnight at Sur, famous for its turtle nesting grounds, and embark on a turtle-watching vigil at night as the females come ashore to lay their eggs. Contact an Oman specialist like Panorama Tours for this.
Typical Omani cuisine comprises grilled meats served in a variety of ways (marinated in yogurt or buttermilk, or spiced with cardamom, onion, garlic or lime) with perfumed rice and flatbreads. Main courses are preceded by assorted salads and dips. There's also a strong Indian influence, and Muscat has some excellent and contemporary Indian restaurants.
For a quick taste of local culture, try Omani coffee (kahwa), served strong and thick, flavored with cardamom. The bitterness is offset by the accompanying sticky and sweet halwa, a confection made with dates, honey, sugar, nuts and spices.
The corniche is lined with cafes and restaurants offering everything from traditional mathpe (barbecued meat) and gabole (cooked rice) to freshly squeezed fruit juices. High-class cuisine is available downtown, but you'll need to take a taxi. Omanis are just as likely to eat out in a five-star hotel as in a local restaurant, and most of the hotels have numerous venues.
Kurkum, on the corniche, offers modern Indian cuisine with Omani and other Asian flavors. You'll find dim sum, salads, meat and vegetarian curries, fresh fruit juices and ice cream. (It's on the Muttrah Corniche, just past the souk and close to Bank Oman. Tel. +968 24714114. Lunch is served from 11:30 a.m.)
Kargeen Caffe in the Madinat Qaboos area (a taxi ride from the port) has outdoor dining in a pretty garden of tamarind trees, and it's air-conditioned inside if it's too hot. The setting is authentic Middle East, complete with hookah pipes and oriental rugs, and food includes Middle Eastern mezzes (dips like hummus and garlic bean puree), salads, barbecued meats and even burgers. (It's located at Al Wattayah, postcode 118. Tel. +968 24 69 22 69. It's open for lunch and dinner.)
Al Tanoor at the Shangri La Bar Al Jissah Resort and Spa is ideal if you want a bit of Middle Eastern lunch in the setting of a gorgeous beach resort. It's 15 minutes by cab from Muscat, so it's best to make a day of it and enjoy the beach. There are numerous restaurants at the resort complex, but Al Tanoor is casual and has modern but traditional decor, like dining in a desert tent. The food mixes Omani, Turkish, Iranian and Indian flavors. (It's located at Bar Al Jissah Resort, postcode 100. Tel. +968 2477 6666. It's open daily, noon to 3 p.m.)
Staying in Touch
A few Internet cafes can be found along the corniche. Oman has a full mobile and 3G signal, and you'll find Wi-Fi hotspots in a few of the hotel cafes downtown, but in truth, because of the spread-out nature of Muscat, it's not the ideal place to catch up on e-mail. If you're out on tour most of the day, finding the extra time to get the shuttle to the port gates and then walk to the corniche can be difficult.
Some ships overnight in Muscat. If that's the case on your sailing, a city tour on one day, an evening stroll after sunset and a trip out of town the following day make a great combination.
Best for First-Timers: A half-day city tour will take visitors to the Grand Mosque, the Sultan's Palace (a lavish residence that you can view and photograph from the ornate gates, but not go inside), the corniche and, often, one of the smaller museums like Bait Al Zubair, a private museum in a pretty, traditional house, displaying Omani weaponry, jewelry, clothing, household items, books, photographs, paintings and maps.
Best for Adventurers: Day-trips to the mountains for wadi-bashing are great for adventurers, although it's a long drive -- several hours in a jeep along the coast and then inland. Once in the mountains, there's no set itinerary, and the drivers go where the terrain suits. There's plenty of time for swimming in the rock pools and clambering around; winter is the best time for this tour, as the pools may have dried up by the end of the season. These tours are a full day, and a picnic lunch is included.
Best for Shoppers: Take a half-day guided walking tour that incorporates the Bait Al Baranda Museum, which traces Muscat's history, as well as a stroll along the corniche and free time in the Muttrah Souk for shopping. A cup of traditional tea in the souk is included.
Best for Romantics: A cruise by traditional dhow is a pleasant way to spend the afternoon; the corniche and mountains really are pretty when viewed from the water, especially as the light softens. Some cruises sail along the rugged coast to Al Bustan Beach, setting of the Al Bustan Palace, one of the world's most expensive hotels, where afternoon tea is served. Cruise lines offer evening tours, too, when the skyline and the old fortresses are lit up; on these, soft drinks and snacks are usually included.
For More Information
On the web: Official Omani Tourist Board site
Cruise Critic message boards: Africa & Middle East
The Independent Traveler Message Boards: Middle East
--by Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic Contributing Editor