One of the joys of having a Sea Princess stateroom with a balcony is being able to jump out of bed in the morning, grab a dressing gown or sarong and watch a new and exciting destination loom into view.
Cruising into the port of Mina Qaboos in Muscat, Oman was just magical. It felt as if we were arriving on a different planet; one of ancient watchtowers, spires and minarets with massive, bare, craggy, mountains rising from the sea fading in folds way into the distance.
Arabian Nights inspired it truly is. Breathtaking to say the least.
Soon we spotted the 16th Century Jalali and Mirani forts perched on top of rocky outcrops guarding Muscat Bay and the Sultan’s Palace, and in the distance we could make out the Bab al Kabir, the old city wall’s main gate, which later in the day we would pass under when we embarked on a desert safari.
Low rise snow white and sand coloured buildings nestled near the port suggesting a modern city that merges with the ancient. Friends later told us of their exploits in the Mutttrah Souk, ambling through old maze-like alleyways where they felt whisked back in time and someone else said that no building in Oman can be above 10 stories high.
“Ahlan wa Sahlan” – Welcome to Muscat!
On first sight Muscat felt like Dubai’s quieter more charming neighbour. After the fantastical man-made high rise wonders of Dubai it was a complete opposite.
It sits at an ancient crossroads of Persian, Indian and Asian trade routes on a strategic position on the Gulf of Oman.
Desert Safari and Wadi Tour
With only a day to explore Muscat, we’d chosen a ship’s tour that would explore the rugged inland scenery we could only imagine from our stateroom balcony.
And soon we were off on an exciting 4 x 4 safari to drive through Wadi Alarbeen.
What’s a Wadi?
A wadi is simply a valley cut through mountains. Once or twice a year a raging torrent of flash floods pour down the valley decimating everythign in their wake as they gush down towards the sea.
We boarded our vehicle and met our driver Mohammed and our travel companions for the day, Ross and Vanessa, a delightful couple who come from just outside Hobart in Tasmania.
We headed out of Muscat with the mercury rising to what was forecast to be a very hot day.
Quriyat Fish Market
Our first stop was at the fish market in Quriyat.
The drive there was fast (the roads are good, the speed limit higher than in Australia, and driving more erratic – and this was a worry for some members on the tour) but the scenery was stunning as we began to climb through the massive mountain ranges with rock faces looming in every direction, a geological wonderland, which Dave particularly loved.
Unfortunately we were a bit late to see the early morning catch being sold at the market, although Abdullah (below) told me that the catch is mostly shark and tuna.
Swimming in the Gulf of Oman
The next stop was at Fins Beach for a swim in the warm Gulf of Oman where the sea tasted doubly salty, where the waters were turqoise, and where the temperature was approaching 40C.
A dip in the ocean provided respite from the hot sun but getting undressed in the heat and humidity behind a landcruiser without a bush or tree in sight was quite an achievement. I also marvelledd at how Jill, an 82 year old woman, manoevred her way across the hot, rocky stones into the water – even I had yelped and yollied a bit, but the warm, clear sea was reward enough for our efforts.
Our carvan of 4 x 4’s then turned off the sealed road onto the bumpy tracks of the desert canyons and the rocky track leading into Wadi Alarbeen.
As we entered the wadi huge rock faces loomed on either side showing twisted and contorted rock layers dating back millions of years. We spotted occasional herds of shaggy, multi coloured goats browsing around sporadic trees and low shrubs. The scenery was amazing – imposing – so rugged, so brutally barren and bare it was beautiful.
“When the flash floods come down the wadis, small villages will be cut off for sometimes more than a week.” Mohammed told us.
Our caravan of 4 x 4s moved in unison and we pushed up a huge dustcloud. The cars in front and behind were lost from time to time and then with a sudden gust of wind re-appeared again.
We passed groves of date palms nestled against the bottom of the valley, we came to small oases, and drove through small villages. As we got higher into the wadi, green pools of water began to appear,
Of course we wanted to know if we could swim. “Not in summer,” Mohammed told us, “Poisonous snakes also like the water in summer.” Well That stopped our questions soon enough!
As we drove on Mohammed provided us with a vivid insight into aspects of Omani life which we found intriguing – he told us about the culture, the history and the food. He was a wonderful storyteller – sincere, passionate about his country and his people, and he was so enthusiastic in answering our questions
“Traditionally Omanis have large families – often more than ten children, but this trend is changing and nowthey generally have between 3 and 5,” he told us.
Mohammed has three sisters and a brother who are all married, and he now has15 nieces and nephews. “At the weekend, which is Friday and Saturday in Oman, our familes all get together at my parents house or one of my siblings houses for lunch and dinner, or we go to a wadi for a family picnic.”
Best Time to Visit Oman
Mohammed told us that winter is a great time to visit Oman because temperatures are much cooler. In the winter months daytime temperatures can be around 20C and fall towards 0C at night. “November is the best time to visit Oman because of National Day – there are many festivals and events, and villages and cars are all decorated to celebrate.”
As Mohammed (above) was telling us this the thermometer in the car registered an outside temperature of 42. I have never been outside in this kind of heat!
We asked Mohammed about his favourite Omani food which he said is Shuwaa.
“Shuwaa is only eaten on festive occasions. For us, twice a year. It is actually a whole goat roasted in a pit dug in the ground. It takes a long time, very time consuming for many people. The meat is flavoured with spices and wrapped in sacks made of dry leaves and roasted.”
The journey on through the wadi was breathtakingly stunning and we stopped at various places to take photos. Later we stopped at Oman’s largest dam, Wadi Deqha, and the temperature peaked at 45 degrees C!
It was stinking hot as we walked around photographing the picturesque dam, where there were lots of date palms.
We then took a short cut through scenic Wadi Al Mayh back towards Muscat past an atmospheric fort, called, Mazarea Fort perched high on a hillside.
Arriving back into Muscat we passed the parliament buildings, the palace, the marina, the Muscat clocktower and travelled along the coastline back to the port.
The round journey we had taken totalled 330kms with a top temperature of 45 degrees Celsius!
It was a truly memorable day, one that we will not easily forget – stunning scenery, lots of excitement, a gentle and informed driver, and great travelling companions.
This tour really has whetted our appetite to return to Oman and spend more time exploring what appears to be a fascinating culture and region.
I’m travelling as a guest of Princess Cruises, but paid for this tour. All opinions are my own.