Our first big trip out of Europe with Lu! We were deciding on where to go for quite some time and after we excluded all the other destinations on the shortlist, Oman was our winner. Lu was a bit over one year old and was getting more independent, so we thought nothing can really go wrong. In March/April it´s still not too hot down there and it´s pretty easy to rent and drive a car, gas is cheap, the landscape is awesome and there are almost no tourists. The flight wasn´t too long also and too expensive, plus there is only two hours time difference with Europe, which means – no jetlag. What more could you ask for? We did not know anybody who was already there so we got all the information from guidebooks and internet. It turned out to be a great holiday and the genuine friendliness of the locals made us feel more than welcome.
When: March/April 2013
Visited: Muscat, Nizwa, Bahla, Al Hamra, Jebel Shams, Al Hoota, Ibra, Al Mintirib, Wadi Bani Khalid, Sur, Ras al Haad, Ras Al Jinz, Wadi Tiwi, Bimmah Sinkhole
How: with a rented 4WD car
Stayed in: small hotels
We BOOKED the hotels IN ADVANCE, because it seemed like a good idea, considering the fact that there are not many hotels in some areas and there is no guarantee that you get a room if you just show up. We could have brought a tent with us – free camping is allowed, but with Lu this wasn´t really an option at that time. In Muscat we stayed at a hotel which had a POOL and this turned out to be a great bonus for the hottest hours of the day. Later on we stayed in SMALL HOTELS where we were one time even the only guests. Many had BREAKFAST included, the prices were middle range. The rooms were not really cheap, but still acceptable. If you want a nice experience in he desert, you can overnight in the DESERT CAMP TENTS – there are even luxurious versions, which have to be booked early in advance and are very expensive.
DRIVING AND TRANSPORTATION
For the first few days in Muscat we really did not need a car, so we first took an official AIRPORT TAXI from the airport (you will see a small office once you step out of the Arrivals area and you just tell them to which hotel you want to go, the price is fixed). Muscat is a very STRETCHED CITY, so you can´t reach everything on foot, therefore we used lots of TAXIS to get around. Explain at the hotel reception where you want to go and ask how much the ride should cost. Calculate how much you approximately paid per kilometre and bargain for the price when you take a second taxi. Most of the drivers will speak some English and were happy to tell stories from everyday life.
For the rest our trip we organised a CAR – and what a great car it was! A 4WD huge Toyota for a VERY good price. The GAS PRICES are ridiculously low and we got around pretty good without a navigation system – we only had a MAP and detailed maps to find our hotels, which we printed out at home. In order to rent a car you will need an international driving permit. The ROAD SIGNS are written in Arabic and Latin in most cases. We only got lost one time, but it didn´t really matter because we were not in a hurry.
Driving on its own is pretty easy, there are some local drivers who tend to show off and will overtake in curves and drive too fast, but nothing we could call a real threat. I would always take a 4WD in Oman, because it gives you the chance to drive OFF ROADS (there are many possibilities to do that), sometimes you will have to drive through water in the Wadi´s or on rocky surfaces, or even on the beach if you want to get close to the sea. There is not much going on on the roads, it can get a bit busy in Muscat, but elsewhere it´s quite convenient. Tourists mostly go around with RENTED CARS, we saw only a couple of busses in Nizwa – they were packed with cruise ship tourists who spend the night in Muscat and were making a day tour. PUBLIC TRANSPORT is close to non existing as far as we saw, so driving on your own seems like the best option.
We flew with GULF AIR from Frankfurt via Bahrain to Muscat and paid around 400€ for a return ticket per person. Lu was flying for free in my lap, because he was under 2 years old. VISA ON ARRIVAL costed 10€ per person (depends on how long you are staying), the official AIRPORT TAXI ride to the hotel in Muscat was about 20€, 4WD RENTED CAR around 80€ per day, diesel was approximately 0,30 € per litre. The cheapest hotel room was in Ibra (33€ for a double room) and the most expensive in Muscat for the last night in Crowne Plaza for 160€ (but that was kind of a part of a birthday gift). The usual price for a DOUBLE ROOM with breakfast was 65€ per night. ENTRY FEES for museums or forts and castles were 1€. LUNCH was from 4-7€, soft drinks 2€ and BEER was very expensive. The most expensive lunch was at the Marine Club in Muscat, 50€ for us three (we shared our portions with Lu). As you see, it´s not really cheap, nevertheless in every aspect worth your money.
It´s a MIX of Indian and Arab cuisine, so the most times we ate curry with rice and vegetables, fresh FISH, grilled MEAT, other INDIAN specialities and sometimes even a BURGER, FRENCH FRIES and a SALAD – the last ones we only ate in Muscat, where we by accident found a stretch of western restaurants. BREAKFASTS consisted of coffee, toast, omelettes, yoghurt and fruits and there was always lots on the tables. Try the traditional Arab COFFEE, served with dates! We had some problems buying SNACKS for the road – there were not much small shops along the way and even if we saw some, they were closed during the day. A few times we bought BREAD, but it tasted sweet and one time there were raisins hidden inside – too bad for the tuna spread we bought to go with it ;). Not many shop employees will speak English so they can´t really advise you on what to take. We could buy cow MILK and YOGURT in small bottles for Lu, which was great for mixing it with fruits and oatmeal for his dinner.
As for ALCOHOL – don´t expect much. We drank a beer each in Muscat hotel, because we were staying in the Indian part of the city and at the Marina in a restaurant. The next one we had at the airport when we were on our way home :).
For food, clothes, diapers, books… find the LULU HYPERMARKET chain (we saw it only in Muscat and Nizwa). The most known product is probably the FRANKINSENCE – which is used in perfumery and aromatherapy. It´s an aromatic resin, obtained from the Boswellia trees – you will smell it burn once you are there. You can buy some really good quality cotton or the tradicional DISHDASHA dress, CLAY bowls, boxes, SILVER,… And dont forget to BARGAIN!
WHAT WE SAW & DID
Muscat, the biggest city in Oman, stretches at the coastline and is protected by the WESTERN HAJAR MOUNTAINS in the background. The town plan might not be easy to understand a first glance, you have to understand that the town actually grew out of 3 different smaller towns, which are MUSCAT (also know as the “walled city”), MUTTRAH (originally a fishing village, now known for its souq and corniche) and RUWI (the commercial centre of the City). Means, the town is quite big and if you want to get from one part to another you will need a taxi.
On our first day we were still a bit tired from the flight,so we took it easy. We stayed in the Ruwi area, so we could walk to the famous CLOCK TOWER and after that we just spend some hours at the pool and explored the lively RUWI STREET in the evening.
Th next day we were all fit again and started the day with an early breakfast. Then it was time to visit the SULTAN QABOOS GRAND MOSQUE, because it is only opened from 8 – 11 am for non-Muslims. Remember, FRIDAYS it is closed (as also many other sites are). Dress properly when entering the area. CHILDREN under 10 years of age are not allowed to go inside the Mosque, but can enter the area around it.
The mosque itself is magnificent and the surroundings are well maintained, green areas. Inside, there is the world´s SECOND LARGEST HAND-WOVEN CARPET (70m x 60m) and an impressive SWAROWSKI CRYSTAL CHANDELIER. Very impressive and a good place to start your sightseeing.
Later on we walked around the new ROYAL OPERA and had a snack in a very expensive shopping centre next to it. According to the map, we were not far from the beach, so we decided it was time to check the water temperature.
Since we didn´t have swimming things with us anyway, we continued to walk all the way around to the QURM PARK (it was really a long way, but Lu slept in his stroller so it was a good time to walk anyway). The park is gorgeous! We expected something else and were positively surprised! It was like all the FAMILIES were hiding in this park for the whole day (because we did not meet any). And here it was like paradise for the kids – but lets face it, also for us. After a long walking day our feet were happy to walk barefoot on the grass too! The lush vegetation made it a bit cooler, so that was nice also. After a couple of hours running around and a little picnic it was getting almost dark and it was time to leave.
On the third day we strolled through the famous MUTTRAH SOUQ where we couldn´t resist some shopping. From there we walked along the coast all the way to the SULTANS PALACE. It´s a nice walk on a wide paved walkway, there are numerous benches, PICNIC AREAS areas and children´s PLAYGROUNDS.
Our stomachs were getting hungry so we took a taxi to the MARINA close by, where we had some amazing fish food and we were also allowed to use the swimming POOL, which was great. From here you can also book different boat cruises and day trips. It was a nice atmosphere so we stayed there relaxing until the evening.
Time to leave Muscat! We picked up our RENTED CAR at the airport and drove on to NIZWA. We enjoyed some magnificent views along the way and were excited about what the next days will bring. Lu was obviously satisfied with the car, because he immediately fell asleep.
The main attraction in Nizwa is the FORT, which you can explore for just 1€ entry fee. There are some nice views and you can enter the rooms and see the museum collection. There were quite a few tourists here, but mainly because they were on a day trip from a cruise ship. Visit the fort before it gets hot and don´t forget, Fridays it´s closed. There are some souvenir shops around and the money exchange was very good here.
Ok, first off – do you see the parking lot? It´s empty, right? This is one of the reasons we really loved Oman – almost no tourists. It so peaceful everywhere and nobody is trying to sell you things. If this same parking place would be in lets say Mexico, Bali or Vietnam – it would have been packed with tourists shops, vendors, beggars, tourist buses and other. Bahla is an OLD FORT and you can walk around and enjoy the great views on the surrounding landscapes, for free. Its just a short drive from Nizwa.
We only had a look from the outside, but it´s a nice place to stop if you are in the Nizwa area.
We slept in AL HOOTA area and were literately in the middle of nowhere. As if that wasn´t enough, we were also the only guests at the nicely built guest house, which also had a PLAYGROUND, restaurant and great terraces to watch the sun go down. The next morning we drove off to explore the JEBEL SHAMS MOUNTAIN AREA, in the HAJAR MOUNTAINS, with the HIGHEST PEAK in Oman. First, we stopped shortly at the lovely little village of AL HAMRA on the way.
From the rim you can look down into the this amazing large CANYON and if you have the time and endurance there are walking paths which take you down. You can also DRIVE AROUND THE RIM – the road itself is quite an adventure!
Time to go back to AL HOOTA – again, no cars on the road and beutiful landscape! We wanted to visit the Al Hoota CAVES, because we read they were interesting and you could enter the caves on a train – but once we reached the parking place, everything was closed. The receptionist told us later that there were some floodings in the past months and had to be closed for public for a while.
IBRA is not really a town where you have something to see. It´s a normal Omani town where we overslept, because otherwise we could not have seen everything we wanted on the way to the coast. Many tourists go to the DESERT CAMPS instead – but for us this was too expensive and also, with a one year old child it seemed easier to overnight in a hotel. Even though there was no tourist attraction whatsoever, we had a good time in Ibra.
We walked around and were amazed about the stuff they were selling at the SUPERMARKET, had a funny dinner and took lots of pictures with the locals, because they were admiring Lu (he has blond hair and there were no other tourists in Ibra that evening) and everyone talked to us. So it was a pristine experience connecting with the LOCALS.
If you do not spend the night in the desert, you have to find your way to it when you are passing by. From Ibra it was just a short drive to a small village AL MINTIRIB and from there on you choose a way to come to the SAND DUNES. If you have a 4WD this will be easier and so we followed some tracks in the sand and came right to the marvellous dunes. It was kind of special because it STARTED TO RAIN – I never had rain in the desert ;).
WADI BANI AL KHALID
Our first WADI! From the main road we took a turn and drove for a while before we reached the parking place and already here we could admire interesting ROCK FORMATIONS and the colours of the stones and cliffs. Out of the car we had to first overcome a narrow path (the stroller will be of no use here). And there it was – beautiful green water making its way through steep white rocks, here and there a palm tree, ahhh. Very nice place.
We took a SWIM and observed the others who dared to jump inside from a high point. There is also a RESTAURANT, if you prefer a PICNIC you will find lots of places to have one. If you have good shoes (and don´t have a 1-year old to carry him around) you can also walk up to some CAVES and SPRINGS – but try to do that in the morning, it can get hot later in the day.
We were back at the COAST. The first evening in Sur it was RAINING cats and dogs! We just had to go a few steps down the street to reach the closest restaurant, but we were directly completely wet. Good that it wasn´t cold. The next morning everything was back to normal and the sun woke us up. We walked all the way along the beach at the promenade to reach the SOUQ AREA.
But unfortunately all the souq shops were CLOSED at the time. We decided to enter the LABYRINTH OF SMALL STREETS anyway.
Ok so it was kind of an adventure, but also kind of stupid. I guess my orientation skills are quite good and I was sure we could not GET LOST. But we did. I´m still saying it was not my fault because we were forced to walk there where the streets were not flooded. Suddenly we were “trapped” ;). From time to time we peeked through a backyard and asked friendly locals how can we get out of there – but none of them spoke English and they just offered us tea. But then something incredible happened – a car stopped behind us and the driver was so shocked to see us walking there with a stroller that he OFFERED TO DRIVE US OUT. His little son was in the car as well and he looked honest so we trusted him. A few minutes later we sat at probably the only opened restaurant at the beach and ate the most amazing GRILLED FISH.
For the next couple of hours we observed the FISHERMEN and slowly walked back to the hotel, this time we stayed at the promenade ;).
RAS AL HADD
Time to hit the BEACH! Already the drive to it was worth going there. Once we reached RAS AL HADD we just drove on the beach for as long as we wanted, until we found a place that we liked. The best thing is – there will be no crowds. Excluding one couple 300 metres away from us, we were alone on the beach. Lu had the time of his life running into the waves!
RAS AL JINZ
Not far from Ras Al Hadd, here is the famous TURTLE RESERVE, a NESTING SITE for the green turtles. You can watch them at the beach very early in the morning when it´s still dark or late in the evening. In order to do so it´s the best to sleep at the site in a hotel, but it was quite pricey. We stayed in Sur and drove down here to visit the museum (it really is a nice one!). With Lu we couldn´t have watched the turtles at those hours anyway. But we did see lots of CAMELS on the way ;).
Finding this wadi is a bit tricky, as you must reach the road going UNDER THE BRIDGE (the signs here were exceptionally bad). There was lots oF water because of the RAIN in the past few days so we had to drive over water already in the first few metres. But for our Toyota, no problem. The narrow road took us through LITTLE VILLAGES and at one point it got so rough that we decided to make it our end point. We had to RETURN down the same way anyway because we had to reach MUSCAT on that day. We made a longer stop, refreshed our feet in the water and helped an adventurous French young couple drive over the damaged part of the road.
On our way back we had a FLAT TYRE and that was a bigger problem that it seemed at the beginning. We didn´t find the right tool to lift the car, it was simply not there. Not long after it happened a friendly man stopped and wanted to HELP US but his tools were not good enough because our car was too high and we could not lift it up to a point where we could switch the tyre. So we gathered STONES and wood in order to make it higher. It worked! The man was so concerned for Lu that he many times insisted I sit with Lu into his car which he intentionally left running with the AC on. But both Lu and me found the “changing of the tyre action” much more exciting. We had to decline the TEA INVITATION as it was getting late and we still had much over 200 km to drive.
Despite our time delay we decided to stop at this SINKHOLE. The water looked so inviting we even took a short SWIM! It was a great experience and the water was just the right temperature. Not much tourists there also. But if you are going to swim, maybe dress a T shirt over the swimsuit out of RESPECT – this seems to be a favourite spot for the locals to have a picnic.
BACK TO MUSCAT
We spend our LAST NIGHT in a very nice hotel with a PRIVATE BEACH to crown our holiday. In the evening we already knew where to go for a nice dinner and a stroll on the beach. The last day we were able to spend relaxing at the beach because we had an evening flight.
Oman gave us some great moments and made our first big trip with Lu unforgettable! We are happy we had the chance to explore it before it becoms a popular tourist destination.
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