Day 1: Keyless Cars & Moonlit Nights
Oman. The first question we typically got from people when they heard we were heading there on vacation was, “Where is it?” So, quick geography lesson; if you imagine the Arabian peninsula as seeing a foot in a thick cast from the side, Oman is the ball of the foot and the nail of the big toe. It’s the second largest country in the peninsula, behind Saudi Arabia, and yet it’s still no bigger than Kansas. Despite its quiet existence, it has a history dating back nearly 8,000 years to the Stone Age, and is incredibly diverse with beaches, deserts and mountains, all contained within. So, depending on your interests, you can scuba dive, watch for dolphins and sea turtles, hike mountains, camp under the stars in the desert, or explore ancient ruins. And that’s all in the first four days.
My husband and I took advantage of the 90-minute flight to Muscat from Kuwait this past January. Deciding to forego the guided tour route, we started researching and seeing if we could plan our own trip. It wasn’t easy. We didn’t leave ourselves enough time to order a guidebook online, and the information on the web was sparse at best. We did know we wanted to see the mountains and maybe do some desert camping, and then when I discovered that Oman is a nesting ground for four of the world’s seven sea turtle species, I quickly shoved that to the top of the must-do list. So we bought our plane tickets, picked our hotels, and then figured between the mountains, site-seeing and a date with the turtles, it would all just somehow fall into place.
We flew into Muscat, Oman’s capital. Despite all that there is to see here, we had not planned on spending much time in Muscat. But we had heard they had a fun tourist souq. So after picking up our rental SUV (we did manage to learn ahead of time that if we wanted to drive up the mountain we had to have a 4x4 vehicle), we pulled out our GPS and headed out.
We quickly learned that GPS in Oman works wonderfully, and were soon on the highway heading north into the city. The first blip in the vacation was that our rental car had barely a quarter tank of gas, so we stopped off at the first gas station to fill up. This was also where we realized that they’d given us a “keyless” car. So when the tank was full, we both just sat there desperately trying to figure out how to turn the car on without a key (there was no obvious “push here to start car” button). In growing desperation, I even flagged down the gas attendant and asked him, he just shrugged and smiled (bet he won the daily “Who had the stupidest tourist?” game). Finally we found the manual in the glovebox and quickly read “How to start the car”. While waving the fob around like it was a juju bag, my husband turned the ignition as if there was a key in it and with a delightful roar to life, the engine turned on. Whew! First potential crisis averted.
We then headed in to Muscat, following the GPS directions. We got a bit off track, asked for directions, were told to head towards the water and that we’d be lucky to find a parking spot, and headed off. They were right; parking was a bear. We drove along the waterfront, inching along with the rest of Oman who also thought to head downtown on a Thursday night. Finally, after passing out of downtown and doing a u-turn, we came to a beautiful parking area where we quickly grabbed an empty spot. There were rocky cliffs on either side of the road, but grassy lawns and a lit-up fountain made for a very popular moonlight picnic-dinner spot for families.
We headed back to the city lights, walking along the marble sidewalk that edged the large port on the Gulf of Oman. It was a beautiful moonlit night, with a nice breeze, and lots of people out walking and cruising by.
We got back to downtown in about 15 minutes, and entered the souq under the impressive stained glass dome. Maybe we’ve been spoiled by Cairo’s and Istanbul’s souqs, but we were definitely under-impressed. We stopped in a few shops, and I did buy some silver earrings (to ensure the 30 pairs I have from Cairo don’t get lonely) and a keychain that I’ll make into our “Oman” Christmas ornament, but otherwise we weren’t itching for much.
We did stop at one merchant to smell the frankincense and sandalwood, but as we were trying to extricate ourselves from him, he said to my husband, “You’ll promise that you’ll come back? A U.S.A. promise?” Fearing we may never be able to leave, we assured him that we’d come back. We didn’t. I hope that wasn’t what he meant when he said a “U.S.A. promise.”
From here, we drove on to our hotel, the Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa. Oo-la-la indeed. We got there late, but still managed to have dinner outside under the stars.
The hotel complex is actually made up of three huge separate hotels, and to get to the Al Waha (oasis) hotel, we had to drive through a tunnel that had been cut into the mountain. In the morning, we grabbed a delicious breakfast out by the pools, then wandered a bit to see the amenities, including multiple pools, a lazy river, and a gorgeous beach. None of which we used, since we felt we should get on the road and head down the coast for our date with the turtles; we didn’t want to keep them waiting.