One thing that may surprise you about Muscat, the seaside capital of Oman, the peaceful sultanate on the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, is that it's closer to Karachi than it is to Tel Aviv. It's less than 1,000 miles to Mumbai. It's a day's sail from the coast of Iran.
It is, in other words, a very long way from my apartment in New York.
It is not, however, far from Dubai, which made it an easy side trip on a recent visit to the Middle East. The logistics, once I landed in the United Arab Emirates, were easy: My flight on SWISS, which hopscotched from New York to Geneva to Zurich to Dubai, continued on to Muscat. It's a long trip, but it can be done on one ticket.
The question, of course, is why do it at all? If Oman is famous for anything, it is its lack of fame. In a region of squeaky wheels, it's well-greased thanks to a stable government and locals' moderate take on Islam.
It is also shockingly tourist-friendly.
Muscat is long on both culture and sites. I headed directly for the Grand Mosque. Finished in 2001, this sprawling sandstone stunner is open to even non-Muslims, a rare treat in a part of the world where most houses of worship are reserved for adherents. A fantastically-ornate prayer hall -- with one of the world’s largest hand-woven carpets -- is a monument to Muslim architecture, while the immaculate grounds, which offer space for as many as 20,000 worshippers, are punctuated by tessellating patterns and intricate rugs contrasting with the clean lines of colonnades. The experience of strolling through the grounds is, not coincidentally, reminiscent of visiting to the Grenada's Al-Hambra and the other jewels of Moorish Spain.
I had no trouble getting into the mosque while wearing long pants and a button-front shirt, but women should bring a headscarf. Outside holy buildings, though, women and visitors in general can expect a warm welcome from gregarious locals, at least in Muscat, where the culture is more tolerant and open than I found in the UAE. The people around you may be wearing long, white dishdashas, but Westerners are free to wear most varieties of casual clothing -- shorts might better be reserved for hiking trails.
Foreigners have always been a fact of life in this city, which has been a trading port for millennia. For a taste of that mercantile history, I visited the Muttrah souk, a covered maze of gold shops, souvenir stalls and bric-a-brac vendors permeated by heavy frankincense smoke. This incense is traditional, but as I traipsed through the market, I found myself wondering if it needed to be quite so thick. Still, gold and silver are excellent buys here, and the people-watching is top notch if you like observing the jet set in their natural element.
At one shop, an English schoolteacher visiting Oman by way of Zimbabwe helped me pick out a silver bangle for my girlfriend while we talked about theater in New York. Hearing that I lived in the States, the owner of the shop piped up to tell me that he spends most of the year living in Bethlehem. Pennsylvania. I was beginning to realize just how singular Oman really is.
I spent my first night in the city at the Radisson Blu, which like many hotels here offers a variety of restaurants, a pool, car rentals, tour services and, notably in an Islamic sultanate, bars. The hotel offered a strange contrast to the streets: With all the earth-tone stones, buffets and bubbling fountains, I could've been in Scottsdale or on the Gulf Coast of Florida. I needed the view out my window onto the minarets of a nearby mosque to remind how far I'd ventured.
Still, I wanted to go further.
In order to get out into the desert, I hitched a ride with a driver and guide from Zahara Tours, one of the country’s biggest and most connected companies. Generally, I’m not much for guided tours, but in an Arabic-speaking country where flash floods can wash out roads and camels take the right of way when they choose, I was more than happy to leave the driving to Yousef.
Oman has long been an adventure and active travel destination that's particularly popular with Germans and Italians. But the country is starting to cast a wider net for visitors. Yousef told me he'd recently been shocked by a call from a group of Floridians -- not working for an oil company -- asking for a reservation.
What this region has that you won’t find in the Southwest: proximity to Jebel Shams, the country’s tallest peak, at roughly 10,000 feet. While you can’t summit the mountain -- there’s a small military radar dome at the top -- there's another draw here: the country's most spectacular canyon that many locals refer to as the Omani Grand Canyon. Wadi Nakher, as its known, does look the part, with the same rusty kaleidoscope of colors splashed down its nearly sheer walls.
We proceeded to Wadi Bani Khalid, an immensely popular destination where visitors find running streams and spring-fed pools of water ideal for swimming. As I splashed around, I ran into a handful of Germans who were visiting a friend who had just started working at the Grand Hyatt Muscat. After a little small talk about the hotel scene in Oman, we trekked a bit deeper into the wadi canyon, hopping over boulders, fording small pools and sliding down embankments like explorers from The Lost World in search of nothing in particular.
The small harmless fish nibbling our feet did little to take away from the pleasure of soaking in the cool, clear water on such a blisteringly hot day.
After toweling off, I pressed on to one of the tented camps that have recently sprung up around Jebel Shams, offering the sort of no-hassles camping that appeals to city slickers worldwide. At The View, my canvas-walled tent had a full bathroom -- with real plumbing -- an electric kettle for tea and coffee and a small veranda out front. Set high on a ridge, The View's namesake feature is a stunning panorama across the valley below. The star-gazing here, and at other, similarly remote camps, is said to be amazing, though a rare thunderstorm blocked my view of the sky -- and provided a lightning show instead.
As I settled in to a traditional dinner of rice and lentils, with the flicker of lighting in the distance and the tap of a rare rain shower plunking the canvas overhead, I decided the long trip was absolutely worth it.
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