Holding The Fort In Oman

Vacations & Travel

winter 2014

 

Oman oozes an intoxicating mix of old and new worlds, and the two amalgamate seamlessly for a rich and memorable travel experience, writes Tatyana Leonov.

It’s interesting what people first notice upon arriving in a new country. In India it might be the chaos – the smells, sounds and colours interlacing for the ultimate frenzied punch. In Paris it’s the love ... young lovers holding hands, seasoned couples staring into each other’s eyes and the Eiffel Tower screams love without even trying. These countries have been accessible to tourists for so long that most people who visit know enough to arrive with expectations ... whether they want to or not.

The Sultanate of Oman, often simply referred to as Oman, was only opened to westerners 25 years ago and what tourists notice first varies significantly.

It’s evident why – there is just so much to take in! The big cities are not garish, instead radiating in their tasteful and unpretentious look. The countryside is the same as it was hundreds of years ago ... left almost untouched its beauty is awe-inspiring. And the people ... that’s what I notice first. Their warm nature and big-heartedness exceeds any expectations. Although it’s mostly men that work in tourism and it’s these men that cement my conclusion - the women I meet are just as friendly, if a little quieter and more reserved.

The Omanis love to joke, but it’s not just their smiles and kind nature, but also their passion for their country – for its history and also its future. Because touring in Oman will almost always involve travelling with a guide and meeting plenty of locals along the way, it’s these people’s attitudes that will shape your experience – which is one of the most splendid discoveries of all.

Unless driving in from a neighbouring country, Muscat will be the first port of call for most. The bustling capital of Oman (along with the coastal plain northwest of it) is home to almost half of Oman’s population, yet there are no high-rises in sight. The capital is a sprawling expanse of glistening whites, creams and beiges with dazzling splashes of gold in the form of mosque minarets adding an element of sparkle to the colour scheme. The surrounding mountains offer plenty of opportunities to see Muscat from above, and this is one of the first things visitors should do. Yes, there are mosques, souks and forts to discover, but understanding just how spread out and beautiful the city is will help define how you tackle the sightseeing fun.

The beauty of exploring Muscat is getting amongst the old and new. Omanis have held on to their rich history, but also integrated their philosophies into modern Oman. The result is a metropolis steeped in culture and flourishing with a prosperity that can only come from preserving elements from an ancient way of life.

A visit to the grandiose Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is a wonderful way to immerse oneself in the culture of Oman. The sheer scale (it can accommodate up to 20,000 people), opulent beauty and spotlessness of the grounds immediately set the scene. Highlights include a gigantic Swarovski chandelier that had to be assembled on site and a massive, intricate Persian hand-woven carpet (it’s the second largest hand-woven carpet in the world) that took 600 women four years to weave. The prayer rooms are striking and feature a number of typical Omani aesthetic elements (for example the ceilings are inspired by Omani forts), and there are also rooms where inquisitive visitors can chat to locals about Islam, the mosque or anything else that comes to mind.

The open nature of Omani people can be experienced everywhere and anytime. The Royal Opera House Muscat was officially opened in 2011 and this year tours of the stunning building have been introduced – to offer those visitors who are unable to get to a performance the chance to take in the elaborate design. It’s worth it! The various features that are implemented to play homage to old Oman offer up a visual feast. The exterior is designed in classic Islamic style, while inside everything from the handcrafted wooden ornaments to the intricate artwork showcases Omani culture in a modern way. Designed as a hub for the arts it was pivotal to get the look and feel just right.

Everywhere across Oman new complexes have been built with the country’s rich history in mind, and some hotels even offer the combination of both a plush and educational stay. Made up of three different hotels, Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa is designed to honour Oman’s most famous facets, and the three hotels are all named after something Oman is celebrated for: Al Waha is the ‘hidden oasis’, Al Bandar is the ‘peaceful town’, while the ultra-sumptuous Al Husn is the ‘castle by the sea’. These three elements play an important role in Oman and the clever design of the resort incorporates these principal aspects and tactically presents them to the discerning traveller.

Outside of Muscat these sights need no presentation. Oases are plentiful and range from hard-to-get-to wadis (channels of water) to long empty beaches of powdery white sand and turquoise water dotted with dhows (traditional boats). Some months bring succulent pomegranates and sweet-smelling roses in certain regions, while other areas are known for sighting baby turtle hatchings.

Peaceful towns are found along the way to wherever you go. In these towns local men in bright white dishdashas walk alongside chatting about life and love (Omani men are very comfortable talking openly about their feelings). The pace of life is slow and everyone you come across is happy to point you in the right direction ... or simply chat.

The castles, forts and towers still stand staunch in their once-strategic positions, offering a glimpse into a less peaceful time in Oman’s history. There are over 500 forts, castles and towers in Oman, and they vary in size, configurations and architectural styles depending on when they were built, how long they were used for and if they have been restored. Climbing up winding staircases until you reach a magnificent viewpoint or getting lost amongst the nooks and crannies is half the fun. The other half is learning about the fort and its significance. The forts that are open to the public are usually well signposted with both English and Arabic captions throughout and tour guides offer a whole extra level of knowledge – Omanis are very passionate about learning and most will have a deep understanding of their country’s history.

Bait Al Nad fort, Nakhal fort, Ibri Castle, Nizwa fort and Jabrin fort are some of the more notable ones to visit, as is Bahla fort, the only fort (along with its original wall) in the country to be included as part of the UNESCO World Heritage list (it’s said some of the older parts of the fort were built as early as 500BC). Located about 90 minutes’ drive from Muscat, both Bahla and Nizwa forts are located a short distance from each other. Because of this proximity most tourists will visit both forts, as well as the town of Nizwa, in one day.

Seeing two very different forts creates a better understanding of just how different forts in Oman can be. The mud-brick Bahla fort still has its 12-kilometre wall standing. It was coated with gypsum and sarooj (a traditional type of mortar), which is comparable to cement, and amazingly some of the wall chunks are still upright in their original state (other parts of the wall have been restored).

Nizwa fort is the biggest fort in Oman and one of the most visited. Its presence is a constant reminder of the town’s invincibility during more turbulent times, while its solid structure (the main bulk took 12 years to build with materials allegedly sourced from other forts) creates for a refined grandeur. Ascending to the top of the citadel offers supreme views of Nizwa, the surrounding date palms and the expansive Al Hajar Mountain range that nestles Nizwa.

The town of Niwza itself is an explorer’s mecca. Nizwa is the birthplace of Islam in Oman and used to be the capital of the country during the sixth and seventh centuries. It’s also Oman’s second largest and most populated city and offers an interesting architectural style that mixes old and new. Although Nizwa fort is one of the main architectural attractions, the metropolis is also home to a number of other cultural and ancient landmarks. In fact, because of its historical significance Nizwa has been named as the Capital of Islamic Culture for 2015.

Nizwa is home to Oman’s only non-profit university, which was established in 2002. Since its founding the town has seen significant population growth that has resulted in a surplus of new buildings. The new residential buildings, many of them two-storey luxury villas, have been seamlessly integrated into the city and landscape, while notable monuments have been restored where necessary. The preservation of these historical sights continues to be at the forefront of Oman’s ideology.

And this is where Oman astounds again. It’s easy to get nature right if you simply leave it alone, but hard to keep the charm of ancient city life while developing with the times. In Oman’s major cities there is no clash of old and new, but a seamless amalgamation of the two.

Travel facts

Getting there: Getting to Oman is convenient via the United Arab Emirates with Etihad Airways or Emirates to Dubai, then Oman Air to Muscat. Alternatively it is also convenient to fly via Asia (via Kuala Lumpur with Malaysia Airlines or Bangkok with Thai Airways) and then on to Muscat with Oman Air. Etihad Airways; 1300-532-215, etihad.com Emirates; 1300-303-777, emirates.com

When to go: October to April offers pleasant temperatures for travelling through the various regions. December to february is the coolest time to visit.

Where to stay: Muscat: Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa; shangrila.com/muscat/barraljissahresort. Nizwa: The new Alila resort is 30 minutes’ drive from Nizwa and well worth it; alilahotels.com/jabalakhdar

Further information: Sultanate of Oman Tourism; tourismoman.com.au. Tempo Holidays; tempoholidays.com