x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Muscat: make for the mountains

My kind of place A welcoming city with a relaxed air, the Omani capital is defined by the mesmerising Hajjar range, says Christine Iyer.

Lattice-fronted buildings sit beside the blue-tiled minaret and dome of Muttrah Mosque at the Corniche.
Lattice-fronted buildings sit beside the blue-tiled minaret and dome of Muttrah Mosque at the Corniche.

Oman's capital is a picturesque port with a natural harbour and miles of stunning coastline, but it's the omnipresent Hajjar mountain range that draws you in. Crowned with forts, peppered with foxholes, it stretches in a wide, seemingly never-ending arc, with ribbons of highways and roads wrapped around its peaks and entire towns at its feet. Growing up in Muscat in the 1970s was much like living in a sleepy, dusty seaside town - the weekends were spent on the beaches, or exploring, along with Omani children and goats, the gravelly hills behind Muttrah Souq. Today, not much has changed, although the period after 1970 has seen tremendous infrastructural development, the economy powered largely by a sizeable expatriate workforce. Some families have lived here for three generations, having arrived in the early Forties as immigrants on ships from South Asia and Africa, and it is this multi-ethnic population that gives the city its atmosphere and character. But despite the modernisation, Muscat has hung on tenaciously to its old-world charm, and the vibe remains laid-back. New towns have cropped up between the old city centre in Ruwi and the airport in Seeb, but there isn't a high-rise in sight, save for the towering edifice of the Sheraton Hotel. The old fishing villages of Qantab and Sidab are just as they used to be - huddles of traditional-style houses complete with colourful gates and windows set deep into the walls. The mountains and hills are as compelling as ever, and the children and goats are still there.

Set on a kilometre-long private beach, Al Bustan Palace (www.ichotelsgroup.com; 00 968 24 799 666; double rooms from RO120 [Dh1,145], including taxes) is one of Muscat's oldest luxury hotels, and offers rich Arabian-style decor, fantastic views of the bay and beautifully appointed rooms, although the newer, sparkling Shangri-la Barr al Jissah (www.shangri-la.com; 00 968 24 776 666; double rooms from RO140 [Dh1,335], including taxes) further down the coast is almost as popular. The huge ship-like bulk of the Crowne Plaza (www.ichotelsgroup.com; 00968 24 660 660, doubles from RO120 [Dh1,145] including taxes), which sits on a hill in Qurum and overlooks the sea, is ideally located, with restaurants, the beach and Qurum Natural Park within walking distance. A short drive from the airport is the Chedi (www.ghmluxuryhotels.com; 00 968 24 524 400; doubles from RO222 [Dh2,122], including breakfast and taxes). With its white domes and tented roofs, it is an exercise in sleek design.

Getting around Muscat can be a bit of a nightmare. There's no dearth of taxis, but they don't have meters and drivers sometimes refuse to take passengers or force them out if their demands are not met. Residents tend to share rides, a common practice all over the city. Apart from the orange-and-white taxis, public transport is non-existent. Public buses run between the governates and to various cities in the UAE, but there is no service within Muscat. If you'd rather not lose time, money or your temper, hire a car from RO12 [Dh110] per day.

It's easy enough to meet Omanis in Muscat - they're everywhere, from the young families in the malls and the boys playing football on the beaches to the patient, weather-beaten old men fishing on the Corniche. Warm, friendly and extremely hospitable, they're always happy to chat.

The open-air Kargeen Cafe (00968 24 692 269) in Madinat Qaboos is an old haunt surrounded by a surprising amount of greenery. A pretty network of water channels runs between the tables, and visitors, usually a mix of young, hip Omanis and expatriates, tend to hang around for hours, smoking shisha, sipping kahwa and tucking into the excellent Arabic food (main courses from Dh40 to Dh70). Darcy's Kitchen (00968 24 600 234) in Jawharat Al Shatti, Qurum, is a cosy eatery which serves up breakfasts, lunch platters and refreshing drinks (main courses between Dh20 and Dh70). Or drive up to Mumtaz Mahal (00968 24 605 907), an excellent Indian restaurant that looks out across the city and sea, for its rich curries, spicy kebabs and live music (main courses from Dh100).

A stroll through the labyrinthine, covered alleys of the oud-scented Muttrah Souq on the Corniche will reveal surprising treasures. Look for silver khanjar (sheathed daggers), jewellery made of Maria Theresa thaller (coins that used to be the currency in which Oman traded before 1940) and frankincense - the best comes from the Governate of Dhofar. The souq is also a good place to source silk pashminas and copperware, but remember to drive a hard bargain. Juma Market, or the Friday Market, in Wadi al Kabir, is a 30-year-old bazaar where tradesmen lay out everything from cheap textiles to antiques.

Stepping out between 2pm and 4pm for a spot of shopping, or sightseeing, or anything, really - the taxis disappear from the streets, the shopkeepers head for home and the city shuts down completely. Do what the locals do and indulge in a siesta - it's the best way to spend a scorching afternoon in Muscat.

The fish market from the 1960s that sits adjacent to Mina Qaboos Port on the Corniche. Regeneration plans are underway to transform it into a huge waterfront attraction, so don't miss an opportunity to visit before it becomes unrecognisable. The best time to get there is early in the morning, when the dhows sail in with their precious cargo. Once docked, utter mayhem ensues - the fish is unloaded amid much shouting and gesturing, and the various crates and boxes piled up on the pier are quickly filled with kingfish, mounds of sardine, tuna, snapper, hammour and shellfish before being taken into the main trading hall.

Don't leave Muscat without visiting the Grand Mosque in Bousher. Made of 300,000 tonnes of Indian sandstone, it's a majestic sight, with a sparkling gold dome, slender minarets and an opulent, marble-laid prayer hall which houses the world's second largest handwoven carpet and a 14-metre-tall Swarovski crystal chandelier. ciyer@thenational.ae