A combination of old Arabia and the modern Gulf. The defining factor about Oman is the participation of Omanis in the service and hospitality industry.
By Sumathi Ramanathan
You know you are in for a really great holiday when you are boarding a flight packed with residents of the destination who are friendly, courteous, engaging and eager to welcome you even before you leave your point of departure.
That was the experience a month back when my girl friends and I decided to spend a long weekend of adventure holidays and outdoor activities in Oman. Little did we know that our Oman trip would be one of the best short breaks we have done together as a travelling posse.
As seasoned business and leisure travellers, all three of us were jolted from our jaded view of travel by the sheer simplicity and gracious welcome that we received in the land of Oman. Whilst we enjoyed the Chedi, a beautiful resort with its stunning pools, afternoon brunches and sandy beach, our holiday truly came to life when we went out to explore the city of Muscat and on our tour of Nizwa.
We were guided by our driver, Suleyman, a Muscat native and proud Omani. The defining factor about Oman is the participation of Omanis in the service and hospitality industry. From our driver to the restaurant managers, hotel service staff, museum guides and customer service personnel at major attractions - our experience was enhanced by our interactions with the Omani citizens who are a fabric of the tourism industry and the ecosystem. The pride and passion for their country coupled with a warm welcome and gentle, calm manner that seems to personify the people of Oman promised the beginning of a memorable trip.
It didn’t take us long to fall for the charm of Muscat; in contrast to the skyscrapers and towering building landscapes common in the other capitals of Gulf States, Muscat’s charm lies in its low lying white buildings which dot the clean and peaceful city. As among the oldest cities in the Middle East, Muscat provides a sense of space and openness due to the low density of buildings (both in numbers and height). It some aspect, it is like being back in the smaller cities of Europe, where the pace of life is slower, the lull of the sea breeze from the cornice is palpable and time seems to stand still and you feel yourself transported back to the old Arabia that you vaguely recall from the movies.
The rich Islamic heritage, arts and culture of Arabia was visible at the glorious Grand Mosque, which is quietly imposing from the outside and achingly beautiful inside. The architecture embraces Persian, Mughal and Bedouin inspirations which results in a rich tapestry of arts and culture, and showcases the diversity of influence in this country. This is the only mosque in the country opened to non-Muslims and is one of the largest in the Gulf. Understated simplicity with the selective use of rich architecture is a recurring theme we witnessed in Muscat. The Royal Opera House, built along the same vein, is a pride for Oman and a triumph for the Middle East. The architectural masterpiece stands out of its desert locale and spreads across 80,000 square metres of land. The building, made out of Omani desert rose stones, is a splendid example of traditional Omani architectural sensibilities. Whilst we didn’t get to catch a performance, the short visit to the Opera House left us in awe – we were welcomed by ushers resplendent in their pristine dishdasha and colourful muzzar (turban) who allowed us a quick sneak peek into the lobby where we were stunned by the intricate beauty of the rich Arabesque interior. Whilst opera and classical performance may be a niche interest, a visit to this stunning building is highly recommended to any visitor to Muscat.
Our love affair with Oman continued in an unlikely place – a perfume factory. Amouage, a niche luxury perfume house, a home-grown Omani brand (with involvement of perfumers from Grasse in South of France) is recommended for any purveyors of perfume and luxury. Amouage is the modern manifestation of the 2,000-year-old perfumery heritage of Oman. We were told by our friendly Omani hostess that it is known as the gift of kings as the ruler originally commissioned it as a royal gift to his guest. It later became a commercial venture and partly was conceived to revive the frankincense industry in Oman. Frankincense is the scent of Oman, deeply entrenched in the culture and was an important export in ancient Oman. Till today, it features in the form of incense in homes and offices and features in the perfumes made in Oman. Amouage is now known as one of the most valuable perfumes available in the market. The fragrance house has extended its product range and now offers luxurious scented candles and beautifully designed leather wash bags which make for very special gifts to bring home, a gift fit for kings.
And if you prefer to buy gifts which would not break the bank, the Muttarah Souk offers a colourful and wallet friendly shopping fun activities and experiences. Whilst the Middle East is famed for its souks and the Muttarah Souk in Muscat is similar to the others one encounters in the region, there is a singular difference that makes the souk experience more pleasant – the lack of haggling and pressure from the stall owners. It was almost a surreal to walk along the souk at its peak hour and to be left at one’s will to browse and look at the items on offer. This is a business technique that other souks in the Middle East could learn from – my friends shopped the most that they had ever done in a souk.
Throughout our journey of adventure holidays and outdoor activities, our experience of this charming city was animated by the Muscat-ites. The people we encountered were a cosmopolitan mix of Arabic tribes and Indian, Baluchi and African descendants. They are all proud of their country but it is a sense of pride refreshingly devoid of arrogance. From the friendly wrinkled weather-worn smile of the fishmonger in the fish market to the guide who politely asks you to leave the mosque nearing closing time and our wonderful driver guide who patiently answered all our curious questions, treated us to lunch at a traditional Omani café and sent us home with tin packed Omani halwa, the people of Muscat and Oman made us feel at home and full of fun activities, showed us the best of Khaleeji hospitality and had us promising to be back to the land of frankincense and smiles.
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque photos by Allan Grey (Flickr)
Other photos also culled from Flickr.