Guide to the Persian Gulf: Muscat

A country of diverse landscape, Oman has carefully avoided overdevelopment and Disneyfication. Less wealthy than the Emirates, the country was largely closed to the outside world until quite recently: Up until 1970 the walls of its capital, Muscat, were closed every night. Upon coming to power, the enlightened current ruler, Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, embarked on a series of economic and social reforms, developing the country’s infrastructure and investing heavily in its people.

Oman guards the entrance to the Gulf and has had a strategically critical role in the region, which explains the hundreds of forts dotting its hilltops. The country is the mythic home of Sinbad the Sailor, who is believed to have come from Sohar, halfway between Muscat and Dubai, and for centuries the country’s prosperity was based on maritime trade, drawing vessels that sailed from the Indies to the east coast of Africa. As a result, Oman has a pan–Indian Ocean character, with mixed ethnicities and languages.

Muscat, which means “anchorage,” is strikingly beautiful, cradled between craggy hills and the blue sea. The architecture in the historic part of the city has been carefully regulated to ensure that the skyline and the landscape are protected; air-conditioning units are often disguised with wooden latticework frames.

While the city holds few cultural attractions, Muscat’s picturesque landscape and pleasant atmosphere make it a lovely place to spend a day or two. The city proper includes the towns of Muttrah and Ruwi, the former containing the city’s souks, the latter being the business district. I recommend staying at the super-chic Chedi Muscat, a minimalist version of a sprawling desert mansion, cooled by water gardens. (Most people request ocean-facing rooms, but those overlooking the mountains and gardens provide better sunset views.) The hotel’s new beachfront seafood restaurant is excellent, and the catch of the day is always exceptional; the best tables are outside. For those who are happy to stay out of town, there’s Al Bustan Palace, a vast but elegant hotel complex set in a coastal oasis with dramatic mountain views. A highlight here is the Wednesday dinner at Seblat Al Bustan, served in tents amid a palm grove in the hotel gardens, where local music accompanies authentic Omani food. The cuisine is flavored with Indian and Zanzibari touches—liberal use of cardamom, saffron, turmeric, nutmeg, and clove, all vestiges of the country’s trade empire—and the experience of dining in traditional style is enchanting. So, too, is the shuwa, Oman’s signature dish of meat cooked in a charcoal-warmed underground pit.

The finest dining in Muscat can be found in hotels, but the local independent restaurants are charming, too, and they provide a chance to meet Omanis. The most entertaining is Kargeen Café, an outdoor spot ideal for spending evenings lolling on a divan or smoking a shisha. For seafood it’s Blue Marlin, set in the Marina Bander Al-Rowdha, located to the east of Muscat. Oman’s historic role as the center of the dhow trade has long attracted Indian merchants, many of whom have settled in the country permanently. As a result, the North Indian food here is excellent, with the best of it at Mumtaz Mahal. The restaurant sits on a hill with commanding views of the Qurm Nature Reserve. After dinner, the place to be is Left Bank, a cool new bar with a superb terrace just downstairs from Mumtaz Mahal.

Oman is the home of frankincense, the aromatic tree sap that was offered—along with gold and myrrh—by the three Magi upon Jesus’ birth. Treasured in ancient times and burned during worship services at temples, frankincense was traded widely. Demand for the stuff waned with the spread of Christianity and Islam, but visitors to Oman will still notice its distinctive spicy scent, especially at the Old Muttrah Souk, where it is sold in easily packable sizes alongside ornamental daggers, pashminas, and local jewelry.

In front of the market, Muscat’s Corniche is ideal for strolling; eager walkers should follow the road in the direction of Old Muscat, home to the sultan’s fantastic residence, Qasr Al Alam, situated between Al Mirani and Al Jalali forts. Today Al Mirani houses the sultan’s Royal Guard, but Al Jalali can be visited with an entry permit from the Diwan of the Royal Court. In Old Muscat, behind the Qasr Al Alam, the Bait Al Zubair is an elegantly restored historic house with displays of traditional dress and jewelry. For a view of Oman in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, when the country enjoyed close diplomatic ties with France, visitors should stop in to the nearby Omani-French Museum, once the Gallic embassy and today housing a collection of European and Omani artifacts from the period.

Charming as Muscat is, the real pleasure of visiting Oman rests largely in touring the spectacular countryside beyond the city. This can be done from the capital, with custom-tailored four-wheel-drive tours that traverse rocky mountains, sand dunes, and the dried-out river beds called wadis. One should set aside two hours each way for these jaunts, the leading outfitter for which is the UK-based Shaw Travel (the company specializes in bespoke visits to Oman).

A journey to the Sharqiya Sands is memorable for its cinematic desert vistas, and for the adventurous there is nothing like a night spent in the sand under the stars. The Desert Nights Camp, in the Wahiba Sands, consists of 26 stationary tents with en-suite bathrooms and offers the finest overnight desert experience. Activities include camel riding, dune-bashing in SUVs with expert drivers, and watching the sunrise and sunset from the dunes. (Shaw Travel can also arrange luxury mobile safaris in tented camps.) En route from Muscat to the resort, a stop at the goat market in Nizwa on Fridays or the souk at Sinaw on Thursdays is worthwhile; both provide a glimpse of local life. The best mountain views are from Jebel Sham—the highest peak in Oman, which looks out over Wadi Ghul, a smaller version of the Grand Canyon. The approach leads along a remarkably beautiful mountain road that meanders through rugged landscapes dotted with traditional mud-brick and stone mountain villages; Misfat is the most picturesque.

For a total escape in Oman, one must make the five-hour—and, truth be told, not at all scenic—drive from Muscat to the Six Senses Hideaway Zighy Bay. (It’s only a 90-minute drive from Dubai.) This eco-resort, which opened on the coast of the Musandam region about two years ago, is well suited for exploration of the area’s rocky khors (fjords) and gulf waters, which are known for snorkeling and dolphin spotting. Guests can arrive at the hotel via speedboat or Land Rover, or they can descend upon it with a certified paraglider. One of the more subtle highlights of a stay here, though, is the hotel’s restaurant, Sense on the Edge, where chef Gerald Bergue prepares exquisite international plates like beef cheek, marinated for 24 hours in Pinot Noir and served with smoky eggplant caviar. (Bergue is Mauritian-born but was raised in Malawi and trained in Switzerland.) Especially notable are his sorbets in flavors like mango spiced with sumac, coconut with black pepper, and honey with saffron. The resort is ideal for a romantic getaway, and the Private Retreats—secluded villas at either end of the beach, each with a personal spa and an infinity pool—offer the ultimate getaway.

Guide to Muscat

Staying Put

Al Bustan Palace Rooms, from $325. Bustan St.; 968-2/479-9666; albustanpalace.com

Chedi Muscat Rooms, from $495. 232 N. Ghubra; 968-2/452-4400; ghmluxuryhotels.com

Desert Nights Camp Rooms, from $300. Wahiba Sands, Al Wasil, Bidiyah Wilayat; 968-9/281-8388; desertnightscamp.com

Six Senses Hideaway Zighy Bay Rooms, from $900. Zighy Bay, Musandam Peninsula; 968-2/673-5555; sixsenses.com

At Table

Blue Marlin Dinner, $40. Marina Bander Al-Rowdha, Sidab; 968-2/473-7288

Kargeen Café Dinner, $25. Al Wattayah; 968-2/469-9055; kargeencaffe.com

Left Bank Sultan Qaboos St.; 968-2/469-3699; emiratesleisureretail.com

Mumtaz Mahal Dinner, $25. Sultan Qaboos St.; 968-2/460-5979; akgc.net

Seblat Al Bustan Dinner, $48. Al Bustan Palace, Bustan St.; 968-2/479-9666; albustanpalace.com

Sense on the Edge Dinner, $110. Six Senses Hideaway Zighy Bay, Musandam Peninsula; 968-2/673-5555; sixsenses.com

Culture

Al Jalali Fort Qasr Al Alam St.

Al Mirani Fort Qasr Al Alam St.

Bait Al Zubair Al Saidiya St.; 968-2/473-6688; baitalzubairmuseum.com

Omani-French Museum Bait Faransa, Ln. 9310, Qasr Al Alam St.; 968-2/473-6613

Qasr Al Alam Qasr Al Alam St.

Shaw Travel 44-6/354-7055; shawtravel.com