By Pallavi Pasricha
Unlike the dazzle of other Middle Eastern destinations, this low lying city retains the aura of the past-from charming white and beige houses, spectacular mountains and beaches to ancient souks that take you back in time. But interwoven in this is also a heady dose of modernity. We bring you the best of both that will be apt when you visit the city for the first time.
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
The imposing five minarets that took six years to erect and stand for the five pillars of Islam instantly impress the eye in the city's landmark sight. But it is the grandeur of the prayer hall that takes your breath away. Nothing and I mean absolutely nothing can prepare you for the first sight of the beautiful dome with a giant chandelier, second largest in the world, whose more than 1100 bulbs reflect softly. The room has an exquisite Persian carpet resplendent in 28 colours that was woven by 600 women over four years in Iran.
The carpet was the largest in the world (45,208 square feet) till UAE decided to pay a visit, made a bigger one and walked away with this title. They did the same with the chandelier. After roaming around we were taken for Omani coffee and dates that was a very thoughtful touch. Please note that women need to be fully covered, including the head. Otherwise you will have to hire an Abaya at a cost.
Royal Opera House
You may not associate Oman or Muscat with opera but a visit to the Royal Opera House will surprise you. The exquisite architecture and the opulence of this beautiful building appropriately has European touches-velvety red seats, high ceilings and it has even staged shows like "Romeo and Juliet." If you cannot catch a performance, there are daytime tours. Music lovers don't skip a display of some ancient musical instruments. Apart from regular operas they even stage Hindi plays. Mughal-e-Azam will be performed on October 11 and 12.
Museum of Illusions
Bring out the inner child in you as the tricks of science make you laugh, have fun and come back with brilliant pictures. A few examples: the anti gravity room challenges you to stand straight, the Ames room makes you look like a giant and a dwarf when you stand in two different corners. For me the most interesting room was the Vortex tunnel that literally messed with my head because everything around me started moving when I stepped on a path making me feel I will fall if I move. It is located in the Mall of Muscat.
Mutrah Souq and Corniche
Skip the malls and wander through the souq for an experience that not many countries offer. It is lined with shops selling local wares-think fragrant frankincense, Omani silver jewellery, daggers, traditional clothes, antiques and lamps. Or pick up the traditional dresses-Omani men wear white flowing ankle-length robes called wear dishdasha and embroidered caps called kuma. If your wallet is fat enough, pick up frankincense-extracted from the sap of Boswellia sacra trees that grow wild in the Dhofar desert, this is exclusive to Oman. Stroll by at the corniche or seaside promenade in the evening, especially at sunset and catch a glimpse of His Majesty's private yatch.
The Arabian Sea here is home to many of these playful creatures. Barely 30 minutes into the journey in a high-speed boat, we slowed down as we spotted a bunch of long-nosed dolphins frolicking and leaping into the waters. Keep your eyes peeled-they are far off and it's a blink and miss moment. We were lucky to spot quite a few. The Spinners often do acrobatic skills but we could not see those.
Sandwiched between the Al Hajar mountains and the sea, Jebel Sifah is an ideal weekend getaway both for those who want to just laze around and gaze at the gorgeous views or tee off at a nine-hole golf course. The one and a half hour drive from Muscat through the rugged, craggy mountains is beautiful. Jebel Sifah is home to a four-star boutique hotel, a beach club where the infinity pool overlooks the sea and the most scenic golf course that gives you a view of the sea and the mountains. The Sifway hotel has 67 rooms and a multi-cuisine restaurant where you can sample.
Dates, Omani coffee called kahwa, seafood, Omani halwa, traditional bread, mishkak (barbequed meat on skewers) grilled meat-a foodie like me was delighted with what all Oman has to offer, and I tried many interesting things. Shuwa is meat which is so soft that it is nearly falling off the bones-it is slow cooked in a sand oven for at least six hours after it is rubbed with Omani spices and wrapped in leaves. The festive dish is usually made on special occasions, but is also easily available at restaurants serving Omani food. The Bait Al Luban restaurant is one of the best places in the city to try it. Definitely order their bread basket to get a flavour. Other restaurants worth visiting are The Cave and Rozna.
Don't miss the most recent addition in the city. Walk through the tunnel at the largest aquarium in the Middle East to catch a glimpse of sea creatures such as sharks, octopus, crocodiles and penguins. There are more than 50 exhibits so keep time in hand to catch a glimpse of as many as possible.
The hot and humid weather may stop you from beach hopping during the day, but keep one evening to feast your eyes on Muscat's beautiful coastline and watch the sun go down from a white, sandy beach. There are several in the city but head to Al Qurum beach – sprinkled with cafes and restaurants, it is among the prettiest and most happening one in this city.
(The author is a Delhi-based travel writer. Views expressed are personal.)