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Beauty has an address ~ Oman

Muscat: my kind of town

Fiona Dunlop
Dec 31, 2007
An Omani man watches the world and its dhows go by on Muscat's Arabian Sea harbour

Why Muscat?
For an Arabia peopled by civilised Omanis, for aromas of frankincense, the glittering Arabian Sea against a dramatic mountainous backdrop, date-palms, watchtowers, elegant men in kummah (embroidered caps) and flowing dishdasha (long robes), and a souk by the sea. Muscat brings all these together on a human scale, despite snaking highways joining the dots of what was once a string of fishing villages. Above all, the Omani capital presents a gracious and accessible face of Islam: Oman will undoubtedly be one of the destinations for 2008.

What do you miss most when you are away?
The understated sense of order spiked with quaint idiosyncracies, the climate (hot yet dry, which a taxi-driver once told me was "useful") and the courteousness of the people, who are educated enough to know that their oil will run out.

What's the first thing you do when you return?
I head for Muttrah bay to watch the dhows, catch the breeze on the corniche, and watch old men sitting cross-legged, smoking and playing dominoes. For instant fortification, I indulge in gooey-rich halwa made from black Omani cane-sugar, butter, almond and saffron, which I wash down with a bitter local coffee at one of the waterfront coffee shops.

Where's the best place to stay?
Hotel rooms in Muscat are like gold dust, but I usually stay at the friendly Omani Beach Hotel, 116 Mina Al-Fahal, Shatti Al Qurum (00968 24 696601; www.motifoman.com; doubles from £90 per night). Nothing fancy, but with a great location near the beach and a cluster of little restaurants, so I can actually use my feet for once.

Where would you meet friends for a drink?
The relatively central Grand Hyatt in Shatti Al Qurum (24 641234) is a local favourite for a discreet tipple, either in the calm recesses of the John Barry Bar (named after a local shipwreck) or the Safari Pub, which really buzzes later in the evening. For a more authentic atmosphere, I'd choose the rooftop bar of the Marina Hotel in Muttrah (24 711711/879), which has fabulous sunset sea views to the tunes of the muezzin.

Where are your favourite places for lunch?
The Kargeen Café in Madinat Qaboos (24 692269; www.kargeencaffe.com) has ethnic designer touches, unusual for Oman, despite its shopping-centre location, and a lovely courtyard garden. The home-made breads, salads, houmous, moutabel (a spicy aubergine dip) and barbecued meats are excellent and there are plenty of international dishes for nostalgic expats too. The ever-expanding Turkish House at Al Khuwair (24 680306) dishes up Turkish/Mediterranean cuisine with an Omani flavour, and though low on style has a cheerful, fast and furious pace. It's functional, relatively cheap and hits the spot. Be prepared to queue for a table.

And for dinner?
Mumtaz Mahal (24 605907) beats them all hands down, and has awards to prove it. Located on Qurum's hilltop, it has sweeping views of the coast and city below. This makes it an unrivalled nocturnal spot, so booking is essential. The Indian cuisine is top-notch, service friendly and professional and the wine list very respectable. It excels at seafood but I rarely resist the Chennai murg masala (boneless chicken with coconut, curry leaves and black pepper).

Where would you send a first-time visitor?
The soaring Grand Mosque (completed in 2001) is a stunning showcase of expertly crafted Islamic design features. It also contains the world's largest Persian carpet, a blindingly extravagant Swarovski crystal chandelier and surprising hi-tech details.

What would you tell them to avoid?
Any hypermarket or shopping mall that a local tells you is fantastic: it won't be.

Public transport or taxi?
With a distance to cover of about 25 miles from west to east, you really need wheels. Taxis are easy to come by, safe and reasonably priced.

Handbag or moneybelt?
Definitely a handbag, as chic as can be in this prosperous society. Many women in full black niqab clutch Chanel or Gucci.

What should I take home?
Frankincense, in-your-face jewellery (old Bedouin silver or glowing 24-carat gold, both sold by the weight), a khanjar (beautifully crafted Omani silver dagger), or attar (essential oil) in a whimsical glass bottle and spices. The best place for all this is the Muttrah souk, though bargaining is essential. For dazzling modern necklaces of semi-precious stones go to the Rawabi Craft Shop (24 712500).

And if I've only time for one shop?
Muscat Turath, the proverbial Aladdin's Cave at the heart of Muttrah souk, which has a wonderful array of antiques, silver and chunky jewellery - you can spend anything from a few pounds to a few thousand.