Food and the city..the hags are here to eat and then tell you about it!

Friday, June 17, 2005

OMAN

The prince consort’s criteria were hot, relaxing, luxurious – money not an issue. I don’t know how I happened upon Oman. To my embarrassment I had to look it up on the map. I vaguely knew it was somewhere in the Middle East, but that was about it. When I told people at work where we planned to take the week off, we were met with blank stares of puzzlement. Basically I wanted somewhere with guaranteed hot weather with zero probability of rain, less than 10 hours by flight from London and a luxurious resort. Surprisingly this is hard to find in the month of May, with only one week to book the holiday. Yes, it was very last minute.

We travelled with Gulf Air to Muscat, the capital of Oman. I have to admit I am very impressed with Gulf Air and its service. First I looked up on the web to make sure it had an impeccable terrorist free flight history. The plane was medium sized complete with personal entertainment screens. Always a welcomed addition. The air stewardesses were smiley, accommodating and easy on the eye. Another welcome change from the grumpy post-menopausal airline attendants on Qantas or British Airways. Attitude major.

Gulf Air

I definitely recommend to dig a little deeper and pay the extra £40 or so to get a direct flight. If not, an eight hour flight can be turned into a 14 hour nightmare. Food wasn’t crash hot, but I have had worse. We were surrounded by heaps of Indian and Pakastani people. This was great, as this meant all the free English magazines they provided were plentiful and up for grabs.

We landed into Muscat and it was exactly how I expected. A small arse airport in the middle of nowhere. We got off the plane and expected a rush to get past passport control. To our amazement, the whole plane full of people rushed off in another direction to catch connecting flights. Abruptly we were alone. We hesitantly approached the Travelex desk to buy our visas. Most countries can purchase their visas on arrival (just check with your embassy) for just $US12, rather than going through the hassle of journeying to the Oman embassy in your own country. Travelex also gives you the great option of exchanging all the Omani Riyal you didn’t use after your holiday, for exactly the same exchange rate you bought it at, free of charge. A word of caution – the Sterling is weaker than the Omani Riyal. Yes, we were horrified too.

Oh, and if you’re a fan of alcohol – buy it at Heathrow. If you forget, you can get it at higher than normal prices at the limited selection at Muscat airport. As you would expect, alcohol is quite pricey in Oman with mainly only hotels serving it. We bought two bottles of Jacobs Creek at Muscat airport for about £4 each. We should have bought a slab of Fosters’ beer now thinking back. We immediately regretted not doing so after looking at the hotel’s minibar prices. £4 for a small can of beer.

We proceeded to passport control. Good thing there wasn’t a huge queue. As I said before, there was just us. They must have taken a good ten minutes to process our passports after a lot of muttering and debating. We were ushered to the conveyer belt to collect our baggage. Panic started to seep in when we saw that none of the conveyor belts appeared to be working. No bags were in sight. It was like a ghost airport. Had we taken so long after disembarking that they had presumed we weren’t going to collect and decided to pillage the goods and divide it amongst themselves? Prince consort spotted our lonely bag in one corner of the airport. A group of men in security clothing sat in one corner and especially turned on the X-ray conveyor belt for us to use. We felt extremely special.

We were greeted by a private car and whisked away to the hotel. As expected the surrounding environment was very dry and isolated. As we approached the city, huge impressive white-washed houses with turrets and arches loomed into view. It reminded me of the set of Star Wars where Luke Skywalker grew up. Very romantic and impressive. Within 10 minutes were had arrived. The Chedi , the hotel we were staying at doesn’t look impressive on the outside, like most Muslim buildings. Calm and serene on the outside, but hidden beauty within. Check out the website– it’s breathtaking.

Lounge

Waterway

Chedi Lounge

We stayed five nights in total – all we could afford really. Upgrade to the Deluxe rooms – it’s well worth it considering the increase in space. The rooms are tastefully decorated with the right balance between modern and traditional. My only qualm is the absence of a bath. The shower is heavenly however. One of those rainforest walk-in showers which seems to be in the vogue nowadays. Trendy bathrobe and slippers are provided. The slippers are the most wonderful! Heavily cushioned and luxurious – feels like you’re constantly walking on thick fluffy carpet! Extravagence for the feet. Complimentary bottled water and a fruit bowl (bananas, lychees, rambutans) are filled everyday. Service is excellent. Ask for something and it’ll appear minutes later. Rooms are serviced twice a day, so you’ll never have to suffer the indignity of using a bath towel twice. (Well at least for the duration of your stay here). The bed is king-sized with the highest quality smooth white sheets. Making each night an absolute bliss to slumber into the huge downy soft pillows.

Bedroom

The actual property on which this hotel is sited it quite small. They have two beautiful pools. One is called the Infinity Pool (for adults only) and the only one we swam in. This pool is gorgeous, not only to look at but also to swim in. It’s huge – about 50 metres in length, overlooking the beach and ocean. Large lounge areas are provided in the shade for people who make it to the poolside early. Otherwise they have a limited supply of sun loungers scattered around the pool, garden and beach. Large palm trees everywhere shield you from the sun if you so wish. Forget about snorkelling in the ocean for tropical fish and coral. Nada. But the water is astonishingly hot though – like a hot bath – maybe a little too hot for marine life.

Infinity Pool

Lounges around Infinity Pool

Palm trees

The resort was full of couples mainly of European origin – obviously of some money. A few Americans. The favourite book it seemed was Dan Brown’s ‘Da Vini Code’ – nearly every second person was reading it – including myself. A definite recommended read, although on hindsight, it is hard to separate truth from ficton.
Roasting....baking

Sand caked toes


The Chedi Pool is for those families with children. Their famous restaurant overlooks this stunning pool. I wouldn’t recommend this resort for children or for those wanting an active holiday. A holiday here is designed for mulling, sunbaking, reading, eating and escaping from reality. There isn’t much else to do here. A few over-eager zealous types we spotted using the modern air-conditioned gym. Our initial plan was to use this facility – but after a few hours lazing in the sun, nothing could be furtherest from out mind.

The Chedi Pool

Garden

Breakfast is of the usual high standard you would expect. A whole smorgasboard of the usual American breakfast suspects. Cold cuts of meat, cheese and fresh bread are available for the European inclined. Tropical fruits, yoghurt and musli for the health conscious. You can ask for a freshly made omelette or pancakes if you are so inclined. You can lounge back and take your time with a freshly brewed pot of coffee and an english Omani paper.

Breakfast/Dinner room

Treats

Cold cuts

Desserts

Breakfast

Pancakes

Tropical fruits

It is possible to see all of Muscat’s sights in one day. We hired a honest taxi driver for three hours and only paid 23 Riyal. He even talked about the sights as we drove by, with an excellent fluency in English. Everywhere you go, you will see large portraits of their sultan, Qaboos Bin Said. A great man it seems who has done much to put Oman on the map. He actually overthrew his father in 1970 in a bloodless coup and ruled Oman which much more liberal and expansionist policies. His mark is everywhere. Free schooling, everyone is fluent in English, traditional buildings have been renovated to excellent condition, heathcare revamped. He allowed citizens to wear sunglasses again, once banned by his father.

The Omani people are extremely friendly here and don’t pester tourists much in the city. They are very polite and we only had one run in – with a dishonest taxi driver (is there ever any other kind?) They also constantly surprised us with their fluency in English and their readiness to smile.

We visited the fish souq which was a very small open aired market with white archways. The place, as expected reeked off fish and saltiness of the sea. Men crouched on the floor beside their wares caught that very morning.

Fish Souk

Mmmm....fish

Nearby they were selling live chickens and beheading them in front of you (grinning at tourists insanely too whilst at it).

Live Chooks!!!

We visited one of the main souks (Muttrah Souk), which we didn’t spend much time at. I was quite disappointed. I thought it would be dirty, dusty and full of atmosphere. Somewhere Indiana Jones would be forced to flee into chase by adversaries. Instead we were greeted with sterile clean alleyways lined with shops all selling the same thing – jewellery or clothes.

Souk

Blaaaaack!!!!


We visited the Mirani Fort. You can’t go inside and government business is conducted inside, but it’s nice to spend a while taking pictures from the sea coast. We went on the drive by their main Mosque. We couldn’t go in as it was prayer time, but an impressive view from the outside nevertheless.

Fortress

Fortress

Mosque

Mosque

We did visit some of their main shopping centres. Mostly three storied buildings all containing similar things. They certainly like their electronics and jewellery. Every shop window was filled with the latest digital cameras, plasma screens and PDAs.

Shopping centre

There wasn’t much in the way of clothing shops as most men wear the traditional brilliant white dishdashes and kummas (peakless caps). Women’s attire distinctively comprises a set of four clothings including the thawb or dishdasha, sirwaal pantaloons, waqaya (scarf) and al-leisu.

Food in Muscat isn’t much to talk about I’m afraid. We ate once outside the hotel in a new restaurant called Beirut. They were extremely imaginative in their non-alcoholic cocktails – and very tasty as well. The food comprised of lots of hummous, pitta bread, grilled meats and the like. Nothing out of the ordinary or that we haven’t tasted before.

We dined at The Chedi’s main dining area which we had to book ahead, as every night is always booked out. The restaurant comprises of 4 kitchens all in open view in glass cubicles – a novel concept. The menu is divided into the what the four kitchens represent – Asian, Mediterranean, Indian and Arabic. The food was tasty and well presented – although it didn’t surprise us with innovative and imaginative textures and flavours. It reminded us how fantastic it is to live in London and to have such a tremendous variety of cuisines available to us.

Restaurant

Restaurant

Beef carpaccio

Fish Tandoori

Chicken coucous

Five days was plenty and we achieved what we had come for. An all-over tan, pampering and relaxation. We had gone in the hottest month of May but it hardly bothered us as the winds from the costal areas kept the air cooler than it really was. Having said that, temperatures were still in the mid-30s – and very humid. We thoroughly recommend a break here. Probably wouldn’t spend more than a week here though. It’s also recommended to avoid it during the month of Ramadan as the whole country practically closes down and it’s illegal to consume alcohol at any time – even in major hotels. Think of visiting Oman if you’re looking for luxury resorts, guaranteed hot weather, hospitable locals and away from the usual tourist trail.

HRH







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