Stuart Forster provides an overview of luxury and shopping in Muscat, Oman.
Looking around Muscat, it’s difficult to believe that just over a generation ago Oman was a country without a single luxury hotel and barely 10km of tarmac road. Times have changed markedly since July 1970, when Qaboos bin Said became the Sultan of Oman.
These days the Gulf Sultanate has more than 10,000km of tarmac road surfaces and zipping along the highway from Muscat International Airport to the centre of Muscat takes just a few minutes by taxi. Life here, for most people, would be almost unimaginable without a car.
On the road in Oman
Looking out of the taxi‘s windows at the white, open-backed four-wheel drive trucks and sizable saloon cars which scoot along the dual carriageway that cuts through the desert, it’s simply not possible for me to picture this as a once insular land. The expansion in the road network is just one of numerous developments in the country’s infrastructure and, in November 2010, helped prompt the United Nations Development Programme to name Oman as the world’s most improved nation over the past 40 years. Today, close by the airport, at the Muscat Hills Golf and Country Club, there’s now even an 18-hole golf course.
As a tourist destination, Muscat now tends to appeal to the top end of the market. The sun-seekers who come here, to lounge around the pools of the top hotels, can look forward to the high international service standards. That said, Omanis pride themselves on the warmth of their hospitality and, while in many spheres of life lessons have been learned by looking abroad, old-fashioned values reign supreme in this respect.
Al Bustan Palace Hotel
Within the magnificent 38-metre high marble atrium of the Al Bustan Palace Hotel Mohammed Hilal Al-Wahibi smiles and offers me locally grown dates and a cup of cardamom-spiced Arabic coffee, poured from a traditional metallic pot known as a dallah, whose protruding spout reminds me of a heron’s beak. Mohammed is dressed in an ankle-length dishdasha and a turban known as a mussah, the clothing normally worn by all Omani men in public spaces. When pours me a second cup I realise I’ve forgotten to shake the cup from side to side; the local sign for ‘no more, thanks‘.
I can’t help wondering whether Mohammed has ever offered a coffee to Sultan Qaboos. The country’s ruler reserves the entire ninth floor of the Al Bustan Palace Hotel for his own use. Guests are not permitted so much as a peek within his quarters. Given the opulence of the atrium and comforts of the 300m² Presidential Suite, which I do get to see, it must be something special.
The hotel’s sea-facing rooms overlook a kilometre-long private beach and palm grove. The cost of the hotel‘s construction, in 1985, which involved flattening a small mountain, and renovation, which was completed in 2008, has never been disclosed.
The boutique shops on the ground floor include an Amouage store, in which the world’s most expensive perfume – whose golden liquid is richly scented with Omani frankincense – can be sampled and bought.
Shopping in Muttrah Souq
To purchase frankincense, which is produced from the dried sap of trees which grow out in the desert, I head to Muttrah Souq in Muscat’s oldest quarter, down by the port. The sweeping Muttrah waterfront is known as the Corniche and is regarded as the best place to come for shops selling gold and intricate Omani silverware.
The covered market offers great opportunities to pick up bargains – so long as you are willing to haggle towards the final price – while simultaneously seeing something of Omani heritage. A heady scent of frankincense wafts through the market’s broad walkways. Stalls selling silks, cashmere scarves, shoes and everyday household items ensure that the market draws locals as well as tourists.
One of the most popular souvenir items are silver Khanjar daggers, which can often be seen worn on the belts of Omani men. The filigree silverwork on the most ornate of the curved scabbards warrants a hefty price no matter how well you can negotiate.
Shopping malls in Muscat
If you are a hardened shopper, you might pass on the opportunity to take a look at the colourful facade of the sultan’s Al Alam Royal Palace in favour of a trip to the Qurum District of Muscat, which hosts several malls. The Al Araimi mall has everything from Bosch electronics to Rolex watches while the Capital Stores complex stocks products by the leading names in the world of haute couture.
After some intense sightseeing and shopping, I‘m glad of the opportunity to relax out at the Chedi resort, whose 350-metre-long private beach leads out into the warm blue water of the Gulf of Oman. Part of this beautifully designed boutique resort, which blends Omani architecture with elements of Zen, is reserved exclusively for adults looking to get away from the stresses of daily life. Families, meanwhile, are welcome around the resort‘s Serai Pool.
Oman’s modernisation may only have begun four decades ago but for visitors seeking luxury experiences, Muscat now has much to offer.
Find out more about the country via the Experience Oman website.
Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.
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