27 FEB 2017:  Flying on Oman Air from Abu Dhabi to Muscat, we already got a sense of the welcoming nature of the country. The flight attendant offered us a date and a coffee – the traditional way to greet a guest in an Omani home. In contrast to the glitz of the flashy mega malls and super skyscrapers of the UAE, Oman’s signature is a rich cultural heritage and warm hospitality.

The Sultanate of Oman sits on the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula located along the ancient Frankincense Route. Today, it is one of the most developed and stable countries in the Arab world and many say it’s the place to go for an “authentic” Arabian experience. Muscat, its capital, is more than 5,000 years old.

Up until 1970, Oman was a conservative, developing nation with little in the way of roads, schools, and hospitals. Since Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said took power in 1970, replacing his father as leader, the country has undergone massive change. Qaboos is the 14th-generation descendant of the founder of the Al Bu Sa'idi dynasty and the longest serving Arab leader in present day. He has absolute power in his country and from what we saw he seems to have an eye for beauty.

Oman has paced its development to maintain its traditions. While Muscat has plenty of new, modern buildings, most are built with an eye to traditional Islamic architecture and in the colours of the sand so that they fit in seamlessly with nature and culture. Old world splendour has not been usurped.

Many of the highways we drove along were lined with gorgeous flowers and trees. Art and culture offerings included the magnificent Grand Mosque (can hold 20,000 worshipers), the Royal Opera House (opened in 2011- the Sultan is an avid fan of classical music), The Bait Al Zubair, a private museum, and the Bait Al Barandah historic museum for a glimpse into the region’s bygone eras.

The Muttrah Souq in Muscat is possibly the oldest market of its kind in the world. Its local name is Al Dhalam Souq which means darkness in Arabic and refers to the subdued light in its sunless maze of narrow lanes crowded with stalls. In earlier days, the market was where Omanis bought all their daily needs: fruits, vegetables, textiles, dates and the like. It’s still a thriving marketplace today but goes beyond essentials to include jewellery, carpets, pottery, all kinds of scarfs and more. It’s a good place to pick up frankincense, perfume oils and a souvenir or two.

Nearby the Souq is the old fish market – a modern large building is currently under construction to house it - but in the meantime the daily catches arrive around sunrise to this small, wet, smelly but colourful place. Oman waters are teaming with fish and a wide variety of seafood is on the menu of many hotels and restaurants in Muscat. Oman also supplies many of its neighbouring countries with fresh fish (shari, snapper, red mullet, tuna, sea bream, hamour, king fish, barracuda, and more), prawns, local (clawless) lobster, crab, oysters and octopus from its waters.

Turkish House Restaurant was the spot in town to dine on that fresh fish along with fresh salads, appetizer plates and copious food at great value. We found the local shrimp grilled and the red mullet deep-fried were our favourites. The salads were plentiful and could serve at least four and the small appetizer plate of traditional dishes such as hummus (chickpea dip), tabbouleh (parsley based salad), baba ghanoush (roasted eggplant) and labneh (thick, creamy yoghurt cheese) was more than enough for the two of us. The fresh baked bread that came with it was huge and could've served perhaps eight or more hungry people.

Forts are another thing in abundance in this land. At the museum in the Nizwa Fort they state: "Over 1000 forts, castles and watchtowers continue to stand guard over the Omani landscape". Nakhal Fort is one of the most significant forts. We took the 90-minute drive from Muscat through some of the country’s stunning landscape to visit the fort and nearby hot springs. It's gorgeous from the outside and inside and has terrific views over the nearby town and the date palms of the surrounding oasis. Tucked away among the date farms a couple of kilometres from Nakhal Fort are famous hot springs, Ain Al Thawarah, which locals love to bathe in.

I had originally wanted to visit the United Date Factory to learn more about dates, which are at the forefront of Oman’s society, hospitality and gift giving. The Sultanate is home to more than 250 indigenous varieties and the date is the most important fruit crop in the country, occupying nearly 50% of the cultivated land. However, the Factory was closed for the season (dates are a seasonal fruit) and in the end the visit to the fort and its surrounding date farms was a perfect alternative.

Our driver Abu Ahmed of cab #13 (25 years in the business) had suggested Nakhal as a substitute activity after we had toured Muscat. On the way back he stopped and got us coffee and a date on his tab. It was a friendly gesture that was as welcoming as the land itself.

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Margaret Swaine

Margaret is a nationally published wine, spirits, food and travel writer, who has authored thousands of articles on these subjects for magazines and newspapers.

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