Just 2,5 days for visiting Oman is just plain ridiculous for a country of a size comparable to Italy or Poland. But that’s what you get when visiting Oman on a cruise; you hardly get the time to get to know a place. During our cruise in the Persian Gulf – with other stops at Dubai and Abu Dhabi – that was all the time we had to see as much as possible of the second largest country on the Arabian peninsula.
One of those days our Costa Cruises floating home for 6 days was moored in the harbor of Khasab on the Musandam peninsula – our second stop –, a small Omani enclave completely surrounded by the United Arab Emirates. That effectively left us with 1,5 day for the rest of this desert country on our first stop, so we had to make some choices on what to see and what to do.
Renting a car
We decided to go for a more cultural take on Oman and head for the 16th and 17th century fortresses of Nizwa and Jabrin (also spelled Jibreen, Jibrin and Gibrin). This was good for us to know because instead of going on an organized Costa Cruise tour (we shudder at thought of it) we’d arranged for rental car being delivered to us at the cruise harbor through the Omani office of Avis.
That way we’d be able to keep our own schedule and – if possible – time our visits to Nizwa and Jabrin on moments the other cruise passengers were not there. Added bonus: renting a car for the day would save us half the money of taking a tour. In the end we drove about 450 kilometers and only spent 10 euros on gas! The only disadvantage: Avis got to the harbor 45 minutes later than the appointed time.
Driving in Oman
Getting out of Oman’s capital Muscat – spread out for forty kilometers along the coast – was fairly easy and once the road turned inland towards Nizwa, taking a wrong direction on the four lane highway was nearly impossible. The only thing that threw us of off course a few times were the many road works around Nizwa, but by asking the friendly locals we found our way through the town.
The highway led us through wild and empty mountain and desert landscapes, the only sign of modern times in this rugged environment being the smooth tarmac of the almost empty highway, inviting drivers to go fast. Though most locals drove past us at high speeds, completely disregarding the speed cameras positioned every few kilometers, we respectably obeyed the 120 km/h speed limit.
This had less to do with the high fines for speeding offences in Oman than the annoying signal that the built-in speed limiter of our car gave off every time we drove a little too fast. Speaking of fines: in Oman you can get fined when your car is too dirty!
This fort is one of the best kept of a string of forts all over Oman. It has been so extensively renovated that it almost looks brand new. We normally are not big fans of this kind of over restauration. Nonetheless we liked it very much. Thanks to many historical furnishings it was possible to get a good idea of how the ruling Omani lived in the old times.
Next to a museum inside the fort there’s also a small tourist souq (market) selling pottery, silverware and handicrafts and a local fresh food market selling meat, vegetables and spices on the fort’s grounds. Unfortunately most food market stalls had closed for the day when we exited the fort around 1 PM. Early every Friday morning (around 7.30 AM) a lively livestock market is held at Nizwa Souq as well.
After lunch at a small local Indian curry restaurant near the fort (quick, cheap, filling and delicious) we headed for Jabrin Castle which was more of a summer residence for the sultan than a defensive structure. Nevertheless the castle had some built-in tricks to keep possible invaders at bay; a challenge to find without the aid of a guide. The castle rooftop and towers afforded sweeping views across the surrounding desert.
On the 2,5 hour drive back to Muscat we made a short stop at the ruined houses in the oasis village of Birkat-al-Mauz, just off the highway but also off the beaten track. Despite it’s close proximity to Nizwa only few visitors get here. It’s a nice detour to see how ordinary houses are built using traditional techniques and materials. The seemingly half deserted village was somewhat mysterious.
Muscat by taxi
The next morning we started the day early to see the sights of Muscat before our ship would sail at 2 PM. As most of the sights are spread out over the city we chartered a taxi on the street to take us for a city tour, dropping us of at the Muttrah Souq at the end, in walking distance of the harbor.
First stop: by far the most important sight in Muscat – the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. This imposing piece of marble architecture, that can hold 20.000 worshippers, was a ‘gift’ of the Omani people to sultan Qaboos, the current ruler who dragged Oman into a new modern era after ousting his father forty years ago.
At the time of its completion fifteen years ago it sported the biggest chandelier (14 meters) and the biggest hand-woven carpet (4.300 square meters in size and weighing 21 tonnes) in the world. Not much later the friendly neighbors from the sultanate of Abu Dhabi decided to outdo them on both fronts when building the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Records are to be broken.
Still, the Sultan Qaboos Mosque is a sight to behold, absolutely stunning. After admiring it for 1,5 hours the other sights in Muscat – the Al Jilali and Al Mirani Forts, the Qasr Al Alam Royal Palace (which all cannot be entered) and Muttrah Souq – merely seemed blah. The souq is a good place to do some souvenir hunting though and is nice to wander around for a while.
Non-Muslims are allowed to visit the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque every day, except Friday, from 9-11 AM. Visitors are asked to dress modestly and in a way befitting places of worship, meaning that legs should be covered at all times. Women are also required to cover their arms and hair. We saw people being refused entry when ankles, wrists or tattoos were not covered completely. Eugénie was lucky: the tattoo on her foot escaped the attention of the mosque guards.
Smugglers haven Khsasab
After a nights sailing our second stop in Oman was the harbor of Khasab, strategically located on the easternmost tip of the Arabian peninsula, jutting into the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow passage separating the Persian Gulf from the Indian Ocean. Important, as much of the crude oil from the Middle East has to pass this Strait to find its way to the world market.
Because it’s also the shortest route to Iran Khasab is also an important transit hub for smuggling consumer goods that, due to the (recently lifted) embargo on trade with Iran, were hard to get by in the country.
At the end of the day pickup trucks packed beyond their capacity arrived in the harbor after which goods – ranging from lip balm and soda cans to plasma tv’s and motorcycles – got transferred to small speedboats that would make the crossing to Iran using the cover of the night. Quite a spectacle. And all this under the watchful eyes of cruise passengers and harbor officials alike.
But this was not the reason for the stop in Khasab of course. The main reason to go here is to make a dhow cruise (a dhow is a traditional wooden sailing vessel, mainly used to transport goods). Again we didn’t use a tour from the cruise company but had pre-booked a dhow cruise through the internet: considerably cheaper and with far less people on the dhow. It’s also possible to book at the spot, the dhow companies are waiting for cruise passengers at the gate to the quay.
The dhow cruise takes you into the so-called khors, sometimes compared to the fjords of Norway, but that is exaggerating it a bit. But the scenery was great with the fiery red and orange colors of the mountains contrasting with the blue sea and sky. Two stops were made for some snorkeling, which was not very spectacular, however, and the water was surprisingly cold. The star attraction were the dolphins that swam with the dhows several times. Fun to see. Altogether it was a very relaxing day.
We visited Oman in March 2015