Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Middle Eastern beauty

Oman boasts desert, beaches and souks

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MUSCAT -- The orange sands of the Wahiba desert ripple across Oman's Sharqiyah region for nearly 200 kilometres, a geological fact that was of little concern to me and my friends as our four-wheel-drive vehicle teetered on the crest of a towering Wahiba sand dune.

Switching gears, our grinning driver plunged the vehicle down the steep slope at an angle that seemed certain to overturn us. Somehow, we stubbed bottom upright, and the driver loudly switched into a higher gear, sending us bumping against the slope of the next dune with a jolt that launched us toward the car roof.

Dune-bashing drivers are skilled at the wheel, though few get trained like our 20-something guide, who aimed for a career in the Omani air force and practised driving on flight simulators.

An excursions into Oman's sweeping desert can easily be arranged, whether it's a day trip or extended stay at tiny luxurious resorts that pamper visitors. Taxi drivers in the capital, Muscat, offer to book tours, bargaining in the serviceable English widely used among Muscat's residents.

Frequented by growing numbers of Europeans but still largely undiscovered by North Americans, Oman offers long tracts of public and private sandy beaches, startling desert beauty, souks and bazaars, 3,000 years of rich cultural history and a stable political environment without the strife of its southern neighbour, Yemen, or the severe social restrictions of bordering Saudi Arabia.

Foreigners to this Muslim country are expected to dress modestly, to refrain from elaborate public displays of affection and to respect Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who has ruled Oman with a velvet glove for more than 41 years.

Unlike Dubai, Oman has not sought to impress the world with skyscraper skylines. Instead, Muscat, a chain of suburbs amid hills linked by the four-lane Sultan Qaboos highway, largely retains a human scale. The predominant architecture consists of white-walled residences with pointed-arched windows in the Islamic style.

Government ministry buildings and embassies are stately and elegant.

In the mid-1980s, western-style hotels began to open, welcomed by the sultan, who wisely seeks to diversify Oman's predominant petro economy (gas is so cheap that an SUV fill-up costs about $12). Some hotels are spectacular edifices with towering atriums, such as the one in the 250-room Al Bustan Palace on the coast some 20 minutes' drive south of Muscat, or the Grand Hyatt, an over-the-top mix of African motifs and Arabian Nights fantasy in Qurum, the most modern part of Muscat and site of most big hotels.

The sultan himself supervised construction of two of Muscat's most magnificent buildings, the Grand Mosque, opened in 2001, and the Royal Opera House.

Non-Muslims may enter the white-walled compound of the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque only in the morning and never on the Muslim holy day, Friday. A visit begins at a large gate that leads to geometrically arranged gardens of low shrubs, small trees and delicate fountains. A women's prayer pavilion serves as a prelude to the nearby main mosque, approached on wide expenses of spotless white marble.

Stepping past the mosque's ornately carved doors of Indian teak, your eyes immediately rise toward the high dome where thousands of points of light sparkle from a Swarovski-designed chandelier -- the world's second largest. Together with smaller surrounding chandeliers, the mosque is a symphony of reflected light. Some Muslim faithful find the chandeliers too glamorous, a distraction for the thousands who fill the mosque on Fridays in silent prayer. But whatever one's beliefs, the harmony between chandeliers and dome is undeniably attractive.

Underfoot is the world's second-largest Persian carpet, hand-woven by hundreds of weavers over the course of four years. Before leaving the grounds, I paused at the small office of the Islamic Learning Centre, where a gentle-toned cleric explained Islam in English perfected at the London School of Economics.

The sumptuous Royal Opera House was opened just last year with a production of Puccini's Turandot featuring more than 300 foreign performers. The sultan admires western opera and dance (in November, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal performed there), but he rarely attends Opera House performances, preferring to watch a direct video feed at his palace in Old Muscat. Performances bring out a well-dressed crowd, women in colourful, long, embroidered dresses and men wearing the ubiquitous square cap, the kumar, and the dishdasha, a white, floor-length robe with a small tassel at the collar for splashing a touch of frankincense, produced in Oman for thousands of years.

Bedouin still inhabit Oman's more remote desert areas, and day tours inevitably stop at a Bedouin tent for what is essentially a tourist's eye view of desert life. While my friends and I sat on a rug thrown over the sand, our hosts offered tiny cups of coffee along with some celebrated Omani dates. Handmade rugs and metal ware were shown hopefully for sale. The visit was topped off by a ride aboard a skinny but game camel led on a rope by an intrepid lad of five named Said.

From the Bedouin tent we headed toward the hills an hour away where lay Wadi Bani Khalid, one of many attractive oases that dot Sharqiyah. The wadi is a series of linked pools embraced by limestone cliff faces. One merry couple jumped into the water from a 10-metre bank, swimming through a narrow pass into a grotto that led to yet another pool flanked by a sheer rock face. There lay Muqal Cave, where you must crouch to enter before proceeding under a flashlight's glow through chest-high water, bats lurking overhead, to exit on the other side.

Muscat has little nightlife outside the imported acts at big hotel bars or at the Royal Opera House, but you can spend some agreeable hours exploring the city's indoor bazaars, or souks, which remain open until 11:30 p.m. The largest souk is in Mutrah, opposite the docks where cruise ships lay anchor.

On quiet days, the souk offers an easy walk among stalls selling frankincense, Kashmir scarves and both machine-made and handcrafted kumars in scores of patterns. One lane is dedicated to gold and silver crafts, though it must be said that Omani silver work is not particularly refined. You might find the exquisitely crafted silver-gold earrings that caught your eye were really designed in Italy.

The souk fills quickly when cruise passengers are in town. At such times, leave the tourist-filled lanes and explore the souk's back alleys. Here you'll find local women shopping for floor-length black robes or multi-coloured, sequined raiments.

You'll find some gem stores, too. If you want a gemstone ring for that special someone, stand your ground and fix your price -- you'll get a good deal.

-- Postmedia News


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 23, 2013 A1

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