A fast-changing Muscat still manages to retain some of its medieval charm

Muscat has, for me, always conjured up the image of a sandy, hilly city, with silver bedecked Bedouins astride lumbering camels. The reality, as I found out, was quite different. The Bedouins had disappeared, so had the sand (except at the periphery of the city), and the authentic silver jewellery had been replaced by Janpath look-alikes. The camels had been replaced by cars.

But, part of my romantic imagination was realised. The white-washed capital with its gold-and-blue domes and glittering turquoise sea was stunningly evocative of Arabian Nights. The Omanis epitomise the genie with their gown, headgear and hospitable nature.

Muscat is Oman's capital and its largest city as well. Unlike the Gulf states Abu Dhabi and Dubai — its immediate neighbours — Muscat has low-rise buildings that follow a common architectural design, giving the city a definite stamp and identity.

Geographically, the city lies on the Arabian Sea, along the Gulf of Oman, and is in the proximity of the strategic Straits of Hormuz.

The Al Hajar Mountains dominate the western flank of the city, while the port district of Mutrrah, with its corniche and harbour, forms the north eastern periphery. Muscat's economy depends on petroleum, trade and port activities.

Oman and India have served the same masters. The Portuguese and the Persians conquered Muscat at various periods in its history. Nadir Shah wreaked havoc in Muscat much as he did in Delhi.

Coastal drive

Our group of 20 theatre artistes, who had arrived for a performance at a festival, was determined to check out some of the city's historic and tourist spots. And so, our host arranged for an air-conditioned bus with a shy but obliging Omani bus driver and one of his own assistants as a guide to help us explore the city. We were advised to take the coastal drive, said to be the most beautiful.

We left our hotel, the gorgeous Al Nahda Resort and Spa, and got on to the highway, dotted with elegant and slender roundabouts featuring marvellous clock towers. We crossed the As Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque (built using 300,000 tonnes of Indian sandstone), with its exquisite gold dome.

We drove through the Diplomatic Area with its elegant white government buildings and gleaming, wide roads, whooping in unison at the sight of the sea, which suddenly appeared. We headed straight to Al Qurm Beach, running out like little children, sinking bare feet into the sand and yelping in pain as the heat singed our toes.

After some of us had soaked ourselves in the warm and inviting waters, we returned to the bus. We crossed a fortified wall and drove into Darsayt, near the building of the Port Services Corporation, past Muscat's famous fish souk, and entered the old city by the harbour.

Sailing away

We girls sailed into the Muttrah souk despite the boys' protests, in the hope of picking up Omani handicrafts. Unfortunately, most of the knick knacks seemed to have been manufactured in India. Some shopping was done, however, at the gold souk.

We stopped for lunch at a wayside café, eating delicious Omani kebabs with aromatic rice and puffed on sheesha .

From old Muscat, we drove past Al Mirani and Al Jalali forts, constructed in the 16th Century by the Portuguese. The two forts, astride rocky pinnacles, once defended the Muscat harbour and the old city from sea-borne attacks and commanded a magnificent view of them. Their smooth walls now house museums that exhibit old and traditional Omani artefacts such as weapons, household goods and silver jewellery. Visitors are not encouraged to enter, but are allowed to photograph the buildings from outside.

From Al Jalali we raced towards the Sultan's palace. Sadly, he only uses this palace for visiting dignitaries, and so we had to remain content photographing its artistic exterior.

After that, we drove southwards, on As Saidiyah and Sidab Streets, past Sidab harbour and Marina Bandar, where there was an aquarium, to Scenic Steps, a pretty road zig-zagging through hills, commanding amazing views of the harbour.

The sharp climbs and dips of the broad, tarred road were picturesque. From the scenic drive, we moved towards Bandar Al Jissah, a lovely, secluded beach surrounded by coral reefs and turquoise waters.

After a couple of photo-ops, we made our way back to our resort, and to cups of steaming Omani coffee, and then, India.

Keywords: Muscatvacation