Drive and explore Oman in 4 days
February 15, 2017 | 7:33 PM
by Felicia Campbell
Alila Jebel Akhdar. Photo: Mehdi Taghavi

With out of town guests coming to visit us in Oman, my husband and I wanted to give them a taste of what makes this country so special. The catch? They were coming for less than a week, ruling out Salalah as a stop on our tour. I began to think about what makes Oman distinctive from other places. One of the most obvious things is the geography. There are few places in the world where you can find stunning coastline, desolate mountain peaks tinged with stepped orchards, and the kind of sprawling desert that has inspired travellers and explorers for centuries. To explore all this, with four adults, what better vehicle than a Toyota? The Land Cruiser, afterall, might as well be the official vehicle of the GCC. This trip provided the perfect opportunity to put its younger brother, the Fortuner, to the test, to see if it could live up to the family legacy.

Our journey began on the coast, right here in Muscat. Our picturesque city of white washed buildings, spectacular mosques, ancient souqs, and bountiful seafood is a fine example of the Sultanate’s coastal treasures. Next up were the historic castles and forts at the base of the Jabal Akhdar Mountains, and then an ascension of the peaks to the picture-perfect Alila hotel. From the high mountains we travelled down to the sea of sand that begins its sprawl in the small town of Bediyah. There we not only observed the spectacular desert views, but also enjoyed an authentic taste of local Bedouin culture at Bediyah Safari Tours where Hamed and his family were our hosts. We ended our whirlwind trip in Old Muscat, where there were so many things left to see and do. [email protected]

Day 1: Muscat and the Sea

9am Visit to the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque.

I’m always surprised to find out how many residents of Oman have never been to this iconic structure. Built in 2001, the mosque is one of the most unique piece of architecture, combining various styles and materials, from intricate etched wood ceilings from India, to colourful tilework that is reminiscent of the mosques of Iran. The Persian carpet that adorns the main prayer hall is the second largest in the world, the first being in Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. It took four years to produce this single piece carpet, that has 28 colours in varying shades. One of the main attraction is the chandelier hanging at the men’s prayer hall. With such diverse sources of inspiration and material, one might think the overall look would be disjointed, but instead the place is a visual feast, harmoniously bringing together otherwise disparate elements. It is a beautiful reflection of the country itself, whose openness to diversity is its most valuable asset.

Visiting Hours for Non-Muslims:

8am-11am, Saturday-Thursday

Entrance Fee: None

Dress Code: Women covered to wrists and ankles with hair covered, men should wear long pants and long-sleeve shirts.

10am Breakfast by the Sea

Sleep late and then make your way to Shatti for the perfect Turkish breakfast overlooking the waves at the absurdly named Twins Fish and Chips. One breakfast is plenty for two people, with a variety of cheeses, olives, sometimes mortadella and herb fritters, cheese pastries, and more, served with thick, fresh-from-the-oven bread and a baked pot of peppered eggs. At OMR5, including tea, it is certainly the best breakfast deal in town.

Twins Fish and Chips

Oasis by the Sea (between Costa and Slider Station)

+968 2234 4341

12pm Walk along Shatti Al Qurum Beach

There are few places to enjoy a brisk stroll in our car-centric city, and as my guests are avid walkers, I wanted to make sure and take them out to stretch their legs. One of my favourite places to do this is along Qurum beach. Whenever I walk through the palm tree lined paths in Shatti Al Qurum, I am reminded of what a spectacular place it is that we live. We left Tche Tche and began walking towards the Jawharat Al Shatti and Oasis by the Sea complexes. We meandered past them, continuing down the sidewalk through gazebos and white sand. At the end of the stretch, we turned around and found our way back to Oasis by the Sea where we stopped for lunch.

1:30pm Lunch in Shatti

There are plenty of restaurants in Oasis by the Sea, from Slider Station to Pizza Express, but my favourite of the lot is the humble Arax restaurant, which serves up the best falafel in Oman. I always order mine with fried cauliflower stuffed inside, along with sides of their creamy hummus and French fries. Two large sandwiches, hummus, French fries, and drinks typically cost OMR5, a great deal by my accounts. We ordered our lunch and took a seat at one of the metal tables out front. After lunch we stopped next door at Bateel to shop for dates.

Arax Restaurant

+968 2460 0935

Hours: 9am-12 midnight

Bateel, +968 2460 1572

Hours: Saturday -Thursday, 9.30am-9.30pm

2:30pm Scenic Drive

After lunch, everyone was feeling a bit sluggish, but there was more to be seen, so we went for a scenic drive to further showoff the sparkling coastline. We made our way back up love street before getting onto the highway. We exited in Muttrah, driving along the Corniche, up passed Riyam Park, through the Gate Museum, and into Old Muscat. There we turned towards Sidab, winding up the mountain road, passed villages until we reached the Al Bustan roundabout. From there we turned right, driving past the Majlis Al Shura building, and getting onto the Qantab Road, heading to the iconic Shangri-la Resort.

3:30pm Coffee and Sundowners at Shangri-La

We walked through the frankincense scented lobby and down to the courtyard where we found some chairs facing the beach. There we enjoyed cappuccinos and mocktails, until the sun began to wane. It was time to head home to rest and freshen up before dinner.

Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa

+986 2477 6666

7:30pm A Fresh Fish Feast

Turkish House Restaurant is the best place in Oman for fresh seafood. Period. The owner, a former fisherman himself, goes to the fish market every morning to select his seafood. We walked past the newer dining rooms closer to the parking lot, and headed for the original dining room set back behind the building. We settled in and were handed menus, which I promptly set aside. See, in my opinion, there is only one correct order at this fantastic place: Mixed mezze, a massive platter of hummus, baba ganoush, tabouleh, olive salad, red pepper slaw, and some fresh cut veggies, served with hot-from-the-oven, metre-long Turkish bread; pomegranate-dressed house salad called Rocket Salad, grilled jumbo prawns, and a whole grilled fresh fish. The waiter will tell you which types are available, and which is the correct size for your group. We went with the snapper. If you aren’t stuffed to the gills after your meal, the restaurant also serves a very good knafeh for dessert along with strong Turkish coffee. The mezze costs OMR3.

Turkish House Restaurant

Al Khuwair (near Muscat Pharmacy)

+968 2448 8071

Hours: 11.30am-12.30pm

Day 2: Castles and Mountains

9am Road Food

We packed a picnic lunch in our cool box, but before heading off to Jabrin, we needed to fuel-up Omani-style. So we headed to Tea House in Al Khuwair, a tiny karak tea shop attached to the mosque behind the Ministry of Education. We honked twice and the blue uniformed shop vendor came to our window. We ordered my favourites: Special Karak; a spiced tea sweetened with creamy condensed milk, Saffron Karak, Zaatar Karak; and an Original Karak, that is black tea simmered with sweet, condensed milk. To eat, we opted for paper thin Omani bread, stuffed with egg, cheese, and Chips Oman (for the salt and crunch) and another spread with sweet honey and cheese.

Tea House

Al Khuwair ( behind Tender Board)

+968 9426 4555

12:30pm Exploring Jabrin Castle

The Jabrin Castle is my favourite of the many, many old structures scattered throughout the country. Unlike some of the more recently restored forts, the castle has retained many of its original elements, like the intricately carved wooden ceilings. Exploring from one room to the next (each of which are well marked with their original purpose) is not a redundant task, as all the rooms are distinct in their decoration and style. It is incredible to feel the ingenious engineering of the ancient structure, whose interior is 10 degrees cooler in the summer and warmer in the wintertime. After wandering through the halls of the ancient place, and taking lots of photos, it was time to head up the mountain.

Jabrin Castle

Al Dakhiliyah Region

+968 8007 7799

Hours: 9am-4pm (Saturday-Thursday);

8am-11am (Friday)

1:30pm A Scenic Mountain Drive

The winding route up Jabal Akhdar is one of the most scenic in the country, offering jaw-dropping views of the jutting peaks and sharp cliffs of the Hajar Mountain range. Even if you don’t choose to stay in Jabal Akhdar overnight, the drive alone is worth taking out of town guests on. There are several scenic overlooks where you can park and take photos, and as you get closer to Saiq village, there are also small parks with picnic tables. If you need petrol or provisions, there is a gas station in Saiq, but there is little to nothing in terms of restaurants or proper markets, so it is best to bring your lunch with you.

3:30pm Check-in to your Posh Lodge

We were fortunate to arrive at Alila just after a rainstorm, so the mountains surrounding the eco-friendly, ultra-luxurious resort were enrobed by thick fog. We checked in and were shown to our rooms. There are no bad rooms at Alila, as each one boasts incredible views of the mountains and gorges, bathrooms that seem to be ripped from a page in Architectural Digest (along with exclusive toiletries made with local products just for the hotel), and generous balconies or terraces on which to enjoy the pristine calm and quiet over a cup of tea. It is a small, boutique property, which means a total lack of crowds. The dining room may fill up in the evening, but the noise is never above a happy hum, and there is rarely a wait for your favourite table. The spa should be booked ahead, but they offer treatments for even the most spoiled spa junkie. They are now also adding additional active amenities, like guided hikes, rock climbing, and more. Which is wonderful. But my favourite thing about the place will surely remain the smaller things that make it a peaceful, thoughtfully local, mountain retreat.

Alila Jabal Akhdar

+968 2534 4200

7:30pm Dinner with a View

Dinner is included in the half-board rate at Alila, and it features a three-course menu that showcases many ingredients grown right there on Jabal Akhdar. The cliff-to-table dining began as a community initiative several years ago, and has since blossomed into both a delicious, hyper-local menu and a commendable social development success.

Day 3: Caravan to the Great Sands

9am Have Breakfast at Cliffside

The Alila breakfast is as magnificent as the views, featuring a buffet of fresh fruit, cereals, pastries, and salads, which is offered along with hot dishes from their menu. After an indulgent dinner, I opted for Swiss Muesli and some fresh vegetables. Linger over your coffee, or squeeze in a spa treatment before checking out.

11am Drive from Mountain to Dunes

Begin your three-hour journey to Sharqiyah Sands. This is a time when you will be grateful to have a comfortable car, like our Fortuner, as the drive itself can get pretty redundant once you get down the mountain. After the shrubs and rocks seem to have all blended together, your path will end at a freeway where you will begin to see the outskirts of Bediyah. Turn right to get onto this main road, but before you do, call Hamed and his crew at Bediyah Safari Tours to let them know you are nearby. The main part of town is so tiny you might drive right passed if you are not careful. Keep an eye out for the Bediyah Shell Petrol Station, as the tourism office is directly across the street. If you are hungry, the Pakistani restaurant on the other side of the Shell is one of the better options in town for a hot meal, unless you pre-ordered a lunch from Bediyah Safari Tours.

2pm Into the Sea of Sands

Follow your escort from Bediyah Safari Tours past an oasis of date palms, off the paved road, and through drifts of golden sand. The 20 kilometre journey takes around 40 minutes, and is absolutely beautiful.

3pm Rest in the Oasis

Against the dark sand, the collection of tents and bungalows of Safari Desert Camp are nearly invisibly camouflaged. The simple thatched roof chalets look humble from the outside, but inside, the beds are plush and dressed in soft, luxurious linens. The bathroom is attached, but open to the sky (making evening bathroom visits especially interesting as you can look up at the stars, but be warned, there isn’t hot water, so better to shower during the warm day). The rest of the camp consists of other rooms and luxury tents, connected by a paved walking path to the open air dining room, reception, and the outdoor majlis, where a raging fire is built each night.

5:30pm Chase the Sunset

Drive to the top of the surrounding dunes and settle in to watch the sun set over the sand. If you aren’t sure the best path, just ask one of the incredibly knowledgeable and friendly staff members.

7pm Dinner and a Bonfire Under the Stars

You will begin to smell the fresh bread and charring meat around six in the evening, and by seven, when dinner is served, you will be ready to attack the buffet like you haven’t eaten in years. The spread is wonderful, featuring salads, freshly made chapatti, rice dishes, curries, barbecued meat, and desserts. Once you have had your fill, ask to have your tea or coffee in the majlis, where the fire should be crackling. All the guest gather here to quietly look up at the massive spray of stars, or to share stories and make new friends. It is here that you will likely see that this particular camp has managed to capture all the best elements of the desert camping experience, with the oh-so-important addition of a cushy, warm bed to retreat to at the end of the night.

Safari Desert Camp (Bediyah Safari Tours)

Bediyah, Sharqiyah

Hamed: +968 9635 0016; Office Manager: +968 9200 0592

Day 4: Muttrah and Old Muscat

7:30am Rise and Shine in the Desert

Have breakfast and spend some time testing your driving skills in the sand before starting off on your two to three hour drive back to Muscat.

12pm Take a Historic Walk

Drop your bags off at home, take a much needed shower, and then go stretch your legs with a walk in Old Muscat. The Gate Museum is a wonderful landmark that separates Muttrah from Old Muscat. Starting from the Gate Museum, walk through the old village houses of Old Muscat, past the French Museum, and along the palm lined side streets until you reach the Al Alam Palace. Take photos of the iconic castle before popping across the streets to the brand new National Museum (directly across from the palace). Along the way you will also pass the Bait Al Zubair Museum, the Omani French Museum, and Bait Al Baranda .

Muscat Gate Museum

Al Saidiya Street, Muscat

Hours: Sunday-Thursday (8am-2pm)

+968 9932 8754

Omani French Museum

Qasr Al Alam Street, Muscat

Hours: Saturday-Thursday (8am-1.30pm)

The National Museum

Al Saidiya Street, opposite Qasr Al Alam Palace

Hours: 10am-5pm

+968 2208 1500

Bait Al Zubair

Al Saidiya Street, Muscat

Hours: Saturday-Thursday (9.30am-1pm; 4pm-7pm)

+968 2208 4747; +968 2208 4700

Bait Al Baranda

Muttrah Corniche

+968 2471 4262

Hours: Saturday-Thursday (9am-1pm; 4pm-8pm)

2pm Local Lunch on the Waterfront

Recover from your morning of walking and driving with a high-end meal of Omani-Indian fusion at the wonderful Kurkum restaurant, purportedly owned by a member of the royal family who has her very own family cook oversee the restaurant kitchen. A likewise local experience can be found on the other side of the souq at Bait Al Luban restaurant, which is run by a creative young Omani chef who is keen to put his own twist on Omani food. For cheap, delicious eats, the alleyway next to his fine establishment is home to Fishers Grilled, a no-frills restaurant that takes fish from the adjacent fish market and grills them to order to serve along with salad, hummus, and bread.

Kurkum Restaurant, Muttrah Corniche, Muttrah

+968 2471 4114, +968 2471 1143

Bait Al Luban, Muttrah, Muscat

+968 2471 1842

Fishers Grilled, Muttrah, Muscat

+968 9946 3561

3:30pm Walk Muttrah

If you are still feeling spry, work-off your lunch with a walk up the Corniche to take in the views from Riyam, also known as “the incense burner park”, thanks to the large monument there. Then walk over to the old Portuguese watchtower, which was constructed during the Portuguese occupation prior to 1650. Then continue your stroll down the Corniche, back towards the souq.

4:30pm Enter Old Muttrah Souq

The dark, winding corridors of the covered souq are home to marvellous jewellery vendors, perfume mixers, and garment hawkers, while the sprawling outdoor souq is where you can find Dhofari frankincense, spice vendors, cookware, and more. Wandering the area is an essential way to enjoy what was once the centre of commerce, and what remains an important local shopping area. Be sure to try local snacks being sold by vendors throughout the souq, especially the sambusas.

8:30pm Dinner at Old Turkish

The last night of a trip is always tinged with exhaustion and a bit of sadness, so keep your meal casual and delicious at this famed 24-hour shawarma and grill restaurant in bustling Al Khuwair. Whether you sit outside around the restaurant’s bubbling fountain, or opt for takeaway, you can’t go wrong with a large mixed grill, which comes with grilled lamb chops, minced meat kebabs, minced chicken kebabs, cubed chicken and meat kebabs, arais, hummus, tabouleh, garlic sauce, a scattering of French fries, and freshly baked bread. Alternatively, the shawarma plates, thin-sliced, perfectly seasoned chicken served over a bed of hummus, garlic mayonnaise, and a bit of salad along with fresh pita bread. Just be sure to ask for extra garlic sauce.

Old Turkish Restaurant

Al Khuwair, Near Rawasco

+968 9231 1156

10:30pm Coffee by the Sea

No visit to Muscat is complete without a coffee or fresh juice on “Love Street”, the stretch of Shatti Road that runs between the Qurum roundabout and the Crowne Plaza roundabout. Lined with coffee shops, the views of the sea during the day are breathtaking, and at night, the view of the pageantry of the sports cars and customised 4x4s that young men drive up and down the stretch, are a sight to behold. We settled on Tche Tche café, finding a table on the roof where my father and I enjoyed some minty Moroccan tea and the others sipped on fresh juice cocktails. With the cool breeze and light Arabic music playing, it was an easy place to pass the time chatting and laughing late into the night.

Tche Tche, Shatti Street, Qurum

+968 9764 1610

Starbucks, Shatti Street, Qurum

+968 2230 0169

Al Makan Cafe, Shatti Street, Qurum

+968 8007 7707

Japengo Cafe, Shatti Street, Qurum

+968 9289 2868

2016 Toyota Fortuner. Photo: Mehdi Taghavi

The Road Trip Ride: 2016 Toyota Fortuner

So, how did our vehicle for this whirlwind adventure do? Let’s just say the Fortuner lives up to the Land Cruiser legacy.

One of the best things about the vehicle, which we drove on freeway, mountain roads, and desert sand, was the ground clearance. When sitting in traffic, we enjoyed a high level of visibility, and in Jabal Akhdar we had no issues with the steep declines and gravel paths. The real test came in the desert dunes of Sharqiyah Sands, where a miscalculation in our approach and descent would have been major drama for an SUV with lower bumpers. Instead, we peacefully made it to the top of the dunes overlooking our desert camp to watch the sunset, thanks to the Fortuner’s 30-degree approach and 25-degree departure angles and ground clearance of 225mm. No matter the terrain, it was as ruggedly capable as you would expect a Toyota 4x4 to be.

As for comfort, we travelled the countryside with four adults comfortably in-tow, and the additional two rear seats, which folded conveniently to the side when not in use, would have made it easy to add two children to our mix. The interior upgrades in this model, including soft leather seats, premium “Fortuner” badging, a bluetooth capable entertainment system, a chilled glovebox, and power back door (on the 4.0L V6 option), gave the vehicle a premium feel. It was as tough as we needed it to be, and far more comfortable than we had expected, making it a great steed for our Omani adventure.

2016 Toyota Fortuner Specifications and Highlights

(4 Litre V6 reviewed)

• Engine: 2.7L, 4 Cylinder, Dual VVTi | 4.0L, V6, Dual VVTi)

• Transmission: 6-speed automatic

• Leather & wood finish steering wheel with audio, MID, Bluetooth controls, and paddle shifters

• 7” Navigation and Display Audio

• Power Driver Seat

• Push Button Start

• Tilt and telescopic steering column

• Cruise control

• Illuminated entry

• Chilled glovebox

• Leather upholstery (Top Grade only)

• Driver + Passenger Airbag & Knee Airbag (for driver only)

• LED Projector Headlamps with DRL

• Follow-me-home auto lights

• Auto air conditioner

• Power back door

• 7 inch Navigation System

• Front Air-conditioner - Rear Cooler

• Vehicle Stability Control

• Seven Seats

• Keyless entry and start

• Economy and Sport Modes

• 18-inch alloy wheels

• Rear Differential Lock

• Rear View Camera

• Hill Assist Control

• Trailer Sway Control

Authorised Oman Dealer:

Saud Bahwan Automotive LLC

Wattayah Showroom

+968 2457 9000

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