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We loved Oman - trip report (long)

Old Jun 22nd, 2006, 08:21 AM
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We loved Oman - trip report (long)

Why Oman?

After a challenging year (new job, new country (France), new home, newly wed), my husband and I decided to reward ourselves with a two-week trip to Oman in late March 2006. We chose Oman for several reasons. First, we love to dive. Although the variety and volume of sea life is not supposed to be as good as the Red Sea, it’s much less crowded (underwater and on land) and the diving is nevertheless supposed to be quite good. We also wanted to explore some medium-range destinations that are more accessible from Europe than our usual North American home base. We are interested in Arab culture. We like mountains as much as oceans (my husband is a mountain climber), and Oman has both. I’m bug-phobic, so steamy tropical destinations do not float my boat. And I could get a ticket to Oman with BA miles, so I bought a World Traveller Plus ticket for myself (160 tier points toward renewed Gold status) and got my husband a ticket with miles. So we planned a two-week holiday, with one week devoted to diving and a second week devoted to mountains, desert and sightseeing.

We also were aware of Oman’s reputation for hospitality, cleanliness, safety and security. Those of you who are curious about Arab culture but have some concerns about travel in the Middle East have nothing to fear here. I’d have to say that Oman felt like the safest place I’ve ever been in my entire life (and I grew up in a small town in Canada).

With respect to the dive portion of the holiday, we were looking for relatively easy diving (I’m a novice, certified in 2003, and most of my husband’s diving took place more than 10 years ago, although we dived a few times a year in the past couple of years). We hoped to see lots of interesting critters and we wanted to practise diving together as buddies. For the rest of the holiday, we planned to rent a car and follow a driving route into the mountains (Nizwa), along the edge of the desert to Sur and back up to Muscat.
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Old Jun 22nd, 2006, 08:24 AM
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Getting away:

The days leading up to our departure were jam-packed with work and other stress-inducing activities. Stupidly, I committed to give a lecture at a law school in Grenoble almost immediately after completing a major project milestone at work, so I had to juggle preparing for that lecture and travel plans for a long weekend getaway with preparations for our departure.

My husband speaks a little Arabic (from a military posting to Egypt 10 years ago) and I like to learn languages, so I thought I’d give Gulf Arabic a try. I found a great book (Teach Yourself Gulf Arabic), but just didn’t have enough free time to make much progress. The little I learned, though, whetted my appetite to learn more about the language, so we’re going to try to take a course at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris this fall, and then follow up with a language holiday (in Oman, of course) in the near future.

We also received some disconcerting news just before we left for our trip. I learned that my mother was quite ill and that she would need to go for tests to determine what was wrong. We had reason to fear the worst – lung cancer. Mom, dad and my sister, however, insisted that we go ahead with our trip – after all, they could reach us in Oman, if necessary. We decided to go, but with a sense of foreboding.

Our trip out to CDG on the Friday night was a nightmare. We took the shuttle from Porte Maillot, and immediately got snared in a nightmare traffic jam. I love to get to the airport early, and I fretted that my time cushion was ticking away – not to mention that an hour on the bus with no facilities is not ideal. We burst into the airport (well, I burst and my husband strolled) with an hour to spare. Check-in was smooth, and we settled into the Air France/BA lounge to await our flight. Alas, it lacks the goodies that really make a lounge special (e.g. champagne, real food), but there were some wonderful dark chocolate candies – we scooped up a small handful each.

Our flight was uneventful. At Heathrow, we took the advice we’d received on Flyertalk.com and skipped the expensive and slow Hoppa Shuttle. Instead, we took the Heathrow Express from T4 to the main terminal, where we caught a free local bus that took us along the Bath Road and deposited us near our hotel, the Sheraton Skyline. I’d booked it on Priceline and got a great deal. I didn’t realise, though, that the Skyline hosts “Mumbai Nights” on Fridays. Very interesting to observe for a while – large crowds of well-dressed South Asian youngsters partying – but not very conducive to a good night’s sleep. Luckily, I had requested a quiet room, and I think we were upgraded to a Club Room. Not bad for 40 pounds.

The next morning, we splurged on a cab back to Heathrow. Check-in was easy, since we already had our boarding passes – and the security line wasn’t too painful. We settled into the BA Lounge, and toasted the start of our adventure with mimosas.

The BA flight to Muscat is long (about 8 hours, with a stop along the way) and the flight was jam-packed with British half-term holiday makers. We were glad we splurged on World Traveller Plus – although I was somewhat less than happy to have the last pair window pair of seats immediately in front of a very stinky toilet. I wish we’d brought nose plugs as well as ear plugs.
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Old Jun 22nd, 2006, 08:28 AM
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Arriving in Muscat:

We felt rather smug on arrival when we saw the queue of people lining up to get a visa (available on arrival), because we’d got ours in advance in Paris. We were a little too smart, I’m afraid. The young officer wasn’t familiar with the type of visa we’d obtained, and spent a fair bit of time scratching his head, asking us questions and consulting someone else before he stamped our passports to let us through. (He was quite pleasant and courteous, though.)

The airport was very clean, and not too crowded. We stopped off at the car rental desk to modify our reservation for the following week, and then headed outside into the warm night to find a cab. Explaining where we wanted to go to the cab driver was a bit of a challenge – most cab drivers speak and recognise a few words of English (and the main hotel names), but we were staying at the Best Western, which is not well-known. We tried showing our driver a map, but he seemed to have no interest in it. (It would have been understandable even if he didn’t speak the language, because of the pictures.) We noticed this phenomenon during the rest of our trip – many of the Omanis just didn’t seem to be interested in pictoral representations of places. They describe locations and give directions in terms of major landmarks and distances, but don’t seem to rely much on maps. Of course, paved roads are a relatively recent phenomenon. We lucked out, though, because another driver overheard me say “beside the Hyatt”. He picked up on Hyatt, explained something to our driver, who smiled, named a price (which seemed a little high but not outrageous – 7 rials) and we headed off.

Omani taxis are great. They are almost always spotlessly clean (drivers get fined if they’re caught with a car that’s less than pristine), new, well-maintained Mercedes with air conditioning. We'd heard that Omanis are scary drivers; our driver drove a little faster than we would, but there was nothing scary at all about the experience (compared to Egypt or Morocco, for example). The roads themselves are in superb condition.

We were very pleased with our Muscat hotel choice, the Best Western (about 55 rials a night B&B including taxes). It was much less expensive than many other hotels. It shares the same upscale neighbourhood as the Hyatt, and is only a couple of blocks from a nice, public beach. Our room was bland, but comfortable. The only problem was that we were woken early in the morning on our first day by construction outside our window. Since we’d planned to sleep in on the first morning, and were jet lagged, this was not fun. If you stay at this hotel in the near future, ask for a quiet room away from the construction. Management changed our room without any fuss. Breakfast, included in the room rate, was basic but satisfying.

One downside of holidays in Oman seems to be that there are very few, if any, “charming” accommodation options. The big chains are here, but there are no B&Bs, no riads (as in Morocco) – or at least we couldn’t find any. The other option is to rent an apartment, and we might try that on our next visit.
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Old Jun 22nd, 2006, 08:32 AM
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Out and About in Muscat:

We had big plans to see the sights in Muscat. We forgot, however, that diving completely saps your will to move. And of course it was about 35C in mid-afternoon. So mostly we dived, lazed around the Marina pool, napped and went out for dinner. No culture, no shopping. We promised ourselves we’d get out a little more during the second week of our visit.

In retrospect, our hotel choice wasn’t ideal for diving – because we were about a 20-30 minute drive away from the dive centre. The next time, we’ll look for an apartment-hotel closer to the old city centre (or, if we’re rich, the Shangri-La.)

We did enjoy, however, our daily drive to and from the dive centre with “our” taxi driver. The fellow who drove us out to the Marina on the first morning offered to pick us up and take us back in the afternoon. As the Marina is quite isolated, this seemed like a good idea. We overpaid a little – well, probably a lot. I think he charged us about 10 rials each way (about 22 euros). But I didn’t mind paying him a little too much. He was very nice, and very thoughtful. For example, he noticed on the first morning that we were looking for the seatbelts and couldn’t find them. It was too late to do anything en route to the Marina – but on our return trip, he had retrieved the seat belts so we could use them. Later in the week, we arranged to have him drive us to the Al Sawadi Beach Resort about an hour away (for 15 rials, which was a good deal). On the way, he stopped at a gas station, and asked me if I wanted to go to the convenience store with him. I picked up 4 cans of Diet Coke (because I expected the mini-bar prices to be outrageous). When I got to the till, he paid for my drinks (now I knew was paying him too much , and then he put the change into the “coins for orphans” box by the cash register. In my opinion, it was worth paying a little too much to spend a little time with him.

One night, we dragged ourselves out of bed and decided to walk to another hotel for dinner. Walking anywhere is not easy in Muscat – it is a city for drivers, not walkers. We tried to walk along the beach boardwalk, but only got halfway. Then we got lost walking through some of the residential streets, had to ford a dry wadi (riverbed) and then navigate around a few strip malls. We took a taxi back.

By the way, the Mexican restaurant at the Inter-Continental is good. While there are some “Omani” dinner options, and we indulged in a few, Muscat is also a city full of other countries’ cuisines – and since Paris isn’t very good at spicy food, we decided to try out Muscat’s versions of Mexican, Thai and Indian. (All very good.)

On another evening, we hailed a taxi to take us to a restaurant and were treated to a whirlwind tour of the city and the hugely entertaining conversation of a driver who was more entrepreneurial than the average Omani driver and wanted to show off his nine months' worth of English lessons. We got overcharged again, but the tour and the conversation were well worth it. He was quite proud of Muscat’s commercial development and wanted to show us the new shops. One language quirk we noticed is that Omanis seem to mix up, or don’t distinguish between the concepts of “many/lots of” and “too many/too much”. Our driver kept saying proudly “Too many shops, too many shops, isn’t it wonderful?” He also was very proud of the “clumps”. “Clumps? What are clumps?”, we asked. Words failed us all, so he drove us to one to show us – he meant (shopping) complex.

The expression “Too many …, too many …, isn’t it wonderful”, has now become part of our conversation. (For example, on a recent visit home to Vancouver, after being chirpily greeted for about the 20th time in a supermarket, I turned to my husband and said “Too many nice people, too many nice people, isn’t it wonderful?”)
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Old Jun 22nd, 2006, 08:55 AM
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Thanks, I really enjoyed reading this -- did you get to any of the sights, such as they are, in and around Muscat? I am going to the UAE and Oman for vacation in November, and I am thinking of staying in the Mutrah (sp?) quarter of Muscat (near the fish souk), since it seems I can walk along the corniche and to some sights from there, and also to a few Portuguese forts. Thanks, Michael
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Old Jun 22nd, 2006, 11:17 PM
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Hi thit_co:

Stay tuned for a few more instalments. We did finally see some sights in Muscat. Staying in the Mutrah quarter would put you in a more walkable part of the city.
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Old Jun 23rd, 2006, 12:21 AM
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More Diving at Al Sawadi Beach Resort

After three nights in Muscat, we re-located to the Al Sawadi Beach Resort, about a 75 minute drive north of old city of Muscat (about 45 minutes north of the airport). We chose to stay at Al Sawadi because it’s much closer to the Daymaniyat Islands, a nature reserve with great diving. The boat trips from Al Sawadi to the dive sites ranged from 30-45 minutes. Those of you with weak stomachs would find it rough going, as the ocean was often quite choppy in one direction or the other.

We booked an all-inclusive 3-night package that included diving (equipment rental extra) plus one night’s B&B. Overall, we were pleased with the resort. It was somewhat challenging to sort out the booking via email on the resort’s website – there were some miscommunications and difficulties transmitting credit card details, but everything was sorted out in the end. The resort is probably a 4* - a good option for those who would like to stay at a resort by find that places like the Al Bustan or the Shangri-La are out of their price range. Our room was large, pleasantly furnished, wonderfully cool and clean. We had an “ocean view” with a patio, although the view was not spectacular. The food was plentiful, of good quality and with enough variety that we weren’t bored over the course of a few days. In addition to the main restaurant, there is an Indian restaurant that looked quite good (except that I don’t like Indian food, so we didn’t eat there), as well as a traditional Omani restaurant for which you have to pay a supplement. We did so one night, but I’m not sure it was worth it. The surroundings were more atmospheric, but the food was essentially the same as at the regular restaurant and the evening’s entertainment (a belly dancer) went on strike. She got into a “volume war” with a very stern female guest who had asked to have the volume of the dance music turned down. The restaurant manager turned the music down, after a minute or so the dancer turned it back up (it was truly ear-splitting), so the guest got up and turned it down while the dancer was dancing. She turned it back up, the guest and her dinner partner got up in a huff and left – and then the dancer got into a huff and left. Amusing, but not very entertaining.

Our daily dives went well, although the boats were large and rather crowded (about 11-12 divers, plus the dive master and captain). We made friends with an older German couple who were taking photographs and they were kind enough to send us a CD of their photos when they got home. I also learned a lesson from the German woman, who was quite adept at changing out of her swimsuit (under a towel) and into sporty wash-and-dry clothes on the boat as we bounced across the waves back to shore. You’re not supposed to go the restaurant in swimwear, or if you’re wet. So she had no trouble getting into the restaurant before it closed after lunch, while we had to scramble to make ourselves look presentable. We did get snacks on the boat, but not enough food to get us through to dinner. After lunch, we would flake out by the pool in the shade and catch some sleep. On most days, there was almost no one in the pool – it was almost like having the resort to yourself.

The Resort had a few internet terminals for guests. Although the connection cost was fairly high, we logged on every day to check for news from home about my mother, and also to send everyone cheerful and distracting news and photos from our trip.

On our last day, we didn’t dive because we were planning to drive to Nizwa, which appeared to be more than 500 metres above sea level. (You shouldn’t ascend to altitude after making repetitive dives.) So we lazed around the pool, packed up and then tried to figure out a cheap way to get back to the airport (where we would be picking up a rental car). The resort quoted an outrageous price for a taxi, so we decided to walk out to the main road to look for a taxi. Easier said than done. The Resort is about a 10 minute drive from the main highway, in a sparsely populated area – not to mention the fact that the Resort’s driveway is probably at least a kilometre long. And did I mention that it was about 36C? But I’d struck a deal with my frugal husband that, if we took a taxi from Muscat to the Resort (which we had done),we’d figure out a cheap way to get to the airport. So we decided to walk out to the secondary road and then hitch a ride to the highway. (Remember that this felt like the safest country in the world – and it seemed that hitchhiking on secondary roads to the main road was not uncommon.) Thankfully, we got picked up on the Resort’s driveway by a departing guest and her family who were driving back to Dubai. Coincidentally, they were Canadians from the Toronto area. Quite a small world. (Actually, there were two Canadians ESL teachers who dived on our boat one day at the Resort.) We were dropped off at the highway, where we proceeded to inquire at the shops to see what could be done about flagging a taxi. One enterprising store owner called a cab for us, and our ride showed up five minutes later. We tipped the store owner, and headed off to the airport for the cheap price of 8 Rials (the Resort had quoted about 25).

At the airport, we picked up our 4-wheel drive with a minimum of fuss, bought a map and drove off in the direction of Nizwa.
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Old Jun 23rd, 2006, 04:48 AM
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Around Nizwa:

Despite the hotel website’s claim that the Nizwa Golden Tulip hotel was easy-to-find, as there is only one road to Nizwa, we burned a lot of gas getting lost on the way there. There is only one highway to Nizwa, but there are a lot of tiny towns and turn-offs. My novice navigational skills were stretched by the fact that the key villages marked on our map didn’t seem to correspond to those listed on the highway signs. Eventually, though, we found our way.

The Nizwa Hotel was perfectly acceptable, but a bit tired and rather charmless. It did have a great pool, though, accessible directly from almost all the rooms, which open onto a courtyard. We were tired after the drive, so we ate a forgettable meal in the hotel and turned in early.

We had planned to spend 3-4 nights in Nizwa, touring the forts, exploring the souk and going for a hike or too. In retrospect, I think we would have been better off either: (a) driving directly to Jebel Shams (one of the mountains) and either camping or staying at the basic guesthouse in the hills; or (b) exploring the Nizwa region as a long daytrip. We have a relatively high tolerance for “low thrill” activities, but even we ended up at loose ends. After a while, one fort looks pretty much like any other. The commercial areas in Nizwa and the surrounding towns lacked the chaotic, time-worn splendour of Morocco, for example and we missed the best market day (Friday, I think). It felt rather more like a Southern Californian town populated almost exclusively by men, wearing white nightgowns, and plopped in the middle of the Gulf. Of course, tourists shouldn’t fault a country for failing to live up to our expectations of charming under-development.

And we did find ways to amuse ourselves. We wandered around one day trying to find an English language trekking guide. (We’d seen it at Al Sawadi but decided not to buy it because it was too expensive.) A tour of the local bookshops and halting conversations with passer-by and shopkeepers was fun, but fruitless. We debated climbing up on the “Book Roundabout” (a traffic roundabout with a giant sculpture made to look like leather-bound books – Nizwa is the historical centre of learning in Oman), but decided not to find out what happens when you break the “don’t climb on the roundabout” warning. There don’t appear to be a lot of great dining options in Nizwa, so we went to the local Pizza Hut one night. It was actually quite a lot of fun to interact with the hard-working staff who were quite proud of their English skills and to watch the other people who came to the restaurant. Our best meal was at Spicy Village, a small chain that features Indian, Chinese and Thai cuisine. The service was great and the food scratched our spicy food craving.

We did spend a day driving up a very twisty, challenging road to Jebel Shams and went for a “balcony hike” around Oman’s petit “Grand Canyon”. You need a 4-wheel drive to make it all the way up to the starting point for the hikes, and you likely will get lost at least once and end up at a lookout station guarded by the military. Although the sentries advised us via charades that we couldn’t hike there, they pointed out the correct route and offered to make us tea. We found the right route, parked the car, and went for an exhilarating walk around the canyon’s edge. We picked one of the shortest walks, which took about 2 hours. The path is very clearly marked, and the walking is quite easy, although someone with a bad head for heights might feel uncomfortable. Next time, we will buy the book in advance and plan our hikes better.

Ultimately, though, we decided that we’d seen enough of Nizwa in 3 nights, and decided to leave early to spend a night in the desert.
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Old Jun 23rd, 2006, 06:53 AM
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So That’s Why They’re Called Dung Beetles

We left Nizwa in mid-afternoon, heading for Sur (on the coast, south of Muscat) via the inland route. Along the way, I missed the best photo opportunity of the holiday. Dotted alongside the highways are relatively large bus shelters that also seem to be used sometimes by people trying to escape the blazing, mid-afternoon sun. Several times, we saw construction workers sleeping in the shelters (mostly around Muscat). This time, though, it was a flock of goats that had decided to take a siesta. Unfortunately, I wasn’t swift enough and I missed the shot.

The drive took a little longer than expected and since we didn’t have a reservation at one of the desert camps, we decided to stop at a hotel en route, and continue the next day. We pulled up in Ibra, a medium-sized town and scoped out the only hotel listed in our inadequate guidebook. It did not look promising at all. As we got out of the car, with a plan to ask someone for help, and I said to my husband, “Gee, I wish there was a Westerner somewhere we could ask for a recommendation.” (I didn't think my charades skills were up to "This hotel looks scary - is there a better option?") Since leaving Nizwa, we had seen almost no one but locals. Lo and behold, a young, blond and rather dusty woman walked by. It turns out that she was an Australian, teaching English for a few months. She recommended another hotel, a little further down the road. We took her up on her advice and headed out. Alas, I can’t remember the name of this completely unmemorable hotel. It had a pool, and rather more mosquitoes than I care to spend my evenings with. But it was a bed for the night, it was nicer than the hotel in the town, and it was cheap, so we took it.

The next morning, we drove out to Wahiba Sands to one of the desert camps. We were somewhat apprehensive about spending the night – not because we didn’t want to spend a night in the desert, but because we didn’t want to spend a night with 100 tourists in a Disneyland version of the desert. But pre-packaged “desert lite” was all that was on offer for an overnight experience, and I really wanted to ride a camel, so we decided to book a tent. Then we headed out for a drive in the surrounding area.

This was the only day in which I ever felt inappropriately dressed. Most of the time in Oman, it had seemed appropriate to wear, loose-fitting short-sleeved vneck tshirts, cropped loose-fitting trousers and/or button-up ¾ sleeve shirts. In this region, however, my thin v-neck tshirt just seemed immodest and so I covered my neck and shoulders with a light pashmina when I ventured outside the car. It wasn't that I was subjected to any hostile stares or was pestered, it's just that I felt that I wasn't being sufficiently respectful of local standards.

Back at the desert camp, we settled down in late afternoon to watch the sunset and observe the arrival of more guests. The camp included a large public tent, open on all four sides, with carpets under half the covered area. This was where the guests accumulated for the evening. A number of them headed out in early evening for some wadi-bashing (bombing around the dunes in 4-wheel drive cars). Dinner was a buffet-barbeque, which was basic but tasty. We chatted with some interesting people, but didn’t “forced eavesdropping” on the conversations of several, too talkative members of tour groups. We were surprised to see what a few of the women guests were wearing: tube tops, tiny shorts, etc. We were supposed to be enjoying the hospitality of local people who were involved in operating the camp – and that sort of clothing is simply disrespectful in an environment like this.

As dusk settled in, a few overhead lights in the tent came on – and the dung beetles arrived. Yikes! I had asked the camp manager when we had first arrived in the morning, “Are there a lot of mosquitoes in the evening?” He said no, with a smile. I’m sure he was thinking, “Ask me about the dung beetles …” Dung beetles, for those who haven’t met them are large (e.g. 1-2 inch bodies), relatively slow-moving critters that: a) are able to fly (rather like clumsy helicopters); and b) eat – you guessed it, camel dung. They also have their own, visible fleas. Blech! You could usually see one tottling along the carpet toward you, and blow it away – but occasionally one would decide to fly into your head. At least they didn’t bite. But it made for an uncomfortable evening. We listened to and watched the evening’s entertainment (local men who played music and danced) – until enough time had passed that we could politely leave. Back at home in our tent, I climbed into bed (which was quite comfortable – and raised off the floor), tucked the mosquito net around the bed and attempted to fall asleep.

In the morning, I awoke to discover that I had not been attacked by dung beetles in the night, and headed out for breakfast and my promised camel ride. My husband was torn between trying to photograph me on the camel and trying to photograph the gigantic dung beetles that were busily rolling away the giant balls of camel dung back to their nests for the kids’ breakfast. We snapped the requisite photos, had a lukewarm shower, and drove off in the direction of Sur.
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Old Jun 25th, 2006, 07:56 AM
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Dear Kate,
I'm so glad you loved Oman "My Beautiful Country" as Mohammed al Zubair's book of photography is titled. We've been here five years and will be very sorry to leave for home in the US this summer. You've nicely captured a "word picture" of Oman, and your appreciation and cultural sensitivity shines through. I also liked your adventurous spirit! Please feel welcome to return anytime.
Mandi
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Old Jun 25th, 2006, 08:49 PM
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Kate,

Just wanted to let you know that I've been revisiting your report as I could and have been enjoying the read.

Been curious about Oman since watching a tv travelogue sort of show some time back. Perhaps someday. It sounds interesting. Thanks for posting - there isn't much available on this country. Looking forward to more.
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Old Jun 26th, 2006, 01:05 AM
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Dear Kate
I am so glad that you liked Oman. We were there for 5 years and had a great time.The people there are extreamly humble and very warm (compared to the other parts of the Middle East). Ofcourse , the best months to visit are from October to March. We have done several camping trips to the Wahiba and a lot of wadi ( dry river beds) bashing.
Next time you visit Oman, check out the underwater caves.
The Bustan had a night club where they would play some very good jazz but I think thats stopped now.
That was a great report Kate. Brought back a lot of good memories.

Whizforty
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Old Jun 26th, 2006, 03:25 AM
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Kate,

I enjoyed reading your report.

I live in the UAE and been to Oman for a 3-days trip. I spent one day in Muscat and the other two days went out with an Omani by car. He acted as my guide.

We visited the forts and enjoyed the beautiful countryside. Our itinerary included Nizwa (ate in the Pizza Hut there!), Jabrin, Bahla (UNESCO fort), Tanuf (deserted village - ruins, mud huts).

The other day trip was at Nakhal fort and hot springs, Rustaq, Al Hazm fort.
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