What to do with Eight Hours ashore in Muscat, Oman – a Cruise Port Guide…
Muscat is the capital city of the Sultanate of Oman
and a popular winter cruise destination for Middle East itineraries and repositioning cruises. It has a completely different feel and none of the showiness of its close neighbours Abu Dhabi and Dubai with their massive high rise buildings and glitz. Abu Dhabi is elegant and restrained in comparison, partly because all new buildings are required to be built with traditional features such as a dome. This is largely due to the influence Sultan Qaboos, the countries hereditary absolute monarch since 1970 when he began the “Renaissance for Oman” project. Huge investment on health, education and welfare has transformed the country into a prosperous world economy without losing any of its charm or heritage.
Muscat is situated between mountains and sea and has a wide suburban area, spread over 60 km, with about 3.1 million inhabitants. Although the city is quite wide spread but is a quiet, clean, safe city to visit with three main areas Mutrah – the original port, Ruwi -“downtown” Muscat and Old Muscat where you will find the Royal Palace and the Bait Al Zubair museum.
Muscat views tourism as very important as a source of income for the country but the Government is very strict – no criticism of the Sultan is allowed, the press is largely controlled and homosexuality is illegal so, as with many countries in the area, it is best to behave sensibly, dress respectfully and avoid any overt displays of affection while visiting.
The official currency is the Omani Rial (ROH)- best alternative currency GBP but US dollars and credit cards also widely accepted
Cruise ships dock at Port of Sultan Qaboos,
berth 4 or 5, close to Mutrah – the original town which stretches along a wide coastal road with low latticed buildings and mosques. Look out for the Sultans Royal Yacht – one of the largest private yachts in the world! Cruise excursions and HOHO buses meet the ship at the quay otherwise you pass through security and are issued your visa (do not lose!) in the ports fully accessible terminal building. Here you will find tourist information, maps, toilets and wifi. From here you take a free shuttle to the port gate as walking in port is strictly prohibited. There was quite a queue for the port shuttle on exit from the terminal building – so be sure to allow a little time for security and shuttles if meeting a driver. You will find any pre-booked drivers waiting for you at the port gates as well as plenty of official taxis for hire otherwise you can carry on to be dropped at the Mutrah Souk, where you can also find a HOHO bus stop. There are bicycles for hire a twenty minute walk or so further along the Corniche away from the port.
Transport is not particularly cheap here – the official white and orange taxis are not metered so you will need to negotiate before getting in – signs give a suggested hourly rate for a tour of 10 Omani Rial ( about £20) per hour for the first 3 hours and additional time at 7ROH per hour – a one way taxi ride to the Grand Mosque would be around 20 ROAs – £40. As a comparison the HOHO bus day ticket is about £60 a person although you can also buy combined tickets with either Dubai or Abu Dhabi which would reduce the cost a little.
A HOHO tour takes about two hours and buses are every 30 minutes or so. The city is so spread out that you need some sort of transport if you want to see it all – as a comparison we pre-arranged a car and driver for four hours, with another couple from our ship- arranged through Roll Call, and we paid about £50 a couple. There did appear to be local buses but I probably don’t advise unless you speak/ read Arabic…
There is plenty to see within walking distance
of the ship – it is a flat level walk from the port gate to the Corniche. The Muttrah Souk is about half a mile and wishing the area you will find the Fruit market, Fish market, Muttrah Fort, Gold Souk, the Bait Al Baranda Museum with exhibits on Omans history and geology and the ‘Incense Burner’ look out point .
The Muttrah Souk is covered – it is clean and rambling, there are toilets and cafes with wifi at the entrance (non alcoholic drinks of course) and the souk runs back into a central courtyard and then out again in deceivingly wandering paths that are not quite as easy to negotiate as at first appeared! It closes during the middle of the day from about 11.30 to 16.30. We found that the further we got from the main entrance the less frenetic it was and prices seemed to be lower – in fact we bought the best quality pashminas for a really good price at a stall at the back of the souk – had I known the time, I would have bought more there and then not bothered shopping in Dubai or Abu Dhabi!! This is a traditional souk for brass, clothing, spices & antiques – haggling is essential! The Gold Souk is slightly further on along the Corniche.
Old Muscat is about 4 miles from the cruise port.
We liked this area with its peaceful shoreline, parks and flowers, we visited the Qasr Al Alam Royal Palace which is the official seat of the government and the official office of Sultan Qaboos, visiting dignitaries sometime stay there but the Royal family lives elsewhere. The All Alam Museum and the Bait Al Zubair museum were closed on the day we visited ( Friday) but the latter is apparently well worth a visit – you can find out about traditional Omani heritage as well as see early European maps and prints. The old Portuguese forts of Jilali and Mirani are situated in Old Muscat, part of the Portuguese coastal defensive system – over the years they have been used as houses, jails, royal residences, and garrisons and are not at present open to the public.
The Parliament building is even further out of town, about 15 minutes drive on the road to the Marina. The Parliament building is closed to visitors but the Marina “Bandar Al Rowdha” is where you can find a Diving school and take dolphin watching and snorkelling trips. They sometimes run a free shuttle to these from the port gates which might be worth investigating (but they are closed on Fridays!).
The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
is in the downtown area which is about 15 miles from the Cruise Port, in the opposite direction to Old Muscat and the Parliament building. It contains the world’s second largest handwoven carpet and chandeliers & is eclipsed only by the Mosque in Abu Dhabi. It is open to visits from non Muslim members of the public between 8 AM and 11 AM every day except Thursday and Friday and entry is free – Muslims are welcome to worship at any time. There is very strict clothing policy for visitors, men should cover their arms and knees (no shorts) and women should cover up their arms, legs, ankles and hair. We viewed from outside but could not enter because it we visited the port on a Friday – there are nice grounds to wander outside and photos were allowed.
Still in Downtown Muscat and not too far from the Mosque, you will find Muscat’s Royal Opera House. It is a really impressive piece of architecture, its traditional Islamic white marble facade reflects in the polished plaza surrounding it, almost as if it is on a sheet of water. There are free tours for visitors (not Fridays – you’re sensing a theme!) where you can (apparently!) visit the Sultan’s box, admire the teak interior and marvel at the ‘no echo’ acoustic. We were lucky enough to meet the Education department of the Opera House setting up an exhibition in the entrance hall and they were very welcoming and informative. There is also a Galleria next door to the Opera house with restaurants and shops – unfortunately it is closed…..
On our return to the ship we passed Qurm beach – a popular long sandy beach which looked well kept and clean. It is very popular with locals but definitely didn’t really look worth the half hour drive it would take you to reach from the port – however it was open on a Friday…
We very much liked Muscat and were really keen to return – preferably not on a Friday! We achieved this aim the following year but this visit had its own challenges so I will give it its own little Blog Post ” A Half Day in Muscat”. Suffice to say that I would perfect happily visit Muscat for a third time if I have the opportunity!
I hope you enjoyed reading this Cruise Port Guide and that it will be useful to you. I really liked Muscat, it’s clean air and low rise buildings are a real change from the UAE. If you have a chance to visit then grab it!
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