Port of Muscat, Oman, the 2nd time. Wandering Old Muscat: the souk, a fort and an awesome restaurant with wi-fi

Muscat is an intriguing cruise port and turned out to be a favorite. Unlike the all-new mega city of Dubai that left me cold, history and local culture are still preserved and visible in the old port area of Muscat. The ship pulled into the ancient harbor dotted with old fortifications and traditional buildings with ornate wooden balconies. There’s not a skyscraper or gaudy new mega-structure in sight.

Our ship docked close to the spiffy-looking Muscat cruise port terminal on both our visits to this exotic port. Nevertheless, passengers are forbidden from walking the 50 or so yards to the building, but must instead board a port shuttle (a big, air-conditioned motor coach) even if they just want to walk into nearby Old Muscat. When the shuttle bus is loaded, it drives the <20 seconds to the terminal building and everyone must disembark and go through security. The same routine is followed for ship excursions.

The terminal building had big signs proclaiming duty free shopping and “Wifi Hotspot.” However, in our quick walk through for security (a basic scanner) on both our stops, we found everything to be closed. Since we were on a 9-hour excursion the first time we stopped in Muscat (4 days before our return on the back-to-back we took), we’d hoped to use the wi-fi in the terminal. A fellow passenger informed us that she’d tried it on the first stop and found that only 7 people were allowed online at a time, so she spent most of her time waiting for a connection, despite paying a small fee for the wi-fi. We didn’t bother to even try on our 2nd stop, deciding we’d look for wi-fi in portside Old Muscat where we decided to spend a leisurely day exploring.

After security, the shuttle dropped us off near the port side of the main port gates. We walked through immigration to the left of the gate as we exited, showed our pink, credit-card-sized Omani shore pass (handed out by the ship when we disembarked), and moved right on.

Standing in the parking lot just outside the main port gate after passing immigration; the port gate is behind me to my right. The Fish and Produce Market can be seen in the distance, a short walk down the road exiting the port entrance (to the left as you leave).

Leaving the port parking lot, we headed left and followed the road a short distance to the big, air-conditioned fish and produce market under a large white roof on the left side of the road.

 After looking around the fish and produce market, we continued on along the water to the main waterfront promenade called locally by the French word, corniche.

On the corniche in Muscat
Buildings and mosque along the corniche, facing the harbor

Just past the blue-domed (Muslim-only) mosque (maybe a 10-minute walk from the port exit), we arrived at the first entrance to the large souk (market), called Souq Al-jumlah. It’s a beautiful, authentic souk, unlike the Disneyland tourist version in Nizwah we’d seen on our previous stop in Oman. Locals are actually shopping in the rabbit warren maze of shops where we saw clothing, hats, sandals, cookware and more along with items aimed at tourists including more clothes, local hats, spices, incense, jewelry, rugs, brass and silver goods and more.

Gorgeous ceiling at a main “intersection” in the Muscat souk

Souk Al-jumlah, not just for tourists

Free wi-fi is offered under a covered area near the center front of the souk, facing the corniche. Unfortunately, I was never able to access it since it required me to enter a code that the government-run service texted to me. Every time I opened the text to read the code, the window asking for the code closed itself and could not be retrieved. I had the same problem even when I tried using split-screen mode on my Android phone. David, however, was finally able to get it to work after many tries. (I’ll provide an easier solution to finding wifi below.)

Inside the souk

Leaving the souk, we continued along the increasingly hot corniche toward a fort perched on a hill overlooking the harbor. The temperature reached into the 90’s, but was actually comfortable whenever we could find a spot in the shade with a breeze. Barring that, it was stiflingly hot. Unable to see the entrance to the fort from the corniche, we asked inside the Modern Art Museum and were told to head up the hill on the road behind the museum for about 200 meters. There, on the right side of the road, we came to an empty parking lot where steps lead up to the fort.

A hot climb up the stairs to the fort

A couple of what looked to be fellow ship passengers were descending with a uniformed guard and we figured the fort must be closed. We decided to wait in the shade until they came down and ask to be sure. It turned out that the guard had opened the fort for them and just locked it. I thought we were out of luck, but he just said he was too tired to walk back up but that he’d give me the key and we were welcome to explore the fort on our own if we’d just lock up when we left and bring him back the key. Awesome! So, we got to explore the fort and enjoy the views alone, with no one to block our view, no lines and no entrance fee. There were even nice bathrooms available (albeit lacking in paper, as usual, in this part of the world–I always bring my own!).

Muscat fort on a hill overlooking the harbor
Old Muscat fort
View of Old Muscat from the fort

We strolled back along the corniche to duck into the souk once more before heading to a café we’d seen sporting a wi-fi sign. We didn’t expect much since it was located in a hotel, but I really needed a little time online and we figured we could at least buy a tea or water and a pastry if that was all that was on offer. We were charmed by Royal House Restaurant, a beautiful (and well-air-conditioned) restaurant offering Omani specialties as well as Indian dishes and more.

Interior of the Royal House Restaurant
Mandi, an Omani chicken dish

Carved wooden benches with brightly-colored pillows provided the seating at heavy dark-wood tables. The food turned out to be fresh and delicious and the wi-fi reasonably good. We settled in happily. Royal House Restaurant accepts credit cards and also offers outdoor seating in the shade.

Royal House Restaurant is located at Muttrah Corniche, Al Bahri Road, Muscat 114, Oman. Phone: +968 9314 1672

Port of Abu Dhabi, U.A.E.: Louvre Abu Dhabi & the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Central courtyard of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi

The one thing I was sure I wanted to see during our port stop in Abu Dhabi was the newly-opened (in November 2017) Louvre Abu Dhabi. With that in mind, I bought e-tickets online weeks before our arrival for 63 dirham (60+3 dirham tax or about $17.15 US each). Not wanting to use the ship’s overly-expensive and overly-structured excursions, the only question was what would we find in the way of local transportation, would we need local currency, and how would we get it if we did.

Abu Dhabi cruise port terminal

The cruise port terminal turned out to be spacious and modern with a very helpful, completely-fluent-in-American-English lady at the information desk. She told us taxis were available just outside and they were trustworthy and metered. She pointed to an ATM near her desk where we quickly got cash and headed out the main door. A minute in the taxi line and we were settled and on our way. Our cab driver spoke good English and in 15 minutes, we pulled into the Louvre Abu Dhabi parking lot. The ride cost 36 dirham (about $9).

(The Louvre Abu Dhabi is visible from the cruise port, but you have to go out and around the water to get to it. Walking is virtually impossible and absolutely impractical.)

Dome of the Louvre Abu Dhabi viewed from the cruise port; no way to walk there.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is a must-see for its architecture alone. A huge metal latticework dome covers the airy white building, creating a delightful “terrace” area of dappled light. There’s an upscale restaurant as well as cafeteria with good sandwiches, salads and the like and large walls of glass looking onto the water and the city beyond.

Courtyard beneath the lattice-work dome; the café and restaurant are in the white structure.

The museum itself is set up as a sort of history of man with exhibitions of things like religion, motherhood, maps and navigation, views on death, etc. from all over the world. There are sarcophagi and statues from ancient Egypt, artifacts from ancient Greece and Arabia, African and Pacific masks and idols, Western paintings from the Impressionists to Pollack, Asian silks and statues and more. Items from various cultures are placed side-by-side to show how different peoples viewed or represented different ideas and ideals of similar subjects.

Similar objects from different places and times
Islamic “automaton” lion by a medieval European tapestry

Unlike Louvre Lens (in the north of France), which shows a timeline of history and where different cultures were developmentally at any given time, Louvre Abu Dhabi clusters items together to show the similarities–and differences– of humankind with items from vastly different locations and/or eras sometimes placed side-by-side. It’s fascinating.

After a leisurely museum visit and lunch in the cafeteria, we caught another taxi (plenty were waiting in the Louvre Abu Dhabi parking lot) and headed to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, about a 30-minute drive from the Louvre Abu Dhabi. The drive, along an excellent city highway, cost us 51.25 dirham (about $12). Our driver, from Pakistan, spoke fluent English and was eager to tell us about Abu Dhabi and how much he liked it because it was the “most peaceful place in the world.” We enjoyed visiting with him, but had to wonder about his claim that there is “no crime” in Abu Dhabi and “no punishment or prison”; “They just kick you out.” When we asked him about citizens (who comprise only about 10% of the UAE’s population), he claimed they never commit crimes because everyone has everything they need and gets the same amount from the government so there is no jealousy. Hmm.

Early view of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Jaw-dropping.

I’m pretty sure my jaw literally dropped as we pulled up to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. I had no idea of the scale and grandeur of the place. I mean, wow. Taj Mahal-like with its gleaming white dome and minarets, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is nothing short of spectacular. And spectacularly beautiful. Our driver dropped us off near the front, assuring me that I didn’t need the sarong, long-sleeved shirt and headscarf I’d brought since the mosque would loan me an abaya.

45-minute complimentary tours are available at the mosque without reservation

David and I entered through separate men’s and women’s doors into the same room, but through different security scanners, and then I was directed to a small room in the back left where a lady chose an abaya for me from among a large collection hanging there. I pulled the dusty-blue hooded gown on over my street clothes and I was set. There is no charge to enter the mosque and no charge for use of an abaya. [Note: I had a pair of scissor-style tweezers in my purse that showed up on the scanner–never before a security problem–and I had to leave them in a box at the front and retrieve them when I left.] Also, those entering with tour groups through another entrance used their own headscarves, etc. and apparently either were not offered or weren’t required to use the borrowed abayas. I, personally, liked the abaya and felt more comfortable that I was respectfully dressed –and more part of the scene– wearing it. (I met at least one woman who found the required abaya a little offensive, but I didn’t feel that way at all. Everyone at the mosque was friendly and welcoming. I viewed it more as a “when in Rome” moment, no big deal … and actually kind of fun, almost like being in costume for a renaissance festival.) The only real downside is that the abaya added one more layer of clothing in heat that was pretty oppressive.

Meeting David after donning my abaya, we stepped outside to hear birds singing and a call to prayer  sounding over the loudspeaker. We continued on the long and incredibly hot (106F) walk around the huge mosque along a white marble walkway to the front entrance. With the sun beating down from a cloudless sky, we paused only briefly along the way to admire the many views of the mosque.

Decked out in my borrowed abaya

We deposited our sandals on shelves provided outside the main entrance before entering the reflecting-pool-lined arcade of arches that surrounds the sweeping, marble-paved inner courtyard of the mosque.

The central courtyard of the mosque

The floors of the arcade and courtyard are inlaid with colorful flower designs as are the columns of the arches that surround the courtyard. It is all exquisitely beautiful and struck me as very feminine.

At the far side of the courtyard, after strolling under the arched walkway, we entered the main area of the mosque (and were delighted to find it air-conditioned).

Antechamber leading to the interior hall

Inside, beyond a soaring antechamber with a large flower-like chandelier, the world’s largest carpet covers the massive 3-domed hall in elaborate patterns on a jade green background. Three truly enormous Swarovski crystal chandeliers hang under each dome, almost jarringly gaudy with their red and green crystals after the delicate floral beauty of the outer pillared arches and courtyard.

Main hall of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Detail of the largest carpet in the world

I’d wondered if the mosque was worth the trip. I can’t believe we even considered not going. It’s an easy, inexpensive cab ride and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is simply not to be missed when in Abu Dhabi!

[Practical note: There’s a modern gift shop and café near the exit to the mosque. It’s air conditioned and equipped with toilets and an ATM machine.]

Our taxi ride from the mosque back to the ship cost 53 dirham (about $13) and took about 30 minutes at around 4 – 4:30pm on a Sunday. Like Dubai, there are plenty of skyscrapers and modern architecture in Abu Dhabi as well as upscale homes our driver told us were provided to citizens by the government. Having only a brief glimpse of the city to base our opinion on, we came away with the impression of a more accessible, less over-the-top place than Dubai.

Intriguing architecture in Abu Dhabi

Back at the port, we browsed the shops in the cruise terminal, spending our last dirham on postcards and stamps and a bar of camel milk chocolate. Why not?!

Port of Dubai, U.A.E.: The world’s tallest building, malls and excess

Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building

Like everything else in Dubai, the port terminal is large and lavish with plenty of shopping available. Although the ship only told us about a shuttle to an out-of-the-way mall, the Information Desk in the terminal told us that Dubai Mall also offered a free shuttle from the port.

Dubai port facility

Dubai Mall is the city’s star mall and the location of the entrance to the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. The Dubai Mall shuttle is a black motor coach offering air conditioning and free wifi. Turn right after exiting the main doors of the cruise terminal; the Dubai Mall shuttle picks up at the first bus stop to your left. It runs every 30 minutes, returning from the mall to the port from the same spot it drops you off at, on the half hour. Our friendly driver even offered us free chilled water bottles on our return.

Tickets to the Burj Khalifa are for sale online 30 days prior to the visit date. I calendared that date and bought our tickets as soon as I could. It turned out to be a good idea as times were selling out when we got there. There are options to go to different levels and add-on experiences like snacks or a virtual reality experience. There’s a price break on the basic viewing deck ticket if you book an off-peak time. (Sunset is much in demand.) The Burj Khalifa is a huge tourist draw and extremely popular. There were 2 cruise ships in port when we were there, but the Dubai port reportedly can handle 6, so I can only imagine the crowds. The entry process was seemless; a woman scanned the QR code on my phone and handed me the paper tickets. I’d chosen a 3:30pm time slot, but when I showed up early to pick up the tickets, she told me we could go in any time until 3:30pm. (I think that may have been because the crowd was not overwhelming when we first got there.) There’s quite a line to go up with only 3 elevators running, and a substantial line to get back down, too, with only 2 elevators. We enjoyed our visit, but while it was slick and high-tech, we found it to be less-organized/slower and therefore less pleasant than the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. (Burj Khalifa s also much more expensive than the Petronas Towers.)

View from Burj Khalifa
Dubai seen from Burj Khalifa

From the Burj Khalifa, we could see the famous “7 star” Burj Al Arab hotel with its distinctive sail shape in the distance as well as the manmade palm- and globe-shaped residential islands of which Dubai is so proud. For me the most impressive thing about the view was the desert wasteland beyond the skyscraper-filled, mega-everything fantasy city that is Dubai. The juxtaposition with the city was jarring. Everything in Dubai is new or in the process of being built. Everything is enormous and excessively glitzy. It seems to be a sea of high-end malls offering the usual international labels and brands (Gucci and Pottery Barn, Bloomingdale’s and Samsonite, along with Japanese, English and other international chains and stores offering elegant Arabic ladies’ wear) and huge office and apartment buildings.

In the Dubai Mall
Fountains by Dubai Mall with the sea of skyscrapers that is Dubai
There are exotic goods in Dubai Mall in addition to the familiar western storefronts

Dubai is clean and the roads and everything else are very nice; it’s very international and cosmopolitan, but there’s not a breath of history to it; no sign of a “real” city that grew organically from where people settled long ago. It’s just my personal taste, but Dubai felt 100% fake and left me cold. It might be fun to live in for some people, and we met a couple who went to Dubai every year for Christmas, so to each their own. I’m glad I went, but can’t imagine wanting to go back, certainly never as a destination in and of itself.

Note: Tickets to the observation decks of the Burj Khalifa run  to 135 to 370 AED ($36.75 to $100.71) per adult. The $36.75 is for off-peak hours which vary by season. Prime hours are 210 AED ($57.17) per adult; the 370 AED price is for the SKY deck which is even higher than the main observation deck. There are price breaks for children and substantial add-ons available. Check the Burj Khalifa ticket site for details.

Port of Muscat, Oman: Excursion to Nizwah Fort and the Omani “Grand Canyon”

Old Muscat harbor

Sailing into the port of Muscat, Oman, for the first time is thrilling. I couldn’t help but think, “Now this is an exotic port!” The terrain is rugged rock, a uniform tan echoed in the watchtowers and fortification walls that guard the approach to the intimately-sized harbor. Our ship docked next to the royal yacht and another yacht used to provision the first. Colonial-style buildings with ornate balconies line the harbor front along a long corniche. A blue-domed mosque adds a colorful accent to the mostly-white buildings around it. A small stone fort perches at the far end of the corniche. I was looking forward to exploring this convenient and fascinating port, but we planned to save that for our return visit in a few days. (Since our month on the Celebrity “Constellation” from Singapore to Italy was actually two back-to-back cruises, the ship would retrace its path from Abu Dhabi –where the second cruise began– to Muscat.)

Approaching Muscat

Today was Friday, the Muslim holy day, so the Sultan Qaboos Mosque and much else would be closed. Better to save Muscat for our Tuesday return. Today, I’d booked our one and only cruise excursion for the month to Oman’s “Grand Canyon,” a trip to include a visit to the Round Fort, the Nizwah souk, and a picnic lunch atop Jebel Shams, the highest mountain in the Jebel Ahkbar mountain range. (“Jebel” just means “mountain” in Arabic.) Our excursion some 200 miles out into Oman also promised “Wadi Nakhr, in the depths of the canyon. Discover the quaint mountain village of Misfah and marvel at the breathtaking stone dwellings while learning about the region’s history. Admire the terraced farming village of Wadi Ghul before arriving at Jebel Shams….” All this was to be via 4-passenger SUV’s, too, so no big group in a motor coach. Sounds great, right? Well, the day turned out to be enjoyable, but not at all as billed … which in the end netted us a substantial refund and some nice apology gifts from the ship.

[Things got off on the wrong foot with this excursion the first day on the ship when I was informed that the already not-insubstantial price had gone up a lot from the time I’d called Celebrity some months before and been told to wait to book until I got on the ship to see if there was anyone else taking this excursion. The reason for not booking in advance was that the price was quoted per vehicle ($549) and we were only two people, not four. Once on the ship, the price had gone from $137.25 per person ($549/4) to $180. Hey, wait a minute! After much polite persistence, the difference was refunded to us prior to the excursion … and we made friends with a nice guy at the main desk. I’m a big believer in polite persistence!]

SUV’s waiting dockside by the port building in Muscat

The morning of the excursion, things started off less-than-perfectly when one of the SUV’s was late and we were left standing on the hot parking lot by the ship while confusion reigned. Eventually, we were put in an SUV with our two fellow travelers. We were then driven the 20 yards to the port terminal and told to exit again to clear security. David and I did, but our driver apparently then told the other two they could wait. So we went through security and they did not. And we could have left any contraband we wanted in the SUV. Pointless port bureaucracy, but not the excursion’s fault.

Once past charming Old Muscat near the port, we passed through gleaming, ritzy new Muscat with modern, ostentatious buildings sporting an almost Disney-esque Arabic flair. After that, the view gave way to a desolate tan moonscape dotted with white stucco villages and occasional oases. The rugged mountains beyond were obviously huge, but perspective was elusive with so few familiar objects to provide clues as to size. We asked questions of our driver, but soon learned he spoke virtually no English. So much for “learning much about the region’s history” from him.

At last we arrived in Nizwah where we got out in the huge parking lot of the Nizwah Souk. Hmm. This was a large, modern shopping complex made to look like an Arabic village.

Nizwah Souk

Nizwah Souk is sort of an outlet mall of souks (with an admittedly-fun room where we were free to taste a huge variety of dates as well as local coffee).

Coffee and dates on offer in Nizwah souk shop

A driver from one of the other two SUV’s traveling with us explained we were here to visit the souk and that those of us who wanted to visit Nizwah Fort which is adjacent to the souk were free to do so, but we’d be required to pay our own entrance. Wait a minute! We were supposed to visit the “Round Tower” fort as part of our excursion. Was this it? (Nizwah Fort does have a large round tower.) No, this wasn’t it and we weren’t going to visit a fort.

Round tower of Nizwah Fort

I’d snapped a photo of the excursion description and read it to the one English-speaking guide. He called his boss. Answer still “no.” Ticked off, but not wanting to miss what was probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, we paid our own entrance fee and visited the fort which turned out to be well worth it. The fort itself is extensive and open for exploring with museum-like displays of weapons in some rooms, women demonstrating cloth-work in another and so on.

Interior of Nizwah Fort’s round tower
Inside Nizwah Fort

Most rooms were open to visitors and the views were great. In the courtyard, a large group of me played instruments, chanted and staged mock battles with swords. All fun and interesting and we were glad we hadn’t missed Nizwah Fort. Still, we saved our ticket receipts for a little discussion with the Celebrity excursion desk.

 

Performers exit the fort in procession

From Nizwah, we drove further into the mountains past a ravine-side village and down into a sort of gulley where our little 3-vehicle convoy stopped for lunch. Hmm again. This was not “atop Jebel Shams” and we weren’t eating on a mat either; it was every person for themselves to claim a rock to sit on to eat.

There were some old ruins nearby which our one English-speaking guide informed us were “Persian ruins. They were destroyed.” So much for “learning about the region’s history.” Oh well, I finished up our hummus and sandwich lunch quickly and went on an explore. The ruins were open to anyone willing to scramble up the rocky, steep mountainside.

Having climbed as high as possible, I discovered a view of a broader canyon. A few children played on the opposite side. Later, a lone goat, a lost kid, wandered along the bottom of the ravine, bleating for its mother. Someone had spread elaborately woven straw mats in one of the stone huts that comprised the ruins.

 

We spotted caves and crevasses in the rock walls, some of which had clearly been used by humans at some point. A large lizard darted to hide under a rock; fiercely thorned bushes grabbed at our pant legs. This was what I’d hoped from this excursion, a chance to hike, climb and explore somewhere off the beaten path in Oman.

When it came time to head back to Muscat, we retraced our earlier route, flanked by those bleak, rugged mountains. We made an unexpected stop at the impressive Sultan Qaboos Mosque. As expected, it was closed to the public, but we were able to wander the grounds and peer through the high gates. We looked forward to going inside on our return visit, something that later seemed less appealing after visiting the magnificent Sultan Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi.

Sultan Qaboos Mosque

Car trouble in one of our fellow vehicles slowed our return to the ship, especially when the guides decided to take the battery from our SUV to swap with the other vehicle. No surprise, we soon found ourselves in the vehicle that wouldn’t budge. Cramming us into on of the operational vehicles, we made it back to the ship at the last possible moment. Another woman and I went straight to the excursion desk to report the day’s deviations from the advertised excursion. End the end, entry to the fort was reimbursed to us plus an additional $180 (50% of the shipboard fee for the excursion). With our initial reimbursement, this left us paying $47.25 apiece for the 9-hour tour, including entrance to Nizwah Fort. That I was happy with. When our new friend at the front desk topped things off with a bottle of wine, flowers,  choclate-dipped strawberries and a handwritten note, all was definitely forgiven. I do like Celebrity.