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

Picturesque Kotor: narrow streets and a mountain fortress

Kotor turned out to be everything I’d hoped: beautiful, friendly, and a great base to explore. We spent the morning of our first full day in Kotor hiking to the top of Kotor’s St. John Fortress. Two access points from the old town to the path up are manned buy locals who exact a fee of around €3pp. Steep stairs and rough, cobblestone paths make the ascent easier than mountaineering, but it’s still 87 stories-worth of climbing! The fortress is entirely in ruins, with occasional small shrines and a little church along the climb and a surprising wealth of wild purple irises and bright yellow wildflowers covering the rocky terrain. We thoroughly enjoyed the climb, but were told it could be hot and crowded in the summer. Thankfully, we had neither of those problems.

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Old Kotor: on the way to the path up to the fortress
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Mountainside shrine on the way to the fortress
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Wild irises and yellow flowers
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Church, mid-way to the fortress (and David!)

At the summit, we explored the ruins of the fortress proper, climbing through window holes and up dead-end stairs. Huge flocks of black birds swooped and swirled, both above and below us. Clouds had gathered, but fortunately rain held off and we had a beautiful view of the bay beyond the red tiled roofs of the old city.

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The summit of Kotor Fortress: the Montenegran flag and a flock of birds

We descended the mountain to exit further south than our entry point, but still within the old city walls, at a spot near Sveti Tripuna (St. Tryphon’s) Cathedral. It seemed the perfect opportunity to visit the cathedral and explore the small museum there. The cathedral is small as cathedrals go and the museum is tiny as well. The museum’s collection is typical of medieval churches, but worth a look and the visit does not take long.

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St. Tryphon on a sunnier day

The real pleasure of Kotor is simply being there, exploring the maze of narrow streets, strolling around the harbor, sitting in a café. It’s a luxury to simply have time there. Cruise ships are now docking at Kotor and, while we certainly understood the appeal of this beautiful little city and the right-there dock, it was annoyingly crowded when a ship pulled in and a relief when it sailed away. The old town is already over-supplied with shops selling souvenirs and depressingly-similar restaurants. I imagine it will only get worse as tourism to this beautiful little country increases. [This was a scenario I would soon find to have already played out in neighboring Croatia.]

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Montenegro, at long last!

I’d wanted to visit Montenegro when my boys and I had been in Dubrovnik back in 2003. It was so close!…but I’d decided against making what, in essence, would have been little more than a toe-touch in the country. Now, finally, I was going back and we had 5 nights in Kotor to explore this mountainous country. I was thrilled.

The getting there from Belgrade was both easy and fun. Pre-boarding, we enjoyed the amenities of the airport Business Club courtesy of our Priority Pass membership (an AmEx Platinum perk). Once aloft, we flew over the rugged mountains I’d originally thought of crossing by train, enjoying the views…and convinced we’d made the right decision to skip the train. The Air Serbia flight between Belgrade and Tivat, Montenegro, was barely more than an hour and as pleasant and efficient as our Ljubljana to Belgrade flight had been (with yet another “$0” free meal). Eventually, the mountains gave way, but only somewhat, to a spectacular Adriatic coastline.

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The Montenegran coast on the approach to the Tivat airport

We landed in the tiny Tivat airport and were met, as promised, by Marijana, the driver sent by our AirBnB host. Marijana led us to her own, small cluttered car. On the short drive to Kotor, she told us that she was a divorced mother of young children. She was interested to her what we thought of Belgrade, having lived there herself for years with her Serbian ex-husband. In her estimation, it was a great city and she missed it, but her children liked Kotor and and the cost-of-living was lower for her in Montenegro.

In no more than 15 minutes, we parked beside a canal just across from the walls of the old city of Kotor. Our host, Bojan, owned two apartments he rented on AirBnB on the 3rd floor. He listed the 2 together on AirBnB which explained my confusion as to the orientation of some of the rooms I’d seen online. Both are nice, new 2-bedroom apartments with balconies facing the old town. (While the living rooms were stylish and well-appointed in each, both apartments also had spartan upstairs bedrooms with ceilings that sloped laughably low. Bojan had been clear about that though, so it was no surprise. Just funny as David, who had the inside side of the bed and to stoop his 6’3″ low and scuttle, crab-like around the end of the bed to get out.) We were given our choice of apartments since we were the first to arrive and were soon happily settled.

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The roofs of Kotor old town. (Our apartment was in the 4th building to the right of the tall, modern building just off-center in the photo.)
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Crazy-low sloping ceiling in our bedroom

Now late afternoon, we set out to explore the old town on foot and find somewhere to eat. Old Kotor is achingly picturesque and its setting like something from a fairy tale with fortress walls running the length of the mountain at its back and and a magnificent, fjord-like bay before it.

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Old Kotor with the fortress and walls on the mountain beyond

One of my favorite food memories from the two weeks I spent with my sons in Croatia all those years ago was of perfectly grilled squid in Trogir. Happily, we found a pretty outdoor restaurant in old Kotor with great little grilled squid and the potato and chard side dish we’d found to be a staple in Belgrade. The restaurant was touristy, but not obnoxiously so, and the view of the fortress on the mountain looming above us was particularly beautiful as sunset gave way to dark. Lit up along the length of its walls, the fortress lay like a string of gleaming pearls on the ridge of the mountain. And, one of the joys of traveling off-season, we had the place almost to ourselves. In Montenegro, squid soon came to be our go-to meal: always good and, surprisingly, nearly always the cheap option. What an awesome country!

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Delicious grilled squid dinner in Old Kotor

 

April 7, 2016