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.