Muscat, the capital of the Sultanate of Oman, right at the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula, has long been an under-the-radar destination. Only recently are travellers catching onto what a magical destination the Sultanate really is. And that is true, quite literally, as Sindbad the Sailor, of Sheherazade’s 1001 Arabian Nights hails from just north of Muscat.
The city strings itself along between the Gulf of Oman, part of the Indian Ocean, and the foreboding Hajar Mountains. Each cove and bay welcomes a different neighbourhood of the city, making for a slightly unusual city layout.
As you drive from the airport past residential neighbourhoods to undoubtedly the most popular quarter of Muttrah, and then onward to Old Muscat, at times the mountains reach the coast, and the reason behind the layout becomes ever clearer.
And that is part of the magic of Muscat, here nature is still dominant, and real history is palatable, with no evidence of the glittering towers the neighbouring countries are renowned for.
Muscat itself has a handful of great sights and experiences that will keep visitors busy for a couple of days, but the city is a perfect base from where to launch day trips. From Muscat, you can head into the mountains, along the coast, onto – and into - the sea, and further inland.
Once you take those into account, you can easily keep yourself entertained for a week or more. But, three or four days, crammed full, should give you a great taster of the highlights of Oman.
If you have more time in Oman and don't want to get too exhausted, schedule an extra day to enjoy Nizwa and its surroundings (see above day trip suggestion). Then, for good measure, add another day or two to enjoy the beaches and the snorkelling - or, indeed scuba-diving, as the coastline is well worth exploring.
A great way to get more out of your trip is to hire a 4WD, either with or without a driver, as places are spread out, and there is much hidden in and behind that mountain range.
If you are staying at the Al Bustan Palace hotel, then the easiest way is to go along the coast. Start the day with breakfast looking out across the bay - you might even spot dolphins coming close to the shore in the mornings.
Then head to Old Muscat, taking in the colourful Al Alam Palace, the official court of the Sultan, still in use, which sadly makes it out of bounds for visitors. Pop into Bait al Zuhair, a beautifully restored old residence now housing a museum and an art gallery, where to start thinking about souvenirs.
Onward to Muttrah, in the next bay. This is where you will spend most of the day, as there is much to see. The corniche, the coastal road, is beautiful to walk along, with fishing and sailboats, and even the odd cruise liner, bobbing along in the bay. Small forts stand high above the neighbourhood at either end of the bay, offering a climb and great views as a reward.
Then, after a refreshing lunch, or just a fresh juice on the corniche, dive into the Muttrah Souq. This is a typically Arabian bazaar, a warren of lanes, with a myriad of stores and stalls... you are bound to get lost. But it is of a manageable size, and you’ll resurface eventually in the right place.
Choose from traditional Omani silver (such as the old Australian silver coins that used to be legal tender), intricate silver jewellery, or even frankincense. Grown a little further south in the mountains, this is the reason Oman was once connected to the Mediterranean, the Roman and Ottoman empires via the Frankincense Route.
Remember to buy a painted clay pot and some glowing charcoal for your frankincense use back home.
There is much to see, and the atmosphere is lovely, but in the afternoon, tear yourself away to get to the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque just before sunset, which takes place quite early in Muscat, around 5.20pm in winter.
This, the largest mosque in Oman takes on a golden hue during the magic hour, and if you are lucky, you will be there during prayer time, which is quite a spectacle, as the mosque holds some 20,000 worshippers.
Stop for a khawa, the local cardamon coffee in the Islamic Centre on site and chat to the ladies who run it. Then head off to the Mumtaz Mahal for an Indian dinner with great views, right from a hilltop overlooking Muscat - and a long-standing favourite with locals, visitors and expats alike.
While the Hajar mountains may look foreboding, they offer a few surprises.
A trip to Jebel Akhdar, the Green Mountain, is a bit of an adventure, be it self-drive or with a guide, and takes you to an elevation of 2,980 m (9,780 ft), up steep winding roads.
Start by heading out toward Nizwa, to the abandoned town of Birkat Al Mauz en route, roughly 45 minutes out of Muscat.
Stop for a bit of an excursion of this palm-fringed mountain village that has long been abandoned, but has not lost its charm. Then climb to the top for views across the valley, before heading onward, up the mountain road.
Once at the top of Jebel Akhdar, you’ll see just why this is called the green mountain, when all the surrounding peaks are dark and grey, here, you find farms growing pomegranates, and lots of roses. These roses, fields and fields of them, are used in the local perfume industry.
They are picked first thing in the morning, when the petals still have dew drops on them, with some 2kg needed to produce a small, 750ml bottle of essence. To learn more about the processes and to get a look behind the scenes, there are guided tours available.
After an indulgent stop for lunch at the fabulous Anantara Jebel Al Akhdar Resort (choose the aptly named Bella Vista for light bites on a terrace looking out across the mountain range), head out for a hike.
Many trails offer different terrains and different difficulty levels and distances. Several of the tracks lead past other abandoned mountain villages clinging to the edge of the rocky cliffs, and you might even find the odd Frankincense tree, although they are very rare this far north.
Head back to Muscat and enjoy a traditional regional dinner with views across Muttrah Bay at Bait Al Luban.
Maybe you could get up early and go dolphin watching before you head off today. The sea off Muscat is teeming with all sorts of species, the most entertaining of which are the spinner dolphins.
Either way, it’s another road trip day, this one filled with forts of all sizes. You have already explored Muttrah Fort and seen the various watchtowers dotted throughout the landscape, but this circular drive takes you past three of Oman’s finest forts dating back to the 1700s.
Leaving Muscat on the coastal route 1 toward Sohar, turn inland at Barka, with the first fort at Al Nakhl. Set at the entrance to a palm oasis Ain Al Thawarah, with hot springs, and a perfect place for a breakfast picnic.
Just follow the road to the end, and then after your break, return to the main road. Onward to Rustaq, with the second largest fort in Oman, after Al Bahla Castle, which you might already have visited on the Nizwa day trip. Normally a museum, the opening schedule is a little hit and miss, but in the main season, it should be open.
The last stop on the loop is one of the lesser-known forts in Oman, but one of my personal favourites: Al Hazm Fort. Small and perfectly formed, it even has an early example of a bathroom.
On your way back to Muscat, before it gets dark, make sure you head off the main route 1 to Al Sawadi Beach to watch the sun go down. Grab a takeaway from one of the little restaurants alongside the road.
Then settle down by what the locals call shell beach (as countless shells are making up the beach). It has an island set off the mainland, walkable at low tide, with - guess what? - a little fort at the top. Perfect to round up a day of fort-seeing.
You’ll be back in Muscat in time for the Muscat at Night tour.
There is much to see in Muscat's vicinity, so, the more time you have, the better. Here are some ideas:
Wahiba Sands: Mentioned above as the best desert trip, the Wahiba Sands is a perfect sandy desert, with a few exhilarating drive moves to be carried out off the road, and some glamping resorts for a lunchtime stop.
Jebel Shams: This mountain, Oman’s tallest, sits right next to Jebel Akhdar, and alongside what is known as Oman’s Grand Canyon, a gigantic cut in the earth, complete with hiking trails, grand views and photo opportunities. Day trips from Muscat usually include visiting Nizwa.
Bimmah Sinkhole: This natural wonder ls around an hour’s drive south of Muscat and offers a unique swimming opportunity in a sinkhole fed by both the sea and fresh water, and of the most amazing turquoise colour. Organised day trips from Muscat usually also include a visit to Wadi Shab.