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Al Bustan Palace ~ Muscat, Oman

February 6th, 2013 7 comments

Al Bustan Palace Hotel

In my last post I wrote about our trip to Muscat, Oman. What I didn’t mention was where we stayed—Al Bustan Palace.

We had stayed in this hotel once before, exactly nine years ago. Since then, the hotel was closed for several years for renovation and refurbishment. Now managed by the Ritz-Carlton, the hotel was sure to be classy. I looked forward to seeing the changes, as well as experiencing a bit of extravagance and amenity.

Al Bustan Palace was originally built as a venue for the GCC (the Gulf Cooperation Council) to hold their 1985 summit. More palace than hotel, Al Bustan has won its share of awards as the best hotel in the Middle East. Also, the fort-like hotel exemplifies Muscat’s architectural requirements of Arabesque patterns, arches, and domes.

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

If you visit Muscat, it’s worth staying at Al Bustan Palace—or at least coming for dinner to view the grand and stunning domed lobby, seven stories high.

Al Bustan Hotel ~ Lobby

When we stayed here before, the interior design was pretty, but its Arabian theme was overly colorful and ornate by today’s standards. Now the room design is subdued with neutral colors and understated patterns.

Al Bustan Hotel ~ Room

It’s also worth strolling the grounds—all newly updated and improved, along with the infinity pool and beach area.

Al Bustan Hotel ~ Garden

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

The hotel is located on a private cove with a wide open beach offering snorkeling and dolphin-watching boat rides. Yes, dolphins.

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

This Omani coffee man offered me dates and Arabic coffee every day (as was his job). Each time I had coffee with him, he asked me more about myself.

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

The coffee man asked me where I was from, where my husband was from, how many children we had, etc. When he found out I lived in Dubai, he asked which was better—Dubai or Muscat. I gave a vague answer about each city being unique. He insisted I choose the best city. Finally, I told him Muscat was better because of its traditional and natural beauty. At last, he was satisfied.

The next day, I tried to pick up our conversation where we left off. Instead, he started from the beginning: where I was from and which I like better, Dubai or Muscat… I wondered, perhaps all us Western women look the same to him?

At any rate, the coffee and dates were fitting, and the hotel was lovely, a perfect anniversary getaway.

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

Question: Have you been to Al Bustan Palace?

Trip to Muscat, Oman

January 1st, 2013 18 comments

I traveled to Oman nine years ago—a family trip that has become a blur to me. It was now time to go again. So, last week my husband and I traveled there, childfree and with fresh eyes. Four days and three nights. Just the two of us.  

Welcome to Muscat

The city of Muscat, capital of Oman, is so different from Dubai that it’s almost a shock to the system. First of all, it’s all stretched out along the coast of the Gulf of Oman—miles and miles of undeveloped beaches.  

And not a skyscraper in sight. Instead, you find a city of mostly white low buildings nestled between the sea and rugged mountains. Relaxing and pleasing to the eye, it feels like a kind of urban retreat.

Also, the city is not overrun with expatriate workers (like another city I know). Most of the people you meet in Oman—hotel clerks, shopkeepers, baristas, waiters—are actual Omani people.

Mutrah ~ The Port of Muscat

This is my favorite part of Muscat. Mutrah is the capital’s main port area, yet it feels more like a fishing village with its fish market, souk, sidewalk cafés and a corniche. In short, this picturesque area is an ideal place to stroll.

 

Old merchant homes line the waterfront. 

The Souk

Tucked behind the sidewalk cafés along the corniche is the Mutrah Souk. Authentic and lively, the souk is a traditional Middle Eastern market.

This shop sells bags of frankincense, alongside other “beauty items.” 

It addition to the usual Arabian and Indian bric-a-brac, you can also find some interesting artifacts, as well as Omani hats, chests and jewelry.

 

Beaches, Beaches Everywhere

I was amazed by the wide-open beaches, such as this one in Qurm.

This beach is a long strip with only a small shopping area and a few stand-alone cafés, like this Starbucks. If this were in another city I know, the area would be overdeveloped with steel skyscrapers, luxury hotels and a mall. 

I try to seek out a Starbucks in every country I visit. I realize this may be weird or even offensive to some, but for me, it’s a little piece of Seattle. I like to see if they carry the Pike Place Blend. (They did.) This particular Starbucks was especially nice. The outside seating provided a perfectly unobstructed view of the beach across the street.

Architecture

Due to the aesthetic requirements of the city, structures are whitewashed or sand-colored and a limited number of floors high. Also, it seems every structure has some arabesque element—arches or domes or lattice. This gives the city a unique character, as well as a whimsical and unified look. Even though Muscat has a population of one million, it feels more like a small town in places. 

These contemporary-styled white villas have beach views and seem to be typical high-end homes.  

Oman is known for its forts. Much of the architecture is fort-like with thick walls and huge arches. All over Muscat are moutains like these. 

Muscat, Tidy and Charming

The city is surprisingly tidy and clean (almost spotless) with colorful flowers all over.  This roundabout features a replica of a dhow that traveled from Oman to China in the 8th century—and not a single nail used to build it.  

All around the city are sculptures of fish, a tribute to the Omani fishing heritage.

Oman 101

If you are thinking of traveling to Oman, take note that Oman is a peaceful and stable country with low crime. An Arab and Muslim country, Oman is predominately Arabic-speaking with English as a second language. In my short visit, I found the Omani people to be gracious and friendly.

The ruler of Oman is Sultan Qaboos. The leader since 1970, Sultan Qaboos is known for easing the country into modernity by investing heavily in education and by developing a well-trained local work force. 

Getting There

Our flight was through Emirates Airline, Dubai to Muscat, exactly one hour at 2:00 in the afternoon—what a civilized time to fly!

Turns out we misread. Our flight was actually at 2:00 in the morning, and we missed it.

So we drove.

Everyone says it takes five hours to get to Muscat. However, it took us seven hours each way. We had to stop for lunch and coffee (Starbucks, naturally). Also, there was a lot of construction on the road; it appears Oman is converting their roundabouts into flyover bridges, which will  eventually improve things.

But for now, it was slow going. Coming back from Muscat seemed especially long. When we neared the city and I saw the Dubai skyline—the row of steel and glass skyscrapers, punctuated with the Burj Khalifa, I breathed a sigh of relief. Back to civilization.

Next post: Where we stayed: Al Bustan Palace

Question: What are your impressions of Oman?

Weekend in Istanbul (Part III)

October 22nd, 2011 7 comments

Earlier I  wrote about my Weekend in Istanbul:

          Part I – Where we stayed,  What we visited, What we ate

          Part II – Where we  shopped, Where we went

Here is my  final post about my weekend in this complex, multi-layered city.

What  We Saw

To me,  Istanbul was tidy and charming (at least the areas that I saw). The city was  full of clean streets, green boulevards and hills. (Think San Francisco.) Here  is one of many winding cobblestone streets that I saw.

Istanbul  is a colorful city in many ways.

 

Even the  buildings are colorful. On some streets, every building is a different color.

When the  weather is nicer, Istanbul would be a fabulous place for sitting in sidewalk  cafés. (This photo was taken by someone else on a sunny day.)

What Surprised Me

I knew  that Istanbul is famously divided by the Bosporus strait which cuts the city into East and West, Asia and Europe. What I hadn’t considered was the Golden  Horn, which divides European Istanbul and the Sea of Marmara, which provides water to the south. All this meant that Istanbul has miles and miles of waterfront and so many beautiful views of water, boats and bridges. I loved this.

One can  get right up close to the water in the many cafés and restaurants that line the waterfront. This photo was taken from a place where we ate lunch outside (Assk  Café). Luckily there were heaters.

I was surprised by how darn cold it was. First, I thought it would be a “nice change” from the sun and warmth of Dubai. Then the rain made me homesick for Seattle. After that, I was just cold, wet and a little bit miserable. Even though I had  the proper coat and shoes (for once), I was freezing.

We spent a lot of time riding in taxis, waiting for a taxi or searching for a taxi. Also, we had various communication breakdowns with drivers. I only knew one word in Turkish: merhaba, which means “hello.” I relied heavily on this word. (It’s the same word in Arabic.)

There were a lot of stay dogs in Istanbul. What surprised me was how healthy, well-fed and docile they looked.

What I Bought

Aside from  too much Turkish delight, this is what I bought. I love the handmade tiles of  Turkey.

Here’s a  detail of the hand of Fatima trinket. These types of things were very cheap.

I also bought a Turkish teapot. The top is for strong tea that is slowly brewed over the hot water below. The tea is diluted with the water from the bottom. This tea-brewing method creates a unique taste. I used to think this was a samovar. No, it’s just a teapot.

This is a  samovar. (We didn’t buy it. It was in the Ritz-Carlton lobby café.)

What I thought

I found the Turks to be a smiley, cheerful people (except for one guy). This is what I noticed coming from a place that’s not particularly smiley.

Also, at first glance, Istanbul appears truly secular. Of course, there were gorgeous mosques all over the city. But from my perspective (coming from the UAE), it didn’t have the feel of a Muslim country. I realize there’s a reason for this, due to Turkey’s own unique history and Ataturk’s reforms and laws against the hijab. I also realize it’s a different story outside the city.

Above all, Istanbul felt like Europe. Well, according to the map, we were in Europe.

Lonely Planet calls Istanbul one of “the  world’s great romantic cities.” I believe that. In fact, what I saw of Istanbul reminded me more of Paris than any other city I’ve been to.

So, my first  impression as a weekend visitor was that Istanbul is more European than Middle Eastern, more secular than Muslim. Also, the city is so old, complex and layered, so rich with history, architecture… well, with everything. I got the impression one could spend a lifetime there and still not explore everything.

May my next trip to Istanbul be longer and filled with sunny weather and lots of time spent antique-shopping and sitting in sidewalk cafés.

Question: What are your impressions of Istanbul?