Day trips to nearby cities are a given. Occasionally we’ve been able to make a day trip to or through an adjacent country. Without exception so far, these trips have been overland. For this trip, we decided to try something new right at the beginning: visiting another country with a roundtrip plane ticket on the same day.
We had a full free day in Dubai before our next stop in Kazakhstan. Our initial idea was a city tour of Abu Dhabi. After a little further reading, it seemed like it might actually be possible to visit neighboring Oman as a day trip. A cruise to Musandam is one way to do this, but it seemed like a poor choice for “checking off” a country with as much history as Oman. Many of the larger tourist sites are in the capital of Muscat, definitely too far to visit by car in one day. However, there are 10+ direct flights per day between Dubai and Muscat. We booked a morning flight to arrive in Muscat around 9 am and a return flight that put us back in Dubai around 9 pm. The flights are around fifty minutes. We booked with a tour company that provided airport pickup and drop-off and a driver/guide for the day. There are a variety of ways an itinerary like that could go badly, but it actually went off seamlessly for us.
The flights into Dubai over the prior weekend were nerve-wracking, as the hurricane in the Carolinas impacted a number of connecting flights. For a time it seemed like we might get into Dubai a day later, which would’ve completely eradicated the possibility of this Oman visit. Fortunately, United managed to stitch together flight connections that actually got us into Dubai an hour earlier than planned. For anyone considering a visit like this… it’s definitely doable. However, I almost would advise waiting until the absolute last minute before booking. There’s just zero room for error or unexpected delays. We went with the discount carrier “FlyDubai” and the prices seem to be fairly fixed. There are a number of reputable companies offering day tours like the one we booked. We used “Sunshine Tours” and were well taken care of.
I’m not sure exactly what I expected of Muscat, but I was definitely surprised. As it’s a hub with a new airport in close proximity to UAE, maybe I expected the place to be more like Dubai: high-tech, booming, overdeveloped. Not even close though. The city feels very rustic and antique. The buildings are largely consistent in color and style, giving kind of an old-town feel, even in areas of newer development. Residences and shops that are hundreds of years old sit alongside new construction that utilizes similar styling. Zanzibar used to be under the control of Oman, and you can definitely see some overlap in the architecture and feel of the place. For one thing, the decorative doors for which Zanzibar is famous are present in Oman as well. It makes me wonder which one influenced the other.
During our visit, it was 92% humidity with a temp in the 90s, and it felt absolutely stifling. It definitely made you want to limit your time outside. I can’t even imagine the feel outside earlier in the summer with a temp in the 110’s. Dubai is actually a fair bit hotter than Muscat right now, but the lack of humidity makes venturing outside much more reasonable. The Japanese-branded “Pocari Sweat” (Gatorade type drink) is all over the place in both of these stops and was a real life saver. Muscat is famous for the forts and older outdoor markets. Both of these things were interesting and worth your time. However, nothing really especially remarkable there. Mutrah Souq is a very touristy market and the proximity to a cruise terminal probably detracts from the experience, even on a day like ours with no cruise ship visitors. The really impressive thing to visit is the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. The mosque is only open to non-Muslim visitors for a few hours each morning, so that was our first stop after the airport. Those morning hours are also quite a bit more forgiving in terms of the stifling heat. The girl I was traveling with had a headscarf with her, but we didn’t account for the necessity of long sleeves, so she had to rent a full Hijab for our visit there. She looked the part I think. While the mosque is newer construction, the sheer size, quality of materials, and thematic consistency just make it an absolute spectacle. Much of the artistic aspects are Persian, but there are also some Turkish architectural elements as well. We have visited more historically significant mosques in both of those places, but to me this seemed more impressive in scale and design. One “first” we did experience here was a full pitch to convert to Islam. They actually integrate that on the end of a visit… bring you in for some dates and rosewater coffee and then start hitting you with the “Pillars of Islam” and such. The pitch is interesting in that it is essentially “Islam is more Christian than Christians” and (as they’re monotheistic) “Christians are actually Muslims”. Pretty sure this pitch assumes a Christian audience. I’m not sure how the approach would vary if they were trying to convert an Atheist. Anyhow, I tread lightly on this stuff when abroad but it wasn’t too bad and I actually found it interesting. Evangelicals in the USA can be far more aggressive and off-putting.
We didn’t have much time on the front end here in Dubai. We stayed at the same place as our 2014 trip, the Shangri-La Hotel. Very nice as usual, but maybe a bit excessive for the short amount of time we were able to stay there. If you’re using Dubai as a transit hub for visiting neighboring gulf countries, one of the hotels closer to the airport like Raffles or Meriden might be a better choice.
Our third day in Dubai had an early afternoon flight to Almaty, Kazakhstan, which will begin a couple weeks of travel through Central Asia. Our friend Greg is meeting up with us the next day in Almaty. We’ll try to get posts in for each of the “Stan” countries as we go.