Oman: The land of forts, towers & castles

21 02 2020

When a friend told me years ago that she had a wonderful vacation in Oman, I was cluelessly asking her what does Oman offers. She showed me wonderful photos and told me that I need to go and see for myself. So 3 years later when I was trying to fill 5 free days in my Middle East trip, I decided to “squeeze in” a visit to Oman.


Muscat
Muscat, the capital of Oman, is a beautiful city. The most famous sight is the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque located in western Muscat. This is a magnificent piece of art and used to be the world’s largest mosque until Abu Dhabi decided to build one bigger one. A total of 20,000 worshippers can attend the mosque at the same time. Do not miss the main chandelier, the large carpet and the beautiful painted tiles and marbles and do allocate sufficient time for your visit to slowly admire the beautiful works.


The old town to the east of Muscat is a contrast to central Muscat. Known as Mutrah, this old town area has a few old forts built in the 16th Century by the Portuguese such as the Mutrah Fort, Fort Al Jalali and Al Mirani Fort. There are a few other places of interest in Old Muscat worth seeing. The Sultans Palace or the Al Alam Royal Palace with a blue and golden façade is beautiful. The area around it is worth a short stroll. Not far away are the Muscat Gate and the Clock Tower. If you love to shop, there’s a big souk nearby.

Rustaq

Rustaq, the old capital of Oman, is well known for its healing hot springs, the most famous one being Ain al-Kasafa. Many people across the country travelled all the way here as it is known to cure rheumatism and various skin diseases. The famous Al Hazm Castle and Al Rustaq fort are surely Instagram worthy and should not be missed. It’s not too far from Muscat and well worth the trip.

Nizwa
A short drive from Muscat will bring you to Nizwa, a city at the foot of the Green Mountain.The city is of many rivers, orchards and palm trees, the city is famous for its fort, Souq (aka market) and Birkat Al Mauz, well known for its cool irrigation system.

Green Mountain
Just above Nizwa is the Green Mountain, famous for…. you guess it correctly… green mountain 🙂 The beautiful photos that you see online, with the green terrace fields will entice many tourists to make the trip. But well, the mountain is not always green, surely not in winter lol. So it’s not surprising when I reach that the green mountain looks dull yellow (and bare). Its official name is Jebel Al Akhdar. Here, you will see many fruit orchard laid out terrace style along the slopes of the mountain, thus creating a “green” look during the warmer seasons.

Tips

  1. There is Visa-on-arrival for many nationalities. If you travel from Dubai and will be returning to Dubai for your flight home, you could qualify for Visa-free entry. It is worth checking the details with the embassy as you could save quite a fair bit from the Visa cost.
  2. Oman is generally a safe country and practices moderate Islam. Tourists do not have to be covered up. However, it will still be respectful to wear modestly so as not to attract unwanted attention.
  3. The Grand Mosque is free for visitors. However, one need to dress appropriately before allowing entry. For ladies, head scarf are needed and all hair need to be tucked inside the scarf. All other parts of the body (minus the face) has to be covered with no skin expose. Man also needs to dress conservatively (no shorts and no slippers). If you do not have appropriate clothings, you can either buy and one of the market or buy one outside the mosque.
  4. Public transportation is almost non-existence except for taxis. You could grab a taxi from the airport to the hotel or within Muscat. But if you will like to travel out of Muscat, I suggest that you either rent a car or engage a local tour guide to take you. The road conditions are pretty good with well-paved expressways connecting the various cities and the roads are not congested so it’s quite easy to travel around the country.
  5. Oman offers a good variety of different sights and landscape – from old cities/ruins to mountains to sea side to desert. You should be able to cover Muscat city in 2 days. Depending on what you will like to cover outside Muscat, you will likely need a week or more in Oman.
  6. Things in Oman is not cheap (though not as expensive as the Nordic or Switzerland). Many places may not accept credit card so make sure you bring sufficient cash. I will say that excluding hotels and tours, budget at least US$70 a day on average.
  7. Hotel: I stayed at Raddison Blu and love their modern and clean rooms. There are many restaurants around the hotel so it’s Super convenient to get food (including my favourite Turkish House and a nice local eatery). See food section below for more details.

Food:

    Cuisine in Oman is somewhat similar to Indian food. This is not surprising given the close proximity to India. Do try out biryani. Compared to the Indian version, I find the Oman version less spicy.

    There is a lot of Turkish food in Muscat. One of my favourite restaurant which I highlight recommend if you visit is Turkish House. The grills are really good and you can have a decent meal for less than US$20.

    If you are on a budget, try out the local restaurant serving the typical Arabic food. The Arabic meal typically consists of rice, meat and some soup and this will cost you between US$2 to US$5 depending on the type of meat you order. You will find that it tastes yummy so long that you like spices. To many who are not used to spices, Arabic food tastes somewhat similar to north Indian cuisine but less spicy.





St Peterburg: Chasing my USSR dreams

29 01 2017

Though not a fan of cruises for fear of getting seasick, I mustered my courage to go on an overnight cruise from Helsinki to St Petersburg when I found out that this is the only way to travel to Russia without a Visa. As a kid, I used to stare for a long while at the Soviet Union covering a large part on the world map. Stories of Stalin, the Cold War and the KGB always never fail to fascinate me. Hollywood added my curiousity of USSR (and submarines) with movies like The Hunt for the Red October and Crimson Tide. So no words can describe my excitement when I boarded Viking Cruise to sail across the Baltic Sea to St Petersburg. 

The cruise was a little choppy but manageable. Thankfully I was not seasick. But I did get a scare of my life late at night when I was woken up by loud crashing sound as if the ship hit some hard objects. When I drew open the curtains and saw that the sea was frozen and sea ice was floating all around, the first silly thought that came to my mind was Titanic lol. I almost freaked out and thought that the ship was going down. Then I recalled that this ship has ice breaking ability and managed to composed myself to remain calm. Hilarious haha 🙂

The last leg of the journey as the ship cruise into St Petersburg was nothing short of spectacular as the ship broke its way through the wholly frozen sea to the port with snow falling. Of all the cities that I visited, I would say that St Petersburg is one of my favourite. I love the Hermitage Palace and its collections, the colourful churches including the famous Cathedral of the Holy Saviour on blood, Peter and Paul Fortress, Saint Issac’s Cathedral and many more. Even the metro stations with elaborated decorations which double up as bomb shelters during wartime are landmarks themselves. 

Given that the Visa free entry is only valid for 72 hours, it is a pity that I can’t spend more time in Hermitage Palace as well as visit Moscow. For my next trip, I will get the visa and spend a good amount of time there.

Tips:

– Cruise from Helsinki or Estonia to St Petersburg will get you to Russia Visa free for 72 hours.  See my blog on Finland and Estonia.

– Do try the local Russian pancake. There is a local fast food chain Teremok which serves cheap and yummy Russian pancakes. 


– Take a ride on the metro. Each stations are decorated differently and to me they are an open art museum.


– Walk around the city. You will be amazed that even non-touristy sites have also interesting architecture.


– Don’t shun away from Russian winter. There are not many places in the world where you can see frozen sea and rivers. 





Almost to the North Pole ~ My adventure in Tromso

27 09 2014

The Nordic region has always been on my “to go” list. The beautiful fjords, the mysterious northern lights and the excitement of getting “almost” to the North Pole will add up to what I will call a perfect vacation. So when friends happened to be in Norway, I decided to join them and embarked on my Norway adventure 🙂

Apart from the typical Oslo to Bergen trip through the beautiful fjords (see https://thecarefreetraveller.wordpress.com/2014/10/25/norwayinthenutshell/), I decided to make a side trip into the Arctic Circle to Tromso, often known as the Paris of the North and the gateway to the Arctic. It was a 2 hours flight from Oslo and as the plane was approaching Tromso, the view was breathtaking with beautiful fjords covered in snow. I would say that Tromso is a nice little city with scenic landscape.

Tromso 1

 

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The city area is pretty small and walkable from one end to another. The most iconic sight in Tromso is the Arctic Cathedral, which stood across the Tromso bridge at the “opposite” band. Built in 1965, the Cathedral is structurally distinct, inspired by Northern Norway’s landscape. When night falls, it is beautifully lighted up and stood like a shining star in the dark Arctic night.

Artic cathedral 1

artic cathedral 2

 

Behind the Cathedral is the Fjellheisen Cable Car that takes one up the Storsteinen Hill which is 420 metres above sea level. I will highly recommend that you do this ride up as it offers breathtaking panoramic view over the city and the surrounding mountains and fjords. For museum lovers, there are many museums in Tromso and they are great places to be in when it is either too cold or too wet. Even for those who are not fans of museums, l will suggest that you check out at the information counter of the “free admission” museums. Trust me you will need them when the weather is just too miserable for you to stay out.

cable car 1

cable car 3

If you have the time, head to the Lyngen Alps outside of Tromso is a beautiful area with awesome scenery. It is about an hour’s drive to the ferry terminal and 30 minutes ferry ride across the fjord to the Lyngen Alps. The Lyngen Alps is a great place all year round for activities. In summer, you could do hiking around the area and in winter, winter activities like snow mobile, snow shoeing, dog sledding and so on. I rode the snow mobile to get around and see the Lyngen Alps, which has beautiful frozen lake, snow cave and pristine landscape. Oh yes, 2 interesting incidents took place during my snow mobile ride. A friend lost control of her snow mobile and fell off the snow mobile. Thankfully she was not hurt but was obviously prohibited from driving the snow mobile after the 2nd fall lol. The other incident was that one of my legs got stuck and buried in the snow while attempting to climb up a hill to find the snow cave and I have to be pulled out of the snow by my friend. Interesting and hilarious experiences haha.

lyngen 2

lyngen 1

I am happy to share my itinerary, just drop me a note with your email details via the comment if you are interested.

 

Tips for Tromso:
1) You can take the flybus from Tromso airport to the city centre. It costs NOK 70 and takes around 15 minutes to get to the city centre.
2) For northern nights tour, I know many people will recommend the small vans which promise to “chase” the lights. Particularly, Guide Gunnar is highly recommended by friends and family who have been on the chase with him. However, during the time that I was there, he was not available and hence I signed up with Greenfox (a small van tour operator who also promises to chase the lights) and another one with the big bus tour. After chasing 2 nights with different tour operators, I feel that there is not much of a different as big bus tour will chase the lights too and is much cheaper. Also, the big buses will have a toilet on the bus which will come in handy for a long night chase (remember you are out for at least 6 hours). For smaller vans, you just have to use the “natural toilets” aka combat style toilets so may not be convenient for ladies.
3) Friends were asking whether Norway is preferred to view the Northern Lights, or whether Iceland is better. You need clear skies and a good level of activity to see the lights. The general view is that Norway offers a better view, though if the activity is strong, Iceland could also offer equally great view. The weather in both Norway and Iceland are equally unpredictable. Thus, I typically will recommend Iceland if you have limited time as there are more things to see/do in Iceland apart from Northern lights. For Norway, you will need to fly all the way to Tromso or other parts of Lapland and there are fewer things to do there. If you have more time (2 weeks), Norway will be great as you can then combine with sightseeing in other parts of Norway such as Oslo to Bergen across the fjords. For a more stable weather (increasingly your chance to see the Northern lights), you may want to consider going to Finland and Sweden instead.
4) For dog sledding, do note that if the snow is “fresh”, it will be difficult for the dogs to pull and hence you may need to help the dogs by running along with them. This can be physically tiring so if you are not in the best shape, do let the tour operator knows so that they can see how they can help.

dogs 1
5) If you are a student, remember to bring your student card (any student card issued by your institution would do). You will be entitled to discounts on transportation, entrance fees and tours. I managed to save quite a fair bit thanks to my student card 🙂
5) The power voltage in Norway is 250V. So when you bring your travel adapter, make sure it can take up to 250V, particularly for hairdryer. My friends learnt this the hard way by blowing 2 adapters lol. Alternatively (and I will recommend this), ask the hotel whether they can lend you theirs.

 

Food:
1) Many people commented that food in Norway is expensive. I agree and will say that Tromso is the most expensive place in Norway that I have been to! A simple meal of sandwiches and a drink will set you back at least USD 30-40. However, if you top up slightly (say around USD 40-50), you can get quite a decent meal of a nice main course (eg cod, salmon), drinks and possibly dessert. The fine dining restaurants seem to have comparable prices as what you would be paying elsewhere (surely cheaper than Singapore and Australia). So I suggest that if you can, just top a little for a better meal. It is much more worth the value.
2) Do try out Emma’s. It is really a nice restaurant and the price for lunch is super reasonable (around US$30 for a good meal). I highly recommend the fried cod tongue as the starter. It tastes like the fish meat so nothing offensive. Emma (the owner) was nice enough to split our starter into 3 separate portions so that we could share the food. The service was great and Emma came over to chat with us and we made friends with Emma. We find the lunch so good that we decided to go back for dinner for the next evening which is more expensive. For dinner, do try the dried cod (super yummy) as it is one of the signature Norwegian dishes. The steam cod loin and fried Char was good too. I was pleasantly surprised that Emma told her staff to give us free sparkling wine (saw that only our table has it). So it is always great to make more friends haha! Do make a reservation beforehand as it is a pretty popular restaurant.

emma
3) For cakes and coffee, Eli’s cafe is a nice one. They serve sandwiches too and I love their scrimps and salmon bagel.

Eli

 

Accommodation:
I stayed at Viking Hotel Tromso. It is a simple 3 stars hotel, nothing fancy. The room is like the usual Norwegian standard, very small (and I stress again the “very”) but clean. It is slightly a little walk from the city centre (though not too far), around 5 minutes walk to tourist information center and 10 minutes walk to the Rica Ishavs Hotel which is the meet-up point for most tours. The one good thing about the hotel is that it served free waffles and hot drinks in the lobby for afternoon tea. I will recommend this place if you are just looking for a clean room to sleep without hurting your pockets.