12.19.2013 - 12.21.2013
Chaz goes back to work and the next few days are quite domestic. I exercise each morning and we cook each night. DynCorp's Holiday Party is on Thursday night at 7:00. Chandler is scheduled to fly in at 8:00 so we arrange for a driver to pick him up at the airport and bring him to the Ritz Carlton. The Ritz was completed only six months previous and is absolutely stunning. Our pictures did not turn out too well but hopefully you can see its grandeur. The party is outside on the patio in balmy beautiful weather - about 70 degrees. The buffet is extravagant and absolutely delicious. The line of desserts is at least 30 feet long. Wow! It's very late when we get the call that the driver has Chandler and they are headed our way. We have him take Chandler to the apartment as it is almost 10:00. It's great to have our boy here and the whole family in one country, much less under one roof!!
The next day is Friday when shops open late. It's also Chaz' housecleaning day and we decide to go to the grocery while the apartment is being cleaned. Afterwards we head to Marina Mall. We're early and walk around the mall looking at the Christmas decorations and children ice skating. I love the little penguin trainers the children use, what a great idea. I've also snapped a few pictures with a few locals in them surrepticiously. It's actually against the law to take pictures of strangers.
We have decided to go see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. In UAE movie seats are reserved and we buy our tickets and choose our seats online. Chaz advises that we should sit on the back row. The Emiratis think nothing of talking during a movie, jostling your seat and coming and going while the movie is being shown. By sitting on the back row we're a bit removed from any hubbub. But since it's Friday, the 1:30 show is sparsely attended and we don't have any disruptions. We were a bit disappointed in the movie, it started off fairly well, but then seemed to drag. Chaz and Chandler both report that they each fell asleep twice!!
The next morning we pack and are on the road by 10:00 for our drive to Muscat, Oman. I've made reservations at a Crowne Plaza that advertises its own private beach. Muscat is the capital of Oman, with just over 600,000 people. Much of Oman is covered by a desert plain but along the coast is a mountain range, the Al Hajar mountains. Muscat is nestled along the coast of the Gulf of Oman, a part of the Arabian Sea, with the Al Hajar mountains dominating its western landscape. Oman is a sultanate which means it is governed by an absolute monarchy, Sultan Qaboos. Although they do have an elected legislature, it is only consultative in nature. Sultan Qaboos has ruled for over 40 years and like Sheikh Zayed and the UAE he has used the oil profits to improve the economy and broaden foreign investment. Also, like the UAE they have attracted a large foreign national workforce (45%), although not as high a percentage as the UAE (80%).
Our drive takes us through Al Ain which is on the border of Oman. I have googlemap directions but typically we can't follow them. Soon we feel we're completely lost in Al Ain and just laugh outloud!! Chaz makes a series of turns that he feels is putting us back in the right direction. It's past 12:00 and we're hungry and low on gasoline so we stop for gas and decide to eat lunch at the gas station and also ask for directions. The ADNOC (Abu Dhabi National Oil Company) stations usually have a convenience store and a "fast food" restaurant. This one specializes in pizza and we get a couple of small ones. Fast is a relative term and we have our pizzas within 20 minutes or so. After lunch I ask for directions to the Oman border and Muscat and another customer states he is also going to Muscat - he points out to the road we're on and says - just go straight. Just go straight? Yes, you are on the right road Just go straight and you will come to the border! We're amazed that we are on the right road after all, since we have taken so many turns in Al Ain!!
So we continue straight and soon we're out of the city of Al Ain and in the dune filled countryside again. When we reach the border, we're asked to stop and open the trunk of the car. There are 3 armed guards who look inside the trunk then wave us on to the next station which looks like a toll booth station. We present our passports at the drive up window. He asks if we are residents or tourists, stamps our passports, and we pay AED 35 each (about $9.50) as our exit fee. He gives Chaz a small piece of paper with a stamp on it and the number 3, we assume for the number of passengers. We drive forward to the next toll booth window and give this man our paper and we're through.
Chaz and Chandler think we're through with border officialdom but I can see on the map that the UAE border patrol and the Omani border patrol are at least seven to eight miles apart. All along this stretch there are strip shopping centers with large signs stating "Insurance for sale". I've read that when entering Oman you must provide proof of car insurance. Chaz's leasing papers include a sheet that states "We have no objection to this car entering the Sultanate of Oman." We assume this means we're covered!!
Again as we drive, we notice the colors of the dunes changing from white to red. We also see quite a few small trucks with camels in the back. Chaz pulls alongside a Toyota for me to take pictures and the driver looks questioningly at us. When I hold up the camera, he smiles and stays beside us so I can snap a few pictures.
Soon we approach a large fenced area and another toll booth window. When Chaz gives the attendant our passports he instructs us to park in the parking lot and enter the building to obtain visas. Inside we fill out paperwork with all our passport information and where we will be staying in Oman and pay the fee of AED 50 each or about $13.62 for a 10 day visa. We drive back around the building to the previous toll booth window - present our passports again, turn in our little piece of paper and we're offically allowed in Oman!
The landscape has been getting rockier and mountainous as we have left Al Ain in the distance, but now we're climbing and climbing through the mountains. The landscape is very rocky, almost moonscape looking. Chaz remarks that it looks very much like the mountains in Afghanistan. We see little signs of life or villages along the road. The 4 lane highway is lined with large electrical towers strung with huge wires reminding us just how remote this country is.
Our directions indicate only two turns from here on out. We're driving east and when we come to the coast we're to turn right and south to Muscat. Just outside Muscat we're to take the Muscat Expressway and into Muscat. We easily negotiate the first turn and find we are no longer on an expressway but a four lane highway through town after town. While there are exits, we watch taxis and other cars just drive off the road when they want to leave the highway with no apparent road markings. The highway is lined with strip shopping centers with small shops in them. The buildings look old and rundown, not at all like what we're used to seeing in Abu Dhabi. It's Saturday afternoon and numerous cars are parked under squatty palm trees. Blankets are spread out on the ground and families picnicking along the roadside. It looks very dusty and dreary to us but it must be a common entertainment for the Omanis. Soon we come across an endless section of construction, often we're travelling in one lane. The roundabouts are confusing and in Sohar we take an exit, although we thought we were going straight and we have to drive about five minutes in the wrong direction before we find a turn back onto the highway in the opposite direction - we call it the Sohar Circle. It's very nerve wracking. The sign for the Muscat expressway comes and goes and we miss that turn. I didn't realize how important it was as the map shows we can just continue on this highway to reach Muscat. Now we're in constant construction and bumper to bumper traffic travelling quite fast. This goes on for over an hour before we're finally approaching Muscat.
When reach the outskirts of Muscat I switch to a map of Muscat that I had bought before we left Abu Dhabi. Again it's difficult to find the correct exit but Chaz spots a Crowne Plaza sign and we exit hoping to see more. At the next roundabout I want to go straight but Chaz sees a street sign and calling out the name I realize that's where we should turn. This leads us to a narrow 2 lane road with the Gulf of Oman on our left and a huge forest on our right. As we've neared Muscat we're struck by how green the landscape is and wonder if they have more rainfall than UAE. I later discover that they actually don't but there must be something about the mountains so close to the Gulf that traps moisture because Muscat feels almost tropical. We can see the Crowne Plaza perched high up on a cliff overlooking the coastal road. We're soon there and very relieved to get out of the car after a six hour drive. The picture below was taken driving on the beach road and the large building in the center is the Crowne Plaza.
I had made our reservations through Priceline and couldn't find a way to indicate we needed a room for three. The clerk questions our reservation since we've reserved a double room. We inquire if they have something else and after checking says that he doesn't have a family room available but does have a one bedroom suite. I later learn that a family room is a room with either one or two beds but also a sofabed. We prefer having two rooms and decide to splurge on the suite. The room is not ready and our helpful clerk escorts us upstairs to the Executive Lounge where complementary hors d'oeurves are being served. There's outside seating and it feels wonderful to bask in the balmy sunshine and stretch our legs. The snacks are beautifully presented and we're waited on hand and foot. We can see the beautiful Gulf on one side and behind us stretch the low-lying white buildings that typify Muscat architecture.
Soon the clerk is back to escort us to our room. It's on the top or sixth floor and takes up the width of one end of the building. The living room faces the Gulf and the hotel's private beach. We have two balconies, one off the bedroom facing the mountains and the second off of the living room overlooking the Gulf, a small kitchen area and one and a half baths. But there's only one complementary bathrobe! I call the front desk and they bring us two more so we can lounge in decadent style!
After settling in we set off to explore the hotel and the private beach separated by rocks from the long public beach. It's low tide and people are playing in the surf, we even see a few jet skis zipping along. But when we get down to the hotel's private beach we discover there is an inlet that separates the rocks from the public beach so there's no way to walk there without swimming. The guys climb the rocks just to be sure!
We relax before dinner and then head downstairs for our dinner reservations in the Persian restaurant, Shiraz. We eat outside overlooking the pool and the weather is really lovely. Chaz and Chandler have a mixed seafood grill of lobster, shrimp and hamour. I have lamb kabobs. None of us are particularly impressed with our food but it's nice to eat in the hotel and not have to fight all the traffic. From our room we can see the beach road and the roads leading into town. The traffic has been bumper to bumper since we arrived.