A first-timer’s guide to Muscat, Oman

Relaxed vibes, beautiful architecture, and great hats.


A couple of weeks ago my boyfriend had to do a visa run, so we decided to spend a weekend in Muscat, the capital city of Oman.

Muscat is just an hour’s flight from Dubai, but feels half the world away. It was like stopping and taking a deep breath. Everything moves slower, the air feels cooler, the colours softer – the Sultan of Oman has ordered all buildings must be painted white, cream or beige. Another law prevents high-rise buildings; instead the rocky Al Hajar mountains form a protective backdrop to the city.


Omanis are known for being warm and welcoming. One taxi driver took the time to write us a list of attractions we might like to visit. Another driver gave us his number and told us to WhatsApp him if we had any questions or needed any recommendations.

Oh, and Omani men wear the most fabulous hats. Just saying.



We went with Flydubai, the budget little brother of Emirates. We booked two weeks ahead and flights were fairly reasonable at AED750 return each.

New Zealand passport holders don’t need a visa to enter Oman (winning!). If you’re not a Kiwi, you’ll probably have to purchase a short-stay visa, which can be done in advance via the new E-visa website, or on arrival at the Travelex counter. A visa will set you back OMR20.

Tip: Grab a SIM card before you leave the airport – it will be very handy when it comes to navigating the city. We picked up an Omantel Hayyak welcome pack for OMR2 with 1.5GB data.


We stayed at the Coral Muscat Hotel & Apartments, which at OMR36 a night seemed to fall in the mid-range category. It ticked all the boxes – there was a lovely rooftop pool, a gym, and an above-average breakfast buffet (they had donuts!). It’s a booze-free joint, but you can indulge in a bit of cheeky poolside shisha.

The hotel is located in Qurum, a central suburb right beside the Muscat Expressway. It was a good base for sightseeing, though there wasn’t all that much to explore around the hotel itself – a few fast food places, and a couple of sleepy shopping centres that clearly haven’t changed since the 1990s.

For some reason we were given a disabled access room, which was enormous. We found it to be clean and homely – more like an apartment than a hotel room. It had a washing machine and fully-equipped kitchenette, so it’s a good option if you’re staying a while.


To put it bluntly, Muscat is a shit of a place to get around without a car. The capital is actually made up of three towns, Muscat, Matrah and Ruwi, which have merged together to form one big city. It’s all very spread out, there’s little in the way of public transport and it’s not at all walkable.

So you have no choice but to rely on taxis, which will destroy your travel budget. Most taxis in Muscat (the orange and white ones) aren’t metered. You have to negotiate with the driver, and fares were so arbitrary it was almost humorous. We were charged anywhere between OMR4 and OMR10 for the exact same journey, depending on the audacity of the driver (although the guy that tried to charge us OMR10 ended up getting cold feet at the last minute and, in an apparent fit of guilt, said we didn’t have to pay him at all. We gave him OMR7).

Our greatest revelation was discovering Marhaba, a new taxi service for tourists (it’s only been around since March). It’s a bit like Uber – you download the Marhaba Taxi Oman app, choose your destination, and it tells you the fare. The minimum fare is OMR3 for 6km, 350 baisa/km for 12km, and anything after that is 150 baisa/km. It was a relief to have some solid rates, and in most cases worked out to be a lot cheaper than our half-hearted haggling attempts. Many drivers also insisted on giving us their numbers so we could just call them when we needed a pick up, rather than going back through the app (which sort of defeats the purpose of the whole system, but oh well).


1. Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque


If you didn’t swing by the Grand Mosque, were you really in Muscat at all? It’s the city’s number one attraction, and for good reason – it’s very beautiful, with its pearl-white walls and gleaming marble surfaces. It’s also the only mosque in Oman open to non-Muslims, but you have to time your visit carefully. The mosque is open to tourists between 8am and 11am, Saturday to Thursday. Women are required to dress modestly (arms, legs and hair fully covered), but if you don’t have anything suitable you can rent an abaya and headscarf for OMR2.5. Entry is otherwise free.

2. Muttrah Souk


The best place for all your souvenir needs is Muttrah Souk, which is said to be one of the oldest marketplaces in the Arab world. Even if you only intend to window shop, as you make your way through the dark labyrinth of shops you’ll be intoxicated by the heady cloud of frankincense, and all of those glittering tourist trinkets will suddenly seem very appealing. Look out for the store with the celebrity photo wall – past shoppers include Michael Jackson, Kate Moss and Prince Harry (though he didn’t actually buy anything, the shopkeeper confessed). The souk seems to open from 8am to 1pm and 4pm to 9pm every day except for Friday, when it only opens in the evening.

3. Bait Al Zubair Museum


Muscat is home to more than a few museums – including the flash new National Museum, which just opened last year – but there was something quite lovely about this little privately-owned museum, set in a restored home in the old town. It housed a rather eclectic mix of exhibits, including a whole room dedicated to some guy’s stamp collection, but we enjoyed the displays of traditional Omani dress, and the building itself is beautiful (unfortunately no photographs are allowed inside). Entry costs OMR2, and the museum is open Saturday to Thursday, 9.30am to 6pm.


There were two restaurants that were so good I would seriously consider jumping on a plane and popping over to Muscat for dinner. The first was a hipster spot called Copper, located a short walk from our hotel in Qurum.


This cool-as-a-cucumber eatery wouldn’t feel out of place in Melbourne, with its exposed wood furnishings and hanging light fixtures. Everything on the menu sounded dreamy, but we couldn’t look past the Copper Burger – a beef patty combined with melt-in-your-mouth BBQ brisket, jalapeno mayo and cheese custard. It was a thing of beauty. I’m not ashamed to admit we ended up going here twice over the weekend…


The other winner was Bait Al Luban, an Omani restaurant in Muttrah (near the souk). I’d seen this place mentioned in a few guidebooks, and was worried it was going to be a bit touristy, but everything about it was gorgeous.


We managed to nab an outside table on the balcony and sat sipping our frankincense-infused water as the sun set with a beautiful view of the corniche. I ordered the shuwa, a traditional dish which consists of spiced, slow-cooked lamb served over fragrant rice.


Yum. I’m sure there are cheaper and more “authentic” places to sample the local cuisine, but this was definitely a nice introduction.

So, that’s Muscat ticked off the list. I’m already eyeing up Jordan for our next trip…

6 things I’ll never get used to in Dubai

“This is a place with so many comforts – the same language, the same foods – so how come it felt so alien?”

Dubai and I have officially crossed the six-month mark. Like any new relationship, it’s had its ups and downs.

I vividly recall those first few metro rides to work from my hotel in Deira, feeling overwhelmed by the size of the city and the Arabic announcements and the sea of unfamiliar faces. I remember going to Deira City Centre mall, where the pungent scent of oud (a popular fragrance in the Middle East) filled my nostrils and made me feel nauseous. Eating McDonald’s in the food court as the evening call to prayer blasted through the mall speakers. Seeing the women in their modest black abayas and worrying about whether I would get in trouble for wearing a sleeveless shirt.

I remember being annoyed at myself for experiencing culture shock. This is a place with so many comforts – the same language, the same foods – so how come it felt so alien?

Then there was the life admin. Waiting for my visa to be processed, waiting for my Emirates ID, waiting until I could set up my phone and bank account. Trawling through Dubizzle (the Dubai equivalent of TradeMe) to find a place to live. Finding a place to live, getting kicked out by the landlord, and having to start all over again.

Everyone says the first few months of getting settled in the sandpit are the hardest. And yes, it has been hard. But six months on, here I am, writing this in my bedroom overlooking the Marina as a party boat covered in neon lights floats past. It’s not so bad.

There is a new island being built off JBR (close to where I live), which will be home to the world’s biggest ferris wheel. Over the past few months I’ve watched it go up, piece by piece. I sort of like to think of it as a symbol of my time here – almost as though with every section, I feel a little more at home.


In some places, the turning of the seasons represents the passing of time. In Dubai, it’s better measured by how long it takes to build an enormous new attraction. Classic.

Anyway, I’m all about the listicles, so here are six things that are still blowing my mind after six months in Dubai.

1. The work week starts on Sunday.

So the weekend is Friday/Saturday. I haven’t figured out how to change the “weekday” option on my alarm, which is still set for Monday to Friday, so I’m always waking up too early on Fridays, and accidentally sleeping in on Sundays. This probably says more about my lack of technology skills than it does about my assimilation into Dubai life, but there you go.

2. The service is next level.

You can get EVERYTHING delivered. The other evening, I couldn’t be bothered putting on pants to go to the supermarket (which is, uh, just across the road from my apartment). So I did my weekly shop using a grocery delivery app. Ten minutes after I placed my order, I received an apologetic phone call informing me that, unfortunately, there was no aloe vera yoghurt in stock, but would I like to try apricot or raspberry instead? Thirty minutes later, my groceries appeared on my doorstep. Bless this civilised country.

3. There are so many men.

About three-quarters of Dubai’s population is male, and in some parts of the city, the gender imbalance is very obvious. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing though – not once have I felt unsafe as a woman here. In fact, women are treated like royalty. There are perks like ladies-only transport options, swimming pools, and even ticket queues. Many bars around the cities hold “ladies’ nights” where you can enjoy unlimited drinks without paying a single dirham. Pre-Dubai me would have rolled her eyes at all of this, but I actually kind of love the special treatment. I do still feel a twinge of guilt when I witness some unwitting bloke getting kicked out of the ladies-only metro carriages…

4. It’s such a melting pot.

I thought New Zealand was a pretty multicultural place, but almost every scenario in Dubai sounds like the start of one of those *insert different nationalities* “walked into a bar” jokes. For example, my flat is made up of expats from NZ (me), Ireland, Poland and Russia. I have chatted with Pakistani taxi drivers about the strength of the New Zealand cricket team (which they know a whole lot more about than me), bonded with an Afghan souk vendor over our shared loathing of Donald Trump, and been asked out by a Moroccan sales assistant. I still haven’t met any Emiratis though…

5. It’s so bloody hot.

I am writing this in the middle of summer, and it’s almost as bad as everyone warned (expats who have lived in Dubai for a long time love to exaggerate to scare the newbies) – most days temperatures are in the mid-forties. I spend 99.9 per cent of my time indoors – in fact, just the other day I was thinking about how nice it would be to go on a tropical holiday to enjoy some sunshine. I live in a desert country and I’m not getting enough sun. I know, it sounds ridiculous, but Vitamin D deficiency is a real issue.

6. Everything is the biggest and/or the best.

Dubai is a bit obsessed with breaking records, no matter how niche (I recently stumbled across the “Middle East’s first sub-zero lounge” in a random shopping centre). I am still utterly gobsmacked by the Burj Khalifa, currently the world’s tallest building. It remains as impressive to me now as it was on my first day in Dubai (seeing it was one of those, “oh shit, I’m actually here, what have I done” moments). I will not rest until I have taken photos of it from every possible angle.

WTF is a hammam?

“You have not been properly clean until you’ve heard your skin groaning in resistance to an exfoliating mitt.”

I really enjoy public bathing. It’s an unexpected hobby (I guess you could call it a hobby?) I acquired during my time in Japan. Sento and onsen are my absolute jam. It’s certainly not that I’m a closet exhibitionist or anything, I just love the ritual of it all.

sailor moon

So I was thrilled to discover there is a similar concept in the Middle East called the hammam – better known as a Turkish bath. You can find the real deal in Turkey and Morocco, but for a more luxurious take on the tradition, you simply need to head to one of Dubai’s five-star hotel spas.

My first hammam experience took place at the JW Marriott Marquis – the tallest hotel in the world. It was dubbed the “Golden Hammam”, as part of the treatment involved having your body massaged with pure gold-infused oil. Classic Dubai.

I was given some disposable undies and a robe to protect my modesty, and guided to a private hammam room. It looked like the lair of an exceptionally clean villain; all low-lighting and stone surfaces and gushing water features.


A lovely lady wearing a weightlifter-style unitard started by lathering me up with a grainy black soap. I am both prudish and ticklish, so this was not my dream scenario. If you’re accustomed to Japanese-style baths, which are very much a DIY situation, pay heed: Hammams involve someone else washing you.

Once I was adequately sudsy, it was time to visit the steam room next door. I was left to lie on a marble slab and instructed to “make sweat”. This was relaxing until I started panicking about what would happen if my hammam lady slipped on a puddle and knocked herself out, and nobody would know where to find me and I would be trapped in there, naked and sweaty, forever. Because that’s how my mind works.

Thankfully, the lady returned (unharmed) to fetch me 15 minutes later, and led me back to the safety of the wash room, where the main event – the ruthless scrub down – took place. You have not been properly clean until you’ve heard your skin groaning in resistance to an exfoliating mitt. At one point, I glanced at my arm and was delighted/horrified to find it was covered in ribbons of dead skin, like little bits of potato peel.

To help my raw bod recover from its sloughing, the lady slathered me in a gold clay body mask, and a face mask of golden Arabian honey (they’ve really committed to the gold theme). This was all gently rinsed off with ladles of warm water. Finally, I was whisked away to another treatment room for my 24-karat massage. I was sort of hoping the overall effect would be like the golden corpse in Goldfinger. It wasn’t, but it definitely gave my skin a nice sheen.

I’m not entirely sure my Golden Hammam is what you would encounter in the communal baths of Turkey and Morocco… but it was an undeniably Dubai experience. Squeaky clean, with a side of bling.

Experiencing a communal iftar in Old Dubai

“A piece of graffiti on a nearby wall said simply: ‘Together we are.'”

Dubai is a city of excess, and nowhere is this more obvious than at the lavish iftars held in five-star hotels over Ramadan.

Iftar is traditionally the meal eaten by Muslims after sunset during the Holy Month. But in Dubai, it’s more akin to a binge session. Anyone can enjoy these all-you-can-eat affairs, whether you’ve been fasting or not. People pile their plates with “delectable Arabic-inspired dishes”. Inevitably, a whole lot goes to waste. There’s very little that separates this kind of “iftar” from a Friday brunch (except for the absence of alcohol).

Which is why I was excited to sign up for the Old Dubai Iftar Walk with Unseen Trails. Every Ramadan, the tour company organises a five-hour walk through Naif, one of Dubai’s oldest neighbourhoods, It culminates in a communal iftar on the street, organised by a local mosque. Nothing flashy. Just the real, humble spirit of Ramadan.


Our group, made up mostly of Dubai residents, met at Al Ras metro station on a sweltering Saturday evening. We had been warned that we wouldn’t be able to drink water until prayer time (remember, no eating or drinking in public during Ramadan).

We zigzagged our way through the neighbourhood’s back alleys, which were subdued as the 14-hour fasting period came to a close. One man napped under a slice of shade provided by a small tree, while stray cats scavenged for non-existent scraps. As the sun dropped lower in the sky, the golden crescents of mosques glinted above the rooftops.




Somewhere near the Gold Souk, we came across a group of men placing traditional iftar snacks on a blue tarpaulin: dates, orange segments, samosas, and a special fermented milk drink called Laban.

The tarpaulin snaked around the corner. Men sat shoulder-to-shoulder, sandals placed neatly to the side. It was a very masculine environment – for one thing, it’s a working class district, and many of the men have come to Dubai alone. But also because the women prefer the comfort of the air-conditioning inside the mosque.



Our group had its own tarpaulin to sit on. We wore scarves to cover our heads. In the past, Unseen Trails participants didn’t used to join in on the iftar, instead watching the ritual from a respectful distance, our guide explained. They were hesitant about taking the food away from those who needed it. However, the organisers insisted the tour group have a spot among the locals.

A piece of graffiti on a nearby wall said: “Together we are.” And we were.


In the minutes before sunset, some men were starting to peel their oranges methodically, breaking the fruit into segments ready for savouring. The sweet fragrance of citrus permeated the air.

Finally, the call to prayer reverberated through the sky. A hush descended upon the area as the men took their first gulps of water and bites to eat in so many hours.



It was over almost as soon as it began. We helped clear away the orange peel, milk cartons and water bottles (very little went to waste). The neighbourhood’s veins pulsed with renewed energy, as though the collective blood sugar level had returned to normal. Some men got straight back to work, while others sat around chatting with friends, sipping cups of chai, and filling up on fried snacks from hole-in-the-wall eateries that appeared out of nowhere.

The experience has left me with such a feeling of warmth towards Dubai, a city that is so often accused of being cold and superficial. But I think I found its soul on those pavements in Naif… and without a shadow of doubt, the true spirit of Ramadan.

I wrote another version of this story for What’s On Dubai.

What is Ramadan in Dubai really like?

Pray, love, eat. In that order.

I’m ashamed to admit I knew almost nothing about Ramadan before moving to Dubai.

This year, Ramadan began on May 27. The start date is based on the first sighting of the new crescent moon, which signals the ninth (and holiest) month of the Islamic calendar. There’s a special “moon sighting committee”, and once they make the call, Ramadan begins the next day.

When I got here, I quickly learned many expats choose to escape Dubai during this time – not only because it starts to get unbearably hot, but also because everything slows right down, as the city takes some time out for quiet reflection.

Fasting is the most well-known aspect of Ramadan. Most Muslims (except those who are elderly, sick, travelling, menstruating or pregnant) abstain from eating and drinking between sunrise and sunset for the entire Holy Month.

It’s illegal for anyone to be seen eating (that includes chewing gum) or drinking in public during daytime hours throughout Ramadan, regardless of whether you’re fasting or not. A sip of water in the wrong place at the wrong time could land you up to one month in jail, or a AED 2000 fine.

But it’s not as strict as it sounds. Dubai is a highly tolerant, cosmopolitan city, and more than 100 restaurants, cafes and food courts remain open during the day to cater to the non-fasting crowd – albeit with blacked-out windows and screens to keep them respectfully out of sight. If you order a takeaway coffee, expect to have it handed to you in a brown paper bag, prohibition-style.

In the workplace, there will be a designated room where you can eat and drink away from your fasting colleagues. In my office it’s the kitchen, and they’ve covered the glass door with paper so you can’t see inside.

Under UAE labour laws, working hours are reduced by two hours a day during Ramadan, for both Muslims and non-Muslims. This means my work day is currently 9am to 4pm – something I’m not entirely upset about.

Charity is another huge part of the Holy Month – and Islam in general – and there are all sorts of initiatives that pop up over Ramadan encouraging people to donate time or money to various causes. One of the coolest ones is a fridge sharing concept, where people set up fridges in public places and keep them filled with water and snacks so labourers and others in need can help themselves when it’s time to break the fast.

Iftar is the meal served after sunset, and friends and families usually gather to break the fast together. Many hotels and restaurants put on flashy iftar banquets, and they are honestly some of the most lavish feasts you will ever experience (more on them later). Then there’s suhoor, the pre-dawn meal before fasting starts all over again.

Tomorrow night, I’m doing a special Ramadan walking tour with Unseen Trails – a joint venture between Gulf Photo Plus and Frying Pan Adventures (I’ve heard their food tours are amazing). We’re heading into one of Dubai’s oldest neighbourhoods, and joining a communal iftar at a local mosque. I’m really looking forward to it, and hope it will give me a true taste of Ramadan is all about…

PS. I know the main picture (Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque) is in Abu Dhabi, not Dubai… but I haven’t been to Jumeirah Mosque yet!

Tuk-tuks: Riding in style in Sri Lanka’s Ferraris

Get in. Sit down. Shut up. Hold on.

His name was Lakshan. “But you can call me Lucky.”

Our meeting did seem rather fortuitous. With a couple of hours’ free time in my itinerary, I had set out for a walk around Kalutara town. I was about 15 minutes down a long, dusty road when the sultry heavens decided to open, leaving me soaked and stranded.

Out of nowhere, like something from a cartoon, a lollipop-red tuk-tuk zoomed up beside me.

“You need a ride, ma’am?”

Tuk-tuks are everywhere in Sri Lanka. These jaunty little vehicles can be seen weaving in and out of traffic, narrowly avoiding trucks, buses and livestock.

They are often decorated by their owners, embellished with “bling” such as chrome-plated shovels, ladders, and skull and crossbones. They usually have some kind of inspirational slogan or quote on them. My favourite said: “Get in. Sit down. Shut up. Hold on.”

I peered at the driver suspiciously, thinking back to hard lessons learned in China and Indonesia. I realised I had no idea what the standard rate for a tuk-tuk was. I also considered the fact I was a woman, alone, in an unfamiliar country.

As I stood indecisively in the middle of the road, dripping from head to toe, he seemed to read my mind. “You can trust me.”

So I did. I squeezed into the back of his three-wheeler, and he asked where I wanted to go. Anywhere, I replied. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll give you a tour.”

Lucky’s tour consisted of several points of interest, including his church, his old school, and a lighting store that was having a sale. I observed all of these landmarks from behind a rain cover, as we whizzed around town.

“You know, we call tuk-tuks the Sri Lankan Ferrari,” he said, laughing as I gripped onto the handrail for dear life.

He asked where I came from, and I told him about New Zealand. He told me about the tsunami of 2004, how the churning waters battered the area, destroying his home. Thankfully, he and his family escaped unharmed. “I was lucky,” he said.

Our next stop was Kalutara Chaithya – said to be the world’s only hollow Buddhist shrine. Lucky parked his tuk-tuk and accompanied me inside, showing me where to stow my shoes. He waited patiently as I tiptoed awkwardly around the shrine, examining its murals and staring into the peaceful faces of its golden Buddhas.

By now the rain had stopped, but it was time for me to go back. We had agreed on a price for the hour. But as Lucky pulled up outside my resort, I braced myself, preparing for the scam. All right then, I said. How much are you really going to charge me?

“You can pay me whatever you want, ma’am. Any price is good.”

I gave him a big tip – for the ride, the tour, and for giving a jaded traveller a much-needed reminder that not everybody in this world is out to rip you off. He was Lucky, and so was I.

I have fallen in love with Sri Lanka

“The lush emerald countryside and fragrant tea plantations were like a tonic for my nature-starved soul.”

I had been curious about Sri Lanka ever since I overheard two Emirates flight attendants gossiping about their vacation plans. One was considering going to the Maldives with her boyfriend. Her colleague rolled her eyes. “The Maldives is so boring,” she said. “You should go to Sri Lanka.”

She spoke of secluded beaches, seaside towns, cheap guesthouses and cheap beer – just a four-hour flight from Dubai, but still far from the tourist masses.

Last week, I had the chance to visit the so-called “Pearl of the Indian Ocean” for myself. Disclaimer: My trip wasn’t real travel. It was a press junket for work. Even so, the experience gave me a small taste of the flavour-packed island nation… and I’m hungry for more.

I didn’t realise how much I missed the colour green. The lush emerald countryside and fragrant tea plantations were like a tonic for my nature-starved soul. You can take the girl out of New Zealand…


We visited a magical place called Lunuganga, a former cinnamon estate and rubber plantation that renowned Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa spent 40 years transforming into his country home. You can tour the gardens, or even stay on the estate in one of six suites which have been carefully preserved.




Sri Lanka had spice. It was perfectly chaotic and laid-back at the same time. I loved the vibrant street markets, where locals lined up to buy loaves of freshly baked bread out of the back of trucks.

Women selling bunches of bananas sat side by side on the ground competing for customers, their produce artfully displayed on tarpaulins in a sea of yellow. The men were hawking tobacco, flashing crooked grins to reveal teeth and gums stained red from chewing betel nut (a “mild stimulant”).



This gorgeous woman was still going strong at the ripe old age of 92, selling mangoes at the base of the Mulkirigala Rock Temple.


One place I’m keen to revisit is Galle, a colonial town on the island’s southwestern tip. It was founded in the 16th century by the Portuguese, who set to work building a huge fortress to protect the important trading port. A century later it was captured by the Dutch, who added their own touches, before the British finally came along to have a crack in the late 18th century.

What remains today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a thriving town of beautiful architecture and winding alleys that are perfect for exploring by foot. Galle is one of the places in Sri Lanka that has been most touched by tourism, but it kind of adds to the charm. You’ll find quirky boutiques, hipster cafes and cute little B&Bs (I would definitely stay at the “Loving Nest: Romantic Location”, tbh).




Though still slightly more under the radar than its show-off neighbour the Maldives, recently Sri Lanka has been enjoying a bit of a “moment”, making it onto all sorts of travel hotlists. It’s even starting to be recognised as a luxury destination, with five-star resorts opening on its pristine shores.

A general manager for one of these resorts who I spoke to reckons Sri Lanka has a two-year window of opportunity in which it could take off and become the next Thailand… or fade back into obscurity.

I hope it stays the same. I can see why they call it a pearl – Sri Lanka’s timeless, understated beauty is what makes it special. I’m already planning to go back.

FYI: You do need a visa to enter Sri Lanka, but it’s easy enough to apply for one online. You should receive a response within 24 hours of your application.