Oman 6: Practicalities and Impressions

Arranging the trip

Before this year we knew little about Oman and had never seriously considered going there. When our planned trip to Sri Lanka was postponed yet again the wonderful Experience Travel Group (ETG) who had organised it suggested that we might like to go to Oman. Some initial research showed that it matched several of our interests: mountain scenery, heritage, and Islamic civilisation and architecture.

ETG specialise in private tours but we had only once done this before as just the two of us. This was when we wanted to travel overland from Luang Prabang to Hanoi in spring 2010. A google search turned up a post about this journey from ETG. We followed this up and were very well looked after in a five-day journey with a driver and guide. ETG kept in touch with us after this and we turned to them for Sri Lanka which is one of their specialisations.

We normally make all our own arrangements for a holiday and try to rent a car wherever possible. Booking hotels on our own would have been fine for Oman but even Martin would not have attempted to drive some of the mountain roads. We would have been in a serious pickle on our own when the flight from Khasab to Muscat was cancelled. And we are not getting any younger.

Researching the Trip

We did our initial research using the Rough Guide to Oman and the Lonely Planet Oman, UAE & Arabian Peninsula, plus of course the Internet. I needed to remember that vowels are rarely written in the Arabic script. They appear in all the English versions of place names but the spelling is not consistent. This means that you have to be quite careful when searching for specific places in an index or online. This was no problem for Martin as he studied Arabic at university and can read the script.

There were several iterations with Becky and Holly at ETG as we settled on an itinerary. Some visitors to Oman just base themselves in and around Muscat. We had read about Musandam in the north and knew that the easiest way to get there was by road from Dubai. We also wondered about Salalah and in the end decided that we should see that area as well. It was really worth doing all of it.

Accommodation

The hotels we stayed at were all high quality, better than what we would tend to organise on our own. In Khasab the Atana Musandam Resort is right by the water and close enough to walk to the big Lulu supermarket. The location of the Sahab Resort on the Saiq Plateau was superb. We knew what to expect at the Antique Inn in Nizwa and enjoyed the experience. The desert tent at Thousand Nights Camp was 5-star. Turtle Beach Resort was fine and the Crowne Plaza in Muscat was everything you can expect from this hotel group plus the lovely view over the beach to the sunset.

The Salalah Rotana Resort would be an excellent choice for a package beach holiday. It’s beautifully laid out and our room was fine, except that we couldn’t turn the temperature warmer on the air conditioning. This hotel is 13 miles from Salalah. As we discussed with ETG later we might have preferred to be in the town. We could have asked them to change the hotel for us when we were planning the trip and just didn’t do this.

Food

Except for the Antique Inn which served mostly Omani food, the food in all the hotels was a mixture of European, Middle Eastern and some South Asian. It was served as a buffet except at the Sahab Resort where there were very few guests. The most extensive buffet was at the Crowne Plaza which is a big hotel with plenty of guests.

We ate lunch at local restaurants when we were travelling with Saqer. He seemed to know every restaurant owner. When it got near lunchtime he would just phone ahead to a restaurant and food appeared very quickly when we got there. It was mostly houmous, chicken, dal, rice and flatbreads which was fine for us. At Sur we were treated at a smarter restaurant by the sea where we had a large fish for the three of us washed down with mango juice.

The one meal we had on our own outside the hotels was at a well-known restaurant in Muttrah. It was a good location but I did not feel that the food was anything special.

The Lulu hypermarkets are huge, equal to any large hypermarket in the UK. They are spotlessly clean and very well stocked. We were able to find sandwiches for lunch there when we needed to as well as a few snacks.

Drink

As we rarely have alcohol it did not bother us that wine and beer are not easily available in Oman. Juice, sparkling and still water, tea and coffee were readily available as well as fizzy drinks. The water in the hotels is drinkable and there were tea-making facilities in some of our hotel rooms. We tried the local Omani coffee a few times. It’s more like Greek coffee but not so sweet and is usually served with dates.

Currency and Shopping

The thing you have to remember when shopping in Oman is that the Omani rial is one of the few currencies which is worth more than the UK pound. One rial was worth about £2 or US$2.50 when we were there. You need to double the price number to see what it will cost you in pounds.

Most places took credit cards with a chip and pin or contactless payment and there are plenty of ATMs.

We didn’t do much shopping, but bought a few little souvenirs in the souqs, plus some books in Nizwa. We were never hassled to buy as happens in many other countries and haggling, if there was any, was very polite. Buying dates in Lulu to bring home was interesting as there were so many varieties to choose from. The information board in the date market in Nizwa would have been a big help here.

Phone and Internet

Everyone was using a mobile phone and there seemed to be a signal everywhere. The Internet worked well in all the hotels we stayed in. We even had the internet at the desert camp in the restaurant and communal areas.

Covid

Oman has coped with covid very well. There is a very high rate of vaccination and we needed to show proof of our recent vaccinations to enter Oman. Most people were wearing masks indoors and this was enforced by watchful restaurant staff in several places.

Impressions

We have been to several Muslim countries and seen just about everything from high rise buildings and crazy traffic in Dubai to simple houses, local markets and dodgy electricity in some poorer countries. We did not really know what to expect in Oman.

When Sultan Qaboos came to power in 1970 Oman had 10km of paved roads. He set about modernising the country using oil revenues. He concentrated on developing infrastructure and transport – there is now a network of good paved roads and two very modern airports. Very many buildings are named after him. But he also believed in investing in people. English is now a second official language. University education is free and we were told that the state pays for very bright students to go to university in Germany. Healthcare is also free and excellent.

Everywhere was clean. There was no rubbish lying around. All the goats and camels wandering around must belong to someone without apparently any worry about theft.

His Majesty, as they refer to him, also sought to maintain and showcase Omani culture. All the women and many of the men wear the traditional dress. All new buildings are in the traditional Omani style – the Royal Opera House in Muscat is a wonderful example of this. There are no high rise buildings. We were extremely impressed with the presentation and depth of detail on the information boards in the museums we visited.

Visitors are expected to observe the rather conservative dress code. Apart from at obvious tourist hotels, shorts and sleeveless tops are frowned on. The Grand Mosque in Muscat is the only one which non-Muslims can enter. Women need to cover their heads and legs there.

Apart from weekenders from Dubai in Khasab, we did not see very many other tourists. The Crowne Plaza at Muscat was fairly busy. There were other tourists at Nizwa and some at the desert camp. There were many more for the turtle tours but they weren’t staying in our hotel. There were few or no other people at the other sites we visited. The hotel in Salalah was catering to package tours but was not full at all. This was perhaps because it was the end of the season. It was hot enough when we were there but temperatures reach 38C or more in summer and there is little or no shade.

We were not seriously affected by Ramadan which began towards the end of our visit but this might be another reason why there were not so many tourists.

Visitors to Oman will see plenty of people from other Asian countries working there. The hotels we stayed at were staffed mainly by Indians. Some of the items for sale in the souqs appeared to have come from India. And much of the menial construction work was being carried out by Bangladeshis who were not liked by one of our guides.

Sultan Qaboos died in January 2020 leaving no obvious heir. Oman was just emerging from Covid when we were there. What happens to the country now remains to be seen, but it would be a great shame if it decided to turn itself into another Dubai. Omanis are proud of their heritage and their country. It would be a great pity if this is lost in the pursuit of greater wealth.

All in all I would highly recommend a visit to Oman. It ranks highly on my list of favourite countries. You will be very well looked after and see a variety of interesting things.

As for our plans, the trip to Sri Lanka has been rebooked for next spring. This will be our fifth attempt to get there. Let’s hope bombs, covid and political upheaval are all gone by then and that we will finally see this country. We know we will be well taken care of by ETG.

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Oman Part 5: Salalah and the South

This is the fifth of six posts on our visit to Oman in March-April 2022.

If you just want to see the pictures from this part of our trip go here.

Salalah

Salalah is in the very south of Oman, not too far from the border with Yemen. We took the 90 minute flight from Oman on a very new and clean Omanair plane. The modern airport terminal at Muscat was completed in 2018. It is very well designed, spotlessly clean and with plenty of lifts caters well for passengers with a lot of luggage or have mobility issues. It has room for far more passengers than we saw when we were there. We were given a snack and drink on the short domestic flight.

Our guide for the south met us off the plane and it was immediately clear that we were in a very different part of Oman. While we could see the mountains in the distance, it was much greener than the areas we had been to in the north. We had read that Salalah has a very different climate from the rest of Oman with a rainy season called the khareef from June to August.

Coconut palm

Coconut palm

We were taken first to a coconut plantation and vegetable market which was teeming with all kinds of produce some of which we did not recognise. There was a large pile of coconuts and plenty more scattered around.

Coconuts, Salalah

Want to buy a coconut?

Frankincense

Salalah has been a major centre for the export of frankincense since ancient times. The Museum of the Frankincense World is another modern building in the traditional Omani style. True to its name a frankincense tree is growing in the centre of the courtyard. It looked much more healthy than the rather ragged one Saqer had shown us on the way back to Muscat.

Museum of the Frankincense Land,

Museum of the Frankincense Land, Salalah

As its name indicates this museum is not just about frankincense. It shows how, beginning in ancient times, Salalah became a large centre of trade for frankincense. There are displays of boats and Omani seafaring in one main room. Another room has a collection of ancient artefacts including a some with hieroglyphs. All, including a map of trade routes, is well-documented on large information boards in both English and Arabic.

Frankincense is a resin. It is tapped from the bark of the tree and then allowed to solidify before being burnt to release its aroma. There are different colours and grades. It is still widely used in Oman and in the souq there were plenty of people selling it.

Frankincense shop

Frankincense shop

Before leaving the Museum we were able to briefly look at the Al Baleed archaeological site next door to it. The city of Zufar was founded three thousand years ago here. It covers a very large area and it was very hot and so we did not look at it in detail.

Salalah Rotana Resort

Our sightseeing for the day was done and we were taken to the Salalah Rotana Resort which one of several hotels by a lagoon complex about 13 miles east of Salalah.

Lagoon near Salalah Rotana Resort

Lagoon near Salalah Rotana Resort

This hotel is imaginatively laid out with several different low rise buildings and we had a large room which required a golf cart to get there.

Most of the other guests seemed to be Eastern Europeans on full board package tours. We were hungry but did not want a large buffet lunch and so the restaurant manager organised some plates of meze for us.

The hotel is on the beach and is also a very short walk from the lagoon which Martin explored in the afternoon.

We went back there in the evening to eat dinner at the aptly named Island Restaurant which is reached by a short pedestrian bridge.

Sunset dinner by lagoon

Sunset dinner by lagoon – yes, we did get some food after dark

Camels and Flamingos

There was plenty of choice in the hotel breakfast buffet and we were soon ready for exploring to the east of Salalah.

We had been told that we would see more camels in the south, but not that they were everywhere, wandering around on the roads which made driving interesting. They must all belong to somebody – our guide told us that his family owned a lot of camels and many more goats.

Camels on the road

We passed camels corralled into pens. Our guide said that they were for sale. We wondered how this ship of the desert drinks and whether we would see any by or in water.

The guide also stopped the car so that we could photograph some flamingos by the sea.

Flamingos near Salalah

Taqah

We stopped at Taqah which is the first real town east of Salalah. Most of it is modern and again the beach area has not been spoilt by high rise buildings. From a small ridge above the town we were able to look down towards the fort and a very unusual minaret on a mosque.

Taqah Fort and Mosque

Taqah Fort and Mosque

Sumhuram

The archaeological site of Sumhuram is situated on a wide inlet named Khor Rori which is just east of of Taqah. It was once a major town and port and the remains of buildings there are extensive. Recent excavations date it back to the fourth century BC. Sumhuram survived for eight centuries until, as experts believe, the entrance to the inlet became impassable because of a sand bank. Among the remains is an inscription in the rare Epigraphic South Arabian script.

Some workmen were carrying out restoration at the site.

Building work, Sumhurum

Building work, Sumhuram

It is an easy walk from the site down to the water where we found some camels with their feet in the water trying to get a drink.

Camels in water, near Sumhuram

Camels in water, near Sumhuram

Mirbat

We moved on further east to the town of Mirbat, first to the fort which was of interest for the square windows and an unusual tower hexagonal tower. Inside we found more life size displays of Omani life and a map of trade routes from Salalah and Muscat.

Fishing is a sizeable industry in Mirbat. There’s a fish market and plenty of small boats. On a larger boat some men were mending their nets and were not bothered by me photographing them.

Mending nets, Mirbat

Mending nets, Mirbat

In the distance some birds which looked like black storks were perched on the top of the dome of a mosque.

Storks? on dome of mosque

Near Mirbat we went to see the Mausoleum of Bin Ali, a beautiful white building with onion domes. It’s dedicated to a 12th century scholar who came from the area now known as Yemen. Next to it is a cemetery with thousands of headstones many of which are just upright stones.

Mausoleum of bin Ali, Mirbat

Mausoleum of Bin Ali, Mirbat

Wadi Darbat

On the way back to the hotel we took a detour to Wadi Darbat where there is even a waterfall which had water in it in the dry season. The water tumbled into a wide river. More camels were trying to get to the river for a drink.

Martin with our guide at Wadi Darbat

Martin with our guide at Wadi Darbat

There’s a much wider expanse of water further up the wadi where at some times of the year it’s possible to go out on a boat.

Back at the hotel we ate the buffet lunch and later on took a walk along the beach where some tourists were returning from a camel ride at sunset.

Camel riders at sunset, Rotana Resort

In the evening we tried the hotel’s version of an iftar meal. Most of the other guests ate indoors but we enjoyed an outdoor meal in a pleasant temperature and with no mosquitoes or other bugs.

Ain Razat

Just east of Salalah are a number of springs which have become local tourist areas. The areas surrounding them are quite green. At Ain Razat there is a picnic area where you can walk up to a large cave for a better view over the green areas, some of which were large enough to be called fields. Some cows were wandering around there.

Cave at Ain Rabat

Cave at Ain Rabat

Mugsail Blowhole and Beach

The rest of our excursion on the last day was to the west of Salalah where the mountains soon come down to the sea. At Mugsail there are several blowholes one of which performs frequently. It was a short walk from the car park under a large overhanging rock to get to it. We were able to watch it for a while and I did manage to get some reasonable pictures among the many failed ones.

Mugsail blowhole

Mugsail blowhole

At one stage the road ran alongside the 6km Mugsail Beach is quite stunning. It was almost deserted, perhaps because it was Ramadan and perhaps also that it is near the border with Yemen. The mountains in this area are as much if not more spectacular than those we had seen west of Muscat, but we could not go any further south as it was so close to Yemen.

Our guide took us to see a very old frankincense tree which was growing out of some rocks. We were able to see the resin coming out of its bark.

Frankincense resin on old tree

Frankincense resin on old tree

Salalah Town

We did see a little of the town of Salalah on the way back to the hotel. The gold market street was quiet probably again because of Ramadan but a few of the shops were open.

Gold souq, Salalah

Gold souq, Salalah

We asked the guide to take us to a Lulu hypermarket where we bought sandwiches for lunch and managed to choose some dates to take home from the huge variety on display.

Last Night and Going Home

A few of the shops around the lagoon were open when we went there again to eat at the Island Restaurant on our last night.

Our flight on Qatar Airways to Doha the next day was scheduled to leave at 5am, which is definitely not our favourite time. We were supposed to be at the airport two hours before and the guide said his brother would come for us at 2.30. The hotel reception had assured us that somebody would be available to take us and our luggage to the hotel front at that time, but nobody answered the phone when we tried to reach them at 2.15. Eventually Martin set off walking round the deserted site and found a security guy who helped us. I spotted somebody else lying down asleep in reception.

The driver was waiting and we got to the airport which is just on the edge of Salalah in plenty of time. Like the airport at Muscat the terminal is large, modern and clean. It was almost deserted except, much to our relief, a modern coffee shop which also served French-style patisserie. There were only five flights on the departure board.

I did wonder after our experience there whether the Omanis were planning to develop the airport at Khasab but its location in a valley between high mountains would not be suitable for a big increase in air traffic.

It was just daylight when we reached Doha. The contrast between the high rise buildings in the centre and the smaller low rise buildings spreading out into the desert was stark.

Doha

Doha

As the plane descended we could see construction everywhere presumably because of the football World Cup. There was plenty of evidence of building work at the airport but we arrived at a terminal which was far too small for the number of passengers who were milling about. At least our flight to Manchester was on time as there was nowhere near enough space for all the passengers to sit down at the departure gate. The plane was full and the food on it wasn’t too great. Emirates next time, I think, if we go to this part of the world again.

Picture Gallery: Oman Part 5: Salalah and the South

Click to enlarge

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Oman Part 4: Muscat and More Mountains

This is the fourth of six posts on our visit to Oman in March-April 2022.

If you just want to see the pictures from this part of our trip go here.

Muscat

The capital Muscat is by far the largest city in Oman. Backed by jagged mountains it sprawls along the sea front and beach in a rather pleasant way. There are no high rise buildings and plenty of the newer ones have been built in a traditional style.

We stayed at the Crowne Plaza which is on a headland at the north-eastern end of the beach. The views from our room or the pool area were magnificent.

Pool at Crowne Plaza, Muscat

Pool at Crowne Plaza, Muscat

The old commercial centre Muttrah is round the headland to the east and is easily accessible from Muscat by a fast road round the back of the headland. We spent our first full day in Muscat exploring both areas.

Ramadan

Ramadan, the Muslim period of fasting with no food or drink from sunrise to sunset, began in Oman on the evening of 2 April which was the day we arrived in Muscat. We had been warned that some places might be closed during this time, but this rarely affected the rest of our trip.

In fact some places were a good deal quieter than they might otherwise have been. Saqer observed Ramadan and said that he was completely used to it and that there would be no problems.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

We began our day at the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque which is the largest mosque in Oman and the only one which non-Muslims are allowed to enter.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Muscat

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Muscat

It was my turn to wear the headdress (a shawl) which Saqer had given me over my head. I also needed to cover my arms and legs.

Ready for the Grand Mosque

The mosque was completed in 2001 and is simply stunning. The approach is on beautiful clean paving past gardens with green lawns which were being watered and tendered. The inside is intricately decorated with ornate Arabic writing as well as other elaborate motifs. I took plenty of photos of which just a few are in the picture gallery which accompanies this post.

A huge finely woven prayer carpet covers the floor in the main prayer hall. According wikipedia it measures 60 x 70 metres and took 4 years to make. Visitors are only allowed to walk on a plain blue carpet which does enable you to have close look at the main carpet.

Carpet,Grand Mosque

Carpet, Grand Mosque

The central chandelier is 14 metres tall and is said to contain over 1100 bulbs. Smaller chandeliers hang all around the edge of the prayer hall. The mihrab, a niche in the wall which indicates the direction of Mecca and thus the direction of prayer, is very tall and decorated all over with soothing colours.

Mihrab, Grand Mosque

Mihrab, Grand Mosque

Muttrah Souqs

After leaving the mosque we moved on to Muttrah, where the souqs are the main tourist attraction. The fish market was first. I do like eating fish and I also like visiting fish markets – we have even been to the giant one in Tokyo. Here I took pictures of yellow, red and a blue fish, all of which looked very fresh.

Blue fish, fish market, Muttrah

Blue fish, fish market, Muttrah

Nearby somebody was mending nets in a small boat tied up near the market. It was all rather quiet but this meant that we didn’t have to battle through throngs of locals and tourists in order to see anything.

The locals did not mind having their photos taken. I managed to get good ones in the fish market and in the vegetable and fruit market.

Vendor, Muttrah vegetable souq

Vendor, Muttrah vegetable souq

We bypassed the building labelled Sale of Meat, perhaps because it was Ramadan.

The tourist souqs are really the heart of Muttrah and there are many shops selling souvenirs which seemed mostly to have been imported from southeast Asia. The shopkeepers appeared to be mainly Indian or Pakistani. Martin would have had no difficulty buying one of the round hats which Omani men wear. Saqer had a different one every day and they all matched the spotless dishdashas which he changed every day.

Muttrah souq

Muttrah souq

Cultural Heritage at Bait al Bagh

Bait Al Bagh in Muttrah is part of the Bait Zubair complex, a large privately owned showcase of Omani cultural heritage. At the entrance we were greeted by two life size models of Arabian oryxes, one of which was painted in several bright colours.

Model oryx outside Bait A Bagh Museum

Model oryx outside Bait A Bagh Museum

The first thing we saw inside was a huge and detailed illustrated map of Oman showing the culture and major activities of each area.

Part of map, Bait Al Bagh Museum

Part of map, Bait Al Bagh Museum

Bait al Bagh also has a number of excellent information boards showing various aspects of daily life and dress. The main collection consists of firearms, Omani daggers, antique jewellery and the like. There are several sets of life-size models including seven dressed for a wedding ceremony.

Models at a wedding, Bait Al Bagh Museum

Models at a wedding, Bait Al Bagh Museum

I was also intrigued by a detailed painting which illustrates various methods of food preparation, all carried out by women.

After a walk round the area surrounding the Sultan’s palace in Muttrah with glances at the huge yacht moored nearby which we were told belonged to one of his relatives, our planned schedule for the day was complete, but Saqer asked us if we wanted to see the Royal Opera House in Muscat as well. We had been past this building on the way to the mosque and were keen to see the inside.

Royal Opera House, Muscat

We were not disappointed. The Opera House is built in the traditional style and with intricate carvings in the stone and wooden decoration inside.

Royal Opera House, Muscat

Royal Opera House, Muscat

The stage is huge for performances with a large cast but we were told that the front part of it can be removed for more intimate events. If there had been a performance while we were in Muscat we would definitely have tried to get tickets.

The Opera House was another initiative of Sultan Qaboos and it opened in October 2011. A glance at its web site and entry in wikipedia indicates the quality of the performances it is able to attract.

Royal Opera House, Muscat

Royal Opera House, Muscat

We were back at the hotel in time for a late lunch. Ramadan was observed to some extent but most of the other hotel guests were European and the restaurant staff appeared to be Indian. In the evening instead of having the hotel’s iftar Ramadan evening meal, we took the hotel’s shuttle bus back to Muttrah and ate on a balcony overlooking the sea at at Bait al Luban, a well-known traditional restaurant which was recommended by our guide book and by Saqer.

Barka

On our second full day we went out of Muscat first going north along the coast to Barka where there is a large fort which had apparently been closed for some time.

Barka Fort

Barka Fort

We were able to view the outside before going to another fish market which had quite a few customers. Somebody was trying to sell what looked like a sting ray. The modern town of Barka is large enough to have a Lulu supermarket where we picked up some food for lunch.

Mountain roads

From Barka we turned inland on the start of a journey to the mountains. We stopped to photograph another fort at Nakhl which had also been closed for some time. In contrast to Barka this fort is rich brown in colour and was surrounded by trees. We looked at it across a dried river bed.

Nakhl Fort

Further on we passed a road sign for a camel and a bit later on a camel walking on the road. I noticed that its front legs were hobbled.

Camel on road

Camel on road

Saqer then took us on a mountain drive in the Western Hajar through the area known as Wadi Bani Auf. This journey is described by the Rough Guide as “widely considered the most memorable off-road drive in the country”. It goes on to say “This is Oman at its most nerve-janglingly dramatic, with stupendous scenery and a rough, vertiginous track which challenges the skills of even experienced off-road drivers”. We needed to buckle up metaphorically as well as physically but it was quite an experience.

Mountain road

Mountain road

Martin is quite a fan of roads like this but even he was glad that he was not driving. Saqer obviously knew the route very well and we stopped at several viewpoints. He easily dealt with the situation when we met one truck coming in the opposite direction – I was just glad the vertiginous drop was on the other side of the road at this point.

Can we get past this truck?

Can we get past this truck?

There are some small wadis and villages in this area including one with an artificially green football pitch. We saw some students getting off their school bus (a rugged 4×4). They must have come from Balad Sayt which was the only place we saw which had a road sign.

Yes, there's a village in these mountains

Yes, there’s a village in these mountains

You can go hiking in this area although I didn’t see any proper trails. We stopped to eat our lunch at a lodge called Bait Bimah and were able to chat to the one person who was working there.

Bait Bimah travel lodge

Bait Bimah travel lodge

Saqer took Martin on another drive higher up but I felt I had had enough and just admired the scenery for the 30 minutes or so that they were gone. On the way back we had a chance to photograph the entrance to Wadi Bimah “Snake Gorge” which is a very narrow canyon.

Snake Gorge

Snake Gorge

Because of the twisty road I had rather lost my sense of direction but looking at the map after we got back I saw that we had not been far from Al Hamra which we had visited on our second day with Saqer and was just on the other side of the mountains.

Evening and Iftar

We had to say a very reluctant goodbye to Saqer when we got back to the Crowne Plaza. He was going home for a very welcome rest.

Saqer and his landcruiser

Saqer and his Landcruiser

Our last evening in Muscat was our first real chance to explore the outdoor area at the Crowne Plaza. Steps lead down to a private sandy beach where we watched the sunset and even got our feet wet. There was another magnificent sunset.

Sunset from Crowne Plaza

Sunset from Crowne Plaza

We decided to eat the hotel’s Ramadan iftar evening meal. The tables were very elegantly laid and there was even more food in the buffet than we had seen on our first night there. Much of it was Middle Eastern and Asian which we like. Plenty of the other Europeans in the hotel were trying it as well.

Someone else would come to take us to the airport on the next day for our stay at Salalah in the south of Oman. How different would it be?

Picture gallery: Oman Part 4: Muscat and More Mountains

Click to enlarge

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Oman Part 3: Desert and Sea

This is the third of six posts on our visit to Oman in March-April 2022.

If you just want to see the pictures from this part of our trip go here.

Heading to the Desert

Reluctantly we left Nizwa before lunch and set off for our night in the desert. We had little idea what to expect and our anticipation grew as we visited Ibra and several more villages on the way.

Ruined Villages with Omani Doors

It was interesting to see the contrast between the old and the new in these villages but sadly we saw plenty of ruins.

The old and the new

The old and the new

Large 4x4s were parked next to ruined houses, but most of the original doors in the old houses remained. In the museum in Nizwa Fort we had looked at the display board of Omani doors and as we travelled more in the country we began to see the emphasis on decorated doors made of wood or metal. Some of them had intricately carved wooden surrounds.

Omani door on ruined house

Omani door on ruined house

We also saw fortification towers within or near the villages. Somebody climbed up to the roof of a building next to one.

Steps and tower in ruined village

There were no goats wandering around and the only evidence of occupation was just very few modern houses most of which were firmly shut up. We did see a mosque in one village which looked like it was being used.

There was a big tree in the centre of one village in an area which must have once been the villagers’ meeting place. It seemed more like Greece where every village has a square with a big tree to give shade.

Tree in old village

Tree in old village

Unfortunately I did not write down the names of these places but we cannot have been very far from Muscat.

Driving into the Desert

You have to let your tyres down in order to drive on very soft ground and so we stopped to do this just on the edge of the desert in a small modern town called Bidiyah.

Letting down the tyres for the desert

Letting down the tyres for the desert

I noticed that we were opposite a large modern store which advertised itself as “Ladies Tailoring”. “Men’s Tailoring” must have been somewhere else.

As we left the town we could see sand dunes beyond a palm plantation.

Towards the desert

Towards the desert

It took about an hour to go the 35 km to the Thousand Nights Desert Camp which is in an area of the desert called Sharqiya Sands or Wahiba Sands. It was a bumpy ride, but Saqer knew the best route across the sand. For much of the journey we saw nothing but sand.

Nothing but desert and sand

Nothing but desert and sand

Thousand Nights Desert Camp

ETG had originally booked us into a different camp but we asked for a change as we would have been in a hotel room there. A night in a tent in the desert was one of our few “must-dos” in Oman and Thousand Nights fitted the bill. Our “tent” turned out to be more like a cabin but the walls were covered with Omani furnishings. There was plenty of space for a 6ft bed and there was electricity and even a kettle. The bathroom was attached at the back with the shower area open to the sky.

Our tent in Thousand Nights Camp

Our tent in Thousand Nights Camp

The tents were well spaced out but it was only a short walk on a paved path (no sinking into the sand) to the restaurant area which also had wifi. The food was very good including a grill and egg/pancake station where a chef cooked on demand.

It was approaching evening when we arrived and Saqer soon took us out dune-bashing, driving up and over several sand dunes to a higher point where we had a good view of the sunset.

Our Landcruiser dune bashing

Our Land Cruiser dune bashing

I found it all rather scary but he had obviously done this many times before and knew exactly where to go. It was quite windy at the top – Martin wore the Omani head-dress which we had been given when we met up with Saqer.

Sunset at the top of the dunes

Sunset at the top of the dunes

Walking in the very soft sand was a bit tough, but on reflection I wouldn’t have missed it at all. A once only experience.

The Thousand Nights Camp has a herd of Arabic Oryx including some young ones. Because of hunting this animal was extinct in the wild by 1972 but numbers have now grown through captive breeding.

Arabian oryx at Thousand Nights Camp

Arabian oryx at Thousand Nights Camp

To the Sea

Then we were off to the sea. On the way we stopped at Wadi Bani Khalid where you can walk along a short path to what I hesitate to call a lake but it was the largest amount of water we had seen since we left Musandam. It was a pleasant place, more like a mini oasis.

Wadi Bani Khalid

Wadi Bani Khalid

It was rumoured that you could swim in it the wadi. Some locals were having a picnic. Servants who appeared to be Bangladeshis brought their food in a wheelbarrow. More Bangladeshis were clearing greenery from the lake.

The scenery going down to the sea was very bare. The road wound round some mountains which are not as high as those in Jebel Akhdar but seemed to be mostly rather loose grey rock. Down near the sea we passed another camel in the back of a pickup truck and a road sign showing a pedestrian wearing a dishdasha.

Road sign pedestrian wearing a dishdasha

We reached the sea at Sur which is one of the larger cities in Oman. Saqer took us to a smart restaurant overlooking the sea where the three of us ate a large fish with accompaniments which was all washed down with mango juice.

Lunch at Sur

Lunch at Sur

Turtles

Then we were out on a small boat in the bay. I was a bit hesitant at a rather nasty clamber down on to the boat but it was well worth the trip.

Sur is a centre for building dhows, the traditional boat in the Arabian gulf. We passed a number of them, also a heron on the rocky shore. There was quite a contrast between the bright blue sea and brown rocks.

Heron and colour contrasts, Sur

Heron and colour contrasts, Sur

What we did not know until we got to one area was that we were being taken to see turtles popping their heads above the water. This became a little competition between the three of us pointing and shouting “there” as the turtle heads surfaced all around us. They weren’t the easiest thing to photograph but I did manage to get the odd one.

Spot the turtles, Sur

Spot the turtle

When we got back the tide had gone out and we just stepped off the boat on to the sand.

But these turtles were just a prelude. The beaches around Ras Al Jinz and Al Hadd about 30km east of Sur are important turtle nesting areas where large green turtles come out of the sea to dig a hole with their flippers and lay their eggs at night. The prime egg-laying season is June to August, and we were warned that we might not see one. We felt it was well-worth going there. It was April Fool’s Day. Perhaps we might be lucky.

We stayed the night at the Turtle Beach Resort in a kind of motel room with Omani wall furnishings. It was by a nice beach which we didn’t really have time to explore. Our room overlooked the sea and faced a wonderful sunset.

Sunset, Turtle Beach Resort

Sunset, Turtle Beach Resort

Everything is about turtles in this part of the world and I notice that a large turtle built from local stones occupies the centre of the lawn outside the hotel.

There were two parts to the restaurant at the Turtle Beach Resort. The buffet and some tables were inside a normal restaurant style room but just across the path the second part was in reconstruction of a dhow. It was worth carrying our food across to it in order to eat there.

Restaurant, Turtle Beach Resort

Restaurant, Turtle Beach Resort

Covid regulations were very strict here. A waiter was stationed at the door to the buffet room and would not let anyone in without a mask. The hotel was not full but there were enough people staying there for them to put on a variety of food, both Asian and European, in the buffet. There were turtle-shaped loaves of bread.

Bread display, Turtle Beach Resort

Bread display, Turtle Beach Resort

Saqer came for us after dinner to take us to the turtle watching place and museum. It’s also a hotel and there were more tourists there than anywhere else we had been to so far. He got tickets for us to go in a small group – the large one must have had 70-80 people whereas we were about 20 with 2 guides. We walked some way to the beach then had to turn off all our lights while the guides looked for a turtle. It took some time to find one but we were successful. It was just covering up its eggs with its flippers and were were able to photograph it in a red light.

Turtle laying eggs

Turtle laying eggs

While we were there a baby turtle was running around trying to find the way to the sea. It ran over my foot. Eventually one of the guides picked it up and deposited it on the edge of the sea.

We were back at the hotel by 11pm after a very successful evening.

Back to Sur

We went back to Sur after the turtles. On the way there we passed a rock which looked like a tiger from one angle. Somebody had painted it.

Tiger rock on roadside near Sur

Tiger rock on roadside near Sur

After stopping for us to photograph the two towers and some boats from the bridge Saqer took us to a dhow factory where several large ones were being constructed mostly by hand.

Dhow under construction, Sur

Dhow under construction, Sur

Some of the decorations were quite intricate. Most of the dhows are now for tourists and we were told that one of them was going to be a restaurant for the football World Cup in Qatar. Model ones were for sale in the shop.

Decorative panels for dhow, Sur

Dhow decoration

We also had time to take more photos of Sur. There were plenty of dhows out to sea but not going anywhere and plenty of small modern boats which surely must now be used for fishing as well as taking tourists around the lagoon.

Tourist boats, Sur

Tourist boats, Sur

Going further north towards Muscat we stopped to overlook the ancient site of Qalhat which was once important in trade in the Indian Ocean. Very little remains and the site was closed. In the nearby modern town there were larger fishing boats where some men were mending nets.

We took a side road into Wadi Tiwi where again the contrast between the green and the desert was stark. This is a large wadi with attractive scenery and some reflections in the water.

Wadi Tiwi

Wadi Tiwi

A boy (not an Omani) was washing himself and his clothes in the rather green water.

Washing time, Wadi Tiwi

Washing time, Wadi Tiwi

We were near a small village which seemed deserted. There was a mosque which was just a small area enclosed by wire netting and covered with a roof made of palm fronds.

Mosque, Wadi Tiwi

Mosque, Wadi Tiwi

Saqer drove us further up where we could see some modern houses. Turning the Land Cruiser round on the narrow gravel road was interesting.

Above Wadi Tiwi

Above Wadi Tiwi

Lunch on that day was in the nearby town. A group of French tourists were also eating at the same restaurant. This was a very typical modern town with a jumble of electric cables, street signs and rather chaotic parking. Some of the houses had round white water tanks on their roofs with little battlements on their tops.

Modern Tiwi

Modern Tiwi

Some goats were wandering around the parking area at our next stop which was the entrance to Wadi Shab where the water meets the sea underneath the main road.

Goat, Wadi Shab

Goat, Wadi Shab

Plenty of tourists were there as well. Much of the water was covered in what looked like water lilies, but you can also take a boat across to hike some way up.

Wadi Shab

Wadi Shab

Almost everywhere we went in Oman was clean, neat and tidy, but here a graffiti artist had been at work on some concrete structures under the road.

Graffiti, Wadi Shab

Graffiti, Wadi Shab

The main road between Sur and Muscat runs quite close to the sea but we did deviate from it on gravel road closer to the sea to take pictures from a good viewpoint.

On the way to Muscat

On the way to Muscat

Our last stop on the way to Muscat was at a huge sinkhole. It’s surrounded by a nice garden. You can walk down to the bottom of it where some people were swimming. I declined and chatted to some French tourists while Martin descended to inspect the bottom.

Bimmah sinkhole

Bimmah sinkhole

The area between the main road and the sea is mostly scrub with small bushes but Saqer pointed out the only frankincense tree in this part of Oman. He also spotted a deer (quite rare in Oman) among the bushes.

Deer, near Muscat

Deer, near Muscat

We arrived at the Crowne Plaza in Muscat in time to watch a lovely sunset from our room.

Sunset from our room, Crowne Plaza, Muscat

Sunset from our room, Crowne Plaza, Muscat

This is a much larger hotel than where we had stayed before and dinner was an excellent buffet eaten by the pool.

A day of sight-seeing in the capital city awaited us.

Picture gallery: Oman Part 3: Desert and Sea

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Oman Part 2: Mountains, Villages and Nizwa

This is the second of six posts on our visit to Oman in March-April 2022.

If you just want to see the pictures from this part of our trip go here.

Jebel Akhdar and the Saiq Plateau

Our wonderful guide Saqer was waiting for us on some waste land on the edge of Muscat at 9.15pm after our mad 500+ km dash by road from Khasab. Our destination was the Sahab Resort and Spa which is at an altitude of about 2000m. Muscat is more or less at sea level and the road went up and up and up. The surface was good and wide enough for vehicles to pass. It was lit by bright street lights all the way. We passed through a sizeable town Saih Katenah on the plateau, arrived at our hotel about 11pm and flopped straight into bed.

Next morning we found that the hotel was right on the edge of the plateau. There was a stunning view across to mountains and down to some tiny villages some of which were not accessible by road.

View from Sahab Resort, Saiq Plateau

View from Sahab Resort and Spa

We also found that there were very few guests in the hotel and so the choice of food was not great although it was fine. We ate outside by the pool on our second night there.

Saqer gave us a lie-in and came for us at 10am. Our first stop was to see more fossils on the top of the plateau then we drove down and parked near Al Aqr the first of three villages which are close enough to each other to walk between them.

Three Saiq Plateau villages

There was water nearby and the villagers grow roses for rosewater, which is very popular in Oman, as well as fodder for animals. An elderly couple were tilling a small area and planting it up.

Agriculture, Saiq Plateau

It was interesting to walk round the villages. Sadly many of the old stone houses are no longer occupied but their intricate wooden and metal doors remain. Some workmen were attempting to rebuild one house in a rather primitive way as it would not be possible to get any large machinery there.

Construction work, Saiq Plateau

Construction work, Saiq Plateau

The walk to the second village Al Ayn was a little tough in parts. It goes down then round a spur and up to reach the village where there are more abandoned houses. It is possible to drive to it and so Saqer took the car to meet us while we enjoyed the walk.

On the trail between the villages

On the trail between the villages

The distance to the third village Al Sheragah is further and likely tougher and so Saqer walked there and back with Martin while I got into conversation with a doctor from Lancaster who was visiting his Omani family.

The Saiq Plateau is just one area within the Jebel Akhdar Massif. Jebel Akhdar means green mountain and there are areas within it which are cultivable. Below the three villages are vertiginous terraces which must once have been used to grow food.

Old Terraces by the three villages

Old terraces by the three villages

We could also see wadis in the valleys supporting green plants. The best known of these is Wadi Bani Habab where you can walk down and actually see some water and plenty of vegetation. The old village of Bani Habab is in ruins lying just above the wadi.

Old Wadi Bani Habab

The modern village lies above the wadi and is described by the Rough Guide as “uninspiring”. It did look out of place.

By the end of our stay with Saqer we decided that he must know every restaurant owner in the area he covers. Every day he would phone ahead – yes there’s a phone signal everywhere we went to – to a restaurant for lunch which usually consisted of chicken, dal, salad, rice and flatbreads which he ordered for us.

After lunch in Saih Katenah we were really introduced to the mountain roads in Jebel Akhbar with a drive up to a view point. The gravel road was just wide enough for our land cruiser. It was twisty with a sheer drop for some of the way.

On the way to Al Suwjara

At the end of the road we parked directly opposite Al Suwjara which is a village built underneath cliffs on the mountain side. There was a steep stony path down and then up to the village. People appeared to be living there.

Al Suwjara under the cliffs

Much further up on the hillside there was a goat pen which Martin managed to capture with the zoom lens on his powerful camera.

When I was writing this I discovered that there is a guest house in Al Suwjara on booking.com and some people had posted videos of the walk to it on youtube. Some locals (young males) were setting off down the path to the village just as we left.

Later in the day there was time to enjoy the wonderful sunset from the hotel gardens. A large building stood out in the distance. We were told that it belongs to the son of the Emir of Qatar.

Sunset from Sahab Resort and Spa

Birkat al Mouz and Al Hamra

Next day we visited several places lower down the Jebel Akhdar mountains. We stopped at the tourist office at the bottom of the long road up to the plateau and were served what turned out to be the usual hospitality offering of coffee and dates.

Birkat al Mouz is a large village on the edge of a huge date plantation. Like many other villages there is a tower built on a hill with a good view overlooking the date palms towards the old village which is mostly in ruins.

View from tower overlooking Birkat al Mouz

We drove through the dates past a stone wall which would interest anyone who lives in the Yorkshire Dales. It was about 5m tall and there was no mortar.

5m stone wall at Birkat al Mouz; spot the person at the end

Near Birkat al Mouz we also saw our first falaj, which is a kind of water channel for irrigation. This one named Falaj Al Khatmein has World Heritage Status. It is decorated with pebbles including its name in Arabic text and there was a tiny decorated building next to it.

Irrigation Falaj Al Khatmein

Irrigation Falaj Al Khatmein

Our next stop was at Al Hamra. Bait al Safah is a living cultural heritage museum in a house in this village. A lady who spoke fluent English described a demonstration of making Omani flatbreads and coffee.

Making Omani flatbreads

Part of the upstairs of the house was furnished. There was an excellent view from the rooftop but sadly much of the old part of the town is in ruins.

Bahla Fort and Jabreen Castle

The town of Bahla is dominated by a huge fort, visible from some way away and said to be one of the best in Oman. After another excellent lunch we tackled it on a very hot afternoon.

Bahla Fort

Bahla Fort

There was evidence of some earlier buildings inside. Steps lead you up and down to different areas. You can also climb up on to a roof for a view of the surrounding area (somebody did).

On the roof of Bahla Fort

This fort dates back to the 12th-15th centuries but it was rebuilt during the 17th century and has been renovated very recently, giving a relatively new appearance. Inside the ceilings are wooden and many of the doors have wooden surrounds.

Inside Bahla Fort

It was all spotlessly clean. Bahla Fort is really visited for its size – you could easily get lost in it going up and down the many steps. Just a few objects are on display in the interior.

Not far from Bahla, Jabreen Castle is a rather different structure being tall rather than sprawling. It dates from about 1670 and the interior is more elaborately decorated than Bahla Fort. Many of the interior rooms which surround a courtyard contain large pots, cooking implements and even furnishings.

Inside Jabreen Castle

We were intrigued by the date store where the floor consists of corrugated channels. Dates were piled up on the floor allowing their juice to collect in the channels.

Date store in Jabreen Castle

Parts of the interior have intricate decorations, some made of wood. Some of the wooden ceilings are very highly decorated. The ceiling above one staircase is decorated in Arabic writing carved in relief.

Arabic writing decoration inside Jabreen Castle

Nizwa

Our next overnight stop was at Nizwa which is the historic old capital of Oman. This is a much larger town and on the way into it I managed to photograph a huge mosque.

Mosque at Nizwa

In Nizwa we stayed at the Antique Inn which really lives up to its name. We wanted to experience the local way of living and had asked ETG specifically to put us there rather than in a modern hotel some way from the old town centre. The Inn is very close to the fort and the souqs (markets). We slept on a traditional mattress on the floor, but we also had a nice private bathroom and the wifi worked very well.

The sitting room at the inn is furnished with carpets and with cushions around the sides for seating. Our dinner and breakfast were mostly Omani food and were served on a rooftop terrace.

Sitting room, Antique Inn, Nizwa

Nizwa was our first experience of local souqs and we spent some time on our first evening wandering round buildings which were surprisingly modern and air-conditioned inside as well as some older market stalls which were more like those we have seen in other countries.

Spices and nuts in Nizwa souq

Even in the old part all notices and advertising are displayed in English as well as Arabic.

Old style shop, Nizwa

Old style shop, Nizwa

The Nizwa souqs are definitely not just for tourists. Plenty of locals were shopping there. In the date souq a display board showed thirty-nine kinds of dates.

Choose your date

There is a huge market in Nizwa on Fridays when locals come from miles around to sell livestock and other goods. But we were there on a Thursday. The goat market building was empty and we missed the opportunity to buy a camel. We did see two camels in a pickup truck parked outside the market area presumably ready for market day.

Camels on the way to market

There were more tourists in Nizwa Fort than we had seen elsewhere but it was not crowded.

A band was playing in one of the rooms just off the courtyard near the entrance.

Band playing inside Nizwa Fort

The present fort dates back to the late 17th century and is in a similar style to the previous ones we had seen with crenellated battlements. A huge circular tower was designed to stop undesirables from entering.

Nizwa Fort

Nizwa Fort

The displays in the museum inside the fort are excellent, being well-designed and very informative. One large and very detailed display board has a cut-out view of the tower and illustrates the gory details of the various traps for invaders.

Display board: traps for the unwary in Nizwa Fort

A “murder hole” was designed to allow rocks to be dropped and boiling date syrup to be poured down on anyone who should not be there. There are true pitfalls where invaders would fall into pits through gaps in the staircases. These have all been preserved and glassed over for tourists to see them.

Murder hole: detail from the Ancient Omani Fortification board

The museum inside the fort contains more excellent information boards including quotes from two British travellers. A British Naval lieutenant James Raymond Wellsted visited Nizwa in 1835. He was finally admitted to the fort and noted seven massive iron doors and that “a guardian behind each inquired the purport of our visit; and being told that we were servants of the Sooltan, he removed several locked bars and chains, and then we passed on.” In his Arabian Sands published in 1948 Wilfred Thesiger described the view on a clear day of the entire length of the Jebel Akhdar ridge from his camp just outside Nizwa.

Another board provides a detailed description of date palms and their uses and yet another one of trade routes on a well-illustrated map.

Decorated doors are a characteristic of Omani buildings and photos of 19 of the best ones in Nizwa are displayed on another board.

Doors of Nizwa: in Nizwa Fort Museum

The juxtaposition of old and new is very apparent in Nizwa. Several of the old buildings near the souqs and fort are in ruins. It seemed odd to see 4WDs parked next to them and within sight of much newer construction. But it was good to see that plenty of the old traditions remain and how well the display boards in the museum in the Fort promote the history and culture of the area.

We were sad to leave Nizwa but it was time to move on to the desert and then the coast.

Leaving Nizwa Fort

Picture gallery: Oman Part 2: Mountains and Villages

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Oman Part 1: Musandam and Khasab

This is the first of six posts on our visit to Oman March-April 2022

If you just want to see the pictures from this part of our trip go here.

At the time of writing this (October 2022) we have now had four failed attempts to visit Sri Lanka on a trip organised by the wonderful Experience Travel Group (ETG). After the third one ETG started talking about alternatives especially Oman. We were initially intrigued and became seriously interested when we saw that this would combine our love of stunning scenery with our interest in Islamic civilisation and architecture. ETG organise private tours and after a little to-ing and fro-ing we settled on an itinerary in Oman which neatly split into three sections, although the second one was by far the largest.

Wadi Tawi – typical mountain scenery in Musandam

Getting there

So it was on a cold March day that we found ourselves on an Emirates A380 flight from Manchester to Dubai. Emirates are one of the best airlines we have been on and we arrived on time in the early morning in an enormous new terminal built just for A380s each of which can take over 500 people. There were over 40 immigration agents and we were landside in less than 30 minutes with all our luggage (UK airports take note). A driver was to take us through the northern part of UAE to Musandam, a part of Oman which is at the very northern tip of the Arabian peninsula close to the Straits of Hormuz.

As we sped out of Dubai on an 8-lane highway the driver asked if we wanted coffee and promised to find some. After about 40 minutes we stopped at a Starbucks which was next door to a McDonalds by the side of the road in the middle of the desert. There were some camels nearby.

Unmistakable and very welcome coffee after an overnight flight

Our journey to Khasab, which is the only real town in Musandam, was a very quick 2.5 hours with one short stop at the border to enter Oman and a few others for photos once we were near the northern tip of Oman where the road is partly built out into the sea below steep cliffs.

The road to Khasab

Khasab

In Khasab we stayed at the Atana Musandam hotel which is on a man-made inlet leading out to the harbour and the sea. Our room was large and furnished in a traditional style with dark wood furniture which we were to see in many other places. All meals at the Atana are buffet style and there was plenty of choice of food. Most of the other guests appeared to be families taking a weekend break from Dubai. A very hot but short walk across some bare land opposite the hotel took us to a Lulu hypermarket which was as good if not better than any we have seen at home or in France. We had missed lunch in the hotel and found an excellent choice of sandwiches in Lulu. Everyone there was wearing a mask.

Khasab was once the centre of smuggling between Oman and Iran. Much of this has now been stopped and there is a small amount of regular trade between the two countries. Tourism, especially visitors from Dubai, is now a major source of income in Musandam.

A visit to the main sights of Khasab was on the agenda for the first full morning. We were taken first to Khasab Fort which is right in the middle of the town and was built in the 17th century. This was the first of many buildings we saw with the same type of crenellations (battlements) on the roof. It’s worth noting here that the Omanis seem to use the terms “fort” and “castle” interchangeably.

Khasab Fort

The courtyard of the fort houses some wooden battil vessels, which are one of the traditional types of small boats in this part of the world, also a traditional oven and grinding stones.

Khasab Fort courtyard

Inside a few rooms have displays of local culture complete with life-size people.

Inside Khasab Fort

Khasab Fort also contains an impressive set of display boards all in the two official languages Arabic and English. We found similar displays in other museums and forts we visited later in the trip. All were well designed and very informative.

Our morning tour then took us past the beautiful mosque in Khasab which is only open to muslims and then on to the village of Wadi Tawi a few kilometres from the town. It seemed a typical rather neglected village but within a group of boulders beyond it are several prehistoric petroglyphs of animals, houses and people. The best was of three camels.

Camel petroglyphs at Wadi Tawi

We had some additional entertainment at the petroglyphs as plenty of goats (the first of many we saw just wandering around) were as curious of us as we were of them. One young one was peeping out from behind the boulder with the camels.

Goat at Wadi Tawi

Our guide started to feed them with small branches and I had a go as well. Their teeth and mouths were surprisingly strong.

Goat feeding at Wadi Tawi

The wadi itself was typical of many in Oman with just a little green vegetation between high rocky mountains.

Our ETG itinerary for this day had a free afternoon but we had read about the trip to Jebel Harim, which at 2087m is the highest mountain in Musandam. The trip goes up a mountain track only drivable in a 4WD. We asked our guide to arrange another car for this trip and after lunch a new guide in a fairly tough vehicle arrived take us up there.

The first stop was at a popular tourist spot where tourists were taking photos of themselves by a huge Oman sign set back about 1.5m from a sheer drop a very long way down to the sea. It was quite busy there with tourists and motorbikes but our guide took some nice pictures of us avoiding the other tourists as much as possible.

We do love it – wonderful country

There was a narrow road of sorts going down to a small village by the sea. The only way out from the bottom is by sea or driving back up again. It made some roads we have driven on like the Stelvio Pass in Italy look a doddle. Martin went near enough to the edge to take a photo of this road which also appears on some tourist literature about Oman, but I was very grateful that we were coming down from the Oman sign the same way as we went up.

From the Oman sign – not our route

The drive up to Jebel Harim was on a narrow gravel road (often with a sheer drop at the side) and with plenty of bends. The scenery all around was jagged mountains which were completely dry.

The road to Jebel Harim

At about 1100m we reached a flat plain with houses, green fields and crops.

Green fields on way to Jebel Harim
Green fields on way to Jebel Harim

Some donkeys, just like the goats in the morning, were wandering around on their own. Some goats then appeared and the driver fed a banana to one of them. We did not see any humans there at all.

Then it was another 20 minutes or so up again to another flat area below the summit of Jebel Harim.

Fossil area below Jebel Harim

Further up is a military area closed to tourists but the guide took us a short walk to see fossils embedded in the dark grey rocks on the ground. Many of these were of sea creatures and quite large.

Fossils at Jebel Harim

The drive down was uneventful but I was fairly relieved when we reached the bottom. This trip turned out to be just a taster for the many mountain roads we took on our tour from Muscat.

Dhow Trip to Khor Ash Sham

For the next day ETG had arranged an all-day trip on a dhow to Khor Ash Sham which is the most accessible of many khors. These are fjords surrounded by more spectacular and very dry mountains. Our driver took us to the harbour where we had to clamber across several other dhows to reach ours. We found ourselves to be the only tourists on this boat which we were told could take just over 40 people. Two crew members looked after us as well as managing the boat. All we needed to do was lounge on the oriental cushions and carpets under the sunshade and admire the scenery and calm waters.

Our dhow and a crew member

Oman has often been described as a geologist’s paradise and it was not difficult to see why as we sailed along the khor.

Rock formations at Khor Ash Sham

We were not the only dhow out for the day. Others were already at our first stop, an inlet where you can see dolphins. We’ve seen them before but the two we saw were close and not bothered by all the dhows around them.

Tourist dhow in Khor Ash Sham

We sailed on to anchor by Telegraph Island where the British built a telegraph station in 1864 to provide cable traffic between the UK and India. The station was not operational for long but the name has stayed. Better swimmers than us swam to the island from some other dhows but we were content to watch one of the crew prepare and cook a delicious fish for us.

Fish for lunch on the dhow

We ate it together with chicken, rice, flatbread and a selection of salads.

Lunch on the dhow

The other boatman went spear fishing underwater and caught what Google Lens identified as a cuttlefish. The other boatman cleaned it up. Perhaps that was lunch for the next day’s trip.

Their lunch tomorrow?
Cuttlefish: tomorrow’s lunch?

We were at anchor by Telegraph Island for about 90 minutes. The wind got up when we were about halfway back. I avoided being seasick but the boat was not stabilised. I was glad when we rounded the headland into the harbour but overall this trip was excellent. It’s a must-do in Khasab and I would recommend the whole day one (actually about 6 hours) rather than a half-day which does not go as far as Telegraph Island. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. And when we got back the tide was at a different level and we walked straight out of the dhow on to the quay, with no clambering over other boats.

Getting to Muscat

Our time in Khasab was up and early the next day we were taken to the airport by 8am for a 10am flight to Muscat. The runway is in a valley (the only suitable valley) close to the town. The airport building, to put it bluntly, leaves a bit to be desired. The waiting area is by the checkin desks, only one of which was staffed for some of the time we were there. Plenty of locals were milling about or had taken most of the seats. Those that were still waiting to check in seemed to have more baggage than was allowed. We stood in a queue which crept along. There was no sign of the plane which was coming from Muscat. There was still no sign of it by 10am or for some time after that. We did find somewhere to sit down but I had to keep going outside as the air conditioning was very fierce inside.

After a while we started chatting with a French couple who where the only other two Europeans. At 12 noon the check in agent announced that the plane was not coming because it was too windy. Everyone was rebooked for the next day. The locals vanished very quickly, but the driver who had taken us to the airport soon turned up to take us back to the hotel. We feared that the flight might be cancelled the next day and really wanted to keep to our itinerary and get to Muscat that day. The French couple were quite desperate to get there as well as they had only one more day left in Oman.

Martin asked the driver to arrange a car to drive us the 530km to Muscat and the French couple agreed to share it with us. We could not fit all our baggage in the first car they brought but just managed it in a 4WD. I sat rather cramped in the back with the French couple with our small items on our laps. By then it was after 2pm and none of us had had anything to eat. We got the driver to take us to Lulu to grab a sandwich and we finally set off at about 2.30pm.

It turned out to be something of a mad dash through the desert, but the road surface was excellent. Some of the trip was on a dual carriageway. Musandam is separated from the rest of Oman by part of the UAE and so we had to stop twice (one exit and one entry) at each of the two border posts and buy new visas. Fortunately they were not busy and the driver knew exactly what to do there. Other than that we did not stop at all.

Our guide at Muscat was supposed to be meeting us at the airport to take us straight up into the mountains. We weren’t clear what was happening but the Khasab driver had been on the phone a lot (while driving). At about 9.15pm long after it got dark we suddenly left the motorway and came to a stop on a bit of waste land on the outskirts of Muscat to find our wonderful Muscat guide Saqer waiting for us in a Toyota Landcruiser. The first thing he did for us was to get very welcome sandwiches and drinks. Our new French friends stayed with our original driver – I hope they got to where they needed to be in Muscat.

Picture gallery: Oman Part 1: Musandam and Khasab

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There’s more to Spain than Beaches

If you just want to see the pictures go here.

We’ve been to Spain several times including twice driving across the middle from the Pyrenees to Portugal. Although there is plenty of plain for the occasional rain to mainly fall on, much of inland Spain has spectacular scenery with jagged mountains, deep gorges, badlands like those in South Dakota and small conical volcanic hills. The Spanish look after their natural parks very well. Hiking trails are generally well-signed (at the start) and there is plenty of visitor information. The temperature high up in the mountains is very pleasant in summer and it doesn’t rain much, just enough to enable alpine plants to flower even in February.

Also in February fields of pink or white almond blossom flourish in the valleys and high plateaus between the mountains. Further down on the odd areas of cultivable land are huge orange groves which are laden with fruit at this time. It’s sunny and about 20C every day. It was definitely time for a visit to Spain.

Almond blossom on high plateau

So we booked a week at the Holiday Property Bond site at Alfaix in Almeria in early February 2022. It’s a lovely site about 12 km inland from Mojacar and facing the Sierra Cabrera mountains. The HPB properties are always well-equipped with a full kitchen for those who want to cook. This time we had a studio which was plenty big enough for two. You definitely need a car there.

Gebas and the Sierra Espuña

In winter the nearest airport for Alfaix is Alicante, some 210 km away by the A7 motorway. It seemed a shame to go for only a week and so I checked out the flight times for Jet2 from Leeds, avoiding a 7am flight, and looked at the map. I found the Sierra Espuña Natural Park not far off the A7 between Murcia and Lorca. Booking.com turned up the Hotel La Mariposa (the “Butterfly”) in the village of Gebas on the east side of the park.

Sierra Espuña

La Mariposa was a simple clean hotel run by a Brit Tom and his Peruvian wife who also do adventure tours in the area. We stayed there three nights and were very well looked after. The nights were quite chilly but our room was well-heated. We had an excellent dinner of imaginative salads and huge portions of fish there for two nights, after looking at the menu via a QR code.

The restaurant at La Mariposa was closed on the third night and Tom sent us 12 km to Abadia a kind of pub restaurant in the nearest town Alhama de Murcia. This was definitely a local place as we had to wait over a drink until 7.30 for the kitchen to open. There we had to use another QR code to get the menu and ate an excellent and cheap meal of salads followed by pork or chicken in sauce with saute potatoes, plus sparkling water. Everyone in Alhama was wearing a mask, even outside in the street.

For our first full day Tom suggested driving to El Berro a village higher up in the mountains. He said it was possible to walk down to Gebas and there would be time for somebody (i.e. Martin) to walk back up to collect the car. After picking up picnic food in El Berro we set off down a pleasant track past some orange trees and through scrub and bushes – it was very dry indeed. We ate our picnic surrounded by rosemary bushes in flower. We came to a field of almond trees which were all in bloom and took what appeared to be the obvious route on the left. After a while the path deteriorated. We reached a house where the owner who did not speak English pointed out a route and kept mentioning a tunnel (tunel in Spanish).

After about twenty minutes from the house we found ourselves in the rambla (dried up river bed) whereas the map showed the path higher up on the opposite side of the river from the house. We realised we had gone wrong and by then it was 3 pm. We went back to the house and I sat on their steps admiring all the oranges on their tree while Martin walked back up to El Berro for the car which he could only drive part of the way down the steep track to the house.

Orange tree near Gebas

Back at La Mariposa we got talking to an Irish couple staying there – they had gone wrong on this walk in exactly the same place. We should have gone round the right hand side of the almond trees where there was a stone irrigation channel.

For day two Tom suggested going to see the remains of the pozos de nieve high up in the sierra at 1300m. Literally meaning “snow pits” these are conical structures covering deep pits which were filled with snow by the locals from the 16th to 18th centuries.

Pozo de nieve (snow pit)

The snow compacted down into ice which they took down to their villages for preserving food. Transporting the ice must have been quite a challenge in this rocky and often steep wooded terrain.

A couple of the pozos have been reconstructed and Martin went down a metal staircase into one of them.

Inside a pozo de nieve

Later that day Martin walked up from Gebas towards El Berro and found the route we should have taken including the tunnel.

Tunnel on the walk from El Berro to Gebas

We went over the mountains again on our way to Alfaix, stopping at the park visitor centre which had excellent displays and was staffed by two very helpful rangers. Martin went on a short walk and saw a fox (the only wild animal we saw on the trip) and found a cafe which was open. We headed straight there and had some excellent tapas for lunch.

Mojacar and Garrucha

Our first full day at Alfaix was rather quiet. It was just nice to eat lunch on our terrace. In the afternoon we drove down to Mojacar which is definitely a rather upmarket tourist area and then along the sea front to Garrucha which is more of a local area. There we watched gypsum being loaded into a large ship by five vehicles which initially looked rather like cranes which dropped their tops to transfer the gypsum from a conveyor belt into the cargo area of the ship. It did not seem to be a very efficient way of loading the ship but this method would prevent the gypsum from being blown about everywhere.

Loading gypsum at Garrucha

For days we saw many gypsum trucks on their way to and fro between their source near Sorbas and the ship.

Cabo de Gata

This is one of our favourite places within an easy day trip from Alfaix. It’s another Natural Park with plenty of strange volcanic rock formations and a headland jutting out into the Mediterranean. You get there from Alfaix by first going southwest on the A7 motorway then driving through a sea of plastic greenhouses. You then cross some small hills by the coast to get to the three sandy beaches in the park past the village of San Jose. Our favourite is Playa Monsul reached by a 7km gravel road. It being a Saturday we wondered if the beach would be busy but there were very few other people there, all locals.

Playa Monsul

It was bright sunshine but with a slightly chilly wind in the more exposed areas. We found a sheltered place to eat our picnic on the beach watching a dog chasing a ball thrown by a girl wearing a bikini. I was still wearing my jacket. We did the short walk to Half Moon Beach which was almost deserted.

There’s a track up to the top of the headland but you can only drive up to it from the other side which is quite a long way round. Instead we took a different route back over the mountains north to Carboneras, a town which does its best to look presentable even though it is dominated by a huge cement works with a tall chimney visible from miles away.

I was curious about the name Cabo de Gata. Cabo is a cape or promontory and gata is the Spanish for a female cat. With the help of google I found that it was originally known as Cabo de Agatas, taking its name from agate which was mined there.

Sierra Cabrera

The HPB site at Alfaix faces the Sierra Cabrera a range of jagged mountains directly between Alfaix and the sea. In our previous visits we had driven up there passing through the pleasant village of Cortijo Grande. The map showed a tarmac road down the other side to the village of Sopalmo and we decided to try to find this route down. The narrow twisty route up took us above the trees with stupendous views.

At the top we found that the road down to the sea was gravel and was not suitable for a rental car. There was another route and better road down to the Alfaix side through the rather curious village of Cortijo Cabrera. This consists of a number of very large houses built in Spanish style very high up on the hillside. It seemed fairly deserted but a few cars were parked there. I wondered if this village had become a white elephant. A quick google search turned up a 5 bedroom, 4 bathroom villa with a large pool and several living rooms and terraces for sale for 475,000 euros.

Lubrin and over the Sierra de Los Filabres

The next day we drove up to Lubrin on the eastern edge of the Sierra de los Filabres. This village is dominated by a large 19th century church which was closed.

View of Lubrin

View of Lubrin

It is a typical Spanish village with houses in little alleyways, plenty of which had geraniums in pots all along the walls.

Geraniums on walls in Lubrin

In contrast to the many deserted small villages we passed, real people, not just tourists or second home owners, appeared to be living in Lubrin. We avoided the tower on a hill above the village which has a rather dicey looking handrail on the path up to it. Apparently there is evidence that Neanderthal man settled in the region some 100,000 years ago.

After Lubrin we drove round the mountains for some way. There was a plateau higher up with plenty of almond trees which were the best we saw.

The best almond tree we found

We achieved our aim which was to drive to the village of Albanchez and then over the Puerto de la Virgen pass which is at 1074m (300m lower than the pozos) then down to the village of Uleila del Campo. Once we were over the pass the route down was easier as it just followed the side of a mountain. We were then on flat agricultural land close to the area where the spaghetti westerns were filmed. It didn’t take long to get back to Alfaix.

Walks

HPB provides a walk pack for all their properties. Before we left home we downloaded the entire pack for Alfaix. It was time to try one of them. We attempted to do a circular walk around the base of a conical hill on the top of which sits the Ermita de la Virgen de la Cabeza. This is a short drive from Alfaix and just south of Antas. The car park was in a large “area recreativa” complete with picnic tables, swings and plenty of shade. It was completely empty.

We set off down the track from there but found the gate closed where we were supposed to turn off past a farmhouse. Not to be thwarted we continue down the main track and took a detour round the edges of a field of spinach and then navigated our way through a number of plastic greenhouses. This led to a track through orange groves which were laden with fruit.

We were back on the route and walked back to the car first along a quiet main road, then a side road up to the area recreativa, all past more orange groves. When we got home we found we had used an earlier version of the walk pack. The later one no longer includes this walk.

Our second walk was more successful. We parked beside a large tower at Playa de Macenas and walked along a track by the sea to the Torre del Piruculo, a round tower perched on a rock by the sea. You can go up some steps on the rock and then climb a metal ladder to go inside the tower. I declined but Martin went up to the top of the tower where there were fine views.

Torre del Piriculo near Mojacar

This was our hottest day. We walked further along the track looking up at a big house perched on top of another conical hill right by the sea. Some plants with tiny pink and yellow flowers were growing by the side of the track. Thanks to my brother-in-law these were identified as campion (the pink one) and medicago marina. I decided to walk back but Martin went further, took a side path up away from the sea to an “observatorio” and then a track and path down to Macenas.

View from the Torre del Piriculo

The Macenas Tower was built as a watchtower in the 18th century. There is plenty of parking space near it but little shade and nowhere to sit down unless you own one of the many camper vans parked there.

Macenas Tower

To satisfy our curiosity we drove south on the main road to Carboneras and looked for the other end of the Sierra Cabrera route in Sopalmo but could not see any evidence of it. The main road then goes over the mountains and descends to another beach Playa del Algarobbico which is dominated by a huge unfinished hotel. There is no other habitation there and the hotel did not look any different from when we went there in 2012. Building work had apparently been started in 2003.

How to spoil a beach: building site unchanged since 2012

A lady was singing opera arias on the beach. I have a dim recollection that she was there in 2012.

Practicalities: Travel and Entry to Spain

The flight to Alicante on Jet2 from Leeds takes only 2 hours 15 minutes. Leeds is a very convenient airport for us but, to be frank, it is an embarrassment. Jet2 now have a checkin area of their own which was very efficient but it took the best part of an hour to get to security which is very cramped and has nowhere near enough scanners. There are no jetways for tourism flights and so you have to walk out to the plane at what is the highest airport in England (at 208m elevation) in wind and rain. There are plans for a new terminal but these have been held up by various planning disputes, but even then the plans do not show any jetways.

When we arrived in Alicante (at a jetway), we found a clean, light and airy new airport with plenty of space and food options. Our passports were stamped with a large stamp. We got another similar one when we left Spain. Holders of British passports are now only allowed to spend 90 days in any 180 day period within the EU and Schengen countries, which means an end to long road trips and quite possibly shortening the life of my burgundy passport which is now over half full.

We easily dealt with all the Covid paperwork by uploading our documents to an app on Jet2 which also held our boarding passes. The Spanish authorities checked the pass and scanned its QR code again when we arrived. For our return to the UK we only had to fill in the online passenger locator form as we came back after all the entry restrictions had been removed.

Practicalities: Getting About

We rented a small car from Sixt. The agent told us that we would need an international driving permit to drive in Spain after the end of February, but according to gov.uk and the Spanish embassy website, this only applies to permanent residents, not tourists. Our car was a Corsa, ideal for driving round mountain roads on tarmac. The main roads are good with light traffic except when we got near Alicante on our way home. Finding somewhere to park was never a problem and we did not have to pay to park anywhere.

The road signs are mostly good except perhaps if you want to drive over the Sierra Cabrera. Before we left home we downloaded a map of Spain into our satnav which was very accurate. We bought a detailed hiking map of Sierra Espuña at La Mariposa and took with us some detailed maps of the Alfaix and Mojacar areas bought for our earlier stays there.

Practicalities: Food

The food was very good indeed. We ate very well in the restaurant at La Mariposa in Gebas and had another good meal on our last night in a restaurant by the sea at Mojacar where we were the only customers. The Spanish do eat rather late (lunch is between 1 and 3pm), but for hungry Brits things have improved since our first road trip in Spain in 1973 when we could not find any restaurant serving food before 9pm.

Buying our own food at a Mercadona supermarket was a real treat. The have a big fish counter where the fish are very fresh indeed and larger than the ones in the fish counters in UK supermarkets. We cooked sea bream on two evenings, just adding olive oil, garlic and thyme, and lemons from the trees on the HPB site. The fresh vegetables, salads and fruit were much better than ours, but I suppose they don’t have to travel so far. The choice of ham and deli meat is amazing and we’re also fond of Spanish cheese. There was no problem in making up a picnic lunch. Also, homesick Brits will now find Lidl and Aldi in Spain where they look very similar to their British stores.

Covid and Masks

Almost everyone, except some tourists, was wearing a mask outdoors as well as indoors, unless they were seated at a table. I didn’t see a single person without a mask in our several visits to different Mercadona stores. All the staff at the HPB site were masked and mask-wearing was strictly enforced in the Alicante airport. Most people on the plane wore their masks correctly over their noses and mouths, but not the person sitting next to me on the way back who was also coughing a little. He only put his mask over his nose for about 10 minutes when he was asked to do so. Fortunately I didn’t catch anything from him.

We’ll Surely Go Again

All in all we had a very good holiday. The weather was mostly sunny, but a little chilly high up in the mountains and at night. Everything worked fine except for our attempt to drive over the Sierra Cabrera, going wrong on the El Berro to Gebas walk and the small glitch in our first Alfaix walk when at least we didn’t have to detour a long way. The scenery inland is magnificent and well-worth seeing. The HPB site at Alfaix is beautifully laid out and is in a good location for our interests. There’s definitely a lot more to Spain than beaches. We’ll surely go again.

Picture Gallery for There’s More to Spain than Beaches

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Return to Florida Part 2

This is the second of two posts on our visit to Florida in November – December 2021 written from a Brit’s perspective. It covers what we did while we were there and our return to the UK. The first post on travel to and life at Florida Breeze Villa is here.

A picture gallery for this part is here.

The National Pastime: Shopping

Shopping is truly the national pastime in the USA. Black Friday started online on the Monday before. I don’t understand how any big stores stay in business in the US. As an example, I needed to get some new towels for the house. They came to $111. When I checked out I was informed that I had saved $197. I then got an e-mail from the store with a coupon for $30 off my next purchase.

On Black Friday itself we went to Lakeside Village in Lakeland about 40 minutes from Southern Dunes. This is by no means a village in the British sense but a shopping centre which, unusually for the US, has real streets and shops opening on to the streets. Our trip was really just to look at the huge range of items on sale in the two department stores but Martin bought two pairs of good quality slippers reduced from $30 to $9. There is a nice Greek restaurant Louis Pappas nearby. In contrast to the locals we walked there and ate an excellent meal outside.

I needed some new hiking boots and so another day we went to Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World in Orlando. This is an enormous outdoor shop where you can buy anything connected with outdoor pastimes. A huge display faces you as you enter complete with stuffed bears and a Florida panther.

Inside Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World

I easily found boots to replace the ones I bought there several years ago. We had a quick look round the rest of the store avoiding the large section on guns.

Orlando Premium Outlets is a discount shopping mall across the road from Bass. We paid a quick visit there where I bought some good quality socks from Columbia. They were placed in a strong plastic bag which was far too big for them.

I don’t really need this large plastic bag

Thanksgiving and Christmas – The Holidays

Thanksgiving is officially the start of what is called the “Holidays” in the US. We bought a new Norfolk Island pine which was about 18 inches high and decorated it with just a few baubles and some lights. Plenty of people go to town with decorations on the outside of their houses. Some have tasteful lights but huge inflatable Santas and snowmen are the norm. There was even a 10ft high inflatable Mickey Mouse dressed for Christmas round the corner from us.

No comment!

Most of these inflatables keep collapsing and we watched with interest to see whether they had been inflated again as we drove or walked past. At least the singing inflatables across the road from us were not there any more.

Thanksgiving Dinner

We usually try to do Thanksgiving in a small way. I bought the smallest frozen turkey breast we could find. It weighed 8 lbs. It tasted good. There were no fresh ones and so I didn’t look too hard at what else was in it. Food labelling is actually rather good in the USA although the “serving sizes” are always huge. We had cornbread stuffing, beans and roast sweet potatoes (without any marshmallows with them!). I made some cranberry sauce and planned to try this again for Christmas in the UK if I could find fresh cranberries (I couldn’t).

We don’t eat many sweet things, but dessert at Thanksgiving is always a pie. Walmart do some very good ones and we do like their pecan pie which was only in a large size this year. It claimed to have 8 servings at 520 calories per slice. It lasted us 6 days and had still not reached its best by date.

We ate all of this meal outside after dark, accompanied by some Californian wine. We had total of 15 helpings off the turkey including some for lunch with salad. I threw away the rest which was probably another 4 helpings. It cost just under $18.

Visit to a State Park

The Florida State Parks are little known gems. Some have narrated boat trips where you are almost guaranteed to see alligators. The birds are amazing and you can see manatees in some parks on cold bright days in winter. All the parks have well-documented hiking trails where the vegetation changes with every 5m or so difference in elevation. You rarely meet anybody outside the immediate visitor facilities.

We always try to visit one or two parks when we are in Florida. This time we only managed one little trip, to the rather grandly named Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek Preserve State Park which is just a few miles south of Southern Dunes. I don’t know who Allen David Broussard was, neither does Wikipedia. There is barely a creek there and almost certainly no catfish, but it’s very peaceful and you can walk on sandy trails up and down hills (only little ones) without meeting anyone.

We went there several years ago and did all of the long (5.5 mile) hike which goes up to a viewpoint looking over Lake Wales Ridge. Since then it has become an official state park and a larger notice board has appeared including a bear warning notice.

Bear Warning at Catfish Creek Preserve State Park

Bears in Central Florida?? When you drive south from Southern Dunes on route US27 there is a bear warning sign just as you reach Highlands, the next county. There is a similar sign at the southern end of Highlands on route 27. We always thought it was something of a joke if bears only live in this county in Central Florida. Just before we came back to the UK I looked at the Florida State Parks web page for Highlands Hammock State Park and saw a yellow warning for a “nuisance bear” at the top of the page. It had been trying to help itself to whatever food it could find in the campground. We ate a picnic there two years ago.

Although it is about 40 miles from the coast, there are fragments of shells on the ground in the car park at Catfish Creek. This part of Florida, right in the middle of the peninsula, was once an island.

Shells 40 miles inland at Catfish Creek

A little bright green lizard was sunning itself on the picnic table.

It was 28C this time and we only did a short walk. You are walking mostly on wide trails with soft sand underfoot and so it’s hard going.

Trail at Catfish Creek

The alligator warning sign was still there but the creek and pond had dried up and the alligators must have moved on.

We were unable to identify these little plants.

Anyone know what these plants are?

On the way back we stopped briefly at Lake Marion where there were wonderful cloud reflections in the water.

Cloud reflections on Lake Marion

Papaya at Last

With the aid of a stepladder and a rake Martin picked one of our own papayas early in our stay. We cut it open the day before we left to find it was unripe with the seeds still white. But we couldn’t not eat some papaya this time and so we cheated and bought a small one from Walmart. We ate it all in two days, with one helping accompanied by luxury vanilla ice cream from Publix.

Papaya

Papaya at last

Coping with Covid

Ron DeSantis the Republican governor of Florida believes he is the heir to Trump and wants to be the next President of the United States. In mid-November he signed bills which restrict or ban local governments within Florida from mandating vaccines for employees and ban school districts from mandating masks. Businesses and hospitals which flout this law can now be fined.

However about half the people in any shop we went into were wearing masks and the number of mask wearers increased when Omicron appeared on the horizon. Some stores have turned the air conditioning cooler to keep the air circulating. We even needed sweaters in Walmart.

Omicron and Departure Tests

We were due to leave in the evening of Thursday 9 December. At its usual announcement time of 6.30pm on a Saturday the UK government put out a statement saying that travellers arriving in the UK after 4am on the following Tuesday must have a certified negative Covid test with 48 hours of departure. Later they changed this to 2 days.

We had 4 days to organise this including Sunday. There was nothing more online. Martin phoned British Airways and waited an hour to speak to a lady with an Indian accent who knew less about it than we did. Posts began to appear on various Internet forums by Monday and we did get an e-mail from BA telling us we needed to get this test.

There was no Covid testing site at Tampa airport at that time and after more online research we booked tests for the Wednesday morning at Orlando airport. This required a round trip of 76 miles but they charged what appeared to be a more reasonable price ($69 each) with a wait of less than an hour for the result. We could have got this done at the drug store chains Walgreens or CVS but they were charging $139 each for non-residents with no guarantee on how long you have to wait for the result.

The airport site was run by Advent Health, which is one of the large healthcare providers in Florida, and turned out to be in a shop at one end of the huge terminal. Plenty of people without appointments were milling around with their luggage as they were due to fly on Wednesday night. We did not have to wait long for the test but were concerned that we were not asked for any ID.

Waiting for the result was chaotic as we were among the now larger crowd milling around outside the shop. One of the staff kept coming out with a bunch of certificates and calling out names. There was no check on ID then either. Anybody could have taken our certificates. At least we had the right documents and uploaded them to complete Verifly as soon as we got back to the house.

The flight home was fine, except for a long wait to check in at Tampa. At that time BA only had five flights a week there and consequently very few staff. There was no separate line for people with Verifly and some people appeared to be being turned away. We had three seats for the two of us and slept quite a bit on the plane, after a meal of stodgy pasta and tomato sauce for which the flight attendant was very apologetic. It seemed that this was the only main course loaded by the caterers. We arrived at Gatwick at 7.20 and headed off for breakfast as soon as we could.

Arrival PCR Test

We also needed to do an arrival PCR test which we had booked with Eurofin which is a Which? recommended provider. This was reasonably priced. The address they gave us was an Asda store just south of Croydon. We expected to find the testing site within the store but after having to ask twice, we found it was an 8ft square portacabin at the far side of the car park with just two guys working there.

They checked our passports and the test was done promptly. You are allowed to travel home while waiting for the result including staying overnight. We were told to expect the result the next morning and so after a sandwich lunch by the Devils Dyke went to the hotel we had booked in Angmering. The results (fortunately negative) arrived at 3.30 am and we were on our way home on the Saturday.

As we watched the rapid spread of Omicron we realised how lucky we had been on this trip. We had three wonderful weeks in Florida and didn’t catch Covid in spite of mixing with far more people than we had done since Covid emerged. I have no idea when we will get there again, but it will definitely be something to look forward to.

See Return to Florida Part 1 for Life in Southern Dunes

Picture Gallery for Return to Florida Part 2

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Return to Florida Part 1

This is the first of two blog posts on our stay in Florida in November-December 2021, written from a Brit’s perspective. It covers travel to Florida Breeze Villa and life there. The second post is here.

A picture gallery for this part is here.

We are saddened that so many people have lost loved ones and have had their lives disrupted by Covid. We are fortunate to have not so far contracted the virus but we were unable to visit our Florida house for 21 months until November 2021.

Florida Breeze Villa

We have owned our house in Florida since September 2001. It is on a beautiful golf course development called Southern Dunes which is on US route 27 about 7 miles south of its junction with Interstate 4. It is a typical American house with open plan living area, 4 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, a large double garage and a pool.

Pool at Florida Breeze Villa

Pool at Florida Breeze Villa

We bought the house before it was built and are so glad we chose a premium plot facing south over the golf course and not one of the many other houses where the pool area looks straight out on to the back of another house or a 6-ft wall.

Golf course from pool at Florida Breeze Villa

Golf course from pool at Florida Breeze Villa

It’s a very peaceful location where guests can just relax by the pool or go to the Orlando theme parks or visit some if the beautiful Florida State Parks where you can see alligators and plenty of birds, or just indulge in the national pastime of shopping if only to marvel at the variety of goods on sale.

Deciding to Return to Florida

Covid was just on the horizon when we left the house in Florida on 17 February 2020, not knowing that we would have to wait so long to return. Time passed and vaccinations began to make the Covid situation much better. In September 2021 there were rumours that President Biden would open up the USA to fully vaccinated travellers in November by rescinding Trump’s 20 March 2020 ban on foreigners from entering the US except for specific exceptional circumstances which definitely didn’t include us.

So we took the plunge on 21 September, the last day of a British Airways sale, and bought some round trip tickets from Gatwick to Tampa for 18 November returning on 9 December. There would be no change fee but we accepted that we would have to pay the difference if we changed the dates for travel.

We were really looking forward to eating our meals outside by the pool.

Pool deck at Florida Breeze Villa

Pool deck at Florida Breeze Villa

Covid Test Before Arriving in the USA

The US government was for once much better organised than the UK (although that isn’t very difficult if you follow the current chaos management in Downing St) and gave plenty of notice for paperwork requirements. Instead of true paperwork we used an app called Verifly where you can upload all your documents, including passenger locator form, vaccination confirmation and entry requirements. We had to do a lateral flow test within 3 days of travel supervised by a Zoom call from the provider. Martin found a recommended online provider testingforall which cost £29 each. The whole process was very easy and the kit came very quickly after we ordered it. We just needed to upload a photo of the negative result placed on a unique identification card which came with the kit. The certificate came by e-mail within 20 minutes.

The Flight and Car Rental

The flight itself was OK except for the smallest helpings of food I have ever had on British Airways. A big thanks to our elderly friend Audrey who had given us some of her flapjacks, which are renowned throughout Nidderdale, for the flight. The crew were very strict about mask wearing. The flight was completely full, but after three hours the person in the window seat next to us was taken away by a flight attendant “to see the cabin services director about an earlier conversation” and never came back. We could spread out and had a good view as the plane circled over Tampa Bay before landing.

Our flight was the only foreign one at Tampa and the airport was very quiet. We found our way via 2 driverless trains to the car rental compound. Hertz had mostly been charging £100 for a one-day rental but Martin had found a deal online for less than half that. In fact there were plenty of available cars in the huge Hertz area of the garage. They let you choose your own car within the size you have booked. A very pleasant man on the exit gate checked our licence and rental agreement.

Getting to our Florida Home

Then we found that the traffic at Tampa had got worse than when we were last there in February 2020. We were right in the rush hour and more than once were stopped dead on a 5-lane highway. It got better once we were past Lakeland. The next evidence we saw of the huge growth in Florida was road works making a new and much larger exit to the backroads route we take to the house from Interstate 4.

After a quick visit to Walmart to get some breakfast essentials we were finally at our Florida home. The house had been very well looked after and all was very clean, thanks to Mandy and Tom our property managers.

Eating Breakfast and Watching the Sunrise

With the 5-hour time difference of course we were up early the next day and were eating breakfast by the pool in the dark and watching the sun rise which is one of my favourite occupations in Florida.

Sunrise at Florida Breeze Villa

Sunrise at Florida Breeze Villa

Even in the middle of winter it’s daylight from 6.50 am until 5.50 pm in central Florida. There was a bit of rain on our first three days but it was sunny most days with just the occasional cloud. The average temperature in mid-November is about 25C. One morning it became misty after dawn and steam was coming off the pool.

The Garden

The garden did need some attention. A creeper weed was covering our lemon tree and the small hedge next to it. My Norfolk Island pine Christmas tree was about 8 inches tall when I bought it about 12 years ago. We repotted it and repotted it until we couldn’t find a pot big enough and so planted it outside the pool screen. It was now about 14 ft tall and had 3 trunks, one of which Martin cut down.

Norfolk Island pine - from 8 inches 12 years ago

Norfolk Island pine – from 8 inches 12 years ago

This created a big pile of branches but there is no charge to have your garden waste taken away in Southern Dunes. You just pile it by the kerb on what is called yard waste collection day, but it being the USA there are rules and regulations on how to do this: “Limbs are to be neatly stacked at the curb and can be no longer than 5 feet in length”.

My olive tree had also grown a lot and needed tidying up. As Martin tackled it he was spooked when he got hold of what he thought was a branch which slithered away up the tree. Our Florida wildlife book identified it as a racer snake which is not venomous. It was about 3ft long.

And – there were papayas on two trees. Readers of this blog will know that we have become a little obsessed with growing maradol papayas which can be up to a foot long with a diameter of about 5 inches. One of our trees grew from a seed we planted in 2018 and was now about 18ft tall. The fruits are absolutely delicious, but would any be ripe before we left? And how on earth would we get them down?

Papayas at Florida Breeze Villa

Papayas at Florida Breeze Villa

Climate change seems to be coming to Florida. November is the end of the rainy season and everything is usually very green, but parts of the golf course were brown in spite of being watered regularly by huge sprinklers – they do make sure that everyone knows this is recycled water. We saw more succulents on sale at the garden centre and more front gardens in the houses near us have been taken over succulents and other dry-weather plants. Every house on Southern Dunes has sprinklers installed on a timer and we want to continue with our tropical plants such as ginger and trinette (a kind of schleffera).

Ginger plants and trinettes

Ginger plants and trinettes

There were just a few flowers on one of our hibiscus plants.

Hibiscus flower at Florida Breeze Villa

Hibiscus flower at Florida Breeze Villa

Food Shopping

For the first time since the pandemic began we found ourselves having to go food shopping in person. In this area there are no grocery deliveries like we have in England. There is a Walmart store on route 27 only 12 minutes walk from the house, although almost nobody except a few Brits ever walks there. This store is a classic case of Walmart denuding the centre of the nearest town Haines City where there are plenty of empty shops, and it’s fair to say that Walmart does not have the best of reputations, but you can buy almost anything you want there at very good prices.

There is a huge food section where we always look for our favourite orange juice Florida’s Natural which is distributed all over North America from their processing plant at Lake Wales 15 miles south on route 27. In the last few years there has been a noticeable increase in hormone-free and antibiotic-free meat at Walmart and in other stores. Walmart stocks plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and a good range of non-perishable foods. Brits should beware of the bread which often has 3g of sugar per slice.

We avoid the the “international” section which does have a few items for home-sick Brits. Martin seems to be having a second life operating the self-service checkouts. If you go to a checkout with an associate (the term “assistant” is never used in the USA), they will bag your items, using far too many free plastic bags.

A few years ago an Aldi store opened about a mile away on route 27. This is not so well-stocked as the British ones but they now have a range of European cheeses and deli meat, excellent fresh salmon and a delicious key lime Greek yoghurt – we often end up buying all their stock of this.

Another grocery store nearby is Florida-based Publix which is more upmarket than Walmart and has a wider range of foods, including sparkling water which we drink a lot of. Publix has a second person at each checkout, just to pack your shopping.

There were hardly any empty shelves in any of these stores.

Do-it-yourself and Garden Stores

If you think B&Q is large, just imagine a store at least 5 times that size with every widget you can think of for sale at prices much cheaper than in the UK. This is the chain Lowes which has a store about 4 miles north on route 27. They also have a big garden centre where you can buy anything from a tiny cactus to a 10ft palm tree, again at much cheaper prices than in the UK. We have bought plenty of plants there: hibiscus, azaleas, an olive tree, a papaya tree and bedding plants which are in flower in November.

Papaya and olive trees

Papaya and olive trees

Walking in Southern Dunes

Southern Dunes is a large development but it’s well laid out and appears more spacious because of the golf course which winds between the houses. There are plenty of possibilities for walks. The weather was really warm in the last week and there were some spectacular sunsets, especially with reflections in Lake Joe just inside Southern Dunes.

Sunset over Lake Joe in Southern Dunes

Sunset over Lake Joe in Southern Dunes

We encountered the resident sandhill cranes on our walks around Southern Dunes. These two were engrossed in eating acorns from the holm oaks and didn’t mind us getting close for some photos.

Sandhill cranes on Southern Dunes

Sandhill cranes on Southern Dunes

On another time there was a noisy standoff between two pairs.

Standoff: Sandhill cranes on Southern Dunes

Standoff: Sandhill cranes on Southern Dunes

Years ago we saw a fuzzy ginger-brown chick whose head was less than half-way up its parents’ legs, but we have never seen one since.

Car

We bought a Subaru Forester in Orlando in June 2005. It’s happy to sit in the garage doing nothing when we are not in Florida but it has also served us very well. We set off to Newfoundland in it two days after we got it, driving out along the Trans Labrador Highway into Quebec. We’ve done a 14,000 mile round trip from Florida Breeze Villa to Alaska and Inuvik in the Canadian North-West Territories in it.

At the Arctic Circle June 2007

At the Arctic Circle June 2007

We’ve also driven to Los Angeles and then up the Pacific coast to the Washington state line, returning via Yellowstone National Park, and to the Pacific on another trip to northern Mexico. Our Subaru also serves as a useful second owners’ closet housing more of our personal belongings when we are not at the house.

Picnic in Idaho June 2010

Picnic in Idaho June 2010

Fortunately Martin remembered to disconnect the battery when we left in February 2020. He got the car started and I managed to drive it the 15 miles to Winter Haven airport to collect him after dropping off the car we had rented at Tampa airport. It did not sound well. We managed a couple of visits to local shops before an appointment at 10.45am at Sports Subaru Orlando, some 30 miles away.

We have been there before and always had good service from knowledgeable people. They said it would take about 3 hours to check the car over and replace all the fluids. So we settled down in the comfortable well-spaced armchairs in the spotlessly clean waiting area. There was hardly anybody else there. I read a whole book and finally found out how to select my favourite drink at the complicated coffee machine. There were plenty of individually wrapped biscuits as well. The huge TV was showing a Netflix movie with the sound turned down. The wifi was excellent.

After 3 hours the service manager came in and asked us if we had seen the video. What video? They had made a video while checking out the car and e-mailed it to us. There is no equivalent of the MOT in Florida, but the tyres, battery and wiper blades needed replacing. By then it was 2pm on the day before Thanksgiving which is the major holiday in the USA. They said they needed to get the tyres from somewhere else but could probably do them on that day.

We were quite hungry and they sent us across the road (Orange Blossom Trail which is a major road in Orlando) to an unassuming building called Junior Colombian Burger where we had an excellent lunch on plastic tables. Back at Subaru we settled down to watch a movie. The car was fixed by 4.45pm. The credit card took a big hit but can you imagine any garage in the UK doing all this additional work on Christmas Eve afternoon?