Insider Journal: Exploring Muscat on Seabourn Ovation's Arabia & Antiquities

Olivia Balsinger

Insider Travel Report - May 30, 2019

The fourth day of our Seabourn Ovation “Arabia & Antiquities” cruise started quite early—the Middle Eastern sun peaked though our curtains just past sunrise and my friend Jonathan and I woke up in the port of Muscat in Oman. From the moment we rolled back the curtains, we knew had sailed far from the stereotypical Arabian deserts.

Indeed, the port of Muscat wasn’t stereotypically glitzy like its neighboring cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Instead, Muscat is understated, allowing nature to show off. The port sits on the edge of the city on the Gulf of Oman, lined on both sides by the arid Hajar mountains and deserts.

Muscat is famed for its intricate souk mazes, fresh seafood, stunning backdrops and that effusive Omani hospitality. We spent the morning getting acquainted with Omanis at the local fish and vegetable market through Seabourn’s “Shopping with the Chef” optional excursion. The market, located at the end of the Corniche, is best to visit in the early morning hours, especially with both an English speaker who understands “market talk” and a local guide who can assist in translations.

Accompanying us was Jes Paskins, executive chef of Seabourn Ovation, who led us around the market, negotiating prices for fish we would actually be cooking onboard. It was a unique way to explore the Muscat food scene, bantering with the Omani fishermen who were flaunting their “catch of the day.” Between giant tuna, stingrays, baby sharks and a massive father shark, our senses were in overdrive in the best possible way. We ended up purchasing enough queen fish, king fish and tuna to feed our ship of 600 passengers.

Next our chef led us through the labyrinth of ceramics, jewelry, and spice scents that make up Muscat’s Mutrah Souq. The Souq is an essential visit for both shoppers and people-watching. One of the oldest shopping centers on the Arabian Peninsula, it is nicknamed “the dark souk,” referring to its especially winding and dim interior.

Bargaining is the language of the souk stalls, though there is less wiggle room with jewelry. Spices such as frankincense, butter-solve wool pashminas and leather are some of the most popular items for purchase. It was here that we bought spices that Jes would be using for meals onboard to give them a certain Arabian kick.

Following our fishy Seabourn excursion, we decided to take a hop on, hop off tour bus around Oman to attempt and include as much as possible in our day-long visit. We first visited the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, which likely comes to mind when picturing quintessential Muscat. Completed in 2001 and commissioned with majestic artwork, the mosque once held the record for the largest Persian carpet in the world. The prayer hall can accommodate up to 20,000 worshippers at once and we were delighted that (in proper conservative dress) we were invited to experience it.

Our hop on, hop off tour bus also took us to a more residential and green area of Muscat as well—home to incredibly extravagant houses and hotel properties, such as the Al Bustan Palace, one of Oman’s iconic Ritz Carlton properties, which overlooks the Sea of Oman. We also stopped at the Royal Opera House, a modern architectural masterpiece famous for its array of performances throughout the year, including that of the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra.

After an eventful day, Jonathan and I felt we had a much better understanding of Muscat’s offerings after our time in port. Our Seabourn Ovation was scheduled to arrive in Salalah, the capital city of southern Oman's Dhofar province, in two days. But first we would sail from the Gulf of Oman into the Arabian Sea—which meant another sea day tomorrow.