For 22 consecutive years, I have celebrated New Year's Eve in a different city/country. To keep the tradition alive for a 23rd year, I made way to the Middle East. It was a bit of a funny choice, since Muslim nations don't celebrate the Gregorian New Year, but it was warm and sunny, and I got to explore two lands where I had never been before.
The first stop was Oman...
Only in the last 50-odd years, under the rule of the former, and beloved, Sultan Qaboos, was Oman's infrastructure and landscape transformed from near-medievalism to modernity. Using oil revenues, schools and hospitals were erected, hundreds of miles of road were paved, a telecommunications network was established, discrimination and slavery were abolished and ports and airports were built.
Qaboos was determined to preserve Oman’s traditional society while incorporating a modern framework. As such, Oman isn't flashy like its Emirati neighbour (I'm looking at you, Dubai). There are no high-rises and it's not in the running for the biggest, tallest, newest, glitziest of anything. In fact, no building in Muscat (the capital) is permitted to be more than 17 stories and all buildings must be white. Residents must obtain special permission to paint their house any other color.
Today, Oman is still a developing nation, but it has a solid infrastructure for tourism and globetrotters are starting to catch on.
Although there are many things to do and see in Oman, I must admit that I was pretty lazy. After a long year, I was craving pure relaxation. The only thing I had any desire to work on was my tan.
I did manage one excursion though, which I highly recommend. On this day trip, the first, and best, stop was Wadi Shab. It was about a 1.5-hour drive from Muscat (I recommend getting there for 8am). If you're lucky, a tribe of wild goats will greet you in the parking lot.
After parking, be sure to use the bathroom, as you'll have a long journey ahead of you (bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer).
Post-pitstop, take a very short boat ride across the river (I'm talking REALLY short, like under three minutes). Unless you're going as part of a pre-arranged tour, the journey will cost you about 1 Omani Rial. The first boat is at 8am and the final one coming back is around 5pm.
The opposite side of the river is where the 45-minute hike begins. Do not listen to anyone who tells you that this is an easy walk. It's definitely more of a moderate hike. You must climb slippery boulders, hop over puddles, navigate uneven surfaces and balance on narrow viaducts. Be sure to wear shoes with good tread (like trainers or hikers).
Once you get to the crystal-clear blue water pools, you'll know it. You won't be able to walk any further. The only way to carry on to the secret waterfall inside a cave is by swimhiking.
Find a spot to stash your gear and get in! The water was surprisingly warm. The first pool was shallow and crowded. The second pool got deeper and the third required strong swimming skills.
At the very end of the third pool, there was a narrow passage, just about big enough for your head to fit through, if you swim sideways.
Once through the slender sea corridor, you end up in a cave with a waterfall. Do not attempt this if you are not a confident swimmer, as you will have to be able to tread water/swim for quite a while. You will not be able to stand once inside the cave and there aren’t many places to hang on. I don't have any pictures from within because I couldn't get my phone out of my dry bag without drowning.
Once you're tired and can't hang on in the cave any longer, do the whole thing in reverse -- swimhike, hike, boat. Allow at least 3 hours for the whole adventure.
*A few tips: Wear your swimsuit as there is nowhere to change; don't have any valuables with you as there is no secure place to store belongings (although Oman is very safe); bring water for the hike, a towel that you don't mind getting dirty, a bag for wet stuff, water shoes (it's very rocky); goggles and a dry bag for your camera/phone.
After Wadi Shab, it was onwards to Fins Beach, which you could probably give a miss. It's pretty much just a pebbly fishing beach.
The last stop on the day trip was the Bimah Sinkhole natural wonder. It was late in the day by the time we arrived, and it was moderately crowded, so we didn't stay long nor swim.
New Year's Eve was rung in at both the Intercontinental and the Crowne Plaza hotels. The Intercontinental offered more of a kid-friendly vibe whilst the Crowne Plaza was a paaartay. There were approximately 600 people, carrying on into the wee hours of the morning!
After Oman, it was on to Bahrain...
The Kingdom of Bahrain (AKA the pearl of the Arabian Gulf) is located in one of the world’s chief oil-producing regions, but only stores small amounts of petroleum itself. Instead, its economy relies on financial, commercial services and communications sectors, as well as tourism. The country’s chief city, port and capital, Manama, is strikingly modern, relaxed and cosmopolitan.
Bahrain was really just a long stopover on my journey. I spent about 28-hours there in total. And it rained for most of that time. To pass the hours, I lunched at a restaurant on Manama's artificial Reef Island and then spent the afternoon shopping at the Gold City, where I decided to treat myself to something sparkly to start the year off right.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:
E-visas are necessary for Americans in both Oman (~$97) and Bahrain (~$25). Brits can visit Oman for up to 14-days without a visa, but do require an e-visa for Bahrain.
In Oman, don’t worry about tipping; it is not customary nor expected. Service charges may be added on to hotel meal bills though.
In both locations, tourists can only drink alcohol in hotels and restaurants with a proper liquor license.
There wasn’t an ‘Omani Cuisine’ as such, but rather an eclectic mix of traditional Middle Eastern fare enhanced with foreign spices from India and East Africa.
Both Muscat and Manama were safe and clean. The people were friendly, but there was no real sense of urgency in either place, so bring your patience with you.
UK plugs are used in both countries.
In Oman, you can use Otaxi to get around. Bahrain has Uber.
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