Archive | August 2014

Season of Plenty: Khareef!

During the annual ‘Khareef’ monsoon season, Dhofar’s mountains, valleys, coastlines and interior become rain soaked and shrouded in mist – presenting travellers with an enchanting world of natural greenery, water and blissfully cool temperatures…

Wadi Derbat - SLL
From June through to September every year, the monsoon winds that blow inland over Salalah and the Dhofar coastline cause cool, moisture-laden air from the sea to rise up, and condense into thick fog and constant, light drizzle. The result is an explosion of green as the plants, grasses, trees, shrubbery and natural vegetation in the hills and valleys around Dhofar come to life – so much so that you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re in a tropical jungle in some parts. The streams and springs also come alive with the flow of water.
Khareef is the Arabic term used to describe this natural event. The word refers to the autumn season in which it occurs – but it also means ‘winds of plenty’. The blissfully cool temperatures in Dhofar during the summer months (they remain in the mid to low twenties during monsoon season) are a stark contrast to the rest of the country’s much warmer temperatures at this time of year. The overall sense of being part of a landscape that is bursting with life can have a profound effect on those experiencing it, and Dhofar and Salalah witness a massive influx of travellers over the Khareef season. But what adds even more allure to the idea of spending time in this region, are the fascinating array of cultural-historical and nature experiences on offer for the traveller.

???????????????????????????????
10 Salalah Highlights

1. Museum of the Frankincense Land: This museum provides a fascinating look at the history of Frankincense in Salalah.
2. Marneef Cave: Here, there are interesting cave formations and blowholes next to the sea.
3. Sumahram Old City: Legend has it that Sumharam was the fortress belonging to the Queen of Sheba.
4. The Frankincense Trail: The site includes frankincense trees, Khor Rori and the remains of a caravan oasis, which were all crucial to the medieval incense trade.
5. Nabi Ayoub’s Tomb: A small building encloses this important and revered tomb, which is set into the floor and draped with green silk cloth. (Also known as ‘Job’s Tomb’).
6. Salalah Museum: This small, well-kept museum documents Salalah’s history, as well as its maritime heritage.
7. Beaches: There are dozens of coves and bays to explore along the Dhofar coastline, and many kilometres of unspoilt beach.
8. Wadi Darbat: This is a natural park with majestic views of waterfalls, lakes, mountains, caves, wildlife and lush green vegetation.
9. Khor Rawri: Khor Rawri is one of the most scenic river valleys on the Arabian Peninsula.
10. Ain Homran: This natural spring is a paradise of beautiful greenery, water and rock formations. It is also an excellent spot for bird watching (several species of eagles have been identified here).

Ala Souq: Market Day
This much-loved souq is located in the middle of one of Salalah’s old neighbourhoods, and is famous for its high quality frankincense supplies, and traditional crafts like basketry, leatherwork, pottery, silverware etc. Photographers will love that it is also situated in an area that provides classic examples of Arabic architecture and design.

Frankincense and ‘The Perfume Capital’
Frankincense is a symbol of life for the Dhofari people. Dhofar was a major exporter of frankincense in ancient times, with some of it being traded as far away as China. To this day, Frankincense from Dhofar is prized for its quality. A bag of fine quality frankincense from ‘The Perfume Capital’ as Salalah is referred to, along with the set of paraphernalia used for burning it – Omani frankincense brazier, charcoals and tweezers – make a wonderful (and compact) travel souvenir to take home.

Reason to celebrate: The Salalah Tourism Festival
The Khareef Festival (officially the ‘Salalah Tourism Festival’) celebrates the fantastic, life-giving processes that this part of the world goes through every season. It also celebrates the people, customs, traditions and the remarkable, fascinating lifestyles that have been part of this great natural event since the earliest of times. The festival is held for around thirty days over July and August, and is a cultural extravaganza of folklore, dancing, music, crafts, art, photography, poetry, storytelling, theatre, and much more.

The Majesty of Northern India

It’s been said that the question about India travel is not when and why you do it (every serious traveller must visit some time!), but rather how you’re going to explore the place. And where do you possibly begin? Northern India is a truly majestic place, and a great region to begin…
Independence Day
And in Northern India, New Delhi (the county’s capital) is probably the best place to start. New Delhi as well as the much older and antiquated ‘Old Delhi’ (officially, ‘Delhi’) might be in close proximity to each other, but there is an immense contrast between the two. The narrow streets and outlying areas of Old Delhi are filled with history and fantastic relics of the past (forts, monuments, mosques and artworks) – all left behind by the Mughal rulers that once occupied the city. The much more modern New Delhi is a city of beautifully landscaped gardens, wide streets, and trendy cafes, restaurants and malls. Both are worth visiting, and the two provide a fitting introduction to the truly huge variety of life that defines this spectacular country.

‘Northern India’
For the first time traveller, the ‘northern parts of India’ could do well as a description of the area. But the official geographic definitions of Northern India are more technical.
The Government of India defines the North India Cultural Zone as including the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, as well as the Union Territory of Chandigarh.
Then there is an overlapping neighbouring region, called the North Central India Cultural Zone that includes Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Bihar and Delhi. The state of Bihar is also included in the East India Cultural Zone; and Rajasthan in the West India Cultural Zone – both of which form part of Northern India.

After Delhi and New Delhi, many travellers complete the ‘Golden Triangle’ tourist circuit, which includes the best of what Agra (including the Taj Mahal) and Jaipur have to offer. Trips typically last about a week. But in Northern India, a literal lifetime of experiences and adventures await. Here are some of the more popular ones.

1. Golden Temple: Amritsar is one of the largest cities of the Punjab state in India, and home to the exquisite Golden Temple – the spiritual capital of the Sikhs.
2. Varanasi: Located on the banks of Ganga River in the Uttar Pradesh region, Varanasi is perhaps the oldest living city in the world and a famous Hindu pilgrimage centre.
3. Agra Red Fort: Originally built in 1565 as a military establishment, this massive fort is two-and-a-half kilometres long and entirely encompassed by a moat and 20 foot high wall.
qutb-minar-381369
4. Qutub Minar: At just over 72 metres in height, this is the tallest stone tower in India, and one of the most visited spots in Delhi. It is reportedly the first Islamic structure built in India.
5. Trekking in Ladakh: Located in the Jammu and Kashmir state in the extreme north of India, Ladakh is one of the least populated districts in India. It is nestled high in the Himalayan Valley, and famed for its adventure trekking. This area also has ample opportunities for mountaineering, river rafting and skiing adventures.
6. Rajasthan Forts and Palaces: Rajasthan is famous for its numerous forts and palaces that are absolute masterpieces of Indian architecture and illustrations of the subliminal culture of Indian royalty and splendour.
7. Valley of flowers: This national park lies in the Zanskar range of the Himalayas, and is famous for its meadows of endemic alpine flowers and rare and endangered animals. Permits are required for entry, and no overnight visits are allowed.
8. Dharamshala: This fascinating place in the Kangra Valley (Himachal Pradesh State) is surrounded by dense coniferous forest. ‘Upper’ Dharamashala is an especially popular hang-out for foreigners and students of Buddhism (the Tibetan Buddhist roots of Dharamsala stretch back to the 8th century).
9. Jaipur: Jaipur is the largest city in Rajasthan and was built in the 18th century by Sawai Jai Singh as India’s first planned city. It is also called the Pink City in reference to its distinctly coloured buildings, which were originally painted this colour to imitate the red sandstone architecture of Mughal cities.
10. Ranthambore National Park: This Rajasthan park supports a diverse range of flora and fauna, including around 30 tigers. It is very popular (sometimes overcrowded) due to its proximity to Delhi and the fact that the tigers are easy to spot here.

Cultural Capital of the World
Northern India is a highly concentrated mixing pot of great cultures. The traveller to these lands comes face to face with a truly massive and glorious array of art, design, architecture, dress, cuisine, customs, languages, lifestyles and history. To call this place the cultural capital of world is no overstatement.
It is also a concentration point for the world’s great religious cultures. The region encompasses several of the holiest pilgrimage centres of Hinduism, the most sacred destinations of Buddhism, the most important pilgrimage points of Sikhism, and several highly regarded destinations in Sufi Islam. The largest Hindu temple in India, Akshardham Temple; the largest Buddhist temple in India, Mahabodhi; the largest mosque in India, Jama Masjid; and the largest Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple; are all located in Northern India.

Ganges Boat Tour
Varanasi and the Ganges River Boat Trip
The Ganges is the famous trans-boundary river which has its source in the western Himalayan region in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, and which flows south and east through the eastern plains of Northern India, and eventually into Bangladesh, where it empties into the Bay of Bengal. It is considered the 15th longest river in Asia and a lifeline to millions of people who live along its course. The city of Varanasi has been a cultural centre of Northern India for thousands of years. For travellers, a river trip done on the Varanasi section of the Ganges at dawn or at sundown is an unforgettable experience – and a way to catch a fleeting glimpse of the profound, living spirituality of the people that have existed here for eons.

?????????????????
The Crown of Palaces
In Agra, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, the Taj Mahal – the ‘crown of palaces’ – remains a much-loved site visited and photographed by thousands of travellers every week. The Taj was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died while giving birth to their 14th child in 1631. The building was constructed using materials from all over India and Asia and over 1 000 elephants were used to transport the materials needed to build it. The translucent white marble was brought from Makrana, Rajasthan, the jasper from Punjab, and the jade and crystal from China. The turquoise was imported from Tibet and the lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, while the sapphire came from Sri Lanka and the carnelian from Arabia. In all, twenty eight types of precious and semi-precious stones were inlaid into the white marble. The Taj was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. To many, the Taj remains the most beautiful building in the world and ‘the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage,’ according to UNESCO.

Muscat’s Big Bus Tour

big bus

(Image Courtesy: Big Bus Tour Facebook)

In the modern day world of transport where ‘faster, more powerful, and more efficient’ seem to be the ultimate ideal, it is reassuring to know that the good old trusty bus – especially the traditional double-decker bus – is still the most satisfying and enriching way to explore a city…
Muscat’s Big Bus Tour is a remarkable example of this. The Big Bus open-top tour puts its passengers in touch with Muscat like no other mode of transport could. For anyone that wants to explore the city, and wants a good overview of the city’s best features and landmarks, then a Big Bus Tour is absolutely essential. While buses are traditional modes of transport, the Big Bus experience is very modern. Passengers receive fun, informative commentary throughout the journey that details Muscat’s fascinating history, and highlights the city’s landmarks, noteworthy buildings, and all the attractions that travellers might find interesting. Passengers are also given an insight into the Sultanate of Oman’s rich culture and traditions. Earphones are provided for commentary in English, Arabic, French, German, Italian or Spanish.

The Big Bus fleet was designed with Muscat’s warm climate in mind. The front section of each bus has an enclosed sun canopy; and the rear end is completely open for those wishing to enjoy the weather and a traditional open top, wind-in-your-hair style journey. But the best part of the tour is that passengers can hop-on and hop-off at each stopover point at their leisure. There are ten stops or ‘stations’ – and you can spend as long or short as you like exploring each point, with no need to stick to a pre-determined schedule. Every passenger is also provided with a full-colour route map with details of what to see and do at each point.

The Route: What to See and Do

Mutrah Souq, Station 1: Mutrah Souq is one of the oldest markets in the Arabian World. It is easy to lose yourself here in the charm and ambiance of the little shops and market stores selling hundreds of Omani treasures – from the most practical household goods, to the most extravagant luxuries. This is the start of the route, and the place where you’ll eventually return at the end of the journey.

Churches and Temples, Station 2: Here, passengers can visit the Sri Krishna Temple, Saints Peter & Paul Catholic Church, and the Protestant Church in Oman.

Hay As Saruj, Station 3: The Hay As Saruj stop is near the beautiful Royal Opera House Muscat – Oman’s premier venue for musical arts and culture. Hay As Saruj is a nice stop-off to relax, rest and ‘hang out’ for a while, as there are many shops and restaurants in the vicinity. The sandy beach of Al Shatti is also close by. It is excellent for long walks and safe swimming.

Shatti, Station 4: At the Shatti stopover, passengers disembark at the promenade along the Al Shatti beach. The sandy beach is the perfect place to swim in the warm waters of the Gulf of Oman, or relax in the shade of the palm trees and beach huts. Behind the beach are sections of the Al Qurum Mangrove Reserve. There are also some popular cafes and restaurants here.

Al Qurum National Park, Station 5: Al Qurum Natural Park is the largest park in Muscat. The park contains a boating lake and fountain, ‘Waterfall Hill’, the Sultan Qaboos Rose Garden, and meandering pathways that weave around the park’s floral gardens. There are lots of grassy areas here to sit down and relax on.

Central Business District, Station 6: Here passengers can explore parts of Ruwi, which is the bustling city centre of Muscat. The Muscat Clock Tower, which is the oldest monument in ‘modern Oman, is also here. It was created as a symbol of the Sultanate’s commitment to modernisation.

Parliament, Station 7: Oman’s new parliament buildings, locally known as Majlis Oman, house the council of Oman, the state council, the consultation council and common facilities. The gigantic 64 metre high clock tower is an icon of the buildings. The five-star Al Bustan Palace hotel is also just down the road.

Marina Views, Station 8: This stop is at an elevated lookout point on the coastal road. From here, there are spectacular views of the clear blue waters of the Gulf of Oman. Down below, there are the charter boats and yachts of the Marina Bandar Al Rowdha, and a small, rocky island about 500 metres off-shore that tourists often refer to as ‘Cat Island’. Viewed from a certain angle, it supposedly looks like a cat.

Al Alam Palace, Station 9: Al Alam Royal Palace is the grand ceremonial palace of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said. Visitors are not allowed inside the palace, but they can get a good view of the building’s beautiful, bold architecture from the entrance gates. The exquisite Al Khor Mosque is also here, as well as the sixteenth century Al Mirani and Al Jalali forts. This is a good viewpoint for the towering Al Jazirah Island, just off-shore.

Mutrah Corniche, Station 10: The Mutrah Corniche stretches three kilometres along the edge of Muscat’s harbour port. There are gardens, fountains and sculpture works dotted all along the cornice, and a fruit and vegetable market at the northern end. At the dhow port and fish market, Omani fishermen can be seen unloading their catches.

Even more of Muscat?
As an added bonus, from November to May, Big Bus Tour passengers can do a free Heritage Walk tour that leaves at 3pm daily from the Al Alam Royal Palace (Station 9). The tour explores the charm of old Muscat – and takes you to ancient forts, the Al Alam Royal Palace, a concealed harbour, museums, a Persian Style Mosque, and the Royal Court. Also, between November and May, there is a free shuttle service to the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque from the Mutrah Souq (Station 1) or Hay As Saruj (Station 3). This is the largest mosque in Oman, which can accommodate up to 20 000 worshippers. It is an exquisite work of art and architecture, and absolutely worth seeing.

For more information about Big Bus Tours in Muscat visit http://www.bigbustours.com

Maldives: Indian Ocean Paradise

The tropical island paradise of the Maldives really does represent the most conventional of travel clichés: Powder white sands, palm trees swaying in the tradewind breeze, turquoise blue sea, coral reefs filled with colourful fish, and days spent lazing around the beach and island lodge sipping coconut juice cocktails – watching island life go by at its own, gentle pace

1

Paging through picture-perfect travel guides and brochures of the place, you might even think it could all be too good to be true. This place really is a paradise!
The Maldives is an archipelago nation of 1,190 coral islands in the Indian Ocean’s Laccadive Sea. They begin around 400 kilometres south-west of India, and run in a north to south direction for about 750 kilometres. On average, of the 26 atolls that make up the Maldives, each one has approximately 5 to 10 inhabited islands; and about 20 to 60 uninhabited islands.

Interestingly, the Maldives is also the lowest country in the world, with the highest natural point in the entire archipelago being only 2.4 metres. Although in built up areas, of course, the height above sea level is several metres more than this. Tourism is the largest industry in the Maldives. And for a good reason… For first timers to the Maldives, the best way to experience the place is to travel to an inhabited island. As the Maldivian Tourism board points out, it is a typical island custom that everyone finishes their work by late afternoon, takes their daily showers, dresses their children in fresh clothes and goes for a stroll around their island, visiting friends and relatives, and delivering small bowls of fresh, homemade curry, or taking some time to relax at the beach, enjoying the late afternoon sun while the children play around at the shoreline.

It is all a very special part of the Maldives, and for the traveller, something heart-warmingly special to witness and be a part of. You’ll also be able to find locally made handicrafts at most of these islands. There are over 100 different island resorts to choose from in the Maldives, so the traveller is spoilt for choice as to where to stay. There is also a general ‘one island one resort’ rule adhered to by the archipelago’s hospitality establishments, which means that you can have complete privacy, and relax in the knowledge that you and your fellow resort guests will always have the island to yourselves. Although lounging around your island the whole day, or going for regular treatments at your resort spa are perfectly good things to do, there is a lot more to see and do in the Maldives…

Fishing is an essential part of Maldivian culture. Many say that another good way to get to grips with the Maldivian way of life is to head out on a night reef fishing trip. Typically, you and your party will hop in a boat just before sunset, and head off to a local fishing spot to catch what will end up being your delicious grilled fish dinner later that evening, when you return to your island. Most of the time, these fishing trips can be organised by the island resort you’re staying at.

Staying with the theme of water – the Maldives is an absolute paradise for divers. The whole chain of islands has excellent visibility throughout the year – sometimes up to 40 metres and more – as well as warm water. Divers can explore swim-throughs, caverns, shipwrecks, deep drop-offs and wall dives, and overhangs covered with all kinds of colourful marine life and sea creatures. This region of the Indian Ocean is also well known for Whale Sharks, Manta Rays, Dolphins, and Turtles. Add to this literally hundreds of different dives sites, and hundreds of species of fish and marine creatures – as well as the fact that many of the dive sites can be accessed almost effortlessly from your resort – and it is easy to see why many consider the Maldives to be the best dive destination in the world.

Most resorts are well equipped with snorkelling equipment, seakayaks, windsurfers and catamarans for days spent ‘at home’ – and they also often have parasailing, kite-surfing, water-skiing, and jet-skiing experiences available for guests. The Maldives is also a top-notch surf destination, with especially good quality surf to be found from May through to October. There are several well-known surf breaks just offshore from some of the atoll’s hotels, but more out-of-the-way spots can be accessed by specialised surf charter cruises that operate in and around the Maldives atolls.

Of course, Malé is the capital and most populous city in the Republic of Maldives. As a contrast to the hundreds of uninhabited islands in the archipelago, Malé is packed with high rise buildings, businesses, restaurants, tea rooms and coffee cafes – and shops selling home goods and travel artifacts like model Dhonis, which are the traditional wooden fishing vessels of the Maldives. Malé is a good place to base yourself for a short while before heading off into the rest of the archipelago. While you’re here, the fresh produce and food markets, as well as the many markets selling local souvenirs, can be a shopper’s dream, and provide an opportunity to experience more of the Maldivian culture. Malé’s small National Museum and National Art Gallery are both worth a visit. And the Hukuru Miskiiy Mosque, which is the oldest in the country, is also worth seeing (although prior permission needs to be obtained). The mosque dates from 1656 and is well known for its beautiful coral stone construction. The interior is exquisitely finished in fine lacquer work and elaborate woodcarvings. One long wall panel, reportedly carved in the 13th century, commemorates the introduction of Islam to the Maldives.

Oman Air flies five times a week between Muscat – Malé.