The best places to spend your money in Muscat

It’s hard to not spend money in Oman. Things here aren’t cheap, but there are definitely some places where your money is better-spent than others. So, without further ado, here are the top places where we will happily part with our hard-earned riyals.

Things to Ingest

Best pizza: Tomato
Expensive, but worth it. Located at the Intercontinental Hotel

Yes, that is real pork on the pizza from Tomato

Best burgers: Park Burger
15% discount for US embassy employees

Best Omani Food: Bait Al Luban

The alleyway to Bait Al Luban

Omani dates and coffee

Best Indian food delivery: Begum’s
phone number for the branch that delivers is +968-9307-4000

Best vegetarian Indian restaurant: Saravana Bhavan
Inexpensive and amazing. the Ruwi branch is the best

Best Japanese food: Tokyo Taro
Located at the Al Falaj Hotel

Best seafood: Turkish House
The grilled shrimp, fried calamari, mixed appetizer and freshly baked bread are fantastic

Enormous grilled shrimp at The Turkish House

Best breakfast sandwich: The Zed at Al Hawas
The spicy version is the best. Good greasy shawarma too

The halal breakfast sandwich that dreams are made of

Best craft cocktails: The Chedi
Bring bug spray if you plan to sit outside

Best cocktails with a view: The Edge
Pool bar at the Crowne Plaza Qurum

Things to Take Home

Bespoke tailor: Western Tailor
Mukesh +968-9637-4537: Inexpensive, high-quality tailoring. You must provide your own fabric. One of the few tailors that is not shy about taking female measurements.

Pork: Duty free in the international arrivals baggage claim
It sounds strange, but it’s true! The pork you can buy elsewhere is extraordinarily overpriced, not to mention freezer burnt.

Frame shop: Ibn Al Farsi Trading Co.
Very inexpensive. Make sure to specify exactly what kind of glass you want and mat width.

Rug shop: Kashmir International
Shah +968-9589-3899: Beautiful rugs and weavings from Kashmir, Afghanistan, and Iran. Shah is extremely knowledgeable and friendly and will happily show you carpets for hours. Lots of beautiful scarves, blankets and other textiles and trinkets as well.

It’s hard to not buy one of everything

Carpets too beautiful to step on

Omani trinkets: Bait Al Zubair gift shop
Lots of good books on Oman, Omani handicrafts, prints, etc.

Things to Do

Best Daymaniyat Island snorkeling company: Daymaniat Shells

Yes, the water really was that color

Best scuba diving operator: EuroDivers

My kind of view!

Best adventure tourism operator: Twenty3Extreme

There you have it! I’m sure there are some I’m forgetting, so I’ll update this list if anything comes to mind.

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Camping in Oman and our camping checklist

Our Masirah Island campsite

Camping in Oman is a unique incredible way to experience the country. Whether you’re falling asleep listening to the waves crash on the sand or watching the sun rise over the rim of the Grand Canyon of Arabia, there are some things that you can only experience if you go camping!

Most visitors to Oman don’t know that it is actually possible to camp in Oman year-round. The winter is the best time to camp at the beaches, and summer is the best time to camp in the mountains.

Sunset over Fins Beach (#1 in the map below)

Dhofar beach sunset

Here’s a map of all our wild campsites in Oman (wild, as in out-in-the-wild-not-formal-grounds, not “Spring Break!!” wild):

Camping here is very easy to do. You can basically camp anywhere that is not private property or military land. You literally drive down a road, find a spot that looks good, pull over and set up your tent. It’s awesome.

Camping under a random tree in Jebel Akhdar

Sand dunes and the sea at the Sugar Dunes

Jebel Shams campsite

If you have lightweight camping gear, you can bring it to Oman in your luggage and then buy whatever else you might need at The Sultan Center in Muscat. Most major stores in Muscat, like Lulu and Carrefour, have camping supplies, but The Sultan Center has the best selection and carries firewood (which can be impossible to find).

Salmah Plateau campsite

I have a comprehensive camping checklist document that I print before each camping trip, and we store most of our camping supplies in two big plastic containers. We go through the containers and make sure everything on the list is there, gather up tents and cots, fill the water bladders, buy food and firewood, and that’s generally it.

Here are the checklists we use:

COOKING

  • Coffee pot + coffee
  • Plates + cooking gear + utensils + cups/mugs + removable handle
  • Bottle opener + corkscrew
  • Aluminum foil
  • Grill glove + hot pads + trivet
  • Cooking utensils (knife, scissors, potato peeler, spatula, serving spoon, wooden spoon, tongs, cutting board)
  • Dish soap + sponge + wash basin
  • Paper towels + cloth towels
  • Salt + pepper + olive oil
  • Water bladders (full, at least 2)
  • Trash bags
  • Wood + charcoal + newspaper
  • Long lighter + matches + chimney starter
  • Cooler + food + ice packs
  • Extra plastic containers + Ziplocs
  • Grill grate + skewers
  • Gas canisters
  • Gas burner + jet boil

SLEEPING

  • Tent
  • Sleeping bags (2)
  • Sleeping mats  or cots(2)
  • Pillows (2)
  • Pack n play + sheet + blankets
  • Dust pan and hand broom

GENERAL

  • Head lamps + flashlight + lanterns
  • Tarp
  • Camp chairs (3)
  • Table
  • Good camera
  • GoPro + accessories
  • Portable charger
  • Speakers
  • M toys and books
  • Towels
  • Hatchet
  • Sunscreen
  • Kindles (3)
  • Clothes + diapers + toiletries
  • Sun shower
  • Oman Off-Road
  • 1st aid kit
  • Trauma kit

MAYBE

  • Hiking backpack
  • Beach tent
  • Plastic beach mat
  • M floaty + swim suits + hat + swim diapers
  • Toilet tent + toilet

IF BRINGING ATHENA

  • Athena bed + food + meds + bowls + toys + e-collar + leash

Obviously, you don’t need to bring this much stuff. But if you follow these lists, you will generally find yourself to be well-prepared for almost any situation with both a dog and a toddler.

Beach camping in Dhofar: one tent for sleeping, one as a beach shelter, plastic bins, plastic beach mat or tarp, and water bladders

A note on toilet facilities while camping: there are NONE. So far we haven’t had to use a toilet tent, but there were some situations when it would have been nice. Your mileage may vary depending on where you are and how many other people are there. Mostly we’ve been lucky because we’ve camped in places when no one else was there. But any time you expect other people to be anywhere nearby, you’ll need a toilet tent. Particularly when you’re beach camping because there are no gullies or bushes to hide in.

Fins Beach campsite (#2 on the map above)

It is possible to go camping during Ramadan. Chances are you’re in a remote place, not in the middle of a village, so music, food and drinks won’t bother anyone. However, keep this in mind when you’re picking your camping spot.

Also: creepy-crawlies. You will find bugs and insects, like scorpions and camel spiders. The latter, while appearing ugly and terrifying, actually eat scorpions and are not poisonous to humans. So don’t kill them! We have yet to come across a scorpion, but almost everyone else who’s gone camping, particularly in the mountains, has seen them, so be careful.

Can you spot the camel spider?

If you have any questions about camping in Oman, please feel free to reach out!

Driving in Oman: rules, rules and more rules

View from the Muscat Expressway on a Friday morning

The best way to experience Oman as a tourist is to rent a car and hit the road. This is a very easy country to drive in, and most of the roads are really well-maintained. However, we have made some mistakes and picked up a few pieces of info along the way that might be helpful for anyone planning to do some driving in Oman.

First, car rentals. There are several car rental companies at the airport and if you want to really explore, make sure you rent a 4WD vehicle. However, make sure you get unlimited mileage. Lots of companies impose a 200 kilometer per day limit, and if you exceed that amount you have to pay out the nose. For example, if you rent a car for seven days, you get 1,400 kilometers. We learned this the hard way. Europcar is one of the few companies that does not have a limit, and you have to book online in advance.

Khor Najd, with its fun twisty crazy road

Second, driving in Muscat. There are a lot of rules/guidelines which you need to always follow, and the consequences can be serious.

Here are the biggies:

  1. NEVER EVER RUN A RED LIGHT. You will have to spend a night in jail. When the light starts flashing green, prepare to stop. (I’m not kidding)
  2. ALWAYS FOLLOW THE SPEED LIMIT. If you don’t know what the speed limit is, follow the speed of traffic. (There are traffic cameras everywhere)
  3. NO ROAD RAGE ALLOWED. No flipping the bird, no hand gestures, no yelling, etc. (The police will get involved and you will go to jail and be deported. Once again, I’m not kidding.)
  4. ALWAYS BE PREPARED FOR ANYONE TO PULL IN FRONT OF YOU.
  5. PRACTICE DEFENSIVE DRIVING.
  6. DO NOT PULL ALL THE WAY UP TO STOP AT A RED LIGHT. This is considered running a red light. You’ll notice that the locals stop a good distance back; follow their lead.

Here are some other helpful guidelines:

  • At traffic circles, those entering the circle need to yield to those already in the circle
  • For most lights with right turns, there is a designated right turn lane and you can turn right even if the light is red
  • If you come to an intersection without lights, drive like you have a stop sign
  • Watch out for maroon and white striped cars: these are student drivers
  • There are speed bumps everywhere
  • Just because there are arrows in a lane pointing in different directions doesn’t mean you can go any of those directions from that lane. It means you can get to lanes from which you can go in those directions from that lane. So for instance if you need to turn right, get in the far right lane.
  • Waze, maps.me and GoogleMaps give turn-by- turn directions here. Maps.me is helpful if you don’t have cell service because you can download the maps in advance.
  • On narrow, twisty mountain roads, honk your horn when you’re going around a turn to warn anyone coming in the other direction

Traffic can be a little more lawless outside of Muscat and away from the traffic cameras. Also, watch out for camels. They do whatever they want, including walk through the middle of the highway. Donkeys and goats also do this, but camels are the most dangerous.

Camels don’t care

Third, I also recommend buying a copy of “Oman Off-Road.” It’s available at Border’s (there’s a shop in just about any mall) or at Al Fair grocery stores. The book costs about 20 OMR ($50) and is definitely worth it if you plan on doing any exploring.

Lastly, if you really want to explore, you need a four wheel drive vehicle, and you need to be comfortable using the four wheel drive capabilities. If you want to drive in the sand you also need to have a gizmo to let air out of your tires down to 20 PSI and also an air compressor to put air back into your tires.

Now, go forth and explore! It’s going to be incredible!

Nate drove down this while I hyperventilated and swore.

The Sugar Dunes are impossible to reach with a 4WD vehicle

Good luck exploring this road in a sedan!

PCS tips from someone who may or may know what they’re doing

Dhaka pack-out: Just a few of the boxes 

 PCS, or permanent change of station, time is upon us! We are leaving in Oman in less than three months. Yikes. We are preparing for our third PCS and, while I am by no means an expert, I have some helpful advice for folks that are PCSing, especially for the first time. This is mostly in chronological order, and I hope it’s helpful!
Make a bucket list and strategize to get it all done. For me this meant that in January I made a list of all our remaining weekends in Oman and started planning what we were doing when. I know it sounds crazy, but I wanted to make sure we could fit it all in! Or maybe you have several big purchases to make, like art, furniture, or carpets. Make a budget and start finding the best places to procure what you’re looking for.

We made sure to find time to go back to Wadi Damm

Start sorting through your stuff several months ahead of time. This way you can sell things of value that you don’t want any more rather than frantically giving them away a few days before your pack-out.

Order the essentials and ship them several weeks before you are scheduled to arrive. Do an Amazon or jet.com box full of Tupperware containers, plastic wrap, aluminum foil, parchment paper, fluffy toilet paper, and whatever else you think you might need. Along these lines, change the address for your Amazon subscribe-and-save well in advance and then your subscribe-and-save items are there waiting for you.

Don’t spend too much time prepping for your pack-out. Yes, you should carefully consider what you want to put in UAB, but that’s about it. Put your UAB in a separate, easy-to-identify location and then let the movers do their thing. In normal circumstances, there’s no need for colored post-its, a careful labeling system, or any of that. Ultimately, all your shit will get packed and it will arrive where it’s supposed to. Unless the boat sinks or something.

Pack your suitcases and then shove them away in a bathroom with a sign on the door telling the movers not to enter. This way you know how much will fit in your luggage and you have all the necessities (for us this means passports, VPN router, my favorite kitchen knife, AppleTV, expensive jewelry, clothes, etc.) all in one place and you know they won’t get packed).

Watching all our stuff get packed up during our very first pack-out in Alexandria

Ship your mattress. I am so glad we did this. Nothing is worse than sleeping on a bad mattress for two years or more.

When you arrive, say “yes” to everything. Even if you’re tired or it seems like something you might not enjoy, do it anyways. Take advantage of every opportunity to meet the community members and learn more about life in your new location. It’ll be exhausting and sometimes challenging, but you never know when you’ll meet your new best friends.

Let the movers unpack the boxes. Put all the leaves in that dining room table and be prepared ahead of time! When things are strewn all around your house and everything is covered in stuff, you are much more likely to put everything away than you would be if it all stayed in the boxes. Also, it is so much easier when the movers take away the boxes and packing materials versus having to do it yourself. Maybe the idea of strangers touching all your stuff makes you uncomfortable, but at least have them unpack anything breakable. Otherwise you can’t document what arrived broken and you won’t be able to submit a claim.

Our kitchen in Dhaka after our HHE was delivered. Believe it or not, we were able to make dinner in our kitchen that night

Our kitchen in Muscat following HHE delivery. This is a great way to make sure everything gets put away as quickly as possible. As someone who likes an organized kitchen, this is hell.

Hi, my name is Kathryn and I have a china/glassware problem.

I hope this was helpful, and it’s time for me to start following my own advice!

Logistics for a trip to Musandam

Along the road to Khasab

We recently got back from a trip to Khasab in the Musandam peninsula. Musandam is separated from the rest of Oman by the UAE and is located right across the Straight of Hormuz from Iran. We found that there are lots of things to consider when planning a trip to Musandam, and here I’m going to lay out all the options!

Note that this information is only for Khasab; there are other destinations in Musandam like Lima and Dibba. We didn’t travel to those places so they’re not mentioned below.

Khasab coastline near Bassa Beach

How to get to Musandam:

  • Driving: We chose to drive because we have a 4WD vehicle and we wanted to explore the mountains and other areas.  Plus we wanted to avoid the added expenses of buying plane tickets for three people and a rental car. Assuming there’s no traffic, the actual driving takes about five and a half hours. The expressway basically goes all the way to Hatta, but make sure you leave Muscat with a full tank of gas. Once you pass the Barka/Rustaq exit there are no more gas stations close to the expressway until you’re practically at the border. The borders can add an extra hour or two, possibly more. We crossed at Hatta and at Sha’am (past Ras Al-Khaimah) and the Sha’am border was, by far, the worse of the two. Hatta was a well-oiled machine and Sha’am was a mess. Friends advised us to “bring a can of bacon bits and let M run amok” on the UAE side in Sha’am.  Luckily it didn’t quite come to that, but I did tell him that if he wanted to start screaming that would be okay.

The practically-empty eight-lane expressway will take you all the way from Muscat to the border

Depending on the route you take, you might see the interesting industrial side of the UAE

  • Flying: The main disadvantage to flying is lack of transportation in Khasab. There are no official rental car companies, like Enterprise, Budget or National in Khasab. However, you might find that you don’t actually even need a car. If you book your activities (diving, mountain “safari,” dhow trip, etc) through a tour operator, they will pick you up at your hotel. While we were there we ran into a German tourist who had planned to fly to Khasab, but wound up taking a bus because Oman Air grounded all the planes that fly the Muscat-Khasab route, all of which are the seemingly ill-fated Boeing 737 MAX 8’s.
  • Ferry: There is a ferry that goes from Shinas to Khasab and back. Shinas is about 2.5-3 hours by car from Muscat and the ferry appears to take 3-5 hours (the times on the website vary so wildly it’s hard to know what’s accurate). You don’t really gain any time by taking the ferry, but you do avoid all the border shenanigans. The main problem with the ferry is that it only runs each route twice a week in the afternoon. Currently the ferry to Khasab only leaves from Shinas on Sundays and Thursdays, and the ferry to Shinas from Khasab only leaves on Tuesdays and Saturdays (current schedule with times here).  The National Ferries Company boats are really nice, and it’s not an uncomfortable way to spend the afternoon, assuming your schedule fits with theirs.

The Khasab harbor

Whether or not to camp in Musandam: All the good camping in Musandam is in the mountains. You could camp at Khor An Najd, but there is no privacy, the beach isn’t nice, and there are no discreet toilet facilities (other than the lagoon). Beach camping could be possible, but you’d be right by the main road. We chose to stay at a guest house which suited our needs just fine. In hindsight, we are particularly glad we didn’t camp because it would have been cold, wet, windy and miserable. And we would have gotten stuck up on the mountain after all the rain that washed out the roads.

How to budget your time: Seeing the fjords and the mountains are the two main must-do’s in Musandam. If you arrive in the morning on Day 1 and leave at night on Day 2, you could fully experience these two things. We spent one day scuba diving, another on a dhow trip, and our last day we went to the Khasab castle and tried to explore the mountains. If you’re flying and you want to go scuba diving, note that you’ll have to stay at least 2 nights because you have to wait 24 hours before you can fly after the last dive. There are both half day and full day dhow trips available, and I’d recommend a full day because you’ll get to see more of the fjords and there will be more time for snorkeling, swimming, etc (assuming the weather isn’t terrible).

Along the mountain road outside Khasab

The fjords of Musandam

Eating in Khasab:There’s a Lulu Hypermarket which is the perfect place to stock up for picnics and lunches on the road. We bought deli meat, peanut butter, and Nutella to supplement our guesthouse breakfasts. Most of the tour operators and guesthouses will take you to a fresh fish store where you pick out your fish and then they’ll drive you to a restaurant that will grill your fish. Novelty aside, this was not the best grilled fish we had in Khasab. Our favorite restaurant was a little Iranian place called Restaurant Wadi Qada. It was expensive (for Khasab, but standard for Muscat) but the owner tells you what’s fresh, the pomegranate juice is amazing, the food is top-notch, and the tea is great. I even liked the halwa, and I don’t usually like halwa. Al Shamaliah Grill Restaurant is another popular restaurant, with a good variety of grilled and Indian dishes. The kid’s meal is chicken nuggets, fries, and a hamburger bun. We combined that with a lemon mint drink, and M was in seventh heaven. Notably, Al Shamaliah will deliver, so if you don’t have a car you can just give them a call! There are a number of other restaurants in Khasab; these are just the ones we went to.

Call the phone numbers at the bottom of the menu for delivery!

Iranian tea at Restaurant Wadi Qada

Iranian halwa is less greasy than Omani halwa

Grilled fish at Wadi Qada

Delightfully empty aisles at the Khasab Lulu

A trip to Musandam might be a lot easier than you’d expect, and it’s definitely a part of Oman that is worth visiting. Hopefully you’ll have better weather than we did!

The Musandam coastline along the road

How to get tickets for the National Ferries Company

The NFC ferry to Masirah Island

We recently returned from a trip to Masirah Island, and the most difficult part of the trip was getting the ferry tickets with the National Ferries Company (NFC). Today I am here to explain exactly how to make a reservation, pay, and, importantly, actually get the ferry tickets with step-by-step instructions so you don’t make the same mistakes we did!

NFC ferries are labeled with the destination on the side

It’s a catamaran ferry!

I will make one caveat: maybe there’s an easier way (and I’m missing something huge). If there is, we are completely unaware of it. However, if you follow these instructions, it should be a relatively painless process.

  1. Email reservation@nfc.om with the ferry dates and times you want, round-trip. Ferry schedules can be found here. Attach copies of the front and back of your vehicle registration license and copies of the passport biodata page for each traveler. Also give them your phone number. They responded to my email quickly, giving us the reservation the following day.
  2. Print a copy of the reservation and go to the office in Muttrah (by the flour factory) to pay. You must pay in advance of the trip.
  3. Now you are ready to drive to the ferry dock, with your payment and reservation confirmation in-hand. When driving to Shannah port, you have to turn right to drive down the long narrow jetty to the pier. Rather than turning right, turn left first to go to the National Ferries Company office to get your actual tickets. This should not take long. [Side note: ferries usually start boarding about 30 minutes before the scheduled departure time and I’ll tell you now that there is not a lot to do at the dock other than take photos and roast in the sun.]
  4. Board the ferry and give your tickets to the NFC employee. Make sure you keep your reservation and payment confirmation papers.
  5. When you are ready to board the ferry to come back from your trip, once again you need to get the actual tickets. On Masirah Island, the NFC office has clear signage and is almost directly across from the ferry dock.

You have to get camels to the island somehow…

Overall, we were really impressed with the NFC ferries. They were good-sized catamaran ferries with separate air-conditioned cabins (with clean bathrooms!) for families and men. M had a blast running around in the cabin with all the little Omani kids. The sun deck is bare-bones, and has no shaded areas and only benches to sit on. And the thin cables under the railing weren’t enough to keep me from worrying about M falling overboard.

The roof deck

I’d definitely rather take the NFC ferry than any of the other options! “Safety first,” indeed.

Some of the other Masirah ferry options available

SAFETY FIRST

You couldn’t pay me enough to get on this boat

 

Tips and Tricks for Wadi Shab

View along the Wadi Shab hiking path

Wadi Shab is, by far, the most popular wadi for tourists to hike when they come to Oman. It’s less than 2 hours from Muscat, there’s a well-marked path, and the first third is basically flat. All of the basic wadi-hike guidelines apply to Wadi Shab: bring water, sunscreen, snacks, and a lifejacket if you plan on getting in the water but can’t swim.

One of the pools you have to swim through to get to the cave

Wadi Shab isn’t complicated, and we’ve hiked it  numerous times, sometimes with M, sometimes without. Some of the trips there have been more successful and/or enjoyable than others, and here are some tips and tricks that will help you make the most out of your Wadi Shab trip excursion!

  • Go to Bimmah Sinkhole first. It’s so close-by you might as well visit, and I always enjoy it, plus it’s free. Some people think it’s a let-down but I think they’re just no fun. If you save it for afterwards you might be too tired or in too much of a hurry to get back to Muscat and you  might not stop.
  • Do not go on a weekend or an Omani holiday. It will be packed.
  • Don’t go right after a lot of rain. The wadi will contain more water than normal and you won’t be able to easily (or safely) get into the cave at the end. Also the water won’t be as clear and blue because of all the extra sediment.

    We hiked Wadi Shab in October 2018 and this area, which is generally mostly dry, was completely flooded.

    Do you see the white bird?

  • Wear shoes that you can wear in the water and on land. I always wear Chacos, but Tevas, Keens, etc all work well too. You do not want to make the trip to the cave in the back barefoot.
  • When the hike turns to the left and you see a long pool full of people relaxing and picnicking, stop hiking. This is basically where the hike ends, and from here you swim and scramble over rocks to get to the cave.
  • Slide over the rocks on your butt when they get slippery. I have seen numerous people fall on the slippery rocks between the pools by the cave. It might look silly, but if you’re already on your butt and you hit a slippery spot, you don’t have too far to go. This is especially  helpful when coming out of the cave and heading back to the main pool.

    The cave with the waterfall at the end of Wadi Shab

    Squeezing out of the tiny narrow opening from the cave

  • Bring at least one large waterproof bag. When you reach the part where you have to start swimming, transfer all valuables and anything else you can’t stand to lose into the waterproof bag and then just stash your backpacks and camel backs.
  • Bring a carrier for children three years old and under. This hike is definitely possible with little kids, and I’ve seen a strong two-year old complete 90% of it on her own. When we take M we always carry him in a pack, and if he wants to hike it, fine, but it’s always good to have the option to easily carry him. If your kids are experienced careful hikers, they’ll have no problems with Wadi Shab.
  • If you’re not a relatively strong swimmer don’t go to the cave without a life jacket. There’s nowhere to rest and you have to tread water the entire time.

Even though I’ve been a number of times, I enjoy Wadi Shab and each time I notice something new. The beauty of Oman never ceases to amaze me!

Time to swim!

More beautiful views along the trail

How to host a holiday meal and not go crazy

2018 Thanksgiving dinner!

In November, as in many previous years, we hosted Thanksgiving. It might be too late, with Christmas being next week, but I feel like at this point I’ve accumulated a quite a bit of knowledge (mostly by making a lot of mistakes) that might be helpful to other people. I’m also going to share my stand-by recipes that I make just about every year.

Without further ado, here are my tips for hosting a holiday meal:

  • Make lots of lists. Make a guest list, a grocery list, a list of the serving dishes and place settings you’ll need, a list of who is bringing what, and a list for every day leading up to the holiday with amounts of time you’ll need for each component of each dish or facet of the meal. For example, set aside time to clean up or set the table. And set aside 15 minutes before the guests arrive to get ready yourself. Don’t forget to factor in time for keeping the kitchen under control, especially if you don’t have a dishwasher or a friend helping you with dishes.

    My to-do list. Things got crossed out and moved around, but mostly I stuck to it.

  • Ask everyone to bring something. If you’re not in the US, your group of friends might have holiday traditions that differ from your own, and ask them to bring whatever their favorite dish for the holiday is. Or, if someone can’t/doesn’t cook, ask them to bring alcohol.

    Our Thanksgiving cohost is an amazing baker, and she offered to make nearly all of the desserts. We wound up with the Thanksgiving dessert selection of my dreams!

  • Ask about dietary restrictions. You don’t want to find out that someone is lactose intolerant or a vegetarian after you’ve planned your menu.
  • Do as much as you can in advance. Go grocery shopping the weekend before, recognizing that you’ll undoubtedly forget a few things and will also need to go to the store the day before. We make cranberry sauce and gravy ahead of time, and I’ll also prep the components for various dishes (i.e. make pie crust, boil the sweet potatoes, or chop the onions and celery for dressing) up to several days in advance. Set the table the day before, decide upon and clear off your serving space, and make labels if needed. This sounds really fiddly, but I’ve found that making a cute little sign to put by the punch bowl eliminates a lot of questions, especially when you have alcoholic and non-alcoholic options. This past Thanksgiving, I surprised even myself and I had several hours to snuggle on the couch with M and watch Netflix’s She-Rah revival on Thanksgiving Day. It was marvelous.
  • Do not turn down help. If someone offers to bring something extra, come over and help set up, or stay and wash dishes, your response should always be, “That would be awesome!”
  • Always serve appetizers and pre-meal drinks. People usually arrive hungry and it’s good to keep everyone busy (and sated) until the meal is served. Usually appetizers are one of the first things that I ask someone else to bring. If you need suggestions, baked brie, antipasta platters, veggie platters and buffalo chicken dip are always popular. This past year we made ginger liquor and served cranberry-ginger punch. It was very popular and tasty.
  • Spatchcock and grill your turkey. This frees up the oven for other things, in addition to giving the turkey amazing flavor, and by spatchcocking your turkey, you drastically reduce the cooking time. If you don’t have access to a grill, at least spatchcock your bird. Remember that the turkey needs to rest for at least 30 minutes and you shouldn’t serve it immediately after it’s done cooking.
  • If you know something is going to stress you out, don’t do it! The goal is to share a meal with people you love (or at least like) and to have fun. There’s no reason to do anything you don’t want to do!
  • Not related to hosting, but still important: If you’re not living in the US and you see an ingredient you know you’ll need for a holiday meal, buy it. I spent $15 on a huge bag of frozen cranberries in August and I stock-piled plain canned pumpkin when I saw it in May. The canned pumpkin came in especially handy when it was nowhere to be found in November and I was giving away cans to friends.

    This dressing/stuffing will change your life. I’m not joking. The recipe is below!

Here are our favorite recipes, including some new favorites and others that I’ve been making for nearly a decade:

Appetizers and cocktails

Cranberry ginger punch (made with ginger liqueur): This is our new favorite holiday cocktail. Easy and a good crowd-pleaser
Sweet potato bites with feta: roast the sweet potatoes ahead of time and make the feta filling separately. Then assemble day-of
Baked brie: There are many schools of thought on baked brie, but I think this one is the best. A good friend who is the ultimate host introduced me to it and it’s awesome. Roll the puff pastry very thinly so it bakes evenly and quickly. Make sure the slits don’t go too far down the sides or your cheese will leak out
Bacon-wrapped dates: Lightly cook bacon in the pan, so it’s about half-cooked. Slice the dates, remove the pits, and stuff them with blue cheese. Wrap each date with half a slice of bacon, securing it with a toothpick. Bake at 400 degrees F for 10-15 minutes, or until the bacon is crispy and the cheese is warm.
Buffalo chicken dip: An easy crowd-pleaser; serve with celery and sliced baguette

Dinner

Bacon-shallot gravy: I’m not a gravy person and I could literally drink this
The best stuffing ever: DO NOT skip the sausage
Brined turkey: I’ve tried a number of brine recipes and this is by far the best. You can actually taste the flavor of the brine in the turkey. If I’m spatchcocking the turkey, I leave it in the brine for 24 hours. If I break down the turkey, then I do 12-15 hours. I’ve never done the whole herbed butter thing
Goat cheese mashed potatoes: I don’t know who actually has time to use a food mill.  Not me. Regardless, this goes well with turkey and also beef and lamb

Dessert

Black-bottom oatmeal pie: Like pecan pie, but better, frankly
Pumpkin pie: This recipe is my favorite for pumpkin pie, hands-down

There are other tips/tricks and recipes that I’m probably forgetting, so please consider this to be a “living” blog post, and feel free to share your own suggestions!

Tips for visiting the Salmah Plateau

The setting sun behind the Salmah Plateau, from Fins Beach

There’s a lot to do between Muscat and Sur: Wadi Shab, Bimmah Sinkhole, Wadi al Arbaeen,  and Fins Beach, just to name a few favorites. The Salmah Plateau is  easily over-looked for those low-lying and easily accessible attractions, but everywhere you look, there it is, in the distance. It’s a beautiful, desolate area in the Eastern Hajar mountains, with barren vistas spanning for miles. The plateau is dotted with beehive tombs and herds of camels, and you will come across some small villages and goat herders, but that’s pretty much it.

The Salmah Plateau in the setting sun

I can see for miles and miles…

We recently had a five-day holiday weekend, and we wanted to go camping and escape the crowds. With the sheer size of the plateau and its relative inaccessibility (compared to someplace like Fins Beach), we decided to spend the night amongst the beehive tombs at 1,500 meters above sea level.

The view of the sunset from our campsite

It was an incredible journey and something I’d highly recommend for anyone who wants to truly venture off the beaten path and experience Oman at its best. It’s also a surprisingly short drive: only about 90 minutes to the first turn-off to go up the plateau and then another 1-2 hours to the tombs, depending on how much you stop.

Dirt roads, sunshine and mountains

While planning your trip to the Salmah Plateau, here are some things to think about:

  • Only 4WD vehicles can make the trip. On our way up we passed a vehicle coming the other direction, and they stopped and told us their rented little AWD Mazda was unable to make the ascent. You need a vehicle with some power (and good brakes).
  • It gets cold at night. I think it probably got down to 15C while we were there, if not colder.
  • Bring snacks and water for the people who live on the plateau. We passed an old shepherd who asked for food, not to mention countless children and other villagers. Next time we’ll keep water bottles, a bag of dates, candy, and snack packs of Oman chips in the car.
  • Download a map that you can use on the plateau ahead of time. There is no cell reception on the plateau. I recommend maps.me but with some serious reservations (more on that in my next post).
  • Fill up on gas by Bimmah Sinkhole. There are no gas stations on the plateau.
  • Bring a buddy in another vehicle and walkie-talkies. We joked about needing walkie-talkies, but it turns out they actually would have been really helpful. It’s also good to have people in another vehicle in case something happens to one of the cars.
  • Take road at the Fins exit on the Muscat-Sur highway to go up the mountain. There is another exit a few miles down the highway that also goes up to the plateau, but it is paved and incredibly steep which makes it less-than-idea for the ascent.

Because any real Oman adventure has to include camels

It would be possible to take a day-trip up to the Salmah Plateau, but I would recommend camping and staying the night. Watching the sunset up there is a magical experience, and you do not want to drive down from the plateau at night. We lucked out and found an amazing camping spot that already had some cleared areas for our tents and a fire pit. You will need to make sure you bring all your own firewood, food, and water, plus cots or thick mats for your sleeping bags.

Next up: what we did, what we saw, and what went wrong!

Camping in Dhofar (and Oman beach camping notes)

Our campsite at a random beach in Northern Dhofar before we cleaned up all the trash

For our second night of camping on our Salalah road trip, I had pre-selected a spot that another blog said was nice, but we would have arrived later than we would have liked to have time to set up camp and make dinner. Instead we drove to a beach that looked promising and not too windy, let the air out of the tires to 15 PSI, and kept driving until we found a good spot.

Once again, Nate got started on the fire while I set up the tents and M buried his plastic dinosaurs in the sand. One of those dinos is still buried, and luckily M is too young to care or realize that it’s gone forever.

The tide when out and a patch of pink shells appeared

The temperature on the beach was perfect, and I actually had to wear long sleeves and sleep inside my sleeping bag. There’s nothing like eating a yummy campfire meal and watching the sunset over the ocean, and then falling asleep with a gentle breeze to the sound of waves on the shore.

It was cold enough that I actually had to sleep inside my sleeping bag!

We’re not beach camping experts by any stretch of the imagination, but we have some wisdom to pass on to others planning to go beach camping in Oman. Here are some of our tips:

  • Bring a table. We also bring plastic bins, one for cooking gear, one for other stuff, and they also function as tables. There are no picnic tables here.
  • Buy firewood ahead of time. You can buy it reliably at the Sultan Center in Muscat (one bundle costs 2.500 OMR), and apparently at the OmanOil on the freeway by Quriyat. Do not plan on being able to find firewood or kindling at your campsite.

Beach sunset and the campfire

  • Bring an axe or hatchet to split your firewood. In the absence of an axe/hatchet, bring some fire starter.
  • Bring garbage bags. We always try to leave the campsite cleaner than when we arrived, and unfortunately in Oman you’ll find a lot of plastic garbage on almost every beach.
  • Bring a tarp or mat to put on the ground. You’ll want someplace where you can set things and they won’t get covered in sand. You can buy one of those large plastic mats at Lulu for less than 2 OMR.
  • Be prepared for late-night parties. The As Sifah beach is notorious for this. People will go to bed around 10 pm and then around 2 am the partiers will show up, playing music and making lots of noise until the sun comes up. We prefer to camp in difficult-to-access or off-the-beaten path areas for this reason.

Essential beach camping gear: beach tent + sleeping tent, plastic mat, plastic bins, cooler and water bladders

  • Embrace the sand. You’ll never get rid of all of it. It’s impossible. We keep a towel inside the tent by the door so we can wipe off our feet, but when we get home everything is still covered in sand.
  • Bring a beach tent. If it gets hot, you’ll be grateful for the shade, and if it’s windy, this is where you can prepare and eat sand-free meals.
  • Close your tent zipper fully, with both the zippers pulled up as high as they will go together (rather than pulling the two zippers together along the bottom of the tent). You don’t want scorpions in your tent!

Pork sausage and potatoes for breakfast

  • Don’t plan on finding ice anywhere after you leave Muscat. We bring a cooler with ice packs and we freeze what we can to help keep everything else cold. There is ice at the convenience store/gas station next to the freeway right by the Bimmah Sink Hole exit, and that is the only place I have ever seen ice.

Do you have any other beach camping tips? Let me know!