Cruise ships share the port in Muscat with industrial uses so people are not allowed to walk through the port. Excursion busses meet at the ship and there are free shuttles to take other passengers to the port entrance. MSC Lirica passed out landing cards to passengers in lieu of a visa that would otherwise be required for entry into Oman through that port. This was standard for all of our port stops in Oman as they don’t require visas for cruise ship passengers from some countries where visas are required from other tourists.
There were a few taxi or van tours available at the port. There were not many and these were unwilling to negotiate for a better price than they were asking. There were a lot of taxis and vans just outside the port gates, and the price for these was negotiable. Prices were per vehicle and time at this port rather than per person so the more people who grouped together the less each one had to pay. We got together with 4 other people and got the price down from $50 per hour to $40 so the total cost for a 4 hour tour was just $160, or less than $30 each for the 6 of us. It was in euros, so a little more than dollars, but a whole lot less than if it were in Omani rials since euros are only worth a bit more than dollars, but rials are worth more than double.
First we went to the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. It was enormous. It looked new, but was built in traditional style and quite ornate. Sultan Qaboos reigned from July of 1970 until he died in January of 2020. During that time he built many things for his country including the grand mosque, which is the largest in Oman and was completed in 2001. Using all the different areas it can hold up to 20,000 worshipers.
Conservative clothing is recommended for going anywhere in Oman, but for mosques they are even more particular, especially for women. Our ship’s literature said everyone had to wear long sleeves, but they did let men into the mosque with short sleeves. Not so for women. Long pants (or skirts) were required of everyone, and head scarves for the women. I did have a scarf in my purse just in case I needed it for anything. I hadn’t brought anything with long sleeves though. We hadn’t planned on going inside a mosque, but since we were on a tour with other people we ended up doing so.
Outside of the mosque underneath a sign saying not to sell or rent clothing there was a guy with the trunk of his car full of clothes which he rented for $5 to women so they could enter the mosque. He was one of many. I got a long-sleeved full length coat sort of thing and one of the other women we were with got a scarf as the one she brought didn’t cover enough to meet with approval by the person at the door who checks everyone who enters. If you don’t have proper clothing they won’t let you in. Our dinner companions on the ship took a taxi tour and said their own taxi driver provided clothes for them to wear into the mosque. There were racks of clothes just in front of the entrance where they checked to see if people were dressed properly, but since we passed inspection I did not investigate whether those were for sale or rent.
Some places inside the mosque required the removal of shoes. There were racks of shoe cubbies outside the doorways of these areas to put them in. You don’t necessarily come out the same door you go in, and there are multiple alcoves with shoe racks so it is very important to remember where exactly you left your shoes if you ever want to find them again. We went in 2 such rooms. Large open rooms with no furniture.
There was no furniture anywhere that we saw in the mosque. The second room was far more ornate than the first. We assumed the smaller and plainer room was for the women and the larger and fancier one for the men. It had holy books in little niches along one wall, which people were not allowed to touch. The floor was carpeted, with trails of plastic set over it for the visitors to walk on. It had giant ornate chandeliers in the ceiling.
Restrooms were of the Chinese style squat toilets, but at least these were clean. BYOP though. (Bring your own paper.) The sign for the men’s said restroom, but the women’s sign said ladies ablution place. They have cleansing rituals or ablutions to perform before prayer, but these apply to men as well as women.
The mosque covered a lot of ground, mostly outside and some places had gardens. Unlike many desert countries, water is not scarce in Oman. This mosque also had fountains.
Next we went to an opera house. It cost 9 euro to go inside so we just wandered around the outside for a bit since nobody in our van wanted to pay to go in. There was a guy driving a little cleaning or polishing machine around on the courtyard tile that reminded me of a zamboni in an ice skating rink.
Muscat’s Royal Opera House is the main venue for arts and culture in Oman. It has educational programs as well as performances. It was built on the orders of Sultan Qaboos and holds up to 1,100 people. The opera house complex contains a concert theater, auditorium, formal landscaped gardens, retail market, restaurants and an art center.
We drove past a big beach and then went a few places for photo stops with views of the sea or marinas. Nestled in a little cove we saw a resort called Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort, which we could see only from a distance as we drove by.
Last we went to the sultan’s palace, official residence of the monarch of the Sultanate of Oman. The sultan has fleet of yachts, some of which are big enough to be small cruise ships themselves.
The palace grounds where people were allowed was quite expansive, with views through the gate of a fancy entryway. I’d imagine there are private grounds as well where nobody can see them.
We had planned to walk around the old town and visit the Muttrah souk, a famous shopping bazaar/flea market, but about the time we were leaving the palace it started to rain. Before we got back to town the rain turned into a downpour, the roads into rivers. None of us wanted to walk around in that so we just went back to the port entry where we had found the tour. Someone we talked to later on the ship said they had been at the souk when the rain came and it flooded. They had to walk out in water above their ankles.
There were shuttles waiting by the port entry so we got on without difficulty, but MSC is not very efficient getting people on and off the ship and of course many people returned when the downpour started. It was like a cattle call with way too many people all trying to squeeze under two little shelter tents. Most cruise lines let people in or out in a continuous stream, but MSC only allows a small group at a time on the gangway so it takes quite a long time to get people through the door. Meanwhile water poured between the little tents so if you got stuck standing in the bit of space between them you had a cold shower unless you could maneuver your way out from under the crack through the crowd.
All aboard time was 4:30, with departure scheduled at 5:00. We could see the gangway from our cabin on the ship. Time came and went and the gangway wasn’t lifted. A few lucky people squeaked in past all-aboard time from two HoHo busses with just a couple people each, and the same with a couple port shuttles. One of the officers paced up and down the gangway while talking to someone on the phone – likely about an excursion that hadn’t yet returned. Finally at 5:20, nearly an hour past all-aboard and 20 minutes beyond departure time a busload of people pulled in, a ship’s excursion returning late. Besides watching the late arrivals, from our cabin window we could also see what looked like a couple cruise ships, but they were actually two of the sultan’s yachts.
Not getting left behind if you return late is the biggest benefit of booking shore excursions through the ship. If something goes wrong and you don’t make it back on time the ship waits. Not so for anyone venturing out on their own. There’s a number to call for help if you miss the ship, but financially catching up to it at the next port is all on you. The crew waiting outside hurried the late arrivals onboard and took down their shelter tents, but didn’t pull the gangway. Shortly after another late bus arrived. Perhaps a couple of the farther venturing excursions got stuck somewhere for awhile with impassible roads in the afternoon rain. At about 5:40 a third bus showed up and they finally pulled in the gangway so we were quite late leaving port. That probably cost the ship extra since they stayed nearly an hour past the scheduled departure time.