I am writing the final part of our trip blog in the car, the last stretch of driving. It is the longest drive, five hours, with the UAE-Saudi border to be crossed too. Foolishly, we have let the iPad battery die down so we now face a nail-biting wait for it to charge up using the car’s USB port. I’m not sure how many more renditions of Tom’s made-up stories about Bertie the mountain bear and Terry the tickly shark I can take!
Back to the trip though…
Muscat was a lovely surprise. I don’t know what we were expecting exactly, maybe we are just used to Middle Eastern cities where speeding cars, shiny skyscrapers, souks, mosques and malls all jostle for space. I actually love these cities and their contrasts, so it’s not a slight against them, but in Muscat everything felt very pretty and relaxed. Muscat’s buildings are almost exclusively white or shades of sand, most of the modern buildings have elements of traditional Arab architecture and the tallest building is only around eight stories high. Everywhere you look there is a view of the sparkling sea or the mountains which surround the various parts of the city and there are trees and green areas everywhere.We spent some time just enjoying the hotel pool and were realistic about how much sightseeing two toddlers could be expected to enjoy. This proved sensible, as a quick stroll through the souk almost resulted in several arrests for shoplifting: Eirlys happily took all the toy camels offered to her by stall holders (the sneaky buggers) and kept picking up souvenirs from shop fronts! We strolled along the corniche, visited a great fort looking out over the harbour, checked out the Royal Opera House and went for lunch at a lovely place near the sea front. We also stopped to share sweets with a little Omani girl who Arthur made friends with while we were admiring a view. He has turned in to one of those children who asks everyone their names and then gives his name, age, name of his class teacher, favourite TV programmes… It sounds cute and it is ok when he just talks to other children but he is the same with everyone. Basically, he is one of those kids who wander over when you are trying to relax in the hotel pool and you wish would piss off and leave you alone!After two nights in Muscat (Crowne Plaza Hotel, which was fab and even had a guest’s drink reception while we were there, free drinks –yes please!) we headed off on the mountain road towards Al Ain, UAE. We had decided to make our main stop of the journey at the Bahla Fort. The trusty Lonely Planet said that it was a UNESCO World Heritage Site that had recently been restored. Really glad we picked this as our stop. It was fantastic! It has been restored beautifully and we all had a wonderful time exploring the corridors and getting lost in the maze of rooms. There is not much information anywhere, which adds to the authentic feel of the place in a way, but if you did want to know more then they have a website. Arthur hadn’t wanted to go to the ‘boring fort’ but was so amazed by it he turned into a mini Indiana Jones and started being an ‘adventurer explorer’ and leading us around, shining an imaginary torch around corners. We even found bats in one room to the children’s delight.
We carried on along the road to Al Ain, watching the landscape change from mountains and impressive rock formations back to sand dunes. Arthur and Eirlys slept for most of this stretch and Eirlys was still asleep when we carried her from the car. We entered the lobby to find it heaving and a queue for check in. I stood with the still sleeping Eirlys in my arms and she suddenly wet herself all down me, dripping on to the marble floor. Great! How do people manage to arrive at hotels looking so glamorous and put together?!
Al Ain was a brilliant stop, despite the hotel being absolutely full to bursting with weekend guests. We got up early and headed straight for Al Ain Zoo. This was magical! They have a reputable conservation programme and we were so impressed by the large, beautiful enclosures and the general set up of the zoo. The family favourite had to be the two white rhino. Happily grazing and snoozing the pair looked perfectly content in the African enclosure, which was so big we couldn’t see most of the animals. It was bloody hot though and we were glad we had arrived early! Eirlys has skin to rival Snow White and she had turned a shocking shade of pink under her factor 50 and sun hat. The rest of us were sweating and starting to smell worse than the rhinos. Time for the next thing on the itinerary!We drove on up the road to Jebel Hafeet, a mountain with a splendid view of the desert beyond. It was a bit cooler at the top but we were all ready for lunch and some decent AC so back to the hotel it was.Once the hottest part of the day (42° in the sun) was out of the way weventured back out to try and find the Al Ain Oasis. Another UNESCO heritage site, I was looking forward to a nice stroll in the shade amongst the palm trees with perhaps a nice cup of coffee and some dates. Obviously, it didn’t go quite according to plan. First off, Google maps sent us to a bus station and then told us to walk. Walk where you daft thing?! Tom blamed this on me and said I looked it up and so should know what the sodding gate looked like. Then we found a gate into the oasis, but it turned out to be the wrong gate, which we only figured out after a good half an hour walking around in the still sweaty heat. Back to the car again! Once we got into the oasis itself, it was gorgeous. Thousands of palm trees all planted to demonstrate the ancient falaj irrigation technique, with wonderfully kept walkways between. Arthur and Eirlys loved looking behind the gates and exploring the palm groves. There was also an excellent information centre (which impressed with it’s dynamic sound and light show) and a lovely garden walk showing all the different trees which grow in the area, from frankincense to papaya. A really fabulous afternoon.We left Al Ain early the next morning, after a quick splash in the pool again, to hit the road back to Jebel Dhanna. It was a fairly long drive but we made good time and pulled into Abu Dhabi for lunch, reaching Jebel Dhanna just after 3pm. This was the resort we first stayed in, except we were in a two room suite instead of a beach chalet, and it was just as relaxing as our first stop. Tom and I took turns playing with Arthur and Eirlys in the pool as we each went for a massage and we made the most of the last proper alcohol we’d be having for a little while! Waking up to the sea view was just perfect for our last morning on holiday. Bliss!
Extra note here: we are currently about one hour away from home and it has not been a good drive. There has been a sandstorm raging across the bloody desert most of the way, Tom is yelling at other road users (having forgotten how genuinely bad driving is here), Arthur and Eirlys are fed up with watching the iPad now and my foot is damp from when we stopped to let Eirlys have a wee and the sandstorm just turned it into a weestorm that blew all over me as I held her up! Nearly home…!