MUSCAT : As a strict vegetarian, having preconceived notions about my maiden international visit to the Gulf, and that too to Oman, wasn't unusual. But they fell flat as the hospitality, culture, architectural grandeur, picturesque landscape, exotic beaches, flora and fauna of the country had the sceptical traveller in me yearning for more.
Oman, which is well-connected to India with direct flights from Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Lucknow and Bengaluru, is home to around five million people -- of whom 45 per cent are foreigners, mainly from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. To me, it seemed like an ideal destination for those seeking a social media detox.
Muscat and its nearby cities of Nizwa, Al Hamra, Bahla and Sur -- all located in northeastern Oman -- offer varied landscapes to watch out for -- whether it is the mountains that surround them or the sea.
You don't really need to pay for roller-coaster rides in Oman as they can very well be experienced while riding cars on mountains -- with some of the steeper slopes providing an adrenaline rush. Activities like camel-riding, dune-bashing and quad-biking at Dunes By Nahada are an added advantage. Mountains in Oman are a delight, especially to cut out the scorching heat.
And if you wish for a romantic royal dine out with a scenic mountain backdrop, then Diana's Point -- named after the late Princess Diana -- situated at the Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort on the Green Mountain, can be a fruitful choice.
Are you a water baby? Well, in that case too, Oman has a lot to offer. There are several exotic beach locations and wadis (more than 3,000 all over the country), where the unique green water tempts you to take a dip. Boating, turtle and dolphin watching at Shangri-La Resorts and Ras Al Jinz are activities not to be missed by travel junkies.
Besides the mountains and sea, what I connected most with in Oman were the grand, world class architectural marvels, especially of the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque and the Royal Opera House, where Indian sitar player and composer Anoushka Shankar performed last year.
The 4.5-km long Al Hoota Cave at the foot of the Jabal Shams mountains, the National Museum showing the nation's heritage, the Al Ala Palace and over 500 forts and castles are a few locations that can be added to your check list.
If you are a foodie and on a hunt for non-vegetarian cuisine, then there are a lot of local Omani dishes with chicken, fish and lamb along with rice that are served on platters. However, be careful while placing an order as people in Oman are very particular about superlative quality and "king size" quantity.
But if you are a vegetarian, you might have to struggle a bit -- though Mumtaz Mahal restaurant in Muscat is popular among vegetarian Indians. Also, most of the restaurants have Indian chefs who are quite capable of dishing out veggie fare; so there's nothing much to worry about. In any case, as per Omani tradition, guests are offered yummy dates and coffee for free at all places.
If you don't end up spending all your money on sightseeing and food, you can go shopping at the Muttrah Souq and various malls in Muscat. Don't miss the dates.
Another interesting place to watch out for is the Amouage factory where perfumes are made from herbs. However, considering Oman's currency rate (approximately Rs 170 for 1 Omani Rial), you definitely should carry a packed wallet.
To enjoy all this in Oman to its fullest, you actually need a good 8-10 days. Otherwise, it could become a bit hectic as I experienced on my five-day tour. All said and done, this tax-free country definitely deserves a one-time check-in.