Muscat, the jewel in the crown
Muscat is a shy, respectful grand dame, who shows a different side of her character each time you visit.
The old city of Muscat has been the country's capital since 1793, and it is still the palaces, souqs and museums detailing the rich history, that draw thousands of tourists.
But in terms of modern development, Muscat’s crown jewels include the Opera House and Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, along with a growing handful of modern, luxury hotels, which are supplying the increasing demand from Western tourists.
Muscat means “place of anchorage”. It is one of the few natural harbours in Oman, and so the watery docks are a great place to start any tour of the city. Here are some highlights:
· A great day out starts at the fish market on the Corniche, which offers the hustle and bustle of a traditional market. Then visit the Bait al Baranda museum for a historical perspective, and return to the Corniche, where you can walk all the way to Al Alam Palace, which is the ceremonial palace of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos of Oman. Visit the Mutrah souq in the evening.
· Visit the rambling streets of the souq at Mutrah in the evening, and spend time talking to the shopkeepers, who offer wonderful insight into life in Muscat. From beautiful Syrian marquetry boxes to traditional Omani silver khanjars and to pure silk pashminas from Kashmir, you can travel the globe just by walking through the souq. Take in the sounds and smells as well as the sights. Breath in the incense, listen to the music. Although becoming more and more geared towards entertaining tourists, it’s still one of the best souqs I’ve been to.
· If you’d like to do some walking, you can trek from Riyam to Mutrah (path C38) along a historic path that used to serve as the only way to get to Muscat other than by sea. There are some great views over the Gulf of Oman, but remember that the sun sets very quickly so don’t leave too late in the day as the route is quite remote. The walk takes around three hours, depending on whether you have young children with you.
· Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque: A modern beauty with carved stone archways, Swarovski crystal chandeliers, Persian carpets and five minarets representing the five pillars of Islam, the mosque was opened in 2001.
Partly due to modernisation, but partly due to her rich tapestry of proud heritage and history, the city can be visited time and time again and each visit will leave you with contrasting memories.
Coastal life: Watching feasting fish and tracking turtles
The fishing town of Sur is a pretty place to spend some time. With a long sweeping corniche, that provides picturesque views towards a natural cove it’s the perfect place to refuel.
Proud of its dhow building history some of the fishing vessels have been mounted on dry land so you have the opportunity to have a good look around. Hand-made from teak, often without any blue prints, the dhow is a status symbol and a reflection of a rich sea-faring heritage.
We walked up to the spit of land and flagged down a little boat, which ferried people back and forth the waterway. Until recently, when a road bridge was constructed, it was the only way to get across this expanse of water without going all the way round the lagoon. Mubarak, our ferryman, had lived in Sur all his life and gave us a little insight into the development of the town, which is a popular holiday destination for Omanis. He took us to the sand bars in the middle of the lagoon and then back up the water way to the opposite spit of land, where the village of Al Ayjah sits perched on the edge.
Given its remote position, it remains untouched, but the traffic now thunders over the bridge and a major road skims its edges. There is a lighthouse at the mouth of the lagoon, and pretty white low-rise buildings, broken periodically by mosque minarets. In the centre a fort proudly stands, guarded by two cannons, and surrounded by frisky goats that jump on and off parked cars. Remind me not to park where goats’ roam.
In stark contrast to the neat boxy houses we could see from afar, tucked in between were crumbing remnants of old buildings, now home to various livestock, who were not able to appreciate the faded grandeur or ornately carved doors. What I appreciated most was the lack of commercialism. This little hamlet, close enough to Sur to feel part of the modernised world, hadn’t been tempted to put up neon signs or open its doors for a quick dollar. From the trio of watch towers keeping out a beady eye, to the watchful and interested gaze of the residents, Al Ayjah felt like a town proud to have one foot in the past.
We walked back over the bridge, which gave us a super vantage point. While eating lunch, looking across the bay earlier, we had been treated to a show of silver flying fish teasing a rather frustrated looking heron. On top of the bridge we were able to see thousands of tiny fish swaying in its watery swarm, teasing bigger fish that darted and chased the piscatorial waves. The bigger fish leapt and dived with such force, but all they seemed able to do was divide the shoal, which very quickly morphed back together again. A lone heron stood on the bank, with what I hope was a look of bemusement on his face. He wasn’t the only one to fail at feasting on fast food.
Our accommodation for the night was the Turtle Beach Resorts, at Ras al Hadd. Hidden away down a dusty track and situated right on the beach, it is a quaint little place to stay, and the perfect location for trips to see the turtles. The rooms, made to look like barasti huts, are basic, but clean, some with en-suites and air conditioning. There is an evening buffet on the veranda of the dhow restaurant, overlooking a calm bay, and despite being family-friendly, surprisingly peaceful.
The resort arranged nightly trips to a nearby turtle beach in the evenings. We follow a snake of cars, led by a local guide. I had anticipated the excitement of seeing these gentle giants in the wild, but I don’t think I really appreciated how big they are. The one we met, and eventually followed into the sea, was about a metre long. It’s a rather breathtaking sight, especially when you compare it to its six centimetre babies. Madeleine, our eldest daughter was excited to be able to save a baby from being trampled on, and after much persuading that “Goldie”, the baby turtle, was better off with her mother than being kept as a pet, it was gently released into the sea.
Our final adventure was at Wadi ash Shab. Billed as one of the greatest walks in Oman, we were not disappointed. After crossing the wadi in a boat, the walk was easy going, passing several plantations and rock pools. The way gets steeper, and the rocks get bigger. At one point you walk along a ledge in the rock face, difficult but not impossible with children. The finale is, however, not suitable for young children or weak swimmers. At the last rock pool you have to swim 50m to a small gap in the rock face, which you either squeeze through or swim under, reappearing in a small cave with a waterfall flooded with light. It’s a fantastic reward.
The practical bit
What to do:
· Visit the Turtles. There is a conservation centre at Ras Al Jinz.
· Visit the hidden cave at Wadi ash Shab, near Tiwi, off route 17.
Where to stay:
Turtle Beach Resorts is at Ras al Hadd: www.tbroman.com
What to read:
· Oman Trekking by Explorer
· Oman Off-Road by Explorer
Keep you eye out for:
· The tiger rock: on the left side of the road towards Sur just after the Khawr Jirama lagoon.
· The 13th century tomb of Bibi Maryam, 20 minutes outside Sur at the ancient fishing village of Qalhat on route 17.
A bit of trivia:
· Sur was famous for its dhow building in the 19th and 20th centuries, with a heritage spanning 2,000 years. The handicrafts and skills needed to create a boat without drawings have been passed on from generation to generation. The boatyards are open if you want to see how the work is done and there is also a maritime museum so you can get close up to ships of all sizes.
The desert: Swimming from the bottom of the sea upon a dune
Leaving the mountains behind, our scenery changed very suddenly and very dramatically. On top of the mountain we had see fossils of fish and snails, which hinted at an aquatic past. At the foot of the mountain, rock faces at perplexing angles, and varying degrees, crashing into the horizontal sea bed, which was wide and vast. It was strange to image we were driving along what could have been the bottom of the sea once upon a time.
On the way to the town of Ibra we discovered a beautiful ruin, which we were told by a local passer-by was a meeting place. The crumbling mud and stone chips traced out a majlis and water tunnels, as well as a 15m well. Against the backdrop of the mountains it was a stark reminder that all over these peaks man has survived on little more than their wits in remote homesteads that still created a hierarchical community based on order and respect.
After Ibra, the rocky outcrops suddenly gave way to the golden sand dunes of Wahiba, which rolled away for as far as the eye could see. At the village of Al Wasil, we turned right and headed straight for the Sharqiya Sands, and after 11km reached a fenced tented community that was to be our home for two nights.
We arrived at the end of the day and were ushered out of the camp and into a 4x4, which took us to the top of a dune where we watched the orange sun bounce along the dune opposite before pocketing itself into a hideaway, bringing the camp into dusk and then total darkness. Watching the sun dive over a dune is a must-see desert experience. Whether the wind is whipping up a storm, or everything is completely calm, the colours, shapes and lack of sounds make this an unforgettable and magical moment. We were so far from a major town we couldn’t even see any light pollution, exactly as nature intended.
The next day we packed plenty of water and snacks and headed back to the mountains, but not before stopping to see the fort at Al-Mintarib, just a couple of kilometres south of the main highway. It was a great insight into bygone living and architecture, from the cramped jail to the crenulated battlements.
Back on the main road we then turned left climbing towards Wadi Bani Khalid. Each wadi brings with it a different experience. This area is famous for its clear pools, which are so enticing it’s hard not to jump straight in. Brave souls climb the canyons and plummet straight into the hidden depths, which are surprisingly deep. The more timid are content to sit on the rocky ledges and let the tiny fish nibble at their feet, a spa treatment that many would pay for.
There are good facilities, which leave it more like a park than a natural oasis, but follow the water further up the canyon and you’ll find secluded pools and streams, fed from a spring. The route can be slippery, with rocks buffed to a shine from passers-by, but we managed it perfectly with the children. At the top of the wadi is Moqal Cave, which should only be visited with a guide and a torch.
Our final trip of the day was to the village of Bidah, at the mouth of Wadi Bani Khalid, where we climbed to the top of the village for a view down the gorge of date palm farms, a verdant oasis set against the baron rock. We were on the hunt for red bananas, but left unsatiated, we will have to try another day. There is so much to see and explore, the dunes and mountains demand more than one visit. The practical bit What to do:
· Ruined meeting place, about 10km outside of Ibra. Head away from the town on route 23 and the ruins are on your left.
· Fort at Al-Mintarib.
· Wadi Bani Khalid is about 40 mins from Al Wasil. It’s a lovely spot for a picnic, swimming and meandering through the wadi. If you’re planning to swim make sure you dress conservatively and swim in shorts and t-shirt. Where to stay:
The Desert Nights camp 11 km from Al Wasil is a great oasis in the middle of the dunes. The permanent ensuite tents, with electricity and water, really ensure even people who don’t like roughing it will be comfortable. It’s glamping, not camping. The site has 26 tents, a bar and a restaurant. Each evening and at daybreak you can watch the sun dancing along the dunes. There is a full range of extra activities from dune bashing to sightseeing. www.desertnightscamp.com What to read:
· Oman Trekking by Explorer
· Oman Off-Road by Explorer
For more photos please visit our Flickr page by clicking here.
Hunting for hidden villages, deserted hamlets and breathtaking views
With dark thick clouds of deep blue and purple boiling and churning overhead, and spots of rain on the windscreen, the dramatic weather matched the surroundings perfectly.
The nearest edges of the Western Hajar mountains cut through the mist to peak out enticingly as we drove further from the UAE/Oman border. But hidden secrets lay out of sight around each hairpin bend as we climbed higher and higher. Valleys opened up, villages appeared out of nowhere, and new layers of peaks appeared out of the dark silhouettes. At every turn there was something new to see. And the weather did not break – no downpours, just a calm 25C.
This was a stark contrast to our city life. When we left, Dubai was dazzling in sunny 39C, and our focus was soft on the rolling dunes that lead you out of the metropolis. As soon as we reached the border the soft focus lifted to reveal the promise of adventure for those who love to explore.
This was the start of a five day trip that offered peaks, forts, traditional villages and so much more. I find it liberating to pack a car, throw in a couple of children and drive off to explore the horizon. The only things we planned was the accommodation – having young children you need a little security, although we would have managed with a tent and a cooler box.
Day one of our route took us from Dubai to Jebel al Akhdar in the Western Hajar mountains. There is so much you could see and do en route it’s worth stopping overnight and taking an extra day. It’s about a five hour drive plus stops at the border (at Hafit, which took two hours) and for lunch.
Ibri, which has a fort, is a good place to stop for lunch. Jabrin and Bahla are the next sizeable towns, again with forts. They are the starting points for trips to Jebel Shams, Oman’s highest mountain (3,075m). Nizwa, a little further down the road, is well known for its fort and souq. It is Oman’s second biggest tourist destination.
Our aim though was to visit the Jebel al Akhdar hilltop villages on the Saiq Plateau. Although a little off the main tourist train there are a lot of new hotels under development. Unfortunately a new hotel is being built on top of Diana’s lookout, a famous spot visited by the late British Princess of Wales, but the views are still spectacular.
This is a great area for walking, camping and exploring. From the meandering path that takes you through the hill top villages of Al Ayn and Ash Shirayjah, and along the traditional water ways (falaj), to the crumbling deserted villages at Wadi Bani Habib, where nothing remains except a few stones and memories, there is a lot to be discovered. The muted-coloured mountains resemble layers of play dough squashed together, left buckled, coiled and curved by the pressure.
The roads are tarmacked, and even though a 4x4 is required to gain access to the mountain range, the way is easy, although twisty and steep. The route weaves and meanders around the slopes, opening the way to endless exploration. I have spent too little time here – I urge you not to make the same mistake.
In part two we will take a trip to the desert. For more photos, please visit our Flickr page but clicking here. The practical bit Border crossing:
If you’re leaving from Dubai, start early as it’s difficult to judge the traffic at the border crossing. You will need to go through the UAE post for an exit visit and then the Oman post, a little further down the road, for your entry stamp. You will also need to have car insurance for Oman, which can be bought at the border post, or in advance from your regular insurance provider. Safety:
The weather in the mountains is changeable. Flash floods are unpredictable so avoid camping in wadis. There is a police check point at Birkat Al-Mawz, just outside Nizwa. Although you can avoid going off-road, and the tarmacked roads are in good condition, you will not be allowed to pass the checkpoint without a 4x4 car. Where to stay:
Sahab Hotel, Sayh Qutnah, Saiq Playeau: The view from here is worth the visit alone. This small, but spacious hotel, has 27 well appointed rooms, opening onto a fossil garden with a beautiful mountain top swimming pool. We stayed in a two room Rustic suite where the lounge sofa doubles as a bed for the children. The restaurant offers an a la carte menu at lunch time and in the evening there is a buffet. There is also a buffet, with egg and pancake station, at breakfast, which can be enjoyed on the veranda. The staff are welcoming and knowledgeable. www.sahab-hotel.com What to do:
· Walk (route W18b) from the Sahab Hotel. It’s a great walk where you’ll pass villages of mud and stone, clinging tightly to the cliffs, with steps of irrigated terraces spread out below. The path is rocky but pretty easy, and in places you can walk on the falaj (traditional stone water course). We managed the route with a six year old and a four year old, although in places some hand holding was required.
· Visit the cave dwellers: From Birkat Al-Mawz take the tarmac road up the mountain. Once you’re on the Saiq Plateau, after the right hand turning to Al Manakhir, the road divides. Take the right fork. If you arrive at a petrol station you’ve gone the wrong way. Follow the winding road to Shinot village (If you miss the turning you’ll end up in Al Hail). In the village turn right. The tarmac will run out and turn into a steep dirt track. Eventually you’ll come to the cave village of Al Sawjrah. It’s little tricky to find as the road doesn’t go directly to the village. You’ll have to cross a small wadi on foot. What to read:
· Oman Trekking by Explorer
· Oman Off-Road by Explorer A bit of trivia:
The word “ayn” means natural spring. Please note:
The English translation of Arabic place names means you may see the same name with different spellings.
Abu Dhabi is a capital city. That’s an obvious statement. Now read this description:
Overlooking the knarled, knotted mangrove trees, lies a pocket of calm in the middle of a bustling city. With tiny blue crabs and chattering birds playing hide and seek beneath the low boughs, the mangroves are worth investigating. Our first visit involved a canoe. I felt like an intrepid explorer, pushing my way through sand bars and jungle vines, through narrow streams and open stretches of water. Momentarily I had been transported onto the film set of Mosquito Coast. It felt exotic and adventurous. I was half expecting a crocodile to jump up to greet us.
On the edge of this intriguing microcosm is Anantara’s Eastern Mangroves hotel.
Only an hour’s drive from Dubai, this is a great way to spend the weekend away from all the hustle and bustle, within arm’s reach of nature and the city. From the dust and distractions of the roads, buildings and city life, the hotel lobby acts as a transporter, moving you from urban to rural life.
The experience starts with a warm welcome and cool drink. As soon as you walk through the door, the light and airy foyer drawers your attention to the beautiful infinity pool over looking the swamps. Attention has been paid to detail; from the lavender water spray and cool towels you’re offered besides the pool to the presentation of food in the restaurants.
Our visit was co-ordinated for us to sample The Big Brunch, a deal that allows you to indulge in a beautifully prepared languishingly long lunch, sipping cocktails and wine, without having to worry about getting home – you only have to stagger to your room for an afternoon nap. And the food was delicious, whether you’re looking for Western or Eastern flare, carvery or sushi, or hope to try it all, accompanied by live music.
The hotel itself is calm in décor and calm in its approach. This is a hotel that doesn’t over-service, so if you’re looking for the noisy kids’ club and entertainment you might be disappointed. But if you wish to enjoy an aperitif on the funky rooftop bar overlooking the hidden secrets of the mangroves, or relax during a leisurely lunch, or a spa treatment, this is a great weekend get-away. The practical bit Accommodation:
We stayed in a standard room with queen-sized bed, plus a roll away bed and a converted sofa for the children. The bathrooms are large with a shower and bath. Brunch:
There are three packages for The Big Brunch starting at AED 295++ up to a premium package that offers the finest wines and French bubbles for AED 495++. The deal:
The Big Weekend Special offers accommodation, buffet breakfast for two and The Big Brunch on Fridays for two people. Prices start at AED 1,200. Available until December 22, 2013 on Thursday and Friday night only. A bit of trivia: Anantara is taken from an ancient Sanskrit word that means 'without end'. For more information: www.anantara.com
Northern Ireland is not a big country, but in this reasonably small package are crammed sights that will entice any traveller brave enough to face the weather.
This was my husband’s first trip back to his homeland for two decades, and the last time I was in the Province I was a newspaper reporter following the British Army, seeing life through the windows of an armoured vehicle.
“So Darling, what can you tell me about Ballymena?” As soon as I opened my mouth I regretted asking the question. I knew the answer. I’d heard it before. More than a few times.
“Did you know,” my husband mused, “that my name is on the school hall wall and that it’s Liam Neeson’s home town?”
Twenty years might seem a long time, but not much has changed, and at the same time everything is different. The police station is still surrounded by high security fences, and when the shops shut, the iron curtains descend across their façades. But this is an habitual routine rather than any real expectation of violence. After decades of taking heed of bomb alerts, and taking the long way round to avoid the delays at the police checkpoint, it is very hard to break habits.
However, I don’t want to dwell on the political clouds that hang over Northern Ireland. This was an opportunity to see it in a new light, and open the doors of travel to new possibilities.
I want to tell you about the unusual, the impossible and the strange.
Love for the homeland is deep routed. So deep in fact, that people buy holiday homes just 20 miles from where they live. Why drive long distances if you don’t have to? Mr Mc. was obviously being flippant when he said: “There is only so far you can take a Thermos flask,” but there’s an element of truth.
From Ballymena we headed north to the verdant, fecund north Antrim coast. Heathers, campanulas and cornflowers flow across the cliff top, the wind rippling the long grass to mimic the rolling sea below. The scenery is stunning. It’s wild, but accessible, pretty but with raw beauty. If you follow the coastal path every turn offers a new surprise; a hidden bay, an unspoilt white sandy beach, rock formations with families of seagulls nestled against them.
We walked from Port Rush to Dunseverick Castle, a challenging route that left our hair ruffled and our waistlines a little slimmer.
The full Causeway Coast Way path stretches 33 miles from Portstewart to Ballycastle, passing through an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a World Heritage Site and several Areas of Special Scientific Interest. The sights are spectacular, whether you’re interested in the natural or manmade. Crumbling castles guard the boiling waters below (the least and most apt adjective for the churning, freezing sea), hinting at the troubled past of raiding Vikings and Ulster clans long gone; Impressive hexagon-shaped rock stacks loom out of the water at the Giant’s Causeway, surrounded by mystery and folklore; and for visitors with a head for heights, the Carrick-a-rede ropebridge offers an insight into the harsh lives of bygone fishermen.
No visit to the British Isles would be complete without touching on one of the most talked about subjects however: the weather. As it was August, the weather was changeable. In fact it was sometimes raining in between the showers. Across the dark, steely sea, fat, almost tactile, clouds, brought with them the threat of a drenching, and with the rain came winds that buffeted us along the cliff top. But after a short, sharp episode the dark skies split and shards of sunshine shot down.
Despite weather hardly warm enough to be out of thermals, hardy souls continued to frolic in the foam, and huddle on picnic blankets wrapped in coats.
Tempting as it is to hunker down into your collar, this is a coastline that demands you pay attention. The sights are staggering, the countryside is untamed, and what can be better than a hot chocolate in a café after a character-building hike?
For more photos please visit our Flickr page The practical bit: Strangest sight:
a rabbit going for a walk on a lead at the Giant’s Causeway. Fact:
Part of the United Kingdom, but only separated by 11 miles of the Northern Channel from Fair Head to the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland. Walking routes: www.walkni.com.
A Rambler bus operates along the cliff top road to help you complete the loop back to your car. Things to see and do: Places to eat:
Places to stay:
- The Galgorm Manor (see below) has great food, whether you want afternoon tea, Italian with flare or a good steak. We ate in the new Fratelli’s restaurant, which is homely Italian fare with flair.
- Sandwich with a view at the Bayview Hotel, Portballintrae
- Coffee with a vista at 55 North, Portrush
- Ramada Portrush
- Galgorm Manor: This spa hotel in Ballymena offers a luxurious rural escape with style. With dedicated facilities for weddings, extensive grounds and a Rolls Royce once owned by Alan Sugar, this country house is a great place to spend time relaxing.
Tapping my foot to the melodies created by the live guitars, a glass of Shiraz in my hand and a platter of prosciutto in front of me, I was having a peaceful and thoroughly enjoyable evening. Four streets away 56 police officers were injured in a riot.
Walking on eggshells, the people of Belfast have learned to live with the uneasy peace. It has been two decades since my husband lived in the Province and despite last night’s scuffle, parades and protests, much has changed. The shopping area is no longer barricaded, tourism is opening its arms offering a hearty welcome, and businesses are thriving. Tourists play a huge role in the city’s regeneration with new visitor attractions and experiences opening to draw a more diverse crowd. Traditionally, when you think of Irish tourism you think of lucky Leprechauns, four-leaf clovers and a good pint of Guinness. But you’ve come to the wrong Ireland here. Northern Ireland has its own offerings from the bustling city to the heart-breakingly beautiful coastline.
So let’s start in the city. At the top of any visitors’ to-do list is Titanic Belfast, the world’s largest Titanic visitor experience. It is housed in a futuristic six-storey building on the site of the reclaimed slipway where the fateful ship was made. Visitors are taken on a journey from Belfast’s industrial development in rope and linen making through to the construction and launch. Whether you’re interested in technology, history or interior design, Titanic Belfast has something for everyone. You can examine the hype, myths and legends propagated by the years, Chinese Whispers and Hollywood. At the same time you can get under the skin of what actually happened, and examine the evidence that led to this iconic ship sinking 101 years ago. It’s a great place to start your Northern Irish tour.
From content we went to context. Belfast is a very walkable city. Just wandering around the red brick Victorian and granite Edwardian buildings gives you an insight into a stylish past. It was granted city status by Queen Victorian in 1888, and style, hand in hand with modernity, is pushing its way to the forefront again after a turbulent political paramilitary period in the 20th century. This is a slice of the past most wish to put to rest although murals depicting the troubles are still evident, flags are still flying, and flashes in the pan can still be seen from time to time. My husband warned me time and time: “Go ahead, ask questions and be interested in people, but don’t ask their religion.”
Architecture is the highlight of most walking tours and Belfast does not disappoint. The Merchant Hotel is one such gem, and a perfect place to rest after wandering the alleys of the Cathedral Quarter. This former bank, complete with vault door, and Ireland’s largest chandelier, dates from 1860s and is the venue for any elegant celebration. When high tea is served, the warm scones are presented and the string quartet strikes up, you are transported back in time.
Belfast is a city of two halves. One half is keen to respect and preserve its historic past. The other half is embracing tourism, enduring an uneasy peace and looking forwards to a less turbulent future. Two halves that almost go perfectly together. The practical bit Where to stay:
We stayed at Benedicts, in Bradbury Place. A clean four-star hotel within walking distance to the city centre. It has a restaurant, pub and nightclub to help you feel in the thick of it, but may be too noisy for some. www.benedictshotel.co.uk
. For our Trip Advisor review please click here
. Where to eat and drink: Deanes Deli Bistro
, in Bedford Street, for great food, wine and live music at the weekend. What to do:
Need more information: www.gotobelfast.com
What to see more photos? Please visit us on Flickr by clicking here.
When I first visited Kuwait I was seven years old. I told the little huddle of friends in the playground where I was going and they said: “Where’s that?”
Thirty years later I returned to Kuwait. When I told my little huddle of friends, slightly bigger than my playground days, they said: “Tell us if you can still see the war damage.”
So that’s people’s first reaction to Kuwait: a war zone somewhere in the Middle East, but not quite sure where.
But there is more to say. Much more.
A rich state has grown out of a primitive past. The headland now adorned by Kuwait City was only settled 300 years ago. In 1760 the first wall was built. And with trade links to Baghdad and Damascus, a thriving port developed. Relationships have always been an important part of Kuwait’s independence. Each historian has a different view, and the facts are unclear as to whether Kuwait was part of the Ottoman empire, but by 1899 fear that Turkey would try to annex the state pushed Kuwait into an agreement with Britain. In exchange for protection, the ruling Al-Sabah family agreed not to sign the land away to other powers without Britain’s consent. For Britain it was a tactical and political decision. It wanted to keep Germany, a Turkish ally, out of the Gulf.
Kuwait’s real riches lie in black gold. And with the financial wealth that comes with oil, the state advanced in education, healthcare and commerce, and by 1961 it became fully independent. In 1949 Kuwait had four doctors. Less than twenty years later it had 400.
Political advancements have not always been as straight forwards however. Women gained the vote in 2005 but the balance of support started tipping towards radical Islamists and with a more conservative outlook women fail to gain any seats. In 2013 an Islamic-led opposition won parliamentary elections, but the Emir blocked proposals by MPs to make all legislation comply with Islamic law, and faced with an uncertain and polarised political identity, riots have erupted. On one side Kuwait is a developing modern state. On the other there is the sharp pull of its traditional roots. And this is not an easy balance.
However, the physical development of the state has not been as fast paced as other Middle Eastern countries. Hardly surprising when Kuwait has spent a large portion of the last century fighting off its neighbours: the founder of modern day Saudi Arabia on one side and Iraq on the other.
That said, Kuwait has iconic buildings that rival any other country and more are in the pipeline. Most famous of them all is the Kuwait Towers, designed by a Swedish architect and opened in 1979. The upper globe has a revolving viewing platform, but this is an opportunity that still needs to be exploited. I remember there being a glitzy restaurant, but today the interior is practically bare except for a few faded photos that show the destruction from the Gulf War. The towers are decorated with plate-sized sequins, which apparently Iraqi soldiers used for target practice. You can’t help but feel that Kuwait hasn’t quite got back on its feet.
Unfortunately, our trip down memory lane turned into a tour of rubble-covered car parks. From our vantage point we scoured the city for our apartment block; it was nothing but rubble. We went to visit my old school; it was nothing but rubble. We went to the old souk; and found, gloriously, nothing had changed. Change is essential in terms of economic development, but it was reassuring to see the souq displays dripping with gold bracelets and necklaces, piles of fresh fruit and vegetables, and hook slung carcasses.
The Seif’s Palace and National Assembly, two landmarks I remembered, still stood, either unharmed or beautifully restored. I may make it seem like the war has only just ended, but with the number of dilapidated buildings, piles of rubble and walls peppered with bullet holes, it’s hard to imagine that a decade has passed.
But then you turn round and blink again. The Sultan Centre isn’t the Sultan Centre I remember. It is a new, modern shopping mall on reclaimed land, and before Dubai shot up out of nowhere, Kuwait was a shopping haven for people with Dinars to spare.
So we really have come full circle. Kuwait is a tale of two cities. It is modern and vibrant with an eye on the future. But it still has a wary eye on the past. It is rightfully protective of its rich heritage, but keen to find a way to marry this respect with advancement. I wonder what it will be like when I go back in another 30 years. 
Lonely Planet, Middle East
, is a good read if you want an historic overview.
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A new voyage or destination gives a traveller the opportunity to learn something new about how people live. Travel offers us an insight into how the world ticks.
A journey from one town to the next, or between two countries, gives us two points of comparison. It’s difficult not to compare. We notice how quickly cities have developed, especially if we are returning to somewhere we have been before. And one of the top topics to muse about over a coffee in the local café is how life has changed and how development has eroded our sense of community.
I don’t even think you have to leave the airport before the comparison starts. I’m sitting in Belfast airport, feeling a little bit abused. The problems started with my air ticket with a certain orange liveried bird of steel. You may say you get what you pay for, but I had thought that they were operating a business and the focus of any business should be its customers. Forget that.
Move a little further along the airport conveyor belt and you are greeted with several offers to relieve of a few heavy coins. Would you like to buy a plastic “security” bag for your cosmetics? No. Would you like to pay extra to shorten the frisk queue? Not keen on that either. Would you like us to be so inflexible that you think we are taking the …. I’ll leave it up to you to decide.
Above all, especially in an airport, security is paramount. I get that. But I can’t help beginning to feel that it is being used as an excuse to take short cuts and be lazy. I understand that you have an important job and we all benefit from the role you play in the airport game of manoeuvring thousands of people safely from one place to another. But apart from feeling like a pawn on a chessboard, I feel if we all smiled, phrased our requests with a little more respect and offered a helping hand rather than a slap, we would have happier and more efficient airports, and help to stem the community erosion. Rant over. Apparently, for safety reasons I “need to turn the computer off now”. Please.
As I walk up the stairs I feel myself lean to the left. I haven’t even had a glass of wine so I can’t blame my instability on intoxication quite yet.
The horizontally challenged treads mark the passing of time; the three hundred years that have passed since this house was built.
Hope House, in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, UK, is dripping with history. It’s a time machine that transports you back through time. It’s not just the horsehair plaster and original paneling. It’s the stories and family legacy that accompany the bricks and mortar.
Paul Hageman owns and runs the historic house, as ten generations have done before him. And it’s a family full of colourful and interesting characters including glove makers that received a Royal Warrant from Queen Victoria; a captain of a merchant ship that sailed the seas to trade with far-flung nations; a high ranking naval officer who fought during the First and Second World Wars; and marital connections to the artistic Dyce family.
After three years overseeing the entire restoration and refurbishment of this Vanbrughian style Grade II* listed property, Paul opened Hope House in 2009 as beautiful boutique accommodation with three individually designed and spacious suites.
Blenheim Palace, the home of the 11th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough and birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, was built around the same time. The families, however, were not always easy neighbours with the 6th Duke of Marlborough refusing the pay for his father’s coffin in 1841, leaving the owners of Hope House to raise money in the town.
Along with its illustrious history, Hope House has provided a roof over the head of many famous people including Russell Crowe, Diana Ross and Cate Blanchett. We stayed in the same suite as the Sheriff of Nottingham (or Matthew Macfadyen as he is better known).
It’s difficult to see what else you might want from a place to stay. It unique – it’s not a bed or breakfast or a hotel. It’s an historic home. There is a reason why Trip Advisor ranked Hope House the 10th best luxury hotel in the UK in 2013 Travellers’ Choice awards. The practical bit: Accommodation:
Hope House offers five star accommodation. The suites are spacious with a lounge complete with state-of-the-art entertainment: (LCD TV, surround system, Blu-ray player, wall-mounted iPod docks, high speed wireless internet access). There is a fully-stocked mini bar and personal touches such as flowers, home-made produce and service at the touch of a button. The Hope House breakfast is beautifully prepared and presented with local-resourced ingredients. There isn’t a restaurant but Woodstock is a compact town with plenty of dining options from pubs to upmarket restaurants. Location:
The ancient market town of Woodstock is situated on the edge of the Cotswolds, near Oxford, an hour’s drive from London. For more information: www.hopehousewoodstock.co.uk A bit of trivia:
Some of the windows at Hope House include etchings marking family weddings through the centuries.