I'll start straight off by saying that Oman wasn't on my list of places I had a huge urge to visit. We had plans to go to Tulum, in Mexico, for our Babymoon trip in February. Plans to stay in a little shack, right on the beach, in an eco-resort with no chargers for mobile phones, and daily yoga classes. The perfect mix of beach time, local ruins to explore, some rainforest action (but not so much adventure that I'd feel like I was missing out), and snorkelling.
And then I woke up one Sunday, checked my phone, saw the coverage of the Zika virus, and woke my husband up to tell him that those plans may well have to be thrown out the window, as they were warning pregnant women to stay away from the entire region (and many places beyond).
We were lucky, British Airways were flexible with us changing our flights to another location, given the location (although we wouldn't have got a straight refund, so we were limited by where they fly to); and it was far enough in advance to still get a refund on our accommodation.
However, we were flying in February, and suddenly all of the winter sun 'go-to' locations were off the table because Zika had either been found there, or was a likely occurrence in the next few months. My husband was more conservative than I, and suggested we avoid anywhere where Malaria was an option, as it was likely Zika would hit there too, and thank god we did, as within weeks Thailand, India and the Maldives all had warnings attached.
At that time of year, flying with BA, and wanting some (virtually) guaranteed winter sun, Oman became literally our only option. We have travelled to the Middle East on a few occasions (mostly to see expat friends), but Oman wasn't somewhere I knew much about. A little bit of digging showed me that Muscat in particular was supposed to be somewhere that had retained it's traditional side, despite a growing tourism industry, and that surprisingly had some beautiful beaches and diving (or for us during pregnancy, snorkelling) destinations. We wrapped our head around our new plans, and off we went.
We had a really lovely time, and it is somewhere I'd recommend for almost being forced to relax, still having options to explore, but not feeling like you've missed out on a wealth of activities if you choose to spend the majority of the time chilling near the water.
I've been active throughout pregnancy, but in many ways we'd tried to avoid a location that would offer up too many temptations to be very adventurous, so there are actually parts of Muscat and Oman more broadly that I'd visit in different circumstances - there are beautiful places further round the coast, more adventurous activities in the mountains etc. However, travelling in a car was no longer fun at this point in my pregnancy, so we stuck a bit closer to home.
Our hotel offered a shuttle into Muscat, or you could get a taxi if you wanted a bit more flexibility. We took a taxi to Takia one morning, and walked from there round to Muscat Harbour (about an hour) in Mutrah, taking in the coastal sights along the way, ending up at the Mutrah Souq. It's a nice walk, not all of it around the coast, but you get to see some of the diversity of architecture and surroundings of Muscat by doing this, rather than getting a lift with a shuttle or tour bus.
The art deco style Sultan's Palace is definitely worth a look - you can only stand at the gates, but it's a really interesting building.
Round the back of the palace you can see a small island, where Naval warships have etched the names of their ships into the landscape.
As you continue round you see the original forts at either end of the bay - Al Jalaili and Fort Mirani. At the gates of the old town there is the Old Castle Museum, which is supposed to be worth a visit, although it was closed on the day we were there.
Continue down the coast and you see the port at Mutrah, with the Sultans Cruise Ship particularly noticeable for it's size and splendour, based right in the centre.
Once at Mutrah Corniche, we grabbed some lunch at the traditional coffeehouse that's right at the entrance (one floor up). Expect succulent shish kebabs, baba ganoush with tasty salads, Turkish coffee (strong!) and fresh juices. Definitely worth a visit (helpfully avoiding the places that all of the tour buses stop at downstairs).
We were at the souks a little early (main opening times are 8-1 and 5-9pm), so the atmosphere was definitely getting going as we were living, but to be honest, it was nice wandering around when it was a little more relaxed, and we weren't really there to haggle, just to see the surroundings.
Aside from exploring the Mutrah Corniche, our other main day out was snorkelling near our hotel, via Extra Divers. We're both keen divers (but obviously this is out whilst I'm pregnant), and we were surprised at the wealth of underwater life that we saw. The water is pretty chilly though, so consider a short wetsuit if you're going to be in the water for long. Apparently turtles are a pretty frequent sight (they also laid eggs on the beach at our hotel), although we didn't see any when we were there, despite snorkelling at Turtle Bay!
Where to stay
When we spoke to friends who had stayed in Oman before, the first recommendation that everyone gave was the Chedi. We were keen to stay there, and treat ourselves to a bit of luxury pre baby, but unfortunately they were booked out due to the America's Cup being the same weekend.
We ended up staying at the Shangri-La, and had a lovely time, but the Chedi were nice enough to treat us to a tour, a 'mum-to-be' massage, and lunch, so we spent a day there and got to compare and contrast a bit. Our summary? Chedi is the ultimate in luxury - beautiful rooms, stunning spa, gym, restaurants and landscaped grounds, although the beach could have a slightly nicer setting. This is the place you want to stay if you you're seeking a childfree experience (they only ever let about 10 children stay in the hotel at any one time, and it's definitely not an environment that encourages it) and you want to move seamlessly from spa to sun lounger to early evening drinks, and repeat....
The Shangri-La in comparison had a lot of families staying there, with a huge amount of very young children (it felt like a first-holiday destination to take young babies too, which was obviously a big reminder of our imminent arrival!). I will say upfront that I am not someone who particularly likes staying in a hotel for longer holiday stays. I like having our own space, not having to see other people if we so choose, and things feeling a little more laid back and boutique. Having said that, the beach at the Shangri-La is lovely, and we had a great stay.
A little bit more detail below on both....
The Chedi, Muscat
Part of the GHD chain of hotels, the design aesthetic here, and genuinely breath-taking landscaped space brought out a huge bout of jealousy in me towards those who had managed to get in, when we hadn't. The look and feel is minimalistic, and despite being one of the first luxury hotels in the region, has really stood the test of time because of this. The lovely lady who showed us round said that they only have four colours at the hotel - white, brown (there is beautiful wood everywhere), green (perfect landscaping) and blue (the constant good weather, supposedly! It rained while we were there..).
The hotel has a private beach, tennis courts, 21 acres of landscaped grounds and several restaurants serving stunning food (one of which is one of the restaurants that comes up when you seek any recommendation of where to go in Muscat more broadly).
The real stars in our minds were the beautiful pools. They have three in total, but the one near the spa is the longest in the region at 103 metres long, is child-free and is a peaceful environment you can imagine living by for a week.
The spa equally was beautiful. Ben had to relax by the pool while I was treated to my massage, which beg with an exfoliation that uses a special blend of Himalayan pink salt, rosehip and blackcurrant seeds to stimulate lymphatic drainage.
You're then transferred to a special massage bed with a hole that accommodates your bump, where you have an exfoliating scrub, and following a shower, a massage with special oils designed for pregnancy. The therapist then finishes by using heated poultices over marma points to bring harmony to you and the baby.
The suites are equally chic environments, designed in simple white and dark wood, with private outdoor areas, and spaced to allow for privacy amongst the grounds.
This is a true honeymoon location, and if I were to go back to Oman, I'd love to stay - the only downside is the beach feels a bit more city based, but I'd say the luxurious, peaceful surroundings more than make up for it.
The Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa, Muscat
A little further down the coast, the Shangri-La isn't quite as convenient for the centre of the town, or the airport, but you do feel like you're really escaping to your own retreat.
The resort is made up of three hotels (which quite frankly, terrifies me size wise as someone who is quite anti big hotels full stop, but big hotels is pretty much what you get in Oman). We were staying in the Al Bandar, which is in the centre of the resort; but the most recent addition to the three is the Al Husn, which rooms and suites larger than any in Oman. You can use the restaurants across all of the hotels, but the beaches of Al Husn are for residents only.
This wasn't an issue though, as the main beach was lovely, and to be honest, the spacing of seating and pools more broadly made it feel like it was never overly busy. It was only really when you went for breakfast in the morning (one of those scary buffets where families appear never to have eaten before, and pile up inappropriate foods on top of each for fear of it all disappearing) that you realised how many people were staying in the resort.
I have to say though, the breakfast buffet was amazing, both in terms of variety and quality, and you found yourself looking forward to it each day. Aside from this, the set up was made for relaxing, and a daily routine quickly ensued of gym or swim (yes for me, that's included in relaxing!); breakfast, little beach wander, relax on sun lounger, dip in the sea, lunch, relax on sun lounger, and have dinner somewhere at the hotel in the evening.
For someone who normally has a crazily active schedule, it was a good environment to force me to slow down, and I soon sunk into days of reading and sunshine.
Food at the hotel was great in places, a little more average in others. Again, the context here is that we prefer to stay somewhere where you're wandering to local places, and eating local cuisine, but we did try the food on offer at the various cuisine led options. Our favourites were 'Bait Al Bahr' - a seafood place based right on the beach, with fresh fish and curries. The rooftop bar on top of the restaurant was lovely and provided an opportunity to appreciate the cliff setting of the hotel at night. We also liked Fairouz, a traditional Moroccan restaurant.
The setting of the hotel is what really makes it however, so if you can overlook the family component, and the fact that the rooms are nice, but not quite as palatial as the Chedi, this does provide a good option for a relaxing beach stay.
A few other tips...
For both hotels, there are rules about what you're expected to wear in the evening, so take long dresses (for the girls) and make sure you have some trousers and closed toe shoes (for the boys), otherwise your options are severely restricted. Likewise, dress appropriately for going into town, with long garments, and covering your shoulders, and have something with you to cover your hair if you want to go into the Mosque.