I was in Oman, one of the Middle East’s best-kept secrets, and I had my first breakfast date just hours before Khalifa arrived. It was nine o’clock when I entered my eighth sweet date of the day.
Our guide for the day picked us up from our hotel in Muscat, Oman. When my middle-aged daughter and I got into his SUV for the two-hour drive from the Omani capital to Nizwa, Khalifa treated us to dates stuffed with almonds and a thermos of coffee infused with cardamom.
Dates are everywhere in Oman.
NIZWA, THE OLD CAPITAL OF OMAN
Nizwa, the capital of Oman during the sixth and seventh centuries, lies at the foot of the Hajar Mountains and is surrounded by date palm groves. It is known for its castle, fortress and dates – there are over 40 different varieties.
“They say it’s good luck to eat an odd number of dates,” Khalifa said.
Lizzie and I looked at each other and, better luck than bad, made sure we ate our ninth date.
WILL BE OWN
We made a quick hop from Dubai to Oman in the neighboring United Arab Emirates with Fly Dubai ($100 one way).
Check out Kiwi for more flight options and transportation packages throughout your stay. They find hidden prices and travel hacks to make your world travel easy! Book flights and more here.
In Muscat, we swam in warm waters with minnows nipping at our toes and watching groups of fishermen haul in nets full of sardines. Nizwa, more conservative than Muscat, home to about a third of the population, is connected by an excellent road.
TRAVEL TO OMAN
In fact, Oman’s roads are so good that many tourists rent cars. A car is useful in Muscat as it is an outward facing, sloping city and public transport is limited.
We decided to hire Khalifa because we wanted to learn more about the culture and history of Oman and Lizzie joked that she was afraid.
FIND MUSKS IN OMAN
After the intensity of Dubai, we fell in love with the sweeter atmosphere of Muscat.
We had spent hours at Tche Tche Cafe on Al Qurum Beach, sipping fresh mint lemonade while watching families walk along the beach.
It was also much easier to meet Omanis in Oman than Emiratis in Dubai: about 85% of Dubai’s population are foreign workers.
NIZWA MARKET, OMAN
In Nizwa, with our car parked next to a trailer with two camels that had apparently arrived the day before for the city’s famous Friday market, we walked into a date shop near the souk.
You can see the beauty of the markets and the ancient interior of Nizwa on the Nizwa Oasis full-day tour with lunch. Book the dates here in advance so they don’t fill up! You can now cancel anytime up to 24 hours before the event for a full refund so you can plan stress-free.
The walls were covered in Omani cloth and woven baskets, and shelves were stacked with sealed dates, date paste and date syrup, but we went straight to the main attraction: dozens of large tubs filled with all kinds of dates.
Tasting honey dates, cardamom dates, sesame dates and more, all in different colors and prices, we were ushered to benches with brightly colored cushions and offered a plate of more dates. I ate dates number 16 and 17 and washed them down with several cups of slightly bitter cardamom coffee.
HALWA IN THE MIDDLE EAST
Next we stopped at a Souk shop selling cheap, sticky sweets found all over the Middle East, South and Central Asia, Eastern Europe and North Africa.
My own halwa is made of…surprise! — Dates and spices such as rose water, saffron, nutmeg and cardamom.
A shopkeeper, wearing the ankle-length white dishdasha worn by almost all Omani men, sliced us from giant blocks of halwa, slice after slice, to taste. I wonder if we should also eat an odd amount of date-based halwa.
BIRDS IN OMAN
When the Portuguese explored this region and East Africa in the 16th century, they made maps of the lands with drawings of what they found there. To Omanis it was “strong, strong, strong,” Khalifa told us as we left the souk and entered the 400-year-old fort of Nizwa.
The Portuguese not only mapped Oman but also ruled the coast until 1650. During these 150 years they built many forts of their own, including the one overlooking the Muttrah area of Muscat.
It’s hard to Miss Oman’s forts, castles and towers as there are over 500 of them dotted around the country. “In the old days, they could live on dates and water if they needed it,” Khalifa said, pointing to the date supply in the fort.
Like almost all the forts and castles we visited in Oman, the one in Nizwa also has a date warehouse. In times of turmoil and war, the dates could support months of siege. Saved dates have been retained for up to a year.
“They were stacking dates in cloth bags and they cracked at the bottom and date syrup spilled out here,” he said, pointing to an indentation in the stone floor.
We climbed the stairs to the roof of the fort to get a better view of the palm groves surrounding Nizwa. One male date palm can fertilize about a hundred female fruiting plants. Dates are Oman’s main crop. They are grown not only for humans, but also for animal feed. In this arid country, 50% of the arable land is used for date cultivation.
Throughout Oman we had seen both small local date shops with bins, such as the one in Nizwa, and chic boutiques displaying gourmet chocolate-covered dates as jewels, such as Bateel. As we walked down the steps to the citadel, I learned that Omani dating is not all about food.
“See those slats on the stairs?” Khalifa asked. Lizzie and I nodded.
“Should invaders enter the fort or castle, the residents here would pour boiling date syrup through these sticks to kill or maim them.”
She certainly didn’t look happy.
DINNER WITH THE KHALIFA FAMILY IN THE COUNTRYSIDE
Later that evening, after eating more dates and shuwa all day, the traditional Omani slow-cooked stewed lamb, and endless cups of cardamom coffee and delicious sweet and milky karak tea, we traveled through the beautiful countryside of Oman to the house of Khalifa.
He wanted us to meet his mother, who lived with him, his wife and their three children. Proudly introducing them, Khalifa said that he and his family went on vacation to Germany over the summer.
“The kids just want to see snow—in July,” he said.
On a low table in front of us was a giant platter with three different types of fish, prawns, aubergine stew, lamb and chicken. We smiled sheepishly at Khalifa’s family and started eating. Although we were full we ate until we thought we were bursting. It would have been rude not to accept their hospitality.