Standing atop the Al Ayjah Lighthouse and looking at the charming seascape of Sur, it feels like I am gazing upon a slice of life from the Arabian Tales. The cotton candy clouds almost touch the horizon where I can see the dhows sailing away into faraway lands. Perhaps, one of them is helmed by none other than Sinbad himself, the legendary sailor, as he goes in search of a new adventure.
Sur’s story starts and ends with the sea. Nestled quietly on the north-east coast of Oman as the capital of the Ash Sharqiyah region, Sur, the second richest city in Oman, is steeped in the old-world charm of seafaring men and their ships. No wonder, even Sinbad’s vessel is believed to be one of the traditional dhows, created from Sur.
The old port, which was once a Portuguese colony, is known for its shipbuilding industry and these vessels were once used to transport spices and slaves. There are three watchtowers standing at the edge of the waters; they once guided the dhows to enter the harbour. The sea breeze sets in as I saunter around aimlessly. There are old mansions of merchants strewn around and I am taken in by the architecture. But towering over them is the historic Al Ayjah Fort, one of the three castles of Sur.
I walk around the corniche to enter one of the remaining top 10 dhow factories in Sur — the Juma Hassoon Boat Factory. As the air echoes with the hammering of wood interrupted by conversations in Malayalam and Arabic, I realise that Sur’s maritime connection traces back to these traditional merchant ships that transport you to the days of yore. These vessels are not just symbols of trade but are a way of life for the Omanis as they represent their very culture and craft. Walking amidst the logs of teak and timber, I meet one of the master craftsmen, 80-year-old Juma Hassoon Al-Araimi, or Uncle Juma to his people, who has run this factory for over 45 years.
Uncle Juma’s story started at the age of 14 with the world of dhows. However, he learnt the tricks of the trade at a dhow factory in Kuwait, where he worked for a decade. Returning to his homeland, Uncle Juma set up his own factory, crafting boats and ships of various sizes and keeping the traditions of Oman alive.
In a small room bustling with memorabilia and models, Uncle Juma shows us around some of the replicas of boats built here, including the one that was commissioned by Sultan Qaboos, the reigning king of Oman. The story goes that the Sultan saw Uncle Juma working while he was flying in his helicopter. Uncle Juma was then summoned and commissioned to build a dhow for the King of Jordan.
I climb up a tiny ladder to see some men at work in one of the dhows. Uncle Juma’s designs come alive in these creations. Portuguese influences can be seen in the dhows crafted in Burmese teak while a local wood called ghaff has been used as well. Walking around the boatyard, I meet a few men from Beypore in Kozhikode in Kerala who have been working for Uncle Juma for years.
I learn that there are two dhows being crafted in the yard and it can take over a year to be completed. These dhows, however, are to become restaurants during the Football World Cup in 2022. However, an old dhow stands as a testimony to Omani craftsmanship in a dockyard close by, called Fatah Al Khair. It is referred to as a ghanja and was one of the trading ships used in commerce. Surrounding the vessel are smaller boats in an open museum, showcasing the maritime history of Oman.
But the sea is not the only attraction in Sur. There are several destinations in and around Sur, one of them being a small fishing village called Ras Al Jinz, located 40 km away. Archaeological excavations here have unearthed settlements over 5,000 years ago who had trade relations during the Indus Valley era. However, the beach here attracts nocturnal visitors — the endangered green turtles who visit the beaches for nesting. The Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve offers accommodation for tourists along with late-night tours with naturalists who take you on a turtle walk on the beach.
For road trip enthusiasts, the Marine Drive from Sur to Muscat is a breathtaking experience with wadis and sinkholes for company. I start my return to Muscat with a stop at the emerald-tinged Wadi Tiwi. However, it is the palm-fringed Wadi Shab that fascinates me. I take a boat and sail away in the waters watching a goat being rescued by local fishermen. My boatman explains that I could hike to a hidden cave as well. But I continue my journey, stopping at the pristine white sands of the Finns Beach with its turquoise waters.
But it is the last destination that fascinates me — the Bimmah Sinkhole. Located in the heart of the Hawiyat Najm Park, there is a 200-metre-deep sinkhole filled with azure water. A flight of steps takes you down to the sinkhole, where some of the tourists are enjoying a swim. Fantasy and lores surround the sinkhole. According to the locals, it was created when a meteor crashed to earth several centuries ago. However, just gazing at the waters, I am lost in a world that was created out of sheer legends and tales.
As I drive back to Muscat, the journey becomes the destination. Flanked with mountains on either side, the oceans rise up to greet us. The meandering roads lead to the grand portals of the Shangri La near the jetty where the oceans and mountains meet. I stop to lose myself in the hues of a spectacular sunset. Standing there mesmerised, I cannot ask for a better way to end my journey.