Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Eating out: Steak Escape

Steak Escape Oman
I think I can say that I live near The Wave without too much fear for my safety. It is a great complex with shiny modern housing, shops, and a lot of places to eat. The whole place is still under development so boards appear giving you hints of what's to come, then they are taken away, tables and chairs are set up, and staff potter around inside looking like they are open, teasing you with the prospect that there is something new to try. So after a long time coming Steak Escape, the sandwich grill, finally opened and on a lazy evening we gave it a go.
The Ohio-bred franchise, is very similar to Charley's Philly Steaks, there is one across the road in fact, but Steal Escape has a more premium feel. The menu includes various grilled steak or chicken subs/burgers, which you then customise with sauces and fillings. They also do fresh salads, awesome fries, and smashed baked potatoes, which I need to go back and try.

I really like the decor, it's quite unusual to see something industry, rather than Arabian, inspired. The restaurant also features an open kitchen where you can watch your meal being prepared and customise it.

I opted for the classic Wild West BBQ cheese steak with plain fries. It was good: generally you can't go wrong with anything smothered in cheese and BBQ sauce. The fries on the other hand were awesome. Fresh, crispy, and with the skin on. I'd go back for those alone, that and the ice tea, which is slightly sweetened and refillable so I made sure I'd had my fill and was close to bursting before we left. 

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Life in Oman: One-year

Today marks one year since I have been living in Oman. I remember landing at 10.30pm and being surprised it was still warm at that time. My brother-in-law collected us and dropped us off at our new home. The place was pretty much empty with just the basics in place and even after spending the next day unpacking my huge suitcase it still looked empty! 
Honestly, the transition has been tough, and I although people told me it would take at least a year to settle I am not sure I have fully. Expat life is very much a lifestyle of its own, but I will save discussing that for another post.

I blogged at the six months mark my thoughts on life here and wanted to do the same again, just to see what's changed. Once again please keep in mind this is a very personal experience.
On the whole my likes and dislikes have remained the same. I started enjoying Oman more once we came back from London in October, the weather was just right and we could start going out and exploring. My parents came to visit for three weeks in November and we ticked a lot of attractions off the "to see" list. My sister is here at the moment and my aunt will be visiting in April. I love having my family around and it gives us the excuse we need to get out all the adventure gear we have slowly built up and hit the road.

Speaking of roads my dislike of driving is now a borderline phobia. I travel between work, home, and the supermarket fine. Anything beyond those two roads fills me with dread. I just don't trust that other drivers are actually looking out for each other. All the roads are dual carriageways or motorways, the etiquette isn't the same as the UK, and I am constantly scared of being hit as other cars join the road and change lanes. My husband reassures me that people are very good at using their breaks here, but that's not something I want to rely on.
I started working in October; I was very fortunate to get a job. The job itself I really like, and I am much less bored and happier having a routine. That said the difference in attitudes to work between the UK and here is quite startling, and office politics can be frustrating. I'm not in a position to do anything about that though so I just have to adopt the way of thinking here, that things will get done when they get done. The law also states that you can't take any annual leave for the first six months so I currently feel like I am waiting for my parole. I will start getting my leave after May and I already have three holidays in mind.
One other thing I have noticed more recently is that I feel I have lost my ability to hold a conversation. Realistically, my husband is the only person I speak to daily and although I speak to family over Google Hangouts/WhatsApp, I don’t have any friends here that I meet up with regularly. When I am around other people I have found myself getting tongue tied and nervous, and dwelling on my words later. I’m not really sure why, I’m not an extrovert but I’m not shy either.

We have paid another years rent for our flat, which means we will be in Oman at least another year. Yes, you pay a year up front here. Madness. I’m not sure if I will do any more updates, but I may take some time to dwell on different aspects of life here, and expat life specifically. If there is anything you would like to hear about let me know. 

Thursday, 19 February 2015

New look

On both my blogs (the other is a beauty one if you didn't know) I have always wanted a fresh, clean look. I had a bad experience with a designer in the past and it put me off so I got by with the little amount of coding I knew and whatever tutorials I could find online. It was never perfect, but it did the job. 

Then I was browsing google looking for templates and came across the most perfect one. I'm the type of person that doesn't make rash purchases so I sat on it for a few days, asking myself the usual "do I really need it" question. 

I couldn't stop thinking about it (my usual signal that I really want something) so I finally made the purchase and installed it immediately. I was so excited to do it that I didn't consider all the details (that and it was 11pm and I needed to wake up for work the next day), so there are tweaks to be done, but otherwise welcome to the new Life Outside The M25! I hope you like it. 

The design now has that crispness I have always wanted, and I hope that you find it user friendly too. I know on mobile it looks much better than it ever has. A refresh is always good and I am now considering updating my beauty blog too, since it has been massively neglected since moving to Oman. There is nothing quite like a new blog to motivate yourself; when it comes to blogging anyway.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Wrapped up at Chi, the Spa, Shangri La

chi spa building shangri la oman
Pampering myself is one of my favourite pastimes. Indulgent I know, but I'm yet to find anyone who doesn't enjoy a spa session; my husband was even converted after our honeymoon and a three-hour treat in Thailand. Sadly, I haven't pampered myself as much since moving to Oman, but when we booked a stay at the Shangri La to celebrate our first wedding anniversary and spa credit was part of the deal, guess what I was most excited about?

The spa is a short walk away from the main grounds of the hotel. When you arrive you fill out a short questionnaire and are then whisked off to the changing areas to change into a robe and slippers and take advantage of the spa facilities before your appointment.
chi spa shangril la outside
chi spa shangri la
My husband and I were then reunited for our treatment in one of the villas. My husband opted for the Phillippine Hilot massage, and my treatment of choice was the Bio-energising wrap, which is described as "a powerful treatment as it draws deeper toxins from the cells and etheric body. It deeply revitalises the skin and lymphatic system and can promote profound healing in terms of body energy".

My treatment started off with a lemongrass scrub, followed by the application of a mineral mud mask. Despite it being a scrub there was a massage element to the application. Once the mud was applied, I was covered in towels and underneath me a heated blanket started to warm up. I even had "restraints" to make sure I was snuggled in fully. While that part of the treatment was taking place the therapist gave me a face and head massage, which did the job of putting me to sleep.

I'm not sure exactly how long that portion took, I ended up doing that embarrassing thing where you wake yourself up abruptly from your own snoring. After the therapist checked I was ok, she released me and I was instructed to shower off the scrub and mud. For the final part of the treatment beeswax balm was applied to moisturise.

We both left feeling extremely relaxed and pampered and agreeing that we need to retire somewhere in the world where we can enjoy spa treatments whenever we want.

I won't discuss the cost for fear of losing the zen feeling I have reminiscing right now, although I did mention it yesterday. But, I will say this: Chi is one of literally a handful of spas in Muscat and so the basic economic concept of supply and demand is illustrated in the pricing.

If you would like to find out more about the spa, check out their website here.
Shangri la chi spa

Monday, 16 February 2015

Celebrating at Shangri La

With our anniversary so close to Valentine's day we are lucky that we can take advantage of the offers that inevitably float around that time. Being our first wedding anniversary we wanted to make it memorable so we chose the Valentine's package at the Shangri La resort.

The resort is about a 20 minute drive out of central Muscat, just far enough out of the city to feel like you are getting away. The resort is actually made up of three hotels, Al Waha, Al Bandar (where we stayed), and Al Husn. Each one more luxurious (read: expensive).
Shangri la Al Bandar hotel Oman

Shangri la Al Bandar room

Having not had a holiday since our honeymoon, that holiday vibe that the hotel can offer was much needed. Even though living in Muscat you essentially have the beach on your doorstep, we hardly take advantage of it, so I was happy for the opportunity to lounge on the beach, catch some rays, and take a dip in the sea, as well as, of course, spend some quality time with my husband.

The facilities at the hotel are fantastic, there are a lots of small of pools and even a lazy river. There are also a number of restaurants to choose from as being so far away from the rest of the city there isn't really the option to go out to eat.

Since the a la carte restaurants need a reservation we ate the buffet at Al Tanoor, which offered a mix of Arabic and Indian dishes, as well as a good selection of desserts. I generally find that dinner buffets are only ‘ok,' but the breakfast buffet available the next morning on the other hand was fantastic. I had three courses (fruit/yoghurt, pastries, and an English breakfast), very greedy I know, but it had to be done. I was so consumed with it all that I even forgot to take pictures.

The package included a late check-out, which meant we got to have a lie-in, enjoy breakfast, and make use of the pools without that rush to leave by midday. We also had 60OR spa credit as part of the deal and had an appointment just before check-out so that we left feeling completely pampered and relaxed, but I will talk about that in detail in another post.

Overall, we had a great first anniversary celebration, and even though it was only the one night, I still suffered from the holiday blues when I returned to work on Sunday.

I have one slight observation though. In my year living in Oman I’ve learnt that customer service leaves a lot to be desired; restaurants, take-aways, shops, all seem to struggle when they get busy. I didn’t really expect this from a global brand like Shangri La though. They were very busy at the weekend, if this was because of the Valentine’s deal, other promotions, or just packed with holidaymakers, I’m not sure. Either way they weren't really prepared to cater for everyone. With our Valentine’s package we expected a welcome "surprise" in our room, which we ended up having to ask for, taking away from the special element. As I mentioned the package also included 60OR credit to the spa. The prices at the spa are extortionate (the credit only covers the cost of one treatment, minus taxes and a service charge) but because we knew it was worked into our package we wanted to take advantage. When we arrived at the hotel though there were no appointments for the next two days, which made me wonder why they were selling packages they wouldn't be able to fulfil, and why they had told us to wait and book our treatments on arrival. We got lucky that there was a cancellation and we were able to take up the Spa offer, otherwise the resort wanted to give us to two day passes (worth 50OR) as compensation and I was told we would be "doing us a favour" if we opted to accept this and didn't push for something of at least equal value. I didn't really get the impression that they were bothered if we left as unhappy customers.

All that said, I would love to go back, because we really did have a great time and a very memorable anniversary. If you want to find out more about Shangri La, please click here

Friday, 13 February 2015

Road trip: Fanja Village

It started with a pair of shoes. After visiting Wadi Bani Khalid we decided that we needed 'adventure shoes' suitable for exploring. So we each treated ourselves to a pair and then didn't go on any road trips for over a month and we wanted to remedy that.

We saw an article in the Times of Oman about Fanja village, a mostly abandoned village about 20-minutes drive out of Muscat, and decided to make this our destination.

The place is a little tricky to find. You follow the signs for Fanja after getting on the highway that goes to Nizwa/Salalah from the Clock Tower roundabout. Eventually, you pass a very small souq area and in the distance can see the village and the mud watch towers higher up on the mountain, at this point it is just a case of driving towards that direction and choosing the appropriate roads to drive up. It was one of the journey's where I felt the four-by-four was a disadvantage since there are a lot of narrow, winding roads leading to the village entrance, which is marked by a portrait of the Sultan.

As you travel up to the village, before you reach the entrance and pass through the old wooden doors, the houses you see are rather typical by Omani standards, but once you go through the door it is quite different. Very much a lost time. There are blocks of ruined mud houses, and if you are brave enough to take a peek inside you can get a hint of how life might have been lived.

As you walk further in you end up at a high point on the mountain overlooking the wadi and the rest of Fanja. There are more ruined houses here and you can see that there were a few people that would have had a fantastic view from their bedroom windows.

A little further along you reach the cannons overlooking the wadi, which according to the article, would have protected the town from rival incursions. Legend has it that the cannons fired plenty of shots against people who tried to invade the territory.
As I mentioned previously, there are still a few who live in the village but in refurbished houses. The juxtaposition between the old and new is quite amazing. Like the village we found at the base of Jebel Akhdar the houses are made of mud and stone, but that village had evidence of two-storeys. The article suggested that the site be protected with heritage status making it more of a tourist attraction, I say, if you can, go along and explore it now while you can have it to yourself. 

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Eating Out: As Sammak resturant

With three generations of family to entertain there really is only one activity option; eating. So we decided to venture a little outside of Muscat to Siffah, and a fish restaurant called As Sammak.

The drive to Siffah is a nice one, passing through mountains and villages and once you reach Siffah itself and the restaurant you won't be disappointed with the setting. The restaurant is located on the beach and you have the option of sitting outdoors under the shade of palm trees or inside the restaurant, which is open air, so that you get to enjoy your meal with a fantastic view and the gentle sound of waves lapping on the beach. It is the only restaurant in Oman so far that I have visited with such a beautiful view. The seating space is small, so I would suggest going for an early lunch/dinner if you want a spot. 

As Sammak means fishermen so it should come as no surprise that the restaurant specialises in seafood. The restaurant relies on the local fishermen for its stock, which is a fantastic idea for providing them with a livelihood, but it does mean that there is the risk of certain items on the menu being out of stock quite early on in the day.

Unfortunately, we didn't get great service on the day we visited, and nor did family of the families around us; some even left without eating because they had been waiting so long. It was clear the staff were few and overworked, but they didn't have a great attitude either, which just makes for bad moods all round.

When the food did finally arrive it was very good, we ordered the calamari and fish fillet, which to my surprise was deep fried and served on a stick. You can't go wrong with chips and having built up an appetite by then all plates were cleared. 

For five adults and two children the bill came to 80 rials (4 starters, 5 mains, 7 drinks), which I don't think is the best value for money for the food or the service.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the place will improve because the setting is hard to beat. If you have any recommendations for places to eat with a beautiful view in and around Muscat let me know. 

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Muscat Festival: Al Naseem Park

Last night we decided to check out Muscat Festival at Naseem park, one of the two locations for the event. I was a bit worried parking would be a nightmare and it would be packed, but when we arrived at 6.30pm we found a place close to the entrance. Bonus.

As I mentioned the festival is an annual event, designed to exhibit local culture and art, as well as be a place to shop! Naseem Park contains the more family oriented events, so there are a lot of activities for children, and a huge market filled for the adults.

There are shows going on at various times, we got got to see some Omani men dancing, a childrens show, and a very impressive balancing spaceman act. We even got to see a few dinosaurs.

The festival is only on until the February 14 so if you are in Muscat I would urge you to check it out. I'm hoping to get to the other location, Al Amerat, to sample some Omani cuisine! 

Monday, 2 February 2015

Women's groups in Muscat

Looking back I really should have made more of an effort when I first arrived to find groups and activities to get involved in. They are a great way of meeting people and overcoming any reluctance you might have to explore alone.

There are a few women's groups in Oman that I am aware of as well as other more general interest groups. I wanted to write this post for any ladies new to Muscat and encourage you to get involved.

Women's Guild Oman
This is the group I have been the most involved with, they hold a weekly coffee morning to gather and chat, and also run a variety of different activities and clubs.Their website is a great source of information, particularly for events and deals offered by various retailers. They also send out a e-shots with deals and information on events, as well as a regular newsletter. Membership costs 10 OR a year and the membership card gets you lots of discounts at restaurants, hotels, beauticians, and various other shops. Under the WGO umbrella I have also started a book club, which I have discussed here.

Phoenix Group
A smaller women's group that I believe was a breakaway group from the WGO. They also meet for regular coffee mornings and have outings around Muscat. The group seems to have more of a focus on support, providing links to people in the know about life in Oman. They were very quick to respond to me when I contacted them. For 3 OR you get lifetime membership and a membership card which entitles you to discounts at various outlets.  They also have a regular newsletter and aim to set up groups of people interested in various activities. They don't have a website but they are on Facebook.

American Women's Group
I initially contacted the AWG because I wanted to join their bowling, and book groups, unfortunately no one replied to my emails so I never did join. This is the group I know the least about, but from what I have heard they organise trips further afield and more unique than the above two groups.  I know they also collaborated with the WGO last year for a Christmas Lunch, and have some other more unique groups such as bollywood dancing. They do have a website and despite the name they do welcome all nationalities.

All of the groups can be found on Facebook if you want to find out more:
WGO Facebook
Phoenix Group
AWG Facebook

You can also find a page for me on Facebook sharing additional pictures of my adventures and Muscat findings!