With its warm climate, idyllic beaches and sparkling cities, a cruise in the UAE is a holiday to remember

Dubai, blue sky, old building, UAE
The Al Bastakiya neighbourhood in Old Dubai. Credit MSC Cruises

It’s sun, sea and sand – but not as we know it. Cruising in the Arabian Gulf is the next big thing, a world where the West meets a world full of Eastern promise.

Here you’ll find a surreal mix of colourful Arab traditions – ancient dhows plying the waterways, markets that weave their way around clusters of alleyways – and the high street back home, vast malls filled with recognisable brands and coffee shops, as well as idyllic, unspoiled beaches.

Andy Harmer, Vice President of Operations for CLIA Europe, says: “What’s good about the Gulf is the choice of cruise style as there are many different companies that visit the region – ultra luxury, premium, contemporary and also those with guests who are looking for adventure, and there’s plenty to be had in the Middle East.

“There are some spectacular destinations and a cruise in this region offers a host of amazing experiences. It’s growing in popularity with a number of cruise lines now home porting in the Middle East – Dubai now sees more than half a million cruise passengers a year. Muscat and Bahrain are also popular together with Oman, which often hosts guests on round the world cruises.”

View of Jumeirah from Palm Island, Dubai. Credit iStock
View of Jumeirah from Palm Island, Dubai. Credit iStock

Simone Clark, managing director of Iglu Cruise and Planet Cruise, which together sell more cruises in the UK than any other single company, has seen steady growth in Gulf cruises over the past four to five years.

“There’s sun, beaches, shopping and the prices are phenomenal – I can’t ever see it as an area that many Americans are going to travel to, so there’s lots of capacity for the Brits,” she says. “We’re packaging UAE cruises with add-ons in Dubai – and even places such as Mauritius.”

The United Arab Emirates have long tried to outdo each other in a race for the biggest, tallest and shiniest buildings – and that’s now moved on to cruise terminals. Other Gulf states, such as Oman and Bahrain, are also opening up to cruises.

Abu Dhabi’s new terminal opened late in 2015, a glittering, glass-walled affair surrounded by neatly-planted palm trees – a rival to Dubai’s terminal which opened a few years back.

Given the huge increase in cruise holidays over recent years, and the expansion of the Gulf states into a new world of business, leisure and tourism, it’s only natural that the two should converge.

And with cruise companies constantly searching for new destinations to tantalise holidaymakers, the Gulf is perfect. Dubai is establishing itself as a stopover on longer cruises, voyages that snake through the Suez Canal from the Med and past Egypt on to India and the Far East. Yet the region is fast becoming a cruise destination itself in the same way as the Med, largely during the winter when temperatures are at their best.

The Fujairah Fort. Credit iStock
The Fujairah Fort. Credit iStock

Flights to the region might be longer than to Europe but they’re not long-haul. Alongside the new-money glitz of Dubai and Abu Dhabi are ports that are distinctly less modern – the natural world of Abu Dhabi’s Sir Bani Yas island or the Omani city of Khasab. You’ll find colonial remnants, many from the days when the Portuguese ruled the waters. Behind the shimmering glass façade you’ll find a world that has changed little over the centuries; excursions visit desert camps where you can ride a camel and sit in the balmy night eating a traditional barbecue dinner. However, favourite options are the 4×4 car ride across the dunes and bouncing across the lunar landscape in a single-person dune buggy.

GETTING THERE
Gulf Air boasts one of the largest networks in the Middle East, operating double daily flights or more to cities including Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The airline’s A330 Economy Class seats offer the very latest in comfort and technology. In premium, the new Falcon Gold seats convert into a fully-flat bed (gulfair.com).

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