Skyscrapers and sand dunes, megayachts and mosques: cruising the Gulf is an exercise in ostentatious and other-worldly glamour.
Goats graze by the roadside in front of corrugated shacks crumbling under giant satellite dishes. The lunchtime call-to-prayer from a dozen mosques on the horizon mingles with Take That on the radio. In the distance, the flat, featureless desert gives way to stark, copper-coloured mountains. We’re thundering along the desert road in an air-conditioned 4×4, past petrol stations selling fuel at 25p a litre. I’m simultaneously contemplating my carbon footprint for a week’s cruise in the Arabian Gulf, and looking forward to a spot of reckless dune-bashing, for which a 4×4 is essential.
Not that essential has anything to do with it. Everybody here drives a giant Land Cruiser, seemingly without concern. Everything is bigger, faster, flashier. Every city centre is a futuristic eye-opener. And even on a short cruise like this one, you can pack several of them in.
My seven days out of Dubai on Royal Caribbean’s 2,112-passenger Brilliance of the Seas included a day in Fujairah; two days and a night in Muscat, capital of Oman; a day at sea; a day in Abu Dhabi; and an overnight in Dubai to finish. Bahrain was dropped this season after low guest satisfaction scores last year, and the overnight in Muscat, which proved to be the best part of the trip, was added instead. Sadly for Bahrain, its ongoing troubles run too deep for cruise lines to have the confidence to return, and MSC Cruises, which starts up in the Gulf in competition with Royal Caribbean and Costa Cruises later this year, won’t be going there at all, visiting Ras al Khaimah instead.
Not that the ports made much difference to a lot of my fellow passengers, around half of whom were Brits; many of them rarely got off the ship, content instead with the affordable cost of their warm winter-sun break. If anything, it’s this guaranteed sunshine that will continue to make cruising here a success. For me, though, early February was the perfect time to explore, not sunbathe: hot enough for summer clothes, cool enough for sightseeing.
Mooring at the new cruise terminal in Dubai was slightly other-worldly. Dust from the desert hung in the air when I arrived, giving the skyscrapers of the downtown area a hazy aura. The QE2, with sun loungers still piled up on her aft decks, languished in a dock across the car park, her future still undecided. We set sail that night, buffeted by a warm wind, for Fujairah.
Oozing history and tradition
Fujairah wasn’t desperately inspiring at first glance. Like many of the other docks, it’s heavily industrialised, so you’re greeted with oil terminals and piles of containers instead of any hint of exotic Arabia. But a convoy of white Land Cruisers was lined up on the dock, ready for the desert adventure I’d booked, and dune bashing turned out to be great fun: racing at the dunes, revving hard, and then ‘skiing’ down them at a terrifyingly steep angle, observed by the occasional bemused camel.
Muscat was a real highlight, partly because Oman is so beautiful and partly because the place oozes history and tradition. My balcony cabin looked out across the harbour to the old city, a cluster of whitewashed low-rise buildings ringed by terracotta mountains; the elegant, palm-lined Corniche (the waterfront) forming a wide sweep between two craggy headlands, guarded by ancient forts. Sultan Qaboos’ megayacht was moored close by, bigger than some of the cruise ships I’ve sailed on.
Keen to explore the stark beauty of the countryside, I took another 4×4 tour, this time skimming the coast and then cutting deep into the mountains, off road, driving up stony wadis (dried-up river beds) past tiny hamlets that nestled in the shade of vast cliffs. Because it was winter, some of the wadis had water in them, and we stopped for a picnic of kebabs, hummus and spicy samosas by an aquamarine rock pool.
Back at the ship, having showered off the dust, we took the free shuttle to the port gates and walked to the souk, where mainly agreeable night time smells wafted through the warm air: grilling kebabs and incense wafting from the labyrinth of market stalls, mingling with only a hint of drain. It was the chance to wander around slowly like this, thanks to the overnight, and to take two lengthy tours, that really made this itinerary for me.
I did a city tour the next day, the highlight of which was the breathtaking Grand Mosque. Some 20,000 worshippers can fit in the huge, marble-clad structure, assembled under the sparkling lights of a Swarovskicrystal chandelier powered by 1,740 light bulbs, as they kneel on the second biggest carpet in the world, intricately hand-woven in Iran.
Next came a day at sea, during which I had an excellent massage in the ship’s spa and joined a belly dancing class, one of Royal Caribbean’s nods to the local culture. Abu Dhabi was our next destination. It’s another industrial port, another fl at, sandy landscape, stretching into the shimmering heat haze. The city itself is immaculate, though. I took a bus along the seafront past huge sweeps of white, sandy beach, emerald-green parks and glittering skyscrapers like shards of glass. I even caught a glimpse of the $3 billion Emirates Palace Hotel, one of the most expensive properties ever built.
While each excursion is a chance to witness the vast amount of money sloshing around the region, you don’t have to spend like a millionaire yourself, as meals and entertainment are included in the cruise fare. This affordability is one thing that will hook new visitors.
The food on the ship was good, though we preferred the quiet, refined atmosphere of Crown Grill, where the fish and steaks are well worth the $20 supplement, and Portofino’s, the posh Italian speciality restaurant, to the busy main dining room. We enjoyed the dancing in the lobby bar every night, too: Brilliance and its sisters are genuinely pretty ships, with beautiful marble atriums, and the excellent band got people up on the dance floor with ease. The nautically-themed Schooner Bar, with its resident pianist, was busy too, but this wasn’t really a late night cruise. Day’s round the pool, on the other hand, had a party atmosphere, with the belly-flop contest a popular success.
A cruise of such extremes has to end in style, so I booked a sightseeing tour in Dubai with a trip to the top of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. On the way, we visited the enormous Mall of the Emirates, with the world’s largest indoor ski slope running through the middle, complete with ski lifts, Alpine-style chalets and toboggan runs. A shop at the entrance sells gourmet camel-milk chocolate at £5 a bar. Only in Dubai.
I was far more interested in the Burj which, at 2,716 feet, dwarfs everything else around it. The tower overlooks a huge lagoon, which is encircled by boardwalks, shops and outdoor restaurants where people gather at sunset for the breathtakingly beautiful fountain show. The ascent of the tower was quite an experience. You step out of the lift 124 floors up, with the city, desert and ocean stretching away to the horizon below. There’s a souvenir shop selling glitzy logo-wear but the thing I loved best was a gold ingot vending machine. In goes the credit card, out comes a tiny gold bar. As I said, only in Dubai.