A cruise around the Persian Gulf on board Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ luxurious Europa 2 lets you experience the best of all worlds, says Cruise International Editor Liz Jarvis
Champagne is flowing, the DJ is playing a selection of soul classics, the air is deliciously warm and there’s definitely a party atmosphere on board Europa 2 as the ship sails away from the glittering port of Abu Dhabi and into the star-studded night.
It’s a sharp contrast to our unique cultural experience earlier that day at the Grand Mosque.
Our Persian Gulf cruise adventure began in Dubai, with its skyscrapers, malls, souks and fabulous beaches.
A heart-in-mouth ride up to the top of the Burj Khalifa reveals the scale of the coastline and desert below; a ride on a traditional water taxi across the creek offers a taste of the Old Town and a slightly slower pace of life.
On board Europa 2, everything is chic, understated elegance; the atmosphere is decidedly European, luxurious and glamorous. My veranda suite is a symphony in blonde wood and neutral tones and it’s large, with a sofa, chaise longue, desk, and fabulous bed; most pleasing of all is that in addition to a good-sized shower there is a proper bath, the biggest I’ve had at sea, where I can comfortably soak in the salts provided before dressing for dinner. Other special touches include a tablet PC, Nespresso machine, proper walk-in closet with a door that shuts and complimentary mini-bar. It all feels very indulgent and it doesn’t take long to get used to this way of life.
Restaurants on board the ship range from good (the main restaurant is a contemporary space with a diverse menu) to the absolutely outstanding (French restaurant Tarragon is beautifully designed, with arguably better food and service than you would get in Paris).
During our Arabian Nights itinerary we also call at Doha, where we spend a relaxing morning on the beach and in the warm sea.
The highlight of our trip, though, unexpectedly for me, is Abu Dhabi. Its impressive skyline shimmers in the sun as we arrive and make our way through wide streets, past older architecture and mosques to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
Here, all the women in our group have to don the abaya to cover our heads and bodies; it’s a strange experience and there are several times when we lose each other because from the back we all look the same, which causes much hilarity and confusion. It’s not as hot underneath as you might expect, either – the real challenge is trying to walk in it as it’s so long (ankles must not be seen).
The Grand Mosque is utterly breathtaking, a magnificent white marble structure large enough to accommodate over 40,000 (thankfully there are only around 100 people there when we visit). With its minarets and courtyard it’s a stunning mix of Moorish and Arabian design.
Inside the main prayer hall there are intricate mother-of-pearl mosaics and chandeliers, as well as an astonishing Persian carpet, but it doesn’t feel gaudy; in fact, whatever your beliefs, it’s rather a calming place and we all leave feeling as though we’ve seen something pretty special – although it’s a relief to get out of the abaya and into our air-conditioned coach.
Then it’s on to the water for another highlight: a high-speed RIB cruise around the harbour. It’s absolutely exhilarating.
Our day in Abu Dhabi ends with afternoon tea in the Emirates Palace hotel, which gives a whole new meaning to the word opulent; the sandwiches and pastries are divine, including chocolate pastries adorned with gold leaf; in the UAE, everything that sparkles probably is gold, or diamonds, or at the very least Swarovski crystal (the chandeliers at the Grand Mosque are covered with these). Our overall impression of Abu Dhabi has been excellent; definitely somewhere worth returning to.
We have one sea day during our cruise and it’s a chance to relax in the pool area, which while small (the ship has capacity for just 516 guests) is also immaculately formed, with plenty of space. Another treat comes at 4pm when hot waffles are served.
Should you need a break from sitting in the sun, however, there’s a wonderful library, and luxury cruising doesn’t have to exclude children – the kids’ club facilities are excellent. There are also various classes and lectures on offer, including gin-tasting, a very good-sized theatre and spa; plus a state-of-the-art cookery school.
Our final dinner is at the incredible Asian fusion restaurant, Sakura, where we eat so much sushi and shellfish I start to feel like a mermaid; it’s washed down with sake martinis, which with hindsight are probably a mistake, particularly when I end up dancing on the podium at the deck party later that evening with the band, much to the delight of some fellow guests who refuse to let me get down. Still, what happens on Europa 2 stays on Europa 2. Right?
GETTING THERE: Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ eight-night From Spices to Skyscrapers round trip from Dubai departing 7 April 2016 starts from £3,670pp, cruise only. Alternatively, the 15-night In the World of Arabian Nights cruise from Dubai to Piraeus departing 15 April 2016 starts from £4,720pp, cruise only (0800 0513 829; hl-cruises.com).
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