The Queen Mary II called on Abu Dhabi for the first time in March. Dubai is moving again at warp speed to entice and enthral travelers with new hotels and experiences. Other ports in the Middle East are a little iffy at this time and pirates are still trolling the Horn of Africa. So am I really advocating cruising in the Arabian Gulf?
Twenty fabulous years of cruising have introduced me to most of the waters and ports of the world. So why do I recommend you take a twelve hour plus flight to explore a region few Americans choose to visit? It is unlike anywhere else you have been and many passenger ships, at all price points, are now calling here, making it a perfect way to expand your horizons. The close proximity of these countries in the calm, warm waters of the Gulf make cruising a natural choice. Generations of sea traders have plied these waters. Oil tankers continue that tradition, but now the region is welcoming tourists for a glimpse into the Muslim countries that border the waters of the Arabian Gulf.
Dubai is the hub for any Gulf cruise and most embark and disembark from here. Dubai exploded on the world tourism map with it’s over the top everything: hotels, malls, indoor ski slopes, camel racing and shopping. But it is the newly coined “Hotel Tourism” that is the highlight of your stay in this young city.
Even though most cruise schedules have at least one overnight in port at the beginning and end of the trip, you should come at least a day early. For insurance you won’t miss your cruise and to enjoy a land overnight in the hotel of your choice. Book an afternoon tea at the famous 7 star, Burj al Arab. You really must go inside and can’t do that without a reservation. My personal favorite hotel is Madinat Jumeirah which is right next to the Burj. Built as one imagines an Arab village from the past, you can stroll along the connecting waterways, shop in souks with treasures from around the world and enjoy the finest Arabic food I have ever eaten. The manmade Palm Jumeirah islands with fronds reaching out with fabulous hotels, including a clone of the Atlantis in the Bahamas is a must see. Finally, you need to go to the top of the tallest building in the world, the Burj Dubai, just to say you did.
Abu Dhabi will introduce you to another version of Emirati development. The amazing Emirates Palace Hotel also houses models for the vast project of museums, including the Guggenheim and Louvre to open here in 2015. But a visit to the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque will show you a different grandeur. It is my visits here that remain most vivid. Men can enter with conservative dress (as men and women need to dress in all these Muslim countries), but women must wear an abaya, a long black robe and no shoes allowed. The marble work and mosaics are exquisite and inside the largest carpet in the world under the gold plated chandeliers is magical. Don’t miss it.
Bahrain, the most liberal of all these countries, paradoxically is connected to the ultraconservative Saudi Arabia by a causeway. The past two years have seen some protests and reports of violence in Bahrain. Some ships are not stopping here at the moment. When I was there in 2007 we were allowed to cross over the causeway and spend a day in the Kingdom. That has become increasingly difficult, but things may change again. On the island of Bahrain, be sure and go to the archaeological site, Qal’at al’Bahrain or Bahrain Fort, and see a fort from the 6th century AD and capital of the Dilum civilization.
Pulling into Muscat, the capital of Oman, you will enter just as traders from ancient times. This is a perfect stop to go on the strangely popular dune safaris – really dune bashing and crashing. Do try to have an evening in the desert, riding camels and enjoying a feast on carpets under the stars. This is Arabia!
There are many other options at each stop and you will find you own favorites. But do consider adding the Arabian Gulf to your cruise wish list. Next post? The Amazon!
Jean Newman Glock is Owner of JNG Worldwide.