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 4x4, past petrol stations selling fuel at 25p a litre, as I idly contemplate my carbon footprint for this week's cruise in the Arabian Gulf.
Not that anybody here appears to have a conscience, driving around in monster Land Cruisers to a recurring theme of bigger, faster, flashier. Despite the deeply conservative society of the United Arab Emirates and Oman, excess is king when it comes to material goods.
Travel in the region would be expensive if you were to add up hotels, restaurants and sightseeing. But not on a cruise. A growing number of ships sailing out of Dubai and Abu Dhabi in winter is bringing new tourists to the Gulf: sun-seekers for whom what might have been an unthinkable luxury has suddenly become an affordable reality.
I joined Royal Caribbean's 2,112-passenger Brilliance of the Seas in Dubai for a seven-night cruise that called at Fujairah, Muscat (for an overnight) and Abu Dhabi and then spent another night in Dubai. Not that the ports made much difference to a lot of my fellow passengers, an unlikely combination of 900 Brits, more than 400 Chinese, nearly 200 Germans, a smattering of French and Italians and a mere handful of North Americans. Many people rarely got off the ship, content instead with the affordable cost of their winter sun break and an escape from the chill of the northern winter.
Everyone's a Rock Star
I travelled with Virgin Holidays Cruises, taking advantage of the company's much-publicised Rock Star campaign. The idea is that all passengers get the ‘Rock Star' treatment: dedicated check-in, complimentary dinner in one of the ship's speciality restaurants; and a Virgin-hosted cocktail party on board, for no extra cost. All of this did happen, although I'm not sure I felt like a rock star at check-in – bedraggled after an overnight flight, desperate for coffee and shuffling along behind a long queue of other rock stars. Turned out there were so many Virgin Holidays people on my cruise that the special red carpet line for them in the terminal was longer than the un-starry one.
Dubai's cruise terminal at Port Rashid has a slightly other-worldly air about it. Dust from the desert hung in the air when I arrived, giving the skyscrapers of the downtown area a brownish, hazy aura. The 's 2,112-passenger QE2, with sun loungers still piled up on her aft decks, languished in a dock across the car park, her future still undecided. Still, I perked up after that much-needed caffeine shot and an early lunch, enjoying the feeling of the sun on my face. We set sail that night, buffeted by a warm wind, setting a course north for Fujairah, another of the United Arab Emirates.
What you soon realize about these Gulf cruises is that the distances between the ports are tiny. There was no real need to sail to Fujairah as we could have driven there from Dubai but it's good to get out to sea, away from the urban sprawl and the dust.
Fujairah doesn't have a lot of claims to fame and wasn't desperately inspiring at first glance; like many of the other port areas on this route, it's heavily industrialized and anything but scenic, 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 desert adventures. We drove for what seemed like ages through barren mountains and greener oases, eventually pulling up by a camel farm, veering off the road, where air would be let out of the tyres for the sand dune driving. The passengers of ten jeeps immediately leapt out to photograph a lone camel, surrounding it like paparazzi, snapping away. As if we weren't going to see any more camels during a week in the Gulf.
Dune bashing is fun if you can push your eco-guilt aside for an hour. The driver would race the jeep at the massive dunes, revving hard, and then ‘ski' down the soft, deep sand at terrifyingly steep angle, skidding and sliding, like an out of control rollercoaster ride in slow motion. Some drivers employed more skill than others, I noticed, and jeeps have been known to roll. For some reason, the promised market stop and village tour on the way back to the ship didn't materialize (we were running late because a loo stop in the morning had taken 40 minutes as 30 women queued for one grim toilet in a Fujairah petrol station) and we were dropped back at the ship feeling slightly short-changed.
Muscat was a whole lot more satisfying, partly because Oman is so beautiful and partly because the place oozes history and tradition rather than office towers and consumerism. My balcony cabin looked 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 and guarded by ancient forts. Omani ruler Sultan Qaboos' megayacht was moored close by, bigger than some small cruise ships I've sailed on.
A lot of people had booked private tours online before leaving for the cruise; one group had arranged their car and driver having met up on the Cruise Critic message boards and done some research online. As well as saving money, you also get a much more in-depth visit on a private tour. But I wanted to explore the stark beauty of the countryside before tackling the city and had booked another 4x4 tour through Royal Caribbean -- this time skimming the coast and then cutting deep into the mountains, off road, driving up stony wadis (vast, dried up river beds) past tiny, almost inaccessible hamlets that nestled in the shade of vast cliffs. The drivers were chatty and amusing; mine, Mohammed, had a curious obsession with Tina Turner, so information on Oman was interspersed with gossip about Tina and her fabulousness.
Because it was winter, some of the wadis had water in them. We stopped for a picnic of kebabs, hummous and spicy samosas by a deep, aquamarine lake, in which I had a long, cooling swim, Tina Turner's ‘Simply the Best' echoing off the rock faces at full volume from the jeep's stereo. It's hard to imagine that all that water disappears in the summer, when the wadi becomes a barren, inhospitable, sun-baked place.
Back at the ship, having showered off the dust, we took the free shuttle to the port gates and walked to the souk (the market), where mainly agreeable night time smells wafted through the warm air: grilling kebabs and incense wafting from the labyrinth of stalls, mingling with only a hint of drain. I bought a large pot of saffron, some frankincense oil to burn and a silk pashmina from a treasure trove of inlaid chests, silver daggers, great mounds of dried fruits and elaborate jewellery. Shopping in the souks in Oman is a pleasure; the people have a quiet dignity and haggling is gentle rather than boisterous and unseemly.
The call to prayer woke me the following morning, the Omani weekend, echoing across the harbour as the white-turreted houses on the mountainside glowed pink in the sunrise. I took a city tour, the highlight of which was the Grand Mosque, simply breathtaking in its vastness and riches. Some 20,000 worshippers can be accommodated in the huge, marble-clad structure, assembled under the sparkling lights of a Swarovski crystal chandelier powered by 1,740 light bulbs as they kneel on the second biggest carpet in the world, intricately hand-woven in Iran. In the Gulf, only the mosque in Abu Dhabi is bigger. Later, I wandered along the Corniche, gazing at the ornate wooden dhows (old fishing boats) bobbing on the water and watching Omani families out strolling, the men tall and regal in their floor-length white dish-dashas.
Belly dancing and belly flops
The itinerary includes a day at sea and finally, a chance to explore the ship. I joined a belly dancing class, as there wasn't really anything else that actually related to our destination, and had a lot of fun learning The Camel and The Snake. A much bigger crowd was later attracted to the International Belly Flop contest around the pool, where there was a party atmosphere as grown men performed painful-looking flops into the water, to the cheers of the onlookers.
Although parts of the Gulf, particularly Dubai, sell themselves on the basis of sun and shopping, there seemed very little connection on this cruise to the region's wider culture. I was longing for a taste of Middle Eastern mezze or even, heaven forbid, some kind of Arabian Nights theme party, but the only variation in the cuisine was noodles and dumplings in the casual Windjammer Café for the Chinese guests, who had a big Chinese New Year party on board. It all seemed so out of context with the mountains, the medieval forts, the oil wealth, the deserts and the ancient rituals of the Bedouin that we touched on during the tours. There was, however, nearly a brush with the locals on the sea day; the captain told me that we'd been cruising only 35 miles off the coast of Iran when he'd received a distress call from a sinking Iranian fishing boat. Another vessel got there first but if it hadn't, we'd have had a detour few would have bargained for.
It's amazing how quickly a day at sea goes, though. I had a very pleasant facial in the ship's spa; sat in Latte-tudes, my favourite daytime watering hole, drinking a top-notch latte with a double shot and checking my email; watched people trying out the climbing wall; laughed at the belly floppers; read my book for a while on my balcony; and hey presto, it was cocktail hour. Such is the decadence of cruising.
My companions and I developed a slightly unconventional evening routine on Brilliance. We always met for drinks in the Starquest Disco, which was usually empty before dinner, but I liked the sweeping views of the sea and pool deck from up there. We preferred the speciality restaurants to the main dining room because the food was so much better, especially the steaks and fish in Chops Grille, and we like to take a long time over a meal. Of course, the upshot of this is that we were too late for a lot of the shows, but a nightcap in the Champagne Bar, listening to the strains of the band drifting up from the atrium below, was a pleasant way to finish every evening. As a result, though, we didn't really mingle much with the other guests.
So it was with excitement that I opened the invitation for the Virgin Holidays Rock Star party in the Colony Club lounge. Curious, and keen to meet fellow cruisers, I went along, ready to make friends. Sure enough, the party was full, with waiters serving fizz, which we won't pretend was real champagne. But nobody was really mingling, as such; just eating. Trays of canapés were positioned around the room and despite the abundance of free food on the ship, people fell on them like vultures, hoovering up entire trays in one go. I saw one man actually pick up a tray and sweep all the canapés onto a plate with his hand. I stayed away from the food after that. Although the party was a nice idea, there were no speeches, and no real point to the event.
Castles in the Sand
At first glance, Abu Dhabi was another industrial port, another flat, sandy landscape, stretching into the shimmering heat haze. My companions and I wanted to visit Ferrari World, a new out-of-town theme park dedicated to, you've guessed it, Ferraris and Ferrari-themed roller coasters, but none of the taxis at the port would take us the 30-minute drive to Yas Island; they were all touting for full day guided tour business. With an attitude like that, I imagine a fair few would have had a long wait. So here's a tip: if you want to go anywhere in Abu Dhabi, take the free, open-top double decker bus from the port to Marina Mall, downtown, and grab a more friendly, affordable cab there.
The bus ride is a mini sightseeing tour in itself as the route goes right along the Corniche (the seafront), past huge sweeps of white, sandy beach, emerald-green parks and glittering skyscrapers like shards of glass. We even caught a glimpse of the $3 billion Emirates Palace Hotel, one of the most expensive properties ever built, where some people from the ship went to ogle the building's marble and gold interiors over afternoon tea.
Ferrari World's claim to fame is Formula Rossa, the world's fastest roller coaster, which catapults a scarlet car out of the starting blocks like a rocket, the force so extreme that your face wobbles and your stomach is left behind. So I'm told, having wimped out of doing it. I managed the lesser but still terrifying Fiorano GT Challenge, which simulates the acceleration and curves of real F1 race courses and reaches a mere 95 kph. But it's the building itself that took my breath away; a vast, glass and steel structure under a roof resembling a giant, scarlet Ferrari badge. One of the rides, G-Force, is encased in a vast, crystal-glazed funnel at the centre of the structure, and after hoisting you up for a birds-eye view of the island, sends you into a 62-metre, free-fall plummet.
For big kids and Ferrari-worshippers, Ferrari World is a must, although I heard some ladies cannily using it as a bargaining tool with their husbands: “I'll go to Ferrari World with you if you come to the shopping mall with me.”
Up the Burj
By now in the mood for excess, I booked a sightseeing tour for our last night in Dubai, the grand finale of which was a trip to the top of the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, a graceful spike of a tower which, at 2,716 feet, dwarfs everything else around it and is more than double the height of the Empire State Building.
The skyscraper overlooks a huge lagoon, which is encircled by boardwalks, shops and outdoor restaurants where people gather at sunset for the fountain show, which takes place every 30 minutes and is breathtakingly beautiful. Some 22,000 gallons of water are sprayed 500 feet into the air, illuminated by 6,600 lights and serenaded by Andrea Bocceli's ‘Time to say goodbye', bringing a tear to even the most cynical eye. Afterwards, we whooshed 124 floors up the tower in a silent lift, for dream-like views of the desert and ocean stretching all the way to the horizon.
The only trouble was that as the tour didn't return to the ship till 9.45 p.m., there was nothing to eat for our final dinner; not good timing on the part of the ship. Only the tiny Seaview Café was open, the staff clearly overwhelmed when two coachloads of ravenous people descended on them for pizza (this is a cruise, remember).
So here's my advice. Don't do the tour. Book the Burj Khalifa online, weeks ahead, timing your visit for sunset (all visits have a time slot). Take a taxi from the port, do the tower, admire the fountains as darkness falls and dine at one of the outdoor restaurants around the lake, a magical setting on a balmy night. Now that would be a real finish to this Arabian adventure.