As a cruising region, the Middle East -- which we define primarily as those Arabic countries bordering the Arabian and Red seas as well as the southeastern Mediterranean -- is bouncing back. To a point. A handful of cruise ships are trickling into this exotic region, easily the hardest hit by terrorism events in the first few years of the 21st century (from the tragic occurrences on September 11 on U.S. soil to the terrorist-attributed ship bombings of a French tanker and the U.S.S. Cole, an American military vessel, in Yemen).
The increase in confidence by cruise lines about sailing in the region is, of course, good news for cruise travelers with a penchant for exotic adventures and with a yen to explore beyond the more familiar environs of Europe, South America, Alaska, the Caribbean and Hawaii.
A Middle Eastern cruise itinerary will, of course, offer quite the bountiful buffet for fans of history, with highlights including some of the world's most notable ancient sites, from Egypt's pyramids to Jordan's lost city of Petra. It will also surprise you with its embrace, in many cases, of contemporary Western-style tourist features, such as Dubai's over-the-top-luxury hotels and gorgeous beaches, and the bustling port city of Aqaba, with its outdoor cafes that almost, if not quite, evoke a scene from the South of France.
And there are smaller, more exotic adventures, too -- shopping in the old souks, especially those selling gold and spices in Dubai and fabulous pashmina scarves in Muscat; visiting a local fish market in Aden; and embarking on desert safaris.
Ultimately, though, what is especially fascinating about a look -- even a quick glance, as it were, as you sail from port to port for daylong visits that often seem frustratingly short -- is the chance to be enveloped by the Muslim culture and lifestyle that, for all its importance in world affairs, is little known and little understood by most of us at home.
Prior to embarking on this first-ever visit to the Arabian peninsula and beyond, I felt as if I were setting off on the trip of a lifetime. Now, greedily, I very much hope that this is the first of many journeys through this mystical and mysterious part of the world. Experiencing the Middle East via cruise ship may well offer a pampered journey that seems ironic -- I almost felt guilty for not experiencing the Middle East via camel rides and visits to Bedouin campsites (!) -- but I must admit I did feel privileged, after an oft-dusty and dirty day on shore, to return to a ship whose welcome includes champagne and whose evenings featured gourmet dining.
It was, I must say, the perfect combination of savory and sweet.
Planning A Cruise
For North Americans, options to cruise the Middle East are still relatively limited. Silversea, Seabourn, Oceania, Crystal, Cunard and Regent Seven Seas Cruises -- all luxury operators -- offer trips here as ships reposition between Asia and Europe. That usually means a cruise or two in the spring and then again in the fall. Holland America is the only big-ship line to sail in the Middle East at this point -- though Prinsendam, the line's 784-passenger pathfinder, is not much bigger than some of the ships in the luxury lines.
Don't miss checking out some European-based options. Beyond North American cruise operators, European and British lines, which operate ships in the mid-sized category, offer some genuinely intriguing voyages. Examples include Hapag-Lloyd's Europa, Hanseatic and Columbus. And, because they are not necessarily as restricted as Americans to certain ports (at least for now), such as those in Yemen, may offer visits to places otherwise off limits. The downside, at least for some travelers, is that the atmosphere on board tends to reflect the cultures of the cruise lines -- so on Hapag Lloyd you will experience a German onboard lifestyle. Swan Hellenic is veddy, veddy British.
Most itineraries fall into the two-week or longer time length and, as such, tend to appeal to more experienced (and more senior) cruise travelers. Expect plenty of days at sea as certain parts of the Middle East -- Saudi Arabia most notably -- are off limits. But also take a careful look at ships' itineraries as some of them feature an inordinate amount of time spent at sea. Seabourn's 16-night "Red Sea & Africa" cruise on Seabourn Spirit, for instance, calls at just five ports (with overnights in two), which means a whopping nine days are spent at sea. That's, by the way, nine straight days at sea. A 14-night Silversea Suez canal trip between Port Said, Egypt, and Dubai, is a little less extreme, but still features four straight days on the high seas.
No matter how international the cruise operator, places you won't find open to ships anytime soon include ports in Israel, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq, and of course the aforementioned Saudi Arabia.
In some cases, itineraries will reflect all Middle Eastern stops (these typically, though not always, sail between Egypt's Suez Canal and Muscat or Dubai); in others, cruise lines blend ports from nearby regions, such as Asia and North Africa. In fact, North African countries, from Libya to Egypt, are quite common on Middle Eastern itineraries.
Finding A Cruise
If you do much of your own cruise planning using cruise line Web sites, you may find, as we did, that it is very difficult to easily search for Middle East cruises. That's because few -- actually none, come to think of it -- cruise lines categorize Middle East trips by the name of the region (understandable, perhaps, if the itinerary includes ports that bridge the Middle East, such as North Africa and Asia, but we found that even those all-Middle East trips were hard to find).
So our tip, beyond checking out Cruise Critic's Middle East and Africa destination section and working with a good travel agent who can do some of the legwork for you, is, when searching for U.S.-based lines' Middle East offerings, look through their "world cruise" itineraries, which sail between January and April (the Middle East portion tends to occur in March/April). For fall trips, the handful of Middle East itineraries available are actually repositioning cruises as ships move from Europe to the Far East.
On European lines, you could potentially find cruises at other times of the year; our trip on Hapag-Lloyd's Europa took place in late May/early June. That's an aberration, as the primary cruise season in the Middle East runs from late October to early April. Otherwise, it just gets too hot.
Ports of Call
If you want to amass a "greatest hits" collection of Middle Eastern ports, the most popular include:
Dubai: One of the seven of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai's a bit like an Arabic Las Vegas (sans the gambling and over-abundant alcohol); it's a city in the midst of an amphetamine-speeded development program. There are construction sites everywhere ... new hotels and resorts, high-rise condos, and gargantuan shopping malls. In this desert city, glittering skyscrapers tower over gorgeous beaches. It's known as well as a shopping mecca via old-world gold and spice souks and new-world mega-malls (one opening next year will feature an ice rink). This is also a great golf destination. Another claim to fame: Dubai is a major airport hub for the region. Just about all the majors fly here as does its own homegrown Emirates Air, now considered one of the world's best airlines, and so many cruises will start or end their voyages here.
Muscat: Just a short way south from Dubai on the Arabian coast, Oman's capital city is magical, and quite a contrast to its bustling northern neighbor. Its architecture, most of which is fairly modern, from the Grand Mosque to the Sultan's 1970's-esque palace, is elegant and features Islamic design. The old port city boasts one of the region's best souks. There are lovely beaches for swimming, gorgeous scenery beyond the city, and genuinely elegant resorts (whether for an add-on stay or a lunch while in port). Don't miss Chedi, a most contemporary Arabian-influenced resort, or the more traditional, but still characterful Al Bustan. The only down side? It's one of the hottest places in the world! On our visit in May, temperatures reached 46 degrees centigrade (nearly 115 degrees Fahrenheit) by 11 a.m.!
Aqaba: This Jordanian city on the country's southern tip is its only port (one branch of the Red Sea ends right here). What's really neat is that, from your ship, you can see three countries: Egypt, Israel and Jordan. People kept warning me before we called there that it was a poor place; au contraire! The city is experiencing quite a renaissance, with new five-star resorts being built on the beach front and what looked like a fabulous, thriving duty-free shopping area. It's also a major world destination for scuba divers and snorkelers, as gorgeous and significant coral reefs are located nearby. But the real reason ships call here is for the trip to Petra; this majestic, mysterious and eerie lost city, dating back some 2,000 years, is a two-hour drive away and is one of a handful of world sightseeing experiences that really should not be missed.
Luxor (Safaga): This Egyptian port is a drop off-spot for overland trips to the Valley of the Kings -- where highlights include the temples of Luxor and Karnak.
The Suez Canal: While not as dramatic a sight as the Panama Canal (the Suez has no locks or terribly scenic vistas aside from the desert), this canal, built in 1869, links the Red Sea to the Mediterranean and is the world's most strategically important waterway.
Interspersed between the "greatest hits of the Middle East" are smaller, more intimate ports of call that all have smaller, but no less impactful, pleasures to display. These include: Tartous (Syria), Salalah (Oman), Sharm el Sheikh/Sinai (Egypt), Bahrain, Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates), Aden (Yemen) and Tobruk (Libya).
While always sensitive to the customs of the countries I've visited, prior to my Middle Eastern cruise I had wound myself up in a real state of anxiety over language and currency and, most importantly, what to wear.
Language-wise, I found that of course Arabic, in its numerous dialects, was preeminent, but most folks I encountered in tourist-oriented arenas knew some English. One exception was the souks, or old marketplaces, but it was easy enough to barter anyway!
One big surprise was how many merchants and even taxi drivers accepted U.S. dollars and euros. But I wouldn't count on it, so be sure to ask first. In most places, ATMs were pretty accessible (one exception was Yemen); ships will also exchange currency, as will banks.
In Muslim countries, the weekend begins Thursday, and Friday is the main day off. As such, expect various closures, from restaurants to shops. Many ships will try hard, if possible, to spend Fridays at sea for that reason.
Dress-wise, while this region is often very (very) hot, especially between May and October, western casual wear -- tank tops, midriff tops, short shorts and even short slacks -- are really a no-no. What worked well for me and for many of the women on my cruise was to wear long-sleeved linen tops (they're not too heavy, but they cover you up) and tailored cotton or linen slacks. Everyone wears sandals (even the women in black no-nonsense burkas occasionally sported colorful footwear).
If you plan to visit a mosque, you will need a head covering (I bought my pashmina scarf in the souk in Muscat and it came in handy everywhere!), and women, especially, can show no skin -- not even a simple V-neck top or a pair of slacks that don't cover the ankles.
Onboard, of course, you can break out that teeny-weeny bikini, at least poolside!
Though I'm not necessarily the world's biggest fan of cruise line-operated shore excursions, I nevertheless recommend them on this itinerary. There wasn't a place we visited -- save for Dubai, perhaps -- where this world traveler felt comfortable exploring independently.
Another option is to arrange for a private guide. Our ship's concierge provided that service (or contact applicable countries' tourism ministries for recommendations). In some cases, it's actually cheaper; our private tour of Jordan's Petra, which included round-trip transportation from Aqaba (about two hours each way), a guide and lunch onsite, cost about $100 per person -- not a bad deal. And our experience was more in-depth as well; we had ample time to wander freely and poke into various nooks and crannies, and our lunch, on an outside terrace overlooking the rose-red carved city, was much more atmospheric (we noticed the group from our ship only experienced a cursory look at Petra then headed for a too-long lunch in a nearby hotel).
Rules and Regulations
Beware of visa regulations -- cruise lines may neglect to inform you until it's too late. Muscat is one country that requires them; you can, however, register for a Visa at either the port or the airport).
If you have Israeli stamps in your passport, you may be denied entry into many of the Arabic countries included in these itineraries; check with your cruise line if this applies to you.
Tourism officials in Dubai warned us against bringing any medication with codeine (a British woman was recently caught with prescription medication using codeine with no proof of doctor's writ and was briefly jailed). I'd be careful about the books and CDs/DVDs you bring with you; the folks in Dubai airport didn't seem too interested in what was in my suitcase, but it was scanned carefully in Muscat. On the other hand, once you are onboard it doesn't matter.
It is considered highly inappropriate to photograph Muslim women. Don't do it. And while many of the friendly men and kids were delighted to be photographed, do ask first for permission.
By Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor of Cruise Critic.
Photograph provided courtesy of the Government of Dubai, Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing.