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Middle East Virtual
About the Virtual Cruise
Middle East Virtual Visiting countries in the Middle East was a long-time dream for Cruise Critic's Carolyn Spencer Brown, who was eager for a more up-close-and-personal glimpse of the cultures, politics and religions spread across this vast region heretofore only reachable via newscast sound bites and video clips.

But where to start? The recent resurgence in sailings to the Arabian Peninsula (after a near standstill following the events of September 11, 2001) offered our Spencer Brown a chance to experience a Middle East "sampler." And as she chronicles in her virtual this month, her recent trip on Hapag-Lloyd's Europa -- which sailed from Muscat, Oman, to Piraeus, Greece, via a Suez Canal transit -- was indeed a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Join us for an eight-day virtual cruise that begins with a side trip to Dubai, one of the seven United Arab Emirates and the Arabian Gulf's glittering version of Las Vegas (really!). Brown then moves on to Oman's elegant Muscat, where she will board Europa. The itinerary is quite distinctive, calling at Oman's thriving port city, Salalah, and making two stops in Yemen (quite off limits to travelers who sail on American cruise lines), along with a visit to Aqaba in Jordan, the jumping off point for the wonders of Petra. After a quick call at Egypt's Hurghada, the main events are a transit through the Suez Canal, a brief foray into Port Said and a lovely beach day in Crete before winding up in Athens' port city of Piraeus.

Day 1: Dubai
Day 2: Muscat
Day 3: Embarkation in Muscat
Day 4: At Sea
Day 5: Salalah
Day 6: Aden
Day 7: Aqaba
Day 8: Suez Canal
Day 9: Crete, Heading Home from Piraeus
Related Links
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Day 1: Tuesday, Dubai
DubaiDubai may well be the Middle East's most established port of embarkation (in fact it boasts one of the world's nicest cruise terminals) but on my recent cruise, a two-week trip around the region on Hapag Lloyd's Europa, our voyage actually began in Muscat, Oman -- and never so much as kissed Dubai.

For most folks, a visit to Dubai is an easy pre- or post-cruise option -- and even if my cruise didn't start here no way was I going to miss out. That city, dubbed the "Las Vegas of the Middle East," is the glitziest, most Westernized place on the Arabian Peninsula. It's known for its gorgeous white sand beaches, and home to the legendary Burj al Arab Hotel (in a Marilyn Monroe sort of way, you know, "legendary in its own time"), which has designated itself a six-star property (even though there is no such thing). With its famous Jumeirah Mosque, a contemporary shopping mall designed like a souk, a penchant for camel racing, and the Wild Wadi Waterpark -- well, who would miss this place?

Dubai of course is the glitziest of the United Arab Emirates, a union of seven sovereign sheikdoms that was created in 1971 when it achieved independence from Britain. Fronting the Arabian Gulf, Dubai is basically a place that was created out of desert, with gleaming skyscrapers, mammoth shopping malls and lavish resorts situated on lush, irrigated grounds. Its relatively newfound development -- occurring over the past 30 years or so -- has resulted in such a transformation in this oil-poor place that its original parts are pretty much relegated to museum-like status (but we'll get to that later).

All of this appeal, and the fact that the easiest way to fly to Muscat, about an hour's plane ride away, is to connect through Dubai anyway, provided more encouragement for a pre-cruise stay here.

At the outset, one of the more intimidating aspects of planning this cruise around the Middle East was unfamiliarity with airlines serving the region. That turned out to be a no-brainer -- just about all the major carriers offer one (or more) stop service, such as United, Lufthansa, KLM, Virgin Atlantic, Northwest.

What was more intriguing -- and more to the point, what felt closer to the spirit of the trip -- was the fact that Dubai-based Emirates Air had recently launched nonstop service from JFK to Dubai. The idea of flying the country's airline was an intriguing introduction to Dubai and, as it turned out, quite a comfortable one as well, despite the 14-hour flight that took off in darkness (11:30 p.m.), flew in darkness and landed in, er, darkness (9:10 p.m. the next day). As a footnote, since my trip North American demand for Dubai flights has been so successful the airline has added some daytime options. Regardless of what time you fly, big spenders should definitely splurge on the airline's famed and over-the-top first-class service but I will say that, with private seatback televisions offering some 400 channels, and excellent food and beverage service, even I was comfortable in coach for the entire flight.

Passengers on the flight were such a mix; it was exciting to see men in turbans and women in burkas, the robes Muslim women wear that cover most, if not all, of their bodies. Attendants on our flight, by contrast, represented a veritable United Nations -- my seatmate, who happened to be an attendant for Emirates returning home to Dubai after a vacation in the U.S., was from India. Others hailed from the remaining United Arab Emirates, and even Belgium, Scotland and other places. The pilot sounded British.

And indeed, even upon arrival at the Dubai International Airport, while Muslim culture was ever-present around us, signs were consistently posted in Arabic first, then English second (and German third). It was exotic to be sure but not bewildering.

I'd booked two nights at the Traders Hotel -- an excellent, business-oriented hotel in Deira, near the airport. It was the perfect place to head to that first night, when I was exhausted and disoriented (comfortable and with an excellent in-house restaurant) but I'd recommend that anyone staying for more than a night in Dubai splurge on one of the beachfront resorts in Jumeirah or stay at one of the hotels in the Bar Dubai area.

After a weird night's sleep (Dubai is eight hours ahead of the U.S. East Coast; going to bed at what was the equivalent of 2 p.m. East Coast time probably wasn't my smartest move), I was awake by 4 a.m. local time and as such got to watch the sun rise in Dubai. Every morning thereafter my time clock was way off -- more so than, say, a visit to the Baltic region which is a difference of seven hours.

But with only a day and a half to sightsee a little jet lag wasn't a big factor.

First things first: What gets missed when you read about Dubai these days is that it has a history of its own that has nothing to do with opulent and grand Western accommodations, restaurants and attractions. Bar Dubai is a great first morning place -- it's the historic home. Start with the Dubai Museum in the Al-Fahidi Fort. Dating back to 1787, it's the place to learn, for instance, that up until the 1950's Dubai was a backwater fishing village -- unlike many Middle Eastern entities blessed with oil -- and has a strong Bedouin heritage. The museum houses antiquities and even more interesting, old photographs of the city prior to its expansion so you can really get a feel for what it was. Another great blast-from-the-past is the Hatta Heritage Village and the adjacent Sheikh Saeed al-Maktoum House.

For shoppers, the traditional spice and gold souks, nearby, are still very much central to Dubai's lifestyle and economy; plan to bargain.

And one don't-miss sight along Dubai's creek, also known as Khor Dubai, is the marina for "dhows." These are rickety canvas colored boats that carry cargo from the duty-free Dubai to other nations in the region -- we saw dhows loaded with everything from a car to a refrigerator.

After a diverting foray to Jumeirah with a visit to the Souk Madinat (the aforementioned shopping mall designed to resemble a traditional souk) and an abortive effort to visit the famed Burj al Arab (they wouldn't let me in without a pre-made reservation) -- the afternoon's highlight and lowlight respectively -- there was one more much-anticipated activity.

An afternoon-into-evening desert safari is a must if you're overnighting. Book it through your hotel and you'll ride, along with four other tourists, in a Toyota Land Cruiser (count on the company of another 20 tourist-packed SUVs as well) through the desert. It's a bit of a thrills and chills experience (and folks afflicted with motion sickness should definitely bring their potions) -- drivers race up and down sand dunes, seemingly recklessly (though they swore to me they'd never lost a tourist), occasionally either listing precariously (wear that seat belt) or getting stuck in the sand altogether.

Afterwards, we were taken to a camp in the desert for entertainment, in the form of belly dancing, and a scrumptious dinner of Middle Eastern specialties, such as lamb, hummus and rice. You could shell out a few UAE dirhams ($1 is about 3.50) to ride a camel, have your feet henna'd, snowboard down a sand dune, or buy a beer (I wish I hadn't been so jet lagged that at that point I didn't remember which brand it was but my newly met English friends thought it was great). The belly dancer's performance was free.

Tomorrow, we head to Muscat for an overnight there before boarding Europa.

Photograph of Dubai provided courtesy of the Government of Dubai, Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing.
  Day 2: Muscat

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