The Arabian Gulf and other parts of the Muslim world have not always topped Western travellers' lists of cruise destinations, due in part to ongoing conflicts in the region and large cultural differences between European tourists and the citizens of the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Bahrain. But, cruise lines decided to take a chance on this exotic destination, easily accessible by ship, and what started as a leap of faith for both the lines and their passengers a couple of years ago is beginning to pay off. Recognising the benefits of warm, sunny winters, gorgeous beaches, an ancient and fascinating culture, and shopping opportunities galore, Royal Caribbean, Costa and MSC Cruises now offer regular cruising seasons in the Arabian Gulf, operating from Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
And, their passengers have discovered that, somehow, cruising this region makes you feel like a V.I.P. You'll fly on a top-notch airline to cities that are exotic and flashy. There, you'll find shopping that is out of this world and sports and activities that are extreme and unlike anything you've experienced before. Everything glitters in the year-round sunshine.
1. You're guaranteed winter sun. Even in January, the coolest month of the year, the Arabian Gulf should be warm enough for sunbathing and cool enough for sightseeing. Prolonged periods of rain are unusual. The wadis (riverbeds and mountain gullies, dry most of the year) are in bloom with greenery, and on some of the shore excursions in Oman, where all Gulf cruises call, you can swim in the freshwater rock pools. The cruise season starts in late October, when it's still pretty hot, and runs through to the end of March, when it begins to heat up. Choose your month carefully; at either end of the season, the heat can sap your strength.
2. The Gulf is affordable -- when you're on a ship. The quality of everything is high there -- the food in restaurants, for example, is generally outstanding -- but living the high life isn't cheap. The only thing that's really inexpensive is petrol. But, being on a budget doesn't exclude anybody from visiting the Gulf, as cruises are sold at such low base prices. A week on MSC Lirica, for example, can come in at less than £400 per person, full board, and kids sail free. You have to add flights to that, but it still adds up to a very reasonably priced, medium-haul family holiday. You can get around cheaply in the destinations, too; use the free buses from the ports to the shopping malls, ride Dubai's swanky new Metro monorail, or do your sightseeing on the cheap on the hop-on, hop-off Big Bus Tours.
3. You can add a resort stay for less. Staying in one of the famously lavish hotels in Dubai is an excellent start or finish to a cruise holiday for so many reasons. You can use the time to get over your jetlag, start (or top up) that tan, or use the hotel as a base from which to explore the city before or after your cruise. Plus, you'll feel like a celebrity in such opulent surroundings.
Better yet, it needn't cost the Earth. For U.K. passengers, tour operators like Virgin Holidays offer surprisingly competitive packages that include two days at Atlantis The Palm, combined with a week on Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas. Set at the top of the Palm, the first of Dubai's artificial islands, Atlantis offers everything from a 42-acre water park (with a slide that catapults you through a shark pool to dolphin encounters) and restaurants designed by celebrity chefs galore, including Nobo Matsuhisa (Japanese), Giorgio Locatelli (fancy Italian) and Michel Rostang (posh Parisian).
MSC Cruises also offers a cruise-and-stay option for its Abu Dhabi departures. Abu Dhabi has its own attractions: the giant Marina Mall, the biggest mosque in the Gulf and the new developments on Yas Island, which include the Grand Prix circuit and the world's first Ferrari theme park, Ferrari World.
4. The shopping has no limits. There's no denying that this is a culture devoted to shopping. Choose from old-style shopping in the souks (local markets), where whole alleyways are devoted to the soft, deep yellow 18- and 21-carat gold for which the region is famed, or in the lovely old market in Muscat, Oman, where the scent of incense wafts through the labyrinth of ancient shops. Or, go for new-style shopping in centres like Dubai's Mall of the Emirates and Dubai Mall or Abu Dhabi's Marina Mall -- emporia so vast they dwarf anything back home, with all the top designer brands on display and some great pricing. Thrown in for good measure, the Mall of the Emirates is built around the world's longest indoor ski slope, with real snow, while Dubai Mall has an Olympic-sized ice rink and one of the world's biggest aquariums.
5. The architecture is awesome. The Gulf is rich in visual experiences. Just because there are no big "stars" in the region -- no Eiffel Tower, no Taj Mahal -- doesn't mean you won't be left in awe by the mosques and the amazing architecture. The Grand Mosque in Muscat and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi are breathtakingly, jaw-droppingly beautiful. The trip to the top of Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world's tallest building, is an excursion in itself and a lesson in modern architecture.
6. The outdoorsy life beckons. Getting out of the cities on excursions is easy and is all part of the experience if you're a lover of the outdoors. From the ship, you can easily arrange trips to the desert for dune-bashing (exploring sand dunes via off-road vehicle), 4x4 excursions in Oman through mountains and wadis (something the locals love doing, too) or beach days at some of the Emirates' coastal resorts with snorkeling and water sports. From Dubai and Abu Dhabi, too, you can go on desert excursions where you can try sand-skiing, camel-riding and have dinner in a Bedouin tent.
7. It's easy to get to. Dubai is a busy hub and is well served by regional departures. British Airways and Virgin fly from Heathrow and Gatwick, while Emirates flies from Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow, for more options. Gulf Air serves Bahrain (with a huge network of onward connections) from various regional airports. Finally, Etihad will get you to Abu Dhabi or Dubai in style from Dublin, London and Manchester.
Cruises from Dubai and Abu Dhabi also attract English-speaking expatriates from southeast Asia, with easy connections on the big Middle Eastern carriers from places like Singapore and Hong Kong.
8. There's a sense of the exotic. The Gulf may appear superficially Westernised, but the Arabic traditions and the influence of Islam run deep. The call to prayer echoes out over the cities five times a day. You can visit the camel market at the inland town of Al Ain if you're in either Dubai or Abu Dhabi on a Thursday or Friday; although this isn't a typical cruise ship tour, there are countless, excellent local tour operators in every port who will arrange affordable, private excursions. Ancient pursuits like falconry and horsemanship aren't just for the tourists -- they're for real, although mainly as spectator sports. And, although you won't get much of a chance to experience the legendary Arab hospitality on a cruise, people are genuinely friendly and fascinating to talk to. Everybody has a story there, and although your driver or guide may be an Arab, he or she may not be local. Chat to them about their lives, and it'll be deeply rewarding.