Editor's note: Costa Victoria is no longer sailing the Arabian Gulf, but Costa has other ships on this route.
The Arabian Gulf (a.k.a. the Persian Gulf) is cruising's newest destination, and for me, the big attraction was the novelty of the itinerary. Indeed, the exotic-sounding ports of call will send most people scurrying for a map to look up destinations such as Muscat (the capital of Oman), Fujairah and Abu Dhabi (both in the United Arab Emirates) and Manama City (in Bahrain). The only somewhat familiar name is the embarkation port of Dubai, known for its man-made islands, world's tallest building and indoor ski slope.
While Dubai, as well as Muscat and other Middle East cities, have long had occasional cruise visitors, Costa kick-started the Middle East's growth as a cruise region in 2006 when it launched the first ever seven-night cruises from Dubai on the 53,000-ton, 1,308-passenger Costa Classica. The cruises were an instant success, providing a great alternative for those who have been-there, done-that in the Caribbean and Canaries. The weather is warm, there's plenty of sand (desert!) and sea, and for the British, the eight-hour flight time is much the same (it's still quite a long haul for North Americans).
After my trip on Costa Victoria, I've probably done more desert safaris and gazed at more shiny, new buildings than I ever thought possible and I'm glad I had the adventure of travelling in an exotic and different part of the world. In a place that, even suffering effects from the global recession, still exists in a state of change, I may have to return for another visit.
First Things First: The Commute and Embarkation
Embarkation in Dubai may be unlike any cruise experience I've had but the trip begins like just another foreign cruise -- with a flight. We flew overnight from London, arriving in Dubai first thing in the morning. While the trip is a do-able eight hours for Brits, North Americans have a longer journey, flying 12.5 hours nonstop from New York or around 16 hours from Los Angeles. All Americans and Brits need to enter the U.A.E. is a valid passport, and you'll get the free, 30-day tourist visa at the airport.
Once you're at the port is where experienced cruise travellers will notice a difference. Both Costa's and Royal Caribbean's itineraries schedule two days in Dubai at the beginning and end of each cruise. Costa, for example, spends from midday Friday to midday Sunday in port. What that means is that passengers can join the ship anytime between early Saturday, as we did, and Sunday morning. Debarking passengers can head out from Friday afternoon through Saturday afternoon. We boarded on the early side as we were flying out early the following Saturday; those who arrived later departed late Saturday.
At the port, passengers from the previous cruise will be heading out for the day's desert excursions while a trickle of new guests is arriving. The system means hordes of people swarming around at various times, all with luggage -- those leaving have to vacate their cabins, those arriving can't access their staterooms until 8 p.m. But don't worry -- ship staff have it all under control. On Costa, a supervised room is set up in the casino where you can dump everything and get on and enjoy the day.
The benefit of this system is that you have flexibility with regard to flights -- and you can make the most of your first day in Dubai without having to kill time in a cruise terminal. On the down side, if all you want to do is take a nap after a long, overnight flight, you won't have access to the bed in your cabin until after dinner.
Be Prepared for a Whirlwind First Day
You're probably going to arrive too late in the morning to take the ship's tours, so consider arranging a private tour as your introduction to Dubai, as we did. Our driver Wahid took us on an afternoon whistle-stop trip of all the places that have put Dubai firmly on the “wow” map. (As we're not so keen on upscale shopping or water parks, it wasn't beach weather, and we'd planned a desert safari for later, a city tour was pretty much our only option anyway.)
Sights are spread out, so be prepared for a lot of time in the car, especially given Dubai's ferocious traffic. Here are a few of the sights you won't want to miss:
Jumeirah Mosque: Our first stop, the Jumeirah Mosque is a modern mosque built in a traditional style. Tours are offered on Saturdays, Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays so visitors can learn about Islam. There's no need to book, but ladies need to be covered from head to toe. We had a look at the exterior and moved on.
Burj al Arab Hotel: Don't miss the Burj al Arab Hotel, which is designed to look like the sail of a ship. We joined the happy snappers outside. We would have liked to go inside but Wahid explained you can only get in with a reservation -- for a meal, afternoon tea or cocktails in the Skyview Bar -- and if you're wearing the right clothes (described on the hotel's Web site as U.A.E. national dress or a shirt with a collar, long trousers and closed-toe shoe for men -- oddly, no dress code is given for women). With tea at 395 dirhams per person (about $109), I decided we'd look for a Starbucks instead.
Hotel Madinat Jumeirah: Next door, we had a quick look in the soukh at the Hotel Madinat Jumeirah. The soukh is very symbolic of Dubai because it's a contemporary, upscale market designed to look like traditional one. It's an eerie blend of past and present that's partly appealing and partly jarring -- like much of Dubai's architecture.
Palm Jumeirah: One of the chains of man-made islands being constructed offshore, the Palm Jumeirah has been built in the shape of a palm tree – hence the name. Its prime attraction for daytrippers is the new Atlantis Hotel. It's a fantasy hotel on a fantasy island, and if you it reminds you of Atlantis in the Bahamas, you'll be spot on. Non-residents can wander inside – is this the only country in the world where hotels are key tourist attractions? – and visit the superb if costly aquarium for 100 dirhams per person (about $28). Other sights in Dubai include an indoor ski slope (in the Mall of Emirates) and another aquarium (in the new Dubai Mall) not to mention the Burj Dubai, the world's tallest building (located just outside of Dubai Mall).
I was duly impressed with these and other feats of construction, but I couldn't help thinking that Dubai felt very sterile. There were lots of shiny, new buildings, but I didn't see any people walking around (they were all trapped in their cars in traffic jams) or get a sense of the city's personality.
But the last stop of the day changed that impression. The Mina Bazaar -- an area of town with low-rise shops, restaurants, the Dubai Museum (where you can learn about the rise of this city built on sand) and people strolling from souk to cafe. It quickly became my favourite place because at last I felt we'd arrived in the heart of the city. Here, finally, were the real people of Dubai living out their real lives.
No Sea Days for You
An Arabian Gulf itinerary is jam-packed with back-to-back full days in port. The only sea days are the half days spent sailing from and returning to Dubai. In fact, the cruising region here is so small that the jeeps from a desert safari in one port will drive to the next port after the cruise ship sails and be waiting for a new crop of tourists when the ship docks the next morning. If you're looking for some onboard R&R, you'll have to miss time onshore to find it.
Our ship overnighted in Dubai and we had a half day the next day to explore but lethargy crept in – and the realisation that the port is so far out of the city itself that by the time we got anywhere it would be time to come back. So we took the morning to shake off jet lag instead. We also felt like we needed a "sea day" to familiarize ourselves with the ship -- especially as we had spent our first day exploring the city before collapsing into bed immediately after dinner.
Still, as we finally pulled away for our half day at sea, we felt rested and ready for our Arabian adventure.
Challenges of Port Exploration
Planning your time ashore in the Gulf cities is a bit trickier than on a Caribbean or European cruise. While you have the same three options -- exploring alone, taking a ship's excursion or organising a private tour -- the pros and cons of each choice are different in this part of the world.
I'm normally a great advocate of do-it-yourself sightseeing because it gives you a sense of freedom, and it can be fun finding your way around new places. But in the Gulf, I'd forget that as an option.
That's because the Arabian Gulf is still a relatively new cruise market. Cruise ships don't have big fancy terminals in the middle of town; they're typically located on the outskirts of cities in larger, industrial ports. At each destination, you have to take a bus from the ship to the port entrance, where there are taxis waiting to take you into town. However, the drivers don't always speak great English, and you need to be good at haggling and know precisely where you want to go. Otherwise, you'll probably just end up at the local mall. The cities are so spread out that it's a challenge to get around them.
If you're committed to independent exploration, do your homework in advance. Bring a guidebook and a good map, and know where you want to go and how to get there. Winging it does not work well here, and you should not expect the cruise line to do a lot to help you get around on your own beyond providing a basic map, so come prepared.
For example, in Fujairah, the receptionist at the purser's desk said it would take about 20 minutes to walk from the ship to the soukh in town, adding, "There's nothing to see on the way but sometimes seeing nothing can be very interesting." She was wrong on both accounts. We began our walk along a busy road without a pavement, and 20 minutes in, other Costa passengers ahead of us hailed a cab and sped off. We were determined to get some exercise in, and kept going. One and a half hours later, we got to the soukh, which was absolutely minute. We took one look, saw a fish market full of dead, smelly fish, and caught a taxi back to the ship. Had we known what to expect, we might have stayed onboard.
Then in Bahrain, Costa had again provided a useless map, which failed to show where the ship's shuttle would take us or to even list the names of more than three streets. We'd heard that Bab al Bahrain was the place to go, so we decided to shell out for the shuttle anyway - €6 return each– and see what the day brought.
The bus dropped us by Bab al Bahrain, an authentic soukh with alleyways and small shops selling everything from socks to CDs and fake designer watches.
We had a wander – the locals don't hassle you, which is much appreciated - and then set about trying to find the Grand Mosque, which was the only attraction shown on our map. After three people sent us in opposite directions – as we didn't actually know where we were on the map we didn't know which way to go – we decided to get the shuttle back to the ship and spend the afternoon soaking up some sun. Ironically, we drove past the Grand Mosque on our ride back to the port, and it certainly would have been one heck of a long walk from the soukh. We really would have benefited from having our own map and guidebook or at least some advance planning.
Of course, you can always choose to book a ship's tour and let the cruise line do the work for you. However, I found Costa's tours expensive and without much variety from port to port -- lots of desert safaris, museums and city tours -- but that is as much the nature of the destination as the fault of the cruise line. You just won't find the same breadth of attractions as in other cruising regions.
If you feel safer and more comfortable sticking with the ship's offerings, go for it. If nothing else, you'll be secure in the knowledge that the ship won't sail without you if the trip is delayed.
Ultimately, private tours are really your best bet in the Arabian Gulf. We did two private tours and it was great to be driven around in a smart car and to see the things we wanted to see. It's also surprisingly inexpensive.
If this option appeals, you can find lots of ground operators online. It's hard to know which operators are better or more reputable than others, but my rule of thumb is to move on if the Web site is heavy on Flash, with lots of dancing colours and pictures distracting from the real content. If I can't easily find the information I'm looking for, or if prices aren't listed, I move on. You can also try contacting the tourism board to ask about particular companies or post questions on the Africa & Middle East Cruise Critic Message Boards to get advice from past cruisers.
Our Dubai desert safari was booked with Lama Tours cost £48 per person for an afternoon safari and evening BBQ. For comparison, the full-day ship's desert safari in Oman cost £115 per person and included lunch. Lama also has city tours, shopping tours, dhow cruises and trips out into the countryside.
Try It, You Might Like It
One of the good things about cruising in an exotic region like the Arabian Gulf is that you can test out future vacation destinations. You can see which places you like and which you don't. If you like a port, you can go back later for a more in-depth visit, and if you don't, well, you're only there for a day.
In my case, Fujairah was a disappointment. One of the seven United Arab Emirates -- along with Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain -- Fujairah is better known as a business destination than a tourist hub. Honestly, if there was any port on our itinerary that would've been better as a sail-by, this was it.
The reason this port didn't agree with me was because only three ship excursions were on offer and not a one appealed to me. One was a desert jeep safari, which was ubiquitous in every port on our itinerary; one was a tour of the emirates, which seemed like a lot of time stuck in a bus with only a few brief stops to see a fort, some old tools and coins in a museum, and yet another market; and the third was a day at a resort, which I can do anywhere.
On the other hand, I loved Abu Dhabi. I'd read they call it the Manhattan of the East. And as we pulled into port, I could see why -- the skyline was a cohesive line of high-rise buildings and gleaming skyscrapers. Here was a city with atmosphere, one where people actually seemed to live.
I had organised a private tour and by 9 a.m. our driver, Nile, was waiting at the port gate in his silver Mercedes. We glided along the Corniche -- the sea to one side and the glinting high-rise towers on the other -- on the way to the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque. It's named after the man who ruled Abu Dhabi for more than 30 years, between 1971, when the UAE was founded, and his death in 2004.
Like so much of the UAE, it is shiny and new -- it only opened in 2007. The mosque's design and the materials used to build it came from all over the world; I later discovered that Kevin Dean, a British artist friend of a friend, did the beautiful floral interior design. Manmade lakes surround the mosque, mosaics and marble decorate the interior and exterior, the prayer hall boasts the largest carpet in the world, and of the seven 24-karat gold-plated chandeliers, the largest is also the biggest on earth. It's impressive to say the least.
Anyone can go in and it's free, but women have to wear an abaya – a long black gown – and head scarf. Both are provided free. Everyone has to remove shoes. It's certainly a novelty to be so covered up, and like many of the tourists trailing around the mosque, we took pictures of ourselves in our exotic get-ups.
Next stop was the Emirates Palace Hotel, another display of architectural audacity. The eighth floor of the central building houses seven suites, one for each of the emirates' rulers, each with a private drive and entrance (the hotel is owned by the government, but run by Kempinski).
On the floors below there are enormous suites for the rich and famous – I managed to have a show around and you could get a family of four into the showers alone! - while the ordinary folk can book a room in either the west or east wings. If you'd like to see a bit of this awe-inspiring resort, both Costa and Royal Caribbean offer city tours that include high tea at the hotel.
The hotel also has an exhibition showing what's coming in Abu Dhabi over the next five years or so – a Louvre, a Guggenheim, and maritime and national museums (the latter named after Sheikh Zayed). It's all good stuff, but more noteworthy than what's inside the museums are the designs of the buildings themselves. Unbelievable is an understatement.
We capped off our tour with a delicious eat-all-you-can buffet lunch at the Shangri-La Hotel Qaryat Al Beri with lots of Middle East food, including humus and other dips, salads and grilled meats. Afteward, we had just enough time for a quick look around Marina shopping mall – Top Shop or La Senza anyone? – before Nile had to take us back to the port.
Ah Bliss, Some Down Time
One of the nicest mornings of the trip was the one half day we had at sea headed back to Dubai. It was the only time I ever saw any games around the pool, all in several languages to cater for the many nationalities onboard. This isn't the typical cruise that revolves around onboard life, so this was a really nice chance to just feel like you're on a cruise. Arabian Gulf cruises spend very little time at sea, and the trips are more about the ports than the ship. Other than grabbing a bite to eat or catching an evening show on occasion, we didn't participate much in ship activities because we were only on the ship at night and we were exhausted from touring all day.
However, with newer ships beginning to homeport in Dubai, the ports may start to get some competition from onboard activities. Brilliance of the Seas has onboard rock climbing and mini-golf, as well as a revolving bar with ocean views. Sisters Costa Luminosa and Costa Deliziosa will entertain passengers with Playstation 3 (PS3) game consoles in every cabin, a 20-seat 4D cinema, a top-deck skating track ("Skorpion" skates attach to shoes) and an 18-hole championship golf course simulator, as well as the two-deck Samsara Spa and a Grand Prix race car simulator.
The Ubiquitous Desert Safari
You can do a desert safari on almost every port on the itinerary, and we actually did it twice, once on a ship's tour and once on a privately arranged tour. They pretty much work the same way: You hop in a 4X4 with some other tourists, drive out to the desert, deflate the tires (for better traction on sand) and bump around as your driver takes you up and over the dunes. Jeep safaris are great fun but they do involve a lot of bouncing around. If you are prone to motion sickness, they might be best avoided.
Our first jeep safari -- and the only ship-booked excursion we did -- was an all-day tour in Muscat, Oman, that cost a steep £115 per person. We were allocated a jeep with an English-speaking couple – Peter was Dutch, his wife Susan was from the U.K. – who lived in Holland. That was a relief as it meant conversation could flow during the nine hours. When you're on a ship filled with mostly Italians and a host of other nationalities, it's not a given that you can chat with your fellow cruisers.
Much of the day was spent driving on tarmac roads, which was disappointing as we had hoped for more slip-sliding over the desert sands. We only had about 10 minutes of actual dune-bashing, as it's called, because the guides had to spend half an hour or so rescuing a jeep that got stuck in a dune. Lunch was a picnic in Wadi Bani Khalid oasis before the long drive back to the ship.
I'd arranged another desert safari for our final afternoon in Dubai with a company called Lama Tours. Ismail arrived in his jeep to pick us up at 2.30 p.m. and collected four Indian women en route.
A tip – fill a jeep or book it exclusively. If your group isn't big enough to fill a jeep, you can look for people to join you on Cruise Critic's Roll Call boards. Be sure to say whether you're looking for a tamer ride or whether your attitude is the bumpier the better. That way your trip won't be spoiled (as ours was) by going too slow or fast.
Even though we were the first people in the jeep, the Indian tourists insisted that we sit in the back, which was very cramped and airless. Also, two of our new companions were elderly and scared, and begged Ismail to go slowly. It was very frustrating as we had been hoping for a few thrills after our rather sedate experience in Oman.
Having said that, our 30 minutes driving over the sands, powering up and around the top of dunes was good fun. You have to strap on a seat belt, hold tight and have faith.
The six-hour trip included an evening BBQ at a desert camp several of the safari companies have set up. You can get a henna tattoo or ride a camel for free, or ride a quad bike for an extra fee. The tour also includes soft drinks and a BBQ – lots of cooked meats, falafel and humus. It was good fun -- but no one had warned us how cold it got at night in the desert and just how long we would stay at the desert camp. By the time the belly dancer came on, I was too cold to appreciate much – but the local men loved it! All in all, at 199 dirhams (about $55) it was a far better buy than the Costa trip in Oman. Just remember to bring a sweater.
Customs of the Countries
Westerners may be nervous or hesitant about visiting Middle Eastern countries, where the cultures are quite different from what we're used to. But if you keep a few pieces of advice in mind, you'll be just fine.
First of all, know that Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Fujairah, Bahrain and Oman are all Muslim countries. Please respect their religion and customs and don't wander around towns in skimpy shorts and tops. You will not give offense as long as you keep your shoulders and knees covered in public places. If you wish to visit a mosque, you will need to be totally covered up. If you're not properly attired, attendants will give you a wrap or abaya to put on.
Another word on clothing: It can get very chilly in the desert in the evenings between November and mid-April. If you're staying out after dark, for instance for an evening BBQ, be sure to take a jacket.
Safety is no more or less an issue than in other major cities. I felt very safe in all the countries we visited but it's wise to take the usual precautions when visiting a strange place. Don't carry too much money, make sure any cash and cards you do have are out of the reach of pickpockets, and don't accept lifts in unmarked cars.
And speaking of money, all the countries use different currency - dirhams in the UAE, rials in Oman and dinars in Bahrain. The best advice is to stock up on small amounts of the local currency for taxis and market purchases. Dollars and euros will be accepted for tips.
A Different Kind of Cruise
While the novelty of experiencing a different place and culture was clearly intriguing to me -- as it is to many Westerners -- I ultimately discovered on this trip that there's not as much to do in port in the Arabian Gulf cities as in other cruising destinations. Although an Arabian Gulf cruise offers the chance to get a snapshot of places that have become a byword for excess and over-the-top construction projects, many of the most hotly anticipated attractions, such as Dubai Land and the Louvre and Guggenheim museums in Abu Dhabi, simply aren't completed yet. While there will be a wide array of onshore activities five years from now, the offerings aren't quite as good today, consisting mainly of desert safaris and city tours. Another downside to cities with so many ongoing building projects is that nothing gets built without cranes -- you'll be seeing an awful lot of cranes, which is frustrating when you are taking pictures.
A comment made by a couple we met on the cruise pretty much summed up my thoughts on this trip. They said they'd chosen the cruise because they wanted to experience the area, but didn't want to spend more than a day in each place. Until a few more of the "wow" projects in the region are completed, I'd say that one day per city is just the right amount of time.