For cruisers who have visited all the usual travel spots -- or just want a guaranteed spot of sun in the middle of winter -- a voyage through the Middle East's Arabian Gulf countries may be just the ticket.
While cruising in this area of the world is still evolving, the relatively stable countries of Oman and United Arab Emirates (home to Dubai and Abu Dhabi), as well as Bahrain and Qatar are all looking to attract more passengers. European lines such as MSC and Costa already base ships in Dubai for the winter season; the 2015–2016 cruise season will see Royal Caribbean join their ranks, while Celebrity will set sail out of Abu Dhabi.
Click through our slideshow following a typical Arabian Gulf itinerary to read more about what you can see and do in this part of the world.
--By Chris Gray Faust, Destinations Editor
As the Arabian Gulf's main embarkation port, Dubai boasts plenty of superlatives. Don't worry if you can't see it all in one day; most cruises spend an overnight here either at the beginning or end of your cruise. Before you board, you'll want to check out the view from Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest manmade structure. Next door is The Dubai Mall, one of the world's largest shopping centers, where you can see firsthand this regions love for designer labels.
Tip: While much of Dubai is focused on the new, new, new, Frying Pan Adventures focuses on the cultures -- and the cuisine -- that make up this international city. Take a walking tour that allows you to taste all varieties of Middle Eastern/Indian/African cuisine or join a photo tour through the markets.
Photo: Ashraf Jandali/Shutterstock
Arabian Gulf cruise itineraries tend to either head north toward Bahrain and/or Qatar or south to Oman. While I would have preferred the latter, my ship Costa neoRiviera visited Bahrain instead. The country's mass tourism industry is still evolving, and we found the ship's Best of Bahrain tour a bit of a bore. Instead of just visiting the world-famous Formula 1 Bahrain International Circuit, for example, I should have signed up for the Adventure Course, which allows you to ride the course in a 4 x 4.
Tip: Because Bahrain's cruise port is closed to taxis, it's difficult to plan a private tour. Your best bet for independent travel is to take the cruise line shuttle to Manama (Bahrain's capital) and hire a taxi there.
Photo: Eugene Sergeev/Shutterstock
The world's richest nation, Qatar isn't a regular stop on cruise itineraries in the region. That could change in 2016, however, after the government converts the port in Doha, currently used primarily for containers, to a cruise terminal. Ships that have stops in the country offer excursions to the Museum for Islamic Art, a collection spanning 1,400 years that's housed in a building designed by I.M. Pei.
Tip: While Doha has more than its share of malls and luxury shops, head to Souq Waqif where, among the usual souvenir, spice and gold markets, you'll find a block dedicated to shops selling falcons and accessories related to the ancient sport of falconry.
Photo: Andrzej Kubik/Shutterstock
Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, is lusher and greener than its sister Dubai, with a seaside corniche that is downright pleasant to walk on. It also is home to one of this region's largest and most beautiful mosques, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Free tours in English are available daily. If you visit only one Islamic heritage site on your cruise, make it this one.
Tip: Women will have to wear a body-covering abaya (a loose hooded dress) to visit the Mosque. You can borrow one for free during your visit, by leaving your ID. With tight sleeves, deep hoods and black coloring, these abayas do give Westerners the experience of seeing what it's like to follow Muslim customs of dress.
Photo: Patryk Kosmider/Shutterstock
Abu Dhabi (Continued)
The largest emirate, Abu Dhabi has vast expanses of desert outside the main city, which makes it a perfect place to do a sand safari. Offered by both the cruise lines and independent operators, these tours vary in length and activities, but most involve "dune bashing," where your SUV roars up and down the slopes. On these trips, it's worth getting up early to witness a sunrise, if your itinerary allows it.
Tip: Dune bashing is the most fun when you're in the front seat; if you get stuck in the back, ask a person sitting up front to switch with you periodically. This is also not an activity for the queasy; take a motion sickness remedy if you know you're susceptible.
Photo: Victor Maschek/Shutterstock
The only emirate not on the Arabian Gulf (it's on the Gulf of Oman), Fujairah is also unusual for its mountainous terrain. Popular tours include a drive into the Hajar Mountain range, with a photo stop at Fujairah Fort, a 300-year-old structure that's under renovation. Other sites include the oldest mosque in the UAE.
Tip: If your cruise has been lacking in beach days, there are several resorts within driving distance of the port that allow you to relax off ship. Fridays are the weekend in Arab countries and Le Meridien Al Aqah Beach Resort has a special Friday day pass that includes a lavish brunch. Ship beach excursions allow access to Snoopy Island, known for snorkeling.
Photo: Philip Lange/Shutterstock
On the Musandam Peninsula, surrounded by the UAE, Khasab is actually part of Oman -- and one of that country's more scenic areas. The most popular excursions here involve taking small native boats, known as dhows, along the rugged coastal fjords. Dolphins are often seen in the area and the vessels usually stop near Telegraph Island, which served as the main cable station between India and the U.K. during the height of the British Empire.
Tip: If all the desert has given you is a hankering for higher elevation, take a tour to the top of Jebel Harim (the Mountain of Women). The highest peak on the peninsula provides views of terraced villages, forests and wadis (dry riverbeds).
Photo: Styve Reineck/Shutterstock
After the "newness" of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the atmospheric Old Town in Muscat, Oman's capital, is a welcoming sight. Take a walk along the lively corniche by the waterfront and visit the Muttrah souk, for a Middle East bazaar experience. Other city sights include the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque -- one of the largest on the Arabian Peninsula -- and a pair of forts left over from the 140-year period when Portugal occupied the country.
Tip: Many ships overnight in Muscat, allowing passengers to take a sunset sail on a dhow (a traditional Arabic sailboat) or a meal in a local Omani restaurant; popular dishes include marak samak (fish curry), kabuli (spiced rice and meat) and rokhai (crispbread).
Photo: A Jellema/Shutterstock
On your second day in Muscat, take a day trip to Nizwa, less than two hours away. Here you can take tours of several historical forts, including the ruins at Bahla, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Excursions often include a stop at a palm oasis.
Tip: This is probably your last chance to take a desert excursion, and the rolling Wahiba Sands provides a movie-worthy backdrop for all your Lawrence of Arabia fantasies. If you've already done dune bashing, try quad biking or sand skiing.
Photo: Alan Lucas/Shutterstock
Your Arabian Gulf cruise likely returns to Dubai for debarkation, allowing passengers more time to explore. With a water park and dolphin encounters, the Atlantis hotel on manmade Palm Jumeirah is a good choice for cruisers who want to kick back and cool off before the long flight home.
Tip: Every luxury hotel you can imagine has an outpost in Dubai. But for sheer indulgence, head to the afternoon tea at Burj Al Arab, the iconic sail-shaped hotel on Dubai's waterfront. Sure, it's pricey. But what better way to leave the land of the sheikhs than with a stop at what's billed as one of the world's most luxurious -- and expensive -- hotels.
We wish there were a magic elixir you could whip up to get a free or low-cost cabin upgrade on a cruise ship. We'd be chugging it all the time. But sorry -- no can do. Before you sit by the phone, waiting for the upgrade fairy to call, there are a few basic things to know about cruise ship cabin