Having explored a bit of America and a few Caribbean Islands, it was definitely high time we went east for a change. We decided on the Middle East to start with as the flight duration is comparable with NYC or Boston and the time difference was easier to cope with than the Far East. And then we thought what better way to see this part of the world than on a cruise? Not only we were going to wake up in a new exciting place every day but also we could relax and enjoy food and drink over the festive season which might not have been that easy on the dry land.
Our Middle Eastern cruise adventure started in Dubai. We flew here with Oman Air with a stopover in Muscat. Muscat airport was modern and easy to navigate and the planes in the Oman Air fleet are all brand new. It is definitely worth considering as a cheaper alternative to fly to Dubai even though it requires a stop over.
After a quick check in at the Dubai cruise terminal we boarded MSC Spendida ready for our 7 day cruise through the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman stopping in some exciting places along the way.
With Andrea Bocelli’s “Time to say goodbye” playing softly through the loudspeakers, we waved goodbye to the bright lights of Dubai only to welcome them again in a few days’ time.
After a smooth overnight sail, we arrived at our first stop of the cruise, Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. There is really just one thing worth visiting in Abu Dhabi and it is the world famous Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. We hopped in a taxi and after a 15 minute ride, we saw the magnificent white domes and minarets of the mosque. By the way, everywhere in UAE takes 15 minutes in a taxi as we soon found out.
Entrance to the mosque is free and it is open to non Muslims. However, be prepared to queue as it does get busy. My daughter and I were given a long dress to cover our heads and ankles and after a short walk through an underground passage we were standing in front of the beautiful white mosque.
The place is quite stunning. It is made from white marble with symmetrical gold columns which become a blinding combination in the Middle Eastern sun. There are tiled pools, shiny floors with flower motifs and manicured gardens surrounding the mosque. The main worship room has the most stunning Swarovski encrusted chandelier and the biggest hand made carpet in the world. Faced with the grandeur of this place it is fair to say that every effort was made to make it the world class place of worship.
Enriched by the beauty of the Grand Mosque and with a camera full of stunning photos we headed back to the ship ready for the next stop. And tonight, we set off to the sounds of “Sailing” by Christopher Cross .
Sir Bani Yas Island
The next day we experienced disembarkation by tender for the first time. After a short boat ride to the shore, we got ourselves settled on the private beach. Despite the overcast sky, it was great to relax and dip our toes in the clear blue waters.
Sir Bani Yas is the only natural island in the United Arab Emirates just off the coast from Abu Dhabi. There were quite a few activities and trips that could be done here, kayaking or a safari in the largest wildlife reserve just to name a few. However, a quiet day on the beach was definitely seen by some as a welcome alternative to the busy few days of shopping malls, grand mosques and theme parks.
The first things you see when approaching the port in Muscat are the bare and rugged tops of the mountains on the horizon. These look pretty spectacular in the haze of the rising sun.
Muscat is Oman’s oldest port and we were looking forward to exploring the surroundings. Most of the places we docked at offered Hop On Hop Off buses where you can see the sights at your own pace. If you prefer more personal service, you can take advantage of the taxi which will take you round the city and wait for you while you visit the Muscat mosque or the Royal Opera House.
However, there was still plenty to see locally for us so we decided to stay put. The port area landscape was dominated by the bright blue dome and the minaret of the local mosque which beautifully stood out against the barren mountains in the background.
Despite the heat we climbed up the Muttrah Fort towering above the port for some amazing panoramic views of the mountains and the bay. After a delicious cup of the cardamom coffee, a walk through the local souk was a must. Sellers from all sides were trying to entice you to by their goods, from lanterns, frankincense, spices to llama wool scarves and traditional Omani attire. Just don’t forget to haggle – it is fun!
Making our way back to Dubai, we docked in Khasab which was located on the northern tip of Oman. It was a very quiet town with just a handful of shops and an old fort. Khasab fort was very worth a visit as it showed the local life, culture and geography using a good selection of visuals, props and some authentic items. The kids had thoroughly enjoyed it. The entrance fee is minimal and if you smile and ask nicely you will end up with a detailed map of Oman and a beautiful photo guide of the sultanate.
Khasab is also known as “Norway of Arabia” with fjord like scenery. If you can, book a dhow cruise which will take you on a 3 hour tour of the coastline. These can be booked directly from the ship or in the port and were reasonable priced for what it had to offer.
And we arrived back in Dubai, welcomed by a familiar landscape of skyscrapers covered by the early morning haze. We had two days to see the city and to be honest the easiest way to do it was on a Hop On Hop Off bus.
The ticket was quite pricey, however it also included an entry to Dubai Museum and two dhow cruises – one on the Dubai Creek and the other on the Dubai Marina. The ticket was an open one for 24hrs but most of the time nobody checked it so don’t panic if you are past your official start time.
Being nostalgic at heart, I have to say my favourite bit of Dubai was the old town. I liked the narrow streets and the old fashioned shop signs which were a complete contrast to the modern designs of Dubai Mall. We wandered through the spice and gold souk blinded by the vivid colours of the goods on offer. The dhow cruise on the Dubai Creek is a must. The traffic there was absolutely mad which added to the excitement, mainly due to traditional Abra boats ferrying passengers from one side of the Creek to the other. We went passed the old sand colour buildings and some more modern landmarks of the old Dubai, including Deira Twin Towers or the triangle like Chamber of Commerce.
Nothing is Average in Dubai
Dubai is your oyster. There are so many things to do here and, as we soon found out, it was virtually impossible to see most things in the time we had there.
They don’t just build or make an average thing here, it has to be the best and the biggest. The biggest shopping malls in the world, the tallest building – Burj Khalifa, the biggest aquarium, artificial palm shaped islands, the list goes on. To add to this, the whole city is immaculately clean. Eating, drinking or even chewing gum are not allowed in any public space, a ban that would be almost impossible to impose in the UK.
It is definitely a “wow” city, from the beautifully choreographed light and fountain show in Dubai Mall, driverless metro, being able to go skiing when it is 40C outside or drinking champagne at the top of the highest building in the world.
And the Verdict?
Well, we thoroughly enjoyed our Middle Eastern cruise and the cultural nuggets it brought to us along the way. We visited two countries, saw some outstanding buildings, we haggled, we uttered “wow” quite a few times, we learnt to cover our shoulders and most of all we always felt safe and well looked after. We will be back for more!