Everyone loves a Mediterranean cruise, but if you’re looking to travel somewhere new this year, a cruise around the Middle East could be the holiday you’ll remember forever. This fascinating region of extreme wealth, ancient history and futuristic architecture has so much to offer.
The past decade has seen huge changes, driven by a massive boom in tourism. Dubai is undoubtedly the hotspot, but there are plenty of other nations doing their best to attract holidaymakers – particularly those who arrive by cruise ship. Ports are being modernised, there are ritzy shopping malls in every city, and some of the stricter rules of life are being relaxed for visitors.
We’ve rounded up six of our favourite places to cruise across the Middle East, from Egypt and Jordan to the Persian Gulf.
Dubai & Abu Dhabi
Dubai is wealthy. Even the police drive Lamborghinis (to keep up with all the other supercars). Flashy maybe, but this tiny emirate and its eponymous city, together no bigger than an average English county, are also a fascinating example of what can be achieved when money is no object.
They wanted the tallest building in the world so they put up the Burj Khalifa, which rises 830m from the ground (you can buy tickets to its dizzying observation deck). Indeed, all the best experiences in Dubai are modern: you can splash your cash in a Dubai Mall; speed across the desert in a 4×4 or whizz away on water skis to those incredible man-made islands. [If you’ve only got a short amount of time, read our guide to exploring Dubai in a day.]
If culture and history are more your thing, head a few miles south to Abu Dhabi, capital of the UAE and its second biggest city after Dubai. From Qasr al-Hosn – a stately 18th century palace – to the astonishing Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, with its 82 domes, 1,000 marble columns and space for 7,000 worshippers, Abu Dhabi offers the best introduction to Emirati heritage. For more on Abu Dhabi, read our destination guide.
The ancient port of Aqaba, which has been inhabited since 4,000BC, is Jordan’s only coastal city. Although it has a few treasures of its own – as well as a booming watersports scene – most people skip straight past it on their way to Jordan’s greatest attraction, Petra.
Inducted into the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, the lost (and found) ‘Rose City’ is unlike any ancient site you’ve visited before. The huge temple of Al-Khazneh (known colloquially as The Treasury, for the riches it was once believed to contain) was the filming location for the climax of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Unfortunately you won’t find out if it hides the Holy Grail, as visitors are no longer allowed within.
But the facade will have you spellbound, and there is much else to see, including Ad-Deir (The Monastery), the Palace Tomb and the Byzantine Church. Allow yourself plenty of time to pack it all in.
There is no better way to see this great country than from the River Nile – the lifeblood of the nation. And with river cruising in the region currently enjoying a renaissance, there has never been a better time to visit.
Start your cruise in Egypt’s capital and largest city. While attempting to see Cairo in one day is a fool’s errand, you must visit its two most famous sights: the Saladin Citadel and the Egyptian Museum. The citadel is an ancient fortification described by UNESCO as the centre of the Islamic world, and you can explore three mosques here, including the grand Mosque of Mohammed Ali, with its stunning Ottoman architecture.
A 10-minute taxi ride will take you across town to the Egyptian Museum, home of the world’s greatest collection of pharaonic antiquities, including the golden mask of Tutankhamun. On the outskirts of Cairo lies the city of Giza and the three Great Pyramids. Dating back more than 4,500 years, these monumental structures still baffle architects to this day.
Further downriver – past fertile fields, edged with papyrus reeds – you’ll reach Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. Other port calls not to miss on your Nile cruise include the market city of Aswan and Esna, where one of the last great Egyptian temples was built.
Muscat and Khasab
Oman is a nation of cultural treasures and gorgeous scenery – and it is one of just three places in the world where the frankincense tree grows wild. Its most popular cruise port is Muscat, the capital and – with 1.5 million residents – the most populous city. While the country as a whole is developing at an impressive rate, Muscat has maintained its traditions and identity, even as gleaming white skyscrapers rise against its backdrop of jagged mountains.
Among many highlights is the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. Opened in 2001, this towering structure made from 300,000 tonnes of sandstone was built to celebrate 30 years of the Sultan’s rule. Head inside to see what is believed to be the world’s largest chandelier (it weighs 8.5 tonnes and includes 600,000 crystals).
Also not to be missed is the tranquil port town of Khasab. Here there’s no need to rush about trying to see all the sights, for the simple reason that they’re all around you. Khasab is an area of extreme natural beauty – think deep fjords, crinkle-cut coastlines and rugged mountains – and there’s nothing better than sitting on the dock of the bay, cup of Arabian tea in hand, just taking it all in.
If football is coming home in 2022, it will need to make a detour via the Persian Gulf. But aside from the next FIFA World Cup, another of Qatar’s claim to fames is that it is officially the richest country in the world, with a GDP of $167 billion and an annual per capita income of $128,702.
So much wealth means there is always plenty for tourists to do. Cruise passengers dock in Doha, the capital city and a playground for the rich. Start your visit by touching base with tradition at the Souq Waqif. Here you can explore numerous shops and stalls selling aromatic spices, precious stones, gold, fabrics and, naturally, falcons.
Other highlights include the Doha Corniche (enjoy a stroll past Qatar’s premier waterfront real estate); The Pearl, an exclusive man-made island for the uber-wealthy, with a fine collection of boutiques and restaurants; and the Museum of Islamic Art, opened in 2008, that showcases more than 1,400 years of creative genius.
Though small – it’s barely twice the size of the Isle of Wight – Bahrain is home to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Bahrain Pearling Trail and Qal’at al-Bahrain. The easier of the two to reach from the cruise port at Manama, Qal’at al-Bahrain is a hugely important archaeological site.
There’s too much to take in on a single visit, but it’s well worth going, even if you only have time for a quick stroll round. you can admire the huge Al Fateh Grand Mosque, or just stroll the quiet streets and sample delicacies such as muhammar (rice served with dates and sugar).
To see something truly amazing, join an excursion to the Tree of Life. Growing in the desert outside Manama, this 32ft, 400-year-old Prosopis cineraria (actually a giant branch of the pea family) simply should not exist where it gets so little rainfall. Many mystical properties have been attributed to it, including that it stands on the site of the Garden of Eden. More likely, it just has very long roots.