Ships of the desert - Cruising the Middle East
The lands of Arabia and the exotic islands of the Indian Ocean hold plenty of eastern promise for cruise passengers looking to explore somewhere out of the ordinary.
If you've tried the Mediterranean and dipped your toe into Caribbean waters, why not sail eastwards to explore the sultry surroundings of the Persian Gulf or discover the tropical outposts of Mauritius, the Seychelles and the east coast of Africa.
Here's an idea of what you will find:
This has been one of the cruising success stories of recent years, fuelled by the rocketing popularity of Dubai among British holidaymakers.
The lure of this tiny emirate's captivating mix of sun, sea and shopping combined with the cultural contrast of its more traditional neighbours has proved to be irresistible to cruise passengers.
Cruises through the Middle East used to be restricted to long voyages or world cruises, but that changed three years ago when Italian cruise line Costa Cruises started one-week round trip sailings from Dubai.
The rest, as they say, is history. Demand from passengers, particularly from the UK, was so strong that Costa doubled the number of cruises by basing two ships in Dubai.
This winter, there will be more choice than ever before as American cruise line Royal Caribbean International makes its Middle Eastern debut by basing a ship there, too.
Where do you go?
Voyages through the Persian Gulf generally last one week and start and finish in Dubai, making it easy for holidaymakers to add on a few days in this famous tourism hotspot.
From here, ships sail into the heart of the Middle East, generally following the same route.
Ports of call include Muscat in Oman, renowned for having one of the oldest civilisations in the Arabian Peninsula, and Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates, an ideal jumping off point from which to explore the desert.
Then there's the capital of the emirates, Abu Dhabi, where passengers can go ashore to barter in the gold souks, ride the desert dunes on 4x4 safaris and admire the opulence of the unique Emirates Palace hotel.
Another stop is the tiny island of Bahrain, a great trading empire of ancient times that is now better known for its liberal culture, making it popular with tourists.
The Dubai cruising season tends to run from December to May, but if you're looking for a longer cruise through the Middle East, several different cruise lines offer sailings during winter, spring and autumn.
These tend to be cruises sailing between the Mediterranean and the Far East which cut through the Suez Canal and sail along the Red Sea.
En route, ports of call include Port Said or Alexandria on Egypt's Mediterranean coast from where the pyramids of Cairo and other ancient attractions await.
In the Red Sea, the port of Aqaba in Jordan is the gateway to the ancient city of Petra, which can be reached on a day trip, and other ancient wonders.
Sharm el Sheikh, on Egypt's Sinai coast, is a lively hub of hotels, bars and shops, but is also famous for its fabulous diving, while western Red Sea port Safaga boasts similarly similarlyimpressive underwater attractions.
Once they reach the Gulf of Aden, ships can either head south down the east coast of Africa and towards the Indian Ocean or east towards the Persian Gulf and India.
One of the first easterly points that ships come across is the port city of Aden in Yemen, a fascinating former British colony where the remains of its years spent under imperialist rule can still be seen.
Farther along this stretch of coast is Salalah, Oman's second-largest town and the so-called perfume capital of Arabia thanks to the abundance of frankincense trees growing in the town's surprisingly-lush surroundings.
Like the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean is a beautiful, tropical escape that was made for cruising.
You can choose the beach paradise of Mauritius, with its picture-perfect stretches of dazzling white sand, or the stunning landscape of the Seychelles islands, renowned
for their incredible beauty, rich wildlife and French colonial charm.
Then there's Madagascar, an island with a rich culture, owing to its diverse combination of European, Indian, African and Arabic influences; the "spice island" of Zanzibar; or the unspoilt Comoros Islands, known for their rustic traditions and crafts.
But one of the highlights of cruises to this area is the chance to go wild in Africa.
By stopping at the Kenyan beach resort of Mombasa, passengers can travel beyond the ivory white sands lining the coast to view the spectacular vast, grassy plains of the Masai Mara.
This is the place to discover the traditions and rituals of Masai tribesman and the rich wildlife that makes Kenya one of the world's most sought-after safari destinations.
Like the Middle East, voyages through the Indian Ocean and along the East African coast are mainly restricted to ships passing through on longer sailings, but Costa is a notable exception as it offers 14-night cruises from Mauritius in winter.
Middle East & Indian Ocean facts
- Costa Cruises (0845 351 0552, www.costacruises.co.uk) is offering a one-week cruise from Dubai, calling at Bahrain,Abu Dhabi, Fujairah and Muscat, from £499 on January 9, 2010. Flights extra.
Silverseas Cruises (0844 770 9030, www.silversea.com) is offering a 16- day Isles of the Indian Ocean sailing from Dubai on December 4 to the Seychelles. Ports of call include Muscat, Mumbai, Sri Lanka and Seychelles islands such as Praslin and La Digue. Prices are from £2,897 and flights and ports charges are extra.
Other useful cruise contacts
Cunard Line (0845 678 0013, www.cunard.co.uk)
Crystal Cruises (020 7287 9040, www.crystalcruises.co.uk)
MSC Cruises (0844 561 1955, www.msccruises.co.uk)
Oceania Cruises (01344 772344, www.oceaniacruises.co.uk)
P&O Cruises (0845 678 0014, www.pocruises.com)
Regent Seven Seas Cruises (02380 682280, www.rssc.co.uk)
Royal Caribbean International (0844 493 4005,www.royalcaribbean.co.uk)
Saga Cruises (0800 096 0079, www.saga.co.uk/travel)
Spirit of Adventure (0800 015 6984, www.spiritofadventure.co.uk)
Swan Hellenic (0845 246 9700, www.swanhellenic.com)
Thomson Cruises (0871 231 5938, www.thomson.co.uk/cruise)
Voyages of Discovery (0845 018 1808, www.voyagesofdiscovery.co.uk)
Yachts of Seabourn (0845 070 0500, www.seabourn.com)
Check out the website of the Passenger Shipping Association, which represents all the main cruise lines, at www.discovercruises.co.uk
All prices and details were correct when published, please check before you try cruising in the Middle East.