Travel review: Middle East
A wind of change - it seems like a mighty sandstorm - is blowing across the Middle East as millions of downtrodden people demand the right to democracy.
When the dust settles, learning more about those mysterious, oil-rich countries will be a fascinating experience for adventurous travellers.
The Gulf is a region where modernisation has taken place in a single generation, as the black gold of oil has gushed from under the huge expanse of unforgiving desert.
Sparkling - and sometimes grotesquely brash - cities have sprung up in arid wastelands where just a few years ago camels eked out a meagre existence. But beneath the opulence, it seems, was seething discontent.
A couple of years ago, cruise lines began to visit some exotic cities in this region. Given its feverish state today, there may be something to be said for visiting by luxury ship - knowing your captain can steer safely clear if dramatic events unfold.
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When we embarked on The Spirit of Adventure, moored against the stunning backdrop of Dubai, it was the start of a fascinating exploration of a critically important region.
Within minutes of boarding this smart 9,500-tonner for 350 passengers, we headed off for an exhilarating helicopter flight over the extraordinary city.
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Laid out beneath us were the glossy skyscrapers, one of the world’s biggest buildings, a seven star hotel built like a sail and developments reaching out into the sea like a series of gigantic palm leaves.
And as the rotors whirled above our heads we also looked down on a city that may have grown far too fast, where the construction of some skyscrapers ground to a halt when the world economy crunched.
Moments after touching down, we were strolling through a souk, heady with the smell of frankincense, where traders eagerly sold their gold and spices. It was like stepping back in time, a world away from the glossy 21st century.
A few days later in the neighbouring territory of Abu Dhabi – the financial powerhouse of the emirates that is currently underpinning its profligate neighbour in Dubai - we left the skyscrapers behind and headed inland for a marvellous insight into traditional Arabic life.
At a camel market we mingled with dealers assessing the merits of prime specimens and wandered in the cool shade of date palms at an oasis.
Away from Dubai, holidaymakers are thinner on the ground in the Gulf.
Our arrival in Kuwait made headlines on the national news - the plucky Spirit of Adventure is the only cruise ship to have visited this oil-rich state that was at the heart of the first Gulf War.
We were greeted on the quayside by a television crew and a sheikh in flowing robes who came on board with a retinue of aides, newspaper reporters and photographers.
Spirit of Adventure surely deserved her moment of glory - for she’s a determined little ship, able to slip easily into small ports beyond the familiar itineraries which big ships tend to follow.
A never-ending odyssey takes Spirit across the oceans of the world this year, to places as far apart as Yalta in the Black Sea, Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) and Papua New Guinea.
Our voyage around the Persian Gulf originally included Iran, before local difficulties intervened. But we still reached places which are usually just names on a map or brief mentions in news bulletins.
In Kuwait, the land that Saddam Hussein coveted, seized and then ravaged, we found a capital city of amazing contrasts.
You walk through a traditional fish market and then cross the road to a gleaming mall where wealthy women, modestly swathed from head to foot in black, try on designer sunglasses and clutch bags from top designer fashion stores.
Spirit passengers are inquisitive about the world - so her excursions pack in lots of action and information.
Doha, capital of Qatar, the host of the 2022 World Cup, offers the most spectacular skyline in the region. An exhilarating four wheel drive vehicle took us across blindingly white sand dunes.
Then in a complete change of pace we went to the city’s superb museum of Islamic art.
In Fujairah we again headed inland, to find the towering sand dunes were now red and dotted with camels. A friendly camel insisted on being patted - delighting everyone on the trip and disproving the theory that all camels are cantankerous.
Although Spirit still sported razor wire on her stern, to deter pirates on the African coast, we glided through the Middle East in great comfort, even elegance.
On the bridge, Captain Frank Allica, formerly of the Royal Australian Navy, was relaxed about the pirate threat - and pretty relaxed about everything else as well.
But what you would expect of an Aussie sea dog who delights passengers by singing Waltzing Matilda in a ship’s concert?
When we climbed on board, Captain Allica said: “I want you to treat this as if it’s your own yacht.” There is something of the intimate private yacht about his ship.
The crew soon get to know everyone - and, quite impressively, they remember passengers who sailed on the ship in recent years and are returning for another trip.
The Spirit avoids the glitz of the superliners, its atmosphere made calmer by the fact that it’s an adults-only ship. Our fellow passengers were mainly middle-aged, taking their cue from the name of the ship with real spirit of adventure.
This ship is a homely haven - but Captain Allica rightly says destinations matter most.
Each day you arrive somewhere new, usually well off the beaten track. Excursions are normally included in the price - where other cruises count them as optional extras to run up a huge bill.
After a day ashore, the atmosphere aboard Spirit is reassuring and enjoyable. Afternoon tea, with warm scones, thick cream and strawberry jam and a refreshing brew, is a delight.
Evening meals, planned by executive chef George Streeter, make the most of fresh local produce; there are daily visits to local fish markets when the ship is in port, and the menu is brilliantly inventive.
You can eat in the main restaurant or, on some evenings, dine under the stars. Wine is complimentary with lunch and dinner - although fine wines from the ship’s cellar cost extra.
After-dinner entertainment in two lounges is what you might expect in a quality hotel. Our cruise offered a brilliant jazz violinist, a classical trio, pianists - and the occasional quiz.
There are also interesting lectures - we were offered cookery demonstrations, talks about Islam and a lively romp through the sex life and habits of the camel.
Great British traditions are honoured too: the biggest joint of beef I have ever seen for Sunday lunch, roasted for nine hours before carving, and a beautifully brewed cup of tea delivered to your room, free of charge, within minutes by room service.
If you want to feel safe and secure at all times in the Middle East of 2011, this is probably the only way to go. - JONATHAN GRUN
Key facts - Persian Gulf cruising
:: Best for: A really different destination, combining age-old traditions and brash modernism.
:: Time to go: Winter months, when the climate is beautiful.
:: Don’t miss: Head for a camel market and coo over the baby animals there.
:: Need to know: To visit mosques, wear modest clothing.
:: Don’t forget: To make friends with local people - who are fascinated by visitors and give them a warm welcome.
Jonathan Grun was a guest of Sprit of Adventure which offers a 14-night Mysteries of the Middle East cruise, ex-Gatwick to Aqaba, Jordan on September 22 from �1,994, with highlights including Muscat, Oman, the tombs in The Valley of the Kings, and Red Sea snorkelling.
Price includes most excursions, return flights, parking at departure airport, all visas where required, all meals, table wines with lunch/dinner, and on-board gratuities.
Regional deps include Manchester and Glasgow, from around �110.
Reservations: 0800 056 5880 and www.sagaholidays.co.uk.