As the world starts to open back up and pandemic restrictions ease, some of the most interesting cruise destinations are once again becoming accessible—among them is the Middle East. While the Middle East isn’t the first place that comes to mind when people think of cruising, the richness and beauty of the destinations make a good case for why it should be. From the shores of the Red Sea, cruise passengers can travel to such marvels as Jordan’s rose-hued ancient Nabatean city of Petra, Egypt’s Pyramids of Giza, and Old Jerusalem in Israel.
In recent years, Middle East ports have been making significant investments to attract cruise lines and their passengers. In Qatar, for instance, a new Grand Cruise Terminal in Doha is slated to open in September 2022. And with ports that aren’t too far from Europe, cruise lines can position ships in the region with relative ease. In fact, Middle East cruise itineraries are easily combined with sailings in the Mediterranean. On a recent 11-night cruise on Emerald Cruises’ Emerald Azzurra between Aqaba, Jordan, and Athens in March, our port calls included stops in Egypt, Israel, Cyprus, Turkey, and Greece.
While the Middle East is too hot for cruising in summer, cruise lines have for decades been offering itineraries here in the winter when the weather is more pleasant. One of the newest to do so is Australian-owned river line Emerald Cruises, which will be sailing its sleek new, 100-passenger yacht, the Emerald Azzurra, on seven-night cruises between Doha and Dubai in December and January, after which it will embark on 9- to 11-night Red Sea itineraries into early March, before repositioning to the Mediterranean.
Another company scheduled to visit Qatar this winter is French small-ship line Ponant with an Arabian Gulf itinerary that will take cruisers to the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Swiss-owned MSC Cruises will also sail its 6,774-passenger MSC World Europa from Doha this winter.
The Middle East from the vantage point of a superyacht
A small-ship superyacht like the Emerald Azzurra is an enticing option for cruising the Middle East for several reasons.
For one, the vessel offers a very upscale, crowd-free experience that is more affordable than many ultra-luxurious cruise ships—fares start at $500 per person, per day. A winter 10-night cruise between Aqaba in Jordan and Limassol in Cyprus, starts at $5,478 per person.
Excursions at each port are included and highlight the must-see sights. When not out exploring the splendors of the Middle East, passengers can loll about on cushy designer daybeds by the ship’s infinity-style pool or on the top deck at the hot tub and bar, around which DJ-led dance parties take place on warm, cloudless nights.
There are plenty of onboard activities for passing the time during sailings, including as the yacht transits the Suez Canal, which is an all-day affair—necessary to get from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. The onboard happenings include complimentary outdoor yoga sessions, lively trivia contests, and indulgent massages (the latter costs extra).
Emerald Cruises is owned by Aussie husband-and-wife team Glen and Karen Moroney, who also own the line Scenic Cruises and are known for doing things a little differently—Emerald’s fleet of river ships, for instance, are referred to by the company as “star ships” for their modern design, which includes an indoor pool that converts to a cinema at night. Scenic’s ocean ships were the first to have a helicopter onboard for flightseeing tours (now other ships such as Quark Expeditions’ Ultramarine do as well).
Inspired by the superyacht scene at the Monaco Yacht Show, Karen Moroney (who oversees the interior design of the vessels) opted for decor on the 360-foot Emerald Azzurra that’s a combination of 1970s glam and timeless glitz, with an eye-popping art collection to match—including graffiti, pop art, and contemporary pieces.
The nicely sized cabins have comfortable, modern furnishings and small verandas, while suites have full patios and come with room service and high-end espresso machines.
Dining is open seating, indoors and out, and putting together your own group for a dinner party is encouraged with some long tables that can seat up to 10 people and menus that include shareable dishes, such as truffle risotto or cacio e pepe. Those are in addition to beautifully plated individual entrées, such as grilled lamb rack with potato gratin and seasonal vegetables, or dorade fish with lemon sauce, accompanied by complimentary wine pours—the wine list features many European appellations.
The small ship has a very convivial atmosphere onboard. Passengers on our sailing were a mix of Brits and Americans, most age 60 and older. Aussies are expected to join the mix as international travel restrictions continue to ease. Evening briefings over cocktails easily lead to making new friends. On the other hand, it’s not an easy ship for anyone wanting a bit more anonymity—there are no crowds to get lost in.
From the complimentary wine pours to the water toys that guests can borrow from the ship’s marina, including paddleboards, kayaks, Seabobs, and hand-held water jets, all the added perks fit the yacht experience. Passengers can also borrow e-bikes to explore select ports on two wheels—there are several ports amenable to biking along the way, including Kusadasi, Turkey.
Pros and cons of cruising in the Middle East
Arguably the best memories of any trip are mingling with locals, who are harder to meet when you are on a bus tour that drives you hours from the port city to your destination—as was the case on our cruise in Aqaba for Petra, Ain Sokhna in Egypt to visit Cairo, and Ashdod in Israel as a jumping off point for a day trip to Jerusalem.
Thankfully not all shore excursions include these longer rides. In Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, the included outing was close to port—a glass-bottom boat ride from which we could view below the surface of the Red Sea, followed by time at a beach resort.
Emerald Cruises also offers optional experiences that are more intimate, such as a small-group winetasting in Santorini, for an added cost. Passengers are also free to skip the included tours altogether and either spend extra time on the vessel or go off on solo adventures on shore.
In Jordan, since we had previously visited Petra, my husband and I lingered in Aqaba instead. At Aqaba’s Mamluk Castle, where Lawrence of Arabia famously rode off to Cairo, a friendly worker excited to have American visitors again took us on an impromptu tour up dark passageways to areas of the fort rarely seen. Afterwards, he offered to make us cardamom coffee, and we sat and talked about our lives, families, and the pandemic disruption; it ended up being one of the most memorable experiences of the entire cruise.