Jane Archer on the United Arab Emirates city, which has reinvented itself as a go-to cruise hub
What a difference a decade makes. Back in 2010 Abu Dhabi was a bit player in the cruise world, a city a few ships had started to visit on new voyages around the Arabian Gulf, but with attractions barely stretching beyond a spectacular mosque and the region’s ubiquitous 4WD desert Jeep tours it was not top of anyone’s must-go list.
Fast forward to 2019 and it’s a very different picture. Inspired by the growth of those Gulf cruises – and probably just a little bit envious of all the attention cruise lines were lavishing on Dubai – Abu Dhabi, one of seven members of the United Arab Emirates, has reinvented itself.
These days cruisers can spend their day ashore visiting world-class museums, getting their thrills on the world’s biggest, tallest, fastest, highest and longest roller coasters and climbing walls in a variety of adventure parks, or shopping for high-end goods in glitzy malls.
At the same time as stepping up excitement in the city, the emirate has developed the nearby island of Sir Bani Yas to offer a nature and wildlife alternative to the mainland’s cultural and activity offerings, where 4WD safaris go in search of oryx, gazelles, giraffes and more, and visitors can relax on a beach, go snorkelling, sailing or kayaking.
The result has been spectacular. Between 2010 and 2019, cruise ship calls leapt from 10 to 193, while passenger numbers soared from 33,000 to 518,000. That number is forecast to rise to 556,440 in 2020 as P&O Cruises and Marella Cruises resume sailings in the Gulf alongside regulars including MSC Cruises, Royal Caribbean International and Costa Cruises, and occasional visitors such as Silversea, Norwegian Cruise Line and Crystal Cruises.
Ships dock at Mina Zayed (passengers must take a free shuttle bus to get out of the port) with a view of the fabulous glass and steel high-rise buildings that line the corniche and inspired the emirate’s nickname of Manhattan of the East.
Stunning architecture is something of a theme in Abu Dhabi. The Louvre Abu Dhabi, an offshoot of the eponymous museum in Paris, opened on Saadiyat Island on November 11, 2017 and is extraordinary, with a low-slung dome that sits on a collection of white buildings that contain hundreds of works of art.
Then there is Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, a grand white marble building that has become the symbol of Abu Dhabi since opening in 2007. It’s big enough to hold more than 41,000 worshippers and beautiful to look at but a peek inside is a must (all sexes must be covered up; an abaya will be provided if needed).
Both the museum and mosque are on the green route of a hop-on, hop-off bus that stops close to the port entrance and loops around to Yas Island, the fun capital of the city, where petrol heads can have behind-the-scenes tours of Abu Dhabi’s Grand Prix race track and those with a head for heights can go to Clymb and skydive in the world’s tallest chamber (32m high) or scale the world’s tallest indoor climbing wall (43m high).
At nearby Ferrari World theme park, the world’s fastest roller coaster goes from zero to 240kmh in 4.9 seconds, the world’s highest roller coaster loop is 63m up in the air and Turbo Track zooms straight up, then falls back down to earth. Say hello to zero gravity. There are also simulator and fairground rides, and a go-kart track for those who prefer something a little calmer.
Warner Bros World has themed Batman, Riddler, Justice League and Wile E Coyote coasters and 5D battles that have their victims spinning, dropping, rocking and swooping (there are also plenty of more gentle rides in the company of The Flintstones and Scooby-Doo).
In Yas Waterworld, a wet and wild adventure awaits on water slides, rapids rides, in a wave pool, surf park, and more. A suspended roller coaster – Bandit Bomber, the longest in the Middle East – promises a splash-tastic time.
Cruisers who prefer their day to be less fast and furious can take the Big Bus red route and call into the city’s Heritage Village, where a souk, mosque and pottery, glass-blowing and weaving workshops reflect the more traditional aspects of life in the emirate.
The route also stops at Qasr Al Hosn, a fort-cum-museum that charts the emirate’s transformation from a fishing village to a modern metropolis, Abu Dhabi Mall and the opulent Emirates Palace Hotel, where foreign dignitaries stay when they are visiting. Afternoon tea here is always popular. Lines including MSC, P&O and Marella offer it among a range of other tours
THREE ABU DHABI CRUISES
Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar
MSC Cruises – MSC Seaview
Doha (round-trip) December 10, 2020
From £639pp (cruise-only)
The Louvre and a backstage tour of the F1 circuit are among the tours on offer as the new MSC Seaview meets the glitzy skyscrapers of Abu Dhabi on one- week cruises round-trip from Qatar.
Dubai and the Arabian Gulf
P&O Cruises – Oceania
October 29, 2020
From £1,366pp (including flights)
Returning to the Middle East in the autumn with a season of cruises that visit Abu Dhabi and Sir Bani Yas Island. Choose this 14-night itinerary to get two days in the emirate.
Arabian Nights 2
Marella Cruises – Celebration
December 16, 2020
From £1,358pp (including flights)
Returning to the Gulf in winter 2020/21 with one-week cruises that give passengers 11 hours to explore Abu Dhabi. Doha, Oman and an overnight in Dubai complete the cruise.