Cruising into Abu Dhabi - An awfully big adventure with Ben Fogle
'Celebrity Constellation' is based in Abu Dhabi this winter - combining ocean, city and desert in one terrific trip.
A serene stillness surrounded us as our camels trudged forward, their awkward gaits making us roll in the saddles amidst a sea of sand that stretched out to the far horizon.
Dunes rose and fell like swells on a great ocean; soaring hills of sand that swept down to steep hollows. I gave a happy sigh.
This is what it's all about... following in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia through the land of the Bedouin. Starring in my very own David Lean movie. Ready to...
Jaysus! What was that! Whoa!
The rolling gait had suddenly switched to that of a bucking bronco, and I was holding on for dear life as I was hurled every which way. Camels don't always take direction, it turns out. But thankfully, my grip (and my everything else) held firm.
We were in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), on a trip with adventurer and TV presenter Ben Fogle (above).
Ben has worked with luxury cruise line Celebrity Cruises to develop several 'Great Adventures', and our excursion into the Arabian sands - giving visitors a taste of desert life without any of the hardship - is one of the finest.
Celebrity is the first line to home port in Abu Dhabi's spanking new cruise terminal, with a host of itineraries available in the Gulf (and beyond) on board Celebrity Constellation for winter 2016/17. Sailings range from nine to 15 nights, featuring stops in destinations such as Dubai, Muscat and Abu Dhabi.
Abu Dhabi - just a hop, skip and jump from Dubai - is booming.
Towering architectural wonders stand stark against the skyline, blinged-up exclamation marks to the stupendous growth that has turned it from desert dust bowl to chic, sophisticated city in 70 years. The black gold beneath the sands has served it well, and the government isn't letting it go to waste. Right now, they're spending untold billions on some massive developments.
One, a cultural district on Saadiyat Island, housing the first Louvre outside France (artists' impression, below), is well advanced. The museum's collection will be complemented by works from da Vinci and van Gogh.
Plans are afoot to build a Guggenheim museum - 12 times bigger than New York's - making the area a rival to any of the world's great cultural districts. But there's more to it than the cultural quarter. The city's first Four Seasons hotel will open later this year, as will the Grand Hyatt Abu Dhabi and the Fairmont Marina Resort.
It's an amazing city, whether you visit before or after your cruise, or indeed, during it. Which brings us back to that camel ride and my encounter with Ben Fogle in the desert.
Ben's Great Adventures are shore excursions available exclusively with Celebrity Cruises, including rafting in Rome, hiking in Montenegro, and a speedboat adventure in the Helsinki Archipelago. My Abu Dhabi excursion includes a 4x4 jeep safari across the dunes (hugely enjoyable), a spot of sand-boarding (if you're so inclined), followed by a ride on the aforementioned camel and a desert feast with the stars as a canopy and the flutter of torch flames to light up the night sky. It's a pretty magical experience.
Don't worry - if you prefer meals away from the sand amongst five-star luxury, there are plenty of opportunities too.
The Yas Viceroy (viceroyhotelsandresorts.com) is a stunning example of Abu Dhabi's imaginative architecture, and far more besides. Boasting five restaurants (including top class Indian restaurant Angar), as well as a sumptuous spa, it overlooks the Yas Marina F1 racetrack, so Formula 1 fans can have a bird's-eye view of the cars as they visit.
Also worth mentioning is the 66-storey Jumeirah at Etihad Towers (jumeirah.com) - more five-star luxury accommodation with views to die for from its observation deck. You can lay back in one of its three pools, or walk its private beach, while still being just a short journey from some of the best retail outlets in the Middle East.
Further afield, you might visit the 'Oasis City' of Al Ain (explorealain.com), a 90-minute drive from the centre of Abu Dhabi. There's quite a bit to do here, from a visit to the camel market to white-water rafting, or a hike up Jebel Hafeet, the emirate's highest peak.
Another experience worth exploring is the Pearl Journey, which is based at the Eastern Mangrove Hotel & Spa by Anantara (abu-dhabi.anantara.com) - a beautiful low-key, five-star offering great views of the city's natural mangroves. I found the trip on a traditional pearl fishing boat both informative and relaxing, with the added bonus of finding a real pearl in an oyster along the way.
So, Ben Fogle doesn't have to tailormake everything. There's lots to see and plenty to do on a trip to Abu Dhabi and, what's more, the Emiratis themselves are sincere, polite and very friendly, with a tremendous sense of loyalty to their homeland.
Before, during or after your cruise, you'll be impressed at the service, amazed by the ambition regarding future developments, and gobsmacked by the depth of pockets needed to fund these impressive and grandiose schemes. From desert dust bowl just a few decades ago, Abu Dhabi has come a long, long way.
Celebrity Cruises’ Arabian Sea & India fly/cruise on Celebrity Constellation (pictured above) starts from €1,859pp based on two sharing an interior stateroom, including return flights from Dublin, transfers and a nine-night cruise with two overnight stays. Call 1800 932 611 or visit celebritycruises.ie for info.
What to pack
Comfortable, low-heeled shoes are useful for walking around the ship in daytime. Bring sunscreen and a hat for excursions, and bear in mind that sleeveless tops and shorts are not permitted when visiting mosques. A shawl or top is useful for air-conditioned malls or hotels, which can be chilly.
Where to stay
In Abu Dhabi, rooms at the Viceroy Abu Dhabi start from AED749/€179 per night including tax. Rooms at Jumeirah at Etihad Towers start from AED640/€153 in spring (tax extra). For more on Abu Dhabi, see visitabudhabi.ae. For more on Ben Fogle’s Great Adventures, see celebritycruises.ie/BenFogle.
It’s the world’s largest theme park, with the world’s fastest rollercoaster, but there’s also go-karting, simulators, acrobatic shows, optical illusions and gravity-defying stunts. Entrance fees vary from AED250/€60 to AED500/€120 depending on Fast Pass options. ferrariworldabudhabi.com
Food, Glorious Food
Pearls by Michael Caines is well worth a visit. The two-Michelin-Star chef (not to be confused with the actor) offers fine dining in casual surroundings, and at reasonable prices. I had the magnificent taster menu for AED450 (about €110 — not bad for an epicurean treat). jumeirah.com
Yellow Boat Route
If you yearn for a bit of a rush and some sight-seeing, there’s no better way than to take a yellow boat tour, enjoying the views and spotting dolphins along the way (from AED200/€48). Our amiable guide Danny set our blood racing with a high-speed tour along the waterfront. theyellowboats.com