Cruising the Middle East

Lirica in Khasab, Oman

After boarding the MSC Lirica in Trieste, Italy and cruising around the Mediteranean for a bit with a port stop in Croatia, and several in Greece, the ship headed through the Suez Canal, which runs through Egypt.

our ship’s tug and the container ship behind us in the Suez Canal

Cruising through the Suez Canal is a unique experience. It’s mostly a narrow waterway where ships follow one another through in a line, each escorted by a tug. A new part wide enough for two-way traffic allows ships to pass one another in that section, increasing the amount of ships that can pass through the canal in a day. One side of the canal has much more greenery and life than the other, which is mostly desert sand.

waiting to go through customs at the port in Eilat

Our first stop after passing through the Suez Canal was in Eilat Israel, where security is heavy and getting of the ship is a major process. We followed that with a stop the next day just across the bay in Aqaba Jordan, where disembarking is the same as the average port stop. By just across the bay, I mean that literally as we could see the port where we had been the previous day from the ship. From the top of the ship in Aqaba you can see 4 countries. Besides Jordan and Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia are visible in the distance. We did not know this until our guide on the bus to Petra said so and it was dark by the time we got back so we couldn’t look for the landmarks he said were in each of those countries.

the treasury, the most famous rock building in Petra

The guide also said the border between Israel and Jordan used to be closed, but they have a peace treaty now and it’s not that hard to cross between them. Jordan is its own country now, though in the past it was occupied by others including Ottomans and British. Although Arabic is the official language, a lot of people there speak English. Jordan has many sites of historical and religious significance including Petra. Petra is a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the wonders of the world. Even the small portion you have time to see on a cruise ship excursion is amazing.

After Aqaba we had 4 days at sea, during which we found out not only had the crew been going through pirate training while we were at port in Jordan, but there were also pirate protection guards on board who had joined the ship at our first port in Split, Croatia. They were rumored to be from Yugoslavia. All big burly guys, at least the ones we saw.

Each cabin was given a security notice saying that for 6 days we would be traveling through areas considered at risk of piracy and as such we would be under the control and protection of international naval forces. The paper went on to say Blue Code means suspicious vessel spotted, crew members are to start procedures to evacuate open decks. Orange Code means the concern is real and everyone is to leave outside decks immediately. Red Code means there is an emergency and to follow the directions of the trained crew. It also said the outside areas of the promenade deck 6 would be closed for the duration of our time through waters likely to be pirate infested and continuously patrolled by security staff. Balcony lights had to stay off at night and all curtains closed.

map of the Middle East

On all the cruises we’ve taken, this is the first to have piracy warning procedures. Of course it is also our first time sailing past places like Yemen and Somalia. In the event of a pirate attack, hopefully the guards they hire for cruise ships are better than the ones hired by a commercial diving company my son used to work for. When one of their ships was boarded by pirates the so-called guards locked themselves below deck and let the crew get kidnapped. The company did pay the ransom to get them back – and probably looked elsewhere to hire any future guards.

Weather on the sea days was generally clouds and fog with some sun and wind. One day had sun, wind, fog, and rain all within the same hour, though the rain was just a sprinkle. The ports tended to be sunnier. On the second sea day between Jordan and Salalah, Oman, another ship came near and the cruise ship dropped a speed boat which went to the other ship, picked up something, and came back. Normally the only boats that approach cruise ships are tugs going in and out of port, and pilot boats who drop off or pick up the local pilot who guides the ship through the channels leading into and out of ports or through narrow waterways. Another passenger we met who worked out in the gym with the guard crew said he was told the boat picked up guns for the guards, which they would need in case we came across any pirates.

mini golf on the Lirica

Meanwhile with several days of no ports passengers had to entertain themselves onboard. We tried the mini golf, for which you have to sign out one club and ball from staff by the stage in the pool area with your room card so golf equipment was only available during their staffed hours. If each person in the room wants one they have to sign for it individually, you can’t get 2 on the same card. Then you take those to the other end of the ship and up a deck to the course, which has just 7 holes. All the other ships we’ve been on that had mini golf had clubs and balls next to the course for people to use whenever they wanted. The course looked a bit the worse for wear with the astroturf worn out in places, but we still had fun. Some of the holes (which were made from kitchen sink drains) were not firmly in place. One stuck out above the green deflecting balls. The next one someone had used for an ash tray and left cigarette butts in it proving once again no matter where you go people are pigs. (Sorry actual pigs, that’s an insult to you.) Speaking of actual pigs one day they served suckling pig. Poor little babies. They served veal a lot too. Apparently they like eating very young baby animals. Along with organ meats and products of cruelty like foi gras (which is created through force feeding geese as well as being an organ meat), baby animals fall into the category of things I’ll never eat.

we watched the pirate boats from the relaxation area in the spa

The third of four sea days between Jordan and Oman brought us to the choke point where it’s just about 10 miles between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as the Red Sea transits into the Gulf of Aden. There was a lot of boat traffic through that area. We could see a fleet of tiny boats milling about. These boats had people laying down in them trying to hide. As our ship got close the little fleet went from a near standstill to heading straight towards us at a pretty good speed.

modern day pirate ships look nothing like the pirates of old

They were pirates with ill-intentions. Discouraged from attacking our ship by the armed guards patrolling the promenade deck, they suddenly changed course, passed behind us and went on their way realizing it’s not a good plan to try scaling the side of a ship when you’re looking at the business end of a machine gun. Other than the one group of pirates we just saw normal boat traffic like military boats and cargo ships. Of course with all the curtains on public decks and in cabins required to stay closed after dark who knows what may have shown up then. Well the guards and bridge crew know, but they’d never tell and the passengers just saw the one averted attack in broad daylight.

belly dancer in the dining room

The ship had an Arabian theme going that day with a Pharoh’s visit deck party in the morning and belly dancers in the dining room in the evening for extra entertainment, but the excitement and most talked about subject of the day among passengers was of course the pirates.

relaxing on the back deck

Typical of any cruise ship, the selfish passengers (of which there are a lot) stake out deck chairs with towels they leave there all day whether they plan to sit in that chair for any length of time or not. Even the little back decks on the Lirica had more chairs occupied by towels than by people. You can sit out there for hours and these people never return. We laughed one day when it rained a bit and someone had left a paper book on an unoccupied chair. It got wet, but sadly it didn’t rain enough to do any damage. The owner of said book was not there when we arrived and never returned before we left. Like all the other cruise ships this one had signs saying they will pick up towels and things from unoccupied chairs because saving them is not allowed, but they never actually do.

The ship had some games, activities, dance lessons, exercise classes, trivia, and things scheduled throughout the day. We were told once years ago by crew on the Divina that Europeans generally spend all day out on the top deck, and while a lot of them actually do, there were still a lot of deck chairs occupied by towels rather than people.

The fourth sea day in a row brought wind and waves on a gray day in the Gulf of Aden, which empties into the Arabian Sea – the most wide-open expanse of water we passed through on the middle eastern side of the Suez Canal. The ocean swells meant some movement on the ship, but not enough to bring out barf bags by the elevators or to make people stagger the halls like so many drunks as we have sometimes seen on cruises that passed through rough water.

Themed dinners with like themed late night parties interspersed the cruise to liven things up a bit and have something besides elegant nights to dress up for. This cruise had a carnival night and a white night. Not that many people dressed up for them at dinner and we never went to any deck parties so I have no idea how those turned out. I can’t imagine too big of an attendance though since there never seemed to be many people out and about anywhere when venturing out of the cabin late at night. Having traveled through Europe for 10 days without a lot of luggage before boarding the ship, we barely had anything suitable to wear for formal nights and nothing for any sort of one-use costume.

camel at Wadi Darbat

We had a port stop in Salalah, Oman on a Friday, which is their holy day so a lot of things in town were closed.  The town there is not close to the port. We had a ship’s tour and saw lots of camels. Between Salalah and Muscat we had another sea day. The sky and sea were gray and dreary, but the sea wasn’t too rough and it didn’t rain, at least not during the day anyway. It was warm enough for lounging around on the deck chairs on the back balcony. There were several decks with back balconies all interconnected by stairways and at least some of them had stacks of deck chairs so even if all the chairs already out on the deck were occupied by towels we could always get a chair off the stack and find somewhere to put it.

Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman

In Muscat we found a cheap taxi-van tour with 4 other people that took us around to see some sights, starting with a giant mosque. We didn’t have any specific plans when we got off the ship and hadn’t really planned to go in any mosques. While I had brought a scarf just in case I needed it for anything, I did not have long sleeves which meant not mosque-appropriate clothing. Outside the mosque under a sign saying not to sell or rent clothes, there was a guy renting stuff out of the trunk of his car so I got something with long sleeves and one of the other ladies from our van got a scarf so we were allowed inside.

dhow boat in Khasab, Oman

Khasab was our last port in Oman, my favorite one there, and one of the best on the entire cruise because the dhow boat tour we took was unique and excellent. The boat had carpets and cushions instead of furniture and it was quite a relaxing ride through the fjords. We saw some dolphins and made a stop for snorkeling. Also attempted some fishing, but nobody caught anything.

Burj Khalifa in Dubai

We had 2 days to spend in Dubai, UAE. The ship overnighted there, and our plane home wasn’t until 2:30am the morning of the day after disembarkation. The first day it rained a bit in the morning, then cleared up, We visited Atlantis Hotel, a souk, Burj Al Arab, and Global Village. The second day the rain dumped buckets in the morning and the trip into town felt more like the uber was driving in rivers than in roads. We put our luggage in storage at Dubai Mall and spent time there and in Burj Kalifa, the world’s tallest building.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2023

camels at Petra

More Blogs About the Middle East

Cruising the Suez Canal, Eilat Israel cruise port, Snorkeling in Eilat, Aqaba Jordan cruise port, Petra, Salalah Oman cruise port, Salalah 4×4 tour, Muscat Oman cruise portMuscat van tour, Khasab Oman cruise port, Khasab dhow excursion, Exploring Khasab, Dubai Cruise Port, Exploring Dubai, Dubai Global Village, Dubai Burj Kalifa, Dubai Mall

About LBcruiseshipblogger

MyCruiseStories blog tells stories about adventures in cruising on ships big and small. Things to do onboard and in port. Anything connected to cruising. Also food, travel, recipes, towel animals, and the occasional random blog.
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4 Responses to Cruising the Middle East

  1. The info on the pirates was a real eye-opener for me. It sounds like this kind of activity is commonplace rather than quite rare.

  2. Barbara says:

    A very good read! I am happy to read about your exciting adventure with pirates and only go on safer cruises myself! I’m sure it was fun to see that part of the world. Many memories.

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