MSC Splendida cruise, Middle East: Treasure trove of history along the Arabian Peninsula

Visiting a hospital when you're travelling is usually something to avoid at all costs, but here I am at a state-of-the-art medical establishment in the heart of the UAE – voluntarily – and no, I'm not checking in for cosmetic procedures, although the surgeons do extraordinarily detailed work here.

Patients are lined up in an orderly manner, calmly oblivious to their parents who are pacing nervously around the well-appointed waiting room, drinking coffee by the bucket-load. By parents, I mean owners – I'm at Abu Dhabi's world-renowned Falcon Hospital and the patients are much loved, valuable birds. The falcons have come from across the Middle East to be treated for ailments that range from high-speed air crash damage to feather fatigue, or just a regular check-up.

Apart from observing a surgeon performing an intricate beak repair job on one of these magnificent birds of prey, I'm allowed to handle one, offer another a tasty raw meat snack (very carefully) and see some pampered house guests exercising in the free-flight aviary.

You may have seen a photo of 80 falcons occupying an entire cabin of an Etihad plane that went viral a while ago. It's quite common for owners to fly their avian family members around the Gulf region and falcons actually have their own passports. Falconry is an extremely competitive sport and one that has an illustrious heritage – the saker falcon is the UAE's national symbol.

On a small-group tour of the Falcon Hospital and its museum, guide Obeid reveals a wealth of fascinating facts about the highly esteemed birds and the on-site training and research programs; this experience has become a big drawcard for visitors.

Although Abu Dhabi is the capital of the UAE, Dubai seems to have hogged most of the limelight in recent years. Times are changing, however. Travellers are discovering a city state that celebrates long-held Arabic traditions alongside striking modern architecture, action-packed theme parks and hugely significant cultural initiatives.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi, which opened in November 2017, is a beautifully designed showcase for the best of Eastern and Western art and culture. Three more world-class museums are planned for the same waterfront area, Saadiyat Island, and Masdar City, an eco-city based on renewable energy, is being built near the airport. For a country that sources much of its massive wealth from oil, this project is inspirational.

Spending a weekend at the ultra-cool Edition Hotel allows just enough time to explore a few of Abu Dhabi's main attractions. Half a day at the Louvre; a couple of hours wandering around the astonishingly ornate Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque; a visit to the newly restored Qasr Al Hosn fort and adjoining House of Artisans; and a leisurely stroll along a section the city's famous Corniche. Another few hours are whiled away at an extravagant brunch, which is something of an institution among the local Emirati and expat community.

Highly recommended out-of-town adventures such as the UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site of Al Ain, Ferrari World and the Pearl Journey cruise are on hold for another time – I have a ship to catch.

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Boarding MSC Splendida is like navigating a Middle Eastern bazaar. Crew are lined up in front of souvenir shops at the cruise terminal, waving their wares under our noses and imploring us to buy drinks packages, dinner specials, photo sessions, spa treatments – and as I find out later, the upselling continues relentlessly. Is there an oversupply of lobster? Every night at dinner a sad-eyed waiter tries to flog us a lobster special for the following evening and it does nothing for the overall dining ambience.

Splendida is 10 years old and one of MSC's four Fantasia-class vessels in a fast-growing, 15-strong fleet of megaships that is set to total 25 by 2026. Swiss-based, Italian-owned MSC Cruises has been operating Arabian Peninsula itineraries for several years and attracts a multinational audience. On our seven-night cruise, which is at full, 4363-passenger capacity, most passengers are, not surprisingly, Italian but there are big groups from Britain, Russia and Brazil, plus representatives of just about every other country you could name.

MSC's fares start at bargain-basement rates and as children under 11 travel free, it's a popular line for families. Splendida is a riot of colour, sound and action – the atrium, which features MSC's signature glittering Swarovski-crystal curving staircase along with a coffee shop, reception and excursion desk, is always busy, as are the main dining rooms, pool deck and theatre. The crowds disperse through numerous bars and lounges in the evening and the 10-pin bowling alley is almost deserted when I give it a whirl one afternoon.

In December, MSC Bellissima will replace Splendida in the Arabian Peninsula. Bellissima is one of the line's latest Meraviglia-class ships and boasts a swag of new features, including numerous specialty restaurants, an extensive MSC Yacht Club – the line's upmarket "ship within a ship" complex – Cirque du Soleil shows and a massive, multi-purpose interior promenade area. The ports of call will be the same and a cruise is the easiest way to sample an intriguing and diverse region that's rather overlooked by Australian travellers.

A day at Sir Bani Yas Island offers the chance to sunbathe and swim at its resort-style beach complex – MSC's "sheikh beach beds" are available for €72.99 a couple (or bring your own towel from the ship), barbecues and bars do a roaring trade and there are lots of organised games. Another option is a jeep safari tour around the extensive wildlife sanctuary; during an hour's high-speed viewing we spot giraffes, Arabian oryx, gazelles and a couple of sleepy cheetahs, and learn about this greening-of-the-desert project.

When you sail into Muscat, Oman's capital, it's immediately apparent that it is very different to the glittering cities of neighbouring Abu Dhabi and Dubai. There are no gleaming skyscrapers obscuring the view of the surrounding mountains and medieval forts flank the crescent-shaped waterfront. The country has quietly built a reputation as a low-key, luxury destination based on its traditions of hospitality, dramatic desert interior dotted with vivid green oases and unspoilt coastline.

A ship-organised tour in Muscat that takes in a visit to Bait Adam Museum exemplifies Oman's small is beautiful character. Charismatic, learned museum owner Latif al Bulushi delivers an engaging presentation about Oman's seafaring history – pausing to tell a child to shut up, nicely but firmly – then leaves us to wander around his extraordinary personal collection of weapons, Omani household artefacts, priceless antique books and coins.

We see more of Oman's national treasures in the Musandam Peninsula, where we sail the fiords on a dhow from the pretty port of Khasab. Dolphins frolic in turquoise waters beneath jagged limestone cliffs and snorkelling is a must-do when the dhow drops anchor near Telegraph Island.

Dubai's bigger than Ben Hur, newest of the new attractions are well documented but one that officially joined the ranks in April 2018 is the enduringly popular and quite old Cunard liner QE2. Now a floating hotel, the venerable vessel is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and its colourful story is wonderfully narrated by long-time QE2 cruise director and now live-in guide Peter Warwick.

It's a short taxi ride from Splendida's spot at Dubai's super-modern Port Rashid to QE2's permanent mooring but a long journey into the history of cruising. Whether you're a seasoned cruiser or a curious newcomer, this grand old dame holds a treasure trove of seafaring tales.

FIVE BIG THINGS IN THE UAE

ABU DHABI

Abu Dhabi is the capital of the seven emirates in the UAE federation and covering some 70,000 square kilometres, is the largest. Ajman is the smallest, at 259 square kilometres. The other five emirates, in descending size order, are Dubai, Sharjah, Ras al Khaimah, Fujairah and Umm al Quwain.

DESERT ISLANDS

The Palm and The World in Dubai are among the largest man-made islands in the world and added nearly 500 kilometres to Dubai's coastline. The World archipelago, which is so big it can be seen from space, is reportedly sinking back into the ocean.

FASTEST RIDE

Ferrari World, a Ferrari-themed amusement park on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, is the largest indoor amusement park in the world. Not only that, its Rosso rollercoaster is the world's fastest, reaching 240km/h in under five seconds.

TALLEST TOWER

At 828 metres high, Dubai's Burj Khalifa is the world's tallest building. It also has the world's highest observation deck and its elevator travels longer distances than any other in the world.

BIGGEST CARPET

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi has the largest hand-knotted carpet in the world. Some 1200 weavers from Iran spent eight months completing the design, a year to knot it and two months to put it all together. It covers 5627 square metres and weighs about 12 tons.

TRIP NOTES

The writer was a guest of MSC Cruises and Etihad Airways.

MORE

traveller.com.au/middle-east

visitabudhabi.ae/au

FLY

Etihad operates 35 flights a week out of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. See etihad.com

CRUISE

MSC Cruises operates seven-night cruises, round-trip, from Dubai on MSC Bellissima every week between December 2019 and March 2020. Fares start from $879. See msccruises.com.au

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