AS CRUISING in the Persian Gulf winds down for another year, the region has suffered somewhat of a blow. MSC Cruises has decided not to return MSC Lirica to Abu Dhabi in 2013, less than a year after it began cruising from the emirate.
The Italian-based line was originally planning to replace Lirica with the larger MSC Opera in the Gulf. Instead it's sending Opera to South Africa and launching a new program of seven-night cruises in the Red Sea on MSC Armonia, starting on November 10.
The Gulf has become a popular cruising destination in recent years and is a fascinating region, combining interesting ports of call with an easy way to travel through the Middle East.
The developing market hasn't been without issues, however.
I was aboard Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas on its inaugural cruise of the Gulf in 2010 when, in Bahrain, a row erupted between guests and taxi drivers demanding extortionate fares. Such was the volume of complaints that Royal Caribbean axed the kingdom as a port of call. Abu Dhabi recognises the importance of cruising and its revenue, and has lofty ambitions to expand on it.
Lirica was said to have brought in 40,000 visitors to the emirate, but MSC says there are issues with infrastructure.
With its new cruise terminal at Port Rashid and its more relaxed attitude to Westerners, Dubai is arguably a better option as a cruising home port. A few weeks ago, the small emirate welcomed five ships on a single day, including the Queen Mary 2, Costa Favolosa and Pacific Princess.
Another issue is that the Gulf may be regarded by many cruisers as a region to cruise once only; it's not one to repeat. News for the region isn't all bad, however.
Royal Caribbean says its bookings for the Middle East surged 30 per cent in the first quarter of this year compared to 2011.
And should you wish to venture there next season, there are plenty of cruise lines to choose from, including Princess Cruises, Costa Cruises and P&O UK.
Package of the week
Kick off the newly refurbished Rhapsody of the Seas' next summer season Down Under with this 26-night package including a cruise from Hawaii to Australia.
Departing from Sydney on September 17, it includes a business class flight to Honolulu with Hawaiian Airlines, followed by an eight-night stay at the Park Shore Hotel in an ocean-front room. Finally, you cruise back to Sydney for 18 nights, with ports of call en route including Fiji and New Caledonia.
The package is priced from $5999 for an inside stateroom, $6499 for an ocean-view stateroom, and $7999 for a balcony stateroom, all fares per person based on twin sharing. 1300 766 537, cruiseexpress.com.au.
As part of its 20th anniversary celebrations, Regent Seven Seas is welcoming back veteran cruise director Barry Hopkins as a special ambassador aboard Seven Seas Mariner between June 16 and July 27 in the Mediterranean.
After securing the rights to broadcast rugby league matches, P&O will add AFL games to its sporting line-up for the 2012 season.
When it embarks on its maiden voyage next month, Oceania Cruises' Riviera will feature a museum-worthy collection of fine art. The collection includes more than 1000 works from some of Latin America's most accomplished contemporary artists.
LAUNCHED March 31, 2012. PASSENGERS Up to 4000. REGULAR HAUNTS The Caribbean. BEST FOR Families. THE DETAILS A seven-night Eastern Caribbean cruise, a round trip from Port Canaveral departing on July 14, is priced from $1246 a person, twin share. 1300 887 590, cruiseaway.com.au.
Need to know
1. Fantasy is the line's fourth ship, christened at a star-studded ceremony in New York by singer Mariah Carey.
2. Fantasy's accommodations are ideal for families, with some staterooms catering for up to five people, and many with split bathrooms. Inside staterooms have unusual "Magical Portholes", which look like a porthole but are similar to a TV screen, showing a real-time view of the ocean via a computer feed.
3. Celebrating a golden age of ocean travel, its decor blends the elegance of early-20th-century trans-Atlantic ocean liners with contemporary design and Disney flair. Like its siblings, it has a distinctive black hull and red funnels.
4. There are six diverse dining venues, including three themed main dining rooms that guests use on a rotational system, changing each night. There are two adults-only specialty restaurants — Palo, serving northern Italian cuisine, and the French-inspired Remy.
5. New to Fantasy is the AquaLab water-play area, and the Quiet Cove Pool and Cove Bar for adults. Kids are well catered for with entertainment and educational clubs for all ages, and there are adults-only venues including the Skyline and Meridian bars, an Irish pub and the Senses Spa.
Port watch: Lipari, Italy
Need to know
Lipari is the largest of the Aeolian Islands off the north coast of Sicily. It has a long and influential history dating to neolithic times and a picturesque harbour edged by a paved piazza. Ships anchor outside the harbour and use tenders to transport guests to the Marina Lunga pier. Limited taxis are available but for visiting beaches and nearby islands you can employ local boatmen.
Do not miss
The town is easily explored on foot and is a haven of cafes, churches and coloured fishing boats. The main shopping area is close to the pier at Corso Vittorio Emanuele and good for souvenirs including ceramics and jewellery. Climb the hill at the end of the piazza to take in the views and visit the 13th-century citadel. Further afield, Vulcano is a nearby island known for a thermal bath resort.