There’s a reason the Middle East is so popular with Brits for winter sun. It’s a relatively short flight: about seven hours, compared with nine to Barbados and twelve to to Thailand, and there are almost thirty flights zipping between London and Dubai each day. What’s more, because the coastlines are sprinkled with mega resorts, the whole thing is pretty frictionless.

Those are just some of the reasons why I keep going back. As well as the never-ending stream of ridiculous things to do, such as swimming in the world’s highest infinity pool (Dubai), visiting a falcon hospital (Abu Dhabi) and admiring an architectural paean to Islamic art designed by IM Pei (Doha).

I’ve visited the Gulf tens of times over the years with friends, family and colleagues. But I’d never seen them one after the other in one hit, at the same nosebleed pace with which they seem to be reinventing themselves. And I’d definitely not visited with my 65-year-old mum, who thinks Dubai is grotesque and would much rather spend a month roughing it in a tent in the south of France. However, it was a repeat visit for my three-year-old son, who is as partial to this region as his mother. And after a tough year, in which I was increasingly aware of my parents’ advancing age, a week in the sun seemed like a good opportunity to spend some quality time together.

Cathy sailed to Doha in Qatar

Cathy sailed to Doha in Qatar


Enter the Virtuosa. This mega ship from the Swiss-Italian line MSC is one of the few to sail round the Gulf during the winter months — most cruise ships are immediately sent from Europe to the Caribbean in winter to do endless laps out of Florida — and the shorter flight and four-hour time difference suited us all. It also offered the opportunity for a first-time visitor to see all four of the Gulf’s big-hitters in one succinct week: Dubai, Qatar, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi.

This Virtuosa, like the glitzy cities it visits, is no shrinking violet. It’s one of the world’s biggest cruise ships: 18 decks, capacity for nearly 6,500 passengers, a dizzying array of pools and restaurants, as well as a show-stoppingly twinkly Swarovski staircase decorated with 80,000 crystals. The highlight is the 93m-long LED ceiling in the main “galleria” promenade, which shimmers with visual art throughout the day.

Best family-friendly cruises

This behemoth might not sound like the ideal ship to introduce to my first-time cruiser mum, who looked horrified by it all as we boarded at Jebel Ali port in Dubai, but I figured it was big enough to cover all bases from 3 to 65 years old, whether that was in the kids’ club (my son), in the 21 bars (me) or just gazing thoughtfully over the side (my mum). Plus, given MSC’s Italian roots, Virtuosa provides a far more European experience than American cruise ships. Announcements are in four languages, the onboard currency is the euro and if you use your imagination, wandering through the galleria in early evening is a bit like doing a very noisy passeggiata.

The top deck on the MSC Virtuosa

The top deck on the MSC Virtuosa


A cruise also seemed like a good opportunity to get together. Since moving out of my childhood home to go to university at 18, it’s rare I get to spend much time with my parents, thanks to the commitments of a thirtysomething with a full-time job, a giant mortgage and a preschooler. My mum and dad also have a tightly packed retirement holiday schedule to work around. It was with some trepidation that I suggested the trip at all — my mum and I are about as different as two people who share DNA can be, although to her credit she is willing to try anything once. After some early trepidation, I realised that I was relishing the idea of spending some proper time with Mum, in a way we haven’t done for two decades. The added benefit was that I was feeling childishly puffed-up about showing her somewhere in the world she hadn’t been.

We’re also part of a growing trend for holidaying with the whole family. The latest report on the industry from the cruise trade body Clia says that 73 per cent of cruisers want to sail with their families, something that has been borne out in the wider travel industry post-pandemic. The luxury travel operator Black Tomato reports that multigenerational adventure holiday bookings are at an all-time high, while more than half of 2,000 people in a recent easyJet survey said they wanted to travel with their grandparents. It’s no surprise to me. As much as I love my parents, I love them more for offering fee-free childcare and I secretly hoped there might be some of that on the menu while we sailed around the Gulf.

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi


The Yacht Club, MSC’s upscale “ship within a ship” concept, provides a soft landing for us all when we board in Dubai, after spending an afternoon wandering around the city’s old town. Taking over decks 14 to 16 at the front of the ship, the Yacht Club is the premium portion of Virtuosa, which means more space for us all. We check into a 29 sq m stateroom, considerably larger than the traditional cruise stateroom, with a sofa bed for the tiddler and a large balcony. There’s 24-hour butler service and a concierge (and our butlers, Aurelio and Vishal, take an immediate liking to my son), relaxed dining in the elegant Yacht Club dining room for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and a private pool deck right at the front of the ship.

It’s not exactly high-octane in the way the waterslides, F1 simulator and Himalayan ropewalk down the other end of the ship are, but the toned-down atmosphere means my introvert mum loses the shell-shocked look she had when she boarded.

Our first stop is Doha, just 12 hours after waving goodbye to Dubai’s skyline. Since my last visit in 2017 there’s a new national museum, designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel to look like a desert rose, which we zip past in an Uber — an eight-hour shore day with a grumpy toddler doesn’t provide enough time to see it as well as the Museum of Islamic Art. Here my mum spends an hour wandering the three impressive levels while the preschooler and I splash around playfully in the fountains outside, running through the arches to get an eyeful of the abra boats bobbing in the harbour and eating shawarmas in the souk’s main square.

Cathy Adams with her mum and son

Cathy Adams with her mum and son

I think I’m convincing Mum of the merits of cruises and these glossy Gulf capitals until we get to Bahrain, where we spend too much time ploughing through desert on giant highways, the only sight piercing the horizon being heavy port machinery and cranes. The 6,500 sq m-big Al Fateh Grand Mosque, in Manama, which we are guided around, is an easy highlight and we’re allowed to stay, thrillingly, for the dhuhr call to prayer, while our guide explains in hushed tones what the different prayers and calls mean.

The last stop, the UAE’s capital Abu Dhabi, is an easier sell, with a mellower, less thrusting outlook than Emirati neighbour Dubai. We wander the Qasr al-Hosn cultural complex and the Corniche, stopping for cardamom-scented Arabian coffee.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best times and conversations are in the relaxed moments when we have nothing more to do than wander the ship. It’s uplifting for me to see the relationship develop between my mum and my son, even when doing silly things such as watching him order a mocktail from Virtuosa’s robot bartender (called, very unoriginally, “Rob”). Having a few days at sea also allows us the space to talk about things we have unintentionally buried for years. We talk about alcoholism recovery over pho in Virtuosa’s stylish Indochine speciality restaurant; we debate the outcome of the next general election and our differing political views at the teppanyaki counter of Kaito; and I briefly muse on society’s debt to grandparents while face-down on a massage table in the Aurea spa and later, while ordering a cocktail in the champagne bar.

As we disembark I ask my mum what she thinks about cruising and the Gulf. In the politest possible terms she reports that neither are for her, but I’m welcome to join her and my dad on a campsite in Limousin this summer. I respond by saying that I’m not setting foot in a tent ever again. The spell is broken — but the natural order between us is restored.
Cathy Adams was a guest of MSC Cruises, which has six nights full board sailing from Doha to Dubai from £589pp, departing March 24. Fly to Doha

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