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Explore Saudi Arabia’s ancient wonders on the Scenic Eclipse

If you’re after bragging rights on a cruise excursion, this one takes some beating. Here we are, dropping 20 metres down a sheer wall of coral in the Red Sea. There’s not an oxygen tank or a mask in sight: instead of scuba diving, we are sitting comfortably in a skippered six-seater submarine, reached by a short Zodiac trip from the luxury expedition ship Scenic Eclipse.

It gives us a fish-eye view of the underwater world, shoals of quicksilver shapes flitting around us and the coral, which feels so close I think we are going to scrape it (the curved glass of the submarine creates the illusion of proximity). And while no turtles show during our brief underwater foray, which will set you back several hundred dollars, as excursions go it is certainly extraordinary. 

So is the mother ship, Scenic Eclipse, which as well as a submarine has two helicopters for outings by air. Sadly, on this trip the helicopters stay firmly in their hangars: they don’t have permission to fly in Saudi airspace.

Yes, we’re in Saudi Arabia, which is opening up to foreign travel with its new e-visa scheme, hoping to attract 100 million tourists by 2030. Cruising should play a large part in that plan, with several Red Sea ports being developed for vessels such as Scenic’s Emerald Azzurra, which incorporates Saudi Arabia as part of an itinerary featuring Jordan and Egypt.

It’s still early days: when we board the ship at Jeddah, officials at the new cruise port seem unsure how to deal with us, and there is a fair bit of waiting around for buses to ferry us the short distance to the ship. Over the other side of the gangplank, though, everything is instantly relaxing after we receive a Covid test rather than the customary glass of champagne (Saudi is a dry country). 

Scenic Eclipse is more of a boutique hotel than expedition craft. There is a greater sense of space on board than on any other luxury ship I have travelled on, the sleek contemporary décor in a calming neutral palette. Everything is seriously stylish, from the curved banquette seating in the main restaurant Elements, which has the feel of a posh eatery, to the on-deck cabanas that were added along with the Panorama Bar as part of several tweaks in lockdown. No detail has been ignored: even the spacious suites have electronically controlled beds, black-out blinds, Dyson hairdryers and plenty of storage – as well as butler service.

It feels like a swish private yacht, albeit one with its own cooking classroom as well as a yoga studio with aerial nets, where I literally tie myself in knots. There’s also a spa with separate male and female facilities, a hair salon and a small pool.

While there is no longer a main pool (the indoor-outdoor pool has been removed from its previous position in the buffet restaurant), I could easily spend my days drifting about on this ship, enjoying the slick service, with 176 crew for a maximum 228 passengers. 

It would be a shame not to explore, though; it’s not every day you visit Saudi Arabia. While the kingdom once had a controversial reputation, it is changing. For a start, female tourists no longer have to wear the full-length abaya, or cover their heads.

We stop at a Red Sea island to play with Scenic’s sea toys, including paddleboards, kayaks and the motorised Seabob, which looks like a mini rocket as it propels you underwater. At Jeddah, we explore the old town with its now dilapidated houses featuring intricately carved wooden windows, built for 19th-century merchants who made fortunes on the Asia to Europe trade route.

Al Ula, Saudi Arabia

The excursion not to be missed, though, is to Al-Ula, a desert region in the north-west. At Hegra, boulders as big as buildings rise from the desert floor. These giant monoliths, which have been carved by the wind over the centuries, would be impressive enough on their own, but man has also played his part. More than 110 ornate tombs were carved into them by the ancient Nabataeans, the people who built Petra in Jordan. It’s not on the same scale as Petra, but the tombs at Hegra are better preserved, and as we gaze in awe at the one belonging to Lihyan, son of Kuza in a sandstone outcrop 21 metres high, we have it all to ourself.

This ancient architecture is complemented by a modern masterpiece a short drive away, where the 3,000 panes of tempered glass sparkle at Maraya’s concert hall, the world’s largest reflective building.

Spectacular and astonish mirrored building in Madain Saleh in Al Ula Saudi Arabia

It all makes for an amazing day out, and we are hot and happy when we return to the cosseting confines of the ship, where every member of staff seems to know our name, and our choice of drinks. We need to wait until we’re outside Saudi waters to pick from the 110-bottle whisky bar, though, or indeed for any alcoholic drink. This is particularly trying when you’re eating your way through an 11-course meal at the superb invitation-only Chef’s Table.

Here, corporate chef Tom Götter acts like a combination of Willy Wonka and the Nutty Professor as he talks us through the various courses, including one that resembles a giant cigar in an ash tray, complete with dehydrated vegetable ‘ash’. When I bewail the fact that we don’t have enough days on board to eat at the eight dining venues on this foodiest of ships, Götter replies: “It would take two months and 18 days on board to eat every dish.”

I try my hardest to sample many of them, particularly enjoying the Asian food at Koko’s, with its sushi bar as well as a Night Market, where a charismatic chef named Strawberry supplies a stream of tasty street-food dishes. There’s more fine dining at Lumière, with its gown sculpture made from 5,400 spoons. 

Even here, there is no need to dress for dinner: the ship’s atmosphere is totally unstuffy. There seem to be few no-go areas, either. No-one bats an eyelid when I ask if I can work in the coffee shop after it has closed; they just ensure I have everything I need. And when I venture to the bridge and start chatting about the helicopters, someone offers straight away to show them to me. 

So up we go to the hangars, where I pose for a picture inside one chopper. It’s as luxurious as the ship itself, with five cameras for flight footage, custom leather seats and Bluetooth audio for in-flight music. 

I can’t wait to return for another voyage so that I can not only submerge myself beneath the ocean, but can also fly above it to see this amazing ship from on high.

Concierge

What should I pack?
Forget the ballgown and the dinner jacket: the look onboard is smart casual, and although you can dress up a bit, no-one minds if you roll up for dinner in your jeans. When out and about in Saudi Arabia, you need to cover your shoulders and knees and avoid clothing with rude motifs, but otherwise Western gear is fine. Remember a hat for that strong desert sun, and some comfortable walking shoes too. Take gym gear if you plan to do yoga or pilates, plus some bathers for the spa pool and hot tub. 

How did you get there?
Cruises start and finish in Jeddah, which has a new cruise terminal. Middle Eastern carriers fly from Australian cities, with one stop. Female travellers might like to leave extra time to navigate the airport: there’s a separate line for women at airport security, which is slower than the lines for men. 

Your favourite moment?
How to encapsulate this amazing voyage in one moment? There is that first instance when you board and realise what an astonishingly lovely ship Scenic Eclipse is; the time the barman puts your favourite drink in front of you when you haven’t even asked for it. Add to that the feeling as you head out to the submarine on a Zodiac and look back at the ship, thinking it could be your private yacht. The first view of the rust-red rock tombs at Hegra is unbeatable. 

The Verdict

The high: Did we mention the submarine and helicopters on board what feels like your own super yacht?

The low: While the theatre has sink-into chairs, the ‘shows’ mostly feature the entertainment director and his assistant singing well-known songs. 

Who it suits: This is a ship for soft adventure lovers who want to explore but like the idea of returning to unrivalled comfort and fantastic food. While children are welcome, there are no family facilities.