What could be more synonymous with a holiday than a beach? Despite the growing popularity of alternative holidays, stressed-out city dwellers from all over the world still spend fortunes on conventional sun, sea and sand holidays everywhere from Greece to Malaysia. The reason is that the sea, which tends to come with fresh air and space, is both relaxing and invigorating and, along with sun and good food and accommodation, there’s little more you actually need from a break. Of course, many people overlook the coastal offerings in their own countries, opting to jump on a plane almost by default. It’s why millions of tourists, mostly from Europe, fly to the UAE every year. But for many expats, myself included, the chance of a morning swim in clean water from a safe, sandy beach is one of the major benefits. After cycling along Abu Dhabi’s Corniche to Mina Port on weekends, I take great delight in swimming off the open beach. Suddenly everything seems to be in balance. Half-close your eyes and you could be in the Maldives.
#healthyliving magazine: Your guide to the Water Issue
If you're feeling adventurous, hire a jet ski in Abu Dhabi or make the most of Dubai's calm mornings with a stand-up paddling session (offered at a relatively low cost by most hotels). Families can take advantage of the region's water parks, including Yas Waterworld in Abu Dhabi; Aquaventure and Wild Wadi in Dubai; Dreamland Aqua Park in Umm Al Quwain; Wadi Adventure in Al Ain, Aquapark Qatar just outside Doha; and the Lost Paradise of Dilmun in central Bahrain.
Just next door to the UAE in Khasab, Oman, stay at the new Atana Musandam from Dh400 per night and take a three-hour snorkelling and dolphin-watching dhow trip from about Dh350 per person, including lunch, with companies such as Khasab Travel & Tours and Musandam Sea Adventure Travel & Tourism. Newly launched in Dubai, the adventure portal UB Cool currently has 10 bookable water-based trips on its site, from rafting in Turkey, Indonesia and Switzerland to diving in the Daymaniyat Islands in Oman. This trip costs US$105 (Dh385) per person for a day and departs from Muscat with Pearl Adventures.
For those seriously interested in swimming, Swim Trek offers open-water swimming holidays all over the world, including in remote fjords in Musandam, a cross-continental swim across the Bosphorous in Istanbul and, in July and September, a "short swims" introductory trip in Turkey offering a combination of swims and averaging three kilometres per day, which is "perfect for either the inexperienced open-water swimmer or those who just prefer shorter daily swims". This seven-day trip costs from £850 (Dh4,870) per person, excluding flights.
Of course, it’s often nice to combine swimming with other water-based activities and historical sites and actually stay on a boat. Yachting and cruising used to have a reputation for being expensive, but huge competition has meant that a holiday on a boat is often no more expensive than one on land. Yet, while photos in brochures and websites may make the boats look fantastic, the key thing to look for, that makes a big difference to this kind of holiday, is the location, size and comfort level of the cabin. You don’t want to be trapped on a boat with a group of strangers you may not like, only to find that your room – your only retreat – is small, dark and depressing. Check company website photos and descriptions carefully and pay more for a room with a balcony or window if possible.
Explore Worldwide offers 544 boat journeys around the world, from cruising the Nile on a felucca to criss-crossing the Maldives in a dhoni. On an eight-day Dalmatian Island cruise in Croatia, enjoy simple accommodation with a small group and explore several islands, swimming and snorkelling in the sea and rambling through old towns, enjoying local food. Trips cost from £910 (Dh5,200) excluding flights.
If you want to scuba-dive in the world's most attractive destinations with an experienced company, Dive Worldwide covers almost 200 locations in 40 countries. The destination of the moment is Raja Ampat, a group of islands in West Papua, Indonesia, the most diverse marine region in the world. Choose either a specialised diving trip or a small-group cruise on a traditional-style phinisi or larger, more modern boat – a 10-day trip on a Komodo liveaboard costs from £2,590 (Dh14,825) per person.
If you want something a bit more adrenaline-fuelled, Splash White Water Rafting offers trips in some surprising locations, including Iran, Mongolia and Morocco. A three-day rafting weekend in Morocco – booked through www.moroccoadventuretours.com costs from £500 (Dh2,865) per person.
The UAE-based Wild Guanabana offers trips such as rock climbing from cliffs over the sea near Krabi in Thailand or a journey to Cambodia's temples and beaches. The Cambodia trip costs from $854 (Dh3,184) per person for six days, excluding flights, and includes the beaches of Sihanoukville and Ream National Park.
Longer cruises are relaxing not just because of the water, but also because you don't have to unpack, repack and haul your bags around every day. Now one of the largest sectors in the travel industry, cruises are offered by the thousand, from glitzy yachts to container ships. Emirates Holidays offers a variety of cruise packages with most of the major cruise operators, including P&O, Royal Caribbean, Costa Cruises and Disney Cruise Line.
One of the other main reasons to take a cruise, however, is to reach parts of the world you could not get to in any other way, and to learn about the places, people and culture along the way. The Canadian company One Ocean Expeditions offers small-ship expeditionary cruises, with a resident lecturer, to the Arctic and Antarctic. A 10-night Antarctic Peninsula Adventure costs from $7,495 (Dh27,530) per person, excluding flights. This summer, a 12-night cruise around Spitsbergen in the Norwegian Arctic starts at $6,795 (Dh25,000) per person, excluding flights.
In Europe, UTracks offers an eight-day, 10-country cruise along the Danube River from £750 (Dh4,300) per person, excluding flights.
For a place where the whole experience is never far from water, choose the Maldives, Seychelles or Caribbean. Destinations such as Tobago are ideal as parts of it are extremely windy and perfect for sailing, surfing, windsurfing and kitesurfing, while others are calm, facilitating scuba-diving, snorkelling, kayaking, stand-up paddling, wakeboarding/waterskiing and parasailing. And if that's not enough, you can see bioluminescence – glowing plankton in the water – at night. One company that offers a bit of everything is Radical Sports Tobago.
There are also health and fitness-orientated travel companies, which offer water-based holidays. Health and Fitness Travel sells packages at locations such as Paradis Plage near Agadir in Morocco. Here you can combine activities such as swimming and surfing with fitness classes, trekking and mountain biking. Prices from £489 (Dh2,800) per person for seven nights, including breakfast and an exercise programme, but not flights.
Returning to the subject of relaxation, there is probably no better bet from the UAE for a beach holiday between now and October than Greece. Crystal clear water, reasonable prices, reliable weather, good food and hundreds of islands to choose from, plus a mere four-hour flight to Athens, makes it hard to beat. For ideas, visit Discover Greece.