Cruising for an adventure

Cruising sceptic Diane McDermott spent a week around Dubai and its environs, taking in dubious marketplaces, majestic building, and the Brilliance of the Seas.

WE had never been cruising before and standing quayside at Port Rashid, Dubai, gazing upwards at 90,000 tonnes of towering steel we began to wonder, is this really for us?

We were about to embark on an Arabian adventure but instead of the mythical magic carpet our mode of transport was to be the resplendent Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas, a Radiance Class cruise ship.

Normally we like to organise our travel independently and take each day as it comes with no set agenda, but the idea of visiting Dubai, Fujairah, Muscat, and Abu Dhabi before returning to Dubai after six nights on board was irresistible.

After a well-organised and smooth check-in we were shown to our cabin which would be our home for the next week. It had everything that you could possibly need.

As soon as we left the cruiser for land we were greeted with an array of taxi drivers offering their services — petrol is only 20c a litre in Dubai so we quickly negotiated a four-hour taxi tour for €50.

Our driver took us to all the sights we recognised immediately: The iconic sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel, Atlantis on the Palm, Jumeirah Mosque, Burj Khalifa (tallest building in the world at 2,723ft), stopping at the Emirates Mall to see the Indoor Ski Slope and the Dubai Mall for the aquarium. The Dubai Mall houses more than 1,200 shops, including the world’s largest indoor gold souk.

Back on board, we set about exploring the ship — 13 decks in total. This is a must as we were still finding new areas of the ship on the last day of our holiday. Running through the centre is a nine-storey glass centrum, allowing you to look down the middle of the vessel and to take in the vast size of this floating hotel.

There is something for everyone onboard: Outdoor and indoor swimming pools, rock climbing wall, crazy golf, running track, full size spa, and fitness centre, cinema, large Pacifica theatre, and a casino.

There is also a wide choice of restaurants. We were seated in the Minstrel Dining Room, the ship’s main restaurant and chose “my time dining” which meant we could eat anytime during the evening.

The menu was varied and the dress code smart casual, except on the formal nights. A tuxedo-rental service is available onboard.

Brilliance of the Seas also has two speciality restaurants, Portofino, an Italian restaurant, and Chops Grille — the “best steak house on the high seas”. There is an additional cost, $20 in Portofino, $30 in Chops Grille, but it is well worth it. We had dinner in Chops Grille one evening, the menu was exquisite, the steaks delicious, and the service excellent.

We were determined to see as much of each destination as possible, so we booked the Culture and Heritage Package (€180pp) which provided a full tour at each destination.

Our first port of call was Fujairah, the only one of the seven Emirates on the Gulf of Oman. The green, fertile landscape surprised us as we drove along the east coast — we were expecting dry, dusty landscapes.

We visited the Fujairah Fort, then drove inland to the Friday Market — it was advertised as “a famous and colourful roadside market featuring an abundance of souvenirs, clay pots, and artifacts for sale” when in fact it was a roadside market selling fruit and vegetables, and cheap souvenirs, none of which appealed. The tour stopped at the market for nearly an hour, when five minutes would have sufficed.

Next stop Muscat, Oman, and it was another gloriously sunny day so we had started to regret that we had booked a full day tour to Nizwa, located in the heart of Oman. After a two-hour drive through rugged countryside, passing the dramatic Al Hajar Mountains, we arrived.

Our first stop was at the Nizwa souk which, though extensively rebuilt, retains its old charm and character. The smells were intoxicating, scents of exotic Arabian spices floating through the air.

Next to the souk is the 17th century Nizwa round tower fort which was fully restored in the 1980s, and offers fabulous views over the town and its surrounding plains.

We lunched in one of the local hotels before heading to Jabreen Castle — the finest of Oman’s castles.

On our second day in Muscat we visited the Grand Mosque, the colourful Muttrah Souq, the fishing village of Sidab, before visiting the old city of Muscat to admire the splendour of Al Alam Palace, which is the official residence of Sultan Qaboos. Along the way there was an opportunity to savour the delicious cardoman coffee, a local delicacy.

The day that everyone else seemed to be looking forward to was the one that we were dreading — the day at sea. Everywhere on deck was crowded, everyone looking for their place in the sun. We were lucky enough to visit the bridge while the captain took us into the Straits of Hormuz.

The highlight of our day in Abu Dhabi was the visit to the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, one of the largest mosques in the world. It can accommodate 40,000 worshippers in total. Women visitors have to collect an Abaya, a loose over-garment, on arrival and wear this for the duration of the visit.

On our last day we managed to take in all of the sights that we had missed on our first day in Dubai.

With so many people opting to stay onboard, the cruise line’s entertainment programme is varied and continuous with a wide-range of organised activities including backgammon lessons and line dancing.

The lavish Pacifica Theatre hosted two shows each evening. We went to the Rat Pack show which was excellent.

Centrum’s Lobby Bar was the most popular spot on the ship for after-dinner dancing; however, it soon became overcrowded.

Extras such as gratuities can add up to be very costly. €15 per day per cabin for the staff, (stateroom attendant, restaurant manager, waiters etc), a 15% gratuity is automatically added to every drink purchased, calling home costs €6 per minute and wifi costs 65c a minute.

Having been cruising sceptics, we were pleasantly surprised, and the stunning changes of location and flexibility of arrangements more than compensated for any anxieties we may have felt about being trapped on board.

HOW TO GET THERE

Accommodation

Brilliance of the Seas has finished its season in Dubai and sister ship Serenade of the Seas takes over from Jan 2013. Serenade of the Seas has recently benefited from a $300m (€234m) fleet-wide makeover programme.

Flights

7-night Dubai cruise on Serenade of the Seas from €499 per person (based on two people sharing an inside stateroom), or €799pp to book an Ocean view stateroom for an automatic upgrade to a Balcony stateroom. Only available for bookings in September and October, these cruise-only prices include a seven-night cruise departing from Dubai, United Arab Emirates and calling at Fujairah, UAE; Muscat, Oman; and Abu Dhabi, UAE; before returning to Dubai; meals and entertainment onboard and all relevant cruise taxes/fees. Fly/cruise departing Dublin available from €1,179 per person and includes hassle-free checked baggage allowance and transfers at destination. Prices based on Mar 4, 2013, cruise departures and subject to availability and change.

What to see

The sights: Numerous tours available at each of the destinations with this cruise. But don’t miss the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi and the old town of Nizwa in Oman. The Burj Al Arab hotel is located on Dubai’s Jumeirah Beach strip; excellent swimming and water sports are available.

The shopping

Dubai is labelled as the “shopping capital of the Middle East” and it is easy to see why. With so many shopping centres and souks, there is no better place to find products at unbeatable prices. It is truly a duty-free shopper’s paradise that gives you more for your money. Best buys are silk pashminas, frankincense, saffron, gold, silver, and the most delicious dates you will ever taste.

The food

Most people chose to eat on board as all meals are included in the price. Arabic food is delicious, though.We sampled the following: Matchbous, spiced lamb with rice; houmous, a dip made from chick-peas and sesame seeds; tabbouleh, a salad made with chopped parsley, mint and crushed wheat, and delicious cardamom coffee in Muscat. For those with a sweet tooth you should try umm ali, which is a type of bread pudding. Further info: www.definitelydubai.com

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