Ancient forts, Persian ports

From its glitzy shopping to enormous mosques, the Middle East makes an impact, writes Joanna Hall.

As the Brilliance of the Seas slips away from the quay at Dubai's Port Rashid, the famous Burj Khalifa tower looms in the distance. It's a hot afternoon in January and although a translucent cloud of sand smog has enveloped the city's futuristic skyline, it remains an impressive sight; a slew of glistening skyscrapers lining the waterfront with a desert wilderness as a backdrop.

Passengers are crowding the ship's outdoor spaces to catch a last glimpse of this famous United Arab Emirates destination.

As Dubai city slowly disappears from view, people drift off to relax by the pool, sip cocktails and ponder the evening ahead.

Dubai has emerged as a significant hub in the cruising world; Royal Caribbean has based the Brilliance of the Seas here to cruise the Persian Gulf on week-long round-trips between January and April, taking advantage of the region's more tolerable weather during the northern winter.

Dubai has plenty of sights to see besides the Burj tower and its man-made islands, however.

When it comes to cultural pursuits, top of the list are the Grand Mosque, the Dubai Museum and the restored heritage area, Bastakia. For shopping, there are glitzy shopping malls and their attractions - an indoor ski slope being one - or souks tucked away in the city's old quarter.

After our departure from Dubai, a leisurely afternoon cruise towards the Strait of Hormuz afforded me time to check out the ship. Launched in 2002, the 2501-passenger Brilliance is one of Royal Caribbean's mid-sized Radiance-class cruisers. She has all the usual facilities you would expect on a modern liner. There are two pools (my favourite was the covered and quiet Indian Raj-inspired Solarium), an excellent gym and spa and a rock climbing wall for the adventurous.

Where food is concerned, on this ship things are divided between what's included in the fare and what you pay extra for. Included is a traditional dining room, Minstrel, which offers a reasonable dinner menu of international cuisine, and the more casual, buffet-style Windjammer Cafe. Chops Grill, a meat-lover's paradise, has a surcharge of $US25 ($28) a person and the elegant Italian restaurant, Portofino, a charge of $US20 a head. Passengers also pay for a daily latte, soft drinks, bottled water and alcohol.

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Accommodation ranges from small interior staterooms to spacious suites with private balconies. My ocean stateroom was on deck three, boasting a "just above the waterline" view, comfortable double bed, modest sitting area and a small bathroom - perfect for short cruises.

On this cruise, however, the itinerary is a major drawcard. With overnight stays on board in Dubai, it offers passengers a great way to see the City of Gold with other Gulf destinations they might otherwise not think to visit: Muscat, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and the lesser-known Emirate of Fujairah.

Muscat, the capital of Oman on the south-east coast of the Arabian Peninsula, is one of the oldest cities in the Middle East, famous for its beaches, mountains and forts dating back to the era of Portuguese occupation.

Most of the action in Muscat is in the port district of Muttrah, which can be explored easily on foot. Sights worth seeing include the Bait Al Baranda Museum, the fish market and taking a walk along the elegant Corniche to the traditional Muttrah Souk for souvenir buying and people watching.

North of Oman, Fujairah, a rugged mountain landscape of unspoilt natural beauty, strikes a bold contrast with other Emirates' destinations. Fujairah broadly translates to "where the sun rises" and both coastline and rural areas are home to fascinating spots: Al Bidyah Mosque, one of the oldest places of worship in the region; a stunning outlook called Fujairah Wadi; the bustling Friday Market, and Fujairah Fort and Museum.

Sailing on to Abu Dhabi, we visited the elaborate Grand Zayed Mosque, the third biggest mosque on the planet, costing about $US900 million ($997.5million) to date to build. Inside is the world's biggest single piece of carpet and the world's largest chandelier.

In Bahrain, sights worth checking off your list include Bahrain Fort and the National Museum. It's also worth taking a spin up the visitor tower for the view of the impressive King Fahd Causeway that links Bahrain to Saudi Arabia.

Cruising back to Dubai, I had time to reflect on a busy week. Travelling the Middle East by ship can be challenging, but it's a historic and diverse region which has lured travellers for thousands of years.

The writer was a guest of Royal Caribbean Cruises, Emirates and Arabian Adventures.

TRIP NOTES

THE CRUISE

Prices for a seven-night Gulf cruise departing on February 7, 2011, start from $999 a person, twin share, for an interior stateroom. Includes all taxes, fees and prepaid gratuities. See royalcaribbean.com.au.

GETTING THERE

Emirates flies non-stop from Sydney to Dubai daily, including on the new A380. Phone 1300 303 777, see emirates.com.

GETTING AROUND

Arabian Adventures hosts tours and safaris in and around Dubai. See arabian-adventures.com.

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