Dunes and dates, sea and sand

A new home ... Brilliance of the Seas in Dubai.
A new home ... Brilliance of the Seas in Dubai. 

Gabrielle Costa joins a new cruise route around the United Arab Emirates.

The ever-shifting dunes of the Oman's Wahiba Sands stretch, in places, as far as the eye can see.

They are almost-unclimbable mounds of amazing purity that speak of the extraordinary and somehow timeless beauty of the countries that surround the Persian Gulf.

It is not far from here - in the capital Muscat - that Royal Caribbean's cruise ship Brilliance of the Seas makes its first port of call on a new, northern-winter route around the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Bahrain.

Filing off the ship, onto the docks and into four-wheel drives, we head through Muscat and into the wilderness, past the recently built Grand Mosque, where it is said that 400 Persians weaved for three years to make a seamless, single carpet, and the industrial sights that are testament to the growing - and in some case foundering - economies of the region.

From there the landscape changes to the jutting, barren, stony Hajjar mountain range, housing tiny towns that dot the vista between the port and the famed Wahiba Sands, still home to Bedouin tribes and the occasional camel.

It's a series of amazing sights, the juxtaposition of the old and new, and after several hours in the four-wheel drive, we reach the dunes.

Thumping through the sands, skidding sideways down them, white-knuckled in manoeuvres that are not for the faint-hearted, our driver Ali tells of the way of life in Oman, and how it has changed with recent economic development.

It is a theme that runs through the itinerary - even the Brilliance of the Seas itself - a ship that has traversed the waters, largely of the Mediterranean, since 1992, but has an old-style charm rarely seen on land.

The new route marks an extension to the Mediterranean voyage, where the ship spends eight months of the year, departing from Barcelona in Spain.

But the Brilliance of the Seas will remain in the Gulf until April, the relatively cool winter months when temperatures in the mid-20s are the norm, and repeat the same schedule next year between January and April, when the final two sailings of the season will go beyond the Dubai-Oman-Fujairah-Abu Dhabi-Bahrain-Dubai itinerary to continue on to India.

The ship itself is a comfortable vessel housing just over 2000 passengers - with two staff to every five paying travellers on board.

Staterooms are comfortable but not luxurious, with twin or double beds, a couch, a small bathroom and a desk - plenty of room for one. Two could be a squeeze at times.

Formal dinners are the norm on some evenings, complete with ankle-length satin gowns and tuxedos (the latter can be rented onboard). Meals are served at set times for those that opt for the traditional, main-dining-room deal, one of the many things that sing of an age past.

These meals are generous, three-course affairs that are designed to cater to western tastes; the wine list is extensive, though many offerings weren't available on the first sailing. When we sailed, more than half of the passengers were British and the menu reflected that. The promise of food with an Arabic twist was not delivered, but the ample, tasty offerings were very good, sometimes excellent.

Other restaurants offer more specialised fare, including the Italian Portofino and the steakhouse Chops Grille (both staples of the Royal Caribbean line - cover charges apply for both) or the casual dining option, a buffet that can at times be extremely crowded.

There are several bars including the Champagne Bar, and the Colony Club, which has a relaxed atmosphere that does have something of a colonial feel about it with its deep armchairs and heavy wood panelling.

There is also an on-board cinema, a casino (that operates when customs laws allow) and nightly shows - generally staged twice for each of the main dinner seatings - that on the first sailing included magician Martin Brock, acrobats Jean Claude and Gaby and Argentinian Tango dancers. Kids and teens can participate in age-tailored programs.

Day-time activities on board are less extravagant - lazing by the pool or in the solarium's magnificent, hot jacuzzi, enjoying the luxury of the day spa, which most days offers special deals on massages, facials and other treatments, as well as a fitness centre, mini-golf and a rock-climbing wall - but shore excursions are plentiful.

There were more than 50 on offer when we sailed and some were what could only be described as rushed. Pile onto a bus, drive to a site, stop for 10 minutes for photos, and then it's back on the bus, leaving more curious and inquisitive travellers somewhat dissatisfied.

One excursion, in Bahrain, took passengers to extraordinary burial fields at A'ali that date back to 3000 BC, but it was quite literally a roadside stop with just enough time for a quick snap. And a visit to the museum, which on any measure could take as many hours as one had to spend, was over in about 30 minutes.

Choose your excursions (which range in price from $US21 ($A24) for a self-guided tour of Bahrain to $US435 ($A490) for a helicopter tour of Dubai) wisely - longer trips see you leaving the ship immediately after it gets customs clearance and you return with only moments to spare before departure. There is no time for personal exploration.

The organisational aspects of the trip also had shortcomings - there were problems with passengers' passports, many of which were not available on the final night of the cruise and had to be retrieved from immigration authorities in Dubai, and check-in on the first day was tedious, with long queues, staff working for the company for the first time and waits at every step of the boarding process.

Apologies were offered, along with assurances the delays were teething problems that would be sorted out in time and as customs authorities became more accustomed to dealing with the docked cruise ship.

Despite the problems, the itinerary was a good one, with stops that were short but sufficiently sweet to provide a taste of the UAE and surrounding countries.

Gabrielle Costa travelled as a guest of Royal Caribbean

FAST FACTS

Brilliance of the Seas departs Dubai for the seven-night cruise weekly until April, and will return to the Gulf in January 2011.

The cruise costs from $US859 ($963) for basic accommodation to just under $US5000 for a top-of-the-line suite ($5440). Meals are included in the price.

More information is available at www.royalcaribbean.com

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