ADAM HELLIKER takes his maiden voyage aboard the elegant Brilliance of the Seas as she embarks on her inaugural Middle East cruise from Dubai
FOR MOST of us, besides Tony Blair and a handful of United Nations emissaries, the Middle East remains an enigmatic and rather intimidating collection of countries. Many would welcome the chance to sample the disparate cultures of Arabia but don't want the stress of countless flights and are nervous about travelling independently in the region. So how about a cruise?
There is a compelling logic about taking a ship around The Gulf, especially one as elegant as the modestly named Brilliance of the Seas, which I joined for its inaugural voyage in the region along with 2,400 fellow passengers eager for adventure (in a safe sort of way). Click here now for amazing offers to Dubai!
It appealed to me that, after unpacking just the once and settling in to a comfortable cabin, one could bravely take trips ashore to be jostled in a teeming souk yet know that, as dusk approached, a reviving cocktail awaited on the mothership.
After flying to Dubai and being driven to the port to board, it took a while to adjust. The ship felt just the right size to be interesting without being disorientating. This, the pride of Royal Caribbean's fleet, claims to have more open space, balconies and glass than any other cruiser and there's certainly a reassuring feeling of comfort and solidity.
At the helm was the dashing Captain Zinni whose Tannoy announcements sent some female hearts aflutter. The programme of entertainment was impressive and relentless, ranging from the inevitable daily bingo to a seminar on "The secrets of a flatter stomach", a pointless exercise given that most passengers are reckoned to gain 8lbs in a week's cruise. For a bit of exercise there is the rock-climbing wall or you could shoot some hoops on the sports court before a round of mini-golf. Endless diversions.
Then, of incredulity to a cruise virgin like me, there is the food.
Within half an hour of embarking I was in the Windjammer Café enjoying a buffet of international dishes, from Japanese salads to Thai green curry. In the evening there is fine dining at The Minstrel Dining Room, with a four-course menu; or there's the Portofino, a small Italian restaurant; and for those requiring a juicy steak, Chops Grille. Nobody on this ship goes hungry. Want incredible deals to Dubai? Cllick here now...
As the first day was spent in Dubai, everyone had a chance to have a good look around the place that was once a dusty, two-camel town and is now bling city.
The relentlessly competitive architecture has produced amazing edifices, especially the mirrored skyscrapers which are best seen at sunset. They provide a surreal contrast to the old wooden dhows that line the estuary and form the hub of frenetic trading.
The ship sailed smoothly through the night before arriving in Oman, a beautiful and verdant oasis where the people always seem to smile. Much has changed since the present, Sandhursttrained Sultan came to power in 1970. Now visitors are warmly welcomed and for women the custom of shrouding the face is no longer obligatory.
I took the ship's tour bus to see the Grand Mosque in Muscat, the third largest in the world, built in honey-coloured stone. There was time to wander through the souk where, after the obligatory haggle, wonderful pashminas can be bought for £7.
Taking a breather at a little café, I sampled the local delicacy of cardamom coffee and halwa, a date and nut jelly eaten with a teaspoon in between sips of delicious aromatic coffee.
All aboard were eager to see Bahrain, known as "the island of a million date palm trees" (a proud boast given that dates are considered to be the original Viagra). Here, according to tradition, was the original Garden of Eden. The must-see on this day out from the ship was the Old Fort, a fascinating archaeological site.
Well-preserved Portuguese fortifications from the 16th century sit on top of remains from the Dilmun civilisation, which existed some 5,000 years ago. Like a Russian doll, each layer of stonework reveals more of the history of this country.
NEXT STOP was Abu Dhabi. If Dubai is the boisterous little brother, then Abu Dhabi, the capital of the seven Emirates, is the sensible elder sibling. The country now flirts with tourism but has bigger fish to fry in finance and industry. Even with the land reclamation projects put in place by Sheikh Khalifa, Abu Dhabi seems the least altered in appearance in the last decade.
It was fascinating to be taken to see another Grand Mosque, intended to be the largest in the world but now limited to a capacity of a mere 40,000 worshippers.
A big landmark is the ostentatious Emirates Palace hotel, the most expensive hotel ever built (£2billion), where you can enjoy English afternoon tea in lavish, if somewhat hushed, surroundings.
At more modest establishments, try a camelccino, a cappuccino of sorts made with camel's milk. It was both sweet and sour - much more the taste of the Middle East. GETTING THERE: Royal Caribbean International (0844 493 2061/www.royalcaribbean.co.uk) offers a seven-night Dubai fly/cruise on Brilliance of the Seas from £956pp (two sharing an inside cabin). Price includes return flights with Emirates (0844 800 2777/www.emirates.com/uk) to Dubai from Heathrow and transfers. Departs January 24, 2011.