This was a 7 day cruise on the Costa Romantica, round trip from Dubai, with stops in Muscat (Oman), Fujairah, Abu Dhabi, and Bahrain. This was our 17th cruise and our 1st with Costa.
Travel to the Port/Embarkation
We booked our own flights and arrived in Dubai at 9AM on the day of embarkation. (On the flights to and from Dubai, in addition to seeing the famous manmade islands, we flew over Baghdad and Saudi Arabia, which was fascinating.) The Costa materials said we wouldn't be allowed to board the ship until 8PM, so we had done some research and had a guidebook and maps. We left our bags at the left luggage facility at the airport (walk out of the terminal building onto the sidewalk and go to the left) and got a taxi to the Deira side of the city. The taxi cost us 45 dirham (taxis are metered). There, we visited the Al-Ahmadiya School and the Heritage House. The school is interesting but small; the Heritage House was terrific. From there, we walked along the main shopping area (near where the tours take you to the gold souq) and, after a little trouble, found the pedestrian walkway under Dubai Creek to the Bur Dubai side of the city. There, we walked along the dhows on the creek, past the Grand Mosque, to the old Bastakia Quarter (which was lovely with all its narrow walkways, balconies, and wind towers, and we pretty much had the area to ourselves). From there, we went to the Dubai Museum, which was terrific. It seems to be popular in this part of the world to have your photograph taken beside some of the statues in the museums, so take your camera. Based on our experience, we would disagree with other posters who did not think Dubai was a "walkable" city.
By mid-afternoon, we were getting tired and hoped that they might let us get on the ship early, so we went to the taxi stand in front of the hotel across the street from the museum and got a taxi back to the airport to retrieve our bags. We then got another taxi to the pier. None of the taxi rides was very long, but traffic is heavy. Security at the port was tight - we had to show our Costa tickets to the guard in order to enter the port area. We got to the ship a little before 5PM and they let us on. It turned out that they started letting people on at 3PM, according to a paper left in the cabin, but of course that information came too late to be useful. Embarkation was quick and painless, although Costa does not register credit cards at embarkation, so you will have to wait in line in a lounge a few days later in order to accomplish that task. We were told our cabin wouldn't be ready for several hours, but we walked around the ship a little and ate in the buffet and the cabin was ready at 6:30. We couldn't just shower and crash, though, because the bags did not arrive until 9PM.
We had a panoramic minisuite, which had one full wall of glass. The cabin was large, with a queen bed, two nightstands, a couch that made into another bed, two padded chairs, a coffee table, two desks with a chair and a stool, and lots of storage space. The bathroom was marble and as big as a bathroom in many houses, with a tub and separate shower. The minisuite came with daily delivery of the dinner menu, daily canapEs delivered before dinner (they were mediocre, but it was fun to get them), a daily fruit basket, and a one-time bottle of champagne. There were two room stewards, who took very good care of us. There was a pillow menu as well and they offered to unpack for us, but we declined.
Aesthetically, this ship is different from the others we have been on, with lots of marble, including marble stairs. It was nice, but it seemed cold and noisy to us. Most of our fellow passengers were Europeans, especially Italians, and there was lots of pushing and shoving wherever Americans would normally wait in line - to get back on the ship, at the buffet, etc. There were also an awful lot of people who persisted in going through the buffet line against the flow of traffic (start with the plates, folks!). There was also a lot of saving of deck chairs. At peak times, finding seats in the buffet was a challenge. We found the public rooms and amenities to be more or less the same as other ships, but there was more smoking and the ship was generally less air conditioned than most we have been on. Announcements were minimal and made in several languages.
The buffet area seemed to be a retrofit of space that originally had some other purpose. There was no flow to the food line, which was broken into multiple locations. The seating area is inadequate and cramped, with an ice and water machine plopped down in the middle of the tables. We frequently had a hard time finding seats together (there were three of us). Some of the tables are large, so people who didn't speak the same language had to share, and the seats that were the hardest to get to would get blocked off and remain unused because the tables were so close together that you couldn't get through once people were in the seats. The food on the buffet was not particularly good and was not hot. There was a separate station where the ethnic theme food of the day was kept - it was sometimes more interesting, but never any hotter.
At dinner in the dining room, we were grouped with other Americans. The food was better in the dining room than at the buffet, but the portions were small compared to other cruise lines. Service could be erratic one night, they flashed the lights on and off and got on the PA system asking us to leave, even though we hadn't been served dessert yet.
Since there were no sea days, there wasn't much for activities apart from the evening entertainment.
Cabin service was great and dinner service was fair to good. The tour desk is located in a marble atrium that is incredibly noisy when guests mob the desk. No one forms queues, so grit your teeth and prepare for an elbow-to-elbow battle to get to the desk. Also, the tour desk needs to do a much better job of making the tour descriptions match the tours. It would also be helpful if Costa provided information about the Dubai port ahead of time, like that you need to arrange ahead of time for a taxi on disembarkation day if you leave early in the morning.
There was an English language host. One couple at our dinner table said that the host had told them they could order shrimp cocktail every night, even if it wasn't on the menu, so they tried to do just that. When the waiter tried to explain that the kitchen didn't have any shrimp ready that night, the couple persisted, which just resulted in the waiter getting in trouble with the head waiter for something that was the English host's fault.
The entertainment was a step down from most cruise lines, but we went most nights for something to do. It is a nice theater. The annoying thing was that at the end of every show the cruise director would come on stage with a helper (typically dressed as a woman with an exaggerated bosom wearing a maid's uniform or a diaper) and they would then chase each other around waving a feather duster or something similar. The skit would then be repeated in about six languages, with the cruise director telling people to yell and scream when he got to their language. It was much too slapstick for our taste. We started making sure we were seated on the aisle so we could slip out as soon as the lights came up.
Ports and Shore Excursions
The ship did not leave Dubai until 1PM on Day 2, so we went exploring that morning on our own. (We might have booked a tour, but there was no way to tell when the "day 1" and "day 2" tours were being held, since the ship is in Dubai for all or part of 4 different days on this cruise. It turned out that the tours were actually on day 3 and on disembarkation day for those with late flights.) We tried to walk out of the port area but were stopped by security and forced to take a taxi. We were dropped off at the Diving and Heritage Villages, which had been well reviewed in the guidebooks, but there was almost nothing to see there apart from a couple outdoor displays. We were walking by the nearby historical architecture museum when a man offered us a tour of the museum. We were skeptical, expecting to be hassled for a tip, but he was on the level - he worked for the museum, unlocked doors for us, gave us bottled water, and explained everything to us - it was really nice and a very interesting place. We then walked back towards the port area and shopped for souvenirs in Carrefour. What looked like a taxi stand out front turned out to be just a place to be picked up if you had called a taxi or a friend on a cell phone. Unable to get a taxi, and being big walkers anyway, we decided to walk back to the ship, although we were getting a little short on time. The walk is deceptive - you can see the ship, but the port area is large and the entrance to the port is a long way from the ship, so we actually had to walk away from the ship to get to the port entrance. Once inside the port area, it was a long walk to the tollbooth-style guard station where all the cars and trucks enter the inner port area. We arrived there on foot, which wasn't a good idea given the trucking traffic, but it was almost noon and we were starting to get nervous about the ship leaving without us. The guard wouldn't let us proceed on foot, but said that a Costa rep was about to come through in a car and he would give us a ride. That is exactly what happened only minutes later. The ship left on time, sailing past one of the palm islands being built, and later past oil rigs. We had terrific views from the cabin.
The next day, in Muscat, we took the 4WD tour to Wadi Bani Khalid. If you are easily carsick or afraid of driving fast, you should avoid this tour, but we thought it was one of the best tours we've ever taken. Our driver took us in a new Land Cruiser about 200km to the desert. We sometimes went over 100mph, passing other cars, but we never felt unsafe - he was a very good driver in a very good vehicle. We passed lots of nice scenery, including villages, mountains, desert scrub, camels, and goats, and had a bathroom stop before letting air out of the tires and entering the sand dunes. We had discovered at the stop that our driver (a young Muslim man) was a big fan of American rap music, played loud, so we let him leave his music on as we drove wildly up and down the sand dunes. It was somewhat surreal, and a complete blast. We got out on the dunes for pictures (it was very hot - about 110 degrees). Then we put air back in the tires and continued to the wadi, where we had a very generous box lunch. The wadi was beautiful with the water, rocks, and palm trees. We were offered bathroom stops before and after the wadi, but there are no bathrooms at the wadi. The return trip involved some steep switchbacks and more high speeds. Once back in the city, we stopped at the Grand Mosque for photos.
In Fujairah, we went on a tour to the museum (which was great), the fort, and the heritage village. We also visited Al Badiya (the oldest mosque in the UAE you can walk up to the guard towers overlooking it) and the market, and we drove through Sharjah. As described in the tour materials, we were supposed to visit another emirate, Ras Al Khaimah, but we went to the heritage village instead, and the change was never explained to us. The heritage village was very interesting, though, and there were local women cooking and weaving. The local market was interesting, too. We walked through the fish, meat, and vegetables sections, and there were shops selling custom clothing.
In Abu Dhabi, we drove along the corniche past the Emirati Hotel (and the shopping mall that the shuttle buses went to) to the heritage village. The city is beautiful, as is the hotel, and the heritage village was very good, but crowded. The heritage village had many displays of different local crafts as well as animals, including a falconry exhibit. Our guide was an English woman now living in Abu Dhabi. We also went to the White Fort (which was interesting) and the museum (which was excellent). This was a great tour with a great guide, even though the things we saw bore almost no relation to the tour description.
In Bahrain we went to the fort, the burial mounds, a camel farm, the museum, and the Grand Mosque. At the mosque we had a separate guide, who was terrific, and both men and women were asked to wear cover-ups. We were disappointed that many of our male fellow travelers refused to cover up. The fort and burial grounds were moderately interesting, the camels more so. The museum was great. We also saw the road to the border with Saudi Arabia (there is a tour to the Bahraini side of the border crossing).
In Dubai, we took a tour that included the museum we had already visited on our own, but it's a nice museum and we really didn't mind having more time there. The tour was supposed to include the spice market, but it was closed so they took us to the gold souq instead, which was really just a busy modern shopping center, not a traditional souq. We went to the Jumeirah mosque, which was supposed to be just a photo stop, but the guide took us inside. We saw the Burj Al Arab hotel (which looks odd next to a water park) and Jumeirah beach. The beach was interesting - Muslim men and children in swimsuits were accompanied by covered Muslim women, next to western tourists in bikinis being ogled by large groups of the south Asian men who come to Dubai to work. We also walked through a souq area to ride an abra (water taxi) across the creek. This part of the tour was a little hairy - the souq was mobbed with people (a perfect pick-pocket place, with everyone pressed up against you), so the group could not stay together through the turns in the souq, and it was amazing we lost no one. A man groped me twice and I had to turn around and yell at him to get him to stop. At the abra station, there was a very large step down. The abra station was equally packed, and we were quickly herded onto the boats, which were being driven like bumper cars. It would be very easy to lose your balance when the boats bump together, so be careful and keep your hands and belongings close to you. Once again, the actual tour differed significantly from the tour description. The trip also ran about an hour longer than advertised, upsetting some people who wanted to get back to the ship to start packing.
There were excursions available for people with late flights, but our flight was at 10AM. We walked off the ship with our luggage at 6:15 AM. We had waited a few minutes for a taxi when a Costa rep approached to check on us - apparently we were supposed to call ahead for a taxi, but no one told us that. Luckily, a taxi came just then, dropping off some crew members from their night on the town. We went to the airport and had no problems, although the Dubai airport is unusually structured people and luggage go through x-ray before you can even check in, and then you have to go through security again to get into the terminal, where there is almost no seating whatsoever. Be prepared to stand for hours or to separate from the others in your party to try and grab single seats. Then you have to go through security a third time to actually get into your gate, where there actually are some seats, but the gate is not opened until shortly before the flight leaves and there are no bathrooms at the gate. It took us an hour and a half from the time we left the ship until we were in the terminal waiting for our gate to open, but there was no line at our airline for check in.
This was a fast-paced, fun cruise to a fascinating part of the world. I have long admired Muslim architecture and found the ports of call to be very interesting. We were sorry to see so many of our fellow passengers ignoring the clothing recommendations for this part of the world - the tank tops and camisoles really stood out. On the ship, the entertainment was a notch below other cruise lines, the buffet was a disappointment, and the tour desk really needs to get its act together so that the tour descriptions match reality, but if you have an interest in this part of the world, it's a wonderful itinerary.