To Cruise or not to cruise?
We pondered long and hard before booking a cruise, as we had never considered one previously.
Sure, aged 14 and with my mother, I had travelled from Southampton to New York and back in the early 1960s, but Canberra was a working ship, not one built for cruising alone.
No, we never really fancied cruising.
However, a package appeared that included a couple of nights at the Palms Atlantis in Dubai, plus an opportunity to visit a number of countries of the Arabian Gulf, and finally, a chance to see whether cruising suited us.
I don't think we would done any of these things individually, but as a package of experiences, they proved irresistible. The final thing that sealed it, was the ability to upgrade to Premium Economy on the Virgin Atlantic flights.
We arrived home yesterday after 10 days away, and we found our Costa "Jewels of the Emirates" cruise a very successful one.
Reading the forums, the issue of drinks packages seemed to be crucial, and that was certainly a concern as, trying to ring fence the costs on a trip like this is important. Someone posted that their bill at the end of their cruise cost more than the cruise cost itself and we didn't want that to happen to us. We had some concerns about sailing on a brand new cruise after it had only had a shake-down cruise single sailing from Savona. This was not a problem as the ship functioned perfectly.
Someone said the air conditioning in the cabin was not efficient - while our cabin was warm on arrival as the previous passenger had liked it warm, we simply adjusted it lower and standard temperature was 72 degrees Fahrenheit.
The previous occupant smoked and remains of the smell were there, but soon dispersed. We were surprised to see the amount of passengers who smoked as we never see - or choose to be near - smokers at home.
As the package included more than simply the cruise, the other elements need to be mentioned as well, in passing.
Virgin Atlantic services were outstanding, in both directions.
The hotel before the cruise
The Palms Atlantis hotel at Jumeirah took us totally by surprise. We expected not to be impressed as Las Vegas style places are generally at the bottom of my personal list of places to stay. The reality was different however. Staff were numerous and absolutely dedicated to the guests at the hotel.
We were concerned because the package was bed and breakfast and we knew that food and drink are expensive at the hotel. Breakfast as buffet and massive and little was ever needed at lunchtime. Dinner was again buffet but was sumptuous. The entry to the attached aquapark was included and that was a major bonus as the place is the best I have experienced anywhere in the world. Besides that, the massive aquarium inside the hotel itself is awesome.
Our supplementary bill at the end of our stay was about £400. That may seem a lot for 2 nights, but it includes a supplement to extend our stay on the final day when we were due to go to the ship at 10.30, but not have a cabin until 8pm. We felt a day spent at the hotel would be better than mooching, homeless, around a ship, with no access to luggage. This proved to be a wise decision and the cost to extend at the hotel was only about £60. We did have to pay about £20 in local currency for a taxi to transfer to the hip - a journey that would normally have been free, paid for as part of the package.
On arrival at the port, embarkation was immediate as there were no crowds there, and we went straight to our cabin at 6.30pm.
The ship, Costa Deliziosa, is beautiful, and without exception in our experience, the staff were excellent. The thing that let the cruise down was the food, something that all on our dining table agreed upon. There was always something that was acceptable, but the 'celebrated' chef - who was paraded around from time to time - clearly knew little about cooking meats. Being an Italian ship, perhaps pasta was his forte. Perhaps also, the fantastic Atlantis food set the bar too high for a cruise ship.
To save bother, we booked the inclusive J2 drinks package a couple of weeks before leaving the UK. This cost around £450 for the two of us. Others on our table took other packages, but were restricted in times they could use them. We probably would have spent around £370 on drinks on the trip, judging by our receipts, but I should say we are not heavy drinkers, or even very regular ones. Anyone wanting to drink late into the evening, or drink alcohol during the day continually, would definitely benefit from J2.
It was good with J2 to be able to go to any bar at any time, and have pretty much what we wanted - champagne included, until we were eventually banned from that on the last two days, when we tried to make what we used reach what we had paid.
Cocktails on the ship are dreadful for anyone who knows what a Mai Tai, Planter's Punch, and even a Pina Colada should taste like. For the majority of passengers it seemed that quantity, not quality was what counted. We found it good to have the really excellent cappuccino effectively on tap in the bars, through the J2 package.
I should say that at mealtimes, water from a machine, tea, coffee are all available free. We liked, however, being able to raid our minibar frequently for anything bar 'super alcoholics' as part of the J2 package.
Passengers on the ship were primarily from the UK or Germany, though there were also many Italians there and a sprinkling of French and Dutch. Unlike the Costa promotional videos, most were not beautiful 30-40 year olds, but in most cases, rotund older - sometimes very old - folks. I speak as a virgin pensioner myself!
We found ourselves on a dinner table with two fantastic couples though, and most evenings we were in fits of laughter. The view from our table was through the picture portal at the stern of the ship and it was great. Waiters were excellent; shame about the food, except the wonderful pistaccio ice cream. There were two Gala evenings, one at Fujairah where many wore dinner jackets and evening dress; one at Dubai, where the whole range from casual to formal was represented. I wore my DJ on this cruise for the first time in 10 years and loved the opportunity.
Wine on the drinks packages was at best, insipid.
Entertainment was not to our taste and we were in bed by 10pm most evenings as we were on first sitting - definitely our preference. The best entertainment was given on the evening the crew gave their show.
The ship was not noisy for us - we were aft on Deck 8, cabin 8346 - so when we were early abed, we were not awoken. We rose early at 6am normally as we do at home, and saw some magnificent sunrises. The balcony of the cabin was a decent size. The bathroom is small, but perfectly formed.
Advice was to bring no electrical equipment as there is just one socket, but my hand luggage was full of wiring. I used my netbook extensively [£100 for the Wi-Fi bill in all], and the cameras all needed recharging, as well as the iPod and phones. Neither my iPhone nor my Nokia worked as phones on the entire trip, so the Internet connection on my netbook was an absolute must.
The Wi-fi is relatively slow, so the paid for sessions don't get much done. I used the 3 hour pre-paid sessions mostly to upload pictures to Facebook, and email friends and associates.
There was also the need to use curling tongs [not me!]. So I would discount the advice on electrical equipment - though I never left anything plugged in while away from the cabin as the wires got a mite hot.
The ship never seemed crowded, except when restaurants or the theatre disgorged. The ships itinerary was excellent, and the trips we bought were good value and well organised.
Day 1 Sunday, Dubai
Day 2 Monday, sailed at 1pm
Day 3 Tuesday, arrived at Muscat. Very hot indeed. We took the City Tour including the Grand Mosque, which is one of the most beautiful religious buildings I have ever seen. We sailed in the evening.
Day 3 Wednesday, arrived at Fujairah. We spent the day aboard as there is little to see there that would appeal to us. We sailed in the evening.
Day 4 Thursday, arrived in Abu Dhabi. We did the city tour and the place is really very impressive. We sailed in the evening.
Day 5 Friday, arrived Bahrain where we took the shuttle bus to the Souq, spent an hour there, then returned to the ship. There is a lot to see in Bahrain, but in reality I'd have preferred to have hired a car to get around as it is quite spread out. We sailed in the evening.
Day 6 Saturday, arrived back in Dubai at lunchtime, and spent the day on the ship.
Day 7 Sunday, we left the ship at 7am to transfer to the airport to fly home.
Was the trip worth it? Definitely yes, as a package that includes Palms Atlantis.
It is best to have the hotel part of the package at the start, not after the cruise.
The weather was perfect, and baking hot - hotter than normal for the season. As a photographer, I found the whole package a dream - so much to see and capture.
The sea was an absolute millpond throughout.
The Gulf was something I fell in love with, and the local people were really great.
The ship was fantastic, though the food and entertainment let it down.
Staff at the Atlantis were incredible, and those on the ship were not far behind, especially our steward Kimma who was brilliant.
Would we do another cruise? Probably not, as we feel too constrained even on such a large ship. We might try another line, if the itinerary is very specifically of interest. I don't think we are cruisers - we don't eat, drink, sunbathe or carouse enough.
Would we go back to the Palms Atlantis? We have the brochures in front of us, right now!