From the beginning, I had a feeling that our February 14 sailing on Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas was going to be different from any of our previous cruises. It was, and all-in-all it really was a brilliant week.
VISAS: A diplomatic row caused the Emirates to require Canadian tourists to obtain expensive visas (which initially at least the UAE embassy was ill-equipped to issue. That resulted in dozens of broken plans and cancellations.
Even for non-Canadians, getting a UAE visa isn't easy: As an American, I didn't need one, but my Ukrainian wife had to wait weeks and pay $160 to get a double-entry visa from the UAE's Moscow embassy through a travel agent. Then, while I sailed through passport control at DXB, she was queued up for more than an hour to get her e-visa stamped and her retinas scanned.
The Sultanate of Oman handle visas more reasonably: The cruise line hands over the passengers' passports, which are duly stamped in return for a $13 per person fee added to your shipboard charge account.
RIOTS: As our departure date loomed, a wave of civil unrest swept across the Middle East from Tunisia to Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen. During the weeks following our visit, violent demonstrations reached Muscat, Oman - one of the ports we visited. Though our trip was not materially impacted, it was an interesting time to be in the region!
WEATHER: We need to break up Ukraine's long, cold, icy winters with a little warmth, and the seven-night cruise on Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas seemed to fill the bill perfectly. Dubai is a relatively inexpensive five-hour flight from our home in Kyiv, and though we have spent time in Egypt and Jordan in the past, we'd not yet ventured into the Gulf. The weather in February was between 22 degrees and 27 degrees Celsius, with cool, shirtsleeve evening. Not a spot of bad weather to complain about until we returned to Kyiv. Stepping off the plane into -12 degree air and descending icy airstairs to an unheated bus brought us back to frigid, slushy reality the hard way!
DUBAI: The Emirates are thoroughly unlike Egypt and Jordan. The city is new, clean, and modern. The souks are civilized, without the obnoxious, pushy vendors found elsewhere. And though the hotels can be expensive, it really is an otherwise affordable city. A good 4-star hotel costs around EUR 125 per night. We window-shopped a mall or two - there are dozens - and didn't see any real bargains. The souks would have been great places to have suits, dresses or shirts hand-tailored, or to buy beautiful fabric, had we the time or inclination. My wife did buy a comfortable three-piece Indian 'punjabi' outfit that looked wonderful for about $10 from a shop advertising "Throw-Away Prices!"
It's interesting to note that you won't see many natives in Dubai. They are greatly outnumbered by East Indians and other immigrants. That posed an opportunity for my wife and I, as we love Indian food. We had some incredible curries with water and bread for less than $10. Heaven, if you love spicy food!
OTHER PORTS: We called at Abu Dhabi and Fujairah in the UAE and remained overnight in Muscat, Oman and Dubai. From my perspective, there isn't a lot to see in the region other than mosques and malls, so I stay aboard, read, and relax. My wife, properly attired, ventured ashore and had a good time exploring. In Fujairah and Muscat, the ship docks in a working port, and free shuttles take you to the gate or a mall. Abu Dhabi's cruise port is nicer, but still isn't walking distance to anywhere. Plan to use shuttle busses and taxis.
EMBARKATION: We took a taxi to the pier at noon and were aboard the ship in no time. All the lines were short, but the line for Crown & Anchor members was non-existent - we just stepped up, presented our paperwork and we were on our way. We carried our own luggage aboard because we don't want to wait for delivery, and hanging on to it until rooms opened at 1:30 p.m. was not a problem. We headed to the Windjammer for lemonade.
BRILLIANCE: We had been aboard Brilliance in 2009 for an 11-night Eastern Med cruise. We like this ship almost as much as we like the Voyager-class vessels. It's roomy, beautiful, and has plenty of options. I especially like the Seaview Cafe, a pizza, pasta and Panini place just above the Windjammer buffet on the starboard side. It's not open often or long enough, and offer really nice quality food, prepared to order. If you dislike the crowds, noise and confusion of buffets, don't overlook the Seaview Cafe.
That said, the Brilliance is scheduled for overhaul in two years. It's ready now: The wear and tear is evident, and although she's kept sparkling clean and painted, the furniture needs reupholstering and the dents and scrapes need to be massaged. Even so, the damage done by the incident last November wasn't readily evident.
DINING: As mentioned earlier, I shy from buffets. I prefer a leisurely sit-down, menu-ordered meal in the formal dining room - or even room service - to a buffet line. The dining room and service on Brilliance was fine, but we were disappointed in the menu. We've travelled Royal Caribbean often enough to have become Diamond members of the Crown & Anchor Society loyalty program, and have noticed that ships change, crews change, ports and passengers change - everything seems to change except the menu. The choices have become boring and the quality has slipped. Frankly, the Windjammer had more interesting choices, and seems to try to vary offerings based on the itinerary and the ethnic composition of the passenger list. Why can't the main dining room do the same? It's time for a menu makeover, RCI!
CROWN & ANCHOR: We felt that Royal Caribbean's loyalty program had become less interesting since they began to scale back, having dropped events like the free wine tasting and the gifts. We are pleased to see the improvements that have been made to C&A, and were really happy to take part in the complimentary wine and champagne for Diamond members daily from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. We also received complimentary chocolate-dipped strawberries, juices, and nuts delivered to our room during the week, and a couple of events. We enjoyed it all.
In fact, the changes to Crown & Anchor may have restored our loyalty to Royal Caribbean.
About the same time that we attained C&A Diamond status, we sampled RCI's sister line, Celebrity, and loved the elegant atmosphere we felt aboard the Celebrity Constellation. We were delighted to find that C&A members were afforded reciprocal recognition by Celebrity's Captain's Club program, which meant we had top-tier Elite status on our first cruise.
Now, we'll probably divide our cruises between the two lines, depending on itinerary, price and season.
DISEMBARKATION: Because we had arrived in Dubai the day prior to disembarkation, we took a chance that we could get off the ship at 5 a.m. rather than the usual 7:30 to 9 a.m. because all customs and immigration issues had been pre-cleared. We walked off the ship without a problem, and were on a 7:30 flight home while most of our fellow cruisers were having that last cup of coffee and waiting for their turn to leave.