PRE CRUISE. This cruise started with a planned night parked in Dubai, before actually setting sail early afternoon on Day 2. This provided flexibility for arrivals and people had a larger window for embarking than would be found on a normal 7 day cruise. We took a non-stop 14 hour flight from Australia, which had us landing at the sparkly clean and very efficient Dubai international airport at 10am, perfect for our midday check in time for the Brilliance of the Seas. We took a 30 minute taxi from the airport which set us back about 60 dirhams ( USD$16). We were quite pleased with ourselves to have travelled halfway around the world seamlessly, arriving at the terminal just as boarding was starting.
EMBARKATION. There were long lines when we arrived at Port Rashid. We had not printed out bag tags, but were quickly given some by the many porters running around at the front of the terminal. Apparently, there had been a computer glitch which had delayed the start of processing, so there were a few grumbles. Fortunately, we were directed to the suite line, where we were processed quickly. There were stalls set up selling the soft drink packages, wine packages, and a table for those wanting to move around their assigned dining times or tables. After the obligatory sail away snap, we headed up the ramp to start exploring the Brilliance of the Seas.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS. It quickly became apparent that the blend of both passengers and crew on this cruise were very different to other cruises we have taken. Most of those have been out of the USA, so the majority of guests have been North Americans. The passengers on this sailing were largely from the UK and other parts of Europe. There was a broad mix of ages with some families, young couples, middle aged, and older. The crew, we found out, came from all around the world, and represented some 60 countries. The first few that we spoke to were from Turkey, India, Ukraine, and Russia. My instinct with blending so many nationalities had me suspicious that there might be some tensions and difficulties due to cultural differences and languages, however it was very pleasing that everyone got along, did their job, and provided the adequate service where they could, most with nice big smiles.
THE PUBLIC AREAS: We found the public spaces to be large, clean and uncrowded. The artwork around the ship, though not masterpieces or of a consistent theme, was modern and attention grabbing. On our floor, there were framed pictures of things like the London underground, and aged advertisements for Guinness beer. The carpets all looked clean and may have even been new on our floor. The colours around the ship varied from dark woods in the Schooner Bar/Colony Club area, to sultry pink desert hues in the solarium pool area. The Atrium which runs through the entire centre of the ship and is 10 or 11 stories high is very impressive and there is a nice buzz there as people marvel at its grandness while moving from one part of the ship to the other. We had read some reports of wear and tear, however it did not seem this was a prevalent problem on this ship. While we did spot a few rust patches here and there, it was obvious there is constant maintenance. All of our deck furniture was brand new, so RCI obviously have some sort of enhancement program in action for the Brilliance of the Seas.
THE SUITE: For this cruise, we were in a grand suite. We had booked only 2 weeks before sailing and asked for a suite guarantee. The suite itself was very spacious with a large open lounge room, separate bar area and wardrobes. The marble bathroom with two sinks at the vanity and a huge shower was very spacious with many more cupboards and drawers than we needed. The sleeping area had its own nook and could be curtained off, so was really like a separate room, meaning there was no guilt if one of us wanted to get up early. The television, though not flat screen, was set up so that the audio could be heard from speakers around the cabin. There was also a video and dvd player. Outside on the balcony, we had a table and chairs as well as a lounger. This furniture was new, but not cushioned. Some other guests said they used the cushions from their rooms to make this furniture more comfortable. All in all though, this was a very comfortable cabin. The bathroom amenities were Gilchrist and Soames at the start of the cruise, but changed to a cheaper brand mid cruise for replacements. We wondered if this was a common theme when the bathroom tissue went from 2 ply to single ply. Additional privileges also came with this room, including access to the Concierge club. There was a 24 hour tea and coffee machine, continental breakfast each morning, and complimentary bar with hot and cold canapEs available each evening. We made good use of this and enjoyed meeting other passengers from around the world over a drink or two each night. The actual concierge had hours in the club where he would sit behind his computer and say hello as people came and went but did not seem to do much else. We all wondered what was on the computer that was so interesting.
THE DINING: Overall, we found the food to be quite good. We tried several options for breakfast including room service, the Windjammer, The Minstrel dining room and the Concierge club. We were not disappointed with any of these, though the room service breakfast card choices seemed a little limited. We wrote in a request for some extras and they were brought without a problem. The bran muffins, fresh fruits, and orange juice were daily favourites. For lunch, we chose between the Windjammer and the Seaview cafe. The Windjammer has an outdoor seating area with large, very comfortable lounge style furniture, which we found ourselves drawn to. There were plenty of drinks waiters and the food choices seemed to change each day. The Seaview cafe had strange opening hours which changed from day to day, but we managed to sample some of the sandwiches they offered. The pizza which is made to order looked really good but we didn't get a chance to try it. On some days, there were barbeques and entertainment, which were welcomed as expanded choice. The Main dining room menu each night offered enough variety to keep us happy and the quality was pretty good, but not terribly consistent. Stand outs were the salt and pepper calamari, white truffle linguine and the lamb chops. Low points were the pea and ham risotto and the breaded cheese sticks. Our table agreed the best night for us to have gone to one of the specialty restaurants was day number 4, as the menu seemed most limited that night. We had two great waiters looking after us and liked that they looked after drinks as well. One night we tried Chops Grille and had a lovely time with excellent service and outstanding steaks. The company was as good as the menu as we were joined by a delightful Scottish couple we had met each night in the Concierge club. The laughs were a plenty and we were the last table to leave, though the professional staff insisted we take our time and enjoy the night.
THE ENTERTAINMENT: There were several full scale production shows in the Pacific theatre, which were enjoyable and a step above high school musical type shows, though on one night a computer glitch cancelled the show halfway through. Another night, Martin Brock performed magic tricks and illusions to gasps of surprise from the auditorium. He was very good and kept people on the edge of their seats. The show times changed each day for one reason or another and were either at 715pm and 9pm, or 9pm and 1045pm. This variance seemed to be when there were big functions like cocktail parties for repeat cruisers early evening, or karaoke late in the evening. The Colony Club hosted bands and other entertainers and was very popular. There was a karaoke night with some great talent, including a Gloria Gaynor impersonator with a wonderful rendition of "I will survive". Music and dancing was available in different places around the ship each night and had big audiences. The crowd on board was a very social bunch and there seemed to be plenty to do in the evenings. We were surprised on the second to last night when the atrium burst into a disco party. The entertainment staff performed tracks from Village People and other songs like disco inferno. It really got the ship rocking and it was a wonderful utilisation of the space.
OTHER ENTERTAINMENT: This is the first ship we have been on that had a water slide and rock climbing wall. These were tucked away on the top deck and the only time we noticed them was when we went looking. They are much smaller areas than they appear to be in the advertising, which was a bonus for us, as there are large parts of the top deck for other things such as a jogging track and plenty of sun lounging. Park West looks after the art auctions and they had plenty of "embellished prints" available for those inclined to buy an expensive souvenir. There were also interesting activities that catered to or entertained specific groups such as the international belly flop competition, trivia, bingo, and crafts.
THE PORTS: MUSCAT, OMAN: Cruising into this port was very scenic. The black cliffs and mountains lining the entrance to the harbour provide a stark contrast to the desert that we left in Dubai the day before. The ship docked at the main container port of Mutrah, a few kilometres from the city of Muscat. As the container port is active, buses were provided to the port gate, and a little further to the Mutrah souk. There are literally hundreds of taxis at both of these drop off spots, but no information centre, which makes it a little difficult to know where to go without prior research. We escaped the throng of taxi drivers by heading into the souk and looking through the various shops and beyond. There is a money exchange shop in the souk which is convenient as some of the stores will only accept the local currency, the Omani Riyal. We found a barber shop, spice shops selling every imaginable spice and wonderful fragrances, as well as typical clothing and jewellery shops. After a little treasure hunting, we decided to get a taxi for a few hours to show us around Muscat's sites. We really hoped to find someone who spoke clear English, so talked to a few of the drivers and negotiated a deal of about USD$25 per person for a 3 hour trip. We saw the palace, a beautiful grand Mosque, international hotels, the public beaches, ancient forts and the fish markets. The city is very well kept with excellent roads lined with sculptures. We stopped at a traditional Omani restaurant and tried some of the typical dishes including hamour, a white fish, in a tamarind curry sauce, Omani bread in milk, and other treats. We had hoped to visit an internet cafe in Mutwah before returning to the ship, however it had closed for the afternoon break, as had most of the street front stores. We later found out they close from 1 - 4pm.
FUJAIRAH, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES: The city of Fujairah was billed as being an "ultra modern" urban development. Tall mountains around the city meet the desert, which in turn meets beaches and the sea. For those without planned tours, there were options of a complimentary bus to the gates of the port, or a $5 per person shuttle to the LuLu Hypermarket in the city. We chose the latter as we wanted to see the town itself. Driving in, there was evidence of many new buildings and quite a few that looked as though they had commenced construction, but suddenly stopped. There seemed to be a swirling dust storm, but we found out later that this is normal and occurs because the sand and dust in the area is so light. The city seemed a little eerie as the shops and buildings looked deserted. The hypermarket was what appeared to be a standard supermarket and a few shops. There did not really appear to be much around at all. We set out down the main street in search of something interesting, but we didn't come up with much, though we did find an internet cafe, ticking that off the "to do" list. One of the crew on the ship had told us that the Hilton Hotel was a nice place to visit, so we took a cab there and had a coffee looking out over the beach. The beach was clean and some people were swimming, but the hotel pool and bar looked more inviting. We took a cab back to the port, which worked out to be cheaper than what was being charged for the port transfers at about $3. Overall, this was not a very exciting port for us, however we spoke to some ladies who said this was their favourite stop. They had taken a ship tour and raved about their guide and what they saw. If we were to visit this port again, we would try and book a ship's tour.
ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES: The Emirate of Abu Dhabi accounts for over 80% of the land mass of the UAE. As such, it has control over the most oil. We were not sure what to expect of this city as it has always seemed to be dwarfed by Dubai in the media. We were very pleasantly surprised. The planning and construction of this city has been very well thought out and it seems like a very clean, safe place to visit. Like all of the ports on this itinerary, we arrived at the city's container port. A makeshift, luxury air conditioned, carpeted welcome centre awaited. Without pre booked tours, there were options to take a shuttle to the gates, or a big bus tour around the city. This seemed pricey at $50 per person, however it promised a tour and information/commentary about the city during the trip. We liked that you could get on and off as you wished, and it was great to hear an explanation of how this recent desert to city creation occurred. The City has some magnificent architectural creations, the beaches are pristine and clean, and it is easy to get around, as the streets are in a grid like system similar to NYC. We visited the Emirates Palace Hotel which is jaw dropping in its opulence. Entry into the hotel requires respectable dress (no shorts), but there was no problem with wondering around the grounds and taking photos. We also visited the Grand Mosque, which we were told was one of the largest mosques in the world and can take 40,000 faithful at prayer time. Apparently, the chandelier in the main prayer room is one of the largest in the world and cost 36 million dollars. We thought it was spectacular. We enjoyed sitting on the upper deck of the big bus, however after talking with others about their day in Abu Dhabi, it seemed it would have been much more economical to get a taxi and ask them to drive you around all the sites. The only problem with that idea would be missing out on all the info provided in the audio tour, though a knowledgeable driver would perhaps be just as good.
KHALIFA BIN SALMAN PORT, BAHRAIN: Prior to arriving in Bahrain, there were many stories from the staff about the previous week's visit and how many people had been ripped off by taxi drivers. One story went so far as to say that the Captain had bailed an elderly lady out of prison as she refused to pay the outrageous fare a taxi driver tried to charge her. We were assured that the local authorities were on top of it and given information about how to manage the taxi drivers and their fares. The ship offered either transport to the gates, where taxis awaited, or a paid shuttle service to the city for $21 return. When we asked about the shuttle, the first spaces were not until the afternoon, so we decided to give the taxis a go. When we got to the gate, there was chaos, as many passengers were lined up and waiting as the police escorted each to a waiting taxi, ensuring that everyone knew the rates, and exchange rates etc. There was a lot of arguing, and it looked to be a long wait. One of the problems seemed to be that the currency is the Bahrain Dinar, which most passengers would not have on them. Subsequently, the offered exchange rate by the taxis is ridiculous. Instead of waiting, we went back to the pier and asked about getting the ship's shuttle, which we were able to get a ticket for straight away. The bus ride into the city was about 45 minutes. It was clear that Bahrain has not benefited from the infrastructure and development enjoyed in the United Arab Emirates. Most buildings looked old and run down. We were dropped at the city gates in the middle of the city, and wondered into the souk, enjoying the contrasts of fruit and vegetables, tacky electronics, and spice stores. The majority of the store owners and vendors seemed to be of Indian origin. We found some treasures and left the area just as everything was closing down for the long afternoon break at 1pm. We ventured into a 5 star hotel for refreshments and some pampering. While there, we took the opportunity to read the local English language paper which was filled with stories about exploitation of low paid foreign labour, disputes between locals and foreigners, and other undesirable issues such as children being promised into marriage. One case going through the courts involved an 80 year old man having married a 12 year old girl in neighbouring Saudi Arabia. While these sorts of stories might have been sensationalist, they highlighted some of the differences between this region and our own. Leaving Bahrain, it seemed that this kingdom is not really comparable to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, as far as what is it offers for tourists. On return to the ship, there was a long line of people at the excursions desk complaining about the tours they had taken that day.
DUBAI: The sailing times in and out of Dubai give the impression that this itinerary allows for a large amount of time in this port. The departure on the second day had been at 2pm, with an all aboard time of 1130am, due to the muster drill. For those that had boarded the first afternoon and spent the first afternoon/evening on board, this only allowed for a few hours in the morning of day 2. At the other end of the sailing, the ship arrives into Dubai at 2pm on day 6 with disembarkation the following morning. We took advantage of the complimentary shuttle services to the shopping malls from the pier. The taxis are reasonable and drivers friendly so it is easy to get about and some of the buildings are unbelievably spectacular. We visited the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, as well as the spectacular Burj Al Arab hotel at Jumeirah Beach. The Atlantis Hotel at the Palm is open to all and there are shops and restaurants as well as a movie theatre. It is quite spectacular just how large the palm development is. There was more than enough to do in Dubai and the malls all had amazing shopping. We had good luck with our timing as the Dubai Shopping Festival had just begun and there were huge savings and promotions in all the stores. Dubai seemed to have the most activities of all our ports for tourists.
THE WRAP: As this cruise was our first time with RCI, we were not really sure what to expect. Despite the few grumbles mentioned here, we were happy with the good value we got from booking this cruise. Few cruise lines have weekly itineraries in the Middle East region and we felt as though RCI has made a good go of showing a variety of ports over the 7 days for this trip. Our advice to others taking this cruise is to research the ports and think about where organised shore excursions will provide a better experience than doing it on your own. As far as the ship is concerned, it seems to be in a very good condition. Though some of the staff need a little persuading, there are others that are shining stars. We met some lovely new friends and they made this cruise a whole lot more fun. We would not hesitate to cruise RCI again, particularly if the itinerary and price are both right!! Read Less