Hard to beat brilliance of the Mid East

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iol travel march 6 muscat REUTERS Omani traditional musicians perform during the Muscat Festival, in Muscat.

A lot was made of Blue Monday last month - apparently, January 16 hadn't a chance. It was destined to be the most depressing and demoralising day of the year. And, yes, it was a blue day for me, too. But the blue was of the happy kind - blue skies and blue seas, both of which were guaranteed aboard the Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas as it cruised the United Arab Emirates and Oman, docking most days in a different country.

Brilliance of the Seas provides the perfect blend: it is akin to a mini-holiday resort in itself, and yet most days you can opt to head off, either under your own steam or on a guided tour. I'm the exploring type - if there's a church/fort/ ancient ruin/museum to be seen, I usually feel honour bound to see it - but there was something very seductive about the ship and its facilities.

The Brilliance is big - more than 1,000 cabins provide accommodation for some 2,000 guests - yet, it never felt crowded. It's also very easy to negotiate, with lifts to all decks.

The cabins, complete with en suite and televisions, are compact, but there is no reason why you would want to be in your cabin - or stateroom as they're called - except to sleep. As well as numerous restaurants, bars and cafes, the ship has a theatre (we enjoyed a very slick magician one night along the lines of Keith Barry) a cinema, a fitness centre, a spa and a library. Then there are all the outdoor options. The Whirlpools, swimming pools and sunbathing deck were usually abuzz but never uncomfortably crowded, and the temperatures were delightful, like a good Irish summer's day, if you can remember such a thing.

My favourite outdoor activity was the climbing wall on the top of the ship. Not that I actually ever attempted it, but I got a good laugh out of watching all the cocky young fellas who thought it was going to be easy peasy and then found, as they swung out on their safety harnesses, that that wasn't the case at all.

There were, of course, less daunting activities and each day 's programme was slipped under our door by our very own steward, the affable Floyd. As well as sports, such as table tennis, golf and soccer, there were kids' clubs , quizzes, classes in belly dancing and Pilates, seminars about such things as Botox and fillers, and workshops in crafts such as beading.

The only improving thing I did on the cruise was one salsa class - I have no rhythm, but luckily I was not alone in that regard. Let's say, we gave everyone watching a good laugh.

The one thing I had feared was the all-too-easy access to yummy food - and my fears were proved to be well founded. Breakfast and lunch were buffet affairs, while for dinner everyone is assigned a table in one of the restaurants where you had to dress up a tad; or you could opt for the Windjammer Cafe where you could wear what you liked, eat at any time and as much as you liked. Carvery roasts, fast food, sushi, Chinese, Indian, Mexican - you could get it all. We quickly sussed that the food cooked right in front of you was the best - we had great steaks, for example.

They also did delicious desserts - forget those professional-looking gateaux, the pastry chef excelled at good old-fashioned puds such as apple crumble and peach cobbler. Of course, the more we ate the less we felt able to dress up. A word about summer clothes - since the cruise I've decided no one over the age of 30 looks well in the usual combination of cropped trousers/ summer shorts/T-shirts/ cargo pants/flip-flops. Americans, Brits, Norwegians, Indians, Chinese, Swedes and Germans by day all looked a fright. Yet come the evening, debonair men in black tie - you can hire the suits, etc, on board - escorted elegant women in glittering cocktail wear to the bars and restaurants. What a transformation.

Life on the ship has its own rhythm and you completely switch off from real life. By the way, it's best not to make contact with home too often. Your mobile bills can be enormous. Switch off your voicemail - accepting and accessing voice messages is particularly prohibitive. Tell everyone to text instead.

Hard and all as it was, I forced myself away from the food and people-watching to go on a few shore excursions. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are, as you'd expect, full of fascinating architecture and everything was sparkly and new.

Muscat, in Oman, was different, a combination of new and old. The Muttrah - the 300-year-old souk - is a bewildering warren with shops with glistening arrays of gold and silver jewellery, daggers, and carved chests. Frankincense is a big seller, as are dates. As with all souks you needed to be in the whole of your health for the haggling, so we settled instead for an Arabian coffee and watched the battles between tourists and traders.

The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque - one of dozens of mosques in the city - by contrast dates from 2001. When it was built, its chandelier, which is encrusted with Swarovski crystals, was the biggest in the world. It has since been overtaken in the size league by a chandelier in Qatar. Nonetheless it is still impressively big - two men can fit inside to repair it. The mosque's carpet still has the distinction of being the largest handloomed one in the world. It took 500 women six months to make it.

For women to enter the mosque their heads, arms, legs and feet must be covered. Guess who forgot to read the instructions for the visit? Fortunately, you can buy the necessary garb for €10, $10 or £10 - it didn't matter what the currency, as long as it was 10. Anyway, the purchase was useful for the Arabian Nights party that evening.

And who knows, it could come in handy when I cruise to the area again. Inshallah. - Sunday Independent

GETTING THERE

A nine-night cruise on Brilliance of the Seas costs from €989 (about R10 000) per person (based on two people sharing an inside stateroom). This cruise-only price includes departure from Dubai, calling at Fujairah, Muscat, Oman and Abu Dhabi, before returning to Dubai; meals and entertainment onboard and all relevant cruise taxes/fees. Fly/cruise departing Dublin available from €2,064 per person (flight departs a day earlier and price includes a checked bag and transfers).

Prices based on April 7, 2012, cruise departures.

Book sister ship Serenade of the Seas with cruise-only prices from €451pp and €1,306pp for January 28, 2013, cruise dates.

www.royalcaribbean.ie, call 1800 932 619 or talk to your travel agent.

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