Traditional winter cruise always took place in the Caribbean, the islands where cruising was invented. The Med gets too cold and the Canaries are a bit far from European ports. For the past three winters we have another very enticing option, the Middle East.
That is where I found myself last December, on the giant Royal Caribbean Brilliance of the seas, the sun streaming down on the water lapping around us like an Aran Island currach.
The coast of Iran is on one side, the UAE on the other. The narrowness of the strait (think Antrim and Scotland) makes one think about the region. No wonder the Persians conquered so much so quickly when they only had to take a running jump to reach Arabia. Land routes count for so little to those who makes their lives at sea. The seas are the highways if today as they were of ancient times.
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All of the passengers gather by the quayside, thrown together by circumstance, and are boarded on a bus with a guide who speaks imperfect English, and off to go to see the signature attractions of a city in the most overcrowded circumstances possible, overcrowded because a couple of dozen coachloads of other tourists from cruise ships have all landed there together.
“This is a corruption free country, very gentle people, no crime” Khan our guide the first day in Oman told us. He translated a slogan on the mountain on our way back to the ship, “We love our country.” Yup, sounds authentic all right. Everywhere we travelled they told us about the magnanimous sultan and what he had done for the people.
Cruise passengers are always over charged. The shore excursions are a month’s wages for a local, $99 for a “mountain safari” that turned into little more than a glorified spin through the pebbly hills in a 4×4. There no falcons, no rare Arabian Leopard, not even an Egyptian vulture.
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It is not just the oil tankers, laden deep in the water, that remind passengers of the growing strategic importance of this region.
On one day we were buzzed by an Iranian plane that flew about thirty feet over the top deck. The second officer, Paul, told us about coming through the Gulf of Aden. You would pass a fishing boat with 35 dodgy looking characters standing on deck not doing any fishing. That’s how you knew they were pirates, he said.
So is it safe? Brilliance of the Seas is too high in the water for any pirates to board. Cruise ships passing through the more difficult zones usually hire former soldiers working for private security companies, and told all passengers not to go on deck during the night.
My daughter Síofra, who accompanied me on the trip, has a theory about it. She says that they would surely be able to tell if they were pirates from the Jolly Roger on the flagpole, the preponderance of parrots and peg legs, and the bandanas. And the captain will have a broad tricorne. And the oooh-arrs. And if they call you a scallywag they are DEFINITELY pirates.
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What is special about this part of the world is the ubiquitous call to prayer.
There is no escaping it. Five times each day a Mosque will give the signal and explode into foghorn-like intensity, exultations to heaven.
Another echoes it, then another and the sound is strangely soothing, spiritual and reflective. Two English Muslim girls wore their abayas perfectly on the way of the ship, red with a flower on the side of her head in one case, respectful and making a statement at the same time.
Síofra brought a scarf and promptly forgot to bring it the day we went to see the Grand Mosque in Muscat so I had to buy her a full gear for ten dollars. I told our driver on one of the excursions about the Christian call to prayer, originally three, now two Angelus ding-dong bells, they make it a full call to prayer in Ethiopia still. I will never forget my surprise the first time I heard it on Mount Entoto, and the dawning on me that the Islamic tradition is probably borrowed from Christianity and now patented by them. The songs too make me feel at home, the melismatic tone of a sean-nós singer.
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Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas cruises out of Dubai which has direct connections form Ireland with Emirates. Serenade of the Seas will replace Brilliance of the Seas for Dubai itineraries in 2013-4. The best prices for Royal Caribbean cruises are to be got from your local travel agent rather than by booking direct.
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