Come Christmas, we’ll be watching in amazement as Tom Cruise swings Tarzan-like from the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa in Dubai in the next Mission Impossible film, Ghost Protocol.
No such antics for me when I spent 30 minutes at the 2,717ft-high tower’s observation platform on the 124th floor. I kept my feet firmly on the ground, so to speak.
Wisps of cloud hung in the still air above the desert city; I could almost reach out and touch them because, to my surprise, the glass-sided platform was out in the open air.
Below me, surrounded by shops, restaurants and a fake souk – all thronged with visitors – was the 30-acre lake in which, moments earlier I had watched a spectacular dancing fountain show to the music of Andrea Bocelli’s Con te Partiro (Time to Say Goodbye).
It was late evening and the lights of the city shone brightly, the driverless trains of the Metro snaking from the airport to the Marina. Away in the distance it was just possible to make out my own transport twinkling at its berth in Port Rashid.
With more than 2,000 other passengers, I had returned to Dubai that morning on board the cruise ship Brilliance of the Seas. In the six days since leaving the port I had ridden the world’s fastest roller-coaster, stood on the second-largest hand-woven carpet in the world, and survived a dune bashing desert safari in an air-conditioned 4×4.
I had relaxed on board a 90,000-ton floating palace, enjoying delicious meals in the Portofino restaurant and succulent steaks in Chops Grill. Sorry to say that, despite the facilities of the ShipShape Spa , with a whole regiment of running machines overlooking the bow, the only pounds I lost were in the casino.
Short breaks in Dubai and other Gulf states are commonplace these days, but only if you go by cruise ship can you visit four separate destinations without having to pack a suitcase each time – and how else would you be able to pack in so many experiences?
Our dune bashing safari had set out from Fujairah, Brilliance of the Seas’ first port of call. An excursion booked on board the ship for $77.50 (£48) it was not exactly off the beaten track, and we were never too far from civilisation to lose the disco music on the radio of our Toyota LandCruiser.
But we did have a few scary moments cresting dunes of red sand and sliding almost out of control down the other side. Fortunately we were in a convoy of half a dozen vehicles – all guzzling fuel at a mere 25p a litre – so there would have been help at hand if anything untoward had happened.
Next came an overnight stop in Muscat, the pristine capital of Oman and a complete contrast to Dubai and the following port of call, Abu Dhabi, because regardless of the country’s fabulous wealth, there are no forests of soaring skyscrapers. Development is strictly low-rise and is clustered into village-sized groups separated by a lunar landscape of mountains and connected by switchback dual-carriageways.
We had organised our own excursion with Panorama Tours whose LandCruiser was waiting for us at the foot of the gangway. Our driver, Badar, was familiar with all the short cuts to get us past the coachloads of visitors to the Grand Mosque (home of that giant carpet), before taking us for a fascinating drive through a nearby wadi.
As he showed us round a tiny village miles from anywhere, he plucked a couple of palm fronds and folded them skilfully into a two-dimensional camel as he talked – a far better souvenir than any postcard.
A refreshing glass of tea at the sumptuous Al Bustan Palace hotel, the obligatory visit to Sultan Qaboos’s royal palace and a tour of the fascinating Bait Zubair museum rounded off the tour before Badar delivered us back to the ship.
None of the ship’s excursions would have included as much as we were able to see, so I reckon at $91 (about £56) each, Panorama’s half-day excursion was a bargain. They do full-day tours for $155 (£95) and can organise specialist excursions for dolphin watchers, scuba divers and bird spotters.
It came as little surprise to find that few people took the opportunity to have dinner ashore – many of our fellow passengers remained on board to lie in deckchairs, soaking up the sun, at every destination.
But the evening provided a perfect opportunity for a visit to Muttrah souk, a short stroll from the ship, where it was possible to stroll around the market unmolested by persistent traders; unlike their counterparts in Egypt and the rest of north Africa, the gentle Omani people can take no for an answer.
It was back to 21st Century materialism with a bang when we reached Abu Dhabi. I could have chosen to go one better than the Muscat mosque and stood on the world’s very largest carpet at the Sheik Zayed Mosque, but I was determined to ride the world’s fastest roillercoaster instead.
Surprisingly there was no official excursion to Ferrari World from the ship – although they did do a trip to the Yas Marina Grand Prix circuit where it sits like a giant red manta ray – so it was a simple matter of jumping into a taxi for the 25-minute, £30 (haggle) ride instead.
Now I’m no Fernando Alonso, and it was touch and go whether I could strap my portly frame – fortified by all those cruise ship dinners – into the seat. Failure at this stage would have been unthinkable and there was no way I was going to have to tell everyone back on the ship that I was too rotund to ride.
Breathe in, pull the strap tight, and I’m in! If you’ve seen pictures of dogs hanging their heads out of a car window, then you can imagine what I probably looked like as I was catapulted at 150 mph up the launch pad, and swooped and swerved along the 1.4 mile track. Only the thought of not being able to fasten the safety belt a second time stopped me from having another go, so the next couple of hours were spent on more sedate rides and Ferrari “experiences.” Well worth it, though.
All too soon, Brilliance of the Seas was back in Dubai for a final overnight stop and that trip to the top – which also took in a visit to the Mall of the Emirates where there might just have been time to take to the 400-yard long piste in the Dubai Ski Slope.
Retail opportunities took preference, however – it was the Dubai Shopping Festival, after all, and it would have been foolhardy to leave without a souvenir bar of camel milk chocolate (£5). More souvenirs were available at the Burj Khalifa, of course – and there can be nowhere else in the world where, 1,500-ft above the ground, there’s a vending machine dispensing gold bars.
Perhaps that’s why Tom Cruise was swinging from the building.
To get the most out of my Gulf cruise, I travelled in style thanks to Virgin Holidays’ RockStar Service. Access to the V-Lounge at Heathrow got the break off to a relaxing start, and I enjoyed a completely over-the-top two-night stay at Atlantis The Palm. The original plan had been to spend some time sightseeing or shopping, but in the end we never left the resort and had to be dragged away when it was time to board the ship. Lounging by the pool, swimming with dolphins, watching the fish in a giant 11-million gallon aquarium and eating in just some of its 17 restaurants – four of them masterminded by Michelin-starred chefs – kept us fully occupied. It was the next best thing to being on board a cruise ship. The RockStar Service provided a dedicated check-in desk at the cruise terminal, and there was a Champagne reception on board for Virgin passengers. RockStar passengers also receive a complimentary dinner in one of the speciality restaurants and priority booking for the other evenings in Portofino or the Chops Grill. Bookings made before September 30 also qualify for free chauffeur-driven transfers to and from the airport, and $100 on-board credit.
- A NINE-night Dubai Stay and Emirates Cruise costs from £1,099 per person with Virgin Holidays Cruises. Price includes two nights B&B at the 5-star Atlantis, The Palm, with a free upgrade to an Atlantis room, before joining Brilliance of the Seas for seven nights full-board. Price is based on two sharing an inside cabin and includes transfers and Virgin Atlantic flights from Heathrow on December 10. Brilliance of the Seas returns to the Gulf in November, two months earlier than last season. For 2012-13, the itineraries will be operated by the almost identical Serenade of the Seas.