Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Fast and Luxurious - cruising around Dubai and Abu Dhabi on one of the world's most glamorous ships

Home to the tallest building in the world and glass towers that feature in a successful Hollywood movie, what better way to explore the UAE’s glitzy emirates – Dubai and Abu Dhabi – than from the luxury of one of the world’s most glamorous ships...

Sailing in style on the Europa 2 

Salt spray whipped through my hair as the boat cut through each wave, rising further and further out of the water when the captain hit the throttle.

Screams gurgled in my throat but were drowned out by the sound of the engine and nervous laughter as we raced across the Arabian Gulf, sunlight glinting off the blur of futuristic towers that make up the skyline of the Abu Dhabi Corniche.

The futuristic cityscape of Abu Dhabi

On the way, we’d stopped the speed yellow boat for a glimpse of Emirates Palace, one of the world’s most expensive hotels. But now, we were hurtling along again, literally flying across the top of the waves, bouncing up, then slapping back down at top speed.

Terrified, I closed my eyes as we slalomed around corners, and the boat rose so far out of the water it felt as if we were about to take off.

‘What am I doing here?’ I asked myself, my knuckles white as I clung on to the rail. After all, I only lived an hour’s drive down Shaikh Zayed Road in Dubai. But I was here for an exhilarating – and totally opulent – adventure.

It had started 24 hours earlier, when I walked the red carpet at Dubai’s Port Rashid leading to the Europa 2, one of the world’s most luxurious cruise ships. 

With a five-star-plus ranking by Berlitz Cruising & Cruise Ships 2016 – the third consecutive time the ship got the rating since christening in May 2013 (highest score ever in the Berlitz Cruise Guide) – the Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ vessel is the equivalent of a floating Burj Al Arab.

Inside the Europa 2 is functional chic - that's why it's a five star plus ship 

Every centimetre has been designed to be as chic and functional as possible, and the ship is full of original art – a Damien Hirst limited-edition butterfly print in your penthouse suite, anyone? The company has done away with the stuffy image of cruising to make it a stylish and modern way to travel the world.

Just two years old, the Europa 2 has more space on board than any other ship in the industry, so its 500 lucky guests can swing more than the proverbial moggie around the cabins. And if, like me, you stay in one of the 59 ocean suites, you get a sea view and veranda – unlike other ships, there are no inside suites, so everyone has a window and can see beautiful, ever-changing vistas.

From the moment I stepped on board, the wow factor was evident. There are chandeliers, 890 artworks, designer decor and boutique stores and just sheer opulence from the entrance all the way through to my suite on deck six. Forget everything you’ve ever thought about cruising – this bedroom is bigger than the average hotel one and comes with a double bed, living room, bathroom with a full-size tub, shower, designer products, as well as a walk-in wardrobe.

After hanging up the contents of my small suitcase – it took 10 minutes as this was just a four-day cruise from Dubai to Mina Salman port, Bahrain – I went to explore.

There was a lot to see. From the seven restaurants to the pool area with a retractable roof, culinary school, spa, gym, library and art gallery, this is a luxury resort at sea.

And by that I mean Hapag-Lloyd Cruises has literally thought of everything. There’s 100 per cent fresh air being pumped into 
our cabins, and the elite owner suites come complete with a jacuzzi, day bed and whirlpool on the veranda, a rain shower as well as a personal butler. There are a myriad exciting activities on offer and a packed itinerary of shore excursions for those who like to discover each city the ship stops at.

We only had an hour to freshen up before heading out to explore Dubai. It’s a novel idea to be given a guided tour of the city I’ve called home for the past four and a half years, but it was also an eye-opener. I got to see the emirate as a tourist.

Lunch at At.mosphere on the 122nd floor of the Burj Khalifa was the first stop. Believe it or not, I’d never been here. I was always scared by the ascent – I hate heights – and after queuing up several times to go with my husband and children or visiting friends and family, I always bailed at the last minute.

Big is beautiful - the Burj Khalifa in Dubai  

This time I couldn’t as I was with international journalists who literally pushed me into the lift. I balled my fists, taking 
in deep breaths and preparing for an eardrum-popping ride to the top. But three seconds later I opened my eyes to discover that I was there.

Walking out of the lift, I stepped into the glamorous restaurant with jaw-dropping views. Dubai was way below me, a metropolis of buildings hugging the coastline that looked teeny from above, with Shaikh Zayed Road – the main artery – connecting everything. Beyond the city, the desert stretched as far as I could see.

‘What would you like to drink?’ A waiter jolted me back from my thoughts on how Tom Cruise dangled from the side of this building and ran around its fa├žade in the crazy scenes in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. It made my stomach lurch just to look down.

But lunch was being served and I tucked into delicious ravioli, served with fresh green salad, and answered the other journalists’ questions on life in Dubai. They all wanted to know the same thing: what is it like waking up to sunshine every day, never paying taxes and what car I drove. ‘Jeep Cherokee,’ I said, adding ‘not everything here revolves around being the biggest or the fastest, you know.’ And as if to prove this point, we headed to the Creek for a sedate abra ride.

It was a glimpse of Dubai I’d never seen before – boats ferrying tourists and residents, traders plying their wares, and the narrow streets of the spice and gold souqs. We stopped at the spice sellers, picking up packets of deep red saffron, the world’s most expensive spice, and walked down what was quickly named bling bling street by the others. This is the road leading into the gold souq – decked with twinkly fairy lights – where diamonds and other precious gems the size of fists were on show in the display windows of jewellery stores.

‘No wonder Dubai’s called the city of gold,’ a Belgian reporter said in awe, staring at shopfronts awash with everything you could imagine or ever want fashioned out of 22 carats. It was so bright, we left blinking, tiny stars still flashing before us as we climbed into our bus to head back to the ship.

There was just time for a shower before slipping into a cocktail dress for dinner at Weltmeere restaurant – a fresh and delicious way to finish off our first day.

Weltmeere restaurant is a feast for the eyes 

Back in my suite, I was soon lulled to sleep as we set sail for the UAE’s capital, just down the coast. We’d already arrived as I joined the others for breakfast at the Yacht Club restaurant the next morning. 
I feasted on creamy scrambled eggs and toast before being whisked off for a day in Abu Dhabi.

We started at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, one of the largest in the world, which cost Dh2 billion to build. It’s easy to see why. There are 82 domes, Swarovski chandeliers, rooms swathed in gold, marble and semi-precious stones, and the world’s largest carpet designed by Iranian artist Ali Khaliqi. The exquisite rug is 5,700 square metres in size, made of wool and some cotton by 1,200 carpet knotters, and covers the floor of the main prayer hall. The mosque can house 40,000 worshippers and is very much in use.

Sheih Zayed Grand Mosque is swathed in gold, marble and gems

Overlooking it is the luxurious Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi, Grand Canal, where we were having lunch. Anywhere else it would be a small affair, but here, it was brunch. From breads to salads, soups, pasta, curries and Middle Eastern specialities, there was so much to try. The hummus was delicious, and the pasta pomodoro cooked fresh and al dente, just the way I like it. I finally sat back, full, hoping there would be a break so I could nap.

However, it was time for the speedboat tour of the coast, which left me pumped with adrenaline at the end. Shaking, but suprisingly dry, I clambered out when we arrived at our destination – Emirates Palace.

Emirates Palace was one of the locations for Furious 7 

A haven of marble and soft furnishings, it stands by the water, in the shadow of Etihad Towers – the three glass buildings rising above the city where the highly successful Furious 7 was filmed. In the latest movie of the popular franchise, Vin Diesel and the late Paul Walker take part in a car chase, speeding out of one tower and crashing into the others. Standing by one of the pools, where the movie stars were spotted relaxing regularly during filming, I stared at the buildings, searching for any signs of holes.

Etihad Towers was not harmed during the filming of Furious 7 

‘Special effects,’ our guide said, laughing. But I kept staring. After all, it had looked so real. Then, convinced that it was all just movie magic, I went inside for a luxurious afternoon tea. I couldn’t possibly eat anymore, but the dainty sandwiches, cakes and scones with clotted cream were too tempting to ignore.

Finally, the fullest I’ve ever been, it was time to venture back to my home away from home, the Europa 2. ‘Meet you for dinner?’ one of the journalists asked and I groaned. Not more food.

Instead I went to meet the captain, Christian van Zwamen for a tour of the bridge, and marvelled at the small wheel, which is now so tiny it looked like it should be in a sports car, not a ship.

‘It’s the captain’s party later,’ he smiled. 
‘Are you coming?’ Dancing until dawn on a 226-metre-long boat in the middle of the Arabian Gulf with 460 strangers? ‘You bet,’ 
I said. I mean how often do you get to sail away from the UAE’s capital in such style?

The ship was heading to Qatar and Bahrain next, but nothing could top the past 48 hours – it was an incredible seven-star staycation at sea. The Europa 2 made quite a splash.

Travel facts
I was lucky enough to experience the cruise on board the Europa 2 on a press trip - which was incredible. For more information, visit www.hl-cruises.com

1 comment:

  1. Well, my friends are planning for a Dubai trip and this post creates more excitements for our trip. Already done booking a tour operator for arranging our all needs there as safari and cruise.