Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Sailing in Style from Dubai on a Six Star Ship

Clouds in the shape of rabbits and all manner of animals scattered overhead as I lay back by the pool. There was nothing to disturb me except a slight breeze that fluttered the pages of the latest bestseller I was reading.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see a waiter hovering, ready to bring me another iced drink, snack or cold towel. But right now I didn’t need anything except to relax, knowing that in a few hours I would be arriving at some new exotic city or country, without having to set foot inside a plane, train or automobile.

That’s because I was travelling in six-star style on the Regent Seven Seas Voyager, one of a small fleet of ships billed as the most luxurious ever built.

I’d simply stepped on board in Dubai and was now headed to Salalah, in Oman, via Fujairah and Muscat for a four-day cruise as part of the Kingdoms of the Sun tour. ‘You’ll be treated like a queen,’ I was told by a friend who’d already taken the trip. And so far they were right.

From the moment I’d walked up the gangway, I’d been stunned by the decor – think crystal chandeliers, sumptuous carpets your heels sink into, wooden panelling and gold, sweeping balustrades reminiscent of those on board Titanic though no one likes to mention that ship while at sea.

The grand entrance of the Regent Seven Seas Voyager

The ship is small by cruise standards – it holds just 700 passengers and 447 crew – but every inch is elegance redefined. Many of the passengers are on their third or fourth cruise with the company, while a lucky 100 or so are on The Grand Voyage where they boarded in Tokyo and will spend 87 nights sailing all the way to Southampton.

The Seven Seas Voyager and Explorer are two of a six star fleet

Dubai is around halfway and everyone already on board has a tan and a relaxed routine by the time I join them: breakfast at 8am, then sunning by the pool during sea days and shore excursions to explore new cities while at port.

Within a few hours I realised this was the good life – you can travel without the hassle. There are no airports to rush to, no hotels to check into and out of, no luggage to keep packing and unpacking, and no restaurants or entertainment to book. Everything you’ll ever need is right here on board and you can just enjoy your time at sea and wake up in a different country most days. Here’s why you should join the sailing set...

The suite life
Every cabin on board this fleet puts most five-star hotel rooms to shame. Bigger than a lot of master suites on terra firma, mine came with a marble bathroom with full-size walk-in shower and bath, a double bed, flat screen TV, sofa, desk and – every woman’s dream – a dressing room.

The suites on board the Explorer are bigger than most hotels

There’s a mini bar that is restocked daily, fruit, and a steward on call 24/7 to cater to your every whim. I tested mine – Heydi – to the limit and she never failed a challenge. My shoes have broken! ‘Here’s superglue, tape and a pair of scissors.’ They were back in action within minutes.
 I wanted more L’Occitane bathroom products and a basket brimming with shower gel, shampoo and conditioner swiftly arrived. She showed me how to order round-the-clock room service, the laundry room where I could wash and dry clothes free of charge, and the 150 latest on-demand movies.

And did I mention the huge double bed? 
It was so comfortable I was rocked to sleep by the waves as soon as I clambered into it every night.

Fine Dining
There are four first-class restaurants on board with constantly changing menus so even those on The Grand Voyage wouldn’t be offered the same dish twice. But even before you set foot on the ship the company asks for your dining preferences. I’m a vegetarian and yet there were plenty of options for me at every restaurant.

The Compass Rose is straight from the set of Titanic where Rose has a tense lunch with her mother over her upcoming marriage, but there are no terse mutterings here. Smiling waiters and an uber-friendly maĆ®tre d’ serve up mouthwatering international dishes such as crostini with grilled portobello mushrooms and roasted peppers or glazed baby back ribs for the meat lovers. Zuppa Inglese was a firm favourite even though I’d never had the custard dessert with meringue back in my native England.

There was a degustation menu for those with a hearty appetite consisting of vitello tonanato – roasted veal with tuna sauce and gremolata – clam pasta and grilled Norwegian salmon with Loire Valley beurre blanc and strawberries.

The menu is constantly changing on The Grand Voyage

My favourite eatery was the Italian Sette Mari at La Veranda, where I feasted on creamy burrata and tomatoes, and ate ricotta and spinach cannelloni almost as good as my (Italian chef) husband makes at home.

A buffet breakfast is held here too, with healthy options as well as the full fry-up that the American guests on board had warned me about: ‘Too delicious,’ they all mumbled, piling their plates high. ‘We’ve already put on 5kg since boarding.’ I ordered a boiled egg with toast soldiers and it was delivered to my table just how I like it – with the yolk still runny.

The other two restaurants, Signatures and Prime 7, are a fine French eatery and a steakhouse and require reservations. Luckily I booked both as soon as I boarded because they were full every night. The menus rival top French and steak restaurants here in Dubai, and if, like me, you ask for a table by the window you’ll enjoy ever changing views.

Hassle-free exploring
Who needs to worry about flights or train schedules, when you can just get on a ship in Dubai and sail your way in luxury to your final destination via myriad exciting places?

I simply hopped on in Dubai for a tour which would finally end up in Barcelona, Spain, three weeks later.

On my short sojourn the Voyager stopped in Fujairah. It’s the only emirate situated entirely along the Gulf of Oman and is striking with its jagged Hajar mountains and valleys swooping down to palm-fringed beaches.

Off-shore excursions include visiting the Heritage Village where you can learn how people made a living here years ago fishing in boats made from palms.

You can also explore the fort, which is more than 350 years old and was the first stone building along the coast, and although badly damaged, is still open to the public. It was home to the ruling family, and is near a museum that houses fascinating artefacts found in archaeological digs in the area. Pieces of bronze, silver and gold, weapons, and coins are all on display.

Al Badiyah Mosque is built from mud and local stone and is the oldest mosque in the UAE, dating back to the 15th century. Below the four domes, supported by a single pillar, are stone carvings on the wall and niches for the Quran.

After a gorgeously relaxing night at sea the ship arrived in Muscat, Oman where we docked before breakfast.

There’s plenty on offer in the capital. For those who want to immerse themselves
in the heritage, you can take a cruise on an Omani dhow or, for nature lovers, take a speedboat to look for dolphins, which will always appear apparently, or if you’re feeling energetic, go snorkelling.

Then it’s full sail for Salalah – the perfume capital of Arabia thanks to its abundance of frankincense trees lining wadi courses down the mountains.

Here you can just enjoy the beach for the day or go on an Arabian Heritage tour to see Taqa Castle, the Fort and famous fruit stalls at Montazah Street where you quench your thirst with coconut water. There are so many coconuts here, the onboard daily newsletter, Passages told me, that in ancient times they used coir from the thick husk to stitch the planking on the traditional boats used in the Western Indian Ocean.

Impeccable Service
Living in the UAE we are all used to first-class service, but the crew on board the Voyager took it to another level. Nothing was ever too much trouble, every thing was done with a flourish and a smile but the service was also unobtrusive. From the cleaners to the captain this was a happy ship and it showed. Ordering off menu? Of course – the chef will come out of the kitchen and discuss creating a bespoke menu. Want a salad and ice tea but can’t be bothered to actually fetch it? ‘Let us know where you’re sunbathing and we’ll bring it to you.’

This is the ship where divas are no doubt born, but I forced myself to get up and experience everything on board because there was so much more than just eating and sailing through the sleek, cool waters of the Arabian Gulf and Arabian Sea.

First-class entertainment
From comedians, magicians, enrichment lecturers, karaoke, dance classes and musical shows, there is always something interesting going on somewhere on the ship - if you can tear yourself away from the pool.

An American couple I met went from complete beginners to ballroom dancers performing some complicated moves after taking lessons on board.

There are also more cerebral activities – quizzes, card games, mah-jong, bridge, and tea-time trivia (along with an afternoon tea complete with finger buffet and delicious cakes), not to mention croquet, shuffleboard, and paddle tennis.

For pampering, head to the Canyon Ranch spa club, which has everything from jet-lag recovery massages to Ayurveda treatments and facials.

You can watch shows in the theatre, or meet the captain at his reception (or in the corridor for a fun ‘meet thy neighbour’ party where the captain rushes around the ship) or simply be serenaded in the observation lounge on the top deck while watching the sun slide below the horizon.

After packing a fortnight’s worth of activities into a mini-break I was sad to dock in Salalah, ready for my flight home.
But I’m already looking forward to the next time the Voyager sails into Dubai to see where I’ll be cruising in style to next…


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