Our voyage through the Arabian Peninsula starts with a glamorous cocktail event, hosted by Captain Giuseppe Maresca. For the occasion, Japanese guests are decked out in traditional kimonos, English ladies have donned glittering sequinned gowns and the men have scrubbed up well in dickie bows and smart evening jackets. Copious amounts of champagne, cocktails and canapes are served to everyone at the ship’s five bars. Passengers move from one bar to the next; each has its own music – from an all-lady trio orchestra in the lobby to Italian crooner Dean Martin’s love songs at Savannah Bar. The high point is a chance to be photographed with the impeccably dressed Captain and dance with senior officers. It’s an MSC specialty. The party mood is deliciously infectious. Everyone has a good time – as the bleary-eyed guests testify at breakfast the next morning.
There’s something especially Italian about this ship. She exudes a “dolce vita” attitude that Italians have uniquely made their own. The decor is Versace-inspired, with statuesque gold leopard lamps, dazzling leadlight staircases, mirrored columns and massive chandeliers. In the middle of the lobby, there’s a transparent piano with a trio of elegantly dressed women violinists and pianist entertaining guests. And the shopping is pure Milan. Bvlgari watches to Furla handbags – very Italian. The swarthy-looking ship’s officers have designer beards and speak with an infectious Italian lilt. As for Captain Maresca – he could not be more Italian. It really is Little Italy at sea. On her seven-night Dubai itinerary, there are Italians, English, Russians, Australians, Chinese and Japanese, 10 children under three and a group of high-energy teens. The ship travels through Southeast Asia as part of her Grand Voyages.
MSC prides itself in resort-style ships and accommodates families with children of all ages. Kids have their own play centres and video games room. Dubai may be having a cool winter month in February, but it still has temperatures touching more than 30 degrees. This appeals to the sun-worshippers, who throng the pool decks from dawn to dusk. Entertaining 2,700 passengers with 940 crew is not easy. There are choices including aerobics and dance classes on the pool deck, a superchef contest, Arabic lessons, stretch morning exercise, paid yoga and Pilates classes, themed pool parties, dancing and a late-night disco. For the more active, there is an undersized tennis court that doubles as a basketball court. At night, the Covent Garden theatre comes alive with performances from Gotham to Gold, combining acrobatics and well-costumed dances and starring the versatile Zimboys and Trio Non-Stop.
There are four places to eat on board MSC Orchestra: La Piazzetta cafeteria, a self-serve buffet open for breakfast, lunch and dinner; restaurants Villa Borghese and L’Ibiscus, with large water-view picture windows; and the Shanghai Restaurant, the first Chinese restaurant on a cruise ship that has a fusion menu blending sushi and sashimi with dim sum and phat Thai noodles. The salads served in the cafe and restaurants are good and crisp; prosciutto with melon always pleases; al dente pasta and spaghetti are a winner; fish dishes a bit hit and miss; and Arabic starters, like hummus and eggplant, delicious. Those who fancy eating in their cabin can always pick up the phone for a pizza delivery for an extra charge.
Depending on the grade and location, there are several price points for suites with private balcony, outside-view cabins and interior cabins with no views. All have a mini-bar, personal safe, flat-screen TV and 24-hour room service. My suite on Deck 9 has a private balcony and is comfortable and roomy. It has a dressing table, sofa and king-size bed. The wardrobe has sufficient hangers and the bathroom’s Grohe shower works well. The 17 cabins for the disabled are generous in size and well equipped. The ship’s spa centre has a hair and beauty salon and several treatment rooms with Balinese massage therapists dressed in attractive sarongs and bright-yellow kebayas. MSC Orchestra has a well-oiled excursion desk. Shore excursions, which offer something for everyone and run like clockwork, start at 8.30am. Tours cover the city, culture and history, adventure, natural wonders and beach. When guests return at around 1.30pm, there is a queue in the heat. Our good-humoured guides find themselves calming frazzled nerves.
Our seven-day trip is Arabia on speed. Our first port of call is Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). We visit the Grand Mosque, one of the most beautiful in the world. It has 82 gold-tipped domes and 1,000 columns. The Italian marble glistens in the sun. It has the world’s largest carpet that measures over 5,000sqm and was hand-woven in Iran. The most astounding feature is the 9.5-tonne chandelier, inlaid with red, green, yellow and blue Swarovski crystals. We quickly learn that women have to be modestly dressed and covered from head to toe. Even a slight show of sun-tanned skin is not allowed. Either you cover up with a borrowed Arabic black outer garment called an “abaya’’ or forfeit entry. Unlike the glitzy razzle-dazzle of Dubai, Abu Dhabi prefers to be seen as the cultural capital. It has many museums, including the Louvre. The Guggenheim will be ready in 2017.
We sail into Khor Al Fakkan and join a Fujairah east coast tour to visit its famous fish and vegetable market. A rustic coastal town, Fujairah is surrounded by barren mountains. But because it faces the Indian Ocean, it is a rich source of seafood. Fujairah is also a playground for snorkelling enthusiasts and divers. We call at a heritage village in Sharjah and try the delicious dates and local Arabic coffee. Many of the women, clothed in traditional garb and wearing burqas, are busy making pancakes in a round flat pan and frying sweets in hot oil before serving them dripping with honey. We stop at the oldest mosque in the UAE: the Al Badiyah, which has two Portuguese watchtowers dating back to 1498.
The next day, as dawn breaks, we berth at Muscat, the capital of Oman, a separate state ruled by Sultan Qaboos bin Said. It’s a refreshing change from the skyscrapers of Dubai and Abu Dhabi – the highest commercial “tower” in Muscat is only 13 storeys. All buildings are either white or brown to blend in with the land. Oman is rich in oil and gas and exports copper and limestone. We visit the Grand Mosque. The white marble is Italian, the blue Indian and the heavily engraved teak wooden doors come from Myanmar.
Our final port of call is Khasab, also in Oman, to discover the stunning beauty of the fjords of Musandam, known locally as the “Norway of Arabia’’. We travel on a traditional wooden dhow, comfortably decked out with cushions, and go dolphin chasing in the fjord waters. We are not disappointed. The mischievous and fast swimmers follow us. “Shout louder, make more noise, only then will the dolphins appear – dolphins like noise – can’t you do better?’’ shouts our tour guide. We arrive at Telegraph Island, a barren, tiny rock which is home to 24,000 kilometres of cable – hence the name. Here the dhow disgorges its eager passengers who swim in crystal-clear waters among the colourful fish.
That evening, the ship makes its way back to Dubai and the mood on board changes as it also marks the end of the cruise. We arrive at dawn at Port Rashid in Dubai. The skyline is obscured by a sandstorm. Our trip to the tallest tower in the world, the 828-metre Burj Khalifa, turns out to be a hazy experience. The fast lift takes only one minute to reach the viewing tower on the 124th floor. But alas, the sandstorm has shrouded the view. A visit to Dubai Mall, the world’s biggest shopping centre, does not disappoint. No sandstorms here. It’s simply mind boggling. It would be impossible to cover all 1,250 shops in one day. But Dubai Mall is more than just shopping. It is packed with all kinds of family entertainment, from a spectacular fountain show, aquarium and ice-skating rink to an underwater zoo. In Mall of the Emirates, at Ski Dubai – the first indoor snow resort in the Middle East – there is a penguin enclosure where you can see and touch Gentoo and King penguins that have been trained to twirl around for a piece of fish. The penguins even allow visitors to stroke their backs and caress the soft fur around their ears.
Back on board the ship, there are more adventures to come for the lucky ones who are staying on for the 33-day voyage to Australia. For those who disembark at Dubai – including myself – it has been a wonderful journey of discovery. Now I know why the mystical Emirates is indeed a land of 1,000 veils.
Highs: Big resort ship catering for families with kids; lots of activities; great shore excursions. A happening ship.
Lows: Quality of main courses a trifle disappointing, mediocre fish dishes.
Best suited to: Younger couples, multigenerational families and friends.
CRUISE LINE: MSC Cruises
VESSEL: MSC Orchestra
STAR RATING: 4-star
MAX PASSENGER CAPACITY: 3,000
TOTAL CREW: 940
PASSENGER DECKS: 13
GRT: 92,409 tons
ENTERED SERVICE: 2007
FACILITIES: More than 800 cabins with private balcony (17 wheelchair accessible), two pools, four hot tubs, spa and beauty salon with steam rooms, Jacuzzi and sauna, casino, three restaurants, cafe, theatre, tennis and basketball court, gym, mini-golf and jogging track.