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Warm strait

Mideast culture amid modern ambitions

By Claudia Capos
Globe Correspondent / September 26, 2010

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PERSIAN GULF — Melodie O’Connell has spent much of her life sailing the high seas in search of adventure. In mid-January, the globetrotting grandmother from Fort Worth booked passage aboard Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas for its inaugural cruise of the Persian Gulf.

The weeklong voyage began and ended in Dubai, a city-state in the United Arab Emirates that has captured world attention with its lavish spending habits and boom-to-bust real estate market. The cruise around the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula included four ports of call: Abu Dhabi and Fujairah, also city-states in the UAE; Muscat, Oman; and Mina Sulman (Mina Khalifa), Bahrain.

Although O’Connell’s children initially scoffed at her plans to go to “that dangerous place,’’ their fears were overblown. “When I return, I’ll tell them that it’s nothing like what we Americans picture it to be,’’ O’Connell said.

“There is a high level of curiosity about these ports of call,’’ said Gordon Whatman, the ship’s cruise director. He said Royal Caribbean’s decision to enter the region this year reflected the line’s global expansion plans and desire to offer exciting new itineraries.

The Brilliance of the Seas remained moored in Dubai for the first and final nights of the cruise, serving as a floating luxury hotel and restaurant. Passengers disembarked to take bus tours of the city, sip afternoon tea with the glitterati at the seven-star Burj Al Arab hotel, or shop for fashions at the marble-bedecked Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates.

Leaving Dubai, the ship sailed through the Strait of Hormuz into the Gulf of Oman to reach its first port of call, Muscat, on the eastern side of the Arabian Peninsula. Two Portuguese fortresses, Jelali and Merani, flank the rocky coves around the capital city, lending a medieval aura. Nearby, a supersized white frankincense burner stands atop a flat promontory like a Martian spacecraft. White sugar-cube buildings cling at the water’s edge, dwarfed by chiseled purple mountains in the distance.

At the pier, drummers and bagpipers welcomed us to one of the Middle East’s oldest cities. Muscat gained prominence during the 14th and 15th centuries as an outpost for the powerful kings of Hormuz. It was conquered in the 16th century by the Portuguese, who were pushed out of their stronghold two centuries later by the expanding British Empire, which signed a treaty of friendship with the Omanis.

A tour bus carried us through the exclusive Shati Al Qurum residential neighborhood. In the distance, the gleaming white onion-shaped domes of the Grand Mosque, commissioned by His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said, loomed through the trees. Non-Muslims in conservative attire are allowed to tour the mosque during special visiting hours. Stepping through the heavily guarded main gate, we followed marble-paved walkways to the main prayer room, where all eyes were riveted on the immense gold dome and eight-ton gold and Swarovski crystal chandelier. Massive archways cast shadows on the intricately hand-knotted Iranian prayer mat and mihrab, or prayer niche, framed by a border of Koranic verses.

At the Mutrah souk, once a big trading center for camel caravans traveling to Oman, shopkeepers hawked Persian rugs, Pashmina scarves, Arabian perfume, and gold and silver jewelry from the doorways of their honeycomb shops. Afterward, a stroll through the private Bait Al Zubair museum to admire ornate Omani swords and khanjars, or daggers, and a photo stop at the Al Alam Palace, the sultan’s official residence, rounded out our introduction to Oman.

The next day, the ship docked at Fujairah, the youngest and most geographically rugged of the seven emirates in the UAE. Sandwiched between the stark Hajar Mountains and the coast, Fujairah is a natural jumping-off spot for safaris in the desert, mountains, and valleys, as well as a popular recreational area for snorkeling, swimming, cruises, and beach activities. It is also famous for its Friday afternoon bull-butting competition, a throwback to the 16th-century Portuguese who brought the sport from Europe.

Local tours of Fujairah’s east coast and mountainous interior transported passengers back into history, with stops at the 15th-century Bidya Mosque, one of the emirates’ oldest mosques, and the serene 250-year-old Al Hayl castle, once the palace of the Al Sharqiyin ruling family. We caught a local taxi into the bustling city center and bargained for 22-karat gold bangles at the small gold souk.

The ship retraced its route through the strait and sailed south in the Persian Gulf to reach Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s capital, where morning sunshine glinted off construction cranes poised above skeletal downtown skyscrapers. On the quayside, a greeting party of men in ankle-length gray garments called kandouras twirled thin switch sticks and beckoned passengers to join them in traditional dancing. Others displayed prized peregrine falcons on outstretched gloved arms; women cloaked in black abayas painted lacy henna designs on female passengers’ hands.

Abu Dhabi’s reputation as the “Manhattan of the Gulf’’ reflects its island setting, gleaming skyscrapers, and financial and political prominence. The oil-rich city-state also showcases considerable Western-style opulence, including the Yas Marina Circuit Formula 1 race course, the Abu Dhabi Golf Club, with its 27-hole championship course and falcon-shaped clubhouse, and the exquisite 400-room Emirates Palace Hotel, where a “Gold to Go’’ machine dispenses small gold bars or coins with custom designs.

The Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque is among Abu Dhabi’s crown jewels. More than 80 Moroccan-style white marble-clad domes and four gold-tipped minarets embellish the $500 million complex, which spans five football fields. As we walked through the landscaped grounds to admire the mosque’s grandeur, we heard Friday prayers echoing within the cavernous halls. Afterward, we stopped at the Heritage Village, a replica of a Bedouin encampment, to watch artisans at work.

The following day, massive container ships glided by the Brilliance of the Seas as the ship neared the sliver of shoreline demarcating the island kingdom of Bahrain, a strategic trade center that has been conquered and controlled by numerous empires over the centuries. It is now a hereditary constitutional monarchy ruled by the Al Khalifa royal family.

A tour bus took us from the terminal at Mina Khalifa, one of the Middle East’s newest and largest ports, over the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Salman causeway to the capital city of Manama. During the ride, Louise and Gary Thompson, of Stevens Point, Wis., recounted their first few days aboard the Brilliance of the Seas, which sailed from Barcelona to Dubai one week before the start of the gulf cruise. This repositioning voyage routed the ship through the Suez Canal and Red Sea into the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean before it reached the Strait of Hormuz and finally docked in Dubai.

“We went through the corridor [the Gulf of Aden] with helicopters flying overhead,’’ said the Thompsons, both retired educators. “A military patrol intercepted a pirate boat with six men aboard who were trying to commandeer a freighter right behind us.’’ It ended uneventfully for the cruise ship, but it was a highlight of this first Persian Gulf sailing.

Bahrain, once a pearl-diving center, struck oil in June 1932. At the Jabal Ad Dukhan No. 1 oil well, now marked by a commemorative plaque, we peered into a deep trench bristling with pipes before visiting the adjacent Dar An Naft Oil Museum. There, photos and scale-model exhibits portray the story of the country’s early oil exploration. Nearby, a legion of writhing steel oil pipelines crisscrossed the barren, rocky desert where residents had erected Bedouin-style tents for weekend retreats.

Our next stop, the Bahrain International Circuit, is well known to fans worldwide who attend the annual Bahrain Grand Prix, Australian V8 Supercar races, national and international drag racing, and other events. From the Sakhir Tower’s rooftop terrace, the BIC’s eight tracks curled like ribbon candy around futuristic grandstands. Bahrain’s other favorite pastime, camel racing, warranted a brief stop at a sheikh’s camel farm.

A shroud of haze partially obscured the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest skyscraper (2,716.5 feet), as the Brilliance of the Seas returned to Dubai and reclaimed its berth at Port Rashid. During an evening gathering, the ship’s captain, Hernan Zini, an Argentina-born navigator, commented on the significance of the inaugural voyage. “You are making history with us.’’

Claudia Capos can be reached at capocomm@sbcglobal.net.

If You Go

Royal Caribbean’s seven-night cruise aboard the Brilliance of the Seas sails round-trip from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and features ports of call in Muscat, Oman; Fujairah, UAE; Abu Dhabi, UAE; and Mina Sulman, Bahrain. Cruises run from Jan. 24-March 21, 2011; and from Nov. 21, 2011, through March 19, 2012. Per person prices range from $689 for an inside cabin to $1,499 for a junior suite to $8,205 for a royal suite, but may vary according to cruise date. For details, go to www.royalcaribbean.com.