Italian brand Costa Cruises’ latest addition to their fleet the Costa Toscana arrived in Dubai Harbour on 13JAN and Open Jaw’s Karen Dahdah was onboard to experience eight days of Italian hospitality in Dubai & UAE:
Benvenuto A Bordo
Italians have a way of making you feel at home, like a part of the family and always well fed. Sailing on Costa Toscana, I was immediately romanced by the Italian flair and delicacies found onboard, not to mention, in my opinion, the best cappuccino.
With an early embarkation in Dubai, I had the opportunity to tour the ship on my own before passengers filled the bars and common areas. As a novice cruiser, this allowed me to not only get my bearings on this ship, 19 decks in all, but also map out the indoor and outdoor spaces I wanted to spend my time at sea.
You can find Italian influences throughout the ship. Each deck is named after a city or municipality in Italy, and at the centre of the ship you’ll find the 3-storey high Colloseo theatre where performances, games and variety shows fill each day and night. There’s no shortage of bars and lounges if you’re looking to enjoy an aperitif before dining at one of five main restaurants. I checked out the most colourful and elegant bars that pay homage to Italian liqueurs Campari and Aperol Spritz, and if wine tasting is more your style, the Ferrari Wine Bar serves up Italian bubbly.
Getting my fill of cappuccinos and spritz, a self-declared foodie, I was interested in learning more about the specialty dining onboard. With 16 restaurants to choose from, you will find endless buffets serving up Mediterranean and international cuisine, sushi bar, pizza, teppanyaki or if you’re missing home, a sizeable steak or burger at the Heineken Bistro. There’s even a Food LAB where guests can try their cooking skills with a Costa chef.
I set my sights on the Archipelago restaurant where the menus are curated by three of the top Michelin Star chefs from France, Italy and Spain. Lucky for me, our hosts at Costa Cruises arranged a unique experience to sample one of three tasting menus, each course paired with a wine selected by their in-house sommelier. “What’s great about our chefs is that they modify the menu to reflect the regional fare” says Ruben Perez General Manager North America at Costa Cruise Lines. “On this itinerary, we have a large contingency of passengers from India, so we dedicated one of the restaurants to serve them because of their specific dietary needs”.
One of my favourite spaces was the Solemio Spa, which has a full service beauty salon for hair, nails and massage treatments and a stunning wellness spa complete with steam room, sauna, jacuzzi pool, bucket shower, Himalayan salt room and more. The snow room by far was completely unexpected and well worth it if you can stand the -10 temperature for a minute or two after a hot sauna or steam bath.
There are a variety of fun things to do with the kids, as a couple or multi-generational group while at sea. Indoor and outdoor pools, waterslides, jacuzzi’s, outdoor jogging track, gym and tennis court can be found on the upper decks with incredible views of the port or sea. The kids club Squok is available to three age groups from toddlers to teens with entertainment and activities to keep them busy while mom and dad sunbathe by the pool.
We’re Not In Kansas Anymore
With four stops in three countries, this Arabian itinerary offers many affordable land excursions to chose from to suit families, different levels of mobility, and range from shopping to cultural and religious sights. “This is a bucket list destination for a lot of people”, Perez explains, “you get a taste of the culture and the modernity of the cities and experience both worlds, new and old.”
Picture this - you’re touring the Middle East on an Italian ship, and the announcements are made in five different languages, where every morning you’re greeted with Buongiorno, curry and rice is served next to the sausages and eggs at the morning buffet, and grazie and shukran are intertwined. You quickly realize you’re in a melting pot and you haven’t left the ship yet.
Arabic is the official language of the region, but English is widely spoken throughout the Emirates, Qatar and Oman. Everyone from the crew, guides and locals in the market stalls of Dubai or Doha spoke English very well and are excited to practise their language skills.
Each group excursion is available with a guide who is fluent in the local language plus one other language, either English, Italian, French, Spanish, or German. Their local cultural expertise helps visitors feel safe, comfortable and respect local customs.
Religious sites are included in some of the excursions Costa Cruises offers, which requires some wardrobe planning. Women have to wear appropriate clothing to cover their wrists and ankles, as well as a head scarf when entering a mosque. Men must wear long pants that cover the knees and short sleeves are acceptable. Some mosques may provide an “abaya” for women to rent but often this is not an option, so packing a long sleeve shirt or cardigan and wearing long, loose fitting pants is recommended.
Arabian Tour Highlights
In Dubai, you can’t help but look up in awe of the sheer size and scale of skyscrapers all around you. About half the size of the GTA, with a population of 3.5M, Dubai was transformed from mostly desert 30 years ago to one of the most developed cities in the world. It's nowadays internationally known for its traditional gold and spice souks, mega malls, palm islands, Burj Al Arab hotel and the world’s tallest building Burj Khalifa.
Beyond the glittering lights and busy highways is the ever changing desert landscape where sand dunes can reach a towering 300 meters. We grab hold of our first adventure, loading up in a convoy of 4x4 jeeps to the desert for an unforgettable evening.
Upon arriving at the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, our driver Saleem deflates the tires to prepare us for a rollercoaster ride, stunt driving and drifting across and over sand dunes. I naturally took the front seat. What followed the dune bashing ride was a falconry show at sunset, before reaching our bedouin camp for a traditional bbq dinner and belly dancing show.
The next day we travel by sea to the capital of Qatar. Doha was home to the FIFA World Cup last month and there are still remnants of the iconic sport throughout the city streets and shops. I toured the city centre where modern buildings meet the ‘corniche:’ a waterfront promenade lined with palm trees.
The National Museum of Qatar is also known as the Desert Rose. Its architecture was inspired by the natural occurring crystallized formations in the desert. As you walk through the many galleries, the walls come alive with multi-sensory film and music depicting life in the desert, archaeological discoveries, and the rich pearl industry of the region.
Our furthest destination on the itinerary was Muscat, Oman. As we approach the port, there’s a noticeable contrast between the other cities we’ve sailed to. Rugged coastal mountains and desert with the occasional bursts of greenery. Historically, Oman is not a popular tourist country, but it is gaining momentum with itineraries like Costa’s, taking you off the beaten path.
Muscat is a picturesque port city with 16th century Portuguese forts still on display among the palaces and metropolitan areas. You will not find ostentatious skyscrapers here, in fact the government restricts buildings no higher than 8-10 storey’s, and they must all be painted white or sand colour to blend with the natural landscape.
We return to UAE, to the second largest city and capital, Abu Dhabi, where I take a tour of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque designed in pure white marble, floors and columns decorated with intricate floral designs in precious and semi-precious stones. Inside the main prayer hall is the largest hand knotted carpet in the world that took over 1200 artisans and over 18 months to create and hanging above the carpet is a Swarovski crystal chandelier weighing 12 tonnes.
The incredible experience of traveling to UAE with Costa Cruises would not be complete without taking a ride on the world's fastest roller coaster in Abu Dhabi at Ferrari World theme park. I summon up the courage to strap into the coaster famous for speeds of zero to 240km/h in 4.9 seconds. The remaining 15 seconds spins, jolts, turns at G-force I can’t put into words, but boy was I smiling from ear to ear when it came to an end!