The 90,090-ton, 2,112-passenger ship Brilliance of the Seas is the second in Royal Caribbean's lovely, mid-sized Radiance class (following, of course, Radiance of the Seas; subsequent siblings include Serenade of the Seas and Jewel of the Seas). It sails the Mediterranean in summer and is based in Dubai all winter.
The ship feels practically petite in comparison to its newer, larger Oasis- and Voyager-class fleetmates. However, it has a real contemporary feel and does an excellent job of incorporating some of the best features that have become Royal Caribbean trademarks.
You'll find classics like the Schooner Bar and the Windjammer Cafe, as well as the climbing wall up the smokestack, miniature golf and a waterslide. And there are some surprises: the pretty Seaview Cafe, hidden away high up on Deck 12, and the rather avant-garde Starquest bar/nightclub forward on Deck 13 (formerly the Viking Crown lounge), in which we were childishly excited by the fact that the bar revolves when the bartender flicks a switch.
Another favorite, Latte-tudes Coffee bar, which serves Seattle's Best coffee, feels like a proper Internet cafe, albeit one with gorgeous sea views; it was a top spot for a quiet morning coffee and e-mail check. The Solarium, with its sliding roof, is a perfect place for cooler-weather lounging. This theme of light, space and wonderful sea views recurs throughout the ship, particularly in the elegant, light-filled atrium, with glass elevators whooshing silently up and down. You feel a constant connection to the ocean, unlike on Royal Caribbean's biggest and newest ships, where a lot of the facilities are inward-facing.
Service, particularly by bar and dining room waitstaff, was generally very warm and personable, and announcements were unobtrusive. I actually made a point of listening for the very funny Captain's address every evening as we sailed.
But, Brilliance is, for all intents and purposes, a big ship, and big ships have their downsides, too. There's serious competition for seating in Windjammer buffet at busy times, as well as noisy crowds around the pool and long waits to get back onboard when the shore excursions return. Collecting passports from Reception on the last night was a chore because of the queues, as was minor haggling over my bill when I failed to return a beach towel and was charged for it (not guilty, as I was on a late-returning shore excursion that day). The situation was resolved amicably and swiftly, though.
These niggles aside, I thought Brilliance seemed particularly friendly to first-time cruisers. The daily program was clear, easy to understand and full of helpful tips about planning your day. A very useful planner for the week arrived on the first day, so you could map out the shows and evening entertainment that appealed. We were also given a page about shuttle buses in port -- what time they would run and to where. (All the port shuttles were free of charge, incidentally.) There was a First Time Cruisers gathering before lifeboat drill on the very first day, too.
There are three locations onboard with Internet terminals: Decks 4, 5 and 7, including a handful in Latte-tudes, which makes excellent specialty coffees (from $2.95) and was rarely busy on my cruise. Internet rates are pretty average for cruising at $0.65 per minute. There are also packages available, starting at $35 for 60 minutes and ranging up to $150 for 500 minutes. It's frustrating, but there's no counter to tell you how many minutes you've used, so it's all too easy to get carried away. (You only find out when you log off.) For those with their own laptops, there are six Wi-Fi hotspots around the ship; you can get a map from reception showing where they are.
The ship's library is tiny, with no reference section to speak of (so bring your own guidebooks), but it is in an attractive niche on Deck 9, looking down into the Centrum. Provided there's no band playing at the Centrum's bar, this is a peaceful spot to sit and read or use your laptop, as it's also a Wi-Fi hotspot.
Tucked away off Deck 5 is Brilliance's assortment of shops, all carrying the usual Royal Caribbean retail outlets, from duty-free liquor and insignia wear to jewelry and perfume. Regarding Royal Caribbean's liquor policy, passengers can buy at duty-free prices and have their purchases delivered to their cabins on the last day. The ship also has an expansive photo area, where snapshots taken by ship photographers can be purchased. Adjacent to that are two conference/boardrooms, where all sorts of meetings and interdenominational and Catholic religious services are held.
Brilliance has a state-of-the-art medical facility and also has a helicopter landing pad for emergency medical evacuations.
In the Minstrel Dining Room -- the ship's main restaurant -- the food was mainly well prepared and nicely presented, and the elegant room, with tables on two levels and gorgeous views of the ship's wake, always had a pleasant buzz. The menus offer several choices of starters, salads and soups, main courses, desserts and cheese (pre-plated, of course). Quality was mixed, and salads seemed the most disappointing items. I only ate there twice, as I splurged on the specialty restaurants on several occasions. What I did try, though, was a decent onion soup, a very bland salad, a tasty piece of white fish with an herb crust and steamed vegetables, and a cheese plate (which, although generous, was over-chilled). Pasta, salmon, chicken breast and steak are on the "always available" list, and the chicken, which I tried, is succulent and tasty. There are also lighter dishes signposted for the health-conscious.
For dinner, passengers can choose between assigned early (6 p.m.) or late (8:30 p.m.) dining or opt for My Time Dining, in which you pick a preferred mealtime (anytime between 6 and 9:30 p.m.). Despite the scheduled times, you can change your reservations on a daily basis or simply walk in when you're hungry. (Note: Those opting for My Time Dining will need to prepay gratuities and may have to wait for tables.) The restaurant is open-seating for everyone at breakfast every day, from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Choose this option if you want waiter service and a wider range of hot dishes, such as waffles, pancakes and omelets. It was shut for lunch except on the sea day, funnelling everybody to the Windjammer buffet.
Romantics may need a little luck to snag a table for two in the evenings, as there weren't many; in fact, a couple of the tables for fixed-dining passengers are huge, accommodating 10, which, on a round table, makes it virtually impossible to talk to anybody except your neighbor. The My Time section upstairs had more tables for two. One of the disadvantages of My Time dining, though, was that we found it very hard to establish any kind of rapport with our waiters. They were polite and efficient, but the banter was missing; perhaps it's only offered by waiters who know they are in for a tip at the end of the cruise. They seemed to be in a hurry, too, which made us feel pressured to rush through the meal.
Another example of this invisible two-tier system is that, on the penultimate night of the cruise, aka tipping night, the waiters did a parade around the dining room while guests waved their napkins in time to the music. But they didn't come into the My Time section.
One complaint about the dining room (and this isn't unique to Brilliance) is that it has no sommelier, and getting advice on wine proved near impossible. We asked (as a test) which Chardonnays were oaky, and after much consultation, our waiter said, "All of them."
The Windjammer Cafe is the main buffet venue on the ship, mainly indoors but with some seating aft on deck. It is open for breakfast (6 a.m. to 11 a.m.), lunch (11:45 a.m. to 3 p.m.), afternoon snacks and informal dinners (from 6:30 p.m.), although if you haven't taken what you want from the buffet by 9 p.m., you miss out, as it's cleared away promptly. Numerous stations serve up burgers, pasta, sweets and salads. One interesting feature is an onsite bar for soda, wine and beer purchases, nice because diners didn't have to wait for waiters, although the wine comes in horrible little airline-style bottles at more than $6 each. Any other wine has to be fetched from the nearest bar and takes time. Freshly squeezed orange juice is on sale at breakfast for $2.50 plus 15 percent gratuity.
The food was generally good for buffet fare. There were some excellent curries in the evenings and a few extra touches, like dim sum on Chinese New Year. Windjammer also has basic 24-hour beverage stations with complimentary coffee, tea and water.
Upstairs from the Windjammer, the small Seaview Cafe also has some outdoor seating and is done up like a shabby-chic beach cafe. The menu is limited to paninis, pasta and pizza (pre-prepared and chewy), but if you want different things, you can always bag a table on deck and carry food up from Windjammer. Seaview is typically open for lunch when the ship is at sea; on port days it opens for late-afternoon snacking and post-dinner munchies. But, when we did an evening tour of Dubai that returned at 9 p.m., the Seaview was the only venue still serving food, and we had to deal with a lot of disgruntled passengers who hadn't really wanted pizza.
Beginning at midday, a counter at one end of the Solarium's bar serves salads and sandwiches, which are displayed under plastic film at the entrance. There are also cakes available in the afternoons.
Brilliance boasts two alternative restaurants, each with a service fee ($20 in Portofino, $30 in Chops Grille). We loved the six-course menus (and the food) at both. You definitely feel like you are in a small, upscale restaurant with really attentive service, and you won't feel rushed like you might in the main dining room.
At the elegant mahogany-styled Chops Grille, choices include a range of steaks (from New York Strip to filet mignon), lamb chops, prime rib, chicken and herb-crusted halibut -- all beautifully prepared. The sides are as good as the mains and include delicious creamed spinach and garlic mushrooms, as well as succotash, bok choy and roast potatoes. You can have as many of these little dishes as you'd like. Cozy twosomes may want to request one of the banquette tables. At Portofino, the Italian restaurant next door, the meal included antipasti, soup, salad, pasta, main course (try the seafood kebab) and dessert. Portofino is an attractive room, with windows all along one side and contemporary art depicting Italian scenes.
Room service is available around the clock. A standard menu features basic offerings like salads, sandwiches, pizza, burgers and a handful of desserts. For breakfast, the more wide-ranging menu includes hot egg dishes, as well as the usual continental fare. At dinner, passengers can order off the main dining room menu. There's a $3.95 service charge for room service between midnight and 5 a.m.
On Brilliance of the Seas, accommodations range in size and ambience. Standard inside cabins, at 165 square feet, and standard outside cabins, at 170 square feet, are on the small side, industry-wise. Balcony cabins measure from 179 to 204 square feet (in categories that go from "deluxe" to "superior"), and in both cases, the balcony is 41 square feet. A rather nice, forward-facing family oceanview cabin is basically a standard outside with big windows, a sitting area, sofa and a small second bedroom that contains two bunks; it measures 319 square feet.
Standard in each cabin are two twin beds that convert to a queen, a mini-fridge (that's filled with a few sodas, for which you pay), a television with an interesting assortment of channels (including classic flicks and nostalgia sitcoms), a desk/vanity area and a safe. Balcony staterooms also feature a love seat sitting area. The verandahs themselves are very pleasant, with comfortable nylon mesh furnishings. However, mine was looking a little rusty and tired around the metal floor.
Bathrooms are perfectly adequate, although compact, with a decently powerful shower and reasonable storage space, but only basic amenities of soap and a shampoo/conditioner combination are offered.
Moving up a notch is the Junior Suite. It's the smallest, coming in at 293 square feet with a 66-square-foot balcony. The extra perks (beyond space) that come with the Junior Suite, which is just a bit bigger than a standard balcony, include a bathroom with tub and a bigger living room area.
All categories above this come with concierge service and access to the Concierge Club on Deck 10, which offers continental breakfast and evening drinks, as well as a concierge service. Members of the top tiers of the Crown & Anchor Society, Royal Caribbean's loyalty program, can also use the Club.
At between 533 and 586 square feet, the Royal Family Suite's grand claim is two bedrooms, plus a sitting room; the second bedroom has the usual twin-to-queen bed configuration and two Pullmans that come down from the ceiling. Balconies are bigger, too. In this suite, they range from 139 to 193 square feet.
The Grand Suite is just a larger "junior," but it's quite a bit larger at 358 to 384 square feet, and it features a bathroom with tub. The Owner's Suite offers more amenities beyond even increased squared footage; passengers booking this category get a bathroom with whirlpool, bidet and separate shower, along with separate bedroom and living areas (with a queen-sized sofa bed). Measurements are 512 square feet for the cabin and 57 square feet for the verandah. And finally, the piece de resistance is the Royal Suite, which comes with all the Owner's Suite amenities, plus a baby grand piano and a balcony that measures 215 square feet (outfitted with better-than-standard furnishings, including a dining table); the stateroom itself is 1,001 square feet.
In addition, 14 cabins onboard can accommodate wheelchair users. These are divided among various categories from insides to suites.
Royal Caribbean passengers are charged $12 per person, per day ($14.25 for suite guests). Gratuities can be prepaid or will be added on a daily basis to passengers' SeaPass accounts during the cruise. Passengers can modify or remove gratuities by visiting the guest services desk while onboard. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.
The winter Arabian Gulf cruises attract a diverse range of passengers, from young couples to families and retirees. This ship is also popular with groups, whether friends traveling together or those rewarded with corporate incentive getaways. On my cruise, there were Chinese, Italians, French, Brits and Germans, but barely any North Americans, given the destination. This changes in summer, though, when the ship is in the Mediterranean.
Royal Caribbean seems to do groups very well, and I noticed that several hospitality desks onboard catered to different groups -- one Japanese, one Scandinavian and one for the 200 hearing-impaired Brits who were traveling, complete with sign-language interpreters. Private functions were arranged for the Chinese group and the hearing-impaired group without affecting the experience of the remaining guests, as there's enough space for everybody.
|Fitness and Recreation|
Brilliance's ShipShape Center and Day Spa offers a good range of machines, from treadmills and stair-climbers to stationary bikes and weights. Each day the fitness director leads reasonably well-attended workouts with a variety of themes, from Pilates and yoga ($12 a class for each) to free abdominals and walk-a-mile sessions.
Upstairs, the spa, operated by Steiner of course (expect the usual nonsense science and product pitch after a treatment), offers a variety of services. Along with the usual -- relaxing massages, facials, pedicures and manicures -- some more exotic options include Rasul, an Arabian mud treatment; Ionithermie Algae Detox; and Aroma Stone Therapy.
The spa's Thermal Suite -- available for an unlimited rate of $120 or a daily tariff of $20 on our voyage -- includes tiled, heated beds, showers that operate in mist or tropical forms and (unisex) aromatherapy-oriented steam room and sauna. The spa's mens' and ladies' locker rooms feature standard-style showers, and steam and sauna faculties.
More outdoorsy types may want to head to The Country Club. This area, aft on the top two decks, houses all the really active sport areas -- basketball court, miniature golf, rock-climbing wall and golf simulator. The basketball court was always busy, as we discovered to our dismay one night when we had dinner in the Windjammer and realized we'd sat directly under it: thump, thump, thump, all through the meal.
The main, generously sized pool is flanked by two hot tubs, which seemed to take an unlimited number of people most of the time. There are plenty of sun loungers, and the area really only felt crowded on the sea day.
Quite a few people opted to relax instead in the much quieter Solarium, one of the signature spots onboard Brilliance of the Seas. The glass-roof-topped pool features an African safari-themed ambience, complete with life-sized stone elephants, a fountain and other water effects. It's a lovely, peaceful spot for relaxing, as kids aren't allowed in the pool. Its loungers are comfy and topped with thick cushions. There's also a hot tub. You can get snacks there, too -- sandwiches, cakes and salads -- at lunchtime and in the afternoon.
A running track snakes around the main pool area, with seven laps to a mile.
Brilliance of the Seas is superbly designed to accommodate families; kids even get their own Daily Compass delivered to their cabins every night. The extensive Adventure Ocean Program groups kids in five categories (3 to 5, 6 to 8, 9 to 11, 12 to 14 and 15 to 17). The 3- to 11-year-olds are in one room, and the teens are across the hall, with their own disco. The top-notch youth facilities include a computer lab, PlayStations and Adventure Beach with a waterslide and pool. Programming ranges from arts and crafts to games, rock climbing and science fun.
During sea days, the kids program is available from 9 a.m. to noon, 2 to 5 p.m. and 7 to 10 p.m. When in port, the program is available all day long, leaving parents with the (wonderful) option of going ashore and leaving the kids for part or all of the day. But older kids may not take kindly to this, as the age groups are all mixed on these port "baby-sitting"days.
My Gulf cruise was during the school year, so there were very few children onboard, but on school holidays, the activities step up a notch with kids' special dinners and late-night events for a small charge, so parents can dine alone. On a previous cruise on Brilliance with my kids, we found Adventure Ocean to be one of the best children's clubs we'd come across at sea.
Other kid-friendly features onboard include a waterslide (although this appeared to be closed for my whole cruise), an arcade, mini-golf, a rock-climbing wall and Ping-Pong.
For younger kids, you also have the option of hiring baby sitters if you need a night out. This is bookable only when you're onboard, not in advance, and costs about $10 per hour for two children and $15 per hour for three. Group baby-sitting service is available late nights; kids must be at least 3 years old and potty trained; the rate is $6 per hour, per child.
The in-cabin televisions have a dedicated children's channel. In the dining room, young cruisers can choose from the Captain Sealy's Kids Galley Menu.
Every night, there's a Junior Curfew at 1 a.m., which means teens can't hang out round the pool or in the disco unless they're still participating in an Adventure Ocean program.
During the day, passengers wear casual gear -- shorts, T-shirts, some slightly more elegant resort wear -- but at night, there are three different dress codes. "Casual" means sundresses or pants outfits for women, and khakis and collared shirts for men. This most often occurs after a long day in port. On sea days, the typical dress is "smart casual" -- dresses or pants combos for women, jackets for men. "Formal" nights, of which there were two on our seven-night trip (which seemed like a lot), require passengers to wear cocktail dresses (ladies) and suits or tuxedos (men). A tuxedo-rental service is available onboard for those who don't want to lug dinner suits along. Regardless of the ship's official dress code, those who eat at Portofino or Chops Grille are asked to go as "smart casual."
There are, of course, many interpretations of the dress code, and formal nights were a mix of really beautiful prom dresses and cocktail wear, with men in tuxes, and people who clearly couldn't be bothered -- including two in the Colony Club in pajamas (yes, pajamas).
There were a couple of theme nights, too, including a White Party on deck and a James Bond night in the casino, although I didn't notice any variation in the usual outfits for that one.
The tone is set by the seven-deck-high Centrum (the Norwegian name for atrium), which serves as a central connection spot for activities in the ship's heart. During the evenings, the Centrum's Lobby Bar was definitely the hottest spot on the ship for after-dinner dancing, with the most atmosphere and fabulous cha-cha and mambo (as well as other dance tunes) performed by a three-piece band.The music drifted beautifully all along the common areas, including The Champagne Bar on Deck 6, with its wall of windows, and Latte-tudes, the Internet cafe on Deck 5.
A series of entertainment lounges emanates from the nautically themed Schooner Bar, which straddles Portofino and Chops Grille on Deck 6 and serves as a good drinking place before and after dinner. The nautical theming there is pretty authentic; there's even a faint smell of gunpowder -- or hickory chips and tar or something "shippy" in any case -- pumped into the entrance. I wasn't enamored with the entertainment in there, which is a shame since it's a lovely bar. On my cruise, there was a rather morose Irish lady pianist who played the same songs every night but did appear to be engaging the audience, nonetheless. The quiz evenings were a lot livelier. Drinks in all the bars are expensive; expect to pay $11 for a glass of wine, plus 15 percent for service.
Beyond the Schooner Bar is The Colony Club. This pleasant entertainment lounge, which has several different niches and a colonial theme (potted palms and plantation shutters), accommodates all the main events like the captain's welcome aboard reception, as well as, eclectic soirees like the Virgin Rock Star reception for Virgin Holidays guests from the U.K. and a Chinese New Year's party for 400 Chinese passengers who were traveling over their big holiday. Dance classes (including belly-dancing, as a nod to the region in which we were sailing) and game shows also take place in there.
During regular hours, its back-of-the-ship span of windows makes it a wonderful observation spot. Check out the nifty backgammon, checkers and chess tables over by the bar in the Jakarta Lounge, and the Bombay Billiards Club (between the Schooner Bar and the main section of the Colony Club), which has self-leveling pool tables. In the Calcutta Card Club, guests can play board games and bridge. But the Colony Club itself feels too big for some of the functions it holds. Late-night karaoke gets lost in there and was often canceled due to lack of participants willing to stand on a big stage and sing to a half-empty room. The karaoke machine is practically an antique, as well.
The lavish, two-deck Pacifica Theater hosts the big-number shows, but on my cruise, there was no really lavish production show. We had some tango dancers, an a cappella group, a "Mr. and Mrs." game, some acrobats and a magician. The female comedy vocalist was a serious misjudgement, I felt, as her appeal was 100 percent British, and a lot of the comedy went straight over the heads of the international audience.
The ship has a pleasant, 40-seat, stadium-style Scoreboard Cinema that shows films in English, German and Spanish, but this received very little custom in the Arabian Gulf in January, when guests were heavily focused on getting their winter tans established. One big disappointment for movie-lovers was the ship's in-cabin and cinema selection of flicks, none of which were inspiring. Passengers who want to relax privately with a more current movie are required to opt for the pay-per-view option.
Next door is the Scoreboard Lounge, which shows sporting events on a variety of screens. Passengers seemed to have little appetite for the venue, possibly because it's one of the few inside places where you can smoke, and it has the atmosphere of a foggy corridor.
The Casino Royale is huge, busy and buzzing, with all the usual tables and ranks of slot machines. What has changed from the old days, though, is that there were a couple of smoke-free nights to lure nonsmoking gamblers.
Other performance venues include the cozy Hollywood Odyssey, the place to go for a classical guitarist, and the Starquest Disco, which really heats up late at night with themed events, such as 70's night, Elvis Night and an 18-to-20-plus night with a disc jockey. It's also a gorgeous spot to enjoy a predinner cocktail and the sunset, despite the fact that we had it to ourselves most nights. We would have spent more time in Hollywood Odyssey but only discovered it toward the end of the week. Early in the evenings, it seemed to be closed almost every night for Diamond Plus guests, the higher-ranking past passengers of Royal Caribbean.
Our day at sea was filled with mostly traditional-style diversions -- napkin-folding, beading, dance classes, bingo, cooking demos -- but art auctions have been scrapped. The pool area usually had some kind of live three-piece band during prime-time sunning hours, and the particularly lively entertainments team really whipped up the crowd for such cheesy (but amusing) events as the "Men's Sexy Legs" contest and the Belly Flop Contest.
The various special-interest groups -- bridge players, service club members, Friends of Bill W. -- communicate with one another via a community bulletin board at the Guest Relations desk on Deck 4.
Shore excursions on my Gulf cruise were generally good, although fairly expensive. I paid $125 for an averagely enjoyable desert safari in Fujairah; $149 for a full-day 4x4 tour with picnic lunch in Oman, which was superb; $42 for a very thorough sightseeing tour of Muscat, which was good value; and $79 for a bizarre sightseeing tour of Dubai -- bizarre as it included the exterior of two hotels and a shopping mall -- but necessary as I wanted to go to the top of the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, which was included. (If you do this independently, you have to book a long way in advance).
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