I spot the ship long before the car pulls up to the cruise terminal at Abu Dhabi’s Mina Zayed. Part of the Celebrity Cruises fleet, the stately Celebrity Constellation – dark blue and white, and marked with a distinctive “X” logo at the top – stands 13 decks tall. Orange lifeboats hang high on Deck 5, and the shaded gangplank looks like a tunnel boring into the side of the great, hulking mass.
The 15-year-old luxury vessel’s maiden voyage from Abu Dhabi, the 12-night Arabian Sea and India Cruise, stops in Dubai, the Indian ports of New Mangalore, Goa, Mumbai and Khasab in Oman’s Musandam Peninsula, but I’m disembarking at Goa to spend a day with family there, before flying home to the UAE capital.
My suitcase – already sporting the baggage tag thoughtfully provided in my ticket booklet – is grabbed from me, and I head inside the terminal. The sight ahead is paralysing: it’s noon, a good half-hour before the counters are due to open, and the queue is already seven lines deep, packed with hundreds of people, mostly pensioners from the United Kingdom and United States, a few middle-aged couples and two or three young families.
An hour later, I finally reach a check-in counter, but there’s trouble. My upgrade, from a state room on Deck 9 to an ocean-view room on Deck 3, isn’t recorded in the system. After about 20 minutes, my passport is whisked away, I’m issued a key card and sent aboard to guest relations in the main foyer on Deck 3, which is ablaze with lights and festooned with holly. Christmas trees tower on each side of the main staircase.
After another hour’s wait, my patience is finally rewarded: I have been bumped up to concierge class on Deck 8. Located midship, state room 8118 is a well-appointed, 191-square-foot space, done up in maroon and beige, with a bed piled high with marshmallow-soft pillows. At one end is a minuscule, spotless bathroom stacked with Gilchrist & Soames toiletries, and at the other end is a little glass-and-metal balcony, furnished with deckchairs and shimmering with the reflection of the water. I immediately slide open the door, and this is how it stays for the rest of the cruise.
At 6pm, as the outside decks slowly fill with passengers trying to get pictures of Abu Dhabi’s skyline, the Celebrity Constellation pushes out of Mina Zayed, past the cargo ships and the concave, twinkling roof of Louvre Abu Dhabi.
The daily programme on-board is staggering, and it’s hard to make decisions. Live music, fitness sessions, stand-up comedy, cooking workshops, art events – but I take it easy on my first night, and choose to have a quiet dinner (French onion soup, grilled salmon, creme brûlée) in the beautiful San Marco restaurant on Deck 4, with views across the churning wake of the ship. Later, I spend an hour strolling on the outside deck as the shoreline recedes and the pinpoints of light vanish into nothingness.
The following morning, the ship eases into Dubai’s Port Rashid, and dozens of passengers head downtown on Big Bus rides or pre-booked trips (Burj Khalifa, Dubai Mall and a night-time jaunt around the city are popular). Unwilling to brave Sheikh Zayed Road’s notorious traffic, I decide to visit my sister in Bur Dubai – a five-minute taxi ride from the cruise terminal – and we spend a day shopping at BurJuman mall.
The next 72 hours are spent at sea, and with nearly 2,000 guests on-board, the ship begins to feel crowded. I quickly learn to avoid the lifts, which are constantly jammed with people, and begin to average 20 flights of stairs a day.
It’s hard not to get into a routine, and I succumb gladly. After a swim or a dip in the thalassotherapy pool, I enlist for various activities, among them a sushi workshop and an auction of Thomas Kinkade artworks. I spend a memorable morning engrossed in a behind-the-scenes peek at the 24-hour operations of the ship’s kitchens, chatting with executive chef Alexander Capello. Orders for provisions are placed three months before the ship sets sail, and the numbers are enormous. For example, it takes more than 2,250 kilograms of beef, 2,057 eggs, 3,285 cookies, 1,490kg of cereal and 1,714 tea bags, among a vast array of other items in equally large quantities, to cater for a seven-day cruise.
During the afternoons, the busiest time on-board, it makes sense to stay in my room, enjoying the snacks offered to all concierge-class guests, and only venture to Deck 10 for ice cream in Oceanview, the all-day cafe, or to enjoy a head-and-neck massage at the spa (US$109 [Dh400] for 55 minutes). The evenings are spent in the elegant environs of San Marco, eating grilled duck, chocolate soufflé and cumin-and-carrot gazpacho. Dinner is invariably followed by a show in the grand 1,500-seat, two-tier Celebrity Theater, where British comedian Steve Stevens and illusionist Matthew Dowden perform to a full house. Then it’s back to Deck 8 to borrow books from the library, which I read on the balcony to the soothing sounds of the ocean.
On my second-last day, the ship backs up into New Mangalore Port. It’s the only city on this cruise I haven’t previously visited, but the view from my room isn’t encouraging. It’s an industrial hub, and the dock is filled with enormous mounds of imported coal. Lorries trundle to and fro, groaning under the weight of their cargo – locally manufactured iron pellets, ready for export. In the distance, factories belch black fumes into the air.
I feel pleased with myself for pre-booking with Celebrity Cruises a half-day temple and farm tour ($85 [Dh312]) in Moodabidri, an old town far from this soulless, grey area. I have an early breakfast before meeting the rest of the 20 or so people in my group. Outside the cruise terminal, we shake hands with our guide, Rohan, board an air-conditioned bus and set off.
On the hour-long drive, we pass sluggish rivers, rickety bridges and garishly painted Shiva temples strung with saffron buntings. Rohan is full of interesting facts, and when the bus swerves alarmingly to avoid a family of four on a scooter, he cheerfully reveals that one person dies every four minutes in a road accident in India.
At the Jain temple, we leave our shoes outside, fork out $2 (Dh7) apiece for photography, and explore the 15th-century grey-stone structure, which is famous for its 1,000 pillars, each carved with pictography based on tales from the Ramayana. The columns sport incongruous instructional blue signs bearing legends such as “Keep Area Clean”. One pillar even has an unsightly plastic clock tacked to it.
Afterwards, we head to Soans Farm, an eco-tourism centre. Drowsy in the heat and heady fragrance of fruit, I tune out Rohan’s lesson on Indian flora as we wander around the pineapple fields, banana plantations, bamboo thickets and trees wrapped with pepper-laden vines. Butterflies flit overhead and my trainers turn red from trudging through the soft mud.
I’m back on the ship by afternoon, and watch as stragglers gallop back to the gangway to make it in time for the 5.30pm cut-off – we’re due to sail at 6pm. I pack my belongings and spend one last night reading on the balcony.
We arrive in Goa at 5.30am to heavy skies and unseasonal rain, and it’s four hours before I clear customs. Then it’s off to my uncle’s restaurant in the tiny town of Vasco da Gama, five minutes away by car. Seated at a table by an open window, feasting on a sumptuous seafood brunch, I have an unobstructed view of the Celebrity Constellation. Tall and proud, it shines like a newly minted coin in the shabby port, and it’s with a stab of regret that I remember that my journey back to Abu Dhabi is by air.