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Cruise Ship Review

Brilliance of the Seas - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic

Brilliance of the Seas is the second in Royal Caribbean's lovely mid-sized Radiance class (following, of course, Radiance of the Seas; more recent siblings include Serenade of the Seas and Jewel of the Seas). The ship, similar to its radiant sister in layout and facilities, does an excellent job of incorporating some of the best features from the mega-ship sized Voyager class (easily another one-third larger than this ship) and the somewhat smaller Vision class ships.

Such as? You'll find classics like the Schooner Bar (note the nifty hickory smoked smell -- or is that gunpowder? -- that conveys an "ahoy matey" sensory experience), but there's also miniature and simulated golf, and the best-kept-secret Seaview Cafe. Some Royal Caribbean traditions have received intriguing new twists. We love the funky, newly revamped Viking Crown Lounge -- here it's called the Starquest Disco Bar -- and the bar itself actually revolves. Business and conference facilities have been expanded on this ship. Latte-tudes Coffee bar, which replicates a coffeehouse atmosphere -- complete with Internet terminals -- replaces Radiance's cafe/bookshop combo.

One of the immediate impressions we got on Brilliance of the Seas was an imitation of a cash register ringing in our ear: K'ching. Royal Caribbean seems to be moving ever further into "a'la carte territory," and by this we mean beyond the usual stuff for which you're prepared to spend money, like shore excursions, spa services and casino gaming. In this case, be prepared to pay $10 to take Pathway to Yoga at the fitness center, two-bucks-plus to buy a cappuccino from Latte-tudes, $9.95 to watch relatively recent-run movies on RCTV and a $20 service fee to eat in the ship's alternative restaurants.

On the plus side, Royal Caribbean -- fleetwide, not just on Brilliance -- has been innovative in introducing, in particular, beverage packages that can help keep costs down. These include soda cards (for adults the package averaged out at about $5 a day while kids paid about $3 a day). At this point, Royal Caribbean's the only line to offer an adult "Royal Cocktails" card; for $39 plus tip passengers can buy 12 drinks of the house variety, which works out to about $3.25 per drink, saving roughly $1.75 each time.

Brilliance of the Seas tries to be all things to all cruisers and most of the time it works. While the ship's most definitely smaller than its 138,000-ton, 3,114 passenger Voyager brethren, it does have enough room for all the extras we're coming to expect on contemporary cruise ships: an excellent range of restaurant options, a big-enough fitness facility with rock-climbing, miniature golf, virtual golf, water slide and a generous basketball court to complement the usual ping pong and shuffleboard. There are so many bars (and all of them, large or small, manage to be cozy, fun hangouts) that even after a 12-day cruise we're not sure we found them all. And service, particularly bar and dining room wait staff, after an extremely rocky start, was generally very warm and personable.

Another plus is that Brilliance of the Seas genuinely attempts to match the onboard experience with the regions it cruises. On a recent Mediterranean sailing in which American passengers were on a par with Europeans, a tapas menu was introduced and much of the entertainment focused on musical and dance programs, such as one featuring the tango.

But that "big ship" atmosphere has a down side, too. Our experience with Guest Relations was inconsistent at best -- and rarely, when calling, did we actually get through without waiting on hold for a minute to five and ten or longer. And while the ship's layout aims to spread passengers out evenly, it can get congested (and passengers often got a bit aggressive, particularly at the Centrum elevators) at "rush hours" -- pre-dinner, at the guest relations/shore excursion desk early and late in the voyage, and, most particularly, getting back onboard when shore excursion buses all pulled up at the same time late in the afternoon.

Dining

In the Minstrel Dining Room -- the ship's traditional restaurant -- we were pleasantly surprised at the consistently well-prepared dishes, and after the first couple of days, the waiters made every effort to accommodate meat-cooking preferences. Minstrel, a two-tiered room mostly set up with larger tables (seating six, ten or twelve), offers Royal Caribbean's flexible My Time Dining program at dinnertime. Passengers can choose between assigned early (6 p.m.) or late (8:30 p.m.) dining, or opt for flexible dining, in which you pick a preferred mealtime (anytime between 6 and 9:30 p.m.), but can change your reservations on a daily basis. The restaurant is open seating for everyone at breakfast and lunch every day. Romantics may need a little luck to snag a two-top as there weren't many.

Windjammer Cafe was easily the most popular (daytime) eatery on the ship. Brilliance's quite attractive buffet restaurant, it is open for breakfast, lunch, afternoon snacks and informal dinners. There are numerous stations for burgers, pasta, sweets and the like. One interesting feature is an onsite bar for soda, wine and beer purchases; nice, because diners didn't have to wait for a waiter. Another nice touch: aft, there are a number of outside tables. The food was generally quite good for buffet fare, though the selection for breakfast got pretty humdrum after a few days; Windjammer also has basic 24-hour beverage stations (coffee, tea, water).

We stumbled onto Seaview Cafe quite by accident and it became a regular lunch/snack haunt. The atmosphere -- windows overlooking a deck with tables and the sea -- is evocative of a cozy beach-front cafe. Seaview is Johnny Rockets with a bigger menu; beyond burgers and hot dogs you can request made-to-order fish n' chips, not to mention scrumptious onion rings and decadent brownies -- all at no additional charge. It's got a beer/wine/soda bar as well. Seaview is typically open for lunch when the ship is at sea; on port days it opens for late afternoon snacking and post-dinner noshing.

The Solarium Cafe has a pizza bar and is open all afternoon.

Brilliance boasts two alternative restaurants and we'll tell you up front: each requires a per-person service fee ($20 in Portofino, $25 in Chops). Is it worth it? We loved the six course menus (and the food, too) at both. You definitely feel like you are in a small, upscale restaurant and as one fellow diner commented, "When's the last time you got this much for $20?" 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 a fish-o-the-day -- all beautifully prepared. Cozy twosomes may want to request one of the banquette tables. At Portofino, the meal included an antipasti, soup, salad, pasta, main course (try the lobster) and dessert. One note: On our cruise, the dining rooms at both spot were rarely more than half-filled, and yet the service was inconsistent. Later in the cruise both Portofino and Chops Grille were opened up for lunch as well as dinner; same service fee (and menu) applies.

Room service is available around the clock. There's a standard menu with basic offerings like salads, sandwiches, pizza, burgers and a handful of desserts. For breakfast, there's a wide- ranging menu that includes hot egg dishes as well as the usual continental fare. At dinner, passengers can order off the main dining room menu.

Public Rooms

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 center. During the evenings, there was always music in the Lobby Bar, and that drifted beautifully all along the common areas. Such as? The Lobby Bar on deck four attracted early evening dancing aficionados. The Champagne Bar, with its wall of windows, is a wonderful spot during the daytime (and at sunset). Latte-Tudes offers specialty coffees, and the Casino Royale has the usual gaming tables and slots.

But the really interesting main-hub lounges emanated from the Schooner Bar, which straddles Portofino and Chops Grille, and has a fabulous pianist -- who played everything from Chopin to contemporary pop tunes. Beyond Schooner is the ship's most distinctive hangout: The Colony Club incorporates four different lounges/rooms. Its most unusual feature is the Bombay Billiards Club, which has self-leveling pool tables.

Singapore Sling is the ship's events lounge, and the place where the captain's welcome aboard reception and the past passenger party are held along with various entertainment. 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. Tucked away behind Jakarta is the Calcutta Card Club where guests can play board games and bridge.

The lavish, two-deck Pacifica Theater hosts the big-number production shows and funnier, quirkier fare -- we howled at the "Love and Marriage Game Show," a takeoff from TV's "Newlywed Game." We also loved the ship's 40-seat stadium-style cinema (only wish the flicks that played there were a little more current). Next door is the Scoreboard Lounge, which seems as if it hasn't found its niche; it plays sports-oriented flicks (or events) on a variety of screens, but the bar was rarely open (and subsequently the lounge was usually deserted).

Other performance venues include the very cozy Hollywood Odyssey, the place to go for torch songs and karaoke, and the Starquest Disco, which is a popular disco, particularly late at night. It's also a gorgeous spot to enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail and the sunset.

On a more practical note, the ship is well equipped with three different stations of Internet-connected terminals, which seemed more than adequate. They are located on a variety of decks and several are even tucked into Latte-tudes for a true "Internet cafe" experience. One tip: Passengers who travel with their own laptops can plug into the ship's Cyber-Cabin program. For about $10 a day (a bargain if you go online for anything more than 20 minutes each day), you can hook up right from your stateroom. It worked beautifully for one Windows-based reviewer and not at all for a Macintosh user. Per minute rates for Internet access are 33 - 55 cents per minute; packages are available. We found the best access to be in the library on Deck 9 and in the concierge lounge or just outside it on Deck 10.

One more tip: There's no guarantee that the satellite will cooperate every time you log on, whether in the cabin or in one of the workstations. You are on a ship, after all. Just be patient.

The ship's library is a disappointment. Its diminutive size, not to mention sparse selection of books, is woefully inadequate for the capacity of the ship. The area for donated books, in fact, was much better than the library offerings themselves. Furthermore, its location on the Centrum was anything but conducive to quiet reading (in fact it was better used as a spot for Wi-Fi access).

Tucked away off Deck 5 is Brilliance's assortment of shops, all carrying the usual Royal Caribbean retail outlets, from duty free liquor to insignia wear to jewelry to perfumes. Regarding Royal Caribbean's liquor policy, passengers can buy at duty free prices (and have their purchases delivered to their cabin 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 are held, as well as interdenominational and Catholic religious services.

Brilliance has a state-of-the-art medical facility and also has a helicopter landing pad for emergency medical evacuations.

Cabins

On Brilliance of the Seas, accommodations range in size and ambiance.

Standard inside cabins, at 165 square ft. and standard oceanview, at 170 square ft. are on the small side, industry-wise. Balcony cabins measure from 179 - 204 square ft. (in categories that go from "deluxe" to "superior"), and in both cases the balcony is 41 square ft. There's a family oceanview cabin, which is basically a standard outside with sitting area and sofa along with a mini-second bedroom that contains two bunks; it measures 319 square ft.

Standard, in all cabins, are two twin beds that convert to a queen, a mini-fridge (that's filled with a few sodas), 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.

Moving up a notch is the Junior Suite. It's the smallest, coming in at 293 square ft. with a 66 square ft. balcony. Just a bit bigger than the standard balcony, the extra perks (beyond space) that come with the Junior Suite include a bathroom with tub and a bigger living room area.

For those wanting concierge access, the remaining suites, definitely moving into the higher-ticket arena, start with the Royal Family Suite. At 533 - 586 square ft., its grand claim is two bedrooms plus a sitting room; the second bedroom has the usual twin to queen bed configuration plus two Pullmans that come down from the ceiling. Balconies are bigger, too. In this suite they range from 139 - 193 square ft.

The Grand Suite is just a larger "junior," but it's quite a bit larger at 358 - 384 square ft. and features a bathroom with tub. The Owner's Suite offers more amenities and features even beyond increased squared footage; passengers booking this category of accommodations get a bathroom with whirlpool, bidet and separate shower, along with a bedroom and separate living areas (with queen-sized sofa bed). Measurements are 512 square ft. for the cabin and 57 square ft. for the verandah. And finally? The piece d'resistance is the Royal Suite, which comes with all the Owner's Suite amenities plus a baby grand piano, a balcony that measures 215 square ft. (outfitted with better-than-standard furnishings, including a dining table); the stateroom itself is 1,001 square ft.

Tip: Families should book as far in advance as possible -- a year ahead of time if you can -- to have the best choice of family-friendly staterooms, particularly if you are traveling in August. We booked seven months ahead of time and still had difficulty getting all of us in one cabin because the ship was so full.

Entertainment

Let's start with evenings: In the Pacifica Theater, the big-ticket venue, there were three major production shows -- very lavish, very professional and, yes, quite entertaining. Other nights the stage hosted comedians, cabaret singers and musicians. In lounges, musical programs included intimate, cabaret-style duo in the Hollywood, 70's night with a disc jockey in Starquest Disco, solo piano in the Schooner and fabulous cha-cha (and other dance tunes) with a three-piece band in the Lobby Bar.

Days at sea were filled with mostly traditional-style diversions -- napkin folding, bingo, cooking demos, and art auctions -- though some of the most interesting, and fun involved crew members who demonstrated their capability at everything from cooking to towel-folding to bartender bottle-tossing. The pool area usually had some kind of live three-piece band at prime time sunning hours.

One big disappointment for movie lovers was the ship's in-cabin and cinema selection of flicks, some so old that we saw them on cruise ships last winter. Passengers who want to relax privately with a more current movie are required to opt for the pay-per-view option.

Fitness and Recreation

Brilliance's ShipShape Center and Day Spa offers all the important machines, from treadmills to stairmasters to stationary bikes to weight machines, not to mention free weights. Each day the fitness director leads quite well-attended workouts geared to a variety of themes, from Pilates and Cardio Ki-Bo to abdominals and walk-a-mile. Upstairs, the spa, operated by Steiner of course (expect the usual product pitch after a treatment), offers a variety of services. Along with the usual -- relaxing massage, 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 $50 or a daily tariff of $15 on our voyage -- includes tiled, heated beds (great for sore backs), showers that operate in mist or tropical forms, and (unisex) aromatherapy-oriented steam and sauna. The spa's mens' and ladies' locker rooms feature standard style shower, steam and sauna faculties.

Jocks 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 main pool has two whirlpools and a swim-against-the-current area.

One of the signature spots onboard Brilliance of the Seas is its Solarium. The glass roof-topped pool features an African Safari-themed ambiance, complete with life-sized stone elephants, and fountain and other water effects. It's a lovely, peaceful spot for relaxing. Its loungers are comfy and topped with thick cushions. There's also a whirlpool.

A running track snakes around the main pool area, with seven times around to a mile. It's pretty narrow, and gets congested during peak sunning hours, so passengers may want to time their run or walk early or late in the day.

Family

Brilliance of the Seas is superbly designed to accommodate families. Its extensive Adventure Ocean Programs groups kids in five categories (3 - 5, 6 - 8, 9 - 11, 12 - 14 and 15 - 17). The 3 to 11 year olds are in one room and the teens are across the hall, in their own disco. It has got top-notch facilities, including a computer lab, play stations with video and Adventure Beach with water slide and pool, and features programs that offer arts and crafts, games and rock climbing (older kids, natch), and science fun.

The "camp" as passengers were calling it, also uses the ship for various activities -- dedicated swimming times, movie showings and special group meals offered throughout the program. During sea days, the kids program is available from 9 a.m. - noon, 2 - 5 p.m., and 7 - 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 in the program for part or all of the day.

Five nights during our 12-night Mediterranean cruise there were kid-only dinners at 6 p.m., which was a terrific incentive for parents to enjoy a romantic dinner in Chops or Portofino. There's also a late night "party" from 10 p.m. - 1 a.m. that costs $5 per hour per child, charged in half-hour increments. Each evening there's a different theme, often tied to our port of call such as Gladiators or Olympic night and the kids particularly enjoyed getting their own daily compass delivered to our cabin each evening so they knew what to look forward to the next day.

Other activities onboard that the kids enjoyed included a water slide, arcade, mini golf, rock-climbing wall, and ping pong.

For younger kids you also have the option of hiring babysitters onboard if you need a night out. We also saw several babies sleeping through the shows at night in their carriages.

Tip: Pickup times in the late afternoon vary slightly each day -- make sure you know what the time is as you will be billed $1 per minute for every minute you are late.

The in-cabin televisions have a dedicated children's channel and there's the Captain Sealy's Kids Galley Menu. Group babysitting service is available late nights; kids must be at least 3 years old and potty trained; the rate is $5 per hour per child. For private in-cabin babysitting, rate is $8 for up to two kids, per hour with a minimum of two hours. Requests should be made 24 hours in advance. There are a handful of "family suites," which can accommodate up to eight. As well, many deluxe and superior ocean view cabins have couches-with-sofabed. On this, and every other Royal Caribbean ship, there's a Youth Evacuation Program. Kids who register in the Adventure Ocean program are issued wristbands with safety details.

Fellow Passengers

You name it! Utterly diverse 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.

Dress Code

During the day, passengers wear casual togs -- 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 polos 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, jacket for men. "Formal," of which there were two on our 12-night trip, always occur on sea days and require guests to wear cocktail dresses (ladies) and suits or tuxedos (men). Regardless of the ship's official dress code, guests who eat at Portofino or Chops Grille are asked to go as "smart casual."

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean recommends $3.50 per person, per day to the dining room waiter; $3.50 per person, per day to the cabin steward; $2 per person, per day to the assistant waiter. Royal Caribbean also recommends $.75 per person, per day to the headwaiter, but we don't necessarily give this unless the service is special. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.


--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor. Updated by Kathleen Tucker, Publisher.Brilliance of the Seas is the second in Royal Caribbean's lovely mid-sized Radiance class (following, of course, Radiance of the Seas; more recent siblings include Serenade of the Seas and Jewel of the Seas). The ship, similar to its radiant sister in layout and facilities, does an excellent job of incorporating some of the best features from the mega-ship sized Voyager class (easily another one-third larger than this ship) and the somewhat smaller Vision class ships.

Such as? You'll find classics like the Schooner Bar (note the nifty hickory smoked smell -- or is that gunpowder? -- that conveys an "ahoy matey" sensory experience), but there's also miniature and simulated golf, and the best-kept-secret Seaview Cafe. Some Royal Caribbean traditions have received intriguing new twists. We love the funky, newly revamped Viking Crown Lounge -- here it's called the Starquest Disco Bar -- and the bar itself actually revolves. Business and conference facilities have been expanded on this ship. Latte-tudes Coffee bar, which replicates a coffeehouse atmosphere -- complete with Internet terminals -- replaces Radiance's cafe/bookshop combo.

One of the immediate impressions we got on Brilliance of the Seas was an imitation of a cash register ringing in our ear: K'ching. Royal Caribbean seems to be moving ever further into "a'la carte territory," and by this we mean beyond the usual stuff for which you're prepared to spend money, like shore excursions, spa services and casino gaming. In this case, be prepared to pay $10 to take Pathway to Yoga at the fitness center, two-bucks-plus to buy a cappuccino from Latte-tudes, $9.95 to watch relatively recent-run movies on RCTV and a $20 service fee to eat in the ship's alternative restaurants.

Brilliance of the Seas tries to be all things to all cruisers and most of the time it works. While the ship's most definitely smaller than its 138,000-ton, 3,114 passenger Voyager brethren, it does have enough room for all the extras we're coming to expect on contemporary cruise ships: an excellent range of restaurant options, a big-enough fitness facility with rock-climbing, miniature golf, virtual golf, water slide and a generous basketball court to complement the usual ping pong and shuffleboard. There are so many bars (and all of them, large or small, manage to be cozy, fun hangouts) that even after a 12-day cruise we're not sure we found them all. And service, particularly bar and dining room wait staff, after an extremely rocky start, was generally very warm and personable.

Another plus is that Brilliance of the Seas genuinely attempts to match the onboard experience with the regions it cruises. On a recent Mediterranean sailing in which American passengers were on a par with Europeans, a tapas menu was introduced and much of the entertainment focused on musical and dance programs, such as one featuring the tango.

But that "big ship" atmosphere has a down side, too. Our experience with Guest Relations was inconsistent at best -- and rarely, when calling, did we actually get through without waiting on hold for a minute to five and ten or longer. And while the ship's layout aims to spread passengers out evenly, it can get congested (and passengers often got a bit aggressive, particularly at the Centrum elevators) at "rush hours" -- pre-dinner, at the guest relations/shore excursion desk early and late in the voyage, and, most particularly, getting back onboard when shore excursion buses all pulled up at the same time late in the afternoon.

Dining

In the Minstrel Dining Room -- the ship's traditional restaurant -- we were pleasantly surprised at the consistently well-prepared dishes, and after the first couple of days, the waiters made every effort to accommodate meat temperature preferences. For dinner, passengers can choose between assigned early (6 p.m.) or late (8:30 p.m.) dining, or opt for RCI's My Time Dining, in which you pick a preferred mealtime (anytime between 6 and 9:30 p.m.), but 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 pre-pay gratuities.) The restaurant is open seating for everyone at breakfast and lunch every day. Romantics may need a little luck to snag a two-top as there weren't many.

Windjammer Cafe was easily the most popular (daytime) eatery on the ship. Brilliance's quite attractive buffet restaurant, it is open for breakfast, lunch, afternoon snacks and informal dinners. There are numerous stations for burgers, pasta, sweets and the like. One interesting feature is an onsite bar for soda, wine and beer purchases; nice, because diners didn't have to wait for a waiter. Another nice touch: aft, there are a number of outside tables. The food was generally quite good for buffet fare, though the selection for breakfast got pretty humdrum after a few days; Windjammer also has basic 24-hour beverage stations (coffee, tea, water).

We stumbled onto Seaview Cafe quite by accident and it became a regular lunch/snack haunt. The atmosphere -- windows overlooking a deck with tables and the sea -- is evocative of a cozy beach-front cafe. Seaview is Johnny Rockets with a bigger menu; beyond burgers and hot dogs you can request made-to-order fish n' chips, not to mention scrumptious onion rings and decadent brownies -- all at no additional charge. It's got a beer/wine/soda bar as well. Seaview is typically open for lunch when the ship is at sea; on port days it opens for late afternoon snacking and post-dinner noshing.

The Solarium Cafe has a pizza bar and is open all afternoon.

Brilliance boasts two alternative restaurants and we'll tell you up front: each requires a per-person service fee ($20 in Portofino, $25 in Chops). Is it worth it? We loved the six course menus (and the food, too) at both. You definitely feel like you are in a small, upscale restaurant and as one fellow diner commented, "When's the last time you got this much for $20?" 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 a fish-o-the-day -- all beautifully prepared. Cozy twosomes may want to request one of the banquette tables. At Portofino, the meal included an antipasti, soup, salad, pasta, main course (try the lobster) and dessert. One note: On our cruise, the dining rooms at both spot were rarely more than half-filled, and yet the service was inconsistent. Later in the cruise both Portofino and Chops Grille were opened up for lunch as well as dinner; same service fee (and menu) applies.

Room service is available around the clock. There's a standard menu with basic offerings like salads, sandwiches, pizza, burgers and a handful of desserts. For breakfast, there's a wide- ranging menu that includes hot egg dishes as well as the usual continental fare. At dinner, passengers can order off the main dining room menu.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean recommends $3.50 per person, per day to the dining room waiter; $3.50 per person, per day to the cabin steward; $2 per person, per day to the assistant waiter. Royal Caribbean also recommends $.75 per person, per day to the headwaiter, but we don't necessarily give this unless the service is special. Gratuities can be pre-paid in advance (and must be if you opt for flexible dining), added to your onboard bill or paid in cash at the end of the cruise. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.

--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor. Updated by Kathleen Tucker, Publisher.Brilliance of the Seas is the second in Royal Caribbean's lovely mid-sized Radiance class (following, of course, Radiance of the Seas; more recent siblings include Serenade of the Seas and Jewel of the Seas). The ship, similar to its radiant sister in layout and facilities, does an excellent job of incorporating some of the best features from the mega-ship sized Voyager class (easily another one-third larger than this ship) and the somewhat smaller Vision class ships.

Such as? You'll find classics like the Schooner Bar (note the nifty hickory smoked smell -- or is that gunpowder? -- that conveys an "ahoy matey" sensory experience), but there's also miniature and simulated golf, and the best-kept-secret Seaview Cafe. Some Royal Caribbean traditions have received intriguing new twists. We love the funky, newly revamped Viking Crown Lounge -- here it's called the Starquest Disco Bar -- and the bar itself actually revolves. Business and conference facilities have been expanded on this ship. Latte-tudes Coffee bar, which replicates a coffeehouse atmosphere -- complete with Internet terminals -- replaces Radiance's cafe/bookshop combo.

One of the immediate impressions we got on Brilliance of the Seas was an imitation of a cash register ringing in our ear: K'ching. Royal Caribbean seems to be moving ever further into "a'la carte territory," and by this we mean beyond the usual stuff for which you're prepared to spend money, like shore excursions, spa services and casino gaming. In this case, be prepared to pay $10 to take Pathway to Yoga at the fitness center, two-bucks-plus to buy a cappuccino from Latte-tudes, $9.95 to watch relatively recent-run movies on RCTV and a $20 service fee to eat in the ship's alternative restaurants.

On the plus side, Royal Caribbean -- fleetwide, not just on Brilliance -- has been innovative in introducing, in particular, beverage packages that can help keep costs down. These include soda cards (for adults the package averaged out at about $5 a day while kids paid about $3 a day). At this point, Royal Caribbean's the only line to offer an adult "Royal Cocktails" card; for $39 plus tip passengers can buy 12 drinks of the house variety, which works out to about $3.25 per drink, saving roughly $1.75 each time.

Brilliance of the Seas tries to be all things to all cruisers and most of the time it works. While the ship's most definitely smaller than its 138,000-ton, 3,114 passenger Voyager brethren, it does have enough room for all the extras we're coming to expect on contemporary cruise ships: an excellent range of restaurant options, a big-enough fitness facility with rock-climbing, miniature golf, virtual golf, water slide and a generous basketball court to complement the usual ping pong and shuffleboard. There are so many bars (and all of them, large or small, manage to be cozy, fun hangouts) that even after a 12-day cruise we're not sure we found them all. And service, particularly bar and dining room wait staff, after an extremely rocky start, was generally very warm and personable.

Another plus is that Brilliance of the Seas genuinely attempts to match the onboard experience with the regions it cruises. On a recent Mediterranean sailing in which American passengers were on a par with Europeans, a tapas menu was introduced and much of the entertainment focused on musical and dance programs, such as one featuring the tango.

But that "big ship" atmosphere has a down side, too. Our experience with Guest Relations was inconsistent at best -- and rarely, when calling, did we actually get through without waiting on hold for a minute to five and ten or longer. And while the ship's layout aims to spread passengers out evenly, it can get congested (and passengers often got a bit aggressive, particularly at the Centrum elevators) at "rush hours" -- pre-dinner, at the guest relations/shore excursion desk early and late in the voyage, and, most particularly, getting back onboard when shore excursion buses all pulled up at the same time late in the afternoon.

Dining

In the Minstrel Dining Room -- the ship's traditional restaurant -- we were pleasantly surprised at the consistently well-prepared dishes, and after the first couple of days, the waiters made every effort to accommodate meat-cooking preferences. Minstrel, a two-tiered room mostly set up with larger tables (seating six, ten or twelve), offers Royal Caribbean's flexible My Time Dining program at dinnertime. Passengers can choose between assigned early (6 p.m.) or late (8:30 p.m.) dining, or opt for flexible dining, in which you pick a preferred mealtime (anytime between 6 and 9:30 p.m.), but can change your reservations on a daily basis. The restaurant is open seating for everyone at breakfast and lunch every day. Romantics may need a little luck to snag a two-top as there weren't many.

Windjammer Cafe was easily the most popular (daytime) eatery on the ship. Brilliance's quite attractive buffet restaurant, it is open for breakfast, lunch, afternoon snacks and informal dinners. There are numerous stations for burgers, pasta, sweets and the like. One interesting feature is an onsite bar for soda, wine and beer purchases; nice, because diners didn't have to wait for a waiter. Another nice touch: aft, there are a number of outside tables. The food was generally quite good for buffet fare, though the selection for breakfast got pretty humdrum after a few days; Windjammer also has basic 24-hour beverage stations (coffee, tea, water).

We stumbled onto Seaview Cafe quite by accident and it became a regular lunch/snack haunt. The atmosphere -- windows overlooking a deck with tables and the sea -- is evocative of a cozy beach-front cafe. Seaview is Johnny Rockets with a bigger menu; beyond burgers and hot dogs you can request made-to-order fish n' chips, not to mention scrumptious onion rings and decadent brownies -- all at no additional charge. It's got a beer/wine/soda bar as well. Seaview is typically open for lunch when the ship is at sea; on port days it opens for late afternoon snacking and post-dinner noshing.

The Solarium Cafe has a pizza bar and is open all afternoon.

Brilliance boasts two alternative restaurants and we'll tell you up front: each requires a per-person service fee ($20 in Portofino, $25 in Chops). Is it worth it? We loved the six course menus (and the food, too) at both. You definitely feel like you are in a small, upscale restaurant and as one fellow diner commented, "When's the last time you got this much for $20?" 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 a fish-o-the-day -- all beautifully prepared. Cozy twosomes may want to request one of the banquette tables. At Portofino, the meal included an antipasti, soup, salad, pasta, main course (try the lobster) and dessert. One note: On our cruise, the dining rooms at both spot were rarely more than half-filled, and yet the service was inconsistent. Later in the cruise both Portofino and Chops Grille were opened up for lunch as well as dinner; same service fee (and menu) applies.

Room service is available around the clock. There's a standard menu with basic offerings like salads, sandwiches, pizza, burgers and a handful of desserts. For breakfast, there's a wide- ranging menu that includes hot egg dishes as well as the usual continental fare. At dinner, passengers can order off the main dining room menu.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean recommends $3.50 per person, per day to the dining room waiter; $3.50 per person, per day to the cabin steward; $2 per person, per day to the assistant waiter. Royal Caribbean also recommends $.75 per person, per day to the headwaiter, but we don't necessarily give this unless the service is special. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.


--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor. Updated by Kathleen Tucker, Publisher.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.

Dining

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.

Public Rooms

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.

Cabins

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.

Entertainment

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).

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.

Family

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.

Fellow Passengers

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.

Dress Code

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.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean recommends $3.75 per person, per day to the dining room waiter; $5 per person, per day to the cabin steward (or $7.25 if you're in a suite); $0.75 per person, per day to the headwaiter; and $2.15 per person, per day to the assistant waiter. This totals $11.65 for those in standard cabins and $13.90 for those in suites. Gratuities can be pre-paid in advance (and must be if you opt for flexible dining), added to your onboard bill or paid in cash at the end of the cruise. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean recommends $3.75 per person, per day to the dining room waiter; $5 per person, per day to the cabin steward (or $7.25 if you're in a suite); $0.75 per person, per day to the headwaiter; and $2.15 per person, per day to the assistant waiter. This totals $11.65 for those in standard cabins and $13.90 for those in suites. Gratuities can be pre-paid in advance (and must be if you opt for flexible dining), added to your onboard bill or paid in cash at the end of the cruise. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.

Effective March 1, Royal Caribbean passengers are charged $12 per person, per day ($14.25 for suite guests). Gratuities can be pre-paid in advance or will be added on a daily basis to passengers' SeaPass accounts during the cruise. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.

Gratuity

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.

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