The other day at family dinner we were talking about the upcoming visit of my wife’s sister and brother and his wife. We were discussing all the places in Western Australia we planned to take them – Margaret River, Rottnest Island, Fremantle, and the Caversham Wildlife Park to see kangaroos.
“Oh,” piped up Emma, “you can see a lot of kangaroos at the Pinnaroo Cemetery.” She went on to explain that the cemetery was in a park-like setting surrounded by wilderness and that it had beautiful paths for walking along and even had a cafe and small restaurant. Just drive around until you see some roos, park the car and take a look.
So we thought we would check it out yesterday. She was absolutely correct. The Pinnaroo Valley Memorial Park is a beautiful park set in the midst of wilderness. It is very large. And yes, we saw a lot of kangaroos, at least fifty of them, probably closer to seventy-five or a hundred.
Pinnaroo Valley Memorial Park is located within easy travelling distance from downtown Perth. Just head north on the Mitchell Freeway (Highway # 2) and take the Whitfords exit. The cemetery comes up almost immediately on your left. It’s about a twenty minute drive from downtown.
The park’s website says it is the most environmentally responsible cemetery in all of Australia. “The park, which received its first burial in 1978, has been developed and maintained as a natural bushland cemetery planted only with native species. No monuments are permitted but each grave is marked by a flat bronze plaque.”
We drove along the road until we saw three kangaroos, so we parked and got out of the car. We watched them for a bit and then they hopped off to the other end of the field they were in. We then headed over to a park-like area of the cemetery and walked along the shore of an artificial lake. The area was beautifully landscaped with long open grassy spaces, almost like the fairway of a golf course. Along the shore we saw many memorials, many festooned with flowers. We didn’t see any roos here though.
But after a ten minute walk, we spotted some through the trees on our left. The path also turned in that direction so we followed it along and as we emerged through the trees to the other side we saw about three dozen kangaroos, all grazing among the cemetery plots.
While we enjoyed seeing the kangaroos at the Caversham Wildlife Reserve, these kangaroos were special. They were actual wild kangaroos. They looked different than the Caversham roos. The zoo roos looked rather lazy and dusty. Almost zoned out. Mind you, we were at Caversham during an earlier part of the day when roos are usually sleeping.
The wild roos emerge to feed after it starts to cool off around five in the afternoon. They are much more active, grazing and occasionally bounding along. I love watching them move. They have a certain grace to their movements. The wild roos also had a sleeker coat – darker and glossier. Healthier looking.
And driving through Pinnaroo Valley Memorial Park doesn’t cost you a dime. Although you get to see more than roos at Caversham – still worth a visit. But if it’s just roos you want to see, drive through the Pinnaroo park.
After a half hour or so of watching the roos, we headed for Hillarys Boat Harbour which is a short drive away and had dinner at one of the fine restaurants there. Then a short walk along the pier to see the sunset. All in all, a great afternoon.
In British Columbia they have had an annual sand castle competition for many years. It used to be held on the beach at White Rock, later moving to Harrison Hot Springs. But a couple of years ago it moved again, this time to Parksville on Vancouver Island. Contestants from all over the world attend, building sand sculptures which last for a few weeks before the weather takes them down.
But Sculpture by the Sea in Cottesloe, Western Australia is another thing again. Not ephemeral sculptures made of sand, most of the sculptures here are permanent, though not in their permanent location. These works of art are made of wood, stone, steel and other durable materials. They are scattered along Cottesloe Beach, some on the sand, some on the grassy areas, and some in the gardens.
The event started in Bondi, a suburb of Sydney, in 1997, the brainchild of a fellow named David Handley. The following year it expanded to five locations to help promote the Olympic Games in Sydney. They included Darwin, Noosa, Albany and the Tasman Peninsula as well as Bondi. But the additional showings were one-offs. it remained a Sydney event until 2005 when the event was launched in Cottesloe, a suburb of Perth in Western Australia. It has been an annual event there ever since.
This year’s exhibition runs from March 4-20th. My wife and I checked it out Tuesday and had a great afternoon. Getting there is pretty easy. The town is very close to Fremantle and easily accessible by car. The beach is along Marine Parade. It is a short fifteen minute walk from the Cottesloe train station (1.1 kilometres) or a ten minute bus ride if you prefer.
We drove in and found lots of street parking on Marine Parade, though it might be rather busy on the weekends. We parked just south of the beach and walked in, taking a path that took us past a couple of sculptures along the street and then down to a Cottesloe landmark, the Sun Dial. This isn’t part of the exhibit but is worth checking out any time. It keeps accurate time any time of the year. The instructions on how to read the sun dial are a bit cumbersome but easy to understand.
From the sun dial we walked up past the Surf Rescue building and came across several sculptures along the way. We decided to walk out on the breakwater, which also had a number of pieces of art on it, for an overview of the whole beach, then slowly made our way along the beach checking out the works. This year had works by 77 artists from nineteen different countries including Canada and the United States. The major sponsor is Rio Tinto Mines.
Many of these pieces must have been moved in by truck as they are huge. Others look like they might have been built in place just for the exhibit. They varied greatly in theme and content. Many were clearly abstract. Interesting shapes with no other significance than their beauty. Others were geometric patterns. Still others had themes. There were several with an environmental theme. And many were representational, often quite whimsical.
A few of the pieces had motion as part of the display. I took a video of one which was a circle of colourful poles with streamers running between them. A class of school children were exploring it at the time. The piece is called Kakashi by Lithuanian Ameican artist Zilvinas Kempinas.
Another was simply called “Eye” and consisted of an LED screen embedded in the dirt and surrounded by some foliage. But if you looked closely, well, darn if it wasn’t an eye! And it was looking around! Kind of creepy actually. It’s by Danish artist Anne-Marie Pedersen.
We ventured further up the beach and found more interesting pieces. One was called Book Cave and consisted of a large number of hard cover books glued together to form a cave. Another was a simple but large geometric figure of wood.
As you can see from the pictures, there were a lot of people on the beach not paying much attention to the artwork, just soaking up the sun, swimming and having a good time. The weather was warm, and bringing along your swimsuit and a towel is good idea. Make a day of it.
Wandering up behind the beach house, we came across a stainless steel sculpture of a chubby flying boy. We could see our reflection in it quite clearly.
And still further along we came across the largest of the sculptures called Re: Generation. It consisted of a curved bald pate on the ground, a multi-sided face that appeared half buried and a very large fully emerged multi-sided face. They were all in white porcelain or something that looked like white porcelain.
We came eventually to the Search and Rescue building which had a room full of smaller sculptures on display. Many were miniatures of ones we saw on the beach and all were for sale. Prices ranged from around $900 to thousands of dollars. My wife saw one selling for $46,000.
We also saw a monitor showing a video of a woman in a mermaid outfit suspended in the air on wires. Nearby was a large framed photograph of the mermaid without the wires. I asked about it and we found out the artist was going to be doing his “performance art” at 4 PM by the beach house, so we headed back to take it in. The artist is Chinese photographer Li Wei.
A model in flowing white robes was strapped to a safety harness and then she lay down on a surfboard hooked by cables to a crane. Another crane had a platform where photographer Li Wei would stand. After a half hour or so of set-up, she and he were hoisted into the air for the photo shoot. She went up and down several times, changing poses each time. I suspect the photographer will air brush out the wires and cables for his finished pictures.
We then went to the beach house which houses a large restaurant called Indiana and had a tasty meal. The restaurant has large windows and a beautiful overview of the beach.
All in all, it was a terrific afternoon. It’s highly recommended. And it’s free!
James Bond fans may remember 1974’s The Man With the Golden Gun, starring Roger Moore as 007. Not one of the best Bond films, but memorable in part for the spectacular scenery of Phang Nga Bay in Thailand which served as the setting for villain Scaramanga’s hideout.
The movie drew attention to the area and put pressure on Thai authorities to preserve this natural beauty. In 1981, much of the area was designated as Ao Phang Nga National Park, including the many islands in the area. It has become a major eco-tourism destination.
On our second day in Phuket we booked an excursion to explore sea caves in the area. We boarded a bus near the pier in Patong Bay for the hour long drive to Laem Sai Pier at the northern end of the island. There we boarded a motor launch for the hour boat cruise to Hong Island and the surrounding area.
The scenery was, indeed, like that in the Bond movie. Spectacular islands densely covered in vegetation with deep pitting in the exposed limestone, particularly at sea level.
We dropped anchor offshore from one of the islands and a myriad of small three person canoes were launched – two tourists and a guide in each. Janis and I and our guide followed some other craft into a cave and out the other end into a sheltered area surrounded by steep cliffs, limestone rock formations and lush greenery.
An island near the end of the channel looked much like the island in the movie that had the solar power unit atop it, though it was not the actual island. One of the other excursions did go to that island, now actually called James Bond Island.
We paddled around, occasionally drifting in to shore to see the rock formations up close and on one occasion, we lay back as our guide paddled us into a deep low-hanging cave and back again.
The entire area was spectacular – stunningly beautiful with streaks of red sandstone interspersed with grey and yellow limestones.
We paddled around taking in the scenery for a good half hour before paddling around an outcrop and back to our ship.
We were allowed to swim in the bay, so I gave Janis the camera and went over the side, swimming behind our kayak to the mother ship. The water was very warm.
Once aboard, we tootled off towards another island – destination: the bat cave. Not that batcave! No Batman and Robin in sight. But we once again took to the canoes and went into a much deeper cave system. Here we entered total darkness, only the guides’ flashlights providing illumination. We saw dozens of bats hanging upside from the ceiling as we paddled deeper into the cave, then we turned around and paddled back. Unfortunately it was too dark for my camera to take pictures.
From there we headed off to another island, the crew serving us a very tasty lunch along the way. At Lawi Island we dropped anchor again and were able to go ashore to a nice beach. Janis took a canoe but I just jumped in and swam ashore. We enjoyed a pleasant swim and soaked up the sun for an hour and then back to the boat again.
Back on Phuket Island we took the long bus ride back to Patong, stopping at a cashew stand that I’m sure must give kick-backs to tour operators because almost every excursion available included a visit to the “cashew factory”. It was not a factory. It was a shop. I don’t know if these additional stops add anything of value to a tour. I could have done without it. But some people were buying so I guess it pays off for them.
The sea cave adventure was by far our favourite excursion on our cruise – and the most expensive at US$149 a person. Sometimes spending a little more pays off in a big way.
At 5:30 PM the cruise ship weighed anchor and we headed off back to Singapore. All in all, a great end to our voyage. You’ll find additional photos of our sea cave adventure linked below.
I’ll be adding an overview of our cruise as a whole next, with links to all ports of call and our extended visit to Singapore. Stay tuned!
Note:some of this travelogue includes discussion of the sex trade in Thailand. If that may offend you, after the picture of the masseuses, skip to three paragraphs past the picture of Patong at night.
Our fourth port of call on our Southeast Asia cruise was Phuket, Thailand. Our ship anchored out in Patong Bay for two days giving us ample opportunity to explore on our own and to take an excursion or two if we wanted. We opted to explore on our own the first day and take an excursion the second day. I’ll write about that, a motorboat and canoe adventure in Phang Nga National Park in another post. Today I’ll look at the town of Patong, the largest on Phuket Island.
Because we were anchored in the bay, access to the city was by motor launch – a regular ferry service from ship to shore and back that ran every fifteen minutes to half an hour, depending on the time of day. We stayed on the ship for breakfast and avoided the crush of people leaving the ship by waiting until noon to go.
The shuttle craft took us to a long pier at one end of the fabulous beach at Patong Bay. We walked up the pier where hawkers were promoting various tours and activities. Moving along the sidewalk, we saw many small mini-cabs and three wheeled vehicles called tuk-tuks, sort of a motorized rickshaw.
Patong Bay was heavily damaged by the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. Around 250 people were killed on Phuket, including tourists. But today the town of Patong has largely recovered, though we did see some new construction along the busy street that borders the beach.
The beach itself is fabulous. We left the sidewalk for a while, took off our shoes and walked along the beach before heading inland. Along the shore near the pier were many long-tailed boats for hire, as well as a lot jet ski rentals. The long-tailed boat is a common in Southeast Asia. It consists of a wide canoe like body with an upswept bow and powered by an old automobile engine connected to a propeller by a long shaft.
Patong is a major tourist center and many western fast food brands were apparent including a MacDonald’s and a Burger King along the shore road. Inland a bit we later came across a Hard Rock Cafe as well as Starbucks.
One of the first things we noticed as we walked was the huge tangle of wires between power poles. Throughout the town – wires, wires, wires. More wires than you could shake a stick at. Some of them were hanging quite low. We wondered if all of them were live, and if so, how the heck would a repair guy find the right one if there were a power problem.
In any event, we wanted to find a shopping area so we thought we would head towards some tall buildings we saw not far inland. Walking along we came across endless numbers of small shops and a great many massage parlours, the masseuses sitting outside in uniforms that looked much like flight attendant uniforms.
We had heard about how prevalent prostitution was in Thailand, including child prostitution. We wondered if these massage parlour were all fronts for prostitution. Fortunately none of the ladies sitting curbside looked underage. They all looked to be in their late twenties to mid-thirties.
But the number of massage parlours was astounding. A dozen or more along a single street. There was one huge massage parlour the size of a small mall. It’s called the Christin Massage and is the largest “soapy massage” parlour in Phuket. Not sure what a soapy massage is? Neither was I until I googled it.
One of the excursions available to us was described as a Sightseeing and Cabaret Extravaganza, which ended a day of sightseeing and shopping with a visit to “Asia’s biggest transvestite cabaret show performed by the famous lady boys of Simon Cabaret”. So we had an opportunity to explore the seamier side of Patong but we opted to stay on the ship in the evening. But we did take in the view of the town at night from the ship and were amazed by a giant LED screen that looked like it may have been the size of some of the signs on Times Square in New York.
Our dinner companions and their thirteen year old son did decide to explore the town after dark. They later told us that there were bandits in motorboats who would drive up close to the dock as people were heading to shore and snatch a purse if they could and then speed off. But they were particularly appalled that some of the sidewalk masseuses pawed at and propositioned their son.
The night before we had discussed our upcoming port of call at dinner and one of our companions asked if we had heard about the ping pong shows. We had not, but I remembered a few years ago a couple of strippers in Vancouver calling themselves the Chiclets achieved some notoriety in the press for an indecent show involving ping pong balls. A search online confirmed that the ping pong shows were exactly that. I won’t go into detail but you can follow the link if you must.
Much of this sordidness is officially illegal in Thailand, but the authorities tolerate it. Their relaxed attitude to such things appeals to me politically as a libertarian, but it is decidedly not a place for a family vacation, though there are many private gated resorts that are family friendly in the area.
But back to our daytime exploration. Besides massage parlours, the leading industry seemed to be medicine. Notably dentistry. We saw many many ads for and offices of dentists, way more than a small town could possibly need. We also passed a large office promoting plastic surgery. Medical tourism seems to be big here as well. And there were a fair number of tattoo parlours.
In any event, we wandered uptown until we came to an ultra-modern shopping mall called JungCeylon. It featured many western shops including The Gap as well as more localized offerings. There were a few booths promoting condo developments. One of them, Citygate, offered condos from US$64,000 which the company will rent out for you when not using it, promising a seven percent return.
After exploring the mall and savoring a coffee at Starbucks, we headed back down another street and came across a great many sidewalk souvenir shops catering to tourists. And more massage parlours. And a Hard Rock Cafe. After an entertaining day walking around Patong we headed back to the ship for the night.
The next day we were set to explore some sea caves by canoe. That would turn out to be one of the highlights of our trip and I’ll tell you about that in the next post!
The third port of call on our Southeast Asia cruise was Langkawi, an island at the northern end of Malaysia near its border with Thailand. The ship docked at the Star Cruise Jetty, the southernmost tip of the island.
We had seven excursions to choose from and, unfortunately, we happened to pick the worst one. It was promoted as an Island Overview. “you’ll visit a functioning rubber estate,” it read, as well as see “working paddy fields with buffaloes”, “quaint Malay Kampungs” and the “Mausoleum of the Martyred Princess”. It sounded good. But it was more a dreary bus ride than anything. Luckily, the tour ended early enough for us to explore a bit on our own, saving the day.
Our bus took us inland to the rubber plantation where we stopped for ten minutes to watch a guy tap a rubber tree. Now this is interesting in itself. The tapper takes a sharp knife and cuts a spiraling line along the trunk of the tree. This forms a route for the rubber sap to flow along and into the collecting pail.
But to me, visiting a working rubber estate meant more than a ten minute road stop in the middle of nowhere to watch a guy tap a tree. I expected a tour of the plantation, seeing where the pails of sap are dumped, what happens to the sap then and so on. I expected a much more detailed tour. This was just lame.
We left the rubber plantation for a drive along some open fields and to the Mausoleum of the Martyred Princess. This was an interesting stop as we saw native entertainers doing traditional music, as well as some with a more contemporary repertoire.
We learned about the legend of Mahsuri. Her husband was away at war and a wandering poet received permission to visit and teach her the art of poetry. She became a popular hostess. A sister-in-law, jealous of her popularity, spread scandalous stories, and when her son was born, she accused Mahsuri of adultery. The slanderous lies were believed and Mahsuri and the poet were both condemned to death. She was tied to a tree and stabbed to death with sacred knife. White blood flowed signifying her innocence as she cursed the island to seven years bad luck.
The Mahsuri memorial site also has a reproduction of a Malay Kampung village. There were several buildings which you could enter and explore, all of them elevated on posts. One was a replica of a house similar to the one Mahsuri and her husband shared.
Behind this tourist area were large rice fields. We did not actually visit a rice paddy as such. We could see them out the bus window as we went along. And buffaloes were few and far between. The drive through the paddy area took us back to a major highway and we headed for the ferry terminal.
The ferry terminal is also a large shopping plaza, with some of the shops duty free. Nearby was Eagle Park, which we decided not to visit. We browsed through a few shops and found a Starbucks where we had a drink.
After the ferry terminal, the bus made one more stop – at a roadside stand that sold naturopathic medicines made from sea slugs. I don’t know why tours include such things. A later tour in Phuket had us stop at a cashew vending place. I strongly suspect that these businesses give kickbacks to the tour operators. In any event, it was lame – a boring waste of time, though some people bought some of the medicines, none of which had English labelling or instructions. Go figure.
The bus finally took us back to the ship and it was early enough for us to explore for a couple of hours on our own. There is a beautiful boardwalk near the jetty which passes a resort with some nice restaurants. We strolled along here taking in the sights and came to a small village.
The village had a lot of long boats on the beach. The boats were for hire but a bit pricey for just two of us. A group of four or more would have made this economical. One of the excursions we didn’t take was called island hopping. It had a tour on one of these long boats to various places along the way including a stop for a swim on a sandy beach.
The tour was called Island Hopping because Langkawi is surrounded by many small islands including ones with mangroves. Mangrove trees grow in salt as well as fresh water and many of the islands are submerged at high tide. Our guide told us that Langkawi did not suffer much damage in the tsunami of 2004 because these islands took the brunt of the force.
After a walk through the village we went back to the boardwalk and spent our remaining ringgits on a couple of drinks. Then back to the ship.
Here’s a suggestion for Royal Caribbean, and any other cruise ships that include the Island Overview tour – take it off your available list of excursions. It sucks the big one. I asked a few others on the tour and they also thought it a waste of time and money.
But there was one good thing came out of it. Our next stop was a two day layover at Patong Bay in Phuket. We decided to splurge on one of the more expensive excursions and that turned out to be our best experience of the cruise.
The second port of call on our Taste of Southeast Asia cruise was Penang. More specifically, the city of George Town on the island of Penang. We opted for one of the ten excursions offered, a trip to the Kek Lok Si Temple, sometimes known as the Temple of 10,000 Buddhas, which is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia.
We assembled in the ship’s theatre in the morning and disembarked as a group to catch a bus for the half hour drive through narrow residential streets until we finally got there. Our first impression of the city was that it was not as wealthy as Kuala Lumpur. Our bus took a route through a poorer section of town. But the city is fairly modern with a bustling downtown as well.
We found a long row of Buddhas in the parking lot and looked up to see the temple rising high above us. They could have called it the Temple of 10,000 steps because we then started a long climb to the top and it sure seemed like it!
The walk took us through rows of market stalls at the beginning selling souvenirs and other goods. We then emerged at the turtle pond. Buddhists give turtles to their temples to ensure long life, but you have to feel sorry for the turtles. They appear vastly over-crowded. Sometimes they seemed to be crawling all over each other.
Another hallway with more shops took us past the restrooms. Okay – if you’re going to visit this temple (or any other older tourist site in Malaysia), you should know about the unsanitary washroom conditions. They don’t use toilet paper.
The toilets usually are squat toilets with maybe one or two western style toilets, but no toilet paper. In the temple washrooms, each stall had a tap on the floor with a hose attached. The idea is you turn on the tap and spray down your butt instead of using TP. We had a previous experience and my wife carried a roll of toilet paper in her purse – a very good idea. Also, the washrooms have no paper towels or anything to wipe your hands after washing them. Frankly, by western standards, the toilets are gross. Be forewarned and carry TP with you. Maybe even a paper towel or two.
This hallway finally took us out to the temple itself, which is a large number of buildings of various designs, some of them exquisite in their beauty. One of the main attractions is the beautiful Pagoda of Rama VI, a seven story structure which apparently has 10,000 alabaster Buddhas inside. We did not have access to this building but only saw its exterior, which is magnificent. Interestingly, the pagoda was built in stages and has three different architectural styles. The lower third is in Chinese style. The middle third is Thai, and the top third is Burmese.
Along the way we encountered something we thought a bit unusual – a very lovely elegantly dressed Chinese girl posing for photographers. Some magazine or ad agency was conducting a photo shoot and we came across a half dozen models throughout the temple, cameramen in tow. We thought it an odd location for a fashion shoot.
We wandered through some exterior hallways festooned with lanterns for Chinese new year and on to another building. All the while we passed through beautiful gardens, rich with blooms and greenery.
We entered a courtyard which featured another long row of Buddhas. Each had a swastika on its chest. The swastika (svastika in Sanscrit) is an ancient symbol of good luck that has been used since the Second Century. It is widely used in eastern religions. Unfortunately it fell into disrepute when it was adopted by the Nazis. The Buddhist swastikas at the temple has arms trailing to the left whereas the Nazi swastika’s arms trail right.
Past the garden we walked a round another open air temple and then back through some passages to another building with three large Buddhas and then another with one large Buddha and some figures of warriors, all in glass cases. Finally a long set of hallways through yet more shops took us to a funicular tram to take us to the top level.
We exited the tram through yet another gift shop out to a parking lot. So there must have been a road leading there. We noticed something unusual as we emerged, a row of small statues lining the parking lot that resembled, of all things, Disney and other cartoon characters. There was Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck and Porky Pig among others. Whether these characters are revered by Buddhists is a mystery to me. I tried to look it up on the Internet and found no explanation.
This upper level formed the base for a 99 foot high bronze statue of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. The pagoda surrounding it was built after the statue and there was some scaffolding on one side as work was still being done on it. On either side of the pagoda there were tall bronze statues of warriors.
Our guide told us the statue of the goddess cost around $8 million to build. My wife and I wondered why they couldn’t have sprung $100,000 out of that to build some decent washrooms!
We wandered around this top level for a while, taking in yet another temple and a large fish pond well stocked with goldfish or koi. And some interesting park benches, one in the shape of a weiner dog. My friend Squire Barnes as well as Gary Larson would love this!
Finally it was back through the gift shop and the maze of trails back to the bus. We had an enjoyable visit despite the crappy washrooms. The bus took us back to town where we had lunch at a food court (New World Park) specializing in Asian dishes. We weren’t particularly hungry and were pleased to find a Starbucks nearby. After a short stay, it was back to the ship.
While we enjoyed our visit to the temple, cruisers who opted to explore on their own would find an old fort near by – Fort Cornwallis – the largest standing fort in Malaysia and open to visitors. There are other attractions nearby including the Queen Victoria clock tower. And it is a short walk to the bustling city itself.
“They called her the Ship of Dreams. And she was. She really was.” You may remember those words spoken by old Rose in the movie Titanic. The Titanic was spectacular as the movie shows, with gilded dining rooms, gorgeous wooden staircases, luxury suites and more.
Of course, not all passengers travelled in such style. They also had a steerage section with bunk beds and much poorer amenities. And much of the more luxurious parts of the ship were off limits to steerage passengers.
But the Titanic was doomed! She hit an iceberg and did not have enough lifeboats to save everyone. Nor did the crew have training in how to get people to the lifeboats they did have and many of them went out only partially filled. The sinking of the Titanic was one of the most tragic maritime disasters ever.
Today things are significantly better. Not only are many modern cruise ships much larger (the 60 largest cruise ships in the world are all larger than the Titanic), they are as luxurious, probably even more so. And while the price of suites varies, the poorest suites are still very comfortable and everyone has access to the fine dining rooms, the swimming pools and all the other facilities of the ship.
Modern cruise ships truly are Ships of Dreams. They really are.
Unfortunately, my wife and I got into cruising a bit late in life. We took our first cruise in 2005 when our friends Chris and Sheila invited us to join them on a repositioning cruise from San Diego to Vancouver. I was 57 then. The cruise was on board Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas. It was a terrific experience and got us hooked on cruising.
In all we’ve taken the following six cruises:
May 2005 – Radiance of the Seas – six night repositioning cruise from San Diego to Vancouver with stops in San Francisco, Astoria, Oregon and Victoria, B.C.
March 2006 – Vision of the Seas – seven night Mexican Riviera from Los Angeles to Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta and back to L.A.
April 2009 – Navigator of the Seas – 14 night repositioning cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Barcelona, Spain with stops at the Canary Islands, Lisbon, Portugal, and Cadiz, and Malaga in Spain. We stayed an extra three days in Barcelona.
Sept. 2011 – Navigator of the Seas – 7 night Eastern Mediterranean starting and ending at Civitivecchia, Italy with stops in Sicily, Athens, Kusadasi (Ephesus) in Turkey, and Crete. This trip started with a week in Paris before flying to Rome. We spent an extra day in Rome after the cruise before flying back to Paris and then back to Vancouver.
January 2015 – Ruby Princess – 7 night Eastern Caribbean cruise beginning and ending in Fort Lauderdale with stops at Eleuthra (an island that is part of the Bahamas), St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Maarten, and back to Nassau in the Bahamas.
January 2016 – Mariner of the Seas – 7 night Spice of Southeast Asia cruise beginning and ending at Singapore with stops in Port Klang (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), Penang and Langkawi, both in Malaysia and two nights in Phuket, Thailand.
I’ll write about the different ports of call for each of these cruises over time in this blog. But today, just an overview of cruising in general.
When you consider that the cruise includes accommodations as well as all meals, it is certainly one of the most economical ways to travel. Many cruises can be had for just over $100 a person per day.
Repositioning cruises are usually a bargain. What’s that, you ask? Cruise companies have some of their ships do seasonal runs. For example, there is a regular Alaska run from Vancouver to Alaska during the summer months. But in the fall, the Alaska run ships are moved down to Los Angeles or elsewhere. And vice versa. Our first cruise was an end of season run from San Diego to Vancouver. The ship had finished up a Mexican Riviera season and was heading north for the Alaska run
Our third cruise was a repositioning cruise as well – from a Caribbean season to a Mediterranean season. Fort Lauderdale to Barcelona. I don’t recall the price but I believe it was under $100 a person per night.
Boarding usually takes several hours so if you board early, you get the run of the ship for a few hour before leaving port. You can dine at one of the many dining rooms, or hang out at one of the pools soaking up the sun and sipping a Margarita.
Before the ship leaves port, however, all passengers are assembled for a muster drill. The Titanic notoriously was short on lifeboats and many people died in that tragedy. Nowadays muster drills are mandatory. All passengers are shown where their lifeboats are and how to use the life vests that are in every cabin. After the muster drill, it’s time to leave port.
All the ships we’ve been on make a big deal of leaving port with a poolside party, a live band, and special drinks at a discounted price. (While meals are included on a cruise, alcohol and some drinks are not). We always enjoy leaving port. It’s always a party atmosphere.
On most cruises, you have the same dining companions every evening for dinner, and one or two evenings are considered formal. You get dressed up in your best bib and tucker. You’re not obligated to have the same dining companions for the entire cruise, but we have always done so. You get to know your dinner companions and can develop new and lasting friendships.
Meals aboard every cruise we have been on have been superb. First class food and first class service. You have three people attending to you – your waiter, your assistant waiter and your head waiter. Like all staff aboard modern cruise ships, they come from all over the world. We have forgotten most of their names over time, but we always remember our assistant waiter from our first cruise. She was a delightful person with a delightful name – Lily. Made memorable because she was from South America and always introduced herself as Lily from Chile!
Most modern cruise ships have many amenities to keep passengers entertained. Every ship has a swimming pool, usually several. Hot tubs too. Many have large theatres for live shows. And some of the fancier ships have such things as skating rinks, ziplines, waterslides, flow-riders (so you can learn to surf), rock climbing walls, video arcades for teenagers, basketball courts, miniature golf and so on. You’ll also find spas, hair salons, gyms and fitness centres.
Each cruise also has a Cruise Director who is the manager of entertainment on the cruise and acts as Master of Ceremonies for most shows and events. On our last cruise, our cruise director was a fellow named Fang from Mainland China. Back in Mao’s day he would probably have been shot for such decadent behaviour. China’s come a long way, baby! There were, in fact, over 500 passengers from China on that cruise.
Each ship has its own orchestra and singers and dancers. On our tran-Atlantic cruise, we were seven days at sea without seeing land and the dancers offered hip hop dance lessons for free. My wife and I and our friends all took part and performed in the last evening’s show!
On three of our cruises, the ships had huge promenades with shops, pubs, and coffee shops. They were on either side of a large boulevard down the middle of the ship, as wide as a street. An overhead walkway provided the centre stage for occasional street parties.
Most modern cruise ships stop along the way and there are organized excursions at each port of call. You can take an excursion or just leave the ship and wander around on your own. The excursions cost extra but sometimes are well worth it. Prices vary.
On our cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Barcelona, we took an excursion in the Canary Islands to Mount Teide, a dormant volcano and the setting for the movie One Million BC with Raquel Welch. I wrote about that in a previous blog post. But we decided to wander on our own in Lisbon, Cadiz and Malaga and enjoyed those visits immensely, discovering things on our own we would probably have missed on an excursion. I’ll write about those in upcoming posts.
On our last trip we took excursions at each port of call, but regretted one of them – it was remarkably dull. But it was mercifully short and we had some time to wander on our own. Other excursions were money well spent, particularly one we took in Phuket, Thailand. We also enjoyed our excursion to Kuala Lumpur which I’ve also written about earlier.
All in all, we have really enjoyed cruising. It’s a relatively economical way to see a lot of the world in a short space of time. Most of our cruises have been for a week. Our longest was for two weeks. But there are many cruises that last over a month.
We will cruise again. So far we have only been on two cruise lines – Royal Caribbean and Princess Cruises, but we would like to try other lines. In port we have seen the Norwegian Cruise Line ships and they look terrific. The Disney Cruise Lines also look good, but probably have lots of kids aboard and are not as geared to adults. My parents, because they were Dutch, always cruised with Holland-America Lines, partially because many of the crew spoke Dutch.
More on cruising and specific cruises in later posts.