When we think of the Bahamas we think of the cities of Nassau and Freeport and maybe of the fabulous Atlantis Resort. We also think of an island archipelago with many sandy beaches.
The Bahamas, in fact, has over 700 islands of varying sizes. One of them used to be the home to an American Naval Facility which operated from 1957 until decommissioned in 1980. This island also used to be a playground for the rich and famous – mostly Americans, mostly Hollywood types, who maintained vacation homes there.
Now that island is largely forgotten. Tourism is still its mainstay, but it is a permanent residence to just 11,000. We happened across it by chance as it was the first stop on a cruise we took in January 2015. Our cruise was with Princess Cruises and the stop was at a place at one end of the island called Princess Cays Resort. As far as we know, it is an exclusive stop for Princess Lines. No other cruise ships visit here.
The island is Eleuthra, a long boomerang shaped island 110 miles long and just a mile wide at its narrowest point. It was discovered by Christopher Columbus and the Spanish who left the island decimated, its native population routed by disease and the remainder carried off as slaves to work the mines on Hispaniola.
It remained largely unpopulated until rediscovered by Puritan colonists who called themselves the Eleutherian Adventurers. They had originally settled in Bermuda but refused to swear allegiance to the British Crown. They struck out for a place they could practice their faith free of persecution in the late 1640s (some time between 1646 and 1648). They were the first settlers of the Bahamas and gave Eleuthra its name.
The Adventurers were led by William Sayle who had created a constitution of sorts. Dissension in the ranks led Sayles and his followers to retreat eventually to New Providence where the city of Nassau is. But it is said that if Sayles had been successful, Eleuthra would have been the first independent democracy in the Americas, some 130 years before the American Revolution. Sayles later became Governor of the Colony of South Carolina.
On our cruise, we were taken by tender to the small dock at Princess Quay. There, as is usual with cruise ship stops, we had a variety of options open to us, including just lazing on the beach. We opted for a bus tour that would cover about half the island.
Our guide gave us a short history of the island before we came to our first stop – a small church sandwiched between the highway and the shore near Rock Sound. It was a Sunday so services were in progress at the time.
Our next stop was the Blue Hole. Our guide called it the Blue Hole but apparently its actual name is Ocean Hole. Blue hole is the generic term for such geological features. It is not far from Rock Sound.
The hole is a salt water lake a mile inland from the ocean. It was stocked by locals with salt water sea life many years ago. It is said to be bottomless and it rises and ebbs with the tides so there must be a subterranean connection with the ocean. Jacques Cousteau, who used to live on Eleuthra, tried to find the connection but failed.
We continued on to Governor’s Harbour, about half way up the island. There we saw Government House as well as a number of homes boarded up while their owners were away. There were also some abandoned buildings. Our tour guides sang the Bahamian National Anthem for us on the steps of Government House.
On the return trip we stopped at Tarpum Bay, a small and picturesque fishing village along the way.
Then it was back to Rock Sound where we stopped for lunch and entertainment at a seashore restaurant. Most of the staff and entertainers were black and I discovered that black culture has a long history in the Bahamas.
After the American War of Independence, many Loyalists to the Crown fled the United States, many of them settling in the Caribbean. Thousands settled in the Bahamas. They brought their slaves with them. The Bahamas became a haven for freed slaves and formally abolished the practice in 1834. Today descendants of freed slaves and free Africans make up 90 percent of the population.
We very much enjoyed the Junkanoo parade put on for us. Junkanoo is an annual festival and parade with colorful costumes, dancing and music.
Some locals also demonstrated how to prepare conch as a meal. They showed how to remove the live conch from its shell and then prepare it in a salad.
All in all, we very much enjoyed our trip to this fascinating island.
Below is a link to an additional photo gallery as well as another link of interest.
Up until 2005 we had long thought a cruise would be a terrific vacation but we were under the impression that cruising was for rich people and we were hardly rich. And so we didn’t really consider it seriously.
Our friends Chris and Sheila had been on a couple of cruises and they excitedly told us about one coming up, a repositioning cruise from San Diego to Vancouver. You only had to pay one way fares to get to San Diego instead of round-trip. And repositioning cruises are bargain priced. So we said yes, we would join them on this adventure.
A repositioning cruise, in case you don’t know, is a cruise that does exactly as it says. It is a one-time cruise that moves a ship from one route to another. The ship we would be taking, the Radiance of the Seas, had just finished up its winter gig plying the waters from Los Angeles to Puerto Vallarta. Now it was heading to Vancouver to start the summer season sailing the Alaska run.
Not only was this our first cruise, it was also one of the most memorable of the six we have taken so far. It is the only cruise for which we actually remember the name of one of the people serving our table. And it is the only cruise for which we remember the name of the captain.
We flew to San Diego and boarded the ship. Sailing out of the port, we passed a large aircraft carrier. Everything about cruising was new to us – the daily evening entertainment in the large theatre, the fabulous food, all included in the price, the entertainment at the various bars and clubs aboard the ship, the sheer size of the ship itself.
Each ship has its own complement of singers, dancers and musicians to entertain. And the ship brings in special guest entertainers for most of the shows. Each ship’s entertainment is managed and hosted by a Cruise Director. Ours was a lively fellow named Gordon.
We had opted for fixed dinner seating with the same fellow passengers each night and so we got to know a few people from around the world – mostly American actually. But the crew on a cruise ship is made up of a cosmopolitan blend of people from all over the world. Our Assistant Waiter was a gal from Chile. Her name was Lily. That’s right – Lily from Chile! And she was an absolute delight. Super friendly, superior service, just an all around beautiful person. While the service is always excellent, Lily is the only person we remember by name. She just resonated with us in a special way.
One of the regular features on a Royal Caribbean cruise is an art auction. We attended and actually bought a couple of small pieces including a limited edition print of Charlie Brown and Snoopy signed by Charles Schulz.
Our first port-of-call was San Francisco and, as is typical of all cruises, we had the option of taking a packaged tour or of just leaving the ship and exploring on our own. Since the ship docked near Fisherman’s Wharf, we decided we would just wander around on our own. I went over our visit in some detail in a previous post.
At one of the bars one evening, we were entertained by the captain himself. Seems our captain, Kent Ringborn, a veteran mariner, came from a family of sailors, following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps. He joined the Swedish Merchant Marine Academy at fifteen. He received his mariners license at twenty-two. And after a stint with the Swedish Navy, he served on cargo vessels for a few years, becoming a captain before the age of thirty.
During his long career, he even captained an ice breaker for the Swedish National Maritime Administration. And in 1991 he started a career with the cruise ship industry, joining Royal Caribbean in 1995. He oversaw the building of the Radiance of the Seas and became her captain when she was launched in April 2001.
Although not formally trained in music, Captain Kent loved to sing and sometimes joined the Royal Caribbean singers and dancers performing a solo. He became known as the singing captain and over the years guests had asked for a souvenir of his performances. So he eventually recorded a CD with eighteen songs that included such classics as Sailing, Some Enchanted Evening, Edelweiss, Old Man River and Hallelujah. He changed the lyrics slightly on Welcome to My World to Welcome to Our World – the world of cruising.
We learned that this was Captain Kent’s last cruise as captain. He was retiring at the end of this voyage.
We continued on our cruise with a stop at Astoria, Oregon. The port there cannot accommodate cruise ships, so we anchored in the bay and reached shore by tender. There is not a lot to do in Astoria but we had seen the Astoria Column, its most striking landmark, on a previous road trip through Astoria and none of the other excursions interested us so we just wandered around the town for the day. Many nice little shops and restaurants. A pleasant town to visit.
Then on our way again to our next port-of-call, Victoria, B.C.. Our wives had secretly booked high tea at the Empress Hotel, a Victoria landmark and we had a great time.
Then on to Vancouver and home. As we went to our cabins for the last time, we found that Captain Kent had left a parting gift for every passenger, a copy of his CD as a souvenir. Below are the highlights of our trip put to the captain’s rendition of Welcome to Our World. It was our first cruise and a most memorable one. And it had us hooked on cruising which is, dollar for dollar, one of the best vacations you can enjoy.
Check out my previous post, The Joy of Cruising, for a bit more on the cruising experience as well as a complete rundown on all the cruises we have taken to date.
San Francisco was the first port of call on the very first cruise Janis and I ever took, a repositioning cruise from San Diego to Vancouver. We had driven through San Francisco before, taking one of the highways over the Golden Gate on our first trip to California together. But we never actually stopped to take in the city. This was our first time seeing some of its famous venues.
The city is famous for a number of tourist attractions and we had no idea which we would see on our stay. We were surprised to find that many of them were within walking distance of the cruise ship’s pier. In fact, the pier was only about four and a half miles from the Golden Gate Bridge.
The closest landmark to our ship was Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill. The tower was named after Lillie Hitchcock Coit, an eccentric woman who smoked cigars, wore pants and loved to frequent San Francisco’s gambling halls. She helped a short-handed fire crew on her way from school when she was fifteen and was made an honorary mascot of Knickerbocker Engine Co. No. 5.
When she passed away she left a third of her ample estate to the city she loved and the city built Coit Tower in her honour. The 210 foot tower was built in 1933. An apocryphal story says the art deco tower is shaped like the nozzle of a fireman’s hose because of Coit’s fondness for firefighters, but the resemblance is actually coincidental.
We climbed to the top where you get an excellent view of the city. One of the sites we could see, even from the garden by the parking lot, was the famous zig-zag street, a short section of Lombard Street which has been used in movie chase scenes, notably The Love Bug (1968) and What’s Up Doc? (1972). The clip below has Herbie racing down the zig-zag street early in the scene.
It looked to be walking distance so we hoofed it. It is only a mile away, about a twenty minute walk. And it is worth seeing, a fascinating piece of history. The zig-zaggy part is only a block long and has eight switchbacks traversing to navigate the 27 degree slope.
A block further we came to Hyde Street where some of the famous cable cars ply up and down the hills. Naturally we had to take a ride. We went up the hill and soon found ourselves at another interesting venue, the power house. Here you can learn about the history of the cable cars and see the huge wheels that move the cables in action.
We took a cable car back down the hill to Fisherman’s Wharf. We cjecked out the famous Ghirdelli Chocolate Factory at the west end of the strip and then headed east. We stopped for lunch at one of the many restaurants along the way.
After lunch we walked along the road taking in the sights when all of a sudden a piece of shrubbery jumped up and roared at me as I approached. I jumped about two feet in the air and my wife and friends had a good laugh. The shrubbery was the world famous Bushman.
Some humourless local businesses have tried to shut him down and the city has occasionally charged him with a misdemeanour (he always gets acquitted by a jury). We thought he was a hoot. We crossed the street to watch unobtrusively as he startled a few more tourists. A good laugh.
Further along we cam to Pier 39 where a lot of large floating platforms are home to a herd of sea lions. Noisy, smelly sea lions! Entertaining to watch.
After Fisherman’s Wharf we still had lots of time before our ship departed so we hoofed it to Chinatown which is just over a mile from there, a 25 minute walk. The old buildings of Chinatown are a sharp contrast to the soaring towers of the nearby Financial District.
On the way back to the ship we came across two more interesting sights. One was a Chinese restaurant featuring a huge mural of a jazz club. The Sun
And we passed an area on Broadway that looked to be San Francisco’s sin city strip – adult book stores, strip bars, etc. featuring colorful names like Big Al’s, the Roaring 20s and the Hungry I Club.
We made it back to the ship for our late sailing and caught the vibrant evening skyline as we left. All in all, a fun time in San Francisco.
On January 22, 2016, my wife and I went on our sixth cruise – a cruise promoted as a taste of Southeast Asia. We had never been in Southeast Asia before, except for a brief stopover at the Kuala Lumpur airport on our way to Perth, Australia. But it has always been a popular destination for Canadians with many visiting Thailand, Viet Nam, Singapore and Malaysia among others. So it was another part of the world that needed exploring.
I’ve already posted about all our ports of call as well as about our stay in Singapore. So this post is about the cruise itself. Cruises are a destination in themselves, even if you never get off the ship. In 2009 we took a fourteen day trans-Atlantic cruise and were at sea for seven straight days, as long as this entire cruise. There is always something to do and to keep you entertained.
This cruise was with Royal Caribbean aboard the Mariner of the Seas, a huge ship, one of five Voyager class ships. We have cruised on its sister ship, the Navigator of the Seas twice before. But each has its own distinctive style with unique art work for each.
We had pre-boarded online so everything went smoothly when we arrived to board. Right away we went for a meal and everything was decked out to welcome people, and to hail the upcoming Chinese New Year.
The time between boarding and setting sail is a great time to explore the ship and find out where everything is. It’s also a great time to check out the many facilities which are all open for inspection. We checked out the health and beauty salons where you can get your hair done or have a massage or work out in the extensive gym. We entered a draw to win a spa treatment. At the draw my wife won a $100 coupon towards a treatment and she used it later to get a stone massage.
We also confirmed our dinner reservations and at 5:30 went for dinner where we met our dining companions for the trip, a couple from Melbourne and their 13 year old son. We also met our wait staff.
Our dinner companions, Ned, Annie and Josh, were always fun to talk to and we spent an evening together at the karaoke bar as well.
As with all cruises, there is entertainment every night in the theatre. The MC is usually the Cruise Director for the trip. Ours was a fellow from mainland China who went by the name of Fang. He started by introducing some interesting facts and figures about the makeup of guests and crew. There were guests from 53 different countries and crew from 43.
He started by saying, “There is one guest from each of the following countries…” and listed them by name – around twenty or so. Then he went on to list the countries which had two guests aboard. And then three and so on. The top five were Singapore and the United States with about 200 guests from each, Great Britain with around 500, China with about 500 and Australia with over a thousand people. Total was around 3300.
The number of guests and crew from mainland China is a good indication of how much China has changed since the rigid days of Maoism. Nobody could leave the country then. It was a veritable prison. And those caught flirting with capitalism could be shot. But here were 500 guests from China enjoying the good life.
The entertainment on this trip was below par compared to the other Royal Caribbean cruises we have been on. One of the downsides was the the usual complement of staff singers and dancers boarded the same time as us and so did not make an appearance until the last day after they had done extensive rehearsing. But the nightly talent was lack lustre as well. We enjoyed some of it, but it lacked flare.
The first night featured an Australian male trio called La Forza. They were pretty good – sort of like the Three Tenors but they did more pop than classical music. The second night featured violinist Venus Tsai who was a finalist in China’s Got Talent. We weren’t particularly interested but popped in at the back of the audience for a few minutes part way through to check her out. She was very talented, but the audio mix was terrible. She was drowned out by the ship’s orchestra. But people who went enjoyed her very much.
The third night had Australian comedy magician Duck Cameron. I’m a huge fan of magic and looked forward to the show, but we were both disappointed. The magic was ordinary, nothing we hadn’t seen before. And the comedy was lame. The fourth night featured Australian singer Tamara Guo. She had a good voice but her presentation was horrible. She said she was suffering from a sore throat and was constantly apologizing for it. And she spent more than half of the act telling her life story instead of singing. People were walking out of the show in droves.
I didn’t save the calendars for days 5 and 6, but I believe there was no show on the fifth because we were in Phuket for two days so people could seek entertainment ashore if they wanted. Day six was an Australian comedian who was so-so. And day seven featured a production extravaganza with the ship’s singers and dancer called Center Stage. The Royal Caribbean cruises always have a very talented cast of singers and dancers and this show was no exception. An enjoyable evening.
But I must put in a word for the very best show on the ship. The Mariner of the Seas, like her sister ships, has an ice rink. Guests could skate during designated hours, but there was also an ice show. There were several showings and we went on the afternoon of the last day. And it was fabulous. The show, called Big Top on Ice, had a circus theme. Brilliantly coloured costumes and fabulous skating.
It so happened that Australia Day happened during the cruise and with such a large contingent of Aussies aboard, the ship celebrated as well.
On the last day we also took advantage of an opportunity to tour the ship’s galley for a nominal charge. This tour included a complementary Royal Caribbean Recipe Book and a champagne lunch. The book alone was worth the money. And the behind-the-scenes look at the galley was very interesting. They churn out a lot of meals with three decks of fine dining restaurant as well as an almost constantly open serve yourself buffet style restaurant, the Windjammer.
Of course, there were a lot of amenities we did not take advantage of – basketball courts, miniature golf, rock climbing and so on. But we did use the swimming pools a lot.
One of the great pleasure of each Royal Caribbean cruise is the singing waiters and chefs. Once and sometimes twice on a cruise, the wait staff will march around the room waving white towels as they congregate on the staircase. Then the head of the dining department gives a little speech praising their work and they then sing for their guests. We had our wait staff entertain us twice this cruise and it was great fun.
I’ve written about our ports of call already but here are links to my blog posts on each in case you missed them. Note that some have links at the end of the articles to additional photo galleries.
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.
“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.