After a day at sea from Singapore, the first stop of our one-month cruise to Europe was Phuket, Thailand. During prime season, ships anchor just off the town of Patong and tenders drop passengers off at floating docks right on a beautiful beach. This is one of those rare cruise ports where tenders are not bad; ten minutes on the tender lands you at a spot you can actually spend the day. (The short distance and smooth water meant that there wasn’t much of a wait for the tenders either as they were able to shuttle back-and-forth pretty quickly.) That said, Patong is a touristy, party town full of restaurants, bars and shops, and isn’t exactly pristine Thailand.
As part of our 3-month around-the-world journey, we spent one month on the Celebrity ship Constellation. This was actually two 2-week, back-to-back (“B2B”) cruises. The first two weeks were more a traditional cruise with many stops: Phuket, Thailand; Colombo, Sri Lanka; Cochin, Goa and Mubai, India; Muscat, Oman; Dubai and Abu Dhabi, U.A.E. The second two weeks were more along the lines of a repositioning cruise, i.e., fewer stops and a bargain price as the ship moved from one region to another for a season. This cruise took us from Abu Dhabi back to Muscat, Oman, through the Suez Canal, to Piraeus (Athens) and Katakolon (ancient Olympia), Greece, and dropped us off at Civitavecchia, Italy (the port nearest Rome, although we did not go back to Rome on this trip, but rather picked up a rent car to spend a couple weeks in Umbria and Tuscany before flying from Florence to Belgium).
We’re off the RCL Mariner of the Seas tomorrow and back on our own. I haven’t written travelogues about the cruise portion of our 2.5 month odyssey just because I don’t know that I’ve got much new or useful to offer. It’s been fun and we loved the itinerary–both for the ports and for its transportation value as part of our overall trip, but the ship’s service has been a let-down, not nearly as good as we experienced on our trans-Pacific crossing on the Celebrity Millennium. It was my first time on RCL, and I’d heard good things, so maybe this is just a function of changes as the ship has been fairly-recently based out of China. Definitely, cultural and language aspects were a challenge, but food, service, efficiency of on- and off-boarding left a lot to be desired. Oh well, hardly a hardship, just a little disappointing. Still, it’s been nice to have this 10-night break with someone else in charge of our itinerary before we begin our last month of travel through southeast Asia.
The “Sweet Sixteen” cabins on Celebrity’s Millennium-class ships are a little-known anomaly: 8 cabins on each side of Deck 6 offer double-deep balconies for the same price as their otherwise-identical neighbors. For some reason, the Sweet Sixteen don’t appear on the deck plans (which depict the cabins as having shallow balconies just like the others on that deck). In researching our trans-Pacific cruise, I came across mention of these cabins and, since we booked very early, I found that nearly all of them were still available. (My booking agent had never heard of these cabins, but secured my preferred cabin.)
I’ve been on quite a few cruises over the years, but they’re the minority of my travels. Very occasionally we just want an easy getaway, but most often lately we use cruises as transport from one point to another. I’d eyed “repositioning” cruises with envy for years, but could never take advantage of them due to my sons’ school schedules. With my boys off on their own now and David and I both retired, I’m loving taking advantage of these seasonal moves of ships from one “theater of operation” to another. Prices on these cruises are usually much lower than comparably-long regional cruises. The lines are basically trying to make some money while relocating their ships. The trade-offs for the passengers are fewer ports and frequent time changes (albeit incremental–an hour a day or so–rather than the large time-changes you get with an overseas flight).
I arranged a private guide in Hakodate through the Hakodate Goodwill Association. http://www.hakodategoodwill.com/indexeng.html The Association offers tours for up to 6 people on a pre-arranged basis for an unbelievable 3000 yen total ($29.41) plus any expenses of the guide which was explained to be a day-pass for the tram (600 yen or $5.88) and maybe some entrance fees, although those might be free for the guide. How could I resist?
A few weeks before our departure, I posted on our Cruise Critic roll call and 4 shipmates quickly jumped on this deal. In about a week, I got an email response to my online application to the Hakodate Goodwill Association from a local named Kensuke (“Ken”) who agreed to be our guide. He responded promptly to my few email questions about payment and again the day before we arrived in Hakodate to give me a weather forecast and assure me he would meet our shuttle bus from the ship.
I was totally charmed by Otaru. The old buildings of Sakaimachihondori Street, the main shopping area, are almost achingly picturesque…reminding me, in some ways, of a Japanese Carmel. We began our explore of the area at the Otaru Music Box Museum in a 3-story wooden building across from the towered post office. The “museum” is really more of a large souvenir shop selling every kind of music box imaginable. A tall clock outside the music box museum surprised us when it blew the half-hour on a train-like whistle, emitting a gray puff of smoke.
Yes, the Norvegian Rat Saloon spells its name with a “v” rather than a “w.” Sometimes. The sign on the low-slung waterfront building uses a “v,” but their menu has both spellings on the cover and we saw an ad with the “w” spelling, so who knows? Sitting just across the road from the Safeway, a local landmark, the Norvegian Rat Saloon offers a casual setting: a walk-up bar, wooden tables for diners, 2 pool tables and shuffle board table, a scruffy outdoor seating area on the water, complete with a WWII bunker, crab pots fire pit and an uninviting little “smoking area” shack.
The first stop on our trans-Pacific Vancouver-to-Tokyo cruise was Dutch Harbor, Alaska, in the Aleutian Islands. Dutch Harbor was a substitute stop, replacing the originally-scheduled Petropavlosk, Russia, on the Kamchatka Peninsula. I’d been really looking forward to the remote Russian stop and, while I was disappointed to miss the Kamchatka, Dutch Harbor was a happy surprise for me, personally. My grandfather (my father’s father) had been stationed there in WWII as a Navy dentist. My dad still has a scrapbook of his father’s from that time and I’d taken a photo of every page, eager to see if I could find anything recognizable in this remote port.