Off the ship and back on our own tomorrow

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Naha, Okinawa: Naminoue Beach with Naminoue Shrine in the background to the right

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.

In the spirit of completeness, I hit on a few highlights below from our ports-of-call with Mariner that might be of interest to someone doing this cruise or making these stops:

First up was Naha, Okinawa. It was good to be back in Japan, but while we avoided the forecast rain, the sunny day brought some pretty serious heat and humidity. The highlight was definitely the hatagashira parade on Kokusai street, part of an annual festival and prelude to world’s largest tug-of-war set to take place the following day. There’s a photo below and I posted a video on Facebook of the amazing balancing act groups of costumed young men did with decorated 10m poles called hatagashira. [FB keeps informing me that I have to post on Wanderwiles’ FB page or the page will go inactive, so I’ve posted pics, videos and other tidbits there as well.] I couldn’t find much information about the Naha cruise port itself, so am happy to report that we docked at the Wakasa Berth, much closer in than I’d feared. (Apparently, it is possible for a ship to dock in the “spare cruise ship berth” on the far side of the container port that lies behind Wakasa Berth.) The small cruise terminal offers ATM machines, free wi-fi, helpful information staff, and plenty of taxis. There’s a nice little beach (see photo above) not 10 minutes’ walk from the the dock (walk to the right out of the port, cross the street, and take the path on the side of, not over, the bridge), or you can skip the beach and shrine and walk directly to the monorail (to Shuri Castle) and main shopping street, Kokusai Street, in about 20 minutes. Stopping at lovely Fukushuen Garden along the way will slow you down, but is worth the delay. Just beyond the beach, and accessible from the beach by a flight of stairs, is a pretty Buddhist Shrine. The surprise gem of our visit came when we cut through a park just to our left as we descended the main shrine stairs. We were just planning to cut back to the street leading from the port to Kokusai Dori Street. The park turned out to be a memorial park adjacent to the Tsushima-Maru Memorial Museum to the mostly-children who lost their lives when the ship on which they were being evacuated was torpedoed by an American ship. Like the Peace Museum in Hiroshima, this little museum is dedicated to providing rest to the souls of those who died, to memorializing their lives, and to displaying the consequences of war. It’s a sad, but welcoming little tribute with children’s belonging and a recreated classroom. Everything save a video with English subtitles and the transcript of messages from the American warship (targeting the destroyers and military personnel accompanying the evacuation, and apparently unaware of the children) is in Japanese…so the nice lady at the desk refused to accept our payment for tickets and allowed us in free. The video alone was worth the stop. (And the air conditioning is welcome, too.)

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Naha, Okinawa, Japan: Hatagashira parade on Kokusai Dori Street

Our next port-of-call was Hong Kong. I’d long wanted to visit, and had been disappointed when a schedule change left us with only 10 hours in port, rather than the two days initially planned. Still, we made the most of our time. The new cruise port is at the old airport and, while the terminal is huge and modern, it’s an inconvenient location and the massive size just makes for a lot of walking through empty spaces. (I measured .4 miles on my Fitbit from the shuttle bus to the ship on our return, 90% of that simply walking back and forth through the maze-like terminal.) Despite my misgivings about the location, free shuttles provided by local malls turned out to be a really convenient launch to our day. We chose a shuttle that dropped off at Hollywood Plaza mall, and after snaking through a Marks & Spencer (weird), we ended up in a mall by multiple ATM’s, grabbed some cash, then descended an escalator to the Diamond Hill subway station. We bought tickets at machines (that require bills of 50HKD or less) and give change. For less than a couple of US dollars apiece, we rode all the way to Central station on Hong Kong Island (starting on the green line, then changing at Mong Kok so that we just had to step across the platform and onto the red line). From Central station, we took Exit J and followed signs to the Peak Tram, rode ding ding double-decker trams along Bank Street, then caught the Star Ferry back to Kowloon. We checked out the famous high tea at The Peninsula, but opted for a drink at the Intercontinental with its spectacular view of Victoria Harbor as evening fell and the lights came on.

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Hong Kong: Beautiful Victoria Harbor

After Hong Kong, we had our first stop in Vietnam. The port at Chan May is a very industrial port, a long way from anything of interest to most travelers. The nearest tourist destinations: Danang, Hoi An and the former imperial city of Hue are all worth seeing, though. In fact, the hard part is choosing which to see since Hoi An and Hue are in opposite directions. There’s no cruise terminal. Knowing we needed to make plans (and not a fan of large cruise ship excursions), I’d signed us up for a private tour via Tommytours with people I’d met on Cruise Critic. [If you don’t know Cruise Critic and you cruise or plan to cruise, you need to get familiar with it. Join your ship’s “roll call,” sign up for the Meet & Greet on-board, read tips from your fellow cruisers, pool resources for tours. You’ll meet a lot of people who want to do nothing but cruise which may not be your thing, but they know the ropes of their chosen line and they’re good friends to have: We boarded with Diamond-Plus level friends, so were 5th and 6th on the ship, avoiding lines and getting to settle in early.] The Chan May port charged $25pp for a tour company to drive in to pick up, so we walked out of the port to meet our guide. I’d been leaning towards Hue, but David was taken with photos of Hoi An, a small group tour was available to Hoi An, so that’s what we did. Hoi An has the advantage of being a lovely city that was saved from destruction during the war. Heavily reliant on tourism, it’s still a beautiful glimpse at an older way of life and we really enjoyed our visit. Hue, site of the Tet Offensive, was destroyed and the former “forbidden city” is a reconstruction of the original. Our guide picked us up in a brand new, 16-seat van with great air conditioning and 2 fast wi-fi hotspots. Cold water and cold towels made the van a delightful refuge from the humidity and passing showers. On the way to Hoi An, we stopped at Danang Beach where some of our group bought live crabs to be cooked later for lunch. Our next stop en route was at the Marble Mountain area which actually consists of 5 holy mountains representing the 5 elements of local religion: metal, wood, fire, water and earth. We rode a free-standing elevator up to Water Mountain. A sudden downpour left only David and me with the guide to explore the pagoda, temple and cave shrines on the mountain. (We had rain gear while our companions did not. Although the guide handed out ponchos, the others were already wet and wearing shoes that couldn’t handle the sudden rushing water that cascaded down the steps and paths of the mountain. David and I wore made-for-fly-fishing Teva sandals–our faves for such travel–and just waded on until the cloudburst ended.) Hoi An turned out to be the kind of place where you just want to ramble. Our guide took us through a Buddhist Temple and classic long, narrow, two-story house with balcony overlooking the bustling street. We walked past river boats and through an ancient Japanese covered bridge before David and I ducked out for a little time on our own. Back with the group, we enjoyed at 7-course feast of Vietnamese food on an open-air veranda by the river. Back at the ship, our guide was able to drive into the port, bypass tour buses and drop us off right at the ship. This was a good thing, since a storm had rolled in. It was pouring raining and howling wind. David and I were fine in our rain gear, but a lot of people were drenched in the unsheltered line trying to get back on the boat.–The poor organization of Mariner striking again. [We used Tommy Tours for our Hoi An tour. You can find Tommy at: http://tommydaotours.com/. Ty (prounounced “Tee”) was our guide. They were very professional. The only slight negatives I’d point out are that lunch was very late in the day, 2pm, so we were hungry after our early start, and Ty’s accent sometimes left us guessing, but we’ve found that to be a very common problem in Asia. We paid $75 apiece and did tip.]

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Hoi An, Vietnam

Our next port, Phuy My, Vietnam, was as industrial and remote as Chan May, also offering no cruise terminal, but at least a few vendors under tents. The place to see here is Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, the former Saigon. Knowing it was a nearly 2-hour drive, I debated whether we wanted to make the trip at all, but decided it made no sense not to. One again, we pooled with some Cruise Critic friends, walking out of the port to board another private van (booked through Tours By Locals). Another 16-seater, this van had great a/c, but only room temperature water and a non-functional wi-fi hotspot. Not as nice as the Hoi An set up, but our guide, Tam, turned out to be very interesting. The son and relative of many refugees (aunts and uncles escaping to Australia and his father imprisoned for 5 years after a failed attempt with the 6-year old Tam), his family suffered punishments in the past and job discrimination that continued. Still, he was upbeat and informative. Braced for the bustle of the big city, we were still blown away by the massive, chaotic crowds of scooters that swarmed the streets darting between trucks, buses and cars. Tam assured us traffic was actually light since it was a Saturday. Oh, good Lord, I could only imagine “rush hour!” We peered out the windows of the van, fascinated as we moved past the Saigon River from large roads to narrow, byzantine streets filled with shops offering nothing but scissors, others offered dragon costumes, medicinal herbs, and so much more. Stepping out of the van for the first time, I was hit by the smell of incense, but couldn’t tell where it was coming from. Tam let us down a narrow passage between buildings to arrive at the courtyard of a 300 year old Buddhist temple. The smell of incense definitely emanated from the building, growing to a cloud as we moved past a raging fire in a big free-standing “furnace” in the middle of a second courtyard. The temple bustled with activity, worshippers lighting 1 or 3 (never 2) sticks of incense and waving them before them before planting them before altars to bow and pray. Overhead, a myriad of spiral, cone-shaped incense burned, adding to the thick atmosphere. Ceramic statues crowded the roof of the temple, ornate and beautiful in a way completely unlike the temples we’d seen in Japan and Korea. After the temple, we visited the biggest, dirtiest market I’ve ever had the fascinating but dubious pleasure to visit. This place offered wholesale goods only and burst with hats, clothes, food, herbs, sugar and more, overflowing from an enormous covered area to sprawl into trash-strewn streets alive with pedestrians, porters with every imaginable bundle, and–of course–scooters. It was a relief to return to the sanctuary of the van for the drive to the War Remnants Museum. This museum, surrounded by captured American military vehicles, gives the (mostly-Northern) Vietnamese view of the Vietnam War. It’s uncomfortable to see, particularly the many photos of those injured by Agent Orange and the horrible birth defects suffered by multiple generations of those exposed. The famous “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” quote is displayed with jarring impact. The culpability of the North is glossed over (much like we saw in the Military Museum in Belgrade, Serbia, and unlike the more balanced approach of the Hiroshima Peace Museum), but it’s still worth seeing and acknowledging the horrible price of war. We moved from war to lunch, pushing away for a time thoughts of man’s inhumanity to man. We’d asked Tam for a local food lunch and he delivered with a noisy Vietnamese “pancake” restaurant. Crispy shrimp and pork “pancakes” cooked outside in iron skillets were served piping hot and folded over bean sprouts. We broke off pieces, rolled them in lettuce leaves and dipped in a special sauce. Delicious! Other courses included crab spring rolls and small beef rolls served with dry rice paper for rolling with various condiments and yet another sauce. We had pho and local beer and deep red watermelon, too. Messy, but fun, and lots of new things to try. We ended our day with visits to the French colonial-era Notre Dame cathedral, post office, opera house, city hall, and the classic Rex Hotel. It was a fascinating day and fun; I’m so glad we went…and I doubt I’ll need to do it again. [Tam a/k/a “Tony” can be reached at http://www.saigonmekongtours.com and sales@saigonmekongtours.com. Split 8 ways, we paid $75 apiece for all transportation, entries, and lunch and did tip afterwards. The tour lasted approximately 8 hours. Tony did a good job despite a few language/accent struggles for us, but again, we’ve found that to be the norm in Asia.]

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Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

So, now I’ve caught this blog up to date. We know that when we get off the ship tomorrow, we’re probably in for more travel uncertainty than in more-developed Japan and South Korea, but we’re excited…Besides, we definitely won’t be roughing it our first couple of nights in Singapore. We’ve booked the Intercontinental, courtesy of easy points via an IHG promotion and David’s IHG credit card. (The promotion ended before I started blogging or I would have definitely shared. I got over 60,000 IHG points for sending in some postcards, enough for a night at the Intercontinental. David racked up points with postcards, too, then scooped up the rest with a credit card signing bonus.) After Singapore, we’re off to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, before heading to Cambodia and beyond. Here’s hoping the adventures that lie ahead are good ones!

Celebrity Millennium-class “Sweet 16” cabins: double the balcony at no extra charge

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Celebrity Millennium “Sweet 16” balcony, cabin 6030. The balcony of our neighbor to the right ended at the midpoint rib in the privacy wall.

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.)

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Close up of Deck 6 plan showing no difference in balcony size between the Sweet 16 and their neighbors

I deliberately chose the aft-most cabin on the starboard side, 6030, as I was curious about the view toward the stern and liked the idea that one of our neighboring balconies would be set back from our own. I liked my choice and we did have an extra element of privacy and a more open view sternward.

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View toward the stern from balcony of 6030
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Sweet 16 cabin 6030 is just above the “C” in “Celebrity” with the other Sweet 16’s on starboard going to the right until just over the “E” in “Millennium”

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While these cabins don’t come with lounge chairs, there is plenty of room for them and I did read of one cruiser who was able to have two delivered after tipping his steward. The primary negative of these balconies is that the people above you can look down on the front half of your balcony. I knew this going in, and it didn’t bother me at all, but it might be a consideration for some.

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Looking up and toward the bow from the balcony of 6030. Shows “gap” in deck over the balconies above

All of the Sweet Sixteen balconies are not identical. The first 3 have thick support columns that run from 3 levels above to the front of their balconies and a full roof at that level above them. (The smaller balconies above these Sweet Sixteen are in a recessed, cave-like setting that wouldn’t be at all to my liking.) The lowest numbered of the Sweet Sixteen on the starboard side (6016) has a solid wall on the left as you look off the balcony, rather than the usual opaque privacy walls. The front half of our balcony and those of most of the remaining 6 cabins on each side are shaded by a deck overhang 4 stories above. (The back half of each balcony is shaded by the 3 levels of balconies immediately above.) However, cabin 6026 on starboard and cabin 6031 on the port side fall within a gap in the above deck and might get more sun (and less protection from rain).

Celebrity has four Millennium-class ships: Summit, Constellation, Infinity and Millennium.

Repositioning cruises and my personal philosophy on cruising

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).

We meet lots of people who take repositioning cruises and then fly straight home, but for us they’re a way to launch travels on another continent. When it’s time to come home, we use miles and/or points to buy one-way tickets home. (While one-way plane tickets purchased with cash can be ludicrously expensive–often more than a roundtrip ticket–, most mileage programs allow one-way tickets at a simple and fair one-half of the roundtrip mileage cost.)

Not only are repositioning cruises one of the best travel values out there, they’re a great way, if you’ve got the time, to get somewhere far away, comfortably and with no jet-lag. A trans-ocean cruise can give you 2 weeks (or more) of room, board and entertainment for much less than a first class flight and sometimes for less than a business class flight. (Any cruise ship cabin is infinitely more comfortable than either a first or business class seat on a plane…and economy seats are hardly worth a mention in a discussion of “comfort.”) This is especially true if, like us, you don’t gamble, don’t drink much alcohol, don’t like soft drinks, don’t do the overpriced cruise excursions, aren’t tempted by “specialty” restaurants, spas, “duty free” shopping, onboard internet, or any of the other myriad ways cruise lines seek to pull more money out of you. For us, they’re primarily moving hotels where we enjoy our time alone together and meeting new people, reading and watching the water from our balcony, disconnected from the rest of the world for a while. We also plan our own time ashore. If you love all those cruise extras– and many do–your costs can be substantially higher. It’s a matter of choice and preference, of course, just be aware.

Cruise stops are, by their very nature, a quick peek at a location. Often no more than a classic “toe-touch”, say-I’ve-been-there, remain-in-a-protected-bubble kind of affair (usually a pet peeve of mine), they can be fun and they do have their place in my travel plans. The ports can be limited on a repositioning cruise, but we look at them as an added bonus. And, like Dutch Harbor, they can be unusual–and unusually remote–locations.

Visiting somewhere via cruise can also be a good option if it’s a place you’d like to see, but aren’t really sure you want to spend an extended amount of time there. Cruise ports of call also make for good reconnaissance; sometimes I find a place begs for a longer return visit. And, of course, if mobility is an issue, cruises can be perfect for people who would otherwise find their travel wings clipped.

Anyway, since they’re not my focus, I don’t plan to do too much in the way of cruise reviews. I will share, though, if I come across a particularly good deal or interesting angle. E.g., see my review of the “Sweet Sixteen” cabins on Celebrity’s Millennium-class ships: double-large balconies that don’t appear on the ship deck plans and for which there’s no extra charge. Since we prefer to avoid cruise ship excursions and do things on our own or in smaller tours, I’ll also document port details if the port of call is one (like Dutch Harbor) for which I had trouble finding information, pre-trip, on one of the many cruise-focused web sites.

There are lots of web sites out there that offer cruises, but I find vacationstogo.com to be one of the best sites for exploring cruise options and I always start there. They often have the best prices, too, but if not…well, I can be bought!