This was my 11th cruise with Holland America, and my second venture into Asia, but the first time for these ports of call: Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam. I hail from California, so I had long flights ahead to get to Singapore.
I have less than 24 hours in Singapore before we set sail tonight, and I felt that, to maximize my opportunity to see the city, I opted for the always-fun Hop On, Hop Off bus. I spent about 4 hours, riding around the city and seeing the highlights and stopping off at a few places. Several items of note: Singapore is really clean and pretty, with lots of green spaces and streets virtually litter-free; the skyline is full of building cranes, and they apparently are in action seven days a week; Singapore most likely has the greatest concentration of shopping malls in the world. Orchard Road is always touted as "the place for shopping whilst in Singapore", but don't let that fool you. Virtually every six blocks there is another mall, filled with boutiques, cafes, local stores, high-end name stores, department stores, you name it. The city also boasts a beautiful Botanic Garden, and I stopped off there for a little while. I meandered through various mini gardens and saw some pretty orchids, before I realized I was fast approaching "the wall". By that, I mean that suddenly, I felt very tired and worn out, but I still needed to visit Merlion Park, the place where Singapore's iconic statue of a merlion sits.
A merlion is a mythical creature with a lion's head and a fish body. It represents Singapore's history as a fishing port. I also still wanted to take a ride on the Singapore Flyer, a very imposing ferris wheel, 15 meters higher than London's Eye. A complete round trip on the Flyer takes 30 minutes. Well, perhaps tomorrow morning. I left the hop on bus at the Raffles Hotel stop, which was also conveniently across the street from my hotel and gathered a bit of energy so that I could do a very touristy thing - sit at the Long Bar in Raffles, and enjoy a famous Singapore Sling cocktail.
$26 later (yes, that darn drink cost that much) I walked back across the street and up to my room. By this time, all I wanted to do was take a long hot shower and go to bed, but I was hungry and needed to eat dinner. I usually like to go out to a cafe somewhere and enjoy the local cuisine at an outside patio table, but the idea of walking anywhere at that point was simply too much for me to consider. I opted instead for the hotel concierge's suggestion of the Asia Market Cafe, conveniently located upstairs in the hotel's selection of dining spots. Boy, what a great decision! The place was packed with a combination of locals and hotel guests, most of whom were of some Asian persuasion. I stuck out like an Easter parade in Tel Aviv. The cafe offered a buffet of local cuisines and the wait staff hovered over me like mama bears, giving me a tour of each station, explaining the various foods, bringing me two newspapers to read should I feel so inclined, asking me every few minutes if they could bring me anything, etc. Normally this kind of attention would annoy the crap out of me, but this time, I felt very pampered and well looked after. And the food was AMAZING! I tried all sorts of new dishes, the names of which I do not remember, but everything was delicious! There were lots of seafood, curries, noodles and vegetables.
I finally returned to my room about 8 pm. I had been told that there was a laser light show at Merlion park, put on nightly by the Marina Bay Sands hotel across the little quay from the park, at 9:30. Since the view from my hotel room looked smack dab across to the venue, I decided to try to stay up long enough to see the show. I showered and puttered around and was not disappointed.
The show started promptly at 9:30 and lasted for 15 minutes. My non professional camera captured a little bit of the show, but I enjoyed being able to stand on my balcony from the 20th floor and see the show in my jammies. Good night Singapore!
Well, my grand plans to get up early this morning and visit the Singapore Flyer pretty much disintegrated into my sleeping in late (time caught up with me) so by the time I had my coffee, got dressed, etc it was past 9:30. The horror.
I still needed to do a little shopping to find a couple of lightweight wrap style skirts or something similar for the cruise. It is very hot and muggy in this part of the world and I just don't have much in my wardrobe that fits the bill. To my surprise, I went out and found that most stores don't open until 11:00! Seriously? On a Monday in one of the biggest shopping cities? Oy.
So I wandered around for a little bit and then had a bite to eat - another great brunch of Asian food, and then found what I needed, and by the time I got back to my hotel it was noon and time to check out. I would like to mention here that the Fairmont Hotel is divine. They bend over backwards to provide outstanding and personal service and I really appreciated that. My room was lovely and the view fantastic. They hailed a taxi for me and an hour later I was on board the Volendam and settling in. Check-in was really easy and fast. They are very efficient, at least here in Singapore. I've had a few times, sailing with Holland, where we've had to wait in line for quite a while, but this time I made sure to show up about an hour or so after checkin started, and I think this helped to make check-in a much shorter and painless process.
My stateroom is smaller than I am used to, but when traveling as a solo cruiser it costs twice as much than if you share, so my normal balcony suite accommodations were off limits for me price-wise. At any rate, my room is very comfortable, with a large double window, a nice and comfy king size bed and plenty of storage. A small couch and coffee table rounds out the room. My bathroom has a tub and shower and is plenty big for me. There's a nice flat screen tv and DVD player above a small desk.
My luggage had not yet been delivered to my room, so I headed out to explore the ship. The Volendam is one of Holland America's older ships, but she is still in good shape and hey, like my Daddy always said - if the captain wants to sail/fly/drive her, I'm in for the ride. Let's go!
We had 4 or 5 sea days on this cruise ----
I love sea days. So many choices. Get up early or sleep late. Daily two mile walk or not. Read book in between napping or update blog. A host of activities on board from which to choose. I tend towards getting up early and doing my two-miler on the promenade deck, which then makes me feel good about myself, and then plopping down on the Lido deck and having an extra large breakfast buffet. Sure sir, hand me one extra of those little hash brown thingies! I will dip it in my plain yogurt to convince myself that it really is healthy. Right.
After lunch, there was a meet and greet for our cruise critic group up in the Crow's Nest, a cocktail lounge on the top deck of the ship that has awesome views looking out over the bow. We were a big crowd this cruise - over 50 of us, and it was nice to put names with faces!
The rest of the day just seemed to float by. I didn't accomplish anything which is exactly the point of a sea day.
Koh Samui is Thailand's third largest island. Its palm-lined sugary white shores in this Gulf of Thailand make it a popular destination. There are quite a few coconut plantations on the island, and products such as coconut milk and oil make up a large percentage of its revenue through the export of these items.
We had a scheduled tour thru my cruise critic roll call for this (and all of my upcoming tours) which included a visit to a small temple with a mummified monk; a waterfall; sculpture garden; a demonstration of how island monkeys are used to father coconuts from the tall palms; an off road trek thru the jungle in a 4-wheel open bed vehicle (oh my poor back!) and the highlight of the day - an elephant ride.
All stops were great, and the day just seemed to fly by. Our lunch was really great, it is always nice to partake of the local foods. I don't eat meat, so I always look forward to having local seafood, and I was not disappointed.
Koh Samui is a really nice island - if you want to get away from it all, and spend a week lounging beachside, this is the place to do it. Food and drinks are cheap, people are friendly, weather is warm and humid, perfect for hourly dips in the warm ocean or a cool pool.
The ship docked at Laem Chabang, the port outside Bangkok, and a 2 hour drive to the city itself.
I had booked an all day tour to the city, and joined 7 others in my cruise critic group for the day. Our guide, Lift, from BKK Tours, picked us up in a beautiful, comfortable and air-conditioned van and off we went.
Our day's sights were to be the Grand Palace, Wat Po, a long tail boat ride along the canals, the food/flower market, and a nice lunch at a local restaurant. We left at about 8:30 and returned shortly after 5 PM. The day included 4+ hours in the van....
Bangkok is the capital of Thailand and has a population of over 11 million. There are miles and miles of high rise buildings, temples, palaces, canals and busy street markets - something for everyone.
The Grand Palace is a stunning place. It was built to serve as the official royal residence although the current king (Rama IX) does not live there these days. It has very unique Thai architecture, and on the grounds sits Wat Phra Keo, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Many of the statues, Buddhas, pagodas and shrines are gold leafed - I have put some photos on my album in facebook and will post a full album upon my return home to my photo site - and mother of pearl is used extensively on many of the royal buildings and shrines, including the reclining building at Wat Po. Simply beautiful when you look at it up close and appreciate how much work goes into building and creating these.
Bangkok is also known as the Venice of the East, due to the many canals slicing through the city.
We took an hour ride on a longtail boat, an easy-to-navigate long motorized canoe type of boat, through the maze of canals hidden inside the city. Since it was so incredibly hot and muggy, (about 90 degrees with similar humidity levels), the ride was welcome, as we enjoyed cool water breezes and a shady cover over our heads. There are many small homes built up along the banks of the canals, and for many of them, the only access is by boat.
After visiting the Grand Palace, Wat Po, and our canal boat ride, we went to a local restaurant for a scrumptious lunch of seafood, rice dishes, vegetables and ice cold beer.
We had a bit more time before having to head back for the 2 hour ride back to the ship, so we visited the flower and food markets that lined the streets. We walked through blocks and blocks of food stalls, and enjoyed the aromas of thousands of roses, orchids, and other pretty flowers along the flower section.
Cambodia is a small country tucked in the upper eastern side of the Gulf of Thailand, neighbor to Thailand, Laos, China and Vietnam.
Sihanoukville is known as the "agreeable port", and is a province of Cambodia. It is also our port of call for this country. It attracts young tourists with its "relaxed" beach atmosphere and is also home to the country's national beer brewery, Angkor Beer ( also available everywhere for $1 a bottle. The brewery there is the main employer for the townspeople at the moment, followed by fishing and tourism.
Sihanoukville is Cambodia's only developed port. Traditional boats still bring in the daily catch. The boats go out at night, staying out until nearly dawn. The boats are small and they use green lights to attract the fish. To keep fishing sustainable, no large troller type fishing is allowed, which helps to keep the fish population healthy and growing. As we sail throughout these waters at night, we can see hundreds of these "green light" fishing vessels dotting the watery landscape.
During our time in port, a group of 25 of us gathered in two minivans with dubious air conditioning - it was screaming hot and humid - and visited the fishing village first thing out. It was good to see the fishing village early in the morning, because later in the day makes for a much more, ah, vivid experience, olfactory-wise. I was able to get some good photos of the village, what the small boats look like, the daily catch of shrimp being rinsed and shelled on the docks, young men mending their nets, and young children doing what they do best, playing and giggling at us.
Our tour was arranged through the Don Bosco Hotel School, a non profit organization founded after the Italian saint. There are a number of Don Bosco schools scattered across the world, and this one is the only one in Cambodia, focusing exclusively in hotel trades. Disadvantaged and orphaned teens, once accepted, are provided with two full years of schooling in all manners of hotel operations, as well as English immersion, free of charge. The school only has space available for 300 students in any given year and each year over 1,000 apply. The current volunteer managers, a lovely couple from Germany, formally trained and experienced butlers themselves, came to Don Bosco only 11 months ago on holiday, and were so taken with the work being done at the school and the need for more hands on management and assistance, they left their old life behind and stayed on.
The kids that are fortunate enough to be accepted into the program view Peter and his wife as their parents, and all are extremely devoted to them. Every one of the students works very hard and they will, upon completion of their program, have their choice of employment at any 4 or 5 star hotel in Cambodia and elsewhere in the region. With tourism growing so quickly here, there is no shortage of jobs, and all will find employment immediately. These young people's lives, as well as what families some of them have, will be immeasurably and profoundly changed for the better once completing this program. We were all moved deeply by what we saw and none of us left without offering an additional cash donation to help sustain this phenomenal place and these hard working and determined young students.
We stopped off at a couple of places before we arrived at the Don Bosco Hotel School - an old pagoda atop a large hill, which afforded us the opportunity to look out over the city and out to the sea - it was a lovely view. We also ventured down a 9 kilometer long dirt road to a nice waterfall, spending some time there to stretch our legs and wander about. In town, we spent a little time at the school's own ice cream factory/store and enjoyed a scoop of our favorite flavor. Then, we headed out to the school.
We were enthralled and utterly impressed with their facility and their students. They range in age from about 16 to 25 and each one was dressed in black slacks, crisp white shirts and black vests. They were in a receiving line when we arrived and each bowed and greeted us as if we were royalty. Ha! Once we were seated, Peter had each of them introduce them self, giving their name, age and where they were from. Then, some other students came in, dressed in Cambodian costume dress, and performed a short traditional ceremonial dance, after which lunch was served. A couple from our tour had spent the morning at the school, cooking with the students, having forgone our other tour activities. Now, they joined us, and I was lucky enough to sit right across from them so I had the pleasure to hear how much fun they had (and how hard they worked all morning, grinding spices, building the grass boats our curry was served in, etc.) and it was clear they had fallen madly in love with these kids.
Peter is teaching them very formal methods of restaurant service, and as each course was presented and served, a student server came with our plate, stood directly behind each of us, and as each table was ready, Peter called out "serve" and in unison, the students placed our dish on the table at our setting in front of us. They were quiet as a mouse, and you hardly knew they were there. The food was authentic Cambodian fare, spicy but not overly so, and delicious. A dessert of home made mango ice cream over diced local fruit cooled our mouths and was a fitting end to a spectacular morning.
We said our goodbyes to the students at the school, boarded our two vans and headed back towards town and our ship, stopping at a local beach for about half an hour. I took a short walk along the shore, dipping my feet into the water and finding it quite warm and inviting, and wound up joining others from my group under a big shady tree, and had a bottle of Angkor, enjoying the beach, each of us quiet in reflective thought about what we had experienced at Don Bosco.
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam
Our port of call today was Saigon. The city is about 90 kilometers from the port where we docked so once again we were in for a 2 hour ride, one way. The itinerary included a visit to an old (circa 1909) pagoda called the Jade Emperor Pagoda, a visit to the War Museum, Independence Palace ( also referred to as the Reunification Palace), Red Cathedral, Post Office, lunch at a noodle restaurant, and a little shopping at an outdoor market.
There are about 90 million people in the whole of Vietnam, and 9 million of them are in Saigon. 70% are farmers, either rice or rubber farmers, and these two products are the country's largest exports. For people who do not go to college, they either work in factories or farm. Their average monthly salary is about $200 per month. Almost none of them will ever be able to buy a house or apartment. For those that do go to college, they can expect much better jobs, and they make 2 to 3 times the monthly income of those that don't go to college, on average.
The Jade Emperor Pagoda reflects the Buddhism and Taoist beliefs in four spiritual animals - the dragon, which represents power, the unicorn which represents wisdom, the Phoenix, for peace, and the turtle, for long life. inside the pagoda, the Jade Emperor presides over the main sanctuary. There is also a famous room off the sanctuary which contains the Hall of the Ten Hells, depicting what happens after you die if you have done bad things. They illustrate the ten torments awaiting evil people. Note to self - don't be bad or evil.
Saigon is 70% Buddhist, 20% Catholic, and 10% the ubiquitous "other". You know, it's those famous and oft-referred to "they" that are probably the "other" group, don't you think? I think. Oopsie, I digress.
Our next stop was the War Museum. Virtually the entire museum was filled with photos and commentary about the Vietnam war with the United States, from the North Vietnamese point of view. While I don't wish to tread down that slippery slope of political opinion, let me just say that I found it extraordinarily interesting to view a very graphic photograph and read the caption beneath explaining what was taking place in that photo. The way I looked at it, there could actually be several different interpretations of the same photo, yet every caption underneath every photo in that museum was 100% anti-American. I left there feeling pretty disturbed.
The first Communist tanks that rolled through Saigon on April 30, 1975 arrived at the Reunification Palace, a government building built originally as the Norodom Palace for the French governor general in 1868. In 1963 the place was renamed Independence Palace and is a fantastic example of 1960's architecture. I felt like I should be catching a glimpse of Don Draper from Mad Men around every corner. The place is totally groovy, man!
Winding up our tour of Saigon, we stopped in at a local noodle house across the street from the large street market and had a great lunch of seafood noodle soup, vegetable spring rolls and beer. Lip-smacking delish!
A little wandering through the market being hounded by hundreds of vendors to come into their stalls to buy their wares, and I joined my group for the two hour ride back to the Dam ship. I just love sailing on Holland America because we can always say "dam". Hot Dam!
While every port stop has been a great one, I found that Nha Trang was a most pleasant surprise. Hugging the central coast section of Vietnam, I expected it to be a beach town with little else to offer.
While it is a very popular seaside retreat for Vietnamese and world tourists alike, it is also home to a lot of colonial style architecture, Champa Kingdom relics from the 8th century, and the Truong Son mountains which line the miles of stunning shoreline. There are also numerous small agricultural villages just a few minutes outside of town.
We docked at about ten AM, which is a bit later than usual for a port, but we didn't leave until eleven PM. I had a tour scheduled with my group and we met on the dock at 10:15. Into the minivan we hopped, and off we went to explore this port area. My initial observations were that this city is lovely! Clean streets, pristine white sand beaches, a bustling yet orderly flow of taxis, trucks and motor scooters, all choreographing perfectly on the city's streets.
Our first stop was at an embroidery factory and store in town. We saw young women hard at work doing beautiful needlepoint, and their completed works were framed and displayed throughout the shop. As is common with most tour companies and guides worldwide, this was more than just an opportunity to see local craftsman, it was an obligatory stop, hoping you would buy things. I don't mind it, because tourism, especially in its infancy here in Vietnam, is a very important and critical industry, as I noted earlier.
We then continued through the center of the town, eventually making our way out to the countryside, through some small villages, passing by fields of rice patties, finally arriving at the Cai River, where we hopped on (yes, I mean that quite literally) a small little boat with one of those cute, but smelly, put-put engines. We passed underneath an old wooden bridge, and spent the next half hour meandering down the river, banana and mango trees to our right, old fishing boats tied to tree limbs dipping down to the river's edge, small homes and huts, occasional water buffalo and cows. It was totally relaxing. After a bit, we tied up alongside a tiny dock at the water's edge, and climbed out and walked about 100 feet to a beautiful old village house.
Chickens were running around cock-a-doodle-dooing in the yard, a small puppy was tied up alongside a fence by a shed, barking at us, and our guide stopped us to talk about the family that lived there. Now, they are a bona fide family, but they were clearly set up for small groups of tourists, because their main source of income is weaving, and they had a nice supply of woven goods set on shelves in their weaving room. We were allowed to tour parts of their home - we saw their kitchen, which is a combo of indoor/outdoor, and quite large, actually. We also saw their worship room at the front of the house, the separate sleeping quarters for men and women, and the toileting areas (just off the kitchen, next to their parked motor scooters).
Our minivan had arrived and so, after a nice snack of local fruits and some green tea served by the residents, we headed out and continued our journey through the countryside.
We stopped off at a few more places - a grass mat weaving place, where some of us got to operate the loom, a rice paper plant where we watched the full process of turning rice into first a powder, then heat and water steps into rice sheets, drying, and then finally shredding the dried sheets into rice noodles. I will never eat these again without thinking of what I saw and how much goes into making them!
We sat for a few minutes and watched some women making those famous conical hats, and then we sat by the river and had a leisurely lunch. Afterwards, we stopped off at a very special pagoda - attached to it is an orphanage, housing 120 children. The orphanage is self-sufficient with donations and subsidies provided by the government. There are several teachers that provide schooling, teach English, and several nuns who look after the children.
Da Nang and Hoi An
The city of Da Nang has been around since at least the 1600's, but most people today recognize its name from the Vietnam War, as it is where the U.S. troops first landed in 1965. Nearby, China Beach became the place where troops enjoyed sand and surf as much needed recreation. The city fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975. Today, Da Nang is the fourth largest city in Vietnam, with approximately 1,000,000 people in residence.
Hoi An is a small historic town about 22 miles from Da Nang, and is recognized as such by UNESCO. It's narrow and winding streets are an historian's delight, filled with beautifully preserved architecture evident in its temples, houses and meeting or assembly halls, as well as pagodas, water wells, bridges markets and a wharf. The village is a wonderful example of symbolic oriental cities in the Middle Ages.
We were picked up by our tour guide and small bus and drove through Da Nang on our way to Hoi An. Along the way, we passed by the old American base that was used extensively during the war. It is now used as a naval base by the Vietnamese military, but you can still see a number of the old American barracks along the outskirts of the base.
We also passed by ( and later visited the shop) the Marble Mountains. They are each named for elements - water, metal, wood, fire and earth. The earth is the highest peak.
They make some fantastic pieces taken from the marble of the mountainous area.
We spent a leisurely day wandering the narrow streets of Hoi An, and hopped onto a small river boat for a 20 minute trip down the river until we reached a small village devoted to ceramic making. An elderly woman and her granddaughter demonstrated the art of the wheel, with the younger one spinning the wheel around with her foot, and the elder forming the clay in the center of the wheel into a small bowl. She then started a second piece, which was a lid that fit perfectly on the bowl she had just finished.
We had a nice lunch at a quiet restaurant down a small street and then spent another half hour shopping and walking through the central market before hopping on our bus and heading back to the ship.
There are some great people that I have met as part of the cruise critic group, and we've had a number of days together on tour in which to get to know one another more than just in passing.
We are a diverse group - we come from Canada, Macau, Greece, U.S., Australia, U.K., Scotland. We are single, married, aunts, nieces, sons and daughters. Retired, in school, working. First time cruisers, long time cruisers.
I've had "anytime dining" option this cruise and it has had its benefits and its drawbacks. Benefits are that you get to meet more people because you generally sit with different people every meal. The downside to this is that you generally have to reintroduce yourself to people anew each night, you have to try to remember people's names, and as the days go by that list of names grows longer. You have to repeat where you're from, what you do, how long you've cruised, why are you cruising alone, do you have children, blah blah blah.
Ack, it just wears you OUT!
On sea days, there are always at least three things to do in any given hour. And those are just what's listed on our daily program. That doesn't count eating, reading, swimming, working out, walking, people watching, drinking, gambling, shopping, and sleeping. Haha!
Yesterday was our fourth sea day and I attended three talks - one was a Q and A with the Captain. People asked him all sorts of questions and I found it fascinating. I might add that Holland America has its first ever female Staff Captain aboard our ship. The Staff Captain is second in command, although not second most important. That dubious honor goes to the ship's chef. The Captain told us the ship would sail without him, but never without the chef! Hahahahahahahahha.
The second talk I attended was a slide show given by our ship's travel guide. He shared with us his favorite places in the world, and his pictures were beautiful, especially those taken in Iceland. That location just got bumped up a couple of notches on my "must go" list.
The third talk I attended was a presentation, via slides, of the hotel manager reviewing what goes on in dry dock and how our ship was redecorated in just 14 days. Absolutely amazing what was accomplished in just two short weeks. Now, if only our mother ship could be so efficient.........(for those of you who don't know what I mean by that, well, never mind...)
Next came happy hour. Two for one drinks in the Crow's Nest, the bar and lounge area on the top deck. Can't pass that up on a lazy sea day.
I've also taken a few tech courses with our techspert on board. I can't recommend him highly enough. He is a retired engineer-type guy from Intel and teaches a series of classes on how to use your digital camera, using the new Windows 8 operating system, editing photos, setting up files and folders, etc. Some of the courses are very basic, which I skipped, but others have been quite helpful. I have learned all about Windows 8, how to use Skydrive, which is the Windows version of the Apple iCloud, and how to edit my photos using Photo Gallery, another Windows application. I learned how to take a series of photos in preparation for combining them into one panoramic picture once downloaded into Photo Gallery. Really neat!
Our last port of call was Halong Bay, A UNESCO world heritage site. It is located in Northern Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin. Halong Bay has nearly 2,000 islands, most of which are uninhabited. The total land area is over 500 square kilometers, so you can imagine how big this area is.
Halong Bay means the bay of the descending dragon. Local legends tell how a dragon was sent by the Emperor of Jade to fight the onslaught of attackers. In the process, the dragon spat jewels that landed in the sea. The dragon then landed in the sea, with just it's humps sticking up out of the water, which are the islands we now see.
Our group had planned a private tour on our own little ship (called a ship, supposedly, because it had its own tender boat). We left the dock at a little past nine a.m. and did not return until well past six p.m. It was a long but lovely day on Paradise Cruises.
The islands and the bay are gorgeous, but even more so on sunny days, when the green and translucent waters contrast sharply with bright blue skies. Sadly, our weather was quite cool, and very overcast. While it may have been a damp day, it did not dampen our spirits.
We visited a cave while on our cruise. The Sung Sot Cave. We tendered in the cute little boat to a small dock, then had to climb about 200 steep steps up the mountain to the mouth of the cave. Once inside, we were awestruck at the sheer enormity of the cave. HUGE. To walk from the entrance to the other side to exit was one kilometer. This one was probably three or four stories high as well, filled with loads of stalactites, craters, and thousands of years worth of water eroded floors and walls. Simply gorgeous.
After the cave, we sailed a little bit longer and then anchored for lunch. First class all,the way, it was a bountiful buffet of meats, seafood, noodles, rice, vegetables, salads, soups and even jelly fish! Yum.
After lunch we visited another small island, called Ti Top Mountain, and climbed 400 steps up to the viewing area at the top. Beautiful vistas were the reward for that really tough trek up, then another 400 steps down.
And so ends another tour, and another cruise, my friends. We sailed proudly into Hong Kong harbor early this morning, after spending a lovely evening on the ship, and a nice dinner with my cruise critic friends.
I really really enjoyed this cruise! The ports of call were all wonderful, and while some of the places we wanted to visit (like Bangkok, Saigon, Hanoi) were long drives from the ports, I feel that's the price you pay when you cruise, sometimes. Most port cities are just that - small towns or cities built up around and in support of port activities - and often the tantalizing places are far more inland. So you have to factor that in when you're planning your trip. Rome, for example, is one of the most fantastic cities in the world to visit - but when you sail there, you sail into a pretty ugly and uninspiring port which is more than an hour's drive from Rome. Ya gotta just go with the flow! That's my motto.
The service on the ship was 95% fantastic. My stateroom stewards were terrific, as usual. While I will probably not ever take a stateroom on the lowest passenger deck again, my room itself was more than adequate, and very comfortable. The reason I would pass up the lowest deck in the future is, although the crew decks are underneath this deck, it's not all crew cabins down there. There are engine rooms and other machinery type rooms that, based on where your stateroom might be, cause a lot of noise at times, and annoying vibrations. Next time, I'd go up a level (assuming I sail solo again and can't afford my favorite cabin, a verandah).
The Volendam is a beautiful ship, and easy to navigate and move around in. If you sail with Holland America regularly, you can easily find the "standard" sections - Crow's Nest, Lido, Explorer's Lounge, shops, casino, etc.
Dining room food was very good, but I've had a bit better on past cruises. While anytime dining was a nice option, I am seriously giving thought to going back to assigned dining in the future. Part of the overall cruising experience for me, on Holland America, is the superb attention the dining staff gives you when you sit in the same place at the same time every evening. They get to know you well, and seem more attentive, than with anytime dining. This is not to say that the service is lacking with anytime dining, it's just that I think it's ramped up a couple of notches with fixed dining option. Just my humble opinion.
There's no shortage of things to do on the ship during sea days, as I noted before. You can be as busy or quiet as you wish.
Entertainment - my favorite is Adagio Strings. They are a small combo that plays classical music in one of the lounges and it's really nice and relaxing to sit and listen to them, either before dinner, or after.
The HAL entertainers were pretty good - I've seen better, I've seen worse.
The guest entertainers were all quite good. Loved the dulcimer player, and the comedians. There was a couple who combined terrific ballroom-type dancing with some "magic" costume changing that was really enjoyable.
Would I recommend this cruise itinerary? Absolutely.
Would I recommend Holland America? Absolutely. Love the line. I'm loyal to them for a reason - they've earned it.