This is my first review on Cruise Critic, the style is a little more narrative than a review however there is some good information about the ship, the service and the ports of call as well. I was traveling solo, female, mid-forties and had booked the trip only four weeks before sail-date but have been a Japanophile since I was a child.
The airport in Montreal was a madhouse on Saturday, February the 15th due to a weather event along the entire east-coast. So many flights had been canceled and getting anywhere interesting that day was impossible. At 3:30 am, I discovered that my United Airlines itinerary had been modified from a 1 pm flight to Newark connecting to Hong Kong to some kind of milk run via Cleveland getting me into HKG a full 24 hours late. My call to Choice Air Emergency Help Line was answered by a service rep who acknowledged and confirmed that the change was noted in my file and that the late arrival was expected.
Hoping against hope that if I just got to the airport early enough, they could re-route me, I got to the airport within an hour and at 4:30 in the morning found myself waiting in a long line of folks with the same idea.
It took about one hour to get to the check-in desk. Security took about 20 minutes and immigration was around thirty minutes.
Grabbed a bagel and waited in line for ninety minutes to speak with United Airlines about rerouting me. No go. There was not a single flight to New York that would get me to my Hong Kong flight on time so I had to sleep and have dinner in Cleveland on my own dime, fly back to Newark the next day and then get to Hong Kong. My travel agent was powerless to help either.
Cleveland's Airport Radisson Hotel and the Chili's restaurant across the street were not exactly the Hong Kong Butterfly on Morrisson and Din Tai Fung dumplings that I had planned for.
At least getting to Newark was easy the next day. The waiting area for the fully booked Hong Kong flight was packed.
Got my standard economy seat 37L toward the back of the 777-200 plane. I was at the window and there was a tall man on the aisle. A young man stepped up and asked if either of us wanted to switch with his wife in 20A. The tall man said no so I volunteered!
That seat was a premium economy plus and was so much more comfortable that I upgraded for the trip home!
Meals were a choice of chicken or vegetable curry with a roll and salad plus a brownie.
I was able to sleep and watch in flight entertainment until a few hours later when we got a sandwich and ice cream. Just before landing we got a choice of eggs or noodles. Water and drinks were being offered almost constantly throughout the flight so we arrived hydrated, full and happy even after 15 hours in the air.
It was a pleasure to emerge into Hong Kong airport. Sparkling clean, free trolleys (Newark charges $5.00!) and lots of aides to guide you if you miss the totally clear signage.
Immigration and baggage took only a few minutes. Customs was just a nod to the guy in the "nothing to declare" lane.
I found the taxi stand easily and handed over my instructions to the port in Chinese. No problem to get there for around $300 HKD ($40 USD) but it was after-hours so I had to drag my luggage to the ship terminal through a shopping mall! It was humid and far and annoying that there were no crew at the door to assist.
Even when crew members could see me struggling across the gangway they sent no one to help. In all fairness, I had been warned by my travel agent that this would happen if I arrived past the formal embarkation hours. It was just beyond my comprehension that porters were not outsourced if ship staff were unavailable. I would have paid out of pocket but there was no one to help at all. Later in the cruise, Heather from Guest Relations personally called me to discuss my comments about the issue and let me know that she would relay my feedback to the powers that be.
I finally crossed onto the deck of the ship and cleared security. A crew member guided me to guest relations where a single person was manning the phones and the desk.
She was obviously overwhelmed. I was hot and sweaty and tired but waited patiently for my turn and blissfully, somebody handed me a flute of champagne. Geeta at guest relations was nice but I couldn't believe the amount of paperwork she was expected to process for each guest.
She basically went over it quickly, shoved it all into an envelope and told me to read it and bring it back later. Inside was information about the make-up muster drill, immigration and departure forms to complete and instructions for clearing each port. It was really important stuff.
There were two older couples from Quebec behind me in line. They were French-speaking and sure enough missed the next day's muster drill and had to be paged to immigration before the ship could depart. Even I had trouble digesting all the information. I was surprised by Azamara's welcome for late arrivals. They seemed to be unprepared for us despite (at least in my case) flight arranged using Choice Air.
I finally got to my room which was lovely. It was a category six Oceanview on deck four, starboard forward section with a Queen bed and because it was an adjoining cabin, had an armchair rather than a sofa which suited me just fine.
There were fresh fruit, water, soft drinks and chocolate brownies in the room along with fresh flowers.
As promised, robes, slippers, a set of binoculars and an umbrella were provided for use during the cruise and we were given a tote bag to take home.
The vanity table had dim lights but admittedly, they probably matched the lighting in the dining room for make-up application purposes…they just weren't bright enough to write your thesis at the desk.
Storage was more than ample for a solo traveler but probably was adequate for a couple. You really don't need a whole new outfit for every dinner on Azamara! I had brought seven cocktail dresses…totally unnecessary. Suitcases fit under the bed with room to spare.
The bathroom was well-organized with cotton buds and amenities but next time, I will bring my own shampoo/conditioner as their brand didn't agree with my curly hair. The shower was just like every other shower on every other cruise ship but the Grohe fixtures were much, much nicer. I actually have the same hand shower in my own guest bath back home!
Since I was an early to bed, early to rise kind of gal, there were some nights when I could hear the muted bass and drums coming from the Cabaret lounge on deck five but it was not disruptive. In general, other than some creaking and the sound of the bathroom vacuum system it was quiet.
The harbour was extremely foggy but I could practically see into the water taxis from my bay window which was two decks above the water line. I unpacked and read over the bazillion pages of info and decided not to order room service because it was already after midnight.
In the morning, I explored the ship. It is so tiny but has everything you could want. There is a casino, two shops, a coffee bar, a pool grill and bar, a buffet area, a main dining room, two speciality restaurants, a lounge up top with a view, a library, computer room and a salon/spa/fitness area.
There are also lots of cozy lounge areas with bars and the main entertainment lounge.
I really liked the quiet elegance of the ship. Other than the sparkly things in the Swarovski display cabinets, there is not much flash.
For breakfast, I disembarked and explored Kowloon. It was only around 7 am so the shops were all closed. I went into the Royal Pacific hotel and asked for advice on a local dim sum shop.
They directed me up Haiphong Road to Lock street and I ended up at this place
Hing Fat Restaurant
G/F, 8-10 Ashley Road, T.S.T., Kowloon, Hong Kong China
YUM! For $16 CAD I got a selection of steaming hot shaomai, pork buns and tea. Don't tell anyone but it was meant for two...heh. I demolished it and even considered getting an extra oyster pancake but held off.
There was a lovely park on the north side of Haiphong road between Canton and Nathan with tropical birds calling and it was a nice touch to have some nature beside all of Hong Kong's haute couture.
I returned to the ship to take a look at their ample but not too adventurous breakfast buffet and of course ended up eating more food! I had to try the ginger smoothie shots, some weird black cold cuts and polenta omelettes.
The crowd is older than on Celebrity on this itinerary there were mostly Americans, lots of Australians and a few of my fellow Canadians. The crew and staff are demographically similar to the ones on Celebrity but they are able to be much more friendly due to the smaller size of the ship and they really get to know the passengers individually.
I went back ashore to see about these "fantastic" discounts in Hong Kong. Um, not so much. Maybe the mall attached to the cruise terminal was priced for tourists.
I did find a really cute handbag though. That was my only purchase and I quickly returned to the ship and handed my passport over to the Hong Kong authorities onboard for inspection.
We had a late-arrival muster drill that just demonstrated how to wear a life preserver and explained emergency procedures. It took only five minutes plus time to answer people's questions and address any safety concerns.
As mentioned earlier...there were some no-shows at the mandatory drill.
When it was time to sail, there were many announcements paging people to drop off their passports. No matter how many instances passengers were told, in writing, by public address, on the cruise television it seems that some still didn't get the message. I'm not sure if it was a language issue but again, I strongly believe that this most important information should be conveyed BEFORE embarkation when the brain is too frazzled to process much of anything. Additionally, the information should be available in the language of the guest. This information is available ahead of time, why couldn't general instructions be provided in French, Spanish, German etc?
Seasoned cruisers were grumbling about the delayed departure. I didn't grumble...I went to tour the spa. In my opinion, services were too expensive for my taste but were comparable in price to large hotel spas. Compared to the luxurious thalassotherapy pool on Celebrity Summit, the Journey's little cousin is a soda can. I opted to not buy a cruise pass for $99.
So with nothing left to do, I visited the buffet for lunch. Unfortunately for my waistline, this became a recurring theme.
I got a Sea Breeze cocktail and some food. Everything was tasty but there was nothing too exotic. They know their target market. Older, fussy folks with lots of dietary restrictions don't want seven types of curried lentils for lunch.
We finally started backing out of our berth. It was still really foggy in Hong Kong. Looking up to the tallest buildings made me wonder if the people inside could see anything at all! Those apartments are worth millions and they were shrouded in cloud. Hong Kong has huge hills which are so steep that there are hardly any homes on them. That's why the land is so valuable where people can build and there is nowhere to go but up.
Finally, it was time to investigate the tiny pool!
It is heated sea water so it really makes one float. The motion of the ship makes it really nice and wavy, too!
After that, there was a visit to the Owners Suite. The cruise line offers a Bingo game and the grand prize is to win occupancy of the suite for the duration of the cruise. I went to the visit and enjoyed seeing the immense room with a marble vestibule (useful for taking your shoes off without tracking in travel-schmutz) and the powder room in addition to the gigantic bathroom with jetted tub. Other than the beautiful aft-facing verandah with full loungers, there were no features that trumped the comfort of my own category six oceanview stateroom so I did not buy any bingo cards.
I got dressed up for dinner and headed over to the Cruise Critic's cocktail meet 'n' greet. There were 62 of us and I finally met many of the very nice folks I had been chatting with online, face-to-face.
The senior staff introduced themselves. I met all the top brass like the food & beverage manager, the hotel director and the cruise director. They asked us to make as many requests as we wanted. They reminded us that our feedback is more useful while we are on the ship. I learned that they meant it over the course of the ship. A feedback form was provided in the first week and I received two follow-up calls responding to my comments. The level of customer service on Azamara is unsurpassed in my opinion.
After that, Tony the cruise director hosted a singles and solo cruisers dinner in the main dining room. There were at least 25 of us because Azamara offers low single supplements and I must say, it attracted fun and really interesting cruisers. Throughout the voyage, friendly folks were always willing to chat and dining was not a daunting task. If you wanted to be alone, you could but finding new friends was easy. Solo-ers, fear not!
Now for the good part: Dinner!
The main dining room is about an eighth of the size of a Celebrity MDR. They have cozy booths as well as tables so it feels more like a lounge. Waiters were very attentive. If they needed to get your attention or reach towards you they would say: "please permit me to…" refill your glass or take your plate or clean up your crumbs etc.
It was extremely civilized. The food was fantastic. I had a firecracker shrimp starter, pear soup with cinnamon and tandoori lamb for the main. I started with a Riesling but tried the Cabernet too. It was all new to me to have wine with dinner in such abundance. The waiters keep refilling your cup, so if you're a light drinker, be forewarned!
The desserts were insane and they also had many choices for digestifs or specialty coffees on offer. Since there are no main/late seatings, no one rushes you. Dinner is easily a three hour affair!
If you don't have a quick bite in the buffet, you might want to eat at six in order to make it to the entertainment which begins at around nine pm. Unfortunately, I never did get to the Cabaret lounge or the daily activities so I'll have to leave it to someone else to review.
It was more my style to go straight to bed after supper. The seas were wild! The spray churned up into my stateroom window and you could see the enormous waves as the bow ploughed through them. I wondered what the view from the outside cabins on deck three would have been like because I love that kind of excitement.
It was too far for me to see from my bed so I gathered up my comforter and fashioned a little bunk on the window ledge. I spent the whole night there sleeping and waking to watch the show.
It was around the same size as a business class lie-flat bed so I was pretty comfy. When he came to make up the the room the next day, the steward had a good laugh at my makeshift sleep area and called his buddies over to see what I had done. Heeee!
After my full five hours of sleep without a meal...(on a cruise ship that is savage cruelty)...I left my little window bunk and headed up to the Window's Cafe on deck 9 for the early riser's breakfast.
On this ship, the forward and aft sections on decks 9 and 10 have inside facilities but you must walk outside to get between fore and aft or, you could comfortably walk to the rear of the ship from the front and use the stairs / elevator on a lower deck.
It's windy and raining and 8 degrees Celsius...which option do I take? The outside jogging track on deck 10 of course! Wheeee! Better than Disneyland! The ship was rocking, my jacket and scarf were fluttering like flags on my body and the deck was slippery. Put this sport in the Olympics, please.
We could call it the "200 m gotta get some breakfast and struggle with door in windy conditions biathlon"
I brought home the gold! My reward was a proper mug of coffee. Not a cup of coffee that you need to refill three times...a proper mug.
There were also muffins, croissant and yogurt with fresh fruit & honey to hold me over until the buffet opened at 7:30 am. Formal dining had kippers for breakfast but that only opens at 8:00. Too late for me!
I sat in the Windows Cafe watching the approach to Xiamen. There was a huge amount of boat traffic. Freighters, commercial fishing boats and local fishermen with their coterie of seabirds along side them.
The colour of the sea was something completely unnatural. It was basically brown sludge and disabused me of any plans to snorkel in Chinese waters.
However, the little islands with jagged tops were beautiful. There was no question that this was China. The China of the photographer's dreams.
Some Australians in their 70s noticed that I was alone and invited me to join them for breakfast. We had lots of good conversations. I apologized for my appearance by saying "I've just had my hair done on deck 10."
It took them a minute to get the joke but we were bosom buddies for the rest of the cruise.
It took a long time to dock but once we disembarked into the ultra-modern Chinese cruise terminal everything ran smoothly. We were whisked through an immigration inspection. Most of the attendants were Chinese women in smart little uniforms including hats. There were security cameras everywhere as well as photographers documenting our arrival with handheld cameras. The English spoken was very good.
At the booth, they take your picture and look at your passport, they stamp a paper copy of the passport and you hand the original back to cruise authorities as you exit.
A shuttle bus was provided to the ferry terminal serving Gulangyu Island but due to the rain, we couldn't see much through the fogged up windows during the 15 minute trip.
The ferry terminal to Gulangyu Island was crowded with fashionably-dressed young couples, wedding parties and holidaying families.
While waiting in line for the ferry, vendors tried to sell us cheap toys and souvenirs. At one point an old beggar man approached with the standard issue tin cup.
Another man rushed over and slapped the cup out of his hand and chased him away. It was a bit shocking the way he was treated.
We paid 15 yuan ($2.50 USD) for the round trip. It only took around 5 minutes to cross. Glad we hadn't opted for the high-speed ferry.
Gulangyu Island is an old colonial outpost that has been transformed into something like the Chinese version of Vieux Québec.
There are churches and villas behind fortification walls. The villas have been transformed into hotels or restored to their original splendour and you must pay a fee to visit.
There are also gardens built around natural stone formations the major one being Sunlight Rock. The brave can climb to the summit of Sunlight Rock.
I had done brave at breakfast so instead, my new friend Gill and I just strolled around looking at the gardens and architecture and chatting about our mutual love of travel, whales and animals in general. We got along very well.
Suddenly, these two twenty-something Chinese girls approached us and with fairly decent English pronunciation asked if we wouldn't mind taking a picture with them. I assumed that they meant take a picture #of# them.
Nope, Gill understood immediately and we posed with one while the other took the snapshot, then switched. Apparently, blonde hair and blue eyes are as deserving a photo opportunity as Sunlight Rock.
They were super sweet and thanked us politely.
By now we were hungry and we passed kiosk after kiosk of delicious snacks. It was almost impossible to decide what to eat.
There were guava fruit with straws pressed into them for drinking, lychees on skewers, lots of live seafood in aquariums or grilled delicacies.
Some young vendors called us over to their shop and asked us in their best English what we would like to try.
I smiled and answered: Just look at me, I'd like to try EVERYTHING! They were obviously trying to be polite but since I gestured by patting my chubby tummy they took my cue and giggled.
I opted for a bowl of grilled squid with fish balls...no, really...I came all the way to China to eat some gefilte. It was really cheap, delicious and filling.
There were so many things to try but one can only eat so much. I'll have to go back to try the grilled conch. They empty the meat, chop it up and cook it with vegetables and spices then re-stuff it into the shell and grill the whole thing on a BBQ. I will have to learn what that dish is called.
There were many couples in fancy dress posing for wedding pictures with the historical buildings and gardens as a backdrop.
We also visited the shops where there were really cute outfits for sale. The Chinese people were extremely fashion-conscious.
This island resort also had a sea world-type park and probably much more that we never got to see because we were overwhelmed and returned to the ship for a well-deserved nap.
Dinner was a bit disappointing with undercooked grouper and inedible sides. No problem, the waiter switched it out for surf 'n' turf with filet mignon and Caribbean lobster tail. Dessert was tiramisu.
The seas were even more churning than the night before. The spray blew past my window like powdered snow drifts and waves occasionally splashed up like a car wash. It's true that on a smaller ship, you can feel the motion a lot more than on a larger ship. It really doesn't bother me though.
Because of the lousy conditions, we lost time. The Captain announced this over the PA system and warned that we all needed to take a seat in the next few minutes as we were about to make a 90 degree starboard turn and there would be a discernible list especially on upper decks.
I was on deck 5 at the Mosaic Cafe. We made the impressive turn smoothly but yeah, you could feel it.
Moments later, the Staff Captain emerged from the bridge and sat down next to me at the coffee bar. I thanked him for the amazing roller coaster ride!
I let him know how I nested in the window ledge and that nothing made me happier than to have the spray splash up into my face on deck.
He said "so you've got sea legs then..." and I volunteered the story of how my then nine-year-old immigrant grandmother was the only passenger to have an appetite on the crossing from Poland to Canada.
That is what being on Azamara Journey is like. You can have intimate chit chat with the ship's second in command and only need two minutes to walk from stem to stern.
I already understand why there are so many former Celebrity passengers that have made the switch to Azamara and won't sail with anyone else.
KEELUNG CITY, TAIPEI, TAIWAN
We pulled into Taiwan and had a smooth disembarkation. We simply had to show the paper copy of our passport which they stamped.
Three flashy dancing dragons pranced and posed for the passengers. It was very welcoming and quintessentially Taiwanese. Not so Taiwanese but ubiquitous on this trip were the terminal's duty-free gift shops hawking tobacco products, purses and booze.
There is also the phenomenon of the giant yellow rubber ducky mascot. It is EVERYWHERE! You can get your G.Y.R.D. umbrellas, keychains, iPhone cases etc. at every souvenir shop in the land...please Google to learn more because I am afraid that if I say its name three times it will be summoned...rising from the depths like Godzilla.
I had planned the Taiwan visit down to the smallest detail. I wanted to visit Ho-ping Island Park also known as Peace Island. It was only 7 kms from the ship and would cost $7 USD each way by taxi plus a few bucks for the entrance fee and snacks. I had even printed out the Google maps with directions in Chinese. My new friend Jayne, a fellow passenger and solo cruiser thought it was an interesting choice and came along.
The taxi dispatcher kept pointing to a different destination on his picture chart of tourist spots saying that it would be better. I was firm and insisted that this place was where we wanted to visit. He let us know that there would be no one there (exactly!) and that we would have to pay a standing fee for the cab to wait one hour. No worries. If I had been alone, I might have simply taken the local bus number 101 back but we agreed to split the $900 Taiwan Dollar ($30 USD) roundtrip price.
Arriving at the park, it looked just like it had on Google street view. Not a tour bus in sight! We paid the entrance fee and received a bunch of coins as change.
There was a hill with what looked to be manicured trees on it because it was so neat and tidy and symmetrical. The wind at this place is strong. It is responsible for all of the interesting land formations and probably is the gardener that created the bonsai on the hill.
It was only about eleven degrees Celsius so we bundled up in scarves and sweaters and raincoats then made our way along a stone path towards the sea. Tables and hibachis were provided for picnickers.
We passed a little family made up of Grand-dad, young mother and rosy-cheeked 9 month old baby in a bunting sling tied against mum.
Both Jayne and I gestured and spoke in English that they were a beautiful family. The daughter answered us in English asking where we were from and how we had discovered this place. I answered "internet" and she seemed surprised!
The Taiwanese people are so friendly and helpful. We heard from many fellow passengers that if they seemed lost or confused, someone would offer assistance without prompting.
We approached the rocky beach where waves crashed high into the air like a geyser. I got some video of it. We viewed the rocks shaped into tiny mushrooms by the force of erosion and read about the graffiti cave where ancient Dutch mariners had left their mark. At this time of year, we were not allowed to walk to the cave or among the mushroom rocks but I got some pictures.
It was gorgeous and like I had mentioned previously...completely devoid of tourist crowds. It was quiet except for the constant howling wind and extremely clean.
Time to hit the sandy beach and see the water up close! The park set up a sea wall to enclose a natural sea-water pool. In this way the waves bash around 50m outside the swimming area so the bathers are protected from being swept out to sea. Fish can and do enter the pool though.
I had come prepared with my one piece swimsuit, snorkel, aqua socks, travel towel and wetsuit liner but man...it was windy! There were a few local men and women swimming laps in the 20 degree Celsius water in just their bathing suits. I could have been convinced to join them but Jayne was not keen. I did get in to my knees just to feel the water but I didn't see any critters.
We stopped into the gift shop where we were offered tea and samples of local treats! I bought some dried sesame fish candy, you'll have to see it to believe it and yes, it is good!
Again, the shop staff wanted to know how we found them and were amazed to know that their park was on the internet to be discovered by anyone in the world. The tourist bureau promotes other parks more aggressively so they don't see many foreigners here.
I used the Taiwanese coins to purchase some vending machine drinks as souvenirs and found the cab back to the ship. Jayne was elated to have had such a unique experience and thanked me. It isn't very hard to do the research before leaving home. The resources are out there...you just need to do it!
Returning to the ship we were offered hot ginger tea or hot chocolate to warm up. I joked with the crew-member serving, asking what kind of rum was in the chocolate. He was embarrassed and said sorry...there was no rum...BUT...no joke...guests arriving back on board later that day reported that they were offered shots of rum with their chocolate!!!!
That is Azamara. I rest my case.
ISHIGAKI ISLAND, JAPAN
It's a blur. I knew that I was about to realize my life-long dream of visiting Japan so my mind was racing. At breakfast, I warned my companions that it was entirely possible that I would burst into tears as soon as I touched the soil.
We pulled into port and had to wait for immigration officials to board. We were called by group to pass inspection which consisted of a thermal reader to check our temperature, fingerprints and the reception of a landing permit to be affixed to a paper copy of the passport.
I greeted the thermal camera operator with a happy "Ohaioo gozaimasu!" (Good morning) and responded to the inspection officer's instructions by saying "Hai, wakarimashita!" (Yes, I understand)
The officials were very serious so there was no time for chit chat. I had teamed up with some folks from Cruise Critic and booked a snorkel trip using an English-speaking dive shop called UMICOZA based in Kabira Bay. They specialized in trips to see the Manta Rays at a known Manta cleaning station. I had found their website on the internet and they were very professional and friendly in their correspondence.
Our group of four snorkelers rendezvoused at the Mosaic Cafe. Then we descended the ramp to the port. The temperature was mild, the water appeared to be clean but we did not see the UMICOZA van in the tours area.
We looked outside the gate, no van. It was getting late so we boarded a shuttle bus to the local ferry terminal thinking they may have been confused about what we meant by cruise ship. No van at the ferry terminal either. Panic.
I turned on my cellphone risking expensive roaming rates to see if they had left a message. No signal!
Okay...time to use my Japanese for real! I went to the information booth in the terminal and said: "sumimasen...denwa ga arimasu-ka?" It worked! The lady guided me over to the pay phones! Hooray! But...the pay phones only took coins. Oh no! Luckily, at this point my cellphone enabled itself and I was able to call the dive shop.
The driver had been waiting for us at the cruise ship but outside the main gate. The van only had a window sign, no logo on the side so we had missed it. All was well but I have learned the importance of locking down the details when making these sort of plans. It is not enough to say pick me up at the ship...you need GPS coordinates to avoid confusion!
Toyo-san was our driver and guide. He spoke English very well but I had fun practicing my Japanese with him. Finally, away from the shipping containers and bus loads of tourists we began to see the beauty of Ishigaki Island.
Trees are a mix of tropical palms and deciduous. We saw a huge owl sitting calmly on an overhanging branch. There were green fields loaded with grazing cattle on one side and either rice fields or blue water on the other. Conditions were windless and warm.
It almost looked like the rolling hills of Rincon de la Vieja, Costa Rica that I had recently visited.
The road itself was smooth and the signs were in English and Japanese. It honestly would not be difficult to drive around in a rented car. At the shop, I zipped into my snorkel & wetsuit in ninety seconds. My companions...not so much. Hee! Wetsuit virgins, they were!
They had pre-ordered rental wetsuits by size and it was included in the price. The wetsuits were neatly laid out on the table with a name tag clothes pinned on with the respectful honorific-sama. Mine would have said "Lisa-sama."
Lois and Yves from Toronto got into their suits and birthday-girl Gill got into her fabulous pink booties while I just wandered around listening to the birds and breathing in tropical Japan. Gill got a fright with the heated loo-seat at the shop! No chilly buns at this party!
Because it had taken a bit long to disembark, find the van and get dressed, we decided to scrap our second snorkel spot with the Manta Rays and just do the coral garden.
We hopped back into the van, drove five minutes to the dive boat and waded into the super-clear water. The temperature was actually quite lovely. A two-step ladder into the flat-bottom boat and we were aboard. We were offered hot tea and there was a cooler filled with hot water which the super-skinny guides poured into their wetsuits in order to keep the chill off.
The trip to the coral garden took only a few minutes. We were just south of the famous Kabira Bay where snorkelling is not permitted. To save time, I reviewed the guidelines while we were underway. Any current? Nope. Any dangerous creatures? Nope. Are we anchored? Yes. Well, bye bye then! I plopped into the water while the others fussed with their stuff.
Wow! It took a few seconds for the water to enter the wetsuit and make a warm layer next to the skin. The visibility was excellent and there was absolutely no current and very little chop on the surface.
The first species I identified was a Blue-Head Wrasse…very similar to those in my favourite place, Bonaire. There were also Princess Parrotfish, Butterflyfish and Angelfish.
Towards the bottom, were two sea snakes coiled together. I would have thought that they were mating but they appeared to be of different species.
Folks were still on the boat getting their snorkels and fins sorted. I asked them to plug their ears while I asked about the sea snakes...nope, not dangerous! So I continued on looking at the beautiful blue coral, anemone and dazzling fish.
It was overcast and started to rain a bit so after an hour we headed back to the shop. I presented the guide with a small gift from back home, a little tuque saying Action Scuba on it. He was really appreciative.
There were hot showers and tea for us. They dropped us off at a local restaurant. Those cattle we had seen grazing were to be our lunch. Ishigaki Island beef is famous!
The restaurant was so Japanese that *this* is where I got all weepy. We doffed our shoes at the door and put them in a little cubby. The wooden floors were so clean and smooth. The table was low and had adorable seat cushions with an owl motif. Owls are big (popular) in Japan!
The table had a brazier (shichirin) in the centre of it. We ordered our meals. I tried to practice my Japanese again but the waitress didn't seem to understand me. I was trying to find out if there was a mixed grill with samples of beef, pork and chicken.
Unsuccessful in communicating my wish, I opted for the premium steak set which came with 180g of beautifully marbled flank steak, miso soup, salad and vegetables. For dipping, there was BBQ sauce, wasabi, lemon and soy sauce. It was probably a bit pricy at 6,800 yen (almost $70 USD) but I had budgeted for that.
The server brought a bowl of already glowing briquettes for the brazier and set them up placing the grill on top. We used long tongs to place the beef on the grill. Since the meat was nice and fat, there were a few grease fires but that's all part of the fun! Who needs eyebrows anyway?
With an enthusiastic "Itadakimasu!" addressed directly to the food, I dug into my salad which was dressed with some lovely sesame-ginger. Then, I enjoyed the miso soup which only had broth and a few negi (scallions) cut into it. My meat was nicely done and it curled up onto itself like fatty bacon.
For veggies there were cabbage and carrots which I ate raw, some eggplant and local specialties kabocha (squash) and goya (bitter melon) which were better grilled.
I mixed the meat and veg into my bowl of rice and tasted the flavour / texture explosion. Oh, yeah. The way that the thin meat tastes so full is a wonder in itself.
It was a terrific meal and very filling. I gave the waitress and the shop owner a great big "Gochisoosama deshita!" to thank them for the meal. I would have loved to have included a link to the name of the restaurant but Lois and Yves paid on their credit card and I gave them cash so they have the bill with the address on it!
It was only a short waddle back to the ship...yep...Lisa got big - time fat on this trip.
I napped and only surfaced to snag a few pieces of sushi from the buffet for dinner. Then I happily retreated to my cabin, dreaming of Japan and of floating in the crystal clear water.
It's 2:30 am. The moon is shining into my cabin and I am wide awake. Seas are calm. I need fresh air so I get dressed, gather up my silk sleeping bag, a blanket and a pillow and headed to my secret enclave on deck 5 forward just under the tenders.
It is a quiet area even in daytime so I reckoned that I wouldn't be disturbing anyone and might even see some whales as we sailed into their Okinawan breeding grounds.
I found a deck chair and replaced the cushion which had been stowed for the night. Then I set myself up with my little cocoon and enjoyed the sound of the waves with the bright moon glittering on the water. It was very comfy and I slept well until the morning sun warmed my face.
Soon after the deck hands came by to set up the chairs for the day. Needless to say, they were a little surprised to find me there.
I put on my best fake indignant voice, pointed at my imaginary watch and proclaimed: "I have been sitting here since 2:30 am and NO ONE has offered me a drink!"
It took them a second...but then they laughed. The crew on this ship are very easy going and mix it up with the passengers at every opportunity. On Celebrity, it sometimes seems like a two-tiered class system but on Azamara, the staff IS the main attraction.
Alas, I saw no whales from my position but folks in the Windows Cafe where I normally went for breakfast did. Oh well...we had a whale watching excursion booked for later that day. No worries.
NAHA CITY, OKINAWA, JAPAN
I got back to my room, showered and changed because I looked like I had spent the night on deck...well, actually, I had spent the night on deck.
The whale watching tour only met at 13:15 so I had the morning to explore on my own. The weather was sunny and warm so I packed my snorkel and one piece wetsuit liner into my bag just in case.
Leaving the ship, I could hear drums banging. It was local entertainers in bright costumes there to welcome us to Naha, Okinawa. Onboard, the Japanese customs enforcers guarded against cruise ship sandwiches and fruit coming ashore.
Descending the gangway, I could see that besides the drummers, there were singers and a little girl handing out photo postcards as a gift.
There was also a local beauty pageant winner (She might have been the mayor but she wore a sash) posing for pictures with passengers.
I asked a guide in Japanese where the information booth was and she answered me in English. Oh, well.
The information booth was chaotic. Only three agents were on hand plus a guy doing currency exchange. As I was politely waiting my turn and was next in line to be served, this gigantic Russian-speaking man pushed in front of me to grab some maps and literature. When he did not immediately step away from the table I got uncharacteristically assertive.
"SIR..I have been waiting in line, you can do the same." and he sheepishly walked away. Seriously, I had spent so long waiting in line. I found it disrespectful. I had worked out all the details preparing for this trip in a short amount of time and others were expecting to get a five star hotel concierge to plan their tour for free as soon as they got off the ship! Well, the Japanese guides were happy to do this which is why it took so long for it to be my turn.
All that I needed was to be oriented out of the port area, understand which direction was north and see if they knew whether Naminoue beach was open to the public in February. Finally, a nice curly-haired Japanese lady stepped over to assist me. I pointed to my curly hair then politely gestured to her and said "Watashi no imotoo desu ka?" (Are you my little sister?)
That got a laugh, I got the information and I was off in a minute or two.
The route was over an elevated highway but there was a pedestrian walkway so it was safe. Okinawa looks surprisingly a lot like Miami beach with bridges and causeways as far as the eye can see.
After a short walk, Naminoue beach came into view. What a little gem. Sure, it's under a busy overpass and not far from a major port but the sand looked clean and soft, the water was crystal clear blue revealing rocks and coral below the surface. It was also padlocked shut.
Waaaah! Trust me, my next visit will not be in February. All was not lost. Using my super-katakana-reading skills...I discovered that the Subway sandwich place in an adjacent hotel lobby offered free internet and massage chairs? Yup, welcome to Japan, people!
Hungry because it had been ten minutes since my last meal, I entered the Subway which looks exactly like any Subway in any city anywhere...except for the garbage bins which I will describe later.
I selected the chicken and cheese sandwich, was delighted to learn that white bread is called "Wa-i-to" rather than "shiroi no pan" and then came the toppings. There was a picture chart showing onions, olives, lettuce etc.
I didn't want any of those things just tomatoes and green pepper (to-ma-to & pi-men-to) so that's what I said. I watched the server slather an unholy amount of mayonnaise on my sandwich...I didn't recall asking for it but mayonnaise is extremely popular in Japan so I didn't complain.
I got busy counting out my 100 yen coins to pay for my sandwich and noticed the plastic tray where I should put them.
Another successful experience in Japan, I thought proudly to myself...until I unwrapped the paper and found a garden full of lettuce and olives and onions. What the heck? I squinted back at the topping picture chart to see if it said "Hold the XXX..." I didn't see that but I learned that is the subtle difference between Japanese and Canadian Subway restaurants! Now you know, too!
I used the free internet but never found the massage chairs. I tidied the lunch tray and carried it over to the trash bin. Uh oh...three separate areas labeled in kanji with rather unhelpful pictograms.
I am sure it said something like metal/glass, paper, organic but which was which? I must have stared at the kanji for a whole minute looking for one that I recognized. I would have recognized "metal" or "paper" but I have to study what "glass" would be. I took my best guess and hurried back to the taxi stand near the ship.
I had prepared a Google map to the SEASIR MARINE HOUSE dive shop hosting the whale-watching tour with the address as well as directions in Japanese. It was perfectly clear. I even read the address to the driver and offered him a GPS code but he was acting like he had no idea where the place was.
I could see a water tower landmark that I knew was close to the place (thanks again, Google street view!) and guided the driver towards there. We found it with no trouble. Japanese drivers will not take a tip so I am the proud owner of some very small denomination coins. Looks like someone is going to get more vending machine goodies!
English-speaking guides greeted me at the shop and handled the process of payment and liability release. I got the most adorable admission ticket ever...it is a child's crayon drawing of a humpback whale. Kawaii! Cute!!
The whale watching boat was actually a huge scuba diving boat with several showers and changing rooms. It would have to be the nicest dive boat I have ever seen. We did see whales but nothing like in Tonga...that trip spoiled me! I spent most of the trip talking to the friendly guide.
Lots of people on the boat got seasick but the staff were prepared for it and took care of everyone. The operation was extremely professional and they even offered a refund if we did not see whales. It was a three hour trip and by the time we were done, I was ready for supper.
I chose not to go into Naha city because it was getting dark and instead had dinner on the ship in the dining room.
The waiters on Azamara are evil. Not only do you risk getting an infinity glass of wine, if you ask for a recommendation between two main dishes, they will simply bring both. They get to know you and refer to you by name. They size you up and know that you don't really mean it when you say "no French fries, please." They know what your preferred condiments are. By day three, everyone brings me sambal with my eggs and black coffee...no need to ask.
So I totally abused my body that night with a samosa starter, oxtail broth and both the vegetable croquette healthy choice option AND the seabass and some kind of obscenity for dessert. What's the number for Jenny Craig when I get home?
TOKYO, JAPAN - OVERNIGHT IN GORA, HAKONE-MACHI AT A RYOKAN (TRADITIONAL JAPANESE HOTEL)
I'm taking artistic liberties and skipping trip reports for the two days at sea. I can summarize by saying that I slept, swam, ate, walked around on deck then ate again. Sea was gorgeous, sun was bright but it was a bit chilly. I have met many friendly people. It was a very relaxing two days.
I packed my bag the night before arriving in Tokyo and set out the clothes I would wear. It was important that I looked put-together but was comfortable for the trip to the hot-spring resort in Gora, at the foot of Mount-Fuji. I must have woken up every hour on the hour that night.
Finally, by 5:30 am, I went up to watch us approach the port. Let me just say that it was very emotional for me. For years, I have loved Japanese culture, food and language. Here, was the culmination of all of that passion being realized...underscored by the Japanese drummers welcoming the ship. Tokyo. Edo. The source of it all spread out before me.
The skyscrapers twinkled and the seabirds soared around the ship. The port wasn't busy at all. We were the only game in town at Harumi. I cried a lot because it was a bit surreal but soon it was time for me to take a shower and head out on my adventure.
With my spiffy new raincoat, my new handbag and my comfy yet fashion forward travel-wear, I disembarked the ship into the REAL Japan.
But...I was a bit too early. The shuttle bus into town didn't start for another twenty minutes. I spent the time chatting with a lady from the ship and with a Japanese tour guide.
I boarded the bus. And sat. And sat. We are waiting for more passengers. I see the number 5 Toei city bus pull up along side us. I was just about to give up on the shuttle and take public transport but my passage was blocked by folks boarding. Crap.
And sat some more. This was stupid. As soon as people stopped getting on, I jumped off just as another city bus pulled up. 200 yen later (two bucks) and bada bing!
It was fun to people-watch. I saw a few young mothers wearing anoraks with a built-in baby carrier. It was like a normal coat but instead of zipping closed there was a fabric panel to hold the baby snug and warm.
There were little school girls dressed in sailor suits or French Madeleine-style uniforms with straw hats and ribbons trailing behind them.
And of course...lots and lots of salarymen. It took just 30 minutes to get me to Tokyo Station. It was not that busy. I was surprised. It was very easy to navigate. Signs are in Japanese kanji, Japanese hiragana and in English.
I found the midori mado-guchi (green ticket window) and gave the attendant the number of the Hikari Tokaido Shinkansen Bullet Train I wanted to take to Odawara.
Up on the platform, it was like a ballet. Train is approaching, the conductor guys stand ready with their red flags, the recorded voices announce the arrival in English and in Japanese, passengers line up on blue markers inlaid into the floor. These markers optimize traffic flow, enabling those disembarking to exit unencumbered by the people getting onto the train. Twinkly Christmas music chimes and if the conductor guys give the all clear, the doors close and the train pulls away.
It was almost time for my train to arrive on the platform. An army of ladies in pink uniforms outfitted with squeegees appeared flanked by helmeted guys in blue onesies. All and sundry wore gloves.
The Tokaido Shinkansen Bullet Train originating at Shin-Osaka station pulled in at 11:23 am and needed to be readied before turning around with all aboard 10 minutes later.
The ballet went like this: Passengers leave the train. Blue onesies kick the pedals to disengage the seats and spin them to orient them to the new forward-facing direction. One row at a time on each side of the train...kick, spin, kick, spin. Then, the blue onesies rip the paper antimacassars off the seats...rip, rip, rip.
The pink ladies follow closely behind with fresh paper for the headrests...stick, stick, stick. The two brigades seamlessly complete the tidy up, dusting, wiping down and mopping all without bumping into each other and then file out in perfect synchronization just as the red flagged conductor guys appear to usher the passengers in. Cue the twinkly Christmas music and we're off!
My seat was comfortable and I had a huge picture window from where I could see the high-rises interlaced with train lines morph into residential apartment buildings and then into individual homes all with the prerequisite futon and laundry drying on the balconies and window sills.
Tiny cemeteries, golf driving ranges, waterways lined with fishermen and wading birds, Shinto shrines, orange trees, flower boxes, Shinagawa, Shin-Yokohama, Odawara...Disembark 35 minutes later. This is the Bullet Train…no time for verbs.
Odawara station is much smaller than Tokyo station but it has several connecting lines. Still, the excellent signage made it easy for me to find the right wing in which to purchase a ticket on the Hakone-Tozan electric railway. This time, I used the vending machine. You just look up your destination on the fare chart, insert the coins into the machine and out pops your ticket!
Insert your ticket into the platform gate for validation, collect it when it pops back out and keep it safe until you put it into the exit turnstile for fare evaluation at the final destination.
If you paid too little, you can make a fare adjustment upon arrival. It is idiot-proof.
The little red train from Odawara to Hakone-Yumato is...in a word...adorable! It is the Hello Kitty of rail transportation. Three cars, each with purple velour benches and plenty of standing room shuttle passengers on a 15 minute, 5 stop journey. A uniformed driver at each end manually pilots the train back and forth along this route.
At Hakone-Yumato, you transfer to an even cuter mountain train! Because the path is so steep, several methods are used to make the journey easier.
Firstly, there are tunnels cut right into the mountain. Secondly, the train makes a few switchback stops where we head down in elevation only to head back up in a zigzag pattern. Thirdly, we coil around the hill like a boa constrictor.
I know that this is Japan. Every visual cue within the train belies it but to look at the little station of Gora, a log and stucco structure surrounded by snowy mountains...you think... Switzerland? The cable cars connecting the railway to even higher elevations eventually linking to the Mount Fuji ropeway gondolas simply reinforces the idea.
Although it was sunny and mild, the remains of last week's blizzard clogged the village. People were still busily shovelling the pavement clear. There were little shops selling souvenirs and snacks leading up a hill to the local park where the main attraction is...wait for it...Craft House, a Venetian glass blowing atelier and museum!
Have a look on the internet. They have some incredibly beautiful things that are at once out of place and right at home in this picturesque town. A station or two before Gora has the open-air museum with original sculpture by Picasso, Rodin and others. The Hakone-machi area is loaded with culture from Japan and abroad.
It was such a pleasure to wend the long way around the village to the Gora Tensui ryokan where I had booked a one-night stay using Expedia. Please see my review of the hotel on Trip Advisor for more information about my stay.
Back onboard Azamara Journey, I was up top listening to the drummers entertaining the crowd before the push-off. When I got chilly, I came inside to check out the menus for the two specialty restaurants.
I must say that the premium vodka and caviar was a little dear! One spoonful of caviar ranged in price from $50 to $175!
Just then, the captain made an important announcement and we learned about the propeller damage that would ultimately cut the trip short. Reactions ranged from anger to confusion and concern.
For me, it changed nothing. The cruise line handled it professionally and did everything they could to compensate us for the inconvenience. I have no complaints but a certain subset of the passengers took it very badly and became abusive to the staff.
We learned more about the damage the next day. As we arrived in Tokyo, the crew had noticed unusual vibrations.
The called in a dive team to take photographs which revealed wire leads and fishing netting tangled around the port side propeller. Both the screw and the shaft were damaged and needed to be repaired in dry dock.
According to the Captain, the Japanese Coast Guard deemed the Journey seaworthy operating on a single propeller but we had to be tugged out of our berth in Tokyo.
We cruised at a slower pace to Osaka, which had two side effects.
Unfortunately, we could not out-maneuver some weather. Seas became rough and the ship got tossed around a bit.
Except for me and a few experienced sailors in the dining room, that night was pretty quiet at supper. It was difficult to walk around. More than once, we heard the noise of things crashing to the ground from trays and counters.
At one point, it felt like the sea had evaporated from beneath us. We just dipped suddenly as though we had gone over the first hill of a roller coaster. Lots of people screamed. I got a major tummy flip! The next day, Captain Jason explained that it was due to a quick turn in order to avoid traffic in the busy passage from Tokyo to Osaka.
Needless to say, I had a great sleep rocked on the waves in my luxury cradle.
The second result of the slow pace was a big delay. In reality though, there was a benefit. We got to see all the little fishing boats and the gorgeous islands during daylight. We even spotted a submarine cruising along the surface! That was unusual and very cool!
Arriving in Osaka was a dreary affair compared to Tokyo. Instead of arriving on 27th at 9 pm, we pulled in at around 4 pm on the 28th.
The weather was cold and rainy, it was dusk, we were late and some people were still cranky about the propeller issue.
The ship was greeted by Azamara's CEO, Larry Pimentel and a bus-load of at least 40 go-team members.
This was the cruise-line's damage control. The go-team was made up of Royal Caribbean International employees from around the world. They were responsible for the logistics of moving six hundred bodies from Osaka to Shanghai and making them feel as comfortable along the way as though we had sailed there.
They endured jet-lag, a bit of abuse and probably the most adrenaline-charged, stressful assignment ever piled on luxury vacation specialists.
But they made it work.
We all had to get off the ship to once again clear Japanese immigration but I got right back on the ship because...it was Indian night at the buffet!
Hooray! Some kicky, spicy stuff to counteract the safe cruise food and the delicate Japanese flavours.
I really overdid it. The Indian guys were cheering me on! I had one spoonful of everything on the buffet except the deep-fried selections. It was so different, I really kind of wished that there were spicy options every day.
The next morning, when I woke up, I really wasn't sure what I wanted to do. In the other ports, there had been clear plans but Osaka was kind of free-form.
It's usually my habit to get off the ship too early when the shops and restaurants haven't even opened so this time, I spent the early morning finishing up packing.
Should I get on a train to Nara to see the deer? Should I go to the aquarium? Should I go downtown to the Dotonbori district around Namba station? No way. That's where everyone from the ship went.
Weather was cold...not sure a whole day outside would be smart with an hour travel each way. I ruled out Nara.
It was Saturday. There would be tons of kids at the aquarium. Scrap that idea.
The town around the port was quiet except for the throngs of people getting off the subway to go to the aquarium...why don't I just stick around here? Okay!
It was only 11 am. Too early for lunch so I just walked and walked and walked some more!
What did I find? Only the best stuff that no organized land-excursion will ever show a tourist. For example, I had the opportunity to see how the old and new Japan manages to live alongside one another.
Down streets only as wide as a North-American back alley, ten story apartment buildings that look as though they were built in the sixties or seventies stand next to hundred-year-old homes built low to the ground, maybe one and a half stories high. Sometimes, in the narrow spaces between, modern architects have created single family homes on several levels with fully functional use of all the space available.
Hearing some shouting, I found some little girls playing tag in a tiny court yard and next door, some rhythmic chanting coming from a local shrine or community centre-type place.
In the film "Lost in Translation", Bill Murray's character is an American action film star sent to Japan to shoot advertisements for a Japanese brand of whiskey.
No joke, I saw publicity photos of Tommy Lee Jones used to sell Coffee Boss coffee from vending machines! Strange! I took photos of that and other assorted weirdness.
Then there was big excitement at the fish shop as the van pulled in with the catch of the day. When you hear the expression "hole in the wall" to describe a small, nondescript place this shop beats that.
The store front is maybe eight feet wide. Three feet for fish, three for fruit and if you can squeeze inside past the old ladies battling for the choicest pieces, there is a two foot wide aisle lined with buckets and baskets of all kinds of goodies.
I saw whole crabs powdered in sawdust, sea cucumber packed into brine-filled baggies, huge snails and lots and lots of fish. It was crowded in there!
On the way up the street from the ship, my kanji skills had scoped out a sushi place with no English writing on the sign so I returned there with a fierce craving.
The bad news was that the sushi shop never opened. A basket of freshly washed oshibori napkins that had been delivered by the laundry sat uncollected on the front step. Oh well, maybe the sushi master was still at the fish shop fighting with the grannies.
Saddened by my sushilessness, I walked around looking for something else.
There were lots of ramen shops and soba shops and places with unappealing-looking plastic food in the window.
Many of the places had gangs of salary men in suits chain-smoking. Yuck. I was almost right back at the ship when a tiny shop caught my eye.
It had a solid door with no window to see inside but a small banner said "okonomiyaki" in katakana.
Okonomiyaki means "oh my goodness…this is better than sushi and you have to come to Osaka to get a piece of me!"
This food is like omelettes or pancakes stuffed with any kind of thing you like. Seafood, veggies, meat, cheese, old shoes, anything goes.
Daringly, I slid the rolling door open and discovered out a very enticing restaurant. There were tatami tables at the back where you have to put away your shoes before sitting.
Instead, I sat down at the bar where one could see the chefs making the orders. Beside me, was Cindy, the future cruise specialist and Le Club Voyage Hostess. We had met earlier in the week. I got my pancake filled with "mix"...basically a combo of squid, octopus, pork and beef. It was suggested to me that beer goes well with it so I got a pint and we both really enjoyed our meals! Cindy went back to work and I continued the unstructured wandering.
Here is where the gluttony becomes out of control. Beside the ship is a shopping mall called Tempozan Marketplace.
Instead of regular food courts, they have built a little circuit to look like narrow streets with food vendors...something like what I had seen on Gulangyu Island in China.
It was totally fake but you somehow feel better buying food from a place with electricity and running water.
So even after my okonomiyaki, I sampled some pork buns and some sashimi! I saw a Japanese kids' menu, we don't get those at home. It was so cute that I took pictures. The nigirizushi are cut up small for the kiddies!
Finally, I managed to pull myself away from this fantasy land of calories to my stateroom, the most relatively food-free area that I could find.
Just to be social and say my goodbyes, I did a quick pass around the public areas after dinner and then went to bed!
DISEMBARKATION-FLY TO SHANGHAI
The group heading out on a 9:25 am flight to Shanghai disembarked at 5:30 am. Security scanned our keycards as we left the ship before sunrise. We had to find our bags among hundreds of suitcases on the ground between the ship and the terminal building illuminated only by the head lights of a few port authority cars.
Luckily, I found a helpful porter to wheel them along while I waited in line to collect my immigration documents and to follow me while I moved to another line to have my picture and fingerprints taken by Japanese officials.
Then we had to exit the terminal and stand in line while workers loaded the suitcases into a standard-issue white cube truck and passengers boarded a chartered motor coach to Kansai airport hoping for the best.
On the hour-long bus ride to Kansai airport, a chipper British go-team leader joked about how she had really needed a stiff drink the night before but that she had gotten the "waggy finger" from Larry (the CEO.)
We could tell that the story itself was all made-up but her comic timing put everyone at ease. She made fun of her Japanese-bus-aisle-walking awkwardness and just made the whole ordeal much more pleasant.
She answered questions clearly, professionally and with humour. Upon arrival, we were happy to find the truck with our bags and we were greeted by another capable go-team who guided us to our respective check-in counters.
I was on Air China flight 164 for the two-hour trip to Shanghai and was allowed to check two free bags for the regional flight! Wow! I felt as weightless as a man on the moon with no clunky carry-on to schlep.
Free WiFi, cute gift shops, fun Japanese snacks (seaweed crackers & plum-filled, triangular onigiri (rice balls) with a hot canned coffee from a vending machine) all kept me busy until the smooth boarding process began.
Most two hour flights in North America don't even offer food for purchase but we got a meal tray! There were three big party sandwiches, cucumber, egg and something else along with a fruit cup, a dish of Japanese pickles and tamago plus a cookie. How civilized is that?
The only downside was the number of smokers onboard. Although smoking was not permitted, the stench was unbearable coming off of people's coats and belongings in the overhead bins. I literally had to cover my nose and mouth with my Downy-April-Fresh handkerchief.
Anyway, it was certainly not the worst two-hours and fifteen minutes of my life...thank you, Forrest Gump.
One other neat aspect of the flight was that we never really got away from civilization. From the air, the ground below us seemed entirely populated unlike short-haul flights back home where it might be fields and trees for miles without a road or a home in sight.
The descent from blue sky through white cloud into brown smog layered over brown water and brown land signalled our arrival into the pollution of China. It's a sad reality.
At Pudong airport from the gate to immigration, the walls were lined with publicity for expensive designer goods like Prada and Longines…none of which could be seen on the actual people in the terminal.
Our Shanghai go-team greeted us and efficiently got people and luggage sorted onto yet another hour-long motor coach ride to The Bund district.
The elevated highway from the airport into the city is lined with tall apartment buildings crushed right up against the guardrails. You could honestly imagine shaking hands with the residents if you were stopped in heavy traffic.
My mind reeled at the thought of what would happen if Mrs. Fung's clothespins failed and her bedsheet draped over the windshield of somebody's car speeding along the roadway.
Luckily, we made it to the Shangai Hyatt on The Bund Hotel without any laundry-related traffic mishaps.
Shanghai is a very crowded city…I wish that I could review it for you but honestly, that hotel was such a beautiful oasis that I never left it until the shuttle back to Pudong Airport the next day.
Azamara spoiled us. They even ensured that our nightly turndown chocolates were offered to us in our luxurious rooms. We were treated to a complimentary breakfast buffet with both Asian and Western specialties and as part of the compensation package, were offered up to $100 USD for incidentals in Shanghai. I went for dinner in the hotel's Chinese restaurant and enjoyed fabulous Peking Duck which still makes me shed a tear…it was that delicious.
Other than meals and sleep, my time was spent in the Hyatt's spa facility where the steam room, sauna, hot tub, cold plunge pool and giant swimming pool gave me the all the comfort and relaxation I needed before the arduous transition to post-cruise reality.
Although the land discoveries had been cancelled and charges reversed on my onboard account, the go-team still organized complimentary coach transfers from the hotel to the airport. It was the perfect way to end the voyage. Despite my uncomfortable arrival in Hong Kong, where I was a bit underwhelmed by my reception, I was so happy with my first Azamara experience. The propeller issue only provided evidence that their customer service is actually the best and I will not hesitate to sail with them again and recommend the line to everyone looking for a more intimate, port-intensive cruise.