We booked the Diamond Princess April 2, 2014, Southeast Asia and Japan cruise along with Princess Air, a pre-cruise hotel in Singapore, tours and all transfers through Princess cruise lines. We have learned that booking related travel through the cruise line lowers risks and raises satisfaction. The arrangements were excellent and executed efficiently by Princess. Logistics of potential interest and help along with a review of the cruise are included here.
Air travel: Princess booked us from Orlando, Florida to Detroit to Tokyo/Narita to Singapore on Delta Airlines. Flights were timely. The airport terminals were very nice and easy to navigate. The flights home were from Tokyo/Narita to Detroit to Orlando. The schedule allowed us to navigate security, customs and immigration without incident.
Transfers: We booked the Singapore airport to hotel, hotel to ship and Yokahama to Narita ship to airport transfers. They worked to perfection. We learned long ago to use the cruise line’s transfers to avoid travel difficulties.
Hotel: Princess booked us into the Singapore Swissotel, located in the business area of Singapore with nice views of the city, the port and the famous Marina Bay Sands (the boat) hotel. There were dozens of restaurants and shops in a multistory mall beneath and adjacent to the hotel. We spent most of our stay recovering from the 12 hour time difference between Singapore and Florida.
Port of Singapore: Princess handled the transfer from the Swissotel to the port, with special emphasis on baggage identification, handling and transport. A bus took us to the port in about 20 minutes. Check-in was done quickly (about 10 minutes) while transfer to the Diamond Princess worked well with just a couple of problems, mostly related to the order of embarkation.
Passports: Passports were surrendered to the ship’s staff just prior to entering the ship. This allowed the ship and each country’s authorities to process immigration documents for Vietnam, Hong Kong and Taiwan without having passengers standing in lines. Passes for each port were delivered to our stateroom the day before each stop. Passports were returned prior to arriving in Japan because the Japanese needed to do biometric checks for each passenger prior to disembarking in the first Japanese port, Kagashima. There were long lines and a significant wait. (over 1 hour)
Passports were required for all international flying.
Security: Airport security in Singapore and Japan was not much different from security in the United States. The machines and processes were pretty much the same. The airports and facilities were all modern, staffed by people who spoke English and were very helpful. Airport signage was adequate to direct us to the right places at the right times.
Money: Currency exchange can be a concern if you let it be a concern. We did no currency exchange in any city or port during the trip. Major credit cards were accepted in nearly all shops. The exceptions were small local souvenir shops. Guides were tipped in US dollars and they were readily accepted. We did know the exchange rates which is essential to knowing prices because pricing was done mostly in local currency. There were good prices at most places. McDonalds, at Narita airport, had no English speaking clerks but took a credit card. It was that easy nearly everywhere.
Food and Restaurants: It was an Asian and Japanese cruise. Asian and Japanese food was featured on the ship. There were always non-Asian food choices. We enjoyed buffet lunches on our tours in two Vietnamese ports. The food was excellent and there were dozens of choices. We chose “Anytime” dining on the ship because of the flexibility provided to match with tour schedules. The Diamond Princess offers four restaurants to choose from each evening. Each features a different atmosphere and all were very good. Sabatini’s, one of the Princess alternative restaurants, was a treat for us the first night on the ship. There was even the “pub lunch” on board during sea days.
Cabin: We had cabin B107 located on the forward starboard corner of the ship. It was a great location for arriving in, staying in and leaving ports. It was not good on sea days, especially when sailing into the wind. The wind was fierce. The cabin was a long hike to the dining rooms but very quiet and comfortable.
Diamond Princess: The ship had just come from a major refurbishment in the Singapore shipyard. Fresh paint, new carpeting, a new sushi restaurant and other new stuff was evident. The ship had all the classic Princess features. The cruise was selected, however, because of the ports. The Diamond Princess was an excellent base from which to visit the ports in Vietnam, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan.
Tours: Princess does an excellent job of planning and organizing tours. Their system of check-ins aboard ship, meeting places and escorting groups off the ship worked very well. The theater tends to be the holding place for groups as they await the calls to head for their buses or vans. It minimizes congestion and confusion. They position several people on the piers to direct people to the right places. They count and count and count to be certain everyone is accounted for…comforting in a new country.
Tour guides were excellent, each with a good command of English and well versed in the history, economics and local highlights of the areas we toured. They all fielded questions well. The quality of the guides is the difference between a great tour and a poor tour. They were also very good at keeping track of the group members so that none got left behind.
Vietnam Ports and Tours: We took the “Best of Ho Chi Minh City” tour from the Port of Phu My. The tour included the Natural History Museum, the Thien Hau Temple, the Independence Palace (included historical post war meeting rooms and wartime communication centers), the post office (a center of activities way beyond postal services, including souvenir shops), a water puppet show and a very nice buffet lunch with performances by dancers and musicians. Swarms of motorbikes loaded with people and goods, including a refrigerator, surrounded us everywhere. From the Port of Chan May we took the “Hue: Imperial Citadel and Tu Duc Royal Tomb” tour. The Citadel is a very large enclosed area that was home to the royal Vietnamese family through the 1900s. Parallels are drawn to the Chinese forbidden city although the Citadel needs major restoration. We visited the Thein Mu Pagoda and Tu Duc Tomb, both affording a lot of great photo opportunities. A buffet lunch with lots of food choices was served.
Hong Kong Port and Tour: We selected the “City Drive, Victoria Peak and Aberdeen” tour. It included a drive through the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, an obviously wealthy city. A tram took us to Victoria Peak with numerous modern shops and restaurants. Unfortunately, the fog prevented us from a view of the city. A sampan ride around the harbor allowed views of fishing boats, a floating restaurant and the skyscrapers. The tour was capped off with a visit to a jewelry store and market.
Taiwan Port and Tour: “City Drive, Lungshan Temple and Handicraft Center” was our Taipei, Taiwan tour. The highlight was the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, a huge building and complex that featured exhibits, photographs, and memorabilia from the Chiang Kai-shek era along with shops. The complex included a large plaza and an opera house. Excellent photo opportunities. The Lungshan Temple was a working temple with picturesque architecture and a lot of burning incense. The handicraft center was a multistory building housing arts and crafts and included a bargain basement. The last stop was for photos of the 101 Tower, one of the tallest buildings in the world.
The drive through Taipei revealed a modern, bustling city surrounded by low mountains.
Japanese Ports and Tour: We visited three Japanese ports: Kagoshima, Kobe and Yokohama. A highlight of the ports was the hundreds of residents who came to the port to welcome the arrival of the Diamond Princess. People waved flags, bands played, and a Japanese drummer bid us farewell in Kobe at 10:00 PM. The temperature in Kobe was cold.
We booked the “City Drive” tour in Kagoshima which featured an overlook of the city from Mount Shiroyama. Great views. We visited the Syochu sake brewery which featured sweet potato sake. The company store stocked numerous kinds of sake as well as cookies made from the sweet potato (tasty).
Yokohama Disembarkation and Tokyo/Narita Airport Transfer: The ship docked in the Port of Yokohama, about a one hour bus ride from the Tokyo airport. The entire bus ride was through pretty dense urban areas including the very large port. Traffic was very heavy with mostly Japanese road signage. There were some signs in English but we were pleased we purchased the transfer and had a driver who knew the way.
The Tokyo/Narita airport is a large multistory complex with two major terminals and numerous airline facilities. We found the check-in process including security checks and flight updates relatively easy to negotiate. There were helpful people at every position to get us to our departure gate. Like most modern airport terminals there were shops and restaurants. Our last meal in Japan was at the McDonalds.
Summary: The Princess Southeast Asia and Japan cruise was a memorable travel adventure. In two weeks we got to see and experience wonderful places and people. Princess’ arrangements worked nearly perfectly. The only downside to a trip half way around the world is the “jet lag”, especially on the return west to east trip. We’ll remember the places and people long after we forget about the jet lag.