Day 1 - Sunday This was our 3rd cruise, 2nd with Star having done their 7N Straits of Malacca from KL on the Gemini last year. Also did a 7N Western Caribbean on the Carnival Glory last year. Boarded at Ocean terminal HK mid afternoon, went pretty well, less queues than I remember last year on the Gemini, although we were plucked a couple of times out of the line and fast tracked - I have no idea why, but wasn't complaining. Passports are kept by Star as you board the ship.
Very happy with our room, this was our first balcony and was lovely to have a view/chairs to ourselves. Plenty of storage space for the 2 of us. Beds were set up as single, so we asked the room stewart to put them together, which eventually happened later that night. Unfortunately he didn't use the proper cover that zips them together, so we had the nice gap in the middle to get stuck in occasionally! Others we met on the cruise mentioned theirs were put together with the cover/no gap so we asked again, got lots of nodding and yes's, but nothing changed. Not much of a drama, and beds were very comfy so that's the main thing.
If you're in a balcony room, you actually get a 30min headstart (open at 4pm) on booking the restaurant you'd like for the Gala Dinner on Tuesday. This is not well announced, you need to read the fine print on the Star Navigator (daily news sheet). So we headed down at 4pm, put our name down for Noble House, the Chinese restaurant early sitting, and 5 minutes it was announced that Noble House was fully booked. On formal night you can book the 2 main restaurants (Bella Vista & Pavilion), or balcony class can also book 2 of the speciality restaurants that would usually involve an extra cost for no charge (Noble House - Chinese & Samurai - Japanese), hence our decision to go for Noble House.
We had dinner that night in the Pavilion (Chinese), some of the dishes we really enjoyed (delicious duck and also scallop dish), but others were (as you'd expect) more traditional Chinese, but was fun to try for a night. The show that night was "Street Life" with various forms of dance performed, as well as acrobatic displays from China & Belarus. There was also a magician who was fairly lame, particularly his "robot magician" act, but show is definitely worth seeing for the acrobats.
Later that night 4 synchronized swimmers from Belarus performed in the pool, and boy were they great. Like most people, we've usually rubbished synchronized swimming as a sport, but when you see the athleticism, strength and timing required, it was very impressive and entertaining to watch.
Day 2 - Sanya, Hainan Island, China Had a lazy morning as we didn't dock until 1pm, and due back onboard at 8pm for a 9pm departure, so looking forward to 7 hours in port. We like to research the ports beforehand, and do our own thing ('free & easy' in Star terminology) rather than join the many buses of Star tours that shuffle through their crystal shops and other 'attractions'. So we headed down at 1pm to be given the joyous news that we had to wait until all the Star tours had departed before any 'free & easy' could leave. We ended up spending over 2 very "happy" hours watching trail after trail of Star excursion people leave the ship, while we didn't end up in Sanya until almost 3.30pm. So our lovely 7 hours became 4.5 hours.....not happy Jan! We had to go through Chinese immigration at the port, where they kept our passports. Bit disconcerting heading into China with no passport, but that's the process. On the 15 min walk to the taxi rank (cabs aren't allowed into the dock unless they have a ship passenger with them, so on the way back you can be taken right to the ship, but on the way out you have to walk - unless you do a Star tour of course).
We'd met another Aussie couple onboard yesterday who were also keen to do their own thing. Armed with their lonely planet book we intended to hire a taxi to take us up the East Coast to Jalong Bay and then back to the Pearl Plaza (shopping centre in Sanya that the Star Tours plug) and to have us back at the ship by 7.30. We met up with a Star cruise employee on his day off, so he agreed to negotiate with the driver for us in Chinese. He covered it all with the driver, everything agreed to and fine, including the driver staying with us for 4 hours and dropping us back at 7.30pm for 300RMB. Only took 30mins to get to Jalong Bay, pretty spot, lots of resort hotels. Reminded me of Nusa Dua or Tanjung Benoa beach in Bali with heaps of water sports available - parasailing, banana boats etc. We didn't do any, but had a nice look around, some Chinese navy ships also there. We went to step onto the beach and were stopped very sternly. The beach is only free for those staying at the resorts, all others have to pay to touch the sand. We weren't that in need of sand in our feet, so stayed on the boardwalk, looked at a couple of market stalls there, bought an ice cream and then headed back with our driver to his taxi.
As we'd only been gone less than an hour we suggested going up the coast a bit further, but after 10mins of discussion he wanted to take us back to Sanya, so we agreed as that was the original plan. On the way back we confirm we're going to Pearl Plaza, and he starts showing us photos of a shop that sells pearls (which is not Pearl Plaza), so we say no, we want Pearl Plaza and he starts saying he doesn't know it (despite happily agreeing with our ship interpreter in both Chinese and English that he does originally!). Eventually he says he does know it, so takes us to a street in Sanya, but it doesn't look like a shopping mall. We say 'is this pearl plaza' and he says 'yes', so we go to hop out......but he then starts with sign language and pointing at another taxi drivers picture he's pulled out of the glove box and begins to draw us a map in Chinese. Turns out he's saying his shift is ending, we should pay him the 300RMB now, and then follow this map in Chinese where we'll meet another driver when we're finished shopping.......oh boy.
After another 15mins of wasted discussion, trying to say 'but you agreed to 4 hours Jalong Bay/Pearl Plaza/ship' for 300RMB (we even found someone else who spoke English who helped with translation), he wouldn't budge. We said he could wait here for us and started to walk around the shops there, but he just followed and kept at us. Eventually we gave in and paid him, it just wasn't worth the hassle anymore, but boy it left a bad taste in our mouths. We did however find out that Pearl Plaza (personally I was sick of the sound of the place by now, but after all this saga we felt like we'd better check it out!) was 800m down the road, so off we set.
Had an entertaining walk before finally reaching the shopping centre. Of course, it turned out to be just your average shopping centre, bought a couple of trinkets, was most happy with a little cross stitch kit I picked up for 9RMB, red butterfly with Chinese lettering that will make a lovely Christmas ornament. We hopped in a taxi back to the ship, and figured that despite (or even because of!) it was still a more enjoyable experience for us than sitting in the bland Star tour bus.
Ship looked lovely all lit up at night as we boarded, we had dinner in the Bella Vista but gave the show a miss, it was "Twice as Nice" a husband and wife singing duo, but we were ready for an early night before our 9am arrival into Halong Bay Vietnam.
Day 3 - Halong Bay, Vietnam
I had already pre-booked (& paid deposit via Western Union) a private 6 hr tour here with www.halongbay-vietnam.com. We arrived in port at 9am, had to be back on ship by 2pm, and given our free & easy experience yesterday I thought we would end up with a 3hr tour. As with yesterday, we took over 2 hours to get off the ship, and were tendered into dock. Our meeting point for the tour was the Heritage hotel, only a few minutes walk from the dock. I'd rung their mobile number while we were on the tender boat to ask if they would meet us at the dock so we could leave directly, but he wanted to meet at Heritage. So we got there, the hotel reception had our names and rang our tour guide - he wasn't even there waiting. He arrived about 10mins later, called us a taxi to take us to the boat….tick tick tick……more waiting as they call for the boat to be brought around, and organize for the food for our lunch to be brought around. It was probably about noon by the time we set sail, and we had to be back by 2.30pm to get the tender back to the Virgo, so 6hr private cruise now 2.5hrs.
Once we set sail however, things started looking up. The boat was gorgeous, much nicer than the ones we saw the Star tours using, table was set beautifully. We discussed our new shortened itinerary, had to drop Heavenly Palace cave and just visit Surprising Cave and then have lunch while sailing round some of the other Halong Bay features - the dog, Man Island & fighting cocks. Enjoyed Surprising cave, lovely formations and then headed back on board for lunch, and boy was it fantastic. So much food, very well cooked, including crab (which the waitress cut up for us), prawns, a superb baby squid dish, a plate of thinly sliced cucumbers and tomatoes with delicious herbs and chilli sprinkled on (I've never wolfed down cucumbers with such gusto before), a fried chicken dish, succulent fish and probably some others I'd forgotten, it was a wonderful feast. The waitress then bought out some pearls for us to look at/buy…..I bought a small necklace/earrings for US$20, which I saw later was way overpriced….oh well.
We wanted to dock straight back at the jetty the Star tender had brought us too, rather than this tours wharf to save time, but as we approached the Star people waved us away and said we were not allowed to stop there. It was right on 2.30pm so we thought we'd miss the boat, so we yelled out 'what time is the last tender' and they replied '3pm'…..phew! Our ship zipped back to their original wharf, out we hopped and then had to wait for a cab. Our waitress pulled up next to us in her little motorbike and asked if one of us would like to hop on, so I did, and had a fabulous ride back to the Star pier, the others came past me in the cab and we arrived at the same time. Almost 3pm by this time, but there were still huge queues of Star tour groups lining up for tender, so we got 15mins to do a quick look round the market stalls there before we joined the back of the queue to head back.
I talked to someone on one of the Star tours, they'd only done the 1 cave too, Surprising Cave and then toured round the Bay, so even though we missed out on a lot of time, we seemed to have seen the same things, for less $ with a much nicer meal - although it was a bit of stress worrying that it was going to fit. There was another Star tour that did the water puppet show, then toured round the bay (no caves), this couple said the water puppets were really enjoyable. If you were staying in Halong Bay I would recommend this tour company, to do the whole 6hr private tour for the same price (US$55/person for 2, reducing to $40/person for 4 and less again for more), but they weren't that great at fitting in with the Star schedule. They really should have met us at the pier and taken us straight out, with no Heritage hotel detour.
When the tender brought us back to the Virgo, there were a couple of tiny home made local boats right near the ship with families with children on who were begging from the Star passengers, was very sad. When we went back to our room and were on the balcony, those families were still down there, asking for people to throw them notes from their balconies. Some people near us put money in a bottle and threw it down and they got it, another guy folded a note up as a paper aeroplane and flew it down to them. They had to row quickly over to get it, but they got it before it sunk. That guy then made this intricate helicopter like thing out of a couple of notes, it went down (we were on level 10 of the ship), but it didn't go out as far as the plane and ended up being suck back into the ship on about level 2, so they missed out on that one.
Tonight was Gala Dinner, so after what felt like a full day we went back to our cabins and had a snooze for an hour, then got dressed up. We didn't bother with the cocktail party, but loved our Noble House dinner. Several courses, the highlight of which was the first - thinly sliced Peking Duck wrapped in small thin crepes - delicious! Thankfully we were offered an alternative to the 2nd course (Shark fin soup), so my husband had corn & sweet crab meat soup, while I had a hot & sour chicken soup - both were delicious. Several other courses, all very enjoyable, was a lovely meal.
We then headed to the show, "Sports Unlimited" and it was truly amazing. I haven't seen that many cruise shows (only our 3rd cruise), but I was speaking to a guy from HK who cruises several times a year, and he said it was the best one he'd ever seen. I don't want to give you too many details and spoil it, but there were acrobats, synchronized swimmers, dancers and so on - just DON'T MISS IT!
Day 4 - Hong Kong At the Gala show last night they gave us some details on the makeup of passengers onboard which was interesting. There were 1800+ passengers onboard, many different nationalities, the largest groups included 188 Australians, 200+ Chinese, 200+ Hong Kong, 200+ South Korea, 200+ Malaysia, and several smaller groups. Quite a few passengers were only on the 3 day cruise, so left the ship when we docked back in HK. There were more who joined us in HK though, for just a 2 day cruise to Xiamen.
After a lazy morning, we arrived into HK at 4pm. After our last 2 days we were thrilled that Star offered no tours here, so everyone was free and easy and could depart immediately, hence we were on land by 4.15pm. Our plan was to take the tram up Victoria Peak and see the views of HK. Had intended to do it on our first day in HK, but smog was so bad we didn't think we'd see much, so decided to leave it. Of course today the smog/cloud was even lower and thicker, with The Peak completely encased, so decided it was not to be yet again. That leaves us only with Friday afternoon to try it now, so hopefully we'll make it then.
Opposite the Star Ferry terminal was a great internet cafe, fraction of the cost of the ship and light speed in comparison, so we logged on for an hour and were able to chat with the kids at home which was fun. We then headed to the Temple St night markets on the fabulous MTR with our Octopus cards, had a good shop and nice meal, although after we got off the ship on Friday we did the Ladies markets and thought these were much bigger and better than Temple St.
We hopped back on the train and went to the waterfront to watch the "Symphony of Lights". Many of the waterfront buildings have huge light shows on them, and beams of light that flash from their roof top, synchronized to music, its quite entertaining. We walked back to the cruise ship, we had to be back on board at 8.30pm for a 9.30pm sailing, and as we came back they were packing everything up, turns out we were the last to re-board at 8.25pm, so we certainly made the most of our port time today.
The show tonight was a musical written by Star Cruises "The Musicians of Bremen". It was entertaining due to the acrobatics and production (even had trampolining) but I really have no clue what the plot was, although the guy and girl did seem to get together in the end - it makes Gilbert & Sullivan look like literary genius'. We certainly laughed a lot though, there was some great music - everything from ABBA to the song from Happy Feet.
We're heading to Xiamen China tomorrow and have bitten the bullet and booked a Star tour today, have to check them out and keen to make the most of the timing in our last port.
Day 5 - Xiamen, China
We booked on the first tour leaving the ship, and were on land by 1.15pm after docking at 1pm - much better start! There is a huge new ocean terminal there, incredibly spacious, but the customs officials sat at card tables to process our passports. We got our passports back in the morning on the ship, and actually kept them with us this time in China. We were then bussed to the ferry terminal in Xiamen to take the 10min trip across to Gulangyu Islet, a very quaint place also known as 'piano island' as it apparently has the highest concentration of pianos per capita in the world. There are 20,000 residents on the island and 5000 pianos. There are no cars on the island, lots of narrow streets, but lovely to walk around as you can just wander,without having to watch for traffic. The island has a Portugese/French influence, so lots of lovely architecture and features.
Our group was "B1" so we followed Sandy our tour guide around with her long stick with a blue flag on the end. She was constantly saying "B1" in English & Chinese to keep us together, so it was echoing in our head all day.
Our first 'stop' as a group was to watch a puppet show, even though it was all in Chinese the plot was more understandable than the 'Musicians of Bremen' on the ship the prior evening! Puppets were well done, quite entertaining and not too long. We then wandered some more, looking at historical buildings/displays and then headed to a lovely garden with bridges, rock features that led into their Piano museum. The building is designed to look like the keys on a piano, it's quite clever. As we arrived there was actually a pocket of blue sky, it was SOO spectacular to finally see the sky, not just the pea soup grey fog, the 6 Aussies/kiwi's in our group were all very excited, and snapped away. The piano museum was quite interesting, with all manner of pianos on display.
We then had dinner in the restaurant of a hotel, and we could have quite happily skipped that part and explored more of the island on our own (the benefit of hindsight). There was a LOT of food, all served banquet style, we were on a table with our new friends from Melbourne, and then a family of 4 from Chennai India (who instantly bonded with my husband over their mutual love of cricket). Obviously the food was very local Chinese, given that most on the tour were Asian. The first dish was an undercooked chicken, complete with its head, and a plate of eel (again, with head).......so we ate very little of many of the meals. There was a nice noodle soup though, and they bought a plate of honey fried pork that was delicious, we devoured that. As we left I noticed the only dish we'd eaten (the pork) was the dish all the other tables with had left. We then had over an hour to shop, wandering through the streets, lots of pearl places and trinket selling. Bought a couple of things, not much then went back on the ferry/bus to the ship, where they took our passports back off us. The show was a repeat of the show from Gala night, and even though it was really good, we didn't really feel like watching it again. We ended up meeting friends for a drink (we're both trying to use up our drinks credits) in the Bellini bar.
We're due to disembark back in Hong Kong tomorrow, crossing everything that we'll get a clear day to make the Peak.
Day 6 - Hong Kong - final
Sad to wake up for our last morning onboard, but sadder once we opened the curtains and saw yet more smog, with visibility of 200M. I'd pictured us sitting on the balcony often, but was really not so appealing when you seemed to be often in a cloud.
It's worth repeating this - if you book a balcony cabin on the Virgo you automatically get a $HKD 2000 food/beverage credit per cabin. Some travel agents will tell you this, but not all, as we found out - and Star don't mention it when you check in. The credit can only be used for food or drinks, not internet, laundry or any other purchases - although it does apply to bottles of alcohol purchased at the ships bottleshop. We knew about it, and rang reception a few times to check on our tally. We had about $130 left by our last day - enough for a glass of wine each at lunch. We ended up sitting with another couple from Perth at lunch who were onboard to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. We asked them how they went with using up their $2000, and their response was "don't talk about it, we're so upset"......turns out their travel agent didn't tell them about the credit, and they'd been really frugal with the drinks and had only bought 1 each, so had $1900 left on the card, and they only found out when they went to settle their bill - giving them about 3 hours to use it up!! Oh I felt so bad for them, the lady doesn't drink, but hubby does. She said every morning she'd see the freshly squeezed juice at breakfast and think that would be nice, but too expensive so better not have one......it's just ridiculous that Star doesn't remind everyone as they get onboard. Our travel agent didn't know about it either, I'd read it online and had to get them to verify it. So anyway, this couple were determined to use it, so they ordered a non-alcoholic cocktail for her, a rum/coke for him and a bottle of wine for us on their tab!! We ended up having enough left over on our money to hit the ice cream parlour for a huge sundae each after lunch. I saw them again just before leaving and he was dragging his suitcase in 1 hand, and had another rum/coke in the other. I asked the lady if she'd got to get an ice-cream, as she was keen on the idea, but she said "no, we stopped by the bar and John was wanting to shout as many people as he could to use his $$ up!!"
We were in the ice cream parlour as we sailed into Hong Kong harbor, hoeing into a chocolate/walnut sundae each (yum), and what should we see as we sail in but ……BLUE skies!!! OK, not the whole sky, but several large patches, which made us pretty excited (we broke out the camera again to record it). Got off the boat pretty quickly, dropped our bags at the hotel (the wonderful Salisbury YMCA, can't get a better location) and hopped to the Star Ferry to head for the Peak. Of course as we were on the ferry the blue sky patches started to shrink, but we were not to be deterred, hopped on the bus to the terminus and then the Peak Tram to head up. By the time we were on the observation deck I don't think there was any blue left, but we did get some nice shots before the clouds fully descended again. Really enjoyed the Peak, good shopping and Madam Tussaud's was fun too, had dinner at Café Deco (sublime) while watching the lights come on.
Spent one more day in HK, walked the couple of blocks from our hotel to Kowloon Park in the morning, then did the Ngong Ping cable car to Giant Buddha on Lantau Island, before catching the bus to the airport and heading home.
We certainly enjoyed the cruise, but also nice to be home and appreciate the gorgeous clear skies we have in Australia!