Discovery Cruise Review by John Bull: TIMEWARP CRUISING ON DISCOVERY
TIMEWARP CRUISING ON DISCOVERY
Discovery is a little old lady, 21,000 tons 650 pax, 34 years old. She has the classic lines of a traditional cruise liner, & she's been kept tolerably up-together and clean, but never been decently updated.
If she were a chair, she'd be grandad's big comfy old over-stuffed leather armchair with brass pins, leather arm patches and a corduroy antimacassar.
Conveniently, and in the nicest possible way, this also describes many of the pax ;-) Think retired bank branch managers and university lecturers, with a sprinkling of old money. Mainly Brits, but with more than a few Americans, Canadians & antipodeans. The ship has a very very strong & loyal following. Over half were regulars, & some had been aboard for 2 months. Thankfully most were blase about their cruising life-style, and were friendly & chatty even though they weren't my usual sort of company. In fact apart from a few, just a few, frosties - the type who perhaps feel that you are invading THEIR ship - it was More a very very friendly ship, and we enjoyed many independent shore trips with a crowd of new UK & US friends. Whilst the average age was pretty high, I'd guess most over 60 and many much older -- I never once saw a wheelchair or zimmer. A pretty fit bunch
Lots of minuses. But lots of plusses too. Let's start with the negatives: Rather disjointed public areas, though no great matter as distances on the ship are small... The Lido is a disaster zone. With an early design of sliding roof (which has always leaked like a sieve), it's dreary even with the roof open and used exclusively for buffet lunches & teas, with what appear to be the original canteen-style serveries, hot water boilers etc, and a mix of vaguely-presentable slatted wooden and seriously un-presentable plastic dining furniture. In the middle of this sits an incongruous small round pool, set way below deck-level so that swimmers (I only ever saw two) disappear into a black hole An odd-shaped similarly-designed pool disgraces the otherwise very attractive main stern deck, which leads from the main lounge/bar and is well-sheltered by wings of the prom deck. Swimmers will be bitterly disappointed. Most cabins, though well-kept, are way too small for cat-swingers, beds can only sensibly be two singles, no tea/coffee, no fridge, acceptable bathroom (shower, no bath). No live TV. That's right, none. Anywhere. Plenty of DVD channels, all on daily continuous loop. Decent selection of films, usually one or more associated with ports-of-call, and re-runs of port & other lectures. Plus a rather pointless ceefax-style page of news, repeating the daily "Britain Today" single sheet newspaper. Never thought I'd wish for CNN. Gym/spa has very basic equipment Excursions expensive, even compared to other cruise lines.
On the plus side: Plenty of both sunny & shady deck-space and sunbeds despite excluding the lido. Classic wooden steamer chairs along the promenade deck and sunbeds elsewhere - other than up on the exhilarating front of deck 9, far too breezy for furniture. This deck is over the bridge, looking down on the flying bridges, which are separated from the promenade deck by simple two-bar waist-high gates. There's not many ships where you can chat to the captain as you head into port, or hear him swearing under his breath at the efforts of the pilot boat helmsman. And if that's not close enough, you can take a free bridge tour. Lots of odd little deck areas, and a couple of good jacuzzis (rarely both in use at the same time) on a high deck overlooking the stern. Decent little shop, reception area and a number of little hidden-away corners inside & out. Abundance of chilled drinking water on deck & dining table, and 24 hr tea/coffee. Drinks prices in line with UK pubs, that's about a third of prices on main-stream US cruise-lines. sterling as on-board currency.
Entertainment is very very limited. Good but small ensemble of singers, dancers, band, but no stage sets or effects. Small classical group. Occasional knees-ups in the lounge. One or two generally good lectures per day, mainly about destination countries & ports. Well-stocked library, internet room, quiet lounge and bridge room. Are you getting the picture? Minor daytime quizzes, deck games etc. Dance lessons, cookery/cocktail demos, jigsaws (I kid thee not). The theatre will seat more than half her passengers, but usually uncrowded so no real problem with the many pillars. The cinema doubles as a lecture room, there's just one good-sized main bar/lounge, plus occasionally the little shack on the main stern deck and the little hideaway bar Ship nearly always sleeping before midnight. Boring & disappointing to start, but pretty hectic shore days & I was eventually content to also turn-in early. Oh my, haven't I aged. A few other standard cruise factors were missing. Casino. Art auctions. Bingo. Canned music. Hard-sell. Excessive tannoy announcements. Intrusive photographers. Babies. Kids. Teenagers. Yobs. Drunks . Brilliant crew, every man-jack of them, from captain to officers to hotel staff to deck crew. A happy & friendly bunch, & nothing was too much trouble. Basic tips included in the cruise ticket price but I doubt anyone failed to also put their hands in their wallets at goodbye time. They all knew my name, drinks preferences, even cabin number, within a couple of days.
Dining -- good Main Dining Room, free Yacht Club speciality restaurant (one visit pw), and that god-awful lido for decent buffets & teas. Plus sea-day deck barbies & regular midnight buffets. Excellent food & decent menu choice for dinner, but dress codes in MDR & Yacht Club and no alternative evening dining. Mainly smart casual on port days (quite right too), informal on sea days (who in hell wants to wear a jacket & tie in the tropics?) and one formal evening pw in the MRD - you can guess my attitude toward penguin suits, plus the Yacht Club is closed that evening. So once a week its penguin suit or starve. Next time, I'll starve. Dinner at fixed seating (various table sizes) in two sittings, we were on a table of eight. Such dining risks being sat with the wrong sort of company. And there were a few on board. Mebbe we were lucky, or mebbe the Maitre D was a genius, we had great company for both legs of our cruise and dinner was a pleasure. Excellent waiter (Roberto), efficient, unobtrusive, but a wicked sense of humour and a 6th sense of what folk wanted. By contrast, I found the Yacht Club service fussy & pretentious (and I'm not a complete pleb) . Itinerary. This little lady goes where the floating resort-hotels can't -- and possibly don't want to go. She doesn't have a repeat schedule, she wanders the seas & passengers join for one or more 14 day legs. Our two legs covered Singapore, Bali, Komodo, Java, Malaysia, Cambodia, Bangkok, Saigon, Nha Trang, Da Nang, Ha Long Bay (for Hanoi), Hong Kong. This includes overnights at important stops, though as always time is the enemy of cruising. Rather too many stops were ashore by tender, and although tendering was quick & efficient due to her small size & efficient tender crews, priority to ship's excursions did limit time ashore for we independently-minded travellers.
Bali. (2 days) At anchor, Padangbai. Overwhelmingly Hindu, contrasting with the rest of Indonesia, which is predominantly Muslim. At the jetty, cheap & easy to hire a minibus/driver/guide at around $50 per day. Yes, $50 total per day. Day one - more temples than you can shake a stick at, we visited a small selection. Then woodcraft workshops & on to the volcano & lake at Kedisan (rather spoilt by rain & mist), on the way back down an open-fronted restaurant with excellent elevated views over paddyfields. $12 buffet, but very good. And we fed their pet fruit-bats, hanging by the front door! Historic Hall of Justice at Semarapura on the way back. Day two - Monkey Forest Sanctuary at Ubud. And a long road of tourist-orientated shops adjacent, very pleasant browsing environment. Goa Lawah Bat cave & temple on the way back. Overall a friendly, religious & cheap island but the artistry & craftsmanship of the islanders is what really grabbed me. Great days. Komodo. 1/2 day at anchor. Ship advised that "on the instructions of the nature reserve staff" we would only be tendered ashore if on their excursion. We all meekly booked at Â£45 pp for a 90 minute walk (ker...ching). (Am I being cynical? see Semarang, below) But at least we saw the famous dragons. Reference threads about the danger on cruisecritic's forums ..... what danger???? They were clearly well-fed & disinterested in us. Java. Docked at Semarang. Worst port of the cruise, poor weather didn't help. Negotiated a minibus - more hard-nosed bargaining than Bali, ended up agreeing about $80 between 8 of us for the day. Headed for the railway station/museum at Ambarawa, together with others agreed with railway staff about $350 dollars to hire a train (cost about $15 each) Then after the ship's excursion group had arrived & set off on their train trip, suddenly they couldn't fit a train in for us. Had the ship's agent (Inter-cruises) put a spoke in our wheel? Very probably. No matter, such is the lot of the independent excursionist, & we set off for a coffee plantation instead, & ended the day in a modern shopping mall in Semerang. Not a day to remember. Malaysia. Docked at Port Gelong, nr Balok (for Kuantan) Another minibus hiring, about $100 for 10 of us. Malaysia is a tiger economy, much more developed than Indonesia, but currently that excellent blend of western comforts and asian charm. Chara Cave (reclining buddha), former tin-mining town / free mining museum at Sungai Lembing and interesting chinese village via the "hanging bridge", rubber plantation, super waterfall at Sungai Pandan, quick zip around Kuantan and fishing village. Finally a quick beach stop, with a monkey colony. Great day Cambodia. At anchor off Sihanoukville. Advised last-minute that we couldn't dock due to a broken-down ferry at out berth so we'd have to tender. Shame, cos we were due to leave at 11pm but with the last tender before dark that screwed up our planned evening ashore. We later learned that the ferry had been there for over a year !! No wonder Cambodia's economy is a mess - all our wining & dining budget was spent aboard that evening! Sihanoukville is mainly quite modern, it's Phnom Penh's playground. Today's minibus was about $80, we went to Ream Nat Park, via a beautiful waterfall. Super visitor area under construction, with a lot of artistic cement carving going on. Also hired a boat across to the small idyllic back-packer island of Kaoh Ruessei - beach, bar, shacks for rent. A great place to get away from it all. Boat was about $4 each. Finally, a small fishing village on the southern outskirts of Sihanoukville - the one bit of old artisan Cambodia - and a bit of an eye-opener - not to be missed. Great day. Bangkok. Docked 6pm at the ferry terminal (not cruise terminal) at Laem Chabang. 2 days. About 75 miles/ up to 2 hrs from Bangkok. Closed-shop franchised taxi service at the quay, long long way from dock gates, bus routes, & civilisation. Unsurprisingly taxis were expensive. Bangkok folk were having to pay around Â£70 one-way, including unwanted tour. Equally unsurprising then, that ship's staff got a lot of stick about taxis from pax. Took a 20 min taxi ride at $10 return pp to Pattaya. Very very lively, not my scene, but worth checking out. Early next morning, just the two of us took a taxi to meet a private tour-bus at Bang Pa In summer palace (beautiful), on with the tour-bus to Ayuttaya (impressive) then motor launch down the river to Bangkok (great way to enter the city), with good buffet lunch etc. aboard. About $45pp. From the same quay, we hired a long-tailed boat for an hour around the klongs ($20 the boat). Tuk-tuk to Patong for the evening & where we'd booked Rose Hotel (very acceptable small modern hotel, excellent location, about $40 the room). Next morning, tuk-tuk back to the river & express boat up-river to Grand Palace. We'd screwed-up! Palace closed for the morning for an event, so we toured chinatown. Very interesting. Then back to hotel for taxi, arranged by hotel, back to Laem Chabang. Driver turned out to be a former cruise-ship barman! Taxi cost about $37 (remember, taxi from quay to Bangkok quoted at $70!!) Great 2 days. Saigon. Docked Ben Nha Rong, 1 1/2 days. Super sail up the Saigon River, docked a (traffic-hazardous) 10 - 15 min walk from centre. Afternoon 6 of us touring the compact city centre by pedicab. Great time, but grief over the cost at the end. Cardinal sin, hadn't agreed a price! They'd "leave it up to us, pay what you like", then at the end they suddenly produced a "fare chart". We didn't fall for it, during our tour we'd checked with Tourist Info at the Post Office, who'd told us $2 to $3 per hour. Having offered the equiv of $4 per hour we held firm & walked off. Shame, cos it left a bad taste, but sadly its the sort of thing that happens a lot in Vietnam. Tour included Ho Chi Minh Mueeum, Re-unification Palace, War Remnants Museum, Post Office, Notre Dame, market. Next day, a pre-booked (but not pre-paid) speedboat for 8 of us to Cu Chi tunnels. That's the way to travel, & same 90 min journey time e/w as by congested roads. There's a lot more to the tunnels than tunnels - quite an eye-opener, guided tour 2 hrs, $5 or thereabouts admission. Stops on the way back at a pretty awful but interesting market, a resort with crocodile enclosure & pontoon bar (boat driver's choice, guess its a commission-earner LOL) and "tourist village" at Binh Quoi - beautiful area of landscaped gardens, pavilions etc. We counted about 8 wedding parties! Trip cost about $68 each - same as ship's non-stop minibus, though others took taxis at $30 the vehicle. Speedboat was easily best experience/value. That evening, authentic vietnamese meal (Ugh, but at $1 per dish it had to be tried & a great experience) then water puppets at the Golden Dragon. Brilliant performance, super band. 2 great days. Nha Trang. Berthed by cable-car, 1/2 day. Just the morning. Took the cable car over the bay (& ship) to Vinpearl resort island. Funfair (rollercoaster, gallopers, etc), excellent aquarium with walk-thru main tank, great water-park, great little beach. $15 pp all-in. Shame it was only a morning. OK, its not Vietnam, but we reckoned we'd earned a morning away from sight-seeing. One disconcerting note - shortly after we left the cable car to return to the ship, it stopped. Complete with folk in the cars. It started again as the ship was leaving. No pax left behind. Phew!! Great morning. Da Nang. Berthed Nui Son Tra (close to town) Took a minbus, 12 of us, $80. To Hoi An, super little low-rise ancient city, very laid-back, then via China Beach to Marble Mountain (well worth the modrate climb), then giant new Buddha. Great day. HaLong Bay. Anchored off Ha Long City, 1 1/2 days. Super morning sail-in on main passage thru the karsts. Having decided against long road trip to Hanoi, & to take a full-day junk cruise, we were at a loose end for the 1st afternoon so had arranged a private city tour. Even at $27 pp for the two of us it was a waste of time, the city has little to offer. Some you win, some you lose. Next day 8 of us hired a junk (capacity mebbe 30)for 6 hours, $90 total. Others hired junks for 4 hours for $60. Six hours was about right. Bay was misty, as usual this time of year - didn't spoil it, added to the eerie mystery of the place. You need to experience it to understand. Overall, 2 great days. Hong Kong. Berthed at cruise terminal by Star Ferry / Salisbury Hotel. Total 4 1/2 days, 3 nights at the Salisbury - super value harbour-view room. It's a YMCA hotel, next door to the Peninsula Hotel, which I think is a little more expensive LOL. Just love the ferries & trams. Plus funicular to Peak, bus to Stanley Market, bus to Aberdeen for the Jumbo junk restaurant - over-priced tourist honeypot, just as we'd been advised, but worth the experience. A day in the New Territories to my childhood home in the army village of Shek Kong (now Chinese army. A day-tour (group visa) to Guangzhou (Canton) in mainland China. Enjoyed it 10 years ago, but my how things have changed. Gone are the paddyfields & villages, in their place are wall-to-wall factories, high-rises and traffic jams. All the way. Brings me onto my final comment - the pollution. Never a clear day. No rain. Not the hottest of weather but no clouds. Yet hardly saw the sun. Or the Peak from the harbour or the harbour from the Peak. Remember LA 20/30 years ago? Or London in the '50s ? China /HK urgently need to sort themselves out, its not a pleasant place to be.
Been as objective as I can, warts and all. Just my opinions, others may differ.
Would we cruise with Discovery again? I certainly wouldn't rule it out.
Community Manager's Note: 'This review was written when the ship sailed for Voyages of Discovery. As of February 2013, it is now sailing under the Cruises & Maritime banner" Less
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