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Sapphire Princess: Asia for First-Timers
About the Virtual Cruise
Sapphire Princess: Asia for First-Timers Exploring Asia is a daunting challenge, not just because the continent is so vast but also because despite each country's relative proximity, the region comprises places with exotically different languages and cultures. And as it's a heck of a long way from home -- whether traveling from Canada, the U.S, the U.K., Europe (and it's even a long haul jaunt for Australians) -- just getting there in the first place is quite a journey.

This daunting challenge is precisely what makes a cruise of the region -- as Cruise Critic Editor Carolyn Spencer Brown hopes to discover -- a perfect way for both casual travelers and first-timers to sample Asian destinations that range from the still-somewhat-off-the-radar Vietnam and mainland China to drop-bys in the established tourism locales of Singapore and Hong Kong.

Spencer Brown's ship of choice is Sapphire Princess, one of the more recent additions to Princess Cruises' fleet. The 2,670-passenger, 116,000-ton vessel -- which incidentally is one of the few to be built in Asia (in Japan's Mitsubishi shipyard) -- is, with all its mega-ship features (multiple dining options, expansive spa, Vegas-style theater), the kind of vessel more traditionally associated with carefree holidays. And it's important to note that Asia, as a cruise destination, has typically had more to offer the luxury traveler than (aside from fellow Asians) those of us on a more moderate budget. But Sapphire Princess, with its higher passenger capacity, is the first big ship to really stake a claim on the cruise traveler who's perhaps already sailed the Caribbean, Europe and Alaska, and is looking to expand horizons. Affordably.

That a mega-ship can, perhaps, put a major travel destination on the list of possibilities for a more price-conscious cruise traveler is what interests Spencer Brown about the combination of Sapphire Princess and Asia. But: Are there trade-offs? Can the ports handle the ship's crowds? Will the onboard experience -- based on Princess' trademark Western styles -- offer a complete disconnect from the on shore experience?

The 14-night cruise begins in Bangkok, sails south to Singapore, then maintains a northern course, calling at Singapore, Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City and Nha Trang, Hong Kong, Taiwan's Taipei, as well as Japan's Okinawa and Shanghai.

What's the experience, blending a mainstream American onboard ambience with offshore explorations of exotic worlds only previously imagined, really like? Read on.

Map appears courtesy of Princess Cruises (Spencer Brown disembarked in Shanghai).

Poll: Which Asian ports intrigue you most?
From the Bridge: Modern Day Mutiny -- Who's to Blame?

Day 1: Pre-Cruise Stay in Bangkok
Day 2: Getting Our Sea Legs
Day 3: Touching Land in Singapore
Day 4: The Disruptive Typhoon
Day 5: Hong Kong
Day 6: After a Night ... A Day in Hong Kong
Day 7: Taipei's Canceled and We're At Sea (Again)
Day 8: A Night Out in Shanghai
Day 9: Not Enough Time in Shanghai…Plenty of Time on Sapphire
Related Links
Sapphire Princess ship review
Sapphire Princess Member reviews
Asia Cruises
Asia Messages
Princess Messages
Day 1: Monday, Pre-Cruise Stay in Bangkok
Pre-Cruise Stay in BangkokVertigo -- Bangkok's quite distinctive open-air bar atop the Banyan Tree Hotel -- has me wondering whether I'm still onboard the 17-hour nonstop flight on Thai Airways from New York. Just a little while ago, we emerged from the city's relatively new airport, some 40 minutes from downtown, just as the sun began to set. As we sit exactly 60 floors above the city of Bangkok, we feel a little disoriented under the night sky.

The big tip-off that we're no longer strapped into seats 57A and 57B on Thai Airways is a gentle breeze and the raucous sounds of many, many car horns way down below.

The city lights sprawl endlessly in every direction with few electrified landmarks. The night is sultry at 30 degrees Celsius. The air smells … good in an odd, industrial way; from the factories spewing smoke to the aforementioned automobiles, the scent falls somewhere between the caramel cook-off smell of burnt sugar and that of roasting charcoal.

Certainly for me, the most challenging barrier to visiting Asia's smorgasbord of differing cultures -- whether traveling on land or by sea -- has been the extreme travel demands of actually arriving here. Ours wasn't, frankly, too bad; we departed New York's JFK at about 11:30 a.m. on Friday morning and arrived in Bangkok at 5 p.m. on Saturday night (I get the hours I lost back when I head home).

The appeal of Thai Airways, which flies one of the longest nonstop distances in the world from both L.A. and New York, isn't only one of convenience (a fellow Sapphire Princess passenger endured a 27-hour journey from Boston, via several connections and long layovers on a combination of airlines) but also the fact that we're welcomed onboard by flight attendants with the Wai -- a lovely Thai custom. It's a pressing of palms together, prayer like, with a slight bow and a ready smile. The hours that passed in the air introduced us to some aspects of Thai culture, whether it's through the three meals we were offered -- which include roast duck in Thai red curry, stir-fried pork with chili, garlic and basil, and Phad Thai with prawns -- or the frosty cans of Singha, Thailand's popular beer.

The flight path from New York was a new one for me: We watched the sun set over the North Pole at 3 p.m. and saw it rise again as we flew over the vast Siberian plains. On a cloudless morning, we could see down to frozen lakes and tundra before we flew through Mongolia, China and Laos until finally entering Thai airspace.

Seventeen hours onboard a single aircraft, without interruption, is certainly a record breaker for me (as well as for my husband Teijo, a far more frequent flier). Sure, there wasn't much sleeping, but we ate well, hydrated sufficiently and enjoyed some quirky moments, from a 10-hour marathon of "Grey's Anatomy" (this huge fan must admit she flagged after viewing six episodes) to rambunctious games of double Pong, a paddle-tennis like game that allows you to challenge your seatmate. A darling dog (a diminutive Lhasa Apso), a row behind us, was perfectly behaved -- save for one daring bolt down the aisle mid-flight (his Thai parents told us he was quite well traveled). We even watched a documentary on Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest reigning monarch, whose 80th birthday celebrations will soon make international news waves.

On the downside, of course, is that even if seat pitch and leg room are more generous than on trans-Atlantic flights, comfortable sleep's a bit of a premium, and there's really no room onboard to engage in callisthenic stretches and the like. So we were definitely glad to see Bangkok when it appeared on the horizon.

The airport in Suvarnabhumi is a rather new one and pleasant enough. But no matter how efficient it is, by the time you've queued for immigration, waited for luggage and then headed outside, it's near impossible to feel anything but antsy and impatient. With only one night's grace before boarding our ship, we'd decided to create a flight-survival experience; we booked a room at the all-suite Banyan Tree Hotel, part of a small chain of quite upscale hotels and resorts that's highly regarded throughout Asia and beyond. It was an awesome pick for two reasons. One is that Bangkok itself offers some of the best value-for-money hotel experiences in the world. Whether you've gone for the ultimate basic-but-clean Hotel De' Moc near the Democracy Monument (sometimes shortened to the Democ Monument), as did a fellow passenger who gloated about his $45 a night rate, or splurged on a place like the ultra luxe Banyan Tree -- the likes of which would cost so much more in London or New York than the $190 rate we paid -- you are sure to find somewhere good to stay.

One great thing about an all-suite hotel is that when one of you wakes up, stone cold alert, at 2 a.m. -- the dreaded jetlag -- you, or in this case me, can go into the other room and not disturb.

And while it's certainly rather ridiculous to travel all the way to Bangkok and not see the city's major sites, a tight schedule precluded more time for touring. As well, on an itinerary as jam packed as ours with marquee ports of call to explore, there simply isn't time to see everything. Resting and relaxing after an intense journey just seemed more important to prepare us for the trip ahead.

And so we'll return to Bangkok for a more comprehensive visit another time.

But we sure had fun while we were here, even if we didn't manage to check out temples, museums and outdoor markets. I'd frankly return here for a spa vacation alone; a 2 1/2 hour "rainforest dew mist" treatment, utterly unique in my experience, included an orange and yoghurt scrub before experiencing the spritzing of a steamy rain forest ... er, rainstorm ... all the while lying face up on a fiberglass table. It was like taking a shower lying down. Afterwards followed several highlights including a body revitalization with the sweetest smelling mixture of honey and milk, another rain storm to clean it all off and a fantastic Balinese massage (long, sweeping strokes) that relaxed nearly every possible muscle, ache, joint and pain. A lovely touch completes the treatment: you repair to a relaxation room where you're served chrysanthemum tea and fresh pineapple.

The divine treatment costs half what the same type of effort -- note I do not deign to compare the quality -- on a cruise ship spa would cost. And it was so much more superb than any ship treatment I've ever received. And get this: the whole thing ran $170, a great value-for-money experience. One of the best splurges ever.

As well, our dinner at Vertigo, a combo bar and restaurant, was surreal in a good way. We loved the crowd; most were tourists from just about everywhere but Thailand -- Germans, Australians, Brits, Japanese. And there were Americans of course, a few of whom we've gone on to see aboard Sapphire Princess. To say it wasn't cheap -- our dinner cost more than our hotel room! -- is the proverbial understatement, but if you're going to pay for location, this is the place to do it. The views and ambience are amazing; the blackness of the night sky draped its arms around us and the illumination only by the light of tiny candles doesn't distract from the energy of the city. Seemingly, the only thing preventing you from flying off the top of this former helipad is a waist-high metal railing, And oh, yes, the cuisine was outstanding.

And please learn from my mistake. In my bleariness, I muddled up the Thai Bhat conversion rate. The $37 bottle of California's Alexander Valley Vineyards chardonnay I thought I saw on the wine list actually cost, er, $120. At least we enjoyed it.

Next on our itinerary: We board Sapphire Princess at Laem Chabang. The big-ship (and more commonly the cargo) port for Bangkok is a two-hour drive from the city if your driver doesn't get lost, which is a story for another day.

Image of Vertigo appears courtesy of Banyan Tree Hotels.
  Day 2: Getting Our Sea Legs

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