I can't help but overhear a conversation onboard as two older-but-active American men attempt to bond:
"You a baseball fan?"
"Yes, I am!"
"So, you're a New Yorker. You a Mets fan or a Yankees fan?"
"Yankees." He nods affirmatively.
"I hear A-Rod is going to re-sign."
The two men harmonize in agreement and walk on.
If our first day onboard Sapphire Princess sounds a bit as if we're living in a U.S. bubble, we are. And truthfully, this feeling is both a positive and a negative. After a whirlwind couple of days that took many of us outside our usual atmosphere, there's a comfort-food quality to Sapphire Princess' resolutely American ambience. But when you feel as though you are returning home to America each day after visiting an Asian port, the very cultures we’ve traveled so far to experience are hard to absorb.
Alas, our journey yesterday between Bangkok and Laem Chambang wasn't terribly relaxing, but we were warned ahead of time. Cruise Critic's Asia boards have been rife with posts about disastrous port transfers, and let me just say this right here and now: this is the most difficult port we’ve ever had to find.
It all started off smoothly enough. Since we did not take Princess' Motorcoach transfer, we arranged a sedan via our hotel. The port, as members have noted in our Asia forum, is a solid two-hour drive. Getting there should be no great hassle (and in fact some folks manage just fine), but because of construction quite close to Laem Chabang, some streets are closed. And suddenly the signs that point to the port have become quite useless. Furthermore, nowhere is there a sign saying, in effect, that "Sapphire Princess is here."
Okay, so in most ports you could just scan the horizon for the site of a 15-plus-deck mega-ship looming up into the sky -- and then head that way. Not in this massive and sprawling cargo port. Laem Chambang, one of the world’s biggest ports, is dotted with clusters of empty cargo trailers that are stacked up like mini skyscrapers, preventing any kind of view.
Our two-hour journey stretched to three hours and only worsened inside the massive cargo terminal, replete with dead end roadways and numerous security posts (none of which led to our ship). That was when we spotted a Princess motorcoach filled with passengers who were also hoping to board the ship. We decided to follow it. Intuitive thinking, right? Nope. Its driver was lost too.
Once we finally found the actual terminal, all was quite streamlined and efficient. One of the big differences between this journey and others, we learned, was that paperwork is a hassle (particularly for the ship's purser’s team, which is responsible for working with local authorities to clear the ship in each port). Every country has different procedures, and those procedures must be followed, explicitly. Here is a tidbit you might find important for your own Asian cruise: we'd been told, long before we left home, that we must, independently, secure our own visa to China.
That was the biggest challenge for passengers. But other special requirements, handled onboard (thank heavens!), include the following:
In Singapore, we're required to take our passports ashore -- and hand them back to the purser’s team immediately upon reboarding.
In Vietnam, where we call at the ports of Vung Tau (for Ho Chi Minh City) and Nha Trang, we must fill out a landing card that the purser’s team places inside each individual passport (we're talking more than 2,600!). Vietnamese officials board the morning of the first call and stamp each passport; each landing card is then returned to your stateroom. Editor’s note: Due to inclement weather, we were not able to make our stops in Vietnam.
For Hong Kong, immigration officials actually board in Nha Trang and spend the day at sea between that last Vietnam stop and the forthcoming visit to Hong Kong stamping all passports. Princess staffers have to photocopy every passport and then deliver each photocopy to the respective passenger.
Onboard, all can relax as we near Taiwan; no special requirements there.
And then there's Japan. Our first of two calls there is in Okinawa. We may, we're told, have to fill out a temporary landing card (which at this point is hardly onerous), but then, get this: officials from Okinawa Health will require us all to undergo a temperature check before debarking. If it's too high -- indicating a flu or infection of some sort -- you'll have to undergo a secondary inspection by a Japanese doctor and may be prohibited from going ashore.
While still in Okinawa, officials from China will board Sapphire Princess (and something tells me we won't spot them lounging by the Conservatory Pool). They'll stamp each and every passport -- then the purser’s representatives will once again make photocopies, this time with the Chinese stamp on it. For China, you'd better have gotten the "double entry" visa while still at home (and Princess' documents make a point to emphasize the importance of this) because that's what you need to access both ports of call. A fellow passenger told us his travel agent handled his visa request and only got him a single entry. As a result, he'll have to stay onboard during our visit to Shanghai.
For the cruise's last two calls (back to Japan via Nagasaki and China's Beijing, at cruise's end), the same routines, including the Japanese temperature check, apply.
It's no wonder that Hearts and Minds, the ship's wedding chapel, has been roped off since the beginning of our voyage: You can watch ship officials (and a rotating crew of immigration staffers from various countries) poring over boxes stuffed with passports and paper.
Tonight, we departed Laem Chabang an hour or so late -- one crew member told me a couple of cruise transfer buses were quite late and, er, got lost. Yeah, I can imagine.
Once onboard and despite the more exotic surroundings off the ship, life on Sapphire Princess is just the same as if we were preparing to depart Ft. Lauderdale for a rollicking Caribbean tour. The lido buffet was serving up hot lunches, and the Prego Pizzeria spotlighted the "Margarita" as its “pie of the day” while the featured drink was the Mucho Mango (coconut rum and mango juice). Lessons in Texas Hold 'Em Poker began at 8:30 p.m., and the Lotus Spa was open for business. The safety drill, which Princess takes very, very seriously, proceeded as normal.
Passengers dispersed afterward to casual venues -- the Wheelhouse Bar and Crooners -- for pre-dinner cocktails. Princess offers cruising's most seamless blend of dining options; you can go the traditional route and have the same waiters, table and companions throughout the voyage or, via Anytime Dining, can opt to sup at any of four different fee-free restaurants (menus, which change nightly, are the same at each, but the ambience differs). Lots of folks went the uber casual route, opting instead for the Lido buffet up on Deck 15, which was massively crowded by shorts- and jeans-wearing travelers and basically serves the same stuff that's on dining room menus.
If these features, services and programs are generally what you expect from Princess Cruises no matter where you travel, there's one big difference on this ship and trip -- the global passenger dynamic is incredibly varied. Brits and Americans run neck and neck for majority status, followed by groups, hundreds of people strong, hailing from Japan, Turkey, Germany, Australia, Switzerland, Cyprus, Barbados, Russia and Brazil, among others.
Tomorrow, and bless itinerary planners for this, is a day at sea. There's plenty of time for sleeping off jet lag, though I've seen the list of activities and just kicking back may be quite a challenge before our next port of call: a visit to Singapore.