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Sapphire Princess: Asia for First-Timers
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
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Day 4: Thursday, The Disruptive Typhoon
The Disruptive TyphoonAn ominous report of a typhoon that's heading across the South China Sea near the Philippines straight toward Vietnam has Sapphire Princess in a tizzy. That's because after today's sea day, the next two are meant to focus on visits to the ports of Vung Tau, where most of us will head to Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon) and Nha Trang.

If there's a port on an Asia itinerary that's on the "greatest hits" places to visit it has to be tomorrow's visit to Ho Chi Minh City. In fact, for many people I've met so far, the chance to explore Vietnam is the reason they made the trek to board Sapphire Princess in the first place (though Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Shanghai are certainly not minor destinations).

In the morning, Sapphire Princess Captain Attilio Guerrini cuts in on the sea-day fun with the unexpected announcement that forecasters place the storm's landfall squarely between Vung Tau and Nha Trang later tomorrow. Both ports in Vietnam are canceled. We will instead spend the next two days at sea -- and a very rough sea at that -- before cruising into Hong Kong a half day early. Hagibis, the typhoon, is swirling at a speed that's comparable to a Category One hurricane in the Atlantic basin.

So there's bad news (missing out on Vietnam) and there's good news (an overnight in Hong Kong, which is special not only because the city has a vibrant nightlife but also because of its famous Symphony of Lights laser show). With a landscape largely defined by towering skyscrapers, night -- with the buildings lit up in different patterns and variations of neon -- is actually the best time to experience Hong Kong.

While passengers are clearly downcast -- people now greet one another in elevators with an "Isn't this disappointing" rather than "Good morning" -- there seems to be a tough-skin mentality about missing Vietnam. More than a few expressed concern about the residents of the towns we were to visit, and indeed the BBC reports on our in-cabin televisions say that thousands are being evacuated from the area.

The people who are really scrambling are staffers onboard. Sammi Baker, the effervescent and omnipresent cruise director, tells us her staff is putting together full slates of activities to cover the yawning maw of a pair of sudden sea days. For pursers, it means that Vietnamese officials, who boarded in Singapore with the intent of clearing the ship before we ever even arrived at Vung Tau, have an unexpected mini-break. And Hong Kong's immigration staffers, who planned to board in Nha Trang to prepare the ship for debarkation in Hong Kong, can't make it at all.

The shore excursion department is feverishly canceling all the tours set up for Vietnam and then creating new ones for our surprise evening in Hong Kong. From the Captain on down, officers are working to secure dockage at Hong Kong, which proves complicated (berths are reserved well in advance); it seems we'll anchor somewhere off Hong Kong on Saturday night and then move to our berth at the container pier on Sunday. Because clearing a ship can take as long as five or six hours, we'll arrive at Hong Kong midday on Saturday -- but we'll have to just hang out onboard (sea day number three, in essence) until shortly before dinnertime.

The captain's even more challenging job is to reroute the ship on a sea that's currently plagued with late-season typhoons. We swing around widely, cruising well out of the way of the direct approach to Hong Kong that was originally planned. He's also upped our speed to a maximum 21 knots in order to get behind Hagibis.

And what did we do? The folks who'd booked independent land arrangements with tour operators in Vietnam hopped on the Internet and canceled them. For the rest of us, it could have been any other sea day on any other Princess ship.

The art auction drew a standing room only crowd as did a film showing of "Miss Potter" in the Explorers Lounge. Dance classes, reflecting a "Dancing with the Stars" sensibility, included beginners ballroom, country western, cha cha and even line dancing. Craft-oriented activities included scrapbooking at sea and painting your own ceramics. People played Call My Bluff, The Liars Club and Scattergories.

The spa had space for last minute bookings, and a spur-of-the-moment massage ($117 plus tip) provides a nice diversion. At this rate, you could have time for a full makeover if budget affords -- from facial to pedicure.

The most interesting event on one of the days -- multiple days at sea begin to run together after awhile -- was the ongoing series of Scholarship@Sea lectures about the Concorde crash in Paris that marked the end of the fabled supersonic airline. Other topics included a series of talks on coral reefs and a lecture on the "Titanic Recovery Charter."

The latter perhaps should have been held for a calmer day: Sapphire Princess spent a large part of two days pitching and then rolling in a sea so tempestuous that you'd hear the occasional cannon-like boom when it made contact with 10-ft. waves. After the boom came the spume -- the frothy surface of the South China Sea that would, after making powerful contact with Sapphire Princess, send out a wave so vast that, for a few moments, it would completely obscure the horizon. And this view is from a relatively lofty perch on Deck 9!

Indeed, conditions worsened. Pools were closed off. It became impossible to walk around without clutching handrails and passengers showered at their own risks. I was awoken one night by the sound of dripping water -- inside my stateroom.

The last thing I want to think about on any cruise is the Titanic, not to mention the Explorer, the expedition ship that sank in the Antarctic last week.

It turns out the dripping water was actually an ice bucket; the extreme pitching of the ship was sending waves of water over its rim and onto the coffee table.



All things being equal -- and certainly we're hampered by the unexpected typhoon -- the lack of activities related to the region in which we're cruising is a turn-off; where is an Asian buffet at lunchtime, for instance? How hard would it have been to add a regional journalist or historian to the daily docket for a couple of talks? Program the occasional Asia-oriented film into the rotation on either the in-stateroom television or in public venues? A cooking class, hosted by one of Sapphire Princess' chefs on Cantonese culinary treats? We don't even have a Hong Kong-based lecturer because of the storm, and the disconnect has become more than obvious.

Of course we certainly are capable of entertaining ourselves with long lunches in the International Dining Room, books to read (alas, the most intriguing titles I carted along all concerned Vietnam!), and second and third run movies to watch on the in-cabin television. And though jetlag has pretty much disappeared, there's no harm in a daily nap -- is there?

But all these things aren't what I came to Asia for. I came to see Asia.

"Already this cruise feels longer," says Teijo, "than a six-day crossing on Queen Mary 2."
Day 3: Touching Land in Singapore red arrow Day 5: Hong Kong

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