It's an odd start to the morning when the cruise director comes on the squawk box at the beginning of the day and says, honestly, she's trying to find things for us to do -- but in the meantime, have a cup of tea and take a nap.
Indeed, the news becomes progressively worse as the morning wears on. First, people wake up and prepare for early morning activities ashore in Keelung, the port for Taipei, but it's clear that, despite no word from the bridge by 8 a.m. -- 1 1/2 hours after our scheduled arrival -- we're still at sea with no land in sight.
The captain finally comes on to say Keelung is canceled. A little while later, he comes back on to say Okinawa, our next port of call, is also canceled. Both calls are affected by a category one typhoon called Mitag. And while I don't doubt that this has been a tough decision by a captain who's really doing the very best he can to manage, despite incredibly unpredictable weather, there's a feeling of ridiculousness beginning to settle in as we now have another three more sea days to endure -- the seas are "very rough," (18 ft. waves), outer decks are closed and the Horizon Court buffet is whipping and thumping. The ship's bars are packed -- not by convivial tipplers but by passengers, slumped in chairs, reading and playing cards. For instance, if you wanted to go to Crooners, the ship's piano bar, and enjoy a pre-lunchtime Bloody Mary, you wouldn't be able to find a seat.
This journey's been plagued with the unpredictable. What started out as an adventurous cruise around southern and eastern Asia -- highly port intensive with calls at marquee spots (Singapore, Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City, Shanghai) and more offbeat ones (Okinawa, Vietnam's Nha Trang, Taipei and Nagasaki) -- has turned into an at-sea farce. First, Typhoon Hagibis approached Vietnam as we were setting sail there -- and the only alternative was to try to skirt the storm and head to Hong Kong, our next port of call.
A Herculean effort to get us to Hong Kong early yielded a much-appreciated extra half day there. Indeed, after we experienced a magical evening transiting Victoria Harbour on our way out of Hong Kong, the disappointment of missing both Vietnam stops, while not erased, had faded for many.
Alas, today's bad news will surely refuel that fire.
The challenge, of course, is that weather happens. On a seven-night Caribbean voyage, an itinerary that's abbreviated by a call or two is no doubt a disappointment. In this case and on this type of trip, however, the stakes are higher: People have paid more and traveled further in the first place. In the second? A 16-night cruise around Asia is for many, many travelers a once-in-a-lifetime experience, not to mention expenditure.
And while Princess is clearly within its rights to invoke the "it's weather, and we're not liable for weather" mantra, the truth is that we're not talking about missing a port or two. We're talking about missing four ports out of six in the first nine days. We're talking about a cruise that, marketed and sold as a destination-intense Asian experience, has become about as underwhelming as a cheap-cheap-cheap ocean crossing (with extremely vicious weather to boot).
We passengers are in no position to sit here and question those choices. We are forced to trust, as we have already trusted the captain, who ably steered the ship through the most uncomfortable series of sea days and nights I've ever experienced. He and his officers have done an amazing job under adverse circumstances, and we recognize and appreciate that. We also acknowledge that Princess is not required to offer anything other than to keep passengers and crew (and the ship, of course) safe and secure. One or two port disruptions -- well, that happens, and people who sit around and complain about it do not understand that a cruise vacation, however resort-like, is still based on a being aboard a ship, at sea. But this -- this is bordering on the ridiculous.
The bottom line is that this cruise has changed materially as a result of Princess' decisions regarding our intended route and the weather. It may not be the line's fault. At the same time, by diverting in such an extreme way from four out of six scheduled calls, Princess is not delivering on the product it sold to passengers. Princess does owe something to passengers here, and by that, I don't mean a tepid list of trite activities to while away the daytime hours -- as if adding a workshop on napkin folding (or a lecture on sharks) can come even close to sufficing.
Napkin folding has become symbolic of a sense that the line is out of touch with the angst of the current passengers.
With so much time spent onboard this cruise, we've all gotten pretty familiar with the ship itself. Sapphire Princess is one of the fleet's Grand class ships, the line's biggest, and there are plenty of options onboard. I simply love the ship's dining set-up, especially for dinner. Passengers can choose the "traditional" style of cruise dining, which means that your table, tablemates and dining time are the same each evening. Passengers who choose this option dine each night in the International Dining Room -- kind of bland in decor but perfectly pleasant. Indeed, I've come to know this room well; it's the open-seating dining room option for breakfast and lunch, and as a result of our leisurely schedule, there's been plenty of time to linger at the table.
More exciting -- and, in fact, I think Princess does just an exceptional job here -- are the ship's four main restaurants. Basically, on Sapphire Princess (and identical sister Diamond Princess), two larger dining rooms were cut up into four more intimately sized venues. All are cozy, at least in cruise ship dining room terms, and are open seating. What makes them feel restaurant-like though is their fantastic decor (the menus are basically the same). Each creates a special ambience, and I enjoyed them all -- the Santa Fe with its all-American desert motif, the flamboyantly Italian Vivaldi, the clubby Savoy and the Asian Pacific Moon.
Meal times, again with an emphasis on dinner, were consistently a highlight on the cruise. Cuisine, though occasionally repetitive (lamb two nights in a row, turkey a couple of nights) was generally well-prepared and delicious, and Princess' dining room staff, on this cruise anyway, was consistently exceptional.
Evenings, particularly because there were so many sea days, offered an intense array of options. Some were perhaps too popular; on several occasions, a sign outside the Princess Theater declared the venue full during performances ranging from production shows like "Ports of Call" to dance performances such as "Do You Wanna Dance?"
Much appreciated, even if sporadic, was entertainment that actually focused on aspects of Asia; the Hong Kong Folkloric Show, which showcased music and dance of the region, was performed by a local troupe brought onboard during our overnight there.
There's no fighting mother nature, so to speak, so ultimately on this afternoon, like several others, I had a long leisurely lunch in the International Dining Room. Then I headed back to our stateroom to watch movies on the ship's wonderful "romance" channel (with movies from "Philadelphia Story" to "Sleepless in Seattle") and then succumbed to a brief nap.
I've never been so well rested.