PORTS OF CALL
Singapore; Phuket, Thailand; Yangon, Myanmar (Rangoon, Burma); Colombo, Sri Lanka; Cochin, India; Mumbai, India; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Victoria, Mahe, Seychelles Islands; Port Louis, Mauritius; Durban, South Africa; East London, South Africa; Cape Town, South Africa
ABOUT THE REVIEW
Other reviews give extensive information on the ship, cabins, food etc. Our reviews are not like that; they are primarily a journal of what we did in the various ports, including web links to tourist information sites and maps. In general, we prefer DIY port tours, independent tours with other Cruise Critic roll call members or shared public tours. However, we will take a Princess tour when the logistics or cost make that a better option. Tour operator contact information is included in each port review.
John and I (Carolyn) are retired Mississippi State University professors in our mid-sixties, who currently reside in central North Carolina. Both of us are natives of New Orleans and, as such, are interested in good food (and wine!) and good times. Our preferred souvenir is a small regional or national flag. On this itinerary, I needed flags from every country except Singapore and Thailand.
We enjoy both cruises and land tours; often our trips combine the two. Many of our cruises have been in the Caribbean but we have also cruised to Alaska, the Mediterranean/Greek Isles, Scandinavia/Russia, the Panama Canal, the Hawaiian Islands, French Polynesia, South America/Antarctic Peninsula, the Far East, the Amazon River, the North Atlantic (Greenland, Iceland and parts of the British Isles), the Norwegian Fjords, the Galapagos Islands, the Holy Land/Egypt, Australia/New Zealand, the Canary Islands, Mexican Riviera, the California Coast, and Canada/New England. We have taken land tours to the Netherlands, Canadian Rockies, Mexico (Cozumel), London, France (several wine regions and Paris), China, Argentina (Buenos Aires, Iguazu Falls, Mendoza wine region), Chile (Santiago, several wine regions), the Hawaiian Islands (Kauai, Maui, Hawaii), Sicily, Tuscany and to many parts of the continental USA.
On our trips, we prefer nature and wildlife tours that involve snorkeling, SCUBA diving or hiking. In particular, we will hike for miles to see waterfalls, volcanoes, caves or other interesting geologic features. We also enjoy lighthouses, forts, castles and anything else we can legally climb up on for a good view.
We are Elite members of Princess' Captain's Circle loyalty program, but have also sailed with Royal Caribbean, Holland America, Costa, Celebrity and Commodore.
REVIEW OF THE CRUISE
PRECRUISE DAY 1: SUN, 04/29/15 RALEIGH/DURHAM, NC, USA (RDU) TO AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS (AMS) VIA DETROIT, MI, USA (DTW)
Our neighbors, Suzy and Dick, drove us out to RDU this afternoon. When we checked in, we could not get the boarding passes for the AMS to SIN flight because it was too early. There were no problems on the flight to DTW.
We had a large lunch before leaving home, so we passed on the airline dinner and tried to go to sleep as quickly as possible on the flight to AMS. Surprisingly, the flight had 100 empty seats so John and I each got to occupy two. We both slept pretty well but not for very long as the flight had strong tail winds and reached AMS an hour early.
PRECRUISE DAY 2: MON, 03/30/15 AMSTERDAM (AMS) TO SINGAPORE (SIN)
After landing at AMS at around 10:30 a. m. local time, we were 6 hours ahead of EDT. Our flight to Singapore did not depart until 9:00 p. m. local time, so we had time to visit Amsterdam during the layover. Fortunately, were able to get the boarding passes to SIN at a self-service kiosk because the line to speak with a live agent was horrendous. We found a locker to stash our hand luggage (7 euro) and went through a quick immigration and customs inspection. Then we headed out to the street to catch the bus to the Museumplein.
John had purchased e-tickets online for the Airport Express bus (www.bus197.nl). We did this more for convenience than for the small discount (4.5 euro pp vs. 5 euro pp). There are uniformed helpers at the bus stop to answer questions about the bus system. The buses are very easy to use; there is a display inside that shows the next several stops so you know exactly when to exit.
We caught an earlier bus than we had originally anticipated and were at the Van Gogh Museum (www.vangoghmuseum.nl) around noon. The ticket line was huge! Prudently, John had ordered e-tickets online (15 euros pp) that would let us skip that line. The downside was that our timed entry was at 2:00 p. m. and we could not enter the museum before 1:30 p. m. We spent the intervening time walking around Amsterdam using a route suggested by our neighbor, Hans, who is Dutch. It was warmer in Amsterdam, about 50 F (15 C) degrees, than Sunday in NC.
When we returned to the museum for our visit, the line to buy tickets was just as long as before. However, we simply showed the e-tickets and walked right in. The museum has changed a lot in the 38 years since we were there last. It now includes works from artists who influenced or were influenced by Van Gogh, as well as period photographs, letters and other artifacts. It was nice to see Van Gogh's work put into context but the galleries were very crowded. We toured in reverse order, starting at the top and working down; that helped a little with the crowds. At the end we walked through the exhibits again to revisit our favorite works and check out ones that had been too crowded to see before.
Then we got back on the bus (5 euro pp), rode out to the airport, bought some take-away sandwiches, went through passport control, reclaimed the hand luggage, found the gate, ate the sandwiches and moved to a new gate in another concourse. That part of the airport must double as a meat locker because it was freezing there.
We were starting to wear down and just sat there reading and listening to the MANY announcements threatening to off-load so-and-so's luggage if they didn't board their flight RIGHT NOW. Where were all these people? Did they go into town and forget to come back?
Finally, it was time to board our flight to SIN. We did not have to pass through a security checkpoint to reach the gates. Instead, there was a security check right at the gate and we were conducted into a secure area to await boarding. Renovations to convert the airport to central screening will supposedly be completed later in 2015.
This flight was not full either but there were not as many empty seats as on the flight to AMS. John and I had three seats to share between us. Because we had eaten the sandwiches and the flight departed at 9:00 p. m., we intended to skip the airline dinner and go straight to sleep. The rattle of food carts awakened me enough to hear the flight attendants saying they would wake up passengers to eat because it was such a long flight. I managed to rouse myself in time to keep them from waking John and asked them not to disturb us if we were sleeping.
PRECRUISE DAY 3: TUE, 03/31/15 SINGAPORE
Our flight arrived in Singapore (www.yoursingapore.com) at around 3:30 p. m. local time, over 36 hours since we left RDU. We made it there in one piece but with stiff muscles from contorted sleeping on the plane. Despite the fact that we both got a good amount of rest, it was going to be an effort for us to overcome the jet lag; Singapore is 12 hours ahead of EDT.
Getting to the hotel from the Changi Airport (www.changiairport.com) was easy. We bought tickets for the Airport Shuttle Bus (S$9 pp, cash or credit card) at the Ground Transport Desk, near the rental car counters. The wait was only about 15 minutes and the shuttle was not crowded. We were the second couple dropped off downtown.
We had booked three nights at the Strand Hotel (www.strandhotel.com.sg) and prepaid on agoda.com. The Strand is a budget hotel near the corner of Bencoolen Street and Bras Basah Road. It is nothing fancy but the location is fantastic. There is a lot of construction in front of the hotel for a new subway (MRT) station, so guests for the Strand and the other hotels on that part of Bencoolen Street have to be dropped off behind the hotels. However, there was an elderly bellhop waiting for us who insisted on taking our bags around the corner to the entrance and up the stairs to the lobby, where check-in went smoothly. Then the bellhop took our bags to our room, showed us how the lights work and left quickly, obviously not expecting a tip.
Our room was small (although bigger than a cruise ship cabin), high (8th floor) and on the side of the hotel away from the construction; we did not have any problem with noise from that but occasionally could hear other guests talking in the hallway outside our room. There was a TV, refrigerator and safe in the room. It seemed clean, with no stains on the carpet, furniture or linens and no cigarette smell. There was a shower with a decent flow rate and lots of hot water. The air conditioning worked well. The only amenities are slippers, toothbrush and paste, and a kettle with instant tea and coffee; there was gel soap in the shower/tub and by the sink. We had not expected to have washcloths but were surprised that there was no hand towel. However, I asked for an extra towel and pillow (there were only three in the room) before we went out for a walk; both were in our room when we returned. After that, we received three clean towels every day without having to ask again.
We planned to take a leisurely walk in nearby Fort Canning Park to help reset our circadian rhythms. First we stopped at the Bras Basah MRT station (about a block from the hotel) to buy EZ-Link cards (ezlink.com.sg) at the Passenger Service Counter. These stored-value cards can be used on buses as well as the MRT (www.mytransport.sg) and are much more convenient than buying tickets for individual trips. The card initially costs S$12, which includes a S$5 nonrefundable charge for the card and S$7 fare value. A quirk of this card is that you cannot begin a journey with lower than S$3 fare value on the card; additional value must be added (minimum of S$10). However, any remaining fare value can be refunded at any time. I had hoped to buy our EZ-Link cards (plus S$10 extra fare value) using a credit card; however, only cash is accepted. There was a CitiBank ATM where I could withdraw local currency near the Passenger Service Counter.
After buying the cards, we continued along an underground concourse of the Singapore Management University to the Stamford Green, where there is an escalator to Fort Canning Park. The National Parks web site has guides for a number of DIY walking tours (www.nparks.gov.sg/gardens-parks-and-nature/walks-and-tours/going-on-a-diy-walk) throughout Singapore. We did the Fort Canning Park – Colonial History Trail.
On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a 7Eleven for a 6-pack of Tiger Beer (S$20.20). After some beer and wonderful showers, we tried to stay awake but only made it to 8:30 p. m. before we started falling asleep and dropping the Kindles. John commented that we should just burn our dirty clothes—we had been wearing them since Sunday afternoon.
PRECRUISE DAY 4: WED, 04/01/15 SINGAPORE
We managed to sleep most of the night; I had more success than John (natural talent). Our room rate included an “American” breakfast in the hotel's Blabbers Cafe. Each day the breakfast included two fried eggs served with either two chicken sausages and a hash brown potato patty (twice) or bacon and baked beans (once). In addition, there was a buffet with two hot dishes: noodles with vegetables and pancakes/French toast. There were cold cereals, juice and fruit and a toaster for bread. While not very exciting, the breakfast was adequate and filling; the noodle dishes were especially good.
After breakfast we walked about three blocks to the Dhoby Ghaut MRT and took the NE (Purple) line to the Harbourfront MRT. The EZ-Link cards are very easy to use: you merely tap them on a pad when you enter and exit through the turnstiles; the remaining value is displayed on a screen. We were planning to explore some of Singapore's natural areas before the day got too hot and humid.
Leaving the Harbourfront MRT by Exit D is the most convenient way to reach the trail head for the Marang Trail. That trail leads up Mount Faber and through a rain forest via several parks, trails, elevated walkways and bridges. This is the HortPark and Southern Ridges walking tour on the National Parks web site (www.nparks.gov.sg/gardens-parks-and-nature/walks-and-tours/going-on-a-diy-walk). We took the A Route as far as the Canopy Walk, then retraced our steps to the Alexandra Arch and took the B Route along the Alexandra Garden Trail to the Labrador MRT. From the pavilion adjacent to the station there is a path along Berlayer Creek, which is home to some of the island's few remaining mangroves. We walked to the Bukit Chermin Boardwalk at Keppel Harbour. In the distance we could see the replica of the Dragon's Teeth Gate that once stood off the shores of the Labrador Nature Preserve.
Next it was back to the Labrador MRT for an air-conditioned ride on the CC (Gold) line to the Botanic Gardens MRT. Exit A leads to the Bukit Timah Gate at one end of the Singapore Botanic Gardens (www.sbg.org.sg). We strolled through the gardens until we reached the National Orchid Collection (S$1 pp, senior rate). This is an impressive display of orchids from all over the world. We were glad that we had brought umbrellas because it rained briefly, which made it hotter and more humid. After strolling through more of the gardens, we exited by the Taglin Gate onto Napier Road.
We walked about a block to the Singapore Botanic Gardens (13019) bus stop. Several bus lines run down Orchard Road to the Rendezvous Hotel (08069) bus stop, which is only a half-block from the Strand Hotel. To use the EZ-Link cards on buses, you tap in when you board at the front of the bus and tap out when you exit from the rear. Once at the hotel, we rested awhile and drank beer. The sky was very black and it was thundering. We decided to take a short nap and venture out again when it was a bit cooler.
After a nice nap, we headed out to find some typical Singaporean food. Reviews of the Strand Hotel noted that there was a hawker center (food court) right across the street in the Manulife Center. Unfortunately, that is now closed but the Manulife Center security guard suggested one around the corner on Waterloo Street. It only had a few stalls, but we could get the famous Hainanese chicken rice, sort of the national dish. It is a mound of rice cooked in chicken broth plus slices of roasted (black) or boiled (white) chicken. This was the roasted chicken version and also included a bowl of chicken broth and some leafy green vegetable, probably water spinach (kangkong).This was all tasty, very filling, and amazingly inexpensive (S$6.60 total for two meals).
After dinner we walked to the Bras Basah MRT and took the CC (Gold) line to the Promenade MRT, then transferred to the CE (Gold) line to the Bayfront MRT. That station is right next to the Marina Bay Sands Hotel (www.marinabaysands.com), three tall towers connected at the top. There is a pedestrian underpass to the Gardens by the Bay (www.gardensbythebay.com.sg). This is a very pretty collection of gardens with different themes. We strolled through the Outdoor Gardens but did not tour the huge Conservatories (S$28 pp). However, we took the OCBC Skyway (S$5 pp) for a walk 22 m (72 ft) above the ground in the Supertrees Grove. The Supertrees are towers that serve as vertical gardens, generate solar power, act as air venting chimneys for the Conservatories and collect rainwater. In the evenings, there is a sound and light show, Garden Rhapsody, in the Grove.
We had planned to stay in the Gardens until the light show but decided to visit the Marina Bay Sands Skypark (S$23 pp) instead. The Skypark is an observation deck on the 56th floor, where we had great views of the Gardens and the Singapore skyline as the sun went down. We could even get a glimpse of the infinity pool, which is only open to hotel guests. We stayed up there to watch the Garden Rhapsody light show followed by the Wonder Full light show on the other side of the hotel. Then we took the MRT back to the hotel.
PRECRUISE DAY 5: THUR, 04/02/15 SINGAPORE
We both slept better last night but were still feeling the effects of jet lag and the heat/humidity. Maybe the adjustment would have been a bit easier if it hadn't been 22 F (-5 C) degrees when we got up Sunday morning in NC, while it was around 86 F (30 C) in Singapore. Anyway, it is a little cooler in the mornings and evenings.
This morning we took a DIY walking tour. We started in the Arts Corridor on Waterloo Street (www.the-inncrowd.com/waterloo.htm), about a block from the hotel. That street leads from the Singapore Art Museum to a pedestrianized area, Albert Mall. Here the Hindu Sri Krishnan Temple and the Buddhist Kuan Im (Goddess of Mercy) Tong Hood Che Temple stand practically side by side. In testimony to Singapore's religious diversity, some worshipers hedge their bets by praying or making offerings at both sites. Although it was still early in the day, there were a number of stalls selling flowers and other offerings for the gods.
From here we walked to Serangoon Road to start our exploration of the Little India and Glam Kapour (aka Little Arabia) sections of town (www.the-inncrowd.com/littleindiawalk.htm). It was still too early in the morning to experience the bustle of the many stores and markets; we would need to return later in the morning for that. However, we could enjoy window shopping for gorgeous sari fabrics and jewelry. Also, the entire area was heavy with the scent of spices and smelled wonderful. We even got a peek at one of the few remaining spice grinding machines in operation. Further along was the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, dedicated to Kali, the Hindu goddess of power.
Near the edge of Little India is the Abdul Gaffoor Mosque, with its unique Arab and Victorian architecture. From here, we headed to Arab Street and turned onto Muscat Street to view the Sultan Mosque. Finally we walked past the Bugis Village bazaar and back to the hotel to rest and cool down before our walking and food tour of Chinatown this afternoon.
We took the NE (Purple) line from Dhoby Ghaut MRT to Otram Park MRT, then transferred to the EW (Green) line to the Tanjong Pagar MRT, where our guide, Leo, met us at the Passenger Service Counter. We were the only two people on this day's tour so it was more personalized. It was also more than a food tour. Leo cares about his city/country and wanted to share his enthusiasm so he gave us a brief walking tour along with our many food stops. We got an in-depth look at Singapore, its history, development, infrastructure, future plans and goals at the Singapore City Gallery (www.ura.gov.sg/uol/citygallery). Then of course we moved along to fabulous food in off the beaten path places. Along the way our immersion in Singapore continued as we learned about the fusion cuisine and the various markets that we toured with their interesting food stuffs and traditions.
We started at the Maxwell Road Food Centre, where our tour was interrupted by thunderous rain. After digesting a bit (and eating a little more), Leo found a somewhat sheltered path and altered our food plans. He didn't want us to get drenched so we waited until we jointly decided we had to move on to the Chinatown Complex Food Centre and later the Hong Lim Food Centre.
There was lots of food. Great food! Coming hungry is not enough; you need to learn to pace yourself until dessert at the very end. We had to carry ours back to our hotel! We tried the following foods: sugar cane juice, coconut milk, Hainanese chicken rice (boiled chicken with rice cooked in chicken broth) and bok choy, curry puffs (half-moon shaped fried pastry stuffed with curried potatoes), pisang rajah (banana fritter), Fuzhou oyster cake (round fried pastry stuffed with oysters, shrimp and vegetables), rojak (salad of beansprouts, cucumber, greens, tau pok (fried bean curd), you tiao (fried dough strips), and peanuts tossed with a prawn paste and topped with crispy cuttlefish), popiah (thin pancake wrapped around sweet, thinly sliced vegetables), kueh pie tee (sweet, thinly sliced vegetables in a fluted pastry shell), curry chicken bee hoon mee (chicken, tau pok, fish cakes, potatoes and noodles), and pandan cake (chiffon cake flavored with pandan leaves). I'm sure we would have tasted more if we hadn't had to cut the tour short to meet our bus to the Night Safari.
Leo was a knowledgeable and fun guide. All the food purveyors knew him and enjoyed working with him. If you want a really good street view of Singapore and some of its customs, we highly recommend Food Tour Singapore (foodtoursingapore.com) and especially Leo. Our tour ended near the Chinatown MRT, so we took the NE (Purple) line to Dhoby Ghaut and walked back to hotel for a quick freshening up.
We had toured the excellent Singapore Zoo on a previous visit to Singapore and had eaten breakfast with the orangutans. This evening we went to the Night Safari (www.nightsafari.com.sg), which is part of the Singapore Zoo but completely separate from the area open during the daytime. The Night Safari is quite a distance from the city, it is not convenient to reach by public transportation and taxis are hard to find for the return trip to the city. For those reasons, I pre-purchased an admission and round-trip transportation package from SAEx (www.saex.com.sg). This worked out OK but not as smoothly as I had hoped.
We were supposed to catch the SAEx bus at bus stop B01 (08079) around the corner from the hotel outside the School of the Arts (SOTA) and opposite the Rendezvous Hotel. The pickup time was 6:20 p. m. and we were supposed to reach the Night Safari at 7:00 p. m., a half-hour before it opened. A bus from SAEx's parent company, Bus Hub, finally showed up 15 minutes late but it had the requisite sign for the Night Safari and SAEx logo in the window. It appeared that the bus was doing double duty: following its regular route and also delivering tourists to the Night Safari, so there was no SAEx staff on the bus as we had been told to expect. We did not stop at any more of the tourist pick-up points but dropped people off here and there. The trip to the Night Safari took much longer than the promised 25 minutes because of the incredible traffic jams. We did not arrive at the Night Safari until 7:40 p. m. Someone from SAEx got on the bus and we exchanged our tour confirmation and PayPal receipt emails for Night Safari tickets and vouchers for the return trip.
Even though we were late, we only had to wait about 15 minutes in line to board the tram for the 40-minute narrated tour. This was a great experience; it was surprising how close we were to the animals and how active they were. The tram tour covers all seven habitats represented at the zoo. After the tram tour, we still had the energy to walk three of the four trails, which allow you to see the animals from a different perspective than from the tram. The trails connect to form one long trail around the entire park.
We had hoped to stay at the Night Safari until 11:00 p. m., but we decided to leave at 10:00 p. m. SAEx has departures to the city every half hour, so we checked in at their booth and were assigned to a minibus, which left shortly thereafter. It took 40 minutes to return to our starting point. We collapsed into bed before 11:00 p. m.
CRUISE DAY 1: FRI, 04/03/15 SINGAPORE CHECK IN 1:00PM-5:00PM, DEPART 5:30PM
This morning we did a DIY waking tour of the Civic District before checking out of the hotel and heading over to the ship. We walked to the Dhoby Ghaut MRT and took the NS (Red) line to Raffles Place MRT. Taking Exit H is most convenient for visiting the symbol of Singapore, the Merlion. As this was a pubic holiday (Good Friday), there were many tourists at the Merlion and tour buses parked on Fullerton Road.
From the Merlion, it is possible to walk along the Singapore River under Fullerton Road and across the Anderson Bridge to the Cavenagh Bridge, the start of the Empress Place, Esplanade Park & War Memorial Park – Monument Trail (www.nparks.gov.sg/gardens-parks-and-nature/walks-and-tours/going-on-a-diy-walk). This trail passes many historical landmarks that tell the story of Singapore's history, growth and development. However, this area is currently being renovated and much of the view of the buildings and monuments is blocked.
The walking tour ended at the War Memorial Park. From here, we walked along Bras Basah Road to the corner with Beach Road and the famous Raffles Hotel. The hotel's public spaces, with their palm-filled courtyards, transport you back in time to the British colonial period; there is even a white-coated doorman wearing a turban. We passed on visiting the replica Long Bar, where the sweet Singapore Sling (S$ 28) was invented. Before returning to the hotel, we stopped at the Bras Basah MRT to cash in our EZ-Link cards at the Passenger Service Counter.
We checked out of the hotel and asked the desk to call a taxi for us. The fare (S$13) to the Marina Bay Cruise Centre (mbccs.com.sg) was more expensive than usual because it was a public holiday. Although it is possible to take public transportation to the cruise terminal, it currently requires taking the MRT, transferring to a bus and then making a relatively short walk; all of that is awkward with luggage, which is why we opted for the convenience of a taxi.
Once at the cruise terminal, there was a huge crowd of passengers milling around, waiting to check in for the Queen Elizabeth. However, the Ocean Princess was already checking in passengers. There is a 7Eleven in the terminal; before proceeding to the check-in area, I spent the last of my Singapore dollars there for beer to carry on board.
After checking in, we had a short wait before we could board the ship. We trundled our luggage to our balcony cabin on Deck 6 aft. I called Room Service to exchange some of the items in our complimentary minibar setup and we quickly unpacked. Then we went out in search of sustenance.
Princess Cruises was celebrating its 50th Anniversary throughout 2015 and the anniversary logo (a gold 50 with with the sea witch logo in the zero) was prominently displayed on the mirrors, souvenirs, etc. There is also a specially-brewed Sea Witch IPA. The Ocean Princess does not have a formal pizzeria—only a pizza window in the Panorama Buffet. Each day featured a special 50th Celebration Pizza in addition to the always-available Margherita (cheese) pizza and pepperoni pizza. Many of the specialty pizzas were a little strange (Peking Duck pizza?) but most were worth a try.
After a pizza lunch, we returned to the cabin to meet our cabin steward, Tutu, and request a top sheet for the bed, bar soap for the shower and extra laundry bags. It was really nice to send out our dirty clothes, especially the slacks that we had been wearing since Sunday! In addition to sending out the laundry, it was wonderful to take another shower and change into shorts. Once we put to sea, there was a nice breeze so it was very pleasant to sit on our balcony with some beer. The ship would first sail west through the Singapore Strait, then north through the Strait of Malacca.
The Cruise Critic roll call was supposed to meet after the muster drill but not many people showed up. I did get to meet AussieGal, who had organized several of the private tours we would be taking.
We went to the “Welcome Aboard Showtime” before our 8:00 p. m. second-seating dinner. The experience is quite different on a 650 passenger ship compared with the larger ships. The small company of singers and dancers (who also double as cruise staff) were appropriately energetic in the opening and closing numbers. This show was for the second seating guests so there was a small audience, which didn't work well for the comedian, Dave Heenan. This made us remember why we usually skip the show the first night. Because most of the shows for our seating would be held at 10:00 p. m., we expected to miss a lot of them. There did not seem to be any new production shows on the schedule.
CRUISE DAY 2: SAT, 04/04/15 AT SEA
Today we tried to sleep in and get our body clocks closer to local time. However, we were still waking up much too early and needing a nap in the afternoon to make it through to dinnertime. Throughout the day, the ship would be sailing through the Strait of Malacca.
This morning we went to port lectures for Phuket and Yangon (Rangoon). The port lecturer, Carla Meisenger, was quite good: she gave an overview of each port and lots of useful information for independent travelers. She was not just a shill for the Shore Excursion Office; in fact, she barely mentioned the available Princess excursions at all. Nevertheless, her comments and our own research confirmed that choosing ship's excursions was a smart (if expensive) choice for these two ports.
While we were relaxing on the Promenade Deck between the lectures, John noticed that high pressure water hoses were deployed all along the bottom of the railing on this deck. We have never noticed this before and wondered whether it was part of the anti-pirate defenses for our voyage around the Horn of Africa in a few weeks.
After the port lectures, it was time for a little snack at the pizza window. Today the special was mushroom and truffles. I had two pieces of that and a nice salad. John had one piece of the special and one of the Margherita pizza plus a selection of desserts.
After lunch, we enjoyed reading on our balcony until I fell asleep (John wisely went inside for his nap). Although I was in the shade, I ended up a little pink on one side, probably from reflected light from the water and the white balcony dividers. We had intended to go to an afternoon lecture by an astronomer on global warming, but slept right through it.
The Cruise Critic roll call was supposed to meet this evening at 5:00 p. m. This gathering was even more poorly attended than the sail away, with only six other people there besides me.
Tonight was the first of four formal nights on this cruise. The Captain's Welcome Party was held in the Cabaret Lounge; we were greeted by Captain Rikard Lorentzen and other officers as we entered. We each had a champagne cocktail, followed by a snifter of brandy. The only hors d'oeuvres being passed around were one of the 50th Celebration Chocolate Journeys developed by chocolatier and pastry chef Norman Love. This was a lollipop of chocolate mousse encased in a hard chocolate shell (with or without chopped nuts on top). They were very rich, so we only had one.
Instead of the usual Captain's Welcome Dinner menu, the Princess 50th Celebration Dinner menu was offered. That menu featured dishes representative of the types of food served on Princess ships during the 60s and 70s, the 80s and 90s, the 2000s and the 2010s. For the 60s and 70s, the selections were Duck Terrine with Apricot Preserves and Porcini Mushroom Cappuccino Soup; we ordered both of those and were pleased to see that they were small servings on the same plate. The 80s and 90s were represented by Ossobuco Agnolotti and a salad; we had the agnolotti. A Blueberry Mojito Sorbet was served before the 2000s main course. We chose Malabar Peppered Beef Tournedos for the main course; the other choice was fish. The 2010s dessert was another of the Chocolate Journeys, Chocolate Raspberry Mousse with Vanilla Creme Brulee and Crunchy Shortbread. This is similar to the Princess Dream: a heart filled with chocolate mousse but with a raspberry shell instead of a chocolate one. John was about to take a photo of the menu but our Waiter, Warrinthon, gave us a souvenir menu with more information about the dishes on the back. Of course, those not interested in this “gourmet” menu could choose from the Always Available menu.
The show tonight, which we did not attend, was once again the comedian, Dave Heenan.
CRUISE DAY 3: SUN, 04/05/15 PHUKET, THAILAND 8:00AM – 4:30PM
Last night we set the clocks back 1 hour; now we were only 11 hours ahead of EDT.
When we woke up at 6:00 a. m., we thought that we had plenty of time to get ready for our tour. However, when John finally turned on the TV to check the Final Four basketball scores, he saw that it was 7:50 a. m.! The ship was supposed to dock and the tour was supposed to meet at 8:00 a. m.! We could see that the ship was about to dock and thought that our watches must have picked up a satellite signal during the night and reset to the wrong time. We frantically rushed to get everything ready to take on the tour and headed down to the Cabaret Lounge to check in. On the way, we ran into one of the Security Officers and asked her the time. She replied that it was only 7:00 a. m. and the ship was getting in early. Ha, ha! Passenger Services had forgotten to adjust the local time on the TV Ship Channel!
The ship docked at the Ao Makham Deep Sea Port. The dock is about ½ hour from Phuket Town, which is on the east side of the island; the big resort areas and beautiful beaches are on the west side and also quite some distance from where we docked. There is no cruise terminal and nothing of interest within walking distance of the dock, although there were several rows of handicraft booths and a currency exchange just outside the secure area. Taxis were available but were not advertising specific tours; you would need to have an itinerary planned ahead of time for a DIY tour.
We had previously visited Thailand for three days in 2008, but only the Bangkok area. Both of the excursions that interested us in this port involved a long (at least 50 minutes) small boat ride from a marina that was about 40 minutes from the ship. With so much travel time involved, we decided to book an excursion with the ship rather than gamble on a local operator. We choose the “Phi Phi Island Beach & Swimming” (US$149 pp).
There were about 40 of us on the excursion, divided into two groups in separate air-conditioned buses. Chris was the guide for our group; he was enthusiastic and informative but handicapped by a poor PA system that made him rather hard to understand. The bus ride was not really “scenic”; this part of the island is obviously still feeling the ill effects of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which devastated this region of Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, we passed several bustling markets.
We boarded a high speed boat at the Phuket Marine Experiences Port; boarding and disembarking the boat requires wading through shallow water. Bottled water and life vests were provided. Most of us could sit under an awning; there were a few seats in the bow that had better views but no shade. The sea was fairly smooth so the ride to the islands was not too bumpy.
The Phi Phi Islands are part of the Had Noppharat Thara-Muh Phi Phi National Park. Our first stop was on Phi Phi Leh at Maya Beach, a fantastic setting with spectacular karst topography. However, this small beach was overwhelmed by what seemed like thousands of tourists; the bay was clogged with tour boats. Blame the congestion on Leonardo DiCaprio; this was the location for the movie "The Beach." We were deposited here for 40 minutes, plenty of time to walk the beach from end to end twice. At one spot we saw a large dark patch in the water against the white sand bottom that we thought was seaweed; on closer inspection, we found it was a huge school of tightly-packed anchovies! Then we got back in the boat and circled the island. Along the way we passed the “Viking Cave”, where sparrow nests are collected to make Bird's Nest Soup. The name of the cave is due to a drawing inside that resembles a Viking ship.
Next it was off to Phi Phi Don for some snorkeling over a nice coral reef with plenty of fish, mostly Sergeant Majors. Oddly, this tour provided a mask and snorkel but no fins; John and I had brought our own prescription masks, snorkels and fins. Sadly, we only had about 30 minutes to enjoy the warm (86 F/30 C) water before departing for lunch at the Phi Phi Natural Resort on Cape Tong.
The so-so lunch included a buffet with a handful of Thai dishes (plus spaghetti with tomato sauce for the timid) and a canned soft drink. Lunch only took about 30 minutes, after which we were free to enjoy the beach and swimming area for another 90 minutes or so; I wish we had spent more time snorkeling instead. Our tour did not include a beach chair and umbrella (those were reserved for resort guests); a tour member who inquired about renting those was quoted a price of US$60. Despite being liberally slathered and sprayed with sunscreen, I wanted to limit my sun exposure so I camped out in the shade of a large sea grape tree. John, similarly anointed, walked to both ends of the beach and saw a few more attractions of the resort, including the bungalows, a music performance and an area offering massages. When he came back, I relaxed and floated in the lukewarm water of the Andaman Sea while he waded near the shore.
Finally, it was time to cruise back to Phuket Island and drive into Phuket Town. Since this was a ship's tour, we were obligated to make a 30-minute stop at an upscale jewelry store before we returned to the dock. Despite being thoroughly bedraggled after our day in the sun and water, John and I politely (but briefly) strolled through row after row of cases filled with pearls, diamonds and other precious stones before escaping to the bus. We finally returned to the ship 10 minutes before “all aboard” time, so there was no time to check out the handicraft stalls at the dock. After a well-earned gin and tonic from our minibar, we showered and napped before enjoying a beautiful, deep red sunset.
Today the entire ship was festooned with decorations for Easter; there was a large display of huge decorated chocolate eggs outside the Club Restaurant. Dinner tonight included goat cheese souffle (a favorite); the main course of seared scallops with ratatouille was also especially good. After dinner, we were offered chunks of chocolate from the Easter eggs. Yum!
We did not attend the production show tonight, “Do You Wanna Dance?”, which we have seen a number of times.
CRUISE DAY 4: MON, 04/06/15 AT SEA
This morning, I was able to stay asleep until 8:00 a. m.; maybe I am finally over the jet lag! John did not manage to sleep as long but he seems better adjusted too. All day long the ship would be sailing through the Andaman Sea to our next port in Myanmar.
Later in the morning, we heard the astronomer, Lesa Moore, speak on “UFOs—Identified & Hard-to-Explain Sightings” This turned out to be a good lecture, with lots of examples of natural phenomena and artificial objects that have been mistaken for UFOs, as well as UFO hoaxes. It was interesting that some of the previously-unidentified objects in her photo collection had subsequently been identified by persons attending her lectures. We were invited to submit our own UFO photos for her collection or offer explanations for the still-unidentified ones.
After the lecture, we relaxed on the promenade until lunch. Today was both the Oriental Sushi Buffet in the Panorama Buffet and the Pub Lunch in the Sterling Steakhouse. We opted for some pizza and a little sushi, which we took back to our balcony to enjoy while watching the ocean. John spotted a huge pod of dolphins, a few swimming very close to the ship. Some of the ones further away were jumping out of the water like the Spinner Dolphins we had seen in French Polynesia.
Tonight was Italian Night in the Club Restaurant. This is one of our favorite theme nights, with a number of dishes that we especially enjoy.
The show we did not attend tonight was once again the comedian, Dave Heenan.
CRUISE DAY 5: TUE, 04/07/15 YANGON, MYANMAR 7:00AM – 3:30PM
Last night we set the clocks back 1/2 hour; now we were only 10.5 hours ahead of EDT. We both paid very close attention when John set the travel alarm clock back so we would be positive that we knew the correct time in the morning. Surprise! Passenger Services had once again forgotten to adjust the local time on the TV Ship Channel overnight!
We had been informed well before embarking that six hours were being cut from this port call. The reason given was that Yangon is on a tributary of the Irrawaddy River. In order to cross the bar at the river mouth, ships must enter and exit at high tide. I guess Princess is not aware, when setting port times, that tides can be predicted far into the future. Anyway, the shortened port time caused all the evening shore excursions to be canceled; many people who had organized independent tours canceled those as well.
We docked at a commercial port, the Myanmar International Terminal, with zero passenger facilities. Passengers were not allowed to walk in the port area at all; there was a shuttle bus to the port gate. Taxis were lined up outside the gates along the two-lane blacktop road into town. Our Junior Waiter, Irena, went into town with some friends to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda. The round trip, including waiting time while they visited the pagoda, cost US$25 pp for the taxi. Because of the heavy traffic, their trip into Yangon took two hours and the return took 45 minutes.
Because of the terrible traffic and the distance to the city, we had once again chosen a ship's excursion, “Best of Yangon” (US$119 pp). Once were were on the bus, we had to wait 20 minutes to leave because a woman had picked up her tour sticker and gone to the bus without her husband, Ted, who apparently fell into a black hole. Although she kept saying that she could see him on the gangway and he was paged all over the ship, he never appeared. Finally, she was forced to exit the bus and wait for Ted on the dock so that they could take one of the later buses. As if we needed another reminder of why we try to avoid ship's excursions!
Anyway, we finally were on our way for a 1.75-hour drive to the city. Near the port were long lines of tanker trucks waiting to fill up at the port. The sides of the roads were lined with rice fields littered with dried stubble from the harvest. We also saw trash, lots and lots of trash and horrible potholes. However, we also saw a number of Buddhist monasteries and several pagodas, which are not in the Chinese style but cone-shaped stupas. After some distance, the main road into the city became four lanes but there were bottlenecks at each bridge, where the number of lanes dropped to two. There were also two toll booths along the way. As promised the traffic was horrendous.
During the drive our guide, Moh Moh, gave background information on Myanmar. She spoke very good English and readily answered questions. One distinctive custom of the Burmese is that a few men wear trousers but both men and women wear the Longyi, a sarong-like skirt; each sex ties the garment differently. Also, many people wear an opaque sun protection cream made from the Thanaka tree that often is applied in decorative designs, especially leaf shapes.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is part of a huge 12-acre complex of temples atop a hill. Each of the four entrances is guarded by a pair of giant mythical Burmese lions and has a staircase up to the temple platform; some have escalators and lifts. We entered by the southern gate, which has an elevator. In addition to being modestly dressed, shoes and socks must be removed to enter Buddhist temples here; as we exited the bus, we were handed a large packaged wet cloth to clean the soles of our feet after our visit. Once inside the elevator tower, we placed our footwear in bins (I first put John's and mine in a bag for easy identification later). Then we rode up to a waiting area for our group to reassemble before crossing a covered walkway to the temple complex.
At the entrance to the temple platform are several Bodhi Trees, considered Holy Trees because the Gautama Buddha found Enlightenment while sitting under one. This is the holiest Buddhist shrine in Myanmar because it houses 8 hairs from that Buddha, as well as relics from the three earlier Buddhas. The main stupa is 326 feet high, covered with 60 tons of gold and set with precious gems, including a 76-carat diamond on top. Around the base of the pagoda are a ring of smaller stupas and another ring of shrines, each with a statue of Buddha. Eight of these shrines are dedicated to the planets and each is associated with a particular animal and day of the week (Wednesday gets two shrines – one for the morning and one for the afternoon). People come to pray and make offerings at their birthday's shrine and pour water over the flower-bedecked statue of Buddha there.
The rest of the platform is covered by more stupas, shrines, prayer halls and relics. One of the Buddha statues is cut from a single block of jade weighing more than 700 lbs. Another interesting feature of this temple complex is the liberal use of neon and other lighting; many of the larger Buddhas have halos of colored blinking LEDs. Many of the canceled evening excursions were to include a visit to see the pagoda brightly illuminated at night.
Of course, where there are shrines, there are lots of Buddhist monks in red or orange robes and nuns in pink ones; both monks and nuns have shaved heads. We saw a group of very young (about six years old) nuns seated and chanting a hymn before one shrine. It's hard to act holy at that age – there was some pushing and shoving involved when the hymn ended. We also saw several processions for boys (as young as five years old) who were becoming novice monks for a week. The boys are dressed like princes, with elaborate headdresses, and family members carry offerings and the robes and other items the boys will need as monks. All Buddhist males in Myanmar become monks (either temporary or permanent) at some time in their life; sometimes the ceremony is held early in life so that the grandparents are alive to see it.
Needless to say, the Shwedagon Pagoda is a spectacular site and deserves much longer than the 45-minute visit we were allotted there. However, the marble pavement was starting to get warm on our bare feet and it was time to visit a commercial temple, the Bogyoke Aung San Market (Scott Market), where we were forced to spend 45 minutes shopping. With single-minded determination, John and I walked up and down the aisles lined with 2000+ stalls selling wood carvings, jewelry, silk fabrics and souvenirs. At last we found a lone shop that sold flags, where I managed to buy a set of two small Myanmar flags (old and current versions) with a stand for US$3. Satisfied with our purchase, we wandered a little longer before returning to the bus.
Now it was time for lunch. On the way to the restaurant, we made a photo stop at the Sule Pagoda, which is in the middle of a busy traffic circle; its base is ringed with shops. This pagoda also reputedly holds some of Buddha's hair; no wonder he is depicted with a bare head! The pagoda is across from a park that holds the Independence Monument. Along the side of the park are the City Hall and High Court, which are housed in British colonial buildings. It was hard to see much of either building. The High Court was behind some trees and the City Hall was obscured by stands being erected for the Water Festival (Thingyan) that would start next week to mark the New Year. We saw a lot of other colonial architecture during our drive; it was very run-down.
Our Asian lunch was served at the White Rice Restaurant, located near Kandawgyi Lake, the Royal Lake. This turned out to be mostly Chinese and Korean food, served family style on a lazy-susan table. The food was unusually good for a group meal, especially the pork and cashew chicken dishes and the crab and corn soup. Another surprise was that the drink selection included beer, not only bottled water and soft drinks; we each tried a bottle of Myanmar Beer.
Our tour was supposed to include the National Museum, but that visit had to be eliminated because of the shortened port time. (Why is it never the shopping that gets dropped?) The final stop was for 20 minutes at the 100-year-old Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda to view the "Sweet-Eyed Buddha", called so for its large glass eyes. This is a gigantic reclining Buddha, measuring 195 feet long and 52 feet high. The soles of the feet show the 108 auspicious signs that were on Prince Siddhartha’s (the Gautama Buddha) soles when he was born, indicating that he would either be a great king or a great holy man, depending on what he saw when he first went out into the world. This temple is like a huge warehouse; the walls are lined with more small shrines and glass cases holding statues of the former abbots of the monastery. To my foreign eyes, the latter looked like fortune teller machines at an amusement park arcade.
Finally it was back on the bus for the 45-minute ride to the port; we arrived about 40 minutes before the “all aboard” time. I later learned that suzyheights, another Cruise Critic member, was on the same tour but in one of the last three buses to return to the ship (maybe they had waited for Ted). Those buses were running so late that they received a police escort, which allowed them to exceed the speed limit; they arrived only 10 minutes before “all aboard”. Normally this would not be a problem; the ship would simply delay departure until the buses arrived. However, it was crucial that the Ocean Princess sail with the tide and two more ships departed right after us to ensure high water when crossing the river bar into the ocean.
When we left the ship this morning, the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship Game was about to start. When we returned, John was overjoyed to find out that Duke (his alma mater) had defeated Wisconsin to become National Champions for the fifth time.
An appetizer at dinner tonight was Indian sate with peanut sauce, which we had not had the chance to eat in Singapore; it was a decent version. The main course was a very nice braised lamb shank, served with Brussels sprouts, fried eggplant batons and potatoes.
The show we did not attend tonight was a pianist, Ryan Ahern.
CRUISE DAY 6: WED, 04/08/15 AT SEA
For the next three days, the ship would be crossing the Bay of Bengal, the largest bay in the world, en route to Sri Lanka.
This morning we went to the port lecture on Colombo. Unfortunately, it revealed next to nothing about the site we are going to visit (with AussieGal), which is 70 miles outside the city. While waiting on the Promenade Deck for the next lecture, John saw some flying fish. They seemed to be smaller than and not fly as far as the ones we see in the Caribbean.
Later we went to an enrichment lecture, “Star Stuff—An Illustrated Astronomy Quiz”. The audience was much smaller than for the lecture on UFOs; I guess this one only attracted the science geeks. This was a “no pencil, no paper, no prizes” quiz, just a show of hands. Most of the answers were pretty easy for someone with an interest in space and astronomy. A couple of questions were very technical and a few were humorous. For example, there were two correct answers to the question, “What is 'The Big Bang Theory'?”, one of which was that it is a popular TV comedy show. We were pleased to learn that the astronomer, Lesa Moore, would try to hold some stargazing sessions after our port call in Dubai.
The menu for tonight looked especially boring (e. g., the pasta special was macaroni and cheese), so John made reservations at the Sterling Steakhouse (US$25 pp extra charge). The menu is a bit abbreviated compared to the Crown Grill on larger Princess ships and the grills are not as good at simulating a real fire. Nevertheless, the food is very, very good. We both had the seared scallop appetizers, followed by the Black and Blue onion soup. John enjoyed the rib eye steak and I chose the New York strip steak; both were cooked as we desired. Dessert was another Chocolate Journey: Milk Chocolate and Peanut Butter Bar with Honey Roasted Peanuts.
The show we did not attend tonight was a vocal entertainer, Michelle Montouri.
CRUISE DAY 7: THU, 04/09/15 AT SEA
We spent another day crossing the Bay of Bengal. This morning I saw some flying fish from our balcony.
Today's port lecture was about Cochin. This time there was some mention of the sites we were going to visit on our independent tour with AussieGal.
The astronomy lecture was “Take Me to Your Leader! Life on Earth and Elsewhere”. Afterward, there was a “Science Circle” in the Casino Lounge for more discussion. The astronomer, Lesa Moore, asked everyone his/her profession; we had a bunch of engineers, a neurologist, a dentist, a nurse, a geologist, an epidemiologist, a biostatistician (me), a molecular biologist (John) and several “listeners”. John asked whether we were being too narrow minded using DNA as the hallmark of life. He used the example of prions (the cause of neurological diseases like Mad-Cow Disease) as being another type of template for shaping molecules. Her reply was that we know life here on Earth has DNA. That made me think about the drunk who lost his car keys at night and was searching under the streetlamp because that was where there was light.
Lunch today featured a special “Barbecue Corner Buffet.” This was not the kind of barbeque we expected; it included some glazed chicken wings and skewers of calamari, beef sate, beef and vegetables, and vegetables only. We tried some of that along with our usual pizza.
This evening we tried to get some exercise by putting in ½ hour on the walking track. This is an incredibly boring activity as it takes 13 laps to equal a nautical mile. We stuck it out though. Next time we do this, John is going to bring the Garmin and see whether it can trace our curlicue path.
Today's menus were channeling Louisiana food, or at least the chef's conception of what Louisiana food might be. The luncheon menu in the Club Restaurant featured a muffaletta sandwich and the dinner menu included Oysters Rockefeller and jambalaya. The only one we dared to try was the Oysters Rockefeller. This was OK but nothing like the real thing; it was oysters on a bed of spinach topped with a cheese sauce. The specialty pasta (long noodles in a lobster cream sauce) and the main course of Frog's Legs Provinciale were both very good. My dessert of molten-centered chocolate cake was a chocolate lover's delight. Our Waiter, Warinthon, is trying to be a little more personable; he made an origami frog for us.
The show we did not attend tonight was again the pianist, Ryan Ahern.
CRUISE DAY 8: FRI, 04/10/15 AT SEA
Our sea days have settled into our usual routine: read or write on the Promenade Deck (so Tutu can make up the cabin), attend a lecture or two, have pizza for lunch, read or write on our balcony, have a G&T or beer or ice cream, read or nap or watch a TV show or movie, have dinner, read until the Kindles fall out of our hands. Occasionally, we are able to connect to the Internet to download email or dispatch replies that we have composed offline. We would like to take in an occasional show but (except for the first night) all of the shows for our dinner seating have been at 10:00 p. m.. It is difficult to stay up until 11:00 p. m. when you have a hard day of reading or sightseeing ahead of you in the morning.
This morning our routine was disturbed by the need to practice pirate etiquette prior to the ship rounding the tip of India and entering the Arabian Sea. Last night we received an instruction letter: at the signal, we were to return to the corridor outside of our cabin and to sit or lie there until the pirate drill was over. Of course, it was not like that at all. First the drill was announced and the signal went off—a loud blast on the ship's whistle followed by the code “Sierra Papa”. Then the Captain announced that we should return to our cabins. We sat there waiting to be told to go into the corridor. After awhile, Tutu knocked on the door, propped it open with a wedge and asked us to close the curtains to the balcony. He said that we could either sit in the corridor or remain in the cabin. Eventually the Captain announced that, despite what was in the letter, he did not want to inconvenience us by making us sit or lie in the corridor. However, if the ship were to be attacked by pirates, we would need to go into the corridor and brace ourselves while the ship made high-speed evasive maneuvers. The Captain reassuringly noted that the last hijacking in this area was in 2012 and there had been only 8 attempts in 2013, 2 in 2014 and none so far this year. Tutu came back to close the cabin door and finally the Captain announced that the drill was over. I'm not sure that I feel any safer after all that.
[Update: A few days after this, one of our tour companions suggested that we look up at the stern of the ship from the outdoor seating area in the Panorama Buffet. From there we could see the “pirate horn” along with a manikin dressed like one of the ship's security officers.]
This afternoon, the astronomy lecture was “Ebbs, Flows & Moonshadows—Tides & Eclipses Made Easy”. The astronomer, Lesa Moore, had some really neat videos and slides from solar eclipses. One was taken over the water and you could see the patch of the moon's shadow appear, darken and disappear on the surface of the water.
The show we did not attend tonight was a production show, “I've Got the Music”.
CRUISE DAY 9: SAT, 04/11/15 COLOMBO, SRI LANKA 7:00AM – 7:30PM
Last night we set the clocks back an hour; now we were only 9.5 hours ahead of EDT. Wow! Passenger Services had finally learned how to set the correct local time on the TV Ship Channel!
Before heading down to meet our tour group, John and I went out on the upper decks. A few Colombo landmarks could be seen from the ship: the Sambodhi Chaitiya Dagoba, the Lotus Tower (under construction) and the red and white striped Red Mosque.
Today we were going on an independent tour organized by AussieGal with Genuine Sri Lankans (genuinesrilankans.com) for US$56 pp. Princess did not offer a comparable tour. There were 10 of us on this tour; except for AussieGal and her husband, all were from the USA. We all gathered in the Casino Lounge and went to meet the guide, Kochala. Although there is a building labeled “Passenger Terminal”, no one went over there. We passed about a dozen small shops that were right on the dock and entered a small and incredibly congested parking lot. The group was divided into two taxis to shuttle to our tour vehicle, an air-conditioned minibus that could hold about 20 people. Our driver was Adith; there was also another man who was not introduced. His function was to act as a spotter when Adith needed to park or back up and to assist the less-agile in alighting from the minibus.
Our destination was Galle, Sri Lanka's third largest city, to tour the Galle Fort. (Colombo is the largest city and the capital, Kandy, is the second largest.) Unfortunately, Galle is 70 miles south of Colombo. Even though about 50 miles of the trip is on a modern expressway, the whole trip takes about 2.5 hours because of the heavy traffic on the other roads. Colombo is striving to become another Singapore; the city center is full of high-rise buildings and there is lots of construction underway. We left the city on the Galle Face Highway, which passes along the coast. We had good views of the seashore and the Galle Face Hotel, where we were supposed to have tea later in the afternoon. As we drove through the city, we saw many Buddhist shrines (but far fewer than in Myanmar) and only a few monks. Just outside of town, we passed by an area noted for lumber production; there were acres of huge teak logs. Once we were on the expressway, we were in the lush, tropical countryside—mostly flat with a few hills. Rice paddies were dotted with egrets, cattle and water buffalo. We passed large plantations growing Sri Lanka's biggest export crops: rubber, coconuts and tea.
Finally, we reached Galle Bay and could see the Fort, which surrounds the old town; it occupies a peninsula jutting into the Bay of Bengal. This area was first settled by the Portuguese during the Age of Discovery and was later taken over by the Dutch, followed by the British. The Dutch built the fort, which was able to withstand the force of the 2004 tsunami that devastated the town outside the walls.
Before starting our tour of the fort, we took a restroom break at a restaurant. Unfortunately from our POV, this turned into an unscheduled half-hour snack and gem shopping break. While John and I cooled our heels, I bought some reasonably-priced tea and tried to negotiate for a Sri Lankan flag and a Universal Buddhism flag. The national flag was well-made and had a nice wooden pole and stand; the other was nylon with a plastic stand. The dealer wanted an exorbitant US$23 for the pair; I offered US$15 (still exorbitant in my book) but he would only come down to US$20. As the snack/shopping break dragged on, John and I climbed the ramparts of the Fort for a look around. He walked along the ramparts to get some photos, while I picked a strategic viewpoint where he could see me and I could see the entrance to the restaurant. When it was time to leave, I made one more US$15 offer for the flags but no sale.
We finally started our tour of the Fort at the Moon Bastion, which is the highest point in the Fort and houses the Clock Tower. We went through the wall onto the outer defenses and had some good views of the tower, some other bastions and the Galle International Cricket Stadium. John and I wanted to climb the ramp to the upper level of the bastion for better views. We went on ahead, while Kochala waited at the bottom of the ramp to direct the others up. As we ascended the ramp, there was a boy with a monkey and a snake in a basket. When no one from the group joined us on the platform, we eventually headed back down the ramp; Kochala was just starting up to fetch us. He suggested that we might want to walk counterclockwise along the ramparts and rejoin the rest of the group at the Lighthouse at the other end of the Fort. That sounded good to us, so we headed off while the others rode in the minibus. An interesting thing about the Fort is that the cement used for the walls incorporated lots of corals, which can easily be seen. We actually caught up with the group at Flag Rock, then continued along to the Lighthouse. A few other people also decided to walk from Flag Rock to the Lighthouse.
When the rest of the group arrived at the Lighthouse, Kochala told John and me that we could feel free to walk through the town to the last stop on the tour, the Groote Kirche. This section of the tour passed the historical sites and John had downloaded a map and description of them (www.insightguides.com/inspire-me/blog/a-walk-around-sri-lankas-galle-fort). As we continued our walk around the Fort, we passed the Old Dutch Hospital, now filled with jewelry stores and restaurants. At Courthouse Square, we encountered a spirited cricket match in progress, as well as some Dutch colonial era buildings. We continued past the Maritime Museum to the corner of Queen and Church Streets. To the left is All Saints Church, from the British era, and to the right is the detached belfry of the Groote Kirke, which is further up the street. While we waited for the minibus to catch up, John and I visited the small, austere Groote Kirke and the church garden, with tombstones of former residents embedded in the garden walls.
Then it was time to head back to Colombo. First, however, we had to make another unscheduled break—45 minutes for lunch. John and I did not want to eat and thought we might window shop along the road or walk along the beach. However, once we checked out the tiny pedestrian lane and the traffic whizzing by, we changed our minds. There was a gift shop and jewelry store at the restaurant, so we spent time looking through those (no flags). There was a woodworker in a workshop near the entrance to the restaurant and there were several rooms filled with beautiful furniture and wood carvings.
Back on the road, the traffic got worse and worse as we got closer to Colombo. Two lane roads were converted into six or more lanes. Tuk-tuks and motorcycles darted in and out among the cars and buses. Cars, buses, tuk-tuks and motorcycles habitually moved into oncoming lanes or turned abruptly across several lanes of traffic. Because of the upcoming New Year holiday, there were vast throngs of people out shopping and adding to the confusion. Occasionally, we saw one or two completely ineffective traffic police. It's hard to imagine that the traffic in India is supposed to be even worse than this!
Adith skillfully navigated this mess and tried to take us back to the Galle Face Hotel. Although it was now far too late to stop there for tea, I think Koshala wanted us to have a photo op. However, the whole highway north of the hotel was blocked off for some reason. Our final stop was a photo op at the small Seema Malaka Buddhist temple, which appears to be floating in Beira Lake.
Finally, we returned to the dock, where there was now room in the parking lot to deposit us just outside the secure area. Before re-boarding the ship, John and I browsed the shops on the dock, where I found a nice Sri Lankan flag for US$1. Sold! Then it was time for a cold G&T, a hot shower and some rest before dinner.
We had hoped to watch the sail away from Colombo before going to dinner. However, some of the ship's shore excursions must have been delayed by the traffic; a gangway was still extended and there were a handful of security officers milling around. The ship finally departed while we were at dinner. The salmon gravalax appetizer tonight was particularly good, as were the ricotta ravioli and the veal scallopini with barley pilaf.
The show we did not attend tonight was a movie, “The Theory of Everything”.
[Update: We later learned that ship's excursions to Kandy were the cause of the late departure. One bus broke down on the way there but was restarted. On the way back, another bus broke down completely and another bus did not have any tail lights.]
CRUISE DAY 10: SUN, 04/12/15 AT SEA
Today we would be sailing through the Lakshadweep Sea before rounding Cape Cormorin at the tip of India and turning north into the Arabian Sea.
This morning we went to a port lecture on Mumbai; there was only a brief mention of the site we would be visiting there on a ship's tour. Before the lecture, however, we had some excitement. There was a long blast of the ship's whistle, the Officer of the Watch immediately came on the PA to announce, “Crew alert!”, and the Cruise Director went racing from the room. A few minutes later, the Captain came on the PA to tell us that there was an “incident” in the engine room. Shortly after, he announced that there had been a small fire in a purifier, which was now out, and everything was fine again.
The specialty pizza today was a bit odd—Peking Duck—but I tried it anyway (only OK). There was also a special “Filipino Buffet”. I did not see anything that interested me, but John loves custard desserts; he had two of the flan.
After lunch, we went to three presentations in the Cabaret Lounge. The first was an enrichment lecture on “Marine Meteorology: Doldrums and Devastation”, which was about wind and ocean current patterns and extreme weather systems. The speaker, Colin Boyd, had a lot of interesting things to say but his soft, low monotone had a soporific effect. I only nodded off once and John twice but the guy next to me was sound asleep.
The second presentation was a special screening of the edited footage taken at the Shwedagon Pagoda by the ship's videographer, who was on the tour with us. He included an interview with our guide, Moh Moh, and a cute segment with the mini-nuns. He also had a time-lapse view of the temple platform; we had a laugh watching John enter the frame and stand there calmly taking photos while people zipped all around him.
The final presentation was an astronomy lecture, “Grand Tour of the Solar System—Sizing Up the Planets”, by Lesa Moore. She had some great images from various missions to the planets, asteroids and comets. We were disappointed to hear that the proposed stargazing session will probably be held on the same night as the Chef's Table.
This evening there was a spectacular sunset. We could not actually see the sun because of the unusual towering cloud formations on the horizon. The light and dark pattern of rays and the hues of rose, red and orange on the clouds were gorgeous.
Dinner this evening was Surf 'n Turf—prawns with filet mignon. The show we did not attend was again the vocal entertainer, Michelle Montouri.
CRUISE DAY 11: MON, 04/13/15 COCHIN, INDIA 8:00AM – 5:30PM
As we entered the harbor this morning, we saw several pods of dolphins. We also had some good views of the Chinese fishing nets, which we would see more closely on our tour, in action and many colorful fishing boats.
On the day we were in Myanmar, we received a stack of paperwork to fill out for the visit to India—landing cards for Cochin and Mumbai, arrival and departure forms for India—that had to be turned in the same day. Before going ashore today, we had a full Indian Immigration inspection. We picked up our passports, presented the landing form (with a copy of the passport photo page) for scrutiny and stamps, returned the passports, and received a little card stating that we had completed immigration formalities. With such a small ship this went fairly quickly, taking maybe 15 minutes.
Today we were going on another independent tour organized by AussieGal, this time with Magic Tours (www.cochinmagic.com/cochin_cartour.html) for 2500 rupees pp (about USD$40 pp). Our group (the same 10 as for Colombo) gathered in the Casino Lounge and went to meet the guide, Vijesh (VJ). Our vehicle was another modern, air-conditioned 20-person minibus. The driver and his spotter were not introduced.
Cochin (aka Kochi) is situated on a number of islands and peninsulas. The ship docked at the BPT Jetty on man-made Willington Island; passengers were not allowed to walk in the port area. However, there were many taxis and tuk-tuks waiting just outside the secure area near the ship, which was guarded by armed militia. There were no handicraft stalls, only a handful of hawkers. There was also a table set up offering currency exchange. Magic Tours required payment in rupees, which a few of our group had pre-purchased in the USA. AussieGal and I wanted to withdraw rupees from an ATM but one of the group chose to patronize the money changer. I think she exchanged about US$200 and received a stack of rupees about 4 inches thick! (One thousand rupees equals about US$15.60.) At least she had a lot of small change. After AussieGal collected each couple's share to pay for the tour, she had a bundle about 6 inches thick.
Our first destination today was Fort Kochi, part of the old town of Cochin. To reach this area, we had to drive down Willington Island to a bridge and back up the peninsula on the other side. We thought this would take a long time but the traffic was not as bad a we had been led to believe. As we drove to the port entrance, we saw a number of traditional trucks lined up waiting to haul cargo. These trucks look somewhat like school buses that have been cut off behind the first row of seats and the remaining seats replaced with a flat bed. What is really interesting about these trucks is not the shape but the intricate and colorful designs painted on the cabs—flowers, geometric shapes, Hindu gods, Christian saints.
Our first tour stop was at St. Francis Church. Surprisingly, the population of Cochin is 60% Christian and there were several other Catholic and other Christian churches in this part of the city. St. Francis Church summarizes the history of the entire area; it was a Catholic church under the Portuguese, Dutch Reformed under the Dutch and later Anglican under the British; it is now part of the Church of South India. We had to remove our shoes to enter, possibly to protect the tiled floor. Of special interest here is the original tomb of Vasco da Gama, whose remains were later repatriated to Lisbon. There is also a clever fan system consisting of short curtains suspended under long wooden beams; the beams are moved by a rope system to quietly cool the congregation. There were a lot of hawkers here and at all of our stops but they were not pushy or excessively persistent.
From the church, we walked to the waterfront. Along the way, VJ pointed out several types of native and introduced trees and some examples of colonial architecture. At the waterfront, we could watch the local fishermen deploying their Chinese Nets, reputedly introduced to the area by Kublai Khan. Each apparatus is situated at the end of a short pier and consists of a framework of poles attached to the four corners of a large square net. A counterweight system is used to lower the net into the river. After about ten minutes, the net is hauled back up, which requires five or six men. We also saw a man fishing with a cast net and other fisherman getting ready to set out for deep water in their brightly-colored boats. This area also contains what little remains of the walls of Fort Kochi.
We continued along past stalls selling the fishermen's catch. The fish market offered many kinds of fish and shellfish—mullet, red fish, shark, rays, shrimp, crab. The crabs looked similar to our familiar Blue Crab but had white-spotted shells. The owner of one store had what he called a “fighter fish”; it looked like a puffer fish with horns. [Note: This was a Longhorn Cowfish and is related to the pufferfish. They secrete toxins from their skin when they are stressed.]
Next we headed to the Mattanchery section of the old town to visit the Jewish Synagogue. We drove past the Santa Cruza Basilica (Catholic) along the way. Then we made a stop at the Dhoby Khana. This a large outdoor laundry facility. Clothing and linens from the surrounding homes and restaurants are pounded and scrubbed in stone tubs, then hung to dry in the sun. Each launderer (dhobywallah) has his/her own designated clotheslines. After the clothes are dry, they are pressed with heavy irons that have a small coconut charcoal fire inside. Most of the people working here are elderly and do so to avoid being a burden on their families. Visitors are asked to make a donation to the support of the workers.
Before we could get to the synagogue, our group needed a potty break, which was taken at a handicraft store that featured wood carvings and carpets. Unfortunately, there was also a jewelry store there, which precipitated a flurry of shopping for precious stones. We eventually made it to the Paradesi Synagogue, which is the last of seven synagogues in Cochin that still holds services. The congregation consists of only seven people from four families; all the other Jews in Cochin emigrated to Israel after the formation of that country. Six of our group were Jewish but John and I had never been in a synagogue before. VJ made a nice presentation of the features of the building and the Jewish traditions. We had to remove our shoes here to protect the gorgeous blue and white Cantonese tiles on the floor; no photos were allowed. The room was lit by a number of Belgian crystal chandeliers and one from Murano in Venice. Outside were many gravestones inscribed in Hebrew that were moved here from the Jewish Cemetery.
From here, we walked to the last stop, the nearby Mattanchery Palace (Dutch Palace). This building was actually erected by the Portuguese then taken over by the Dutch, who presented it to the rajas of Cochin. The rajas used the building as a palace and decorated it with stunning murals depicting the Hindu epic, the Ramayan. VJ did an excellent job of walking us through the rooms and explaining the significance of the murals. The palace also displays several palanquins used to transport the rajas; six men were needed to carry each one. No photos were allowed here either.
VJ made a real effort to accommodate all the various agendas in our group; he made a detour to the post office and to a liquor store. While we were waiting on the bus, John and I became curious about a large, spiky, pale-green fruit displayed in front of a market. VJ told us that those were jackfruit. He explained how they were prepared and later bought a bag of fried jackfruit strips so that we could all have a taste (like potato chips). It was special touches like that that made VJ such an excellent guide; he also works as a freelance guide (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com).
This was only a half-day tour, so when we returned to the ship there was time for a late lunch and relaxing before enjoying the twilight sail away. When the lines were being cast off, one got lodged on a large beam that was attached vertically to the side of the dock. A dockworker climbed down a ladder next to the beam to inspect but not touch the line. Apparently, he thought the line would slip off as the ship moved away; it didn't—the ship just ripped the beam off. As we passed Fort Kochi, people were lined up all along the shoreline and beach, waving and taking photos of the ship.
The show we did not attend tonight was “Magical Showtime”' with magician Philip Hitchcock.
CRUISE DAY 12: TUE, 04/14/15 AT SEA
All day long today we would be sailing through the Arabian Sea.
The excitement de jour was a plumbing problem. After John flushed the toilet this morning, the bowl continued to fill and threatened to overflow unless he flushed every 15 seconds. I called Passenger Services and told them it was an emergency but no one seemed to be in any rush to come help. In desperation, John suggested that I find Tutu because he might know what to do. Tutu came to help immediately and shut off the water to the toilet; he diagnosed the problem as a broken water valve. That was indeed the problem and maintenance finally replaced it later in the morning while we were out of the cabin.
Later there was a port lecture on Dubai, which mentioned a number of sites that we would be seeing on our city tour with AussieGal. After that was an astronomy lecture, “Heroes of Knowledge—Ancient Greeks, Galileo, Newton & More”. We were pleased that there will now be several nights of stargazing, with the first being held on the first sea day after Mumbai.
For lunch, there was an unadvertised special “Indian Buffet”. It all looked and smelled so good that we both asked for small amounts of all six of the hot dishes. John also indulged in a tapioca pudding. The dishes were only mildly spicy but tasty nonetheless.
In the afternoon, we attended the Princess Grapevine wine tasting. There were several new wines but the same dessert wine, Errazuriz. Usually, attendees receive a decorative souvenir shot glass but this time the Errazuriz was served in plain cordial glasses that were collected after the tasting. I had hoped that we might receive a 50th Celebration souvenir glass.
Tonight was the second of four formal nights. Finally, the Cruise Director scheduled a show before dinner! The entertainer was Kieran Powell, a contemporary ventriloquist. He had difficulty performing because he was very hoarse and kept coughing; it must have been hard for him to do a second show.
At dinner, we had a nice sparkling rose' to toast our older DGD's fifth birthday. I hope we can take her and her sister on a cruise again soon!
CRUISE DAY 13: WED, 04/15/15 MUMBAI, INDIA 6:00AM – 5:30PM
As we approached the Mumbai harbor this morning, we noticed a strong chemical odor that even seeped into the cabin. The air was quite hazy, which we hoped would burn off later; unfortunately, it was smog, so it stayed. Once again, the ship docked in a commercial port with no passenger facilities at Ballard Pier 19. There was a warehouse where a few vendors and money changers set up shop and a shuttle (provided by the Port Authority) to the port gate.
This morning there was another full Indian Immigration inspection before we could depart on our ship's tour, “Elephanta Island & Caves” (US$35 pp). Once on our air-conditioned bus, we almost had a repeat of the Ted fiasco—a woman who was supposed to be on our bus could not find her husband. This time there was no dilly-dallying; she was told to wait for her husband on the dock and join the second of the two buses if/when he showed up.
This tour was run for Princess by Lotus DMC (www.lotusdmc.com), which provided four or five extra helpers (wearing purple shirts with the Lotus web site on the back) to assist the guide, driver and spotter. These helpers distributed water bottles on the bus and tried to herd the group so we did not get too spread out when we were walking around. When we reached the port gate, most of those extra people got off the bus, walked through the pedestrian port exit and re-boarded the bus after it passed through the security screening. We later learned that this curious procedure was necessary because only people with the proper credentials could ride through the gate. A security officer boarded the bus and checked that all of us from the ship had our yellow landing cards; he also inspected the trunk of the bus.
It was only a short ride from the port gate to the Gateway of India; the morning traffic was not excessive. Along the way, our guide, Bahadur, pointed out a number of administrative buildings and museums. After about 15 minutes, we reached the Gateway, where we would catch a covered boat for the hour-long ride to Elephanta Island. There is a large plaza in front of the Gateway; to enter, one must pass through metal detectors, a separate one for men and for women, neither of which was working. Once in the plaza, Badahur pointed out the Muslim and Hindu architectural elements in the Gateway and the history of that arch. The 85 foot high monument was built to commemorate the imperial visit of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911; when India became independent, the last remaining British troops filed through the Gateway to board their ships for the voyage home. He also talked about the nearby Taj Mahal Hotel and the 2008 terrorist attacks there and at seven other sites in the city. This area is popular with tourists and locals, so it attracts vendors. However, it was not wall-to-wall people nor were the vendors excessively annoying.
Now it was time to board the boat. Unfortunately, a fair number of people on our tour did not understand that we would be catching a boat at the Gateway; they thought this was simply a photo stop and left their belongings on the bus. To keep the group together, all of us had to return to the bus to retrieve the items left behind. Finally, all the people from both buses managed to get on the boat; John and I climbed the ladder to the upper deck for good views. Photos can only be taken from the boat for the first 15 minutes and the last half-hour of the trip because the route passes a couple of Indian naval vessels. As we motored through the busy harbor, we passed vessels of all sizes from small fishing boats to giant super tankers and container ships; we even saw a hovercraft. When we passed Butcher Island, Bahadur explained that the facilities there were used to off-load oil from the tankers; the oil is then transported to refineries on the mainland by underground pipes.
Once we reached Elephanta Island, it was a short walk along the jetty to a small tourist train (included in the tour price) that would deposit us at the bottom of the 120 steps leading to the main cave. The word “cave” is a misnomer; the temples and statues here were carved out of solid basalt, starting at the ceiling and working down. Also, there have never been any elephants on the island; the name of the island comes from a statue of an elephant that was found here and is now on display at the Mumbai Zoo.
Before we could head up the stairs, we had a potty break. The pay toilets (included in the tour price) were similar to those in China: pick up the toilet paper at the door and squat over a porcelain slot in the floor. A new wrinkle for me was that there was no water in the toilet tank; instead, there was a faucet with a pitcher to fill and pour into the toilet to make it flush. This was obviously also new to the women who had used the toilet before me, so I had to flush for them as well as myself.
At last it was time to climb the stairs to the main attraction. Those who did not want to climb could be carried in a sedan chair (US$20 round trip, not included in the tour price). Badahur had explained the procedure for renting a chair but I didn't see anybody use one. He also advised us to hide our water bottles in our purses or packs because the monkeys would snatch the water bottles away; they will bite or scratch you if try to hang on to the bottle. We had thought the monkeys might make a grab for our glasses or hats but apparently they are only interested in water bottles or food. There are a number of warning signs about the monkey along the path to the caves.
There are many stalls and small shops that line the steps leading up to the temples. Because this tour was among the first to reach the island, the vendors were scrambling to remove the tarps covering their wares. This gave us a chance to check out what was on offer without a lot of pressure to buy. Once at the top of the stairs, we saw a pair of monkeys nursing their young and some stray dogs with pups.
The first temples excavated on Elephanta Island were on the other side of the mountain from where we were now. They were abandoned because the rock layers were vertical and could not be carved. On this side of the mountain, there are seven temples—a large one and several smaller ones. The temples, dedicated to Lord Shiva, are approximately 1300 years old. Many of the carvings were badly damaged when the Portuguese occupied the island and used them for target practice.
The main temple, known as the Shiva Cave or Great Cave, is a large hall divided into a series of smaller chambers by rows of pillars. The pillars are even topped with lintels, which are not functional; like the pillars and all the relief carvings, they are part of the mountain. In the center of the hall is the lingam chapel; it is the heart of the shrine, where devotees still leave flowers and burn incense to worship Shiva. The walls of the temple contain nine intricate relief carvings pertaining to Shiva and his consort, Parvati. Bahadur explained the cultural and historical significance of each tableau, beginning with Shiva performing the dance of creation. Despite the heavy damage to most of these carvings, the site is spectacular. The best-preserved carving is the 18-foot-high "Mahesamurti," a triple image representing Shiva as the Creator, the Preserver and the Destroyer of Evil. It is no wonder that Bahadur gave such excellent explanations of the carvings; he has a Master's degree in ancient Indian culture. He is also a freelance guide (firstname.lastname@example.org).
After Bahadur guided us through the site, we had about 30 minutes to take more photos and work our way back down the stairs. John and I explored two small temples; they have only a few decorations. On the way down, we stopped at a store where we had noticed a flag earlier. I bought a nice Indian flag and two nesting dolls for our DGDs. I am not much good at haggling but did manage to shave about 30% off the asking price. Where is my friend Ann when I need her to bargain for me? There were a lot more monkeys out now, right next to the path; one was eating a cob of corn.
After that, it was back on the tourist train, back on the boat, back on the bus and back to the ship. The traffic was heavier now that it was later in the day but nothing like what we encountered in Myanmar or Sri Lanka. Perhaps it was the time of day or the places we chose to visit but our time in India was interesting and enjoyable. Maybe we will have a different experience if we make a more extensive land tour there in the future.
This was only a half-day tour, so when we returned to the ship there was time for a late lunch and relaxing before going out on the Promenade for the sail away. The sail away was delayed because an Indian crew member was late returning to the ship; his taxi driver could not find the port. Missing their “all aboard” time (1/2 hour before the passengers') is a serious infraction for the crew and he could be fired. Even after he was aboard, we did not leave. We saw the immigration officials down at the other end of the Promenade, apparently getting ready to disembark. However, they kept talking to the ship's administrative team; then more documents were brought out and scrutinized. Eventually those of us on deck were shooed inside, ostensibly because we might be in danger when the gangway was finally removed.
The show we did not attend tonight was a multi-instrumentalist, Mark Donoghue.
CRUISE DAY 14: THU, 04/16/15 AT SEA
Last night we set the clocks back 1/2 hour; now we were only 9 hours ahead of EDT. We would be spending all day today and tomorrow sailing across the Arabian Sea to our next port of call, Duabi.
Today's astronomy lecture was “What Star Is That?—Know Your Sky This Cruise”. Tonight there would be a stargazing session.
Dinner tonight included a good scallop ceviche, Spaghetti Carbonara and duck breast with Asian spices.
The show we did not see tonight was a production show, “Motor City”, which we have seen many times before. Besides, we had better things to do, like look at the sky. Astronomer Lesa Moore had arranged for the ship to turn off the lights on Deck 11 forward from 10:00 – 10:45 p. m. That made the viewing pretty good from the southwest to the northwest but still not good enough to see the Milky Way. Venus and most of Orion had already set but we could still see Jupiter and Sirius, the brightest star in the sky (besides the Sun). Lesa pointed out other stars, constellations and asterisms, such as Polaris, Ursa Major and the Big Dipper. She is from Australia, so she usually cannot see any of those three; she said that was the best view she had ever had of the Big Dipper. Saturn was rising in the east; however, the aft lights (not to mention the smokestack and smoke) made it impossible to see anything in that part of the sky. There will be at least one more stargazing session when we are further south and can see more of the southern constellations.
CRUISE DAY 15: FRI, 04/17/15 AT SEA
Today we would continue sailing across the Arabian Sea and enter the Gulf of Oman sometime in the afternoon.
While we were relaxing on the Promenade this morning, the Captain announced that two whales had been spotted ahead of the ship. They were evidently feeding because we could watch them breaching and spouting until they disappeared from sight behind the ship. John thinks they were Fin Whales.
The astronomy lecture today was “Big Island, Big Telescope—To the Top of Mauna Kea”. This was about Lesa Moore's ill-fated trip to Hawaii to collect data for her Master's thesis using the Gemini North telescope. Unfortunately for her, the dome was frozen shut and she could not take any readings. She had to reapply for another time slot a year later and was then able to have readings made on her behalf.
At lunch, there was another unadvertised buffet, this time an “International Buffet”. This was a rather strange assortment of Filipino, Indian, Mexican, German and Italian appetizers and dishes. Maybe the galley needed to get rid of a lot of odds and ends but it was pretty good nonetheless.
Tonight the show was again scheduled before dinner; the entertainer was again the ventriloquist. Kieran Powell. We decided to put in 1/2 hour on the walking track instead. John tried using the Garmin; it did not seem bothered that we were walking on the Gulf of Oman but it only showed a wavy path because the ship was moving faster than we were.
A week or so ago the Maitre d', Carlos, was working the room and asking people if there was anything he could do for them. John mentioned that we hoped escargots were on the menu. Carlos replied that there were enough to have them as regularly scheduled but if more were loaded on board in Dubai, he would see about getting some extra ones for us. John also asked when osso buco would be served at lunch and whether the galley would mind setting aside two portions for us to have at dinner. [Readers of my other cruise reviews know how much we like this dish!] We were disappointed to hear that the Ocean Princess was not serving osso buco anymore because the Chef could not get good-quality veal. However, Carlos would ask the Chef if he could do something for us. Well, tonight was the night! We had a wonderful dinner of osso buco prepared just for us!
CRUISE DAY 16: SAT, 04/18/15 DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES 12:00PM (OVERNIGHT)
Last night we set the clocks back an hour; now we were only 8 hours ahead of EDT. During the early morning hours, we would pass through the Strait of Hormuz and enter the Persian Gulf.
This evening, we would be going “dune dashing”, which had been described to us by our neighbors, Hans and Magda. They had gone dune bashing when visiting their daughter (who lives in Dubai) and had a great time, so we decided to use the same company, Arabian Nights Tours (ANT). Their “Desert Safari" (arabiannightstours.com/individual-tours/) is a shared public tour. I was offered a 40% discount off the brochure rate, so I paid 180 dirhams pp (US$49 pp). I tried to interest others on our Cruise Critic roll call; however, the tour is not suitable for people who are pregnant or have back or heart problems because it is a fairly rough ride. Princess offered a similar tour for US$139.95 pp; it did not allow persons over 65 years old to participate unless they signed a waiver.
As we approached Dubai, we could see “The World”, an artificial archipelago, off the starboard side. We had hoped to get some good photos of Dubai's fabled skyline as we got closer but they were obscured by haze, which turned out to be clouds of dust. The ship docked in Port Rashid at the Hamdan bin Mohammad Cruise Terminal #3. This is a gorgeous cruise terminal with a free (but slow) wi-fi area, tourist information, shops, a currency exchange and more. We left the ship about 30 minutes before we were scheduled to be picked up so that we could look for a flag in the shops. The second shop we checked had UAE flags and they only cost 5 dirhams! I paid US$2, which is worth about 7 dirhams, so I got 2 dirhams in change as a souvenir. I picked up a free map of Dubai from the Information Desk and we headed outside to wait for our car. To exit or enter the terminal, you have to pass through a metal detector, your bags must be x-rayed and you must show your cruise card and landing card.
We were surprised that our driver/guide, Farouk, was already waiting at the entrance holding a sign with my name. We realized later that he had to pick us up first because the other people on the tour would not have been allowed inside the port; Farouk had to show his tour guide license and we had to show our cruise cards at the port gates to exit and re-enter. We scrambled into the Land Cruiser that we would be using for the tour and drove south to the Dubai Marine Beach Resort, where we picked up a family of four adults on holiday from Tajikistan. I made a little small talk with them at first and Farouk did not offer much in the way of commentary along the way, so it was a pretty quiet trip.
We continued south along the beach road before turning inland towards the Al Madam desert, in the Emirate of Sharjah. Along the way, the vegetation became more sparse, the dunes became more pronounced and we even saw a few camels wandering the dunes. We stopped at a grocery store, where we waited about 40 minutes while cars from ANT and other tour companies gathered before heading into the desert. There were toilets of some sort here (we decided to skip those) and a carpet store. While we were waiting, Farouk removed some of the air in each tire to have more traction on the sand.
Eventually, the cars from each tour company formed caravans and headed out to different parts of the desert. The ANT caravan had about 40 Land Cruisers. We spent the next 45 minutes or so zooming up dunes, making sharp turns that threw up high sprays of sand and zooming back down. There were many sharp curves, bumps and some air time. Despite all the warnings, the ride was really not that rough; nevertheless, it was a lot of fun. The dunes look a lot like the surface of Mars, except for the wavy markings from the wind, because the sand has a reddish cast. The sand is also much finer than we encountered in the Egyptian desert; we soon acquired a fine coating that stuck to our sunscreen. During the safari, we paused several times to regroup the caravan, take photos of the dunes and watch other cars careening up and down the dunes. At one stop, we asked Farouk about the limited types of desert plants (a grass, a bush and a tree) that we had seen growing. He is definitely not a botanist; his response was, “Desert tree.” During the tour we also passed an oil well and a fenced-in herd of camels with a couple of babies; occasionally we saw a car bumper or other car part lying in the sand. John wondered how often they need to change the air filters on these cars.
Too soon the sun was beginning to set; it was time to stop dune bashing and proceed to ANT's Bedouin-style campsite. This is a walled compound with a large carpet-covered stage in the middle, surrounded by low tables for six and cushions to sit on. Farouk found an unoccupied table next to the stage for our group. He told us that the camel rides and sand boarding were outside the compound and pointed out the locations of the toilets and bar (soft drinks and water included, alcoholic beverages cost extra). He said chicken shawarma (chicken grilled with tomato and onion in pita bread) and falafel (fried chickpea balls) were being served in one corner and that we could check out the attractions until the show started at 7:30 p. m.; the buffet dinner would be served between the two acts of the show.
John estimated that there were 200-250 guests of all ages at the camp: families with toddlers, young adults and older people like us. We decided to try the camel ride before the queue got too long. The ride consisted of three camels roped in a line; each camel could hold two people. The camels were walked in a circle for about 3 minutes while a photographer took pictures. It is not hard to get on the camels because they are kneeling down on the ground; it is more difficult to get off. When the front legs kneel down, you feel quite a jerk forward; then the back legs fold down and you can get off. It was really interesting watching the camels kneel down and stand up. We also watched some people sand boarding. This activity would probably be easy for people who could skateboard, boogie board, surf or ski board; we are not those people, so we did not indulge.
Back inside the compound, we had a soft drink, shawarma and falafel. Then we walked around to see what else was going on. Near the entrance was a table with popcorn and roasted ears of corn. Further on, there was a booth with dates and urna of tea and of hot water to make instant Arabic coffee. There was another booth where women could get a henna tattoo on their left hand and index finger. I thought mine looks pretty nice; in any case, I was stuck with it until it wore off.
Another booth had traditional Arabic clothes to try on. The man there would help you dress properly, then take photos with your own camera. The men's outfit is a long white robe with a headdress; he arranged John's headdress three different ways. The women's outfit is a long black robe with a head covering that left only my eyes exposed; he also arranged my outfit another way with a long black veil. The man took several photos of us together in each version of the outfits. Those robes are hot!
For those who wanted to try it (not us), there was an opportunity to smoke a sheesha, the traditional water pipe. There was a shop selling souvenirs (no flags) and another selling sand art. The photos from the camel ride were also for sale in a souvenir folder for 50 dirhams (US$15) each. We didn't buy anything.
By now, it was getting close to the time for the show, so we decided it would be prudent to visit the restrooms. John said the men's room had three urinals and a stall. There was only one room for women with both a slot and a western-style toilet inside. As in most Asian countries, used toilet tissue goes into a trash can and not the toilet; this trash can was long overdue to be emptied. At least there was soap, running water and paper towels to wash our hands.
We picked up some bottled water and sat down for the show. The first act was a tanoura dance; this was similar to the dervish we saw in Egypt. The male dancer spins while his robes swirl around him. Meanwhile, he uses his hands to balance baskets or twirl scarves. Towards the end of the dance, the layers of his robe separate, with part swirling around his feet and part around his head. For the grand finale, little light bulbs on his costume come on as he spins. After the dance, he coaxed several men into trying to spin wearing part of his costume. Then he picked a couple of women from the audience and spun around holding them. It was a good thing that this part of the show was before dinner!
Now it was time for the buffet dinner; men and women were supposed to form separate lines. There were pita breads with big platters of hummus and several salads, such as tabbouleh and cucumber with yogurt. There were a lot of hot dishes that I did not recognize, many with potatoes; I was most interested in the ones with eggplant in them. There were a couple of dishes with spaghetti and some with rice. All of the buffet dishes appeared to be vegetarian. After serving ourselves from the buffet, we went to the grill where we were served a chicken leg, a chunk of chicken breast, two lamb sausages and some fish. I did not want dessert but John got some sort of pudding; there was also fresh fruit. I don't know how authentic the food was but it tasted good.
After we had some time to eat, the second act of the show, a belly dancer, began. This performance was quite different from what we had seen in Egypt; the moves were more subtle and included other props in addition to scarves. One of the props was a pair of canes that she twirled, not like a baton but from the ends. Then she balanced a cane on her hip and made it bounce up and down. She also danced with a curved sword, which she balanced on her hip and then on her head while she danced. This was an excellent performance.
Now it was time for Farouk to refill the tires for the return trip. Farouk gave us all a DVD; it turned out to be mostly an ad for ANT but there was footage of a generic Desert Safari and even a bit of footage from our particular tour. John and I got back to the ship about 10:30 p. m. Some of the crew were leaving as we were reboarding the ship. Our Assistant Waiter, Irena, was waiting to disembark with some friends; they were going to see the light show at the fountains between the Dubai Mall and the Burj Khalifah. Although we had a tour scheduled at 8:00 a. m. tomorrow morning, we needed to shower before going to bed to get rid of the sand.
CRUISE DAY 17: SUN, 04/19/15 DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES, DEPART 12:30PM
Dubai is one of seven emirates in the UAE. The city-state was nothing but sand when some nomads moved here from Yemen and eventually became the Royal Family in 1833. Until recent times, Dubai was merely a small trading post on the Persian Gulf; people made their living from fishing, pearling and camel breeding. When oil was discovered here in the late 1960s, the grandfather and father of the current rulers realized that the oil reserves were not going to last forever. They went on a modernization spree to position Dubai as a global financial and shipping hub. Dubai is also expanding tourism and aiming to become the premier shopping destination in the world. There are about 20 huge malls and many smaller ones; an entire mall is devoted only to gold! Despite all of this, Dubai ran into economic problems during the Great Recession. However, the guy who owns Abu Dhabi had enough oil money to prop up Dubai.
Today we were going on another tour organized by AussieGal, this time with an independent tour guide Shehnaaz (email@example.com) for USD$60 pp. Eight of our group had toured together in Colombo and Cochin; today there were three more couples, for a total of 14. Again our vehicle was a modern, air-conditioned 20-person minibus. Weekends in the UAE are on Friday and Saturday; today, Sunday, is the first day of the work week, so there was a lot of traffic. Because we only had four hours for the tour and it would take awhile to go from one site to another, Shehnaaz would try to cover as much of her "Discover Dubai" tour (www.toursbylocals.com/DubaiUAETourGuide) as possible.
The focus of this tour was on the incredible architecture in the newer part of the city. Dubai is like a sand box for architectural firms to play in; they could let their imaginations run wild and the resulting skyline (when it's not obscured by dust) is fantastic. We drove along Sheik Zayed Road, a modern expressway that parallels one of the elevated metro lines. Along the way Shehnaaz pointed out various skyscrapers, such as the Emirates Twin Towers, World Trade Centre, The Address Downtown Dubai (a hotel shaped like a cruise ship) and Al Kazim Towers (which resemble New York City's Chrysler Building). We also passed the Mall of the Emirates, which has indoor ski runs. Everything here is larger than life.
Our first stop was at the Burj Khalifah, the tallest building in the world. At over half mile high, it dominates the skyline and is visible from anywhere in town; it's an amazing and delicate looking structure. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to go to the observation platform on the 124th floor. This building alone holds a fair number of Dubai's 50 Guinness World Records, e. g., highest toilet, highest mosque.
Near the Burj Khalifah is the Dubai Mall, the largest mall in Dubai and the largest in the world; it had 80 million shoppers last year. It is very upscale (think Louis Vuitton, Cartier, etc.) and is currently being expanded to bring in even more high-end retailers. Fortunately we only had time to view the mall from the outside; otherwise, our group might never have made it to the other sites. Shehnaaz told us that underneath their head-to-toe black robes, Muslim women here are dressed in exclusive designer clothing and jewelry; the only hint is the designer bags they are carrying and the designer shoes that peek out from below the robes.
Our next stop was at the Dubai Marina. Many of Shehnaaz' remarks began, “All of this was desert just X years ago”; except for a couple of hotels, none of this area was here six years ago. The Marina was carved out of the desert, then an opening was made to the sea. It is home to many luxury yachts and five-star hotels. The Cayan Tower gently twists so that the top floor is 90 degrees offset from the bottom.
Next we drove to the Palm Jumeirah. This is an artificial island shaped like a palm tree; the fronds of the palm are filled with luxury residences. The entire complex is surrounded by a huge breakwater that is home to ridiculously expensive, five-star hotels such as Atlantis (a twin to the Atlantis in Nassau except there is no casino), restaurants and entertainment venues. The island even has its own monorail system. Dubai is currently building two more Palm islands. In contrast to the Palm, the islands in the World archipelago are not currently being developed, although all of them have been sold. One reason for this is that it can only be reached by boat or helicopter. However, once one or two developers take the plunge and start putting in infrastructure, it will probably take off just like the Palm. Nevertheless, this looks like a real estate bubble waiting to burst.
The next stop was at Madinat Jumeirah, a complex of hotels, restaurants and shops. The resort is built like an Arabic city with man-made canals and little boats for transporting guests around the site. From here we had good views of the Burj Al Arab, a so-called 7-star hotel that is shaped like a sailboat. AussieGal and her husband had gone there for tea—US$160 pp (however, you get champagne in addition to tea).
We continued driving back along the beach road to the cruise terminal. We passed the compound of the Royal Family and many palaces of their relatives, all behind high walls. Next came the Jumeirah area, which Shehnaaz called “The Beverly Hills of Dubai”—the massive homes of regular Dubai citizens. The population of Dubai is 85% foreign. The 15% live like the 1% in the US: they get free housing, free medical care and free education in addition to these sumptuous villas. After a certain period of time, citizens can sell or rent their homes, which has caused housing prices and rents to soar. Foreign laborers and blue-collar workers get free housing, food and medical care from their companies and earn between $200 and $400 per month. They are bused between their housing and their workplaces with little time for anything but work.
The last place we had time to stop was at the Jumeirah Mosque. This huge mosque can only be visited twice a day on special tours that are designed to explain Islam to non-Muslims. We were allowed to tour the courtyard and take a peek inside.
Now we were out of time and had to return to the ship. Unfortunately, we were unable to visit any of the sites in the old town. If we visit Dubai again, we would like to do that and also to go to the observation deck of the Burj Khalifah. As we sailed away, the air was a little clearer and we got a better view of the skyline. We could also see the QEII; she had been brought to Dubai with the intention of converting her into a luxury hotel. However, who would want to stay in a tiny cruise ship cabin when they could stay in an opulent luxury hotel? She remains moored near the Dubai Dry Docks.
This evening, the show for our dinner seating was held before dinner. This was “The Amazing & Amusing Mental Comedy of Carl Andrews.” He was entertaining and had some good number-guessing tricks.
By dinnertime, we had entered the Strait of Hormuz. When the Strait narrowed, there was a bit of rocking. The sea has been incredibly calm for the entire trip to date, so the Captain came on the PA to apologize for the motion!
DAY 18: MON, 04/20/15 AT SEA
During the night, we passed through the Sea of Oman and into the Arabian Sea. We would continue cruising south through the Indian Ocean for the next four days to our next port of call.
This morning, there was a port lecture about the Seychelles. After that was Lesa Moore's astronomy lecture, “Women in Astronomy—Comets, Pulsars and a Fat Gorilla”; that was about the contributions of women to astronomy. This was intended to balance the “Heroes of Science” lecture, which included only men.
In the afternoon, we took another chance of falling asleep and attended Colin Boyd's lecture on “The Clipper Ship.” These should be interesting lectures but his delivery is just so boring.
Tonight we attended the Chef's Table (US$95 pp, with wine; US$80 pp, without). This is a special dinner prepared by the Executive Chef and served by the Maitre d'. This event was offered only three times on this cruise and is limited to 12 guests (14 if there is a large family attending) each time. Tonight's group gathered in the Club Bar at 7:00 p. m. to don lab coats and go over the health and hygiene rules with the Maitre d'. Then we proceeded into the galley so that we could see the staff in action during the First Seating dinner. Next we washed our hands thoroughly so that we could move to another section of the galley, where we would enjoy champagne and four fantastic appetizers: lobster and shrimp cocktail, pate de foie gras on a fig, mini-quiche with truffles and new potatoes with caviar. Now we headed up to the Sterling Steakhouse, where a special table had been set up for our group. The first course was an asparagus and artichoke risotto topped with a seafood ragout. After a refreshing lemon sorbet, the main course was a variation on surf and turf: a skewer of lobster and scallops and a skewer of filet mignon and lamb rib chop. Next came a cheese course of baked Brie with a Port wine reduction. The dessert was bittersweet chocolate mousse. Finally came coffee and assorted petit fours; we asked to have our petit fours wrapped to take back to the cabin so we could enjoy them later when we were not so full. Each couple received a photo of the group and a copy of the Princess cookbook, “Courses: A Culinary Journey”; each lady also received a long-stemmed red rose. We have done the Chef's Table on three other ships as well and it has always been outstanding.
The show we did not attend tonight was a comedy vocalist, Diane Cousins.
CRUISE DAY 19: TUE, 04/21/15 AT SEA
While we were on the Promenade waiting for the astronomy lecture, we saw a pod of dolphins. The Officer of the Watch had said that there are 12 kinds of dolphins in the Indian Ocean. These seemed to have a light brown ventral surface, perhaps with a hint of pink. The lecture was, “Sound, Earthquakes & Tsunamis—What Makes a Wave?”.
At lunch today there was an unadvertised special “Italian Trattoria Buffet”, with meats, cheeses, artichoke hearts, grilled vegetables, sun-dried tomatoes, black olives and caponata. This was just the thing to have with a slice of pizza.
Tonight was the third of four formal nights on this cruise and the Captain's Circle cocktail party. Except for about 60 people, everyone on the ship was a member of the Captain's Circle. Over half the membership (262) were Elite members. The Most Traveled passengers had 1299 days with Princess, second place had about 900 and third place had about 700. We have nearly 500 days and received an invitation to the luncheon for the top 40 Most Traveled passengers.
The show we did not attend tonight featured a musician and vocalist, Ben Mills; he was a finalist on “The X Factor” in the UK.
CRUISE DAY 20: WED, 04/22/15 AT SEA
We started the morning with a port talk about Mauritius. This was followed by an “Audience with the Captain”. The first part of the session consisted of the Cruise Director asking the Captain questions, then the audience was allowed to ask questions. There were some questions about our pirate defenses (“Do we have snipers on board?”) that the Captain would not answer. However, he was emphatic that the ship would not skip Durban despite the recent disturbances there.
In the afternoon, there was an astronomy lecture, “Light—More Than Meets the Eye”.Usually Lesa's explanations are pretty clear but this one was a little muddled. I think people who have not studied electricity and magnetism would have had a hard time following it.
When we were heading up to the pizza window for lunch, we saw some commotion on the deck above ours. People were standing around outside a cabin near the stairs with an officer and a cleaning crew. That is a bad sign. Later we got a letter in the cabin asking us to take extra sanitary precautions because there had been an increase in the number of passengers exhibiting symptoms of norovirus. Then three people ahead of us in line for dinner stopped to tell the Maitre d' how glad they were to be out of quarantine because the food in the Club Restaurant was so much better than Room Service. Uh-oh!
After dinner Lesa Moore held another stargazing session, this time at 9:30 p. m. so that it would not interfere with the late show. The viewing was pretty good at first; we could see the Milky Way and the Southern Cross. However, the clouds started moving in, so we caught the production show, “Shake, Rattle & Roll”.
CRUISE DAY 21: THU, 04/23/15 AT SEA
This morning when we left our cabin, a steward was standing outside the cabin next-door with a mask, gloves and all sorts of cleaning supplies and disinfectants. This was not our regular steward, Tutu, and is another bad sign; Princess doesn't want Tutu accidentally contaminating other cabins. Later we saw this person washing down the walls of the corridor.
Today's astronomy lecture was “Lives of the Stars”, all about stellar evolution. This was better than yesterday's lecture.
After the lecture, we went to the “Crossing the Equator Ceremony”. Most of the passengers were already Shellbacks (who have crossed the Equator) but a few Polliwogs were rounded up to be tried before King Neptune and his Queen, Double-D. First, the Queen presented the Captain with an award, a small fish on a string, which he had to kiss and wear around his neck. Then the Polliwogs were tried and punished. The offenses included disturbing the neighbors with noisy lovemaking, gluttony and not patronizing the bars and the casino. The punishments included having to kiss the Queen's fish (a large raw salmon) and being doused with ketchup, chocolate sauce, jello, spaghetti etc. At the end, the Captain was tossed into the swimming pool. We've never seen that before; this guy is a really good sport! When we actually crossed the Equator about an hour later, the Captain made an announcement and sounded the ship's whistle. Later, we all got a certificate to commemorate the event.
In the afternoon we went to another presentation by the Photo-Video Department. It was about “Incredible India and the Taj Mahal”. It takes months to get all the special permissions needed to film inside the Taj Mahal, so the video showed only exterior views. Also, the video was from the last time the videographer went there, in 2010. The video included some scenes from the Agra Fort and other parts of Agra.
The show we did not attend tonight was again the comedienne/singer, Diane Cousins.
CRUISE DAY 22: FRI, 04/24/15 PORT VICTORIA, MAHE, SEYCHELLES 10:00AM – 5:30PM
When we awoke this morning, we were already cruising through the Seychelles archipelago. As we approached Mahe Island, the islands of the Sainte Anne Marine National Park were off our port side. We slowly navigated through the Inner Harbour and docked at the Mahe Quay; it took about half an hour to get the ship positioned properly before we could disembark. While waiting, we were entertained by a three-man band; at first, there was just a singer but later there were two dancers in traditional island dresses. The music had a strong resemblance to the Cajun music of southern Louisiana. The islands were once a colony of France and local Creole language has many similarities to French.
John had arranged our dives with Glynis of Dive Seychelles/ Underwater Centre (www.diveseychelles.com.sc). A two-tank dive with all equipment plus transportation to the dive center and back to the ship was 1667.50 SCR pp (about US$127 pp). Glynis was waiting right there with a 12-passenger van when we were finally cleared to leave the ship. Another passenger had put together a group of three more divers and a snorkeler from the ship. He had previously dived with Glynis several times but was unable to dive today; he and two other people were going to be dropped off downtown in Victoria to do some shopping.
A small information table was set up near the dock with maps and tourist brochures. There were also a few souvenir stalls, so I went in search of a flag while the rest of the group was gathering. The first stall had large flags but I tried asking “Petit?”, which got me directed to another stall with smaller ones (US$4). Who says those two years of high school French 47 years ago were wasted? Five flags down and two to go!
Once everyone was assembled, we were on our way. As we drove along, Glynis pointed out some of the local sights, such as the Sheik of Abu Dhabi's lavish vacation estate atop a hill above the port and the British colonial-era Clock Tower in the middle of a traffic circle. Tonight would be the start of the Seychelles' 3-day Carnaval International de Victoria and the town was festooned with decorations. We dropped off the shoppers and headed over a ridge to the other side of the island.
The dive center is located at the Beau Vallon Bay Hotel, one of several hotels and resorts along the beach of this gorgeous tropical bay. We were joined by three more divers who were staying on the island and who spoke French; all of the instructions and dive briefings were given in English and repeated in French. We were fitted for our gear and left the rest of our belongings in cubbies at the dive shop. Then we waded out to the dive boat with our weights, fins and masks; the area off the beach has a nice sandy bottom and the clear water makes it easy to see the occasional rock. The rest of the gear was taken out to the boat and set up for us.
The dive boat holds a maximum of 16 passengers and four crew. Besides the eight divers and one snorkeler, we had a dive master (Tony) and two dive master trainees (George and Jenn), a guide for the snorkeler and the boat driver. At first, this seemed like an over-abundance of help but we had one older lady who literally needed her hand held by Tony for the entirety of both dives. Many operations would have surfaced with her and ask her to remain on the boat. But with Tony and his crew it was not an issue and we all had two excellent dives.
The island of Mahe is lush and rugged. It is composed of granite so there is little erosion and the beaches are generally small. We motored for about 20 minutes to the first dive site, Baie Ternay Bluff, is just off Cape Matoopa, where the shore is lined with huge granite boulders (www.diveseychelles.com.sc/inshore%20sites%20nw.html). Entry into the water was by a controlled backward roll, which I greatly prefer to a giant step entry. Both dives had great animals. On the first, we saw a White Tip Reef Shark and a really big Napoleon Wrasse; there were also lots of other large and small colorful fish and an amazing variety of Sea Cucumbers and Sea Stars. There was a large Brain Coral and an abundance of Table Coral and many other hard corals that covered the piles of granite boulders. The coral had a bleaching incident, which is still evident, a couple if years ago but it is slowly recovering. There were small but nice canyons and a couple of swim-throughs. Something new for us was the group safety stop, where we all hung at five meters holding hands.
The second dive site was at nearby Grouper Point, just inside the Baie Ternay Marine National Park. Almost immediately after we entered the water, we encountered a fairly large but very shy octopus. We followed this up with two spotted eagle rays, two huge Lionfish and a small sea turtle. This was the first time I had used my prescription bifocal mask (John already had one) for diving and it was fantastic! I wondered why I had bothered diving with disposable contacts for so long.
On the way back to the dive shop, the boat stopped for photo ops at several beautiful small coves with lovely white sand beaches, lined with palm trees. Once ashore, we rinsed off our gear, showered and filled out our log books. This is a laid-back operation that was willing to accommodate cruise ship passengers during a brief visit, not just cater to resort traffic. They picked us up and brought us back on time, never rushed us, were patient with those of us unfamiliar with metric gauges and gave clear dive briefings. Glynis drove us back to the port, making a wine stop at a local grocery and several stops in the hills above Victoria for photos of the town and our ship in the harbor below. This was an amazing day!
At the sail away, the three-man band and dancers were back to bid us farewell. They serenaded us until the ship was well out into the harbor. While watching from our balcony, we caught our first glimpse of our next-door neighbors, the ones in the cabin that was being disinfected yesterday. John recognized them as being seated at an eight-top behind me in the Club Restaurant. It is hard not to overhear comments from diners at nearby tables; tonight their dinner companions were commenting that this was our neighbors' first night out of confinement. Because the couple had taken Princess' overland tour to the Taj Mahal, they might have contracted food poisoning rather than norovirus. When we mentioned the outbreak to our DDIL the other day, she reminded us that our genetics make us a little more resistant than the average person to the most common strain of norovirus. While that is reassuring, we would continue to be vigilant about hand washing.
Once again, the show for our seating was before dinner: comedians Pearson and Harvey; Pearson is a singer and straight man to Harvey's physical comedy. This is an Australian act and we were wary that the comedic references would be unintelligible to us. Although the show started out a little slow, it ended up being hilarious. I hope we will be able to attend their second performance.
CRUISE DAY 23: SAT, 04/25/15 AT SEA
Since we left the Seychelles, the sea had been slightly rougher. Today the weather was overcast and there were periods of rain. The weather was supposed to improve tomorrow.
Early this morning there was an ANZAC Day Commemoration Service. ANZAC Day is a National Day of Remembrance to honor those Australian and New Zealand Army Corps soldiers who fought at the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915; it is similar to Memorial Day in the USA. Because it was the 100th anniversary, there were a number of special televised events in Australia and New Zealand, which were broadcast live on the stateroom TV channels.
Because of the spray on the Promenade, we decided to read in the public sitting area just outside the shops. At the other end of that area, an older man tried to stand up but collapsed back into his chair. Staff came running from the shops to check on him and another passenger was already calling the Medical Center. He probably just got dizzy when he stood up but the doctor and a nurse showed up and hauled him off in a wheelchair to the Medical Center for evaluation.
After that excitement was a port talk about Durban. At the end, the port lecturer strongly advised us to avoid the downtown area and not even to think about walking to there. She recommended taking a ship's shore excursion or touring independently with a reputable local tour operator rather than wandering around on our own. I had arranged a private tour here to a game reserve.
Today was also the Most Traveled Passengers luncheon, for the 40 passengers who have traveled the most days with Princess. With 262 Elite Captain's Circle members on this cruise, I did not think John and I would make the cutoff. We were seated with the Staff Captain, so we must have ranked near the middle of the pack. The luncheon was held in Sabatini's and was excellent. John and I had the marinated seafood appetizer and beef tenderloin, each served with a different wine. The alternate choices of mushroom risotto and broiled turbot also looked delicious. Dessert was a chocolate mouse/pistachio nougat creation and was followed by petit fours and cappuccino.
The astronomy lecture, on “The Big Bang & Why We Are Still Inside It”, was held later in the afternoon. The talk was a little muddled because Lesa skipped over a number of items on her slides without explanation. Also, the talk was more about the consequences of the Big Bang than about the Big Bang itself.
After that filling lunch, we had a light dinner with only an appetizer, main course and dessert. With the cruise more than two-thirds over, it seemed a good idea to start scaling back the eating a little anyway. Then it won't be such a shock when food is no longer available on demand 24/7.
The show that we did not attend was a singer, Jamila. Tutu made a stab at a towel animal tonight; I wasn't sure what it was supposed to be but appreciated the effort.
CRUISE DAY 24: SUN, 04/26/15 AT SEA
Today the weather was beautiful—mostly sunny skies with a few puffy white clouds—and the ocean was an intense blue. Although the air temperature is about 86 F (30 C), the breeze on our balcony (which is in the shade after late morning) made being outside very pleasant.
While we were on the Promenade waiting for the port lecture, John noticed that the fire hoses were gone. Later, we checked at the stern and found that the horn and Security manikin were also gone. We must no longer have been passing through pirate-infested waters.
The port talk was about East London, which does not seem quite as dodgy as Durban; there were plenty of warnings nonetheless. There will be a shuttle (US$8 pp each way) from the dock to a Hemingway’s Mall outside the city center for those who have not already arranged a tour here. John and I will be taking a ship's excursion to another game reserve.
Lesa's astronomy lecture in the afternoon was “The Moon—No Hoax!”. That was about the space race and debunked theories about how the Apollo moon landings could have been faked.
The dinner menus started to repeat (with slight variations) about a week ago. Often, the appetizers are more attractive than the main courses we have not already tried. Tonight we decided to get all three of the appetizers, a soup and an appetizer serving of the linguine with pesto, plus dessert. Eating an odd assortment of courses is one reason we prefer a table for two, unless we are traveling with friends or family who are used to our foibles.
The evening show for our seating was once again before dinner: comedians Pearson and Harvey in a new show. They were again very entertaining.
CRUISE DAY 25: MON, 04/27/15 PORT LOUIS, MAURITIUS 7:00AM – 5:30PM
Just before our alarm clock was set to go off this morning, there was a ship-wide announcement telling the medical staff to report immediately to the Medical Center for an emergency. It is a very bad sign when an announcement like that is broadcast in the cabins and not simply the public areas. We hope the person made out OK.
The ship docked at the Christian Decotter Cruise Terminal. Perhaps calling this a “cruise terminal” is an overstatement; it is a large concrete pad with a few tents. One tent had a currency exchange and another had some tourist information; there was a taxi stand but no vendors. The pier also featured a large bow-shaped dent, which we later learned was caused by a fishing boat that had crashed into it during a recent storm. The road out of the port is gravel with no sidewalks but some people did try walking into town. On arrival, the ship was greeted by a four-piece percussion band and a troupe of five dancers in island garb; they performed for about 45 minutes. The music sounded much like that of the Caribbean. This island was also occupied for a period by France, so the local Creole language is close to the version in Seychelles and similar to French.
A few days ago, we received a stack of paperwork to fill out for the visit to Mauritius—two immigration forms and a health survey per person. This morning we had another face-to-face immigration inspection before we could go ashore. Once again, that went pretty quickly; the official who looked at my passport didn't even look up to compare it with my real face.
Today we were going on our final independent tour with AussieGal. This was a taxi tour arranged through Destination Soleil (www.destinationsoleil.mu) for US$26 pp (US$20 for the taxi and US$6 for the entrance fee at Chamaral). With lunch, our cost per person was about US$53 compared with Princess' identical tour at US$169.95 pp. Our group (the same 10 as for Colombo and Cochin) gathered in the Casino Lounge and went to meet the driver/guide, Sailen. Our vehicle this time was an air-conditioned 16-person van.
The fertile volcanic soils of Mauritius once fostered huge teak and mahogany trees; Dutch traders cut down all of them, thinking the supply was inexhaustible. However, those trees helped shield young trees from high cyclonic winds; once the big trees were all gone, new trees could not grow up to replace them. Only palms, pines and other plants that can bend with the wind can flourish here. Mauritius was also once the home of the dodo, which was hunted to extinction over 300 years ago. Although little is left of those birds except a few bones and eggs, they are a symbol of the island and featured on many souvenir items.
We headed south out of Port Louis on one of the main highways. Along the way, Sailen pointed out a Chinese pagoda, Hindu and Tamil temples, a technology park, the Phoenix brewery and other sights. One interesting building was a bank shaped like a huge wine cask on its side. Throughout the tour, we had views of rugged volcanic peaks and cliffs.
Our first stop was in Floreal, which is noted for its production of textiles, clothing and ship models. At Le Port, we had a short tour to observe the model-building process. Of course, the tour ended in the showroom, where models of all sizes, nautical instruments and jewelry were available for purchase. John and I succumbed to the lure of a gorgeous model of the sailboat, Endeavor, in a beautiful display case. It was on sale at about 30% off and came to less than US$100. It was carefully packaged for us in styrofoam and cardboard with a handle to carry it onto the plane. Some of the others in the group bought other smaller souvenirs. Most of the foreign ambassadors to Mauritius live in Floreal. Sailen drove along “Embassy Row” to point out all the houses.
Then we continued on Trou aux Cerfs, the crater of an extinct volcano, which is almost 1,000 feet in diameter. The crater is filled with tropical vegetation.
On the way to the next site, the Black River Gorges National Park, we passed large vegetable plantations. There were many fields of a favorite Mauritian vegetable, choko, which is more familiarly known as the chayote squash or to New Orleanians as the mirliton. We passed a large antherium nursery that was covered with thick black netting to protect the flowers from sun and wind. Sailen also pointed out tree ferns and the invasive yellow tecoma flowers.
We stopped to take photos at the Mangal Mahadev, a 108-foot (33m) tall statue of the Hindu god, Lord Shiva, which is near the Grand Bassin. An equally-tall statue of Shiva's wife, Parvati, as Durga Maa Bhavani is being built on the other side of the road. There were many macaque monkeys cavorting there; Sailen warned us that they were aggressive and not to get too close to them. The Grand Bassin (aka Ganga Talao) is a lake in another extinct volcanic crater. This lake is considered sacred by the Hindu and is a place of pilgrimage during the Maha Shivaratree festival. There is a temple devoted to Lord Shiva and his family. Many shrines around the shores of the lake are dedicated to various Hindu and Jain deities. At the end of our visit here, Sailen passed around some samples of water apples; those are pink fruits that are crisp like an apple but have a faint citrus taste.
Continuing through the National Park, Sailen pointed out more types of palm trees (royal, bottle, traveler), papyrus trees and other plants. He said that on the weekends, families come to this area to pick Chinese (red) and French (yellow) guava to make jams. He stopped to pick some guavas so we could have a taste of both. We eventually stopped at an overlook were we could look down into the gorge and see a couple of waterfalls. Vendors lined the path to the overlook and I was able to acquire a Mauritian flag (US$3) here.
We stopped in Chamaral Village for lunch at Saveur Tropical. Here we could enjoy Phoenix Beer and try some authentic Mauritian food. John ordered “Menu A”, which was a hearts of palm (from the royal palm) salad; grilled prawns with creole sauce, rice and vegetable slaw; and a caramelized banana. The prawns were huge: about 6 inches from head to tail! I ordered “Menu B”, which was a marinated fish salad, chicken and shrimp curry with rice and vegetable slaw and pistachio ice cream. All of the food was good but we particularly liked the curry.
After lunch we went to see the Chamaral Waterfall, the highest in Mauritius at 272 feet (83m). This is a lovely double-stream waterfall in a lush tropical setting. It can be viewed from an overlook near the parking lot. There is a better view from the top of a stairway leading from the overlook. From there you can see the bottom of the fall and the basin below.
From the waterfall, we went to our last sight, the Chamaral Seven-Coloured Earths. This attraction is on a private working plantation. Near the entrance are demonstration plots of various Mauritian crops, such as Arabica coffee, bananas, papayas, pineapples, acacia and others. It is obvious that none of the entrance fees are used to maintain the roads: they are more pothole than pavement. The Seven-Coloured Earths is a small area where the volcanic sand dunes have separated into bands of different colors based on their mineral content (oxides of iron, manganese, copper etc.). Even though we had good sunlight, I could not see all seven colors. There were however, lovely hues of orange, red, rose, violet and purple and maybe a little yellow. There are two viewpoints here from which to admire the rainbow-tinted dunes. There is also a small compound with five giant tortoises from the Aldabra Islands that are over 100 years old.
On the way back, part of our route took us along the coast. We stopped at the Chamaral Overlook for some sweeping views of the coast and rugged volcanic cliffs. We passed a salt farm where ocean water is evaporated in shallow, square salt pans that appeared to be carved out of black lava rock. There were lots of sugar cane fields and Sailen pointed out more plants such as tamarind and lychee trees. He provided an excellent tour of this beautiful island.
Back at the ship, we watched from our balcony as the last stragglers returned. We were not the only ones who gave in to the beauty of the boat models; we saw several of the yellow packages come aboard. The Captain came on the PA to announce that we would be leaving shortly, once the pilot was aboard. He also told us that the Maersk container ship docked nearby had experienced a fire in one of its containers near the center of the vessel; that emergency seemed to be over. The band and dancers did not return to see us off.
This evening, the show was once again before dinner. The act was “Duo Yalba”, two brothers from Mexico who now live in Sweden. They were dressed in black-and-silver vaquero costumes and supposedly played over 40 instruments, most of which they had made themselves. (One was a flute made from PCV pipe scavenged from a ship's engineering department after Lufthansa lost their instruments.) They played many styles of music and were pretty good except for their attempt at Bach's “Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring”.
CRUISE DAY 26: TUE, 04/28/15 AT SEA
Last night we set the clocks back an hour; now we were only 7 hours ahead of EDT. After we left Mauritius, we sailed west for awhile, then turned to sail southwest through the Indian Ocean.
This morning we walked 30 minutes on the tiny walking track. Then we went to the port lecture on Cape Town; it sounded like a much nicer place than Durban or East London. The port talk was followed by an astronomy lecture on “Great Observatories On & Off World.”
In the afternoon, I went to a craft class to learn how to make ribbon leis. I was thinking that was something I could teach my DGDs but it will probably be awhile before they have the necessary manual dexterity.
The show we did not attend this evening was an international Irish comedian, George Casey.
CRUISE DAY 27: WED, 04/29/15 AT SEA
All morning we could see the coast of Madagascar off the starboard side. After passing the tip of the island around noon, we would turn west again and continue on to South Africa.
We started the day with a 30-minute walk. After that, we went to another of Colin's lectures. It was amazing how boring he could make a topic like “Pirates, Rovers & Buccaneers”.
As we were on deck enjoying a lunch from the Grill accompanied by Sea Witch IPA, there was an announcement from the Officer of the Watch apologizing that the fire alarm on Deck 7 was false. Apparently, everyone on Deck 7 had been phoned and told to collect their life jackets and report to their muster station.
In the afternoon, Lesa gave another astronomy lecture on “Time & Date—Don't Be Late!” This was a little dry with all the different definitions of a day and a year; the part about calendars was more interesting. Later in the afternoon, we saw a rainbow.
Tonight was the fourth and final formal night. The dinner was one we had been waiting for: escargot and lobster with prawns. The Maitre d' told us that if there were extra escargot after tonight, we could have some on another night (that never happened). The escargot were great as usual and the lobster was better than usual—sweet and not mushy at all.
Dinner service on lobster night is much slower than normal, so we had decided earlier that we might as well stay up a little later and see the production show. Before the show, there was the “Marriage Match” game with three volunteer couples. First, the men were taken away to the Casino and their wives were asked suggestive questions; the men returned and had to guess what their wives had said. The process was then repeated with the roles switched. This is pretty hilarious if you are not one of the couples. Probably the best question was “What is the first thing your husband touches every morning?”. Two wives answered, “Somewhere between the hips and the knees.” Although points were ostensibly awarded for correct answers, each couple received a bottle of champagne. The production show was “Stardust”, which featured music from the 40s and 50s.
CRUISE DAY 28: THU, 04/30/15 AT SEA
All day long, we sailed west-southwest through the Mozambique Channel. The weather, which was sunny this morning had turned rainy by the afternoon. The air temperature was also cooler—in the low 70s F (20s C). During the noon announcement, the Officer of the Watch said that we had entered an area of low pressure. The Captain came on the PA later to say that he was trying to outrun the bad weather. Although the sun came out for awhile, the wind and rain returned later in the evening.
With so many Elite passengers on board, we had been notified weeks ago to allow 72 hours for laundry to be returned rather than the usual 24. This morning, I sent out John's dinner jacket and pants and my formal top to be “dry cleaned” and another bag of miscellaneous items to be washed. I planned to send one more bag out tomorrow, which would give us enough clean clothes to get home. The free laundry has to be the best of the Elite benefits, followed by the free internet (500 minutes pp on this cruise).
There was no astronomy lecture this morning; Lesa held another “Science Circle”. She is very good at fielding all sorts of off-the-wall questions about astronomy and physics. John wanted her take on the holographic universe but she was not familiar with that idea. This session was so interesting that we missed the “Audience with the Senior Officers” that we had intended to attend. There was another stargazing session scheduled for tonight, if the weather would cooperate.
Lunch today included a special “Mexican Buffet”, with beef or chicken fajitas, refried beans, quesadillas and corn chips with salsa and guacamole. There were other Mexican-inspired dishes in the regular buffet line too.
This afternoon, we were going to attend the “International Crew Show”. However, the rain must have driven everyone inside. Even though we went 20 minutes early, the Cabaret Lounge was packed and we could not find a seat.
Although the rain and clouds had cleared somewhat, the seas tonight were fairly rough. The stargazing session was moved to Deck 9 (pool deck) because Decks 10 and 11 were closed. The lights there cannot be turned off so we could only see the Southern Cross and a few other stars that were high in the sky. The show we did not attend was Simon Bowman, a leading actor in West End and Broadway musicals.
CRUISE DAY 29: FRI, 05/01/15 DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA 7:00AM – 4:30PM
Last night we set the clocks back another hour; now we were only 6 hours ahead of EDT. The seas were pretty rough last night, which disturbed many people's sleep (but not mine, of course). The weather this morning was gorgeous—sunshine and mild air temperature.
The ship docked at the N Shed Passenger Terminal. That is exactly what it sounds like: a big empty warehouse. We did not even go inside the terminal building and there were no vendors around. From some signage, it appeared that MSC uses this facility as an embarkation point for cruises. There were taxis outside the port gates and the ship offered a shuttle (US$8 pp each way) from the pier to Ushaka Marine World, a Sea World-type attraction that is outside the city center. As we were on the Promenade watching the ship tie up, we saw an ambulance waiting on the dock. As soon as the gangway was extended, the ambulance drove over to meet it. That is a very bad sign. We had to go inside to join the immigration line but our tour guide told us later that a passenger was brought out to the ambulance and the vehicle zoomed off.
The only paperwork we had to fill out for South Africa was a health survey. This morning we had another face-to-face immigration inspection before we could go ashore. This was delayed for awhile because the ill passenger needed to be processed first. However, once it started, the inspection process was as quick and perfunctory as at the other ports of entry.
Today John and I went on a game drive at the Tala Game Reserve that I had arranged with Durban Safaris (www.durbansafaris.com). We were joined by two other couples from Cruise Critic and three people who had contacted the tour company directly and asked to join an existing group; one person pulled out at the last minute. With eight people in the group, the price was R1100 pp (US$95 pp). Our tour would spend approximately 5.5 hours at Tala; Princess' tour (US$159.95) would spend about 2.5 hours there. Maybe the Princess tour had a better snack pack; ours was crackers and trail mix. We also had an air-conditioned 13-passenger van/bus for our adventure instead of a big tour bus. This was not one of Durban Safari's regular vehicles, it had been rented to accomodate our group. At first, the van was very hot; we later realized that a supplemental heater was turned on; after we managed to get that turned off, all was well.
We gathered in the Casino Lounge and went out to meet our driver/guide, Rob Brown, just before 8:00 a.m. As Rob drove through Durban, he gave us a mini city tour, pointing out highlights such as a monument to Vasco da Gama's landing there in 1497, the Emmanuel Cathedral and the Victoria Street Market. Although Tala is the closest safari park to Durban, most of the drive was on a modern expressway and it was a public holiday, it nevertheless took about 55 minutes to get there; it might take considerably longer on a workday in heavy traffic. That estimate does not include the stop we made on the way out for a toilet break at a service area. John and I got some rand from an ATM there to pay for the tour. The ATM was a bit of an aggravation: I wanted to get R3000 (about US$250) and had to make two transactions to withdraw that much.
As we drove along the expressway into the countryside, we passed cattle ranches, vegetable farms and poultry operations (both broiler and egg). We also encountered our first wildlife: a large troupe of Vervet Monkeys congregating on the shoulder. When we reached Tala, there were more of those monkeys atop posts at the entrance. Rob paid the entrance fees and the storage area of the van was inspected. The inspection may have been to detect weapons to shoot a Rhino and tools for removing its horn. A Rhino was poached from Tala last year for its horn, which Rob said was the most expensive substance on Earth. There were a group of anti-Rhino-poaching guards in a jeep at the entrance, where we could see the surviving four Rhinos grazing on a hillside in the distance.
The Tala Game Reserve (www.tala.co.za) is located in the beautiful KwaZulu-Natal hills. The Reserve was formerly farmland before the current owner bought it and allowed the native vegetation to return. The bush is still fairly sparse, so it is easy to see the animals scattered on the open plains and grasslands. Although Tala is 6000 acres (3000 hectares), it isn't large enough for big cats or elephants since they like to roam. All of the animals there are herbivores such as White Rhinoceros, Brindled Gnu (Blue Wildebeest), Southern Giraffe, Burchelles Zebra (a type of Plains Zebra) and Hippopotamus. There are also many kinds of antelope (Blaze Bok, Black-faced Impala, Kudu and Eland) and smaller mammals like Wart Hog. Tala claims to be home to over 380 bird species, including Glossy Ibis, Grey Heron, Ostrich, Egyptian Geese (hot pink feet), Moor Hen, Reed Cormorant, Pied Kingfisher, Blue Crane (SA's national bird) and Crested Crane. In addition to seeing all of those, we saw a monitor lizard and termite mounds.
The animals all roam freely, so Rob drove back and forth over the rugged dirt roads looking for them. And did we ever see animals! There were herds of Zebra and Impala everywhere; Rob joked that the Impalas have a McDonald's arch across their rear end because they are fast food and you find them around every corner. The best thing was that we could get so close to the animals; we were within 30 feet of the four Rhinos and numerous Giraffes grazed just a few yards from our vehicle. There is a resident pod of Hippos that live in a large lake. We were not optimistic about seeing those because they are nocturnal and spend most of their time with only their nostrils above the water. Rob thought they were all hiding in the reeds but we later spotted one enthusiastically chowing down on some water plants. It was all truly spectacular!
In addition to all the animals and birds, Rob pointed out the native vegetation, such as Umbrella Thorn Tree, Acacia, Candelabra Tree (Euphorbia), and invasive species like Lantana. He picked some of the Khaki plant for us to smell; British troops used it as and insect repellent and to camouflage their white uniforms by dying them tan. Rob was amazingly knowledgeable and knew the Latin names for the animals and trees. We were lucky to have him as a guide for this tour, which was a highlight of our trip.
After returning to the ship, we stopped by the buffet for some ice cream before returning to our cabin. From the buffet's seating area at the stern, we saw our final wildlife for the day: a pod of dolphins hunting in the harbor.
Dinner tonight was a slightly different version of the Italian Dinner from the first half of the voyage. The special pasta was the Penne Arrabiatta, which is made by the Headwaiters and typically fills the dining room with a wonderful garlic aroma. However, tonight's version was more bland than usual—less garlic and red pepper. The show we did not attend was a variety show featuring the singer, Simon Bowman, and the comedian, George Casey.
CRUISE DAY 30: SAT, 05/02/15 EAST LONDON, SOUTH AFRICA 12:00PM – 6:30PM
We would only be spending a half-day in East London, so there was a full slate of on board activities this morning. We went to Lesa's astronomy talk on “Space Junk, Rocks in Space and Things That Kill Our Cows”. This was about asteroids, meteors and debris from human space exploration.
I had not been able to find many alternatives for an independent tour in the afternoon. The most attractive option, the Inkwenkwezi Private Game Reserve (www.inkwenkwezi.com), was completely booked by Princess. We decided to reserve this expensive (US$299 pp) tour online before the cruise; the price was US$40 higher on board and sold out. We heard that 76 passengers signed up for this tour.
The Port of East London, near the mouth of the Buffalo River, is South Africa's only river port. The ship docked near a wall of containers; there were no passenger facilities or vendors there. A reason that Princess gave for the high cost of the Inkwenkwezi tour was that, due to the lack of local services, buses and guides had to be brought in from other areas on the previous day. Craig, our guide for the hour-long ride to Inkwenkwezi , was probably typical; he was not from this area and had never visited the Reserve before today. The scenery during the drive was very similar to that around Durban, with rolling hills and farmland.
When we arrived at Inkwenkwezi (pronounced "ink-can-queezy"), we encountered about a half-dozen Warthogs; among others, there were two young ones wrestling by hooking tusks and a mother with two piglets. At the Lodge, Xhosa dancers and singers were performing a traditional welcome. We barely got to glance at them before we were hustled into ten-passenger, open-sided, canvas-topped Land Rovers and met our driver/guide, Gavin. Before embarking on the game drive, we had a lunch break featuring appetizer-type food including fried chunks of chicken, fish and mushrooms, bacon-wrapped sausage, various small sandwiches, meatballs, mini-quiche, spinach balls and more. There were soft drinks and bottled water plus a dessert table. None of that was anything remarkable but it was satisfying.
Finally it was time to re-board the Land Rovers for a three-hour game drive. Inkwenkwezi is much larger than Tala, the hills are higher and the scrub bush is much thicker. No one would tell us the number of animals here (because of poachers) but presumably there are many more than at Tala. However, the dense vegetation makes the animals much harder to see. Also, the roads are much worse, with deep ruts; we were tired at the end of the drive just from being bounced around so much.
During the game drive, we saw many of the same animals and birds as at Tala but not nearly as at close range or in as great numbers. These included Wildebeest, Giraffe, Zebra, Blaze Bok, Impala, Eland, Vervet Monkey and Crested Crane. We saw an Ostrich family with a chick and an abandoned Ostrich egg. Other birds we saw were the Glossy Starling, Guinea Fowl, Hadida Ibis and Crested Hornbill. We also saw the nests of flying ants and Snouted Harvester Termites.
There were other types of antelope here: Water Bok and the striped Nyala. However, the big deal at this park was the chance to see three of the “Big Five” game animals (Rhino, Elephant, Buffalo, Lion and Leopard). We encountered a group of three Elephants grazing in the brush; they crossed the road between our vehicle and the one ahead. We actually were allowed to dismount and approach a family of three Rhinos including a calf. We were downwind and the guide said we should be okay but to be sure we could run faster than the person on our left. Finally, we got to meet the only carnivores in the Reserve: a full pride of white Lions. The Lions are kept in a separate enclosure; we drove within 20 feet of them. There was one immature male just starting to grow his mane; the white alpha-lioness had two cubs: one tan and one white. White lions are leucistic (not albinos) due to a recessive genetic trait that results in reduced hair pigmentation. Their hair may range in color from blonde to near-white and they have pigment in their eyes, paw pads and lips. This was a very impressive game preserve and a very good tour.
We returned to the ship shortly before “all aboard” time. The show tonight was before dinner: Lauren Heavner, a country singer. We decided to clean up and rest before dinner instead. Much later there was a special competition, “Dancing with the Stripes”, featuring the Ocean Princess Dancers and Officers but we didn't manage to stay awake for that either.
There must have been a real backlog in the laundry; the clothes we sent out three days ago did not return today. I had hoped to pack tomorrow so that we would not be too rushed on the last night before disembarkation.
CRUISE DAY 31: SUN, 05/03/15 AT SEA
The weather was definitely colder, with the highs around 70 F (20 C). With the wind, it was no longer pleasant to relax in the shade on the Promenade.
This morning we attended the Culinary Demonstration and Galley Tour. This fun demonstration consists of the Executive Chef and Maitre d' cooking three dishes; there is always a lot of humorous banter and foolishness. This time, the Maitre d' decided that the tiramisu would be better if it had a layer of tomato sauce and a topping of cheese and green onions.
Today was our last chance to enjoy lunch on board the ship. We each chose a couple of slices of pizza. I accompanied mine with a nice garden salad; John had some breaded shrimp and a flan from the special dessert buffet.
The final astronomy lecture was “Sky Myths from Around the World”. Those included African, South American and Australian stories as well as the more familiar Greek and Roman ones. We really appreciated having a good science lecturer on board this cruise. It was a nice change from some of the usual dreary financial self-help talks. The laundry finally came back while we were at the astronomy lecture. I managed to get most of the packing done before we went to dinner.
This evening, there was a Captain's Farewell Cocktail Party and a champagne waterfall. After dinner, we managed to stay up for the production show, “Cinematastic”. That show is a medley of songs from movies ranging from “Porgy & Bess” to “Titanic”.
CRUISE DAY 32: MON, 05/04/15 CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA 9:00AM (0VERNIGHT ON SHIP)
Today we would have a whole day in Cape Town, followed by an overnight on the ship and disembarkation tomorrow morning. Although Cape Town is reputed to be a beautiful sail-in, the entire area was shrouded in fog and eliminated the hoped-for views of Table Mountain. We did see some seals swimming in the harbor.
We would be touring today with Kyrt Krauss, the co-owner of the Sea More Express Guesthouse (www.seacapetown.com), where we would be spending our post-cruise days in Cape Town. The ship docked at Duncan Dock and we met Kyrt outside the cruise terminal at 9:30 a.m. Because of the bad weather, Kyrt wisely suggested that we defer our planned tour of the Cape Penninsula to another day and to tour three wineries in the Stellenbosch Valley instead.
Our first visit was at Die Bergkelder (www.bergkelder.co.za). Prior to our tour and tasting, we had time to tour the Wine Museum, which features antique wine making equipment and panels explaining the history of the region. Our tour began with a walk through the Maturation Cellar, which houses 20,000 oak barrels. This was followed by a short video about Die Bergkelder and a tasting of five Fleur de Cap wines in the alcoves of the “Cellar in the Mountain”, dug into the slopes of the historic Papegaaiberg. The cellar contains 500,000 bottles and a number of interesting old French oak maturation casks that are carved with scenes from the history and founding of wine making at the Cape. Next we toured the modern production facilities and finally we tasted some of Die Bergkelder's brandies and liquors. This tour costs R40 (US$3.20) pp.
Our next tasting was at the Asara Wine Estate (www.asara.co.za). Here a tasting of five wines costs R50 (US$4) pp; we shared our samples so that we could taste ten wines. This winery is situated on a lovely lake with spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. We bought two bottles of wine here: the Bell Tower Estate (Bordeaux style) and the unusual White Cabernet. Kyrt would take those to the Guest House to await our arrival there.
The final stop was Neethlingshof Estate (www.neethlingshof.co.za), whose entrance features a beautiful Stone Pine avenue. Here we first ate lunch at the Palm Terrace restaurant. That restaurant is outside a historical Cape Dutch homestead, surrounded by the Bottelary Hills and the Papegaaisberg Mountains. There was also a friendly cat looking for handouts. I had the panko-crusted fried sole and John had the seafood platter with linefish, calamari, mussels and prawns. Of course, those dishes had to be accompanied by a nice glass of Neethlingshof Chenin Blanc. After lunch, we had a tasting of six wines at R35 (US$2.80) pp. We again shared the samples so that we could taste 12 wines. While we were enjoying the tasting, we saw a group of passengers from the ship who were touring the cellars.
Back on the ship, we enjoyed a multicultural African musical and dance performance by Masala (www.rhythmworkshop.co.za). There was an interactive part of the show: plastic tubes and sticks were waiting for us when we arrived in the Cabaret Lounge. The tubes were various colors and lengths to produce six different notes. The audience was coxed into playing rhythmic music by striking the tubes.
Dinner tonight concluded with the traditional Parade of the Baked Alaskas. After that, we finished packing and put out our baggage to be reclaimed tomorrow in the terminal building.
POST-CRUISE DAY 1: TUE, 05/05/15 CAPE TOWN
This morning, we disembarked the ship and met Kyrt at 9:00 a. m. for another day of touring. The weather was still not the best for scenic views, so he recommended that we do more wine tastings (an easy sell for us!): one in the Franschhoek (French Corner) Valley and then two in Paarl.
We arrived at our first stop, Boschendal (www.boschendal.com), a bit too early for a tasting. That gave us time for a self-guided tour of the Manor House (R20 = US$1.60 pp). Built in 1812 and a national monument, the Manor House is one of only a few original Cape farmhouses that have been restored and furnished with period pieces. Afterward, we strolled in the Herb Garden and enjoyed views of the Drakenstein and Simonsberg mountains. The Wine Tasting Room is in one of the historic werf (farm homestead) buildings and the tasting was held outside in the shade of ancient oak trees. A tasting here is R35 (US$2.80) for five wines and we again shared samples to taste 10 wines. The excellent wines here were accompanied by some excellent freshly baked crusty bread.
Goats are the theme at Fairview (www.fairview.co.za) in Paarl: they appear on the winery's crest and labels and in the names of some of the wines (“Goats do Roam”, “The Goatfather”). We began with lunch at the Goatshed Restaurant, where John had the Springbok Shank paired with Fairview Mourvedre; I had the Lamb Curry paired with Fairview Pinotage. As might be expected, Fairview also produces a line of goat cheeses. We opted for the Sommelier's Choice tasting in the Beryl Back Master Tasting Room. That tasting costs R75 (US$6) per person and includes olive oil and eight wines, each paired with a cheese; we did not share the samples this time. After the tasting, we purchased a bottle of the Fairview Swartland. After such a hearty lunch and tasting, we felt that we would not be able to face a full dinner later. Instead, we decided to buy a baguette from the Goatshed’s bakery and three cheeses from the Vineyard Cheesery (Blue Tower, Traditional Camembert and Crottin) for a picnic supper. As we were leaving, we noticed an arbor planted with Alicante Bouschet, one of the few red-skinned Vitis vinifera grape varieties that also have red flesh.
Although the Spice Route vineyards are at Malmesbury and Darling in the Swartland wine region, the tasting room is in Paarl near Fairview. In fact, the same person (Charles Back) owns both Fairview and Spice Route. Spice Route Destinations (www.spiceroute.co.za) includes not only the tasting room but also an array of artisanal shops, including a charcuterie, brewery, distillery, chocolateria, artist galleries and more. The complex offers panoramic views of Table Mountain and the Simonsberg Mountain range. We chose to do the Flagship Wine Journey, a selection of Spice Route's single vineyard and flagship wines, for R50 (US$4) pp. As usual, we shared samples and ended up tasting all 12 wines on the tasting list. Before we left here, we stopped at the charcuterie (richardbosman.me) to purchase a selection of cured meats and a jar of pork rillettes to accompany our supper.
After this satisfying day of touring, we finally arrived at the Sea More Express Guesthouse (www.seacapetown.com). The Sea More Express offers acomodations, tours and airport transfers. We had pre-paid for the "Holiday in One Package", which included five days of tours, three nights B&B accomodation and an airport transfer. The package price was R1100 (US$88.34) pp/day for three days of accomodations and tour, R650 (US$52.20) pp for the tour on the day we overnighted on the ship and R850 (US$68.25) pp for a tour to an distant wine area on the last day; the airport transfer and transfers from/to the cruise terminal were complimentary. One of the day tours actually was the shuttle to Gansbaai for a shark cage dive; we pre-reserved spots on that tour for R1750 (US$140.52) pp. Thus, the total price package was R6550 (US$526) pp. Additional costs included our meals and some entrance fees that we paid for on the day. In addition, Kyrt paid the wine tasting fees as we went along and we reimbursed him on the last day.
At the guest house, we met Kyrt's partner, RJ, and their menagerie: parrots, dogs and a timber wolf; the animals are not allowed in the guest areas. The guest house feels like a friendly home. It has elegant but comfortable common areas decorated with some thoughtful consideration. The kitchen is compact but well designed. There is ample glassware (for those wines of course) and dinnerware. Our room was small but nicely appointed. It had a safe and was provided with plug adapters for us foreign types; there is Wi-Fi in the common areas. Breakfast was different on each day we stayed but was always good and had excellent fresh fruit.
The only real problem we encountered during our stay was something entirely beyond Kyrt and RJ's control: the unpredictable rolling blackouts (called “load shedding” in South Africa) that had been going on since January. Although the timing and length of these electrical power outages are supposed to be announced in advance, they often are not. This is wreaking havoc with any business that needs electricity to operate or even to process credit card payments.
The prospect of a power outage made us thankful that we had accumulated items earlier for our candle-lit picnic supper tonight. After enjoying that with one of the bottles from Asara, we retired to rest up for another hard day of touring tomorrow. Fortunately, the weather was mild during our stay so we did not need any electricity for climate control in our bedroom.
POST-CRUISE DAY 2: WED, 05/04/15 CAPE TOWN
Finally, the weather had cleared! After breakfast, we headed out for our Cape Peninsula Tour. As we headed south, Kyrt pointed out the devastation from the March 2015 wildfires that burned over 3000 hectares (4000 acres) of land across the peninsula from Muizenberg to Hout Bay. One of the areas affected was the Constantia Valley, the oldest wine producing region in the Southern Hemisphere.
We enjoyed scenic ocean views as we drove south along the west shore of False Bay. Our first stop was at the Boulders Penguin Colony near Simons Town. The penguins here are endangered African penguins, also known as jackass penguins for their donkey-like bray. These penguins are closely related to the Magellanic penguins that we had seen at Punta Tombo in Argentina and the Galapagos penguins that we saw during our cruise there. As at other viewing areas we have visited, humans must stay on the designated paths but penguins are free to go wherever they like. It seemed odd that so many wanted to nest near the parking lot or right next to the path, where we saw a parent with two chicks. There are only about 2000 penguins at Boulders (compared to 500,000 at Punta Tombo) but we will take any opportunity to see them in the wild. As we walked back to the van after strolling the paths, we saw a large black snake on the hillside; it moved away from us quickly. Kyrt said it must have been a venomous Black Mamba but the two wardens at the site said it was a harmless Mole Snake. Whichever it was, our motto is to leave snakes well enough alone. Back at the parking area we saw a dassie (rock or Cape hyrax), which we had also spotted earlier; a dassie looks much like a guinea pig.
We continued driving south to the Cape of Good Hope section of Table Mountain National Park (www.sanparks.org/images/parks/table_mountain/recreational_map.jpg); the entrance fee is R110 (US$9) pp. Along the highway, there were signs warning us not to feed the baboons. Kyrt told us about a recent woman visitor to the NP who was eating a sandwich when she was approached by a baboon. She held the sandwich over her head; the baboon simply jumped on her chest and took the sandwich, along with her thumb. On a more pleasant note, Kyrt also pointed out crosses that commemorate the voyages of Bartholomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama around the Cape.
Once in the NP, we took the Flying Dutchman Funicular (capepoint.co.za/flying-dutchman-funicular/) up to the historic lighthouse; the funicular costs R55 (US$4.50) pp. There were several baboons roaming around the lower funicular station. Although there was a large tour group ahead of us, it did not take long to board the funicular for the short ride to the viewing platform; Kyrt told us the best spot to stand for spectacular views during the ride and for a quick exit once we reached the upper station. One of the sights is Bellows Rock, an underwater peak. The waters constantly churning around the rock make it look like a whale is blowing and surfacing. Once at the top, there were numerous viewpoints with stupendous views of the cliffs and rugged coastline. We climbed up to the Cape Point Lighthouse for even more fantastic vistas.
Back at the bottom station of the funicular, we headed to lunch at the Two Oceans Restaurant (www.two-oceans.co.za). John and I shared an order of six raw Cape oysters; at R180 (US$14.50) those six cost almost as much as a dozen Louisiana oysters in New Orleans. For our main course, we both had the Medium Langoustine Combination (4 langoustines, 4 black beard mussels and fried calamari) plus a glass of Southern Right Sauvignon Blanc. The food here was very good and the views were outstanding.
As we continued our drive through the NP, we spotted an Eland and further on a baboon. We stopped briefly at Gina's African Art Studio. There were some nice handicrafts here and a large number of interesting sculptures. As the road climbed up to Chapman's Peak Drive, we had gorgeous views of Noordhoek Beach. Sadly, 20 Pilot Whales beached themselves here in 2013 and only one survived.
Chapman's Peak Drive (www.chapmanspeakdrive.co.za) winds for 5.6 miles (9km) along the cliffs from Noordhoek to Hout Bay. With its tremendous views and 114 curves, it reminded me of the Pacific Coast Highway in California. It certainly lives up to its reputation as one of the most spectacular marine drives in the world! I was really glad that someone else was driving so that both John and I could enjoy this fantastic scenery.
Back at the guest house, we still had half a baguette plus plenty of cheese, cured meats and wine for another picnic. Towards the end of of supper, we got to experience a load shedding. Kyrt brought us a lighter and our room was well-furnished with candles. This outage was only slated to last an hour but ended up being more than three. We read on our Kindles for awhile and turned in before the electricity came back on.
POST-CRUISE DAY 3: THU, 05/07/15 CAPE TOWN
We had planned to tour the Swartland wine region on our last day but continuing bad weather in Gaansbaai dictated that we defer our shark dive until then. We had met Adi Badenhorst and Eben Sadie when they were doing a tour of the USA last September. Therefore, we had hoped to visit Badenhorst Family Wines (aabadenhorst.com), Sadie Family Wines (www.thesadiefamily.com) and also Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines (mlfwines.com). However, Kyrt had been unable to set up the necessary appointments. Nevertheless, we were able to have three tastings in the Riebeek Valley.
This wine area is further from Cape Town than the ones we had visited earlier. After a long drive, we arrived in Riebeeck Kasteel at the foot of the Kasteelberg (“Castle Mountain”). Our first stop was at the Riebeek Cellars Wine Shop (www.riebeekcellars.com). Riebeek Cellars produces wine under 11 different labels; we tasted nine wines here and purchased a bottle of the Cape Ruby port to take back to the USA.
Our next stop was up the road in Riebeek Wes to taste at Allesverloren (www.allesverloren.co.za). Tastings here are free for small groups (fewer than 10 people). Although this winery produces wine from some French varietals, most of its production involves Portuguese varietals; we tasted five wines from their regular line and one of their estate wines. Allesvorloren's flagship wine is its port-style Fine Old Vintage. We had the opportunity to taste the 2010 vintage from a just-opened bottle and from one that had been opened four days earlier so that we could appreciate the difference. We were impressed enough to buy a bottle of the port to take back home.
Now it was back to Riebeeck Kasteel and Het Vlock Casteel (www.hetvlockcasteel.co.za). The farm's trademark “Castle” hosts weddings, conferences and other functions; there is also a shop featuring the farm's fruit and olive products, which are made on-site. The farm's wines can be tasted and purchased in the shop as well. We climbed up to the Castle's terrace to enjoy a view of the countryside, then went down to the shop. The shop, “Die Winkel”, offers free samples of an enormous variety of natural and marinated olives; there are also jams, chutneys, preserves and many other fruit products to taste. It was hard to choose from such bounty but we finally settled on a bottle of balsamic vinegar-marinated Kalamata olives to add to the remains of our picnic supplies. It was hard to tear ourselves away from the olives but we did taste the wines and bought a 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon.
Despite having eaten perhaps a few too many olives, it was now time for a late lunch at the Royal Hotel (www.royalinriebeek.com). John had wanted to start with the “Fresh West Coast Oysters”; however, the chef (to his credit) felt that the oysters were not fresh enough to serve. Instead, John chose the “Rare Seared Tuna on Nicoise” followed by the “300g Chalmar Rib-Eye”; he drank a glass of Mullineux “Kloof Street” Chenin Blanc and a glass of the house Shiraz. I had the Tiger Prawns and the “Kingklip with Thai Green Curry Sauce” with a glass of the house Chenin Blanc.
Once back at the guest house, John and I went out to a nearby convenience store to buy a couple of hard rolls to eat with the last of the cheeses and cured meats. We also had some of the olives plus one of the wines we had acquired earlier. Tonight we needed to be asleep early so that we could be up early to catch our transport to Gansbaai for our shark cage dive. Now nervous about load shedding, we set our battery-operated travel alarm clock as well as the alarm on John's watch to be sure that we would get up on time.
POST-CRUISE DAY 4: FRI, 05/08/15 CAPE TOWN (CPT) TO AMSTERDAM (ASM)
This morning we were outside waiting at 3:40 a. m. for the shuttle; the van arrived right on time. There were already four people on board and we picked up one more. Then we headed off for the 2-hour drive to Gansbaai. There wasn't much to see along the way because it was pitch dark.
We arrived at the White Shark Ventures (www.white-shark-diving.com) headquarters at about 6:00 a. m. A basic cold breakfast (fruits, cereal, cheese, cold cuts, hard boiled eggs, bread, coffee, tea, juice) was served at 6:30 a. m. During breakfast, we were given a talk about Great White Sharks and a safety briefing about the dive procedures. "Dive" is actually a misnomer as neither tanks nor snorkels are used. There are no weights either; the "divers" pull themselves underwater with a bar to view approaching sharks. A minor aggravation was that Kyrt had said the tour price included everything and we did not need to take towels with us. It turned out that our tour fee did not include the cash-only towel rental fee of R30 (US$2.50)/towel plus a R100/towel deposit. Anyway, I did not bring enough cash for two towels and two deposits but I was allowed to leave only one deposit (I guess I look honest).
As dawn was breaking, we headed out to the "Megalodon II". The boat was on a trailer and we scrambled up a portable staircase to board. The boat was towed down to the boat launch and into the water. All bags, purses, etc., had to be stowed in the dry hold before leaving. We were shown the hold, life jackets and snack basket; we were also given instructions for using the head. There were about 25 divers (although only about 20 actually went into the water). The divers were mostly young adults but there were a few other people around our age.
As we motored to the dive site, the boat was followed by several skuas, who snagged snacks held out by the dive master. After about 45 minutes, the boat stopped and our gear (full 5mm wetsuits with hoods and booties) was distributed; masks were also available but John and I had brought our own prescription masks. The crew began to chum the water to attract sharks: seawater is poured into a tub of tuna heads and allowed to run back into the sea. That is not as disgusting as it sounds.
The steel cage was lowered into the water and clamped to the side of the boat. The cage has a top and the expected bars on the outside. There are bars inside to grab onto and to hook your toes under so that the diver can submerge when the crew yells, "Down!". Five divers can go into the cage at the same time and everyone would be given at least one opportunity to dive.
John and I ended up being in the first group into the cage. The water temperature was only about 15 C (60 F) but not too bad with the wetsuit. A small (about 1.5-2 meters long) shark had been attracted by the chum. A crew member was using a tuna head on a rope to try to lure the shark over to the cage so that we could view it. Unfortunately, the visibility was quite poor due to sand in the water and sharks swim really fast; it was very difficult to take photos or even see much from the cage.
After about 20 minutes in the cage, it was time for another group to take our place. John and I went up to the top deck and discovered that we could see more from up there than when we had been in the cage. Eventually a larger shark (about 3 meters long) came along. This shark was more aggresive about pursuing the tuna head. When it got tired of having the head yanked away, it gave us a "Jaws"-type moment by disappearing and then coming up from beneath the head to grab it.
Although this was the peak season (April to October) for shark diving, we only saw one other shark, which did not deign to approach the boat. After everyone had had a chance to be in the cage, it was time to return to shore. Now that it was full daylight, we could see the incredibly narrow and rocky harbor entrance that the boat had to negotiate. The boat was winched back onto the trailer and towed to its parking place so that we could descend by the staircase.
There is a shower in each of the bathrooms at the headquarters; John managed to change into his dry clothes in the men's room. However, the women's room was so crowded that I changed outside under my towel. After that it was time for the included lunch, a baked chicken and pasta concoction with bread and a salad. Beer, wine and soft drinks were also included; we opted for a bottle of a local beer, Castle Lager. After lunch, we were supposed to see the video that was shot during our tour. Unfortunately, there was some sort of glitch and the videographer with the master copy had already left to video another tour. The quality was so poor that no effort was made to sell it to us.
On the return trip, we were the last people in the shuttle to be dropped off. That gave us a chance to see a bit of downtown Cape Town and a few sites like the Cape Town Stadium and the Historic Lighthouse; we also had some good clear views of Table Mountain, Signal Hill and Devil's Peak. We got back to the guest house around 3:00 p.m.,where we had nice hot showers and finished packing. After that, we relaxed in the shade of the guest house's courtyard with a bottle of wine and the last of the olives until it was time for Kyrt to drive us to the airport. We really enjoyed his services as host, driver, winery selector and wildlife expert!
Once at the airport, it was too early to check in for our flight to Amsterdam. Despite seven days of touring in South Africa, I had been unable to find a flag for my collection. Luckily I was able to remedy that deficiency at a gift shop in the airport. Later we checked in for the flight and went through passport control and the security check with no problems. However, we had made a big mistake: we planned to eat at the airport but it turned out that there was only one food outlet inside the secure area. Although the sandwiches were reasonably priced and not bad, the service was incredibly slow. Diners were putting money in their receipt folders, placing the folders by the cash register and walking away. We finally got tired of waiting and did the same.
Once aboard the plane, I asked the flight attendant for our section not to awaken us when dinner was served. As a result, we were able to sleep for most of the 11.5-hour flight. We woke up in time for refreshing hot face towels and breakfast the next morning.
POST-CRUISE DAY 5: SAT, 05/09/15 AMSTERDAM (AMS) TO RALEIGH/DURHAM (RDU) VIA ATLANTA, GA, USA (ATL)
After a short (2.5 hour) layover at Schipol came the 10-hour flight to Atlanta. We did not get to sleep as much on that flight. Arrival in Atlanta gave us the first chance to use Global Entry (usa.immigrationvisaforms.com/travel/global-entry-pass), which allowed us to bypass all the long immigration and security lines. Despite the cost (US$100 for 5 years) and having to go to Charlotte, NC, for the interviews and fingerprinting, we should have applied for this program years ago!
The short flight to RDU was uneventful and we made it home around 10:00 p. m., 28.5 hours after leaving Cape Town. Although John had worried that transporting the sailboat model might be a problem, it was not an issue at the security checks and there was always room for it in the overhead bins. I was a little surprised that he was asked what it was at every security check; the x-ray machines clearly showed that it was a sailboat. Anyway, it looks terrific in our living room!
Despite our intricate web of travel arrangements, everything worked out mostly as we planned. We are fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit so many new countries on this trip and are looking forward to planning our next voyage. Read Less