We got back a couple of days ago from our Asian cruise on the new Pacific Princess. I have not seen very many reviews of this ship or of cruises in this part of the world so I thought I would write up my review as soon as possible to provide as many details as I could.
To give a little background, my husband and I are in our mid 30s and have cruised quite a few times before, but this was our first trip to Asia (unless you count a stop at Kusadasi on a Med cruise). This was also our first cruise on a ship with fewer than 1,900 passengers. We are not big 'partiers' and prefer port activities to late night discos and sunbathing.
To us this seemed like a very small ship, however Princess did its best to make all of the facilities we were used to available. They were especially good at having multiple uses for certain spaces. For example, this ship does not have a dedicated children's area, but because there were 30 kids (ages 3-17) onboard they had kids' and teens' counselors on board. They conducted their activities in Sabbatini's restaurant during the daytime. Since this was a space that would have otherwise been unused (and was in the upper back corner of the ship) it was a good out of the way place for the kids to have fun without disturbing other passengers. They also used Sabbatini's and Sterling's for computer classes, ceramics and other activities.
There was only one pool and 2 hot tubs (unless you could the Thalasso-spa in the Lotus Spa area that costs $15 per day) but it was only on the warmest sea days that it even began to get crowded. Frankly even at the 'crowded' moments it was only because there were young kids splashing around on one side and the older folks all congregated on the other side of the pool. I never had a problem finding a space in the hot tub. We went up to the pool deck every sea day after lunch and while it was sometimes difficult to find a lounge chair in the shade we somehow always managed. There were always plenty available in the sun (it was HOT).
The dancers in the shows doubled as cruise staff and ran trivia, dancing lessons, bingo, etc. and were all very personable. There were a few dedicated members of the cruise staff but somehow their activities were not as fun. A couple of the dancers were VERY good-looking and you could tell that the older passengers enjoyed harmlessly flirting with them. :)
Generally the entertainment was not as good as I have come to expect from Princess, but I think this is because they do not have the space in the Cabaret Lounge to perform the kind of production shows that Princess is known for (such as Pirates and Glamour). However I was surprised that the outside entertainment was also generally of poor quality. There was a banjo player, a comedian and a magician who were all third rate. The only good entertainer brought onto the ship was an Australian singer named Seamus. She was very good and we enjoyed both shows she gave.
There was no movie theatre, however there was a special channel on the TV in the stateroom where Princess ran a movie (a different one each day) multiple times each day. This was in addition to the usual movie channel.
The service in the dining room was great and the food was similar to other Princess ships I have been on. There were some very good dishes (such as the soufflEs and pastas), others that might be good or bad (such as the beef and fish) and others that were almost always bad (such as the salads and pre-prepared eggs).
Soda cards were available for $32 which was $2 per day. It was well worth it and we never had any problems getting waiters to bring us lots of drinks, even in the dining room!
We did not go to Sabbatini's but we did try Sterling's $15 pp charge). The appetizers and entrees were excellent, however the desserts were miserable (and we know because we tried them all). If you did not want to go to the main dining room at night there was an alternative restaurant in the buffet area. This was a sit down restaurant with waiter service but there was no charge. Half of the time it was a pizzeria and the other half of the time it was a bistro (that also had pizza selections on the menu). The pizza there was excellent, the other dishes were similar to the dining room (could be good or bad).
The buffet operated from 5 am to 5:30 pm (from 5:30 pm to 12:30 am there was the alternative restaurant, from 12:30 am to 5 am there was no service). The food there was generally blah and we tried to avoid eating there. The lunch pizza provided was not nearly as good as the pizza in the alternative restaurant at night. The big advantage at the buffet is that it was relatively fast, which is particularly important if you want to get off the ship and go into port.
We were in a balcony cabin (category BB) and it was just fine for 2 people. The bathroom (as usual) was tiny but useable. The room was a good size and there was plenty of room for our suitcases under the bed. There was enough closet/drawer space for all of our things but I should admit that we are light packers. We didn't have enough hangers but our steward gladly gave us more.
We embarked in Osaka, Japan. We arrived a few days early and stayed at the Osaka Hyatt. This hotel is very easy to get to from the airport by taking the airport limousine bus. This bus has many routes and stops at many major hotels so investigate it if you plan on doing your own airport transportation. This bus also went straight to the Tempozan Harbor Village (where the Pacific Princess was docked) for 1,300 yen pp which was much less than Princess was charging for the same transfer.
We spent 2 days 'commuting' to Kyoto. We would take the subway to Osaka station in the morning and then take a rail train to Kyoto. It was a bit of a trip but not unreasonable. On the first day we took the Johnnie Hillwalker tour. This tour meets outside Kyoto station at 10 am and costs 2,000 yen pp. It is a walking tour that goes through the Southeastern portion of the city and is more of a 'backdoor' tour. We saw a number of small shrines and traditional craftsmens' workshops, as well as some temples, a Shinto cemetery and a traditional Japanese pastry shop. Johnnie gave us some great insight into Japanese religious and cultural traditions and introduced us to the 'everyday man's' life in Kyoto. In contrast, the next day we had signed up for a tour run by JTB ($135 pp paid for before we left the US). This tour met us in Osaka and took us to Kyoto where we boarded a bus. The bus took us to major sights (such as the Golden Pavillion, the Nijo Castle and the Imperial Palace. Then lunch was provided (decent, buffet style with a good amount of choice) and we boarded the bus for an afternoon tour that went to more temples and shrines. Everything we saw was interesting and different. I am glad we took tours in Kyoto because many of the major sites have few tours (usually none in English) and all of the popular sites were awash in tourists (many of them Japanese schoolchildren from around the country). It would have been difficult to navigate on our own.
At night on these days we walked around the various shopping/nightlife districts in Osaka (Amerika Mura being the most outrageous). This was fun but really only needs to be done once (unless you are a serious clubber).
The third day was embarkation day. We spent the morning at Osaka Castle. Although this is a recreation, it is beautifully done and really looks like the castle surely did in its glory days. The surrounding park is nice and worth a walk. Inside the castle is a somewhat bland museum, but it is worth the entrance fee to go to the observation desk on the top floor where you have a terrific 360 degree view of Osaka. After this we headed to the Pacific Princess.
Our first port was supposed to be Hiroshima, Japan, but a typhoon hit just as we were scheduled to leave Osaka, so we delayed our departure until it had passed. This was just enough to cause us to miss our half-day stop at Hiroshima. So we pressed on and went straight to Shanghai, China. We did not get off at this port because between the outrageous cost of the visa and the shore excursions we didn't think it was worth it. We did however enjoy the approach in the morning. For 2 hours before you reach Shanghai the narrow waterway is filled with hundreds of boats of all sizes. Being on a cruise ship was like being on a whale watching all of the smaller fish swimming around you. Very entertaining! Being on ship in port we took advantage of the free time and got discounted spa treatments and did laundry.
There was no shuttle into town and the Princess excursion desk gave us vastly over-estimated taxi fares. We took a taxi to Shuri Castle (about 1,300 yen) and got there at 8 am. We walked around it and saw some smaller ruins until 8:30 when they opened the castle park. We walked that until they opened the museum at 9 and then snuck in just before the Princess tours. We finished about 9:30, ran over to the Tamauden (royal tombs) and finished that by 9:50. We hopped a taxi (450 yen) with another couple to the Shuri monorail station and then took the monorail down to the shopping street (Kokusadori I think). Make sure you ride the monorail. The most expensive fare is less than 300 yen and you get a terrific elevated view of the city. We spent some fun time walking the shopping district and then went back to the ship (taxi, 1,000 yen). We only had a half-day but if we had had longer I would have liked to see the Japanese Imperial Navy Underground Headquarters. I heard that this was very good. Okinawa is really like the Japanese Hawaii: warm, tropical and lots of Aloha shirts and US military bases. It was a very interesting atmosphere. I would enjoy going back there on another cruise.
Again it was difficult to get from the port city to the main attraction (Taipei) and Princess did not offer a shuttle or even an On Your Own tour. So we took a shipboard tour which actually wasn't all that expensive (probably because it didn't offer lunch even though it was an all day tour). We drove to Taipei and visited the Chiang Kai Chek Memorial which is also a museum. Although the museum is interesting, the architecture of the memorial was the main attraction. Had we been on our own we would have liked to have spent more time in the gardens. Next was the National Palace Museum, which holds the majority of Chinese art in the world, and lastly we visited the Martyr's Shrine. The tour was nice, but not very exciting.
We had a fantastic time here! We were the first to disembark at about 8 am (ship was early). We docked Kowloon side at the Ocean Terminal and were right next to the Star Ferry. It took us 10 minutes to navigate through the Harbor City shopping mall though! It cost us about US$0.40 to take the ferry across to Hong Kong Island (if we had been seniors we would have been free) and it was very fast. When we got off the ferry (at Central) we walked to the Victoria Peak Tram (about 5 minutes walk) and took it up to Victoria Peak (about US$4 round trip). The train was the steepest land vehicle (ie: not suspended) I have ever been in. The views at the top were terrific and as we were getting on the tram to come down we saw all of the Princess Tour Groups coming up. :-) When we got off at the bottom we walked through the middle of uptown to get to the midlevel public escalators. We arrived just at 10 am so they were still going downhill so we rode to the bottom and visited the tourist information booth there for some maps. Then we took the now-reversed escalators to the top! We walked down, meandering through some more 'traditional' shopping areas (Hollywood Rd., Upper Lascar Rd.) seeing the antique and herbal markets and the Man Mo Temple. When we got back to downtown we grabbed a bus to Aberdeen, which is a 'fishing village' on the south side of the island (US$0.60 per person each way). Of course it is more commercial now but this is where you see all of the Chinese boats in the harbour. We were constantly pestered to ride the sampan boats (one saleslady followed us for 10 minutes!) but we took the free boat out to the 'famous' Jumbo Floating Restaurant. We walked around there for 10 minutes (and found the Princess Tour Groups eating lunch) and then took the free boat back. I think we got all of the experience without being ripped off! After walking around Aberdeen a bit more we went back on the bus to Central Hong Kong. We got off and walked to Hong Kong Park, which is very beautiful. It is incredibly landscaped and is in the middle of all of the downtown high rises. They had a fantastic aviary (free) that we went through and an equally interesting conservatory (also free). However the star of the show was the Teaware Museum in the old colonial Flagstaff House (free too), but only because of its fantastic air conditioning. :-) We then wandered back to the Star Ferry and went back across to Kowloon. We went through the landmark Peninsula Hotel and the ritzy Nathan Rd. shopping areas and got to Kowloon Park. This wasn't really worth the trip since it wasn't nearly as nice as the Hong Kong Park. At this point we were exhausted (no lunch, 6.5 miles of walking over 10 hours in 95F heat with 99% humidity) so we went back to the ship. We got back an hour before departure.
We did the standard Ho Chi Minh City tour (NOT the shopping tour). I strongly recommend that you at least do the On Your Own tour because the city is 1.5-2 hours away from the port along very muddy backwater roads. The Phu My port itself is NOT set up for passengers in any sense and is basically a mud pile where they are loading sand and construction equipment onto barges. It would be nearly impossible (without speaking Vietnamese and having a LOT of patience) to get off the ship and do ANYTHING on your own. There isn't even a town to walk into. Once in Ho Chi Minh there is very little public transportation and taxi drivers do not speak English so be prepared to walk a LOT (if you're not on tour).
The tour itself was actually fantastic. It was probably the best ship tour I have ever been on other than perhaps Pompeii and Amalfi Drive. The drive to Saigon (they actually do call it Saigon there, only the government in the north calls it Ho Chi Minh) was very interesting because you really got to see daily life along the roadside the ENTIRE way. I'm talking children running barefoot through the mud, makeshift marketplaces, dusty homes open for all to see, etc. etc. It was very interesting and the first time in a long time where I have really felt WEALTHY as compared to the local populace (and trust me, by US standards we are definitely not rich). First we went to the Vietnam History museum which was not 100% interesting but our guide knew which of the few pieces were worth taking a look at (the mummified woman was the most interesting). We also saw a water puppet show there which was cute and just long enough to appreciate it (not long enough to get dull).
After this we went to a lacquer factory. I know what you're thinking and yes, it was a sales/shopping thing but the best one I have ever attended. They took us through the actual factory where people were working and it was very interesting to see things hand-made in every stage of production. The prices at the store were unbelievably cheap (eg: US$24 for HUGE fancy jewelry boxes with mother-of-pearl inlays, includes shipping to the US) but we didn't buy anything simply because there was nothing we wanted/needed. It was very interesting to browse though. After this we went to lunch at an extremely fancy hotel (the Equatorial). They had women in costume lining the stairway and seriously I felt like royalty going up to the ballroom (where lunch was held). In the ballroom on a stage there were people performing traditional dances and playing traditional instruments. Each segment was a few minutes long so it changed rapidly. The food was decent and for dessert there were a number of interesting Asian fruits I tried for the first time (dragonfruit being the most exotic) which was an experience in itself. After lunch we had some free time before getting back on the bus so we decided to walk around the block. We started to walk towards the street when a large number of vendors just swarmed down on us with their souvenirs. It was somewhat overwhelming but we just retreated and went out the side entrance of the hotel and no one bothered us. We walked around the neighborhood and the vendors didn't swarm us again until we were right back at the hotel entrance. By this time there were a number of other tour participants so we weren't overwhelmed and could enjoy the bargains. If you want purses there were BEAUTIFUL silk and/or beaded purses for only $2 or $3 each (depending on how you bargain). They ONLY wanted $US. Bring small bills because I wouldn't trust your getting change. They had other items as well, but the purses were by far the best bargain.
After lunch the vendors followed us on their mopeds to the Sea Goddess Temple. This was a beautiful temple hidden away in a ramshackle part of Chinatown and I would never have discovered it on my own. After the temple we stopped at Reunification Hall for a photo op and then went to the Rex Hotel (site of the Friday Night Follies). We had enough time to go upstairs and walk around the rooftop bar (beautiful with great views) and take pictures of the lobby before getting back on the bus. On the way back to the ship we made a 'rest stop' at this strange food store. It had a bunch of tourist souvenirs (and the same kind of pushy vendors only these were selling kimonos for US$5 or less) but also a lot of strange dried Asian foods including whole snakes and bugs. Quite the creepy (yet fascinating) display! back at the ship the entire bus talked about how we had enjoyed the tour so much. This one is DEFINITELY worth going on.
We did this port on our own. The ship docked at the Singapore Cruise Center which is conveniently located between the cable car up Mt. Faber and the Harbourfront MRT station. It is EASY to walk to both. The ship docked late so we scrapped our plan to go up Mt. Faber and instead took the MRT (and then a cheap $4 taxi) to Changi Chapel and Museum. This is a very interesting museum filled with photos and quotations about the POW camps and occupation of Singapore by the Japanese in WWII. It was in-depth without being too technical and I enjoyed the display very much (as much as you can enjoy photos of torture and starvation). Then we took the taxi and MRT down to Fort Canning. We walked through the park and visited the Battle Box, which was the underground headquarters for the British. There was a cheesy tour but the site itself is very interesting and you will learn a lot about the reasons behind the British surrender of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942. It was interesting to see things from both the Pacific Theatre and Axis points of view. So in Vietnam we saw evidence of American wartime humiliation and in Singapore we saw evidence of British wartime humiliation. It was actually a terrific experience.
Leaving WWII behind we walked over to the Padang area and then took a stroll up to the Raffles Hotel. Being forewarned we were appropriately dressed (no shorts or sandals of any kind, my bare shoulders in my sundress were okay) and let into the lobby, which is beautiful. We did see lots of tourists being turned away for inappropriate dress. We walked through the fancy shops back to the MRT and went to Little India where we wandered through various temples (including the Temple of 1,000 Lights where you will see a giant, garish Buddha whose bottom you can enter to see another Buddha) and took in the atmosphere of the markets. Then we went back to Harbourfront station and took our abbreviated trip up Mt. Faber. The view was nice, but not spectacular and I was a little disappointed, but I suspect this is the kind of thing that HAS to be done when you visit Singapore. All in all it was a terrific port and there were a lot of things we wanted to do but didn't have time for. We could easily spend another few days here too.
Total spent (including the Mt. Faber cable car and admission to the Battle Box) was about $60 (Singapore Dollars). It was not expensive at all.
You probably won't find any port information about this place if you search the internet. This is because I think the PP was the first cruise ship to go there ever. I may be exaggerating, but not by much. The port was 100% a 'working' port. There were no passenger facilities and the buses were driving through a maze of shipping containers to exit the place. There were almost no taxis available at the pier and from what we understand none of the drivers spoke English. However we did talk to a couple who were able to hire a driver for US$20 for the entire day (I don't know how they did this with the communication gap). We had booked the Royal City of Pekan tour. First they drove us on gravel and paved roads for 45 minutes into Kuantan and then we continued to drive further towards Pekan (another 45 minutes). We turned off onto this nearly invisible dirt road that I think had never seen anything bigger than a pickup before (remember we were on a big tour bus) and drove down aways until we got to these wooden huts. One hut was the birthplace of the second prime minister of Malaysia, the hut beside it was a museum of his life. We weren't sure why this was a major site, but after reading on our own through the museum we discovered that this was the guy who was instrumental in obtaining Malaysia's independence from British Colonial Rule. The tour guide did not tell us this. Across the street was a bigger hut-like complex which was a silk factory. I just presumed that this meant a forced shopping excursion. No, just the opposite. We walked over and there were 2 women weaving cloth on old fashioned wooden looms. That's it. No store, no salespeople, nothing, just 2 girls who ignored us while working. It would have been nice if the tour guide had at least explained something about the process but he did not. We walked back across the dirt road and back into our tour bus and drove to the outskirts of Pekan and the royal compound. One of the interesting things the tour guide did tell us is that 9 of 13 of the Malaysian provinces have Sultans. Every 5 years there is an election held by the country to see which Sultan will be King of Malaysia. The King is purely ceremonial. This Sultan (whose compound we were visiting) was not the current King and we couldn't find out from the tour guide if he had ever held the post. Since he was living in his palace we drove up to the front gates and took pictures of the gates. Then we drove by his 2 polo fields. He had a rusty steam train that he had converted into a dressing room at the polo field and we were allowed to get out and take pictures of the outside of the train. The big claim to fame here was that Prince Phillip (UK) had played at this polo field. We also saw the horse stables from the road (they were quite a distance back). Then we got back in the bus and drove to downtown Pekan. It was all of 2 blocks. We got out and walked the 2 blocks and I have to say I was a little frightened. It was obviously an extremely poor area and the locals stared at us with an intensity that I found disconcerting. The 'stores' we passed were pretty meager and everything was filthy, including the one restaurant that had flies swarming all over the 'buffet'. At the end of the 2 blocks was the Sultan's museum. It was in the former British Governor's house. Basically it was a lot of memorabilia of the Sultan and his family and a few old ceramic items of Malaysian Heritage. It was about 30 minutes of interesting items and then 45 minutes of blah. The place was obviously not set up for hordes of tourists. I do have to compliment the Malaysia tour guides on being organized though: they got all 3 tour groups there at different times so that we did not overwhelm the museum.
After this we were supposed to go to the watercraft exhibition across the street but it was closed. The guide really had not planned this well because we could have gone there first (while it was still open) and then gone to the museum. So we got back in the bus and drove to Kuantan for lunch. We did not arrive at the restaurant until 1:30 pm so many people were very hungry. The restaurant was in the nicest hotel in Kuantan but it was very spare. After the royal treatment in Ho Chi Minh City I was shocked. There was a linoleum floor and the chairs were all broken. The tables were formica. Let's just say that ambiance was zero. But this can be made up for with a good meal, right? Well they seated 10 people at the tables (which were made for 8) and we were elbow to elbow. ALL the Princess tours were at the same place and the staff were obviously overwhelmed. It took awhile to get served and then they just dropped dishes on our table without telling us what anything was. The food was worse than food court Chinese at home. It was edible but not too tasty. We were trying to identify some of the dishes. Afterward the guide told us that one dish was deer. This didn't bother me so much (I have had venison before) but many people were upset that they have been 'eating Bambi' and were not told about it. Then one lady at our table found a bug in her food. I was across from her so I didn't see it personally but half the table did and they all swore it was a BUG about an inch and a half long. She showed it to the tour guide and waitress and everyone looked shocked (so we know it wasn't some kind of weird Malaysian delicacy). The owner of the restaurant came over and offered the woman a clean plate but understandably she refused to eat any more. Neither did the rest of the table.
When we left the restaurant many people were unhappy and the tour guide apologized. Then he said that we were going back to the ship. Some of the passengers got angry because they thought there would be a shopping stop. The guide said there was no time so we went back to the ship. Frankly if we were going straight back to the ship why didn't they skip lunch altogether? I really don't understand this. Anyhow the shopping passengers were very angry. After a number of complaints Princess refunded everyone for the part of their tour cost that covered lunch.
Talking to other people back on the ship it is my understanding that the other 2 tours had similar experiences (and of course they had the same lunch). Even the people who took the taxi admitted that there had basically been nothing to see. On our tour the Sultan's palace and part of his museum were interesting, but there was maybe an hour of that during the entire day. Lunch was a disaster and I am angry that we had to pay for that. We are not even sure why Princess stopped here since it is obviously NOT a tourist place in any sense of the phrase. The only insight was that one passenger surmised that they might have stopped for the cheap fuel. Regular unleaded gasoline is about US$0.30 per litre, so it was probably a cheap place for the ship to refuel. I am not sure if this was the reason or not.
So my overall view on Kuantan is that you might just want to stay on the boat. Princess should really drop it and either go over to Kuala Lumpur (which would probably add another 2 days to the cruise) or have an overnight in Singapore (which we would have enjoyed). So anyone on the future cruises be warned!
We disembarked the ship in Bangkok and took a Princess tour of some major sights. First we went to the temple of the golden Buddha. This was small, but interesting and the architecture was in the traditional Thai style. It was obviously a major tourist spot and the vendors swarmed over us like flies. Next was the Grand Palace. The palace is actually a compound of many buildings, each more flashy and showy than the next! It is a visual feast. Every building is decorated in pieces of golden mirror (other colors too, but predominantly gold) so the effect is of entire buildings that look like golden disco balls. Definitely a must see. After this we walked a couple of blocks and took a riverboat tour. I wish this had been longer because it was so much fun! Then we were put up overnight at a nice hotel in the city. Because it is halfway around the world almost all international flights leave VERY early in the morning so it is basically impossible for anyone to disembark the ship (which docks around 7 am) and get to the airport in time to take a flight out the same day. So Princess offered an 'operational overnight' which was basically a cheap hotel stay so we could leave super early the next morning. Since we had a few hours before bed we walked down to some local markets for last-minute souvenir shopping. We ended up walking to some fancier malls and eventually wound up in the Siam Discovery Center, which is a very nice indoor shopping mall. We hopped the Skytrain back to the hotel (only 2 stops) and went to bed early to make our 3 am wake-up call.
All in all it was a wonderful trip. Although we would have liked to spend longer (days) at some of the ports, the cruise was the best way to see parts of Asia for the first time. Our only real complaint (outside of missing Hiroshima) was that we would have liked a bigger ship (turns out we're big ship snobs : ). But certainly going to this part of the world is a terrific experience and I recommend it to anyone on any ship.