(12:52 p.m. EST) -- Cruise Critic has been spending the last week onboard Scenic Spirit, Scenic's Vietnamese-built Mekong River boat, which launched January 2016. Because Scenic Spirit was purpose-built for the Mekong River as one of the company's signature luxury ships, it boasts many amenities other Mekong River boats do not have, including an elevator that stops on all passenger decks and some of, if not the largest balcony suites on the Mekong.
The 68-passenger vessel is all sleek lines, with large plate glass windows in most public spaces, wooden accents and modern Asian-inspired decor. Among the standout features on the ship are a resort-style pool deck with a retractable awning, a sun deck with open-air cinema, and a small spa. Scenic prides itself on its all-inclusiveness: All alcoholic drinks (excepting a small number of top-shelf brands), non-alcoholic drinks, butler service, guided tours and gratuities (on land and on ship) are included in the fare.
Scenic Spirit operates seven-night cruises between Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and Siem Reap in Cambodia (or vice versa); Cruise Critic is testing out the onboard experience, as well as Scenic's included shore excursions. Here's what we've found so far.
As with all Scenic river ships, Scenic Spirit is an all-suite vessel and has some of the nicest cabins we've ever encountered on the water with a separate bedroom, sitting area, walk-in closet, and plenty of storage in all kinds of clever configurations. The entry-level suites are an impressive 344 square feet and the rooms have both a French balcony and a standard balcony, though even the standard balconies can be converted into French balcony sunrooms if you prefer.
Scenic does a great job of offering a combination of tours, with many days having both morning and afternoon options. In ports where just one tour is offered, passengers are divided into three groups, typically by which Scenic itinerary you're on (the ship carries people who are on a variety of Scenic trips, with some booked on longer land/cruise tours, others on short land/cruise tours and other passengers just taking the cruise). The guides escort their groups in different directions so you're not bumping into each other. In some ports, several tours are offered and you can choose the one that most appeals to you. The tours, all of which are included, last two to five hours, are excellently guided and, on an itinerary that has a mix of larger cities and villages, go to fascinating places.
With a handful of exceptions, the crew onboard Scenic Spirit are all Cambodian; they are always smiling, enjoy getting to know the passengers and quick to ask if you need anything when they see you. We were amazed at how quickly most of the dining room servers knew our name. We found the same level of friendly service from the chef (we have a variety of dietary restrictions and Chef Budi was always ready to make a version of items on the menu that we could eat).
Because Scenic sells its tours and cruises in several English-speaking markets, the crowd is decidedly international. Australians, Brits, Canadians and folks from the United States mix and mingle easily. There are few pretensions and lots of laughter. Making new friends is as much a part of the Scenic Spirit experience as exploring Vietnam and Cambodia.
The Khmer Massage
There is a small spa onboard Scenic Spirit, offering a menu of Cambodian-style massages including one called the Khmer. It's quite reasonably priced -- just $50 for an hour -- and does a great job of getting all the knots out. It's also one of the strangest massage experiences we've ever had. It's a dry massage so you're given a pair of Cambodian pants and a tunic to wear. Then before you know it, the massage therapist has climbed up on the table with you and proceeds to use her hands, forearms and legs to work the kinks out of practically every spot on your body through deep pressure and a variety of stretches. I've never had my knees or pelvic bone massaged before but I'd do it again in a heartbeat.
After nearly a week onboard Scenic Spirit, we've found very little to fault (though we would have appreciated a hanging hook by the entry for a hat or the cold-weather sweater we brought for going back to the U.S.). We are, however, confused about the ship's butler service.
As an all-suite ship, Scenic Spirit offers all passengers access to a butler, who, depending on your stateroom, offer a sliding scale of complimentary services.
Upon embarkation, your butler will take you to your cabin, explain how everything works including the lights and shower and give you a card with their contact info (basically just the reception desk) with a note that says "no detail too small and no request too large."
However, we found that the ship didn't do a good job of spelling out exactly what our butler could or couldn't do -- and the butler himself didn't offer guidance. For instance, we found our big, heavy suitcase had been put in the closet. Our butler did not ask if we needed help with it and so we ended up lugging it from the closet to the bed on our own. Some butler services, like pressing; are available free of charge only to those staying in higher category suites; when a fellow passenger in a standard suite asked her butler if he could iron something for her, he informed her that there was an iron free of charge in the laundry room. He did not mention that he could also do it for her, though for a fee.
On Scenic ships in Europe, passengers receive a welcome letter spelling out what exactly their butler can do. When we asked why that wasn't the case on Scenic Spirit, the cruise director told us it would be too big a list. Without the guidance, however, we're finding that many of our fellow passengers are using their butler for very little (restocking the mini-fridge with favorites, for instance), or nothing, at all. We recommend the ship adopt the practices used on their European counterparts. Otherwise, the highly touted perk is really no more than a nice idea.
--By Dori Saltzman, Senior Editor