My husband Joe and I were excited to take our 7th cruise on Princess. At 31 days, this was also going to be the longest cruise. We wondered how we would spend that much time on board, would we run out of books - all of those piddly ... Read More
My husband Joe and I were excited to take our 7th cruise on Princess. At 31 days, this was also going to be the longest cruise. We wondered how we would spend that much time on board, would we run out of books - all of those piddly questions one must address.
Joe travels with an electric wheelchair, not a scooter, so it is always a gamble as to what shape the chair will be in when we get our destination. We left San Antonio, flying to Anchorage. We give United airlines a big thumbs up. The chair arrived in the same shape it was when we boarded it. That's a first for us; this was the first time we've flown United. We got into Anchorage at about 9:15 p.m. Always dress for the destination to which you are going. 100 degree weather in San Antonio doesn't follow you to the far north.
The Princess greeters met us efficiently and professionally. As in other Princess embarkations, the ground folks are always surprised that we have confirmed "wheelchair lift" transportation. Everyone was extremely apologetic and after 1 ½ hours sitting in the airport, a van finally arrived.
When we got to the Captain Cook hotel, our luggage was waiting and check in was a breeze. We snuggled into a great bed in a great hotel. The next morning we visited a museum quality boutique in the hotel lobby and had time to take a quick spin around the downtown (quick because I hadn't unpacked the sweaters) and then boarded the bus to Whittier. Along the way we stopped at a wild game preserve and had time to snap the reindeer, bison, and bear. There was also the opportunity for the last popcorn for almost 30 days.
Then we were off to Whittier, a great place from which to embark, but hardly worth a shore excursion. You can see most of it from the deck. The luggage was delivered in short order, and I had time to unpack before we started off. We had a handicapped room by the elevator. Since we must book this in advance, we cannot take advantage of being upgraded from a lower level. But, the extra turning room and the accessible shower are a must. We were disappointed to see (and this is not the first time) that the people next to us on the first leg were not handicapped. We met a travel agent in the elevator on Princess that explained she always books a handicapped room for her and her customers. They have more room. I think that's a foul on her part and on the part of Princess.
We've never cruised Alaska, but the scenery from the ship was incredible. The sunset, glaciers, scenery set the backdrop for our cruise.
The first stop was Kodiak Island. We opted to stay on board but some great pictures from our balcony. I'm always really tired the first and second day of a cruise, so I opted to nap. I think it's the knowledge that I have utterly no responsibilities. I love cruising.
Six days later, we arrived in Muroran, Japan. A lovely spot to break the sea voyage. We were told that cruise ships only stop twice a year, so the welcome was spectacular. We had the added benefit of a great tenor on some balcony near us, who would break into song. A friend and I took the shuttle into town. There were guides everywhere to answer questions. Plus, a street fair was underway; we assumed for our benefit. We found Japan's answer to the Dollar Store - the 100 yen store and had a great time poking about for bargains. I bought several items I didn't even know I needed. We found in many instances, the shuttle into town was a far better way to visit than the pricey tours offered from Princess. My husband's motto is not to eat or drink anything suspicious, so we didn't immediately offer that we had tried the yakatori, which left us wanting more as well as a great noodle dish. At a passing glance, the hospitality here was memorable. It was even better after we spent the day in Vladivostok.
Three more days at sea, and we arrived at Vladivostok. Had we not been able to say that we set foot in Siberia, the port could very well have been omitted. I had the preconceived notion (I have been to Moscow) that everything would be gray and depressed. I was not disappointed. I truly tried to see it in color, but had no luck. The day was cold and dreary. I was tempted to buy a red army fur hat. The travel desk had assured us that my husband could go ashore, so we trundled down the gangway and that's as far as we got. He could not leave the immediate area because of high curbs, steps, etc. We found the travel people generally helpful, but other times really clueless. Joe went back on board, and three of us set out on foot. We had a list of the places on the ship's tour and were able to do them on our own as most of the sights were within walking distance of the ship. The comparison between our welcome at Muroran and Vladivostok was black and white - Muroran being the shining white and Vladivostok a shade of gray. The people were in a hurry to be somewhere other than the service industry. The difference between "haves" and "have nots" was noticeable. We saw many cars with steering wheels on the right side - importing used cars from Japan is a big business. The cross walks were interesting as they cross underground with assorted shops below.
We were ready leave. Another day at sea and we docked in Pusan. The sun came out. We took another shuttle into town and immersed ourselves in Korean shopping. We honed our bargaining skills and had varying degrees of success. Friends that took the scheduled tours were generally disappointed. Lots of traffic and minimal time to stroll through the sites or shop. The tours want you to shop at the high end designer stores; in general, I don't believe that's the experience most are looking for. Then, there's always the Princess push to shop in stores they recommend. These are also stores for which they get a kick back for your purchases.
The next day was Kagoshima and I opted for a tour. It was worth every penny in my estimation. We visited a Samurai village and gardens and then took a beautiful mountain drive to a resort for a relaxing sand bath (preceded by a sushimi lunch). We stopped along the way to use the facilities and shop. The clerks came out and bowed to us when we left. It took only a few minutes but left us with a good feeling. The sand bath was a great new experience. You don a kimono like robe and are buried up to your neck in the sand. It's warm and relaxing. The pictures show that you are at the ocean side, but since the pictures have been taken, there is a brick wall between the sand and the ocean, I suppose to prevent eroding. Then, there's a hot tub bath to get the sand off, and then you get dressed for the ride to the ship. I slept like a baby.
Dalian, China was next. I opted for a walking tour and kite flying. Certainly not worth the money. We walked a little over an hour straight down one street to a large square, then boarded buses to have a drink (closely monitored) and fly kites. The kite flying was fun. We were told we could keep the kites. Wheeee. Surprisingly, they were cheap little nylon kites (made in China). Somehow, my idea of a Chinese kite wasn't that, but I guess it was as advertised. I'd wave off the tour. Strangely, we never did get to shop in a "Chinatown" until we were in Japan.
You need to consider that many of the ports are a great distance from the city to which you want to go. Xingang is about two hours from Beijing. Unfortunately, our landing coincided with a national holiday so everything was late and disorganized. They have a ways to go before the Olympics. We opted for the Great Wall. It was disappointing as we went to a very small section where you did not get the long vista of the wall. It was also disappointing in that our guide disappeared as we were getting Joe's manual wheelchair off the bus. We found the entry; Joe had to walk about five steps, which is not easy for him, and I lifted the wheelchair. I will say that on another bus, the guide and driver helped a passenger who was in a wheelchair. The group had disappeared for lunch, which most folks told us mediocre at best. It was not accessible. Most passengers would have opted for more time at the wall and no lunch. I was able to go a ways, but Joe never did see the wall except in a distance. But, we checked that block.
Nagasaki was our next port of call. Again, we opted to take the tram to the Peace Garden. We saw everything on the ship's tour. It cost us $4 and the tour group $79. Again, we had time to spend as we wised. The tram ride was easy and cheap. We also had time to shop in Chinatown, although most people directed us to the high end shopping district.
Shanghai is a busy, bustling commercial center. Tree-lined boulevards and modern architecture. Joe and I had the address of the Shanghai International Pearl Market, specifically, the Green Lotus Pearls. A friend, who had lived there, had recommended the woman who owns it. We took a taxi (any color but the red ones; the red taxis are not regulated) and had no trouble finding the Market and were not disappointed. There were many Americans there as I believe it is close to an American enclave. Only one scary incident. There was only an escalator to the second floor so two security men (not large) simply put Joe's wheelchair on the escalator and off they went. Double scary on the way down.
Shopping was not my main goal, but in Okinawa, we took the free shuttle into town, and shopped a bit. We spent some time in the fish market; it was, after all, air conditioned. You've really got see the decorated pigs' heads to appreciate foreign cuisine. The 100 Yen store is a good place to buy bottled water as it costs - 100 yen. It's much pricier on the ship.
The port of Keelung, Taiwan was itself interesting. Many toured the area or went into town on their own. We took the bus to Taipei. We were told we could change money where they dropped us off. Surprise - it was a designer, high-end mall. Things are not cheaper in Asia, and the exchange rate is disastrous for Americans. It's true, you could change money, but you needed your passport. Note to passengers - ALWAYS CARRY A COPY OF YOU PASSPORT WITH YOU. PRINCESS KEPT OUR PASSPORTS THE ENTIRE CRUISE. You can't change money without one. And, the ATMs didn't always work. Friends and I did our own tour in Taipei - we went to the National Palace Museum and the Lingshan Temple. We enjoyed time on our own and time away from a busload of 60 obvious tourists.
After two days at sea, we arrived in Hong Kong and Joe and I and friends took a taxi to Stanley Market. We had fun shopping; they don't barter much. It's best to walk around and compare prices though as several merchants sell the same items. I witnessed my first purse snatching. The police were there quickly and were efficient. Joe and I went around the corner to the beach and had a soft drink and relaxed at a covered table. There was a great sign that guaranteed that the sausages had no intestines in them. We passed on the experience. Back in Hong Kong, we found a Citi-Bank within pushing distance of the Silk Emporium and were able to replenish our cash reserves using their ATM and then changing the money to dollars. We did have an account with Citi-Bank, so that was helpful. We left late enough to see the laser light show in the harbor. What a sight!
Another day at sea and then two stops in Vietnam. The first was Nha Trang - a lovely seaside town. I took a bus tour, which was probably not worth the cost. We went to the Silk Embroidery Museum, which was well worth the stop. Even if you don't buy anything, the works of art that are displayed were amazing. We made several other stops. There are virtually no cars here or in Saigon. Poverty is everywhere. It seems the prosperity of China and Japan has not yet arrived.
We had a private tour to Saigon and weren't sure it was worth it. That is until we returned to the ship on time and those that had taken the ship's tour were delayed up to six hours. We saw the standard sights, including the U.S. Consulate, on the sight of the former Embassy, which has been torn down. Our guide explained that those with cars and houses are generally party bosses or those who smuggle. That was an insight.
I took the offered tour to Singapore. It was average and probably worth it as it gave me time on my own. I used the subway and it puts Washington DC to shame. It's well organized, large, user-friendly, bright and clean. We stopped at a famous coffee house, which offered great toast and coffee. (Joe wasn't along to try it). We left from the Duty Free Store, which had some reasonably priced souvenirs. I wandered down to Barnes and Noble, where they were charging nearly $30 for "A Thousand Splendid Suns." I decided to wait til we got home.
It was time to go home. We opted for a three-day stay in Bangkok, which was a great idea. One problem. Two days before we disembarked, Princess decided they would not honor the transfers that we had paid for. We were told we were on our own to find wheelchair transportation to Bangkok - a three-hour drive. They finally found a driver, but we had to pay $170 in cash. We were also left on our own to find transportation to the airport - another $60. The driver and guide they found for us are part of their ground service in Bangkok, so what they were objecting to is the cost. Of course, this was never discussed prior to our disembarkation. We still find it ludicrous that they gave us in writing a letter saying they would reimburse us for the charge, but on the day we disembarked changed their mind. Princess finds the matter resolved and will not reimburse us. So, we are voting with our feet after 7 cruises on Princess.
Our stay at the Shangri-La was delightful. It is a gorgeous hotel with friendly helpful staff. You can walk around the area where it located (right on the river) and experience much of Bangkok. We were a little put off by the cheapest glass of wine being $20 and the beer, $6.50. Robinson's department store is a couple of blocks away, and they have a super market in the basement. Beer is 50 cents, so we stocked up as there was a refrigerator in the room. We toured the sights and spent the last day around the pool. The pool-side satay was great and the entertainment at night wonderful. Massages are expensive at the hotel. The National Massage School is located at the Wat Po Temple and we booked a masseuse, who came to the hotel.
As to the entire experience, we enjoyed it more than we thought we would - despite the cancelled transfer. We developed our own routine on board, exercise, eating, playing trivia, eating, reading - things we do at home. I took too few books and was disappointed that passengers check out six books at a time, leaving few for others. So, if you want to get library books, go before unpacking. We were disappointed with the Princess Theater entertainment because it is the same shows you see on other cruises - "The Piano Man," "Mo-Town," etc. Some individual entertainers were outstanding; the bartenders juggling drinks were better than some of the paid entertainment. You can have good and bad experiences on any ship, but Princess' indifference to our transfers is, in our opinion, unforgivable. Bon Voyage.
1. Always carry a copy of your passport. 2. Japan requires careful screening (including body temperature) of those disembarking. This can add to frustrations and cut down touring time. 3. Princess kept our passports for the entire time. See #1. 4. The only local currency on board was Japanese yen. If you have a passport, you can exchange it at major banks. 5. Select tours carefully. Many were expensive and shortened because of red tape or at the discretion of the tour operator. 6. If timing allows, the 3-day after tour is a great way to decompress and take time to see a city. Read Less