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A French Landmark Back In Saigon

Le Meridien-2

SAIGON — A sign of the times in Vietnam’s southernmost city is Le Meridien Saigon. A member of the Starwood chain and arguably this city’s most modern hotel, it officially opened this weekend, still something of a secret to taxi drivers who haven’t ferried enough guests there in the weeks leading up to the ceremonial opening.

Modernity aside, it has all the things that are right about being in Ho Chi Minh City, the more modern and politically correct name, starting with its location. 

It towers over the Saigon River, providing fascinating views of traffic ranging from tankers to speedboats that negotiate between the water hyacinth plants that rise and fall with the Le Meridien-6tide. Around the corner is a quirky little street called Ngo Van Nam, home to restaurants like Quan Bui, recommended to us and home of the best food we’ve had in five days here since leaving the AmaDara after cruising down the Mekong River.

The hotel is staffed by the happiest, warmest and ridiculously friendliest people — and Le Meridien-4there are many of them, at every turn trying to help you out — you could hope to encounter in Southeast Asia, or anywhere else for that matter. There’s never a door unopened, nor a question unanswered, nor a business issue without a solution.

The rooms have all the current computer-driven necessities and gadgets, like energy-saving keys to the lights and electronic blinds to allow you to over-sleep, if inclined. That’s necessary, given the size of the windows that allow natural light to pour into the spacious rooms.

There’s a plethora of good eating in Vietnam, and this hotel has the most extensive dinner buffet we’ve seen in a long time, maybe ever.

While its facade smacks of modern architecture, everything inside has a taste of the French heritage that for 100 years was so much a part of Saigon, from the artwork decorating the walls to the music played on the sound system filtering into lounges and restaurants. Surprisingly, perhaps, French can be heard from the staff, as a second or third language…Vietnamese and English being the other two.

When the French left here — or were driven out — half a century ago, it’s unlikely they’d ever have foreseen one day a hotel called Le Meridien would be such a part of the Le Meridien-7landscape…right down to the French pastries in a shop off the lobby. The service is so personal that guests are cautioned when leaving the hotel about what and where is safe and what and where isn’t, and when you take a taxi the people at the front door know what cab you’re in and where you’re going — they give you a card with the hotel address to make sure the drivers know where your “home” is.

It is, after all, still new to the cabbies.

In the news…

• More than 12,000 cruisers yesterday in Vancouver from three Alaska ships
• Room service charge of $3.95 from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. on Celebrity cruises
• Free safaris among Oceania perks for North Americans cruising to South Africa

Today at portsandbows.com: Carnival's immersive shore excursions


Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas
11 nights
October 23, 2015
Dubai, Goa, Cochin, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore
Inside: $424
Cost per day: $38
www.royalcaribbean.com

Friday File: The Anchorage Museum

If you’re on an Alaska cruise that takes you to Anchorage between now and the end of the season, there’s still time to see Arctic Ambitions: Captain Cook and the Northwest Passage at the Anchorage Museum. For us, the museum trip was recommended by Guy Glaeser, the Princess Cruises expert on Alaska, and it turned out to be better than he said. The Cook exhibit is there only until September 7, after which it will be replaced by one on Vincent Van Gogh. There are no pictures of Cook’s amazing journey below because photography wasn’t allowed in that section — and there is far more to this museum than one exhibit, as you will see…

Street

It’s walking distance from any part of downtown‚ stylishly designed and located at the intersection of C Street and 6th Avenue.

Baseball

Until November 1, an entire section is dedicated to Alaska’s rich history in baseball, and players from Satchel Paige to Tom Seaver.

Alaska in 50s

Another section gives you a detailed look at what life was like in Alaska (and other places) when it became a state in 1959.

Papa Joe's

There’s always been a wild side to Alaska, and that’s why this cleverly-worded teeshirt from a bar makes it into a museum of all places.

Native section

Many creative artifacts from Alaska’s native history, including this jacket that’s guaranteed to keep you warm anywhere in the state.

Captain Cook

The best photo allowed of Captain James Cook hangs in the lobby of the hotel that bears his name, just a few blocks away.

Kids section

As the first Smithsonian Affiliate in Alaska, the museum collaborated on Spark!Lab, an interactive attraction for kids (of all ages!).

Olympics

Anchorage bid for the Winter Olympics in 1992, losing to Albertville, and this sweatshirt is a reminder the Games still haven’t come.

Today at portsandbows.com: Angkor Wat, Cambodia's tourist jewel

Celebrity Summit
7 nights
November 28, 2015
San Juan (return): Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua, St. Maarten, St. Thomas
Inside: $449
Cost per day: $67
www.celebritycruises.com

Drowning At Sea: Everyone Loses

Yet another child has died on a cruise ship. Yet another child has, allegedly, drowned. Yet another plea is going to be issued for cruise lines to station lifeguards by pools all the time they are open.

And once more there is a chance of misplaced responsibility.

The victim of this family tragedy is a 10-year-old girl. The Norwegian Gem’s medical team responded to a poolside call on Sunday, the day after the Gem left New York for Florida. Despite CPR and emergency efforts, the young girl did not respond.

Everybody loses when this happens.

Especially the parents, who lose their child. The ERT loses a patient. The cruise line — in this case Norwegian — loses public confidence. None of them deserves to lose.

When you become a parent, among your responsibilities is providing safe care for your children until they are able to do so themselves. This is especially true around places to Norwegian poolswim, be they beaches or swimming pools. Whether the pool is in a park or on a beach or at a hotel or on a cruise ship, the primary responsibility for a child rests the parent.

Lifeguards?

They’re a back-up. Would you want your child’s fate to depend solely on a lifeguard? Some beaches have lifeguards, some don’t. Most public pools in parks or buildings do. Hotels usually don’t. Apartment buildings never do. The same goes for cruise lines except for Disney, which carries the most kids.

Ten people a day drown accidentally in the U.S., about two of them younger than 14. It is the fifth-leading cause of unintentional injury death. Those statistics alone should be a wake-up call when their kids go swimming.

Wherever it is.

In the news…

• Latest Princess sale on U.S. departures ends on Memorial Day
• Norwegian Dawn temporarily without power, runs aground near Bermuda
• Norwegian announces second public offering of 20 million shares 

Today at portsandbows.com: Combo cruise from Disney and AmaWaterways

Celebrity Equinox
7 nights
July 18, 2015
Istanbul, Mykonos, Valletta, Catania, Naples, Rome
Inside: $799
Cost per day: $114
www.celebritycruises.com

Barcelona's Beauty…And Beyond

BARCELONA, Spain — Right off the top, there are two observations about visiting this Spanish jewel that has been home to  Antoni Gaudi, the Olympic Games, Pablo Picasso and 5.5 million current residents. 

One, you can never be here often enough to tire of Las Ramblas. This is good news for Costa Cruises, among others with ships stopping here. 

Two, there’s more to Catalonia than Barcelona.

Like Sitges and its coastline (above).

Costa’s new flagship, the Diadema, stops by Barcelona to pick up and drop off 3,710 passengers (or so) once every week. The first stop on shore for Diadema’s passengers was RamblasLas Ramblas, the dated and charming part of the city that is a huge magnet for both tourists and locals. In another city, it might be called “Old Town” but Las Ramblas has a nicer sound, at least in English.

You can’t really tell where it begins and ends, only that it does, somewhere on the periphery of the tapas bars, narrow cobblestone streets, great shops, better restaurant and fascinating historical edifices that seem to stand on most corners. You can spend a day there and come back a couple of times, as we have, and spend another day.

And never regret it.

The Las Ramblas area started as a street called La Rambla (the avenue), which of course is still there somewhere in the maze. Virtually every city tour, including Costa’s, includes it along with the Olympic Stadium, another tourism staple. That status also applies to La BarcelonaSagrada Familia. If you haven’t heard of it, you’ve never been to Barcelona, where it reigns as the monument more than any other when they come to Spain. It’s also the world’s largest unfinished church (or smallest), and has been for generations. Antoni Gaudi designed it and gave up building it after 43 years when he was killed by a train.

That was in 1926. Gaudi was 74 when he died and left his handprints all over Barcelona’s buildings. The church’s unfinished state was further devastated by the Spanish Civil War, when arsonists destroyed Gaudi’s studio but not his dream. Its latest scheduled completion date is the centenary of Gaudi’s death, 2026, but nobody’s betting on it. Of the 18 bell towers he designed, eight have been built.

Barcelona’s former bull ring (the sport is banned in Catalonia) is now a shopping mall. The Olympic Stadium, built in 1929 for the World’s Fair and refurbished for the Olympics of 1992, is on Montjuic Hillside, which overlooks this fascinating city and which is now basically a track and field facility that also hosts live concerts.

And then there’s “outside” Barcelona.

Maria NadinaOur second waterfront resort (we’d been at Le Méridien Ra Beach Hotel & Spa on the same area seven years ago) is a half-hour outside the city, and was chosen by the Costa delegation. It was in Sitges (the “g” is soft), or a short walk from Sitges, a lovely artistic town that is sometimes called the Saint-Tropez of Spain. Our hotel — the impressive four-star Hotel Estela Barcelona — was 20 minutes from Sitges as the pedometer goes so we spent close to an hour of the short time (five or six hours) we had there walking the seawall, having arrived too late to visit the museum recommended by a friend in Barcelona, Maria Nadina (right), who is a tour guide par excellence.

The rest of our time was invested in walking through another tight collection ofarchitecture, returning to the hotel and dining at one of the restaurants on the boardwalk Sitgesnearby, Les Fonts. It’s divided by the boardwalk so there’s constant traffic back and forth,  and the most demonstrative (in a nice way) waitress you’re likely to find.

Barcelona cornersSitges is as laid-back as Barcelona is bustling. The contrast is welcome after a busy day in the big city where, incidentally, street corners (or many of them) are not 90 degrees but cut to 45 degrees. That’s to facilitate traffic flow by making more space at intersections, giving it a Parisian look (or maybe Paris has a Barcelonian look). 

In our two previous visits, this is one of the things we never knew. Like we said, you can never make too many trips to Barcelona.

Or Sitges.

In the news…

• Violence cancels Puerto Vallarta stoips for two cruise lines
• Dead whale dragged ashore by cruise ship in Vancouver
• Oceania lowers fares for West Coast cruises this summer

Today at portsandbows.com: Viking Star off to be christened

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Holland America Eurodam
12 nights
June 13, 2015
Copenhagen (return): Kiel, Tallinn, St. Petersburg, Helsinki, Stockholm, Berlin
Inside: $899
Cost per day: $74
www.hollandamerica.com

Riviera Maya’s El Cid — Especial!

PUERTO MORELOS, Mexico — It has been a long time since we’d been cruising on land…

Cruising on land?

The closest thing you’ll find to a cruise without the water under the room in which you’re sleeping is at an all-inclusive resort, and there are likely more of them than there are Resort-5cruise ships. We hadn’t been at one for almost 30 years, not for any particular reason, but when Family Reunion Time came along this year the decision-makers settled on an all-inclusive.

That was to become El Cid.

There are six El Cid resorts in Mexico — four in Mazatlan, one in Cozumel and this one, in a sleepy little town called Puerto Morelos, which is halfway between Cancun and Playa del Carmen along the Maya Riviera. The name comes not from a movie now 44 years old, but from the legendary Spanish hero of the 11th century, El Cid, who is still revered today.

JulioIt was founded by the late Julio Berdegue Aznar, who grew up in Madrid and became a political refugee in Mexico during the Spanish Civil War, Highly educated, he developed the business that his two sons operate. At this El Cid, the operations manager is Ricardo Bustamante Altamirano (Ricardo for short), a bundle of energy who is as proud of the company’s heritage as he is of the Puerto Morelos resort.

Ricardo-1“It is one hundred per cent Mexican,” he says. “What distinguishes us is the service, also the quality of food and drinks. We don’t buy the cheapest food and we don’t buy the cheapest liquor. The company always treats employees with a lot of respect. When you do, the Riviera Maya is like a gold mine.”

Ricardo spent a year in the cruise business, as a bar waiter on Royal Caribbean’s old Sovereign of the Seas. His resort reflects a cruise ship in its cleanliness, its service and its “mass-market” food.

One employee we encountered said the reason he worked at El Cid is that it’s booked “90 per cent of the year” while others in this area are more seasonal.

Booked means filling 428 rooms, a number that will grow to 700 in two years, and there will be another main building.

It’s easy to see why.

In a week at El Cid, the two seniors only left twice, walking 30 minutes on country roads to Puerto Morelos. That wasn’t the plan. It was the reality. This all-inclusive — perhaps like others — has a large pool bubbling with activity most of the time, sit-down restaurants, programs for kids who need to be supervised by non-parents, a beach with more water things-to-do and food 24/7. What impressed us was that after a week, we wanted to stay.

There are 12 in our family and we pretty much covered the gamut of things to do. Kayaking (included) was over at the beach. Snorkeling ($20 each, from a Puerto Morelos vendor) meant going out to the world’s second-biggest coral reef. Maya ruins (also not included) was more than an hour’s drive to Coba, and well-worth the trip. The zoo — CrocodileCrococun — was a short cab ride and in-zoo guides are mandatory, if for no other reason than for protection from crocodiles, 33 of them, that are just off the path you’re walking.

This was spring break, so the place was buzzing with families, but it didn’t feel crowded. Not unlike being on a cruise ship like Oasis of the Seas and feeling there was plenty of room for its 6,000 passengers. Just like on cruise ships, somebody is cleaning all the time, and not just in the front rooms, where you could eat off the floors. Ricardo took us on a behind-the-scenes tour that was revealing in the degree to which employees go in the clean department. 

The main pool (there is also an infinity pool) was exceptional. This is not a lap pool, it’s a fun pool. With small children and at least a couple of non-swimming adults in our family, it Infinity Pool 2was perfect. There is plenty of space and, yes, loungers draped with “reserve” towels that nobody ever seems to use.

The rooms are spacious, too, and all easily accessible from the pool. Room service is unbeatable. There are four restaurants to go with the buffet, all of them good but in hindsight we found the Mediterranean one, El Alcazar, the tastiest…perhaps in part because Luis and friendsof a delightful server named Luis. Presentation was exceptional. The buffet is…well, buffet food. When you’re dealing with hundreds of people and perhaps dozens of dietary restraints, there’s only so much you can do with the flavor of buffet servings — the “chefs” El Alcazarin charge of the ready-made hot dishes always seemed to be trying to do the work of two people.

And just like cruise ships, hot toast is a problem on shore, too.

The Riviera Maya El Cid is nine years old. Its opening was delayed by category 4 Hurricane Wilma. There was water in the rooms and the kitchen doors were blown off. Ricardo, a lifer in the hospitality business, spent three months working in Mazatlan until the new El Cid was ready. Another deadly storm — the tsunami that swept through the waters of Asia — was critical in El Cid’s growth.

“Ever since then,” says Ricardo, “all year long people come to the Riviera Maya instead of crossing the Pacific.”

Capacity is about 1,400 people, which happens at Christmas, and 80 per cent of the Resort-7customers are either Canadian or American. While the prices vary like cruises do, they’re generally in the same ballpark, per person.

We’ve been telling people how much this family enjoyed El Cid…and now we’ve just told thousands more.

Today at portsandbows.com: Godmother tunes up Anthem's christening

Diamond Princess
8 nights
June 6, 2015
Kobe (return): OkinawaHualienKaohsiungTaipei
Inside: $799
Cost per day: $99
www.princess.com

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