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Friday File: A Taste Of Southeast Asia

When you go to a foreign land and eat local food, sometimes you’re never quite sure what you’re eating, or if you are indeed eating what the locals say. It is a culinary adventure, to say the least, and after visiting Southeast Asia for the first time we better understood why locals eat what they do, we shared many of their dishes and we came home raving about the food of Cambodia and Vietnam, especially Vietnam. Some of the servings surprised as, as they probably will you…

Crickets

When you visit a cricket farm, as we did in Vietnam, you naturally expect to see crickets and you anticipate being invited to eat them. We were — and did…okay, one of us did.

Cambodian soup

The most popular dish on the AmaDara river cruiser was, without question, Cambodian soup and while it was often available throughout the day it was a breakfast specialty.

Version 2

Vietnamese spring rolls are available on this side of the Pacific but the ones at our favourite Saigon restaurant, Quan Bui, were better than any in North America.

Bread

This is not what you think, it’s just the work of a creative pastry chef on the ship, and it definitely tasted better than it looked, although Cambodian crocs are a delicacy.

Tarantula

This is what it you think, a man eating a tarantula. It was at a stop called Spidertown, the tour guide’s is Nyphea and the tarantula wasn’t wiggling…except when he crunched it.

banana, mango, dragon fruit

Dessert is always a welcome respite when you’re eating in adventureland, and this delectable trilogy of dragon fruit (red), mango and banana really hit the spot.

In the news…

• Legends In Concert move from Norwegian Epic to the Pearl
• Royal Caribbean's new catchphrase for marketing — 'Come Seek'
• Carnival latest cruise line to relax carry-on policy for beverages

Today at portsandbows.com: Preview of the new Carnival Vista 


Royal Caribbean Liberty of the Seas
7 nights
November 29, 2015
Galveston (return): Falmouth, Grand Cayman, Cozumel
Inside: $430
Cost per day: $61
www.royalcaribbean.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

Dunn's River Falls: Been There… 

 

FALMOUTH, Jamaica — We knew that if we went to the most famous place in Jamaica bearing our name, and did what most people who go there do, that we’d be able to say triumphantly (yet one more time): “Been there, Dunn that.”

Dunns-signWe knew that if we did, indeed, climb Dunn’s River Falls (three and a half football fields long) it was entirely possible we’d spend the next three days in a horizontal position on Allure of the Seas, which isn’t a bad place to spend three days horizontally, or even vertically.

And we knew that skipping the journey up the Falls would bring into question our age, or at least our courage.

Everybody on our tour bus was going to cool off at this Jamaican hotspot because it’s the No. 1 tourist attraction in the country, or because it looked like fun, or because maybe they’d had a little too much rum, mon, and weren’t thinking straight.

We went because of our heritage.

Dunns-guideHow could somebody named Dunn go to Jamaica for the first time and not visit Dunn’s River Falls, a short bus ride from the port of Falmouth? Maybe we’d find a distance relative or, better yet, that we were entitled to some royalties that had accrued over the years in our name. Or at least a free drink.

All that really happened was that we spent a couple of pleasant, humid hours watching other people as they tried to make their way on the slippery rocks, wearing water-friendly shoes and holding hands with strangers who may or may not have been on their bus. It occurred to us that it might have been interesting, and certainly prettier, to observe the Falls if the rocks were not dripping with humanity but this, folks, is a tourist attraction in every sense of the word.

There are line-ups to pay $20 to get in, unless you’re on a shore excursion from a cruise ship, in which case your guide (thank you, Carsha Haye) knows how to get around the lines. There are places to eat and rink, there are the inevitable souvenir shops and there’s even a young Jamaican making a buck by using your camera Dunns-Dunnsto take your picture with the Falls as a back-drop (thank you, mon). And if you’re traversing the pools of water and not just watching, videos of your experience are recorded for sale (about $40).

Conservatively, this place handles thousands of tourists a day, every day, as long as there are no monsoons or hurricanes in the neighborhood. It’s a money machine for Jamaica and treated with the respect that all such money machines are treated. That means it’s clean, friendly and a happy place to visit.

Always by people who hope that when they reach the top of Dunn’s River Falls, they’d be able to raise their hands and say…

“Done that!”

Take it from us…saying “Dunn that” gets old after a while.

Today at portsandbows.com: River ship explosion continues

Celebrity Millennium
14 nights
September 28, 201
Tokyo, Mount Fuji, Kyoto, Jeju Island, Seoul, Tianjin, Shanghai
Inside: $899
Cost per day: $64
www.celebritycruises.com

 

Princess a Diamond Experience in Japan

The Diamond Princess is going back to Japan. Again. Maybe it's just time to make this a permanent posting, or as permanent as anything can be in the world of cruise ships.

Consider the history.

A decade ago last month, the Diamond Princess emerged from a shipyard for her maiden voyage. A fire would have delayed hear arrival but a sister ship, the Sapphire Princess, was under construction so, out-fitted with her sister's hull, the Diamond floated out on time.

The shipyard was in Nagaski and it was the first ship built in Japan by Princess Cruises.

The cruise line just announced that the Diamond Princess is returning in 2015 to sail Japanese bathsfrom two home ports, Tokyo and Kobe, the third season Princess has had ships cruising to Korea, Taiwan, Russia and other Japanese ports.

Last week, the ship began its 2014 season following an extensive refurbishment ($30 million) to make it more…well, Japanese. More sushi, more sake, culturally appointed furnishings and classic Japanese bathing experiences similar to "the popular on-sen experience for which Japan is well-known."

In other words, the ship has been tailored to attract its demographic and, at the same time, is making a commitment to Japanese cruisers.

All it needs now is a name change:

"Daiyamondo Purinsesu"

Go ahead, take a guess at the translation.

Today at Phil Reimer's portsandbows.com: The latest in cruise news

Carnival Ecstasy
4 nights
May 12, 2014
Miami (return): Key WestCozumel
Inside: $149
Cost per day: $37
www.carnival.com

In The Wake Of Tragedy On The Water…

Here's a sobering question that probably won't have a conclusive answer:

Following the gut-wrenching and tragic ferry accident last week off the shores of South Korea, how is the fear of dying in a ship going to impact the cruise industry?

Seasoned cruisers are unlikely to develop such a fear and are more likely to classify the tragedy as an accident, the kind that could also happen in a car or a train or a plane. People new to cruising might think twice about booking a cruise and the greatest number of new cruisers these days comes from Asia.

Yes, it was a ferry that sank, not a cruise ship. However, news organizations were drawing parallels this week between the ferry in South Korea and the Costa Concordia in Italy, where 32 people died when the big cruise ship hit rocks and tipped onto its side.

The point is, something that's new can be fragile, and judging by the way cruise lines are moving ships across the Pacific, that's the newest hotbed for cruising. 

Today at portsandbows.com: The latest in cruise news

Carnival Glory
7 nights
May 31, 2014
Miami (return): NassauSt. ThomasSan JuanGrand Turk 
Inside: $349
Cost per day: $49
www.carnival.com

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