Tag Archives: Oceania

Spiritual Sanctuaries 2019 – Tokyo to Singapore

Cruising on the Oceania ship ‘Insignia’

We arrived in Tokyo on Saturday 30th March, after a long (a tad under 12 hours) but uneventful flight. I got talking to the chap sat next to me on the flight. I had wondered why he was receiving extra-special attention from the stewards and found out he’d been bumped from 1st Class to slum it with us economy erks in the rear stalls. I’m sure he was well compensated, but a pleasant chap all the same. He was an ex-Diplomatic Core Protection Officer, now working for Sky News. He didn’t say much about his current role, except it was something to do with anti-terrorism (methinks – “…wonder why he is on this flight…!!!”. Anyway, he was was happy to share the port and cheese with me and Lynda that one of the stewards delivered from 1st class. Nice chap.

We didn’t have much time to explore Tokyo, other than a walk from our hotel – the ANA Intercontinental – to the shopping district at Ginza. It was a good 40-minute walk, but helped us get over the jet-lag.

So, not much time really to go over my old Tokyo haunts in Roppongi (I was here 22 years ago when working for Reuters), but one thing that has changed since my last visit was – the toilets. It took me a while to get used to the various “bottom cleaning” options available. Only the inscrutable Japanese could come up with this invention. I wonder if it will catch on?!

Mar 31 SunTokyo, Japan
Apr 1 MonCruising the Seto Inland Sea
Apr 2 TueHiroshima, Japan
Apr 3 WedKagoshima, Japan
Apr 4 ThuSasebo, Japan
Apr 5 FriCruising the East China Sea
Apr 6 SatCruising the Yellow Sea
Apr 7 SunBeijing (Tianjin), China
Apr 8 MonCruising the East China Sea
Apr 9 TueShanghai, China
Apr 10 WedShanghai, China
Apr 11 ThuShanghai, China
Apr 12 FriCruising the East China Sea
Apr 13 SatHong Kong, China
Apr 14 SunHong Kong, China
Apr 15 MonCruising the South China Sea
Apr 16 TueHue (Da Nang), Vietnam
Apr 17 WedCruising the South China Sea
Apr 18 ThuSaigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam
Apr 19 FriSaigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam
Apr 20 SatCruising the Gulf of Thailand
Apr 21 SunBangkok, Thailand
Apr 22 MonBangkok, Thailand
Apr 23 TueKo Samui, Thailand
Apr 24 WedCruising the Gulf of Thailand
Apr 25 Thu Singapore, Singapore

Here’s the map:

Our first cruise on the Insignia, but it’s very much the same as the Sirena and Nautica, which we’ve previously cruised on, so we quickly found our bearings once we had boarded. We prefer the small cruise ships. The Insignia has capacity for 684 guests and 400 crew, and has only recently had a full refurbishment (2018)

Oceania Cruise Ship Insignia

1st April, at sea, on our way to Hiroshima.

2nd April, Hiroshima.  Visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park today, the site of where the first nuclear bomb was detonated. On August 6th, 1945, the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay dropped the bomb and what is today this park was then Ground Zero. The explosion destroyed most of the city and left only a few concrete and steel structures still standing. The most prominent was once the Hiroshima Prefecture Industrial Promotion Hall, the ruins of which are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site referred to as the Atomic Bomb Dome. The Children’s Peace Monument, often called the Statue of the A-Bomb Children, honours the thousands of children that we’re killed. built after the war as a memorial to the people who died in the Atomic Bomb attack (6th August 1945).  The Atomic Bomb Dome was the only structure left standing. The Children’s Peace Monument honours the thousands of children who died. In all, there we’re 140,000 people who died, representing a third of the population.

Hondori street for shopping.
Miyajima Island for Itsukushima shrine and famous Red Torri gate. The shrine was established in 593, the first year of the reign of Empress Suiko, and today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

On a more upbeat note, we also visited the beautiful Miyajima Island, where we saw the Itsukushima Shrine and the famous torii gate that rises up out of the ocean. 

The spring blossom is everywhere,  life is precious.

Total cost if our self-organised excursion, including the Memorial Park, the Memorial Museum, public transport to the Ferry Terminal, return ferry fare to Myajima Island and taxi back to the ship was 7,900 Yen, or £54 ($67), i.e. for two people. This compares to the Oceania organised tour price of $339 PER PERSON! 

3rd April, arrived Kagoshima, dominated by the majestic and active volcano, My Sakurajima, towering over 3,500 feet above the city and bay. In the mid 1800s, the English Royal Navy bombarded the city in their efforts to collect on a perceived debt. 

Walked to the Shiroyama Observatory, beautiful panoramic view over the city.

4th April, Sasebo. Longest shopping street in Japan.
5th April, cruising the Yellow Sea en route to Beijing.
6th April, cruising the Yellow Sea en route to Beijing.
7th April, Tianjin, for the Great Wall of China.

The Great Wall of China actually consists of numerous walls and fortifications. Many running parallel to each other. Original conceived by Emperor Qin Huang (c. 259-210 B.C.) in the
third century B.C as a means of preventing incursions from barbarian nomads into the Chinese Empire, the wall is one of the most extensive construction projects ever completed.

The best-known and best-preserved sections of the Great Wall was built in the 14th through 17th centuries A.D., during the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644). Though the Great Wall never effectively prevented invaders from entering China, it came to function more as a psychological barrier between Chinese civilization and the world and remains a powerful symbol of the country’s enduring strength.

Construction of the “Wan Li Cheng”, or 10,000-Li-Long Wall, was one of the mots ambitious building projects ever undertaken by any civilisation. The famous general Meng Tian directed the project
and was said to have used a massive army of soldiers, convicts and commoners as workers. Made mostly of earth and stone, the wall stretched from the China Sea port of Shanhaiguan over 3000 miles west into Gansu province. In some strategic areas, sections of the wall overlapped for maximum security. From a base of 15
to 50 feet, the Great Wall rose some 15-30 feet height and was topped by ramparts 12 feet or higher; guard towers were distributed at intervals along it.

Today, the Great Wall is generally recognised as one of the most impressive architectural feats in history. In 1987, UNESCO designated the Great Wall a World Heritage site. Over
the years, roadways have been cut through the wall in various points, and many sections have deteriorated after centuries of neglect.

8th April, cruising the East China Sea, en route to Shanghai

9th April, Shanghai, China. Shanghai docks closed due to fog. We stayed at anchor in the East China See, 64 miles from Shanghai.

10th April, Shanghai, China. The fog lifted late afternoon of the 9th and we docked at 5.30am. Went on an organised tour visiting the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ Shanghai. This started with a scenic drive down the Bund and visit to the former French concession area. We then visited the People’s Square, traversed the tunnel under Huangpu River to the Pudong District arriving for photos of the iconic Oriental Pearl TV Tower. The tour finished with a drive to the Jin Mao Building and an express elevator ride to the Observation Lounge on the 88th floor. Amazing panoramic views of Shanghai.

In the afternoon we took a leisurely stroll to Yuyuan Garden and Fangbang Road, the centre for local Chinese goods, arts and crafts. On the walk back to the chip, we stopped off at the Peace Hotel in what was once the British Concession Area and found
the famous “Old Jazz Band”. Old being the operative word; they were ancient, and the ‘jazz’ music was more fitting for a funeral wake. The bass player played the same two notes for every tune they played, and the drummer often disappeared into his own world!

We finished the day at a Japanese restaurant quite close to where our ship was docked. We only had enough local currency left to buy a couple of beers and some bar snacks, but we had some very good live music performed by a young guy with a guitar. We also
witnessed a very public proposal from a young Japanese lad to his girlfriend, digitally recorded and no doubt posted to social media by all of her friends. We congratulated the young couple as we left to go back to our ship.

11th April, cruising the East China Sea en route to Hong Kong. Hoping the weather will soon get warmer, we’ve had a chill wind for the past three or four days.

12th April, cruising the East China Sea en route to Hong Kong

13th April, Hong Kong. Docked at Ocean Terminal South, right outside the massive Harbour City shopping mall. Designer outlets on three floors. Ventured out in Kowloon, walking up Nathan Road to the Temple Street Night Market. In the evening we ate local Cantonese cuisine in one of the Harbour City restaurants.

14th April, Hong Kong. Did the ‘Big Bus’ hop on-off bus tour. Quite costly at 900 HKD for the both of us, but it did include the vernacular tram ride to Victoria Peak, and (useful tip) fast-tracked us past the huge queues for the Peak. Also visited Ocean Pass, Repulse Bay and Stanley. Weather not so good, so most of the latter part of the day spent under plastic macs.

15th April, Cruising the South China Sea, en route to Da Nang, Vietnam.

16th April, docked at Da Nang, Vietnam. Navigated our way to the XQ Da Nang Silk Hand Embroidery shop on Tran Phu street. Amazing artistry and skill of the women there working with fine needlepoint to create lifelike silk tapestries depicting local scenes, flowers and portraits. Bought two silk pictures for $250 – a bargain when you consider these would cost four times that much in the UK. Then onto the Han Market to pick up local bargains. Lynda came away with a beautiful silk Ao Dai (the traditional Vietnamese dress) made to measure in 1 hour, and also an embroidered top. Wandered around the two floors of the market, never quite sure what all the goods and produce were that were laid out in symmetrical patterns. Have always admired the work ethic of the Vietnamese; everyone seems to be an entrepreneur. Love the place.

17th April, cruising the South China Sea en route to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

18th April, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam. On tour to Mekong River Delta. Drove to the delta port of My Tho. Visited the Vinh Trang Pagoda, then a short boat trip on the Mekong River to Unicorn island, where we visited a bee farm and tried the local honey and tea drink. Then visited a family-run coconut candy manufacturing enterprise. There was virtually no automation from start to end of the process, and every candy individually wrapped by hand. We then had a brief sampan ride, rowed furiously by a young lad at the bow and a slightly older man at the stern. The tour was rounded off by an excellent lunch, where we tried ‘elephant fish’, sticky rice, spring rolls and the local ‘Pho’ soup. All of it fresh and delicious.

19th April, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam. Much of this was a reminiscence of my time here 10 years ago. So much has changed in that time, mainly the many tall buildings that have sprung up throughout the city. The traffic is still chaotic with many thousands of mopeds vying for space on the roads. Crossing the road requires a conviction that you will be spotted by the oncoming cacophony of mopeds, who will steer round you, like a fast-moving river. We visited the Reunification Palace, now knee deep with tourists – of which we were two! By comparison it was fairly quiet here 10 years ago when tourism was still in its infancy.

We also visited the Notre Dame cathedral, which was closed due to renovation (similar to its namesake in Paris, having recently heard on the news about the fire there). While in the vicinity, we visited the iconic Central Post Office, built between 1886 and 1991 and designed by the famous French architect Gustav Eiffel. Its
interior has remained essentially untouched since its construction and is still in operation as a post office. Took a few pictures of the ex-CIA building, now framed by a new office block directly behind it. This was the scene of the final evacuation of US military personal and their families to the waiting helicopter on the roof as the North Vietnamese army and Vietcong entered the outskirts of the city on the 30th April 1975. A bit of trivia – the evacuation was triggered by the broadcast of the song “White Christmas” sung by Elvis Presley.

We then moved on to visit a lacquerware workshop where we witnessed the artistry and skills of the workers who create these pieces, using mother of pearl, duck shell and/or hand painting to create incredibly detailed pictures. Totally reliant on manual
labour and time-consuming production processes. Our next stop was the Giac Lam Pagoda and then a very brief visit to the An Dong market in Cholon Town, where every variety of local produce could be bought, from cashew nuts to dried seahorse.

Our next stop was a local coffee shop, where we sampled (and bought) some ‘Weasel Coffee’. Though carnivores, this type of weasel only eats coffee beans during the harvesting season, which pass through it’s digestive system to end up as Weasel Coffee. It’s not as bad as it sounds, very mellow with a slight caramel taste.

Our final stop was the roof garden of the Rex Hotel, scene of lively nightlife prior to and during the Vietnam war, and haunt of many of the US military who were based there. One last observation – McDonalds and KFC were now in evidence in the city, their
invasion succeeding where the US military failed. Such a pity when the Vietnamese food and culture is so much better then these US imports. I guess it had to happen!

20th April 2019, cruising the Gulf of Thailand en route to Bangkok

21st April 2019, Bangok. No real plan of what we were going to do today. The shuttle bus dropped us off at Central World Plaza – good for shopping if you’re not looking for bargains. Many western shops, but prices at least equivalent if not slightly more expensive than London. We then had the good fortune to be stopped in the street by a local man who could probably see were (a) tourists and (b) not too sure where we were headed. He suggested we visit the Chinese market at Yaowarat Road but told us it would not be open until 4.30pm. In the mean time we could do a river tour on a ‘long tail’, one of many boats that buzz around the Bangkok rivers and canals with huge engines and long propeller shafts. His colleague marked on our map where we could board one of these craft, the price we should pay (no more than 2,800 Baht for the two of us), and the price of a tuk-tuk to get us there – no more than 1000 Baht.

Having hailed atuk-tuk for us, explaining to the driver where we were headed and negotiating the price for us, we thanked our newly made local friends and duly set off for a frantic drive across Bangkok, weaving in and out of lines of traffic and occasionally (but not always) observing traffic signals, we finally arrived at Pier 1 on the Chao Phraya River. The tuk-tuk driver insisted on scouring us
right to the boat and pointed out the price written on our map (2,800 Baht) for the trip. Having settled on the sum, boarded the boat, we began our adventure into the rivers, canals and backwaters of Bangkok. The tour lasted a little over 1.5 hours, and Lynda and I both agreed it was the one of the best things we’ve ever experienced.

We saw the floating market, a fish farm, the Royal Palace, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and numerous other temples and markets, all from the comfort of our boat – and incidentally, we were the only passengers. At the end of our tour, the boat driver dropped us at Chinatown where we navigated ourselves to the market, and
then onto the Sampeng Market in the Indian quarter. It was then a tuk-tuk ride back to Central World Plaza, with the idea of visiting the new Red Sky roof-top bar on the 55th floor of the Centara Grand. A mistake, since we did not comply with the dress code (no shorts allowed), so back to the tuk-tuk and another hair-raising journey across town to Patpong. My last visit there was in 1973/4 with the Royal Navy. It’s gone a bit up-market since then, but there’s still lots of rather seedy bars, and men selling a menu of girl activities that
I won’t go into here. We satisfied ourselves with a few beers at one of the more reputable places (Shenanigans Irish Bar), before decamping to find a restaurant serving good quality Thai food. We had an excellent meal and then found taxi to take us back to the ship. Back on board for 10.30pm, having left the ship at 1.15pm.

A full day and one to remember. We knew it was hot during the day, but we heard later that it was over 45C (113F). At least we benefited from a cool breeze on our river excursion – highly recommended for anyone visiting Bangkok.

22nd April, Bangkok – relaxing day on board, then sail for Ko Samui.

23rd April, Ko Samui, ThailandTender operation. Bought silk goods. Ate lunch. Back on board.

24th April, Crusing the Gulf of Thailand, en route to Singapore.

25th – 27th April, Singapore. So much has changed here, especially all the new building in the financial district and the landscaping of the Bay area. We visited the Bay Flower Gardens, overlooked by the iconic

In the evening we sampled our all-time favourite Singaporean food – chili crab, with our friends from the ship, Bill and Wray. With thanks to my ex-Reuters colleague, Pamela Tan for recommending the Palm Beach, overlooking The Bay. An excellent evening. We then walked across to the Ritz-Carlton for drinks with Pamela Tan and her father.

The following day it rained, so where better to seek shelter than the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel. The hotel was closed for refurbishment, but the Long Bar was open. They probably can’t afford to close it when charging $38 for a Singapore Sling! We
limited ourselves to just the one each and then went on to the (slightly) cheaper wine.

In the evening we had a farewell dinner with Bill and Wray from the cruise ship. I hope we’ll keep in touch.

And so we come to the end of this epic journey. Probably one of the best holiday’s we’ve had, so many places we visited, and such a contract in cultures in each country we visited. Westerners tend to think of SE Asian’s as one homogenous people, but they have
completely different traditions and cultures. I highly recommend visiting them!

Venice to Barcelona September 2017

Cruising on the Oceania cruise ship Sirena, 11th September to 22nd September 2017.

 

We took a flight from London Heathrow to Venice where we boarded our Oceania cruise ship, the Sirena. Our first time on this ship, though we have previously cruised on her sister ship, the Regatta. The ships are identical in layout, so there was no excuse for getting lost on board! This was the first time we had had a room with a balcony. It was worth paying that bit extra so that we had the full benefit of seeing the iconic harbours and coastlines we would be visiting.

Days 1 and 2. Our first visit to Venice. A wonderful experience – so much to do! I guess we trod the well-worn tourist route; St Marks Square, St Mark’s Basilica, The Doge’s Palace, The Gallerie Dell’ Academia (art gallery) and the obligatory gondola ride along the maze of canals. The stand-out experience for me was the Doge’s Palace, rooms and ceilings heavily encrusted with gold, and over the Doge’s throne, Tintoretto’s masterpiece, Paradise, the largest oil painting in the world, 22 metres by seven metres. Christ and Mary are surrounded by a heavenly host of 500 saints.

Day 3. Zadar, Croatia was our next port of call. This was our first time in Croatia, and we both thought that Zadar was a beautiful and tranquil town, with a mix of ancient buildings and cobblestone streets leading to a fairly contemporary shopping area. We were told by a friend who had visited previously to look out for the Sea Organ and the Greeting to the Sun,  two artistic creations by the architect Nikola Bašić. The former harnesses the power of the wind and the sea to make some beautiful and haunting music, while the latter collects the sun’s energy during the day to create a spectacular light show at night. We couldn’t really miss either given they were no more than about 20 metres from where our ship was berthed. We spent the rest of the day looking around the old town, taking in the sights and smells of the Old Town Market, visiting the 9th century Church of St Donatus and finishing off by having a few relaxing beers/wines.  I’d quite like to visit Zadar again one day, because I don’t think we had sufficient time to take in all of the sights.

Day 4. Kotor, Montenegro was our next port of call. We marvelled at the beauty of the Bay of Kotor as we approached the town, listed as a UNESCO World Natural and Historical Heritage Site. Kotor town is navigated through old, narrow streets, filled with bars, restaurants, small shops, antique monuments, churches and picturesque buildings. Having done a bit of prior research, we decided we’d start the day with a hike up the city walls to St John’s fortress. It was well worth the effort (which was considerable) with wonderful views of the old town and the bay opening up before us. Apart from which, it helped shed a few calories from our previous days’ indulgences! However, the effort only served to stoke our appetite for lunch, which was an enormous sea-food platter, consumed el fresco at one of the many romantic restaurants in the old town.

Day 5. Corfu, Greece. We did the obligatory (but lazy) tourist sightseeing from a pretend train that looped around the town and a short way up the coast. The rest of the day was taken up with eating and shopping, with an inordinate amount of time spent looking for cherry-flavour cigars for my father. He’s purchased these on the many times he has visited Corfu, but we couldn’t find any, and finally settled on some vanilla flavoured cigars. Overall, I’m not sure we really took to Corfu. The city’s old town is quaint, and (apparently) on the UNESCO World Heritage List, but it seemed very anglicised, and I’m sure there were more Brits there than locals. Even the majority of the restaurant and bar owners seemed to be English, judging by the broad Lancashire accents we heard. Close your eyes and you might think you were in Blackpool – but hotter!  I don’t think we’ll hurry to go back.

Day 6. Taormina, Sicily. The ship was at anchor, so a tender service was in operation to get us ashore. Then a taxi to get to the top of the cliff where the town was situated. Just about everything and anything of interest was on the Coros Umberto 1, a lovely pedestrian street lined with multicoloured 15th and 16th century mansions and shops. We headed initially for the Teatro Greco, an ancient Greek theatre built in the 3rd century BC. However, we found that all access roads to the Teatro Greco were blocked by swathes of police, with a pretty heavy security operation in evidence throughout the town. We learnt this was because the Dalai Lama was visiting the Teatro Greco, and in fact a little later we caught a glimpse of him leaving the Teatro in a back limousine. I’m not sure whether he noticed us though, given he didn’t wave!

Day 7. Sorrento, Italy. It was obvious as we approached the harbour from the Bay of Naples, if you want to visit Sorrento, you’d have to travel vertically! It’s perched at the top of a cliff. There is a mini-bus or a lift that takes visitors to the top. You could walk up as well, but not sure what state you’d be in when you got to the top! Anyway, we didn’t have to make the ascent because we had booked an excursion to visit Pompei, which is about 17 miles from Sorento. As we all know, Pompei was all but destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79AD, covering the city of 20,000 inhabitants in more than 20ft of ash. Words cannot really describe the experience – so check out the photos!

Day 8. Civitavecchia for Rome. Ah, yes, Rome, “the Eternal City”, capital of Italy and the Catholic Church. Except we never actually got there. We decided against booking an organised tour from the excursions desk on board, since it entailed a 5-hour bus journey there and back from Civitavecchia, with barely 2 hours in Rome. There is the option of taking a train under our own steam (excuse pun), which might have reduced the travel time, but it all seemed a lot of effort for just a few hours in Rome, so we decided to have a relaxing day in  Civitavecchia (but not much to see), and the promise to ourselves that we would arrange to visit Rome on a short-break deal, sometime in 2018.

Day 9. Monte Carlo, Monaco. Literally “Mount Charles”, a 0.76 square mile pixel on the global map, but with a reputation that far exceeds its physical size, and home for the rich and famous. One good thing about its small size is that it’s a fairly easy walk to get to most places. Our first stop was the Prince’s Palace, which overlooks the magnificent harbour with it’s many super-yachts (one of which was Lionheart, owned by Sir Philip and Lady Green of BHS notoriety – boooo!) . We watched the changing of the guard, splendidly dressed in the white uniforms, which takes place daily at precisely 11.55am.  We then visited the Cathedral of Monaco (St Nicholas Cathedral), which houses the royal family (Grimaldi’s) tombs, including Princess Grace’s tomb, which was easy to spot given the amount of flowers that had been laid on it. Clearly a pilgrimage for many people who remember her as the film star Grace Kelly. We couldn’t leave Monaco without visiting the Monte Carlo Casino, which is the main source of funding for the principality. We didn’t enter the inner salons where the high-rollers congregate (and which require a fee just for visiting), but satisfied ourselves with the ornate and imposing entrance hall. Overall, a pretty city, and opportunity (?) to mingle with the rich and over-indulged!

Day 10. Cannes, France. Not a lot to say about Cannes. We enjoyed a pleasant lunch, and stroll down the Promenade de la Croisette. It was also an opportunity to buy souvenirs for friends and family back home, who might want to flash their Cannes – branded T-shirts and other paraphernalia.

Day 11. Palamos, Spain. Not too say about Palomos either. A clean and pleasant town with a nice beach and promenade. We visited the local fish, fruit and vegetable markets and then had a relaxing lunch and much sangria at one of the beach-front restaurants. There really wasn’t sufficient time to do any detailed exploring.

Day 12-13. Barcelona, Spain. This was our last stop before flying home to Blighty. We had arranged a 2-day stay at the Acta BCN 40,  which suited our main criteria for being clean, inexpensive and fairly central. It was less than a 10-minute walk to Las Ramblas, and close to many lively bars and restaurants. We’ve been to Barcelona a few times and done most of the usual ‘touristy’ things, but we’d never been inside Antoni Gaudí’s iconic Sagrada Familia, so that was our priority for our first day. Unfortunately, tickets were fully booked for the whole weekend, so massive disappointment. This means, of course, we are going to have to visit Barcelona again, but  next time I’ll make sure we’ve booked tickets well in advance. The remainder of our time was spent shopping (shoes for me), eating (can’t leave Barcelona without having at least one paella) and drinking (sangria by the litre). We could have made this more of a cultural expedition, but Lynda and I were both pretty exhausted from the hectic cruise schedule, plus we found we had to keep dodging the many Catalonia independence rallies that were taking place in various parts of the city. However, we did pause our shopping expedition to enjoy the rag-time jazz on offer from the New Orleans Ragamuffins, who were busking in the Passeig de Gracia shopping area. I was impressed enough to buy their CD, in anticipation that one day they might be famous!

Overall, a wonderful holiday, with many beautiful towns, cities and sights explored on the way. My favourite places, and ones that I must visit again one day were, Venice, Kotor and Taormina. The photos will be a lasting memory.

From To Nautical Miles
Venice, Italy Zadar, Croatia 150
Zadar, Croatia Kotor, Montenegro 255
Kotor, Montenagro Corfu, Greece 192
Corfu Greece Taormina (Sicily), Italy 272
Taormina (Sicily), Italy Sorrento, Italy 205
Sorrento, Italy Civitavecchia (Rome), Italy 160
Civitavecchia (Rome), Italy Monte Carlo, Monaco 220
Monte Carlo, Monaco Cannes, France 71
Cannes, France Palamos, Spain 214
Palamos, Spain Barcelona, Spain 66
TOTAL DISTANCE FOR CRUISE – NAUTICAL MILES 1805

 

The Map

Photos:

[FAG id=175206525]

More photos on Flickr








Palms Of Paradise – Central America & Panama Canal

I’ve been a bit tardy in posting any details about our last cruise, which was over 8 months ago. One of those tasks I’ve been meaning to do but never quite getting high enough up the priority list to actually invoke some action! Anyway, at long last.

This was our first cruise with Oceania, on the Regatta, 24th April 2016 to 12th May 2106.

Highlights

Food

Oceania promotes itself as providing the finest cuisine at sea, and I can’t fault that statement. The food throughout our cruise was varied, plentiful and excellent. Lynda (wife) took an immediate liking to lobster, which became a staple part of her diet during out time on board, while I was quite happy to overdose on sushi.

Miami

Our port of embarkation. You can take it or leave it, I prefer to leave it (see Lowlights). Big, brash, unfriendly.

Key West

The southernmost point in the USA. First settled in the 1880’s, at the very end of the island chain stretching from Miami. Separated from Florida mainland by 42 bridges and closer to Havana, Cuba than it is to Miami. Still has a homely, small town feel. Safe to walk. Quaint brightly coloured houses and shops. Home to artists, writers and treasure hunters.  Made famous by Ernest Hemingway (For Whom The Bell Tolls, etc.) and no visit would be complete without a drink or three at his favourite watering hole, Sloppy Joe’s. I recommend the ‘Sloppy Rita’.

Cartagena, Colombia

A ‘must visit’ for anyone in the vicinity of the southern Caribbean. Cartagena’s colonial walled city and fortress has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984. You could easily spend a whole day exploring the old walled city with its colonial architecture, historiucal homes, churches, palaces and courtyards. The Old Town has several museums, restaurants, shops and cafes. The Church of Saint Peter Claver,  the Cathedral of Cartagena and for those with a morbid disposition, the Palace of the Inquisition where many torture devices are on display are all worth a visit. A taxi ride away is The Castle of San Felipe de Barajas  which is simply amazing. By all accounts the greatest fortress ever built by the Spaniards in their colonies. We spent a couple of hours there snd still didn’t see everything. Cartagena is also renowned for its jade, and you’ll get a good price for quality jade at any of the shops or jade factories.

Panama Canal

This was the main purpose of this particular cruise, I’ve always wanted to see the Panama Canal, and I wasn’t disappointed. It took us about 9.5 hours to complete the traverse, from the Gatun Locks on the Caribbean Sea side to departing the Locks on the Pacific Ocean side. We could see the new, wider locks that have been under construction for several years, which were due to open on the 26th June 2016. I assume they are now working. Photos of the journey through the canal are included at the end of this post. This diagram gives an overview of the lock system (source: Wikipedia).

Panama Locks

 

 

Cruise ships pay a rate based on the number of berths, which is around $138 per occupied berth, i.e. number of passengers that can be accommodated in permanent beds. For our ship that would be about 834 berths or a total of almost $114,000. I heard (anecdotal evidence) that the most expensive traverse was one of the giant cruise liners (e.g. Oasis of the Seas) with over 6000 berths , which would have cost around $850,000.  Given the number of ships going each way on a daily basis, this is clearly a signifiant contribution to Panama’s GDP. Hence why Nicaragua wants to grab some of this commerce when in June 2013 they awarded the Hong Kong-based HKND Group a 50-year concession to develop a canal through the country. It will be interesting to see what effect this has on the Panama Canal pricing model when the route through Nicaragua opens, since there will no doubt be competition for business.

Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Puntarenas is the the capital and largest city in the Province of Puntarenas, on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Costa Rica has remained among the most stable, prosperous, and progressive nations in Latin America. Following a brief civil war, it permanently  abolished its army in 1949, becoming one of only a few sovereign nations without a standing army. Around 25% of the land area is in protected national parks and protected areas, the largest percentage of protected areas in the world. It is renowned for its variety of wildlife.

Quetzal
Quetzal

Our visit took in the San Luis Park, a scenic drive inland of just under 2 hours, with the land getting ever more verdant as we approached the mountains. When we arrived at the park we walked a short trail until we arrived at the hummingbird garden. This was an amazing photo opportunity, since literally dozens of different species were coming to feed from the plastic bottles hung from the trees. Further along the rail we were told to look out for the strikingly coloured quetzel. Easily spotted, you might think,  given its striking colours, but we never saw one. I don’t doubt they are there somewhere though!
Our day was mostly taken up with our nature trail walk, so no time for shopping, which was fine with me!

San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua

Once a fishing village, the town is now a small tourist centre, with the emphasis on ‘small’. There was a tender operation to get us from ship to shore since there was no docking facility, even for a small ships like ours.  We were welcomed by local singers and dancers on the quayside, all in their colourful local costumes. There are not many restaurants, outdoor cafes or stores, which give it a quaint feel. The food is excellent, especially the fresh seafood. We had a relaxing afternoon with a wonderful view of the lagoon, and being serenaded by the wandering minstrels (that’s probably not the real name – two or three locals with Spanish guitars). Overall, a very charming port of call, full of local colour and good food.

Porto Quetzal, Guatemala

There’s not much of interest in the immediate vicinity of the Port, other then a few vendor stalls. We decided on a guided tour out to La Antigua, Gautemala’s colonial capital , about 90mins by bus from Porto Quetzal. La Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage site, famous for its Spanish-influenced Baroque architecture and its many ruins of colonial churches.  The busy central marketplaceis known to locals as the Mercado, and was a great place to sit and observe the local colour and purchase handicrafts. The vendors weren’t too pushy and took no for an answer if you weren’t interested. A pleasant day out.

Zihuatanejo, Mexico

Our original itinerary was to call at Acapulco, but we received news after we left Porto Quetzal that there had been some trouble there; shootings and at least one death, so our captain decided to call at Zihuatanejo instead. This was the first time a cruise liner had called at the port in over 2 years, so we were quite popular with the locals. There were no docking facilities so a tender service were used to transfer passengers to/from the shore. Zihuatanejo spent most of its history as a sleepy fishing village. The area is now the third most visited area in Mexico, after Cancun and Peurto Vallarta. We spent a pleasant afternoon at one of the beach restaurants, eating locally caught fresh seafood, served to us as we reclined one of the sun-loungers on the beach.  Luxury! The locals were all very friendly; we didn’t get bothered by any beach vendors. Altogether a perfect afternoon.

Cabos San Lucas

El Arco de Cabo San Lucas
El Arco de Cabo San Lucas where the Pacific Ocean becomes the Gulf of California.

In the 1930’s, the population of Cabo San Lucas was around 400 people. It soon gained a reputation as a sports fishing haven, accessible only by plane, boat or anyone willing to travel 1000 miles of rutted dirts road to get there. After World War II, word started spreading around Southern California’s elite and Los Cabos became a playground for the rich and famous. By 1950, Bill Cosby, Phil Harris, Desi Arnez and The Duke had built the exclusive hotel Las Cruces on the East Cape. More development followed. In 1974 the peninsular highway was built and Los Cabos became accessible to Middle America.  Now with a population of over 70,000, Los Cabos has been rated as one of Mexico’s top 5 tourist destinations, famous for its beaches, scuba diving, the sea arch ‘El Arco de Cabo San Lucas’, and marine life. This was another tender operation for us, but worth the effort to get ashore. Lots of very good restaurants, shopping, a marina, some beuatiful properties and miles of pristine beaches. What is there not to love!

San Francisco

We reach our final destination for this particular voyage. It’s been a great experience – many wonderful places we’ve never visited before, and I can tick the Panama Canal off on my bucket list! Excellent food and excellent crew on the Regatta. Hope to see them again sometime. We’ve been to San Francisco several time before, but it’s always a great experience, and inevitably rounded off by a visit to Pier 39 and the Crab House!

Panoramic view from the top of Coit Tower, showing (l. to r.) Bay Bridge, Ferry Bldg, Financial District, Russian Hill, Golden Gate Bridge, SF Bay, Alcatraz.

Lowlights

Day one of our holiday when we arrived in Miami was an unwelcome reminder of the pernicious tipping culture prevalent across the USA. Tips are required – or at least expected – for just about any service, even if the service is a basic and fundamental part of the actual job rather than as a value-added extra.  We were also often reminded (maybe because of our British accent) that the normal tipping rate was 18-20%. At dinner on the first evening, our waiter – a young lad of maybe 21, performed the basic tasks of giving us a menu, taking our order, and delivering what we had ordered.

There was no help, explanation or recommendations about the food, just a perfunctory process of writing down the order. At the end of the meal the bill for $55.20 was delivered with a handwritten scrawl suggesting 18% or 20% gratuity. The waiter had conveniently worked this out as $9.94 or $11.04 respectively. I didn’t want to start the holiday on a sour note, so I dutifully gave the waiter $65.55, which was $55.20 + $10 + $0.35 I had in loose change. I was somewhat taken aback to be told by the waiter “we don’t take coins”, which I inferred to mean I should round up my amount to $66.00 in notes.

Instead I took back all of the coins and left him with $65.00. His loss, albeit a small one. I’m not sure what would have happened if I had tendered the exact amount without the “optional” gratuity. Would they have rounded the bill down to $55.00 or (more likely) round it up to $56.00! Anyway, we learnt a lesson – coins are no longer legal tender in some restaurants. This set the scene for the rest of our holiday, where tipping was treated more as an obligation than an option, and had absolutely nothing at all to do with the quality of the service. Hoping that one day the American hospitality sector will cease relying on its customers to subsidise the low pay rates they give their workers and legislate for a decent living wage.

Cruise Itinerary

Our itinerary as follows, see also the map below (use your mouse roll-over to expand).

  • 23rd April – fly to Miami. Overnight stay in Miami.
  • 24th April – Miami, board the Regatta, sail at 6pm.
  • 26th April – Cruising the Straits of Florida
  • 27th April – Cruising the Caribbean Sea
  • 28th April – Cartagena Columbia. Arrive 7am, depart 1pm.
  • 29th April – Transit the Panama Canal
  • 30th April – Cruising the Pacifica Ocean
  • 1st May – Puntarenas, Cost Rica. Arrive 8am, depart 6pm.
  • 2nd May – San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua. Arrive 7am, depart 5pm.
  • 3rd May – Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala. Arrive 1pm, depart 8pm.
  • 4th May – Cruising the Pacific Ocean
  • 5th May – Acapulco (changed to Zihuatanejo)  Arrive 8am, depart 5pm.
  • 6th May – Cruising the Pacific Ocean
  • 7th May – Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Arrive 8am, depart 2pm
  • 8th May – Cruising the Pacific Ocean
  • 9th May – Cruising the Pacific Ocean
  • 10th May – San Francisco. Arrive 8am.
  • 11th May – San Francisco
  • 12th May San Francisco. Depart 5.40pm.
Date From To Nautical Miles
24-Apr-16 Miami, USA Key West, USA 154
25-Apr-16 Key West, USA Cartegena, Columbia 1136
28-Apr-16 Cartagena, Columbia Transit Panama Canal 273
29-Apr-16 Transit Panama Canal Puntarenas, Costa Rica 490
01-May-06 Ountarenas, Costa Rica Peurto Quetzal, Guatemala 521
03-May-16 Peurto Quetzal, Guatemala Zihuatanejo, Mexico 685
05-May-16 Zihuatanejo, Mexico Cabo San Lucas, Mexico 580
07-May-16 Cabo San Lucas, Mexico San Francisco, USA 1161
TOTAL MILES 5000

Photos

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