Category Archives: Cruising

Deal or no deal

Who wants to go to Mazatlan?  Hell of a deal out there – Just $485 for one week at a 5 star hotel (yes THAT hotel) with flights included – taxes nearly as much at $350.  I am prepared to bet that there will be lots taking advantage of these deals.  Shame really – it is a gorgeous looking hotel.

And it’s in much better shape than the Costa Concordia – there will be no deals on THAT ship – but her sister ships will want to offer very attractive deals to entice future passengers – and they have.  Um – 70% discount?  How does that sound?  I think that’s enough to entice anyone.  So a cruise that would generally cost $2649 is now available for $799.

I can recall very clearly the days following September 11 when air travel practically ground to a halt – and then I got the phone calls “So…I guess there must be some great deals out there – how much to get to Florida?”.

Don’t feel bad, people!  It’s just human nature – and it’s a good thing (as Martha would say).  We have jobs at stake here – people in Mexico work for a pittance.  That’s why you get a great deal to spend a week at a hotel with people cooking for you, cleaning for you and entertaining you.  You definitely couldn’t do that in Canada.

Of course there is always the old saying “cheap is expensive” – and sometimes you realise that maybe the deal you got was no deal –

You Know You’ve Booked A Cheap Flight When…

  • As you board the plane, you notice the co-pilot is frowning and wearing an “I’m with Stupid” t-shirt.
  • The Captain announces over the intercom that the flight is delayed while he looks for his keys
  • The airline mechanics, wearing propeller beanies, seem to be pointing and laughing an awful lot, and drinking something from inside brown paper bags.
  • The grounds crew are seen using pennies to check tire wear.
  • A man with an oily rag hanging from the back pocket of his dirty overalls and sadly shaking his head turns out to the be the airline’s CEO.
  • A voice on the P.A. system warns you to keep your heads and arms inside the aircraft at all times while the plane is in motion.
  • The air sickness bags have the Lord’s Prayer printed on them.
  • Jumper cables are dangling from the door to the cockpit.
  • A man in clerical garb walks through the plane, sprinkles all the passengers with water, mumbles something in Latin, and exits.
  • A telephone with a really long cord connects the plane to the control tower.  (courtesy of The Frugal Travellers)

 

 

Greetings from English Harbour in Antigua

This is definitely the other home of the rich and famous.  The small harbour here is packed with classy looking yachts from all over the world.  This is where you send your crew out to pick up refills of Moet and Chandon and any other treats that might appeal.  Our lovely Windstar yacht is anchored just outside the harbour and I must say this is one of the most fascinating stops along our journey so far.  This is what makes small ship cruising – and especially small yacht cruising – so very special and unique.  Not another cruise ship in sight.  Our stop yesterday was Dominica where we spied a big P&O liner alongside one of the small Royal Caribbean cruise ships.  Now as cruising goes only having two large ships in dock is not bad.  It can get horrible when there are 6 or more – all disgorged out to roam the streets and send the vendors into a frenzy of anticipation.  So every stop along the way with Windstar is another pleasant surprise for us and a chance to get into the ports less visited.

The highlight so far?  Our sail away from St Lucia’s Pigeon Point yesterday with sails hoisted on all five masts and the dramatic music of Vangelis on the speakers.  Our Captain took us on a slow cruise past the coastline of St Lucia ending with the Pitons at sunset.  Wow – so hard to try to capture this on film.  I doubt very much anyone has ever had such a good close up view of the Pitons on a cruise.

Every day is a delight on Windstar – after a cappuccino and half an hour internet time at the cafe we’re on our way to the beach.

Sunset on the High Seas

I have cruised a lot but nothing prepared me for a sunset on Windstar
cruises.  We had sailed all day under wind power with the sails proudly
filled, the engines silent, and now finally at the end of the day I sat up
on deck watching the sky slowly turn from the softest pink to a dark
dramatic burgundy.  No need to rush to dress up for dinner – this is as laid
back as cruising can get – but I must correct myself.  It is not cruising –
it is sailing and I am on the biggest yacht in the world.
 

Sunset in St. Lucia – Courtesy of Windstar Cruises

Today we dropped anchor at Pigeon Island in St Lucia.  The tender ferried us
ashore for a private beach barbecue.  The marina staff also towed the hobbie
cat and kayaks for us as well as the giant inflatable trampoline that
floated just off the beach.  Now what on earth would a collection of 40 plus
want with a giant inflatable trampoline you might ask?  It’s amazing what a
grown person will do on a hot day on the beach after a few cocktails – and
no – it wasn’t me performing  (just for a change).  It was all in good fun.
The point was the last time I cruised to St Lucia we docked at Castries –
not my favourite port but a typical Caribbean stop – busy, lots of traffic,
lots of vendors and lots of other cruise ships.  That’s what makes Windstar
so special – it is so untypical.  They go where the larger cruise ships
cannot.
 
The ship also adopts an “open bridge” policy so that for most of the time
you can visit the bridge when you like and have the chance to look over the
first officer’s shoulder at the array of instruments, dials and whatnot that
control the ship and the sails.  The Captain – a charming lad who honestly
looks no older than 16 – hails from England and clearly loves his yacht
dearly.  His face lit up as he unfurled the sails one by one and proudly
pointed out that we were cruising at 11 knots all day just under sail power.
As he jokingly told us he never knew he would grow up to be a ship’s captain
and recalls his teacher saying to him “McCray – you’ll never get a job
staring out of the window!”  Well guess what – that’s exactly what his job
now entails except it is more than one window and what a view!
 
You can tell this is a happy ship – a smaller ship makes for a smaller
ship’s family and everyone works well together.  Nothing is too much trouble
and the antics of the bar staff is sheer entertainment.  Friendly, efficient
service without pompous posturing; elegant dinners served to diners in
casual dress – not a suit or a tie in sight.  Sheer delight.

Safety Drill

It’s a weird feeling – doing a life boat drill – especially after hearing about the disaster off the coast of Italy with the Costa Concordia.  So often we tend to shrug off these exercises as something that has to be done but is a bit of a nuisance – an interruption of our cruise vacation.  Thank goodness most cruise lines take the life boat drill very seriously.  Our drill on Windstar’s Windsurf required us to attend our muster station on the deck next to our lifeboat with our life jackets on. A roll call took place and crew members were not satisfied until all their assigned cabins and passengers were accounted for. 

 You will know by now that I love to cruise and the Costa accident certainly does not put me off cruising.  It certainly is terrible that people died in this incident but it is also pretty incredible to think that there were 4200 people on that cruise ship and at this stage it seems that just about all of them got off the ship. 

It does bring up a good question however and one that has been nagging at me for a few years now.  How big can you go?  Today there are bigger ships with more decks, more cabins and more passengers and the necessary crew and staff to serve them.  Even ordinary embarking and disembarking is an exercise requiring military type planning.

Today’s mega ships are more like shopping malls on the water and cruise lines try to outdo each other with more gimmicks like ice skating, zip lining, rock climbing – my goodness whatever happened to the good old love of the sea.

That’s what I am experiencing here on the Windstar.  No gimmicks – just the world’s largest yacht with 312 guests on board.  This five masted yacht has made good use so far of its sails making the whole process of cruising the Caribbean islands an exercise in good environmental responsibility – wind-power instead of fuel-power.  Sitting out on the teak decks hearing the crack of the sails above is just lovely.  Sure we are still being pampered with fine food and sophisticated surroundings but it seems that we are at one with the sea and the winds and the waves.

On our way to Saigon

As we wait in the lounge onboard the Amalotus I have been going through my photos.  I love reliving the days we have enjoyed so far and remember the highlights, like the Tai Chi on board our junk in Ha Long Bay early in the morning, or meeting one of the hill tribe people at the Ho Chi Minh monument in Hanoi.  Other memories jump out from my photos – the children’s school in a small village in the Mekong, the crazy organised chaos of the bikes on the streets of Hanoi…. and I still have MILLIONS of photos to sort out. 

Still here is a glimpse of some of them so far  Vietnam and Cambodia 

Killing Fields

A visit to the Killing Fields of Cambodia and the infamous S21 detention centre is not a pleasant experience.  It is traumatic.  It is upsetting.  It is incredible how again and again these atrocities occur – despite the fact that we believe we learn from history and recite the mantra – Never Again. 
  The detention centre in Phnom Penh – S21 – used to be a high school.  Pol Pot’s regime turned it into a chamber of horrors and the evidence is still there – the shackles, the horrific photographs.  Only 7 people survived by the time the Vietnamese arrived and I had the honour to meet one of them.  Now in his 80’s  Chum Manh speaks little English but he does know a few words – like electric shock.  He explained to me by sign language and a few words how he was tortured by shock treatment in his ear.  He also showed me his knuckles and slid off his shoes to show me his feet where he had been tortured.  He has been a witness in the trials of the leaders of the Pol Pot regime.

His story and the stories of all the Cambodian people should be treasured and perhaps one day in the future we will be able to realise the dream of Never Again…   Slide show of our photos Genocide Cambodia

Phnom Penh’s best dry martini

Sipping a dry martini in the roof garden bar of the Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penh I could not help thinking back to what it must have been like in ’93 when Cambodia opened its doors to foreign journalists and diplomats.  The country had been through hell and the FCC as it became known was THE place to hang out.  It still retains a special atmosphere with its wooden rafters, ceiling fans and wide selection of menu surprises – such as cottage pie or fish and chips with mushy peas.  Clearly the Brits had let the restaurant know what their favourite food was.  No noodles for this crew!

Our ride town the esplanade along the river front by tuk tuk was an education in itself.  The streets were crowded, motorbikes competing with fancy imported cars.  The riverwalk pathway was wide enough for what looked like an aerobics class – speakers set down on the pavement, instructor standing in front of what must have been 50 people.  At first I thought it was a line-dancing class – hey you never know. 

Every second store seemed to offer either food or massages – or maybe both.  Can you believe $4 for a massage?  Conterfeit DVD’s were on sale everywhere.  Films probably not even released in Hollywood yet….  And yet I found the street sellers so much nicer than places like Mexico or Jamaica.  Yes they wanted to sell their wares but they did not become a nuisance, were never aggressive and those big smiles just melt your heart.  So needless to say I have a whole bag of “stuff” that I would normally not have purchased but console myself with the thought that I am doing my bit for the Cambodian economy.  Just hope I am not going to end up paying for extra baggage!

Contrasts of Cambodia

We have cruised overnight across Tonle Sap lake and are now on the Tonle  Sap river.  Recent floods have widened the river which is dotted with floating hyacinth, stilted houses and the odd small island.  We disembarked this morning to visit the floating village of Kampong Chhnang by small motor boat.  As we cruised the waterways children jumped up and down and waved but for the most part life went on as usual at the floating school, the floating shop and numerous other floating businesses. 

 Finally we docked at the pier and went on a walking tour.  The poverty is amazing and yet everyone is clean, well fed and seem to be happy.  How little they want from life.  Unlike many other places I have visited where a photo means a dollar or two – here the children were more than happy to have their picture taken and then to have a chance to look at the digital image in the camera.  Big smiles blossomed when they recognised their faces.

We could see the French influence at the market bread store where baskets of golden baked baguettes were laid out for sale – but the amazing thing was that this was bread made out of rice flour.  What a boost that would be in Canada for people with wheat allergies. 

After touring the village we got back onto our motor boat and travelled back to our luxurious river boat – what a strange contrast it is.  We float down the river in such luxury with air conditioning, ice clinking in our drinks and crisp white sheets on our beds.  Somehow it seems a bit wrong.

Ooodles of Noodles

I am not an adventurous eater – heaven forbid I should ever get invited to participate on Survivor or the Amazing Race.  I just couldn’t do it.  I can see that I would totally let my team down by not being able to scarf down fried grasshoppers or live bugs.  I was therefore a bit dubious about what to expect in Vietnam. That sounds silly, I know, because there is a Vietnamese restaurant in just about every suburb of Calgary – but I have never visited any of them.  Now here I am in Vietnam faced with the real thing – and you know what – it’s great!  Spicy broth with fresh veggies and rice noodles sprinkled with fresh cilantro just before eating.  Yum.  It’s called Pho.  (Pronounced FOH).  Here’s another weird thing.  There are no fat people in Vietnam.  Honestly, I did not see one.  I asked my guide, Bik, about this.  She laughed and said that she had married an American and when he moved to Vietnam to live permanently he lost 25 pounds just over two months and he eats even more than he used to.  So clearly the food is good for you.

Drive through any town in Vietnam and there is sure to be little “snack huts” along the side of the road where you can buy Chicken or Beef Pho for the equivalent of 50 cents – sometimes less.  It’s Vietnam’s fast food – call it McPho if you like.

Sometimes you have to be a bit adventurous with food when you travel.  I know none of us want to be hit with Montezuma’s revenge and trust me, I keep the Imodium and Gravol handy when I travel.  Perhaps however you might want to stretch the envelope a bit on your next trip and eat outside of your comfort zone …. But maybe leave out the grasshoppers.

Junking in Vietnam

Junk  – the word has bad connotations for North Americans – so the idea of spending a night on a junk in Ha Long Bay was received with mixed feelings.  “Don’t worry”, said Huy our guide “You will have a soft mattress and a small private shower.”  In fact what we had was a beautiful room furnished in rich warm woods, crisp white linens and a constantly changing view of magical Ha Long Bay.

 Now that it has been named one of the natural wonders of the world Ha Long Bay is certainly busy with visitors from all over the world.  I couldn’t help wondering what it was like for those intrepid travellers who ventured out to this region before it had been “discovered”.  It must have been magical.  Even with numerous junks and day trippers the area has a certain mystery about it – especially when the mist slides over the sea and wraps around the tall jagged islands.

 Our visit there included a ride around a floating village.  The village is relatively new, about fifteen years, and was a brilliant solution to the overcrowding of Hanoi.  People without homes were offered the chance to come out and start a fishing village and pearl farm which in turn has developed a little tourist industry all of its own.  The local people – mostly young girls – ferry visitors around in traditional Vietnamese boats – almost like a gondola in a way.  Kids here learn to row from an early age and we saw several very small children lying back in the boats and operating the oars with their feet.

 Other highlights of the area include visits to immense caves in the heart of the limestone islands as well as a gruelling 400 step walk up to the top of one of the islands for the “view”.  That’s if you can breathe by the time you get up there.  Phew!  In the heat and humidity that was a mini marathon.  By the time we all got down to the beach a dip in the sea was a must – even without a swimsuit.  Yes some of our ladies just walked right in with all their clothes on!  Good for them!