I will be honest and say the idea of spending an extended period of time on an ocean cruise has never been at the top of my travel bucket list. However with time and the constant exposure to, quite frankly, astounding ships visiting Dunedin the time was right to finally take the plunge. Air New Zealand and Princess Cruises offered the opportunity and it was with a reasonable degree of excitement that I flew into Singapore, the embarkation point for our cruise that would take in Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Phuket before a day at sea returning to Singapore. Not a long cruise but for many people a taster is a good thing before plunging too far.
From Auckland to Singapore I travelled in Premium Economy on Air New Zealand's new Boeing 787 'Dreamliner'. The cabin and seats were very comfortable, I especially appreciated the meal service with each course coming separately as opposed to figuring out how best to eat all courses and keep the rubbish and drinks from dropping off the confines of a normal seat back table. You will also appreciate the noise, or the lack of it, it is a very quiet aircraft.
Our RMG transfer awaited in Singapore to transfer us to the well located Grand Park City Hall. There is little point venturing an opinion about this hotel as it is about to undergo a full renovation. Nevertheless I found it really good but a touch rundown. There was an excellent range of food available for breakfast and lunch.
I had long wanted to throw peanut shells around the Long Bar at Raffles and our location provided the perfect opportunity with the legendary hostelry just around the corner. There is nothing too cerebral you can write about guzzling beer and scoffing peanuts but I do love visiting former colonial haunts and this was no exception.
The following morning we set off to board the Sapphire Princess. I had been steeling myself for this, stories of this process taking hours filled my head. Nothing could have been further from the truth, the process was simplicity itself with the amazingly delightful Princess staff making absolutely certain everything ran smoothly. It wasn't more than 45 minutes before we were in our surprisingly large ocean view room and our not so large bathroom. Having familiarized ourselves with the room and movie offerings we had to make our way to a mustering point for a safety drill. Completed it was time to get into the swing of things with a pizza and a beer in Alfredo's Pizzeria located in the Atrium, the heart of the ship's indoor activity. While on the subject of eating, several of the restaurants on board provide meals as part of the fare. The themed Pacific Moon, Santa Fe, Savoy and Vivaldi restaurants offer a la carte meals of really good quality while pizzas can be obtained at Alfredo's and pastries and snacks from the 24 hour International Cafe. There are two specialty restaurants to choose for an additional USD25, Sabatini's and the Sterling Steakhouse. We ate at Sabatini's on our 2nd to last evening and very much enjoyed the fare on offer.
As with most mid-size ships the Sapphire has a theatre for shows. I attended one which was perfectly fine if not a little underwhelming. Others in our group absolutely loved it with the content more to their personal preference. I guess the chances of Green Day performing were a little slim on this one! There are entertainment options available throughout the time we were on board in addition to the pools, spa (additional cost) and gym. The performers and cruise staff were constantly entertaining to very high standard. It will be difficult to forget one event where spouses had to guess what their spouses had responded to certain questions. "Check the undercarriage" will live with me for a long time!
The often vexed question of drinks packages came up regularly in discussion. Personally I didn't go for one as the amount I would have needed to consume was well in excess of what I needed considering I planned to be onshore every day. It is something that certainly needs to be considered before you board your cruise and will largely come down to how you plan to spend your time. If your focus is relaxing and staying on board for long periods then the packages are probably a good investment. If you plan to be active and spend plenty of time onshore there will be a lot to be done when you get back on board to justify the expense!
Our first port of call was Kelang, the gateway to Kuala Lumpur. I decided I would take the ship's shore excursions more for convenience than anything, you were first off the ship and virtually guaranteed to get back in time for departure. I knew Kuala Lumpur didn't hold too many attractions and found this to be largely correct. We stopped en route into Kuala Lumpur to take in a view of the Shah Alam Mosque. I did enjoy the architecture lining Merdeka Square contrasting with the Petronas Towers in the background. The Chinese and Hindu temples we visited were ok but having been to both China and India they weren't the revelation they may have been for others in the group. The real highlight was lunch with the Beef Rendang and Sago Gula Melaka dessert standing out amongst a selection of dishes served in a genuine Malay restaurant frequented by several locals. Oddly I was really looking forward to getting back to the ship. I set off with the intention of seeing everything possible with the ship serving as the hotel but now I wanted to experience more of what it had to offer. Perhaps I was 'getting' cruising.
Our next stop was Penang. It is amazing how agile the ships are when they dock, it's just like parallel parking. It was day two and I had already established a pattern of sorts revolving around getting to the gym as much as possible to justify eating as much as possible. Today I really enjoyed waking up, going to the gym as land came into sight, then up to the top deck to oversee our entry to Penang before having a quick brunch, and heading off to Georgetown in the afternoon. I chose to use the Horizon Court Buffet for breakfasts. There is an a la carte option available but all I wanted was a couple of bananas and a bowl of muesli.
Once again I took one of the ship's shore excursions. On reflection I would have ventured out by myself as the ship was pretty much docked in town. While the tour structure was distinctly average there was some spine tingling content. Penang is immediately likeable judging by colonial port area, I was immediately wishing we had a whole day here. Our first stop was a relatively modern Thai Buddhist temple. It didn't have the elan of age but I did enjoy the gold leaf laden statues (pictured below), there is something about those eyes! Across the road was
a possibly more serene Burmese temple which is definately worth a look while you are there. Driving around the character laden streets was an extremely enjoyable experience but nothing prepared me for the next stop. I had completed no research into these excursions so I enjoyed one of those moments in travel when something completely amazing appears in front of you and you had no idea it was coming, I love that! The subject of my immense admiration was the Khoo Kongsi Clan House, an absolutely astounding edifice ... my jaw dropped when we came across it and that doesn't happen too often!
Visits to the Baba Nyonya Mansion and Chinese stilted village followed which were perfectly interesting but the clan house ... Again I was looking forward to getting back to the ship if for nothing more to take in a movie. We sailed away from Penang, lightening illuminating the sky. A poet would have made something up about the spirits of Penang being distraught on our departure. Either way it was very cool!
As previously mentioned I really like sailing into port over breakfast or in the gym. This was the case as we entered Phuket. Today we would be tendered ashore, i.e. the boat parks in deep water and we are taken ashore by a selection of small craft associated with the ship. The process on the Sapphire is fine if not a little frustrating as you wait for vessels to become available. It is important to understand that those that have booked shore excursions will receive priority on tender days. I decided a natural attraction, Phang Nga, would be in order here after human endeavours dominated my visits to Kuala Lumpur and Penang. We disembarked in Patong which was the mass of bars and touts as I had expected, will save that for another time! Our guide on this excursion was easily the best I had encountered on this trip. He was informative and accommodating of requests. We were to visit a gem factory which didn't fill me with any joy at all added to the fact I had to be back to the ship at a certain time for dinner at Sabatini's. He arranged a taxi for me to get back in ample time at no additional cost. The drive to Phang Nga was very pleasant marvelling at some of the wiring lining the streets and trying to calculate how many years it must take a rubber tree to produce enough liquid for a tyre. The reason to visit the Phang Nga area is James Bond Island. It is a bit of a circus, the area surrounding it is stunning and more than justifies a visit.
Our final day was at sea and I enjoyed nothing more than sleeping in, a bit of time in the gym, watching a couple of movies, having lunch with a beer and dinner with a couple of wines. There was plenty I could have done but on this day I relaxed and that for me is some achievement!
I think you need to practice cruising. Don't think for a minute you are going to experience some in-depth exploration of a country or region unless you are on an expedition or specialty cruise. You will get a taste, so why cruise? Because it is supposed to be a holiday with optional distractions of hopefully an interesting port visit. In this case Kuala Lumpur was ok but Penang and Phang Nga were really good. The ship is absolutely critical. The Sapphire Princess and an ocean view cabin were perfect for my needs on this journey. It will be a different story when I travel with my wife and children. I would certainly go for a balcony cabin at the very least if it was just me and my wife but I think this is less important if we had the kids, in fact possibly better avoided! On reflection I would have done some more research on the shore options. I hadn't yearned to see anything in particular on this journey but I should have taken more care and possibly arranged private excursions with local tour operators prior to the journey. Just remember in a tender situation like Phuket it may take a while to get off the ship and always make sure you will back in time.
One final note of the Sapphire Princess - the staff are uniformly fantastic!
On our return to Singapore the disembarkation flowed without incident and we were soon at the super impressive Hotel Jen, an absolutely fabulous hotel if you like a bit quirky, great food, modern amenities and great leisure facilities.