Sky PrincessHal and Nancy's Southeast Asia Cruise, December 1998

Here's a review and log of Hal and Nancy's Southeast Asia cruise on the Sky Princess, December 1998. To set expectations, we're a fortysomething couple from near San Francisco and this was our fifth cruise, our fourth on Princess.

In general we had a very good time and I would recommend this cruise to others, particularly because of the interesting itinerary of ports visited. However, this may be our final Princess cruise for two reasons: (1) P&O has a number of interesting itineraries that we'd like to pursue, but they seem to relegate these mostly to their older ships. (2) The level of food and service quality have been declining over the years we've cruised and these are very important on our checklist for selecting a cruise. So we may look for a line up the quality scale for our next experience.

I can give some examples of the second problem. We flew United business class to and from and a couple of the airline meals were superior to those on the ship. That would have been an unheard-of statement a few years ago. Some of the meats were tough, the fish overcooked, the special pastas ordinary, the desserts uninteresting. At one time waiters had a lot of discretion to assemble meals with multiple entrees and side dishes served from big platters, but now they retrieve prepackaged courses from the kitchen and just plop them down. Our waiters weren't familiar with all the menu items, which is all the more surprising since we were at the second seating! They argued with us when we pointed out that they brought the wrong item. They hassled with us about all the travel-agent gift certificates for wine. (For example, some wines can only be ordered in the stateroom, not applied to the dining room order.) They ran out of about a dozen of the wines on their list before the end of the cruise. The Broadway-style production shows seem to be written mostly to reduce copyright costs--long stretches of obscure songs and lame ones they wrote themselves, rather than the popular showtunes and songs most people in this age bracket would enjoy. It is pretty apparent that Princess is trying to fill cabins on their megaships by reducing costs across the board and by doing so have removed some of the special aspects of cruising we have come to enjoy.

We did notice some improvements on the Sky since our last cruise on her, which was probably four years ago, in the Caribbean. The wine list in the dining room was quite respectable and the prices fair. The stateroom TV has a lot of movies, although the cabin walls are not soundproof enough to make reasonable TV volume acceptable for your neighbors. Our cruise director, Janet Edwards, was a lot of fun and she produced daily videos in which she and her cohorts wandered around the ship and the ports.

So here's the daily log of our trip. Remember, we had an overall good time and some of the criticisms shown here are listed only to provide some guidance to others who might take this cruise themselves.

November 29

UA 805 to HKG, arrived 7pm next day, checked into the very comfortable Oriental Hotel, arranged as part of a Princess pre-cruise package.

December 1: Hong Kong

A fascinating city. I felt some qualms about my first trip behind the "Iron Curtain," but I saw no evidence of a communist regime. It seems to be a bustling place of capitalist vigor, endless [and noisy!] construction, and stunning physical beauty. We bypassed the packaged tours here because we figured we could do as well on our own. We took a few rides on the Star Ferry, which was quaint, but hardly the momentous experience promised by the guidebooks. Hong Kong has the busiest harbor I've ever seen, with numerous near misses as the boats and ships seem to steam quickly, anarchically, wherever they want. We shopped on Nathan Rd, which bills itself as similar to Chicago's Magnificent Mile, but that's an overstatement. (Well, shopping is an overstatement, too. We rarely buy things while on vacation and none of the Asian cities on this trip offer prices that are so compelling to make it worth the hassle.) We had dim sum at the Serenade restaurant (in the HK Culture Center), which was good, but no better than the same dishes in San Francisco. We taxied to Aberdeen for a harbor tour in a sampan (HK$250), which was fascinating. A highlight was seeing the Jumbo floating restaurant, a huge, tacky, flashy place. (The guidebooks are in concert--this is not a place you really want to eat. But I note that Princess included this for lunch on some of their tours.) For dinner we decided to stay in the Oriental. We started in the Chinnery Bar, which features 110 [Scotch] whiskeys. The one I ordered was out of stock, so I tried an Old Pultenay, which they described as a Manzanilla of the North. Dinner itself was at Man Wah; I had fillet of sole w/chilis & black bean sauce, one of the better Cantonese meals I've eaten.

December 2: Hong Kong

We took the Mid-Level Escalators to Hollywood Rd, poked around antique/junk shops on Cat Street, and visited the Man Mo temple. Then we gathered with other passengers at the hotel to take a lengthy bus ride to the ship, which was certainly overkill considering that we could have taken the ferry much more directly and walked 100 yards, but there are a lot of folks too infirm for that, I guess. Embarkation was efficient. Our cabin was very comfortable with lots of storage space, which we didn't have to use for a number of hours because our luggage didn't travel with us--it came by truck later that afternoon. Our steward was Val, who was probably the best we've had on Princess. We had lunch at the ship's pizza parlor, which offers very good thin-crust pizza, better than other Princess pizzas in our experience. (Yeah, pizza in Hong Kong seems like a waste, but we had nostalgic memories of this particular dish.) The Ocean Terminal in Hong Kong is a very large shopping center, with lots of toney shops, including See's Candy (at about three times the California price). We left the ship to take the Peak Tram up Victoria Peak, which offers a stupendous view and tacky shops, and then taxied back. Dinner on the ship (under the mistaken opinion that we'd meet our regular tablemates), Dixieland jazz in Veranda Lounge instead of a full show.

December 3: Hong Kong

It was an almost-rainy morning, and we took the MTR subway to find the bird market hawked [blush] by Fodor's. Well, the street in question was being demolished, so we found only one shop with birds. All were small songbirds, many of which were packed in large numbers into very small cages, more like sardines. We lunched at the Flower Lounge, owned by the same family that owns the Hong Kong Flower Lounge in Millbrae (near SFO). The food was about the same--excellent--although cheaper. We saw an exhibit of Chinese inventions at the History Museum, which was only moderately interesting, except to speculate about why such an innovative society stopped innovating a millennium ago. Back on the ship, it was our first regular dinner, Italian chefs do Oriental Night. We met our tablemates: Dick & Sandy, retired plastics CEO and travel agent in AZ; Bob & Nancy, Milwaukee fireman/farmer and wife; Regina, high school teacher, and Bernadine, longshore union clerk. (This was the only night R & B showed up for dinner, at any table! We never figured out why.)

December 4: Shekou, China

We sneaked out of Hong Kong at 2am and arrived overnight. Shekou is a large port and we berthed at a cement plant. The weather was cold and dreary and I made the error of believing the ship's weather report when I selected my wardrobe, so I was cold [and dreary] all day. Rather than take an 8-hour tour to Canton, we rode a shuttle bus to Shenzhen, where we visited the Splendid China park, which features about 100 miniature scenes of Chinese landmarks, all quite impressive. Then the Folk Cultural Villages next door, which wasn't too interesting in the cold, but we had a great lunch for under $10 for two in one of the dozen or so restaurants. The menu had odd things like dog, donkey, strange taste chicken, fumigated meat, soused prawns, and slippy pork, but we stuck to more Americanized Cantonese fare, which was excellent.

December 5: At Sea

37mph winds in the South China Sea rolled the ship severely, causing me and a number of passengers (and our waiter!) to be sick until evening. Some Bonine fixed me up. It was the first formal night of three, with the captain's welcome party.

December 6: Manila

We arrived at 9am, weather in the mid-80s, but it seemed hotter because of the humidity. We took the City Tour, which stopped at the American cemetery and Fort Santiago. The tour was pretty boring. The city was unremarkable, with lots of slums. The highlight for me was seeing the colorful "Jeepney" taxi-busses, which were really gaudy and outrageous. Another was seeing the locals prepare elaborate floats for the upcoming Ascension Day parade.

December 7: At Sea

More rough seas, but not many sick folks this time. Semi-formal at dinner. Pub Night (silly skits and audience participation) and a very funny magician.

December 8: Nha Trang, Vietnam

The weather was good--overcast, so the heat was not overbearing. We took the Countryside tour, which visited mostly small villages and artisans. Nancy felt this was the best tour on our whole cruise. There were lots of beggars and trinket sellers. The whole population knows how to say "One Dollah." On departure, we noted the difference from Caribbean cruises--no deck celebrations with bands, etc. Princess seems to be cutting back in a number of areas.

December 9: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

We were the first ship to dock at the new port of Phu My instead of Vung Tau, so we saved an hour on the bus, but it was still a 4.5-hour round trip. Captain Calabrese took personal credit for this a few times. The City Tour was interesting from an ambience standpoint, not specific sights. Since my last visit in 1973, Saigon now has a skyline of some modern buildings, but parts such as Cholon look about the same. The only signs of communism were a few Stalin-style billboards. We mostly drove around in chaotic cycle traffic, visited the history museum and a lacquer factory. The water puppets were fascinating. Aggressive vendors and beggars were everywhere and rather unpleasant. Our tablemate Bob, not on our tour, had his wallet boosted by a group including an amputee. Lunch at the New World Hotel was good. Italian night on board.

December 10: At Sea

A lazy day with OK weather, watching CNN for approach of Typhoon Faith. French theme all day, including second formal dinner, the show, and Les Miserables at the movies (and I am annoyed they have American actresses doing English accents for French roles).

December 11: Singapore

Good weather again. We took the Flavours of Singapore tour, which visited the very interesting Geylong Serai market (we bought sesame balls and a kilo of mangosteen, a delicious fruit), spice garden in Fort Canning, and a lame curry tasting in Little India. Afterwards, we taxied to Jurong Bird Park, which was marred by a lot of construction. We left the ship for dinner with Dick and Sandy at Lei Gardens in the Chijmes monastery/shopping mall; the others were too squeamish to try any interesting seafood. We followed up with a night bumboat ride on the river and harbor. It was classical piano back at the ship, which was very good.

December 12: Singapore

Heavy rain until 11am, our first and only. We lunched at Lau Pa Sat Chinese food court, with at least 100 stalls, trying fishball soup and rojak (fried veggies in soy/peanut sauce). We then walked through Chinatown, taxied to the top of Mt Faber for a decent view, and took the aerial tramway to Sentosa Island and back. We finally had a deck celebration on departure. Semiformal Ports of Call dinner and show.

December 13: Port Kelang, Malaysia

We took the KL Experience tour to Kuala Lumpur, which visited a Batik and a pewter factory, both boring forced shopping; various forgettable mosques, buildings, and monuments; National Museum; Batu Caves, where I declined to climb the 272 steps bcause they were too narrow and steep, but the myriad monkeys were fun to watch; good satay lunch at Concorde Hotel. We were impressed at how modern everything was, but it was a pretty soulless tour. A fun aspect was noticing how often the guide cited something as the largest/tallest in the world. It was International dinner on board; surf & turf now includes jumbo shrimp instead of lobster tails! A number of the repeat cruisers commented on the degraded dining service over the last few years. A big chocolate buffet at 11:15 (no actual midnight events on this ship).

December 14: At Sea

Overcast, turning to mostly sunny; Faith is promised to remain in Vietnam and not bother us. It was the third formal night, the Gala Dinner. Lobster showed up and, with Tip Night near, extra portions were offered for the first time.

December 15: At Sea

Nice weather, but windy. Saying goodbye to friends and packing. We are some of the few who are leaving with lighter suitcases. Traditional parade of flaming baked Alaskas at dinner as well as Tip Night. We skipped the show of dulcimer and comedy.

December 16: Laem Chabang, Thailand

We disembarked at 0730 for the Legendary Bangkok tour, which covered most of the big sights: Grand Palace, gold and emerald Buddhas, boat ride on the Chao Praya river, a bland Cantonese lunch at the Royal River Hotel. The last stop was supposed to be a souvenir shop, so we bailed out and taxied to our hotel, the Oriental, which is the most luxurious we have encountered anywhere, at least in terms of service. The Asian Games in progress must have affected legendary Bangkok traffic because it was lighter (but much noisier) than San Francisco; shopping on Si Lom Rd yielded some satay and beautiful, inexpensive Thai silk; dinner at Sala Rim Naam, a water taxi ride across from the hotel--a wonderful set dinner followed by Thai dancing.

December 17: Return

Early taxi to the airport, which had terrible lines for security and passport control. UA 876/852 through Tokyo, arrived 30 minutes after departure, due to the 15 hour timezone change. Unfortunately for me, I developed one of my typical end-of-vacation colds and then had to travel on, on business, to Dallas that same day. The good news is that I probably won't need a vaccination for the Asian flu next winter. :-)