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  1. 11-08-2018 – At Sea to HI Ship’s update. Imagine if you dare that you have entered an alternate universe, a different dimension of time and space. A perpetual cruise, with every day an hour forward, a repeating date, over and over again…the same love boat episode on tv…the original terminator movie…over and over and over again… Now imagine if you will a girl in a T-Rex costume chasing a guy in a weenie costume around the theater to the Benny Hill tune… imagine if you will no lettuce, no berries, no bananas, no avocados, no papaya, not even any prune juice (gasp!)…
  2. 11-07.2-2018 – At Sea to HI More thoughts. Not much happening on sea days other than the normal sea day stuff. Trivia, games, art, lectures, etc. Pretty standard. So I thought I’d go over a couple of things I’ve found very useful on this multi-country trip. Maps.me is an app I used on the last cruise and has proven invaluable on this trip. Especially since it can be used offline even in the middle of the ocean! I can even import waypoints from Google saved places to Maps.me very, very easily. So I stored a whole bunch of waypoints for things of interest I wanted to see in Google maps, then imported to Maps.me. Prior to getting to the port, I can access maps.me and show others where things are. No using minutes to load up a google map or watching a 60 day clock on downloaded segments of a Google map. When in a city or on a bus, I can call up maps.me and see where we are. Maps.me still doesn’t integrate public transport like Google, so I still use Google to navigate transportation, but only after getting into port and accessing cell networks via T-Mobile. Bottom Line – Maps.me is a must have for travel. T-Mobile ‘free’ 256kB/sec international access on their + plans is pretty darn good. Every port, even Vietnam, had some type of connection. 3G, not LTE, connections noted in Vietnam and Shanghai only on the T-Mobile networks. Verizon had LTE in both places. This speed was more than sufficient to check email, as long as it wasn’t too big, use all of Google maps functionality including navigating public transportation, and even upload video and photos to Facebook as we went along – it just took a while. Forget about updating apps or downloading new maps or synching large batches of photos. Also, the 256kB/sec speed is not what you are going to get. Your mileage will really vary depending on where you are and in what country you are in. furthermore, you are throttled, so even if your screen shows LTE, it will still throttle you down to 2G speeds. Their international LTE speed day pass ($5 for 512MB) has two significant flaws – both potentially fatal. First of all the page to order the day pass is graphic intensive and sometimes would simply not load at 2G speeds where we were. I was able to load the page on a few occasions by simply letting the phone sit on the page for a while and waiting 5 minutes for it to load. Sometimes it never would. (T-Mobile needs to not throttle access to the T-Mobile app while overseas. Using the chat function was almost impossible, even in cell signal heaven – Japan.) The second flaw I discovered in Vietnam. Vietnam access on T-Mobile networks was limited to 3G. Not 4G, not LTE. My Verizon phone had an LTE connection the entire time, both of our T-Mobile phones were tagged at 3G. On my phone, when I was able to load the page for the international day pass in Ha Long bay, and purchased it, the phone disconnected from all networks and gave me “NO SERVICE”. I was not able to reconnect to the Vietnam 3G network until the day pass had expired the next day. So apparently if you have the pass activated, and no LTE network available, you will not have service. The TEPPY worked great in all locations I tried it. Fast connections. The only problem was the 1GB limit at LTE speeds. Then it drops to 2G speeds. I used the TEPPY to tether the PC for fast internet access. I could do everything on the computer with the TEPPY within the 1GB limit, even update Symantec, but no syncing of photos or anything very intensive. The 1GB limit is insufficient for updating cell phone apps or maps.me map data. Bandwidth intensive work is still limited to that mirage on the horizon - onshore ‘free’ wifi spot!
  3. Agreed. This is the way to go with Guam. Rent a car!
  4. 11-06-2018 – Vietnam Excursions and Travel Authentic Asia So I promised a report on the tours we had with Travel Authentic Asia in Vietnam. Here it is. Summary – As the primary excursion organizer in the three ports of Ha Long, Chan May and Phu My, I highly recommend using Travel Authentic Asia to organize your tours. Ms. Le and her staff made it easy for me to organize 10 busses/junks for Ha Long, 8 busses to Hue from Chan My and 8 busses in Phu My (5 to HCM and 3 to Vung Tau). We limited the busses to 16 people each, give or take a single. Prices were $77pp for Ha Long Bay, $80pp for Chan May Hue and $65pp for Phu My – either tour. This included lunch at each destination – and not a simple cheap lunch either, 8-10 hour tour times, air conditioned busses, a guide and a driver. From all accounts everyone was ecstatic over Ha Long Bay with only 16 people on a 40 person junk, lunch and the sights of the bay. Similarly, everyone was very happy with the day in Hue, except for the heat of course. There were issues on the Phu My stop, but 3 of the 5 busses to HCM and one bus to Vung Tau had a great day. Two of the busses to HCM had issues, but still got to see a lot of the city and the two busses to Vung Tau missed one stop each. My bus in each stop had a great time. With 5 busses to HCM and 3 busses to Vung Tau, there were bound to be issues. Some were passenger caused – the wrong people got on the wrong bus and in one case the wrong tour, and two didn’t even show up. This caused an initial delay in getting out of the gate and getting people back on to their correct bus – although some never would. Neither the guides nor the drivers did a good job of holding to the list. Lesson learned – from now on, make sure you assign a lead person to each bus to double check the list with the guide. One of the busses to Vung Tau went to a closed local market. Unfortunate as I deliberately picked a local market tour to give everyone an idea of how the Vietnamese shop. You have to see it to believe it. But the particular market the guide chose was closed. Another bus to Vung Tau missed the fish farm and the passengers elected to skip it and go back to the ship rather than turn around. They had the impression that the guide/driver were not familiar with the area. (It was hard to find the turnoff as we missed it on the first try and had to U-turn back to it.) But for some of us the fish farm was a real highlight as nothing like this aqua culture layout exists in the US. But all three busses did the rice cracker and rice wine ‘factory’, the large Jesus statue, the Nirvana Pagoda, seaside lunch and the White Palace. Two of the busses to HCM had issues with the guide’s organization and directions – designating a meeting place and time when the group split into different directions. Overall both enjoyed the sights and sounds of HCM – especially the scooter displays – but just had some minor issues with the guides. I’m actually surprised there weren’t more issues with this number of people on this number of busses and this number of tours, and nothing like some of the horror stories coming out of some of the Princess tours. Going into this cruise I was dreading organizing this number of tours, but Travel Authentic Asia and Ms. Le made it easy. She just kept adding busses/guides/junks as more and more people on the roll call signed up. She kept track of payments, deposits, bus assignments and gave everyone plenty of time to swap assignments around as people wanted to see the sights with familiar people. She was even accommodating people and changes after we left LA. Very, very flexible and very nice to work with. She provided contact information for the guides, and other people at her office, to call in case of a delay in getting off the ship – and accommodated all manner of dietary restrictions. (Wanda, our resident vegetarian got so much food she couldn’t begin to eat it all.) Ms. Le also provided everyone easy to read lists, (at least for most of us!), as to the bus assignments and the busses were clearly labeled, marked and parked close to the ship or the tender dock. All in all, it was better organized than Princess tours, with longer tour itineraries, more sights to see, more things to do, more flexibility in deposits and payments, much, much cheaper and far smaller groups. Was it perfect? Not for everyone. For me it was pretty darn close – I did want MORE SPRING ROLLS AT LUNCH! But then nothing rarely is, but upon reflection and considering value, I would not hesitate to do this again in a heartbeat with Ms Le. I would certainly NOT do a ship’s tour in Vietnam ever again – and we did one in 2012 at an ungodly price. Please note that there are several companies with similar sounding names. Two of them 2 are Authentic Asia Travel & Authentic Asia tours, but Travel Authentic Asia is the correct name and their website (travelauthenticasia.com) reflects that. If anyone has any questions about the company, you can contact me at crc2017cruise at gmail dot com. I will be happy to answer them.
  5. 11-07-2018 – At Sea to Honolulu Starting the uphill climb back to the US. An hour ahead every other night. This is going to be brutal. Guam, in a word, disappointing. As a port stop, not necessarily as a destination – upon which we could not comment. The views looked incredible – lush tropical jungles, blue, blue clear water, beaches, snorkeling, scuba diving, jet skis, interesting blend of buildings, but Plans A, B and C went out the window as things simply did not go as hoped for. In a nutshell - The list of Princess excursions for Guam were very expensive and short and several people were shorted 1-2 hours on their morning tours because of late starts and not wanting to short the afternoon tours. One tour was only an hour instead of 3 and did not stop anywhere at all. But definitely not for the budget minded traveler, so private tours are usually a good plan, with DIY being next and play it by ear being the plan of last resort. With immigration being a big unknown, private tours were just not practical planning to get several people together at an unknown place at an unknown location at an unknown time on a Sunday in Guam – unless you bit the bullet and decided to start 3 hours later at 1200. (But it looked like some people did pull it off from the looks of the trail of people to the private tour parking lot – apparently you could jump the line in immigration if you got there early and had your group together.) The DIY option involved renting a car at the airport, or arranging the aforesaid unknown pickup with a third party rental company, and using very expensive taxi services between the port and the airport. The play it by ear option involves arriving at the pier and shopping the innumerable vendors hawking various tours around the island – which in Guam’s case simply did not exist. Bottom line – rent a car if you want to see Guam sights outside of the hotel and shopping areas. Getting to the car is going to be expensive, but that was the best way to see sights without breaking the bank on questionable ship’s excursions. The next best option involved multiple shuttle busses and was for beach people and/or hotel members buying day passes. From the free ship shuttle to the Guam Premium Outlet mall you needed to get an open air shuttle to hotel row, $12 all day pass per person, and visit the hotels and beaches along the beach below 2 Lovers Point. Pam and Ralph found “The Beach” bar and grill along the beach from the Hotel Nikko after being dropped off by the Northbound shuttle. (The Southbound shuttle actually stops at “The Beach”.) From this location you can sip drinks and overlook Two Lover’s point and the beach in a cool ocean breeze and have lunch as well. This shuttle stops at most of the major hotels as well along the beach for day pass hotel shoppers. Retracing steps back to the Guam Premium Outlet mall was via the Southbound shuttle and then on to the ship shuttle. The big issue was immigration. (Which has been a big issue on this cruise overall.) And this is US immigration – with all of its unknowns and warts. For this port the ship used Sequence numbers again – assigned 2-3 days out from Guam in a letter in your stateroom. (Keep in mind, port times were advertised from 0900 to 1900 – with all aboard at 1830 – and the last shuttle from the mall at 1730 we find out in the prior evening’s patter.) Everyone was assigned a sequence number from 1-6 in 15 minute intervals starting at 0915. And the assignments were not the same as before, nor were they by deck or alphabetical. We’ve been Sequence 5, 6 and now 4. We were assigned sequence 4 at 1000. In past ports, people with private tours were told to jump the line to Sequence 1 by the front desk, but this time they were enforcing the sequence numbers – no line jumping unless you were there early and had your entire group together. Apparently two people don’t constitute a group. Since we did not have a private tour or anything planned, we stuck with the assigned time. The line at 0945 stretched from the Universe Lounge (where immigration was taking place) to the dining room on deck 6, doubling back around to the casino, and back down the hallway to the elevators in front of the Universe Lounge. We waited until the end of the line reached the IC and then jumped in – trying to time our arrival at the Universe to 1000. The ship ‘s personnel were, at that time, enforcing the sequence. Telling everyone who was not sequence 1, 2 or 3 to get out of line. (That went over big.) We opted to remain in line. It would be well after 1000 by the time we reached anywhere consequential. By the time we came back to the IC, they had stopped the main line and were sending 1, 2, 3 and ship’s tours ahead, holding all 4’s at the IC and kicking 5 and 6’s out of line. I did mention to one of the staff enforcing the sequencing that the front desk had instructed people to jump the line. Her response was interesting. She basically said, no one was jumping the line and that if they had an issue with it, talk to the front desk. That was rather ‘airline’ of her, and I’m sure confusing to passengers who relied on front desk instructions to plan their day and arrange meetings. Sequence 4 was finally allowed to proceed and we trudged down the hallway to the Universe lounge as the end of the line ebbed and flowed between the elevators and the dining room. Immigration was manual, good thing, with a list checked off by immigration personnel, about a dozen of them in six lanes, to each passport. (No Windows machines to lock up or blue screen!) We completed immigration about 1030 and headed out the ship to the ‘port’. The ‘port’ consisted of big white shade tents in an otherwise large commercial container port inside the security gate. No line of tour vendors. No taxis. Too far to walk to anything. Some people were walking around the driveways to a secondary personnel gate into a parking lot. Not sure is that was for taxis, we did see a few but no big line, or private tour meetings or meeting friends. Maybe someone will jump on and tell us what was over there. The only real option was to get on a shuttle bus which was to drop you off at the Guam Premier Outlets mall in Tamuning – and there was basically nothing around the mall and walking to the beach was about 1.5 miles via very hot weather. We arrived at the mall around 11:30. With our port time now reduced by a couple of hours, we looked for something to do. There were various shopping shuttles around the town, some open air, some enclosed, but the island tours were full at the tour desks in the mall and very expensive. Taxis were available at the mall, but would only use the meter – UBER or Lyft was not available and the prices of the taxis reflected the lack of competition. Simple runs to sights close to the mall were close to $100 roundtrip. A trip to the Hilton hotel, about 2 miles away, would have run about $50 each way! No wonder the taxis did not offer by the hour tours! The meter was far more lucrative. We did run into several people who rented cars and were doing some last minute shopping at the ABC store in the mall. That apparently was the way to go. (On a normal day, several rental car companies would pick up at the port, but on a Sunday, only one would, if you knew when it was safe to schedule the pickup.) So basically the plan for Guam should have been – either pre-arrange pickup for 1200 at the port, to be safe – or shuttle to the mall, taxi to the airport, scheduling pickup at the major vendors like Hertz or Avis where they will hold the car for several hours – and then taxi back to the port. That plan would probably result in about $100 to $150 in taxi fare on top of the rental car costs, for 5-6 hours of touring around the island. At least you would be able to see more sights and be able to judge Guam. Unless you want to spend a few hours around the shopping mall, using their ‘free’ wifi, there were few options and most people were clustered in the mall around the tables and benches. (Downloading updates was very slow, probably due to the load.) Even going to Chili’s and Haagen-Daz and using their secure wifi did not improve the bandwidth. (We did have a pretty tasty lunch at Chilis.) So Guam was a bust for us. Unfortunate as we will probably never be back. Now I have to rethink HI in detail since I really don’t want to do nothing at the last two stops of the cruise. Although we supposedly do have to do ‘customs’ in HI, whatever that means. Wonder if that means another sequence and delay…we shall see. Later!
  6. 11-03-2018 – At Sea To Guam Miscellaneous information and ramblings from the cruise so far. We are now in store for a lot of sea days back to LA and a lot of losing hours at night, plus an extra day, the 7th, referred to as 7.1 and 7.2. Guam comes up tomorrow, but immigration times are a big unknown. There is reportedly going to be a shuttle from the port to the Premier Outlet Mall. But again, with everyone getting off, how long is the shuttle going to take. Lots of people are renting cars, but the cost of the taxi is now in play versus a tour from the docks. In all DIY situations you have to balance your time against expense. Hong Kong is a good example. The shuttle to Diamond Hill basically was one bus making a roundtrip every hour. Is the 1 hour to 90 minutes lost worth the cost of a taxi both ways? Guam will be the same question, plus throwing in possibly hiring a taxi for a tour the entire day. Split 4 ways, that could be economical in time and in money. A couple of cabin notes. We are in C637, a forward facing bumpout balcony cabin. For an Alaskan or Panama Canal cruise its great. For entering and exiting a harbor, its great. But for open ocean, no way. The balcony funnels wind into the cabin and you could not do a UBD if you were moving due to the wind. The cabin A/C works! Yeah! BUT we are in a starboard cabin, which means on an eastward crossing, the sun, at this time of year, will be on our side of the ship. Forcing the curtains closed during the day and afternoon to prevent the cabin from warming to over 75 due to solar heating. I should have booked a port side cabin because of the ship’s routing. We would have been in the shade the whole trip back. We had the Captain’s Circle party last night. Very interesting. The most traveled on this cruise has over 2100 days at sea. The third most traveled has over 1800. Can you believe that?!? There is no way we will ever, ever get that many. And the real funny part is the comment that ran through the lounge when the most traveled was introduced – ‘OMG they are so young! And they can still walk’! Captain Poggi, whom retires next year, was really forthcoming in his information and even some speculation. He confirms that the Pacific will stay with Princess into the 2021 season. The two new LNG ships will carry over 5000 passengers. (That was met by much grumbling.) But he also talked about Fincanteri building several 1k passenger ships for various lines, including NCL, for delivery in 2023. Unique exploration type ships that can get anywhere. A possible replacement for the Pacific? He said there are no firm plans for Princess to order one, but one never knows. Wouldn’t that be great? Shipboard life has settled into a routine with the Patter not changing schedules a lot. We couldn’t watch MUTS for the first couple of weeks – too darn cold. So now, hopefully, they will start repeating some of those movies on the way back. We really, really miss the Diamond’s VOD (Video On Demand). Unless you time it just right, you’re only going to see parts of the movies or shows on the Coral. Having access to the shows to watch immediately is a great thing. They could even charge $5 a day for VOD and probably make some money on it as well…but don’t tell them I said so! Internet access is interesting. We did get another 500 minutes in Shanghai. When we boarded, we got the first 500 minutes, but I also purchased an extra 200 minutes. When we got to Shanghai, only the daily packages were available for sale, but with 200 to 500MB limits on throughput. No minute packages were available. Quite frankly, paying $20 a day for 200MB and lousy connection speeds would not be my idea of fun. Unless the daily packages are for higher speeds than the standard minutes – which they could throttle down. I’m hoping that when MedallionNet is fully implemented, they increase the package contents as 200MB to 500MB is not that much bandwidth if you think about it. So that’s the basic ramblings for the day. See ya after Guam!
  7. Tomorrow, the 4th for us, is Guam. Sunday. The date line occurs on the 7th, which we refer to as 7.1 and 7.2. Glad to see the Typhoon is not around any more. Thanks for the update!
  8. 11-02-2018 – At Sea to Guam Manila was interesting. I’m on the fence as to my overall impression. Primarily because of the traffic. Oh geez! Our tour was cut short because of it. Take LA traffic at rush hour, take away the freeways, add in a whole bunch of cycles (motorcycles with side cars), then add a bunch of pedi-cabs and street traffic and you have downtown traffic. Waze was so confused. Time back to the port from the Intramuros was switching between 15 minutes and 30 minutes as the streets turned red, then yellow, then green, then red, all in about 5 seconds. The best way to summarize Manila was that the Filipino crew members were very happy. Many of them got to visit with their families in person for the first time in months. Some of them even had their families join them in prior ports for the voyage to Manila. It was a very heartening to watch the families arrive at the port and rush to see their loved ones with smiles and tears. Lots and lots of smiles all around. We gave our cabin steward the day off and some extra spending money for him and his family. He was so happy when we saw him yesterday. So back to our day. Pam arranged a tour with Yolo Travels. We actually docked at Pier 15 on the south end of the Manila port, not the north side. The ferry terminal had inadequate roadway entrance and parking for the mass of busses waiting on the street to load in 1’s and 2’s. So we had to wait a while for our vans, 5 of them, to pick up us. Toyota vans for 10 in each group. Eric was our driver, Eris was our guide. Always good for groups larger than 6 or 8 to have both a guide and a driver. It allows for the driver to drop and move while the guide tours. On the way out from the port area we saw some of the poorest and most run down housing of the entire trip. Multi-story apartment buildings that looked on the verge of collapse with heaps of garbage around the ground floors almost blocking the entrances. (The very definition of urban blight!) This depressing view changed to more modern and better looking apartments and retail space as we went out from the city center. The further out in the burbs, the newer and more modern and more western/US everything looked. Complete to KFC, Pizza Hut and McDonalds! We went to Tagaytay in the highlands south of Manila. There we saw a new housing development. Basically a bedroom community for Manila. Some of the more reasonably priced housing on the trip so far. Very modern looking gated communities with retail, entertainment and open space with prices that were under $100k US. Almost exactly the same as you would find in the states, although the homes are a bit smaller and the construction is cinder block, not wood frame stick built. Although the M-16/AR-15 armed security guard did seem just a bit out of place. In the development we went to for a bathroom break they had a koi pond with thousands of fish, which when we started feeding them, the advertised “Extreme Fish Feeding” began! The sound that a thousand koi make swimming on top of each other in a boiling mass all sucking wind and smacking their lips is a sound that was very appropriate for Halloween – that’s for sure. (Still runs shivers up and down my spine!) After the fish feeding we were off to Tagaytay and a stop at a bakery (Rowena’s) to taste some goodies, and buy some Filipino snacks – cheese corn nuts, spicy chicken skins and pork rinds. Yummy! (Makes for great balcony fare with drinks from the mini-bar.) Then to a fruit market to taste that variety of fruits from the local farmers. Mango, mangosteen, dragon fruit, a local distilled spirit from sugar cane – think white rum lightning, pineapple (the small very sweet variety) and other fruits and veggies. It’s a shame we couldn’t purchase a bunch of it to eat. Local fresh fruits and veggies like this are basically non-existent in Colorado! Especially in the wintertime. The Tagaytay highlands are the rim of an ancient volcano overlooking Taal Lake, a crater lake. We went to one of the highest points in the hills. An old half built palace allegedly being built for a visit by President Reagan back in the 80’s by Marcos himself. People’s Palace in the Sky I think is what it was called. We did a Jeepney ride up and down the hill. 10 western butts vs. 20 Filipino butts. Good thing it wasn’t a long ride. The views were incredible from the top, both back to Manila and over the crater lake. And the breeze was welcome. They were restoring/building the palace, but from the looks of the progress this project will take a while. There was, of course, the market stalls down in the basement with all kinds of souvenirs and clothing. Lunch was at an authentic Filipino restaurant in Tagaytay. Don Juan Bulalo on the main road from Manila to Tagaytay. Outdoor covered kitchen with woks, flats and grills. We had a fried local fish, rice, a little slaw, a fried egg, stir fried noodles, stir fried veggies, some rice snacks and fruit. It was a very rustic meal, not fancy, not bad, but very representative of what the Filipinos eat all the time. After lunch the plan was to head to the Intramuros downtown and spend a few hours walking the area. But the traffic would not cooperate. A 1.5 hour ride back to Manila turned into a 2+ hour traffic backup. Not even Waze helped. With a 1530 all aboard time, we wanted to get back to the port around 1500. We were at the Manila cathedral at 1435 with Waze showing 15 to 30 minutes back to the port primarily because the two lane main road past the port entrance was showing red traffic in both directions. So we did a quick photo shoot at the cathedral and a drive by of the church. Too bad we didn’t have an extra hour, even though we didn’t actually leave until 1700. I’m sure we would have enjoyed the Intramuros more had we spent more time there. Unfortunately we went past Corregidor in the dark both ways, so we didn’t get to see it either. So that was our adventure in Manila. And because of the short port day I still have mixed feelings about it. But for now, been there, done that! If we ever get back we will do more of a WWII battlefield tour of the area. Since it was Halloween, the plan for the night was a Halloween party in the Universe. There had to be at least 300+ costumes at the party. Judy and I didn’t even make the first cut up against some of the more elaborate costumes. The ones that were simply the best were the three little pig ghosts. Complete with amplified oinkers. They were a hoot (snort), original, home made and nicely done. The party was fun, but we started losing an hour that night, and will for most of the nights home, so it was after midnight, effectively, when we finally got “home” and collapsed. Next up is Guam. Because Guam is a US port, after several foreign ports, immigration will take time. The schedule delivered last night shows everyone off between 11 and 12 with a 0900 port arrival. We are scheduled in the 1030 ‘sequence’. We shall see how smooth this one goes. We have no plans to speak of except to get off the ship, see what is available as far as shuttles, taxis or pier side tours. It is Sunday, so there is no public transport and most of the off airport rental cars that deliver or pick up are closed. The ship’s tours are extraordinarily expensive. As in really expensive! So we might shuttle to town, taxi to town or grab a pierside excursion. We shall see. Later!
  9. Happy Halloween! Could not sleep. We are headed into Manila this morning. Short port day, lots to see and do. Updates later!
  10. 10-30-2018 – At Sea to Manila (Hopefully!) Typhoon Yutu/Rosarita is headed for Luzon right now, as are we. Current projections show the Typhoon curving north hitting northern Luzon away from Manila, but still close enough to cause some rocking and rolling and gusting winds. Yutu also devasted the Marianas, including Guam. So our itinerary is unclear at the moment. Hopefully everything will be ok. If not, I am cranking up the lemon press! The daily update from the Captain this morning did not indicate any delays getting into Manila tomorrow morning, although it will be overcast and scattered showers and hopefully not as hot! This is probably a good indication that Princess will not repeat this itinerary again. Doing the central pacific during Typhoon season is simply not a good idea. They could, and should, do it in the opposite direction in April (LA, HI, Guam, Manila, Vietnam, China, Korea, Japan, Alaska, LA). They need Alaska as there are very, very few ports in the central pacific – and Alaska is only available during their season (May – October). Everything else is south of the equator and too far away to do a 60 day without a huge number of sea days. Travel Authentic Asia and Ms. Ngoan Le did not disappoint us in Phu My. However, other tours to Vung Tau and Ho Chi Minh had issues. I will detail those issues in an email to her and let you all know what her response is. We did dock at a commercial dock and there was an independent shuttle to the port gate, but paying the extra for her to pickup dockside was worth it as we had 3 busses to Vung Tau and 5 busses to Saigon, a whole lot of Princess busses and a long way to the Port gate. Our busses were clearly marked and the guides had lists, but apparently people still got on the wrong bus (apparently the guides were not checking their lists), this happened in Chan May as well, and two did not show up on our bus. The two missing from our bus were late additions, not of the original cruise critic group, so either they got on the wrong bus, came out late or went to the port gate because of the shuttle notice, which did indicate that independents should ride the shuttle. However, in many roll call posts and in the instructions from Ms. Le, pickup inside the port dockside was included in the fare and the busses with their neon colored signs were quite noticeable – but you did have to look for them as they were off to one side away from all the Princess busses. Our guide, Mr. Thong, spoke English and was pretty good at it, but you had to ensure you asked the question properly and didn’t use a lot of slang or conversational English in your question. Tense (past, present, future) was also very important as was possession (mine, yours, theirs) in getting questions across to guides and English had a variety of ways to express tense and possession which can be very confusing. Think about “Tambien” in Spanish and how it is used. But in the end we were able to communicate effectively with him and he was a fount of information. Interestingly enough, his father was South Vietnamese, but his Grandfather was VC. Must have made for interesting family reunions! We were on the Vung Tau tour. We had done Vung Tau in 2012 with Princess, for twice the price, and Saigon last April privately. This time we wanted to repeat Vung Tau because once a year in Saigon is plenty for me. The basic itinerary was to stop at a ‘factory’ that made rice paper, the cracker kind, not the wrapping kind, and rice wine. From there we went downtown to the Christ statue, the Nirvana Temple, lunch, the White Palace, a walk along the waterfront, a real market and then to a fish farm. We left the dock at 0735 and got hung up at the gates because extra people were on one bus, but missing on others – we found out later – and the gate guards wanted to make sure that the proper bribes – err…fees, were paid properly! (Corruption is one of the most common complaints in Vietnam.) On the way to Vung Tau we went through Ba Ria on the way. This is the town that the free shuttle from the ship will drop you off at. Quite frankly if you don’t want to do temples or markets, Ba Ria is not the most exciting stop. Not a lot to see and do there except for temple, markets and since we were there on Sunday – weddings. We did stop outside of Ba Ria for the factory visit. Now a factory in Vietnam is someone’s house or barn. This rice paper was more cracker wafers than paper. And it was delicious. They should have sold the bag of assorted wafers for $1 and made a nice profit. There was rice with sesame, tapioca wafers, plain rice, all hand made on the spot. And of course the rice wine was an ancient looking still in the back of the barn. The rice wine is really a distilled spirit, not ‘wine’ made from rice, using rice as the starch. It can be up to 160 proof. This stuff was about 84 proof. Not bad. A little on the rotgut side, but better than some commercial cheap spirits in the bottle. By the way, the day was hot and humid, and even though it was only in the upper 80’s and 70-80% humidity, there is something about the equatorial region sun that just sucks the life out of you. Thank goodness for fishing shirts, shorts and bus air conditioning! The statue of Jesus Christ is 881 steps to the top of the cliff face and then another 100+ steps inside the statue to the head and shoulders. Several of us stayed at the bottom preferring to not get all hot and sweaty. Ran into another of Ms Le’s group, different bus, at the bottom as well. Several of our group, and their group, made it to the top and back. From there we went to the Nirvana Pagoda. An interesting Buddhist temple on the coast with a reclining Buddha. Here, no shoes and knees and shoulders covered was enforced, so several of us stayed out, admiring the sea view – which was a bit misty. Another of Ms. Le’s 3 busses to Vung Tau showed up while we were wandering around the temple. Its very small and doesn’t take long to visit. From there we went to lunch at Thuc Don – a well known seafood eatery on the shore. Definitely local as there were no Princess tours to this place. Lots of locals. We ate at a table closest to the shore and close to the live tanks of fish and shellfish from which they pull fresh seafood to cook. Clams, crabs, mussels, grouper, sturgeon, rock lobster, scallops, huge prawns, are all in the tanks alive and ready to be scooped up for quick cooking. The main menu as the Seafood menu. One of us was Vegan and had a separate menu, another ate no seafood, so had a pork heavy menu with no seafood. The restaurant was very flexible and accommodating although almost no English was spoken by the staff. Our menu had the Royal Seafood Salad, Shrimp and pork rolls, Baked Oysters with cheese, fried rice, fruit. The food was fantastic. One drink was included, but I decided to treat whomever with some Vietnamese Whiskey – which is rice wine with Coca-Cola. A 500mL water bottle of rice wine, which wasn’t bad by itself, and one can of coke was only 57,000 DONG. Less than $3. So a bunch of us tried it and I shared it over at the other table. Once I got the right rice wine to Coke mix, it wasn’t too bad. Prost! The food was excellent. Hot, properly spiced, tasty and when the thin slices of hot pepper was added, the spice level was fantastic. Vietnamese food is not naturally spicy, the peppers or chilis, small like Thai chilis, or chili paste, is added to increase the spice and they are tasty! The service was quick and friendly and Wanda, the vegan, really enjoyed her meal as the food just kept coming. I had a taste of the pork riblets. Fresh, hot, grilled and slightly spiced, but very, very tasty. This is Asian pork that tastes porky, not the factory farmed ‘other white meat’ we have in the states. After lunch we toured the White Palace, a French mansion on the shore that housed French governors and past Vietnamese Emperors. This was interesting, but pretty much, quite frankly, boring French colonial architecture – you have to travel through other bedrooms to get to yours. The contents of the historical artifacts were far more interesting with a perfect set of African elephant tusks, lots of Ching dynasty pottery and some 100 year old locally carved and sourced hardwood furniture. The views and breezes from the sea in this location were actually more interesting than the building itself. But still worthwhile to visit and see. After a short walk along the beach and park, we went to a local market. A true local market. No cheapy Chinese made souvenirs. The only souvenirs were t-shirts, but sized for the locals. Wanda, who probably weighs 90# soaking wet, had to get a 3XL in order to find something that fit her. Most of the meat, fish and veggies were gone, but there was a lot of jewelry, clothing, packaged foods and sundry items all over the place. No high pressure selling either as all the vendors were taking naps on their tables or in their hammocks. Unfortunately I woke several of them up before I realized what was going on! I deliberately requested a local market to visit for everyone to get a flavor of local life in Vietnam. Local markets are a microcosm of local Vietnamese life – you know, like Walmart is in the states! From there we went to the Song Cha Va inlet under the Cau Cha Va bridge to visit local fish farms. Oysters and fish (Barramundi, Grouper and Corbia) were being farmed in this salt water tidal inlet area. Hundreds of tanks and dozens of fish farms were in the area. We toured the area via a motorized Sampan. The people were very friendly and waved, got their kids out of bed to see the funny foreign tourists,and their dogs barked at us while they fed their fish and gathered a catch to sell or eat. It was very interesting. On the way out they were loading a truck with oyster shells – probably as chicken feed – coarse ground oyster shells are very good for laying hens. Several of us agreed that this was one of our favorite stops. Local lifestyles are always one of our favorite visits and this was about authentic as you can get. After that it was back to the ship by 1700 with a 1730 all aboard. A very hot, hectic but imminently satisfying day ashore in Phu My. You should note that there is essentially nothing in the Phu My area near the dock. This is a commercial container port and they don’t even let you walk to the port gate and all taxis and last minute independent tours are basically on the street outside the port gates. You have to ‘pay’ extra to be picked up inside the gate near the ship. Last April we parked the Diamond in a different dock with a very short walk/ride to the port gate. This time the ship was docked at a different dock and it was quite a ways to the port gate and not a straight shot either.
  11. 10-26-2018 – At Sea to Phu My For Ho Chi Minh/Saigon Two incredible days in Vietnam so far. Ha Long Bay and Hue. We’ve now been to Vietnam in 2012 and earlier this year in April having done the Vung Tau area, Ho Chi Minh and Nha Trang. I must say Ha Long Bay is simply a stunner and should be on everyone’s must see list. It’s now high on our redo list for sure. Back last year after we had booked this cruise and started the rollcall, Pam (Pamandcookie) started booking tours for many ports. I volunteered to look for a tour guide operator for the Vietnam ports. After extensive research on Tripadvisor and several emails back and forth with several companies I selected Ms. Ngoan Le of Travel Authentic Asia to arrange tours. I wanted small personalized tours with 15 or less people at a reasonable price with pickup inside the port, good busses and good tour guides. As the roll call grew, so did the list of interested people and we ended up with 10 busses and 10 boats in Ha Long Bay with 8 busses in Hue. Ms. Le has continued to add additional interested persons, guides and busses and has been very flexible. (We have 8 busses in Phu My as well going to HCM and Vung Tau.) For much less than $100 per person per tour, Ms. Le took care of everything and so far she has certainly delivered. I actually met her personally in Ha Long Bay. As is typical in Vietnam, she is young and very beautiful, but very capable. Her organization on the pier bettered that of the Princess shore excursions. Her busses were parked closest to the tenders, well signed and well manned to make sure everyone went where they belonged. Same at Chan May. I have not heard of anyone being left behind in either port. First off, in Ha Long Bay we had a junk cruise with lunch. 10 junks. We had a perfect day to visit Ha Long Bay. Sunshine and blue sky. A bit misty in the morning, but that burned on to give us incredibly clear vistas. This was our one and only tender port, so far, on this cruise. The ship also had junk cruises of Ha Long which actually docked to the ship for the excursion and brought people back to the ship in the same manner. Four ships tenders were running as well as shore tenders. Elites, were staged in the Provence Dining Room, independents in Universe Lounge and shore excursions in the theater. Immigration took a while. With a 0700 scheduled arrival, we were feet dry about 0845 on the first set of tenders. The last bus left for the junks about 0915. The tender dock was a temporary construct, awaiting the completion of the large cruise ship dock and terminal, near the Wyndham and Halong Plaza hotels. The junks are based on Cau Tuan Chau Island across the Tuan Chau Bridge. There are dozens of day junks and several overnight and multi-night river boat style cruise ships with balcony cabins, suites and full amenities. A typical day junk was built in Ha Long Bay for the burgeoning tourist trade into the protected areas of the bay. Its about 60 to 75 fee long. 15 to 20 feet wide and comfortably seats 40 people. Yes, 40 people. The max our boats had was 16 people. Yes, 16 people. No A/C, but lots of free flow air through windows the front doors, the back doors as well as rotating fans on the ceiling. The top of our junk was uncovered, but some did provide sun covers. The interior was incredibly rich mahogany type wood. Polished to a mirror finish with matching beautiful furnishing. With two western style, very clean toilets, there was nothing “junk” about this boat! Ha Long Bay is one of the most interesting geologic areas in the world. Basically the area was a limestone plateau uplifted millions of years ago. Over the Millenia caves formed in the limestone underground, then collapsed, leaving all of these smaller “islands” standing. And what Islands! They are covered in a variety of trees and shrubs and are of all shapes and sizes with striking cliff face features and promontories. A different post card picture around every corner. The main highlights of this cruise/tour was Luon Cave (Monkey Cave), Surprise Cave (we skipped the Pearl Museum), lunch and scenic cruising. Lunch was fantastic with local prawns, fish, spring rolls and calamari salad along with the best French fries we’ve had in a long time! The Monkey Cave, Monkey Lagoon or Luon Cave is a tunnel/cave entrance into an interior lagoon area completely surrounded by cliffs. Entrance is by sampan/rowboat or kayak. Once inside, there are monkeys that were banished to this island because they are ‘bad’ monkeys – one’s that attack or steal from tourists on-shore. They are fed everyday by tourists and by the park authorities. And they are very territorial, very loud, very possessive and fun to watch. Our guide brought his flute and played to a packed crowd in the lagoon. Everyone, even the monkeys, quieted down to hear him play. All of our boat chose to be rowed into the lagoon, other boats chose a mix of kayaks and sampans. It was so peaceful and beautiful inside the lagoon. Broken only by chanting on select boats. Apparently it’s a thing. So we sang a couple of verses of row, row, row your boat! The Surprise Cave is a hike up many steps to various landings up in the cave, but with great views back down over the boats parked at the entrance and exit to the cave system. I did not make the hike, as did others, so we relaxed on the boat and watched a Vietnamese version of tender/bumper boat wars! Imagine the tenders wars of Grand Cayman, now take away the prohibition of not only touching boats, but allowing the shoving and bumping of other boats out of the way! This semi-structured organized chaos seems endemic to Vietnam. Especially after witnessing the scooters of Ho Chi Minh city last April. Only now it’s with 20 ton, 75 feet long boats! All of the popular spots involve this constant bumping and shoving around of the boats to get to the landing spots. Its actually fun to watch. We weren’t worried, it wasn’t our boats. But seriously, all of this is secondary, far, far, secondary to the scenery of Ha Long Bay. OMG! Limestone cliffs of all shapes, sizes and geometries against a blue sky background. Colorful fishing villages, fishing boats, elegant river cruise ships, small sampans puttering along. People fishing, swimming, living in such majestic beauty. WOW. That’s the best way to describe it. Youtube videos DO NOT do it justice. Flatscreens simply cannot convey the grandeur. It had to be on everyone’s bucket list for sure. Around the tender dock there is not much to do, but there are taxis to take you anywhere and independent vendors offering Ha Long Bay tours similar to ours, but some shorter and some longer, as well as other sightseeing tours. You can drive to Hanoi, but that is not recommended on a short port day. Figure, safely, a three hour drive each way. And hope for no accidents. They are building a new cruise terminal and cruise dock in the same area, which will make it much easier to disembark quickly. Chan May was an industrial dock and port. From Chan May you have basically two choices – Da Nang or Hue. We chose Hue. Ms. Le did set up one tour to the Da Nang area. Hue is known as the ancient capital of Vietnam. The Chinese influence is significant and very evident in the entire area. The imperial city of Hue is modeled after the Forbidden City itself, as are the tombs. We saw the tombs, visited an incense factory, rode a dragon boat on the Perfume River, visited the original monk’s temple that immolated himself in Vietnam in 1963 to protest the Diem government’s crackdown on Buddhism. His car has been restored and is on the property. His heart was apparently the only part of his body that survived incineration. Went into the Imperial City proper for a really good Vietnamese Lunch at a well known restaurant, rode a Cyclo to the fortress, toured the inner city, hiked back to the bus, collapsed and rested for the hour drive back to the port! And it was HOT. Not as hot as Thailand or Singapore, but plenty HOT. Mid 90’s with humidity in the 70’s. Hue was interesting, especially looking at the similarity due to the Chinese influence in Korea and Vietnam. The cyclo ride was great as was the Dragon Boat ride – in a boat owned by the family and that was their living. The ingenuity, drive and entrepreneurship of the Vietnamese people has no equal in the world. These people are driven in their pursuit of making a living, but the tales of corruption at all levels of government are disheartening to say the least. This was a really great tour and exposed us to a lot of what makes Vietnam tick, especially at the personal level, the farms, the little factories, their faiths, their values – all out in the open. Much more than China or Japan. The stories from the locals, when they stopped trying to sell us stuff long enough, were interesting and revealing. I’m glad we did Hue instead of Da Nang, but Da Nang is on the list the next time we are in Vietnam on the same ports. But Ha Long Bay was the highlight so far. This is a place to seriously consider an overnight or two on the larger boats anchored in amongst the rocks. With a clear sky, the nights would have been fantastic! The tours by Travel Authentic Asia were jam packed, yet flexible enough that we weren’t too hurried. Pacing was up to us and with only 14 to 16 on the tour, the busses were comfortable, the restroom and shopping breaks not too long! I can only compare these tours to Alla, one of the premier cruise shore excursion companies in the Baltic which we visited in 2016. The guides were fantastic, the food very good, the transportation comfortable and air conditioned. Highly recommended. We got word from the Captain that another Typhoon is threatening the Philippines and Manila proper. This may require a significant deviation on our part and would disappoint a majority of the crew, whom are from the Philippines and are looking forward to seeing their family, for some the first time in months! We will keep our fingers crossed. Off to Phu My! Later!
  12. 10-24-2018 – At Sea To Ha Long Bay Judy’s cruise cold is a bit worse this morning. Lots of coughing last night. She probably won’t make the Junk cruise in Ha Long bay. We shall see. Nice smooth ride last night and another hour back. After Hong Kong I need a day at sea to rest the weary feet. Hong Kong was interesting from two perspectives. It was my first ‘expedition’ off the ship without Judy. Went with the plan to the Tin Tian Buddha (The Big Buddha on the hill on Lantu Island). Quite frankly, it was rather enjoyable. I didn’t have to worry about her falling or finding a restroom or getting motion sick or getting lost or eating something wrong or drinking enough water or getting run over in the cross walk or kidnapped by aliens (the space type) or getting hit by an asteroid/meteor! I was able to really enjoy the trip over. Now that was an adventure. Shuttle to Diamond Hill. Find the Hong Kong MTR booth and buy the adult 24 hour pass (only good for the metro itself, not busses, not airport high speed, not Disney transfer) for 65 HKD (about 8.50 USD). A bargain. Had to take the green line to the red line to the orange line. Unlike the quick ride the last time, this time I was able to study the system a bit more. The fixed signage does not have a lot of English, but announcements are made in Chinese and English, if you can hear them since these subways are not Tokyo quiet. But the electronic status signs inside the cars are very clear. Follow them for quick transfers. The line direction you are transferring to on the same platform is lit up in green dots on the system display map in every car for the line you are transferring to. For example. I got on the green line at Diamond Hill headed to Whampoa. Last time I was on this kind of transfer, we transferred at Mong Kok (green to red). BUT I noticed, but did not heed the transfer at Prince Edward which showed the red line transfer (to Lai King) that I wanted. Instead I got off at Mong Kok and noticed the red line train on the same platform went to Central (wrong direction). I just had to go up one level to a different platform to catch the red line in the right direction. At Lai King the first train went out of service at Tsing Yi. You could tell because the destination of the next train was Tsing Yi, not Tung Chung (end of the Orange Line). In addition a PA announcement was made before the next train arrived, but you had to be listening carefully to catch it. So I caught the next train to Tung Chung. At the end of the Orange line out on Lantu Island, I strolled over to the Ngong Ping 360 cable cars. Based on a tip from Tripadvisor, I got a Crystal cab roundtrip. The regular car lines were very long, but the Crystal cabs lines were far shorter. And the views were indeed incredible. The cars are well ventilated by open vents, but no A/C and it was an overcast cooler day. I wonder how hot they would get on a sunny day. The trip itself was worth the price of admission. Compared to the 1 hour bumpy, curvy, twisty bus ride, one-way, to the top, the cable cars are worth the trip for sure! Spectacular views and they don’t load up the cable cars unless there are 10 in a party. They typically load 8 at a time. The photos out of the cable cars are affected by reflections and glare, but still spectacular. Very Highly Recommended. The ‘village’ at the top is very ‘touristy’, but still worth visiting. The free WiFi is also very fast and very plentiful. I was able to update my Surface and my two Iphones completely. One of my goals was to climb the stairs to the top and I made it up and back with minimal issues. Its not really that bad, but on a hot and humid day, it would be pretty miserable. Fantastic views from the top and great selfies with the buddha in the background. On a clear day, the photos would be spectacular. There is a lot to do on the top. Shows, walks, all kinds of food and shops. But with Judy back at the ship, I shopped quickly and efficiently and headed back down. Going down I had my own Crystal Cab. Great photos and shots as the clouds had lifted substantially. Great views of the outer harbors, the airport and the island itself, which is not inhabited by much. I retraced my steps to Diamond Hill via the same three lines, using the recommended transfer at Prince Edward. No issues whatsoever. Back at Diamond Hill I decided to have lunch and wandered into the Diamond Hill shopping ‘center’. A typical Asian style multi-story shopping mall with restaurants scattered around. I ended up at Genki sushi. And was pleasantly surprised by the delivery method, speed and quality of the nigiri. You place your order via an IPAD, then wait for the toy train (in the shape of a Shinkansen) to deliver your order to your table or booth. And it comes quick and its fun and unique and really, really tasty. Everything is in English and since Genki Sushi is a chain, we will have to try them in other cities as well. After lunch it was back on the shuttle bus. Now a little bit of a speech here. Many people read my blogs and recommendations. And some don’t get to the recommendation parts. But when I say something is incredible, like the Nan Lian garden, near the Diamond Hill center, I mean it. Several people have now come up to me saying this was one of the highlights of their visit to Hong Kong – even CL said it was the best Chinese Garden he’s ever seen. Even the people that went to it based on second hand knowledge, they heard from a friend that I recommended it, came back WOWed from the visit. And its absolutely FREE to visit as well. So Lessons Learned. See the Nan Lian Gardens in Hong Kong. You will not regret it. Unless you forget your camera or run out of space or batteries. Then you will be upset! Back on board the ship, I checked on Judy and we went out into the terminal to update her phone and IPAD for the last time prior to Vietnam. We went out on the balcony to enjoy the night sky above Hong Kong, hoping to catch some of the laser light show, but it was not visible from the ship. So we ended up sipping drinks, eating some munchies and headed off to bed around 2130. We did fall back an hour last night to prep for Vietnam. Going to make that crossing miserable when we have to give all of those hours back again! Later!
  13. I have studiously avoided talking about the food and the entertainment. Basically because we have limited experience in either so far, even 33 days in. The Chef’s table was very good, highly recommended for first timers especially. The Bayou Café was good, but not spectacular like the Island was last October. Have not tried Sabatini’s yet, but will before the end of the cruise. We no longer eat in the MDR for dinner as it is too late for Judy. (She has to eat dinner no later than 1600 to avoid reflux issues.) Breakfast in the MDR has been hilarious actually. A group of us (6-8) has been eating breakfast together and the days that everyone gets everything they ordered, cooked properly and still warm, has yet to occur in 20+ sea day breakfasts. For the most part its minor easily fixed stuff that causes us to laugh very loudly and cause trouble. Like Marty’s OJ order. Will he get 1, 2, 3 or 5 OJ’s? That is the question! The other issues range from improperly cooked ‘snotty’ eggs over easy or poached, to missing items to Pam getting my jalapenos one day to cold food. The fruits, when available, are typically fresh and good, but its better to order your own mix rather than one plate that they prepare. My favorite is orange segments, banana slices, melon and papaya. Not all are available at all times. The Horizon Court has ranged from OK to Good. Cold salads continue to be my favorite, but everything else, quite frankly, is same old same old. Fewer and fewer selections as well. Its food. Its nothing to rave about and its not horrible like on the Diamond in April. The pizza, thank goodness, is pretty good with a well seasoned crust and Alfredo’s in Sabatini’s for lunch is a welcome comfortable place to enjoy my favorite pizza. Burgers are dependent on when you place your order. If you get a fresh burger, which takes a while to prepare, it can be quite good. If you arrive at the end of a sequence and they ‘re-heat’ an older burger patty, then you’re kind of stuck. Same with the fries. When they are cooked and salted properly, they are good. When not, they kind of suck and during busy times the oil loses too much heat and you get soggy underdone fries. They do have the smokehouse and grill in the evenings, but these are just too late for us and when we tried them several years ago, they were just ok. Quite frankly, the food on the ship is why we eat more and more off the ship to get that WOW factor meal. I gave up on really great shipboard food many years ago. But I really write it off now, and don’t get too upset about it, because we’ve been cruising a lot over the last year and there are just so many different dishes they can supply. And also, with regard to waistlines, this is not such a bad thing after all! Likewise, entertainment had been ok so far. Granted, we have not been up late a lot lately. With the rough water during the northern crossing, Judy mainly stayed in bed. Once we hit the ports we were doing 8-10 miles a day and just didn’t have the energy to stay up late to see the various shows or participate in a lot of events. Take last night for example. It was Country Western Night at 2130. But after 10 miles in Taiwan day before yesterday and planning for 10 more miles today in Hong Kong, there is no way we wanted to stay up late last night. But that’s ok for us as well. This is one of our ‘destination’ cruises to see ports and sights we’ve never seen before as well as visit old ports doing newer things. Entertainment on the ship is secondary. On a HI or MR cruise we would be right in the thick of it, staying up late and sleeping late, but not exploring off the ship that much. So I can’t fairly judge the late night entertainment. We have been to a few comedians, a few jugglers, not production shows, and I have managed to stay awake, barely. But my taste in shows might not reflect others. So its best to just say, try it and see how you like it. After all, look at it this way, you’ve booked. You are committed. So it will be what it will be. During the first few days you will be able to tell what is good and what is not. You have enough time during your cruise. For Judy and I, we are sitting in a balcony overlooking Hong Kong harbor at night having snacks and drinks. It is a nice warm night sky with all the skyscrapers lit up on the skyline. I am on my third 7&7 from the mini-bar and a batch of munchies from the Horizon Court. Finished successfully updating all the electronics about an hour ago on the wifi in the terminal, listened to all the voice mails, called who I needed to call, sampled all the cameras at home, and I am now kicked back watching the world go by without a care in the world. I quite frankly don’t care what the entertainment is like or the food is like right now. I spent the day running around Hong Kong, climbing staircases and seeing the sights and now I am relaxing with the love of my life, who has a cold right now, but I love her anyway – snot nose and all. It simply doesn’t get any better than this. Period.
  14. 10-22-2018 – At Sea to Hong Kong Guess what? There are two Taipei’s on Accuweather! One was in the 60’s yesterday, one was in the 80’s – where we were. One busy, busy day. More and more I am trending towards private excursions. Our tour yesterday was only 15 people on a very comfortable bus with an excellent tour guide and a separate bus driver. Lunch included for $100 each? A bargain. And we hit the highlights of Taipei. The Palace Museum, Taipei 101 with beef noodle soup lunch, the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial and the changing of the guard, and finally the Lungshan temple. After a quick drop of stuff at the room we were then treated to the highlight of the day, a private guided tour of the Keelung night market by non-other than CL himself and two of his old college buddies! What a long exhausting day – but oh so satisfying. We met Phoebe and the driver right alongside the ship on the dock. No problems, no issues. She is 24 years old, cute as a bug, speaks very good English and is very, very passionate about her country and her job. We headed for the Palace Museum where the governments stores the treasures taken from the Forbidden Palace as the Nationalists were being driven from mainland China to Taiwan. Yes, it was another museum, which I had forsworn after Baltic cruising, but heck, let’s take a look. I noticed three things that caught my attention – 1) No gold. Apparently China is lacking in gold deposits and the ancient emperors just didn’t have a lot of gold to make a lot of things. 2) The Jade cabbage. A single stalk of napa-like cabbage carved from a single piece of Jade complete with the white of the lower stalk to the green of the upper leaves curled around two expertly carved miniature insects – a Katydid and a locust. It is absolutely gorgeous, intricate and breathtaking. 3) A large bronze hot pot, used to cook stews, doing double duty as a contract between two individuals with intricate carvings of the contract on the interior of the pot. The museum was very crowded with lots of tour groups, independent and Princess tours, along with a whole bunch of Asian tourists as well. Tour guide flags of all shapes and sizes all over the place. Definitely a must see on a less crowded day, but even worthwhile on a crowded day just to see the cabbage! Oh, and we finally got to see a real Ming Vase up close and personal – priceless art at its best. From there we went to Taipei 101. A very beautiful and modern skyscraper overlooking a very modern and varied architecture city. We had lunch on 35th floor. Beef noodle soup. The broth was excellent. Could have used a bit more spice, but still very nice. After lunch we went down into the mall under 101 and the food court, looking for ice cream. We found it, and superfast wifi, near a 7-11. Taipei 101 had free public wifi that is incredibly fast. Updated both phones with no issues. Phoebe uploaded all of her photos to a Google drive and I downloaded them to my phone, a couple of gigs of work in just 15 minutes. It is here where I noticed the huge contrast between Taipei and Beijing. Taipei is a lot like Seoul. The people seem much, much happier! Smiles everywhere. People on their cell phones, chatting with others, taking pictures, laughing and conversing. The contrast with Beijing is striking. Shanghai was not as ‘closed’ off as Beijing, but nothing like Taipei. We sat for about 15 minutes waiting for the bus watching the world go by. It was great! After Taipei 101 we went to the Chiang Kai Shek memorial. Wow. This place is pretty incredible. Think Beijing Imperial Palace replicas for the two buildings flanking the square (National Theatre and Opera House), but then his memorial hall is a combination of the Imperial Palace (Pagoda roof and all) with the Lincoln Memorial. Complete with marble entry hall, large statue and marble reliefs flanking the stairways ala the Forbidden City. And the people! Families having a Sunday evening outing. School kids practicing dance routines and young girls, giggling in that universal language, at a foreign tourist flashing them the peace sign. Smiles everywhere. The changing of the guard ceremony, about 15 minutes long, was impressive. These dudes are precise in every movement, perfect in every detail of dress and deportment (NOT department!). Two stand at parade rest facing each other, moving every 10 minutes to salute each other, and scare the unwary tourist, wielding chromed receiver M1 Garands with chrome bayonets and wearing chromed helmets. Three come out, one sergeant, two guards, to replace the two standing guard. It’s a complex, intricate, but well choreographed replacement routine. The soldiers are stone faced throughout and their movements mirror each other in perfect synchronization. After the replacement, and the soldiers are back standing guard on their pedestals, an attendant checks every detail of their ‘deportment’, wipes the sweat from their brow, fixes their tassels, straightens their uniforms and helmuts in an almost ritualistic manner. Quite fascinating, memorable and a must see in Taipei. Lungshan Temple is a Buddhist temple with the addition of several Taoist gods and Taoist architectural features and rituals. Quite interesting to watch the various people pray at each of the gods. Quite frankly if you think Catholic Saints and chapels in St. Peters in Rome, you would not be far off in a parallel between the two. Even though at this time we were simply exhausted, it was a worthwhile stop. After getting back to the port about 0630 we dropped stuff off in the room and went down to meet our foodie party. Pam (Pamandcookie), Sue (BigKahuna), Judy and I, Susie and Ken (SandKinWA) had persuaded CL(Steiner2010) to take us on a food tour in the Keelung Night Market about 5 blocks from the ship. Unbeknownst to us, CL had recruited two of his old college buddies from Taiwan to join us. Talk about a great time. This was memorable. CL and his two buddies were having a blast. They would actually clear seats for us at the ramshackle tables and stools, keep the local away while we were seated together, run and get food, bring it back to us and keep us fed. We went from vendor to vendor while they discussed which food to try next in rapid fire Taiwanese. That alone was worth the price of admission! To watch three physicists try to decide where to eat next! Big Bang Theory all over again! We tried Crab Soup, a tempura dish, Okanamyoki, noodle soup, an oyster omelet and some sweet potato fried balls that were a lot like doughnuts. To top it all off, CL’s buddies had to find a particular shaved ice shop. Not like Hawaiian shaved ice, but more like sherbet or sorbet. They found it after many hilarious huddles in the middle of a very busy street market. You could not get a more authentic food experience, a more friendly atmosphere and a more realistic experience of a local culture. We spent about 2 hours in the night market, eating, drinking, traveling here and yonder, backtracking and following CL and his friends, who were having an absolute blast as well. This was a once in a lifetime experience and we all greatly appreciated CL’s willingness to help and his friend’s hospitality. WOW! In summary, Taiwan was a beautiful port. Could have used an actual terminal building and some super fast wifi, but still, with all the transportation options, DIY is not a problem in this port. From the nearby environment of Keelung to the attractions and sights of Taipei itself, everything is easily in reach from the port. Pam did the Sky Lantern’s tour and from what I heard it was fabulous as well. So there is a lot to see and do the next time we are back in Taiwan. Later!
  15. 10-21-2018 Pulling Into Keelung So much for ‘Accuweather’. It says highs in the lower 60’s. Its warm today and going to get warmer. Into the upper 70’s. Time to switch to shorts. Okinawa, Naha, is a great cruise port. For me, all great cruise ports have things to do DIY that are fun, easy to get to, and CHEAP! Too bad we had to be aboard at 1400. Marty and Sue joined us. Immigration was actually not that bad. We could have left earlier, but would have missed some great stuff at the port. There was a bunch of kids doing several drum dance routines as we got off the ship. We spent at least 45 minutes experiencing that. It was great! The little ones were the most adorable in their dance outfits and concentrating facial expressions on getting their steps right. The teenagers were really into the zone, smiling and dancing and beating the drums. Great experience! We walked toward downtown Naha, heading for Fukushuen Garden. For a 200 YEN entry fee you got to wander the grounds of a very serene and incredibly artistic garden with granite statues everywhere, a waterfall, a granite pagoda, caves, a koi pond, an inner garden and a bridge with all 12 chinese year sign statues on the balusters. A bargain excursion for anyone. Highly recommended. From there we did one of my favorite things. Got on the monorail and rode it to Shuri Castle, then stayed on and rode it to the airport, then back to where we got on. An unguided up in the air tour of Naha. We actually could have used a cheaper ticket, but I opted for the day pass and spent 800YEN each for the ‘tour’. Great views of the city. Air conditioned and comfortable. When everyone got off at the airport we moved to the 4 most forward seats looking out the front of the train watching the driver conduct his checklist and move the train forward. A cheap way to spend an hour touring a city. From there we had lunch at KFC. Yes, KFC. Several people had commented that we had to try Japanese KFC. We really didn’t have time to have a really comfortable sit down lunch, so we opted for the KFC route and it was really good. Almost a tempura battered and fried piece of moist chicken. And their ‘mexican’ flavored chicken had a little spice to it. One advantage of Naha is that with the US military bases they actually had an English menu – complete with pictures. And the service and cleanliness of the place was top notch! Then it was time for shopping. We did not have time to go to the market. Just a few shops in the shopping district and we didn’t make it to Don Quixote for a variety of KitKats. But we did find a new sake flavored kitkat and the other one we really like. Plus some more candy for Halloween. And some ice cream. And then we found the strangest store I still cannot believe because I’m not sure what it was. First of all the entry way had 5’ tall Gundhams, a bench with a Goku (DragonBall Z) character on it, a Ronald Mc Donald and tweety bird inside a sharks mouth. Inside the store were models of planes, ships, a whole bunch of kitzy items, key chains, magnets, pens, and an entire rack/display of prophylactics – I kid you not. But in individual weird collector style packaging with Anime like characters on the wrappers. Like fiery peppers, cucumbers, dragons, etc. And of course they even had stress relief balls in the shape of, you guessed it, female anatomy. Think of a Spencer’s in the states on a weird Japanese Anime style steroid rage! Unfortunately we were unable to get to the rest of the market as all-aboard was 1400. We walked back to the port and was able to tap into the local wifi for a few updates but it was slow and weird. Getting back on board we noticed the kids were back setting up for a sailaway show so we got rail space on the Promenade deck. It was a great show. Kids of all ages through the teens were dancing and drumming, but the 4 year old stole the show. He didn’t have the dance steps down, but he had the drum strikes down pat and he was so CUTE! They even had a pair of lions and this was in the hot afternoon sun, so I know those kids were broiling in those suits. In all, it was the best shows, combined with the morning show, that we’ve seen so far. Loved it. Okinawa! Don’t miss it, but try to spend more time there. It’s definitely worth it! Off to Taipei! Later!
  16. 10-19-2018 – At Sea to Okinawa Lost an hour last night, and it was a pretty long day with lots of walking. Immigration has become the #1 issue on this cruise. We left China and went to Incheon and we left Japan to go to China, therefore we exited the country. Shanghai and Okinawa, tomorrow, require a complete immigration inspection. Face to passport. That takes time. The itinerary could have been structured a bit more friendlier for immigration purposes, but then would have been operationally an issue with the extra time and fuel required to backtrack as well as trying to get an embarkation port somewhere in the middle. Quite frankly Incheon was an excellent example of what happens when the ship has some control over the immigration process. Stations were set up in the Universe and it was an all hands call out of the crew to help process people as quickly and efficiently as possible. On the other hand, Yokohama was a disaster with the terminal just not being prepared to process so many people on a holiday. Tienjen was better because it is a major embarkation/disembarkation port with permanent and nice immigration clearance infrastructure – markings, lanes, computers, terminals, etc. Likewise Shanghai was also set up for immigration processing. But China and Japan take immigration seriously and it takes 30 to 45 minutes at each port, AFTER DOCKING, to get everything set up and functioning AND to review the ship’s paperwork, clear the crew, read the manifests, etc. Bottom Line – When docking in China or Japan expect to get off the ship 75 to 90 minutes after the scheduled docking time – IF you are diligent enough to get up early and get in line – 2 to 3 hours if you are not. Then factor in that all-aboard is 30 minutes before departure. For example, Okinawa has a scheduled time of 0700 to 1430. With an all-aboard time of 1400, one could easily expect to be off the ship by 0830 giving you 4 to 4.5 hours in port. Another good example. Because of the Cluster in Yokohama, and to some extent Tianjin, of the ship issuing immigration numbers, like tender tickets, in Crooner’s, one of the passengers issued hand written tickets, starting at 0500, to form a line to get the immigration tickets when the cruise staff arrived. While that may seem presumptuous on our part, it helped organize the line in Crooners to stretch back to the wheelhouse rather than be a free for all mob when the cruise staff arrived. Of course then with the exit on deck 6, the line to go out formed well before the numbers were called. So when the 1-100 group was called, we had to ‘cut’ in front of the existing line with people holding tickets 101+, and had to hear the grumbling. But that was the instructions from the crew. Get your ticket number and go to the gangway from a public lounge area when called. Update on High Speed Internet. Purchasing the $5 T-Mobile 512MB day pass continues to be a pain. The page will simply not load in most places, and the port was not one of them. The TEPPY was easy to use and hook up to. But as usual, burned through 1GB very quickly and 256kB is simply not very useful when dealing with 100’s of MB. The T-Mobile international at 2G continues to be useful when ashore. Google maps downloads, facebook uploads and Map.me continues to give me very accurate mapping and location information at greater precision and quicker access than Google Maps, but doesn’t have the public transit information and routing that Google maps does. Shanghai in a nutshell – lots cleaner, friendlier and more modern than Beijing, except for cell phone networks and cars. Go figure. Lots of new cars in Beijing. Lots of scooters in Shanghai. Great LTE access in Beijing, 3G in most of Shanghai. Modern high rise buildings of every imaginable design and construction technique – without a lot of Russian influence that dominated downtown Beijing. A cornucopia of skyline features. Think Hong Kong. Very, very interesting. Architects’ dream designs, builder nightmares – you want the tower to do what?!? Pam had set up a private tour for Shanghai – The China Guide. (Note that China Guide hired Jenny as an independent tour guide. Jenny does guiding on her own and she is highly recommended.) 3 busses. We were on the big bus. Double decker, plenty of room to spread out and Jenny excellent English. We did the Jing Mao tower in 2012, but the Shanghai tower this time. Much better views of the river. One of the Silverseas ships was docking at the downtown pier which made for an interesting perspective. 118 floors in about 70 seconds. Enough to cause ears to pop frequently on the way up. Standard tower photos, souvenirs, tea shop, hardly any smog so the views were pretty good. We couldn’t hardly see the river in 2012. But we could actually see the Coral docked at the cruise terminal this time. From there we went across the river on a ferry to the Bund. A very interesting river walk area. Would be great for DIYs. The metro station near the port would provide great access to the Bund area. (There was a free shuttle into Shanghai, but the time (1.5 hours each way) would be too much of a waste of time.) The area is very walkable and easily traversed with lots of great picture opportunities. The west bank is the modern city. The east bank, the Bund, the more colonial part of the city. Lunch was in a typical multi-story shopping and eating mall/building. It was ok. Standard Chinese food, Cantonese style – not very spicy. Almost bland. Good thing we had Chinese food in Yokohama, which really spoiled us! After lunch was the Yu Gardens. This was a much better tour to the gardens than in 2012 where we had to almost run to keep up with our tour guide. This time we were able to take the time to take photos, learn about parts of the garden and see sights that we did not see in 2012, like the rooftop figurines that were incredibly detailed, as well as the wall dragons. After Yu Gardens, we had 30 minutes of shopping to do in the market area. So this was my first test of negotiating skills in an Asian market, and it is intense. Rule #1, never start a negotiation of something you might not really want. Rule #2, walk away as part of the negotiating tactic. She started at $280 US. I offered $20. She came down to $250, I went up to $30, then started walking away. Judy left. At the end, she came down to $150 and I stuck at $50 for 3 rounds, walked out of the shop again, and she accepted. I probably still overpaid. So ended my first Asian negotiation. I think they are marking up 10x on the first round as a tactic. The market had food, sundries, collectibles, toys, candies, everything imaginable. The main store areas, with lots of name brands, are surrounded by streets with little shops, like the one we went to, that are basically flea market stall type shops. Very crowded, but we always felt safe. After the flea market Jenny treated us to a tea ceremony and demonstration in a tea house. Very interesting. Three teas were prepared and tasted. We ended up spending about 200 RMB on a very expensive white tea, preserving our last 40 RMB for the bus driver’s tip. On the way back to the ship we drove through the French Quarter. A several block area of colonial French buildings now being converted to a restaurant and nightlife area. Housing prices in Shanghai are INSANE, with 100m^2 condo’s going for $1500k USD – and that’s not in the CBD or French Quarter. I don’t know how people can afford to live there! We returned to the ship around 1730. A very full day of visiting Shanghai! On to Okinawa!
  17. Luncheon has changed to October 24 @ 1200 in the MDR.
  18. 10-17-18 – At Sea to Shanghai Yesterday in Seoul was on of those dream trips that Andrew, Josh and Guy take. Where you end up with a bunch of locals experiencing their culture and their hospitality. Well, we got to do just that. It was simply the highlight of the trip so far and one experience we will never forget. It started with the ship docking at the location of the new cruise terminal, where only a dock exists. The building is still under construction! This was miles from the previous location and there was absolutely nothing around for miles but bare dirt and lots of excavators. I hope the DIY people were able to adjust, but there were a lot of cabs available. Pam had arranged two tours and several cars and busses for each tour. Three cars went to the DMZ and the rest went on a Seoul city tour. Imjingak was where we parked. Our guide was Kevin, hired by the tour company to take 6 of us to the DMZ. The Seoul area is very western. Unlike Japan that retains quite a bit of Japanese culture in design, Seoul is a lot like Hong Kong with high rise condominiums being constructed everywhere. (Sort of sobering to know that all of those buildings were within artillery range of the forces arrayed north of the DMZ.) Unlike our trip to Busan in 2012, the theme of re-unification is a very present and powerful theme in Seoul and the DMZ. Even the movie at the DMZ emphasized the spread of the ‘blue’ south over the ‘red’ north as the theme of unification was emphasized in movie animation. We had to get on a shuttle bus there to get to the formal DMZ area which has a military checkpoint before entering. This is not the DMZ proper. The DMZ is a non-militarized zone two km below and above the actual cease fire demarcation line. The actual lines on either side are heavily fortified. This area overlooks a portion of the DMZ near the 3rd Infiltration tunnel. It includes an opportunity to walk down into the tunnel, go up to an observation point. The checkpoint is over the Imjim river and there is still a lot of South Korea up to the DMZ line. Farms and little villages dot the area, but as you would expect the military presence is very heavy. The 3rd infiltration tunnel was really interesting. There was a steep tunnel, built by the South Koreans for tourists, intercepts the 3rd tunnel after a steep 350 meter trek down into the granite bedrock. Then you can go 150 meters horizontal in a very short narrow tunnel to a point about 150 meters from the actual DMZ line. Did I say a very short tunnel? Without the hard hats I would have knocked myself silly. Not to mention the claustrophobic factor in such tight places. They suspect that the tunnel originated in an industrialized village about 1k north of the DMZ and would have exited nearer to Seoul. It was a personnel tunnel. Light artillery only. No heavy vehicles could have traversed the tunnel. The trek out was a real calf burner. After that we saw a short 8 minute film in the theater. From there we went to the Dorasan Observatory to actually look into North Korea and see the model villages and towns constructed on the north side of the DMZ. And the opposing flag poles of each country – very tall and with very large flags. The views were incredible. There were a lot of soldiers on break or just passing through looking across to North Korea. After Dorasan Observatory, we went to Dorasan Station. The northernmost train station in the Seoul network. After this stop we had to say goodbye to our Korean friends on the shuttle bus. Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that aspect of the trip – saving the best part for last.! Instead of a standard shuttle bus, Kevin got us on a party bus. Yes a neon lighted, wood grain, great stereo system, large screen tv party bus! This bus was from a village over 4 hours away and they had been traveling all morning to see the DMZ, but did not have 30 people on the bus to allow them to drive on themselves to the DMZ area. So we were invited to join them to get the group up over 30. Once we were on the bus there was that initial period of cautiousness and awkwardness. No one spoke English, Kevin had left to buy tickets, and we didn’t speak a lick of Korean. By the time the tour was over and we said goodbye, we were part of the family. They plied us with home made food, fresh vegetables and fruits, espresso, liquor and went out of their way to welcome us to their country as well as get their pictures taken with the Americans and Canadians! It was amazing. As a gesture on our part, I bought a large bag of sweet munchies in one store and passed them out to the bus on the way to the train station. Everyone wanted to shake our hand on the way out, bow to us, and thank us for joining their bus. We wanted to go home with them! This was the highlight of our trip so far. It was absolutely fantastic. This was a really interesting tour and highly recommended for those visiting South Korea. We did move on to the northern part of Seoul for lunch – a typical Korean braised chicken dish with noodles, crispy rice and beer. Very, very nice and a welcome break! After the lunch we went to Changdeokgung Palace and spent about 30 minutes wandering the area. Not as large as the Forbidden City, but it was only 1 of 5 palaces inside Seoul. (So they made up for size with numbers.) I immediately noticed the architecture paralleled that seen in the Forbidden City in Beijing. Just missing the guy riding the chicken on the eaves of the building! In response to this observation, Kevin said that they had copied Chinese architecture as part of the Korean heritage. After the Palace the 6 groups convened nearby and split up. 14 of us went to dinner. The rest went back to the ship. We went to one of the shopping streets in Incheon (I believe it was in the Yeokchon-Dong area) and walked up and down the street food vendors. This is where we should have eaten dinner! It was an incredible blend of sights and sounds. But Pam had put together, with the guide company, a real Korean BBQ dinner about 10 minutes away. That was fantastic. We had the cheapest combo plates, 35,000 WON, a couple of beers, 6000 WON, and a whole lot of fun. We had pork, beef, a bowel of biminmap, and all the bon chon (kimchi, pickled veggies, cole slaw, and hot peppers that Judy and I grilled before eating!) we could eat. Fantastic meal and great company. We had a blast for about an hour and headed back to the ship, returning about 2100 hours. Long day, great tour, fantastic time.
  19. 10-15-2018 – At Sea to Incheon Everything hurts again. Another time change, this time forward, put us in bed last night at 11:30. It was a long, long day in Beijing. Satisfying, a little rushed, but satisfying. Docking was at 0700, but the Chinese are serious about immigration. It was around 0800 when we finally got clearance to leave the ship. The numbering system used, similar to tenders, was confusing and hectic. People were lined up at 0500 in Crooners, which only had one exit to fore and one exit aft and it was on the same deck and basic location as the Deck 7 gangway exit. So it was a mess. The Patter clearly stated that each person in line should get tickets for their “group”, like a tender port, but with no ‘lounge’ to meet in. And Ralph got 19 numbers for our “group”. Didn’t go over well. Incheon will probably return to individual ticketing again with even more mass chaos. They need to do it in the Universe lounge where at least you can separate ticketed vs. unticketed persons away from the gangway chaos. The Chinese pretty much had their act together. Multiple stations for independents and a separate area with multiple stations for Princess tours. Nice terminal. Good signage. Plentiful restrooms. Immigration was serious. Face to face, passport, photo, no fingerprints though and the computers were up and running! So an aside about the Chinese Visa. Several people didn’t have it. Some never intended to get off the ship. The couple next to us was told by their travel agent they didn’t need it! They were allowed on the ship in Los Angeles, but not into the country. Our Visa’s were checked. The ship did have to be zeroed and ship’s personnel were going to escort the non-Visa holders through immigration after all had left. We got through and were outside at 0840. After rounding up members of our group we headed for Beijing, about 2.5 hours away. The bus was very nice. We had 18 of us in a 33 seat bus, so it was comfortable to be able to stretch out. We made one stop on the way in. The restrooms were typical roadside rest restrooms, but with squatty potties and no TP. For snacks we found some sesame crackers and some cucumber flavored Pringles! Very few of the labels are in English and unlike Japan, the contents are not pictured on the front, so we had to go with something safe and recognizable. Even in Chinese! The cucumber pringles were pretty good BTW. The first stop was the Forbidden City. And yes, this is a city! Good grief, this thing is huge! Courtyard after courtyard, wall after wall, like a giant Russian nesting doll. The emperor had to have a huge family just to use all the space available. Apparently they limit entry to 80,000 tickets, which made for a relatively uncrowded experience. Tieneman square has no such limit and was packed cheek to jowl with people. Just a few security checks and bag x-rays were required into the main entrance and the forbidden palace area. We saw the various building, the exterior statuary, the gardens, the huge and elaborate marble carvings and a lot of people, although this place could have held 5x the people and still not been full. After the Forbidden City we went to lunch near the Olympic stadium in the Olympic Village area. It was a nice and tasty Chinese lunch, but the highlight for me was the Chinese beer – very good stuff. We didn’t get to lunch until 1430, which made everything taste better anyway. After lunch we went to the Summer Palace, did the boat across the lake to the Lama temple and then walked alongside the 1km corridor back to the boat dock via the Confuscian temple. We did get a good look at the Marco Polo bridge, had fun with some other Chinese tourists, got our picture taken by same, apparently they thought we were Australian – probably based on our Tilley hats. Saw the marble boat, the Emperor’s personal shopping center and the mother in law’s house. Because of the time, we had to almost rush through the summer palace. The most fun we had during the day was traveling with CL. (Meei did not make it and we walked about 6 miles at the Forbidden City and another 3 at the Summer Palace, so its probably a good thing she didn’t.) He can speak and read Chinese, but the formal old version. History is written by the victors held true here as well. The guide’s version of the history of China, let’s say, varies just a bit from CL’s version of the same history. It did bother me a bit that CL had to conceal his ability to speak and understand Mandarin. He did not want to “rock the boat” and reveal where he was born. He spoke English only to the Chinese. But while that bothered me, it was also interesting to hear his side of the story and also to have him read the Kanji directly so that we could judge the written English. For example, the gate of “The Palace Museum Digital Gallery at the Gate of Correct Deportment” in the Forbidden city. I had to ask CL what they heck “deportment” meant?!? Clothing? Attitude? Behavior? He read the Kanji script underneath and we discovered that the script meant “department”, not “deportment”! Holy imperial misspellings Batman! So where is my flowing and glowing words of WOW and OVERWHELMING and MIND BLOWING? Three things. 1 - IMHO we tried to do much in one day. 2 – The Smog. 3 – The people. There is a legit argument that if you never intend to come back, these are two major things to come see, but in all honesty, the Forbidden City should be done on its own in a full day or even two. (The Summer Palace could be seen in a quick half day, but even there, to really see everything and spend time admiring and photographing the architecture, you could easily spend a full day at the Summer Palace.) We basically walked from the entry to the exit of the Forbidden City with no major breaks and just a few quick lectures, but there was so much to see! So many questions about the construction, the meaning of the various statuary, the uses of the various buildings. It takes time to move through the crowds to get pictures of the interior or pictures of us in front of various items of interest. We simply didn’t have the time. Highly recommended – You bet! The Forbidden City is a must see. Up there with the Wall, the Pyramids, the Parthenon, the Acropolis, St. Peter’s Cathedral, etc. The Summer Palace a somewhat less must see, can be seen faster, but still very interesting and worthwhile. The other thing that was omnipresent was the smog. OMG, this stuff was thick and nasty. Think LA back in the 70’s and then double it. In the afternoon around 1500, everything started to take on a twilight colorless pall. Lousy for photographs or even seeing for that matter. I smelled it when we pulled into the harbor and by the time we were half way to Beijing, my throat felt like I started smoking again, but with none of the nicotine buzz! After a while we got used to it, but by later in the afternoon at the summer palace it got very noticeable again. Our guide touted that since he grew up in the Beijing area he was used to it, but he had a nasty ‘smokers’ cough. Several of our group wore masks. Not sure if that helped, CL said it did. Another noticeable difference was the people themselves and the contrast to the Japanese we had just left. In a nutshell, no smiling. In Japan almost everyone smiled and got a big kick out of foreign tourists. Here in Beijing, no one hardly ever smiled. I expected it from the various security guards and military personnel – even the ones wearing JEEP logoed hats (go figure that one out!) – but this was from almost all the retail people, tickets sellers and checkers and from most of the Chinese around us. We did get a lot of strange looks as well. Like checking us out from toe to hair looks, and not too subtle either. Pam was told more than once she was in the incorrect line for the restroom – due to her short hair and tall stature according to the lady in front of her who spoke English and Chinese. The only ones who really smiled and were friendly were tourists themselves to the city and they certainly looked Chinese! Bottom line. We’ve now seen the wall, the summer palace, the forbidden city, so Beijing and China have now dropped back down the list of places to see. On to South Korea!
  20. 10-12-2018 – At Sea to Tianjin (Beijing) The day in Hiroshima was incredible despite the rain showers and overcast day. We essentially DIY’ed to Miyajima Island via tram and ferry, ate our way back across the island, ferried and tramed to the Peace Park and Atomic Bomb dome, had a lot of fun with some local students, trammed back to the port stop, shuttled to the ship, updated all the electronics, dragged our tired worn out carcasses back to the ship, had a few drinks and collapsed for the night…a perfect cruising day! Apparently the Diamond Princess got the parking spot at the Hiroshima Port, but that actually worked out better for us. By docking at Itsukaichi we were between Peace Park and Miyajima Island. 30 minutes to the Peace Park via Hiroden, 20 minutes to the ferry at Hiroden Miyajima-guchi. The shuttle was not supposed to start until 0900 according to the Patter, but was running at 0700 when we got off the ship. We headed for Hiroden-Itsukaichi, the Hiroden station on the east side of the tracks. The JR Itsukaichi station is on the west side of the tracks connected by a bridge. There we were directed to conductors to purchase the 850YEN daily Hiroden and Ferry pass. A bargain as a taxi from the Ship to Peace Park was over 3800 YEN, to Hiroden Miyajima-guchi over 3500 YEN and just from the ship to the Hiroden-Itsukaichi station was about 2800 YEN. We saved at least $200 running around on the trams vs. Taxis and lots more considering the cost of Princess excursions. The internet description of purchasing the pass from the conductor is a bit misleading. Conductors are on every train, in addition to the drivers, but there are also conductors at the major stations selling tickets and passes. The trams can get a bit stuffy and hot, so brings fans or cool towels, especially on a hot day. Seating is very limited so expect to stand, and all of the trams need new shocks and springs and are very bouncy, as well as stopping and starting very frequently. But a lot of fun to ride. We were shown the line (#2 line) tram to get on for the trip to the ferry, then shown the path to the ferry, marked in English as well, and the ferry ride was quick and very scenic. Miyajima is a tourist destination for sure, but at least they have strictly enforced the building codes to give it a consistent look and while there are a few vehicles, most of the paths are walking only paths and easily traversed with fear of getting run over. The shopkeepers are friendly, although not a lot of English is spoken there – especially of the main ways back in the back alleys. No matter though, you can find anything to eat or drink and it’s a lot of fun communicating with gestures and hand signals, plus a few choice spoken Japanese words. The great Torii gate is magnificent. Unfortunately, low tide would be in the late afternoon and we would be unable to walk out to it. But it is still one of those things you must see in person to appreciate. We walked around the shore line, taking pictures of the deer, fish, birds, temples, pagodas, the mountain side, the streams (perfectly clear and clean looking) to the Kiyomori Shrine, doubled back to the entrance to the ropeway. The mountain tops were still shrouded in fog, so we opted to sample the local cuisine. Roasted oysters with a lemon soy sauce, the little maple leaf shaped cakes with ‘stuff’ inside (lemon custard, green tea, chocolate and plum flavored red bean paste). BTW – this particular shop had the most perfect Japanese garden out the back door. A small tranquil island of green beauty, a clear pond with humungous Koi in it and a gorgeous miniature waterfall. We found the steamed buns filled with beef, eel or vegetables. Of course we had the one with the Eel! Very slightly fishy, a soy-ginger-curry flavored filling and that light fluffy steamed bun. I wanted more, but Judy wanted fried oysters, which we went in search of, and found, along with Kirin beer, fried prawns and the most delightfully simple and fresh green salad. The oysters and prawns were perfectly cooked. Not greasy at all. Crispy prawn heads! Yum! After finishing lunch I attempted to tell the chef how delicious the food was. Apparently I did not pronounce it correctly as I saw a couple of puzzled looks. So I opted for the sign language approach by patting my stomach, smiling and given him a big thumbs up! He got the message. When we left the restaurant we saw that the mountain tops were clear, so we had a choice – go up on the rope way or head to the Peace Park. We headed to the Peace Park. About an hour and a half via ferry and tram to the Genbaku Dome-mae Tram stop. We started at the Atomic bomb dome and wandered around the area seeing a lot of crew and fellow passengers. We had a great time with a group of 6 local students, there were lots of groups of students on field trips, groups of 10 to 40 of age groups from 10 to 18, whom wanted to practice their English on us. It was a really good time as we introduced ourselves to each other and they traded practicing English on us to me practicing Japanese on them. It was funny and a bit emotional. I sure wish our schools required learning of other languages. After the Peace Park area we returned to the ship via tram and shuttle, using the Port Free Wifi to update all the electronics in about 30 minutes (10-15GB’s of updates) while shopping around the unique food items set up in a market type atmosphere. There were dried seaweed, fish, fruits and vegetables of all types along with nuts and candied fruits. Samples were available and plentiful. That was dinner! The crew, including those from the engineering decks, were able to stock up on delicacies that were not available in Alaskan ports.
  21. 10-10-2018 – The great search for high speed bandwidth So we are now in the “good” ship board satellite communications latitude and during the day, between 0700 and 1700, connections are very slow. In the morning I can almost watch the speed go downhill in direct proportion to the number of people in line for coffee. Similarly, on the other hand, the speed goes up immensely starting at 1700 to 1830 (dinnertime – first shift). Judy was able to update two apps on her iphone, with about 250mb of data, in the 90 minutes of “decent” connectivity. BTW – those two apps exceeded the daily data limit of the basic on-board $19.95 internet package. First of all, both our phones use T-Mobile One Plus with the 256kB/sec throttled unlimited data in 120 countries including all on our itinerary. This speed is sufficient for google maps and facebook, but not updating of apps. For serious app updates, security updates, and most serious use, you need high speed access and because of today’s graphic intensive applications, a lot of data bandwidth. For this cruise I specifically bought a TEPPY – an international virtual SIM MyFi spot – with a 1GB high speed data limit and unlimited 256kB (2G) for a 24 hour $9 day pass. As a backup, Tmobile has 512mb high speed data pass for $5 with a maximum for 2 passes per day per phone. First of all, let me say that the Tmobile $5 day pass was the most disappointing. I was only able to access the page once on the way into Yokohama harbor and was not able to tell which phone received the boost or when the boost occurred or even if I got the boost in the first place. I was never able to access that page, it simply would not load, for more passes again over the next 3 days, and still cannot tell if I got billed or not. Even chatting with t-mobile via the 256kB/sec 2G data rate was too painful to endure to try and straighten things out. Future note – Was able to re-access the page in Beijing. Actually got it to work and load properly with 2G and was able to designate which phone received the boost. Default was the prime phone on your account so it loaded on Judy’s phone the last time, not the one I wanted. Got an email that it was in effect, on the phone it was in effect on, but it recommended a restart just to make sure. Restarted and it was definitely very fast and loaded 3 updates, plus updated facebook and several other things, but nothing major or important. Just a check of the functionality and it worked great. Another future note edit – Was not able to access the page in Seoul very easily. Long time to load, which indicates connection issues. Maybe not 2G since even Google was not loading properly. I loeft the page loading in my pocket and it was up the next time I looked at the phone. Ordering was easy and it did provide very fast connections, after rebooting the phone, but it still was not as good as the connection in Beijing. Go figure! The TEPPY worked perfectly. Turned on, easy to use, high speed, but the laptop burned through the 1GB data limit in a matter of minutes. When throttled to 2G speeds, its not much more useful than the Tmobile phones on basic. Phone connection via the TEPPY is the best option for judicious use of the high speed. I had forgotten that a Windows PC will automatically start downloading ‘stuff’. Symantec burned through 500MB during a download, followed by Windows security and monthly update stuff. I turned off as much of that as I could. Free WiFi – Everyone touts free wi-fi and how to follow the crew to find it. To a large extent this is true. To a smaller extent, free wifi is still limited in bandwidth, because the crew is there, and the time it takes to update stuff or do business is still a long time. And in Yokohama, the internet connection was limited to 30 minutes at Osanbashi and at World Porters, meaning if you can’t download it in 30 minutes, you aren’t getting it. On the other hand, the WiFi at Hiroshima was incredibly fast. Almost as fast as home, but with 300+ users sitting in the terminal. We were able to update at least 15GB worth of stuff in about 20 minutes across four different devices. Nice!
  22. 10-10-2018 – At Sea to Hiroshima – We Hope! Warm ocean breezes, calm seas, hot coffee, cool drinks, no shoes, no shirts, no problems! Lots to cover from the last couple of days. So yes, Osaka was cancelled. The official version is that the refueling bunker was delayed by weather. Our planned adventure on the Shinkansen was aborted. The extra day in Yokohama did serve to catch the things we missed due to the immigration delay, but there are a lot of ticked off people over the whole affair. We had to stay anchored in Tokyo Bay because the Diamond was doing disembarkation and embarkation at Osanbashi. I guess not even tendering was an option so the day anchored was pretty much a wasted day – the pools were even empty. The terminal was shut down when we redocked that night, so the free wifi was not available. Some of the crew got off during the overnight, but most places in Chinatown were shut down. I’m sure there were several 7/11’s open somewhere. We chose not to get off. We decided to revisit the Sankien Gardens plan on Tuesday morning since we missed them on Sunday. The gardens don’t open until 0900 and five of us (Pam, Sue, Judy, CL and myself) jumped in one of those great Toyota Alfard taxis. About 2500 YEN later, yes, 2500 YEN for the 5 of us. We were at Sankien Gardens. (Note that the Princess 2 hour tour was $70 per person.) The taxi was not $100 as told by the destination lecturer. 700YEN per person entry fee into the gardens was a bargain. We spent 3 hours wandering the gardens and the exhibits having CL translate the Kanji for us just for fun – almost everything had English translations as well, but having him translate the characters directly was pretty cool. The gardens were not crowded at all, but did have several wedding picture parties. The formal wedding kimonos were incredibly colorful, detailed and beautiful. The brides radiant and beautiful. The koi in the pond were a lot of fun to feed and watch. All of us were cheering on the turtles trying to get a piece of bread before the swarming koi got it. Unfortunately they were not successful. The koi invariably got all the bread. Incredible pictures of an egret stalking and spearing an insect. Japanese and Chinese gardens, as explained by CL, are not botanical gardens exhibiting flowering plants. Rather they are islands of peace and serenity with everything strategically and deliberately placed to promote a unique view from every perspective. This was a private garden at one time and I can see how this would have been a unique and beautiful oasis for the family back in the day. There are refreshments (including beer) and toilets with the incredibly technologically advanced, AND CLEAN, stalls – including the electronic running water sound to encourage one to get the job done. All in all, a great and inexpensive way to spend a couple of hours in Yokohama. During our walk we decided we wanted Sushi for lunch. A quick google search later showed a conveyor belt sushi restaurant in the World Porters building just to the north of Osanbashi. There was a taxi stand at the main entrance to the gardens, but only had 4 person taxis. A quick phone call on the card the previous driver gave me connected me to an operator and all I had to say was “English Please” and an English speaking operator got on the phone. I ordered an Alphard for 5. Exactly 20 minutes later he showed up and off we went! Again, around 2500 YEN we were at the World Porters building. So basically $10 each round trip from Osanbashi to Sankien for the 5 of us. A pretty good bargain. Osanbashi pier juts out into the bay and has a two lane road access to it. At the main intersection heading west, if you turn left you go into Yamashita park and access to Chinatown, one of the main gates, by turning right at the statue in the fountain in the park. Diagonally across the intersection is a drug/sundry store. Continuing due west gets you within 1 block of the Nihon-Odori metro station with access to Yokohama station. Turning left and heading south at this point also gets you to Chinatown. Before the main intersection, you can veer to the right along the marine walkway and head north to Minato-Morai and a host of retail shops. (There was also an Octoberfest beer garden going on as well.) The entire ground floor of the World Porters building is various restaurants. One of which is a sushi conveyor restaurant. Also a Baskin Robbins! There was a burger place, a McDonalds and a Starbucks as well. (The building has free wi-fi. It also has a 30 minute time limit and it was pretty slow, so not many updates can be loaded there.) The sushi restaurant was just what the doctor ordered. You could order off the menu or just wait as sushi came conveying by your table. The fish was incredibly fresh. The rice was wonderful. We did order 3 plates of 5 different types of tuna sushi for 850 yen each. The total bill for all 5 of us was less than 7000 YEN. Most double nigiri sushi plates ranged from 200 to 400 YEN. Very reasonable compared to US prices and the quality was very good. The walk back to the ship from world porters is great along the pedestrian paths of the marine walkway. The day was definitely cooler and there were a LOT less people than on Sunday. Great pictures of the ship alongside. The roof of Osanbashi is basically a public park and there were at least 4 wedding couples getting their formal pictures taken during the late afternoon to catch the setting sunlight. All of these were in traditional western dresses with long veils and trains, and tuxedos. Interesting – modern bridal garb on a modern pier with a modern city backdrop, traditional dress in a traditional garden with a natural backdrop. Sailaway was unique. Apparently it is a big deal at Osanbashi, complete with loudspeakers urging the people to say farewell to the Coral Princess, glow sticks waving bye-bye, chants and music. A real nice cap to a full and interesting day. Yes, we missed Osaka and Kyoto, but Yokohama had its own charm and provided us with a pretty darn good day ashore for a very reasonable price. Great fun, great food and great newly found friends. Things could be a lot worse! Later!
  23. There are around 300 getting off in Shanghai and 300 getting on, but they still have empty cabins as a few of our group have been moved. We spent the day anchored in Yokohama awaiting fuel. Osaka was cancelled and we are now tied to the dock in Yokohama for a refueling day ashore. We leave for Hiroshima at 1800 tonight. Compensation is TBD at this point, but a lot of people are upset at missing Osaka and Kyoto. Can't really blame them. Princess dropped the ball on the refueling barge. Internet was really bad in the harbor yesterday as everyone was scrambling to book additional tours and cancel Osaka. Immigration in Okinawa may be smoother because of the aforementioned 90 day VISA that most of us have. But I'm not assuming anything at this point. In fact I'm really dreading Guam... Now off to other websites to see what Plan C will be today. Have to run! Later!
  24. 10-08-2018 – Anchored in Tokyo Bay – Low Fuel Light! Someone forgot to fill up the tank yesterday so we are anchored on Tokyo Bay awaiting a gas station to show up. Probably jeopardizes our stop in Osaka. Not going to be a fun time in the ship today! But first the good news. I hurt. Every muscle and joint hurts. My ankle is killing me. I have a blister that has formed on the blister from San Pedro. Sleep was a bit fitful last night. But this morning I feel great. Yesterday, in spite of all the troubles (and there were many), was a great day in China town. We walked about 10 miles, carrying one of my infamous backpacks, had some great food, saw some awesome sights and a lot of people. It was hot, really hot, with a beating sun. Exhausting, but very, very satisfying. We did Choyo-Mon for lunch with CL and Meei (Steiner2010). Good thing he can read Chinese/Japanese. We had a fantastic Moo Goo Gai Pan and a variety of Dim Sum. It was fantastic. No English spoken at all, but it was really fun getting our points across. For dinner Judy and I wandered back to China Town to Keikyu. OMG, this was really, really good. Very little English spoken, but we managed to order a pork in black vinegar, a fresh marinated cucumber dish and a stir fried rice. Topped off with a Kirin beer and it was fantastic. Once again language was not a real barrier as pointing to a picture and smiling go a really long way. Yama****a park was full of people since it was Sunday, and they had a food festival going on. Almost joined in, but it was so hot Judy was starting to fade so we went back to Osanbashi to cool off for a while. BTW – There was a special taxi service to Sankein Gardens from the front door of Osanbashi for 1500 per person. Chinatown was packed. There was enough “room” for another couple of people, but not much. That’s the one downside to the Tokyo area. There are a lot of people. A lot. And they were out in full force in Chinatown yesterday. Not as crowded as the Meji shrine in Tokyo last April – you could actually move in the crowd. Even after dark, the crowds were all over the place. Had a lot fun with CL and Meei who could read Chinese. As we went down the streets, they would translate various signs, menus and advertisements. Even found a Taiwanese roasted chestnut vendor that CL had a conversation with. Saw a Taoist Temple and CL gave us a quick history lesson in buddhist and Taoist religions. The temple was one of the most brightly colored we’ve ever seen with all kinds of dragons and phoenixes and statuary of all sizes and colors. CL and I, being engineers, were also fascinated by the power and telco wiring on the poles along the streets. Every kind of wire, junction box, isolator, connection in a somewhat scary hodgepodge of spaghetti wiring was present. Pretty cool to photograph. The ferris wheel in Minato Mirai puts on a great light show at night with lights on the spokes. A digital clock on the hub tells you the time. The skyline at night was gorgeous. Buildings with all different colors of lights reflecting off the water and the small boats all lit up going back and forth across the harbor. So at this point we need to talk about the negatives. From the prior paragraphs you would think all was right with the world, but those of you familiar with my Live Froms know that I take the lemons life throws, make lemonade, add vodka and throw a party. So while some things were really bad yesterday, and will get really bad in the next couple of days, I am busy making a whole bunch of lemonade! Immigration was a nightmare. Docked at 0700. Last persons off the ship at 1500. Not really Princess’s fault. Computer failure and lack of immigration agents screwed up everyone. They used a tender numbering system for the around 1000 people not on ship’s tours. We were 71 to 74 and we got off the ship at 1000. I just talked to a person around the 170’s and they got off at 1115. So the above 500’s didn’t probably get off until around or after 1200. Everyone was told that the ship had to be zeroed. That meant all passengers off. Some passengers apparently hid, according to one security officer, on the ship and had to be escorted off. People waiting to get back on had to wait until 1500 to be let back aboard because of this. If this is true, this is being extremely inconsiderate. Still, not Princess’s fault. I really felt bad for those on private tours. Pam got off almost immediately and then spent 2 hours waiting for other people in her tour group. Others had similar problems with some members having numbers in the high 2 or 3 hundred. I’d like to say that I anticipated this issue, but can’t really. I expected the typical Japanese efficiency. Not happening yesterday! However, we are still anchored in Tokyo Bay. Awaiting fuel. Apparently the fuel barge did not show up yesterday and the Diamond Princess is due this morning into Osanbashi. So we are sitting here at anchor about 3 miles off shore awaiting fuel. We are supposed to be headed to Osaka for tomorrow’s docking. That is most likely not happening on schedule either. There is going to be a lot of very upset people today. A couple of important lessons learned. Prior to this cruise I purchased a Teppy (International MyFi hotspot) with data day passes (1GB high speed, the rest at 2G) for $9 per day. Being at sea for 8 days and having 1 Ipad, 3 iphones and a Windows 10 PC, basically resulted in burning through 1GB in about 20 minutes as we entered the Yokohama harbor. As a plan b, T-mobile has introduced 512MB LTE speed data passes for international travel at $5 per pass, maximum of 2 passes in a 24 hour period. This didn’t work for me at all. The ordering website went down due to traffic and I never saw anything like high speed data all day. The normal T-mobile plus package includes unlimited 2G data and that was all I saw. We ended up updating everything in the Osanbashi main hall on their free wifi in 30 minute bundles, signed up to good ole joe smith at aol dot com! It was funny. Basic wifi was really slow until 1515 when everyone headed back into the ship and then we were able to update almost everything in 1 hour. So I am going to need a plan c for the World cruise. Back to google! Later!
  25. From the paperwork we just filled out, yes. The landing card is only good for 3 days in Japan. plus we go to China before we get to Okinawa. But, on the other hand who knows! Like the US, immigration practices vary dramatically from port to port depending on whose in charge...
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