Saturday, September 29, 2012

Goldring Travel's 2012 Food & Wine Cruise on the Seabourn Pride - Part III (Storms A Brewing...And A Double Rainbow!)

We sailed out of Dover with sunny skies and calm seas as we started our fourteen day cruise on the Seabourn Pride.  


It was a most pleasant evening.  We popped up to the Sky Bar shortly after departure as the ship began her very slow transit to Le Havre, France.  It was then time to freshen up for dinner.  Having spent a good bit of time with some of those on the 2012 Goldring Travel Food & Wine Cruise in Dover, I was up for a nice dinner alone with my wife. 

We arrived at The Restaurant for dinner at about 8:00 p.m. and, surprisingly, there were no tables for two.  We were advised it would be about 20 minutes before there would be any; not a problem as we were just as happy to enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail in The Club.  But only two sips later our table was ready…and both the food and service was impeccable.  (To be honest, there were a couple of hiccups in the dining room that affected a few guests should not have happened, but that aside it was a wonderful evening.)  After dinner we wandered over to the Sky Bar, settled into the comfortable sofas (a new addition for us) and I had a nice scotch and a cigar.

The next morning we awoke in Le Havre, France to some rather unpleasant weather.   There was rain and wind and more rain and wind, so many of us declared it a “sea day”.  I really didn’t have any plans as I was looking forward to resting up after a rather hectic schedule leading up to the cruise.  But in the afternoon the wind and rain quieted so we thought we would spend a couple of hours looking around Le Havre.  Honestly, it would not take more than a couple of hours (save if you went to the museums…one of which I heard was delightful) as it was a dreary Sunday and everything…and I mean everything…was closed.  We did stop at the local mall to pick up some things we forgot, but the mall was small and the prices were high, so it was back onto the complimentary Seabourn shuttle to the ship.

Apparently, because we were overnighting, the dress was Resort Casual  for the second night in a row.  We dined with a couple that has been on every Food & Wine Cruise and love the entire Seabourn experience…including knowing that when they board, the gluten-free breadsticks, bread and adjusted menu will be provided without them saying a word.  (As a note of interest, on this cruise my client is the only person who requires a gluten-free diet and for Seabourn it requires special preparation for one guest every single day…and it is done without hesitation or cutbacks.  More breadsticks?  No problem!)  A fantastic dining experience and my wife’s veal was one of the best preparations I have ever tasted. 

After a bit of a too long of a night we were up and ready to…encounter gale force winds and incredible rain yet again.  We had made plans with some others in our group to venture over the Honfleur, France and decided to brave it nonetheless.  That is right up until it got so bad that they had to close the gangway 10 minutes before we were going to leave.  (We had arranged for a taxi to take us there and then pick us up two hours later for 125 Euros). 

Well, the winds quieted and the gangway opened about noon, so we decided to give it a shot.  Our taxi driver was still waiting for us and the four of us were off.  (One thing to note is that the cruise terminal is ridiculously located, so it takes you about 10 minutes just to get to the other side of the port.)  As we drove the skies started to brighten and by the time we arrived in Honfleur there was almost sunshine.  Our taxi took us to the Church of the Mariners


and then to a lookout point that, incredibly after our weather, had a fantastic view. 


It was then on to Honfleur for a walk around and moules & frites (mussels and French fries).


As our car pulled the blue sky arrived with a very welcome brilliant sun.  We visited an ancient wooden church (used more for praying than showing off, to be sure) and strolled the streets peaking in some very interesting art galleries and chocolate shops (way too expensive…and my wife was very happy with her bags of just purchased English chocolates!)

A shop specializing in Calvados caught my eye.  Calvados has never been a favorite of mine, but I figured it is the Goldring Travel Food & Wine Cruise and calvados is about as typical of the region as anything could be.  This shop had just about any variety and style of calvados you could imagine.  So we had a little tasting and eventually settled on a 20 year calvados to have as part of our Food & Wine Tasting on the last sea day.

We then strolled the restaurants lining the quay and settled on one that was actually not my first choice, but they were serving skate that one of our friends wanted.  Sitting at two small tables we enjoyed a three course meal for about 20 Euros; the star of which was, of course, mussels in wine and garlic with a touch of cream with a couple of glasses of Muscadet wine.  (the oysters weren't too bad either!)  Yes, I did eat the entire pot of mussels and dipped the baguette in the juice that remained.  It was a surprising and wonderful day.


As we departed LeHavre, the captain announced that we would be having some seas on our way to St. Peter Port, Guernsey and that we should secure everything in our suites.  This is not a good sign!  He also advised that we might need to skip our next port due to the seas, but that we might be able to overnight in the following port of Falmouth.

We dined with Captain Jensen along with another couple from our group and an Australian couple we had met on the Seabourn Sojourn during last year’s Food & Wine Cruise from Quebec City to New York.  It was a very enjoyable evening, though I have to say Captain Jensen’s Danish accent was a bit more challenging than the Norwegian ones I have encountered.  He is a very pleasant and good natured man, thought I really didn’t have enough of a chance to chat with him as much as I would have liked.

The next morning around 6:00 a.m. the Captain Jensen had the Seabourn Pride poke around the island trying to see if there was any way we could tender to the island.  About 7:00 a.m. the engines were put into full gear and, unfortunately, we missed St. Peter Port.  There were a number of very disappointed guests, but I believe they were firmly outnumbered by the number of guests who were feeling the ill-effects of some fairly rough seas.  (Though with 140 repeat Seabourn guests, it was a fairly hearty showing about the ship.)

So it was to be another sea day and I was very happy.  (My wife, however, still gaining her sea legs…and stomach…was of another mood!)

As we approached Falmouth, England about 4:00 p.m. the seas calmed, the wind subsided and the quaint bay and town came into view.  With spirits rising (and my wife rising out of bed), plans to “hit the town’ were made.

And then I was told that our Shopping with the Chef was cancelled by the fish market we were going to visit.  No real excuse, but months of planning, all the preparation by Chef Kurt Timmermans and Culinary Operations Manager Bjoern Wassmuth and myself were tossed out the window by David Seabourne, of Seabourne Fish Market with no real excuse or reason.  It was going to be a wonderful event, but it was what it was and doing business with the Seabourne Fish Market in Cornwall is not high on my list of companies with integrity to do business with.  Chef Kurt was so concerned about finding an alternative, but as my quick dash into Falmouth soon confirmed, another option being arranged at the last minute wasn’t going to happen. 

But when traveling expecting perfection is unrealistic...unless, of course, you are looking for a spectacular double rainbow as we approached Falmouth Harbor!



What did we do in Falmouth? We got over it, worked on some alternative plans and had a great time.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Goldring Travel's 2012 Food & Wine Cruise on the Seabourn Pride - Part II (Comfortable Shoes)

I have had quite a bit of contrast over the past days:  Enjoying and working non-stop at the Monaco Yacht Show while staying in an elegant hotel to spending the night in a rather depressing Dover, England and then boarding the wonderful Seabourn Pride.

The Monaco Yacht Show is where the ultimate in luxury makes it statement and this year was no different…though the crowds were decidedly smaller and the yachts for sale were decidedly larger.  Yes, the economic problems…especially in Europe…are having a serious effect in the yachting world; not just the cruising one.



Aside from the normal meetings and yacht inspections, I attended a party for but 150 people held by The Superyacht Group aboard the MV Alexander (http://www.privatsea.com/newsite/mv-alexander-121m.html); a 1960’s era cruise ship converted into a private yacht.  At just over 400 feet, this private yacht she is about the same size as the Seabourn Pride and with a similarly number of guests onboard, it was really interesting for me comparing the layout, passenger use of space and, of course, the champagne and canapĂ© quality and consumption levels.  I won’t bore you with the details, but what I can tell you is that this event made me look even more forward to my cruise because I know what "the show" was and what the Seabourn Experience is.

I also attended another exclusive party held by Boat International at the Hermitage Hotel.  This is one of “the” parties filled with owners, yacht show sponsors and a “no exceptions” guest list.  With the champagne flowing, a really wonderful variety of gourmet hors d'oeuvres, I had another great “compare and contrast” moment.  But, to be honest, as wonderful as it was, there was a “fun” party I was invited to and wanted to make an appearance at…and then I wanted a hamburger; just a hamburger.  (And at a Monaco 25 Euro price for that burger, I am glad I was a guest!)

Early the next morning (and trust me it was way, way, way too early) I flew from Monaco to London to meet my wife and some longtime Goldring Travel Food & Wine Cruise clients for our 2 hour drive to Dover, England.  We arrived at the Best Western Plus Marina and Spa, a 178 year old property where Winston Churchill once visited in one of the hotel’s prior incarnations.  The hotel is clean, the beds comfortable with fresh linens and most of the staff exceedingly pleasant.  While the food quality was excellent for such a venue, the restaurant service was surprisingly inconsistent.  For our one night pre-cruise it was fine, but uneven.


In the afternoon we took a walk through town and the sign below said it all:


Apparently it is perfectly acceptable to drink publically in the subway if you are not warned...or if you are warned by a police officer not in uniform...or if you are seen drinking by an officer in uniform, but who doesn't warn you.  It pretty much paints an accurate picture of this downtrodden town.

The next day, after a lovely stroll along the waterfront and up a pier, it was time to grab a bite before heading to the Seabourn Pride, which we could see in the distance. 


This was a “Why you need to be careful of TripAdvisor ratings” moment.  In Dover, which is not exactly the hotbed of fine cuisine, there is a very small Italian restaurant called Il Rustico.  In its window hangs a poster boasting its 4.5 star rating…and more mementos of its “success” on the walls inside.  The place was nice enough and the food was OK to good and two people said the dinner the night before had excellent pasta, but 4.5 stars?  I have dined at some pretty nice places that get 4 stars or less on TripAdvisor because the measure by which they are rated is clearly far different than the one Il Rustico is.  For Dover I would probably give it a 4.5 star rating.  But as compared to restaurants generally it would have been a solid 3 stars…and no more.  But I digress.

It was now time to board the Seabourn Pride (I shoot for 2:30 p.m. so that I am not asked to wait in the lounge until 2:00 p.m.; using my time for better purposes…like lunch with great friends), so after a 7 Pound taxi ride of about 3 minutes we were at the cruise terminal.  The only thing that delayed our boarding was the friendly faces that remembered me and that I remembered.  We were onboard and in our suites in about 15 minutes…and the Seabourn Pride already felt like a pair of favorite shoes.

With most of our luggage yet to come, and the one holding my bathing suit delivered, it was time for me to head to “my" hot tub for a pre-departure soak.  My comfortable shoes still fit me oh so well.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Goldring Travel's 2012 Food & Wine Cruise on the Seabourn Pride - Part II (Perspective)

Believe it or not, I am just back from my Vietnam and Cambodia experience on the AmaWaterways AmaLotus and I am about to embark on the 2012 Goldring Travel Food & Wine Cruise aboard the Seabourn Pride departing on September 22, 2012. 


Talk about "Compare and Contrast"!  This is going to be and adventure it in.  I am still trying to wrap my head around snacking on fried tarantula and fertilized duck egg in remote Cambodia and then only a month later dining on oysters and foie gras in France.  But I must struggle on!

In Goldring Travel's 2012 Food & Wine Cruise on the Seabourn Pride - Part I I have detailed the exclusive events I have created for our small group in Cork, Ireland and in Bordeaux, France...and there will hopefully be a bit of a surprise in Falmouth, England as well as the annual Food & Wine Tasting aboard the Seabourn Pride.


Briefly, what I try to do is utilize the foods and wines of various places to assist in bringing culture closer to my guests and providing a richer travel experience.  And, of course, I make sure it is done in a fun and non-pretentious way without those in our group feeling like they are in a group.  I do this by not taking any of this seriously (except my organizing it all) and assuring that everyone is comfortable doing things their way.  Hence I do not have events, cocktail hours and dinner parties scheduled for each day.

So in Cobh (Cork), Ireland I am combining a walk through the English Market (it is always important to see what the locals are eating...and there are always surprises), a causal lunch at a very well respected, but old time, gastropub and then a cooking lesson at a culinary school located on a 100 acre organic farm; finishing up with a pint of Guinness.

Meanwhile in Bordeaux, France we are visiting Chateau Lynch-Bages for a Food & Wine Pairing Class including a wonderful tasting, tour of the chateau and a lunch (with wine paring, of course) at Cafe Lavinal followed by a private Tour and Wine Tasting at Chateau Margaux!  (The day prior is the Ensemble Travel Group Bordeaux Experience which includes a tour of the old city and a wine tasting at Chateau La Louviere.)

In between, and while not Shopping with the Chef or finalizing our Food & Wine Tasting, I plan on wandering the wonderful and historic small towns, soaking in "my" hot tub on the bow of the Seabourn Pride with a glass of champagne and getting back to what a Seabourn cruise - if you cruise for the ship rather than the destinations - is all about.

What?  Huh?  Eric Goldring, err' um, Iamboatman, is not just going to travel?!  He is going to cruise?!  Yes, that's right.  I am also going to relax, spend time with my wife, sit at the Sky Bar, read a book (until I fall asleep, that is). 

So why am I going to do it on this particular cruise?  I am so glad you asked!  You see, the first Seabourn cruise I ever took was on the Seabourn Pride.  I was a pretty new travel agent and didn't really know what Seabourn was all about.  But then my eyes were opened and I saw what a different experience a Seabourn cruise was from a mass market cruise.  It not only got me hooked, it made me a better...much better...travel agent because Seabourn and its staff and crew showed me first hand what it is like to treat guests as, well, guests.  It is, in fact, where I came up with my motto, slogan and business model:  Be Treated By Your Travel Agent As You Will Be Onboard!

In the years since Seabourn has gone through many changes from the passing of its leader, Debbie Natansohn, to the building of the three fantastic Odyssey-class ships, to the merging of many systems with Holland America.  So on this cruise I get to go back onto my first Seabourn ship, the Seabourn Pride, with its mere 208 guests and experience that which has historically made Seabourn the best in the luxury class.  As was explained to me way back then:  It's the Seabourn software (people), not the hardware, that makes it so special.



It may be too late to join me on this sailing, but if you are interested contact me about the 2013 Goldring Travel Food & Wine Cruise on the Seabourn Quest.  It is a seven day cruise on November 13, 2013 from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Buenos Aires, Argentina (overnighting in Montevideo, Uruguay) with a great mix of food, wine and nature.  I will be adding some pre- and post- cruise options.  Details are coming!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Regent Seven Seas Cracks Are Showing: Beware and Be Careful of the "Dirty Little Secret".

Red Flag Warning!


There is no question that I do not like Regent Seven Seas Cruises either as a "luxury" cruise product or the way they do business.  It is also clear that I have been seeing cracks in Regent and have been observing the sheen wearing off its luster with poor financial reports despite its claims of allegedly full ships.  See, for example, Regent Seven Seas: Ships Fuller, But Very, Very Slim Profits - Part II.

And now Regent Seven Seas is going to take a little bit of money from travel agents...and, ready for this:  A lot of money from you.

I have been very critical of Regent's misleading (dishonest) "free", "free", "free" mantra for the drinks, hotel, tours and gratuities that are actually buried in your very high Regent Seven Seas cruise fare.  But you may not be aware of the Dirty Little Secret that Regent Seven Seas has used to cause many travel agents to persuade you to book a Regent cruise over a Seabourn or Silversea cruise...or even to convince them to say that a Regent cruise is actually about the same cost as a suite on Holland America.  See, for example, Regent Seven Seas vs. Holland America - Really? Let's Talk Ethics.

That's right, there are travel agents that encourage you to book a cruise because of a Dirty Little Secret; not because it is actually the best cruise for you! Shocking isn't it?

What is that Dirty Little SecretRegent has been paying travel agents more money to get you to book a cruise on Regent than any other cruise line (Can you imagine?  Here I am a travel agent complaining about a cruise line wanting to pay me more money.  How does that make sense?  But I digress!)

How did...and that is important..."did" is the operative word...Regent do that?  Regent would tell travel agents that it not only pays commissions on the highest cruise fares in the industry, but also paid commissions on government taxes.  It also eliminated what are called NCF's (non-commissionable fares) which are arbitrary amounts of the cruise fare that the cruise lines just say, "I am not going to pay you a commission on that amount."  (To be fair, NCF's are not fair to travel agents and artificially cut a travel agent's income just because the cruise lines can do it.)

But that was then and as of October 1, 2012 this is now.  Regent has just announced it is no longer going to pay commissions on taxes and it is going to eliminate commissions on $20 per day of a cruise.  To be fair, that is not a lot of money, but when a cruise line is looking for but a few dollars per cruise and is prostituting the very pitch that hooked so many travel agents to push the cruise line their way, the storm flags are waiving.

Is Regent Seven Seas in such difficult financial straits that it must find an extra $20-$50 per cruise and that it must stick its hand into the pocket of the travel agents that bought into its pitch?  Well, it is obviously worse.

Worse, you say?  How?  Regent Seven Seas taking a two prong attack on your pocketbook.

First, Regent Seven Seas is going to reduce its air credit by $200 per person.  You remember that "free" air that really isn't free.  Well, if you opt for a credit rather than taking the air (how do you get a credit for something free?  Oh, that is another discussion!) you will get $200 less.  Since the majority of people prefer to obtain air on their own, whether it be by using frequent flyer miles or finding better flights or even driving to the pier, that is an easy $400 increase per suite in cruise fare.

Second, that $50 per suite from the travel agent and the $400 per suite from your, the passenger, not being enough, Regent Seven Seas had decided to raise the category assignment for a number of suites.  Hence that Category H you want may not be an H anymore, but rather a G...so you will pay yet more hundreds or thousands more.  (Suites in each category are going to be bumped up to the next category.)

And all of a sudden it looks pretty clear that Regent Seven Seas Cruises is seeking to earn another $450 to $1,500 per suite per cruise.  And, with that, Regent Seven Seas, already the most expensive cruise line is now going to be significantly more expensive.

Now, with Regent admitting your cruise is going to cost you a lot more than it did, one would think it would at least throw its cruise passengers (they don't seem too much like guests anymore, do they?) some sort of bone; an improvement or enhancement. Nope!

So let me ask you two things?  Do you want to pay more...a lot more...for the same thing?  Do you really think those "free" tours are worth it?

My suggestion is that you ask both your travel agent and Regent Seven Seas some really pointed questions.  (And you may want to ask Mark Conroy where that new ship is that he has been promising is coming for the last 5+ years!)

And, of course, now you know why I have been so concerned about what Regent Seven Seas has been, and will be, doing.  I never took Regent's bait because I established Goldring Travel to assure that my clients receive the best cruise for their dollar; not that I get the most dollars from my clients.

What do you think?  Express yourself (even anonymously) on The Gold Standard Luxury Travel Forum.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Review and Reflection of the AmaWaterways AmaLotus Vietnam and Cambodia Tour and Cruise


Preface:  I have never had difficulty writing a Review and Reflections of a trip before.  I have struggled with this one…in a very good way.  You see, my AmaWaterways’ AmaLotus Vietnam and Cambodia experience (land and cruise) I had from August 21 through September 4, 2012 was, without question, one of the best overall travel experiences I have ever had. 
 
While you can read my thirteen (13) article travelogue of my trip (starting at http://goldringtravel.blogspot.com/2012/07/goldring-travels-amawaterways-amalotus.html), this is but a synopsis of what was an extraordinary immersion into similar, but very conflicting, cultures juxtaposed to many social, political, economic and spiritual experiences.  How to synthesize this into a short Review and Reflection while keeping it relevant is the challenge.
The Basics

AmaWaterways provides you with what are clearly the best hotels in Hanoi, Vietnam (Sofitel Metropole Hanoi) and Siem Reap, Cambodia (Sofitel Angkor) and a very good one in Saigon (Sheraton – though the Sofitel is also used) along with the best luxury junk on Halong Bay.  



The AmaLotus river cruise ship was so much nicer than its descriptions prepared me for.  I was fortunate enough to have access to a standard Veranda Cabin, a Junior Suite and a Sa Dec Suite (the largest).  They are extremely well designed, finished and equipped; including the bathrooms.  With rich deep-toned woods, lots of natural light, plenty of deck space, really comfortable  furnishings inside and out…and a great pool aft on the Sun Deck…you truly wanted for nothing.  


Luggage handling was flawless (from outside your old room to inside your new one) as were transfers, Cambodian visas and the flight from Hanoi to Siem Reap (baggage claim there being the only time I had to handle my luggage while in AmaWaterway’s care). 

Virtually every provided meal was very good to excellent and, with rare exception, you can order what you like or enjoy truly extraordinary buffets (they are really much more than buffets!) rather than from a limited fixed menu. And on those couple of occasions, the menu options were more than acceptable.  

While on the AmaLotus the food was consistently surprisingly good and with an excellent mix of Western and Westernized-Asian offerings through a mix of an every-changing buffet at breakfast and lunch coupled with an Action Station offering something new each meal (Vietnamese pancakes, omelets, pho rice noodle soup, noodle dishes, etc.).  Dinners are a strictly sit-down affair with a starter, soup, main and dessert with standards such as hamburgers, salmon and chicken breast always available.  Honestly…and I know this stuff…I am truly amazed not only at the quality and variety of offers made on the cruise portion of this trip, but its presentation.


On the land portion drinks were generally an added cost, but on the AmaLotus AmaWaterways freely pours an acceptable bulk “white” and “red” wine during lunch and dinner and Vietnamese beer, vodka, gin and whiskey at all times (as well as soft drinks).  Other spirits (limited, but acceptable selection) and a small, but ample, reserve wine list are available at an additional cost.  Note:  There was a good bit of discussion about why wine is not included other than at meals.  The reason is obvious to me:  Wine is much more expensive as it needs to be imported.  

One thing you do need to understand is that your staff and crew are not American or British and have not learned English in American or British schools, but rather in Vietnam and Cambodia.  As such, understanding your charming…and they are charming…shipboard staff and guides can take some getting used to and be prepared for small requests to be lost in translation.  (It was rather humorous to me listening to some well-meaning people trying to explain things in more and more complicated ways rather than simplifying it, such as “Cook it more” was replaced with, “I want this well-done so that I do not see any red in the meat.  Do you understand?” because they thought the concept wasn’t understood, when it was a “lost in translation” moment.)  















AmaWaterways would not allow us to reserve a table and that initially was a bit of a sore point as we had to juggle and jostle…and even get to the dining room early so we could sit together.  (You see single persons and couples would sit at a table for six so they could have a window seat.)  However, after a couple of days we sort of lay claim to a particular table and stayed there; in part because our waitress was so charming and had such a wonderful sense of humor.  The problem – if it was a problem – was that many times we didn’t have a clue what she was saying!  She was just so dear that didn’t matter.


Speaking of staff, three of our four guides ranged from one of the best I have ever had to very good.  One was a bit of a dud, but I only had him for the last couple of days in Vietnam.  He had a very hard act to follow as my Cambodian guide, who was, well and truly, an exceptional human being that added so much to our experience that I am not sure I could ever thank him enough.  Over the six days we was with us, he was able to express and explain, in detail, the complicated relationships between Cambodia, Vietnam, China, France and the United States and then how the interrelationships between the King, the Khmer Rouge, the Viet Cong intertwined with those relationships.  And, of course, he brought the fear and destruction the Khmer Rouge brought to Cambodia uncomfortably alive.  I am much more enriched as a result.

Our tour guide (who traveled with us for 15 days) was a bit annoyingly repetitious and I wish he had slightly better mastery of the English language (which could be why, in part, he repeated himself so much), but there is no question that he got the job done with nary a hiccup.  If he could get those 30 minute daily briefings down to the 5 minutes they really needed, it would be a plus.

That said, two of the travelers not only needed some medical care, but were so impressed with it that they requested that I mention in this Review that AmaWaterways not only arranged care in clean, well-equipped, medical facilities, but stayed with them the entire time.  The tour guide mentioned to me that AmaWaterways is meticulous with this and requires not only that sort of personal attention, but detailed reports to stay fully informed.  This is a great thing to know if you have concerns about traveling to a fairly remote third-world destination.

The Actual Travel Experience
Let me start with, “You Missed It!”  

Yes, the majority of people consider the AmaLotus cruise down the Mekong River as being what the trip is about so they do not take the Pre-Cruise Extension from Hanoi to Halong Bay, Vietnam to Siem Reap, Cambodia.  Big mistake.  And I mean:  Big Mistake!

Even before I took this trip I have spoken to people who have said that since they are traveling so far they should spend some time in Thailand.  To me that is like saying I want to explore France, so while I am there I will spend time in Germany.  Not only are they distinctly different countries, they are distinctly different cultures, histories, etc.  My suggestion is to do this trip well; not two trips no so well.

The fact is that traveling down the Mekong River with no real context results in a pretty superficial experience and a real lack of understanding why or how the local people live the way they do and why there is development where it is and the cause and effect of it. And, trust me on this, you are not going to “get it” with four or five days of shore excursions.  But if you are looking merely for a vacation in an exotic location (as some prefer to sunbath, shop or loudly gossip more than discover), I guess it would work…but why travel so far to do so?

Anyway, by including the pre-cruise land portion and taking advantage of our free time to delve into things a bit deeper and/or more personally, it allowed myself and my family to really experience things while pushing ourselves, comforting ourselves and even being embarrassingly touristic at times.  (If being paraded down a small village in a 40 rickshaw caravan is not “embarrassingly touristic” I am not sure what is!)


AmaWaterways does a great job of balancing the desires of those who want touristic experiences, cultural experiences and in-depth sociological experiences.  This is not an easy task; especially when working in Communist countries that require – yes, require – that certain things be included in your tour.  So be prepared for a boring water puppet show, a fun touristic rickshaw ride, a visit to a silk weaving sweatshop come souvenir bastion, a charming walk along a dirt tracked local village, a trek through a former Viet Cong encampment, visits to prisons with histories of torture and some amazing temples such as Angkor Wat and a beautiful chanting prayer by Buddhist monks.

Was I really moved and disturbed by our first excursion to the Hanoi Hilton (especially with the mandated propaganda)?  Absolutely.  Did I reflect on the horrific conditions that prison inflicted upon American soldiers, but also the local Vietnamese when under French rule?  Absolutely.  Did it strike me hard when later that evening I was sitting in the Sofitel Metropole (a bastion of colonialism for 100+ years) being served by Vietnamese staff in similar manner to when they were forced to serve the French…causing me to reflect on why there is such resentment and hatred of colonialism and imperialism?  Without question.


Now, let’s extract that from our trip.  If I had just done the Mekong River Cruise on the AmaLotus my first experience with Vietnam would have been on the second to last day when we visited small floating fish farm, a local village and a rattan factory.  I would have absolutely no context and would probably have seen the day as “charming”…nothing more. 



But now, let’s take it back just two days earlier (the day before was a “sea” day).  That day we visited the Killing Fields and the S21 Detention Center of the Khmer Rouge.  Aside from the fact that I would not have had the days of information provided by our Cambodian guide while in Siem Reap, I would not have near as much context as to the interrelationship between the Viet Cong and Cambodia’s King nurturing the Khmer Rouge…and why.

As an expert travel agent and one who has organized some pretty complicated experiences and vacations for my clients, I can tell you without any hesitation that it would be near impossible for me to put together such an integrated experience as the one AmaWaterways has provided.  Dealings with local villages and governments, businesses and individuals, and then coordinating all of it is very complicated.

As an example, one day we visited Kampong Chhnang with small tenders picking us up at the ship and then cruising around the floating village.  This was followed by a wonderful stroll through the local market before returning to the ship.  After a short cruise after lunch we arrived at Kampong Tralach where we were greeted by dozens of ox carts (and even more people) as we bumped along a dirt track to be met by modern motor coaches that took us to a Buddhist monastery for a traditional jasmine prayer and a discussion of the Cambodian melding of Buddhism and Hinduism, after which we met the AmaLotus which had repositioned downstream near the tiny village of Chong Koh for a relaxing evening aboard the ship.  Try that on your own!


One point I do want to stress:  With all of the activities noted, this is not a trip for everyone.  I do not like the Difficulty Categorization that many ocean and river cruise lines use.  On a scale of 1 to 5, this trip is rated a 4…but I also have a day tour in Bordeaux with another operation that has a Difficulty rating of 4.  There simply is no consistency, so do not rely upon them.  

This trip is in a very hot, very humid environment.  If you are climbing through Angkor Wat or monkey bridges in a former Viet Cong encampment or up many stairs or over distances of half a mile or more, it will take its toll if you are not up to it.  There were people on our trip that were physically unable to do many things…and, thus, held us back.  There were people that just didn’t want to be that hot or tired.  There were people who simply had no idea this was not a passive vacation. So please do your research and be sure it is the right experience for you and that you consider your possible impact on those you will be traveling with.  In these remote areas no one, including AmaWaterways, has the ability to immediately handcraft a personal excursion if you are not up to the small group experience.

Another thing to consider:  I would strongly recommend that you take this trip from Hanoi and then travel through Cambodia to Saigon.  It gives you a sense of connection and development.  If I started this trip in Saigon, I sense I would feel that I was reading a book from back to front; from the modern city of Saigon back in time to a simpler time.  It is, in reality, a simpler time being infiltrated by many things which you experience as you travel.

Conclusion

This was a phenomenal experience and one that I am not only thrilled I took, but had my family experience. 
 
 
 
For me it answered many questions and gave me some real insight and perspective for those things that troubled me so in the 1960’s and 1970’s as well as some understanding of why it all really happened.  This trip has, for now, made me feel incredibly patriot, incredibly angry and also incredibly humble as well as quite introspective.
 
But for my children to experience the spirituality of our Cambodian guide and the Buddhist monks, the joy on the faces of children that live in bamboo shacks with no plumbing maybe electricity, the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom and the culinary experiences of fertilized duck eggs, fried tarantula and pho; to appreciate that those with more stuff really seemed to have less in their lives…and that if you swallow your “coolness” and get into some touristic things you can actually have fun,  it was all worth it.
 
 
A wise man gave me some advice before taking this trip.  He said to not work at explaining things.  To let it just be and over time they will settle in and the questions and thoughts will arise.  He is oh so right.  
 
So as I write this, please understand that this review is written only days after I have returned.  It is all just settling in. So far so good, huh?
 
I highly recommend this AmaWaterways’ experience.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Seabourn's All-Inclusive Advantage Program...Taking on Regent Seven Seas' "Free", "Free", "Free" Concept, But In a Luxury Manner


Seabourn Cruise Line has just announced that it is offering “All Inclusive Advantage” packages on select sailing.
 
 
With each of these select Seabourn cruises its North American guests will have an option: 
 
          Cruise Only – including all of the normal Seabourn luxury amenities including open bars and a no tipping policy.
 
           All-Inclusive Advantage – including the above plus airfare, a one night pre-cruise hotel stay, transfers and a $2,000 per suite onboard credit which you can utilized for shore excursions of your choice regardless of the shore excursion’s price.
 
That’s right, you can use your Shore Excursion Credit as you desire.  If you want to spend it all on a couple truly unique experiences, you can.  If you want to use it all to hire a private driver for the day, you can.  And if you wish to spread out the credit so that you have a shore excursion in every port, you can do that too.  (Note: You can only use the credit for shore excursions; not, for example, in the spa or on reserve wine list.)
 
And with both “Cruise Only” and “All Inclusive Advantage” pricing you will know, when making your choice, what the cost of the having “all inclusive” will be over and above the basic cruise fare.
 
Now, keep one thing in mind, Seabourn’s all-inclusive advantage pricing will probably be higher than if you or your travel agent were to book everything separately and, of course, your selection of hotels and flights will be restricted, but you will have the benefit (if you see it as that) as having a one-stop shopping experience along with the comfort of knowing that your decision-making requirements are limited plus knowing that Seabourn is accountable to you for everything.
 
Let’s face it, Regent Seven Seas has been quite successful (at least on the sales side) with its all-inclusive product.  But, Seabourn, in my opinion, it is going to do it better than Regent Seven Seas.  “How?” you might ask.  Very simply…and transparently and the luxury of flexibility.
 
 
First, I have said for years that Regent Seven Seas is charging you a significant premium for its all-inclusive fares while it is dishonestly pitching those amenities being provided to you as “free airfare”, “free pre-cruise hotel”, “free (limited) excursions”, “free gratuities” and “free alcoholic beverages”.  Seabourn doesn’t believe in that approach.  Seabourn is happy to show you the price difference so that you may make an informed decision that you are happy with.
 
Second, Seabourn’s All Inclusive Advantage program you are not stuck taking the “bottom of the barrel” tours with hundreds of your fellow passengers; as you are required to do with Regent Seven Seas.  The reality of it is that most of Regent’s “free” tours are the same ones that are offered on mass market lines.  That doesn’t necessarily make them bad tours, but when 50 people are put on a bus that is meeting three other buses at the same rest area on the way to the same venue, it isn’t exactly the same as Seabourn’s placing 25 people on that same type of bus and limiting the tour that one bus.  (Remember on Seabourn you have only 208 and 450 guest ships while on Regent Seven Seas you will have 700+ fellow passengers.)
 
Third, with Seabourn’s All Inclusive Advantage program you are not stuck being upsold to take the tours you really want to take at an additional cost to you, as you are with Regent Seven Seas.  Seriously, if you are paying for your “free” tours, why should you be sort of “bait and switched” finding after you bought your cruise that you have to pay yet more for the tours you really want?
 
Fourth, you not subjected to the “Use It or Lose It” ploy that Regent Seven Seas subjects you to if there is port where you want a private excursion or just want to explore on your own.  With Seabourn’s All Inclusive Advantage Program you are free to spend your onboard credit in whichever ports you desire...or not.
 
 
The following cruises are available for the Seabourn All-Inclusive Advantage Fares (governmental fees and taxes are additional):
  • Seabourn Odyssey Australia and New Zealand Odyssey I - January 6, 2013, 16 days Sydney to Auckland, from $12,499
  •  
  • Seabourn Odyssey Australia and New Zealand Odyssey II- January 22, 2013, 16 days Auckland to Sydney, from $12,099
  •  
  • Seabourn Odyssey Indonesian Odyssey- March 15, 2013, 10 days Bali to Singapore, from $8,199
  •  
  • Seabourn Odyssey India and Arabian Odyssey- March 25, 2013, 16 days Singapore to Dubai, from $9,699
  •  
  • Seabourn Odyssey Kingdoms of the Sun- April 10, 2013, 18 days Dubai to Rome, from $9,799
  •  
  • Seabourn Pride Vietnam and Thailand- March 4, 2013, 14 days Hong Kong to Singapore, from $9,699
  •  
  • Seabourn Pride Jewels of India and Arabia- March 18, 2013, 18 day Singapore to Dubai, from $9,299
  •  
  • Seabourn Pride Wonders of Arabia and Egypt- April 5, 2013, 18 day Dubai to Athens, from $8,999
  •  
  • Seabourn Sojourn Patagonian Passage West-   January 4, 2013 and February 3, 2013, 15 days Buenos Aires to Valparaiso, from $10,799
  •  
  • Seabourn Legend Caribbean Hideaways-  January 26, 2013, February 2, 2013, March 2, 2013, March 23, 2013, 7 day roundtrip St. Thomas, from $4,699
Let’s take a look at the January 6, 2013 Seabourn Odyssey’s Australia and New Zealand Odyssey I cruise.  Cruise only fares start at $7,500.00 per person, double occupancy, while the All-Inclusive Advantage Fare starts at $12,499.  Breaking that down, if you were to do it on your own airfares start at about $2,200 per person from the East Coast (but airfares do run up to about $3,000 per person), a hotel will cost about $500, transfers about $300 and there is a $1,000 (per person) onboard credit.  Yes, that’s right; there may be up to $1,000 (or possibly nothing dependent on airfares) that seems to be missing.  That is the premium I told you about and which Seabourn is being very transparent in showing.
 
Let’s face it:  
 
Many travel agents are lazy and others just don’t know how to put this sort of package together.  So if you use that sort of travel agent because it is (you think) convenient or you are (ha, ha) getting a good deal from them, this can be a great option.  (Call me before booking with that travel agent.  I will show you that they are not a good value!)
 
And then, even with a great travel agent (like Goldring Travel!), some folks still worry about flights, shore excursions, etc. For you, the comfort of knowing things are all overseen by Seabourn may just be worth it.
 
And, of course, finally:  For those Regent Seven Seas passengers who have stayed with Regent primarily because you like the all-inclusive concept, here is a perfect reason to try…just try…a Seabourn cruise.  Have your own Regent Seven Seas vs. Seabourn Cruise Line evaluation.
 
By the way, Seabourn's All-Inclusive Advantage Fares still qualify for the Goldring Travel Seabourn Referral Discount Program, so if you have never sailed on Seabourn before and this program is of interest to you, Goldring Travel will provide you with a direct discount.
 
If you are interested in Seabourn’s All-Inclusive Advantage Program or would like to book any cruise or holiday, please give Goldring Travel a call at (877) 2GO-LUXURY or email me at eric@goldringtravel.com.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Goldring Travel's AMAWaterways' AmaLotus - Vietnam, Cambodia and The Mekong River Cruise- Part XIII (Our Last Days)

After returning to the ship from our rather disturbing visit to the Killing Fields and saying goodbye to our truly fantastic Cambodian guide, I thought it was time for a bit of fun and normalcy, so we went to The Stone Grill (the original “Hot Rocks” they now have on Silversea cruise ships) which stood as a curiously modern venue in the rather ramshackle city of Phnom Penh.  With all the meats and fish flown in and the service staff Japanese, it really changed the mood quickly…once we got past the persistent, but friendly, tuk-tuk drivers and their shocked faces that we could actually eat in such an expensive restaurant.
 
The next day was a river (sea?) day that past far too quickly.  The AmaLotus had typical events such as napkin folding, cooking demonstrations and ice cream party.  I, instead, made good use of the pool, which is not large enough to swim in, but is great for lounging in with your drink…and never crowded…while looking over the stern of the ship and expansive views of the Mekong River.
 
On this day we crossed into Vietnam.  It is strange that it takes hours to have the guests and crew cleared, especially since so many have been cleared previously (for example, we had a double entry visa and this was our reentry), but Vietnam is a Communist country and paperwork is the engine that slows the country down, but gives government jobs a purpose.  It did not affect our day as lounging as the river passed us or we passed down river really didn’t matter.
 
The next day we visited the small town of Tan Chau, Vietnam with our new Vietnamese guide.  Our guide was a real disappointment after our Cambodian guide and even our first Vietnamese guide.  He did what he had to and said what he had to, but no more.  He just did his job…though he was friendly enough.
 
It was a very interesting morning.  After hopping into a local tender we traveled up a rather large tributary past some farms and more developed areas.
 
 
Our first stop was a somewhat touristic floating fish farm (read:  local family that is paid to allow us to see their pen while displaying other items for purchase).  With my marine biology background I found it enlightening as it underscored why there are all the warnings about not eating farmed fish from Vietnam.   Thousands and thousands of tilapia are raised in pens which are closed in by bamboo fence on two sides and wire mess on the others, blocking much of the water flow resulting in rather filthy water…with family waste dropping into the river around them.  There are four bags of fish feed being displayed.  Knowing the economies of these families are so small, there is no way those four bags of feed would be present, no less open and on display, at any one time.   It was noted the feed is expensive so the fish are giving other food as well.  And while the content of fish food is already suspect, what the “other” food is probably would raise an eyebrow or two.

 
After that we traveled up a small tributary, past was seemed like a boat graveyard on the left but with most boats occupied by a family. 
 
 
On the right was farmland (corn and papaya more than rice).  It was here that I started to hear about the problems with erosion and why they need to shore up the riverbanks.  It was like they never put together that if they didn’t strip the riverbank of the native vegetation and the land of a buffer that would hold back the runoff there would be no erosion.  I thought of how environmental damage and poor education is running rampant here and what I shame it is.
 
Anyway, as we cruised along we eventually pulled onto the riverbank and up a short dirt path to a small village.  As we walked along the dirt path children came out to say hello while woman were sitting in their yards husking corn (used for feed). 
 

One boy had a colored ice that the other children pined for and one piece was knocked off to the ground.  He was so upset! 
 
 
A girl came up to my daughter (they were fascinated with her light skin and purple highlighted hair) and said she was 13; the same age as my daughter.  Being 13 they were both too shy to talk to each other.  
 
As we walked along the path an older man on a bicycle rigged up with a shaved ice contraption stood on the side of the road.  My wife came up with the idea of buying some of the kids ices, but I initially said it wouldn’t be a good idea.  However, as these very polite and charming kids continued to follow us, I asked the guide if it would be OK.  He said it would be fine and when he asked the kids who wanted ices it was like any group of kids anywhere in the world:  Chaos and shouts.  For about $5.00 we bought ices for the 16 or so children.


Irony:  The ice man was happy making his 25 cents on the occasional sale, but overwhelmed by 16 shouting and pushing kids let to shouts from him in Vietnamese of “Quiet!”.  We left the village before all the kids got their ices (as shaving a block of ice on a metal blade takes a good bit of time).  I just hope he didn’t run out of ice!
 
From there we walked past a makeshift volleyball court with a well-worn out net and ball to a small paved road where we each hopped into a trishaw (a short of rickshaw at the back end of a bicycle) for a ride into a small town to see a rattan factory.  It was, plain and simple, a small sweatshop with young girls mindlessly and repeatedly placing reeds into a machine…without a smile or even acknowledgment of our existence and metal and wood bars flying around unprotected. 
 
 
While it was quite sad to me, others found it “charming”.  For my kids it was a valuable lesson and a bit of an eye-opener.  As troubling as it is, I am pleased the opportunity was made available to us.
 
From there we traveled further down the road to a silk-weaving factory.  With one loom working to show us how the process worked, I looked around and down a long string of quiet looms knowing the heat, noise and danger when they are operating have to be horrific.
 

 
 
And then it was into the mandatory souvenir shop.  I could not believe the mindless purchasing by some of the passengers.  Here we are in the middle of nowhere with a factory making large bolts of silk material and they are buying anything that says “silk” on it as if it was made there.  The shock on some faces when later on the ship it was explained that those same items are for sale in airports and shops all over the place and that obviously, they weren’t made there was incredible. 

 

It was then line of tourists on trishaws going through town, seeing everyday life on the way back to our tender, which not only was very interesting, but which made me pause and reflect on the logistics of putting just today (not to mention every day) together.  Let’s see:  In a remote part of Vietnam we’ll go to a floating fish farm, cruise up a small tributary past a boat graveyard to a small farm to walk through a rural village then hop on a trishaw to see a couple of workplaces and then tour the local town.  Not something you can do on your own.
 
After returning to the ship it was a slow cruise downriver to Sa Dec, the last stop, where we would anchor midstream.
 
On our last full day we took a boat ride into Sa Dec where we walked through the local market on the river.  This is where our Cambodian guide was truly missed.  Rather than stopping by each stall, explaining what was new, different or of cultural significance, our guide just walked ahead; making only a couple of perfunctory stops.  Regardless, I found the market very interesting with the largest variety of “food” we had yet seen.  It ranged from frogs, tadpoles and eels, to chickens (literally taken from the basket, killed, cleaned and quartered right in front of you), ducks, a huge variety of fish and dried fish, fruits, vegetables, many types of rice and more. 
 





Then it was to the home of an author for whom the AmaWaterways' Le Marguerite was named (not very interesting) and then, for those wanting to go back to the ship, an “out”. 

For the rest of us it was off to Xeo Quyt, a former Viet Cong secret base.  Again, while our guide did his job, I felt a bit cheated going through this site compared to our Cambodia guide, as he really did nothing to bring the site alive.  Regardless, the hiding places, bomb craters, bunkers and defense positions were quite interesting/creepy and the dense forest and small streams also gave you a sense of what it must have been like to hide, fight through or try to see into the jungle.  There was also an eerie reminder of the ubiquitous use of landmines as we passed a (former) landmine field.




 

One strange thing was seen when we were departing:  The site is quite popular for pre-wedding photos and two couples were doing just that.  It made me think, yet again, about the contrasts between the teachings of the “American War” on the one hand and the utter dependence on the U.S. Dollar on the other. 

 
The afternoon took as past a small floating market and then into another part of the town for supposed "day in the life" experience.  It was actually quite touristic with faux popped rice and coconut candy demonstrations.  The most fun was the photo opportunity of having your picture taken holding a large python.  Some really loved this tour.  Me, not so much.

That said, my daughter did have her shot at doing some things outside of her comfort zone including drinking a some snake wine (seven species of snakes, no less) and having that python wrap itself around her.
 
After returning to the ship and packing up, as our cruise is coming to an end, we had one last “briefing”.  Our luggage will be taken from just outside our cabin and placed into our rooms at the Sheraton Saigon Towers and since we fill out a provided hotel registration form, we will be able to go right to our rooms on arrival.   It was then a final enjoyable dinner and a farewell drink before heading off for bed as we must be up and out of our room by 7:30 a.m. and off the ship by 8:15 a.m.
 
Breakfast was as usual and then we hung out in the lounge waiting to disembark.  Our 1.5 hour drive to Saigon (as the South prefers it is called) or Ho Chi Min City (as the North prefers) was highlighted by a very nice and informative guide (our fourth on this trip)…but then it went a bit downhill as I got the sense that our morning tour was intended to string out our time in Saigon until check-ins could be completed.  We spent way too much time at the former Presidential Palace (an exterior view and walk around would have been more than sufficient. 
 
 
It was then off to the recently renamed War Remnants Museum.  I found it both informative and troubling.  It is always good to see and understand the other side’s perception of things – which this museum does well – but it also was a significant propaganda machine focusing blame on the United States for just about everything; even the French colonialism and the following war for Vietnam’s independence.  Similarly, there is virtually no mention of the South Vietnamese struggle to remain independent, but rather coloring them merely as “puppets” who had no choice but to follow the Americans.   
 
 
 
This was an excellent experience for me and a very valuable teaching moment for my children; which they really did appreciate from both the horrors of war and the difficulty in hearing the supposed other side.
 
After driving through Chinatown and visiting the Thien Hau Pagoda (again interesting, but we were there far too long) it was off to a lacquer “factory” for a lesson on how to make mother of pearl and duck egg inlays and then…drumroll please:  The Showroom with walls and walls of examples all for sale.  Just as when I was in Egypt and wanted to avoid the papyrus factory, I wanted the same thing here.  And just like in Egypt I am lugging home two pieces that I know I have overpaid for.  (Note:  This is not noted in the written itinerary, you are surprised by it and you are trapped.  Not good.  But that said my wife is happy.)
 
Then, after a quick stop at a church and the Post Office we, finally…and I mean finally…got to the Sheraton at almost 2:00 p.m.  It was a quick drop off of our carryons and purchases in the room and then lunch.  The included lunch was excellent with one of the nicest and most varied buffets I have ever seen, with Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean and Western foods offered…and most all very well prepared.
 
After a bit of a rest, and after struggling to find a nice restaurant for a light dinner (after our bigger than expected lunch), the concierge recommended a restaurant that was literally around the corner.  And, of course, I was concerned it was a tourist trap despite his assurance it was not.  Xu was really, really good with an innovative and beautifully presented menu with small bites and full dishes.  Set menus are also offered, but we decided on ala carte.  I won’t bother you with the menu other than to say that I finally tried durian (the stinky fruit that is considered a delicacy in Southeast Asia).  It wasn’t a memorable moment either way.
 
After dinner was over, so we thought, one of the waitresses came out with a bucket she said contained liquid nitrogen with tiny chocolate waffles inside.  She explained you move it from hand to hand and then pop it into your mouth and breathe out through your nose.  With smoke coming out of everyone’s noses it was a great laugh and a fun way to end our only night in Saigon.
 
The next morning, after a bit of a sleep in, we had our included breakfast at the Sheraton (again a fantastic buffet) and then walked to the Central Market where bargains are supposed to be everywhere.  (Note:  AmaWaterways offered a quick trip there after lunch yesterday, but we were tired and didn’t want to limit ourselves to 45 minutes of shopping.)  It was, honestly, a bit of disappointment.  There are plenty of knock-off shirts, but they are all the same.  Not much was of interest and other than shoes and clothing there really wasn’t much else.  (My kids made me promise I would not investigate the food market, but what I saw was fine, but not exciting.)  It was then trying to find bargains in the local shops and department stores with none to be found.  (Things are expensive in New Jersey.)  
 
After a light lunch and a beer, most of our group went to a spa near the hotel for some very inexpensive spa treatments (yes, those are a bargain) and my son and I headed off to the Dan Sinh Market which specializes in military relics (most of which are clearly reproductions) and are almost entirely limited to American issue (which is a bit disturbing and, thus, nothing we would buy).  But most of the market is for hardware and industrial equipment…lots of it.  It was well worth the $1.00 taxi fare and an hour or so of our time.
 
With a final dinner and some last minute packing it now time to go home.  We are fulfilled, far more educated, far more appreciative of what we have and so very glad we have had our 16 days with AmaWaterways and the AmaLotus.
 
To be sure it has been a trip of a lifetime.
 
Next up:  Reflections.