Friday, February 27, 2015

Goldring Travel Experiences Azamara Club Cruises in Asia - Is it Amazing? Part V (Manila, Philippines - By Day and AzAmazing Evening)

After the Azamara Quest made port calls in the more exotic locations of Bali and Komodo Island, Indonesia then Sandakan, Borneo, Malaysia and then Puerto Princesa, Philippines our ship arrived in the city of Manila, Philippines for an overnight stay.  To be honest, I have never heard much of anything positive about Manila as a tourist destination and, to be sure, that a somewhat strong anti-American contingent existed. 

Intramuros, Manila, Philippines
The Azamara Quest provided a free shuttle to the Mall of Asia, a gigantic mall that I am sure was of interest to some and was near the large Ferris wheel I would never ride.  And I had no interest in an eight hour tour with over three hours on a bus traveling out of town to a farm to make pasta or to see some resort.  I say this especially since the cost of tours on Azamara Club Cruises are, to be honestly, ridiculously expensive.  (Not just in Manila, but everywhere.).  Yes, there was a tour to Intramuros and Chinatown, but at $128 per person for a 5 hour bus tour fighting the notorious traffic with a short horse and carriage ride I figured there had to be a better way.

Manila, Philippines
Not really being enthusiastic, and after recovering from the two hours of drumming that greeted us at 6:30 a.m. (just thinking about that again makes my head hurt), I did some work and then headed out in the early afternoon for a walk as the Old City (Intramuros) and Rizal Park was right across from the port. (With the overnight stay, I could take advantage of not having to rush out or rush back to the ship; a very nice touch.)

Being fairly well traveled, and being from New Jersey, I am pretty confident when I venture out alone.  But my antennae were up almost immediately and I was looking for something that made me feel like I was in a good place.  Rizal Park, at least the part near the port, didn’t look so good (and really wasn’t too impressive) and Intramuros is not like a quaint walled city like you find in many European cities but a sprawling area with some historical buildings and extreme poverty interspersed.

And then small horse and carriage came up to me.  He offered me a 30 minute ride for 50 pesos (about $1.25).  So let’s just stop here for a moment.  While Manila has a very poor population (there are very rich and very poor with little in between), there wasn’t any way I was hopping onto that carriage and getting off for 50 pesos.  He knew it and I knew it.  It was, to be sure, a “friendly” game of “tourist rip off…or not”. 


My Filipino driver’s first attempt was to guide me through the aquarium or the mall.  No thanks.  Then, after a series of questions about my marital status and love life, an inquiry if I would like to spend the afternoon with a 14 year old prostitute.  No thanks.  So then it was if I would like the big tour which was “very special” but I should understand he works on commission so he only gets 30% of what I pay.  OK, let’s do the special tour.
The Jeepney is the locals mode of transportation
So now, rather than sitting in traffic that doesn’t move, my driver starts driving down back alleys, on the wrong side of the road, running red lights.  He stops at every monument, statute, plaque, viewpoint, etc.  To be honest, through his broken English, I am getting to see just about everything there was to see.  (And also to be honest, I didn’t feel the need or desire to stop anywhere along the way, so it was just fine sitting in my little carriage.)

Having your horse and carriage go the wrong way down the road
takes care of the traffic issues and give a unique perspective
(The large No More Lice sign was "interesting")
After Intramuros it was on to Chinatown – supposedly the oldest outside of China.  Being from the New York area it wasn’t really that impressive, but it was the place where my view went from seen dozens of government paid workers lazily sweeping leaves and rubbish with old palm frond brooms to cesspool smelling waterways and abject poverty.  


As we passed Rizal Park on the other side, I saw what looked like a bit of a subterranean shanty village with dirty faced young children who smiled and then tried to climb onto my carriage to steal my wallet and camera.  My driver had to kick one especially aggressive girl who was probably no older than 10 off the carriage and told me to be careful because she bites people.  (She actually tried to climb on the rear of the carriage as he sped things up.)  No photos because everything was tucked well away!

As I knew my now two hour carriage ride was coming to an end, I checked my phone’s map app to see where I was relative to the port…just in case he tried to play games.  And games he did try!  He stopped the carriage next to some large trucks which hid the road to the port and said the price was US$50 for his horse and US$50 for him, but since he only gets 30%, that meant $150 for the guide, or $200 total.  So I said to him, knowing it was more than he probably makes in a week (but not wanting to be unfair as I legitimately am a tourist and a gold mine) that he told me 50 pesos for 30 minutes, but I would give him US$50 total.  He protested…a bit too strongly…figuring I was alone and, incorrectly, unfamiliar with where I was.   So I looked him straight in the eye and said, “I’m from New York.  Don’t F*** with me!”  He took the $50 and shook my hand.

And thus he won the game of “tourist rip off…or not”  because he got a nice fee for two hours of work and I won because I really got to see Manila (the good, the bad and the ugly) and some of its dark underbelly. 

I was also quite happy that I was able to return to the safe, comfortable and friendly confines of the Azamara Quest.  (Yes, when you go to some of the less pristine cities, having the security of an upscale cruise ship does make things better…a lot better than feeling trapped in your hotel room.)


And then, in stark contrast, Azamara Club Cruises held its Azmazing Evening in the Intramuros’ Fort Santiago.  The VIPs were taken to the event in a ubiquitous Jeepney, though this one was quite upscale with curtains, upholstered seats and video karaoke (which, fortunately, nobody took advantage of).  


We arrived after a 10 minute ride (that would have been at least 45 minutes in traffic just hours earlier) to a beautiful greeting with band with dancers (akin to a high school marching band) playing American songs with some very enthusiastic dancing, as well as snacks of fried bananas, ice cream and more and rum punch.


The setting was beautiful and there was an open bar with local beers, wine and soft drinks as well as buffets with light snacks.


After everyone arrived (most in regular buses) and were seated a rock band went on stage and played Beatles music and got quite a few couples up dancing.  Then more folkloric talent came on and then the evening ended with fireworks. 


It was a very nice two hours…and a reminder that the Philippines has a hugely multi-cultural heritage from indigenous to Spanish to American and more.  While you might think this could create confusion, exactly the opposite seems true:  Filipinos have a very secure and proud feeling about their culture no matter from where some aspect of it was derived.  Interesting.


Drop me an email at eric@goldringtravel.com or call me at (877) 2GO-LUXURY for more information on an Azamara Club Cruise or any other cruise or vacation.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Goldring Travel Experiences Azamara Club Cruises in Asia - Is it Amazing? Part V (Perspectives on Experiencing Developing Ports)

Two of the great attractions of an Azamara Club Cruises are its exotic itineraries and late departures/overnights in various ports which give you more time to explore…even if you are back onboard for dinner. 
Proboscis Monkey
Lubak Bay, Borneo, Malaysia 
But to me the more interesting thing is the interplay between guests visiting clearly underdeveloped ports and their expectations as to what the tours are going to be like. And this is where the concept of being a “traveler” (Azamara Club Cruises’ target market) and being a fare-centric “cruiser” less interested in the itinerary, but getting "value for money" really comes into play.   And while Azamara Club Cruises provides good value for a premium cruise experience I am finding the "travelers" who are generally paying more are extremely satisfied while, ironically, the "value for money" folks look for things to complain about...in part because they want to "cruise" rather than "travel".

Honestly, it does become tiresome when some folks learn who I am and believe I am the great repository for all of their complaints (legitimate and curious), which I politely listen to and then, subtly, try to give a different perspective to consider.  As you read this article I would ask you to look at the photographs and decide if sometimes the imperfect opportunities visiting remote areas are worthy of tolerance and forgiveness or not.

Sandakan, Borneo, Malaysia
Realty Check No. 1

The Azamara Quest is visiting some pretty remote ports and despite all the National Geographic shows you my watch, the fact is that you probably should be watching Globe Trekker or Anthony Bourdain to have a more realistic understanding of what you will encounter.  Additionally, you demand things to be developed to American/British standards and tastes and be sorely disappointed or you can feel honor and excitement to be on the cutting edge of newly developing tourist markets.

Our Honda Bay, Philippines boat was not up to Western standards...
and you literally had to walk the plank...but the "captain" was excellent
and made sure we were safe
For example, in Puerto Princesa, Philippines I chose the Honda Bay Island Hopping & Snorkeling tour.  It says, for example, “hop onto a boat”, well that was quite optimistic, though accurate.  Actually we hopped into the water and then up a rickety plank onto a wooden outrigger “boat” of dubious seaworthiness (life jackets mandatory!) and then headed out to our first island, Luli Island.  And then…the winds picked up, the seas got a bit rough and the currents were looking a bit difficult.  (That’s where the italics at the end of the ship’s description come in, “Note:  such water activities could be subject to adverse sea conditions such as high winds, waves and sea currents” though not mentioning the small bamboo outrigger with a put-put motor.)

Cowrie Island, Philippines
When we got to Luli island I found out this was the first time this tour was ever run and that, as was noted quite proudly I might add, last year five cruise ships had visited the port.  (That would be less than visit Cozumel, Mexico on any given day!) As such there just isn’t the money – yet -  for the fancy boats and posh accommodations (and the locals probably have never seen anything like what you might be expecting.)  Facilities included table-come-bar (warmish San Miguel Lite for 40…or is that 60…or is that 80 pesos?!), a rickety diving platform and an anti-jellyfish netted swim/snorkel area with a few shacks.  You could call it charming or a dump.  I go for charming.



Note:  Just like I say to many of my prospective clients, one thing that makes Goldring Travel different is that I have “been there and done that” because reading something out of brochure of a computer screen just isn’t the same.


Reality Check No. 2

Tourism is new to these remote areas and the locals are learning how to (a) determine what they have which is attractive to tourists; (b) market to the tourists; and (c) understand that tourists view things coming from a different culture.  As a result, there are sites which the locals may think are great that a tourist might consider a “misrepresentation”; marketing that makes something ordinary sound idyllic because that is how Marketing 101 is taught; and, things such as waiting in a queue for an hour go from day-to-day life to a huge irritation because they weren’t specifically disclosed and wasted time.

Viewing Platform at Orangutan Sanctuary

For example, in Sandakan, Borneo, Malaysia we visited the Sepilok Orangutan Reserve which consisted of a 45 minute drive, a 30 minute wait for the reserve to open, a 10 minute walk to a viewing area, a 45 minute wait for the feeding, a 15 minute viewing of the four orangutans, then a walk back to the bus, a 45 minute drive to Lubak Bay to view the Proboscis monkeys, an hour viewing them from a viewing house and then a drive back to the ship.  In other words it was not the trekking through the forest or holding baby orangutans (long forbidden) some expected, but it was a controlled, fairly comfortable, viewing experience that 200+ people could engage in at one time. 


Was it my best primate viewing experience?  No.  Monkey Jungle in Miami or the Bronx Zoo in New York do a good bit better; especially with education of visitors.  But does it inspire me to maybe return to Borneo for a land experience or possibly on a more immersive Silversea Expedition cruise. Absolutely.  This was just a tiny taste!

There is something about seeing a Proboscis Monkey
in its native Borneo that is special 

Pictures of baby monkeys are always a winner.
And increasing monkey populations in a reserve that would have
been part of a palm oil plantation is encouraging
But I also view my tour including me as part of a new culture of saving the forests and these primates by partnering with the local people to make the tourist economy more profitable than cutting down trees and slash and burn farming.  It was, to a degree, a donation of some of my time, some of my money and, hopefully, a bit of inspiration to carry on and expand their efforts and commitments.

(It was noteworthy to me that at Sepilok there was no souvenir shop so no t-shirts, no donation opportunity, no stuffed orangutans to bring home to the kids.  Imagine the sales that would have been generated in the 30 minutes we waited for the place to open and the time we waited to board the bus!  The local populace is learning, but it will take time.)   

Reality Check No. 3

There will be some “hits” and there will be some “misses” by the locals.

For example, in Puerto Princesa, Philippines the Azamara Quest was greeted by many of the locals, with huge, genuine smiles, and small gifts (straw hats) as we disembarked and the same when we returned.  As we sailed away the local youth band and dancers put on a high energy, big talent, show that actually brought a tear to my eye as they were so genuine, so happy (you could see the smiles never stopped), and so wanting things to be special.  (Some folks who were poolside actually asked the ship’s band to stop playing so they could enjoy the show on the dock.)

Tropical Reef Fish - Pandan Island, Philippines
The next port, Manila, Philippines was a bit different.  We were to arrive at 7:00 a.m., but arrived at 6:30 a.m.  And the drum corps started and kept going:  6:45 a.m.; 7:00 a.m., 7:30 a.m. (I’m about to lose it after an hour); 8:00 a.m., and finally, with the ship asking for mercy, it ended at 8:30 a.m.  Two hours of non-stop drumming.  It was like being trapped in an American high school football halftime show…as you tried to lie in bed with the pillow over your head pleading for some peace and quiet.

As I write this I am “enjoying” another 1.5 hours of a “Battle of the Bands” in Manila as we await our sail away.  It is much improved, though, over our greeting.  And it also has provided me with an interesting view of the tensions here as we depart:  There is a fairly strong anti-American tone in Manila, but things like marching bands, cheerleaders, dancers and baton twirlers performing to American tunes from the 60s to present (including Frozen) is about as American as one can get.

Reality No. 4

The shore excursion staff (Land Discovery staff on Azamara Club Cruises) have probably not been to these ports and have little, if any, additional information from what you have been able to gather from the pre-cruise documentation and the onboard port lectures/television shows.  Folks, you are not visiting Barcelona so there is not a pool of knowledge to be drawn from.

The fact is that most cruise lines do not do a great job of providing local information because they are focused on providing tours…and those things are focused on information and places that can handle 25 to 250 people at a time.  But even then, many times the cruise lines are dependent on the information the port agents and internal shore excursion departments provide them. 

A beautiful crab in Borneo
Sometimes you just have to take a moment rather than race back to the bus!
Yes, Azamara Club Cruises does have local information agents board the ship for a few hours after arrival, but for those wondering about such things as how far is the assigned port from X or where is a good place to Y, it can be frustrating.

Azamara Club Cruises is very good at having a ship's representative on all tours and usually more than one.  I have been particularly impressed with Beatriz who is not only charming and intelligent, but enthusiastic while making sure things are organized and everyone is taken care of.  (The fact that her husband is a sommelier onboard hasn't swayed my opinion at all.  I promise!)

Interested in learning more about some of the more exotic ports or Azamara Club Cruises, email me at eric@goldringtravel.com or call me at (877) 2GO-LUXURY.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Goldring Travel Experiences Azamara Club Cruises in Asia - Is it Amazing? Part IV (Upscale Meets ????)

This is an unusual article for me because I am usually focused on the pluses and minuses of a cruise line or ship; not the cruise guest.  However, I have now been onboard the Azamara Quest for a week and find myself both impressed and frustrated. 


 Why? 

Because I work hard to be sure my clients are on the right ship, no less right cruise line, for their lifestyle and desires.  But on this cruise there is clearly a mismatch. You see, although Azamara Club Cruises offers many upscale and luxury options, and you can tell the staff really enjoy their jobs and treat you well, and the ship is well maintained (though the Azamara Quest will be going through a major refit in September 2015)...a significant number of the passengers (I can’t call them guests) onboard have no interest in enjoying the upscale experience.  

Seriously!  And I don’t get it…other than they chose this cruise solely based upon price and, to be sure, were looking for a big ship experience on a smaller ship and brought that attitude with them!

Now don’t think that the Azamara Quest is not providing a very enjoyable upscale experience.  It most certainly is and, of course, it is not difficult to avoid the prototypical “Cruise Critic” crowd…because they don’t go where you will. 

As I anonymously wander this ship it is very clear that there are those who enjoy a more sophisticated experience, discuss their travels, have interest in your background, etc. while truly enjoying all that the Azamara Quest has to offer.  They speak of their experiences on Seabourn and Oceania (interestingly freely blasting Regent Seven Seas…again  - you can’t make this stuff up!) and their love of cruising. 

While there are a few onboard that cruise with Azamara Club Cruises for months at a time, and I can’t think of a single suite guest that is not content (while I hear the grumblings of some others), I do not hear the devout loyalty I hear while on other cruise lines…But at the same time the Upper Tier Past Guest Champagne Brunch this morning was extremely well attended.

Now, before I get into the “Why are they onboard?” analysis, I want to mention some of those upscale experiences that are being underutilized.

Azamara Quest's Thalasotherapy Pool Area Overlooking the Ship's Bow
(Note: The swinging chairs and comfortable lounges)
The Thalasotherapy pool area of the Spa is a great space available to all suite guests with a great view over the bow, creative seating from linen cabanas to swinging chairs…and bar service.  It is also available to all non-suite guests for a small charge…and well worth it.  But if you don’t ask about it (other than being told the use of this hidden gem is complimentary to all suite guests), you are never going to find it.  (Nor will you find the small, but good, sauna.)

By the way, a very cool evening, and one I would definitely do if my girlfriend was with me, is you can rent out the Thalassotherapy area for a very private Night Under The Stars, with a gourmet dinner prepared for you, with complimenting wines, candles everywhere and more.  It makes for an extremely romantic experience with views of the stars, the sound of the waves and… SeaDream Yacht Club offers the opportunity to spend the night on one of its Balinese beds, but this takes the concept to a whole ‘nuther – private, classier, amenity rich - level. 

Speaking of cool evenings, The Chef’s Table offers three gourmet wine-paired meals (French, Italian and Californian) once or twice a cruise (dependent on demand)  at a cost of $95 per person ($225 if you purchase all three) and, believe it or not, getting enough guests to sign up appears to be a challenge.  (I admit I did experience the same sort of resistance on a Crystal Cruise three years ago and that was for one dinner, but the cost was higher.)

Added to these options is the very exclusive “The Best of the Best” Evening with the Captain and Senior Management with a private dining experience in the Drawing Room. It is only offered to the very top ten suite guests and VIPs.  It is a wonderfully prepared special menu prepared by the chef and paired with some very nice wines.  And, ironically, a great way for those guests which are truly Azamara Club Cruises target market to meet each other.  (I was able to enjoy this evening sitting next to the hotel director, Philip Herbert, and across from Captain Carl Smith, both of whom are delightful men who are incredibly approachable to all of the guests and, of course, truly nice guys.)

The specialty restaurants, Prime C (steakhouse) and Aqualina (Mediterranean) are wonderful spaces with the former being a warm, cozy, wood venue and the latter being light and airy with static menus that offer a very good variety.  I have dined in Aqualina and Prime C twice and I can pretty much dine whenever I want because the demand for these restaurants, which are quite good, is so limited.  These dining experiences are included with your suite and is only $25 per person if you are not.  (The Main Dining Room is quite nice and the food, the one evening I dined there so far, was good, but not memorable. It was a nice change, but I will be dining in the specialty restaurants more often.)

Azamara Quest's Main Dining Room is beautiful,
but Prime C and Aqualina specialty restaurants are even nicer
Breakfast is offered in the main dining room every morning or in your suite (on proper linens) for those who wish a more upscale menu and/or do not wish to fight the buffet.  Lunch is also offered in the dining room on sea days.  While breakfast in the dining room eliminates a nice al fresco experience overlooking the stern of the ship, missing the chaos of the buffet is a more than fair trade off. (I will talk more about the buffet in a separate article.)
 
Azamara Quest provides a properly served al fresco breakfast
on my suite's balcony
And there is High Tea served every day from 3:30 p.m. - 5:00 p.m. in your suite (you can reserve your time if you wish) serving a variety of teas, finger sandwiches, sweets and, of course, scones with jam and clotted cream.  I enjoy as an afternoon ritual on my balcony.  (A full High Tea is also offered in Aqualina once a week.)

High Tea served by my Azamara Quest butler on my balcony
When these luxury options are added to some very pretty and intimate spaces, such as the Drawing Room, there is every possibility of having a wonderfully upscale cruise experience on Azamara Club Cruises.

Azamara Quest's Drawing Room
A quiet and beautiful space which converts into
The Best of The Best Dining Room for the Top Suites
But then, with all of the foregoing from the attentive staff to the upscale venues, there are quite a number of passengers that appear to have a more “Don’t talk to me.  Don’t invade my space. Don’t have impact upon my cruise. And get the heck out of my way when I am at the buffet!” approach to the cruise.  They specify the “included vodka” when ordering a drink; finding a helpful bartender’s request if they have a vodka preference as an attempted upsell rather than a courteous acknowledgement that many onboard prefer the higher quality spirits (and may well have a beverage package). 

Azamara Quest's Bartender Michael
makes a great rum punch
There are “Cruise Critic” type comments complaining about small items and focused on how to get more for less money (whether it be a tour or a dinner) rather than assuring themselves the best experience possible.  I mean there are dozens of couples - who spent $8,000+ for their stateroom plus airfare refusing to spend $50 for an excellent steak in Prime C or for access to a wonderful private area of the spa.  (Some are, troublingly pay far less than that on last minute deals and actually take offense that suite guests have free access so, they assert, why should they have to pay. Uhhh, they paid significantly more than what you did for their cruise, for a start.)

While I can appreciate that not everyone is going to smile or say hello when waiting for the elevator (as I do) there are examples of more mass market conduct that one might want to avoid.  For example, the other day at lunch, as I was strolling through the buffet (researching, of course!), I saw sushi and sashimi…and then a woman literally wiped the display clean, stacking her dish as high as possible…and then didn’t even know how to pour the soy sauce (fighting to remove the cap when you just tip the bottle).  When she saw the look on the faces of those waiting as she selfishly proceeded, and then she said, “Don’t worry.  They replenish it very quickly.” 

Are these the guests that Azamara intends to provide its product to?  I don’t think so!  And there is the conundrum that I am feeling is Azamara Club Cruises.  But, as with any cruise product that offers accommodations ranging from extraordinary suites to inside staterooms, there are going to be techniques needed to avoid your nirvana from being interrupted.  The obvious, and easiest ones, is to utilize what upscale amenities Azamara Club Cruises offers and avoid the Buffet and Pool Grill Buffet.  (The Pool Grill, however, is quite nice and I highly recommend the Cuban pork sandwich.)

So how does this happen?  To me it is obvious:  Azamara Club Cruises has its eye on the ball, to wit:  The Upscale Guest.  Its parent, Royal Caribbean, has its eye on short term profits thus making sure the ship is full and then generating onboard revenue.  Onboard revenue you say?  Yes, but not upscale onboard revenue as discussed above.  It is through tables of cheap jewelry being displayed in the common areas near the Mosaic coffee bar, tours that are overpriced, etc.   Fortunately, they are easy to avoid and have almost no impact on my upscale experience.

Personally, I think that since Azamara is such a strong product quality-wise in the premium market, it would ultimately increase its overall revenue by essentially eliminating the pricing structure that encourages the mass market crowd.  How do you do that when you have inside and oceanview staterooms for those clearly on more limited budgets?  You stay firm on the price and, if necessary, let them sail empty for a while.  Eventually with the proper marketing the budget conscious “traveler”  or, hopefully, first or second time Millennial cruisers, versus the cruisefare-centric mass market “cruiser”, will – I believe - fill the space.

In the meantime, I shall continue to enjoy writing my articles from my suite’s balcony after my champagne brunch, take a soak in the Thalossotherapy Pool overlooking the bow, enjoy a light lunch in the main dining room, have a bit of a read, do some work and then dine in Aqualina while I contemplate what I will do when we reach Manila, Philippines tomorrow afternoon after departing the complimentary shuttle into town before the included Azamazing Evening of Filipino music at Fort Santiago (which I will write about more later).


If you are interested in taking an Azamara Club Cruise or have any questions, please email me at eric@goldringtravel.com or call me at (877) 2GO-LUXURY.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Goldring Travel Experiences Azamara Club Cruises in Asia - Is it Amazing? Part III (Bali and Komodo Island)

My short day in Bali (the Azamara Quest was scheduled to depart at 2:00 p.m.) was, at my design, to be that of a tourist.  I know.  I know.  Eric being a “tourist” is not possible. Oh, but it was…and I am not doing it again!  (But as you will see, if you look...and take a moment now and again...there is beauty and knowledge to be found, even while being the typical tourist.)

Even though this my first time in Bali everyone I have spoken to has led me to one conclusion:  If you are not surfing, drinking, hanging on the beach (or all of the above) or staying in a luxury hotel there isn’t much worth doing in Bali.  So, as I had the day and the opportunity I planned on doing one of the most touristic things I could:  An Elephant Safari.

My guide and driver pick me up at 8:00 a.m. and takes me to the Elephant Park in Ubud, which is about 1.5 hours away and in the mountains.  Driving in Balinese rush hour traffic (chaos) was interesting, once we made it out of the city, we had some very interesting discussions about the Hindu religion (all of Indonesia is Muslim except for Bali), architecture and philosophy.  We even got into a discussion about the Chinese influences and how Cambodians have combined Buddhist and Hindu religions.

A local Hindu temple (one of hundreds) in Bali

A priest praying and giving offerings for a good harvest
As we got out of the ramshackle towns we encountered some beautiful scenery with lush rice paddies.

Flooded rice fields in Bali, Indonesia


And then we arrived at the Elephant Safari Park…and I am trapped in tourist hell.  What did I get myself into?  Did I do this for any reason other than to warn others NOT to do it?  It doesn’t matter because here and I and I shall dutifully fulfil my mission to complete my elephant safari.

Let’s just say my “safari” was little more than the same elephant ride you get at the Bronx Zoo in New York City, but it lasts 30 minutes, the foliage is more lush and, believe it or not, there is more car noise.  I have included two embarrassing photos.  (I figure if I voluntarily put them out there I will be protecting myself from any future blackmail attempt.)


That done, we left as quickly as possible.  I said I wanted to stop at some place for local Balinese food, but it was still morning so not much was available.  I was so looking forward to trying some Balinese roasted pig, but that was not to be.

However, my guide asked me if I liked coffee.  I said yes, so we stopped at Kopi Luwak Negari.  I thought it was a coffee shop, but it actually is a very well laid out tourist stop where you can learn about and, of course, purchase the world’s most expensive coffee, Kopi Luwak.  (Jack Nicholson’s coffee in The Bucket List.)  Wandering along a path guided by a local girl I am told about the different types of coffee plants, shown specimens of each, and then various dried coffee and tea products with a couple of cages with not so happy civits nearby. (Civits are similar to mongoose in appearance.)

So what’s with the civits?  You see Kopi Luwak coffee is Balinese coffee beans harvested from the poop of civits.  Supposedly the civits only ingest the best fruits from the coffee plants, but they cannot digest the inner bean.  However, their digestive tract infuses special enzymes into the coffee bean giving it a very rich, but smooth, flavor.

Kopi Luwak "natural" at top
and cleaned on the bottom
I am then brought to a table to taste a variety of beverages from ginger coffee to rosella tea to, of course, various coffees.  It was, for me, a fun tasting topped off by a specially brewed cup of Kopi Luwak coffee which, honestly, was the best cups of coffee I have ever had.  (Of course I bought some, but it is very expensive, so it will be a one-off treat when I am home.)
An interesting tasting of different coffees and teas
Kopi Luwak: The best cup of coffee I have ever had
 It was then back to the Azamara Quest after a hectic morning…followed by an announcement the ship’s departure would be delayed until 4:00 p.m. due to some late arriving cargo….and all I could think about was how I just missed out on the Balinese pork. Oh well.

As we sailed out of Bali there was a sheen of oil on the water and the smell of diesel, but shortly after the pilot disembarked the seas cleared, the ship started to roll just a bit and I lied down on my very comfortable bed with door to my balcony open with the smell of the sea and the sound of the waves…and promptly fell asleep.  I had one of the best naps of my life.

Awoken at 8:30 p.m. by my steward I shook myself, got dressed and headed up to Prime C for dinner.  I am not a steakhouse kinda guy, and I was not terribly hungry, but for research purposes only I have a very good veal schnitzel and creamed spinach I a very beautiful restaurant. (More on Prime C in another article.)

I was excited for the next day:  Komodo Island, home of the Komodo Dragons; actually a very large (huge) monitor lizard.  Honestly, as beautiful as the island is, and it is beautiful, it was an expensive, crowded and disappointing “tour”.  But as they say, “It was the only game in town.” 

Azamara Club Cruises organized things quite well, but between the number of people going and the fact that there was another ship, the Balmoral, also anchoring off the island, there was nothing to do but go with it.  Each group was given a guide, a park ranger (armed with a stick to protect us!) and a local person to escort our group of about 15.  I do not know how they determine which group does what, but there are short, medium and long walks and I , fortunately, was in a long walk group so we had the opportunity to see a bit more of the island than most. 

My Protector:  Komodo Dragon Park Ranger Armed...With a Stick
But before getting to that longer portion of the walk it was more of jockeying for position as we walked along a fairly narrow path with groups leapfrogging their way down the trail after stopping to point out a tamarind tree, a lemon basil plant, etc. I made sure I was at the front of the pack and has an interesting time chatting with the park ranger, enjoying the views and spotting a couple of wild pigs and various birds and butterflies.  I turned to the ranger and asked, “Is this how you turn a 10 minute walk into a 1.5 hour tour?”  He gave a big smile and started laughing.  I had a new friend.

My ranger pointed out the scat (poop) of the local civits but said with a smile not to bother with it since coffee does not grow on Komodo Island!  He also confided in me that with all of the people (and there were hundreds and hundreds of them) there was no way we were going to see any Komodo dragons anywhere but at the Watering Hole.

And then the moment of truth.  The thing I had been waiting for.  The Watering Hole.  And there, with a number of rangers standing with their sticks at the ready…three lazy Komodo Dragons that I will, lovingly, refer to as “Stunt Dragons”. 


Komodo Dragon
I got some really impressive photographs, but will only tell you that I was not in fear for my life and was not in need of my fervently protective armed-with-a-stick ranger.  (Don’t tell anyone!)

After stories of how someone was killed by a Komodo Dragon many years ago and how they eat their babies, etc. it was time to face the real danger of the day:  The dozens of souvenir stands you have to pass by in order to get back to the tender! 

By the way, I asked and there is really nothing else you can do on Komodo Island…at least with the short amount of time we did have there.


After getting back on board the ship and a very light lunch I found my favorite spot on the Azamara Quest:  The Thallostherapy Pool, which you can get to through the Spa on Deck 9 and which overlooks the bow of the ship, but which is also protected from the wind by a large glass windshield.  This area is a great space available to all suite guests (and other passengers for a charge), creative seating from linen cabanas to swinging chairs…and bar service. It was the perfect place to enjoy the sailaway from Komodo Island.

Komodo Island

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Goldring Travel Experiences Azamara Club Cruises in Asia - Is it Amazing? Part II

The flight, or better “flights”, from New Jersey to Bali is long.  There is no way around that (unless you live in Australia and then it is an easy flight).  Being that I am at almost at my 1,000,000 revenue miles on United Airlines (which will provide me with Gold Premier status on United Airlines and the Star Alliance for life) my trip took me longer than it would on some other airlines:  16 hours non-stop to Hong Kong, then 4 hours to Singapore, then a longish layover and, finally, a 2.5 hour flight to Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia.

Early Morning - Benoa, Bali, Indonesia
A few thoughts about Changi Aiport in Singapore.  It is regularly rated as the No. 1 airport in the world.  The place is pretty incredible, as far as airports go.  There is a small butterfly garden you can walk through, a small koi pond, a free movie theatre, lots of places to eat and shop and a number lounges…and that is just in Terminal 3.  There are two more terminals as well.  I tried three different clubs while I was there.  Between my American Express Priority Pass and Garuda Indonesia Airlines, access was easy and the facilities were OK, but not at the level of European clubs, which was surprising. 

One flaw, and it was a big one, there is only one lounge/hotel on the transfer side of Terminal 3 (before immigration) that had sleeping rooms or hotel rooms; which you cannot book in advance.  With my flight arriving at 1:40 a.m., I found both to be booked out, so no bed for me!  Or a number of other people…and I saw dozens and dozens of people sleeping on the floor of the airport (and even in one of the lounges by putting two or three chairs together into beds (which should not be allowed!)

While in Singapore I did exchange US$60 so that I had Indonesian rupiah for my taxi to the ship and some in my pocket.   As Indonesia is fairly inexpensive, it is just not worth the bother to worry about exchange rates, so getting rupiah when you can make sense.

Arriving in Bali, you must line up to purchase a Visa on Arrival which costs US$35.00.  Don’t believe the online information or the signs in the airport that credit cards are accepted; they are not (and I did not see any credit card machines next to the visa officers).  It was then to Immigration, which I breezed through.  After collecting my luggage (which thankfully made it, including a transfer to Garuda Indonesia Airlines - which was quite good), I headed out into the airport proper, turned to the left and looked for the Taxi Desk.  At the desk you purchase your ride and are given a slip of paper with a taxi number.  You only give up the slip upon arrival at your destination, so no games are possible.

Through the chaos as you head outside, somehow the taxi driver (they are all wearing the same shirt, so you know the legitimate taxis) finds you before you can find him mentioning your taxi number and you are off for the rather short 15 minute drive (with three tolls!) on the only modern road and bridge you will see in the area.  Note that the cruise port is literally in the flight path of the airport…and there are many flights into Denpasar, Bali...so any expectation of a bucolic view with the sounds of birds and waves are quickly dashed.

A woman fishing in Benoa, Bali, Indonesia
Even in a rather busy local port there is beauty and peace to be found
...if you look
However, the efficient, friendly and warm greeting by the staff of the Azamara Quest quickly made me feel welcome and relaxed.  While I appreciate that I am a VIP guest, I don’t let that sway my observations.  I see that everyone who is boarding, or who has boarded and is wandering about, are treated well.  But, to be honest, at this point I just want to get to my suite, take a shower and chill out.

(But me being me, I noticed that the Azamara Quest’s public areas are extremely well maintained.  She immediately strikes you as a classic cruise ship with elegant touches.  More on the ship in another article.)

My suite is very nicely appointed with pretty much everything you would want.  While I note the suites will be undergoing some very significant upgrades in the next year, the bed is quite comfortable, the small sofa and occasional chair with ottoman are too.  There is sufficient storage for two (noting Azamara Club’s country club casual does cut down on the clothing required).  

Azamara Quest Club Continent Suite
The desk/vanity is fairly small, but by moving the complimentary bottled water and 350 ml bottles of Absolute Vodka, Bombay Sapphire Gin, Bacardi Gold Rum and Johnny Walker Red Scotch (provided to all suite guests) it works.

Azamara Quest - Club Continent Suite
(Note the complimentary bottles of liquor and water)
The refrigerator is stocked with cans of soda and juices along with bottles of beer and wine.  If it is in a can it is replenished without charge.  If it is in a bottle it will cost you even though Azamara Club Cruises has a liquor inclusive product (which you can upgrade in a variety of levels: Premium, Top Shelf and Ultimate), which I think is a bit curious…and a little bit too Royal Caribbean (its parent company). If you can provide a bottle of Bombay gin you should be able to provide a split of wine with the suite.  (I must admit an excellent bottle of champagne was waiting for me.)

High tea is served every day by reservation.  You simply fill out a card as to when you would like it served and, of course, you must be in your suite to receive your choice of freshly brewed teas or coffee along with scones (jam and clotted cream, of course), finger sandwiches and cookies.

Azamara Quest - High Tea on your suite's balcony
The larger (32 inch?) flat screen television has virtually every news station (so dependent on your point of view, you are not trapped watching Fox News, CNN or BBC as you have them all plus more), but the other stations are very limited.  Also, there are pay per view movies (aren’t we past that?), but a DVD library with just over 100 titles (new and classic) is provided.

The suite’s bathroom is spacious enough with a full sized bathtub, but the vanity is fairly small and only has one sink (though storage is, again, plentiful).  While the towels are plentiful and plush enough, one niggling bit is the toiletries.  The About Rose amenities are certainly are of high enough quality.  The problem is the bottles are all the same size and color, so unless you read them carefully (or need your glasses in the shower) you can easily confuse the hair conditioner, shampoo, lotion and body wash.   (A simple change of color or even a sticker would be a huge assist.)

Azamara Quest - Continental Suite Bathroom


 My suite’s balcony is holds three all-weather wicker chairs and a full size table.  While a bit more depth would be great, I think Azamara Club Cruises has done the right thing by having larger, more comfortable and functional furnishings that you have to squeeze around than smaller, less usable, ones that give the appearance of more space.  It means you can easily dine or work on your balcony in comfort.


As you combine your loyalty between Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Azamara you also gain additional benefits  (my highest level is with Celebrity, so it follows me on all three brands).  For me, being at the higher Le Club Discoverer Level I receive 235 minutes (almost 4 hours) of free internet plus 2 bags of laundry (one for each 7 day portions of this cruise) as well as discounts at the spa and other items.  The inclusion of internet and laundry are the big benefits to my mind.

Another suite benefit is unlimited access to the two specialty restaurants: Aqualina (Italian/Mediterranean) and Prime C (steakhouse).  Jumping ahead, I found that at least early in my cruise both restaurants appear to be underutilized (as there is a $25 per person charge if you are not in a suite).

Another very nice (though understandably extra cost) option available to all guests is the Chef’s Table.  There are three different menus (French, Italian and Californian) which cost $95 per person (or all three for $225).  I am looking forward to these food and wine experiences, which you have to sign up for.  (There are a minimum number of guest that have to sign up for each event.)

So with my suite in order, my beverage package organized (Azamara Club had graciously given me a Premium Package, but I wanted a Top Shelf Package so I could enjoy my Glenfiddich…which was accomplished seamlessly), the Chef’s Tables signed up for it was time to settle in for a pre-dinner cocktail (Glenfiddich, of course) and then dinner in Aqualina. 

I was told there was a “Sharing Table” in Aqualina at 7:00 p.m. and, as I am traveling solo this time, I thought that was a great way to meet people even though it was about an hour and a half earlier than normally would dine.  So arrived and…a glitch.  Apparently there were two couples that also signed up for the sharing table, but decided they didn’t want to share.  (Did they know me from my days on Cruise Critic?)  So it was back to Mosaic, the bar by the main restaurant for another cocktail and then dinner in Aqualina at a more reasonable hour!

Dinner was quite good though the effects of my long trip started to take hold.  Gnocchi with pesto, sweet pea soup and Branzino with Tagliatelli were all  very good.  I must admit, though, that my memory of the Limocello SoufflĂ© is vague.  It was most definitely time for bed.


Tomorrow I head out to discover Bali and a bit more about Azamara Club Cruises.