Tag Archives: cruising

Our Asian Adventure Aboard the Crystal Symphony Continues…

China-Xiamen-sunset-in-Gulang-yu-island

Guest blogger Robyn Bushong sets sail for Xiaman.

Today is Palm Sunday, April 13th. Hard to believe Cynthia, my travel buddy, and I have been “home” on the Crystal Symphony now for three days.

We sailed from Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor late Thursday, evening, April 10th and had a welcome sea day on the 11th, followed by a whirlwind visit to Xiamen yesterday. When we first boarded—after our 3+ days of travel and non-stop marathon sightseeing tour of Hong Kong—we were welcomed like family and that’s exactly how we felt. Our embarkation was efficient, taking all of five minutes. In our beautiful stateroom on the Penthouse Deck (Deck 10), we unpacked, met our Austrian butler, Rainer, and our cabin stewardess Monika. After a quick tour of the ship, we enjoyed a very light dinner and were early to bed.

(Photo credit:  R. Bushong)

Our home away from home. (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

The first day of boarding, I couldn’t wait to get up to the Lido Café and sit in my favorite “spot,” a window table for two, where my dear friend Dorothy and I had sat for breakfast every day on our 13-day Trans Pacific cruise in December 2012. How nice that three of the dining room staff remembered us! Keeping with the routine from previous cruise, it was up to the gym and a good work out. What a nice surprise that Brian, the fitness director and spin instructor, remembered me, too. Friday was a sea day and everyone seemed glad to leave behind the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong and just relax. And what a superb place to relax—every amenity is at your fingertips. The service is superb but unobtrusive. The staff prides themselves on making you feel as if you are the ONLY guest onboard. It’s hard to describe: atmosphere is casual but classy. The food, in all venues, is exceptionally good with great variety and selections. Housekeeping-– some of the very best you could ever expect to find anywhere.

I think one of the best ways to describe the relaxed ambience on this gorgeous sunny, breezy day was to watch the guests stretched out on lounge chairs, their favorite beverage at their side, book in their hand and they’re half asleep and half reading. All the while listening to a great sextet at the pool playing Santana-style music.

Saturday we docked in Xiamen. Also known as the “Pearl on the Sea”, Xiamen is a gorgeous tropical seaport that is also the second largest city in China with a population of 3 ½ million. Other than Victoria, BC, I don’t recall EVER seeing so many tree-lined esplanades, a kaleidoscope of color at every corner and a park every 500 meters. Unbelievably beautiful! My observation of sanity with traffic and pedestrians in Hong Kong was just the opposite here. The traffic on this Saturday morning was beyond indescribable. No sooner had we boarded our motor coach for a 4-hour tour, and we knew we were in for a wild ride. Our driver was fearless. Everyone jaywalked; pedestrians competed with giant buses for the right of way and bedlam ensued.

A delightful young lady, a graduate of Xiamen University, conducted our tour. We’d read in our daily bulletin that our guides would be university students with limited English. This young lady, whose English name was “Theona,” gave 110% to making our tour interesting. The problem was that with thousands and thousands and THOUSANDS of visitors at our first stop—The South Putuo Temple—that we just had to observe, as it was impossible to hear. I don’t ever remember there being so many people in one place as at this temple. (It’s interesting to note that South Putuo, or Nanputuo, is a very famous Buddhist temple founded in the Tang Dynasty (618-907.) Of the many beautiful temples in Xiamen, this is by far the most famous. It is so named because it is south of the Buddhist holy site Mount Putuo in Zhejiang Province.

DSC_5238

(Photo credit: R. Bushong)

Afterward, we visited the Overseas Chinese Museum. This 3-level museum, filled with over 15,000 artifacts, highlights the history and happenings of Chinese who went abroad to work and live. One of the most interesting accounts is of those Chinese immigrants who made a major contribution to the US’s Transcontinental Railroad in the mid 1800s. (These immigrants worked long hours in severe conditions for minimal pay to help build the tracks across 1,800 miles of arid plains and deserts and the rugged granite walls of the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains.) Only suggestion: it would have been so helpful to English-speaking visitors to have had access to a brochure in English, since several of the major exhibits related to these immigrants’ lives in both the USA and Canada. Our tour concluded with a tea-tasting ceremony of five different varieties for our group of 34 at a government-run teahouse. Once back on board, our busy day in Xiamen concluded with a concert in the Galaxy Lounge by internationally acclaimed pianist, Tian Jiang. Outstanding.

(Photo credit: R. Bushong)

(Photo credit: R. Bushong)

The next day was foggy and extremely windy. In fact, the promenade deck doors were blocked for exiting outside because of the wind.  A plethora of cultural enrichment opportunities, ranging from a hands-on cooking demonstration by a guest chef in the Starlite lounge, to a fitness Boot Camp, to “Movie Editing Made Easy” where you can learn “iMovie Basics Part 1” on your iPad, highlighted the ship’s activities options. Today’s lecture by World Affairs Lecturer, Sir James Hodge discussing “China Today; the Giant Awakens” was mesmerizing.” Highlights of his talk: “China can now produce more in two weeks than it used to produce in a year.” Currently 18 million Chinese belong to the Communist Party, with 20 million wanting to join each year. Pork is the preferred meat. There are over 600,000 different villages in the country, 55 recognized ethnic minorities within 110 million inhabitants and 300 local dialects!” And that’s just the beginning of what I learned in an hour.

Guest chef demonstration.  (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

Guest chef demonstration. (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

Tonight, we look forward to dinner at Prego (the popular Italian specialty dining venue) with our new friends we met yesterday from Dallas. Tomorrow, we dock in Shanghai, to enjoy three days/two nights of sightseeing and culture.  Our Asian adventure aboard Crystal Symphony continues…

Advertisements

HONG KONG… Our Asian Adventure Began Here!

Guest—and first time—blogger Robyn Bushong travels to Hong Kong, and Ports Are Calling is happy to feature her posts as she sets sail.

We arrived in Hong Kong as first-time visitors only to be greeted with torrential rains and dense fog. Welcome to Hong Kong! But the pouring rain didn’t dampen our enthusiasm for the adventure that lay ahead. My dear friend Cynthia and I had just completed 21+ hours of travel from Galveston, Texas to begin our Asian adventure aboard Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Symphony “Pearls of China, itinerary that was to begin in Hong Kong, April 9th, with calls in Xiamen, Shanghai (two overnights), Dalian and then concluding with a three-day land package in Beijing on April 21st.

We were met by our private guide (who we had arranged through the Hong Kong Tourism Board) and taken to our hotel –The InterContinental. Highly recommended as the property is located directly on Victoria Harbor and the unobstructed view from our room: Simply Spectacular! First order of business upon arrival at the hotel was lunch and to review our priorities for sightseeing in this intriguing and enticing city. Since the hotel’s specialty restaurant, Yan Toh Heen, featured dim sum, we eagerly chose this venue and learned it was a recipient of a “1-Michelin Star.” Our guide ordered for us and the quality and presentation was outstanding. As we concluded our fine lunch, we told our guide we wanted to walk since the rain was subsiding, as we were ready to see, do and experience everything possible in the time we had to enjoy this exciting, world-class city.

The InterContinental's night view.

The InterContinental’s night view.

We headed to the Star Ferry for the 10-minute ride between Kowloon (where our hotel was) and Hong Kong. A friend who handles tours in Hong Kong had set our priorities for sights: First and foremost, take the tram to the top of Victoria Peak. Next, see the Financial District, Hollywood Road, Man Mo Temple and browse the fine shopping district; enjoy dim sum (check!) and experience the Stanley Street Market.

With all the trees, dramatic and colorful flowers, and gorgeous landscaping, Hong Kong’s “green space” was amazing. What was also amazing were the hundreds and hundreds of tourists out and about on this rainy Tuesday afternoon. What we learned was that the previous Saturday (April 5th) was a national holiday: Tomb Sweeping Day. In Chinese it’s Ching Ming – which literally means “Clear and Bright” and is a tradition where families travel to their family tomb to sweep, clean and place flowers or other memorials on the gravesite. Because the national holiday fell on a Saturday, the banks/financial institutions were closed on Monday and apparently many people added an extra day to their holiday weekend.

We walked through the Financial District and the IFC (International Financial Center), and passed such fine stores as Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo, Piaget, Rolex, etc. As we headed towards the Peak tram station, we passed St Andrew’s, an elegant Anglican Church (Episcopalian) and the historic St. John’s Cathedral completed in 1849. Then we boarded the tram for the ride to the top of the Peak. The trams, which have been operating for over 125 years, hold 120 people each and run about every 8 minutes. Following the brief—albeit very steep—ride to the top, we arrived at an incredible sight. Our friend was right: Standing on the top of Victoria Peak and looking down over the entire city…WOW! While we were walking around, a volunteer greeted us with a complimentary headset device that provides a detailed overview of the area. We had wanted to do the 90-minute walk around the perimeter of the peak, but it started raining again so we departed.

A rainy view from top of Victoria Peak.  (Photo credit:  R. Bushong)

A rainy view from the top of Victoria Peak. (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

After we took the tram back down, the rain had stopped again and we walked to Man Mo Temple. Built in 1847, the temple is one of the oldest traditional-styled temples in Hong Kong and is dedicated to the gods of literature (Man) and the god of war (Mo). From there, we stayed on Hollywood Road to view some of the city’s most beautiful antique shops and fine jewelry stores. To ensure we got a bit more immersed in the local culture, our guide suggested we take the subway to the Temple Street Market area. Living in Texas we’d never experienced anything like this before. Crowds on the New York City subways couldn’t hold a candle to the throngs and throngs and throngs of people traveling in all different directions in Hong Kong’s subways. Everyone had an electronic device in their hands. And how these commuters could maneuver from one escalator and subway car to another—while seemingly never taking their eyes off their cell phone—was simply incredible. From there, we worked our way along the busy streets of food vendors, pastry and coffee shops, neighborhood grocery stores, drug stores, camera shops, and other small, neighborhood businesses. Food vendors sold fresh crabs, fish, lobster, and “internal organs” of other creatures cooked to order, and served on a skewer with hot and spicy sauces. As we observed the frenzied pace at which everyone was moving, our guide told us that since most locals work from 9am till about 7pm, we were right in the middle of the prime rush hour pedestrian traffic.

Downtown Hong Kong bustles.  (Photo credit:  R. Bushong)

Downtown Hong Kong bustles. (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

We kept moving along the bustling streets, heading towards Temple Street Market. Once there, we were amazed at the stalls—everything from cheap watches, imitation leather goods, jewelry, silk scarves, t-shirts, shoes, camera and electronic equipment, toys and souvenirs. Our guide told us that the market is only open nights from about 6pm-midnight. Each of these hundreds of vendors packs up their wares at night, only to set-up again the next evening. What a hard way to earn a living. We didn’t buy anything, but were glad we saw the market. From there, we took a taxi back to the hotel, bid our guide farewell, and at 8pm on our first night in Hong Kong… we were DONE!

The next morning we awoke early to gorgeous sunshine and an indescribably beautiful skyline. As we ate breakfast, we watched the buildings come to life as neon signs lit the skyline starting around 7am. We were to board Crystal Symphony early that afternoon, so we had time to do a little shopping and sightseeing on our own. We set off on a leisurely walk through the streets near our hotel to shop and later enjoyed lunch at the world-renowned hotel, The Peninsula. We didn’t realize at first just how close we were to the Ocean Cruise Terminal as it was only a short walk from our hotel. We also learned that Hong Kong had recently completed a new terminal, but that it was miles from the city centre. Ocean Terminal, where Crystal Symphony was docked, showcased multi levels of retail shops offering everything from Gucci to Nike and all literally just footsteps from where we were to board our ship. What a great way to start a cruise.

Awesome view from our balcony on the Crystal Symphony.  (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

Awesome view from our balcony on the Crystal Symphony. (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

I also just learned that Crystal Symphony will return to Hong Kong during the holidays for a 15-day “China Sea Holiday Spectacular” (December 21- January 5, 2015), and will be docked at Ocean Terminal during the New Year’s Eve celebration. Can you imagine what an experience that would be to see one of the world’s most spectacular fireworks displays light the skies over Victoria Harbor—and all to be enjoyed from the prime vantage point of a balcony or deck aboard the ship!

Well, we’ll be boarding soon and our Asian adventure aboard the Crystal Symphony…it’s just about to begin!

Many Rivers To Cross With AmaWaterways.

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.

River cruising is becoming a preferred choice for vacations as travelers seek out new experiences. Hard to believe that the industry only emerged in 1992 after the completion of the Main-Danube Canal, making it possible for pretty much all of Europe to leverage its maritime landscape. While the Continent’s rivers had long been used for merchant trading, the completion of the Canal opened up new routes and provided the European travel industry with unique opportunities for travelers to experience this destination from an entirely different point of view.

While American travel companies didn’t jump on board until around 10 years later, they quickly witnessed the rise of river cruising once they rolled out their ships. One of the lines making a name for itself on this side of the Atlantic is AmaWaterways, which operates voyages in Europe, Russia, Asia and Africa. For anyone who’s never been on a cruise or doesn’t like the idea of being on the open ocean, river cruising offers a unique opportunity to test the waters. I had a chat with Gary Murphy, Vice President of Sales from AmaWaterways to learn more about its growing appeal.

Q: For an industry that’s fairly young, you’re doing pretty well. What’s all the fuss?
A: Over 90% of the folks who book with us are people who enjoy cruising but want a more intimate experience than on a gigantic ship. They love the feeling of going on a smaller boutique type of experience. Depending on the itinerary and ship, we max out at 162 guests. River cruising can be a very leisurely vacation or it can be extremely active. The ship is not the destination like it is on an ocean cruise.

AMAWaterways' Zambezi Queen

AMAWaterways’ Zambezi Queen

Q: What do you want people to know about this bird’s eye view?
A: When you look at river cruising, you need to look at it like a floating hotel. Many cities in Europe evolved along the banks of major rivers and a river cruise can take you right to the historic center of those cities. Often, you’re asleep when the ship is en route to the next destination. If you’re going through central Europe on a motor coach or train, you’re traveling during the day. On the ship you wake up in a new town, go out and explore it, come back to the ship for lunch, then cruise to another town. There’s always something new to see.

Q: What about those bikes on your European itineraries.
A: We once had a group of six women who planted the seed for guided bike tours. They were on a cruise in the Netherlands and didn’t take the daily sightseeing tours with us – instead, they borrowed our bikes and planned out their own routes, cycling to the next port and meeting back up with the ship. They did all the research themselves, which was a bit of work for them. So we thought, let’s do this for our guests. Now on every European itinerary (except Portugal) we’re the only river cruise line that travels with over 25 bikes stored on the ship. They’re completely complimentary and guests love being able to explore on their own or take a guided bike tour.

Q: So you’re giving it up for us gals here, right?
A: It was a great idea and we’re happy to give those women full credit! Women like to bike and they don’t want to have to carry their luggage with them or have a van follow them. Many of our ships cruise along the Rhine or Danube, both of which have paved bike paths along the riverbanks, completely separate from the roads. On certain days you can ride ahead of the ship, going through small towns along the way, and meet the ship in the next port. If the ship is in port all day, you can borrow a bike and sightsee on your own, returning to the ship later that afternoon. On our guided bike tours we have two guides, one who rides in front with the fastest rider and one who rides in back with the slowest rider. They’re there to keep an eye on everything.

Vineyards along Portugal's Douro River.

Vineyards along Portugal’s Douro River.

Q: What’s the most popular itinerary these days?
A: The most popular cruise for the company is also the most popular cruise with women, Budapest to Nuremburg on the Danube. It’s a great itinerary with Vienna, Budapest, a pre/post stay in Prague, and pretty little towns like Durnstein and Melk. Another popular one is our Paris & Normandy cruise. France is commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day in 2014, and our Paris & Normandy itinerary includes some special excursions to the D-Day beaches. And we have a Knitting Cruise that sails over New Year’s in 2014, which is already 60% sold out.

The Danube.

The Danube.

Q: I don’t knit but it might be a good excuse to learn. Who’s the inspiration behind these ideas?
A: Kristin Karst, our Executive Vice President, is very creative, very active and she loves designing eclectic itineraries. For instance, she created a Chocolate Cruise where guests visit a castle, see how chocolates are made, and learn how to pair dark chocolate with red wine. Our culinary and wine tours are really popular. In Austria, guests on our wine cruises get to do a tasting of Sekt, the Austrian version of champagne, served inside a mountain cave outside the town of Schlumberger.

Up close and personal in Normandy.

Up close and personal in Normandy.

Q: You’ve added a new destination in 2014 that’s long been closed to tourists. Tell me about Myanmar.
A: It’s a niche market. We like going into destinations that are interesting to operate in. Our president, Rudi Schreiner, is a river cruising pioneer who loves going into new areas of business and designing ships that best serve that area. Our ships in Mekong are hands down the best ships there. Rudi is designing a ship for Myanmar, a beautiful small ship with only 28 suites. It’s the perfect size to operate on the Ayeyarwady River.

Q: For all its popularity, there’s not a lot of advertising for river cruising. Why is that?
A: We advertise in conjunction with retail travel agents and all of our business comes through them. We create a lot of educational tools for travel agents because it’s very important for them to understand our product and the exceptional value we offer. A good travel agent can point out the differences and benefits between competitors and help clients determine which river cruise is the best choice for them. The best travel agents are the ones who know how to match their clients to the right product.

Q: Younger people don’t typically cruise, are you seeing any changes there?
A: We’re seeing them in multi-generational family travel because river cruising lends itself to that type of vacation experience. For instance, teenagers or active folks can bike, their parents can go on a culinary tour, the grandparents can go on a leisurely walking tour, and then you all meet back on board to share a meal and spend some time together as a family.

You know, two years ago I went surfing in Indonesia and brought my family with me. We were standing in the airport and my daughters started complaining about the long flying time. My 16-year old turned to me and said, “Dad, we should have just taken another river cruise!”

Curious if a river cruise is the way to go? Learn more at AmaWaterways or speak with a travel agent.