Too Good to be True: The Caribbean – 2007

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

But not on this occasion.

A small ad in the Vancouver Sun’s Travel Section promised a 17-night Caribbean cruise on Holland America’s Maasdam for only $1,600 per person.

So I immediately phoned the cruise line and asked what the catch was.

“Yes, sir, you are correct. There is a bit of a twist to this cruise,” said the booking clerk. “It is a cruise to the Cricket World Cup and we’ll be visiting several islands to see different games, including the final in Barbados.”

I couldn’t believe what I had been told. It was NO catch for me. I was ecstatic. I love cricket and this was the chance to combine two of my passions – sport and travel. And my wife loved the itinerary: two days in Grenada, four days in Barbados, two nights in St. Lucia and a day each in Martinique, Dominica, St. Vincent and a final stop in the Bahamas.

Now, we had never done a cruise before. In fact we were always reluctant to do one, concerned about being a part off a large captive crowd.

But it was magical and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Our early reluctance was unfounded and we realized that if used properly, cruise ships are like a giant taxi ferrying us from place to place. A perfect way to see the Caribbean islands.

The Maasdam had been hired by Australian cricket fans, but they couldn’t sell enough cabins so there was a last minute fire sale for North Americans to fill the empty spots. On board lecturers, included former Australian cricket captains like Kim Hughes, as well as cricket quizzes and even cricket memorabilia. Not everyone’s taste but I was in cricket heaven!

The Pitons

The World Cup final itself was in Barbados at the legendary Kensington Oval. And while I watched the game my wife spent the day on a spectacular Barbados beach.

There was plenty of free time, not the micro-managed itinerary we expected. The pick of the islands were the Bahamas, Barbados and St. Lucia, which had the most spectacular scenery including the Pitons, two volcanic mountains up to 2,500 feet high – a World Heritage Site. And a highlight was hiring a speedboat to visit the islands of Bequia and Mustique, an exclusive resort made famous by members of Britain’s royal family.

The weather was perfect, the cabin great and even though we had fixed seating arrangements for dinner, our companions, from British Columbia as it turned out, were good company.

While it wasn’t the adventure vacation we were used to, we enjoyed it enough to cruise again.

It was like a taster menu in travelling. A cruise, we decided, provided an overview to interesting parts of the world and a chance to see several out of the way cities and countries. And it gave us a chance to judge if we wanted to return again in the future.

We’ve actually done several cruises now, always selected for the itinerary first and the cruise line second.

A Baltic cruise we took a few years ago is a perfect example of our theory,   seeing smaller countries, we might never have visited, like Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Helsinki, Finland
Helsinki, Finland
Helsinki, Finland
Tallinn, Estonia
Tallinn, Estonia
Tallinn, Estonia

If we had booked flights between the nine countries we visited it would have been expensive and time consuming. Going by ship we frequently sailed during the night and arrived fresh at a new port every day or so. And these ports were usually right in the centre of the cities we were visiting (we had chosen small ships for this very purpose) so we could hop off the ship and begin exploring right away. It was like a glorified taxi.

Cruising isn’t perfect, of course. One was ruined by sitting with a dreadful couple at dinner – obnoxious, overpowering, rude individuals somewhere to the right of Donald Trump. We vowed that wouldn’t happen again and now ask for a private table for two.

We also realized that rather than booking expensive shore excursions through the cruise line, we could usually book a private tour, which was cheaper and allowed us to control the itinerary.

In St. Petersburg we booked back to back tours over a couple of days with a company called DenRus. As our fellow passengers lined up for ages and were boarded onto large tour buses, we had a private guide and driver in a Mercedes at a lower cost.

It gave us plenty of opportunity to see the colourful St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the royal residence in Peterhof – with a walk through its magnificent gold-covered fountain park – and spend time in the stunning Hermitage Museum. We also had a private tour of the newly opened Faberge Museum and we requested several breaks for walking tours and a trip on the subway.

Peterhof
Peterhof
St. Isaac’s Cathedral
St. Isaac’s Cathedral
Hermitage Museum
Hermitage Museum

And we always tried to use a cruise as only a part of a vacation. After a fraught driving trip through Portugal, Spain and France, we took a two-week Mediterranean cruise which took us to the Middle East before ending in Santorini and Athens.

On that trip, we were able to take a couple of days off the ship to visit both Cairo – particularly the pyramids of Giza, an original Wonder of the World, along with a short cruise along the Nile. But every moment our bus drove anywhere in Egypt, an armed guard stood by the driver at the front of the bus because the fear of terrorism was so great.

Giza
Sphinx
Pyramids

After Egypt we were able to spend a couple of days in Israel – which was wonderful as we had been trying to visit the country for almost 20 years, but every time we tried a serious threat of a war prevented us from going there. And we loved it so much, we returned to spend a week in Israel, a few years later.

On another occasion, we used a cruise ship as a ferry from LA to Costa Rica, visiting several countries in Central America, before leaving the ship for a week of adventure around Costa Rica. On route, in Guatemala, we took a flight to see the Mayan ruins of Tikal.

Tikal
Tikal

We spent several days in Costa Rica, trekking through the cloud forests and spent two nights in a hotel with bedroom windows that overlooked the impressive Arenal Volcano. And Panama city was a huge surprise – a magnificent waterfront with spectacular modern architecture and, by way of complete contrast, a visit to Casco Viejo, the city’s historic old town settled in 1673. And, yes, a day on a ship navigating the famous Panama Canal.

Arenal Volcano
Cloud Forest
Cloud Forest
Panama City
Panama City
Panama Old Town
Panama Old Town
Panama Canal
Panama Canal

The same cruise-theory was true in Asia. We had several days on our own in Beijing and Shanghai – exploring many highlights like the Great Wall of China and the Terracotta Warriors (don’t miss them, sculptures depicting the army of the first emperor of China and just a two hour flight from Beijing) before picking up a cruise from Shanghai, a truly beautiful city, which took us to Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan, and Thailand.

Beijing
Beijing
Beijing
Beijing
Great Wall
Terracotta Army
Terracotta Army
Terracotta Army
Terracotta Army

Our first stop in Vietnam was the town of Hoi An, designated in 1999 as a UNESCO world heritage site because of its rich cultural heritage. The old quarter is a mosaic of various cultures with well preserved buildings, (the Japanese Covered Bridge and the House of Tan Ky among the many sites  well worth visiting), charming shops and the loveliest people you will meet anywhere. While my wife wandered the side streets saying the Vietnamese women were the best salespeople in the world, I hired a local fisherman to take me on a trip down the Thu Bon River, with his young university educated daughter as our translator. Well worth missing lunch for the experience of time well spent with locals.

Our next stop was Ho Chi Minh City, better known to most of us as Saigon. Probably the controlled chaotic traffic of motor bikes and the impenetrable tangle of wires are the lasting images we have. And again, that of the graciousness of the people, most of whom we met born after the war, known to them as the American War, not the Vietnam War. 

After a long busy day in Ho Chi Minh City, we caught a flight to Angkor Wat in Cambodia for two days. Built in the 12th Century, the temple site is the largest religious monument in the world and contains some of the great masterpieces of Khmer art. Partly restored from its wilderness state, the jungle still invades much of the 400 acre site and its buildings.

Hidden in the dense jungle for hundreds of years, Angkor Wat was the epicentre of a sprawling area about the size of Berlin. It has grown massively in popularity. In the mid-1990s it had around 7,500 visitors a year. Today there are nearly three million annually.

Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat

And again, with another fellow traveller, we passed on lunch and hired a boat and guide to take us on a trip to see the many families living and working from their homes built on stilts on the river.

It was no doubt worth seeing but we found it troubling to see the food waste in our hotel juxtaposed with the poverty of the local population. Of course, poverty exists in many countries but it was the waste that was jarring. Having said that the Cambodians we met were, like the Vietnamese, kind gracious and welcoming. We can only hope that tourism eventually trickles down and the children are the benefactors.

We flew back to Thailand and spent a night and two days in Bankok where we took a river trip and visited many of the “gilded” sights. However, on our last day, while touring, our guide heard on his radio that the city was going to be closed due to a political demonstrations. He drove at warp speed, insisted we check out immediately and took a circuitous route to the ship. As we sailed away we were told the city was all but shut down due to political unrest. I couldn’t help but remember our guide’s colourful scarf, the colour of dissent, sitting on the seat next to him as he spirited us out of his city.

And after ending that cruise in Singapore, our third visit to that ever changing city, and spending few days there, we took a bus to Kuala Lumpur. A very civilized trip and a great way to see the country. After our visit to KL we flew back to Japan, where we had organized our own tour, visiting Tokyo (and as luck would have it, at cherry blossom time!), going on the bullet train to visit Kyoto, and a spectacular drive to Mount Fuji. As exciting and frenetic as Tokyo is, Kyoto won the top prize in our estimation. The old imperial capital has many of the age old qualities of a Geisha; refined, delicate, and somewhat other worldly. The gardens, Nijo Castle, the many temples and the Gion district were all places we walked and enjoyed. And as my wife reminded me, even purchasing a gift became a ceremony. The care and time spent on the whole process nearly drove me mad but to my wife it was soothing.  A sure cure for high blood pressure……hers, not mine!!!!

Kuala Lumpur
Kuala Lumpur

After a week visiting Japan, we flew home and felt we had had a satisfying overview of a large part of Asia.

So, as I said earlier, we find cruising to be an efficient and effective form of transportation when time and logistics are an issue. And they have taken us to places that we might well not have otherwise visited.

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