Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Cruise Diaries

"There is nothing more enticing, enchanting, and exciting than sailing the seas.". 
Smitten by the seas, after my recent cruise trip from Cochin to Singapore on the magnificent MSC Orchestra, I took the liberty to tweak Joseph Conrad's quote to best describe my cruise experience.

It was a voyage that took us across the seas to 4 countries – Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore (The cruise liner set sail at Dubai, UAE and was headed to Freemantle, Australia). We, as in my hubby, sis & BIL, and I were so looking forward to the trip, with the last 2 weeks hitting the “super excited” mode, being our maiden cruise. 

With our bags packed, we set out on the 26th of February 2015 to Willingdon Island to complete the emigration formalities and board our ship at the Pier Cochin Port Trust Quay (A7-A8-A9) Samudrika Cruise Terminal. We checked-in, got our cruise cards which was like our passport in and out of the ship and at all ports, and made ourselves comfortable in our cabins. We were on deck 11 (11053), and my sis & BIL were on deck 9 (9055). Initially, getting to our cabins felt like walking through a maze, but soon we got a hang of the ship’s layout and then it wasn't too bad. The cabins were cozy enough - bigger than the boutique hotel rooms actually, and the bath too! We had a quick wash and went to the 20-hour buffet dining area which was called La Piazzetta Cafeteria, for a quick bite but instead ended up with a lavish buffet lunch… Burp (excuse me)!

We then explored around a bit. By about 7.30 pm, we went up to the pool deck (on deck 13) for the Indian Theme Night. Most of them were dressed in ethnic Indian wear, and with popular Bollywood numbers playing, we too threw our hands up in the air and joined  the entertainment team  and a few sporty fellow passengers on the dance floor. It was great fun. There were 3000+ people on board - a majority of them Europeans, some from Australia, and the others Indians.

Being a first-time cruise experience, we were completely awed by the sheer size & amenities on board the cruise. The cabins were cozy enough. Housekeeping service was excellent. The 20-hour buffet restaurant was perhaps the highlight with unlimited food available on the house, though it was largely Mediterranean cuisine with just a small ethnic food counter. The staff members on board were quite amiable.

The daily schedule of entertainment programs & activities were delivered to our cabins. It also had information regarding the next port, time change if any, shore excursions available, special promos & offers, and a list of all the amenities/services available on board. Some of the entertainment programs we got to attend at the Covent Garden Theatre on board (deck 6/7) included: The thousand voices of Claudio De Negri – a hilarious show by internationally renowned ventriloquist, Musica in Maschera in La Voce dell’anima which was a 4-parts musical concert, a Comedy Hypnosis Show by Claudio, and The Women I love by Mimma Barra who sang popular love songs of world-renowned female artists.  Probably because it was catering more to the tastes of European senior citizens, who formed the major chunk of passengers on board, we did wish there were more entertainment options.

The first port of call for us was Colombo, with scheduled arrival at 10 am on 27th of February. We headed up the top deck for a glimpse of the ship approaching the island nation and docking at the terminal. It was fascinating to see the local pilot boat approaching our massive ship and the pilot hopping aboard to guide the ship to the port. We had opted for Colombo Highlights (CMB01), one of the shore excursions offered by MSC, so we had to assemble at The Savannah Bar for a quick briefing and sorting into groups based on the excursion & language. After disembarking from the ship, we arrived to a traditional Sri Lankan welcome dance. There were buses (numbered) waiting to take us on our excursion. The bus took us through the British-built colonial buildings, Pettah Bazaar, Conference Hall shaped like a Lotus (which we were told was gifted by the People’s Republic of China to Sri Lanka), Independence Square, Old Parliament Building, University of Colombo and Royal College (largest school in Asia with 7500 students). We stopped by the Gangaramaya Buddhist temple and the Colombo National Museum to walk around and experience the place, and after a quick stop at Cinnamon Hotel for refreshments, headed back to the ship. The ship departed from the port at about 6 pm. There was a time change of +30 minutes on the night between 27th & 28th February.

The next 2 days were at sea. We enjoyed the endless view of the deep seas, came across small uninhabited islands, toured around the ship keeping ourselves entertained, relaxed in the Jacuzzi, played TT, and of course indulged in some fine food, with late nights at R32 (the discotheque on deck 14) where we danced like there was no tomorrow.

We reached Phuket, Thailand on the 2nd of March at about 8 am. Being a small port, the ship tender docked and lowered its boats to take those who opted for shore excursions to the port. After a brief Thai welcome, we boarded our bus to go on the excursion to James Bond Island & Fascinating Phang Nga Bay (HKT03). En route, we saw rubber plantations and visited the “Monkey temple” called Suwan Kuha Temple, a cave temple with numerous Buddha statues standing, reclining & seated. There were monkeys outside the cave, none inside.We could spot a few bats in the dark cave. Then we proceeded to Phang Nga Bay Resort, where we had a quick Thai lunch with local beer (Singha), and then boarded a motorboat for an unforgettable cruise through the surrealist landscape of limestone stacks. We visited Koh Panyi, a water village with more than 200 houses built on stilts, with local shops, restaurants, mosque, school and houses with attached wooden walkways. We then headed to the Kao Ping Gun Island, popularly known as James Bond Island (because it was here that the filming of the last scenes of ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ took place). It was a beautiful sight indeed, picture perfect and worth more than a thousand words. On our return back, our boat developed a snag and we got a bit worried about getting back to the ship on time. Fortunately, another one of the boats carrying MSC passengers stopped by and towed us back to the shore. Again on our bus ride back to Phuket port, we got a bit delayed because of some road accident, and just about managed to get back to the ship by 8 pm. The local guide who had a heavy Thai accent beyond our understanding had sort of ruined the trip for us, but the scenic sights of the place made up for it. The ship set sail at about 8.30 pm. There was a time change of +1 hour on the night between 2nd & 3rd of March.

The next port of call was Langkawi, Malaysia with scheduled arrival at 8 am on 3rd March.  We had opted for the Shore Excursion (LGK02) Sea Eagle Feeding & Mangrove Cruise. On arriving at the port, we were taken on a coach to the Kilim Geoforest Park. Our guide was fabulous, who seemed to be well-read and gave us wonderful insights of the place, a total contrast to the Thai guide. We boarded a boat on a cruise to the fabled Bat Cave to see vampire bats clinging upside down from the ceiling of stalagmite & stalactite festooned cave. Then set out on a sensory trip to explore the ecosystem of the winding Kilim river through mangrove forests, isolated islands & limestone rock formations. We had the opportunity to see wild eagles dive down for food tossed from the boat, visited a fish farm to see different varieties of fish, and then had a splash of a ride to the sea opening which was indeed exhilarating. On our way back, we managed to get a quick stopover at the famed Langkawi Eagle Park with the large Eagle statue (which wasn't really part of our itinerary, but because of the delay in our lunch getting ready, this was squeezed in for us). We then had a sumptuous dim-sum buffet lunch, then went to the D’Zone to shop duty-free, before getting back to the pier to board our ship. The ship departed from the port at about 6 pm. 

We were to arrive at Singapore, our final destination, on the 4th of March at about 6 pm. We arrived ahead of time and enjoyed the view of the beautiful skyline of Singapore from the top deck. After our disembarkation procedures, we got off at the port and were taken by Tourland (the local travel agent) to our hotel. We had extended our stay in Singapore for two days in addition to our tour package, so we could go around the place. We did a bit of city sightseeing, spent a day at Universal Studios, and also went to popular shopping centres such as Orchard Road and hangout places such as Clarke Quay, to enjoy the best of the city. The evening at Octapas, a tapas bar at Clarke Quay, is something we’ll never forget, with live music and the entire place (which had Singaporeans, Scots, Hollanders and us Indians) coming alive and on our feet rocking to their music. The culinary experience of the famed Fish Head Curry at Muthu’s Curry (MC) and Chilly Pepper Crab at No Signboard restaurant is also something we would relish for a long time to come.

On the whole, the MSC cruise trip was worth a lifetime of memories. A must go!