Passage to India
Review of the Passage to India Cruise on the Orient Lines Marco Polo – April 7-23, 1998 By Susan Mellott
Part One – Bio, Pre-trip, Getting There, Singapore and the Ship
Just to give you an idea of what type of people we are (so you can decide if you would have similar tastes and interests), we are in our mid-30’s (Sean) to early 40’s (me). We have been married for about 8 1/2 years and have no kids (nor do we plan on any). We do however have 2 dogs (dobermans, really sweeties), a siamese cat and a whole ton of goldfish and comets and Koi (we have a couple small ponds we built). We stay fairly active and have done Aikido (a japanese martial art) for several years. Sean also regularly runs and swims (and surfs whenever he gets the chance). Not me! (although I have thought about giving surfing a go next time we are in Hawaii). Sean was raised in New Zealand and came to the states when he was 19. He was actually born in the US although his parents are both NZ citizens so he is a US citizen. I was raised in the midwest and have lived my whole life (after age 2) in Fort Wayne, Indiana. We both work with computers (I’m a programmer and he is a Network Specialist) and we both also love to ballroom dance. I used to teach it in my youth <smile> and he has taken it up lately and we just enjoy the heck out of it.
Oh yes, I am also unable to write a short, concise review. So you’ll just have to wade thru this “cruise tome” if you want to find out about our trip. <grin>
Since we were going to India, we needed to get an Indian Visa. Orient Lines enclosed an order form from Zierer Visa Service (800-421-6706) which included all the info to fill out and send to them. It was very easy (except for a lot of paperwork) and cost $168.50 for 2 people. It was processed quickly and you can call them to get a status of your visa application. It also required sending 2 passport size pictures for each person. You also had to send them your passports which was a little scary, but they received them fine and sent them back within about 2 weeks. We sent them registered mail so we knew they got there OK since being without a passport would be bad news. No other visas were required. This info is current as of when we took the trip and the rules are different if you are not a US citizen.
We also called the CDC in Atlanta and used their faxback service to fax us the recommendations for immunizations and precautions when traveling to this area. I do not remember the faxline number, but I got it off their web-page which you could find doing a search (like with Yahoo) on Center for Disease Control Atlanta. Or you could probably call the 800 directory service and get their number that way.
After looking at their information and talking to our doctor, we got the Hepatitis A and B shots and a prescription for malaria pills (Lariam) which you take starting 1 week before the trip and continue about 4 weeks after you get back – once a week. We should have started the shot series sooner – it takes about 8 months to get the whole set (I think it was 3 Hep B and 2 Hep A). But we got 1 Hep A before we left (which is sufficient for temporary immunity) and 2 Hep B (1 month apart). We need to go back in 6 months and get the remaining shot of each.
Also, there are luggage weight and size limitations depending on the airlines so you need to call the airlines and check what they are (or look on their web sites). It is not very restrictive for people who’s travel is originating and ending in the US, but for other travelers it can be VERY restrictive. The people traveling from the UK had a per person limit of only 44 lbs. (20 kilos)! This was total per person! I am sure I BOUGHT more than 44 lbs of stuff. So especially if you are not from the US – check this carefully and plan ahead so you take very little (weight it!), use lightweight luggage and leave room for extras because you will want it.
We left Fort Wayne, IN on May 4 to get there early morning May 7. With the time changes and long flights, it takes a couple days to get there from the US. We did have to drive to Indianapolis and stay the night to catch an early morning flight since that was the nearest airport to Fort Wayne that Orient Lines would fly people out of. We stayed at the La Quinta near the airport and it was a great way to go if you have to drive a distance to an airport. They had shuttle service to the airport so it saved having to negotiate the airport parking and they give you the first 10 days parking free and charge only $2.00 a day after that so it pays off over long-term parking.
Then we got on TWA to fly to LA and then on Singapore Air to Singapore (with a layover in Tokyo). Wow, Singapore Air is GREAT! We’d never flown them before and it was by far the best flight we’ve ever been on. The people were friendly, they had gorgeous outfits (long flowered skirts and tops and matching sandals), delicious food and a variety of movies and shows to watch on the seat back video units. We had a row to ourselves and got plenty of sleep. We had a 1 hr. layover in Tokyo, just enough time to buy some trinkets and smoke a cigarette, but it was fun and we have always wanted to go to Japan so at least we’ve *been* there (though we will be back). 8 hours later and we arrived in Singapore, 2 days later and at 1:30 in the morning. We were surprisingly rested, got our luggage without problems, followed the Orient Lines guide to our bus and easily got to the hotel and checked in. It was HOT! and HUMID! even at 1:30am. The air-conditioned bus felt good.
The Pan-Pacific hotel is gorgeous! Architecturally, it is beautifully designed. Clearly they had an exceptional architect design the building. It could have been in Architectural Digest. Very clean, modern lines, but not too avant-garde. Just well designed. It had a 35-story atrium with glass elevators running up both the inside and also outside for a great view of the city.
On the 4th floor is a large, beautiful pool, tennis courts, putting areas and a small driving range and lots of flowers, palm trees and small zen-like rock gardens (with Koi ponds!). In general, both the common areas and the rooms had a crisp, modern-asian feel.
The room had an airy asian decor with a tatami colored carpet, light wall with beautiful natural wood trim and the room was very large, as was the bathroom. The bathroom had a tub, sink and counter with lots of mirrors and marble. Then off the main bath room, were two small rooms – one was a shower area of marble enclosed in frosted glass and the other was a toilet area, also marble and frosted glass.
They also had a hairdryer and coffeemaker in the room. One surprise with the room was that in order to turn on the electricity in the room, you had to insert your card key in a holder near the door. It took us a while in the dark to figure *that* one out… Also, the hotel restaurants were outrageously expensive. We paid about $26 each for a breakfast buffet one morning there. Within walking distance was plenty of restarants, but they were hard to find at first. But there is a Denny’s right across the street (although nothing is that easy to get to in Singapore – even if you can see it, you still have to figure out how to get to it). And Sean ate at an Indian place at the food court in the mall area that was only $3.00 for his large meal of vegetable noodles one time and a rice and veggie stir-fry the other. So you don’t have to spend a lot if you can eat from places like that. I have to say that the food at most of the food court places was just a little too weird for me. I was under the weather and looking at stuff like fish-head soup and other assorted creepy things killed my appetite for eating there. Probably the only slight negative to the hotel was that there was music playing constantly and there was a singer in the atrium in the evenings that you could hear from the room and we are used to more peace and quiet.
Arriving very early morning is great. We had some tea and went to bed and woke up refreshed at about 8am so we had the whole day to explore Singapore.
The Merlion, symbol of Singapore
We were up bright and early and Sean went for a swim while I called Meng, my online friend that we were planning to meet. We made lunch plans with Meng and Cindy for 11:30 and relaxed and unpacked until then. Meng and Cindy came to the hotel and we went off for lunch. What a wonderful couple! They were so nice and hospitable and funny and interesting. It was truly a rare pleasure to spend time with them. They took us to lunch at a chinese restaurant and it was one of the best meals we have had. Sean is a vegetarian and we had a great tofu dish, an absolutely marvelous mushroom dish (I’ve got to find out what kind of mushrooms they used, they were delicious!) and we had crispy duck (yum!) and a chili spiced little bundle of something that looked like spagetti. I’m not sure what it was but it was delicious. We had a delicious bean curd pudding for dessert. We laughed and talked and had a wonderful time. Then we all piled in their car and off we went!
It all gets a little hazy here as we were enjoying ourselves too much to pay much attention to what all we saw. But we made a complete circle of Singapore and stopped by a reservoir that was very green and pretty with lakes and trees and monkeys! And we went to the college that Meng and Cindy had attended and walked thru it’s grounds (very pretty) and we went to the riverfront and looked at the buildings and statues and river boats. We went to the area where Meng and Cindy lives and went to an outdoor market and bought papaya and lemons. We generally just roamed around and saw Singapore (mostly outside the main city area). They dropped us off at the hotel about dinner time. We napped a little and then went exploring the area around the hotel. I swear that the first 2 levels of the entire city of Singapore is one gigantic mall! You could walk forever and never leave the mall. And heaven forbid you should either try to get outside, or try to get back inside! And 99% of it is strictly stores (expensive stores). Looking for food turned out to be a big challenge and finding where we found it again was just as hard. We also saw the world’s biggest fountain in one of the mall areas near the hotel. It was huge and had a light, lazer and music show on it every hour or so. Very spectacular.
The next day, I had developed a bit of bronchitis so we didn’t go to Sentosa Island as we had planned. Sentosa Island is an island that has been converted into a theme park/gardens/trails/etc. There is a gondola ride that takes you to it that looked scary but fun. And it sounded really worth visiting, but I was under-the-weather and it was HOT and HUMID! Let me just say that any day, any time, any season you are in Singapore, it is hot. and humid. But we did take the free City Tour that Orient Lines provides. It was just the right pace for me and was very interesting.
We got to see a Chinese temple. And as part of the tour we went to the Botanical Gardens which was pretty and had orchids and again, lots of monkeys just hanging around. It was still too hot though. I was worried about some of the people on the tour. I should have worried more about myself as you will find out in my later tours… The rest of the day we lounged around and rested (in between food hunts). We also repacked for leaving.
On Thursday, it was embarkation day. As we didn’t leave the hotel until about 3pm, we decided to go visit the Raffles Hotel (home of the famous Singapore Sling). It is an old colonial hotel that is very famous. We walked to it from the hotel. It was nice, but I wouldn’t take the optional tour that took you there. If you do go there, on the 2nd floor is a little museum of the hotel and assorted early travel stuff. We almost didn’t go in, but it is well-worth it, especially if you have already walked there are are looking for something interesting to see.
Our general impressions of Singapore were that it was just too sterile for us. It just seemed to be trying to be too modern and clean and full of American type stores and malls and all. It was congested and expensive. And the freedoms we take for granted such as free press and free speech are non-existent (although they hide it well). And there is very little respect paid to their heritage and background I thought. All you hear is how Singapore is only 30 years old. Well, maybe “Singapore” is only 30 years old, but the peoples and the cultures are thousands of years old and should be proud of that. Thinking about it, I guess the US has a bit of that mentality too, so maybe it is similar to how we feel. Still, another generic, big, expensive city full of malls and hotels is about the last thing I would want to spend time in. And I feel sorry for the Singaporeans who are trapped in a very small area (a good portion of which is a big city) without most of the basic freedoms we take for granted and no way to leave. It would be like having to live your whole life never being able to live outside a generic big city and it’s immediate environs. (I was going to say like Chicago, or NY but they seem to have more personality) And it is very hot and humid all the time (I’ve heard the highs only vary by a few degrees no matter which month you are there, and it was well into the 90’s when we were there). And not only are you restricted physically, but also personally. Well, that’s all I have to say about that. Soapbox mode off. Then back to the hotel to wait for the busses to take us to the ship!
The Marco Polo is an old veteran of a ship that started off as a Russian ship named the Alexander Pushkin and sailed the frigid waters of Northern Russia. It is very ruggedly built and is well suited to the annual Antarctica cruises it sails. That was comforting to me because I felt that it could easily handle the milder conditions we were sailing in. It has been extremely well taken care of and is a beauty. It looks like a ship, not a floating casino and while the glitz is nice too, I like the feel of being on a ship sailing the ocean. It holds about 700 or so passengers and is is what I would classify as a medium-sized ship. These are my favorites. They are large enough to have all the amenities and a variety of passengers, but small enough to feel more personalized, to feel like a ship and to allow people to meet. Of course, I’ve never sailed on a small ship so maybe I would like that alot too. And I am not complaining about the big ships! They are great! Just different. I just like cruising, period. But I guess I would prefer the smaller ships for more adventurous travel and the larger ships for the carribean and places that I want to spend more time on the ship.
The decor of the ship was understated and had lots of wood and little nooks to hang out in and lots of interesting, mostly asian artwork and statues. I will start at the top deck and work my way down.
The top deck is the Sky Deck. It had some of the more expensive cabins and the jacuzzis. Unfortunately, you could not get to the hot tubs from the cabins. You had to go down a level and then back up. This was a disappointment for several of the people who had cabins on this level. More about the cabins in general later. The jacuzzis (3) were not heavily used. It was extremely hot the entire cruise and the temperature was kept mild in the hot tubs so it was not really very muscle-relaxing and no one wanted to sit in warm water in the hot sun! It would be nice on the cruises to colder climates though if they raised the hot tub temp.
Next is the Upper Deck. This had cabins (including the 2 most expensive which we didn’t get to see, but I don’t think they had verandas or balconeys) and the Health and Fitness Center. There was a nice workout room that was always in use (although not full) and a ping-pong table which provided a lot of entertainment! I didn’t see the spa facilities but they are provided by Steiner and are probably typical.
Then you have the Promenade Deck. More cabins and the Charleston Club. The Charleston Club seemed to be the least used of the public rooms. It was basically a disco that the officers hung out in, except on occasion when they had a 2 piece band and the hard-core ballroom dancers danced there. We went there once and there was nobody in there but some officers and a dance floor full of the most amazing ballroom dancers. Sean and I love to ballroom dance and did at every opportunity but these guys were so good that it was like walking into the no-limit section of a casino. We were way out of our league. They were intimidating and a little scary. I’m not sure if they were having fun or not. It was oppressive.
Next level is the Belvedere Deck. This is the deck with most of the public rooms and no cabins. At the front is the Ambassador Lounge. This is where the shows and lectures took place. Also occasionally they would show a movie there. I have read reviews that talked about the stage area and how hard it was to see the performers unless you were in the first 1 or 2 rows. I am happy to report that they had just finished redoing the stage and raised it about 3 feet and I am sure they improved the visibility a lot! It would still have been better had the seats been on more of an angle, but it very good, compared to other cruises. There were very few really bad seats, even at the very back. Just a few that were behind poles. I thought it was very nice and the seating was well-done with individual chairs and tables and long couch-like seating. The stage area was large and had a very nice, large section behind for a large orchestra.
Next is the Polo Lounge.Here we are in the Polo Lounge on a formal night.
This is more of a walk-thru area with 2 bars in the middle and very comfortable chairs/couchs and tables on either side. This was where most people went to have a cigarette. The Marco Polo is non-smoking on one side (I forget which) and smoking on the other (indoors). This was a nice place to sit and have a cigarette before the show. I never noticed it being overly smoky either as it was open, although I would imagine some of the non-smokers would disagree. But there were lots of places elsewhere that were completely non-smoking since they were on the non-smoking side of the ship that were pleasant for non-smokers too. At noon-time and perhaps tea-time also, there was a small band playing here too.
Past that was the lobby with the shore excursion desk and Purser’s desk on each side.Both were very attractive and had lovely sculptures and pictures.
Past that was the gifts shops on one side and the Palm Court on the other (non-smoking) side. There were 2 gift shops, one with misc toiletries, perfume, film, etc and one with clothing and Marco Polo souvenir items. The Palm Court was a lovely little area where tea was served each day and it had rattan furniture, palm plants and a nice airy feel to it.
Past this was the casino area, bar on one side, tables in the middle and slots on the other side. It was small but seemed to accomodate everyone. I never saw it crowded. The tables were only open for short periods each day, like after 9pm and once in a while from 2-4 in the afternoon. And the slots didn’t open until 7:30 in the evening. It didn’t seem to be a big gambling crowd.
Past that was the library on one side and the card room on the other. Both rooms were small but nice. They had all sorts of interesting books in the library on places the ship went and guide books and all but I never figured out how you went about checking them out. They were locked in the cases. Both rooms had lots of wood and shelves and tables and chairs. The card room was quite heavily used and the library was popular too, for playing games (that they had on a shelf). The card room could get crowded easily.
Then behind that (the last indoor room) was Raffles, the informal dining room. This is where they had the breakfast and lunch buffets and an occasional special dinner (by reservation only for an additional $15 and make reservations early as they only take a few people – like 50). This was also light and airy and had glass across the back and doors leading outside to outdoor seating by the pool. It did get crowded at breakfast and lunch, although with a little finagling (one gets in line, the other scopes out a table, leaves something on it and joins the other in line) it was not too bad. They could have used a larger area, but I suppose that on some cruises people would sit on the deck more to eat. On this cruise it was just too hot for most people (including us).
Then beyond that was the pool area. There was a small (but decent enough sized) pool with a lovely statue (of Nijinsky, I think) at the head of it. Not a lot of people swam in it, but it was wonderfully refreshing in the heat and although I am not one to swim that much, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was an undiscovered treasure. And when the ship was sailing, it was almost a thrill ride with the water rushing from one end to the other. The deck and lounge chairs were rarely crowded, probably due to the heat.
One more deck down was the Main Deck. This had all cabins on it. This is where we were and I have to say that I thought it was a prime location for a cabin. We were near the front so we just went a short distance to the stairs, walked up them and we were right at the Ambassador Lounge in one direction and the Polo Lounge in the other. But then again, anywhere on this deck would be convenient to something.
Down again and you are on the Bali Deck. This had the Seven Seas Restaurant and cabins. The formal restaurant was very attractive and we were seated at the Staff Captain’s table (just next to the Captain’s table). Ours was the table you see in the pictures in the brochure. It was a prestigious table, but I will have to say that being in the middle of the large dining room was somewhat noisy. Some friends of ours were in a little alcove off the main room and they said it was quiet and pleasant. Well, you can’t have everything! We had the most marvelous dining companions also, which I will tell you about later.
One more down and you are on the Pacific Deck. This is the last full deck. It had the Medical Center, a small “future cruise” desk and cabins. The Medical Center was nice as I found out when my bronchitis started raging and I had to go there for some medicine. This was at the beginning of the cruise though. I heard that by the middle of the cruise, there were so many people sick (the asian flu had about 50% of the people down, not to mention a wide variety of other afflictions – it was an older crowd and a VERY strenous cruise) that it was a madhouse and they were sending people away and having to wait for hours and all. The poor doctor was about ready to drop.
Last (and least) was the Safari Deck. This was a dismal hole of a deck. You could not get to it except by strange back ways and then it was chopped up so you had to take strange routes just to get around on the actual deck. There were about 35 cabins on this deck and I would highly recommend NOT getting one of them. It had a constant smell of engine oil or something and a loud constant noise from some sort of machinery. It may have been even worse than the bottom deck of the Stella Solaris (which is where I was on that ship) and believe me, I would not get a bottom cabin on any ship ever again. This just reinforced my convictions. Perhaps the newer, larger ships have better bottom decks, but my advice is just don’t do it!
We were in cabin #420 on the main deck. The cabin was good-sized for two (although without any real sitting area except for a chair at the chest of drawers) and had plenty of closet space and a double set of drawers. The location was excellent and convenient. The cabin had 2 fixed twin-sized beds, one on the back wall and one on the side wall. This was, of course, not so ideal for a married couple, but pretty much all the cabins were like that. I guess that is the way they made the older ships. The TV reception was poor at times on some stations although not too bad for us. Other people seemed to have more problems. The bathroom seemed to be your generic bathroom – small, with a toilet, sink and shower. There was room under the sink to store things which was helpful. The carpet was old, had some burn spots and pretty drab. The cabin was pretty utilitarian, but not bad overall. With new carpet it would have seemed much nicer. Also, I had the bunk on the wall that adjoined our neighbors and they occasionally watched TV (Loud! I believe they were old and probably hard of hearing) and then he developed a bad cough that lasted several nights (I felt sorry for him) and I could hear the TV and coughing pretty clearly from my bunk. Sean couldn’t hear it, but his head was a good ways away from the wall. It was not that bad, but I definitely could hear them on occasion. It really was quite fine though. We got a cheap cabin and were pleased with it and with the location. Speaking of that…
On this particular ship, I would not recommend getting an outside cabin or anything more than the cheapest cabin that is not on the bottom deck (or two). Several of the friends we made had cabins on the Sky Deck that were at least 6 categories up from our cabin (and among the most expensive cabins on the ship) and they were exactly the same as ours (some were slightly smaller even). And although they had windows, they had an obstructed view (lifeboats) and the windows were scratched and dirty and hard to see out of anyway. And I don’t think any of the cabins had a balcony, not even the most expensive suites. That is too bad because some of the places the ship goes, it would be great to have a private balconey or nice view. And the Sky deck was much harder to get to than most of the other decks. And they mentioned that they heard loud noise frequently (they especially noticed it in the early morning, probably because they were still in their cabins) and thought their cabin steward was vacuuming the hall or something. That may be, but when I was on their deck, on the outside walkway, I noticed that there was a large section of the deck that had vents to the outside and some kind of machinery behind it (the air conditioning was my guess) that made a terrible racket and also blew hot air out (which may have been why they complained of the heat). So I sure wouldn’t spend my money on an expensive cabin.
However, as I said before, neither would I take a cabin on the bottom deck. It was terrible. And we were almost stuck there! We specifically told Orient Lines that we didn’t want to be “upgraded” to the bottom deck (an outside cabin, as we’d booked an inside cabin with possible upgrades). But sure enough, that’s what they did! Only thru much effort by Sharon and I did we manage to get a cabin elsewhere. If that happens to you, fight it! Trust me. The 2nd from bottom deck was not overly great either, but I believe it would have been OK. Still, I would shoot for at least the 3rd deck up. The main deck was primo.
The Staff and Crew:
The crew was mostly from the Phillipines and the staff was mostly European (Greek and Swedish? Norwegian? etc. and other assorted European types).
The Captain was from Sweden or Norway or something like that and he was very personable and competent. He was also young, single and attractive which had at least a few single young women thinking interesting thoughts… <smile> (not to mention a few older and/or married ones, I bet!) His name was Roland Andersson.
The Staff Captain (who theoretically sat at our table although I think we only saw him twice) was quiet and perhaps stand-offish, although I’m not sure. We didn’t ever sit next to him and it was too noisy in the dining room to talk to the people across the table, especially if you didn’t know them. He also spoke very quietly so we couldn’t hear him anyway.
The Cruise Director (Steve Lewis) was very entertaining and talented. He was personable in a stagey, lounge-singer sort of way. Which was probably just right for this cruise as that seemed to be popular (there was a large number of many-years-retired people on board). He and some of the entertainers were the Lifeboat Drill leaders for our group. That was reassuring in one way (he seemed to know how to talk to a crowd to keep them feeling calm) and disconcerting in another (he seemed to be acting). Well, we didn’t need to put the plan into action so it didn’t matter one way or the other.
The people at the purser’s desk were British (it sounded like, anyway) and were alternately short and snippy or pleasant and helpful. You just never knew what you were going to get. I had a question about the luggage weight limits for the internal flights inside India (I knew we were OK on the international flights but were unsure about the flights that Orient Lines arranged within India) and the purser’s desk people had no idea and gave some vague thoughts about it as answers. Then they suggested I ask at the Cruise/Excursion desk. I asked them and they didn’t have a clue. period. (They really didn’t have a clue about a lot of things in my opinion. I’m not sure what they were there for except to take money for the shore excursions, although some of the women were nice). As an aside, the Cruise/Excursion desk was rarely open.
They suggested I talk to the woman who books the future cruises (down on the Pacific Deck). So down we went. She was actually very helpful and knew the exact answer (which was that we would be fine as it was a charter flight, chartered by Orient Lines). But I was surprised that neither the Purser’s desk nor the Cruise Desk knew the answer or made an effort to find out. The rest of the staff we didn’t really come in contact with.
The crew (as I’ve said) was mostly (or all) from the Phillipines. They were extremely personable, friendly and hard-working. They were also proud of their heritage and enjoyed talking about home. Our cabin steward was friendly and unobtrusive and competent. We didn’t talk to him much, but appreciated his work. The men (it seemed it was only men) who worked at the buffets and bussed tables had a tremendous amount of work to do and did it with smiles and as fast as humanly possible.
However, our waiter in the formal dining room was so-so. After 2 weeks on board, he still forgot I drank iced tea at every meal (although for some reason always had this other guy at our table’s iced tea waiting) and when I’d ask for some, I’d get it about when the dessert orders were being taken (unless I had to remind him again then). And Sean is a vegetarian and always ordered the vegetarian meal and yet he never figured that out, nor offered to get him additional vegetables when he couldn’t find anything much vegetarian to eat, except one time when Sean asked if he could have some mashed potatoes that were a side on a meat-item dish and the waiter brought them like he was doing Sean a huge favor (big smiles and “look what I did for you!” attitude, when he mostly ignored us). I don’t know if it was because he waited on the Captain’s table and thought that was his main priority and that it made him hot stuff or what, but I was not overly impressed. Again, the entire wait staff was all men.
On the other hand, the cocktail servers were all female. They were really sweet and friendly and just generally good people. I’m not sure if it was mostly because “all whites look alike” <smile> or what, but they *all* thought that Sean and I were brother and sister. We look a little bit alike, but no one has ever thought we were brother and sister before (mother and son once, but that’s a different story <grin>). Even when we were holding hands and all, they just thought it was sweet that we were so close! It really became funny and a big joke to all the cocktail waitresses. We got to know a few of them pretty well (Sean loves to talk to people about where they live and what they do and what they think about things – especially pretty women, I’ve noticed… <smile>). So we learned a lot about life in the Phillipines and what they plan to do in the future and how many kids they had and all that. They were extremely surprised to find out that we didn’t have any kids and didn’t plan to have any. Shocked, almost. They said that if a wife didn’t or couldn’t have kids, that the man would find someone who could and they (in their experience) didn’t know how a marriage could stay together without kids. It was a real eye-opener for both sides, I think. Quite a good discussion.
I think that covers most of the staff and crew. We didn’t meet any of the spa people or the casino people. Oh, and one of the staff (Steve somebody – not the cruise director – oh yeah, the magician! Figures he’d be good, doesn’t it) played a wicked game of ping-pong! But I’ll get to that later. <smile>
OK, here I have a few complaints. Overall the food was your basic cruise food. But the choices for a vegetarian was extremely small (especially in the formal dining room) and although they had a “vegetarian choice” each night (a single meal with each course being supposedly vegetarian), it was usually made of of bits and pieces of the regular menu and the only difference was the entree. And the vegetarian entree as a rule, was singularly unimaginative and clearly no thought was put into making an interesting, filling, tasty dish. One night the vegetarian entree was four small mushrooms (like you get in a can) on top of chopped lettuce. Does that sound appetizing or filling? And it was the only entree on the menu Sean could eat. That was the night he begged for some mashed potatoes. And at least once, the soup or other menu item that was listed on the vegetarian menu quite clearly contained meat or meat broth. I mean, it was listed on the regular menu too and told what was in it! So Sean spent a good portion of his time looking for enough food just to be satisfied. He is also on a low-fat diet which went completely out the window since he was just trying most of the time to find *anything* he could eat. Both Carnival and Royal Olympic were MUCH better at providing good “alternative” food.
And there was a lack of food in general on the ship. I know that everyone’s impression of a cruise is food coming out of your ears, but not on this cruise! You could get breakfast from about 6-10am and lunch from about 12-1:30pm. After that, you did without until 8:30pm (more like 9 or after) if you were at the late sitting for dinner. Ostensibly there was an Afternoon Tea from 4-5pm, but that consisted of some old bread with strange pasty stuff squirted on it (one was a bright pink with a weird fishy taste) or old bread with a thin piece of bologna or something and a little garnish and about a 1/2 inch of butter on the bread. Certainly nothing Sean could eat and nothing I *would* eat (or could even stomach). Oh yeah, there were some pastries/desserts also. These were OK (not great) but we were hungry for real food, not dessert! We never did hit the late night snacks, but I’m sure they were no better. The lunch and breakfast buffets were OK, but nothing special and again, there was a dearth of vegetarian food so Sean pretty much ate whatever he could find. Cereal and salad just doesn’t fill a man up in one day. Thank goodness for potatoes.
And if you’ve read any other reviews, you will have heard about their room service (or lack thereof). They have got to get it together on room service. Theoretically they have it, but they don’t have room service menus and if you call to try to get some, they don’t even know what they can get you. But it basically boils down to coffee/tea and cold meat sandwiches (old bread, 1/2″ butter on bread, thin slice of meat and a slice of processed cheese) and some old potato chip pieces. In other words, just forget about getting room service. I think they also had a continental breakfast you could get from room service, but in the morning was about the only time you could easily get food on your own anyway so why bother?
They also had 3 “special” dinners during the cruise that you could attend by making a reservation and paying an extra $15.00. We skipped the French dinner, knowing that there would be nothing Sean could eat. We asked about the Thai dinner, but again, nothing vegetarian. Finally the Indian dinner came and we thought surely they would have some vegetarian on that since Indian food has a lot of vegetarian dishes. Well, they put meat in them anyway, but told Sean to just tell the head waiter that he was vegetarian (and they marked it on his reservation) and they would make his without meat. So he went off with the other people from our table to go to the Indian dinner. I, unfortunately, had gotten very sick that day and just stayed in the cabin where they actually brought me food from the dining room (good thing since I was starving and sick in bed) that was probably the best meal we had on the whole cruise. Too bad I was sick, something gentler would have set better on my stomach. But it was still good – pieces of lobster with a light sauce (Lobster Americanne), a sliced duck breast appetizer and artichoke cream soup (which went down easiest). Meanwhile, Sean tells the head waiter he is vegetarian, they get all confused, he waits and waits and finally they bring him some of the courses, after everyone is well on their way to finishing their own meals. He said it was good (anything was looking good to him at that point) but most of them agreed that it was not all that different from the food in the regular dining room. Perhaps because they are used to making blander, more generic meals for the older crowd.
I guess that about covers the food on the ship except to say that except for (usually) at mealtimes, the coffee was really bad. And Sean lost 5 lbs. on the cruise (and he is thin to begin with) and I lost about 7 (and I am not complaining).
I give Orient Lines very high marks on their entertainment. The musicians were absolutely outstanding. They had the Tower Orchestra and the Romantic Swing Trio on board during our cruise and if you see either of them playing on a cruise, you should be very pleased. The Tower Orchestra backed all the shows and played for much of the ballroom dancing. The Romantic Swing Trio played various times throughout the ship and also for ballroom dancing.
The Tower Orchestra had a rich, traditional big-band sound when playing for dancing and were extremely versatile when backing a variety of shows and singers. They played some wicked jazz too. They were a surprisingly large group with horns and a wide range of instruments.
The Romantic Swing Trio was also incredibly versatile and they went from playing excellent ballroom dancing music (which is not easy for a lot of bands who, not knowing what a true rumba, or waltz or whatever beat and tempo is, invariably plays it too fast or too slow or off-kilter somehow). And when they played just as entertainment, they played everything! I wished so bad that my dad could have heard them. He is a violinist (and fiddler) as his main instrument and they had a man playing the violin that just killed me. He could switch from the old standard favorites that brings tears to my eyes remembering my dad playing them when I was young, to the hoe-down style fiddling (which also reminds me of dad), to jazz, swing, classical, you-name-it. And he and the rest of the trio played beautifully together. But the violinist was knock-your-socks-off good.
A tip for the other cruise lines. If either of these bands are available, grab them! You should be so lucky as to have such talent playing on your ship.
As far as the shows went, we only saw one of the three “full cast production numbers”. The one we saw was good though. Not Las Vegas (as they say) but well done on a small scale.
And there was a “song and dance” man, Skip Cunningham who was an outstanding singer and man, could he tap! We really enjoyed him. He was one of, if not the best performer.
There was also a singer, Kirri Adams, who was quite flamboyant. A little over the top for us. Very Theatrical. Very Loud. Very “Center-of-Attention”. OK, you get the impression she got on my nerves a bit? Yes, she did. But to each their own.
The same thing happened with this comedian they had on board. I think his name was Mike Newman. He was an older british comic who basically reminded me of the older jewish comics only his jokes were full of inside british humor. Maybe he was funnier if you were british. And much older! He did world war II jokes. I don’t know. He just sort of was embarrasing and somewhat obnoxious to me, but other people seemed to like him. Right at the end he did one thing that was slightly endearing (I don’t remember what it was) but up until that point I really didn’t care for him or his humor.
There was also a magician Steve Blake and his wife Trisha. They were good but to be honest, I don’t really remember their act that well. He plays a wicked game of ping-pong though!
And last but not least, Steve Lewis, the Cruise Director turned out to be a surprisingly good singer as well.
Orient Lines also brought a couple local troupes on board at the various ports. In Sri Lanka, they had the Sri Jayana Folk Dance Group which were very good and it was interesting to see the native dances. In India, they presented “Kathkali Dances”, the music, dance and folk culture of India. We didn’t get to see this as I was sick that day, but we would have loved to and heard it was good. They also had a Filipino Folkloric Show presented by the Filipino crew members. This was extremely well done and the crew took such pride in their show. All the crew we met were so happy we went to it and enjoyed it.
That is the main live entertainment they had. There were some assorted smaller musical acts that played in the Charleston Club but we never went there so we didn’t get to see them.
Tour Talks/Fashion Show/Religious Services:
They had a person giving tour talks that was not too good. His name was Kris Verboven and he was just boring. We were looking forward to the tour talks and then we went to the first one and he was so dry and formulaic (seemed to be the standard issue Orient Lines Shore Excursions talk) that we quit going to them. But later they brought on board 2 other lecturers (Royston Ellis and Dr. Renu Nangia) who were much more entertainng and informative.
Royston gave lectures on Sri Lanka, Traveling in India (he wrote a book: India by Rail), Tea and his life as an author and rock-n-roll poet with the Beatles (which I enjoyed as that was around my timeframe).
Dr. Nangia spoke on India and it’s customs, culture and religions. Both were very good at taking questions afterwards and got a lot of them. It was especially interesting to hear Dr. Nangia talk about women and their role in India. She felt that it had changed quite a bit and that arranged marriages and dowries and other customs were not practiced like they used to be. I wonder though if that is not because in her social circles the people are possibly more cosmopolitan and progressive than in most of India. At least all of the people on the street or doing the tours that we talked to in India all said that it was the way of life and we had some interesting specific talks about that subject. In Cochin, one of our tour guides was quite matter of fact in talking about hoping to get married within the year and wondering who his parents would arrange for his wife.
There was also a fashion show put on by one of the stores in India, featuring really nice saris and Indian fashions. They were outrageously expensive, but the clothes were pretty and unusual and it was presented with a lot of flash and style.
Also, as this cruise was over Easter Sunday, they had a priest on board to do services for the passengers, staff and crew. We had the good fortune to be seated at his table (Father Doug Danduran – or just plain Doug) and we thought it was unfortunate that they didn’t hold more services since they had him there and was essentially paying him to do it (he was very happy to, of course) and there were crew members who were very devout who have to do without a priest most of the time on board as they only bring them on over Christmas and Easter. But clearly, the services were not a big priority with Orient Lines (or at least with the Cruise Director).
People were always asking Doug when the next service would be and he would have to tell them he didn’t know as they wouldn’t tell him until the last minute when and if (and where) he was having a service. And they really had very few. We are not religious so it didn’t matter to us one way or the other, but I felt sad especially for the crew. Doug told us that holding mass for the crew was a wonderful and moving and humbling experience for him.
The absolutely best activity that they provided in our books, was by far and away, the ballroom dancing. We danced every day. They had dancing before and after each show, at some of the afternoon teas, in the Charleston Club, at a deck party and other times and places throughout the cruise. The floor was good, the musicians superb and variety of dances played was excellent. And there was a large number of very skilled dancers among the passengers who were a joy to watch. This was my main complaint on Carnival, that for all the large number of lounges and dance floors, they didn’t provide for ballroom dancing at all to speak of and when they did, the musicians just played jazz and pretended it was ballroom dance music. Then they wondered why no one danced and figured it wasn’t that kind of crowd. Well, I know for a fact that it was, just in our group alone there were several couples who wanted to dance but they didn’t play music you could dance to! Well, anyway, that was not a complaint on this cruise. We loved it, it was superb. What more can I say?
Another thing we enjoyed was (believe it or not) watching the shows they broadcast on TV. They had several good movies playing such as Babe and Mrs. Brown and Contact and many others and they showed the entire series of Michael Palin’s Pole to Pole and several National Geographic specials and travelogues. We didn’t spend a lot of time watching TV, but sure enjoyed it when we did.
They also had misc. activities like Backgammon, Scrabble and other games tournaments and card playing and team trivia, dance classes bingo, horse-racing, shuffleboard, talent show, etc. They also had a ping-pong tournament which Sean and Maria and Charlotte (2 women who sat at our table, affectionately known as the “Ladies of London”) played in. It was a competition between Steve, the magician and anyone who was foolish enough to play him. Needless to say, he soundly trounced everyone. He was an outstanding player and would have given the very best players I know a run for their money (and taken it away from them). But there were prizes for the man and woman who got the most points against him and Charlotte and Sean both won. And of course, the shore excursions. But that is covered later.
The passengers were mostly older people, or as I like to call them, the “many-years-retired”. <smile> But that didn’t mean they were not interesting or fun or still interested in seeing and doing things. We prefer an older crowd as our interests (such as ballroom dancing and dressing up and all) seem to fit with them better.
Still, I think Orient Lines should have stressed that this was a very difficult cruise/adventure and that a fairly high level of endurance and strength is required. I felt for some of the people who clearly had health problems who were suffering terribly in the heat and difficulty of moving around so much and general shock to the system that was involved. Heck, I consider myself very healthy and fit and able to handle most things and I had bronchitis when we first got there, several bouts of heat sickness after that (and possibly a touch of the flu) and an attack of “delhi belly”. Fortunately I recover quickly and it didn’t really keep me down or from doing most everything, but I can imagine how bad it was for some. I’d heard that at least half the ship was ill enough to be confined to their cabin and there was any number of falls and other accidents. One man died of a heart attack on board.
But there was still a nice mix of people on board. We had a wonderful table of people for dining, all of whom we became friendly with and would meet and hang out with and sit for a chat and all. Doug, the priest was the person we became closest to and who we spent a lot of time with. He was a wonderful, energetic, thoughtful young man who we truly enjoyed getting to know. We hung out with him a lot and went on most of the tours with him. Also at our table was Maria and Charlotte (the English Ladies) who were 2 young women from England. Maria works for Orient Lines and they give a free cruise to each employee each year (and a companion can come too). So Maria brought her friend Charlotte & they were a lot of fun. As they were in their early 20’s and single, they had eyes for the captain <smile>. They were very interesting to talk to and a lot of fun to hang out with. Also at our table was Ellie, the quintessential New Yorker <smile>. She was traveling alone as she did frequently and was quite an adventurous and outspoken woman. She too was a lot of fun and we had several interesting talks with her over cocktails. And last but not least was Matt. He was a travel agent leading a tour group. He had quite a large group, (40? more? I don’t know) and was quite a cut-up. He was always running here and there and was very vivacious. I don’t know how he did it, I would go nuts, but he seemed to enjoy himself immensely.
And also on our cruise was Pat and Roger Lake, a couple that I had met on the internet thru Pat who had posted a message on a cruise site saying she was going on this cruise. So we got to emailing and had quite a lot of fun talking and planning and getting worked up for the cruise. Unfortunately she got very ill on the cruise and so we didn’t get to spend as much time with them as we would have liked, but we did visit some and had a nice conversation with Roger. Roger and Sean were talking racing which was interesting, but I needed to go do something (can’t remember what) so I left them talking and Sean had a great time with Roger. I am happy to report that they are both recovered and feeling fine and back in the swing of things.
I had also noticed that there was a large contingent of UK people on board, more than I expected. So I asked the Cruise Director what the passenger nationality ratio was and he said it was about 60% US, 30% UK and 10% other (including several from Australia and New Zealand). Surprisingly to me, there was almost no Asians on board. When I went on the Stella Solaris (Royal Olympic) to Greece, the ratios were approx 60% US, 30% Japanese and 10% other (as my rough guess). I would like to follow up sometime with some of the cruise lines and get some more numbers and I would be interested in knowing why different nationalities go on certain cruises. Is it timing? Location? Destinations? I don’t know but it would be interesting to get some figures and make some guesses.
Just as an aside, there were 2 couples of men who work the same identical outfits as each other every day. And we are talking a put together, matching outfit. It was funny! They seemed very nice, but how many times do you see 2 people wearing matching outfits every day? We had a few other interesting people on board including a set of old hippies (straight from the 60’s – I think they lost a few years… <smile>) and some very intense ballroom dancers who were almost scary. Have you ever watched the Ballroom Dancing Championships on TV? They were like them. And the “Admiral”, this little old guy who always wore an admiral’s cap and bossed everyone around and complained constantly. His wife was just as bad. I watched her boss one of the crew around having him go thru every picture in the “rejected” bin to see if any of them were of her and her husband. The poor guy was having to go thru hundreds of pictures and she was throwing a fit if anyone took or put any pictures from the bin since it messed her up. Meanwhile, the “Admiral” was keeping up a running commentary behind her about everything and everybody. We were lucky. We could leave.
The Overall Impressions of the Marco Polo and the Orient Lines:
Overall, the Marco Polo and Orient Lines were quite good and a good value for the money. Even better was the fact that we went on a 2-for-1 special (which I understand, the Passage to India always is).
The lowest marks go to the food, both for selection and for availability and also for the lack of room service in any fashion (and the bad coffee). Also to the waiter who never paid attention to us and the formal dining room in general, which we ate in one other time before departing with a different waiter and had the same problems. And some of the staff such as the Shore Excursion/Cruise desk or the Purser’s desk that were sometimes abrupt and unhelpful and didn’t know much about the cruise (probably because they only cruise there once a year). Let me add to that though, that sometimes they were nice and attentive also. But it is important on a confusing cruise like this to have a place you can go to get answers and can count on and I didn’t get that feeling with them. Not that this is uncommon, just something I’d like to see that I didn’t.
Oh yes, also annoying was the fact that the Daily Program *always* had something wrong with it. One time we wanted to watch “Babe” and they had the times wrong and we missed it. This was so common that it became a running joke with us to try to find the errors. It was guaranteed that there were going to be some. And it messed us up on more than one occasion by having times or places listed wrong.
The highest marks go to the Entertainment/Activities onboard, to the Orient Lines ability to move a large amount of people around thru various countries with a minimum of hassle, the high quality of the hotels and transportation provided by Orient Lines and to the ship itself, which although older and having older cabins, still was very attractive and pleasant. Oh yes, also to the Filipino staff (except our waiter), especially the cocktail waitresses who had hard jobs and always worked with a smile and who went out of their way to be friendly and who never minded if you just sat and talked and didn’t drink.
In case it wasn’t obvious, let me say we enjoyed the ship and the cruise very much!
All in all, quite a “trip of a lifetime” and wonderful adventure! Why, you ask? (OK, let’s pretend that you did <smile>) Well, you’ll just have to stay tuned for Part 2 of my review…
Part II: The Countries: Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India. (coming soon)
Becky Carleton, a librarian at the Johnson County Library in Kansas challenged me to name ten pieces
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