Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Agony and the Ecstasy: Highlights of Asia and Review of Millennium

I took my sweet time writing the recap and review of this trip. I needed to mentally recover and not come across as too negative. We had many great experiences over this three week trip but there were also some disappointments. While trying not to complain or sound crabby, we soldiered on and made the best of challenging situations. Many of the low points were out of our control and while we did not exactly embrace the chaos, we tried to find a "happy place" to get us through the rough spots.

So much goes into planning for a trip like this that there are bound to be some bumps in the road and obstacles along the way. The following is a brief recap of what was outstanding and what we would perhaps prefer to forget.

Outstanding Experiences

* The weather - Sounds simple but pouring down rain and steaming city pavements can hamper any resilient traveler. We were so lucky during this trip to experience fantastic weather. The temps in the UK were cold as expected for December but we had clear skies. Shanghai and Hangzhou even in early December were delightful during the day. At night the temps would drop but bundling up was fun too. Southeast Asia, known for being wet and humid was never sweltering and it was actually quite comfortable to walk around in all the cruise ports.

* Christmas Decorations - The amount and diversity of the Christmas lights and festive scenes was fabulous. In Shanghai, Singapore, Bangkok, Saigon and Hong Kong we were delighted with the spectacular and creative illuminations.

Christmas Lights Orchard Road, Singapore

* Hotels - I have an admitted weakness for swanky hotels. Our accommodations were stunning during the entire trip and made up for our rather drab stateroom on the cruise. It is hard to designate one hotel as our favorite. The Waldorf Astoria in Shanghai and the Siam Kempinski in Bangkok were two standouts.

Queen Double River View Room  Waldorf Astoria Shanghai

* Flights - Hands down our flight on Cathay Pacific from Hong Kong to San Francisco was fabulous and leaves the rest in the dust.

Cathay Pacific Business Class (Seat 18A)
*Shopping - There was were so many shops but so little time! Shanghai had the most stylish and unique shopping. Singapore had a great selection and many reasonable brands like Zara. We had fun during our shopping tour in Saigon. The shopping in Hong Kong was expensive and also intimidating. It was hard to compete with the young 20-somethings showering the city with cash.

Khai Silk on Dong Khoi, Saigon

* Food - Food, glorious food! Where to start? Off the ship we had some great meals. From yummy dumplings in Shanghai to crispy spring rolls in Saigon, we did not go hungry. With the exception of the food in the ship's specialty restaurants our meals on Celebrity Millennium were below average and at times uneatable.

* Guides - Both of our private guides with Viator were fabulous. We loved having the special attention and the price was so reasonable.

Wish We Could Forget

There were times during the cruise where patience was a virtue and when a complimentary Xanax would have been welcomed. I won't go through an entire litany of grievances about our Celebrity Millennium cruise. By reading the blog that is pretty well covered. On a high note, our room was clean and quiet. We enjoyed the specialty restaurants and had made it to Hong Kong safely.

Basically, the lack of organization on the ship. disappointing food and inadequately trained staff made this cruise unsatisfactory. Celebrity used to provide value for the money. Unfortunately that no longer appears to be the case. We also felt under appreciated and taken for granted. Regrettably we have decided not to cruise with Celebrity and  take a "leave of absence" for a while. Other lines like Crystal and Oceania will be where we will look to sail on in the future. I have even reconsidered Princess but only on their smaller "R" class ships. There will be more about this at the end of this post. You can read my full Cruise Critic member review of the Millennium cruise here:

Highlights & Lowlights:

*Cruising Highlight - The smartest choice I made was booking the Halong Violet for our overnight junk cruise in Halong Bay. The Violet and Halong Bay were outstanding and the highlight of the entire cruise. The Violet was beautiful, our room was a palace and the views of Halong Bay were unforgettable.

*Best Ship Excursion - There wasn't one. We booked two ship excursions. One in Hoi An and another one in Halong Bay for day 2. The Hoi An "On Our Own" tour should have been stress free and an enjoyable way to experience this town. However, having the passengers negotiate the departure time with the guide was challenging and put us all in a bad mood. The guide marching us down the streets of Hoi An just to show  us the Chinese market didn't win any points either. Our second ship excursion "Shopping & Countryside" tour which was on the second day in Halong Bay was both agonizing and disappointing. It was more memorable for what we did not see than what we did see. No actual trip to the Yen Tu Pagoda, no shopping and no farm. It was a disaster.

*Favorite Harbor View - Shanghai. While Hong Kong is traditionally celebrated for its glorious harbor, we were mesmerized by Shanghai and the views of Pudong.

Shanghai view of Pudong

*Worst Experience: Getting sick at the tail end of the cruise. I think I picked up my cold in Vietnam. I was sick for the last 4 days on the ship with congestion but thankfully no cough. That all changed when I got home on December 24th. While traveling and being sick was a challenge, when I woke up Christmas Day I had completely lost my voice. I could barely whisper. Two days later my voice gradually came back but it was all downhill from there. Coughing, a temperature of 102 for 4 days, aches, sweating, chills...I thought it was the end. While the words Florida and Doctor may be an oxymoron, I had no choice but to go to Urgent Care. One hour after sitting in the waiting room and seeing the physician (who turned out not be a real doctor) I got a prescription for z-pak and an antibiotic that did nothing. I was back at Urgent Care two days later, waited three hours to see the doctor coughing away the entire time and spreading my Vietnamese flu around the room. This time I saw a real doctor and he tested for pnuemonia (negative) and flu (also negative). Stymied he also tested for TB. That was negative too. A prescription of Levequin and a strong cough medicine had me on the mend in less than 48 hours. I don't remember ever being so sick before.

*The Proof of the Pudding is in the Tasting: This was our first experience with a private tour organized through the Cruise Critic Roll Call. Our fellow passengers in the group were very nice. The problem was mostly with the tour company, Smile and the aggressive salesmanship and weak performance of the guide. I know the RC private tours are popular to save money but it was not for us. We won't be doing this again.

*Best evening show: Impression West Lake. The performance on the West Lake in Hangzhou was magical and so worthwhile even when freezing watching it outside in the cold.

Impression West Lake, Hangzhou

*Most disappointing hotel: Four Seasons West Lake. While the staff were nice and helpful the hotel itself seemed very sterile and with its long white corridors more closely resembled a Swiss health clinic.

*Best Dinner -This is a hard one. It is a tie between Aqua Tokyo in Hong Kong and in Lost Heaven in Shanghai.

Dinner Aqua Tokyo, Hong Kong

*Worst Dinner: The Peking Duck at the Four Season Hangzhou. I still feel sorry for our unfortunate duck who was sacrificed for this horrible dinner.

*Best Lunch: Morning Glory in Hoi An. The tea rose dumplings, pancake and springs rolls were all yummy.

*Worst Lunch: The snack served on the Turbot Jet on the return to Hong Kong from Macau. Mystery tuna, soggy bun, gelatin cabbage. Need I say more?

*Best Dessert: The ice cream at Fanny's in Saigon was so fresh and light. Absolutely delicious.

Fanny's Ice Cream, Saigon

*Most terrifying moment: There were two! 1) Trying to cross the street in Saigon the first time. There were so many motorcycles but they magically know how to go around all the pedestrians. 2) Having the taxi almost drive away with our luggage at the Singapore cruise terminal.

*Favorite Museum: The Queen Sirikit Textile Museum in Bangkok was enchanting. Not only were the gowns and outfits amazing to look at but the building's interior was remarkable and greatly enhanced the experience.

*Most interesting Buddhist Temple: The assortment of buildings at Bangkok's Grand Palace was unparalleled. The Lingying Temple in Hangzhou is a close second but we did not have time to see all of it.

*Surprises - The amount of squat toilets in very modern Singapore was a stunner. I would never have imagine that Takashimaya in Singapore would not have modern facilities

*Wish I had more time for: Shopping in Bangkok's amazing malls & Gardens by the Bay in Singapore.

*Most over-hyped: The shop at the Jim Thompson House. It was too commercial for my taste. They hardly sold any clothing and the items in Singapore were actually more appealing than those in the main shop in Bangkok.

*Where I would go back to in a minute: Shanghai

*Won My Heart: The Toto toilet at the WA Shanghai with the motion activated lid and electronic gizmos was like making a new best friend. Just walking by the lid would pop up as if to say "hi".

Toto Toilet, Waldorf Astoria Shanghai

*Favorite Cruise Terminal: Marina Bay Cruise Center in Singapore. Gorgeous, Gleaming, brand new, excellent staff. What is not to like?

*Best Buffet: Evening buffet in the Clipper Lounge at Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong. Amazing!

Mandarin Oriental Evening Buffet
*Favorite purchase: The folding silk boxes I bought in Hong Kong were beautiful and also so easy to pack. They made great gifts.

*Favorite Afternoon Tea: Cliveden House in Taplow, UK. It was wonderfully presented and delicious.

That about wraps it up for this last adventure. We saw some amazing places and met lots of great people. I wish the cruise would have been better but you win some and you lose some.

It has only been a few months since our return. In early January I cancelled a cruise on the Celebrity Infinity to the British Isles for August 2013 I had booked during the spring. I was very happy to get my deposit back and even happier not be cruising on a Millennium class ship.

I have been looking for a replacement for this cruise and may have finally found one. While I am not a huge fan of Princess they have something that may work perfectly. The Ocean Princess will be sailing the British Isles this summer on 8 day runs. The ship is a medium size ship with just 700 passengers. Itinerary for the British Isles includes an overnight in Edinburgh and visits to Dublin, Milford Haven (Wales) and Guernsey in the Channel Islands. I put a deposit down last week. I also sent a request to Princess to disembark in Guernsey where we can overnight and then the following day take the ferry to Saint Malo, France. Yes, I know, I am making this into another adventure!

I will have to make a decision by early June if we will be doing this cruise but currently it looks like a go. The only other impediment would be the cruise takes place in late August which is hurricane season. Princess has the "cancel for any reason" insurance so we could still pay for it without worrying too much.

Next week we will be going to Miami where we have been invited to have lunch and visit the Oceania Riviera. I have been drooling at the thought of cruising on Marina or Riviera since they were both launched. Very much looking forward to this opportunity! Will post a full report when we return.


  1. LOVE the recap. I love the concept of the 'best' & 'worst' list.....why didn't I think of that? Would you be so kind to refresh my memory.....your favorite cruise terminal was Marina Bay. I'm too lazy to go back....what port was that???

    1. Marina Bay Cruise Center is in Singapore. It is a beautiful building and has a great location. The staff were outstanding. The MRT will be connected next year which will make the transit to/from the terminal much easier. Taxis still get confused as they are used to the old cruise terminal at Harbourfront.