Singapore to Hong Kong.
We learned we are immune to seasickness during our cruise through the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea.
Our November cruise on the Norwegian Star was such a hit that I had some concerns about how we’d manage to forget it just long enough to embrace our December cruise on the Celebrity Millennium. After all, our wonderful month in France back in September made it harder to appreciate Italy in October, and our great overnight ferry to Stockholm in August gave us expectations that the September ferry to Helsinki couldn’t meet, as I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts. I needn’t have worried. We loved different things about our Celebrity cruise, but love it we did, despite high seas and a cancelled port of call. Here are some of the highlights.
The Fun Factory: the kids’ club on the Celebrity Millennium is spacious, well equipped, and well managed. While Sam had definitely enjoyed the individual attention he received on the Norwegian Star, where he was one of less than a dozen kids aboard, the Millennium was the hands-down winner here for reasons that are partly circumstantial (not many parents brought kids on the Star’s 21-day, term-time voyage) but not only that. The Millennium just devotes more space and effort to kids. Each evening with our turndown service (complete with chocolates on the pillow) Sam received a schedule that let him know what to expect the next day. These activities were often so appealing that Sam made them into must-do appointments, planning our meals and family time around them. These included a takeover of the ship’s nightclub, Cosmo, for a family disco, a kids’ talent show in the same venue, a pyjama party, a family movie night under the stars, excellent crafts, sports challenges, contests, and really enticing themed days. The staff seemed happy and well trained, especially Lorraine, a Canadian who also helped with the Park West Gallery events, the other must-do on our itinerary during sea days. I would definitely recommend the Millennium to anyone travelling with kids.
Park West Gallery: we had adored the staff of the Park West Gallery on the Norwegian Star, all of whom made Sam feel welcome and special, none more than Samantha Angove (who has since moved to Ottawa to work at Shopify – we’re hoping she’ll use her keen eye to help us hang our Park West purchases when we’re back). Although the Celebrity Millennium Park Westers were completely different from their Norwegian Star counterparts, Sam’s experience was the same: he learned tons about art and artists, really connected with the art experts (especially Lise and Troy from Nicaragua, who we’re hoping to visit on a future trip), and came away with a few new paintings for his collection. Our Celebrity cruise confirmed our impression that the Park West staff are the best people to get to know on a cruise, because they are guaranteed to be well-travelled, cultured, interesting, and friendly.
Ports: as a result of our Norwegian cruise, we had already learned that a country’s main tourist sites aren’t necessarily close to the large cruise ship ports. A day spent enjoying the area closer to the port can be a lot more enjoyable than a lengthy bus journey to the must-sees in the company of dozens of other cruise ship passengers. On the Norwegian cruise we skipped Petra when we were in Jordan to enjoy a lovely day on the beach in Aqaba with actual Jordanians, and Haifa, in Israel, had so much to offer that we didn’t feel the need to venture into Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Sometimes the port city isn’t especially lovely (I’m looking at you, Pattaya, Thailand) but it’s worth considering the options before committing to an expensive and potentially exhausting port excursion. On both cruises, we often decided, as a result of this reflection, that we’d like to return to the area one day to see the sights at our leisure (Petra, the Valley of the Kings, Siem Reap), or that the sights are actually not that interesting to us anyway. This doesn’t mean that we got nothing out of the countries we visited, only that local food, people, and experiences were more interesting to us than hours on buses with fellow cruise passengers. The shore excursions that we did do were fine (Patrick LOVED exploring the Vietcong tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City, and we all enjoyed our jam-packed tour of Bangkok), but we’re independent travellers, not group tourists, and we like to move at our own pace. Land-based travel (or a river cruise in some regions) is a better option for real sightseeing. Since we were using these cruises primarily as a holiday from independent travelling, we took full advantage of the shipboard amenities like the gym, sauna, pool, kids’ club, and art events, feeling no pressure to get anything in particular out of our ports of call except an experience in a new place.
Eating: the food was excellent on both cruises, in different ways. On the Norwegian Star the buffet and two a la carte restaurants were included for everyone, and we very often opted for the buffet because the healthy options were outstanding. Sam loved the stir-fry station, Patrick created epic meal-sized salads, and I made some version of a Buddha bowl out of vegetables and proteins for at least one meal a day. When we did eat in one of the restaurants we felt that the food was delicious, but not dramatically superior to the buffet. On the Celebrity Millennium there was only one complimentary restaurant besides the buffet, but it was phenomenal: dinner specials included lobster tails, Chateaubriand, and Prime Rib, the kids’ menu offered filet mignon as one of its options, and the appetizers always included shrimp cocktail and escargots alongside the daily features. The buffet was not quite as good as the Star’s, though I did enjoy the Asian soup station (pho) for lunch almost every day, but the Millennium also had an extra and excellent buffet, the spa café, open for breakfast and lunch with a selection of healthy and delicious options.
Spa: The spa restaurant and the entire spa pool area were excellent on the Celebrity Millennium. We didn’t feel the need to splash out for access to the Millennium’s thermal suite (well worth the extra expense on the Star) because everyone had access to the adults-only spa pool zone with a thalassotherapy pool, hot tubs, saunas, and changing rooms: the extras didn’t seem necessary. I did a lot of writing in this area of the ship and often ate both breakfast and lunch here as well.
Bonus discovery: After an epic day out in Bangkok, Sam wasn’t too keen on another 14-hour adventure, so we sent Patrick out alone into Saigon and the Vietcong tunnels. He enjoyed his day, especially getting the chance to fire some machine guns left over from the Vietnam War. Sam and I relaxed on board, knowing that our second stop in Vietnam, Hoi An, would be more mellow. Hoi An is a favourite destination of expats and digital nomads, one of the many roads not taken for our sabbatical: we’ve opted for a month in Chiang Mai, Thailand and another in Penang, Malaysia, but Hoi An was one of our options for a long time before we finally committed. Unfortunately, 18-metre waves meant a rough night at sea, flooding in Hoi An, the captain’s decision to bypass the port altogether, and another day and night of high seas – so high that the water was sloshing right out of the pools and hot tubs, across the deck, and out to sea. The ship seemed strangely empty because apparently almost everyone except us was seasick. We were quite pleased to discover that we are immune to seasickness, and enjoyed some of the extra art events hastily scheduled to keep mutiny at bay. Hoi An is now in our plans for a future visit, perhaps on our way from Australia to Europe at the end of May, when the weather there is reportedly at its best…unless we decide to book another cruise, which, based on how much we’ve enjoyed these two, is a distinct possibility.Destinations