Democratizing ocean cruising for Guam and Saipan

May 2, 2017

 

 

    If most of us have an image of ocean cruising, it owes a lot to the portrayal of these sea adventures over the years by Hollywood. The cinematic ships were generally crossing the Atlantic on the way to Paris or some other European destination with tuxedo-clad passengers such as Cary Grant or Doris Day; other film outings would feature Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers tap dancing their way to the next port.  And the ocean could be the Mediterranean or Caribbean, but rarely the Pacific.

 

    A personal favorite is the 1930s comedy Monkey Business in which the zany Marx brothers star as stowaways on a cruise ship, playing off the concept of a cruise as the exclusive venue of the rich and famous.

 

    If you’re a little intimidated by this now outdated image, my advice is, “forget about it.” In 2017, this is travel for all of us and the Pacific and its thousands of ports are getting a fresh look by the cruise ship industry.

 

    I’ve been on military and a few other ships—briefly—but Resorts World Manila and Star Cruises have just helped me lose my cruise ship virginity with a preview of their Stay and Cruise package. The six day, five night cruise started in Manila and went on to Laoag in Ilocos Norte, ROP and then overnight sails to Kaohsiung in Taiwan and Hong  Kong, with a return across largely flat seas to Manila, though I can’t guarantee things will remain quite as calm for later voyages.

 

     I’m neither rich nor famous, but I should have tried this a lot earlier.

 

     If you haven’t checked these places off your personal bucket list yet, the ‘Stay and Cruise’ package, exclusively available to Guam and Saipan residents, is a particularly appealing and affordable way to do so.

 

   Far beyond offering merely a place to stay on the way to the port, Resorts World Manila offers a unique array of accommodations and activities for visitors to the city. It’s within sight of new arrivals at Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 3 and its complex includes Maxim’s Hotel, the Marriot Hotel Manila, and the Remington and Belmont Hotels. There’s also a three-story conference center with an enormous ballroom. Better, a pedestrian bridge will soon connect the RWM complex with the terminal. Oh, and in a tribute to the booming and expansive Manila tourist market, a Sheraton and Hilton Hotel are under construction.

   But after over-nighting at the Winford, yet another RWM property, it’s off to the ship for the first leg of the trip and a Philippine cultural greeting.

 

 

   Boarding this 75,338 ton, 879 foot long behemoth reveals plenty of the glamour and glitz associated with ocean cruising in the modern age. Designed for the Asian cruise trade, it offers nearly a thousand cabins, with a passenger capacity of 1,870.  Its high rise lobby served double purpose as a venue for events during the voyage, including a beauty pageant.

 

     After a ceremony marking this inaugural voyage, it was off on calm, moon lit seas.

 

How to Dress?

 

  Confession time: Receiving the invitation for this familiarization tour, three frightening words leaped out of the schedule, namely “Attire: Smart Elegant.” After spending years figuring out what “Island Formal” means on Guam and Saipan, visions of those old Hollywood movies came to mind and my closet contained no tuxedos.

 

   I learned first-hand though that the rare tux spotted aboard would be on a restaurant greeter and ‘Shipboard Casual’ would better describe the prevailing attire. No formal nights here. I wore a tie a couple of times, but at least, no flip-flops!

 

There’s Entertainment!

 

  So where did vaudeville go, besides Las Vegas? There’s plenty of retro action on the SuperStar Virgo stage, ranging from a spectacular pair of Siberian acrobats to jugglers and a Broadway-style musical review. Passengers were also pulled into the act and onto the dance floor.

 

   As the ship anchored off Laoag in Ilocos Norte, passengers got ready for authentic Ilocano cuisine and a deep dive into Spanish colonial history at Vigan, the capital of nearby Ilocos Sur.  

 

    Heading down the highway, our bubbly, non-stop talking local guide,  Louelyn Tabili, “Call me Luis-Luis” told us about the past and modern day connections between the province and Hawaii as the brightly painted and numerous new houses built by returning overseas foreign workers flashed by.

    And Luis-Luis also held forth on the  much older houses down the road. With its extensively preserved Kamestizoan District, Vigan is designated a UNESCO  World Heritage site. The traffic on its cobblestoned streets is horse-powered and the ancestral houses reflect the prevailing Spanish-Mexican-Chinese architectural  style, which has even been imposed on the local McDonald’s. 

 

   Another overnight cruise brings us to Kaohsiung, Taiwan, the country’s largest southern port. Our guide, Tim Huang, who has been showing tourists around for 37 years, says visitors from former colonizers of China—the Netherlands, Germany and Japan—are particularly interested in this history, though they claim no responsibility for past misdeeds by their ancestors.

 

   One stop is at the Anping Fort, built by the Dutch in 1624 and then known as Fort Zeelandia, an administrative center of the 17th Century Dutch colonial regime and its trading hub.

 

 

 

    A central historical figure here is Ming Dynasty loyalist Koxinga who receives large credit for driving the Dutch—known to the colonized population as ‘red-haired barbarians”—out of Taiwan.

 

 

 

Another destination, the Chi Mei Museum, emphasizes the infatuation by the Taiwanese with all things from European culture. Built by Taiwanese chemical billionaire Shi Wen-long, elaborate faux-Greek statuary fronts a huge collection of art and rare violins by Stradivarius and Guarneri among others. 

 

Froggy Hong Kong

 

 

 

      After another night at sea, a persistent fog has settled over Hong Kong and not just for the early morning hours. Our tour guide for this leg, Carol, ushered us from Kowloon and then up the twisting road to The Peak, high above Hong Kong. Once the exclusive scenic and air cooled residence of British colonialists who were reminded of their home islands—no Chinese allowed—it’s now open to anyone, as long as they’ve got a lot of money.

 

   Speaking Cantonese and Mandarin as well as competent English, Carol amused the group by constantly referring to the “froggy day” we were experiencing.

   Reluctant to talk about Hong Kong politics on the eve of the city state’s chief executive election, Carol did talk a lot about the high cost of living and lack of housing in Hong Kong. Cars are a huge luxury and new housing would cost HK$20-30,000 per square foot.

 

    Hong Kong has long since absorbed traditional pursuits and activities within its urban boundaries, but Aberdeen Fishing Village, home to the boat-dwelling Tanka people persists. KUAM-TV photographer Joe Termulo took in the scene during a sampan tour.

 

   Of course for movie-goers and martial arts enthusiasts, one figure is synonymous with Hong Kong and yes, Bruce Lee’s statue graces the ‘Garden of the Stars,’ along with other Hong Kong film idols.

 

    Determined not to be deprived of a last shot at Hong Kong shopping, the nearly exhausted cruisers spent a couple of pre-return voyage hours shopping for a few more souvenirs and goodies to take home.

 

   And then it was a speedy, but smooth voyage back to Manila.

 

    Residents of Guam and Saipan watch the process of tourism from the outside every day, but being inside is a whole different matter and the skills and planning required to make it happen are impressive. Being a tourist requires a lot of patience for the long lines and bus trips involved.  But for this first time cruiser, it was truly worth it.

 

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