Travel Planning: Asia in our sights

It’s mid-April and here in the northern hemisphere the calendar says it’s spring. One look out our windows here in Toronto, however, tells a whole different story. We’ve been in the grips of a late-season ice storm for the past few days and it could not look more like winter out there. What better time to be thinking of Hong Kong and its current 25° C temperatures!

We’ve been actively planning this Asia trip for some time. It all began some time last year when, despite Asia having been on our travel bucket list for some time, we mused that perhaps we didn’t really need that 15-hour flight. When our son got wind of our thoughts on the subject he implored us not to give up the idea. In his view we HAD to visit Hong Kong and Tokyo at least. He had performed in both cities on various tours with Les Ballets de Monte Carlo a few years ago and told us that we’d love both experiences. So, we decided to take his advice and plan a trip that would include both.

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It was just the two of us and Kevin, our guide, in his Mercedes when we toured Ireland a few years ago. Here is our transportation parked out front of Ashford Castle. 

We looked at land-tour options and those included a number of regional flights in China. We wondered if we really wanted to spend that much time in airports where we didn’t speak the language, and worse, couldn’t even read the language characters. That seemed like a bit of a drag to us, although we considered a Kensington private, guided tour, since we had used them before in Ireland and were more than satisfied. But there were other options. We could consider transportation between cities by ship.

As long-time readers know about us, cruise ships are really just comfortable methods of transportation for us usually. Okay, we sometimes do like an island hop in the Caribbean on a six-star ship, but in recent years, our “cruises” have been selected based on their itineraries. So, we decided to check out our favourite cruise lines to see what they offered in Asia.

We explored Oceania, Regent and Cunard. We even considered Holland America, although we haven’t travelled on them in years. It turns out that the vast majority of the itineraries on offer include one but not both of the must-see cities on our list – Hong Kong and Tokyo – and truth be told, most cruise lines don’t actually seem to go to Tokyo at all. Then we hit on Silversea. (You might remember that we sailed on Silversea’s new ship the Silver Muse in the fall down the western coast of South America – in actual fact, we had booked this Asia cruise even before we left for that one!)

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We’ll be sailing aboard the 382-guest luxury cruise ship the Silver Shadow. [Photo credit: https://www.silversea.com/ships/silver-shadow.html]
Silversea was the only one we found that began in Hong Kong and ended in Tokyo. That was perfect: we could spend a few days in Hong Kong before sailing, then end with four or five days in Tokyo. So, we booked. One of the nice features of this itinerary was also that the ship spends two days in each of the important ports of call: Shanghai, Beijing, Osaka. It also offers a couple of mid-cruise land tours where you leave the ship for an overnight on shore so that you can explore places you couldn’t do in a single day. Next on the agenda – right after touching base with our long-time travel agent Angela (Maritime Travel) who booked our non-stop flights to and from our destination – was to plan how we would see the sights.

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First, we looked at the cruise line’s own offerings. We decided to book their overland trip in Beijing. When the ship docks in Tianjin (the port for Beijing) we’ll be on the fast train into the city for touring. Then we stay overnight at the Four Season’s Hotel in Beijing. The next day we head to The Great Wall then back to meet the ship. Unlike the shore excursions which, on Silversea, you book in advance but pay for when you disembark the ship, this overland trip had to be paid for in advance. Done.

As we looked at the other offerings, it occurred to us that there were choices among them that would permit us to see as much of the stops as possible. So, we booked a number of excursions. Silversea’s shore excursions, in our experience, appear expensive to the untrained eye, but they do have fewer people on buses and are generally good value for the money. That took care of planning for Shanghai, Hiroshima, Osaka and Kyoto. That left us with our book-ends: Hong Kong and Tokyo.

Naturally we looked to Tours-by-Locals, our go-to company for private touring around the world.

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Our private guide in Hong Kong has now arranged our transportation from the airport to our hotel on Hong Kong island, will provide us with a private tour of the city and arrange for our transportation to the pier. Our Tokyo guide has arranged three days of city touring and a day of touring outside the city – then will drop us at the airport after four days there. And all of this was arranged through Tours-by-Locals’ web site where we were able to arrange all the details which are personalized for us. Our Tokyo guide has even provided us with materials to help us acclimatize to Japanese culture as well as an extensive list of recommended reading. Well, we opted to prepare for this trip not through too much reading, but via two video-based courses.

We bought two courses from The Great Courses, a site that we’ve gone to throughout the years for a wide variety of educational programming: Foundations of Eastern Civilization (Craig G. Benjamin PhD), which was 48 half-hour lectures and Understanding Japan: A Cultural History (Mark J. Ravina PhD), 24 half-hour lectures. And yes, we watched every one of them.

Both professors are experts in their fields, but more important perhaps even than that is that their passion for their respective specialties is palpable in their terrific delivery. We didn’t take notes, but we feel that having done this in advance, we can more fully experience the history and culture of our Asian destinations. We’re looking forward to seeing in real life many of the places and experiences both shared with us.

Now that we’ve booked and finalized everything, and prepared our brains for new adventures, we’re just about ready to board that plane. We leave in five days. Hope you’ll come along with us!

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Getting ready…trusty Briggs & Riley carry-ons. 

Discovering new places: Cruise ships as transportation

Sometimes you get in the car and hit the open road to discover new and exciting places and experiences. Other times you hop a train. There are also times when you can only see the places you want to see by flying (try driving between Tahiti and Fiji in the South Pacific!). In recent years, however, we’ve discovered that a cruise ship might just be one of our favourite ways to move between specific destinations.

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We prefer the one on the right! The Silver Cloud was our first Silversea ship.

Unlike others who love cruises, we are probably not what is truly meant by the term “cruisers.” Or at least that is only a small part of how you could describe us. When we embarked on our first cruise so many years ago, we were traveling with a young child, and we didn’t really know what to expect beyond our plan to have a great vacation. And we did. But we have learned over the years – and 15 cruises later – that we are not those people who believe that the ship is the destination. For us it has become a very comfortable conveyance for getting us from one interesting destination to another.

The truth is that we avoid like the plague those mega-cruise ships that offer everything from wave surfing to rock-wall climbing with wall-to-wall food in between. These days we confine ourselves to a small number of cruise lines and choose our trips by itinerary. And as for loyalty to one line? Like airline loyalty programs, they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.  So we decide where we want to go and search among the cruises on offer from the lines we love: Cunard, Oceania, Seabourn, Regent and Silversea mainly. And now we’ll return to Silversea which captured our attention for our upcoming cruise to check a few things off our bucket list: The Panama Canal, Peru and Chile. In fact, we leave on Tuesday.

The first time we realized that a cruise ship was a wonderful way to discover new places to which we might like to return for a longer visit was our first Mediterranean cruise some ten years ago. The cruise left from Barcelona, so we planned a few days there in advance of the cruise. This is a key feature of a destination-rich cruise; the embarkation and disembarkation points. If all of your cruise experiences leave from the same port (e.g. Port Everglades or Miami), you’ll never be able to have that land-based adventure of a new city. This was the first lesson we learned: even if it’s a Caribbean cruise, if it leaves from, say Saint Martin (so sorry for their recent hurricane issues) or even Barbados, that provides a great opportunity for an add-on.

And the disembarkation point is also important: leaving and arriving at two different places is the best since you have two chances to spend time in new cities. On one cruise we left from Monte Carlo and ended in Venice. On another we sailed from Rome and ended in Istanbul.

That first Med cruise introduced us to cities to which we have returned – sometimes again and again. For example, while we were anchored off Monaco, we visited Eze, a place we thought we might never have a chance to visit again. It turns out we’ve been back several times! On that same cruise, we visited Rome for the first time and have since returned twice to get to know it better.

A few years ago we had another of those “bucket list” places that we had wanted to visit for some time: The South Pacific. But as we began considering how to arrange a tour of the islands, it became clear that flying in and out of those tiny islands would only eat up valuable time with at least a half a day each time devoted to airports and flying – and that’s if there are no delays. A small boat didn’t seem like a good idea at all since the distances are too great. So, what about a cruise ship?cruise map South Pacific

We discovered an Oceania cruise that left from Papeete, Tahiti (a chance to spend a week in Tahiti? Yes, please), visited a range of islands between which it cruised during the night giving each day over to an island, and ending in Sydney, Australia. Perfect!

Next week we begin our cruise with a few days in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It’s not exciting, but it will be fun. After three days of unwinding, we embark the Silver Muse, Silversea’s newest ship which launched earlier this year. We’ll cruise to Key West then onto Costa Rica. Only one day here is fine with us since we spent a wonderful two weeks touring the country some years ago. Then we’ll transit the Panama Canal before making our way down the west coast of South America stopping into Ecuador, Peru, northern Chile ending in the port city of Valparaiso. Once there, we’ll pick up our Tours-by-Locals private guide who has four days of cultural and wine country touring for us while we get to know Santiago. And all because we will use a cruise ship for transportation.

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We love to tell stories about our travels – that’s what this blog has always been about. This time, however, we’re going to also do some live blogging and post short pieces and photos along the way. I hope you’ll come along with us. We’ll save the longer stories until we get back home in Toronto.

See you on the high seas!

Who plans a winter vacation in the summer? Discerning travelers do!

A taste of winter on St. Margaret’s Bay, Nova Scotia last November. It usually doesn’t snow this much!

Our story begins this past weekend when over a glass (or two) of wine, we began to talk about those travel-related things on our bucket list, two of which include a South American vacation and trying out Crystal CruisesBut…it’s only June! You rightly suggest.

The sun is shining, the temperature is rising on our deck, the dock is in the water waiting for the boat to arrive from the marina – sure signs that summer in Nova Scotia is about to arrive.  And not a moment too soon in this part of the country.  So, why in the world have we begun planning our winter vacation?  The reason is simple: long years of experience.  Being a discerning traveler often means taking action many months before actually setting out for the airport.  So, that is precisely what we did this week.

Our first step in planning this vacation was to revisit our bucket list.  A South American adventure was right on top of that list alongside a desire to cruise our way through the luxury cruise lines. Regent cruises?  Check. (Actually check more than once). Silversea cruises?  Check. Cunard Queen’s Grill? Check. Crystal?  No check yet.  So putting those two desires together, we’ve decided that we want to visit Rio and Buenos Aires and travel between the two by ship.  Next stop, the web.

Visiting Crystal’s web site uncovered the perfect cruise for us departing from Buenos Aires on February 26 (a bit late in the season for our taste, since we’re trying to avoid winter weather up north,  but occasionally you have to compromise to get what you really want) and landing 12 days later in Rio.  We’d plan to spend a few days in each city before and after – we could feel the flamenco coming on already. We chose the level of suite we wanted, and were on to our next stop, Angela, our wonderful travel agent.

Perhaps we’ll have another wonderful lunch like the one we had here in Tulum, Mexico.

Angela was quick to respond to the query about prices on Penthouses and Penthouse suites that we were interested in.  “Sorry,” was the reply.  “None available.  But there are deluxe staterooms.”

A quick look at the size of the “deluxe staterooms” was enough to send us scurrying over to Regent’s web site to have a look at a similar itinerary.  There it was – and the suite we wanted was available – just one left, we might add.  So, that one is now being held for us while we figure out all of the other things that go along with planning a big cruise.  Getting to Argentina, visiting Buenos Aires, visiting in Rio at the end of the cruise etc.  But it isn’t over yet.

Just today we found a couple of Silversea cruises that sound interesting though: Cape Town to the Canary Islands and Bali to Singapore.  So many cruises, so little time!  But there is a real lesson here.

We were going to wait until September to book our February holiday.  In years gone by when we were looking to get away to a resort in the Caribbean, that strategy worked.  If price is your only criterion, then waiting for a sale and taking what you get might work.  But not for us.

But…we’re hoping to dine on our suite verandah again this winter.

As we’ve gotten older, we’ve gotten more discerning in our travel choices, and we’ve found that each trip is imbued with a kind of nostalgic feeling: we may never travel to these destinations again (but we’ve thought that before, and you know what happened!).  This means that each decision is significant.  Sure, we occasionally do something more or less on the spur of the moment (we did book our April vacation only six weeks before), but we’ve been seeing a pattern over the past few years when it comes to booking cruises in particular.  The higher end the cruise, the more likely the suites will be booked far in advance.  It seems that discerning travelers everywhere are simply not taking a chance.  Neither are we.

John Steinbeck once wrote that “…a journey is like marriage.  The certain way to be wrong is to think you can control it…” Hold that thought – right from the moment you begin to plan that journey.  Think you’re in control?  Think again.  Now, 30 seconds of winter to get you thinking about booking your own winter holiday!