Nice and breezy

All the fun of a fam­ily voy­age in Asia on Hol­land Amer­ica Line’s MS Volen­dam

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - FIONA HARARI

IT is 7pm on a mild evening in Nha Trang, and we are meant to be out shop­ping. Our ship is in port un­til 11pm as part of a 14-night cruise around Thai­land, Cam­bo­dia and Viet­nam. We’ve spent hours ex­plor­ing this lovely Viet­namese sea­side town. We have strolled its lengthy waterfront, climbed about 160 steps to a pagoda, screeched with laugh­ter as cy­clo drivers led us safely through bustling round­abouts and we have stopped at a beach­front cafe just be­fore sun­set for a sweet cup of lo­cal cof­fee that tasted like liq­uid caramel.

It’s been a busy, de­light­ful day, and right now, ac­cord­ing to my care­fully re­searched, cus­tom-made itin­er­ary, we should be round­ing it off with some out­door re­tail ther­apy. There is a mar­ket nearby, burst­ing with bags and bowls and trin­kets, and I have re­li­ably in­formed the fam­ily that’s where we should be head­ing.

But then we dis­cover the pop-up al­fresco restau­rant that has sud­denly ap­peared on one of the up­per­most decks of our ship, Hol­land Amer­ica Line’s MS Volen­dam. The sun loungers that usu­ally fill the spa­cious ter­race have tonight been re­placed by clus­ters of ta­bles, colour­ful lanterns and fairy lights.

We ditch the shop­ping plan to dine on bar­be­cued Asian spe­cial­i­ties be­neath a twin­kling sky and en­cir­cled by the sparkling lights of Nha Trang. It’s a charm­ing scene, sim­ple, ele­gant, un­ex­pected and un­like any­thing we have ex­pe­ri­enced on a cruise.

We have been to Viet­nam be­fore, each time fol­low­ing care­fully con­sid­ered itin­er­ar­ies cre­ated by yours truly. Hav­ing long ago as­sumed the role of or­gan­iser-in-chief for fam­ily travel, I’d come to en­joy the plan­ning al­most as much as the hol­i­days, es­chew­ing struc­tured ex­pe­ri­ences in favour of roads less trav­elled. It’s a for­mula that has mostly worked, tak­ing us to some won­der­ful des­ti­na­tions.

But there are draw­backs, not least of which is the level of ex­pec­ta­tion if you do your task too well. I dis­cov­ered this a year ago, when af­ter a week-long cruise around the Caribbean I found my­self, en famille, on a street in Buenos Aires late one Satur­day night, newly ar­rived, tired and hun­gry. As my fam­ily stared at me for­lornly, I re­alised I had been or­gan­is­ing our hol­i­days with such pre­ci­sion, mar­shalling my hus­band and two teenagers to ever more ex­cit­ing lo­ca­tions, that they as­sumed I would mirac­u­lously be flu­ent in Span­ish and know just the place to eat.

On our Caribbean cruise, on the other hand, there had never been a need to search for a good feed. Meals were al­ways avail­able, no mat­ter when hunger struck. And, best of all, noth­ing was my prob­lem.

Don’t like what’s on the menu? Try an­other restau­rant. Fancy sleep­ing in? Sure, or­der break­fast in bed at your leisure. No time for the 8pm nightly show? Check it out at the 10pm . . . Or go with your mates from the kids club. Fancy a spot of ta­ble ten­nis? Trivia? Tai chi?

Seven ports over 14 nights on the Volen­dam’s South­east Asian itin­er­ary means there is a lot to see, and we get to do so with­out hav­ing to pack and un­pack ev­ery other day. We are used to liv­ing out of suit­cases on hol­i­days. Stand­ing in our spa­cious cab­ins and en­joy­ing the prospect of spread­ing out all our stuff, we couldn’t re­mem­ber the last time we had stayed put for so long on tour.

Start­ing from Sin­ga­pore, we have rev­elled in the sooth­ing pace of a hol­i­day at sea.

There really is noth­ing I need to do; even our visas are or­gan­ised by the crew. Shore days are still busy with sight­see­ing, in­clud­ing Koh Sa­mui as it wakes from a long, late night of rev­elry, Bangkok from its busy river and a taxi ride to re­visit the charm­ing Viet­namese town of Hoi An.

Th­ese days are mostly long, and sev­eral times our dock is a good two-hour drive in each di­rec­tion from our des­ti­na­tion. Yet each time we feel cush­ioned by the knowl­edge we will end up back on the ship, where the most tax­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for any of us (in­clud­ing me) will be get­ting show­ered and changed for din­ner.

Sea days, mean­while, as­sume a pat­tern of their own: break­fast at leisure, then what­ever we like. That might mean a soli­tary walk around the teak walking track, a spot of read­ing in one of the many com­fort­able seat­ing ar­eas, a swim, a round of team trivia, line danc­ing, a game of cards, a movie in the the­atre or a cook­ing class in the ship’s demon­stra­tion kitchen.

No mat­ter that my new-found tal­ent for mak­ing marzi­pan roses is un­likely to be as handy on dry land. I can still revel in the en­joy­ment of learn­ing a few new kitchen tricks along­side my fam­ily.

Even­tu­ally, we dock in Hong Kong. Af­ter two weeks of sight­see­ing, pam­per­ing and rarely hav­ing to put our hands in our pock­ets, none of us is in a hurry to dis­em­bark. Dip­ping into so many dif­fer­ent cul­tures over two weeks has been re­ward­ing and sur­pris­ingly re­lax­ing. And I couldn’t have or­gan­ised it bet­ter.

GETTY IM­AGES (ABOVE; BE­LOW)

The Xom Bong Bridge in colour­ful Nha Trang, main pic­ture; Hol­land Amer­ica Line’s MS Volen­dam, left; mar­kets in Nha Trang, be­low

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