Magic on the Mekong

For been-there-done-that cruis­ers, an Asia itin­er­ary is of­ten next on the list. And lucky for to­day’s been-there-done-that cruis­ers, op­tions abound along Asia’s won­der­ful wa­ter­ways. One river in par­tic­u­lar that’s at­tract­ing lux­ury river ships is the Mekon

Porthole Cruise Magazine - - Cover - Scenic Spirit’s Crys­tal Din­ing cui­sine

A JEWEL LIKE NO OTHER Scenic Spirit sets new river cruis­ing stan­dards in South­east Asia.

When a ship’s decks are named for pre­cious stones, it’s hard not to talk about a di­a­mond in the rough — a de­scrip­tion that fits Scenic Spirit like a cus­tom-made be­jew­eled neck­lace from Harry Win­ston. Sur­rounded on the dark and lazy Mekong River by sam­pans, rickety fish­ing boats, and float­ing mar­kets, the gleam­ing white hull of Scenic Spirit and its win­dow-lined su­per­struc­ture make the ship stand out in a crowd. It’s not a bad look if your goal is to be the most lux­u­ri­ous ves­sel on an in­creas­ingly com­pet­i­tive wa­ter­way, from the Mekong Delta in Viet­nam to the river’s dis­tant parts north of Ph­nom Penh, Cam­bo­dia. The all-suite, all-bal­cony lay­out is topped off with an all-in­clu­sive pol­icy that nearly lets you leave your wal­let at home.

STAY­ING AHEAD OF THE COM­PE­TI­TION

The 68-pas­sen­ger Scenic Spirit, pur­pose-built for the Mekong, de­buted in 2016 in a re­gion al­ready chock­ablock with river ships. At 279 feet, it’s one of the long­est lux­ury ships on the Mekong, which re­sults in more pub­lic space. Ev­ery ac­com­mo­da­tion is a two-room suite, with slid­ing doors to sep­a­rate the bed­room and sit­ting room, and a walk-in wardrobe with plenty of stor­age space for two peo­ple. Most Mekong ships don’t have a pool, but

Scenic Spirit’s is long enough for swim­ming (short) laps. It also boasts a pas­sen­ger el­e­va­tor, which can come in handy con­sid­er­ing there are five decks. An el­e­va­tor may not be cru­cial, but it looks aw­fully invit­ing at the end of a six-hour shore ex­cur­sion.

An­other dis­tinc­tion is the all-in­clu­sive pric­ing. Shore ex­cur­sions, gra­tu­ities, al­co­holic bev­er­ages , mini­bar, 24-hour room ser­vice, and Wi-Fi are in­cluded in the cruise price. In fact, the list of in­clu­sions is so com­pre­hen­sive that the ship doesn’t even re­quest guests to pro­vide a credit card im­print upon board­ing.

SER­VICE AND SMILES

The ser­vice on Scenic Spirit ex­hibits both con­ti­nen­tal so­phis­ti­ca­tion and Asian warmth. That’s not sur­pris­ing con­sid­er­ing that se­nior ser­vice crewmem­bers were trained in Europe for three months be­fore the ship launched. Al­most all the guest-fac­ing staff are Cam­bo­dian, and their friend­li­ness shines through.

“At the end of the day, it’s the staff that re­ally makes the ship,” says Phil Jor­dan, Scenic’s Asia gen­eral man­ager.

The ser­vice be­gins as soon as guests en­ter their suite and are greeted by their per­sonal but­ler. “We have one but­ler for each suite,” adds Joyce Pinto, ho­tel di­rec­tor. If you aren’t clear what a but­ler will do for you, be sure to ask; don’t nec­es­sar­ily ex­pect him to de­scribe his ser­vices. Ours didn’t of­fer to un­pack our lug­gage, for in­stance, but he did re­stock the mini­bar with three fresh Angkor beers ev­ery af­ter­noon. Pinto later ex­plained that the but­lers will clean your shoes after a muddy ex­cur­sion; bring you tea at 6 in the morn­ing, if you wish; and make sure you have plenty of play­ing cards if you’re a fan of soli­taire or bridge. “They make sure that ev­ery­thing in your suite is in or­der. You just ask them.”

Other crewmem­bers, in an ef­fort to grease the wheels of af­fa­bil­ity among pas­sen­gers and crew, re­lied on first-name badges worn by guests to ad­dress the in­di­vid­ual. But when sev­eral of the staff stopped call­ing me “Mister Mark” and be­gan call­ing me sim­ply “Mark,” I grew un­com­fort­able with the too-easy fa­mil­iar­ity. Other guests found it charm­ing.

More im­por­tantly, with a staff-to-guest ra­tio of just un­der 1:1, you will rarely, if ever, be without as­sis­tance, whether it’s for a fresh drink, a ques­tion about the day’s sched­ule, or a sec­ond help­ing of dessert.

A PLETHORA OF PUB­LIC SPA­CES

From the spa on Deck 1 (Gem Deck) to the open ter­race on Deck 5 (Sun Deck), there is no dearth of places to go, whether you want to so­cial­ize or be by your­self. Deck 1 also fea­tures a small ex­er­cise room and a do-it-your­self guest laun­dry (no charge, laun­dry soap pro­vided). The steam sauna, tucked be­hind the spa, was an un­ex­pected treat.

Just up­stairs on Deck 2 (Jewel Deck) is the re­cep­tion area — the pulse of the ship — as well as the sole full-ser­vice din­ing room, Crys­tal Din­ing res­tau­rant. The uni­formly high qual­ity of the culi­nary of­fer­ings is all the more laud­able con­sid­er­ing the lo­gis­ti­cal is­sues in­volved in sup­ply­ing a ship in th­ese re­mote wa­ters. All meals had a se­lec­tion of both Western dishes (chicken breast, sir­loin steak) and lo­cally in­flu­enced cui­sine ( Viet­namese spiced lamb rack, beef loc lac).

“You’re in Asia, so it’s nice to try the cui­sine,” says Paula Har­ri­gan, Scenic Spirit’s cruise di­rec­tor. “But not every­body wants to eat Asian for break­fast, lunch, and din­ner, so the chefs try very hard to get that balance right.”

The Li­brary, also on Jewel Deck, and the Sun Deck on Deck 5, were un­der­uti­lized ar­eas by pas­sen­gers. By far the most pop­u­lar hang­outs were the pool and pool bar on Deck 4 (Di­a­mond Deck), the mis­named River Café (it’s a bar), and the Spirit Lounge on Deck 3 (Sap­phire Deck), which was where guests came to­gether for shore talks and post­pran­dial cock­tails each evening. If you’re a cruise-only pas­sen­ger, don’t be sur­prised if the other guests al­ready know one an­other; many of them will have trav­eled to­gether on pre-cruise land tours. A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN When all is said and done, you want a com­fort­able cabin in which to re­lax, and Scenic Spirit’s aes­thet­i­cally pleas­ing suites are con­tem­po­rary in de­sign but not off-puttingly mod­ern. There’s much to love in their lay­outs — large en-suite bath­rooms, for in­stance, have gen­er­ous counter space, siz­able show­ers, and L’Oc­c­i­tane ameni­ties — and lit­tle to com­plain about (ex­cept for the hinged, wall-mounted TV that never quite got out of my way). Ad­justable beds and a pil­low menu guar­an­tee a good night’s rest.

At 344 square feet, the two dozen Deluxe Suites are some of the largest “stan­dard” cab­ins on the river. The next step up are the eight Grand Deluxe suites, at 430 square feet, whose bath­rooms are even more spa­cious. Top-of-the-line ac­com­mo­da­tions are the two 861-square-foot Royal Panorama Suites, which in­clude enor­mous step-out bal­conies with for­ward views to die for, not to men­tion sun beds and hot tubs.

All of Scenic Spirit’s ameni­ties go a long way to­ward rais­ing the bar for cruise lines rac­ing to en­ter one of the most ex­cit­ing river cruise des­ti­na­tions . For those of us who want to sail there, that’s good news in­deed.

THE SER­VICE ON SCENICSPIRIT EX­HIBITS BOTH CON­TI­NEN­TAL SO­PHIS­TI­CA­TION AND ASIAN WARMTH.

AURA OF EL­E­GANCE Aqua Mekong of­fers an au­then­tic look at life along the river.

AQUA EX­PE­DI­TIONS HAS SET A HIGH BAR for the river cruise seg­ment of the area’s bur­geon­ing tourism in­dus­try. The 40- pas­sen­ger, 205- foot Aqua Mekong in­te­grates au­then­tic re­gional de­sign with a sparkling ve­neer of mod­ernistic chic.

Strik­ing con­tem­po­rary style is em­bel­lished by richly grained hard­wood floors and an ar­ray of luxe fur­nish­ings. Daz­zling the senses with a flat­ter­ing at­mos­phere of style was the ob­vi­ous in­tent of the Saigon- based de­sign­ers, over­seen by the com­pany's visionary founder, Francesco Galli Zu­garo.

ROOMS WITH A VIEW

The em­pha­sis on small de­tails looms large. Daily laun­dry ser­vice, shoe clean­ing, per­son­al­ized wa­ter bot­tles, Wi- Fi, juices, cof­fee, soft drinks, beer, and wine are all com­pli­men­tary. The ship’s in­fin­ity- style plunge pool, movie screen­ing room, li­brary, and fit­ness cen­ter are fa­cil­i­ties oth­er­wise most of­ten found on larger cruise ships.

Twenty ul­tra- mod­ern, 320- square- foot suites are as re­splen­dent as any found in five- star bou­tique ho­tels. Four sets of in­ter­con­nect­ing suites are per­fect for fam­i­lies and groups seek­ing more space.

Floor- to- ceil­ing win­dows the length of the room of­fer 3- D views of the coun­try­side and an op­por­tu­nity to wit­ness river­banks puls­ing with life and the ir­refutable bond be­tween the river and its in­hab­i­tants. Sofa loungers along the win­dow fa­cil­i­tate lazy af­ter­noons tak­ing in the scenery. Large bath­rooms are de­signed with dual- sink van­i­ties and el­e­gantly tiled walk- in show­ers. Ev­ery de­tail is re­flec­tive of the Zen- like am­biance.

Each morn­ing’s most dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion is whether to have cof­fee in the plush king­sized bed as you feast on the real- life spec­ta­cle play­ing out­side the win­dow, or walk 20 steps to the elab­o­rate ar­ray of fruits and break­fast sta­ples served in the din­ing room.

Fur­ther views can be found from the top level Ob­ser­va­tion Deck and Out­door Lounges, which are the per­fect spots to con­nect with the ever- chang­ing land­scapes. Both the bow and the stern lounges boast com­fort­able sun loungers, and at the front, a shaded canopy and rooftop bar.

A TASTE OF ASIA

Ex­otic pre- din­ner cock­tails and ap­pe­tiz­ers in the spa­cious and posh In­door Lounge stir up rec­ol­lec­tions of each day's ex­plo­rations, but are promptly up­staged by spec­tac­u­lar din­ner fan­fares. The culi­nary as­pect is a vi­tal com­po­nent of any cruise, and Aqua Ex­pe­di­tions’ in­ven­tive gas­tron­omy pre­sen­ta­tions rise to the chal­lenge.

The re­gion­ally sourced bounty of seafood, spices, and fruits presents an evoca­tive kalei­do­scope of aro­mas and fla­vors, expertly pre­pared by the ship’s tal­ented chef. Menus un­veil a trea­sure trove of cre­ations that will tan­ta­lize even the most timid diner. Stoked ap­petites are re­warded with dishes the likes of Ba­nana Blos­som Salad with Seared Wagyu; Stir- Fried Wa­ter­cress with Lime Pep­per; or Crab, Pomelo, and Gin­ger on Be­tel Leaves. Each meal is capped off with deca­dent re­gional desserts.

IN­TI­MATE EX­PLO­RATIONS

Twice per day, com­pli­men­tary shore ex­cur­sions ven­ture far be­yond a rudi­men­tary des­ti­na­tion ex­pe­ri­ence, en­gag­ing par­tic­i­pants in au­then­tic cul­tural ex­changes. A cus­tom­ized fleet of four pri­vate skiffs ferry guests to oth­er­wise in­ac­ces­si­ble wa­ter­ways for vis­its to re­mote tem­ples, mar­kets, and vil­lages, in­clud­ing ar­ti­san craft demon­stra­tions.

With a guest- to- guide ra­tio of 10: 1 on th­ese tours, ex­pe­ri­enced and in­for­ma­tive guides sup­ple­ment each ad­ven­ture with fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight. The trans­porta­tion mix is no less col­or­ful uti­liz­ing vans, lo­cal tuk­tuks, and even ox carts. Kayaks and bi­cy­cles are pro­vided as out­lets for the en­er­getic and ac­tive minded.

River nav­i­ga­tion on the Mekong is fu­eled by a lust for ad­ven­ture and buoyed by the warmth and smiles of the Aqua Mekong staff and their metic­u­lous at­ten­tion to de­tail.

FLOOR-TO- CEIL­ING WIN­DOWS THE LENGTH OF THE ROOM FA­CIL­I­TATE 3-D VIEWS OF THE COUN­TRY­SIDE.

VERY VIET­NAM RV Angkor Pan­daw ex­plores the Red River in gen­uine com­fort.

THANKS TO DE­MAND AND DE­VEL­OP­ING in­fra­struc­ture through­out Viet­nam, Pan­daw Cruises has au­da­ciously seen fit to de­ploy four of its 16 char­ac­ter­is­tic river ships to both the Mekong River in the south and on the Red River and its trib­u­taries in the North. Part of the joy in cruis­ing is dis­cov­er­ing some­thing new and off the beaten path, and the com­pany rightly de­liv­ers on that cri­te­ria with RV Angkor Pan­daw. My 10- night sail­ing in North Viet­nam is com­prised of 32 like- minded souls with a zest for an un­con­ven­tional ex­pe­ri­ence and who are treated to a true ex­pe­di­tionary jour­ney.

MIND­FUL MO­MENTS ON BOARD

The com­fort­able am­biance on board re­flects the med­i­ta­tive state of the sur­round­ing ter­rain, un­der­stated yet teem­ing with di­ver­sity. Comfy state­rooms beckon as a wel­come respite after each day’s guided ad­ven­tures. Pol­ished dark wood walls and fur­nish­ings along­side brass ac­ces­sories evoke a nod to­ward a nau­ti­cal vibe. Each room opens to a bal­cony- like walk­way pro­vid­ing al fresco ac­cess.

The up­per deck’s open- air lounge re­mains true to the style: fully canopied, wicker fur­ni­ture, and chaise lounge chairs prof­fer­ing un­hin­dered views of the pass­ing coun­try­side. Aes­thet­i­cally, the out­ward ap­pear­ance of the well- de­signed ship is rem­i­nis­cent of by­gone colo­nial charm.

Re­flect­ing the evolv­ing mar­ket land­scape, the com­pany im­ple­ments up­dates and mod­i­fi­ca­tions to each ves­sel of its fleet ev­ery other year and the ex­cep­tion­ally well- main­tained state of RV Angkor Pan­daw is tes­ta­ment to that ef­fort.

The essence of the Pan­daw ex­pe­ri­ence is the warm hos­pi­tal­ity of the 20 crewmem­bers, each with their own hum­ble and con­ta­gious per­son­al­ity. Cater­ing to in­ter­na­tional pas­sen­gers, they com­ple­ment the so­cial mix on a jour­ney that re­veals an in­trigu­ing cul­ture min­gled with in­spir­ing land­scapes.

All din­ing on board takes place in the fam­ily- style din­ing room. Break­fasts lean to­ward stan­dard west­ern­ized fare along with each day’s fea­tured Asian spe­cialty. Prior to din­ner, cock­tail hour in the lounge is a daily gath­er­ing with staff pre­sen­ta­tions of the next day’s ex­plo­ration. Lo­cal beers and spir­its, soft drinks, and the daily spe­cial cock­tail are com­pli­men­tary, with pre­mium wines and spir­its avail­able at rea­son­able costs. Lunch and din­ners are ca­sual so­cial af­fairs with de­li­cious se­lec­tions run­ning the gamut of re­gional in­flu­ences us­ing lo­cally sourced spices and condi­ments.

DIS­COV­ER­IES ON SHORE

The Red River itin­er­ary ex­poses an ex­pe­ri­en­tial odyssey carv­ing through rivers sur­rounded by rice fields and re­mote jun­gles, blended with the mo­men­tum of mod­ern- day Viet­nam.

Hanoi serves as the bustling gate­way to the em­barka­tion port of Ha­long Bay and later in the cruise itin­er­ary as an ac­tual port of call. On board, guests will dis­cover a cul­tural ap­pe­tizer to a full menu of Pan­daw’s ex­clu­sive ad­ven­tures ashore. The all-in­clu­sive con­cept im­bibes a dis­tinct re­gional in­flu­ence and it quickly be­comes ev­i­dent that the days ahead prom­ise to be some­thing out of the or­di­nary.

Ha­long Bay, a premier UNESCO World Her­itage Site, shines as the itin­er­ary’s open­ing scene and earns ku­dos for its stag­ger­ing touris­tic ap­peal laced with ev­ery­day func­tion­al­ity. Float­ing fish­ing vil­lages and more than 1,900 lime­stone tow­ers, some dou­bling as is­lands, serve as un­ri­valed pho­to­graphic tar­gets.

En­ter­ing the delta net­work and con­tin­u­ing up­stream, daily ex­cur­sions ex­pose vil­lage life and unique pre­sen­ta­tions of ru­ral cul­ture . A com­pre­hen­sive visit to fre­netic Hanoi dis­plays a ball of en­ergy, dif­fi­cult to com­pre­hend yet re­lax­ing with the ship’s com­pe­tent and con­sid­er­ate guides.

Other days in­clude vis­its to up­river des­ti­na­tions that ex­plore the di­ver­sity of the coun­try. The el­e­ment of struc­tured ad­ven­ture is com­ple­mented and aptly em­ployed by Pan­daw on each of the in­cluded ex­cur­sions, which in­vite guests to en­joy Viet­namese en­ter­tain­ment such as an iconic wa­ter pup­pet show, farewell lion dance, and tra­di­tional eth­nic mu­sic and dance pre­sen­ta­tions.

Com­mune with a never- end­ing palette of na­ture’s artistry along­side a cap­ti­vat­ing his­tory. Any­one suf­fer­ing from the epi­demic of a manic pace ex­is­tence will em­brace this cruise ad­ven­ture as a sure­fire detox­i­fi­ca­tion.

Scenic Spirit boasts lively on­board en­ter­tain­ment, a re­lax­ing pool deck and lux­u­ri­ous spa, and Royal Panorama Suite bath­rooms with amaz­ing views.

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