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Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009

a travel blog by mohicanfan

This is my travel journal from our trip to Asia in Dec 2009. My husband and I, both in our late 20s, spent 3 days in Beijing, 2 days in Shanghai and then boarded a Princess cruise ship (the Ocean Princess) for a 17-day, 8-city tour of Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam, and Thailand.

Just a warning - my journals are detailed and quite long!

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Day 1: The Flight from New York to Beijing, China

Beijing, China

Day 1: Saturday, December 12th, 2009

Flight to Beijing, China

Our Asia Adventure begins! Hunter and I are taking another “trip of a lifetime” to round out 2009. It was a pretty last minute trip, planned just a few months prior ,when we realized we had the time and money this year to make a trip to Asia a reality. We always wanted to see that part of the world, because it is so different from the US and Europe, and after discovering a Princess Cruise that toured six Asian countries over the winter holidays, we knew we found a way to realize this vacation goal!

We are booked on a 17-day / 16-night Southeast Asia Explorer cruise on Princess Cruise line that departs December 18th from Shanghai, China and makes the following stops: Okinawa, Japan; Taipei, Taiwan; Hong Kong (overnight stay/2 days); Hue, Vietnam; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Singapore; Ko Samui, Thailand (beaches); Bangkok, Thailand. Disembarkation is in Bangkok. Hunter and I added on an extra 5 days in China so we could visit the Great Wall, because after all, what is a trip to China if you don't see one of the great wonders of the world? And so we are flying to Beijing for 3 ½ days before flying to Shanghai for 2 days before boarding the cruise.

I did extensive planning for this trip, over the weekends in October and November, as there are 10 cities to plan. We wanted to minimize the number of Princess-led excursions to save money and see more, and so I researched transportation and key sights to see in every port. TripAdvisor.com and CruiseCritic.com were extremely helpful for their message boards. Someone on TripAdvisor even looked up Taipei train schedules for me!

Packing was very difficult for this trip, as we need clothes for 30 degrees (Beijing/Great Wall) and for 91 degree weather (Thailand). We somehow managed to get all of our formal cruise wear and winter and summer clothes into one 22-in roller board, one 28-in duffel bag, and one 28-in Samsonite suitcase, plus two carry-ons, one of which is a giant beach bag and holds the video camera inside.

Hunter and I decided to get some immunizations pre-trip and met with the Passport Health Center in Virginia Beach to see what we needed. We got the first dose of Hepatitis A vaccine, a Polio booster vaccine, and a DPT which was overdue (every 10 years). We also got the seasonal flu vaccine the first weekend in October and I was one of the lucky ones to get a H1N1 vaccine.

I think I covered enough of the pre-trip details, so let the adventure begin!
Our 12pm flight from EWR was scheduled as on time and when we arrived at the gate, we saw a VERY long line. We assumed it was for people without seat assignments as they made an announcement that the flight was oversold by 7-8 seats and they were looking for bumping volunteers for a $800 travel voucher and a confirmed seat out on the one Continental flight tomorrow. Definitely not! We need all the time we have in Beijing! The crew started boarding us around 11:30am for our 12:15pm departure and we got to board early because of Hunter's status. We took up most of the overhead bin space and lamented at our tight seat quarters. I later put my carry-on bag in the overhead bin so we could have more leg room. Continental only gave us a pillow and blanket and free headphones – no sleeping mask or booty slippers or earplugs AND they charged for alcohol!!! I thought alcohol was free on international flights!

Our flight started off on a rocky start as I was looking for the outlet that I had seen on SeatFinder.com as Hunter really wanted to plug in his netbook. I couldn't find it on the armrests and so I pushed into a panel on the wall, thinking maybe they were up in there, by the seat lights. I was wrong! When I pulled on a section of the panel, out popped all three oxygen masks! I couldn't get them to retract up, so the flight attendant had to call maintenance to come out and fix it. It was a tense 5 min as Hunter and I watched, hoping he could fix the paneling so we wouldn't get booted off the plane or delayed. Luckily, he did fix it, but that wasn't the end to our problems.

The plane pushed off at 12:20pm from the gate as a full flight. Hunter and I were one aisle behind the bulk head and I had the middle seat. About five minutes into taxiing on the runway, the pilot announced that we had to go back to the gate as one of the passengers who gave up his seat still had checked luggage on the plane. It was supposed to take 20 min to pull the bags from cargo, but that turned into almost a 2 hour delay. Then the pilot came on and said that there was a passenger on board with a connecting flight in China that would be missed and this person didn't have a Chinese visa to stay in the country and needed to be re-booked on another flight. The crew then asked if others were in that situation, and luckily no one was. After a 2 hour 15 min delay, we were taxiing back onto the runway and up in the air. At least they let us cut the runway line!

There were 3 stewards for our section of the economy class cabin, and 3 for the back section. One handed us a menu pretty quickly:
Dinner: Salad w/ 3 cocktail shrimp and lite ranch dressing, choice of Beef Stir-Fry or Pollack fish with rice and bok choy, a cookies and cream brownie and a dinner roll.
Mid-flight snack: Pulled BBQ pork sandwich and a haagan-daaz vanilla ice cream cup
Pre-Arrival snack: Fruit salad, roll and a choice of a swiss cheese omelet/turkey sausage and potato gratin or Shanghai Noodles (dim sum) w/ pork and veggie potstickers. Both came with an almond cookie.

Hunter and I continued to read our magazines for a half hour before starting one of the 350 movies offered on individual consoles. However, only a few were “New releases” but there were three we wanted to see: Transformers 2, 500 days of Summer, and Up. There was also Julie & Julia and My Sister's Keeper. Surprisingly we only had time for one movie! After reading, we turned on Transformers, paused it during dinner, and then finished it up before bed. Hunter and I were each going to have a different meal, but the steward mistakenly gave us both the fish. But it was pretty good.

Towards the end of the movie, we each took two Tylenol PM tablets and then used the restroom before bed. Hunter fell right to sleep but I tossed and turned for an hour and a half before finally getting up and buying 2 bottles of red wine. I had asked the steward during one of his hourly water runs, but he forgot to come back, so I had to walk to the back of the cabin to get it. Once I guzzled a whole bottle and turned on the Classical music albums, I fell asleep. I slept a good 2 hours straight before being woken up for the mid-flight snack, and then I had another half bottle of wine and fell back to sleep for a straight 4 hours. It was then time for breakfast. I wasn't too hungry and ate the potato part of the omelet while Hunter ate his whole dim-sum. After eating, we whipped out our netbooks for the first time – we didn't even need the outlet which the attendant had pointed out was on the bottom of the seat, near the floor! Hunter did some programming while I typed this journal entry.

The steward handed out immigration forms to complete, along with a health questionnaire. We completed those and then read our magazines while the plane descended. We arrived 1 ½ hours late, which wasn't too terrible. The pilot said he had permission to increase the speed. The flight was 13 hours long and because we slept over 7 hours, it actually passed quickly! However, overall I was not impressed with Continental's seats or quality of service and would not recommend it for international travel. But our tickets were free (120,000 miles each) and it was a direct flight eastward over the north pole (Greenland, Russia and Mongolia) so I can't complain too much!

(Continue to next travel blog for Day 2 - arrival and first evening in Beijing)

permalink written by  mohicanfan on December 12, 2009 from Beijing, China
from the travel blog: Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009
tagged China, Beijing and Asia

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Day 2: Beijing, China

Beijing, China

Day 2: Sunday, December 13, 2009

Flight to Beijing, China

Our first impression of China was the flight's descent through the thick smog. We had heard there was a lot of pollution in China (and had seen it on the Olympics TV coverage) but had forgotten it was something we needed to prepare for. There was a thick white haze that blocked the sun and cast a pallor over the ground. We flew right through it and landed.

Our luggage took a little while to come but we easily found the taxi station and waited in line (outside) for a taxi. We handed the driver the direction page from the Courtyard Beijing Marriott's website and he nodded that he knew where he was going. There was a lot of traffic at this hour (we were in the taxi by 6:15pm) and it took exactly an hour to get into the 2nd ring, the heart of the city. We passed Tiananmen Square and several giant shopping malls, one right after the other. The driver got lost and couldn't find the hotel, but we were at loss for further directions and just kept giving him the paper and showing him the attached map I had printed with the directions. Luckily, the taxi driver figured out the hotel was behind the main street, down a small side street and got us there safely. I messed up the fare and didn't leave him a tip because I thought it was total 87 Yuan, and I gave him a 100 Yuan bill, but there was an extra 10 Yuan in tolls, so the poor guy didn't get a tip.

We checked into the hotel and was told in broken English that we were upgraded to a premium room because of our platinum status. We were also told about the free continental breakfast for platinum members, which could be found on the 16th floor or 2nd floor in the restaurant. None of the staff spoke very good English, but we could understand the gist of what they were saying, and we were able to get many of our questions answered as well. The room was a good size with two double beds, a sitting area, a decent size bathroom and a table vanity.

As it was getting late at this point, we decided to skip Wanfanguli Street, which was on our itinerary and just to go across the street to the huge New World Shopping Center to have a look around and maybe find something to eat. We actually could enter the mall from the 2nd floor of our hotel, and after a detour (being led by a staff member into the restaurant because she thought I was asking her where to eat), we entered the first store. It was a general clothes type store but without the traditional walls and sections of a department store and then it opened up into the giant mall, where store upon store was just next to each other, without defined walls. It was VERY weird and extremely overwhelming for our first day and being tired from the flight. We just kind of wandered aimlessly, not knowing where we were going or what direction we came from, but we found the food court which was all traditional Chinese food, and decided not to risk eating there. We found our way outside the building (somehow!) and walked into the McDonalds (which was near the only other 2 American eateries – Starbucks and Haagan Daas), but we couldn't figure out how to order just a simple hamburger from the menu (we could only point to a combo meal), so we decided to just eat in the hotel instead. The restaurant was still open at 8:45pm and we had Chinese food – braised beef and rice and veggies for me and Hunter tried a Thai chili dish. It was satisfying but we were shocked a small bottle of Evian cost $6. We had previously stopped at the concierge lounge and got two larger water bottles, but the attendant had to unlock a cabinet for us, so we expected that we would be billed for it (we weren't and so we could have had all the free water we wanted!).

After dinner we headed right to bed, but unfortunately didn't sleep too well. We were up at 2am and then 4am and 5am and then dozed until 7am. I think we had slept too long on the flight – it wasn't jet lag, just too much sleep!

permalink written by  mohicanfan on December 13, 2009 from Beijing, China
from the travel blog: Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009
tagged China, Beijing and Asia

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Day 3: Beijing, China - City Exploration

Beijing, China

Day 3: Monday, December 14th, 2009

Beijing, China

We got out of bed at 7am and Hunter discovered he had a full blown head cold so we started him on one of the many medicines that we packed in our travel pharmacy! We showered and dressed in the warmest clothes we brought, complete with thermal underwear. We enjoyed a nice continental breakfast of pastries, some weird looking egg thing, juices and coffee from a fancy machine I didn't know how to use until the attendant showed me. We filled up and watched the China TV news channel that was on. For each of the three mornings we were there, no more than 2 other tables were occupied with other guests. There were a lot of Chinese guests in the hotel, so maybe there were only a few platinum Marriott members – those who we saw were foreign businessmen.

Our first stop after breakfast was Tiananmen Square. We took a taxi from the hotel for 10 Yuan (the flat rate for short distances) and got dropped off across the street. It took us a while to figure out where we were in relation to the square and had to ask a policeman near a posted map who just pointed across the street to us. We were all bundled up in scarves and gloves and hats and took pictures in front of Mao's mausoleum, which was closed on Monday. We skipped the legislative building and the museum which lined the square and just walked through to the other end and took pictures. The light poles in the square were covered in security cameras pointing in every direction. I think every square inch of the Square was under surveillance! We took a picture in front of Mao's picture and then made our way under the underpass to the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City was huge and we rented two audio guides to give us the necessary background. It was a good decision as we would not have known what we were looking at. We stopped at the Clocks Exhibition which was very interesting and we were there for the 11am clock demonstration – thanks to my thorough advanced planning! Every attraction in Beijing was outdoors so by the end of the Forbidden City we were used to the cold weather and walking far distances! We spent a good two hours in the Forbidden City and then took another underpass across the street to Jin San Park where we climbed to Wachting Pavillon to get a view of Beijing and the Forbidden City. It was well worth the very steep climb to see the sprawling city, although it was masked by a thick smog. The city looks like the size of three Manhattans as it just keeps going and going in every direction! Taking in the sight of Beijing from such a height was probably the highlight of our day.

Leaving the park, it was our intention to take a taxi to the Drum and Bell Towers, which we saw in the distance, but we couldn't find a taxi that would run the meter (I had been forewarned on Trip Adviser) and didn't want to pay the outrageous prices for a taxi (50 Yuan) which should have run no more than 10 Yuan. We were accosted by many different rickshaw operators but they didn't look warm or safe and we rushed past them. I almost got pushed over by a beggar and didn't like this touristy area at all! We decided to walk a full 20 min to a subway line that would take us to the next tourist spot. Surprisingly it was very easy to navigate as the ticket booth was in English and we could find the stop we wanted on one of the 7 color-coded subway line. The best part was each one-way trip was only 2 Yuan per person! We decided to skip the Drum and Bell Tower and go straight to the Lama Temple, the largest lamastary in the city. Getting off the subway, we stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to eat peanut butter crackers and drink our water before continuing. There was a park bench nearby but we saw someone spit directly on it and decided not to sit down!

The Lama temple was interesting but the audio guide wasn't working that well (it didn’t start in some areas of the temples) and so we just walked around watching locals and tourists burn incense and bow in front of the many Buddhas. There were some quite interesting Buddahs! Large ones, mostly painted in gold, with weird animated faces. Some statues looked almost cartoonish but I'm sure they were very important to one of the three religions that were represented in the lamastary. We were in time to see a Buddhist prayer ceremony inside one of the main temples, and that was very interesting. Probably about 20 different monks sat with their legs folded, chanting from their prayer books in unison. We were afraid to try to take pictures as there were guards in the corner, but a lot of tourists stood to the side, watching the monks. After the temple, we took the metro to the stop near the Wanfungshin section, which we had skipped the night before. We were very tired at this point, and it was getting very cold as the sun went down, so we didn't make it very far up the street. We went into one of the large connecting shopping malls which now seemed very navigable. We passed several Dairy Queen stands inside and a shop selling convenience items like waters and chocolates. At probably the fifth section – our fifth mall – we stopped for about a good half hour and checked email on our iPod Touch and wrote our first email to our family to let them know we arrived safely (there was a free WiFi signal in the shopping mall).

We ate dinner at 5pm at the Outback Steakhouse which was adjacent to the Beijing Hotel at the beginning of Wanfungshin. It was delicious to enjoy a nice American hamburger and french fries after such a limited meal this morning and all the walking we did! It was reasonably priced, but probably expensive for local standards – bottled water was the equivalent of $3 and each hamburger was $10. The bathroom finally had sit-down toilets, so the place worked for me! We had to hassle with a few taxi drivers outside of Wanfungshin before we could find one that would take us back to the hotel and we paid double the price (20 Yuan) although that wasn't too bad considering some drivers wanted 40 or 50 Yuan. We quickly dropped off our stuff and then took a taxi to the Kung Fu Show, although it took a few hotel staff members to find out where the place was and to be able to have them direct the taxi driver there.

We were dropped off across the street from the theater, where our tour guide for tomorrow - “Fortunate Jack” - met us to purchase our tickets. We had agreed to buy them through him instead of through an online discount ticket place because we thought it would be good to meet him before our big tour day and the difference was only 10 Yuan per person. He was very friendly – a tall young guy -- and he even walked us inside the place to show us to our seats. We said goodbye and then had a good 20 mins to wait before the show started promptly at 7:30pm. Hunter and I were trying very hard not to fall asleep as we were exhausted from such a busy day and our colds were kicking in. The show was good – it wasn't very action oriented, but there were little kids doing amazing somersaults on their bald heads which was fascinating. The music was good and the narration was all in English, so it was pretty tourist friendly. We are glad we went. Jack got us great seats – he had convinced me to upgrade to the 190 RMB seats because they were in the center and for most of the show, no one sat within 3 rows of us so we had absolutely no obstruction of the stage.

The show was 90 min long and we rushed right out of there at 9pm and were turned away by the waiting taxis who wanted 50 Yuan to take us back to the hotel. I refused to pay that price and although Hunter was worried it would be hard to find a taxi, we walked down the street and were able to flag down a passing taxi in the street who just started the meter and drove to the hotel. However, he thought we pointed to the Pearl Market address that was listed on the hotel direction card and drove us there. We then pointed to the hotel address but the taxi wouldn't move further and kept pointing to the market. Hunter remembered where the Pearl Market was in relation to the hotel (just down the road) and so he gestured to the driver to keep going. The driver was confused but kept driving down the road at our insistence, and Hunter kept repeating “The Sho-Show” which was the name of a huge building near the shopping center next to our hotel and we hoped the driver would know it. (We assumed it was a giant movie theater, but later learned from Jack that it was a big local Chinese-only market, so the driver actually knew of it and was able to take us there). We paid the driver and then walked through the mall, into our hotel. We only made one wrong turn this time to get into the Marriott – we are finding our way slowly! We crashed in bed after taking some cold medicine.

A few thoughts from today: today was much less overwhelming than yesterday once we got the hang of the underpasses and realized the maps were useless because they were all in Chinese and not to scale. We still think there are WAY too many enormous shopping malls here. Most are high end international brands in the malls. We haven't yet braved the low end markets as it requires a LOT of bargaining skills and we're already tired of haggling the taxi drivers to make sure they don't rip us off. But I am relentless and refuse to pay more than a few Yuan over meter price! There are reminder signs to boil the water in the tea kettle they give you in the hotel room before using it to brush your teeth but we were afraid that the boiling wouldn't kill all the bacteria so we used lots of bottled water.

permalink written by  mohicanfan on December 14, 2009 from Beijing, China
from the travel blog: Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009
tagged China, Beijing and Asia

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Day 4: Beijing, China & the Great Wall

Beijing, China

Day 4: Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

Beijing, China: The Mutianyu Great Wall and Summer Palace

Today was a GREAT day at the GREAT wall of China! We met Jack, our guide, and the driver at 8:30am and fought the Beijing rush hour traffic on our way to Mutianyu, the latest built section of the wall. It took 2 hours door to door to get there, but the ride passed quickly as we talked to Jack about life in China. Jack is our age - 28 yrs old - and is officially his own business after branching off from an established tour company a few years ago. He told us about the escalating real estate prices and the booming Chinese economy and how ridiculously wealthy some people are in China. There are luxury stores everywhere - as an example, tonight we ate in a fancy roast duck restaurant that was in a giant mall that had a Lamborgini store and a Mercedes Benz showroom, in addition to Gucci and Burberry and international designers. Jack told us about the school system, health care system, the 2008 Olympics, and various Chinese holidays. He was one of the very few students at university that did NOT study computers or math or science and instead majored in English. Jack spoke very good English but he was conscious of making mistakes with the tenses, which he said was because Mandarin only uses one tense and one pronoun (always "he", never a "she", "you" or "we"). Jack has an advanced vocabulary for someone who could go weeks without speaking English during the tourist off-season. He was a true delight!

The Great Wall was really impressive. It was amazing to stand on something with that much history and to imagine Chinese warriors fighting off Mongolian forces with their bows and arrows over the 500 meter high wall. The scenery was beautiful - lots of tall mountains with only a few patches of snow and ice remnants. It was a very clear day and we could see for miles out on each end. The base of Mutianyu was very cold but it was much warmer on top of the Wall as the sun beat down on us. We walked from tower 6 to tower 14 and climbed hundreds of stairs - this section of the wall was basically all up hill. I joked that the Great Wall of China is the original stairmaster! We took a gondola up from the base to a low section of the wall and then hiked up and then retraced our steps back. Instead of taking the gondola back down, we braved the downhill toboggan ride -- sitting on a plastic sled that raced down a winding metal track. It looked really scary but was a lot of fun! Hunter raced down and finished a good 2 min ahead of me as he was going full speed. I was more cautious (we didn't get helmets) and more slowly took the winding turns.

After the 2 hours on the Great Wall, we stopped in the village at a factory -- more like a series of rundown shacks -- where locals were making beautiful hand-painted ceramics with gold plated copper wire inlets. It was beautiful and we bought some souvenirs after watching the whole process from beginning to end. We did this while our guide and driver ate lunch as we snacked on crackers and breakfast pastries (the Chinese have very good bakeries and I have a chocolate croissant every morning!)

On the way back to the city, we swung by the Olympic village and got some great shots of the Bird's Nest and Water Cube where Michael Phelps set all those world records. Our last stop was then the Summer Palace of the Emperor. It had just been repainted so it looked much more impressive than the Forbidden City and was 3 times larger than the Forbidden City. We have lots of pictures of the many pagoda towers and pavilions. 3/4 of the grounds was a giant lake that was completely frozen over, and about 50 people braved the ice and walked right out into the lake on the ice. One person was even ice-skating despite signs that said keep off the ice! And there were no signs of security personnel, so if someone fell through the ice they would surely be out of luck!

We asked Jack to drop us off at the end of the day at the Da Dong roast duck restaurant, famous for its "special lean duck". Undoubtedly the most touristy and expensive roast duck restaurant in Beijing, it was well worth the experience and $35. The restaurant was modern chic and the duck was roasted and sliced right in front of US! I took a video of the carving :) You put the sliced duck into pancakes with hoison sauce and sticks of onion and scallion and radish and rolled it all up. It was very good! We weren't brave enough to eat the two milky substance-like soups that came with it, but we ate a fresh fruit platter that also was served with it. All of the fruit was the sliced/peeled kind.

We now have our bearings of Beijing and the area around our hotel. We can now cut through the huge shopping mall that is attached and find our way to the room. We are experts on the subway and it is easily the most effective way to get around Beijing because the traffic is so horrendous.....just like NYC and LA during rush hour!

Our impression of Beijing -- it is a HUGE, sprawling city with no signs of containment. It is not a beautiful city, but it is impressive for its size. There is much lacking in cleanliness -- there are huge sections of rundown and vacant buildings. However, there are just as many upscale, modern developments in the city and the subway and airports look so sparklingly clean -- yet, we saw two people urinating right on the floor. It is also very common to see people walking and then to start coughing and spitting on the street! So despite the appearance of cleanliness, personal hygiene is much to be desired. I have braved many restrooms only to find toilets-in-the-ground instead of actual sitting toilets.

The people, though, are much friendlier than we expected. Even though we cannot communicate with people, they still smile and nod at you and you hear a lot of laughter from groups of people and they do tend to line up instead of pushing through in herds like we do in the US. As I said before, our tour guide was SO friendly - he represents the "new China" and said there is very little government influence now among the people and with the exception of the oil, car, and airline industry, all other industries are 80% privately owned instead of state controlled. He said the Chinese do not spend time worrying about which country likes which country or whether the US has a good president as all of their time and energy now is focused on growing their economy. They are so absorbed with the growth they are rooting for the US economy to pick up too.

permalink written by  mohicanfan on December 15, 2009 from Beijing, China
from the travel blog: Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009
tagged China, Beijing and Asia

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Day 5: Beijing, China and Flight to Shanghai, China

Beijing, China

Day 5: Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

Beijing and flight to Shanghai, China

Today we finally slowed down our pace as we were exhausted from our first two busy days and are both fighting head colds. Luckily I packed a whole pharmacy with us, so we have plenty of medications to help us feel better. We also slowed down because it was the coldest day so far in Beijing, starting out at 18 degrees F and capping out at only 27 degrees. Brr! The wind is light, which helps, but 27 is still cold!

We started off the day with mini pancakes and pastries in the concierge lounge and then packed up our suitcases. The vacuum sealed bags work really well to squish our heavy clothing down to a manageable size, even through hand-rolling (in lieu of a vacuum). We are still wearing our same heavy clothes, so all our pictures will look like they were taken in one day. At least we'll know any photos in our warm-up pants were taken in Beijing!

First on our list was braving the famous touristy Pearl Market where I got my game on and hassled down the vendors to reasonable prices. We bought a 800 GB thumb drive (which is probably only 4 GB), a (most likely fake) cashmere shawl and some other clothes. We think we got a good deal although nothing is dirt cheap here in China. We bargained down to what we wanted to pay and then walked away. It was a welcome break from the cold as all other sight-seeing spots in Beijing are outdoors!

Across the street from the market was the famous Temple of Heaven, an all-wooden spherical temple that was constructed without even one nail. The temple was in the middle of another huge park, which was beautiful and would have been a nice afternoon stroll in the spring or fall. We weren't prepared for all the festivities in the park. There were huge groups of locals dancing to music, singing songs with their portable microphones and amplifiers, and older men and women playing cards and mahjong and dominos. It was a like a huge festival was going on, but we think this is standard activity in the park. Some women wore thick belts with bells on it so they could jingle as they swayed their hips, other couples were waltzing, and another group dressed up in Renaissance-like outfits with fake Groucho Marx mustaches. It was very bizarre! The architecture is the same coloring and style as the Summer Palace and Forbidden City. We had a nice walk with the audio guide and we lasted a good hour and a half before taking the metro back to the hotel.

We have definitely mastered the subway and recommend it to all future visitors. There is a stop right next to our hotel and the lines are clearly labeled. Our guide yesterday said by 2012 there will be subway lines all over the city. One more thing about the cleanliness. Line 5 is the nicest, but we noticed a lot of people employed as street/subway cleaners, so probably the Chinese lack of hygiene keeps many employed in cleaning type jobs! Also, the subway stops all have security baggage screeners, so you have to put your bags through the x-ray machine before you can walk through the turnstile. We need that in NYC, although we can only imagine the congestion it would cause in NY! Not many people here seemed to have bags on the subway, so we never had to wait for the machine. We found the metro much easier than taxis because many taxi drivers didn't know how to get to our hotel – as I previously wrote, one dropped us off at the Pearl Market and it was only due to Hunter's great sense of direction that he recognized a way from there to a major store near our hotel and the taxi driver knew the store location.

Another note about China – we felt very, very safe here and never once felt like we could be pick-pocketed or robbed. We also didn't see any indication that the country is not a democracy – it feels like a bustling, thriving capitalist society. Even though there is a military presence in the street and at the attractions, it feels more like the NYPD presence in NYC than military oversight. This is a big difference to how we felt in St. Petersburg, where we wouldn't walk around by ourselves. In Beijing, we were contented walking around not talking to anyone and feeing safe. We probably didn't even need money belts.

Actually – I may need to retract that safety comment as the taxi ride to the airport was quite scary! There are traffic lanes on the highways but many cars choose to ignore the lanes and just drive wherever they want on the road – two cars per lane, one car straddling two lanes, it doesn't matter to these drivers. And there are rarely any police cars on the highway, so traffic accidents cause huge traffic delays until a policeman can come to fill out a report for the insurance. The drivers in Beijing make NYC taxi drivers look good!

We left ourselves a good hour to get back to the airport, and it took only about 45 min this time as we left early enough before the rush hour began. The airport is huge and very clean and the information booth was helpful as we didn't know where to check in for our domestic flight. We ate dinner at a Kenny Rogers restaurant in the airport (spaghetti and meat sauce a la carte) and cleared security very quickly as we didn't need to take out any liquids or cameras, and then waited for our flight. Of course, our flight was the ONLY one in the whole terminal that was delayed! But all else went well in the airport – we didn't have to pay for any of our luggage as all was well under the weight limit and we were actually allowed 2 carry-on bags per person and 2 checked bags for free. There was also a China Construction Bank in the airport, which is a partner bank to Bank of America, so we were able to use a fee-free ATM to withdraw money. We had started the trip with a lot of Chinese Yuan, but no where except sit-down restaurants and mall-based shopping stores take credit cards, so we were eating through our money quickly. All of the tourist sights only took cash – even McDonalds turned away my credit card! (Yes – we finally mastered McDonalds as Hunter wanted a big lunch and ordered a #3 combo meal by pointing to the board. But he couldn't communicate his drink selection so he got whatever soda flavor they put in the cup! The whole meal was only $3 USD).

The plane to Shanghai wound up leaving an hour and a half late, by the time they loaded all the people and luggage, but we made up time in the air and were only 1 hour delayed arriving. We loved the plane. It was an old 767, and it reminded us of how nice air travel in the US used to be – there was so much leg room in coach, we thought we were in first class, and they served a full meal and two rounds of drinks! We slept most of the flight and easily collected our bags and got a taxi. We handed the directions to the taxi driver and he nodded silently and took us straight to the hotel. Taxis are much cheaper here than in Beijing. It took only about 30 minutes to get to the hotel and we were amazed at the beautiful skyline we could see from the road.

The hotel is GORGEOUS! It is the 3rd nicest hotel Meredith ever stayed in, and Hunter's nicest hotel. There are 60 floors, with the Executive Lounge (free WiFi) on the 59th floor, our room on the 51st floor, and the lobby on the 38th floor. Our platinum status upgraded us to a mini-suite which is very cool – BEAUTIFUL marble tile bathroom and a large separate sitting room, free slippers and robes and chocolates, etc. We are going to get spoiled – how can we go back to the Courtyards after experiencing this? We were in bed by 11:30pm and unfortunately didn't sleep well as we weren't very tired.

permalink written by  mohicanfan on December 16, 2009 from Beijing, China
from the travel blog: Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009
tagged China, Shanghai, Beijing and Asia

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Day 6: Shanghai, China

Shanghai, China

Day 6: Thursday, December 17th, 2009

Shanghai, China

Welcome to Shanghai! We got up at 7:30am and went up to the Executive Lounge on the 59th floor for breakfast. The spread is plentiful-- lots of pastries (The Chinese really do like breakfast pastries and they had delicious chocolate mini muffins) and dim sum and hot foods like sausage, hash browns and beans; also, a juice bar and fresh sliced fruit. It was so nice to have refreshing watermelon and honeydew slices!

We were waiting for it to get a bit warmer (high today of 42 degrees F) before we started our massive walking tour, and we sat in the lounge after breakfast, sending emails. The city looks huge – its a bit hard to tell as the smog is so thick it is obstructing our view from the 59th floor – so I wasn't sure if my walking plans were too ambitious. We really like Shanghai so far and were amazed at how tall and flashy the skyscrapers were as we drove into the city from the airport. And unlike Beijing, there are a lot of billboards on the highway and all have very optimistic messages about a “new world” and a “better tomorrow”. Shanghai is definitely the new face of China! We see a lot more people smoking, we expected to see heavy smoking in all of China but saw very few smokers in Beijing – but at the Shanghai airport taxi stand, they were handing out free lighters!

Around 9:30am, we packed up our bags and headed out for an ambitious day of walking and sightseeing. My legs were already a bit sore (they actually started to throb at night so they must have been tired from walking around the Temple of Heaven), and by the end of our first day in Shanghai, they would be ready to fall off! But it was well worth it as we covered so much ground by walking and really got to see all the major sights up close and on our own timetable. We saw so much of the sprawling city, we can truly say that we saw the best of Shanghai.

Leaving the hotel, we walked down Nanjing Lu, a main pedestrian shopping street that had several large malls and department stores and boutique shops. We poked in just one store, Uniqlo, a Japanese brand clothing store that we like, but bypassed everything else. I bought two light-weight fleece turtlenecks for about $13 each and they were great purchases, as both shirts were worn within the next two days as the weather was still quite cold. Nanjing Lu wasn't the nicest shopping street that we discovered in Shanghai, although it was probably one of the most famous. We passed a lot of “friendly” people who say hello in English and then try to sell you fake watches when you turn your attention to them. Nanjing Lu road ended at the Bund, which is, as we had been forewarned, under an immense amount of construction in preparation for the World Expo in May 2010. The Bund is the riverfront promenade that extends for over a mile. Across the river is the Pudong area, another large section of Shanghai. We had planned to take a river cruise to see the shoreline of the Bund, but the construction made it hard for us to find the place to take the riverboat, and Nanjing Lu dead-ended at the famous “Bund Sightseeing Tunnel” which was next on our list. We went underground to take this unique experience. The sightseeing tunnel is almost like an amusement park ride, and is a very weird combination of Chinese entertainment and practical transportation. You board a people transport, almost like a glass enclosed cable car in which you stand up the whole time. The cable car is on a track – like the rides at Disneyland – and the car rides down the tunnel, which is filled with flashing neon lights, and a very weird psychedelic soundtrack. There are blowup dolls that jump out at you as the car passes down the track to the other side. Very, very weird, but definitely a Shanghai “must do!”

We emerged from the tunnel on the other side of the river in Pudong. Pudong houses the most famous of the skyscrapers in Shanghai, including the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, a tall building with two balls and a tall pointy top – any time a picture of Shanghai is presented in the news, this building will be shown. We walked to the tower thinking we would go up, but saw it was $25pp to go up to the top, which we didn't think was worth the money since we were planning to go up to the top of the nearby Jinmao Tower which was taller and less expensive. There was a sign for a riverboat cruise from the Pearl Tower, but we learned it was only starting in the new year. So we walked towards the famous Jinmao skyscraper, which was very close by but a good 30 min walk as there was massive amounts of construction going on that blocked the major roads. We wound up walking around in a huge circle to get to the building. We stopped for lunch at the Blue Frog in the Shanghai World Financial Center, which is the tallest building in Shanghai. It is shaped like a bottle opener and glistens in the sun. We didn't go up to the top, but instead walked next door to the Jinmao Tower to go up to its observatory. At 1,379 feet, the 88-floor tower houses the Grand Hyatt hotel and an observatory deck that offers incredible views of the city. We took the elevator that traveled 9.6 meters/second and then spent a good half hour walking around the observatory, admiring the 360 view of Shanghai. The skyline is so incredible, just spending time looking at the uniquely and very modern/futuristic-looking buildings is a fun thing to do. We took lots of pictures, although we wish the smog wasn't so thick.

Leaving Jinmao Tower, we walked down to the promenade to catch the ferry to the Old City, back on the other side of the river. We passed by a restaurant that advertised a “snow bar” and knew we had to go in. Just like our experience in the Ice Bar in Copenhagen last year, we donned large snow parkas with hoods and walked into a back room that had freezing cold temperatures. However it turned out the bar wasn't completely made of ice like the one in Copenhagen was, but it was cold enough to have snow on the plastic bar and ledges, which supported its “snow bar” name. We each had one drink. I had a shot of raspberry vodka and Hunter had a shot of Everclear, a drink that is actually illegal in all but 6 states in the US because it is 151 proof alcohol. We were nice and toasty after that drink! The ferry was right near by and we boarded right before it took off, along with a whole group of motor scooters, which are very popular in Shanghai.

The ferry ride was short - only about 5 min to reach the other side – and gave us great views of the Bund. Getting out we used our handy map from the Eyewitness Travel book (the local map the hotel gave us was awful and didn't represent distances to scale) to find the heart of the Old City. It was AMAZING! This is what I expected China to be like – narrow streets with small cubby-hole like shops selling cheap scarves and bags and other trinkets. The narrow streets then turned into a maze of alleyways with even more merchants selling goods and even cooking large vats of noodles with vegetables. There were two alleyways that exclusively sold Christmas decorations. Let me pause now for commentary on Christmas in Shanghai. Although it is not a nationally recognized holiday in China, we have never heard so much Christmas music playing everywhere. Every single store, restaurant, and place of interest has a Christmas album blaring from its speakers, the most popular being Kenny G's Christmas album, followed by Mariah Carey's. We think we heard more Christmas music here than we would have if we were back in the US. We now know why everyone says Christmas is so commercialized – in China it is ALL about the commercial aspect of gift giving and parties. It was really funny to see street vendors selling plastic light-up reindeer and giant robotic santas. Despite feeling like we are on a whirlwind vacation, we felt like we were in the midst of Christmas season, more than we felt before we left for the trip, thanks to all the Christmas music and decorations around the cities.

Back to Old City. There was one place where the alleyways opened to a big square that had beautiful old Chinese buildings. We finally found the entrance to the Yu Yuan Gardens, which was on our sightseeing list, but I had spent all of our money and we didn't have enough cash to cover the entrance fee. We also figured the gardens were small (only 2 acres) and we could see some from the outside, so it wasn't so much of a loss. Whoever said Shanghai takes credit cards was wrong. NO ONE takes credit cards in China except the big restaurants and the largest department stores. Every single attraction/major tourist site is cash only. We even had to pay cash with the concierge when purchasing our tickets to the Shanghai Acrobatic Show, and you would think a hotel would take credit cards! We had brought a lot of Yuan with us, but wound up making 2 additional trips to the ATM (in addition to the one ATM stop at the airport) to ensure we had enough cash for the rest of our trip in China.

After the unique experience in Old City, we started to walk back to our hotel but it was very, very far. We got about half way then took a taxi the rest of the way. We always carried the piece of paper with us that had directions to our hotel in Chinese characters because none of the taxi drivers speak English. By the time we got back to our hotel it was 5pm – we were on our feet actively and briskly walking for 7 ½ hours and were quite exhausted. We purchased tickets to the traditional Shanghai Acrobat show from the concierge and then headed back out for a pre-show dinner. The concierge recommended a complex called Xiantiu which was a very romantic outdoor area of restaurants. The restaurants surrounded two large courtyards, filled with trees and white twinkling Christmas lights. Very romantic! It was something you would find in the US. We ate delicious hamburgers (we know we are not being adventurous with the local food, but we would rather be safe and stick with food that we know won't give us upset stomachs than to risk getting ill before the cruise even starts) and then hopped in a taxi to the acrobatic show. It was SO much fun! We saw several different acts, from contortionists to jugglers to magicians to somersault acts, to spinning plate girls, to beautiful ribbon flying acrobats. The last act was 5 motorbikes in a cage. Each act offered more “Oh my gosh, are they really going to do that?” moments and is something we would definitely recommend to future Shanghai visitors. We can understand why the Chinese are such gymnastic professionals!

We finally ended our first day in Shanghai around 9:15pm back in the hotel and made the last 15 min of the free drinks and dessert in the Executive lounge. Our tequila and glass of wine was greatly needed by the end of the day!

permalink written by  mohicanfan on December 17, 2009 from Shanghai, China
from the travel blog: Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009
tagged China, Shanghai and Asia

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Day 7: Shanghai, China and 1st cruise day

Shanghai, China

Day 7: Friday, December 18th, 2009

Shanghai, China and 1st cruise day

We began the day much later than usual as we were so tired we slept past 8am. Hunter ordered hot eggs for breakfast and then we packed up our suitcases before hopping in a taxi to the French Concession area of Shanghai. The hotel bell hop had told the taxi driver the wrong location, so when he stopped at the wrong place, Hunter used his handy iPhone Shanghai application to show him a new location in Chinese. We got as close as we could to the French Concession area and then walked the rest of the way. This area was filled with many shops and restaurants, and had a busier and more upscale ambiance than did Nanjing Lu. It reminded us of 5th Avenue, but it wasn't that high end. We did some window shopping and then took a taxi back to our hotel and walked to a main department store complex nearby. I had lost my nice sunglasses in a taxi and so we had to buy a replacement pair and some liquor (for the cruise ship). This department store had everything – including a liquor store on the ground floor! It was the only liquor store we saw in all of China and was pretty limited. Our tour guide in Beijing told us the Chinese do not drink much but when they do, it is predominantly beer.

We walked back to the Marriott just in time for our late check-out at 2pm. We then headed up to the Executive Lounge to type emails before taking a taxi to our cruise ship. We didn't want to board the cruise ship too early (we like to wait for the crowds to subside) and wanted to take advantage of the internet as long as we could. We ate free finger sandwiches and enjoyed our last free alcoholic drinks for a while. We started to get so excited for the next leg of our journey as our cruise will be a whole other type of experience!

Some final thoughts about Shanghai....there were definitely more people who spoke English here, but as soon as we ventured even a little bit off of the touristy areas, our English resources became slim. Hunter had a great software application on his iPhone that highlighted major places of interest in Shanghai and gave driving directions in Chinese (our hotel was also listed in the app), so any time we needed it for a taxi, Hunter could just find the location we wanted and hand the phone to the driver. Thanks, iPhone!! Shanghai is a wonderful mix of old and new China. From the optimism of the futuristic-looking skyscrapers, to the quaint and bustling street markets of Old City, one can experience the dichotomy of present-day China all in one city. At the JW Marriott, we see a lot of Western businessmen, sometimes seeing them even meeting up with their Chinese counterparts. Maybe one day we will return for business! There are much fewer people in Shanghai walking around with face masks on – probably because the city overall is cleaner than Beijing. It was a little disconcerting to see so many surgical masks in Beijing, but because people just randomly spit in the streets as they walk, it is probably prudent to wear one each day! We saw several market stands selling masks – they even sell ones that are decorative and lace and embroidered!

Beijing and Shanghai both surpassed our expectations by a large margin. We felt so much safer here than anticipated and we thought both cities were thriving economies with lots of opportunities and excitement. We would recommend both cities are tourist destinations, and unless you want to do a lot of walking, we would recommend personal tour guides for each city so you could learn more history than we did and feel less disoriented upon first arrival. We walked a tremendous amount in each city and our muscles are aching! We are looking forward to tomorrow when we have a full day at sea. We will be taking it easy on-board the ship, reading and staying indoors. We are thankful we are leaving behind the cold weather and are putting away our scarves and heavy gloves. Luckily, we only needed our toe and hand warmers once in Beijing.

Around 4:15pm we packed up our laptops at the Marriott and prepared to leave for the port and cruise ship. However, we were delayed a good 25 minutes talking to the concierge to get the name of the cruise port terminal written out in Chinese. The Executive lounge attendant translated the “Princess cruise” into Chinese and got an address from the concierge on the 1st floor where the cruise boats normally dock, but the address was different from the one Princess had given me, so we tried to call the US Princess number but couldn't get through. We decided to chance that we had enough information for us to get there without getting too lost, and we left the hotel around 5pm. Within 20 minutes we were pulling up to the port, without getting lost. We still had about 90 Yuan left over, but I was thankful to have had more money on the last day than to have been worried about not having enough.

There were no lines at the cruise terminal (which had signs for Royal Caribbean) and we passed right through without any problems. We dropped off our largest two suitcases and took the rest with us. We got our pictures taken on board for our cruise photo, but we missed the official “first time on board photo” that they try to sell you. It is probably for the better as we don't need more photos! Our cabin, 4050, was right down the hallway near the Passenger Service desk, by the gangplank entrance. We walked in and were pleasantly surprised. We had a 2-seater blue couch with a yellow diamond print and yellow pillows, a nice vanity and deep blue cushioned stool, and a large dark wood cabinet and tv console. The TV is a flat screen, probably a good 17-in (maybe even 19-in). The large king bed is at the far end of the room, facing a giant floor to ceiling mirror which nicely opens up the room. We have a huge bay window with a nice ledge in front that we can use for storing things. The bed is elevated, so all of our suitcases fit under it nicely. The bathroom is tiny, of course, but the shower seemed roomier than the last cruise and there is plenty of shelve and cabinet storage space for our toiletries. The stateroom was perfectly designed – everything fit and I never felt cramped. We had a mini bar with room to store Hunter's tonic water (which he took from the JW Marriott to go with the bottle of gin he snuck in his suitcase). We keep the blinds closed most of the time we're at sea because the moving water makes us even more nauseous!

We were in our cabin for 6pm, and unpacked the bags we had brought on with us. By 10 min to 7pm the other two bags had not arrived and I was getting worried we would not be dressed in time for dinner. Hunter checked with the purser and the bags were delivered a minute later. We unpacked everything and realized that Hunter was missing two pairs of dress pants. We had forgotten that the two pairs he was wearing in NY the week before for work were supposed to come with him on the cruise. So he only has one light colored pair of pants and his tuxedo pants, but we think that is enough. We later saw that many people were dressed casually and there was a group that even came in jeans! We can always buy another pair of dress pants in one of the cities, but we probably won't be staying out late and so he'll only be “dressed” for 2 or 3 hours a day anyway!

At a little before 8pm we headed out and took the elevators to the 9th floor to check out the Panorama buffet and the Lotus Spa and Fitness Center. We got a mini tour of the facilities in the Lotus Spa and I booked a much needed deep tissue massage for 8am the next morning. My legs were hurting so much I was afraid the rest of my cruise was going to be ruined because of it and I wanted a massage to get me loosened up as soon as possible, knowing I would likely need several rounds of massages before the cruise was finished. I signed up for the earliest time as it was 20% off for the “early bird special.” The fitness center was small but had 4 elliptical machines and 5 treadmills, plenty of free weights for Hunter, and several yoga/pilate classes. The spa had a cellulite reduction machine which I would love to try!

At 8:15pm, we went down to the 5th floor and waited in a short line for the dining room to open up. Plenty of people were in the lounge outside, having drinks already. We were shown to a table of 4 (table #7) but the other couple never showed up. Our waiter's name was from Romania. We didn't particularly like him as he would always comment to us “oh, you don't like it?” if we didn't finish the whole meal. The tables were much closer together on the ship and there were only a few tables of 2 and many other tables of 8. We were lucky to get a small table. The dining room is decorated like an old English library, with dark wood paneling on the walls, and a back wall (separating the dining room from the lounge) that contained two English style 18th-C type portraits.

The food is typical Princess fare, with a lot of fish and the staples – fettuccine alfredo and shrimp cocktail and the signature Princess Love Boat Dream chocolate mousse on-top a brownie. The service was very slow, and got worse as the cruise ship progressed.

After the first dinner ended, we went to the Cabaret Lounge on the same floor (deck 5) and took our seats for the first evening show. They introduced the cruise director, a woman from Australia named Susan Rawlings, and then the rest of the cruise staff, who was mainly from Australia as well! Lots of cute blond girls from Australia. One short, brunette woman, Chantal (23 yrs old), was from Canada, and the men were also mainly from Australia. They said that this cruise had a junior cruiser program (not all itineraries on this boat have one) and they hired a staff member from the US – an older woman – to oversee the program. There was brief entertainment – a dance number from the dancers (all but 2 dancers are also cruise entertainment staff members) and then four songs from a male singer who was quite good at the showtune stuff but was so overly dramatic he reminded us of Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. Disappointedly, they did not announce the cruise breakdown of the passengers, but from our interactions with the passengers throughout the cruise, we deduced that most were from America, followed by a large British and Australian representation.

We got back to our room by 11pm and went straight to bed. The boat cleared for departure in China sometime between 9pm and 10pm and we could start to feel the boat sway a bit, so Hunter put on his wristbands.

permalink written by  mohicanfan on December 18, 2009 from Shanghai, China
from the travel blog: Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009
tagged China, Shanghai, Asia and Cruise

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Day 8: 2nd cruise day

Shanghai, China

Day 8: Saturday, December 19th, 2009

2nd cruise day – Day at Sea

Hunter and I didn't sleep well as I was up with leg pain early in the morning. Our alarm went off early so I could make my 7:45am massage and be down in the Casino lounge for our mandatory 9am lifeboat drill, since Hunter and I missed it boarding the ship late yesterday. The massage was good ($129 less 20% discount plus $20 tip) but I was bruised from it. The good thing was that the massage stopped the tingling as the lactid acid buildup in my muscles was massaged away. I was in such pain I agreed to purchase about $100 worth of oils and soothing lotions and a scrub brush to help my muscles continue to heal over the next few days so they would be looser for the next massage. I switched to flip flops as I felt my shoes were digging into my Achilles heel.

Chantal from Canada ran our lifeboat drill and as it was just Hunter and I there, it was informal and short. She told us a story about the Star Princess catching on fire and cruise staff having to stay in their muster stations for 8 hours! She also said last cruise – the first one of this itinerary – there were a lot of passengers from Russia and Turkey and they even had a Turkish translator on board. Chantal thought this cruise was mostly American and Canadian and British but said we should ask the Cruise Director if she knew the breakdown.

Hunter had already eaten breakfast at the sit-down breakfast while I was at my massage so Hunter went back to the room while I grabbed food at the Buffet (chocolate chip muffins and a chocolate croissant). The boat was really starting to sway! At 11:15am, Hunter and I went to the Casino Lounge for the morning trivia and did terribly with only 7 correct. Our goal is to do better with each new session! (Our highest ever was a score of 8.)

We ate lunch at the Buffet on the 9th floor, but it was swaying pretty badly up there and decided to head back down to the stateroom. In the meantime, I picked up some information about the shuttle to the town of Okinawa (no longer free, it cost $5pp each way). We also filled out and returned our health inspection and customs declaration card required by Japan to enter, which had to be turned in by 3pm.

We had a very low key day. Because the boat was so rocky (it was “Medium to High Seas & Swells” due to the strong winds and leftover effects of the Pacific Ocean monsoon that occurred a week ago), we decided to stay in our cabin which was the least rocky portion of the boat (low floor, back of the ship). We were very drowsy and tired from our long sightseeing days in China and wound up napping for a few hours, too. At 3:15pm, I took a break from the room to take the origami class and stumbled upon the ice cream bar at the buffet. Yum! I brought back cookies and brownies for Hunter as an afternoon snack, to hold us over until our late dinner.

Tonight was formal night and the Captain's Welcome Cocktail party. We were running late and at 7:45pm were finally dressed in our tuxedo and fancy dress and took our formal picture by the grand staircase on the 4th deck, right outside our stateroom. I preferred that location as there was a beautiful Christmas tree set up. The photos were quick – they made a much bigger deal about it on the Crown Princess, but I am getting the feeling this is a much different type of cruise than last year's. Because the cruise is so long, it is more of a no frills, this-is-your-home kind of feel to it. Because we arrived late to the Cocktail Party, we didn't get any of the free drinks because the presentation started quickly. We had a nice speech by the Italian Captain, Stefano Rivera, an introduction of the employee of the month, and then it was over. We went to the dining room for dinner and saw the other couple decided to join us. They were Connie and Tony from Dallas, Texas. They were very nice and we wound up becoming good friends as the cruise went on and were so lucky to have been paired with them. Hunter was feeling very nauseous and drowsy by dinner and left quickly after he finished eating the main meal. I made it through dessert but then skipped out on the show, which was supposed to be the first big “lavish” entertainment. The dancers are right in your face as the lounge where they perform is more of a show lounge than a theater. I stayed up until 11pm although Hunter was passed out by 10:15pm.

permalink written by  mohicanfan on December 19, 2009 from Shanghai, China
from the travel blog: Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009
tagged Asia and Cruise

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Day 9: Okinawa, Japan (3rd cruise day)

Okinawa, Japan

Day 9: Sunday, December 20th, 2009

3rd cruise day: Okinawa, Japan (port of Naha)

The ship docked right at 7am and it was a relief to finally have less boat swaying. We ate breakfast in the buffet and were surprised it wasn't more crowded. People with tours probably ate much earlier as we didn't get up there until 7:40am. Hunter was very drowsy from the 2 Bonine he took the night before and I still felt a little queasy in my stomach. Last night we were given a card with our thermal screening assignment and a little before 8am they called Group 2 to report to the Cabaret Lounge. We walked right in, passed a thermal scanner and then placed our index fingers in a fingerprint machine and took an electronic photo for the immigration officials. The whole process took no more than 5 minutes and then we were walking down to Deck 3 to exit the ship.

We had decided to book the shuttle in both directions, partly because I was afraid I would run out of money for a taxi. Also, they moved up the departure time from 2pm to 12:30pm and since the last shuttle was leaving at 12pm, that was the time we would have wanted to depart for the ship anyway. So once getting off the gangplank, we walked right to the waiting shuttle bus and in about 10 min it was filled with people and we started the 15-min ride into town. We had been given a free map which was wonderful and had close up sections of Shurijo Castle and Kokusaidori Street. The shuttle bus dropped us off in front of the Official Government building, which was directly in front of the Kencho-mae train station. Perfect! We walked across the street to the station and asked the attendant to help us buy two tickets to the Shuri station (last stop of the metro-rail). He was very friendly and spoke enough English to help us with the tickets, but of course the machines didn't take credit cards either! The total fare was 520 JBY for 2 tickets. We had to wait about 10 min for the train as we had just missed one, and the schedule was slower because of the weekend schedule. But the monorail soon came and we boarded the very fast, quiet, and clean car.

I really liked riding the monorail as it was elevated and stretched around the city so you could get a feel of the city by peering out the large windows. Shuri station was only 8 stops and took no more than 15-min total of a ride. It was then about a 10-min walk from the station to the entrance of the castle and it the way was clearly labeled with street signs. The city seemed very run-down. There were a lot of low, buildings with chipped plaster walls or peeling paint, lots of rubble around some buildings, lots of laundry hanging out windows, etc. We didn't see any upscale or “upper middle class” areas – there may be some, but they weren't on the monorail path or near the main shopping street.

Shurijo Castle exceeded the very low expectations we had of it. We thought it would be like the Forbidden City – all outdoors with unfurnished rooms – but the décor was different and the main palace had enclosed rooms that you toured. You had to remove your shoes to walk through two of the buildings, as they had been restored with gorgeous hardwood floors. I enjoyed that experience – shuffling on the wood in my socks, peering in to the tea ceremony rooms and throne rooms. It was still a very basic palace, but the grounds of Shurijo Castle seemed very nice – the whole thing is enclosed in stone walls, like a fortress – and if my legs had been better and Hunter wasn't so tired and we had more time, I could have seen us walking around the grounds some more. We skipped the mausoleum which was further back and cost another 200 Yen each. We had already spent most of our money at this point (520 Yen for the first subway, 1600 Yen for the castle admission fee) as I only had 3000 Yen for the whole trip. Luckily, the subway ride back was shorter and cost only 460 Yen for both of us. We were very proud that we were able to purchase our own return ticket as we matched up the Japanese characters of our destination station with the characters on the screen and pressed the picture of two stick people (signaling 2 fares) and then put in our coins. It was easy and efficient. Side note – just like in Beijing, you have to keep your ticket to swipe as you leave the station, you don't just use it to enter the turnstile.

We got off at Makishi station with about 1 ½ hours to spare before the last shuttle left for the boat. Makishi station was at the top of the main shopping street, Kokusaidori, and we stopped at a machine to buy 2 cokes with our remaining money (we had 120 Yen left over). The cokes really helped to wake us up.

The shopping street was very touristy and showcased stores that were a combination of Japanese/Hawaiian/Regae-islandish culture. A few Bob Marley and weed references were spotted. There were two large department stores – one at each end – and we went into both. The first one didn't sell Christmas ornaments, which was confirmed by a woman who spoke a little English and called around to departments to check for me and then bowed low to me after I thanked her for checking. The second department store was really nice. It was also 7 floors and had fancy women's, men's and children's clothes. Hunter and I decided that one of our favorite things to do on vacation in foreign places is to check out shopping malls and department stores, because that is where the locals shop and it is a good way to people-watch locals in a natural setting. The best thing about department stores is that they usually always take credit cards, which this one did! I also don't have to worry about being overcharged for items as these are the local prices and are the good quality items that the locals themselves would buy. After shopping we browsed the top floor, which had a little children's play area and we used up the last 100 Yen coin on a grab-a-toy machine. We then walked across the street to the bus stop and boarded the shuttle, which departed less than 5 min later. We were back on the cruise boat by 12:20pm.

Okinawa exceeded our expectations because we had set them so low, but I would still only rank the city a 3 on a scale of 10 for a tourist destination. I am sure that the war memorials and museums were more interesting, but it just wasn't something we were interested in learning about or seeing. We filled up our 4 hours easily but didn't need any more time in the city and are glad we had just a half day there. The weather held out for us. There were storm clouds overhead in some parts, but we lucked into some really sunny parts and could even take off our jackets. I had worn a light weight fleece shirt, a sweatshirt and a down jacket and jeans w/o leggings. I needed the jacket when the sun was hidden, but was comfortable the whole time and finally felt like it was getting warmer!

Back on board, Hunter and I ate in the Buffet and Grill (I wanted the cheeseburger from the grill). We then went back to the room and I got a call back from Lynne, my cruisecritic.com friend and she came over to meet us. She stayed and chatted with us for a good hour, catching us up on her adventures pre-cruise (she did several days in Shanghai and three days in Xian which she said was well worth the journey) and her plans post-cruise (tentatively Cambodia after her Laos and Burma plans fell through). She also shared some Princess secrets. She is an elite member – better than platinum and has more than 300 sailing nights with Princess. She only paid $3500 for two for this cruise and has the same type of stateroom we have but with half the couch.

After talking to Lynne, I checked out the 3-hour only $10 shopping sale special on Deck 4, but it was all Boijou Terrier stuff which I can buy in any US airport shop. The ship had started moving by 1pm and the captain announced another afternoon of rough seas, thanks to winds at 20-30 knots. Sure enough the swaying started. I avoided putting on my wristbands as long as I could so I wouldn't feel too drowsy or sleepy. I went up to the 10th floor Tahitian Lounge, the lounge at the bow of the ship with the floor to ceiling windows which offers a beautiful vista of the sea. I booted up my netbook and caught up on the journal entries from China, reformatting the emails I had sent to friends and family the past few days. At 3:30pm, the Catholic Mass started in the lounge. The priest was a Jesuit from the New York region who was stationed in northern Thailand for the past 4-5 years and was on the cruise as a way to return to Bangkok to a trip back home. He only boarded the boat in Shanghai. He was young – probably mid 40s – and gave a very nice sermon with a nautical theme tied into the last Sunday of Advent lecture. The boat was really swaying and he came over to us to give us communion so we didn't have to risk walking up to him.

The mass ended at 4:05pm and I picked up an ice cream sundae on my way back down to the cabin to check on Hunter. He was still up, playing games on his iPhone while his netbook charged. We ate the ice cream (mint flavored today) and then he took a nap while I typed furiously away on my journal entries, finally catching up to present time. I then changed into my bathing suit and sat in the dry sauna in the Spa area to loosen up my muscles again, before coming back down in time to shower and dress for dinner. We had called into room service to deliver a corkscrew but it never came. I was eager to get started on the two bottles of wine as I was pretty sure I would be drinking all two bottles by myself the rest of the cruise since Hunter is fighting sea sickness the whole time!

The spa was very hot and the attendant thought it was broken because I went into and out of there so quickly! It was also difficult to stay in there long because the boat was swaying a lot at that height. I went downstairs and told Hunter that we better order room service for dinner because he wouldn't make it past the 4th deck. I had swung by the buffet on the way to the room and saw it was an off night with only the pizzeria being opened at 9pm. I think there was an elite dining only experience going on towards one end of the buffet as tablecloths and china was set and people were looking at plastic menus. We only found out with three days left in the cruise, that the section was the “Bistro” service with a limited set menu that rotated every 4 days, and that anyone could dine up there. We ordered sandwiches for dinner and cookies, and the food came quickly. The waiter opened up our wine bottle for us (room service told us on our second call that they cannot deliver corkscrews but have to open the bottle in the room). I tried the wine, which was supposedly a good one from a 2001 vintage from a California Vineyard but it was very thick with lots of tannin residue on the bottom of the glass. Or maybe it was my nausea that made the wine less enjoyable. We found out later that the winds were at 35-40 knots that night, with high sea swells.

We passed the rest of the night in the cabin, watching TV and using our netbooks. By 10:30pm I was falling asleep and finally got up to get ready for bed. We were both out cold by 11pm.

permalink written by  mohicanfan on December 20, 2009 from Okinawa, Japan
from the travel blog: Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009
tagged Asia, Japan and Cruise

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Day 10: Taipei, Taiwan (Keelung port; 4th cruise day)

Taipei, Taiwan

Day 10: Monday, December 21st, 2009

4th cruise day: Taipei, Taiwan (boat docked in Keelung, Taiwan)

We had a wonderful but tiring day in Taipei! We had not thought much of Taiwan when thinking of the cruise, and would never have selected the country as a stopping point on a tour of Asia, so we are so glad the cruise included Taipei in the itinerary or else we probably would never have seen the wonderful sights of the city!

Our day started off early, waking up at 6am before our alarm and then laid in bed until our alarm went off almost an hour later. We finished breakfast in the buffet in time to grab our day bag and get off the ship when they cleared us for disembarkation right at 9am. We followed a nice couple in their late 40s from South Carolina off the boat and chatted with them for a bit. They left the port terminal to take a taxi and Hunter and I continued walking along the curved road to the Keelung Train terminal, which was no more than a 10 min walk down the road and up and down over a few overpasses. At the station, the ticket counter agent spoke English and gave us two tickets to the Taipei Main Station (86 TWD total) and even let me pay by credit card! The train was leaving in 4 min, so we timed it perfectly. I had gotten the train times from a local resident's post on Trip Adviser, so I knew the train left at 9:32am and so Hunter and I walked accordingly to get there on time.

The train ride was very nice. The cars were clean, the seats lined the wall with the rest of the car open for standing. There was light Asian bell music playing as you approached the next station which was cheery and upbeat. The ride took exactly 50 minutes and once off, we followed the clear signs to the MRT subway. We had wanted to buy a smart pass but we would have had to purchase 2 cards for 500 TWD each, and then get the money back in the end which would have left us with too much cash at the end of the day. So we opted for the single journey tickets which were actually small blue tokens that looked like blue poker chips. Just like in Okinawa, you look up the station of your destination on the map and find the total fare amount which is listed under the station (20-25-30 TWD). Then you select the number of tickets, put in your money and voila – the blue chips are dispensed. It was simple and fast. We hopped on the metro to the Shilin station, heading out to the National Palace Museum. We loved the metro! There were lines on the floor in front of the gates that opened to allow you onto the subway car, and everyone nicely queued up in those marked lanes before the train came. As the train approached, red circular lights on the floor would start to blink, indicating that you should get in line. Once in the car, electronic signs announced each station. The cars were very brightly lit and clean and ran very fast and smooth. The subway lines take you almost anywhere in the city, and hit all the major tourist spots, so it really was the perfect way for us to get around the whole day. We wound up riding it 4 times.

A 10-min metro ride on the red line took us to Shilin station where we got out and hopped in a taxi for a cheap (150 TWD) ride to the museum. It was a large museum of 3 floors and definitely a major focal point of Taipei. A lot of tour groups were there and families. We liken it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC where very famous works of art are on display to be admired by locals, students, and tourists. Some exhibits were closed but we spent a good 2 hours walking through 3 floors and focusing on the exhibits that most interested us, which included bronze and jade artifacts, painting and calligraphy, and porcelain and gems. We saw some really old artifacts, some jade circles dating back 7,000 years to around 5,000 BC! And the jade still looked beautiful because it doesn't tarnish or deteriorate like bronze and other metals. The pieces were very basic, though, from that era, but it was cool to see how the works of art got more intricate as the centuries and decades progressed. We saw the “Mona Lisa of Taipei” which was an intricately carved jade sculpture of a bok choy leaf. We had rented audio tours to give us more background on the museum pieces, but it turned out we really didn't need it because the museum had all signs in Chinese and English with very good descriptions of the pieces.

We ran into some fellow cruisers in the museum. They had rented a taxi for 4 people for the whole day for the equivalent of $100 USD. We were happy we got there around the same time, showing that metro and taxi hopping could be just as efficient as taxi! And it turned out that we spent around $25 in transportation for both of us combined, so we did get the better deal. Overall, we liked the museum but didn't want to spend any more time there as we are not museum people. But we are glad we went because it is one of the most impressive collections of Chinese art in the world, and a big deal to Taipei.

We left the museum and hopped in a taxi back to Shilin station (120 TWD) and took the metro line to Taipei Main Station (red line) before transferring to the Blue Line east to go to Taipei City Hall. From there we walked SE towards the Taipei 101 building, the world's tallest skyscraper. As we walked, we ate the ham and cheese on mini bagel sandwiches that we had packed from the buffet this morning. Taipei 101 was attached to a new shopping mall and connected to two other large malls and a huge movie theater by a 2nd story walkway. We walked on the street level to the building, and on the walkway coming home. It was a really fancy complex and very nicely decorated with Christmas trees and other decorations, including a Tiffany & Co sponsored Christmas tree, decorated in ornaments of Tiffany's signature light turquoise coloring. Most of these shops were American brands, compared to the shopping malls in China which were predominantly European brands and designers. There were many American restaurants, as well, and the whole city had more of a friendly US feel to it than did the other cities we visited so far. We purchased the 200 TWD tickets on the 5th floor of the mall, after being assisted by a helpful man who approached us as we were looking at the shopping floor map to find the ticket booth. The man asked if we were part of the Princess Cruise tours and we explained we were with the ship but on our own, and he introduced himself as the cruise ambassador to Taipei 101 whose job it is to make sure the tourists have a good experience at this attraction. He led us to the elevator that went right up to the 5th floor.

Taipei 101 was very cool. At the time we were there, and for two weeks after, it was the tallest building in the world and offered 360 degree view of the city. The view was definitely not as impressive as the one from Jinmao Tower in Shanghai, but it still showed a very picturesque city. What I love about Taipei is that even though the skyline isn't that impressive as most buildings are small, the city is nestled among a beautiful lush green mountain range to the east. So not only do you see a nice cityscape, but you get the pleasure of the green mountains and Keelung river in your view as well. The building was well organized for tourists. There were 12 looking points and we got a free audio guide that offered some narration at each of the stations. We then walked up from the 89th floor to the 91st where we could walk outside to see the city from behind protective bars. We didn't last long as the wind was strong and it was still kind of chilly as there was no sun today and the temperature was only in the upper 50s. We then walked down to the 88th floor to see the “Damper” which is a stabilization ball and mechanism that protects the building from wind. It was a very weird display as we walked through a corridor with neon circle lights pulsing at us and odd reflective mirrors in some places. We don't know what we were supposed to learn in that exhibit, but we can say we walked through! The mascot of Taipei 101 is the “damper baby”, a cute cartoonish character that looks a bit like an alien.

It was almost 2:30pm at this point and I was worried we were running out of time, so we took the high speed elevator down (118 m/sec) and the escalators down from floor 5 to floor 1, observing the mall in the process. It was empty, especially compared to the busy malls of China, but it was the middle of the afternoon on a weekday. We then retraced our steps up to the 2nd floor to take the giant walkway that connected almost all the way to the Taipei City Hall metro station. We were really impressed with the walkway. It was covered and had lots of vegetation on the side railings, which was a nice distraction from all the concrete shopping buildings. This was definitely the “new” part of Taipei, and it was very welcoming and Americanized. There was a large store called “New York New York” and even a Gordon Biersch brewery! Hunter and I started to reflect on all these shopping malls. I used to think that people would be so overwhelmed by America and our huge malls and shopping indulgences, but now I realize that Asia has us beat hands down! Everything isn't bigger and better in America – it's bigger and better in Asia!

We took the blue line metro from Taipei Main Station to the Longshan Temple exit which led us out right across the street from the temple. It was beautiful! The temple was very similar to the Lama Temple we visited in Beijing, with all of the temples being outdoors and housing many Buddhas. These temples are where visitors and locals come to pray. Although similar to Lama Temple, the Longshan Temple in Taipei greatly surpassed it in splendor and beauty. The temples still had bright, fresh paint of a mosaic of deep reds, greens, blacks, whites and golds. There were many visitors all of whom burned a tremendous amount of incense candles and offered platters of gifts – fruits, candy, etc. There were also several people dropping wooden circles and breaking them on the floor, which must have been some ritual for good luck or some other form of prayer. The temple was much smaller than the lamastary in Beijing, so we weren't there more than 15 minutes, before we started our walking tour of the Wanhua district.

The walking tour, courtesy of a Taipei guide book I had photocopied in advance, took us down narrow streets that were old and had some decaying buildings, and then through “snake alley” which is also known as the “Taipei Tourist Night Market” – yes, they actually refer to it as a tourist market! The alley is a long street flanked with street vendors selling exotic food dishes, including, boiled snake! We didn't see any snake being cooked as not all of the market stands were open yet, but we saw squid, worm-looking things, and pre-cooked half chickens, and lots of large boiling vats of liquid that must have been some kind of soup or stew. We watched the cooks make the food and the people sitting down to eat it. There were surprisingly a lot of people actually eating meals around that time (~3pm). The rest of the walking tour took us past two smaller temples, which were amazing in that they were built sandwiched between two concrete, rundown, gray buildings. In the midst of the dingy street, beautiful gilded temples with pagoda-style roofs just appeared. None of the temples in Taipei had an entrance fee, which was nice for change.

We were running short on time (it was about 3:50pm) and we thought my next plan of walking to our final tourist spot, the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial, was too ambitious, so we flagged down a taxi. It was a good thing because it was a good 1.7 miles away, according to the taxi's GPS device! I was a little worried when we got in the cab and told the driver where we wanted to go and he repeated it like he didn't know it, and so we pointed to it on the map. He then stayed over to the side of the road and started to type the chinese characters into his GPS device. Chiang Kai-Shek is a huge tourist attraction – why did he need a GPS to tell him how to get there? The driver then got directions and started on the way and then turned back to us and in a loud cheery voice “Hi, How you doing?” and then said “English no good” and laughed. Then he said “I happy US!” and smiled some more, trying to indicate that he liked Americans. Then he reached for his cd player and started to scroll through and selected a US song – a Brittney Spears song – so we would feel at home! At one point he said “I, Pudong” which made us think that he is originally from Pudong and just moved to Taiwan, which is why he didn't know where the memorial was.

We were really impressed with the memorial. It sits on 62-acres and is composed of the main memorial hall (with museum exhibits below on floors 1-4) which is 89 steps up from the base (basically the 5th floor). It is an open-air pavilion with a huge bronze statue of a sitting Chiang Kai-Shek, in a pose similar to Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial. The room was all marble with chinese inscriptions on the walls of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen's Principles of Democracy. We got there right at 4pm and got to see the changing of the guards, which was just as formal and distinguished as anything you would see at a US memorial. From the top of the memorial you can overlook the rest of the grounds, which consisted of japanese-like gardens around the perimeter and two beautiful chinese style buildings, one the National Theater, and the other the National Gallery. Both were exquisite buildings on their own, and together the whole compound was just beautiful. We are so glad our timing worked out and we didn't have to skip seeing this.

After the changing of the guards ceremony, we took the elevator down to Floor 1 to tour the exhibit on the life of Chiang Kai-Shek. The exhibit had two of his armored town cars and a replica of his office and sitting room. There were large photos galore of the memorable moments in his life and we were amazed to see him in photos with six different US presidents! We really enjoyed the exhibit and wished we paid more attention in Asian history class to remember the details surrounding his exile to Taiwan.

By 4:25pm we realized we needed to head back to the Taipei Main Station and walked back through the gardens to the metro stop (red line) we saw when we were dropped off by the taxi (it is a good thing he left us off at that entrance so we knew where the metro station was). We didn't have to wait long for the metro and were in the Taipei Main station a little after 4:30pm. We had a little trouble finding the right ticket booth to purchase tickets back to Keelung, but Hunter asked someone who pointed us in the right direction. We got our tickets (86 TWD total) with less than 5 min to spare and walked up to the platform. We had no trouble with the train ride, which took only 40 min coming back. We were people-watching a group of young students who were all in different brightly colored track/warm-up suits and we realized that their school uniforms are warm-up suits! How practical! No stuffy blazers needed when you can wear comfortable pants and jackets to class. It was funny, though, to see a school crest embroidered onto a track suit.

As we were able to pay with credit card in so many places in Taipei (and even got a 10% discount every time we paid with a Visa card in the shops in Taipei 101), we had extra cash left over, about 400 TWD or less than 10 USD. We were thirsty and craving water (we are not doing a good job of staying hydrated) and stopped in a corner 7-11 to buy waters and sodas. Everything is so cheap we still had money left over and poked into another shop along the route back to the cruise ship and found a stationary store where we spent the rest of the money. At 6:15pm, we walked back to the ship and made it aboard before the 6:30pm cutoff. There was a chinese dragon dance performance going on at the pier, a show put on for the passengers of the cruise ship. I have a much better appreciation for the dragon dancers – I think I used to be afraid of them, but now I think they are cute and funny!

Back on board, we rested up and showered and changed for dinner. Connie and Tony were at dinner again tonight, but they too had skipped out the previous night because they were confined to the cabin because of the ship rocking. This has been their roughest sailing to date, also. We felt better that it wasn't just us that didn't have sea legs. We had a different waiter tonight as ours was sea sick, and we really liked the new waiter as he was fast and very attentive. The menu was Asian-themed again, so I ordered most of the courses off the “everyday” menu and had shrimp cocktail, fettuccine alfredo and the princess love boat dream chocolate mousse dessert. Yum!

We rounded out the evening with a stop up in the Tahitian Lounge where the 50s “sock hop” was going on. We got there just in time for the Twist competition, which we were pulled into and we didn't win, but we got a nice consolation prize of Princess wallets. We then rushed down to the Cabaret Lounge to watch Claude Eric perform. He has a beautiful voice and played all of my favorite songs – several Michael Buble songs, the Josh Groban song “You Raise Me Up”, a few oldies songs (Bobby Darin, The Drifters and the Commodores) and then ended with a Man of La Mancha number. It was great! We then walked back to the Tahitian Lounge to see what was going on and there were a few people still dancing, but we decided to pack it in for the night. The casino was busier than usual, but too smoky for us.

It was really a great day – very busy but productive as we saw all of the sights we wanted to see in Taipei and didn't feel rushed either. My legs held out pretty well as the body oils are helping, so I was able to do a lot of walking without too much trouble. We were very impressed with Taipei as the buildings were beautiful, the mountain range was picturesque, and the city was so accessible due to the efficient and modern metro system and the English-friendly signs and local people. And most places took credit cards! As I said before, we never considered Taiwan as a place of interest in our world travels, but we are so glad we got to go to Taipei as we would have missed out on a really great city.

permalink written by  mohicanfan on December 21, 2009 from Taipei, Taiwan
from the travel blog: Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009
tagged Asia, Taiwan and Cruise

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