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Cruise Operations 'Pause' for Coronavirus
Cruise Operations 'Pause' for Coronavirus By Anne Kalosh. (Note: Anne is the Editor, Seatrade Cruise News & Senior Associate Editor, ...
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A Chat with AmaWaterways Kristin Karst By Anne Kalosh. Aboard AmaDara recently for a week cruising on the Mekong River, QuirkyCruise.com’s ...
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QuirkyCruise Review QuirkyCruise Review About AmaWaterways

Founded in 2002 as Amadeus Waterways, the company changed its name in 2008 to AmaWaterways. It is generally regarded as one of the world’s top river cruise lines and operates a large fleet of beautifully designed ships in Europe and others in Asia and Africa. Most river cruise itineraries should be paired with a land package including at least one hotel stay. As the riverboats are similar, they will be described as a class and grouped under the destination they frequentThe line offers the utmost flexibility with guided tours at three different paces (gentle, regular & active), a late risers tour, guided bike and hiking tours as well as optional Limited Edition Tours.

For Spanish-speaking passengers, a guide accompanies designated departures. See With a Latin Touch.

EUROPEAN RIVERS

Ships & Years Delivered

Europe – AmaBella (built 2010 & 161 passengers), AmaCello (b. 2008 & 148 p), AmaCerto (b. 2012 & 164 p), AmaDante (b. 2008 & 146 p), AmaDolce (b. 2009 & 146 p), AmaLyra (b. 2009 & 146 p), AmaPrima (b.2013 & 164 p), AmaReina (b. 2014 & 164 p), AmaSerena (b. 2015 & 164 p), AmaSonata (b. 2015 & 164 p), AmaStella (b 2016. & 158 p), AmaVerde (b. 2011 & 174p), AmaViola (b. 2016 & 158 p), AmaKristina (b. 2017 & 158 p), and AmaVida (b. 2013 & 106 p), AmaLea (b. 2018 & 156 p), *AmaMagna (b. 2018 & 194 p), AmaMora (b. 2019 & 196 p) , AmaDouro (b. 2019 & 102 p) and AmaSiena (b. 2020 & 158 p).

*AmaMagna deserves special note as the boat is twice as wide as standard riverboats and this allows for much larger cabins, expanded restaurant offerings (4), larger spa and wellness facilities and water-sports platform. The thrust here is to attract more deep-sea cruisers who might feel that riverboats are too small and limited in their amenities. The vessel sticks to the Danube where it does not face locks that would be to narrow to enter. Some cruises sail as far downriver as Giurgiu for access to Bulgaria’s capital of Bucharest.

RELATED: Read Gene Sloan’s AmaMagna review here.

Passengers

146 to 196 (except smaller Douro River ships AmaVida (106 p) and AmaDouro  (102 p).

Passenger Decks

4 with most ships having elevators between the two main cabin and public room decks.

Price

$$$

NOTE:

Solo passengers may have the single supplement waived on selected sailings. On others, special discounts are applied after the supplement is added.

Included Features

Free Wi-Fi in the cabins, unlimited wines, beers, and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, bottled water, Chef’s Table specialty restaurant, shore excursion in every port, bicycles (Europe), transfers between hotel and ship when buying a land package, airport transfers if buying AmaWaterways’ airfare. These extras upfront keep the final bill in check.

Cruising the Douro River in Portugal is a new offering. * Photo: AamaWaterways

Cruising the Douro River in Portugal is a new offering. * Photo: AmaWaterways

Itineraries (through 2020)

European river cruises operate from March to December. Popular itineraries are:

  • Prague hotel stay then sail between Nuremburg along the Danube and Main-Danube Canal and taking in a Benedictine Abbey, wines of the Wachau Valley, Vienna and Budapest. Lots of itinerary variations.
  • The Rhine between Amsterdam and Basel stopping at cathedral cities and picturesque castles and towns. Continue by train to Zurich.
  • Paris and the Seine to Monet’s home and gardens at Giverny, cathedral city of Rouen and WWII Normandy beaches.
  • Paris and TGV (high-speed train) to Lyon (gastronomic capital) then cruise the Rhone south to medieval and Roman antiquities, Avignon and Arles, and ending with a hotel stay in Lyon (settled across two rivers with a peninsula in between.) or Marseille (multi-ethnic city has risen in popularity) or Barcelona (for some, the favorite city).
  • Something newer and different along Portugal’s Douro River from Oporto with visits to castles, palaces and museums, and a stay in Lisbon.
  • Bordeaux along the Dordogne and Garonne to Pauillac (Medoc) and St. Emilion for vineyard visits, plus castles, biking and hiking. Add stays in Bilbao and/or San Sebastian and linger with lots to see in Bordeaux.
  • New for 2020 are 7-night Rhine and Moselle cruises concentrating on Vineyards and sailing between Amsterdam and Luxembourg, and 7-night Main and Rhine cruises linking Amsterdam and Nuremberg via the Main-Danube Canal.
  • Note: Not currently operating: Russian itineraries between St. Petersburg and Moscow, and Moscow via the Volga River to Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad).
Claude Monet's gardens at Giverny. * Photo: Ted Scull

Claude Monet’s gardens at Giverny. * Photo: Ted Scull

Many river itineraries are seven nights with extended ones first cruising the Danube and then connecting to the Main and Rhine. Cruise-tours include hotel stays in Amsterdam, Paris, Marseille, Barcelona, Lucerne, Zurich, Munich, Prague, Budapest or Istanbul.

Luxembourg Gardens, Paris. * Photo: Ted Scull

Luxembourg Gardens, Paris. * Photo: Ted Scull

European themed cruises include a highlighted focus such as art, wine (expanding considerably), culinary, wellness, tulip time, and Christmas markets. Adventure by Disney departures appeal to families.

Why Go?

River cruising is arguably the easiest and most relaxing way to see a lot of Europe with a choice of a dozen different rivers to access cities, small towns, historic sites, wine regions and enchanting scenery. AmaWaterways gives you a vast choice and provides some of the best accommodations aboard in Europe. As the riverboats in this fleet are somewhat similar, with a couple of exceptions, they will be described as a class.

When to Go?

Some itineraries are specifically geared to the best seasons or offer a special theme appropriate to the season, such as tulip time, vineyard visits, and Christmas markets.

German rivers such as the Moselle and Rhine provide spectacular secenery. * Photo: Ted Scull

German rivers such as the Moselle and Rhine provide spectacular scenery. * Photo: Ted Scull

Cabins

160 to 350 square feet (170-235 the average range) with most having full balconies and/or French step-to-the railing balconies with fixed windows on the lowest deck. Amenities are desk and sitting area, multi-jet showerhead, complimentary Internet access and Wi-Fi, TV, music and movies on demand, bottled water, safe and some cabins with mini-fridge.

Public Rooms

Main lounge and bar (all drinks and snacks included throughout the day) with a forward viewing/seating area; Sun Deck seating open and under a canopy, walking track, small pool or whirlpool; massage and hair salon, fitness room.

Dining

The line includes higher grade wines, plus beer and sodas with lunch and dinner, and sparkling wine at breakfast. The European ships belong to the culinary organization La Chaine des Rotisseurs. Breakfast and lunch may be taken in the main restaurant from a menu or buffet, and lighter choices are available in the main lounge. Dinner is open seating with menus reflecting the cruising area. Some ships have a second specialty restaurant, the Chef’s Table, with limited seating and reservations, but at no extra cost.

Activities & Entertainment

Musicians come aboard nightly in ports; take advantage of a dip in the pool or whirlpool, fitness room and massage services. Tours ashore are on foot and in vehicles, with headsets for the guide’s commentary. Some tours allow you to chose your own pace. Bicycles are available and particularily useful for independent touring along a path between Durnstein and Melk in the Danube’s beautiful Wachau Valley; along the Rhine in/near Cologne; paralleling the canals and waterways in Belgium and the Netherlands, to highlight just a few locations. Inquire about the options when boarding. Small group tours by bicycle and longer hikes are also offered.

Special Notes

While AmaWaterways’ European riverboats share many of the same amenities, the Asian and African vessels are considerably different, but no less comfortable. See below for details. Single fares without a supplement are available for all cruises, though dependent on the category available,

Along the Same Lines

Other European operators.

MEKONG RIVER IN CAMBODIA & VIETNAM

AmaWaterways operates two somewhat similar high-standard ships that are smaller than the European riverboats, yet offer most of the same amenities. The Mekong (Cambodia and Vietnam) and Irrawaddy (Myanmar) are ideal for river travel as so much activity is river-focused. Note:  Irrawaddy Cruises are not currently operating.

RELATED: Anne Kalosh’s AmaWaterways’ Mekong River adventure.

Ships & Years Delivered

AmaDara (built 2015 & 124 passengers).

Passengers

Mainly North Americans 50 and up.

Passenger Decks

4 decks, no elevator.

Price

$$$

Included Features

During a 7-night cruise, all excursions, wine, local beer and soft drinks at lunch and dinner; all house-brand spirits, local beer, soft drinks from the bar; bottled water; all transfers with an air package. Cruise tours include hotel stays in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and Siem Reap (for Angkor Wat) with buffet breakfasts, transfers between hotels and ship and Hanoi to Siem Reap flight.

Itineraries

The 7-night cruise portion operates August to April in both directions on Tonle Sap Lake (except during low-water season) and along the Mekong between Siem Reap (Cambodia) and My Tho (near Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam). Calls are made to small river villages to observe daily life, local crafts production, floating markets, a Buddhist Monastery, Cambodia capital at Phnom Penh, and the ever-fascinating river traffic.

Hotel stays include sightseeing. Nearly everyone who books a river cruise adds at least a couple of nights at Siem Reap for the Angkor Archaeological Park and its temples, terraces and stone sculptures.

Why Go?

Southeast Asia is a culturally and historically rich part of the world, and Mekong River cruises has opened up easy access to life in the big cities, small towns and archaeological sites that previously involved long bus rides on congested roads. The Mekong is full of commercial activity linked industrial and farm production and to the inhabitants who live along the river banks.

Most add the Siem Reap extension for archaeological sites, Vietnam’s two major cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and maybe the Laotian cities of Luang Prabang and Vientiane, the latter the country’s capital. All flights within Southeast Asia are short and well-operated.

Flower market in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). * Photo: Ted Scull

Flower market in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). * Photo: Ted Scull

When to Go?

Cruises operate between August and April; the rains are heavier in the summer months matched with slightly lower fares.

Cabins

The majority of the wood-trimmed cabins are a roomy 226 square feet, and all have French or outside balconies, apart from six with portholes on AmaLotus lowest deck. Beds are twins or queen-size. Top deck suites are larger, and two on each ship are huge (452 sq. ft. on AmaDara and 624 sq. ft. on AmaLotus). Cabins open to a traditional central corridor. Amenities are: sitting area with writing desk, mini-bar, safe, in-house phone, flat-screen monitor and hairdryer. Suites have bathtubs.

Public Rooms

AmaDara has main lounge forward while AmaLotus has it aft with a small forward-facing lounge. Both vessels have covered top decks with seating and a small pool with AmaDara’s forward and AmaLotus’ aft. Both vessels have a fitness room, hair salon and spa.

Dining

Both have open-seating restaurants (AmaDara forward and AmaLotus aft) with North American menu choices as well as flavorful local Southeast Asian cooking. AmaDara has a small specialty eatery aft called the Tarantula Grill — and as a personal injection and recommendation, I have eaten grilled tarantula legs, but I did not and would not touch the body.

Activities & Entertainment

Cultural entertainment aboard features musical groups in costume, plus films, and a small pool, an ideal way to relax after a hot day ashore. Excursions are on foot, by boat, trishaw, oxcart and in buses to villages, palaces, museums, temples, schools, markets and workshops making handcrafts in silk, wood, rattan and paper.

IRRAWADDY RIVER IN MYANMAR (BURMA)

(Note: Not currently operating)

AmaWaterways operates one vessel, the high-standard 56-passenger AmaPura built in 2014, on 14-night cruise tours that feature hotel stays in Yangon (Rangoon) and a 10-night cruise on the Irrawaddy (also Ayeyarwady) on roughly monthly sailings, except from mid-April to mid-September. The cruise is accessed at Pyay, north of Yangon or Mandalay, with a flight to or from Yangon.

The sights are villages, craft-making, monasteries, scenic vistas, and temples, with the highlight spending a full day amongst the huge collection of stupas, pagodas and temples at Pagan and a full day touring Mandalay.

Accommodations aboard are designated all-suites measuring from 285 sq. ft. to 420 sq. ft. with either two balconies or one sitting balcony and one French balcony. Although a smaller vessel, the amenities, public spaces, dining, what’s included, the entertainment and activities are similar to the two Mekong River vessels.

SOUTHERN AFRICA: ZAMBEZI RIVER IN BOTSWANA

In Brief

Between mid-March and mid-November, AmaWaterways offers a cruise-tour that includes four nights aboard the 28-passenger ZAMBEZI QUEEN, built in the early 1990s and refitted for its current role in 2009. Accommodations are 10 large cabins and four suites, all with private balconies, a light-filled lounge and bar, dining room and pool. Every enclosed space has floor to ceiling windows with open decks fore and aft to watch for game.

The cruise follows the Chobe River embarking at Kasane, Botswana with additional close-up sightseeing in smaller boats to look for wildlife on land, in the river and flying above, plus trips ashore to visit African villages. The land portions that bracket the cruise can include hotel stays in Cape Town, Kruger National Park and Victoria Falls. Add a 3-night journey aboard the luxurious, vintage Rovos Rail between the falls and Pretoria, South Africa.

Giraffes in Nambia

Giraffes in Nambia. * Photo: Ted Scull

Contact Info

26010 Mureau Road, Calabasas, CA 91302; www.AmaWaterways.com; 800-626-0126.

— TWS

 

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© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

Pandaw Cruises

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QuirkyCruise ReviewQuirkyCruise Review of Pandaw River Cruises

Pandaw has been offering high-quality expedition-style river cruises in Asia aboard traditional-style boats for more than 25 years. The growing fleet comprises similar-looking colonial-style teakwood riverboats built in Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos in the spirit of the 19th-century Scottish-crafted paddle steamers that plied Burma’s rivers at the height of the British Empire.

Each boat carries 10 to 60 passengers and has an ultra-shallow draft, two or three decks, and flat tops so they can slip under bridges and easily navigate small rivers, even when water levels are low. Wood-paneled nautical-style cabins are roomy and very comfortable and meals are tasty enough.

In every way, the Pandaw River Cruises experience is solid, authentic and eminently comfortable just like the boats, with the focus on the destination, not fussy décor or cloying service. Step on board and breathe in the refreshing scent of teak wood before wiping your sweaty brow with a chilled face towel handed out by crew at the gangway.

The company was founded in 1995 by Scotsman and Burma historian Paul Strachan with the re-building of an original Clyde-built steamer called PANDAW 1947, one of the last boats built for the original Irrawaddy Flotilla Company founded by Scots merchants in 1865. The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company was once the finest river fleet in the world with some 500 vessels that carried passengers and cargo, from bags of rice to blocks of jade, silk, tobacco and whisky, on Burma’s Irrawaddy and other rivers from the 1860s until the Japanese invasion in WWII when the British scuttled virtually the entire fleet to keep it out of enemy hands.

Family-run Pandaw was the first company to offer expeditions on both the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers and continues to stay true to its mission of building smaller ships, even as other companies build bigger ones, to offer river adventures in remote areas, especially in Myanmar and more recently in Laos. In 2015, Strachan published a book called The Pandaw Story about his adventures, Pandaw, and the history and culture of Myanmar. He’s also written guides to Bagan’s art and architecture.

Pandaw River Cruises on the Orient Pandaw

The embarkation adventure is half the fun! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Ship, Year Delivered & Passenger Count

Divided into two classes, the river boats number 16:

The smaller two-deck “K” class river boats — ANGKOR PANDAW (built 2012, 32 passengers), KALAW PANDAW (b. 2014, 36 p), KALAY PANDAW (b. 2013, 10 p), KATHA PANDAW (b. 2011, 28 p), KHA BYOO PANDAW (b. 2014, 20 p), KINDAT PANDAW (b. 2014, 36 p), ZAWGYI (b. 2014, 20 p), LAOS PANDAW (b. 2015, 20 p), CHAMPA PANDAW (b. 2016, 28 p) and SABAIDEE PANDAW (b. 2018, 24 p). On November 7, 2019, the KANEE PANDAW (28 passengers) takes delivery of the latest “K” vessels for Irrawaddy cruises between Prome north of Rangoon and Mandalay and the Great Irrawaddy Delta.

The larger three-deck “P” class river boats — BASSAC PANDAW (b. 2012, 60 p), INDOCHINA PANDAW (b. 2009, 60 p), MEKONG PANDAW (b. 2003 & totally refitted in 2013, 48 p), ORIENT PANDAW (b. 2008, 60 p), PANDAW II (b. 2002, 48 p), and TONLE PANDAW (b. 2002 & totally refitted in 2013, 56 p).

In addition, Pandaw introduced the coastal cruiser ANDAMAN EXPLORER built for the Norwegian coast guard in 1963 and subsequently converted to a luxury yacht before passing to Pandaw. She carries 20 passengers in ten suites, nine of which have double beds and one twins).

Passenger Profile

Mostly couples, with some singles, in their 50s on up from the UK, North America, Australia, New Zealand and Western Europe mostly. Not recommended for children under age 12 or for anyone with trouble walking, as getting on and off the ships usually involves walking across narrow gangways and up and down muddy embankments.

Pandaw River Cruises aboard the Orient Pandaw

Watching the world go by from the bow of the Orient Pandaw. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Passenger Decks

2 or 3; no elevators

Price

$$  Expensive

Included Features

All excursions led by a local tour guide who travels with the boat, bottled water and tips, though many passengers do leave something extra in the communal tip box at the end of the cruise.

Reasonably priced drinks package are offer for house wines, free-flow drinks (minus wine), and free-flow drinks including house wines.

Itineraries

The majority of Pandaw’s river expeditions are on three of South-East Asia’s great rivers: the Irrawaddy and Chindwin Rivers in Myanmar, and the Mekong River that flows from China through Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. From time to time the line experiments with new itineraries, for instance in Borneo, offering Pandaw fans great reasons to keep coming back.

A few itineraries venture into northern Vietnam, to Halong Bay and on the Red River that flows past Hanoi into the Gulf of Tonkin. River itineraries in India now number three with three different riverboats. A brand new 10-night itinerary aboard 20-passenger Andaman Explorer sails from the mainland to India’s Andaman Islands, an archipelago rich in its ethnographic mix, biodiversity and marine life. Fly both ways to/from the Andaman’s for a 7-night cruise. Below is an outline of the additional itineraries offered along the coast and to the islands.

  • A wide variety of 1- to 20-night itineraries along the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers includes the popular week-long Bagan to Mandalay runs nearly year-round, with the highlight being Bagan’s stunning profusion of Buddhist pagodas. Shallow draft riverboats allow navigation to Katha, 1000 miles above Rangoon (Yangon) well above Mandalay and past the third and second defiles. Note: These cruises are subject to sufficient depth of water, and the shallow draft of the riverboats deployed on this route is 32 inches or 80 cm.
  • The most popular of the 3- to 14-night Mekong River cruises are the classic week-long journeys between Siem Reap, Cambodia and Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, for visits to both rural villages and cities. Most people spend a few days before or after the cruise ogling the stunning monuments of Angkor Wat near Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to take in Vietnam. Other itineraries traverse the more remote Mekong in China and Laos. The boats here have very shallow drafts and powerful engines 3 times the horsepower of the main fleet to “climb” the Laotian Mekong into China.
  • Every year in mid April, May and June, the fleet is taken out of service for maintenance coinciding with the extreme hot weather and very low water levels.
  • The upper Ganges itinerary operates from Kolkata well inland to Varanasi, the lower Ganges, not as far, to Farakka, and a third on the Brahmaputra.
  • The coastal ship ANDAMAN EXPLORER undertakes 7- to 18-day voyages in the Irrawaddy Delta, the length of Myanmar’s coast, amongst the Mergui Archipelago and to India’s Andaman Islands.
  • Note: For Indochina land travelers, Pandaw now offers short, three-day river cruises between Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam and Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, passing through the Mekong River Delta with stops at villages and a bird sanctuary. Includes hotel stays at both ends.
Mekong River Cruising

The gorgeous U Min Thone Se Pagoda outside of Mandalay. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Why Go?

To see remote parts of Asia with expert guides on charming period-vessels.

When to Go?

Pandaw cruises July through early April, with water levels the highest and landscape the lushest between about October and February. Even in dry season (March and April), though, the boats with their shallow drafts can navigate the rivers even when waters levels are getting low.

Cabins

Well laid-out with colonial decor, the wood-paneled cabins are roomy with comfy twin captain’s beds with ample storage beneath. There’s a closet, two bedside tables and a small desk. Large glass doors open onto the side promenade decks. Wood paneled bathrooms have very large showers, and shampoo and soap are provided; a few of the older boats, including ORIENT PANDAW, TONLE PANDAW and MEKONG PANDAW have recently refurbished bathrooms with natural stone-clad showers.

Other extras across the fleet include cotton robes, slippers, personal safe, individually controlled AC, and hair dryer. To avoid engine noise, choose a cabin as far forward as possible. There are no TVs and few PA announcements, assuring a peaceful journey.

These ships are not recommended for passengers using wheelchairs, as there are no elevators, only stairs between decks.

Cabins are wood paneled and very comfortable. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Cabins are wood paneled and very comfortable. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Public Rooms

Each has one restaurant, a combination bar and lounge, and lots of covered outdoor space on the uppermost deck for hanging out and scenery viewing. The open design allows air to flow through the vessels providing not only a welcome breeze, but also a stabilizing affect for the boats.

The larger “P” class boats have a third deck and amenities including a massage room, small boutique and art gallery, and a lecture and meeting room with a large flatscreen TV, projector and sound system to show movies about the region after dinner (like Indochine or The Quiet American). One of them, MEKONG PANDAW, has a small gym with cardio machines and weights.

Dining

On the larger ships the restaurant is inside, and depending on the temperature, with large French doors open to the river or closed with air-conditioning; on the smaller ships, they’re open-air on the covered top deck. Meals are served in one open seating at tables for four, six or eight, though different configurations can be made on request if there is space. Breakfast and lunch are semi-buffet and dinners are served.

Cuisine incorporates fruits and vegetables from the region into dishes such as chicken breast stuffed with tea leaves, roast pumpkin, prawn curry, fried rice, and various delicious Asian soups made to order with the ingredients laid out for diners to pick and choose from.

There are also western staples, from scrambled eggs to salads, fish and chips, and pasta. All meals are prepared onboard and nearly 100% of supplies are sourced from local producers in keeping with Pandaw’s commitment to support the local economies.

Meals incorporate local veggies, yum! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Meals incorporate local veggies, yum! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Activities & Entertainment

The boats make at least one stop a day, sometimes two or three. When sailing, most people are content to relax on a padded wooden deck chair or chaise lounge to watch the river traffic and scenery float by.

An expert tour guide from the country visited sails along for the duration of the cruise, leads shore excursions and gives talks on board about various aspects of the destination and local culture, such as demonstrations about how to tie a sarong or make the tree-bark thanaka face paint popular in Myanmar. (On weeklong Mekong itineraries through Cambodia and Vietnam, there is a guide from each country for that half of the journey.)

Generally once or twice per cruise a local dance or singing group, or maybe a troupe of puppeteers, are brought on board to entertain guests after dinner. Otherwise, it’s drinks and chatting about the day’s adventures with new friends before heading off to sleep to rest up before another eventful day begins.

Along the Same Lines

In Myanmar, Paukan and Belmond offer the closest equivalent to Pandaw, and on the Mekong River, Heritage Line does.

Contact

Pandaw Cruises, www.pandaw.com; information@pandaw.com.

HMS

 

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QuirkyCruise Review of Ponant

Cruising for over a quarter century, this chic French line is a Francophile’s dream. Ponant’s crew is discreet, the décor is subtle and the food is tantalizing. French desserts, French cheeses and French wines accompany passengers on cruises around the world, from French Polynesia and the Caribbean to the North and South Poles, and lots in between.

Passengers are a well-traveled, well-dressed international lot and the handsome captains stroll around the ship in short sleeves chatting to guests as if they are one of the passengers. Ponant is a bit of Europe no matter where the ships are sailing.

In late 2014, the company’s name was simplified from the French Compagnie du Ponant, to just Ponant, a simpler name for the company’s growing international audience, though Ponant still remains the only French-flagged, French-flavored cruise line out there. Ponant is in the midst of building frenzy, with six 184-passenger expedition vessels in the pipeline between now and 2021. As they are delivered, itineraries will be expanded to offer more frequent sailings and brand-new destinations.

A hybrid electric icebreaker is to appear in 2021 and be able to make it to Geographic 90 Degrees North — The North Pole.

Note: Some sailings are directly operated by Ponant and others are under charter to well-known firms for individual sales as well as for special interest groups.

N.B. In August 2019, Ponant announced that the French-owned line has bought Paul Gauguin Cruises, operating the ship PAUL GAUGUIN in French Polynesia and that the ship will continue to operate under its current name.

Ponant's fleet hits the poles and lots in between. * Photo: Ponant

Ponant’s fleet hits the poles and lots in between. * Photo: Ponant

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

LE BOREAL (built 2010, 132 passengers), L’AUSTRAL (b. 2011, 132 p), LE SOLEAL (b. 2013, 132 p), LE LYRIAL (b. 2014, 122 p), LE PONANT (b. 1991, 64 p), LE LAPEROUSE (b. 2018, 184 p), LE CHAMPLAIN (b. 2018, 184 p),  LE  BOUGAINVILLE (b. 2019, 184 p) and LE DUMONT-D’URVILLE (b. 2019, 184 p), LE BELLOT (due April 2020, 184p), LE JACQUES CARTIER, the sixth Explorer-class ship (due July 2020, 184p), and LE COMMANDANT CHARCOT (due April 2021, 270 p), specifically designed for polar explorations.

Ponant's mini cruise ships are dwarfed by the giants. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Ponant’s mini cruise ships are dwarfed by the giants. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Passenger Profile

Mostly Europeans, heavy on French, Swiss and Germans, with a sprinkling of Francophiles from everywhere else — North America, Brazil, you name it. Children are welcome, but are expected to be well behaved; there is a children’s menu, Wii gaming console, and when there are a number of kids on board, a few activities are organized by a staff member.

On a handful of special family-friendly sailings per year (often a Med itinerary in the summer), a Kids Club is offered with kids’ counselors supervising games and activities for ages 4+. Several firms charter Ponant ships, so they will determine the languages, and a number of them are in the English-speaking markets.

Passenger Decks

6 with elevators to all decks (4 on LE PONANT, the motor sailing yatch, and no elevator)

Price

$$  Moderate to Expensive

Included Features

Open bar throughout ship, stocked cabin mini-bar, and all soft drinks. New for 2019 is free WiFi in all cabin categories on all ships.

PONANT                                                                                 LE BOUGAINVILLE delivered in 2019 as the third ship in the explorer class. * Photo: Ponant

Itineraries

The ships, with such an expanding fleet, roam all over the world on one- to two-week cruises (some longer): Mediterranean and Northern Europe, Alaska and Canada, Caribbean, Central America, both coasts of South America, West Africa and Southern Africa, Madagascar, Seychelles, French Polynesia and Oceania, Hawaii,  Indonesia, East Asia and focus on Japan, Eastern Russia, Australia and New Zealand, Antarctica, the Arctic including the Northwest Passage, trans0ocean positioning voyages. A few highlights include (and it’s a moveable feast:

  • 10- and 16-night Antarctica cruises November – February
  • Iceland & Arctic Circle cruises in summer; also Northwest Passage, Eastern Canada, Great Lakes
  • 6- and 7-night cruises out of Martinique to the Grenadine Islands in the winter; also Cuba (Cuban calls suspended due to a US government ban.
  • 7-night Croatia cruises round-trip out of Venice between May and September; also Western & Eastern Mediterranean and Egypt
  • 9-night New Zealand cruises in January and February; also Australia’s eastern coast
  • 7- to 13-night Alaska cruises in June and July; including Aleutian Islands
  • 13-night Chile cruises in November and February; also Amazon and Orinoco rivers, Sea of Cortez
  • New tropical destinations are being added to include the Seychelles archipelago in the Indian Ocean, also Maldives and Madagascar, and the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, also French Polynesia, Easter Island
  • South and Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Japan, Eastern Russia.
Why Go?

The French flare, the amazing food, the gorgeous interiors — tres chic. In 2018 Ponant signed an agreement with National Geographic Expeditions to have the latter’s experts and photographers come aboard in Australia, New Zealand and Asia/Pacific.

When to Go?

The fleet cruises in different regions of the world at the best time to visit.

Cabins

LE PONANT is an 88-meter, three-masted sailing ship with lots of wood and nautical touches such as navy blue and white bedding and fabrics in the rooms. Most cabins are on the lowest of the four passenger decks and have twin beds — two rooms have king beds — and there are a few triples. Five larger cabins are higher up on the Antigua Deck.

LE BOREAL/L’AUSTRAL/LE SOLEAL/LE LYRIAL are nearly identical sister ships with the majority of cabins measuring between 200 and 236 square feet, not including the balconies (which all but eight cabins have). Cabins are designed in stylish neutrals of champagne, smoky greys or blues, and crisp whites with pops of color, like a red border on a bed throw or pillow.

All cabins are stocked with L’Occitane toiletries, bathrobes, mini bars and iPods, and a have a great split bathroom set-up — toilet in one little room and a large shower (and/or tub) and sink in another. They also have a desk and great adjustable reading lights on either side of the bed. Many standard cabins can accommodate three people with one on a sofa bed; ideal for families are the Prestige suites, which are ostensibly two connecting standard cabins. There are four large suites on the Deck 6 near the top of the ship.

A lovely standard cabin aboard Le Lyrial. * Photo: Francois Lefebvre

A lovely standard cabin aboard Le Lyrial. * Photo: Francois Lefebvre

The new 184-passenger sisters LE LAPEROUSE (2018), LE CHAMPLAIN,  LE  BOUGAINVILLE, LE DUMONT-D’URVILLE, LE BELLOT, and  LE JACQUES CARTIER  began arriving in mid-2018 and will continue into 2020. A feature on the new ships is the Blue Eye, an underwater sightseeing lounge. They make up what is termed Ponant Explorer Class with enhanced ice-breaking capabilities.

Public Rooms

LE BOREAL/L’AUSTRAL/LE SOLEAL/LE LYRIAL have two restaurants, one main entertainment lounge, one combination lounge/bar, and a lovely outdoor bar with sea views. There is no casino. Each has a spa with a Turkish steam room, hair salon, and an excellent ocean-view gym with a row of treadmills and recumbent bikes, plus a Kinesis wall with weights, pulls and grips for weight training.

A small library area (with a Wii console nearby) and a boutique round out the public areas, unless you also count the medical clinic. The smaller LE PONANT has two restaurants, two indoor lounges and lots of deck space for sunbathing. All five of the vessels have a platform for watersports when anchored in favorable conditions.

Dining

Cuisine is a big part of the Ponant experience, and I still sometimes dream about the dark chocolate mousses we devoured on a L’AUSTRAL cruise to Croatia (I gained several solid pounds on that cruise). Each of the five ships has two restaurants, one a more formal fine-dining multi-course French gourmet venue for dinner and the other a casual buffet restaurant with outdoor and indoor seating and themed offerings. Some of the chefs are French (the pastry chef was on my last cruise) and no matter where they are from, they’ve been schooled in the French culinary tradition.

Desserts to die for. * Photo: Ponant

Desserts to die for. * Photo: Ponant

Meals incorporate fish and grilled seafood, and plenty of delicious soups and salads of all kinds. When possible, local ingredients are used, from cherries in Kotor, Croatia, to rainbow trout from Nunavut, in the Arctic. Amazing desserts on offer might comprise a hazelnut mousse cake, lemon meringue tarts and that to die-to-for chocolate mousse already mentioned; easily the best desserts I’ve ever had on a cruise ship.

A selection of cheeses from France and Italy are a staple in the buffet and of the complimentary wines generously poured, I remember an especially refreshing French rose at lunch on route to our next Croatian port of call. You can always order a bottle off the extensive menu if you want something extra special.

The more formal of two restaurants aboard Le Soleal. * Photo: Ponant

The more formal of two restaurants aboard Le Soleal. * Photo: Ponant

Activities & Entertainment

The ships are in port every day, or nearly so, but if there’s a sea day, most people enjoy simply sunbathing by the pool and soaking up the scenery. In the French way of doing things, there isn’t an abundance of scheduled activities or group events. There are theme cruises from time to time focused on gourmet food and wine, film and topics like oceanography, with experts on board giving talks and demonstrations.

Evenings, a singing duo moves around the ship before and after dinner to serenade passengers as they sip cocktails and chat about the day’s adventures and the ones that lay ahead. At the top of the tiered decks at the stern on LE BOREAL/L’AUSTRAL/LE SOLEAL/LE LYRIAL is a wonderful al-fresco bar, an ideal place to plant yourself as the ship sails off into the sunset — likewise on LE PONANT’s sun deck. After dinner from time to time, a dance performance or film screening may be scheduled in the show lounge of the four sister ships.

The new and larger 184-passenger sisters LE LAPEROUSE, LE CHAMPLAIN,  LE  BOUGAINVILLE, LE DUMONT-D’URVILLE, LE BELLOT, and  LE JACQUES CARTIER started to debut in mid-2018 and continued into 2020, and the larger 270-passenger LE COMMANDANT CHARCOT will launch polar explorations in April 2021.

Ponant passengers love to be outside on deck. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Ponant passengers love to be outside on deck. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Along the Same Lines

SeaDream is close.

Contact

Ponant Yacht Cruises & Expeditions, 420 Lexington Avenue, Suite 2838, New York, NY 10170; us.ponant.com, 1-888-400-1082.

— HMS

 

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© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

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QuirkyCruise Review QuirkyCruise Review About Uniworld

Snapshot

What more could you ask for in a river cruise: luxury interiors, cushy cabins with amazing beds, all-inclusive fares and a fleet of bicycles on board for pedalling in port whenever the whim strikes.

Uniworld operates river cruises in many parts of the world with a heavy concentration on the rivers of Northern, Southern and Eastern Europe, including Russia. The river cruise line is one of the 30 brands of The Travel Corporation that operates family, youth, guided, independent, safari and adventure travel, as well as river cruising, and hotels in 70 countries on six continents. The river cruise line is considered to be at the top of the market and is known for being truly all-inclusive. A Generations Program designed for families has specific Europe river departures for children, tweens and teens. The newish “U BY UNIWORLD” program originally targeted travelers in the 18 to 40 age range, and now these river cruises are offered to all adult passengers upon two renovated ships — River Baroness and the River Ambassador — redesigned with a more contemporary look and features like communal tables for dining, creative cocktails and international DJ’s onboard while sailing on the major European rivers to exciting ports like Paris, Amsterdam and Budapest.

Uniworld Ships, Years Delivered & Passenger Profile

The European fleet takes from 118 to 159 passengers (Russia 202 passengers), and the riverboats are new or recently rebuilt to provide many of the same amenities as the newest units. S.S. MARINA THERESA (built 2015 & 150 passengers); S.S. CATHERINE (b. 2014 & 159 p); S.S. ANTOINETTE (b. 2011 & 154 p); RIVER BEATRICE (b. 2011 & 156 p); RIVER QUEEN (b. 1999/remodeled 2010 & 128 p); RIVER ROYALE (b. 2006/remodeled 2014 & 130 p) now operates at S.S. BON VOYAGE with added features such as a top deck pool, lounge and three restaurants – casual dining, the main restaurant offering a cooking demonstration area plus a bistro; RIVER COUNTESS (b. 2003/remodeled 2012 & 130 p); RIVER DUCHESS (b. 2003/remodeled 2012 & 130 p); RIVER EMPRESS (b. 2001/remodeled 2014 & 130 p); RIvER BARONESS (b. 1994/remodeled 2011 & 116 p); RIVER PRINCESS (b. 2001/remodeled 2011 &130 p); RIVER AMBASSADOR (b. 1993/remodeled 2011 & 116 p); QUEEN ISABEL (b. 2013 & 118 p); and on the Russian waterways RIVER VICTORIA (b. 2011 & 202 p). Added in 2017 is the 128-passenger S.S. JOIE DE VIVRE that will allow a greater variety of river trips along the Seine, plus excursions to Paris, Versailles and the Normandy beaches. N.B. LA VENEZIA (remodeled 2020 & 126 p) for 8- & 10-day cruises to access destinations on and near the Po River, Venice and nearby islands, and Milan.

DSC_2895 Uniworld S.S. MARIA THERESA

Passing Budapest’s Parliament. * Photo: Uniworld

Uniworld River Cruises Outside Europe are Briefly Listed Here

A 7-night Nile cruise aboard the 82-passenger RIVER TOSCA and a hotel stay in Cairo add up to a 12-day cruise tour, January through May then resuming at the end of September. A 7-night Ganges River cruise aboard the GANGES VOYAGER II and a land tour including New Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Kolkata adds up to a 13-day cruise tour with departures September through March. In Southeast Asia, a 7-night Mekong River cruise aboard the French colonial-style MEKONG NAVIGATOR combines with a 7-night hotel stay in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City with departures year-round except April and May. The MEKONG JEWEL will double the departures beginning in 2020. Yangtze River and China cruise tours last from 11 to 18 days year-round with a 3- or 4-night river cruise aboard the CENTURY LEGEND or SANCTUARY YANGZI EXPLORER.

N.B. Beginning in September 2020, Uniworld will be offering a Peruvian Amazon program featuring two itineraries: an 11-day cruise tour that include Lima and a cruise to Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve and a 15-day combination of Machu Picchu exploration and a week’s Peruvian Amazon cruise. The riverboat ARIA AMAZON offers 15-suites, all with large picture windows. Included are all excursions, wines and spirits, and gratuities.

Uniworld Passenger Profile

While most river cruisers are 50 and up, several offerings will appeal to multi-generational families who would like to vacation together. The latter are scheduled in the summer holidays and December, and extra bicycles (including child sizes) are brought on board for guided and independent pedaling in port whenever the mood strikes. Solo travelers will find that a wide selection of European river departures have a waived or low single supplement.

Uniworld Passenger Decks

The fleet has two or three cabin decks, and elevators operate between all except lowest deck on RIVER QUEEN, RIVER ROYALE and no elevator on RIVER AMBASSADOR & RIVER BARONESS. RIVER VICTORIA has 4 cabin decks and no elevator to the lowest deck. As is common on riverboats, none have elevators that rise to the Sun Deck.

Price

$$$  Super Pricey. For families, some departures offer 50% for ages 4-18, and a few even offer free accommodations when traveling with two adults.

Included Features

All shore excursions at differing levels of activity, gratuities on board and off (ie to tour guides), alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages (limited to dinners in Russia), Internet and WiFi, use of bicycles.

Fisherman's Bastion, Buda section of Budapest. * Photo; Ted Scull

Fisherman’s Bastion, Buda section of Budapest. * Photo; Ted Scull

Uniworld Itineraries

Operated as both European river cruises-only and others with land and hotel extensions ranging from 8 to 15 days, with longer travel options lasting up to three and four weeks. European itineraries cover the Rhine, Moselle, Rhine, Main, Danube, Seine, Rhone & Saone, Gironde, Garonne & Dordogne, Douro, Po & Venice Lagoon and Russian rivers canals and waterways between St. Petersburg and Moscow.

For example: 10-day cruise-tours in North Italy include a land portion from Milan to Venice then on Day 3 to Day 10 live aboard the River Countess docked in Venice and sailing the Po River. 15-day cruise-tours include the above then add four days to visit Florence and Rome.

Further afield are river journeys in Egypt, China, Vietnam and Cambodia, and India’s Ganges River.

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Uniworld’s map of European river cruises.* Photo: Uniworld

Why Go?

Oceangoing cruises touch at coastal ports, while inland cities and scenic destinations are often a longish bus ride there and back (think Berlin, Bruges, Ghent, Paris, Avignon, etc.) while river cruises take you directly to the doorstep and to many other great cities and sights.

When to Go?

River cruises are operated seasonally, and often not at all in November, January, February and often into March. Christmas markets cruises are the exception in December. While there are fewer crowds in the spring, rain may also limit independent activities ashore, while the fall sees less tourists and often nicer weather.

Uniworld Cabins

Attractively and individually furnished with private balconies for some of the top accommodations, and French balconies with small rectangular windows high in the room on the lowest deck. Most standard cabins measure 150-160 sq. ft. with a few as small at 128 sq. ft., and suites 214 to 410 sq. ft. Cabins offer TV, telephone, bottled water, and safe, while many suites have butler service, and all suite offer room service for breakfast, daily fruit and snacks, stocked minibar, bottle of wine upon arrival, and free laundry service.

A lovely standard cabin aboard River Empress. * Credit: Uniworld Cruises

A lovely standard cabin aboard River Empress. * Credit: Uniworld Cruises

Uniworld Public Rooms

The furnishings and original artworks are lavish for riverboats, and the newer vessels have two lounges with bars, while the very newest add heated swimming pools. Nearly all but the oldest have a complimentary guest laundry room — unusual on riverboats — and all have a spa and fitness room, sun deck with open and covered lounge seating, life-size chess pieces and free Internet and WiFi (though signals can be weak).

Uniworld Dining

The main restaurants seat all at one open sitting and dinner is from a menu while breakfast (with eggs to order) and lunch are buffets. In addition, there is an early riser breakfast, and light lunch options are in the main lounge and in the Sky Lounge or on the Sun Deck when weather permits. Afternoon tea is served in the main lounge, and al fresco dinners in the Sun Lounge or on the Sun Deck, again weather permitting. The food is very good and there typically at least one local option at lunch and dinner (ie Wienerschnitzel, sausages and sauerkraut on a Rhine cruise). Beer, wine and soft drinks are complimentary at meal time and any time of day (dinner only in Russia). Family departures offer children’s menus.

Wienershnitzel (pork) for lunch on board. * Heidi Sarna

Wienershnitzel (pork) for lunch on board. * Heidi Sarna

Uniworld Activities & Entertainment

Shore excursion choices fall into several categories: Choice is Yours is either to go on a first timers excursion or one that is less visited; Go Active might mean by bicycle either with a guide (historian or naturalist) or on your own; Do As Locals Do meets with local people; Village Day may involve a visit to a small town, workshop and/or farm; Special Visits are arranged for instance to a noble’s property or an evening visit when a site is normally closed to the public; and Gentle Walking means going at a relaxed pace with a guide, or remain on board and visit the spa or simply relax. While underway or at the end of the day, onboard lectures will feature art and cultural historians. The Generations family program includes some supervised children’s activities aboard, from pastry making demos to face painting and knot tying, and ashore, with excursions to places like interactive museums and forest adventure climbing parks. Uniworld teamed up with top travel operator Butterfield & Robinson to offer special river cruise departures using bicycles for exploring much of the way along the Danube between Passau and Budapest, returning to the boat every afternoon.

Biking along the Rhine in Basel before the it's time to sail. * Heidi Sarna

Biking along the Rhine in Basel before the it’s time to sail. * Heidi Sarna

Special Notes

Singles rates are reduced or waived on a wide selection of dates and itineraries. There are especially marked family departures in the summer.

Along the Same Lines

Scenic & Crystal River Cruises.

Contact

Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, 17323 Venture Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 91316; Uniworld.com; 800-257-2407

— TWS & HMS

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 11.00.16 pmRiver cruise operator Pandaw is building a new ship, the Yunnan Pandaw, to put on the Upper Mekong starting in Sept 2016. Sister to the Laos Pandaw that debuted in late 2015 doing similar itineraries that have been very popular, the Yunnan will offer 14-night cruises on the Upper Mekong between Vientiane (Laos) and Jinghong (China). The new build will have 12 main deck cabins and two upper deck cabins, all with private bathrooms, air conditioning, safe and extras including kimonos and slippers. The Yunnan will be the line’s 16th ship and like all of the others, will be made of traditional teak wood and brass with an ultra-shallow draft and powerful engines to navigate the mighty Upper Mekong.

Pandaw’s founder Paul Strachan said: “The Upper Mekong is one of the most scenic rivers in Asia. Travel through lush jungle and friendly village communities where elephants can often be seen from the ship. In China, we visit the impressive Menglun Botanical Garden, discover Chinese tea plantations and meet some of China’s minority communities that live in Yunnan Province.”

Cruise-only prices start from $ 5,670 USD per person based on two people sharing a main deck twin cabin. For more information go to www.pandaw.com.

QC copyright

 

Mekong River Cruising

Pandaw River Boat

By Heidi Sarna.

When an old high school friend decided to visit me in Singapore to catch up and travel together somewhere in the region, I put on my thinking cap to come up with something really special and interesting.  I surfed around and came up with Pandaw Cruises, a company I am now very familiar with, but at the time had never heard of before. The company operates a fleet of 10-to 66-passenger boats all built since 2002 as replicas of the Irrawaddy Flotilla steamers that plied Burma’s Irrawaddy River a century ago.

Mekong River Cruising

Watching the world go by from the bow of the Orient Pandaw. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

After just a few minutes on the Pandaw website, I knew I hit the jackpot. I signed us up for a 7-night cruise down the Mekong River and its tributaries through Cambodia and Vietnam, with an extra hotel night on either end in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. We stayed at the beautifully rustic Angkor Village Hotel in Siem Reap and spent a day and a half exploring the amazing Hindu and Buddhist temples built during Angkor’s golden era from the 9th to 13th centuries.

Our guide, Mao So Kheim (with www.indochinapartnertravel.com), was excellent and we trekked with him over the gnarled roots of ancient banyan trees and up super steep stone steps to get close-up views of giant temples carved with Hindu deities, scenes from the Ramayana, and the 216 giant and serene faces of the god-king Jayavarman VII. With so much to see, we barely noticed it was 90 degrees in the shade.

The famous Ta Prohm Temple at Angkor Wat.

The famous Ta Prohm Temple at Angkor Wat.

All Aboard a Pandaw River Boat

The next day we were to embark the 60-passenger Orient Pandaw. Because we were traveling in March, during the relatively dry, low-water season (seasonal fluctuations in the water level of the Mekong river system vary between 6 and 10 meters), we couldn’t board the ship in Siem Reap. The four-hour bus ride south to a village along the southern edge of Tonle Sap lake, where we boarded the boat, was a great opportunity to see the countryside and small towns of Cambodia.

The guide, who would be sailing with us for the Cambodia half of the cruise (another excellent guide joined us for the Vietnam portion), narrated. Highlights included a bathroom break at a roadside restaurant where our group was met by a bevy of local women selling snacks. They tempted us with heaping trays of fried tarantulas, crickets and frogs. In a country as poor as Cambodia, practically everything is considered food, poisonous spiders not withstanding.

When we reached the port, we walked to the riverbank and peered down at the Orient Pandaw, its stubby bow nudged up against the muddy banks of the Mekong River. A smile spread across my face at the thought of our impending adventure on this Pandaw river boat. The gangway was a wooden plank connecting the boat to the bank, where it was moored not to a concrete pylon or pier, but to the sturdy trunk of a tree. Our home for the next week resembled an old-time steamboat, minus the paddle wheel, with three main open-sided decks and an air of utility.

Pandaw Mek Crew putting out gangway copy

Quirky & Comfortable

While the year-old Orient Pandaw has a retro look, teak wood and brass fittings, the beauty of a replica is the marriage of old and new. Modern creature comforts include roomy air-conditioned cabins that open directly to the outside promenade deck. Cabins have plenty of storage space and attractive bathrooms with large showers.

The windowed open-seating restaurant is configured with tables for eight and serves a combination of buffet-style and ala carte meals, from delicious nasi goring to Khmer fish curry, glass noodles with pork and spicy beef salad, as well salads, pastas, cold cuts, cheese, fresh bread and other continental staples for the mostly European and North American guests. Considering the mix of passengers, the food wasn’t heavily spiced (not enough for my palate at least), but nothing some chili sauce or a dash of pepper couldn’t remedy.

 

The lone piece of exercise equipment. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The lone piece of exercise equipment. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

When we weren’t eating or sleeping, the place to be was a padded teak chaise lounge on the open-air observation deck to watch the landscape float by. While sailing we were close enough to shore to wave to children, admire sampans piled high with coconuts, and watch a solitary figure in a conical hat paddling a skiff along the ubiquitous groves of water hyacinths. The guides mingled and answered our questions, guests enjoyed cold beers and drinks from the bar, and a dedicated few watched the scenery unfold from the seat of the stationery bike, the ship’s lone piece of exercise equipment.

Massages were offered on deck, and also below decks in a dedicated massage room (some Pandaw boats have a masseuse and some don’t), as well as port lectures and occasional activities such as a spring roll-making demo. Evenings, local folk dancers and singers performed for us or better yet, we enjoyed several culturally-relevant movies in an indoor lounge. Watching The Killing Fields, The Quiet American and Indochine in the places in which they were set made them all the more poignant.

Climbing out of a local sampan to explore on shore • Photo: Heidi Sarna

Climbing out of a local sampan to explore on shore • Photo: Heidi Sarna

Exploring Ashore

Each day we made one or two excursions from the ship, often via local sampans that pulled up alongside our anchored boat. On the Cambodian side of the river in Kampong Chhnang and Kampong Cham, we traveled by sampan past floating wet markets and walked through rural villages to see the 12th century Angkorian temple of Wat Nokor as well as ancient Cham shrines (the Cham are one of the region’s ethnic minorities).

We visited an orphanage supported by Pandaw and distributed paper, pencils and candy to the children. It was both a sad place — dusty and forlorn with a pair of net-less metal soccer goal frames in a field surrounded by drab concrete — and a hopeful one too, with smiling children greeting us as we stepped off the bus. I felt both joy and sadness. Who knows the horrors the children have endured in a country of extreme poverty, and where healthcare is poor and widespread corruption by the political elites is commonplace.

Children in a Cambodia village. * Photo: Sue Piergallini

Children in a Cambodia village. * Photo: Sue Piergallini

A Day in Phnom Penh

On our third day we docked in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, where structures like the grand Buddhist Silver Pagoda temple (one of the few places Khmer artifacts weren’t destroyed by the Khmer Rouge) and charming French colonial architecture co-exist with grim reminders of the dreaded Pol Pot regime of the 1970s. We visited the notorious Killing Fields on the edge of the city where thousands of innocent people were murdered and buried as well as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, formerly a prison known as the S21 Detention Centre, where more than 10,000 Cambodians of all ages were interrogated, processed and killed by the evil Khmer Rouge regime. In preparing for my trip I read a chilling but page-turning memoir of the horrible Pol Pot years by Loung Ung called First They Killed My Father. Her parents and two of her siblings didn’t survive the regime’s brutality.

The boat stayed in Phnom Penh late and that evening we traveled by bicycle rickshaw to a local spa for a great $9USD massage at the Amret Spa (#3, Street 57), followed by dinner at an atmospheric little restaurant nearby before heading back to the boat.

Crossing Into Vietnam

The next day we sailed across the border into Vietnam and noticed an immediate shift. Cambodia’s primitive wet markets and thatched huts were supplanted by the vigorous commerce of the Vietnam side. Sand barges carried their cargo to Saigon for export to Singapore and emerald green irrigated fields of rice carpeted the river banks.

From Chau Doc and Cai Be, we traveled again by sampan through the canals and backwaters of the main Mekong channel, wandering through local markets, checking out the action at a floating fish farm, snapping photos of a French Gothic cathedral in Cai Be and stopping for tea at the former Imperial residence, the An Kiet House. The group enjoyed visits to two factories, one that produced rice paper and coconut candy, and another, tiles and pottery.

Hello Ho Chi Minh City

Our weeklong river adventure ended in My Tho, near bustling Ho Chi Minh City. We stayed a night in Vietnam’s largest city at Le Duy, a non-descript but centrally located hotel on Nguyen Thi Nghia Street, visiting the War Museum, with its graphic photo collection, Chinatown, Reunification Palace (the site of the official fall of Saigon in 1975 and the end of the war) and the sprawling Ben Thanh market.

We also toured the famous Cu Chi tunnels an hour outside of the city, an impressive underground complex built by the communist Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. We spent our last evening of the trip at the open-air Rooftop Garden bar of the Rex Hotel, where journalists hung out during the Vietnam War. Though the singer crooning Italian ballads seemed out of place, all that mattered were the magical views of Ho Chi Minh City. It was the perfect place to reflect upon our Pandaw adventure.

Note: Sometimes other boats in the fleet, like the 48-passenger Mekong Pandaw, do the 7-night route described in this feature, and they all offer a very similar experience to the Orient Pandaw.

Fares include all shore excursions, meals, non-alcoholic drinks, and entrance fees to museums and other sites.

For booking info, go to the Pandaw site.

A visit to a floating fish farm • Photo: Heidi Sarna

A visit to a floating fish farm • Photo: Heidi Sarna

 

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Pandaw River Cruise on the Mekong

By Ted Scull.

A Taste of Mekong River Cruising.

Throughout my many years of traveling, I’ve found that river journeys have often provided deeper insights into a country’s culture and history than more hectic travel by road or flying from city to city over so much interesting territory.

Outstanding examples that I treasure are cruises along the Upper Amazon in Peru and Brazil; the Danube, Elbe, Rhine and Rhone in Europe; the Volga and connecting waterways in Russia; the eternal Nile in Egypt; the vibrant Yangtze in China, and our own Mississippi, Ohio, Columbia and Snake here in the U.S.A.

Recently, I added the Mekong River in Cambodia and Vietnam to my life-list, and although this river trip is still fresh in my mind, it probably ranks number one when combining all its alluring aspects; the heavily trafficked waterway scenes, varied sights along the banks, intriguing riverside market towns, and the wonderful conveyance, a stylish riverboat that replicated an early 20th century Burmese steamer  with air-conditioning.

The British-owned Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, founded way back in 1865, once operated literally hundreds of river steamers along the Irrawaddy, Chindwin, and Salween and connecting tributaries in British Burma. By 1920, the firm ran the largest privately-owned fleet (650 vessels) in the world with the longest measuring 350-feet and licensed to carry up to 4,000 passengers. When the Japanese invaded Burma in 1942, the flotilla’s officers and crew scuttled the entire fleet so they would not fall into enemy hands.

After the war and Burmese independence, the fleet was slowly rebuilt. Fast forward to 1995 when a Scotsman named Paul Strachan, a Burmese history and literature scholar, seized the opportunity of running river cruises in Southeast Asia. He bought a 1947 Scottish-built riverboat named Pandaw to operate on the Irrawaddy River. As the operation proved successful, he began constructing replica steamers in Myanmar (Burma) and Vietnam and bought the historic name — Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, with the company known commonly as Pandaw Cruises. The fleet, now numbering more than a dozen ships, plies rivers in Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

Pre-Cruise Laos & Cambodia

Prior to joining the 64-passenger Mekong Pandaw in Cambodia, my wife and I visited Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city, followed by Luang Prabang, the former Laotian imperial capital, and Vientiane, its current capital the latter two sited on the upper Mekong. The river’s 3,050-mile journey begins at the edge of the Tibetan plateau, near the source of the Yangtze, passing through or alongside six countries and splitting into nine fingers as it drains through Vietnam’s fertile delta and out into the South China Sea.

Our Mekong river cruising tour began at Siem Reap, Cambodia, near the shores of the vast Tonle Sap Lake, the largest body of freshwater in Southeast Asia one that expands its surface by a factor of six between dry and wet seasons.

Le Grand Hotel d’Angkor, built in 1931 by the French then occupying Indochina, became our luxurious base while visiting the ruins of Angkor Wat, the largest religious site in the world. Constructed in the early 12th century by the Khmers, the temple began as a Hindu site and then morphed into Buddhist, as it is today. We entered via a causeway over a moat that surrounded the 203-acre sandstone complex and passed through the main gate. The place is utterly overwhelming with soaring stone towers, long galleries linking buildings, narrative-scene bas reliefs, and standing depictions of Buddha.

Angkor Wat represents the largest temple in this area that houses many additional temples in styles reflecting the influences of India, China, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Borders here constantly changed over the centuries as invaders and traders came and went, destroying and rebuilding.

Ta Prohm, another ruined complex, revealed what happens when the temples are abandoned and nature takes over. Tree roots and branches worked their way into, over and along walls and penetrated buildings, toppling facades and breaking apart whole structures. The effect was beautiful, exotic and eerie all at once.

Probably the photographed ruin of them all. Photo: © Ted Scull

Probably the most photographed ruin of them all. Photo: © Ted Scull

Following two days at Siem Reap, our Pandaw group boarded two half-filled buses for a five-hour drive south across the Cambodian countryside to meet the RV (river vessel) Mekong Pandaw. During the rainy season, Tonle Sap Lake rises sufficiently to allow boats to operate directly from Siem Reap, but this was March, when water levels are at their lowest.

All manner of traffic was vying for space on the main highway trucks laden with goods and riders on top of them; motorbikes with produce piled high for market or with whole families aboard; draft animals pulling heavy wooden wagons; local and long-distance buses; and cars, but not many.

Boarding Mekong Pandaw

Arriving at the river city of Kampong Cham, we drew up to the edge of the Mekong embankment and had our first look at the Mekong Pandaw, home for the next week. The bow had been run up against the bank below, and lines fanned out to be wrapped around tree trunks. Immediately, I thought of the dear old Delta Queen moored along the Mississippi.

Our 200-foot boat below had a three-deck teak superstructure set on a black hull with white wooden sections that enclosed the forward lounge and galley aft. A black funnel rose in the gap between white canvas awnings covering the top deck. Though built only a dozen years ago, it looked enchantingly colonial with accommodations for 64 passengers, while there would be just 35 on our voyage.

With the river level so low, we received assistance from the crew clambering down the embankment to reach the gangway. The captain greeted us, a steward handed out cold towels, and another showed us to our stateroom, where our bags had already arrived.

Cabins were arranged on Upper, Main and Lower decks and ours, 309, was on Upper. The cabin had twin wooden bunk beds with deep drawers beneath, vertical teak paneling, two-tone wooden doors louvered for the closet and bathroom (with stall shower) a vanity with more drawers, wicker stool, wooden luggage stands, two screened windows, and shiny brass handles and knobs. The bulkhead above was painted white, separated into squares by medium tone wooden stripping. For cooling, the cabin had a ceiling fan and air-conditioning with individual controls.

The cabin door opened onto the side promenade, dotted with potted palms and two wicker chairs set at either side, a relaxing location for reading while we made our way down the Mekong from Cambodia into Vietnam.

Ted sitting on the promenade outside of his cabin. Photo: © Ted Scull

Ted sitting on the promenade outside of his cabin.* Photo: Suellyn Scull

For the initial welcome, we all gathered on the Sun Deck (running the boat’s full length) and sat in rattan chairs and settees under the protective awning. A bar was set up at one end and a pool table at the other, with deck chairs in various groupings in between. The Vietnamese purser welcomed us, laid out the plan for the days ahead, and introduced us to the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Burmese officers and crew. We felt in very good hands for the adventure ahead.

Half the passengers were Australians, and the rest were equally divided among Americans, Brits, Swiss, and Germans with the latter two nationalities speaking very good English.

Dining Aboard

Following drinks, hors d’oeuvres, and a briefing about the next day’s activities, the dinner gong sounded, drawing us two decks below to the restaurant, set out with rectangular tables for six, easily expanded to eight. Tall french doors, open at breakfast and lunch, brought in the breezes, while at dinner with the evening rise in humidity, they were shut and the A/C switched on. No time of day was ever uncomfortable here or up on deck as long as one stayed out of the direct sun.

Dinner the first evening produced green papaya seafood salad with peanuts as an appetizer, then broccoli soup followed by three entrees that were put on the table for all to share: two freshly grilled whole fish from the South China Sea, chicken curry, and steamed vegetables. On other nights, we ordered from a menu or again had a choice of three entrees brought to the table. Cambodian and Vietnamese beer and soft drinks were complimentary, and imported wine purchased from a list.

Breakfast, a buffet, had eggs to order. Lunch, also buffet-style, offered stirfry dishes and fresh pasta along with both hot and cold (not spicy) Southeast Asian and Western dishes one treat was grilled crocodile with balsamic vinegar. Everything was well prepared and nicely presented.

One night our table received a bit of a jolt when an English passenger, who had taken lunch in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, returned with a doggie bag. Its contents contained two grilled tarantulas, now considered somewhat of a delicacy but once were a survival food during the Khmer Rouge period (more about that later). I was game to crunch on one of the legs, but not the body nor the head.

Ted Samples the local flavors! Photo: © Ted Scull

Ted Samples the local flavors! *Photo: Suellyn Scull

On the deck above the pilothouse, the air-conditioned lounge bar, attractively furnished with comfortable armchairs and settees, served as the evening venue for films or borrowing a book. Otherwise, most gravitated to the top deck to enjoy the open air, under a canvas cover.

The First Landings

The Mekong Pandaw reversed into the river and headed downstream, tying up below Wat Hanchey, a pagoda complex with a monastery for monks and nuns, school, and recreational playground set high up on a hill. The tree-shaded place was just coming to life for the day with vendors preparing food for lunch and monks sweeping the pavement. We visited a Hindu temple, walking among small Buddhist temples and mausoleums. The children showed us their school, its grounds partially surrounded by colorful statues of animals and fruits that they cheerfully identified for us in English.

Later in the day we visited an orphanage, home for a hundred children supported by the government and private donations. As requested, we came bearing useful gifts from a local market such as pens, pencils, writing tables and notebooks The kids attended a local school and had learned English and French at the orphanage. During the visit, they showed us their paintings, drawings, and handmade clothing that were for sale.

After dark we met the Indochina Pandaw, bound upriver, its powerful spotlight trained on us – and ours on them. The other boat was of a slightly different design with a pilot house high up and forward while ours was on the lowest deck just behind the bow. We exchanged greetings and some needed tools and went on our way.

At Kampong Chhnang the Mekong Pandaw tied up to a pontoon, and we boarded launches to tour the floating Vietnamese community, housing some 1,000 refugees that fled South Vietnam in 1979. The colorfully painted wooden houses, built on rafts, had outboard motors attached to shift them when the rising river required a safer anchorage. Market boats plied the waterway selling produce to the residents, many of whom lived by fishing and operating fish farms.

Boy knows the ropes at a young age • Photo: © Ted Scull

Boy knows the ropes at a young age • Photo: © Ted Scull

The launches dropped us onshore, and we walked through a huge market with purveyors seated behind tables or sitting on the pavement selling food grown in the countryside and brought in by bus, motorbike or bicycle, or fished from the nearby waters. Blacksmiths were busy repairing tools, barbers giving haircuts and roadside cooks preparing meals. At streets that ended down at the Mekong, ferries loaded two- and four-wheel vehicles, heaps of freight, and foot passengers for the river crossing.

Phnom Penh & The Killing Fields

Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s stylish capital, became the most poignant and contrasting stop of the entire week. On one hand we visited the impeccably maintained gilded Royal Palace with its silver-tiled floors and French-era National Museum, a handsome repository for Cambodian history and Angkor period sculpture, and traveled the tree-lined boulevards streets and narrow streets by trishaw. On the other we came face to face with the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979) period, when a communist Cambodia government headed by Pol Pot forced the entire population to vacate the capital for the countryside to take up work as peasant farmers; the resulting starvation, disease, brutal torture, and killings resulted in an estimated two million deaths.

The gilded Royal Palace of Phnom Penh. Photo: © Ted Scull

The gilded Royal Palace of Phnom Penh. Photo: © Ted Scull

 

We learned about the extreme torture treatments at S21, a former school and now genocide museum that was turned into a prison with isolation cells built inside the classrooms. Today, its walls are lined with photos of those who were killed, including most of the female workers. We saw gruesome pictures of the tortures that imprisoned artists were forced to paint.

The revelatory 1984 film The Killing Fields screened onboard our riverboat the previous evening was a grim preparation for our drive out to one of the Killing Fields. Empty pits showed where an estimated 17,000 bodies had been dumped, and the centerpiece was a Thai-style memorial tower housing row upon row of skulls and bits of clothing. Our guide told us that when the Khmer Rouge came to the house to take his family away for execution, one of the executioners recognized his father from when they had been monks together. The immediate family was spared, but not the grandparents, aunts or uncles. It was hard to reconcile such violent recent history against today’s peaceful travel experience.

Crossing into Vietnam

As we entered the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, the now sluggish river split into nine branches and further into a network of connecting channels, resulting in heavily-trafficked river highways crowded with fast and slow passenger boats and barges carrying farm produce, wheat, coal, gravel, bricks, and containers. From the Sun Deck, we watched all manner of stuff slide by, and when passing through towns, the frequent cross-river ferries had the captain hard on his whistle to clear the way. Typically, the ferries did not change course, so we did, to avoid collision.

At Sa Dec, we passed several miles of brick factories, then docked at one to watch the process. Wet clay was carried to machines for turning into hollow bricks, then the excess cut away and individual bricks stacked and carted to kilns for firing. Much of the repetitive work done by hand or by very small machines worked by both men and women. The finished product was then transferred to river barges for distribution.

At Cai Be, the Mekong Pandaw maneuvered its way through a floating market where individual houseboats identified what they were selling by tying a bunch of bananas, a coconut or a dried fish to a bamboo mast. Onshore, we walked along wooded footpaths through a village where residents were working out front of their houses weaving baskets, seated at looms making cloth, or setting dung patties out in the sun to dry into fuel. They looked up and smiled as we paused to watch.

Typical floating market. Photo: © Ted Scull

Typical floating market. Photo: © Ted Scull

Transferring to Ho Chi Minh City

After enjoying a thoroughly insightful week, we disembarked for the 90-minute drive into Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon is still the official name for the city center) and a two-night stay at the InterContinental Asiana Saigon. The bustle and traffic of this energetic city on the move was in sharp contrast to the river’s slow pace and languid lifestyle. Evidence was everywhere that this is a country on the move, most vividly when crossing streets.

Our Pandaw Mekong river cruising experience was just about faultless and as insightful as a relatively short travel experience can be, and I now yearn for a longer trip on the Irrawaddy, the origin of Pandaw’s winsome style of river cruising.

Special Notice: US citizens must have visas for Cambodia (which can be arranged in advance or at most entry points), and for Vietnam (single- or multiple-entry visas have to be obtained in advance). Note: Make absolutely sure of the entry date at the river border from Cambodia into Vietnam there is a financial penalty fee for alterations.

Photo: © Ted Scull

No fun for vegetarians! Photo: © Ted Scull

 

Photo: © Ted Scull

Talk about fresh! Photo: © Ted Scull

 

 

 

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© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

The beaches southwestern Thailand. Photo Credit: Heidi Sarna

The beaches of southwestern Thailand. Photo Credit: Heidi Sarna

Star Clippers is heading back to the Far East, the first time since  2010, operating the 170-passenger STAR CLIPPER in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore from December 2016 to April 2017. The ship will offer two seven-night Thailand itineraries, northbound and southbound, as well as seven departures that either begin or end in Singapore. Highlights include the many small islands and beautiful rocky outcroppings dotting the Andaman Sea off the coast of Thailand, including the Similan Islands, Ko Surin National Marine Park, and Phang Nga Bay, with beautiful beaches and many opportunities to snorkel, sunbath and enjoy water sports. Stops in Malaysia include Langkawi, known for its gorgeous beaches and lush rainforests, and Penang, a colonial gem with a lovely historical old town.

“We have been waiting a long time to resume these popular itineraries and are now returning to Southeast Asia to explore beaches, islands and anchorages not visited by any other cruise ship. We know from 15 years of past experience, when we based a ship in this region every winter, how popular these voyages are with nature-lovers and those who enjoy the sensation of sailing on a graceful tall ship in the tropics,” Star Clippers Owner Mikael Krafft recently said in a company press release.