The Cruise.

The Cruise…….O.M.G…… where do we start? It was memorable that’s for sure…… but for all the wrong reasons!!

We shouldn’t forget that the initial purpose of the cruise was to get us from A to B, from Australia to Asia, without flying as part of our overland trip back to the UK. The container ship option, although possible, became way too expensive and so when we saw the one and only cruise ship travelling from Fremantle to Singapore, at a fraction of the price, we jumped straight in. We did very little research into ‘Cruise and Maritime Voyages’ or the ‘M/V- Vasco da Gama’. It probably wouldn’t have stopped us from booking it anyway as it was really our only option, but some research may have left us more prepared for what lay ahead.

On paper the cruise looked excellent. Twelve days with five different ports of call including some which conjured up images of the exotic Far East including Bali, Komodo Island, Java and all on a ship that had been completely refurbished less than a year ago.

It started to go wrong before we even set sail. Due to a Government ban on tourism for the foreseeable future to Komodo Island this port of call was replaced by a visit to the island of Lombok (a close neighbour to Bali) …..”Oh well”, we said “The container ship wasn’t stopping anywhere so any stop ashore would be a bonus”.

The Vasco De Gama!

So we set sail from Fremantle on the good ship Vasco da Gama. Firstly the positive points, it did manage to stay afloat, we only had one brush with potential disaster. Secondly, our cabin was pretty good. Obviously (being budget travellers) we went for the cheapest onboard which was an inside cabin. It was still pretty good, quite spacious, a comfy bed, sofa, small tv and a decent size shower. We did notice early on that the toilet flush had a delay of between one and fifteen minutes after the button was pressed!  We informed the steward who said “Ah yes we know about that” ….it still had a delay of between one and fifteen minutes when we left! The third positive point is the ship looked visually impressive with modern furnishings, some quirky seating and all seemed good quality. That, however, was the end of the positivity. From there on it became a catalogue of poor service, generally low quality food, third rate entertainment and innumerable pieces of broken equipment. We will give some examples but these will only scratch the surface. Don’t get us wrong, we certainly don’t demand luxury wherever we go. In fact, just the opposite, we can sometimes feel a little out of our depth and uncomfortable when faced with a certain amount of opulence, although Sarah does give it a good go when a decent spa is on offer! But common courtesy costs nothing and when something is advertised and not available or clever marketing is used to effectively trick people and when cases of straight forward lying emerge, it’s maybe time for a company to take a look at itself.

We weren’t the only ones who felt like this, as the cruise went on, the muffled complaints became more and more vocal. “There will be a mutiny on here before long”, commented Steve.

It would be very easy to rant on in-depth about each individual incident that left us angry or frustrated or had a detrimental effect on our cruise experience but that we feel that wouldn’t be an interesting read. So we will skim over them and try and be a little positive and light hearted about it. After all nobody died…….. at least we think they didn’t!!

Steve and Sarah relax on deck!

This leads us on to our first point and first piece of advice. If you are booking a cruise for your much anticipated holiday, DO YOUR RESEARCH! We can’t stress this enough, in fact we will say it again “DO YOUR RESEARCH”. Make sure the ship and ports of call suit your needs.  Some ships cater more towards families and children with loads of things to do, others offer more formal experiences, some try to mix it all up and cater for a wide spectrum and some are more for the older generation. The Vasco da Gama fell into the latter of these categories. In fact, it was to the more senior end of the elderly category! Steve thought the average age of the passengers was about 115 but Sarah thought it was much higher. There were 1200 passengers and we counted 9 younger than us! At least the gym was quiet. We would wander around the ship and see people lying on the sun beds or slumped in chairs. “Dead or asleep?” would be our question, which was generally answered for us by a snort or a fart!

Early on our second morning onboard we were woken by an emergency tannoy announcement, calling the ships company to a “ CODE B IN THE INCINERATOR ROOM”. “Emergency…. incinerator…. sounds like a fire to me” said Steve. Sure enough we got dressed, walked out of our cabin into a wall of smoke with the Indonesian and Burmese staff running around shouting “Everything is OK”. “Mmmm …. possibly not” we thought. The smoke filled four decks before it was brought under control and it took a couple of days to fully clear it out.

Clearing the smoke after the incinerator fire!

Whenever people talk about cruises one of the major topics is often the food onboard and more often than not in a positive way. Not on The Vasco Da Gama!  We did have a couple of meals that were pretty good, but in general the food was low quality, badly prepared and presented and served by members of staff who were less than enthusiastic, gave the impression they did not want to be there and in many cases were downright rude. The portion sizes were incredibly small. On one occasion Steve was given seven pasta tubes so he asked for some more. After what resembled a scene from Charles Dickens “Oliver” another four pieces of pasta were reluctantly handed out!  On another occasion he was given a piece of cake an inch square, not even a mouth full!

The 1 inch cake.

At breakfast one day Steve tried to get some prunes and was given a spoonful of cherries in a dark juice. “These are cherries not prunes”, said Steve. “No sir they’re prunes”. “No they are cherries” continued Steve. “No, prunes”, came the reply. After a couple more exchanges of cherries and prunes Steve gave in thinking maybe they are a new variety of prune. He tasted them… no, definitely cherries. He went back to the counter and saw a woman asking for some prunes and the guy was trying to give her dates. As she protested insisting they were dates and he maintained his stance that they were definitely prunes, Steve finally lost his temper and gave the guy a colorful description of the difference between cherries, prunes, dates and a series of other fruits that were on display.

A shrug of the shoulders and a raised upper lip was the general response to any complaint, query or out of the ordinary request and it soon became evident that things weren’t going to be changed or resolved anytime soon. For us, the situation became comical and we had numerous belly laughs at the various situations, but we did feel sorry for some of the passengers whose holiday was being spoilt.

As well as the buffet, which was available for all meals, there were three restaurants for the evening meal. Passengers were seated on a first come, first served basis. All three restaurants were very well furnished and comfortable but getting a table was quite often a nightmare, and there was no queuing system in operation. “Can we have a table for two please?” we would ask. “No, this restaurant is full” would come the abrupt reply. “What are our options?” A shrug of the shoulders and a raised upper lip was the response. “Banana sandwich in the buffet again for me then” said Sarah. “No, you might ask for bananas but you will get prunes” said Steve.

To be fair we did eventually manage to get a table in one of the restaurants on eight out of the twelve nights and were really disappointed on all but two of these occasions. On one evening the food was thankfully really quite good. Sarah had a moussaka for her main which actually tasted like moussaka, although the portion size was pretty small! “I’m having another one” she said “I am absolutely starving I need to eat, I don’t care about the embarrassment”. The second one came and she devoured it. Credit where credit is due, she thought, and thanked the waiter and said how much she enjoyed it. He practically begged her to go to reception and tell them. “Please, please tell reception” he said, “Everyone always complains about the food”.

Another major attraction of a cruise is the onboard entertainment. This, like the ports of call, can be very subjective. I believe the saying is “one man’s food is another man’s poison”. Some people obviously loved it while others weren’t very impressed at all. We fell into the latter category. We found it very repetitive. Each night the same acts were pretty much in the same locations, at the same time, singing or playing the same sets. The options were the Eastern European woman singing a variety of songs including some old rock and roll hits (occasionally using maracas to accompany the singing!), the Thai cowboy playing a mixture of soft rock songs old and new on his electric guitar (“Living next door to Alice” was a regular), the violinist and pianist doing their classical thing, and the singers and dancers playing twice a night in the theatre. Now neither of us are ever going to be judges on the ‘X Factor’, and we don’t profess to be entertainment experts, but even we know when someone is singing out of tune or a dance routine has been basically choreographed. We went a couple of times to the evening show in the theatre (the second time was just to see if the first was just a bad day…..it wasn’t). The highlight for us was the Musical Chairs before the main act came on! The theatre was visually impressive, set on two levels with plush seating in curved, terraced rows. The problem was the terracing was not steep enough and the curved nature of the rows meant some seats actually didn’t face the stage! People would come into the theatre, select a seat and then discover it’s faults. Up they would get and move on to another seat (not easy when you’re 95 years old with a walking stick and glass of wine in hand). The next seat would also have it’s faults and they would move on again until realising that, unless you arrived an hour before the show started and got one of the dozen or so seats with an uninterrupted view, it didn’t matter where you sat you were only going to get a partial view.

Our final point on the entertainment is about the cinema. A small room with a hundred or so seats. We decided to give it a go when they were showing one of the Bourne films starting at 8pm. We arrived a few minutes early, got a seat with a partial view (bit of a theme developing) of the small ‘pull down’ screen. The movie started on time. We could hear it, we could see most of it, so things were looking good. Then, after it had started, a constant stream of people came in and out. They were standing in the aisles, “Oooh, What’s going on in here Sheila?”, “I don’t know Bruce, looks like a movie”. Then in walks Mr Potato Head, the biggest man on board, and takes a seat right on the front row…. the partial view just got substantially smaller! After about fifteen minutes we then realised that the cinema was directly below the Thai Cowboy and The Bourne Supremacy suddenly had “Living next door to Alice” as a sound track! “Enough is enough”, said Steve, “Let’s get out of here, what do you fancy instead?, the maracas version of Blue Suede Shoes or Beethoven’s fifth?….your call”.

The final, main segment of a cruise are the stops or ports of call. On this cruise we stopped at Geraldton, Broome, Bali, Lombok and Semerang on the island of Java. As I said earlier, on paper this looked very appealing but it didn’t quite workout quite that way for us.

Another quality port in Indonesia!

All of our trips have an allocated budget which we have spent countless hours, over previous years, planning, replanning, finalising and refinalising. As much as we would like it there isn’t an endless supply of money so we can’t do everything and we have to prioritise what we want to do and what the trips are all about. This trip was about getting from OZ to the UK by land and sea (well that’s how it started out) and the cruise became a mode of transport rather than a way to visit places. We had every intention of seeing as much as we could but we just didn’t have the budget to go on trip after trip from the ship. Plus that really isn’t our thing and we like to do things independently whenever we can. The logistics of this cruise made that quite difficult and to be perfectly honest the locations were a bit of a let down.

Geraldton was a small town a few hundred miles North of Perth. There was so little to do even the ship didn’t offer any trips. There was a nice pathway alongside a white sand beach and a town that consisted of two streets of everyday shops. We did utilise the local supermarket to stock up on drinks and snacks. Even after one day we had a sense that the food onboard might not be that great!

Steve practising his yoga on Sarah’s head

The next stop was Broome, a town a further 1000 miles or so North (we are starting to head around the top of Australia now). Broome makes a big thing out of its isolated location. It is somewhere Steve has fancied going for a while but it is close to nothing and pretty much on the way to nowhere. It’s main attraction is Cable Beach, 22 kilometers of white sand and the place where Australia was first connected to the world via a huge communications cable, hence the name. We had two days in Broome to explore, with the ship berthing overnight and we were looking forward to it. It transpired we only needed two hours!

The ship berthed six miles out of town in a port with no bus connection so shuttle buses were put on to ferry passengers to and from the town. The centre of town was not too bad, a few bars, coffee shops and souvenir type shops. The problem was that it was Sunday and most places were closed! We wandered towards the outskirts of town and found the Police Station, Courthouse and an unusually large prison clustered together. We then saw an area littered with broken bottles and a fresh trail of blood along the pavement which eventually led to a public phone box which was covered in blood….. someone had a rough night!  Next we found a series of alcohol rehabilitation centres and homeless shelters.

We decided to make our way to Cable Beach which was another five or so miles out of town. We caught the public bus which had a pretty good running commentary about the town and again made a big thing about it’s isolated location and also about some guy called Willie who had a pearl farm?

Miles of sand and blue sky at Cable Beach.

Cable Beach was a pretty nice place to visit. It was vast, the sand was blinding white and the sea a deep blue. The ‘Sunday’ problem struck again though with the only cafe on the beach closed. It was also touching 40 degrees and incredibly humid so the air conditioned ship proved too much of a pull and we made our way back. The bus dropped us off in town near a large neatly kept open green park with large trees scattered around the perimeter. The only people in the park were large groups of Aboriginals sitting under all the trees, drinking and sleeping, with large amounts of rubbish around them and all their possessions in plastic bags or shopping trollies. We have had several encounters both on this trip and on previous trips with people of Aboriginal origin and right now we are going to refrain from making any comment. Although we have been to Aboriginal heritage and cultural centres in the past and read about aboriginal history we feel we need to gain a better understanding and knowledge first. Let’s see what we encounter over the next six weeks.

Aboriginals gather under a tree for the day.

We didn’t bother going ashore the next day, we felt like we had seen enough of what Broome had to offer. It didn’t sound like we missed much with many people questioning why the ship had stayed there for two days.

The remainder of the stops didn’t amount to much either. At each one we were docked a long way from any sort of town. That isn’t the fault of the cruise companies, it’s just where the ports have been built but it does leave you at the mercy of the overly expensive ship organised excursions or at the hands of the incredibly persistent Indonesian taxi drivers. We have travelled extensively in South East Asia in the past and found the Indonesians to be among the most pushy and persistent, in fact 20 years ago Sarah famously lost the plot with an Indonesian taxi driver. Steve had never heard her use such colourful language before, but that’s another story!

Storm clouds gather over Lombok!

We met people who had waited in vain for a ship organised shuttle bus to town before giving in and placing themselves in the hands of a taxi driver promising to give them a good price only to be driven to his brothers shops, cousin’s cafes and friend’s jewelry stores for some high pressure selling and never actually getting to the place they wanted. Oh well, every day is a school day!

So today we disembark in Singapore and are we ready for it? We are looking forward to meeting up with Craig and Sal. We don’t want people to think we have hated our time onboard, we haven’t. We made the best of the situation, it just wasn’t our sort of cruise. We have had some side splitting laughs both at ourselves and at other passengers and crew, so it’s actually been quite entertaining, that is other than the organised entertainment!

Singapore beckons under heavy skies.

There has also been a sad side to it too. It has almost given us an insight into a possible future. When you see so many elderly people in one place it sort of hammers home the point to try and live as much as you can, and do as much as you can, while you are still able to do it because one day for sure certain things will be beyond your capabilities. On a couple of occasions we found passengers wandering around looking a little lost. Over a week into the cruise one woman had completely forgotten where her cabin was and what number it was, and another gent was lost and disoriented unable to work out which deck he was on and in what part of the ship he was. We managed to get them back on course to which they were very grateful. “That will be you one day”, said Sarah. “Which one?” said Steve, “Both” came the reply!

A few days in Singapore now beckon and then we are booked on a flight back to Australia. We have hired a campervan, bought a map (old school, apparently internet and GPS are sometimes unreliable in remote areas). We have forty days to drive over 5000 miles from Perth to Cairns. We are both incredibly excited about it. “Why was this never in the original plan Sarah”, “I don’t know but it should have been, it’s great to have the freedom to be this flexible”.

This could be fun!

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