Grand Asia Cruise - ms Amsterdam

Mike and Sandy were back on their favorite "big" cruise ship, Holland America's Amsterdam, for an 80-day trip circling the Pacific Rim. One appeal of this trip is that it started and ended in San Diego, so no overnight flights to or from the cruise ("yea!" says Sandy). The trip covers about 30 ports in all, with half of them being brand new to Mike and Sandy. This map shows the general itinerary for this cruise:

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Here's some pictures around the ship.

The trip got off to a less than auspicious start, with departure delayed over 3 hours due to slow luggage loading. (Thanks, San Diego dock unions!) After 5 days of sailing, the Amsterdam approached Dutch Harbor, Alaska, the town where the Discovery Channel show "Deadliest Catch" is filmed. Unfortunately, high wind and waves caused us to skip that stop, so the ship turned south-west towards Japan. (This meant we would be at sea for 11 days straight, a record for us!)

The Amsterdam finally reached Kushiro, our first Asian port, on Hokkaido Island, in the far north of Japan. (Rail fans will be in awe that Hokkaido is linked to the main island, where Tokyo is, by the world's longest and deepest rail tunnel, more than 500 feet under the sea bed.) Hokkaido is more rural than most of Japan, and was all new to Sandy and Mike. They toured a nearby national park, a game reserve for the famous Japanese Cranes (black and white, and very graceful), and a museum where they learned the original people on Hokkaido were a lot like native Americans.

The next port was Yokohama, near Tokyo. Dodging rain both days, Mike and Sandy toured the Meiji Shrine (including the Sake barrel wall by the gate), saw the often photographed Shibuya Crossing (Tokyo's Times's Square), visited the huge fish markets, and toured the Sensoji Buddist Temple. The food court at a large department store was delicious as well as amazing in presentation. Mike & Sandy have been to Tokyo before (and Mike visited many times on business), but it's always a high-energy, fun place to visit.

Shimizu, Japan, was another completely new port for Sandy and Mike. It's the green tea-growing capital of Japan, and offers direct views of Mt. Fuji (when the clouds aren't in the way). We visited another Shinto shrine (with grass replica of Mt. Fuji), and some gardens on the grounds of ruins of an old Shogun-era castle. (The Shoguns took a liking to Sandy.) Drummers and school kids provided a send-off at the dock.

Back in an area familiar to Mike and Sandy, the Amsterdam called at Osaka, which has one of those enormous ferris-wheels at its pier. Nearby Kyoto, featured in Carvel's book "Shogun," was the capital of Japan for over 1000 years. Since Sandy and Mike have visited there before, they decided to take in the world's largest acquarium, along with crowds of cute Japanese school kids (can you say "field trip?").

The Amsterdam had planned two stops in South Korea, but these were scrubbed, with two additional ports in Japan substituted. The first of these, new to everyone on the ship, was Beppu, a Japanese hot springs resort town. Sandy and Mike visited a centuries-old stone bridge, and rode a chair lift way up on a mountain to see a monastery built in the 1700's in some caves.

The area around Hososhima, our next Japan port, was very mountainous, and a visit to a little village plus a national park with big waterfalls and of course yet another Shinto shrine was fun.

Kagoshima was our last port in Japan. It has an active volcano nearby, but clouds prevented us from seeing any of the smoke coming up. We visited a small village, and saw how farmers and Samurai lived in the 1800's. (Their thatched roofs were exactly like those used in the Cottswolds in rural England.) We also toured a base from which Kamakazi pilots flew in the closing days of WW II.

We reached China, and spent a day in the coastal city of Tianjin. (It's the port for Beijing, where Mike and Sandy have been several times.) Tianjin, although a city of 15 million, was a delight, with an nice modern/historical mix, and a small-town, unhurried atmosphere. (Did you know President Herbert Hoover often visited there in retirement? We saw the pictures in the Astor Hotel - continuously open since 1863.) They have an 'Eye' like London, etc., and if you saw the "Chariots of Fire" movie, you saw the arena we visited. And riding a bullet train was fun!

Next up was Shanghai, one of Mike and Sandy's favorite Chinese cities. The Amsterdam docked on the river right in the middle of town. They took a bullet train out to Hangzhou. Marco Polo wrote of its beautiful West Lake, bigger than New York's Central Park. The city is HQ of Alibaba (the Chinese equivalent of Amazon AND Ebay combined), is one end of the longest and oldest (AD 500) man-made canal in the world, and it hosts many stone Buddas that escaped the Cultural Revolution. Back in boom-town Shanghai, they found dozens of new sky-scrapers, most lit up at night, an enless parade of ships and barges on the river, even at mid-night, and shopping opportunities for all. Mike & Sandy found the hotel where they stayed 12 years ago - it and the famous Bund river- side promenade looked just the same.

Hong Kong is politically part of China, but "does its own thing," as they say. Sandy and Mike have enjoyed many visits here in the past, but this time had to overcome being docked at a new cruise terminal not very convenient to anything. They visited the Ladies Market, took the bus out to Stanley Market on the coast, and enjoyed a lunch with cruise friends at the famous Peninsula Hotel.

Next Mike and Sandy headed for Vietnam, but a typhoon caused a change of course and skipping our planned stop at the famous beach town of Nha Trang. (We later learned of extensive damage and some deaths there.) The Amsterdam tours went into Saigon, but having been there before, Mike and Sandy opted for a private tour of nearby Vung Tau, an old French-era resort town. (Vung Tau has lots of history, but in recent times, also lots of Russian expats working the off-shore oil platforms.) Remember the huge statue of Jesus in Rio? There's an even bigger one here, thanks to French missionaries. Mike and Sandy visited a nearby tunnel complex in a area active during the Vietnam war (known here as "the American War," since it was just one in a series of wars Vietnam has experienced -- with China, France, Japan, Cambodia, etc.) The visit culminated in a great lunch at our tour guide's family farm.

Singapore, another favorite, was up next. The iconic Sands Resort and Casino still draws crowds to its roof-top observation deck. You can see the breath-taking Gardens by the Bay just next door. This new park features a dozen artificial trees almost 100 feet tall, and two of the world's largest "greenhouses" -- one containing a rain forest, and the other flowers from around the world. And at night, there's a light show in the artificial trees (this picture was taken from the deck of our ship over a mile away).

Next, three ports in Indonesia, which incidently is the largest Muslim country in the world, and seldom if ever the scene of riots, terrorists, etc. It's also a country greatly influenced by what is known locally as "the Dutch period." Sandy and Mike saw a Dutch church from the 1770's, and the Dutch cemetery (one of 5 in Indonesia, with most internments during WW II). A Chinese Buddhist temple, about 1000 years old, was also on the agenda. (Trivia: Indonesia has 327 volcanoes, more than any other country in the world.)

Bali was a rest day for Mike and Sandy -- having been there several times in the past, they skipped the tours and just browsed the market place at the pier for batik, etc.

But the next day was the "world's largest lizards" experience! Komodo Island is the home of thousands of "Komodmo Dragons," weighing up to 250 pounds and around 10 feet long (although all the ones Mike & Sandy saw were smaller than that). The experience is sort of like the Gallapagoes Islands, in that you must be part of a group and accompanied by a park ranger at all times.

Sandy and Mike have been to Australia several times, but never to its northern-most city, Darwin. (It was featured in the 2008 movie "Australia," with Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman.) Mike and Sandy learned about the attack on Darwin just months after Pearl Harbor, and saw some shy Wallabies. Later, Sandy met with some local merchants, while Mike went out to see the Australia Aviation Heritage Museum.

Mike and Sandy have visited Cairns,and the nearby Great Barrier Reef, before, so this time, they took the Sky Rail gondolas above the canopy of the rain forest north of town (seen here over Sandy's shoulder), which also passed over one of the area's rivers and a nearby waterfall. (This is one of the wettest places on earth, in a corner of the driest continent.)

Brisbane, on Australia's Gold Coast, is often thought of as mainly a cluster of resorts along beautiful beaches, but Mike & Sandy found out it's much more than that. It's an old city on a river (lots of wool was shipped out through here years ago), but one that is booming -- loads of new buildings (offices and apartments) and cranes everywhere. Sandy found the downtown pedestrian streets with their hundreds of shops, big and small, to be inviting. A big gee-whiz is the fleet of catamaran boats that operate on regular routes up and down the river, as an extension of the city bus service - slick as well as fun!

But the most famous Australian city is Sydney, with its iconic Opera House at the harbor's edge, seen here as we sailed in. Sandy and Mike visited the huge Paddy's Market in Chinatown, and then took a ferry ride with 8 cruise friends over to the Opera House for a Symphony concert. The next day they explored around, marveling at some of the city's unusual architecture (this brown building was built to look like a crumpled paper bag). One thing they did NOT do was walk on top of the girders of the Harbor Bridge!

Across "the ditch," as the locals call it, lies New Zealand, "more English than England." Our first port, Waitangi, is in the Bay of Islands (144 of them). Mike and Sandy joined some cruise friends for a van tour outside of town. The limestone cave filled with glow worms was interesting, and Sandy got to hug the largest tree on New Zealand's north island.

Tauranga, NZ, is the port closest to the famous Rotorua hot springs district. Beyond that, just outside of the city is Hobbiton, where one can visit old Lord of the Rings movie sets. Having been there and done all that, Sandy and Mike took a day off, and just wandered about the cute little sea-side town.

Much to the annoyance of Wellington, New Zealand's capital, the only New Zealand city most people have ever heard of is Auckland, nicknamed "the city of sails." It is home to tens of thousands of sailboats and yachts (including New Zealand's boat that raced in the America's Cup event in San Francisco several years ago). Mike and Sandy did some off-beat things this visit, including going to the Zoo and to a museum of old trucks, trains, and planes.

Now Sandy and Mike went more exotic, with three stops in Fiji, where they have never been before. Much like better-known Tahiti, Fiji is a country of many islands and lots of beaches (but where everyone speaks English!). The first stop was Dravuni Island, which seems to have no purpose other than looking like the classic “marooned on a deserted island” kind of place. (This is Mike & Sandy on the beach - our ship is just out of sight.) The next stop, Lautoka, had more development (big sugar cane processing plant), but also a buge orchid gardens initially started by Raymond Burr back in the '70's, and a little village where we took supplies for the local school.

If you are asking "But where do the tourists go,?" our third stop at Suva answers that question. Here we find an actual city (150,000 population), nearby resorts of all kinds, tourist things and shops, etc. We took a native "longboat" up a river to get under a big waterfall, and then went to a Fijian village for a traditional lunch (sort of like a luau in Hawaii) and to be serenaded by some of the village school kids.

Samoa is another new country for Sandy and Mike. Back in the late 1800's, the Samoan Islands were divided into two groups: the independent country of Samoa, and American Samoa, where our ship called. Pago Pago is what the map shows, but everyone here calls it Pango Pango. It's a tiny town in an old volcano caldera, with impressive views in the U.S. National Park (the only one in the southern hemispere) in the surrounding hills. Mike and Sandy took it all in, and had lunch in the home of our Samoan guide.

Now the ship headed towards San Diego, crossing the equator, with the traditional King Neptune ceremonies. In Honolulu, Mike and Sandy spent both days with some friends who live there. They saw Diamond Head from the top of the other volcano, witnessed the unusually high surf caused by the same winds that had cancelled their visit to Maui, and enjoyed a sunset at the relatively new Ko O'lina area, where the Disney resort is located. This is a very nice development.

With Maui cancelled, the ship aimed straight at San Diego, with the 5 days at sea proving to be a time for facing up to the daunting task of packing the suitcases once again.

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