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Travel
April 15, 2013

Mirages In Limestone

Text by Shashi Baliga.

Cruising from Ho Chi Minh City to Halong Bay, Shashi Baliga revels in the geological landscape and limestone karsts of the UNESCO World Heritage Site while indulging in an unhurried, sybaritic pace of life on board the Azamara Journey

It’s called the Bay of Descending Dragons and for years, I had longed to see it. Then, four years ago, I finally made it to Halong Bay. We flew into Hanoi, took a four-hour bus drive, got into a touristy junk and sailed around the bay. The massive limestone cliffs assumed a myriad shapes and the mist hung over them seductively. We walked through one of the big cliffs and gasped at the giant stalactite and stalagmite formations. It was fascinating. But somehow not all that I had expected. Inexplicably, I was disappointed.

So, when I stepped aboard the Azamara Journey as it prepared to sail from Ho Chi Minh City for Halong Bay, I was wary. Till we neared the bay and the cliffs rose slowly out of the water in the distance. And I knew then, that this is how you should see this magical spot – like a mirage floating towards you, the drama building up slowly and ushering you into its beauty.

After taking in a sweeping view of the bay from the top deck, I returned to my room and its private verandah where it was just me, the sea and the dragons as the ship glided softly through the cliffs. It was perfect.

And it brought home to me, once again, why cruising can give a destination another dimension altogether, whether it’s the Nile or the Greek islands, Bali or the French Riviera. What made it possible at Halong Bay was that the Azamara Journey is not one of those mega cruise liners but a medium-sized one that is able to go into waters that the big guys cannot. So, at Halong Bay or the Norwegian fjords, it can sail right in for a much more intimate experience.

That’s why Azamara cruises are all about what they call ‘destination immersion’. The Indian idea of a cruise is to board the ship, hit the pool and eat and drink your way through till it’s time to disembark. Nothing wrong with that, of course; a holiday is about some R&R. But Azamara cruises give you all of that plus a chance to actually visit the ports of call.

At Halong Bay, for instance, the ship docked for two days, so you could visit Hanoi city as well. It’s the same with their other cruises. On the 14-night Beijing to Victoria Harbour cruise, for instance, you get to explore Beijing, Shanghai and Xiamen in China, Seoul and Busan in South Korea, Nagasaki in Japan and end with two nights in Hong Kong. And as cruise director Tony Markey pointed out, “You need to unpack just once!” (Oh, the joys of not having to worry about leaving your phone or face wash behind.)

I know 14 nights do not a short holiday make. There are quicker seven-night routes (especially in Europe) or you could opt for a shorter leg on a long route. But Azamara Club Cruises are a high-end line and about a sybaritic pace of life. As with any cruise, you could hop from one activity to the other and occupy yourself the day through. There’s a casino and a nightly entertainment show.

But there’s not too much hustle and bustle – even at peak time at the buffets, guests are exceedingly polite and courteous and the staff is genuinely friendly. This is also partly because the two Azamara ships, the Journey and the Quest, are not too big – they host 649 guests at most. With a staff of over 400, that works out to a very helpful ratio. (In contrast, the mega liners go up to 1,800 and more passengers.)

As always, there’s a price to be paid for the extras. Admittedly, there are many. Most conveniently, all tips and gratuities are included – whew, what a relief and a saving. You don’t pay for any wine, beer or spirits served with your meals, so indulge. Another great add-on is that at every destination, there is a free shuttle service into town at regular intervals, so you can make any number of trips. A free laundromat service means you can escape huge laundry bills even on long journeys.

All meals are on the house of course and there are buffets, but you could have formal sit-down lunches and dinners as well if you want to go gourmet. But what I loved best was that you can have room service at breakfast at no extra cost – if, like me, you’re not much of a morning person and don’t feel like crawling up to a dining room at 8 a.m. That is such a luxury.

Not surprising that Azamara has won a number of awards as one of the world’s best cruise lines. As with most such cruises, you can get hefty discounts on their brochure rates if you do your research well. Luxury at a discount? How tempting is that?!

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