Ship Review: Scenic Spirit, Aqua Mekong, and Angkor Pandaw
Magic on the Mekong
Luxury awaits for travelers ready to cruise Asia.
For been-there-done-that cruisers, an Asia itinerary is often next on the list. And lucky for today’s been-there-done-that cruisers, options abound along Asia’s wonderful waterways. One river in particular that’s attracting luxury river ships is the Mekong. Here are just a couple of those accounts.
A Jewel Like No Other
Scenic Spirit sets new river cruising standards in Southeast Asia.
By Mark Orwoll
When a ship’s decks are named for precious stones, it’s hard not to talk about a diamond in the rough — a description that fits Scenic Spirit like a custom-made bejeweled necklace from Harry Winston.
Surrounded on the dark and lazy Mekong River by sampans, rickety fishing boats, and floating markets, the gleaming white hull of Scenic Spirit and its window-lined superstructure make the ship stand out in a crowd.
It’s not a bad look if your goal is to be the most luxurious vessel on an increasingly competitive waterway, from the Mekong Delta in Vietnam to the river’s distant parts north of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The all-suite, all-balcony layout is topped off with an all-inclusive policy that nearly lets you leave your wallet at home.
Staying Ahead of the Competition
The 68-passenger Scenic Spirit, purpose-built for the Mekong, debuted in 2016 in a region already chockablock with river ships. At 279 feet, it’s one of the longest luxury ships on the Mekong, which results in more public space. Every accommodation is a two-room suite, with sliding doors to separate the bedroom and sitting room, and a walk-in wardrobe with plenty of storage space for two people. Most Mekong ships don’t have a pool, but Scenic Spirit’s is long enough for swimming (short) laps. It also boasts a passenger elevator, which can come in handy considering there are five decks. An elevator may not be crucial, but it looks awfully inviting at the end of a six-hour shore excursion.
Another distinction is the ship’s all-inclusive pricing policy. Shore excursions, gratuities, alcoholic beverages at all hours, minibar, 24-hour room service, and (woefully low-speed) Wi-Fi are included in the cruise price. In fact, the list of inclusions is so comprehensive that the ship doesn’t even request guests to provide a credit card imprint on boarding.
Service and Smiles
The service on Scenic Spirit exhibits both continental sophistication and Asian warmth. That’s not surprising considering that senior service crewmembers were trained in Europe for three months before the ship launched. Almost all the guest-facing employees are Cambodian, and their friendliness shines through.
“At the end of the day, it’s the staff that really makes the ship,” says Phil Jordan, Scenic’s Asia general manager.
The service begins as soon as guests enter their suite and are greeted by their personal butler. “We have one butler for each suite,” adds Joyce Pinto, hotel director. If you aren’t clear what a butler will do for you, be sure to ask; don’t necessarily expect him to describe his services. Ours didn’t offer to unpack our luggage, for instance, but he did restock the minibar with three fresh Angkor beers every afternoon. Pinto later explained that the butlers will clean your shoes after a muddy excursion; bring you tea at 6 in the morning, if you wish; and make sure you have plenty of playing cards if you’re a fan of solitaire or bridge. “They make sure that everything in your suite is in order. You just ask them.”
Other crewmembers, in an effort to grease the wheels of affability among passengers and crew, relied on first-name badges worn by guests to address the individual. But when several of the staff stopped calling me “Mister Mark” and began calling me simply “Mark,” I grew uncomfortable with the too-easy familiarity. Other guests found it charming.
More importantly, with a staff-to-guest ratio of just under 1:1, you will rarely, if ever, be without assistance, whether it’s for a fresh drink, a question about the day’s schedule, or a second helping of dessert.
A Plethora of Public Spaces
From the spa on Deck 1 (Gem Deck) to the open terrace on Deck 5 (Sun Deck), there is no dearth of places to go on board, whether you want to socialize or be by yourself. Besides the spa, Deck 1 features a small exercise room as well as a do-it-yourself guest laundry (no charge, laundry soap provided). The steam sauna, tucked behind the spa, was an unexpected treat.
Just upstairs on Deck 2 (Jewel Deck) is the reception area — the pulse of the ship — as well as the sole full-service dining room, Crystal Dining restaurant. The uniformly high quality of the culinary offerings is all the more laudable considering the logistical issues involved in supplying a ship in these remote waters. All meals had a selection of both Western dishes (chicken breast, sirloin steak) and locally influenced cuisine (Vietnamese spiced lamb rack, beef loc lac).
“You’re in Asia, so it’s nice to try the cuisine,” says Paula Harrigan, Scenic Spirit’s cruise director. “But not everybody wants to eat Asian for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, so the chefs try very hard to get that balance right.”
The Library, also on Jewel Deck, and the Sun Deck on Deck 5, were underutilized areas by passengers. By far the most popular hangouts were the pool and pool bar on Deck 4 (Diamond Deck), the misnamed River Café (it’s a bar), and the Spirit Lounge on Deck 3 (Sapphire Deck), which was where guests came together for shore talks and postprandial cocktails each evening. If you’re a cruise-only passenger, don’t be surprised if the other guests already know one another; many of them will have traveled together on pre-cruise land tours.
A Room of One’s Own
When all is said and done, you want a comfortable cabin in which to snuggle up, and Scenic Spirit’s aesthetically pleasing suites are contemporary in design but not off-puttingly modern. There’s much to love in their layouts — the large en-suite bathrooms, for instance, have generous counter space, sizable showers, and L’Occitane amenities — and little to complain about (except for the hinged, wall-mounted TV set that never quite gets out of the way). Adjustable beds and a pillow menu just about guarantee a good night’s rest.
At 344 square feet, the two dozen Deluxe Suites are some of the largest “standard” cabins on the river. The next step up are the eight Grand Deluxe suites, at 430 square feet, whose bathrooms are even more spacious. Top-of-the-line accommodations on Scenic Spirit are the two 861-square-foot Royal Panorama Suites, whose measurements include enormous step-out balconies with forward views to die for, not to mention sun beds and hot tubs.
All of Scenic Spirit’s amenities go a long way toward raising the bar for cruise lines racing to enter one of the most exciting river cruise destinations on the planet. For those of us who want to sail there, that’s good news indeed. Or as Pink Floyd says, “Shine on, you crazy diamond.”
Aura of Elegance
Aqua Mekong offers an authentic look at life along the river.
By Steve Leland
Aqua Expeditions has set a high bar for the river cruise segment of the area’s burgeoning tourism industry. The 40-passenger, 205-foot Aqua Mekong integrates authentic regional design with a sparkling veneer of modernistic chic.
Striking contemporary style is embellished by richly grained hardwood floors and a stunning array of ultra-luxe furnishings. Dazzling the senses with a flattering atmosphere of style was the obvious intent of the Saigon-based designers, overseen by the company’s visionary founder, Francesco Galli Zugaro.
Rooms with a View
The emphasis on small details looms large. Daily laundry service, shoe cleaning, personalized water bottles, Wi-Fi, juices, coffee, soft drinks, beer, and wine are all complimentary. The ship’s infinity-style plunge pool, movie screening room, library, and fitness center are facilities otherwise most often found on larger cruise ships.
Twenty ultra-modern, 320-square-foot suites are as resplendent as any found in exclusive five-star boutique hotels. Four sets of interconnecting suites are perfect for families, groups, or luxury travelers seeking more space.
Floor-to-ceiling windows the length of the room facilitate 3-D views of the countryside and an extraordinary opportunity to witness riverbanks pulsing with life and the irrefutable bond between the river and its inhabitants. Daytime sofa loungers along the window facilitate lazy afternoons taking in the scenery. Large bathrooms are designed with dual-sink vanities and elegantly tiled walk-in showers. Every detail of the accommodation is reflective of the Zen-like ambiance.
Each morning’s most difficult decision is whether to have coffee in the plush king-sized bed as you feast on the real-life spectacle playing outside the window, or walk 20 steps to the elaborate array of fruits and breakfast staples served in the dining room.
Further views can be found from the top level Observation Deck and Outdoor Lounges, which are the perfect spots to connect with the ever-changing landscapes. Both the bow and the stern lounges boast comfortable sun loungers, and at the front, a shaded canopy and rooftop bar.
A Taste of Asia
Exotic pre-dinner cocktails and appetizers in the spacious and posh indoor lounge stir up recollections of each day’s explorations, but are promptly upstaged by spectacular dinner fanfares. The culinary aspect is a vital component of any cruise, and Aqua Expeditions’ inventive gastronomy presentations rise to the challenge.
The regionally sourced bounty of seafood, spices, and fruits presents an evocative kaleidoscope of aromas and flavors, expertly prepared by the ship’s talented chef. Menus unveil a treasure trove of creations that will tantalize even the most timid diner. Stoked appetites are rewarded with dishes the likes of Banana Blossom Salad with Seared Wagyu; Stir-Fried Watercress with Lime Pepper; or Crab, Pomelo, and Ginger on Betel Leaves. Each meal is capped off with decadent regional desserts.
Two per day, complimentary shore excursions venture far beyond a rudimentary destination experience, engaging participants in authentic cultural exchanges. Enjoying the distinction of a customized fleet of four private skiffs, guests are ferried along otherwise inaccessible waterways for visits to remote temples, markets, and villages, including artisan craft demonstrations.
With an exclusive guest-to-guide ratio of 10:1 on these tours, experienced and informative guides supplement each adventure with fascinating insight. The transportation mix is no less colorful utilizing vans, local tuk-tuks, and even ox carts. Kayaks and bicycles are provided as outlets for the energetic and active minded.
River navigation on the Mekong is fueled by a lust for adventure and buoyed by the warmth and smiles of the Aqua Mekong staff and their meticulous attention to detail.
RV Angkor Pandaw explores the Red River in genuine comfort.
By Steve Leland
Thanks to demand and developing infrastructure throughout Vietnam, Pandaw Cruises has audaciously seen fit to deploy four of its 16 characteristic river ships to both the Mekong River in the south and exclusively on the Red River and its tributaries in the north.
Part of the joy in cruising is discovering something new and off the beaten path, and the company rightly delivers on that criteria with RV Angkor Pandaw. My 10-night sailing in North Vietnam is comprised of 32 like-minded souls with a zest for an unconventional experience and who are treated to a true expeditionary journey.
Mindful Moments on Board
The comfortable ambiance on board reflects the meditative state of the surrounding terrain, understated yet teeming with diversity. Comfy staterooms beckon as a welcome respite after each day’s guided adventures. Polished dark wood walls and furnishings alongside brass accessories evoke a nod toward a nautical vibe. Each room opens to a balcony-like walkway providing al fresco access.
The upper deck’s open-air lounge remains true to the style: fully canopied, wicker furniture, and chaise lounge chairs proffering unhindered views of the passing countryside. Aesthetically, the outward appearance of the well-designed ship is reminiscent of bygone colonial charm.
Reflecting the evolving market landscape, the company implements updates and modifications to each vessel of its fleet every other year and the exceptionally well-maintained state of RV Angkor Pandaw is testament to that effort.
The essence of the Pandaw experience is the warm hospitality of the 20 crewmembers, each with their own humble and contagious personality. Catering to international passengers, they complement the social mix on a journey that reveals an intriguing culture mingled with inspiring landscapes.
All dining on board takes place in the family-style dining room. Breakfasts lean toward standard westernized fare along with each day’s featured Asian specialty. Prior to dinner, cocktail hour in the lounge is a daily gathering with staff presentations of the next day’s exploration. Local beers and spirits, soft drinks, and the daily special cocktail are complimentary, with premium wines and spirits available at reasonable costs. Lunch and dinners are casual social affairs with delicious selections running the gamut of regional influences using locally sourced spices and condiments.
Discoveries On Shore
The Red River itinerary exposes an experiential odyssey carving through rivers surrounded by rice fields and remote jungles, blended with the momentum of modern-day Vietnam.
Hanoi serves as the bustling gateway to the embarkation port of Halong Bay and later in the cruise itinerary as an actual port of call. On board, guests will discover a cultural appetizer to a full menu of Pandaw’s exclusive adventures ashore. The all-inclusive concept imbibes a distinct regional influence and it quickly becomes evident that the days ahead promise to be something out of the ordinary.
Halong Bay, a premier UNESCO World Heritage Site, shines as the itinerary’s opening scene and earns kudos for its staggering touristic appeal laced with everyday functionality. Floating fishing villages and more than 1,900 limestone towers, some doubling as islands, serve as unrivaled photographic targets.
Entering the delta network and continuing upstream, daily excursions expose village life and unique presentations of rural culture. A comprehensive visit to frenetic Hanoi displays a ball of energy, difficult to comprehend yet relaxing with the ship’s competent and considerate guides.
Other days include visits to upriver destinations that explore the diversity of the country. The element of structured adventure is complemented and aptly employed by Pandaw on each of the included excursions, which invite guests to enjoy Vietnamese entertainment such as an iconic water puppet show, farewell lion dance, and traditional ethnic music and dance presentations.
Commune with a never-ending palette of nature’s artistry alongside a captivating history. Anyone suffering from the epidemic of a manic-pace existence will embrace this cruise adventure as a surefire detoxification.
Photos: Scenic (2), Aqua Expeditions, Pandaw Cruises