February 13: Irene and I flew to Sydney Australia via Tokyo on Japan Air Lines. We splurged and traveled Business Class. Flat beds throughout, the service was impeccable, and the meals OK. We arrived in Sydney after 27 hours of traveling, exhausted and completely jet-lagged. We checked into the Westin Hotel — quite luxurious and convenient — only a 15 minute walk to the famous Sydney Harbor. After napping for a few hours, we walked to the harbor for a view of the iconic Sydney Harbor Bridge and the Opera House. The weather was a little rainy. It’s interesting how weather plays such an important role in the perception of your travel destination. We had been to Sydney seven years ago with glorious weather and found it one of the most beautiful cities we had ever been to. Not so this time.
In any event, we tried to have an early dinner as we had a very early morning tour the following day. However, we arrived on Valentine’s Day (yes, they celebrate in Australia too), and with no reservation to be had, we wound up in a pizza joint and bar in a cellar. Actually, the pizza and beer were pretty good.February 15: Since we had visited Sydney before and had seen most of the sights, we decided on a day outside the city. Travel 2, an Ensemble On Location operator, planned a full day tour for us exploring the Blue Mountains, the native wildlife, (including the obligatory koalas and kangaroos), temperate rainforests and towering sandstone mountains as well as an introduction to Aboriginal culture. It turned out to be a wonderful day. Our guide was great. Our small group of 13, hit it off very well. As a matter of fact, several couples on our tour were also embarking on the Crystal Symphony the following day. The highlight turned out to be walking through the Blue Mountain National Park with its deep sandstone ravines, waterfalls and the world’s steepest railway.
February 16: We boarded the Crystal Symphony about 1pm and immediately felt at home. Crystal is one of the only cruise lines I know that offers lunch in the main dining room for embarking guests. After lunch and unpacking, we set out to explore the ship. This was the first time Irene and I sailed two back-to-back voyages. Sydney to Bali followed by Bali to Singapore each 12 days long; 24 days being the longest we had ever been on a ship. We did not expect this trip to have as many “wow” experiences as we had on our cruise last year that included Cambodia and India. But the way we feel about Crystal, after 24 days, we did not want to get off the ship!
February 17-18: Days at sea and no cruise line offers as many things to do as does Crystal. We especially enjoyed the lectures. Our favorite was Dr. Jay Wolff, a master storyteller and historian, who spoke about the destinations, history, and people that related to our itinerary. There was also a famous author and filmmaker from Bali Indonesia, who scared the hell out of us with tales of headhunters, monsters of the deep and other fascinating experiences he “survived” over the course of many years. A former British ambassador entertained us with stories of British royalty and his experiences serving as a diplomat.
During our days at sea, we participated in bridge lessons, dance classes, exercising, walking the decks, and lounging by the pool. Crystal is the only cruise line I know that has a movie theatre, with plush, comfortable seats. We took in several matinees and evening showings of first run movies. It was like being at camp for grownups every day for 24 days.
Irene and I were the Ensemble hosts for both cruises. (Ensemble is the consortium of travel agencies that Alice Travel belongs to and of which I currently serve as Chairman of the Board.) There were about 20 guests from various Ensemble travel agencies across the US and Canada on both cruises. Our responsibilities were to host a cocktail party and an “Ensemble Experience” (a private shore excursion) on each voyage … as well as make sure all our guests were having a smooth and totally satisfying sailing. Of course, we were pleased to socialize with many of these guests, join them for dinner, and share excursions.
February 19-20: Cairns, Australia (the correct pronunciation is “cans”). The first afternoon, we walked around this interesting little town, which is the jumping off point for Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The following day, we took a full-day excursion with Crystal – the Immersive Rainforest Adventure into the National Park near Cairns. Only seven of us were on the tour. The National Park was quite beautiful and we enjoyed the walk very much. We even went to a lake to see if we could spot platypuses; unfortunately, we didn’t have any luck.
February 21-22: Two more restful days at sea.
February 23: Darwin, Australia. It was here in Darwin that we had the Ensemble Experience. We started with a visit to Crocodylus Park, considered the best place in Australia to come face to face with the largest reptiles on the planet. Great photo ops. Some of us held out fishing poles with bait at the end of the pole and watched the crocs jump to get the meat. We held baby crocs as well. We visited a small zoo, with many indigenous animals from Australia and then went on to the George Brown Botanical Gardens, which are under control of an indigenous Aborigine tribe. We thoroughly enjoyed the guide’s discussion about the aborigines’ use of the native. Tonight we ate at Prego, an Italian specialty restaurant on the Symphony. I can’t say anything but “superb”!
February 24: Day at sea. sailing towards Indonesia, the fourth most populous nation on earth, with over 240,000,000 people. The archipelago is made up of over 17,000 islands. We will be visiting seven of them.
February 25: Komodo Island, Indonesia. We had all heard stories of the Komodo dragons and we were really looking forward to seeing them. This day turned out to be a highlight of the trip. Komodo Island is an Indonesian National Park and requires a guide accompany visitors. We tendered to the island and were separated into groups of about 25. A guide and a security person were assigned to each. We were given instructions to stay on the trail. As a matter of fact, we were told that if anybody was menstruating or had exposed cuts, they could not go on the excursion, as the dragons have a strong sense of smell and can smell blood from miles away. As we were walking along the trail, I had the uncanny feeling of being in Jurassic Park, expecting a dinosaur (hopefully not a raptor) to jump out at any moment. We stopped along the way, and saw an owl, a snail, several butterflies and were wondering if there really were Komodo dragons at all. We finally reached a clearing and a dried up water hole and there they were! About eight or ten of them — maybe 12 feet long and really ugly, with forked tongues which they use for smell. We watched them for about ½ an hour before walking back on the trial to our tender and then back to the ship. That night we ate at Silk Road, the Nobu Japanese restaurant on the Symphony. Another great success!
February 26: Lombok, Indonesia. For most of our tours in Indonesia, Irene and I decided to use another Ensemble On Location tour provider: Top Indonesian Holidays. We splurged and had our own private guide, with driver, and a very comfortable air-conditioned SUV. It was a smart decision. Every day turned out to be extraordinary. The guides were great. They showed up on time. We were able to choose our tours in advance of our trip. But what is so great about having a private tour is the flexibility to change destinations or return to the ship earlier or later.On the island of Lombok, we visited the summer palace of a raja at Narmada, built in 1727, which includes an artificial lake. It’s a beautiful site with a temple that is still used today to celebrate special holidays. We then visited the stunning Lingsar complex with a beautiful pond and gorgeous structures. Lunch was at the Sheraton by the pool. That evening, after dinner we went to the Galaxy Theatre for one of Crystal’s fabulous musical productions. In my opinion, Crystal has the best entertainment at sea.
February 27-28: Bali, Indonesia. One of the most celebrated islands, known for its beaches and temples, this was definitely a highlight of the cruise. One of the joys of doing a back-to back sailings is not having to pack the last day and disembark early the next which gave us two full days to enjoy beautiful Bali. We knew we wanted to spend some time on one of Bali’s beaches, and we were advised to go to Finn’s Beach Club, about 45 minutes from the port. It turned out to be the wrong choice. Finn’s is a club for day-trippers, and while the location on a magnificent point is quite beautiful, getting there turned out to be a problem. To get from the club to the beach, required using an inclinator (like an elevator that holds about 4 people) that carried us over the sheer drop of the cliff and down to the beach. Getting to the inclinator was a walk down about 75 steps. Then once we got off the inclinator, we had another 45 steps to the beach. The white sand beach was very pretty but there was a lot of coral underfoot. The ocean beach, too, was beautiful but rocky. After lunch at Finn’s we had to get back to the top. It was one thing walking down, and quite another walking up all those steps.
We were picked up late in the afternoon to head out to Pura Luhur Uluwatu, one of the six most important temples in Bali. An extraordinary work of art, the temple is perched literally at the southernmost tip of Bali, hundreds of feet above the sea the cliff of Pecatu. After a lot of walking we arrived at the spot with the most breathtaking scenery. A fire dance was performed in the amphitheater by a group of locals. The sunset was spectacular.The following morning, we drove north towards the famous rice terraces of Bali. Extraordinary. These fragile terraces are now protected by the government. People were working the fields by hand – creating a lovely landscape. We also visited a rural family compound where several generations of one family lived together. It seemed primitive to us, but the families seemed happy. We saw several cages of roosters, and found out that in Bali, cock fighting and betting is very popular (and certainly not illegal). We left our car and walked several hundred yards along the rice fields, which stretched for miles before us. After, we drove back to the city of Ubud for lunch. It was another memorable day and we were off to the second leg of our journey.