T+ L’s Take: Scenic Spirit Sails the Mekong River
For those who want an adventure-focused trip to Southeast Asia — with all the creature comforts — a river cruise is a great way to travel. Cruise companies have been offering voyages to Vietnam and Cambodia along the Mekong River for many years, but the new Scenic Spirit sets itself apart because it has been designed with an impressive attention to detail. The 68-passenger vessel offers an understated celebration of the region: the foyer is filled with gorgeous local flowers, from a giant vase of tight, pink lotus blossoms to huge urns filled with deep purple orchids. Dark, polished teak seems to line every surface, and the shady aft pool (not a feature you can take for granted on river ships) is home to a bar, Bonsai trees, and a Balinese-style day bed that’s suspended from the ceiling. And while the design is elegant, the dress code onboard is relaxed and casual.
The ship sails overnight, docks everyday, and most of the trip takes place on land rather than on the river. After watching cars and motorbikes whiz around you from a tuk tuk in Cambodia or wandering through dense food markets filled with intense sights, sounds, and smells, returning to the serenity of the ship offers a welcomingly peaceful respite.
Scenic Spirit sails year-round except for the summer months, offering a variety of land extensions that take you even deeper into Cambodia and Vietnam. The Mekong, however, has gotten more crowded over the last five years. While Scenic’s sailings are more expensive than others — fares start at $3,145 for the eight-day sailing, a trip that starts in Siem Reap and ends in Ho Chi Minh (or vice versa) — those longer trips may be a better deal. They often include hotel nights in gorgeous properties as well as private special events, such as a dinner in a temple, that would be impossible to arrange on your own. The 13-day tour, for example, is just $2,000 dollars more than the eight-day sailing and includes airfare as well as several days in Siem Reap (allowing guests to see Angkor Wat) and Ho Chi Minh on either side of the cruise.
Read on for an inside look at sailing on this gorgeous new river ship.
Once you board the ship, you have to work pretty hard to whip out your wallet for any reason. Dry cleaning, spa treatments, top-shelf liquor, and silk scarves and the like in the small gift shop appear to be the only extras you must pay for. Room service, gratuities for the crew and butlers, Wi-Fi, shore excursions, and alcohol are all included—that means wine with lunch and dinner and even cocktails at the bar and by the pool. They even include little things like port charges, bottled water for every tour, and gratuities for tour guides.
The attention to detail in the interior design is best seen in the cabins, where floor-to-ceiling windows line the outside wall, and a glassed-in space can be opened up and transformed into a verandah. Comfortable queen-size beds are topped with 400-thread-count linens and feather-filled duvets, and there are end tables, reading lights, and USB ports on either side. In your walk-in closet, you’ll find not just a robe, slippers, and safe, but also an umbrella and walking stick. In addition, you can ask your butler to bring you loaner binoculars, a top sheet (if you like an “American-style” bed), and down or extra firm pillows from the pillow menu, which also includes a Vitamin E-treated “Age Defying” pillow. The Asian-style design is spare and clean, with wood floors that are cool underfoot on even the hottest days and large flat-screen TVs that have an array of TV channels as well as on-demand movies. (While you’ll find HBO, we found it jarring to see that you can watch TLC’s pageant reality show, “Toddlers and Tiaras,” in Cambodia.)
Butlers at Your Service
On this small luxury vessel, all cabins come with butler service, though the services themselves increase as you upgrade from the basic Jewel Deck cabins all the way up to the Royal Panorama Suites. All passengers have access to 24-hour in-room dining, a shoe shine, a beverage service (which means the butler will bring you coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon, or even cocktails at night), and a valet service. With the latter, butlers will book guests’ on-land reservations for anything from restaurants to cars. In-room dining is prompt, but the menu is limited to burgers and sandwiches, fresh or fried Vietnamese spring rolls, soup, salad, ice cream, and dessert.
On Board Dining
Breakfast is buffet-style, with the option of ordering additional dishes such as dim-sum style steamer baskets of dumplings and eggs Benedict. The buffet includes eggs made to order, fresh juice (including exotic flavors like watermelon), sliced pomelo and scarlet-colored dragon fruit, sausage and bacon, oatmeal, and even Vietnamese pho noodle soup. (Hint on the pho: When in Phnom Penh, the chef gets fresh rice noodles in port and makes a spectacular beef broth, enabling him to serve a more authentic pho on the lunch menu that day … it’s worth waiting for.) Lunch, too, is buffet style, with wine pairings, soup, salads, and a wide array of Continental and local dishes, including beautifully plated hors d’oeuvres and desserts lined up in tiny bowls and little plates holding small portions. If you’re looking for something fast and casual, the upstairs lounge serves sandwiches and desserts at lunchtime too, and has a gorgeous array of teas and a self-serve cappuccino machine available at all times.
A Floating Bar
Passengers crowd the lounge before and after dinner for drinks, and while there are plenty of people ordering French wine or Scottish single malts each night, the bartenders can whip up pretty much any drink of choice, just the way you like it. While the bartenders learn fast that you like your martinis extra dirty or your Mojitos extra minty, they also have a menu of cocktails that celebrate local ingredients as well as local brews, such as Kingdom Pilsner and Angkor from Cambodia, Beer Lao from Laos, and Bia Saigon Special from Vietnam. Our advice: don’t leave without trying the Khmer Coffee (a rum-laced take on a condensed milk-sweetened Cambodian Iced Coffee) and the Mekong Margarita, which is made with kaffir lime leaves and watermelon juice.
These cruises, which sail from Cambodia to Vietnam (or vice versa) offer a deep dive into life along the river, with visits to temples, rides in rickshaws, museum and market tours, a heart-pounding hike up to a monastery, afternoon tea at a gorgeous colonial hotel, and a look of the grounds of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. On most days, the line gives passengers options of different experiences, which might include a visit to a catfish farm and one that explores the agricultural side of the river delta.
Some of the tours often include time in unforgettably moving spots that focus on the recent and dark history of the country. These include an unflinching look at the historic Killing Fields, where the Communist Khmer Rouge killed and buried more than a million Cambodians in an act of state-sponsored genocide and (for those that book the longer trip) a tour of War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh, which details the war between Vietnam and the United States from a local perspective.
As they take you through these sites, both of which have graphic imagery, the local guides don’t shy away from sharing both tragic historical details and their personal experiences. If you’re not comfortable with an unflinching look at wartime atrocities, opt for the alternate tours instead. The day the group goes to the Killing Fields, for example, Scenic also offers a small group cooking class in a lovely boutique hotel, where a handful of passengers can learn to make green papaya salad and Cambodian-style chicken curry, then feast on their creations.
Passengers won’t spend too much time onboard during daylight hours. But that said, the line does offer activities to fill the time, from early morning Tai Chi on deck to Cambodian scarf-tying demonstrations to a “sea day” cooking demonstration and behind-the-scenes tours of the bridge and the kitchen. Still, after sightseeing and lunch, many passengers take a good book (or one they borrowed from the library) up on deck to relax in one of the Balinese-style day beds or sectionals or in their very spacious cabins.
Whether or not you like to cook, don’t miss the Cambodian fruit tasting, which is tacked on at the end of the cooking demo. This insightful look at more than a dozen different exotic Asian fruits offers a helpful look at the produce you see piled high in the markets each day. And it’s not just show and tell: You’ll get a chance to taste everything from sweet and floral mangosteen to mild but brightly colored dragon fruit, grapefruit-like pomelo, and the ever-present jackfruit. Tip: Cambodian durian is significantly milder than its more intense Malaysian cousin, and if you’ve been curious to try the famously ripe fruit, this is the place to do it.
Dinner and Evening Entertainment
While evenings are mostly dominated by long, multi-course, plated dinners with plenty of wine, a mix of Continental and regional dishes, and lively conversation with your fellow English-speaking passengers (most of whom are Australian or British), the line does offer some additional programs on some evenings. Look for performances by local children demonstrating lion dancing, movies on deck in the open-air screening “room,” and a (sure to be heated) quiz night.
Extensive Spa Services
On many river cruises, the spa is limited to a cabin that has been converted into a single treatment room with a massage table. But this ship has a proper spa, a surprise for a vessel of its size, and the prices are quite reasonable. You can book a traditional Vietnamese massage (just $29 for 45 minutes), a Kaffir lime body scrub ($27 for 45 minutes), a mani/pedi ($32), or a blowout ($18). In addition, the spa has a steam room and a sauna, which are available to all guests regardless of whether you book a treatment. Both are woefully underutilized. Once a week, the line also brings a local hairdresser onboard for passengers who want cuts or other hair styling services that go beyond just basic blowouts, a convenience that seems indulgent until you realize that some passengers onboard are traveling through the region for more than a month.