Sunday, 15 February 2015

Penang Island - Unlocking Malaysian Culture

Experiencing Penang and writing this blog is unique. There are no theme parks, integrated resorts or casinos at Penang. Yet, the state of Penang is considered one of the best tourist destinations in Malaysia. For one, the capital of Penang, George Town, is a UNESCO heritage site. However, I think what really sets Penang apart from the rest of Malaysia is the food. Somehow, the fried kway teow, laksa and other Malaysian favourites are so much better there.

We did not have much chance to eat, though, since we visited Penang via a cruise and the ship caters all meals. In fact, everything covered in this blog is completed in 4 hours.

The Penang cruise terminal building is the first thing we saw when we arrived.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

USS Chinese New Year Update February 2015

Universal Studios Singapore has been gradually adding Chinese New Year decoration to the Hollywood and New York area since mid-January. For those non-Singaporeans, Chinese New Year is a holiday celebrated by Chinese all around the world. Festivities occur on the first month of the lunar calender and last 15 days. In fact, it is the only Universal Studios Theme Park to celebrate Chinese New Year. Even though there will be no Ang-Pao (red packet) in 2015, the festive spirit is still there with extensive decoration, special dining and seasonal offers.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Mariner of the Seas Review: Day 3

Mariner of the Seas is built in 2003. However, just like the great old ocean liners, the formal nights represent the highlight of the cruise. Well, as a more family oriented cruise line, Royal Caribbean offers a much milder formal night experience, though it is still worth talking about. Of course, that still leaves the rest of the day for more exploration. Don't forget to view the posts for the first day and second day of the cruise!

Lunch @ Main Dining Room

Alright, the morning is pretty much the same for the third day, except that we did not wake up in time to catch the physical fitness lessons. Breakfast is the same as the previous day. So I shall start straight with lunch. Lunch on board Mariner of the Seas is served in 2 locations, and today we visited the Main Dining Room on deck 3. 

The lunch menu is titled brassiere 300 (not really sure what it means) and features Asian delicacies with a western twist. The duck salad is surprisingly good starter as the vegetables are not too bland and the duck is very well smoked. However, the Tom Yum soup which I chose is really too sour. A couple of other salads and soups are also available.

Anyway, one noteworthy point which I have not mentioned so far is that Royal Caribbean really offers a wide selection of tea. A waiter will approach you with a large box and there are over 20 choices available. You can literally take 1 tea per meal and still not tasted everything by the end of the 3 night cruise. (I did not)

Some choices for main course include Laksa as well as Chicken Yakitori Rice. I really love the soft Japanese rice that accompanies the Chicken Yakitori. The catfish dish is particularly good as the fish is really fresh and the accompanying sauce is not too strong. 

Chicken Yakitori is one of the dishes labelled low lactose meal, which is good for the health conscious diner.

I shall let the desserts speak for themselves, though in the case the 2 chocolate options, a moose cake and cream puffs both taste excellent. In fact, I will gladly have Mariner of the Sea's deserts every day!

Sorry folks, I took a bite before I took the photo

Even the seemingly simple chocolate cream puff is served with taste and style

Sports Deck

I spent a good part of the 2nd afternoon on the sports deck at deck 13, doing mini golf, ball games, rock climbing and in-line skating. The sports deck of Mariner of the Seas is actually considered relatively small compared to newer ships but still offers a good balance of activities.

[tip] Avoid going to the sports deck between 10am and 3pm as the sun is really, really hot.

Mariner of the Seas is equipped with a full basketball court though I wish they organised some tournaments on board
Arriving at 2pm, the rock climbing wall just opened and I was one of the first to attempt today. Unfortunately, as I lost my SeaPass card in Penang, I had to sign the waiver again since my new card does not have the star shaped chop. In fact, I managed to try both lanes and I must say that the outer green lane is much more challenging as the rocks are smaller and the surface is more uneven. Several other guests attempted but not all managed to complete the Mariner of the Seas rock wall.

My father also attempted the rock wall this time though he only attempted the easier pink lane.

The next activity is in-line skating. It is located all the way at the stern of Mariner of the Seas. As with ice skating, you need to change your shoes and sign a waiver. But unlike ice skating, you will start to fall over the moment you put on your shoes, even before entering the track. I made the mistake of taking a shoe that is a little too big for me, though I didn't know how to roller skate anyways so it did not make too big a difference.

Once you put on your skates, you will start falling over
However, I must say the in-line skating track is much more beginner friendly than ice skating. For one, the track is narrower so handrails are never too far away. Also, there is soft padding along the edge of the track so you will slam your face right into the metal railings when you fall down. The only drawback is that you will really sweat a lot more here. Nonetheless, I prefer if Royal Caribbean placed a Flowrider here.

The track is relatively short but well covered with soft padding to protect from falls.

Golf is the final activity on the Sports Deck. The mini golf here looks easy but is actually very hard as there are many tiny slopes that you can't see. It took me 6 strokes to complete the par 4 first hole, get the picture. One surprising thing is that there are very few balls available compared to golf clubs. I wonder how many of them got lost in the dunes, or worse, fly off into the sea.

Be careful not to hit the ball too hard. If it hits one of the ramps the ball will fly into another hole!

The uneven surface makes it very difficult just to secure the ball for the first shot.

There is a golf simulator in the middle of the sports deck, but you need to pay USD25 to do it. I guess it will be much better if Royal Caribbean can replace that with Ripcord by I-Fly.

Royal Promenade Special Retail Offer

Branded shopping is a key highlight on the Royal Promenade, and on the third day the whole street is filled with various retail options of duty free and discounted branded goods. For example, a higher end G-Shock watch will cost between USD100 and USD200, and from 2.30pm to 4.30pm there was even a special discount that offers watch wallet combos for as little as USD39! 

The whole Royal Promenade is transformed into a high-end flea market

If is noteworthy that only the items displayed outside are on discount. The items inside the stores still retain their original high price. I guess that most of these products are geared towards Chinese nationals who crave branded goods, since Mariner of the Seas spends half of each year in China.

These boxes here are only available from 2.30pm to 4.30pm and is among the best retail deals on the ship.


Now this is 1 classic cruise ship activity, and Mariner of the Seas actually featured 3 game sessions over the whole cruise - one on each day. The final session on day 3 is the finale and features four separate games in one session. This, unfortunately, also means that the ticket will cost USD32 instead of USD10 in the other sessions.

This activity is really fun to watch. We are encouraged to boo people when players stand up, as it shows they are 1 number from winning. However, there are only 2 assistants to run around and verify numbers so the process is rather slow. The crowd also loves the challenge winners to play off when there is a tie, though all winners so far choose to share.

However, I must say I will not play this again. For one, given the number of players it is almost impossible to win, and the prizes are not very attractive anyways for the amount that is paid for the game. There is also a concurrent session of Bingo at Lotus Lounge for a private group. Just saying.

Bingo numbers are all decided by computers.

Dinner at Main Dining Room

Before we move on to dinner, just one thing. The passport collection is also done at the main dining room at deck 5 on the 2nd last day of the cruise, between lunch and dinner. Don't forget to come before dinner or else you have to endure the super long queue at the Mariner of the Seas Guest Services Counter.

Alright back to the dinner. This is a formal dinner, so everyone will wear suits and evening dresses. Well, I wish so. Being a family oriented cruise line, Royal Caribbean does not enforce formal wear and I see many participants with jeans and polo t-shirt taking part. Nonetheless, I urge you to dress up as it is rare to take part in a dinner where you can do so. Quite surprisingly, the people who dress up the most are actually the young children.

The dinner menu is quite mixed and I cannot identify a distinct style. On one hand, there is a Japanese starter shrimp gyoza, yet western style steak is also served. If you see the menu, one thing you realise is that there is no dessert. Well, dessert menu is only presented to you after completing your main course.
The dinner menus does not include dessert as the dessert menu is only presented after the main course is completed.

This is our waiter's recommendation - Shrimp Gyoza, and the filling inside is really generous and sauce tastefully done (well, my mother actually found it a bit to salty) 

A noteworthy point is that you can actually request for 2nd servings of main, starter or dessert if you so desire, though it is subject to availability. I actually took 2 starters this dinner: smoked salmon and shrimp gyoza.

This is my second steak on the cruise, and I did not regret choosing it.

Since this is the last night of the cruise, the ship actually takes the opportunity to show appreciation to all the waiters and cooks on board. The waiters even presented a Chinese song 月亮代表我的心 to us. In fact, I finally understand why the staff on board are so happy working on board in spite of long hours and time away from family - they have a right to be recognised. The chief waiter even encouraged us to provide compliments for our individual waiters.

The waiters and assistant waiters of Mariner of the Seas (well, the rest are at deck 3)
While most things aboard ship is complimentary, here is one paying item that I really encourage you to go for - Maine Lobster. It is just USD30, and the lobster is really huge. By grilling it without too much flavourings, it really brings out the natural taste and texture of the lobster. I reckon that this lobster will cost between $100 and $150 in a Singapore restaurant.

If you only intend to spend money on 1 thing aboard the ship, it has to be the Maine lobster!

Royal Caribbean is actually able to offer a different dessert menu every night, and even after 5 meals and 3 snacks I am still looking forward to the chocolate cravings and mango puddings.

Presenting to you my family and our waiters Jeong from Korea and Li Yan from China

Farewell Show @ Savoy Theater

There are actually 2 shows for the farewell show, and the session you watch depends on your dinner seatting. For us on the 5.45pm seating, our farewell show is at 8.45pm. There is also an earlier show at 6.45pm for those taking the second dinner seating. As usual, the cruise director Ken Jones is welcomed on stage by the Mariner of the Seas Orchestra, though he very quickly relinquished the stage to the highlight of the night: Juggling by Jeremy Ansley.

[tip] You can get plain water or cocktails from the bar at the back of the theater if you want a drink. This is unlike land based shows where eating and drinking is prohibited.

Jeremy is full on antics. At the start of the show, he tells us to boo him whenever he drops a prop. The thing is, he will actually purposely drop balls and torches just so the audience can boo him. Then, he even asks audience members to participate on stage; not juggling, but following his antics. Just when you think he is running out of ideas, he will climb onto the railings and do balance beam right in the middle of the audience!

Don't forget to boo me when I drop a ball!

Here's our dear Jeremy Ansley doing balance beam among the audience.

Of course, he is from New Zealand, so he proclaims himself to be the TRUE, LORD OF THE RINGS! They should have played Charge of the Rohirrim soundtrack at that point, though.

Jeremy shows of his talent by juggling up to 8 rings at a time.

Even after the show has ended, the antics are not over. Cruise Director comes back on stage with a video showing the things he "usually" does at work. Well, it is very obvious from the first minute that that's not what he does. I mean, having PK with a crew member? Using security body check to touch a woman's boobs? Sounds a little too good to be true!

Of course, Royal Caribbean never ceases to appreciate its crew members for their efforts, and the finale calls representatives from every department of the ship up on stage for a final farewell. Damn! I think I should also do that in the community events I organise.

Every department of the ship is represented in the ship's final farewell, to the tune of "Until We Meet Again"

Dance Party under the Stars

It is the last night and the night is still young, so why not party all the way! Well, you can join dance party on the pool deck! Unlike the 70s dance party yesterday the music today is so much more recent with tunes like Gangnam Style and Mambo No 5. Before the actual dance, Mariner of the Seas in-house bartenders will do a little drink mixing show and some lucky guests get to walk away with free cocktails.

The bartender shows off his skills at mixing drinks in a fanciful way. He did drop a couple of glasses though, not sure if that is intentional

This dance session is also much more intimate with the crew as there is no physical barrier. The emcee will even go around the deck to interact with the crowd. However, the biggest draw of this activity is to do it under the stars, since there are no visible stars in Singapore.

The emcee runs around to energise the crowd.

There is no physical barrier between the crew members and the guests here


Even on the third day, there are still a whole host of activities to do on Mariner of the Seas. In fact, my family actually plan our time quite tightly to be able to do most of the activities on board. My post on day 4 will actually be very short and cover mostly the debarkation process and our only breakfast at Windjammer. 

There are just a couple of things I really like to see: Fireworks at the end of the Dance Party under the stars and a stronger formal night atmosphere extending beyond the dining room. Other than that I am all for this ship. 3 Nights is barely enough. If you like this post, you will really want to like the Second Drop Facebook Page, or you can find out why is Royal Caribbean better than Star Cruises.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Mariner of the Seas Review: Day 2

The second day on board Mariner of the Seas is no less exciting than the first. In fact, this day features some on-board activities that are unique to Royal Caribbean - those in the Royal Promenade. Although 6 hours is spent in Penang, that still leaves plenty of time over the rest of the day to explore the largest cruise ship in Asia (as of Jan 2015).

Dont forget to view the first day of the cruise!

Sunrise on Mariner of the Seas, taken from my stateroom balcony

Yoga Lesson, Sports and Fitness Center

Fitness lessons on Mariner of the Seas is really early. The first class starts at 7am but my sister and I could only wake up in time for the 8am Yoga Class. The classes are located at the on-board fitness center on deck 11. On our particular cruise, the morning stretching and fat abs workshops are complimentary while the Yoga and cardio bike sessions are chargeable.

In fact, when we arrived at the venue there were already other participants in deep meditation. Thankfully, the main exercises has yet to begin so we could still join in.

[tip] All cruise ship activities start on time. Do not be late.

Some of these simple looking postures look more intense than you think

The instructor is very calming and his instructions were very clear and simple. The exercise itself is moderately intense though the middle aged lady beside me did struggle a bit. The instructor also walks around to correct the poses individually. It is great that there are only 4 participants so all of us could get really personal attention. The class costs USD12 plus 17% gratuity, or service charge in Singapore language, and I think it is worth it.

With just 4 students, there is plenty of space for everyone and the instructor could provide personalised attention.

After the workout, I am recharged and ready for the day. I did a walk-about in the gym but did just a few simple exercises. The gym onboard Mariner of the Seas is as well equipped as any private in Singapore and for those weight conscious, many of them even have calories burnt counters. I was quite shocked that the largest dumbbell is almost 20kg (I'm used to dumbbells half that weight). The ocean views from the treadmills is great.

This gym is well equipped and has excellent ocean views.

I did not do much exercise since I was all pumped up from the yoga workout.

A WW1 airplane hands from the atrium outside the gym

Breakfast @ Main Dining Room

There are actually 2 main venues available for breakfast (and for all meals, as a matter a fact) on board Mariner of the Seas. Only deck 3 of the main dining hall is open for breakfast and the other alternative is Windjammer Cafe on deck 11. For the first breakfast, we decided to go for the table service main dining room.

[tip] Breakfast at main dining room ends almost an hour before Windjammer, so you need to wake up early to dine here.

Because of limited seating, there is a long queue of about 20 minutes outside. Also, singlets are not allowed. Actually, sandals are officially not allowed as well but the staff did not enforce. One good thing is that the staff actually comes out to advice guests to change while waiting for their turn instead of disappointing them after they queued all the way.

Breakfast consists of starter and main course. This is also the only meal on Mariner of the Seas that provides table service and buffet in a single seating. I really love the smoked salmon here, the taste is so rich and the texture is just right. The breakfast mains are basically a high-class version of Macdonald's Big Breakfast, though I must say the waffles are not crispy enough. Cornflakes, yogurts and fruit juices are available from the buffet counter.

[tip] This is the only meal where you can get apple juice complimentary. On all other meals lemonade is the only complimentary cold drink available.

As a testament to Royal Carribean's food quality, this is probably the first time in my life I finished a half tomato.

The waffles look delicious but should have been made more crispy. Some ice cream on top will also be great :D

Doesn't this look like a spa cuisine dish?

Cornflakes, bread, yogurt, milk and fruit juices are available from the buffet area.

Rock Climbing Wall

As far as I know, Royal Caribbean is one of the first cruise lines to offer a rock climbing wall, on board their Vision class ships. Now, the rock climbing wall is a staple in the Royal Caribbean experience, and Mariner of the Seas is no exception.

The rock wall is located on a dedicated platform above the sports deck (deck 13). Please be informed that only the port side mid-ship elevators go to deck 13. All other lifts stop at deck 12. Anyways, the rock wall is not very high and is not facing the sea so it is not too intimidating even if you have fear of heights.

The rock wall runs up the ship exhaust funnel and is about 3 stories tall

But safety first. All participants are required to sign a waiver (better known as Indemnity form in Singapore) before being allowed to participate. The crew will do a star-shaped stamp on your SeaPass card to indicate that you have signed. Climbing shoes and safety harness is provided.

[tip] The star shaped stamp is only to indicate that you have signed the waiver and is not a redemption chop. You can actually do the rock wall any number of times you wish.

[tip] Memorise your shoe size before coming for the cruise. There are at least 3 activities on board where you need your shoe size.

The staff here are very reassuring and you will certainly not feel nervous climbing on Mariner of the Seas


After a morning of physical activity, the next thing on my mind is for some relaxation. The solarium on Mariner of the Seas is an adults only area themed to an ancient roman bath. The roman columns around the 2 whirlpools and the ornate sculptures makes the location quite immersive. The chaise lounges here have soft cushioned surfaces and are much more comfortable than those at the family pools.

Of course, what I was really after here are the whirlpools. Surprisingly, the whirlpools here use warm water which gives a hot-spring like experience. The bubbles feel really refreshing though I wish there are also some water jets at the feet level.

The 2 Solarium whirlpools can each accommodate 10 people

And when we came back to our stateroom to change, surprise! Our attendant Clemente has folded a monkey using the towels!

Ice Skating

Royal Caribbean's ships are the only ones to offer an ice-skating rink. The one on Mariner of the Seas is small and can only accommodate 45 people per half hour session. 

Now this is a real problem. When we entered Studio B at about 10.45am we were told to sign the waiver and return at the next session on 12.30pm. However, when we returned back after our Jacuzzi at 12.20pm we were told that the activity is first time first serve and there is still no guarantee we can go for this session. In the end we had to attend the following session at 1.15pm, and I saw many other guests who queued and signed the waiver earlier but did not have a chance to take part. This is one area Royal Caribbean really needs to do better.

Ice Skating is one of 3 activities on board where a waiver is required. The others are rock climbing (see above) and in-line skating.

While elbow and knee guards are provided, I do wish Royal Caribbean can make those mandatory. Since most participants are first timers, over 75% of the people will be grabbing the handrails on the edge of the rink, some of them never leaving the edge throughout the whole session.

[tip] You need to wear full length pants for this activity, and socks. The crew will turn you down if you do not.

Even at the end of the session, some participants are still glued to the edge handrails

Long queue for shoe exchange. That's why people need to remember their shoe size!

Lunch @ Windjammer Cafe

Normally, my family prefers to eat at the main dining hall. However, thanks to ice skating in which we are pushed to a later timeslot, the main dining hall is closed by the time we finished at 1.45pm. As such, we proceeded up to Windjammer Cafe on deck 11 - Mariner of the Seas' buffet restaurant.

There are 2 distinct areas at Windjammer. The side closer to the entrance is called Jade and serves mainly Asian food, such as curry meat, fried rice and steamed fish slice. Further inside, Windjammer Marketplace serves western food. In fact, I was really surprised by the number of people who took the french fries (alright, I admit they are slightly better than Macdonalds'). For myself, I far prefer the rosemary baked potatoes. Other popular items include Pizza and hot dogs. Not surprisingly, few people are after the salads.

[tip] Look out for the watermelon and kiwi red colour drink, served on select drink stations in Windjammer Marketplace. It tastes so much better than the standard lemonades and ice teas.

Sure looks delicious! Anyway, my mom noted that the sausages aboard ship are too salty.

See the glasses with red drink? This is the Watermelon and Kiwi drink I am talking about.

The cutlery wrapped in the green napkins only include knife and fork. Spoons are taken separately from the soup area.

Rosemary baked potatoes!!!!!

Move it, Move it parade @ Royal Promenade

Royal Caribbean's ships are the only ones to feature a long, open mall in the center of the ship called the Royal Promenade, the Mariner of the Seas is among the first class of ships to be equipped with this feature. For the kids, the Move it, Move it parade featuring Dreamworks characters is sure to be a favourite. Don't forget to arrive about 15 minutes early to grab a good spot.

I wish Royal Caribbean will request first row guests to sit down so more people can watch the parade

The costumes are about as good as any Disney or Universal Studios parade, and having the parade indoors have its perks: energetic music that is really loud and clear and lots of moving and flashing lights that create a party atmosphere. The ornate sphere at the middle of the promenade was quite a surprise. Only real drawback: no floats.

No one expected this sphere to be able to move, open and close in such a dramatic way

I think the trumpet is just a mock up. Yup it is!

This is really the chance for kids to get up close with their favourite Dreamworks characters. You will get to see Shrek, Fiona, the 4 Madagascar Penguins, Puss on Boots, Kung Fu Panda and much more. Some characters will stay behind for a short while for you to catch pictures. It is also noteworthy that there are many Chinese elements such as a dragon and traditional Chinese coins. Not sure if this is part of the Chinese New Year celebrations.

The costumes and props are all really elaborate and the performers are mostly lively and energetic

Notice the distinctly Chinese costumes and ornaments.

And now for the jumbo of the show: Po of Kung Fu Panda!

70s Dance Party @ Royal Promenade

On the great old ocean liners, social dancing is one of the signature activities, Royal Caribbean carries on this tradition with an added twist - using upbeat and rhythmic tunes from the 70s to create a really charged music and dance experience. This happens in the heart of the ship - Mariner of the Seas Royal Promenade. 

The 70s dance party is an adults only activity and features some oldies music with lots of energy

There are about 10 dancers on the bridge and they are pumping up the crowd by giving out free t-shirts and LED rings. Generally, the people at the front are dancing quite wildly and the energy level tapers off at the fourth or fifth row. Towards the end, one of the dancers will come down and form a human chain, though I must admit that Singaporeans are a bit more reserved in doing this and there are many "breaks" along the line as some are unwilling to hold shoulders.

I personally think that such an activity is much safer than a night club as most guests are not under heavy influence of alcohol and the Royal Promenade is quite an open venue. Even though I still avoid night clubs I am actually willing to return to this activity.

Row 1-5: Wild dancing. Row 6-10: some shaking. Row 11 onwards: cameras up!

Some members of the Mariner of the Seas Orchestra will perform some light music at the end of the party.


Oh well, 2 days of vacation has passed and our cruise on beautiful Mariner of the Seas is now past it's halfway mark. However, rest assured that there are still more new things to discover on the third night - formal night. It is just a pity that I had to call the 9.45pm show Gallery of Dreams a miss because I was still at Penang when the show started. See you on Mariner of the Seas Cruise Saga: Day 3, and don't forget to like our Facebook page!