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Singapore, Indonesia, and Australia plus Paul Gauguin cruise

by Camille Pepe Sperrazza 

Singapore Pre-Cruise Stay 

Day 1:  We arrive in Singapore after a nonstop flight from JFK to Japan - 12 hours - and then another 7-hour flight here, about 22 hours of travel time. A car picks us up at 1 am, and we check into the St. Regis Singapore. It looks like a palace, with its marble floors and spacious, stunning decor. I am excited to be on the other side of the world. 

Breakfast includes everything imaginable - omelets, sushi, fried rice, dumplings, cheeses, exotic fruit, duck, pancakes, French toast, baked beans, potatoes, noodle soup, and much more. The signature dish is the lobster and shrimp omelet, sprinkled with caviar. I try gelatin-like white cubes, presented inside a martini glass, which the chef says is coconut and has medicinal benefits. It is tasty, as are the croissants - some filled with chocolate - the pastry so incredibly flakey and crisp, only in Paris have I found them this good.

The St. Regis is located by Orchard Road, known for its shops, restaurants, and hotels. We visit the Hilton, the Four Seasons, and the Hard Rock Cafe. There seems to be a Starbucks on every corner. There are numerous malls, a lot of them built underground, and we get sticker shock when we see designer names selling for exorbitant prices. Singapore is a thriving, cosmopolitan city. We are told everyone works, begging is not allowed, and there is no homeless. It is a first-world country, the third wealthiest, with an air force stationed in Perth, Australia, says a guide. There is very little crime, and violence is extremely rare. The people speak English fluently, and are very welcoming. Service is impeccable. We walk through the city, among skyscrapers and unique architecture, juxtaposed by lush greenery and palm trees, so there is a tropical ambience. Singapore plants this greenery to be environmentally conscious. Streets are sparkling clean, as are cars, all the latest models. 

I meet with the manager of the Shangri-La Hotel, inspecting the vast premises of the lovely resort. In the evening, we are picked up at the St. Regis for our tour of Chinatown that includes dinner. One of the highlights is riding a trishaw - a carriage for two, connected to a bicycle that is peddled by a driver. We race through the streets, amid traffic, a bit exciting and terrifying at once. The driver drops us off by the harbor where we board a bumboat for a ride along the river, absorbing Singapore at night. We view the Merlion, the city's symbol, water gushing from its mouth. Singapore means "lion city," and this is the most notable of the city's three Merlion statues. 

Day 2:  We ride The Flyer - the second largest Ferris wheel in the world. The whole skyline can be viewed from here. Then we meet with the manager of the iconic Raffles Hotel where rooms start at about $1400 per night. Suites run about $10,000 per night. The hotel resembles a plantation with its palm-like ceiling fans and sprawling white property. We have High Tea at the renowned Tiffin Room, a formal affair that dates back to the 1800s. Then it’s on to the hotel's Long Bar, where the famous Singapore Sling was invented. I was warned the drink might be sweet, but I enjoy it. After imbibing the original, I try a Summer Sling, but it doesn't beat the original recipe. It is a tradition at the Long Bar to be given a sack of shelled nuts, and the empties pile on the floor. 

Singapore celebrates its 49th anniversary as an independent nation next week, and today is practice for the main event. Soldiers are marching, and streets are closed so we have to take the subway. It is immaculate, quite different from New York. 

One of Singapore's newest hotels is the Sands Bay Marina, a massive skyscraper of three towers connected across the roof with a structure that looks like a boat. We go to the top to check out the view, and are privy to colorful fireworks that are being launched, in preparation of next week's celebration. As the fireworks explode, a man next drops to his knees to propose to his girlfriend. She says yes and her friends appear from the wings to participate in the excitement. 

Day 3:  I pre-arranged every aspect of our stay, deliberately leaving this morning free, not knowing if we be totally jet-lagged by now, in dire need of sleep. But this is not the case, so I am off to St. Regis' gorgeous spa - wet and dry saunas, whirlpools, and heated lounge chairs. The wet sauna clears my sinuses and my ears unpop. I didn't even know they were popped. Late afternoon, we take a cable car to Sentosa, an island filled with so many recreational activities, it would take days to see them all. There is a Resorts World casino, Universal Studios, Hard Rock hotel, restaurants, and the biggest Merlion statue in Singapore. We go to the world's largest aquarium, walking through clear tunnels surrounded by swimming fish above, below, and at all sides, so it seems like we are part of this massive tank. One fish looks like it has the happiest face. Another is a seahorse with wings like the floral plants of the sea. At night there's a most spectacular laser light show at an outdoor theater on the beach, a stunning arrangement of color and art told through story that surpasses all our expectations. 

Day 4:  On our last day in Singapore, we tour Asia's largest bird park - Jurong - which includes penguins, a surprise considering how hot it is here. Then we head to the harbor for our 2-week cruise through Indonesia and Australia, our wonderful stay in Singapore coming to a close...but more adventure ahead. (See cruises - Singapore, Indonesia, and Australia). 

Paul Gauguin cruise - August 4 - 18, 2014 

We enjoyed a 4-night stay in Singapore (See article under "Singapore"). Now it is time to say hello to our cruise ship - Paul Gauguin - the same one that treated us so well when we cruised through Tahiti, Bora Bora, and French Polynesia two years ago. This one-of-a-kind journey takes us to some of the most remote parts of the planet. 

We see some familiar faces on board - cruise director Michael, a transplanted New Yorker, now traveling the world via sea, and Elmo, the head bartender, who always had a Manhattan ready for us last cruise. Captain Toni Mirkovic remains at the helm. The grandchildren of artist Paul Gauguin himself are on this sailing, as is Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hay, who lectures on climate change. I talk at length with another lecturer, artist Nona, swapping life stories, two strangers humbled by our modest beginnings, now aboard a luxury liner heading to Indonesia. Neither of us could have ever imagined it. This is what cruising is all about - talking with people, learning, discovering. It is very much introspective. 

On our first night we are invited to join the cruise director for dinner. Tonight a former Brooklyn gal and her husband invite us to join them. We cross the equator, and passengers who experience this rite of passage for the first time participate in an initiation ceremony that includes kissing a dead fish, wearing marinara sauce, and being baptized with a bucket of water. The ship's captain dresses as King Neptune for the occasion, a bit of a whimsical experience for a ship on which there is a Nobel Peace Prize winner. The rite dates back at least 400 years, and is practiced by the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, Royal Navy, and others to mark when a mariner transforms from a Pollywog - a person who has not crossed the equator - to a Shellback, a trusted son or daughter of Neptune. 

Late afternoon and throughout the evening, the ocean is rocky. Many are sick, but I am among the few riding the waves. 

Java, Indonesia (Semarang) - When I saw the movie, "Krakatoa East of Java" decades ago, I couldn't imagine I would one day be here. I am still astounded. The port area is a lot more industrialized than expected. We are on a tour bus, being led by a police escort, siren blasting, on a 2-hour ride en route to the Borobudur Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The bus weaves through traffic coming at us from all sides and all directions. There appears to be no right side of the road. Open trucks, packed with people standing upright, fly by. A motorcycle speeds along carrying a woman holding an infant. We squeeze through space that has everyone holding their breaths. At one point, I ride shotgun to get a firsthand view of what can best be described as total chaos. Along the way, we spot water buffalo and workers toiling in rice fields. We make a stop at a coffee shop where we get to taste the java in Java. It is strong. We are welcomed with tea, fried bananas, and other fried snacks. The toilet at what is presumably one of the better coffee shops doesn't appear to have a modern flushing system. A rusty handle spins round, offering no action. A basin next to the bowl is filled to the brim with water and a scoop is provided. Is it supposed to be for hand washing or toilet flushing? 

Bali - A limousine picks us up at the pier to take us to the St. Regis where we will spend the day. The driver opens a picnic basket and hands us cold washcloths, bottled water, and two round ring boxes, each containing a gourmet chocolate. As we ride through the gates of paradise, I am presented with a white flower. This resort is mesmerizing - 9 acres of incredible beauty. There must be about 100 black stone bowls in the lobby, each filled with different flowers in an array of colors. They are changed daily. The breakfast is world-renowned. The lobster omelet bathes in the most delicious bisque, the lobster's head adorned on the top. There is dim sum, pastries, and fruit of every kind. Another table contains a pot of broth, surrounded by bowls of ingredients - noodles, scallions, chicken, and spices I cannot identify. An attendant adds to the broth whatever you request. Servers come around with smoothies of fresh fruit. Tea is served through strainers of fresh leaves. 

We meet the managers who provide us with a tour, and a room for the day. Some villas have direct access to the beach and contain separate quarters for a butler to live on the premises with guests. Even the lead category rooms are stunning, the bathrooms larger than some New York apartments. There are ponds with fish, tiled pools, luxurious cabanas, lush greenery, waterfalls, and a massive outdoor stone pot which is lit nightly, during a fire dance ritual. It is a shame we can't be here to see it. At the beach, a hotel worker covers our lounge chairs and pillows with plush towels. Another brings a tray of cold wash cloths and bottled water. Yet another comes around, offering to clean guests' sunglasses. So this is how the one percent lives. 

Komodo Island - There are 17,508 islands in Indonesia, and we are on Komodo, inhabited by about 2,000 people and just as many Komodo dragons. These creatures, found only in these parts, can smell blood five miles away, can outrun humans, climb, dig, and swim. If you get bitten by one of these, they secrete so many toxins, odds are, you're done. Yet, here we are, trekking through this national park solely to see them, guides with long sticks, to protect us. We also have to watch for poisonous snakes which we are told are everywhere, offering new insight into the phrase, "pick your poison". Would it be less lethal to be bitten by a snake or a Komodo? I notice a serum bottle in a case carried by one of the rangers. We walk in groups, following each other, stepping on a path of broken coral, seashells, pulverized leaves, dry soil, and downed branches, in blistering heat, searching for signs of the "monsters." Fallen, decaying trees are everywhere, and someone says it looks like we are on Skull Island. 

Our first "find" is a small, flying lizard. Not quite what we expected, but we see it flutter its wings, and are told this is the only place they exist. We move onward, and the first large creatures we come across are deer. There are many, and they are huge, wandering through the dry field. One is perfectly still as a giant crow pick ticks from its back. It is by a small puddle of water, which the guide calls the watering hole, where we spot five Komodos. The largest one is about 10 feet long and 175 pounds. They appear to be very lazy, watching us photograph them, without moving. When one does rise, someone in our group runs a bit, and is told by the guide to stop. But the Komodo doesn't seem interested in pursuing us. They only feed six to eight times per year, and fortunately for us, it isn't feeding season, although the ranger does tell us that two children were recently killed by the dragons and a ranger was bitten. The villagers built a huge fence in an effort to protect themselves from their co-inhabitants, but the Komodos can climb it. We don't get to see this part of the island, and make it back to the ship without incident. Not even a Dengue fever mosquito bite. 

Cruising to Australia - Sea days are often the best part of cruising, and this itinerary has plenty of them. But a small ship like this - 190 passengers and a staff of 200 - doesn't offer the entertainment of larger vessels, so days are spent relaxing, often poolside, staring at the wonder of the ocean, reading, writing, and enjoying stunning sunsets, hoping to catch the elusive Green Flash, a rare occurrence that may be seen at sunset when there is an unobstructed view of the horizon. A ship at sea is one of the best places to observe it, but conditions have to be right. Each evening passengers gather at the back of the ship, hoping for a glimpse. The Internet connection is very poor so there is little communication with home, leaving lots of opportunity to make new friends. We chat with the ship's executive housekeeper, Thomas. Originally from Germany, he has been living in Indonesia for years now, so he offers insight into the culture. In the evening, we dine with Nona and Carol, the ship's main lecturer, a Gauguin expert. Both attended college in New York so we have some common ground. One of the day's highlights is an exotic fruit tasting that includes snake fruit, so named for its snake-like skin. The fruit itself is white and tastes a bit bland. There is also a bright pink passion fruit. 

Darwin, Australia - We're on poisonous snake patrol again - this time in the Australian outback - walking along a dusty path covered with crushed leaves. We're also eyeing countless fruit bats hovering in the trees above us. Fortunately, it's dry season so we can cross crocodile hazards off the watch list. We're at Litchfield National Park, home of the giant terminate mounds, some 12-feet tall. Terminates make these elaborate structures and live inside them, protecting themselves from the elements of the outback. If mounds like this existed at home, they would run a bulldozer over them. Here, they are tourist attractions. Some of the smaller ones, row after row, in a barren field, resemble tombstones. I spot one that looks like an outline of the Blessed Mother. Will it be made into a shrine? 

Sea days - Two more sea days until we hit land and an Internet connection. The weather here is a bit cooler and breezy so sitting poolside is difficult. We have dinner with Thomas, enjoying pleasant conversation. 

Thursday Island - Who ever heard of this place? It was once called Waiben which means "catfish". Today it is the commercial center of the Torres Strait Islands. The land belongs to Australia, but in the 1970's Papua New Guinea wanted to claim it, insisting it was within its borders. During World War 11, Thursday Island was used as a military base for Australian and U.S. troops. We see cannons that remain there, and the burial place of Japanese pearl shell divers. The pearling industry was once very big here. Our guide tells us houses are in demand, the most basic selling for $700,000 Australian dollars which seems exorbitant for such a desolate place. At the pier, we see a woman fishing with two young children. A huge silver fish is caught, and the boy, about 10, kills it before our eyes, expertly using a tremendous knife. Later, the girl, about 5, picks up this same knife and uses it like a pen to scribble in the fish blood. 

In the evening we are invited to a private bridge tour, and get to spend time with the captain, pilot, and other professionals on the bridge as we make our way through the narrow Albany passage, privy to the best view on the ship. 

Post-Cruise Stay in Cairns, Australia: 

Cairns, Australia Day 1 - Our extraordinary two-week cruise ends here, at the gateway to The Great Barrier Reef. We have a one-bedroom suite, with executive lounge privileges, at the gorgeous Shangri-La Hotel at the marina. Our huge balcony overlooks the harbor, which is lined with countless boats, and this panorama view continues into the living room, bedroom, and bathroom. We spend the afternoon walking the Boardwalk and exploring the town. Everyone is so pleasant, and many call us "mates". 

I pre-planned all our tours and the first is the Cairns Tropical Night Zoo and Australian barbecue where there's interactive fun, singing, dancing, food, unlimited wine and beer as well as close-ups with some animals, unique to this part of the world. I get to hold a Koala and pose for a photo with it. Later, a kangaroo eats right out of my hand. We watch them jump around their habitat and everyone is awed by how friendly and adorable they are, coming right up to us for the grain we're provided with. Fortunately, they know not to bite my hand off when the grain is gone. 

Day 2 - The Great Barrier Reef and Green Island. About 2,900 reefs make up the area known as The Great Barrier Reef which is so distinct, it can be seen from space. We are on a pontoon at the Norman Reef, best described as a docking station in the ocean, accessible by a tour boat. Some people are snorkeling off the side of the pontoon; others are diving. Lunch is being served; there's a sundeck above, and when you climb down one stairwell, there are underwater views of divers and huge fish. You can even board a helicopter for a look at the reef from the sky. We head to the semi-sub where we are submerged beneath the ocean in the comfort of a vessel, still privy to the huge coral reef structures. Some look like their own planets. Others are called "brain coral" because they resemble the organ. Purple feather-like structures wave past us, and colorful fish nibble at the reef. At one point a turtle swims by. 

Earlier, we spent two hours on Green Island, also part of the Great Barrier Reef. We expect it to be desolate, but it has gift shops, snack bars, a pool, and even a hotel. The small beach is barren except for a few sunbathers, and the ocean is beautiful shades of clear white and blue. The water is so transparent, coral can be seen from its surface. We make our way through the small rainforest on the island, along a modern Boardwalk, pausing to read signs explaining how the island evolved over thousands of years. We had prepared for a day of wet adventure as many Australians had warned us the boat ride out to the island and the pontoon could be rough, but this is not the case at all. The boat that transports us is larger than anticipated, and fully enclosed, a pleasant ride with cake, coffee, cheese, and crackers provided. The weather is cold and breezy so I wear a hooded sweatshirt on top of my bathing suit. I should have worn long pants. 

Day 3 - Our last day in Cairns is spent at Hartley's Crocodile Park where we see several crocodile shows, snakes, koalas, and get to feed and interact with the friendliest kangaroos and wallabies. Later we drive through Palm Cove, a lovely resort area, and have dinner at a restaurant that serves giant barbecued spare ribs. 

Day 4 - We have 30 hours of travel time: Cairns to Sidney; Sidney to Los Angeles; Los Angeles to New York. On the Sidney to Los Angeles, leg actress Linda Grey and actor Patrick Duffy are on our flight. 

For more information or to book a trip, 
contact "Commodore" Camille today. 

This article was accurate when it was written, but everything in life changes. Enjoy the journey! 

Copyright: Camille Pepe Sperrazza 

Bali, Indonesia. Lobby of the St. Regis Hotel