The maiden voyage trip of the luxury boutique The Strand Cruise was, without a doubt, one of my absolute travel highlights of 2015. Departing from Bagan, in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), and making a 4-day journey on the Ayeyarwady river towards Mandalay, the Strand Cruise offers only 27 cabins – bringing the maximum number of passengers to 54. Small and cozy – just the way I like it.
Full disclosure here: I had been on a cruise in 2012, and even though I enjoyed it (it was the ‘business class’ of a larger ship), I have consciously not been on one ever since – but the allure of what was in fact a boutique hotel on water, and a staff ratio of 2:1 and stunning scenery made us decide to change our plans (and booked air tickets) from Rio de Janeiro and join the maiden voyage of The Strand Cruise.
We started our journey in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where we spent 36 fantastic hours (blog post to follow, worry not!) and after 2 nights in town, we made our way to Myanmar. We flew with Malaysia Airlines from KL to Yangon, the capital, and from there, took an interesting domestic flight to Bagan, with 2 stops along the way.
Our driver met us at the airport, and within 20 minutes, we made it to where the Strand Cruise was moored, and I have to say, we were very very excited.
We were welcomed by fresh towels and invited to leave our shoes at the door, so they could be cleaned – something that happened every time we re-entered the ship, and I have to say, set the tone for what was to come. We were escorted to our Strand Cabin, which I was dying to see as I had only seen computer-generated images and nothing beats real life, as they say.
As I don’t want to spoil your future journey, and describe every single step of the trip – it really wouldn’t be fair, I would like to invite you to take a guided tour of The Strand Cruise, which will hopefully leave you wanting for more. A lot more.
From the minute we stepped on the boat, we really felt like we were at a boutique hotel. Everything felt spacious and the decor was lovely. Our cabin, a ‘Strand Cabin’ had a very good layout – with a fabulous bed, a separate seating area and bathroom.
I was a little bit worried about the storage area, and at the end (namely when I asked for an extra 15 hangers, ha), it all worked very well. I am not afraid to admit that I am NOT a light packer.
We arrived just as it was getting dark, hence the photos – but I was also able to take a day light photo. One can describe this as a room with a view indeed. One can wake to great views – but that depends where the boat is moored each day (so take a peek before opening your window in the morning!).
With regards to the bathroom, I have to say, it was one of the parts that impressed me the most. Good size, excellent fittings and a great shower. Also loved the Roger & Gallet toiletries which were very good quality and smelled delicious – so no need to pack anything else.
Housekeeping comes round in the morning and for turn-down and we never had a problem with timings.
Bring brand spanking new, and built to spec, there were obviously no excuses for oversights – and there were none. I loved the decor of the ship, which gave us a great sense of place, so to speak. It was modern, local but very very homely. I felt very comfortable everywhere and obviously the staff helped.
The ship has a dining room, a lounge and bar, an outside deck with seating area, a pool, a gym and a spa – so there is something for everyone. With only 50-something passengers it obviously does not get busy or crowded.
One of the largest selling points of The Strand Cruise is, without a doubt, the sundeck and pool – which other boats do not offer. Obviously it is small, but it was never ever too busy. We used it namely for afternoon naps which were much needed.
The ship has 2 spa treatment rooms and we booked a 1-hour massage each ($65) – we were the very first guests to have a treatment and really quite enjoyed it. We wanted to book more, but afternoon time over the next couple of days was not easy to find. Next time.
On the opposite side of the sundeck, you will find the outdoor lounge, where we enjoyed lunch every day and obviously used as a place to socialise and top up our sun tans. At night, this is where we watched the sunset and had a gin & tonic or three. This is also the only smoking area on the ship.
There is one restaurant for everyone – and you can always choose to have your meals outdoors or indoors. We chose to have breakfast and dinner indoors and lunch outdoors. The three meals, including soft drinks and wine are included in the cost of the cruise – and not only were the wines good, I felt they were very generous by leaving a significant amount of extra bottles at the bar for some post dinner indulgence. If you wanted a coffee or a soft drink or water during the day, it was never charged.
The food was excellent and varied – my only comment was that it was too ‘international’. Having travelled all the way to Asia, I would have expected more local food, but also understand that many guests come from that part of the world and fancy something different. All in all, no problems. If anything, we were overfed – we had afternoon tea on the first afternoon and never again, as it really was too much.
Worth noting that most of the management team is French, so there is a significant French influence in all the food – obviously that means excellent bread and pastries too.
The bar was well stocked and had a good selection of gin – the tonic was the issue. It is one of the hardest items to get in Myanmar (it is easier to get foie gras, put it this way). Fever Tree is not popular in Asia yet, and Schweppes disappears in seconds at the market. But the team (potentially surprised with how much gin was enjoyed) promised to look into this – we never ran out of tonic, for the record, it just wasn’t ‘it’.
Excursions and activities
All excursions and activities (with the exception of spa treatments, of course) are included except one: the hot air ballooning in Bagan, which costs $350 per person.
We did this on the very first day and loved it. It involves a 4.30am wake up call but the views were worth a million dollars. A word of advice: if you want to do it, book it when you book your trip as there may not be any room left. The reason why I say this is that our ‘balloon pilot’ told us that on some days, there are 200+ people on a waitlist. There is a limited number of balloons and only one flight a day, so it is a game of supply and demand.
You get picked up by a local private bus, then given a safety briefing over a light breakfast and up you go. The whole experience lasted over 2 hours, and that includes the transfers, the flight and the post-flight breakfast, which is served with sparkling wine. It gets very cold in the morning, and the Strand team had these lovely shawls that we were able to take with us.
Every day, we had excursions organised for us – always with a different type of transportation! From carriages, to tuk-tuks, it was all covered. You do not have to go on anything you don’t want – I skipped one on Christmas Day as I fancied a little lie in. No problems whatsoever.
My favourite excursion was Mingun, where we visited the unfinished pagoda and the Bell. Mr. O decided to be brave and climbed all the way to the top.
On another day, we visited Ava which had the most exquisite temple. We visited just before sunset and I will never forget the views. Note that these excursions took an hour or so each, so it wasn’t ‘too much sightseeing’ at all.
The whole journey, which took 4 days (and 4 nights), was stunning. I was worried that it would get a bit the same, but with all the hops and excursions, if anything, I felt I needed more time on the ship.
We were the first guests of the ship and on the first day, I would say that there had been some growing pains. But, in all honesty, the managing team was absolutely on top of their game and everything became great. Day to day you saw the staff’s confidence increasing, and it was wonderful to see their sense of achievement by the time we ended the cruise. Hats off to the team. Everyone was super kind and contributed a lot to our experience.
The Strand Cruise offers a 2:1 staff to guest ratio, which is the highest of all luxury cruises operating in the area.
We did not have the satellite wi-fi working during our trip, but I understand this is now up and running. We bought a local SIM card from the ship reception and were able to get 3G when we were closer to shore. Not a problem at all.
My final verdict:
If you are considering a trip to this part of the world (and you should), I absolutely recommend the Strand Cruise. The boat was gorgeous, we were very well looked after, and really really relaxed. There was no motion and we slept really well. If anything, 4 days was not enough. And this coming from a non-cruiser, is saying something.
And saving the best for last – one of our fellow passengers made a spectacular video using a drone during our trip. It showcases this journey from a completely different perspective and I urge you to watch. You won’t be sorry.
Disclaimer and Fact Box: My husband and I were guests of the Strand Cruise and opinions are, as always, my own.
The lead in price for a three-night journey on the Strand Cruise between Mandalay and Bagan is from US$1,782 per person and the four-night journey between Bagan and Mandalay is from US$1,976 per person, both based on double occupancy. There is a special launch offer for sailings from now until the end of April 2016 of 20% off published rates. Price includes all excursions and activities as described in the itinerary, three meals during full sailing days, breakfast on day of disembarkation, soft drinks & local beer, house wine during meals, port charges, English speaking guides (alternative language guides can be provided on request subject to availability), satellite WI-FI in all cabins and public areas and complimentary international daily newspapers available on guest’s digital tablets.