Surabaya with Blue Bird

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On my recent twelve-night Indonesian cruise aboard Seabourn Odyssey, only one port proved troublesome for advance planning (something I don’t like that much) – Surabaya.

Surabaya was a mystery.

Plan A was to come up with a tour or other planned activity for the day.  The ship’s tours did not sound at all interesting (and were much more expensive than other ports with more exciting draws) so that was out.  We researched, we read, we asked others – but we couldn’t come up with any must sees for this port.  Most information pointed back to this being a jumping off point for the Mt. Bromo volcano, but since we already had planned a trip to see it out of Probolinggo (the closer port), that wasn’t an option here.  The “G Walk” foodie neighborhood looked interesting, but didn’t appear to have much daytime activity and was fairly far from the port.

Plan B was to run this as a “do it yourself” port, which is frankly one of my favorite kinds – get off, wander a bit, treat myself to a local meal or spa treatment or some shopping, and then get back on the ship to enjoy an afternoon in port.  After all, staying on the ship on a port day can have some benefits – fewer people on board, port day specials at the spa, and sometimes an unobstructed lounge chair perch on the pool deck.

The day before this stop we finally made a stop to see the shore excursions representative at Seabourn Square (Odyssey’s nerve center) to see what information they had.  One plus on Seabourn is that they recognize that many of their travelers are fairly savvy and experienced and thus want to do their own thing in port versus take organized tours.  As such, they prepare daily “do it yourself” information for each port with guides to transit, key sights, prime shopping, and culture.

Our hope was that a free town shuttle would run, something that has been pretty common for Seabourn in many ports where the sights are not an immediate walk from the ship.  This is usually organized by the port itself (or in the case of one Black Sea stop this past summer, by a local shopping mall hoping to lure business) so Seabourn doesn’t guarantee this will be available.

And available for this port it was not.

The representative told us that they had tried to arrange one but that the local taxi company did not allow a shuttle to operate.  She further elaborated that the port was located over four miles from town and the area was not considered safe to walk.  But the icing on the cake was that the local taxi company reported to the ship that we could expect to pay $50 US for a taxi ride into town.

We asked about interesting sights and the only one that stood out was a local cigarette factory/museum (where clove cigarettes are still rolled by hand, although the operation is now owned by Phillip Morris).  The town also boasts a couple of monuments (one is a decommissioned submarine), a flower market, and some archeological ruins about 90 minutes from town.

None of this sounded that promising for the potential cost.  It was starting to look like this would be a day on the ship.

But we decided to try our luck – a day of light shopping and some spa time was what we really desired.  I’ve spent enough time in SE Asia to know that if we could just get to a large shopping mall, we’d likely find interesting shops and a selection of inexpensive spas.  So the goal getting off the ship was to see if we could get a ride to town for less than $50 US.  I knew that Blue Bird Taxi operated in Surabaya and had past experience with them being a reasonable and reliable option in Jakarta and Denpasar.  I thought maybe I could get a Blue Bird for less although they did not list the port as one of their designated pick up spots and I was unable preorder since I am not a local resident.

We docked in Surabaya at a shiny new terminal.

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VERY new, as it would turn out – we were the first passenger ship to call at this new facility!  It was so new that there was still plastic wrapping on some of the signage.  And half the town had turned out, it seemed, to welcome us.  All day there were video camera, press, and cultural performances to show off the heritage of the city.

We made our way to the local transit desk that was set up.  And it turns out that Blue Bird IS the group that controls the port.  Fortunately the ship’s information on local transportation was not completely accurate.  It turns out that $51 US would buy us three hours of a dedicated taxi/car.  That was unfortunately the least expensive option that was available, but it would allow the opportunity to construct our own tour.  The representatives were available with local maps and suggestions of what to see and would put together a route for the driver to follow to ensure no communication issues.

We decided we wanted to go see the cigarette factory/museum and then find a local shopping mall, going by way of one of the monuments and the flower market, from what we could see by the map.  The ship had recommended a street with several malls that purported to have good shopping and we figured we’d find a spa there.  The Blue Bird representatives wanted to send us to a newer shopping mall further outside of town (about 30 minutes away from what I could tell).

My friend asked about spas and they wanted to send us to a western hotel (a Sheraton, I believe) to a spa there.  I balked – the point of going into town to a local spa was to pay local (read: cheap) prices for massages.  A western hotel would not have the prices I wanted.  After much discussion we insisted that the local shopping mall that the ship recommended would be fine for us.  Nonetheless the representative added the spa onto our itinerary after the mall, possibly thinking we’d still want to go there after the mall and I gave up discussing it, figuring we could change it with the driver later.

We paid our $51 US (in cash – although credit cards were also accepted) and a driver liaison walked us from the counter down to the curb to our awaiting car.  We were given a black SUV (versus a blue taxi) but all of the cars/drivers that I saw were Blue Bird and supervisors appeared to be watching the assignments so I don’t think it would have been possible to walk directly to the curb to get a taxi independently (although we did not try).  I also researched later with Blue Bird again and it did not appear that I could have bypassed Blue Bird unless I found an independent (non Blue Bird) driver/guide somehow.  The only ones I found via my travel agent or Tours With Locals were more expensive than even the ship’s organized tours.

We left the port driving past the large Jalesveva Jayamahe naval monument I had first seen from my veranda that morning as we arrived in port.  We passed the traditional seaport as well.

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Our first stop was the House of Sampoerna cigarette factory/museum located in “Old Surabaya”.  This free museum is open daily from 9 am to 10 pm and allows visitors a peek behind this historic Indonesian industry.  The museum is set up to be self-guided and the upstairs includes both a gift shop and an overlook into the current factory where employees still hand roll and hand package clove cigarettes.

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We then drove through several neighborhoods and by the Submarine Monument on our way to the shopping district off Jalan Pemuda.  We had asked to either go to Delta Plaza or Plaza Surabaya and I’m not entirely sure which mall we ended up with.  We paid for our driver to park in the garage (parking was not included in our $51 US for three hours) and assured him we would be fine and would text him when we were ready to return to the mall.

The mall was a typical “local” mall for SE Asia with a mix of shops.  We did some window shopping and checked out the price lists at a half dozen spas that we found (as expected) and made a stop in the basement food court for a snack before deciding to go back to the spa we decided looked the nicest/cleanest (and incidentally was the most expensive).  We treated ourselves to a 90 minute reflexology foot massage for the equivalent of $10 US which was a lovely treat.

One thing we found amusing was that our driver basically followed us from floor to floor in the mall, staying a distance behind us but still trailing like a security shadow.  My theory (based on past Indonesian driver experiences) was that he was lurking to collect any commissions from shopping we did (as shops will sometimes pay drivers for bringing people to them).  Sadly for him, we did not do much shopping.

Once we finished our foot massages, we decided it was time to return to the ship.  We let the driver know that we did not need to make the additional out-of-town shopping/spa stop that the Blue Bird representative added to our slip.  At this point, we’d been gone just shy of four hours, but I had confirmed the hourly rate of $17 US for additional hours after the three we had prepaid for.

Our driver dropped us at the curb, handed a supervisor the original taxi order, and bid us farewell.  The supervisor walked us back upstairs to the Blue Bird desk where we paid the additional hour.

All in all, it was a nice day in Surabaya and I am glad I had the opportunity to see the port.  If I visited again in the future, I’d have no hesitation to put together my itinerary of what I wanted to see and again hire a Blue Bird for the day as it was a much better (and more economical) way to see the city without being trapped in a guided tour group.

I also found out about new free tram tours being offered daily by a group called Surabaya Heritage Track.  They offer three 60 to 90 minute tours each day that leave from the House of Sampoerna at 9 am, 1 pm, and 3 pm.  These would potentially offer another view to the city although with our time in port, only the 1 pm tour would have been feasible with our ship’s schedule.

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That said, however, the port terminal itself (which I’ll discuss in a separate post) held it’s own intrigue and would be a good alternate plan for individuals wanting a light day sandwiched in between the more activity intensive ports of Semarang and Probolinggo.

About Jennifer Moody

Jennifer is a management consultant and avid volunteer. Her career and volunteer duty travels have helped her log top-tier airline and hotel status annually for the last eighteen years. In addition, she embraces the opportunity to maximize her vacation time by planning extracurricular trips that have taken her to over 60 countries and 47.5 US states. Although she averages 200 days a year on the road, she loves to return to “the homestead” in her native Fort Worth, Texas where she enjoys cooking, gardening, sewing, needlepoint, wine, and cocktail mixology.

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