A multi-stop trip to Asia, an adventure on bucket lists around the world, immediately conjures up nightmarish images of frantic connections and language barriers. If only someone could take care of the travelling and leave you to enjoy the destination.
In the space of two weeks, I visited the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong and mainland China with a minimum of fuss, and without once having to ask for directions. Welcome to the wonderful world of cruises.
The Volendam, soon to be my home for 14 days, is an unassuming sight in port. Recently refurbished, the mid-size Holland America Line vessel looks remarkably upbeat and perky compared to its enormous neighbours.
Don’t let the small size deceive you, however. There’s space for around 1450 passengers, but at no time do I feel crowded. Economy this ain’t.
One advantage of a “middie” is that the smaller size means less time to disembark for shore excursions. With so many stops on the itinerary, that’s definitely a plus.
Another advantage – if you’re not in the family market – is fewer kids around; this ship isn’t big enough for water slides (although there is a kids club). On this 14-day journey, there were 1330 passengers of which 935 were aged between 51-74 and there were fewer than 10 children (17 or younger).
The trip started out well; I had a “free” night’s accommodation in Hong Kong where Volendam was waiting for us before heading into the South China Sea. It was enough for to enjoy the local nightlife and have dinner while others visited markets or just strolled the city.
Once onboard, we were happy to discover our room (1823) had a massive amount of storage space and the bathroom had a double-sized shower.
Overall, the ship had a mellow and chilled-out vibe compared to other cruises I’d experienced. The meals in the Lido Market buffet, where self-service is all but erased, were on the shallow side, but that’s also a good thing.
Beside the main dining room and buffet, the two specialty restaurants are the Pinnacle Grill (additional $39), which has a feature evening with Rudi’s Sel de Mer seafood fare, and Canaletto ($15), which serves Italian cuisine.
Disembarking for day tours was effortless, but expect delays in Japan (Naha) and China (Shanghai) because of the need to first pass through immigration upon arrival.
Like all cruises, day tours are charged in US dollars and it pays to study the itinerary like a Melbourne Cup form guide.
While there’s a detailed description and duration of each tour, there’s no breakdown of the time spent travelling or at each attraction.
In Taiwan, for instance, Taipei Highlights was a four-hour tour that included two shrines, one memorial and just five minutes at Taipei 101 skyscrapper – for a photo.
If you’re a church, shrine or temple junkie, meanwhile, you will overdose on choice – there are more than 20 tours featuring some type of religious or war attraction. If you’re a “I’ve seen one church, I’ve seen them all” sort of person, however, then choose wisely.
On The Charms of Old Manila tour, we spent an hour at a church and that was after a 45-minute trundle through a reconstructed 19th century building. In other words, in true Manila style, the building was a knock-off.
Truth be known, this was not the tour I chose, but when you miss the bus for Modern Manila, you really shouldn’t complain. The tour organisers, realising my stupidity, went out of their way to accommodate me, which I was more grateful for than the tour itself.
When it came to choosing Japanese tours, I stayed clear of all religious attractions, but not war memorials given what happened in 1945.
The Nagasaki Peace Park and nearby museum and memorial were moving experiences while the day trip ended with a cable car to Mt Inasa, which provided a panoramic view of the city. Directly below us were a cluster of some extraordinary modern houses, including a stand-out pink, two-storey building, squeezed on the side of a hill with next to no car access.
The final port of call, Shanghai, was another overnight and, like Hong Kong, provided a full day to experience this amazing city, before it disappointingly came to an end the following morning.
GETTING THERE: Any number of international carriers fly direct to Hong Kong from Australian capitals where the cruise departs including Qantas, Virgin Australia, Cathay Pacific and British Airways. Return flights home should be from Shanghai.
STAYING THERE: Arrive on the same day as the cruise check-in opens and you get a “free” night’s accommodation onboard because the cruise does not depart until the following day. Otherwise stay at InterContinental Grand Stanford with rooms from AU $250. Transfers to the cruise port are also available from here. Visit www.intercontinental.com/HongKong
PLAYING THERE: The next similar trip is February 3, 2019: A 14-day trip from Hong Kong to Shanghai via Taiwan and Japan on the Westerdam. Prices twin-share. Inside (Cabin): AU $2,379. Obstructed Oceanview: AU $2,909. Verandah : AU $3,489. Signature Suite: AU $5,449.
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