From Hong Kong to Japan – via a taste of real home-cooking in Beijing – Holland America’s feast of the East left Louise Roddon hungry for more.
The only thing I can see is a pair of legs, stuffed into wellies. The only thing I can hear is the soft rasp of a spade as my shallow grave ﬁlls with scorching sand. I can barely move, and as my skin sizzles I’m thankful that I’m wearing a kimono.
Being buried alive might sound like a bizarre excursion choice, even if it was for therapeutic reasons (it’s great for the skin and circulation, apparently). But this was Japan, and a traditional “onsen” sand bath was just one extraordinary experience during a 14-day cruise that offered a fabulous introduction to the cultures of the Far East.
Starting from Hong Kong, Holland America’s 1,300-passenger Volendam sailed ﬁrst to Shanghai, where an overnight stop gave just a taste of what this amazing metropolis has to offer.
Volendam’s relatively compact size allowed her to bypass the remote Wusongkou terminal and dock on the Huangpu River in the heart of the city. We strolled ashore to dine among elegant skyscrapers, watching the dazzle of animated advertisements colouring their facades (my choice was a little noodle bar just off the Bund, Shanghai’s famous waterfront, where I enjoyed a feast of tender pork dumplings, fragrant broth and ﬁendishly garlicky spinach).
Next morning, grateful for more time to explore, I ambled along the broad waterside promenade, dodging focused-looking joggers, then took a trip up the lofty Jin Mau Tower, from where our ship was just a smog-smudged blur on the river below. I also found time for a ride on the incredible Maglev train that links Shanghai to Pudong airport – though at scenery-blurring speeds of up to 260mph, this 20-mile journey takes a mere eight minutes.
Volendam offers a more leisurely but equally delightful way to travel. Being an older vessel her décor is a little dated here and there, though I soon grew to love the traditional promenade on Deck 3 (complete with wooden steamer chairs and tartan rugs), and the cosy window-facing armchairs in the Crow’s Nest bar. Sea days were mostly spent snoozing on deck, as the Yellow Sea swished about under mist-laden skies – though the one occasion when we bucked through a Force 8 found me ﬂ ailing about on the cross-trainer in the gym.
The food was excellent, with choices reﬂecting our ports of call, as well as perfectly cooked ﬁsh, chicken and rack of lamb in the Rotterdam dining room (where the lovely Marni always remembered my food quirks, often bringing me extra spinach without needing to be asked).
The ship has three extra-fee restaurants: Canaletto, which offers authentic Italian dishes, from delicious seafood pasta to tender veal and tiramisu; then there are the burgers and hot dogs on Deck 8 and the superb “just-so” steaks and ﬂavoursome lobster served up in the Pinnacle Grill, where gilded chairs and cosy corner banquettes set off the artwork-covered walls.
Our next stop after Shanghai was Seoul, an unashamed tourist haven where kiosks advertise “full boby” massage and you can hire a traditional hanbok costume for just $10 ( Chinese tourists actually do this, parading in brightly coloured robes and pale, plastered make-up through the 14th century Royal Palace, seemingly less interested in the glorious pagoda-topped court buildings than in taking the ultimate selﬁe).
Volendam’s passengers were a more cultured lot, and I loved the lectures on Chinese history delivered by the elegant and hugely amusing Master Kam. The theatre was always packed for his talks, and he liked to spring a surprise, arriving in traditional Chinese robes then cracking jokes, usually affectionate barbs aimed at his wife (“it’s always best to obey her”).
Knowledge gleaned from Master Kam made our shore excursions much more meaningful, and I couldn’t wait for my private Beijing tour (£230 booked through Wendy Wu, and remarkably good value).
A three-hour drive from the cruise terminal at Tianjin, China’s capital is often smog-bound. On the day after my tour the visibility was bad enough to close the motorway, resulting in coach-loads of disappointed guests, but for me the air stayed relatively clear and the journey whizzed by as I took in views of green paddy ﬁelds, clusters of high rises and pretty parks where couples danced beneath blossom-festooned trees.
Beijing might lack the architectural dazzle of Shanghai, but I loved it all the same: the food stalls with their plastic pavement chairs occupied by noodle-slurping workers, the crazy rickshaw ride that had me clinging to my seat as we whizzed by Tiananmen Square and into the neighbouring lanes, and the peaceful courtyards of the Imperial Palace where a cat sprawled beneath a magnolia tree.
The highlight, though, was my visit to a “hutong”, a traditional complex of narrow alleys and secluded courtyards, where one-storey homes share spotless communal showers. Here I was privileged to join a local family for lunch – a feast of pork stir-fry and spicy cabbage cooked up by Uncle Wang and his niece, Qian Qian, and eaten in a little room lined with family photos. Sadly, they were too busy cooking for other guests to chat, but this enterprising homespun business still managed to feel special rather than touristy.
Another spell at sea brought us to Japan, and I lost a bit of my heart to this lovely country. It was cherry blossom season here too, and the delicate pink blooms, clouding against slender dark branches, offered balm to the eyes after our harrowing visit to Nagasaki’s atomic bomb museum.
Despite the grim exhibits illustrating the horrors of that fateful day in 1945, Nagasaki today appears a cheery place where couples pelt each other with blossom in the Peace Park and schoolchildren in the museum stare in awe at prettily painted lacquer screens.
At our next port of call, the small town of Kagoshima at the foot of a vast volcano, the locals had turned out to welcome us with energetic ﬂag-waving and a band of youthful drummers.
The geothermal springs here heat the surrounding sands, and some 20 of us volunteered for the sand-bath treatment, giggling with hilarity (or perhaps nerves).
It was a hugely enjoyable day that set me up for tackling Tokyo – the world’s busiest city and our next stop. Volendam’s excursion manager, Jeremy, recommended downloading a Tokyo metro app, and this did the trick even though our arrival coincided with rush hour and a torrential downpour. When I did lose my way, Tokyo’s helpful commuters put me right, often with a gracious bow.
A soggy day tour, including a temple visit and a river cruise, left me envious of those staying for post-cruise extensions, but my overnight at the Mandarin Oriental was a delight. I was spellbound watching the hotel’s sushi chef at work, the knife a blur in his hands, and I loved my spa facial the next day, preceded by a wallow in thermal waters in front of huge picture windows, 38 ﬂoors up. This vast city was spread out beneath me and there was Mount Fuji, like a delicate domed iced cake, etched on the horizon. It’s an image I will never forget, and one that I’m determined to see again.
Shanghai to Yokohama with Holland America, 14 days via Qingdao and Tianjin, China; Incheon and Jeju, S Korea; Osaka and Shimizu, Japan, departing 28 March 2018, £1,899pp excluding international ﬂights (0843 374 2300, hollandamerica.com). Mandarin Oriental Tokyo has double rooms from £380 (0081 33270 8800, mandarinoriental/tokyo)