Far East foray
A traditional cruise carries us away on an itinerary that sees us shopping, eating and exploring our way through some of Asia’s most exotic, colourful and historic urban centres.
Dipping in and out of Asian ports, this spring cruise on the Silver Shadow has culture, chopsticks and even mechanical crabs. Shanghai looks like a funfair at night, with its madcap skyline, punctuated with buildings that look like robots, pagodas and giant bottle openers. The wide Huangpu River that divides the old town from the new is insanely busy after dark, a traffic jam of dark barges, sleek motor cruisers and ferries lit up with fairy lights.
Sitting on our verandah on the sixth deck of Silversea’s Silver Shadow, we feel like we’re right in the river among it. The Silver Shadow is a small ship, so she has been able to dock right in the centre of the city, with views of both Pudong district and the famous riverfront boulevard, The Bund. A slew of shiny new portside skyscrapers flash dazzling neon, colouring our departure. It’s an exhilarating way to start a cruise that will take us to Tianjin (Beijing); the Japanese inland sea; and Hiroshima, Osaka, Kyoto and, finally, Tokyo. Of all the small-ship cruise lines, Silversea is the classic. It’s the cruise line you choose when you want true slow travel, time to read, play cards, listen to jazz or classical music, learn about ancient China or the history of Hollywood movies, and eat exceptionally well — four or five times a day if you wish, with silver service (of course). It’s also one of the cruise lines that keeps many of the traditions of cruising from an earlier era — ‘gentlemen hosts’ employed to dance with single ladies, butlers suited dashingly in tails, and formal evenings during which guests must dress to the nines. Certain aspects have been brought forward to the 21st century — no set seating assignments or dinnertimes and all-inclusive alcohol, for instance — but the guests on this cruise seem happy to do old-school activities such as rugging up on deckchairs with a good book from the wellstocked library or sipping pre-dinner martinis in the 1930s-feel Art Deco bar. It’s not the sort of cruise for those who need to be entertained every moment and expect Broadway spectaculars and climbing walls. The shore excursions tend to have an emphasis on history and culture.
After sailing for two days, our first port is Tianjin, China. We opt out of the long bus excursion to Beijing but explore the port city of 15 million people, which is still an hour’s ride from the dock. It’s a surprise — gleaming, well-planned, planted with millions of trees and shrubs, and almost entirely modern apart from the ‘concession’ areas of lovely old 19th-century British, German, Italian and French mansions. The Cultural Square has two exceptional museums — an art gallery showcasing Chinese scrolls and other paintings, and the Tianjin Museum, which contains rooms of beautiful porcelains, jade that dates to the Neolithic era, and delicate ink and stone prints. We also stop by a mansion, once owned by the Shi family, where 19th-century life has been preserved. There’s a lot to admire — canopied beds, tearooms, a timber-lined theatre and some pretty wonderful but dusty dioramas. We cruise through the Yellow Sea, edging around Korea to Hiroshima, situated on Japan’s largest island, Honshu, on the Seto Inland Sea. It’s raining, which seems appropriate for a visit to the famous ‘A-bomb dome’, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and former government building that took the brunt of the blast on 6 August, 1945, when the American warplane the Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb. It’s symbolic for the city that the metal dome and building ruins still stand. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum contains artefacts from the bombing (graphic photographs, burnt clothing) and a gripping visual reconstruction of the bomb drop, showing the devastation of the city that obliterated 400,000 people, many within one minute. Outside the museum, ladies stand with placards reading ‘no war’.
OSAKA IS THE ‘KITCHEN OF JAPAN’, WITH ITS STELLAR REPUTATION FOR FOOD
Next, we sail to Osaka. Some guests take the bullet train to Kyoto (only 15 minutes), but we stay to explore Osaka, the ‘kitchen of Japan’, with its stellar reputation for food. Tofu dishes and okonomiyaki, a Japanese savoury pancake, are specialties. We wander the undercover shopping mall Shinsaibashi and visit a simple restaurant for chicken and tender, crunchy pork katsu.
After lunch, we hang out in Amerikamura, the young, fashionable part of town that’s the birthplace of street culture in Japan. It’s fabulous for people-watching; there are some kooky characters here. We then walk Dotonbori, a long, neon-lit street parallel to the canal that’s lined with restaurants, food stalls, and an amazing number of mechanical crabs. Our last day at sea, we catch some rays outside the Panorama Lounge, where they serve afternoon tea daily, and watch the white water disappear behind us. Disembarking in Tokyo is a joy — friendly port staff help us with luggage, customs, immigration and taxis. Volunteers hand us gifts and help with directions.
Tokyo is a riot of spring flowers. We set out for Aoyama, the fashionable district of luxury brand stores, designer boutiques and the Nezu Museum, which has an exquisite garden. It’s iris time, and the one month of the year when bowls of matcha tea and iris-painted mocha, or sweets, are served in a traditional teahouse among the maples and willows. It’s the perfect end to our Asian adventure.
THIS PAGE a festive ferry floats along Shanghai’s Whangpoo River at night. OPPOSITE PAGE Prada store in Ginza, Japan.