Hopping between five different ports in North Asia on The Love (To Eat and Drink) Boat, it dawns on me that I cruise, therefore I am
I am… In a hurry
I am due to board the M/V Silver Shadow in Shanghai in less than 24 hours. I am in Hong Kong, 1,200km to the south. It takes ten minutes to walk from my house to the ferry, half an hour to cross the harbour, as much time again to get to the train station, and 19 hours to reach Shanghai. Suffice to say, I embark before they haul up the gangplank, and en-route have time for a plateful of Shanghai’s trademark dumplings, juicy little cauls of pork and herbs, steaming hot and all the better for being eaten at an outside table under the curious gaze of passers-by (“that foreign bloke’s eating Chinese food”).
I am… All at sea
How to render the sound of a ship’s horn phonetically? Poop – toot – barp – wharp – they all lack the thrill of the echo and the associated grandiloquence of a 28,000-ton cruise ship being manhandled by tugs down a river at night – especially if that river is the Yellow River, and the backdrop’s provided by Shanghai’s neon-lit skyline. Next stop Korea, followed by Japan, Taiwan and finally back to Hong Kong.
I am… In the soup
Popping into the office of the Shadow’s Hotel Director with a minor query, I am confronted by an apparition.
The ship’s Hotel Director is called Helmut K Huber.
Helmut K Huber does not shake my proffered hand, or offer me a seat.
This is because Helmut K Huber is cross, nay, incensed, that I failed to wear a tie to the Captain’s welcome cocktail party.
Helmut K Huber tells me that He Has Sent An Email About My Behaviour To Head Office.
I forget whatever it was I came to ask, and go away.
Helmut K Huber is Austrian, and, according to the ship’s Who’s Who? leaflet, believes “Passion is the key ingredient to success”.
Helmut K Huber is, I later discover because I Google him, on Facebook. When last I checked, my Friend Request was still pending.
I am… Bemused
To while away the hours between meals, the Shadow provides a vast menu of entertainment, from Spanish lessons to bingo sessions, dance classes to shuffleboard. The resident art expert runs daily tours (NB most of the pieces are for sale), and an American academic waxes voluble about various aspects of Asia in what are wittily entitled Enrichment Lectures. “Abs Bums and Thighs with Vivienne” is, contrary to my initial thoughts, an aerobics work-out. Spoilt for choice and, as it’s too chilly to swim in the outdoor pool, I patrol the deck for much of the day, trying to recall a physics lesson which would have explained how a ship this size and weight keeps afloat, wondering where the fishing fleets we pass come from, and relishing the romance – not too soppy a word – of every moment at sea.
I am… Stuffed to the gills
Three square meals a day? Ha! My meals are dodecahedrons, and they are three-squared a day. In odd moments I fantasise about maximising my eating and drinking routine, rather as you might work out the world’s longest possible train journey or an alphabetical literary pub crawl. My best solution is: early morning coffee and croissant in the Observation Lounge; full English, Irish, Welsh, Manx, Scottish and Scilly and Channel Island breakfast on the balcony of my suite (no mere cabins here); crackers and bouillon at 11am in the Panorama Lounge; lunch in La Terrazza or the restaurant ingeniously dubbed The Restaurant; afternoon tea (sarnies and cakes plus pianist: v refined); dinner under the stars on the Pool Deck; late night snack in bed, ordered from Room Service; cleansing ale from minibar. Fall asleep trying to calculate how much this would cost in the real world.
I am … Not made of money, you know
It’s an all-in-one fare (including alcohol) aboard Silversea. And no need to tip either (though my Filipino butler and room attendant are such charmers I can’t help but slip them a couple of notes at the end of the voyage). But if you want, you can sample the Connoisseur’s Wine List (US$1,100 for the priciest Bordeaux, US$30 for a Californian Sauvignon Blanc) and book a table at the v posh Relais & Château resto. Spa treatments cost too, and if you’re silly enough to fall ill, the doctor charges US$125 (!) just to cross the threshold. I stay fit as a fiddle, avoid the spa, and stick to the regular F&B options.
I am… Transported
Shore excursions. Lots of passengers climb into limos or buses to get shuttled round the destination’s Top Ten (yawn), or similar. I set out under my own (free) steam. At the best ports – Incheon in Korea, Keelung in Taiwan – I can walk straight into town from the dock in a matter of minutes. On the island of Jeju, long the honeymoon destination of choice for generations of Koreans constrained either financially or patriotically or both. I find a bank to exchange money. The bank also sells rice, onions and spectacles, and offers free blood tests, which seems a lot more imaginative than simply shuffling dull piles of pelf.
In Keelung, wandering the backstreets, I am brought up short as a thickset man emerges from the shadows and stands in my path. He grabs my right hand. “Welcome to Taiwan, I hope you have a lovely day,” he smiles, and wanders on his way,
All port cities share a certain edginess and freewheeling cosmopolitanism. Sailing into, and out of, Incheon, Jeju, Okinawa and Keelung was always charged with excitement as the ship was slowly manoeuvred to the quayside, hawsers thrown, gangplank lowered, officials bustled about, and finally – like children let out of school – we were allowed to run along and explore. The sense of anticipation on the brink of the unknown was – for me – quite the best part of the voyage.
I am… Entertained
I never get around to watching the DVDs I borrow from the ship’s library, but I do read Norman Lewis’ travel anthology The Happy Ant-heap from cover to cover. There’s a nightly song and dance extravaganza by the ship’s resident troupe, all of whom I uncharitably suspect might have yet to acknowledge they’ve missed their chance at The Big Time.
I am… Making friends
I am the youngest and the thinnest passenger aboard, apart from four suspiciously polite and well behaved Swiss teenagers with their parents in tow. Yet all 200 or so passengers are, ha ha, in the same boat, so by the end of Day One I am on nodding terms with perhaps a score of folk, extended chatting terms with a dozen, and have been granted full biographical access to a retired couple from west London. These figures increase exponentially throughout the voyage. It’s an amiable, welcoming ambience, even if some passengers can measure the time they’ve spent afloat in years (!), and get a little sniffy about falling standards.
Call it home-grown patriotism, but gosh Hong Kong looks superb as we steam into harbour in bright sunshine not long after dawn. Myriad skyscrapers seem to applaud as we round the point to tie up at China Merchant Wharf. If I can’t actually see the flypast by air force jets and the ticker tape raining down, I can certainly visualise it. I’ve flown into Hong Kong, arrived by train, and even pushed a bike across the border, but to sail here has to be the best homecoming yet devised.
Factbox: Apparently it’s not true that Silversea (www.silversea.com) adjusts its prices for certain routes when it believes heavy-drinking nationals may be likely to board. Silversea cruises cost approximately £330 a day, excluding airfares.
Read more about Hong Kong in my Expert guide here