“Greatest Journeys” is the theme of National Cruise Week 2012. And they don’t come much greater than the Far East voyage I made on Diamond Princess earlier this year, visiting China, South Korea and Japan. Here’s my report, as published in the DAILY MIRROR
Considering the unspeakable horror heaped on it in the name of war – or peace, depending on your point of view – the city of Nagasaki bears its scars lightly.
A simple black obelisk and a symbolic marble tomb mark Ground Zero, directly beneath the explosion of the Fat Man atomic bomb on August 9, 1945, which killed as many as 80,000 and brought about the end of the Second World War.
In the nearby Peace Park a 33-ft white statue, its right hand pointing to the sky, looks incongruously like a long-limbed and muscle-bound hippy, dominating a clutch of gilded memorials presented in guilt by nations from around the world.
The Atomic Bomb Museum is a relatively modest collection of relics – and all the more moving for its human scale. The restored facade of the Urakami Cathedral and a collection of distorted girders cannot compete with burnt and torn school uniforms, twisted spectacle frames and beer bottles fused together when it comes to making the visitor pause for a moment’s thought.
There’s even a clump of glass melted around the bones of the hand that was holding it when the bomb detonated at 11.02 am – the time indicated by clocks and watches which never moved from that moment on.
The visit made for an uncomfortable morning – all the more so thanks to relentless rain – but it would have been churlish to have travelled this far without making the pilgrimage.
There would be many opportunities later in the holiday for more light-hearted moments and chances to spend enough money on shopping to affect the balance of trade.
I was travelling in the Far East on a cruise – taking the opportunity to flit from one country to another almost as effortlessly as if I had my own magic carpet. And while I had already travelled a long way to join my ship, the 2,674-passenger Diamond Princess, she had come home to the city where she was built in 2004.
Our voyage of discovery began in Beijing in mainland China; the Diamond carried us to Korea, Japan, and back to China for Shanghai. After I jumped ship part way through the voyage in Hong Kong, it continued to Vietnam, Bangkok and Singapore, from where it would make the entire journey again, in reverse order.
As ever, there is no better way to explore so many countries and places in a short time than by cruise ship. No need to keep packing and unpacking – just enjoy dinner on board, have a relaxing night’s sleep, wake up each morning to a different view.
And forget the Caribbean, the Baltic, the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Gulf; The Far East is cruising’s latest hotspot, although it was pretty chilly when I arrived.
It had been a three-hour drive from Beijing airport to the seaport of Tianjin, along an eight-lane highway that sliced through freezing fog, and I had never before arrived on a ship to be greeted by makeshift signs warning “Beware of Ice” on the promenade deck. But Captain Bob Oliver, from Suffolk, who spends each summer on Diamond Princess in Alaska and has taken cruise ships to Antarctica, said he had never felt as cold as during the approach to China that week.
Our welcome on board was warm enough, however, and a day at sea provided time to settle in before we reached the south Korean port of Busan, a bustling industrial city which concealed some attractive beaches between its container yards and soaring skyscraper apartment blocks.
Hardly the place to explore independently, so a ship’s excursion took us to the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple (top), a spectacular shrine down 100 steps at the bottom of a cliff by the sea, and well worth having to climb the 100 steps back to the car park.
Also on the itinerary was a visit to Dongbaekseom Island, home to a flying saucer-shaped building created for an economic summit meeting in 2005 and surviving as a somewhat soulless visitor attraction.
If our day in Nagasaki had been one when it was right to take the obvious excursion, Shanghai provided an opportunity for something different.
Turning our backs on the Bund, with its 21st-century skyscrapers and shopping malls, the Pearl TV tower and the overcrowded Jade Buddha Temple, we set off instead to the “water town” of Zhujiajiao, an hour or so away by coach.
Surrounded by four lakes, and constructed around criss-crossing canals, the settlement has inevitably been dubbed “the Venice of the East.” A little optimistically, given that few of its squat buildings rise more than two storeys high, and that in the absence of the Doge’s Palace, St Mark’s Basilica, or even a single palazzo, its single most significant edifice is a brick-built post office erected little more than a century ago.
But don’t let me sound disparaging. Zhujiajiao was just as fascinating in its own way, and a feast for lovers of take-away food – if they can stomach the endless displays of glistening pork shanks and gleaming pigs’ trotters that appear to be the local equivalent of Peking Duck.
The real Venice may have its Rialto Bridge, but I don’t recall there being any hawkers selling goldfish in plastic bags, as there are at the 400-year-old Fangsheng Bridge. The fish are not to be taken home to be put in a glass bowl – the intention is that the buyer earns redemption by setting them free, no doubt to be caught again and offered for sale once more.
Lunch followed at a Shanghai silk factory which also provided the expected shopping opportunity. Two silk duvets (about £80 each), a pair of pyjamas and a couple of shirts found their way into my wife’s luggage – you can see what I meant about the balance of payments.
And there was more shopping, much more, during the couple of days we spent in Hong Kong after leaving the ship. Teeming markets competed with marbled malls for my wife’s spending money.
I could have made up for it all by joining the gambling-mad locals winning a packet at the Happy Valley racecourse just across the road from our room at the Cosmopolitan Hotel.
On the other hand, I might have lost even more.
I think I’ll stick to cruise ships. A sure thing every time.
A Grand Asia cruise on Diamond Princess, from April 1 to April 17 2013, starts at £1,481 pp based on 2 sharing an inside stateroom. Flights are extra. Ports of call: Bangkok (Laem Chabang), Cruising the Gulf of Thailand, Singapore, Cruising the South Korea Sea, Ho Chi Minh City (Phu My), Nha Trang, Cruising the South Korea Sea, Hong Kong, Cruising the East China and South China Seas, Shanghai, Cruising the East China Sea, Nagasaki, Busan, Cruising the yellow sea, Beijing.
For more information or to book call 0843 373 0333 or visit www.princess.com
Excursions: Nagasaki Memorial Park, Atomic Bomb Museum and city drive: three hours, $99. Busan’s Haedong Yonggungsa Temple: 4.5 hours, $79. Zhujiajiao: Qing Dynasty Post Office & Bridges (from Shanghai) 7.5 hours, $99.
Rooms at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, Wan Chai, Hong Kong start at about £115 p night; race course view £160; Family quad £200.