The Stares and the Ferries
“It’s my pleasure to make you happy” he said and that epitomised the attitude of the crew on Viking Orion. They’re there to make sure you have a great time and look like they love doing it. The blend of Scandinavian chic and customer service had already won us over by the time we got to our well-appointed stateroom. As with the rest of the ship, the clean lines of wood and chrome are tastefully broken up with quality fabrics, mood lighting and thoughtful touches (like the blankets in case we got a little chilly on the balcony, or the no mist mirror, so I can see my ugly mug however steamy the shower gets).
Our Far Eastern adventure starts in Hong Kong. Ceded to the British ‘in perpetuity’ in 1843 following the Opium Wars, it’s a time of transition for Hong Kong following Chris Patten’s 1997 ceremonial handover to the Chinese. The inclusive excursion (the cruise price included one in each port) took us to many of the ‘must see’ including the Peak Tram to Victoria Peak. Not really a tram at all but a funicular, it’s been scaling this 396m climb since 1888 and offers panoramic views of the metropolis and the Kowloon peninsula (albeit through a light haze). From here we also made out a very tiny (from this height) Viking Orion at her berth. Affluence was on display everywhere and this country boasts more Rolls-Royce cars per head of population, but we also got a taste of the less affluent side of life by taking a modest Sampan for a cruise through Aberdeen harbour’s floating village (where many people still live on fishing junks amongst the surrounding high rise shore developments). Viking use the Quietvox system on excursions, so the guides could whisper into their microphone and I listened whilst roaming to get the best angle for my photographs.
Orion’s berth at Kowloon provided us with our most treasured memory of that day. Dining al fresco in the World Cafe, sipping chilled wine and savouring the mouth-watering food (honestly I’m not just here for the food, but it’s almost worth it on its own), it’s the perfect vantage point to watch the daily Symphony of Lights. At 8pm sharp, as the Star Ferries continue to buzz back and forward to Hong Kong Island, the Classical Chinese music starts up and the laser/light show from the skyscrapers across the water begins. OK it’s not the most spectacular light show we’ve ever seen, but put the setting, the service and everything else together, and we had a special memory to take to our dreamily comfortable bed (wanted to take it home).
Xiamen is our first port of call in China, situated on the south-east side of the country and with a population of over 2 million souls. Whilst many Chinese use Xiamen to gain access to the popular Gulang Yu island (very busy, so book your ferry tickets on-line ahead of time or take the excursion) it has its own charms to discover.
Nanputuo Buddhist Temple is extremely popular with the Fujianese to the extent that it is considered a pilgrimage site for them. The temple was busy with worshippers and tourists alike, with statues of dragons, golden Buddhas and more, all to be enjoyed alongside the heady aroma of burning incense. Whilst they are pretty relaxed here about dress codes, be observant of where you can and can’t take photographs, at least one of our group had their ‘collar felt’ by the temple police for not adhering to the rules. Whilst the main tourist attractions are rewarding to explore, particularly strolling the promenade alongside the Lujiang Channel, it’s even more rewarding to get off the beaten track. Viking provided a complimentary shuttle service from the port to the promenade and from there we set out to find the Kaihe Lu Fish Market. Here we didn’t encounter another western face and got to see an amazing array of unusual fish/creatures (many that we didn’t recognise) in this lively local market. In this area we realised that it’s still quite rare for the locals to see a western face and, although we never felt threatened in any way, we were openly stared at, photographed and videoed. Whilst some may feel this was quite rude, it seems the way in China, and folk were just curious. A smile and a Nihao (hello) was often rewarded with a return smile or sometimes a furrowed brow (probably because my pronunciation wasn’t that good). One thing that Xiamen does very well is light up its skyscrapers, so another delicious alfresco dining experience was accompanied by animated displays of Egrets (quite common in Xiàmén) flying across the buildings and much more.
Rough seas and inclement weather sadly resulted in the closure of Ishigaki-jima port, our first port of call in Japan, so our ship sailed directly to Okinawa for us to continue our adventure. In the meantime there was a sea day to enjoy and an opportunity to really explore the ships many facilities. A spell in the well-equipped gym (earn my lunch), a spot of reading in one of the many comfy and quiet places, attend a lecture in the Star Theatre, listen to the piano player in the beautiful atrium, watch a film, lunch beside the pool. There are simply not enough hours in the day!
After a couple of days our initial impressions were that Viking had taken the very best of their river operation and scaled it up to small ship (930 passengers) ocean cruising. They have added more facilities (more on those in parts 2 and 3), sprinkled on some sparkle, added some magic and produced a brilliant base for exploring the world. It was also good to see passengers with mobility issues in wheelchairs and mobility scooters moving comfortably around the ship.
So excited to continue on this exploration of the Far East, here we come Okinawa.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Viking Ocean Cruises.