by Dennis Cox
ABOARD the WESTERDAM – Our arrival in Shanghai to board Holland America’s Westerdam was a bit unusual. It began early this morning on board Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas as we completed a short four night cruise over to Japan and back, returning to Shanghai’s Wusongkou International Cruise Terminal for a second time. The Westerdam just happened to be conveniently docked bumper-to-bumper in front of the Quantum. Nevertheless, clearing Chinese immigration in the foreigners line took nearly an hour.
The next step in getting from the Quantum to the Westerdam in the adjacent terminal seemed that it should be easy, but after a walk through the parking lot we were confronted with a long registration counter lined with young Chinese women with fear in their faces.
This is only the second cruise for a Holland America ship in Asia. It’s also the first time they have begun a cruise from Shanghai and for all those young women it is the first day on the job and they seemed clueless. A couple of trainers were overwhelmed with requests for help. We were first in line, which kept growing minute by minute behind us. After about a half hour we finally had our boarding credentials and were on the way to the ship. Unless those women were quick learners, the passengers in the back of that line were in for a very long wait ahead of them.
After getting squared away in our Westerdam verandah stateroom, we were ready to cast off back across the Sea of Japan on our follow-up 14-day Taiwan & Japan cruise. But our departure from China was not scheduled until tomorrow evening. The remainder of the day and most of tomorrow could be spent enjoying more of Shanghai.
My first visit to Shanghai was in 1976 when I came to China with an invited delegation of the US-China Peoples Friendship Association. I subsequently visited again regularly, most frequently leading photography groups as the owner of Photo Explorer Tours. It’s not exactly breaking news that there have been enormous changes in Shanghai over the past four decades.
One of my early recollections of Shanghai was standing outside the historic Peace Hotel — now totally refurbished and managed by Fairmont — one evening in 1983 at the corner of the waterfront Bund and Nanjing Road, the city’s main shopping street. Night had descended over the city and everything had gone dark, very dark, with the exception of a couple of small neon signs on the hotel. It’s a sight extremely difficult to imagine today with Nanjing Road now ablaze with a profusion of neon.
A most dramatic change has occurred to Shanghai’s skyline in the past thirty years as shown in these comparison photos of upper Nanjing Road from 1987 and just before our cruise. Note the transition to pedestrian mall and the building with the tower topped by a gold dome now dwarfed by surrounding buildings. (There are even taller ones to the right out of the frame of the photo.)
First time visitors to Shanghai will want to take in as many of the must-sees as possible. My favorites include the spectacular Shanghai Acrobats; one of the Children’s Palaces where the city’s most talented kids practice their musical instruments, dance, and calligraphy skills: the classical beauty of the 16th century Yuyuan Garden in the Old City; and early morning on the Bund when it’s lined with groups doing tai chi and other exercises involving waving colorful fans, flags, ribbons, or swords, as well as couples ballroom dancing, and one spry, colorful old fellow roller skating around rows of bottles (gee, I hope he’s still there).
In Jade Buddha Temple there is not one, but two impressive jade Buddhas, both imported by sea from Burma in the late 19th century. A walk up upper Nanjing Road with its department stores and upscale shops should be taken to get to Peoples Square, site of the splendid, world-class, modern Shanghai Museum, most notable for its ancient bronzes and jades. For a special treat on Nanjing Road, look for a shop or department store selling delicious White Rabbit candy, creamy taffy wrapped in rice paper (yes, you can eat it wrapper and all).
Shanghai has its own culture of eating. It belongs to the Huiyang cuisine category, one of the four major cuisines of China. For a taste of Shanghai cuisine, a lunch stop in the Old City is not to be missed. The place to go is the Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant (Nanxiang Mantou Dian) near the zigzag bridge opposite the teahouse. Since 1900, this is the best-known restaurant specializing in the characteristic Shanghai snack of small soup-filled buns called Xiaolongbao, often referred to by foreigners as soup dumplings. There are sit-down areas for eating and people watching as well as a take-out option.
Once the center of the medieval walled Chinese city where foreigners rarely tread, the Old City is a maze of traditional-style Chinese architecture, both restored and newly built, filled with temples, a cathedral, and a mosque. Perhaps best know is the Temple of the Town Gods, a Taoist temple not far from Yuyuan Garden that is the biggest example of traditional Chinese architecture in Shanghai.
Transitioning from old to new, the skyscrapers of Pudong (literally “east side of the river”) across the Huangpu River from the Bund provide great high angle observation points for taking in the vast scale of the city on a clear day, or at dusk when the city’s lights begin to glow. Highly rated for viewing are the upper decks (97th and 100th floors; 180 yuan entrance fee) of the World Financial Center Observatory (the “bottle opener” building) where a look down encompasses both the iconic Oriental Pearl Tower and Jin Mao Tower. It’s best to avoid the 94th floor observatory there that costs less, 120 yuan (RMB), but is usually too crowded and noisy. On the 100th floor, a 180-foot long corridor with a floor of transparent glass called The Sky Walk provides a view and feeling of walking in air above the top of the Oriental Pearl Tower and roof of the Jin Mao Tower. On the 87th floor, the lobby and cocktail bar of the Park Hyatt Hotel also has views, but without a fee.
The city’s highest viewpoint, where the “bottle opener” can also be looked down upon, is from the twisted skyscraper, the new Shanghai Tower. Entrance there to the 118th floor costs 200 yuan (RMB) on site.
Also recommended is the view from the bar or restaurant atop the Grand Hyatt Hotel, which saves paying an entrance fee to a deck. A look up or down the atrium there is also spectacular.
For dinner, a stroll around Xintiandi,”New Heaven and Earth,” will enable choosing a trendy restaurant from numerous options. Classic Chinese, Thai, and French, are available although located there too is a British pub and an American Planet Hollywood style eatery. Sitting just around the corner in the old French Concession from the building where the Chinese Communist Party was founded by Mao Zedong and his comrades, Xintiandi was transformed under the direction of American architect
Benjamin Wood and financed by outside investors, mostly from Hong Kong, that included actor Jackie Chan. Developed by restoring dilapidated colonial row houses and converting the area
into a consumer paradise and hub of nighttime entertainment, Xintiandi has been the spur for the renaissance of additional “tiandi” developments throughout the city.
Cruising in the Far East with HAL: A Déjà Vu Cruise? November 3, 2018 by Dennis Cox
ABOARD the WESTERDAM – Our first day at sea is an opportunity to investigate the Westerdam’s similarities and differences with its sister ship, the Zuiderdam, that I wrote about last year for All Things Cruise.
One of Holland America’s four Vista class ships, the Westerdam, like the Zuiderdam, carries 1916 passengers and 800 officers and crew. It is also similar in many respects to the 2,137-passenger Signature class Eurodam, our verandah stateroom being one, which I previously wrote about for All Things Cruise in 2015. There are few notable differences to the Zuiderdam that I discovered. One that I noticed immediately is that the Westerdam has one fewer specialty restaurants than the other ships.
The main Rembrandt Dining Room is just Dining Room on the Westerdam. And art appears to be more abundant on the Westerdam. Nautical themed reproductions and old photographs of cruise ships can be found throughout the ship and a huge mural of ships landing at Nieu Amsterdam, as well as original paintings by Stephen J. Card, are well placed for viewing.
In addition, in the art category, one new feature not seen on the other ships is Rijksmuseum at Sea, displays that surround the Guest Services area. Reproductions of paintings and drawings from the famous Amsterdam museum, particularly by Rembrandt, are presented on a large digital panel and wall exhibits.
While the Westerdam is rated highly by both cruise critics and customers, it receives especially high marks for dining, entertainment, public rooms, service, and value of the money from customers. The ambiance and clientele on this cruise are completely different from our previous cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Quantum with 99% Chinese onboard. Passengers are from 44 countries with approximately 700 Americans, 400 Aussies, 400 Canadians, 100 Brits, plus Dutch, Germans, Kiwis, Ukrainians, Russians, and only a few, mostly overseas, Chinese. The demographic is also decidedly older. There is little evidence of the fact that the cruise originates in China (700 passengers are staying on from Westerdam’s trans ocean cruise that originated in Vancouver).
Jialin and I like the familiarity cruising on Holland America’s ships. This is our fourth HAL ship on five cruises; Maasdam to Alaska, Eurodam on both the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, and Zuiderdam in the Caribbean. The service, quality of food, ambiance, entertainment, and conviviality all make for a positive cruising experience for us, and others we have met on board. Many passengers have been on several HAL ships and exhibit a strong loyalty to the brand.
One of my favorite familiar aspects, which I checked out right of way, is that the Westerdam’s Dive In grill by the Lido Pool also has the same world’s greatest French fries as I experienced previously on the Eurodam and Westerdam. Love those crispy, crunchy, double-fried delights.
Originally launched in 2004, the Westerdam was one of the first HAL ships to undergo substantial interior updating and additions with a 2016 refurbishing. A new concept introduced at that time was the ship’s Music Walk where music-loving passengers have a choice of classical (including modern hits in classical style) at Lincoln Center Stage, blues and rock ‘n roll in the B.B. King Blues Club, and lively sing-along sessions of pop hits at Billboard Onboard.
The anchor to Music Walk, the Mainstage Theatre, seats 645 in plush ambiance and features new acts nightly. Technical innovations that were made to the Mainstage include sliding panels containing one million LED lights capable of making ongoing changes of the background throughout performances to enhance the visual experience.
Our first day at sea is an opportunity to avail our selves of the unique Explorations Center in the Crow’s Nest to research the upcoming ports on our cruise. The center is equipped with tabletop screens that display tour information and maps that range from world wide down to street level. If help is needed, a member of the tours staff on the EXC Tours desk is available to point out directions and arrange shore excursions if requested.
Our cruise will be a series of island hops from north to south roughly between the Pacific Ocean on the east and East China Sea on the west. We will be visiting four ports in Japan beginning with Sakaiminato on the main Japanese island of Honshu, a bit northeast of the city of Fukuoka that we visited on the previous cruise. Nagasaki on the island of Kyushu, south of Fukuoka, is next, followed by Naha on Okinawa, and Ishigaki Island farther south, nearly to Taiwan. Keelung, the main port near Taipei to the north and Kaohsiung near the southern tip are the two ports to be visited on the island of Taiwan. Cruising due south, Manila, on the island of Luzon in the Philippines, comes next. The final leg of the cruise then turns back northwest across the South China Sea to Hong Kong, partly an island and partly on the mainland of China (Kowloon).
Cruising in the Far East with HAL: Exploring Today’s Japan November 4, 2018 by Dennis Cox
ABOARD THE WESTERDAM – The first of our two ports to visit on Japanese main islands of Honshu and Kyushu is at Sakaiminato. A small city on the Sea of Japan mostly known for its fishing industry, it played a historically significant role in ending Japan’s international isolation in the nineteenth century. An Imperial decree in July 1899, established it as an open port for trading with the United States and the United Kingdom.
Sakaiminato is notably the home to Shigeru Mizuki, the creator of GeGeGe no Kitaro, a character seen in many forms throughout Japan. The character’s spirit of Kitaro can be found in Sakaiminato, on Kitaro Road, a street lined with one hundred bronze statues of the characters that appear in Mizuki’s stories.
Jialin and I generally prefer to go on our own at ports unless an excursion offers something particularly appealing that would be difficult to do independently. One that includes a panoramic drive, an art museum, a traditional garden, a castle, a scenic cruise, and the museum of a famous journalist seemed like a no-brainer to me, but not to her, so we split up for the day.
Following a panoramic drive by motor coach southwest of Sakaiminato, my group arrived at Matsue, a city of canals located on an isthmus between Lakes Shinji and Nakaumi. It is the site of Matsue Castle, completed in 1611, a few years after the last decisive battle of feudal Japan. All the buildings that functioned as a castle were soon demolished in 1638 leaving just the donjon (the castle keep) and the castle’s stone wall. The five-tiered 98-foot tall donjon is designated one of Japan’s Important Cultural Properties. Of the 170 castles in Japan, it is one of only a dozen originals remaining.
Before climbing 90 steps up to the castle, we circled it in small boats on the castle’s moat that is connected with a canal that runs through Matsue. Our “moat boat scenic cruise” passed under 16 bridges, several of which are so low the boat’s awning required lowering while we ducked down with it. A traditional Japanese lunch followed the castle visit.
We then made a brief stop to see to the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum. A journalist who arrived in Japan in 1890 and never left, Patrick Lafcadio Hearn taught school in Matsue, married the daughter of a samurai, and adopted the name Koizumi Yakumo. His best-known work is Kwaidan — a collection of ghost stories. Located next to Hearn’s house, a small museum displays manuscripts such as best-known work, Kwaidan, a collection of ghost stories, and his personal effects, including his desk, letters, clothes and Japanese pipes.
At the Adachi Museum of Art in Yasugi, a museum founded in 1970 by Zenko Adachi to combine his passions for Japanese art and garden design. Ceramic works by such masters as Rosanjin Kitaoji and Kanjiro Kawai, 1,000 items of pottery, woodcarvings, and Japanese paintings dating from as early as 1912 are featured in his museum’s collection. But the museum’s garden, ranked best in the traditional Japanese Garden category since 2003, was the highlight for me. It is viewed from inside the museum through wall length windows creating a feeling of viewing giant murals. It is truly a garden of great beauty with pines and stones collected from all over the country, especially so in autumn.
Jialin also viewed another spectacular garden, this one on Daikonjima Island, a twenty-minute bus ride from downtown Sakaiminato station. Yuushien is a Japanese-style garden known as the “Miniature Garden of the Land of Izumo.” Reflecting the scenery and traditions of the Izumo region, walking through the garden gives a feeling of tranquility.
Following an overnight cruise we reached our second Japanese port, Nagasaki. The name Nagasaki immediately conjures up in my mind the vision of an atomic bomb exploding. The object of the first of two nuclear attacks intended to end the Second World War in Japan, Nagasaki now memorializes that tragic event in August 1945 at the city’s Atomic Bomb Museum and Peace Park as well as at the smaller Nagasaki Peace Museum immediately next to the cruise terminal.
Located on the northwest coast of the island of Kyushu, Nagasaki is set on a large natural harbor, with buildings set on terraces around the surrounding hills. It was one of the few ports in Japan open to foreigners — although constrained to Portuguese residents followed by a Dutch trading post on man-made Dejima Island — during the self-isolation of the Edo period.
While the atomic bomb destroyed much of the city in 1945, many historical sites were saved. These can be readily seen on organized walking tours or on self-directed walks to attractions including Uragami Cathedral, once the largest cathedral in the East, the Nagasaki Museum of History & Culture, Kyushu Ceramic Museum, Megane Bridge, Oura Catholic Church, Chinatown with its Confucius Shrine, and the Mt. Inasa observation platform accessible by gondola on the Nagasaki Ropeway. Information and unlimited one-day passes for city bus rides are available at the cruise terminal for 500 yen.
Easily accessible by walking and a series of escalators from the cruise terminal is Glover Garden, a complex of western style houses centered about the house of Thomas Blake Glover, a Scottish entrepreneur. It is reputedly the model for the house in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.
Admission to Glover Garden also includes entry to the Museum of Traditional Performing Arts which displays colorful floats, costumes and dragons used in the Kunchi Festival of the Suwa Shrine held annually in October for over 400 years. The festival incorporates different aspects of Chinese and Dutch cultures, which have played a role in the city’s history.
Cruising in the Far East with HAL: Japan Color November 5, 2018 by Dennis Cox
ABOARD the WESTERDAM – To the Japanese, color is an essential characteristic to express the beauty of their ancient culture. Bold reds, yellows, greens, and blues as well as the distinctive use of black and white are present in their art, architecture, pottery, textiles, and furnishings. Combinations of conflicting color can be seen in temples of the Nara period and in Shinto shrines. Scarlet and black in medieval armor, gold and green in screen paintings, red and white to express auspicious occasions, and dark blue and white in fabrics are all combinations that reflect human sentiment, religious faith, and give form to the use of traditional materials and designs.
The special combination of red and white pronounced as one word in Japanese is Kohaku. Their use together signifies happiness and celebration. Red represents life and vitality, blood coursing through the veins and the sun radiating energy. White has long been regarded as a reflection of sacred glory, the pure color of the gods. These two colors combined are a fortuitous symbolic linking of life’s power and everlasting exaltation. Understandably, the red sun rising against a white background is the design used on the national flag of Japan.
Ai, a particular shade of indigo blue, mirrors the color of the vast ocean surrounding the Japanese islands. This beautiful dark blue is reminiscent of the sea as a source of abundant food as well as the avenue on which ancient ancestors arrived, a maternal source. Historically, it is the color of the people.
Modori, the word for green is the color for eternal life. Pine, cedar and hinoki are evergreen, never changing from season to season and are the symbol of Japan. These are characteristic of Japanese culture, fusion with nature that is expressed in traditional gardens and residences surrounded by greenery.
Sumi is black, the color of mystery; the color of the night. It expresses the unknown and evokes the imagination of a different world. It has long been used by the Japanese as a powerful color, pure carbon, the ingredient to produce India ink for creating calligraphy, drawings, and paintings. It is believed black letters and figures expressed on white paper dramatically reveal mysterious existence different from reality.
Kin is the color gold, symbolizes prosperous golden harvests and, of course, the metal gold. Royalty in all cultures adopt it as their symbol of divinity, the color of heaven. In religion it is used for statues of the Buddha in temples and it is extensively used in many Catholic churches as well.
Tasai is the multiplicity of colors, red and white, green, blue, gold, black, and more, that are prevalent at festivals, in clothing such as kimonos, in exhibitions and at sports events, and in the public spaces of towns and cities. While the clothing of the Japanese in daily life is generally monotonous, special occasions, called matsuri, always bring out a feast of colors.
Cruising in the Far East with HAL: Japan’s Distant Isles November 6, 2018 by Dennis Cox
ABOARD the WESTERDAM – The last two of our Japan stops are in Okinawa province with the first of the two at the port city of Naha. One of the Ryukyu Islands, Okinawa lies at the same latitude as Florida. It is located as far from Tokyo as Iceland is from London and it differs significantly from the uniformity inherent in Japanese society. The local dialect, folk culture, contemporary attitudes, and historical traditions are all unique to Japan. A claim to international fame is that karate originated here.
Okinawa was occupied by the United States military after the Second World War as part of the effort to demilitarize Japan. In the late 60s a few years of nationalistic sentiment, mainly expressed by student protests and exacerbated by U.S. involvement in Vietnam, led to Okinawa being returned to Japan in 1972, although a controversial U.S. military presence remains. A Peace Memorial Park on the site of the Battle of Okinawa, a Peace Memorial Museum established in 2000, and the former Japanese Navy Headquarters can be visited to learn the historic role Okinawa played as the largest-scale campaign of World War II.
To reach Naha city from the Naha New Port is a twenty-minute walk. Shuttles to downtown are also usually available that drop off passengers near a monorail. If the arrival port is at Tomari instead, it is about a ten-minute walk to the Kenchomae monorail station.
From central Naha city (Kokusaidori), it is convenient to take Bus No. 1 (it costs 230-yen for the 20 minute one-way ride) to Shurijo Castle Park, the rebuilt walled palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom and one of several remaining Ryukyuan fortresses on Okinawa from the Gusuku period. It features the ornate red tiled Shureimon gate, pictured on Japan’s 2000-yen bill, that reflects strong Chinese influence as well as indigenous religious traditions.
Our visit was concurrent with the first exhibition of Ryukyuan artifacts including priceless paintings, lacquerware, pottery, and other treasures from a dynasty spanning the reigns of ten Ryukyuan kings from the early 15th century through 1879.
Another site of interest, and very near the port, is the Fukushuen Garden. A traditional Chinese garden in the Kume area of Naha, the garden was constructed in 1992, in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the sister city relationship between Naha and Fuzhou in China.
Asia’s largest cave, two-mile long Gyokusendo, can be visited to see it’s 900,000 stalagmites and stalactites. The Okinawa Prefectural Museum has Exhibitions on Okinawa’s natural and cultural heritage. And a collection of fine art can be seen at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. Shops, an old market, pottery street, and restaurants lining Kokusai Street, while a bit tacky, are also attractions that may be of interest to cruisers.
The southernmost Japanese island on the program, and an overnight cruise from Naha, is Ishigaki with a population of just 50,000 residents. Known as the Hawaii of Japan, it is according to many Japanese the most beautiful place in Japan. It has a laid-back feeling of isolation that attracts Japanese seeking an escape from urban life, if only temporarily.
A tropical wonderland of nature and third largest of the Okinawa islands, Ishigaki is revered for its unspoiled beaches, coral reefs in dazzlingly transparent waters ideal for snorkeling and diving, black pearls, gourmet quality beef, and sugar cane and pineapple plantations, not ordinarily associated with Japan.
At Maetake, located on the northwestern part of Ishigaki Island, a rainforest features the rare, beautiful Ishigaki palm trees. Walking trails there line the face of the mountain and allow easy enough hiking for even leisurely walkers.
The island’s Iriomote-Ishigaki National Park features the rare coral of the Shiraho Reef, while the mountainous interior boasts Mt. Omoto, the tallest in Okinawa province, and other peaks.
Emerald blue Kabira Bay (see photo at top), with 14 resorts including a Club Med surrounding it, is a nationally designated “Place of Scenic Beauty.” Colorful sea life can be viewed in the bay in glass bottom boats.
At odds with the surrounding area, the port city of Ishigaki is decidedly unattractive; therefore excursions inland or by ferry to nearby islands are recommended.
Cruising in the Far East with HAL: Taiwan from Top to Bottom November 7, 2018 by Dennis Cox
ABOARD the WESTERDAM – The Westerdam’s arrival at the northern Taiwan port of Keelung witnessed an unexpected welcoming event when two harbor tugs shadowing the ship became floating fountains blasting arcs of water into the rays of the early morning sun.
While in port for nearly two days, there will be time to explore the neighboring capital city of Taipei with all its world-famous architectural and cultural landmarks as well as Keelung’s lesser-known sites.
Eighteen miles from the capital, Keelung is the largest seaport in Taiwan next to Kaohsiung. Known for its sheltered harbor, vibrant market, and plenty of other activities within minutes of the pier accessible on foot, it is an attractive destination in itself. Pictures of the main sights are displayed on a board at the exit of the parking lot and wi-fi coverage on the wharf areas is free.
Near the waterfront, the Miaokou Night Market’s food stalls offering traditional snacks and seafood are certain to attract Westerdam passengers for the evening. There are also several forts that encircle the area including hilltop Ershawan Fort, with cannons and a Chinese-style gate, as well as Gongzi Liao Fort and Dawulun Fort offering views over the harbor and ocean for viewing.
Taipei is also known for its lively street-food scene, many night markets, and busy shopping streets. It also has become known for it’s modern buildings. Protruding abruptly from the city’s skyline is the 509-meter high Taipei 101 skyscraper in the shape of bamboo that serves as locator of directions from around the metropolitan area of 7 million people.
Passengers on the ship’s excursions as well as independent passengers certainly won’t want to miss Taipei’s significant sites. Jialin and I opt to go independently as we want to spend more time photographing at several locations. The city is easy to reach from Keelung by train for 41 New Taiwanese Dollars (US$1.37) and from the central train station, easy to navigate with a modern metro system (MTR) and inexpensive taxis. An all-day MTR pass that includes Taipei’s trains and buses costs 180 NTD (US$6) which, as it turned out didn’t save any money, but was very convenient for zipping through turnstiles and avoiding ticket lines.
Our first stop of the day was the memorial for Dr. Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Republic of China in 1911, who is revered on both sides of the Taiwan Strait as a “pioneer of the Chinese Revolution.” A large wall of gold calligraphy inside the memorial reproduces the constitution of the Republic written by Dr. Sun. Above it on the ceiling, the symbol of Dr. Sun’s Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) that appears on the Republic of China flag is creatively displayed. Two guards from the three armed forces, on duty in the memorial, are ceremonially changed every hour on the hour.
Next, we headed to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall — a regal monument paying to tribute to Dr. Suns’ successor. With its brilliant blue glazed-tile roof, gold apex, white marble, and natural red cypress ceiling, the shrine is designed to convey sacredness, solemnity, hospitality and peace. The ceremonial entrance gate and sweep toward the steps leading up to the hall resembles in many ways the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial in Nanjing, China, the nationalist capital prior to the founding of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949.
The square between the entrance gate and Chiang’s memorial hall is flanked by the imposing National Theater and Opera Theater with red facades and golden roofs in the architectural style of imperial China.
When Chiang Kai-shek and his KMT Party fled China following their defeat in 1949 in a civil war with the Communist Party of China, they carried with them more than 600,000 items from the Imperial Palace in Beijing. These treasure are now housed in Taipei at the National Palace Museum. It is one of the largest collections of ancient Chinese objects and art in the world, spanning more than 8,000 years. The impressive collection includes bronze, paintings, jade, ceramics, and precious objects amassed by ancient emperors and more from the Sung, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. Only small portions of the treasures are on display at any one time, although themed exhibitions of the artifacts change regularly.
Culinary aficionados may want to seek out the Din Tai Fung in Taipei. The only four-time Michelin restaurant in Taiwan, it has deservedly earned the title “the worlds best.” Originally founded as a cooking oil retail shop in 1958, Din Tai Fung was transformed into a restaurant in 1972 with a focus on high quality food, locally sourced ingredients and exceptional service. Din Tai Fung makes their soup dumplings with 18 precise folds, which you can watch being made through a window to the kitchen while you dine.
Southern Taiwan’s massive port city of Kaohsiung is known as Taiwan’s maritime capital. It is home to many tall buildings, such as the 248-meter tall Tuntex Sky Tower, and is known for its diversity of parks, and shopping, such as the Liuhe and Ruifeng night markets. The focal point of Kaohsiung is the Love River, with walking paths and cafes along its banks, and cruise boats navigating its waters.
A popular Holland America excursion in Kaohsiung will visit a couple of Buddhist sites and a Taoist Shrine. It includes the Fokuangshan Monastery, a complex of meditation halls, shrines and, gardens founded in 1967 to “reconcile the various schools of Chinese Buddhism,” and Buddha Memorial Center, covering 247 acres, opened in 2011 to promote cultural and religious education.
Another excursion, which Jialin and I opted to take since the Fokuangsha was filled, was titled “Highlights of Kaohsiung and Tainan.” First stop of this tour in Tainan, the cultural capital of Taiwan, was the Tainan Confucius Temple, also called the Scholarly Temple. It was built in 1665 as a place for instructors to lecture and cultivate intellectuals. It is now a forlorn ghost of its previous self. As Confucius temples go, this one is the least interesting I’ve seen anywhere in China or Southeast Asia.
The next site, remains of Fort Provintia, was built by the Dutch in 1653, and the remains of Chihkan Tower, was constructed in the Qing dynasty. The tower’s history included use as a Western Castle under Dutch rule, a Chinese-style pagoda in the Qing dynasty, an army hospital during Japanese rule, and now as a museum. It is designated a Class-1 historic site by the Taiwan Ministry of the Interior. A statue on the site commemorates the Dutch surrendering with Koxinga (Zheng Chengong), the Chinese hero who rid Taiwan of Dutch occupation.
Koxinga is also commemorated by a shrine and museum, which we visited next. A statue in the garden of Koxinga on horseback standing seven meters tall is carved from white granite from Quanzhou, China.
For a view of what must surely be Taiwan’s biggest exercise in kitsch, a stop was made to photograph the pagodas, pavilions, and temples at Lotus Lake. Garish or colorfully playful, depending upon taste and sense of humor, the faux Chinese architecture and classical figures of Chinese mythology are admittedly quite photogenic. Especially popular is the twin Dragon and Tiger pagodas where going in the dragon’s mouth and coming out of the tiger’s is considered to bring good luck.
Finally, a very quick stop was made to see Kaohsiung National Stadium, built in 2009 for the World Games. The dragon-shaped stadium, designed by Japanese architect Toyo Ito, features extensive use of recycled materials and is powered by solar panels affixed to its top.
Cruising in the Far East with HAL: Manila Heat November 10, 2018 by Dennis Cox
ABOARD the WESTERDAM – We reached our pier at the Port of Manila at about 7 AM and were out of the ship as soon as possible after breakfast to avoid the heat predicted to reach 90 degrees today. Greeting the ship’s passengers on the dock was a local high school band and some pretty teenage girls eager to pose for a photo.
The port in the capital of the Philippines is quite conveniently located near Old Manila. Our independent walking tour there included historic Rizal Park and the old walled city of Intramuros, built during the Spanish colonial period. Nearby we passed by Fort Santiago, which served as a military headquarters and prison. Spanish, American, and Japanese colonizers occupied it in succession until it was destroyed in 1945.
The central attraction of Intramuros is Manila Cathedral, a magnificent architectural structure displaying intricate stone carvings, stained-glass mosaics and rose windows. Nearby is Casa Manila, a reconstructed 19th-century mansion replete with furniture and furnishings spanning the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries.
A block from both is the sixteenth century San Augustin Church, the oldest structure in the Philippines.
Manila has the signs of a Third World country that the Asian Miracle of development has largely bypassed. Modern skyscrapers shadow parks and broken sidewalks that pass for many of the desperately poor as their home.
Lacking more modern transportation, most Manilans with low wage jobs rely for transportation on the ubiquitous, anachronistic, and usually crowded jeepney, originally made from World War II jeeps and presumably some of the same ones I photographed here 36 years ago. The vividly decorated jeepney has become a cultural phenomenon and popular symbol of the Philippines.
A local experience is to buy the local crabs at the Dampa Seafood Market on Malapagal and bring it to a local restaurant nearby to have it cooked to suit your taste. Perhaps I’ll try that some day when it’s not so hot and humid and an air-conditioned cruise ship is not a better alternative.
Cruising in the Far East with HAL: Cooking for a Multitude November 11, 2018 by Dennis Cox
ABOARD the WESTERDAM – Jialin has a workout shirt from Oprah’s O Shop, available on all Holland America ships, that says
“Discover Life Exploring the World” which she now wears in fitness classes every morning on cruises. I also try to get my morning exercise with some daily stretching and walking on a treadmill while she is in her class.
Following our workout sessions we head for the Dining Room were our friendly waiters from Indonesia serve us a light breakfast of fruit, yogurt or cottage cheese, one hardboiled egg, and an oat bran muffin or pastry. Don’t get the impression that we are fitness nuts. We do all of the former so we can enjoy that last item, as well as all the delicious food to come for lunch and dinner on HAL ships.
To learn more about how quality cuisine is produced to feed several hundred passengers at a time, I am meeting with the friendly head chef on the Westerdam, Bitta Kuruvilla, for a tour of the ship’s galley. Chef Bitta is from Cochin in my favorite part of India, Kerala, known for its Backwaters cruises on rice boats that have been converted to floating hotels.
A prize-winning chef who learned his skills working for the Taj Hotel Group in India, Chef Bitta is responsible for all the restaurants on board the Westerdam. 12,000 meals per day in all are served, 7,500 to passengers. The Chef supervises 102 cooks and chefs, 28 cleaning crew, and 6 to 8 who manage provisions.
All food and other provisions — vegetables, meats, fish, fruits, baked goods, et al. — are tracked daily by computer. Most are shipped from the United States except fresh produce that is purchased in the cruise’s initial port, in this case Shanghai.
Meals for passengers are plotted out for the entire cruise with such precision that each item served comes within ten portions under or over of the 2,000 needed. The estimates vary based on season and cruise itinerary, and demographics, nationalities, and ages of the passengers. For example, more spicy foods would be required for Southeast Asia and sausages for Europe, according to Chef Bitta.
The main galley utilizes 16 Self Cooking Centers, versatile ovens that bake, roast, fry, steam, stew, grill, etc. They are programmed to do it all.
There are separate kitchens for The Pinnacle restaurant, room service, the crew, mid-management, and officers and senior management, with menus changing daily for all.
Of special interest to me is that there are five types of French fries served on the ship: steak fries, shoestring, sour cream, sweet potato, and coated. The coated ones are served at the Dive In and are so good I don’t understand the need for the others. Of course the food professionals with their computers know better.
Cruising in the Far East with HAL: Friendliest Dam Ships November 12, 2018 by Dennis Cox
ABOARD the WESTERDAM – The officers, staff and crew of all of the Holland America ships that I’ve been on take pride in claiming to be “the friendliest ship in the Holland America fleet.” Everyone working on board is expected to greet passengers with a hearty hello or good morning and in my opinion the cordiality is genuine in nearly all cases.
Over the course of this cruise I’ve put together a group portrait of the friendly and talented individuals aboard the Westerdam who make cruising with HAL a pleasure. Above, the leaders of the Westerdam, Captain Mark Rowden, center from UK, Staff Captain Samuel Hawkins, left from Australia, and Hotel Director Colin Jacob, right from Mauritius.
Cruising in the Far East with HAL: Ship Updates November 13, 2018 by Dennis Cox
ABOARD the WESTERDAM – As great as they are, one cannot live solely on the French fries from the Dive In poolside grill, not even with a side of secret dipping sauce.
Here’s the update on restaurants and art, the food for the soul:
The ship’s main Dining Room served excellent, sometimes too leisurely meals, which is the standard for Holland America cruises. The highlight on this cruise was the Gala Dinner toward the end of the cruise with a generous portion of surf and turf.
The Lido Marketplace was it’s normally chaotic go-to place for quick and simple meals. Holland America, as always, offered a variety of choices with assurances of “all fresh ingredients and freshly made.” Lines were generally kept short and moved smoothly while Andy Warhol’s Marilyns kept a colorful eye on diners.
There are only two specialty restaurants on the Westerdam, the Canaletto and The Pinnacle Grill. The prices for dinners at both, not surprisingly, have escalated a bit from what was charged three years ago on the Eurodam.
The Italian cuisine of the Canaletto maintains its standard of quality that we experienced on our Eurodam and Zuiderdam cruises. Those restaurants occupied poor spaces on those ships given the quality of the food as both were relegated to a semi-walled off space tucked away in the corner of the Lido. Unfortunately the restaurant fares no better on the Westerdam.
To experience classic dining in The Pinnacle, booking early was essential. That was especially the case on the evenings when The Pinnacle featured the modern innovative menus of internationally famous chef and Holland America Culinary Council member, Rudi Sodamin.
The cuisine of celebrity Master Chef Rudi Sodamin features his Sel de Mer (literally “salt of the sea”) braisserie of seafood served on Limoges porcelain plates painted with Rudi’s own whimsical artistic designs inspired by the Cote D’Azur. The extra charge for the evenings was $49 per person for Sel de Mer.
On one evening per cruise, the Pinnacle features a Cellar Master’s Dinner. This special night has pairings of food with wines chosen by the ship’s cellar master, Jean-Francois Marottee. Three whites, two reds, a rose and a dessert wine were paired with courses from two starters, a soup, and main courses of grilled halibut with lobster and a filet mignon wrapped with bacon. Extra charge for the evening was $79 per person.
New contractor for the Art Gallery on all HAL ships for the past six months has been the 20-year-old company, ArtLink. Following upon their past success of promoting emerging artists they are initiating an innovative residency program to bring local artists on board in several ports to do show-and-tells as well as provide instruction to passengers interested in learning painting techniques. Also proposed are tours coordinated with EXC to visit studios of artists in selected ports.
Cruising in the Far East with HAL: Hong Kong Arrival November 14, 2018 by Dennis Cox
ABOARD the WESTERDAM — Arriving in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour, Asia’s cruise hub, is routinely a spectacular event and it proved to be a highlight on this cruise, even in the misty twilight of dawn. Surrounded by skyscrapers, mostly on the Hong Kong Island side, soaring against a backdrop of Victoria Peak, the setting is magnificent. Meeting the Westerdam is a tugboat and a tourist junk with red sails illuminated by tacky red lights and bearing a sign welcoming the ship to Hong Kong.
As the harbor has shrunk over the years with continuous building on landfill encroaching on the navigable waterway, the traffic has become ever more intense and hectic. However, on this morning it is surprisingly sparse.
Hong Kong was officially released from U.K. sovereignty after 156 years of British colonial rule to ostensibly become an autonomous territory, Special Administrative Region, of the People’s Republic of China on July 1, 1997. The autonomous status was to last for fifty years while the former colony was integrated into mainland systems. This, nevertheless, has not been without friction or some dilution of the once brisk economic dynamism prior to the handover.
My first time arriving in Hong Kong was coming out of China in 1976 after traveling for three weeks with an invited delegation from the US-China Peoples Friendship Association. As a somewhat addicted Coca-Cola drinker I was aware that Cokes would not be available in China at that time, therefore I carried an eight-pack that I rationed by consuming one can, warm, every three days. Upon reaching the border with Hong Kong by train it was necessary to walk across a wooden bridge to board another train. As soon as I entered the train carriage I saw a hand from an enterprising young man come through the window holding a cold can of Coca-Cola. I knew that I was back in the developed world.
In fact, Hong Kong was a extremely different world from China at that time and the question our group had was how would China ever manage to integrate it into the mainland when the British handed it over in 1997. Little could we imagine how much China would develop economically in two decades to have cities like Shanghai that would out-rival Hong Kong in modernity.
While some passengers from the Westerdam went on EXC excursions, Jialin and I proceeded to find our hotel for the next two nights on the Hong Kong side in Scheung Wan and to see a few sights we missed on a previous visit as well as some old standbys.
There are at least four must-see and dos in Hong Kong in my experience and all are within walking distance of our hotel. The first is to take the Peak Tram, established in 1888, up to the top of Victoria Peak to get an overall view of the harbor and city and the congested yet towering scope of it all. Any time of day will do, but the scene at night is most spectacular.
Second must-do is to take the Star Ferry, also established in 1888, over to Kowloon and back to Hong Kong Island at least once. It is a means of transportation, tourist attraction, institution, and without a doubt, the best bargain in cruising ever.
Third, and another bargain, is to ride the iconic double-decker trams that have traversed through the heart of Hong Kong since 1912, one of only five cities in the world where they are still operational. These trams, now modernized, are often brightly painted with graphic advertisements (although I remember them being even more colorful and artistically hand painted when I first photographed them forty years ago). The view from the second deck of the trams is the perfect spot for sight seeing and observing this city’s manic activity with a bit of distance.
To really feel the pulse of Hong Kong, the fourth to-do is to plunge right into the chaos of the streets. Walking, the best bargain ever, will put you in the mix of life as it goes on day-by-day. If not overwhelmed by it, it will provide perspectives on urban Asia that will likely affect you forever.
One thing I had never done on numerous visits to Hong Kong is to ride the central to mid-level escalators. The world’s longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world, they begin at Queens Road Central and go half way up Victoria Peak. Besides saving a lot of energy climbing stairs and steep streets and costing nothing, it is another way to observe daily life in the city from above. It’s possible to hop off and back on while exploring different neighborhoods from commercial to residential, markets, shops, museums, restaurants, historic buildings, and street specialties. For example, at the top of the lower level escalators is Hollywood Road with its pricey Chinese antiques and art galleries, fascinating for at least browsing unless you’re a very serious collector with deep pockets.
We will soon fly back to Japan for a ten-day visit of Kyoto, the Five Lakes area near Mount Fuji, and Tokyo before flying home to plan future cruises. By the end of next year after a few more cruises I expect to complete a project underway for several years now, a photo book, Cruising the World. Hope to meet you on an upcoming cruise.
Photos © Dennis Cox / WorldViews, All Rights Reserved