In the 1969 movie, “If it’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium,” a busload of tourists travels across Europe at a whirlwind pace, spending only a day in each country. At the time, seasoned travelers poked fun at the idea of such a madcap itinerary. After all, how could anyone experience a country’s culture in a day? Now, however, ocean-going cruises provide, if not an in-depth, then at least a fulfilling sampling of the culture at each port of call through a variety of excursions tailored to passengers’ varying tastes and abilities.
With that in mind, my husband and I signed up for a September 2014 Princess Cruises’ Grand Asia 17-day voyage from Shanghai to Singapore.
Our usual M.O. is to arrive in the region several days before the cruise starts, partially to combat jet lag and also to explore a new destination. In this case, Shanghai didn’t disappoint. As China’s largest city with 22-million people, it’s a fascinating mix of old and new.
In the old quadrant, Yu Gardens delighted us with its winding walkways, man-made caves, pavilions, carp-filled lakes, arched bridges, whimsical doorways and ferocious-looking stone dragons. Now a national monument, this five-acre oasis of tranquility was built during the Ming Dynasty by a son for his aged father.
Just outside Yu Gardens, a bustling and colorful bazaar sells everything from clothing and delicate hand fans to decorative pool cues, incense sticks and tempura-battered crabs—perfect for a hand-held snack on the go. This area and its environs are part of Old Town—the original walled city. It’s worthwhile to take a guided walking tour of the narrow, crowded streets to get a feel for what life is like here away from the modern city that has sprung up around it.
Hugging a bend in the Huangpu River, a 1900s-era strip known as the Bund is lined with colonial Beaux Arts-style buildings that once housed western banks, consulates, a newspaper and scores of international trading houses. Its wide, 1.6-mile-long pedestrian promenade, which is more than twenty feet higher than street level, was originally constructed as a levee to protect downtown against floods caused by typhoons.
Directly across the river from the Bund stands Pudong—Shanghai’s newest business and financial district. It features several nosebleed-inducing skyscrapers like the Shanghai Tower, which, at 2,073-feet is the second tallest building in the world. Top-level viewing platforms draw sightseers for a mesmerizing view of the city below.
After boarding the ship and leaving Shanghai, we headed for Nagasaki, Japan—its Peace Memorial Park and Atomic Bomb Museum chronicling the August 9, 1945 explosion that, along with the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, led to the end of World War II in the Pacific. A tour of nearby Shimabara peninsula showcased a moat-fortified, pagoda-style feudal castle (now a museum); a traditional samurai village; and Mizunashi Honjin—a modern-day version of Italy’s Pompeii—which was buried by ash during the 1991 eruption of Mount Fugan.
In Busan, South Korea, tales of a legendary sea goddess lured us to Haedong Yonggungsa—a temple complex perched on a rocky landmass abutting the ocean. From this fairytale-like spot, we motored to Dongbaekseom Island and the APEC house, which was built for the 2005 APEC Economic Summit, and then to the city’s Gukie street market where gold-painted statues on street corners mimicked people engaged in various activities. On a cruise, there’s only so much port time, so we reluctantly missed the Shinsegae Centum City department store, which includes a golf range, ice rink and spa, and is registered in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest shopping complex in the world.
The militarily precise Changing of the Guards at Martyr’s Shrine heralded our temple-studded excursion in Taipei, Taiwan. At Confucius Temple, the scent of incense perfumed the air; and dragons, warriors and other figures seemed to leap from ornate rooftops and walls. We also toured the National Palace Museum, catching a glimpse through crowded halls of the renowned jade cabbage (nobody could tell us exactly why it was renowned), and the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall, where even the president’s car was on display. A traditional lion dance and sumptuous buffet lunch at the Grand Hotel and some retail therapy at the Handicraft Center rounded out our Taipei adventure.
Next stop: Hong Kong, where our starboard balcony cabin rewarded us with a stunning panoramic view of the evening’s spectacular city-lights sunset. I had visited Hong Kong many years earlier, so we passed on the Victoria Peak tram ride and other Hong Kong standards to explore Lantau Island’s Tai O—a traditional fishing village—and the Po Lin monastery (one of Hong Kong’s most important Buddhist sanctums) with its 1993-built giant Buddha (34 meters tall) at the top of 268 steps. Two of the red-robed monks graciously stopped to pose with tourists for a photo op at the base of the steps.
A war-torn country in the 1960s and early ‘70s, Vietnam is now a flourishing visitor destination. Our excursion here showcased the port city of Da Nang with its French-influenced houses and offshore armada of tiny fishing boats; the Cham Sculpture Museum—a glimpse into the south-Vietnamese culture of the powerful 11th-century Champa Empire; thousands of exquisite marble sculptures mined from the Marble Mountains; and the picturesque village of Hoi An, where you can shop for ceramics and uniquely crafted embroidery, as well as silk clothing and wall hangings—with a demonstration of silkworm raising and silk weaving thrown in for good measure. The super friendly Vietnamese have a knack for selling. It’s almost impossible to get away without buying something.
Impressed as we were by the beauty and variety of Asian architecture thus far, we were blown away by the ornate eye-candy temples in Bangkok, Thailand. The city has been described as a living museum, every aspect—gilded temples, food-and-flower stalls, tuk-tuks, and even its colorful inhabitants—mesmerizing, intriguing, yet all part of a functioning historical tapestry that is distinctly Thai, the country having maintained its independence throughout the 19th and 20th centuries while many of its neighbors were losing theirs.
A tour of Bangkok’s Grand Palace should be on everyone’s agenda. And be sure to board a tour boat for a scenic cruise along the wide Chao Phraya River, which runs through the city and offers a waterfront kaleidoscopic view of homes, temples, bridges, parks, modern hotels, a Ferris wheel, and bustling boat traffic of all stripes.
One final tour, in Singapore, delivered us to the city’s landmark Merlion sculpture shooting water into the harbor, a hilltop park where we strolled through an exotic orchid garden, a Buddhist temple, and along streets grandly decorated for the Lotus Blossom festival, before dropping us off at Changi Airport—its three terminals a traveler’s paradise of shops, video-game arcades, restaurants and exotic fantasy-like oases blooming with sunflowers, orchids, butterflies, giant ceramic flower pots and arched bridges over koi ponds.
During our days at sea between countries, we’d taken time to enjoy the ship’s entertainment, spend time with friends we’d made on board and reflect on the variety of cultures we’d visited. Like the Belgium-on-Tuesday movie, our trip was a whirlwind adventure. But thanks to onboard destination lectures, well-organized excursions and knowledgeable local guides, we experienced the intense flavors of each culture—not just the food, which was undeniably delectable fare cradled by harmonious blends of sauces and spices and served at family-style tables—but also the stunning architecture, daily life and friendly people everywhere we went. The samplings of each country outdid our expectations and were a bit of a tease, leaving us longing for our next visit.