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Cruise Diary: Travel Veteran Shares a First-Hand Account of Far East Voyage

Many accomplished writers are also cruisers who love to share their stories on the Holland America Blog through cruise diaries. Wendy London, who has blogged for us before, is one of them. She recently joined Amsterdam’s 2014 Grand Pacific and Far East Voyage, and she’s volunteered to write a cruse diary that will share her experiences on this very unique Grand Voyage. Follow along as Wendy writes about her journey in her own journalistic style.

If you are interested in sharing a cruise diary about a cruise you have taken or are going to take, let us know! Email info@hollandamericablog.com.

Meet Wendy London

Formal day. The day when all the formalities of cruising are completed, and you’re wearing your very best creased, comfortable-looking travel clothes (a far cry from the party clothes you’ll wear in a day or two), the day when your shoulder is tired from doubling as the holder for your shoulder bag or back-pack, when you exhale a palpable sigh of relief that all your bags made it the same time you did … when you see that magnificent vessel as you come over the bridge, waiting, waiting for you. Even though I’m one of those cruise addict types, my brain kicks into a different sphere when I see the ship, much the same feeling I got when I was a kid (a million years ago), standing on the pier at 54th Street, marveling at that big building-type thing that wasn’t really attached to the land, but would be floating … floating to new places I hadn’t even yet heard about.

Before I tell you about Formal Day, let me first tell you a little about me, after all, I hope that you will share this magnificent journey with me over the next 27 days. Born in the USA, but I have lived on two other continents and an island for the past 34-ish years. Amsterdam, London, Melbourne (Australia – not FL), and now – for the past 20 years – on the North Island of New Zealand, where I am married to me best cruisin’ mate, my totally awesome Kiwi husband, Terry.

I’m a Holland America groupie, having sailed to some of the most exotic places on HAL’s elegant ships. But – besides loving to cruise for fun, it is also my professional and academic life. I was once a lawyer, but there is just something about cruising, so I decided to re-tool, and do post-graduate studies in cruise tourism. I’m now doing a PhD on how social networks in communities band together to either promote or reject the construction of cruise terminals. And I love to write and share my experiences. Most of all, though, I am most honoured to have you come on this fabulous journey with us, as we continue to uncover the richness of a part of the world that is very very special to me.

Embarkation Day, Shanghai

No, we didn’t start this magnificent Grand Voyage in Seattle, but how I wished we had. We decided instead to do Shanghai to Sydney, partly because of time constraints, and partly because we had already booked our next cruise on the Oosterdam, to do our annual Christmas cruise around Australia and New Zealand – to see as many family and friends as we can cram in over that two week cruise. So, we boarded in Shanghai, along with perhaps another 15 to 20 passengers.

Scenes around ms Amsterdam, Wendy's home-away-from-home for the next 27 days.

Scenes around ms Amsterdam, Wendy’s home-away-from-home for the next 27 days. Photos from Holland America.

Two HAL porters joined us, and took our suitcases up the ramp, hoisted them on the security scanner belt and then disappeared with them to our room. Rocking up to check-in and disposing of our luggage happened even before we realised what had happened. Next stop – the Front Desk, got our cruise cards, a punched hole in each and a Very Big Welcome Home. We were back on the Amsterdam.

Back on the Amsterdam after a ten-year hiatus. Ten years after my most favouritest cruise ever – to Antarctica and the Falklands. Yep – this ship holds very special adventure memories for us, very special indeed! And guess what! Last night (our second and last night docked in Shanghai), I found a cluster of other passengers who had also been on that cruise with us. There’s just something special about the Amsterdam! (But then again, I say that about all of HAL’s ships.)

We got to our cabin, a verandah suite (I think that’s what they call them now), with our suitcases already positioned on the bed. I started unpacking, parking Terry on the sofa with strict instructions not to move. I noticed that I sort of went into auto-pilot – I found myself unpacking the way I always unpack into our cabin. Tech stuff – chargers, cameras, iPad in the top left-hand drawer of the desk; papers – receipts, maps, notes, and soon – the saved daily programmes port notes, invitations and other collectables – shoved into the drawer on the right. Our knickers in the top drawer of our respective bed-side drawers, Terry’s hanging stuff in one wardrobe, mine in another (two), shirts and other foldables on the fold-down shelves in the end wardrobe. Umbrellas, folding spare bags and other odd bits on the shelf above the safe. A look at the ottoman seat at the desk … ask the cabin boy for a comfortable chair (and he produced the best!); more wire hangers. Fill in the card for the fruit basket, head to the guest laundry to get rid of the land-travel dirt, tell Terry he can get up now.

What’s your unpacking ritual?

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Oh no! I have to change my…

… map. (Phew – and you thought it was something else!) Well no. As you will have above, we boarded ms Amsterdam on Saturday (18 October), our ship to be our Shanghai hotel for the next two nights. Two luxurious days exploring a city that is always new, always exciting, always romantic, always full of history, always someplace very very special. And here I sit, in our cabin on Deck 6, mesmerised by the gleaming towers that represent today’s Shanghai. But what’s this about a map? Oh yes – when we were here 8 years ago, Shanghai was a paltry 18 million. Today – 8 years on, it is 24 million. When we last here in 2006, we were told that once we left the city, we should throw away our maps, that they wouldn’t be good anymore. How right our guide was! It is a city which I began to recognise as we got closer to the centre from the airport, although sites like the Pudong Tower – the Pearl Tower – are now dwarfed by ever-taller, ever-quirkier, ever-more fascinating towers.

Pearl Tower, left and top, and part of the street roundabout at Pudong.

Pearl Tower, left and top, and part of the street roundabout at Pudong.

Sunday morning we set off early-ish, into a sunny, warm, un-humid, blue-skied Shanghai, a rare site in this congested and normally heavily polluted city. Still to get our cruise traction, we had nothing planned, just taking each minute as it came – just re-learning how to be on holiday with no plans, schedules or reminders. We’ve done the standard tour thing in Shanghai, so the city was now ours to wander.

The ship had a great shuttle from the gangway to the monument at the start of the Bund promenade, and that got our orienteering skills back in gear as we approached more familiar territory. Yes, there was a chap in the jade jewellery shop with a single map to show passengers where things are, but no individual copies, and no place nearby to get any further information. So, we set out on foot (passing our first Subway within the first 3 or 4 minutes of our walk), on this glorious day, eventually coming to the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel. From one bank of the Huangpu River to the other, the tunnel is a wonderland of light, sound and fantasy, experienced by transiting the tunnel in a cable car pod, traveling along tracks. Eerie English-language commentary marks each phase of the light show. Rings of light, projected light, strobe lights.

The Bund Sightseeing Tunnel puts on a fantastic light show.

The Bund Sightseeing Tunnel puts on a fantastic light show.

Passing through the ends of the tunnel to return to street level, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Disneyland, the Boardwalk along the New Jersey shore, or even Kelly Tarlton’s Aquarium in Auckland. Games of manual dexterity and chance and escalator ceilings painted in brightly coloured seascapes were accompanied by vendors selling souvenirs, food and other wares.

We didn’t linger long because I had one other “attraction” I wanted to see, desperately wanted to see. We were on our way to the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition which must be one of the most extraordinary exhibitions I have seen anywhere. In a modern building adjacent to the Peoples’ Square full of its whimsical and colourful public art, the exhibition takes a look at Shanghai past and present but the most remarkable part of the exhibition can be found on Level 3 and on almost the whole expanse of Level 3. A slightly raised walkway surrounds a 1:500 scale model, occupying 600 square meters of floor space, depicting the 110 square kilometer area of Shanghai found within the city’s inner ring road. Incredible detail, a Lilliputian land, showing the inner city as it now looks. Many public buildings illuminated, the buildings along the Bund distinguished by a slightly different colour tone. Schools, stadia, apartment buildings, the few low-built housing units left, the river. Fantasy, wonderment – and reality. The sheer amazement of the architectural modelling talent that went into building this model.

The Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition.

The Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition.

I could have stayed for hours, conjuring up stories of the people who live in those apartments, who work in that financial centre, who drive the barges down the winding river, who play sports in the curved stadium, who represent old money in the Bund, who shop in Nanjing Road, who trade in the markets, who tend the artefacts in the museum. Fortunately, the book shop sells a fabulous large format book entitled Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Centre – a special addition to my bookshelf! In an adjacent room was a round theatre, a virtual theatre, showing a flythrough of how Shanghai is evolving as a world class city, including the airport, the Maglev train and the financial centre. Another fantastic experience.

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Shanghai’s Greatest Artery

Shanghai’s river, the Huang Po, will always be Shanghai’s greatest artery, despite the city’s ultramodern international airport, world-record Maglev train and the many flyovers, bridges and roads that have been constructed or are planned. It is – predominantly – a major thoroughfare, for all sorts of river transport.

Over a relatively short 20 minutes or so, we counted something like 39 banged up and bruised barges traveling upstream, carrying stuff like coal, sand, rock, timber, but curiously, there didn’t seem to be an equivalent number of similar vessels coming downstream. A continuous flotilla of scruffy river vessels, making it, well, interesting for cruise ships like ours which tower over them.

As darkness falls, though, the rag-tag squadron of barges recedes into obscurity, overshadowed by a succession of brightly lit party boats – boats of every size, shape and colour scheme. Some obviously popular, but others looking like brightly-lit ghost ships cutting through the murky water. Even a square-rigger, or at least a modern version of one!

Wendy lights Collage

The real star of the night river, though, is the skyline, on both sides of the river, with its hypnotic light show. Dancing lights, changing lights, strobe lights, lasers – a light feast which captivates its observers during the evening hours. For a brief couple of hours, though, the river became ours, with three tugboats to guide our passage back out to the sea. Last time we did that trip, it took about four hours to get to the mouth of the river after leaving the city limits. This time, we found the mouth of the river noticeably closer to the edge of a much bigger Shanghai. Always sorry to leave this intriguing city, this city of light, this city of depth, of heritage and of the future.

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Stay tuned to the blog for more of Wendy’s adventures!

What’s your favorite part about embarking on a new cruise? Is it getting to the ship and seeing old friends or discovering new cities along the way?

2 Comments
  • Ralph

    Enjoyed seeing pix and commentary of Shanghi .are you still on board 11/17?

  • Ralph

    Please contact if you have availability as I know you will have a conversation with Steve and Rose who have breen on cruise since Seattle

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