Cruising Asia with Holland America: Aboard the Good Ship Volendam
By Monique Burns
Part 1: Aboard the Good Ship Volendam
Cruising Asia’s sun-dappled seas and moonlit straits on a 14-day journey aboard Holland America, my fellow passengers and I explore the great cities of China, South Korea and Japan. In Hong Kong, we view Victoria Harbour’s modern skyline from the decks of a traditional Chinese junk. In Shanghai, we marvel at mega-tall skyscrapers and the high-tech Maglev Train, the world’s only magnetic levitation train. In the capital of Beijing, we climb the Great Wall of China.
We visit Gyeongbokgung Palace, browse traditional markets and sample Korean barbecue with spicy kimchi in Seoul, South Korea’s capital. En route to Tokyo, Japan’s capital, we dock in Kagoshima and hike around Mt. Sakurajima, an active volcano nicknamed “Little Fuji.” In Nagasaki, when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, we visit the Peace Park, where a survivor of the 1945 Atomic bombing gazes into my eyes with such love and forgiveness that it makes me weep.
Along with intriguing ports of call and inspiring people, my fellow passengers and I enjoy countless activities aboard ship. The ms Volendam is truly a floating resort, featuring a casino, a spa, two swimming pools, and a tennis and basketball court. The Wajang Theater, seagoing set for America’s Test Kitchen, screens movies twice a day, and the Art Deco-style Frans Hals Show Lounge stages concerts, Broadway-style extravaganzas and dance performances each night.
Part coffeehouse and part library, Explorations Café, presented by The New York Times, has more than a dozen computers, books on virtually every subject, jigsaw puzzles, and Scrabble and chess games. Two bars cater to sunbathers and swimmers. Another four offer live music nightly. Five restaurants—with menus designed by a Culinary Council of top chefs like David Burke and Elizabeth Falkner—serve innovative, well-prepared continental and Asian dishes. Complimentary room service is available 24 hours a day.
The Volendam is also a floating university, offering everything from demonstrations by chefs from America’s Test Kitchen to computing classes at Microsoft’s Digital Workshop, and from Tai Chi and yoga lessons to art appreciation talks by representatives from Park West Gallery, the world’s largest private art dealer.
After a 15-hour flight from Boston to Hong Kong, I spend several days sightseeing. At Tin Hau Temple, I light a joss stick before the garish statue of a sea goddess in hopes of a safe voyage. At the Jade Market, I haggle with canny old Chinese women in a tin-roofed shack steps from stylish venues like Hotel Stage with its art gallery, wine bar and organic restaurant. Aboard the historic Star Ferry, I chug across scenic Victoria Harbour then ride the equally historic Peak Tram up 1,312-foot-high Victoria Peak. At Temple Street Night Market, I browse stalls and sample Chinese-style chicken soup with long, curly noodles
The evening before the cruise, I join fellow Holland America passengers at the InterContinental Grand Stanford Hong Kong, an elegant old-world hotel with dark-wood paneling, upholstered wing chairs and gilt-framed paintings. A group of us take a relaxing cocktail cruise through Victoria Harbour aboard the Aqua Luna, a traditional wooden junk. Dinner is at The Sky Boss, a gourmet Chinese restaurant on the 101st floor of the International Commerce Centre, high above the harbor’s twinkling lights.
Before boarding the Volendam the next afternoon, I experience the new walking tour of Hong Kong Island’s historic Central district. Led by lively young Paul Chi-uyen Chan, founder of Walk In Hong Kong, the three-hour tour visits the newly gentrified Sheung Wan neighborhood, stopping at traditional locales like Pak Sing Temple as well as hip teahouses, eateries and artists’ studios.
By early afternoon, we’ve checked in at Hong Kong’s modern Kai Tak Cruise Terminal and are relaxing aboard ship. A sleek black-and-white vessel, about the length of two football fields, the midsize ms Volendam is a favorite among Holland America cruisers, many of whom are repeat travelers. That’s not surprising—Holland America has had almost 145 years to establish its excellent reputation. Founded in 1873 in the Dutch port of Rotterdam, the line initially carried cargo and passengers—including 850,000 European immigrants to the New World—before launching vacation cruises in 1895. Today, the Seattle-based company’s fleet of 14 ships sails to over 400 ports worldwide.
Built in 1999, the Volendam, like many older ships, is prized for its roomy interior, with large staterooms, spacious public areas and plenty of intimate corners. Traditional teak decks and deck chairs, ornately framed oil paintings by Dutch and French masters, big vases with fresh flower arrangements and miles of shiny brass give the Volendam all the elegance of a bygone era. At the same time, the ship is ultramodern, retrofitted with the latest navigational and stabilization equipment to guarantee smooth sailing.
I find the floral-emblazoned “Daily Navigator” brochure, with the day’s activity lineup, pinned outside my stateroom. Inside, my suitcase has already arrived. Since Holland America’s dress code is mostly casual, I’ve brought along jeans and polo shirts for daytime plus nice slacks and tops for “smart casual” dinners. I’ve also packed running shoes, sandals and stylish Italian loafers. For dressy Gala Nights—generally three during a two-week Holland America cruise—I have two cocktail dresses, several dressy tunics, linen pants and black pumps. That’s more than enough clothes for two weeks. If necessary, I can do wash in the ship’s coin-operated washing machines or send it to the laundry.
My spacious stateroom—a standard outside cabin—has a cozy sitting area with a framed seascape on the wall and a coffee table, desk and plush loveseat. A large-screen HD-TV shows features about Holland America ports of call along with regular programming. The DVD player is perfect for showing any of hundreds of complimentary movies available. My tiled bathroom—or “head”—has a shower and a three-quarter-size tub, generally found in older ships or higher-priced suites. Along with thick towels, I find soap, shampoo and other premium Elemis toiletries. Not surprisingly, there’s a long bank of closets. In addition to one and two-week itineraries, Holland America has sailings as long as a 113-day Grand World Voyage. Beneath a large square window, my queen-size bed has a plush Euro-top mattress and 100% Egyptian cotton sheets.
For lunch, I head up to Deck 8 and the ship’s two casual eateries. The Dive-In, a gourmet hamburger and hot dog stand, with a salad bar, is near the ship’s bow, steps from the Greenhouse Spa & Salon, the indoor swimming pool and the Lido Bar. Midship, the Lido Market—open for breakfast, lunch and dinner—offers a tantalizing buffet of sandwiches, salads and hot dishes.
Opting for the Lido, I choose a turkey sandwich with Brie on French bread, lentil soup and iced tea. At the ship’s stern, where small round tables and lounge chairs are arranged around the colorfully tiled outdoor pool, I join several new acquaintances: an affable Dutchman, a witty Belgian from Ghent in western Flanders, and a charming Englishwoman from seaside Brighton, just south of London.
By late afternoon, some passengers are at Open Houses in America’s Test Kitchen, Microsoft’s Digital Workshop and the ship’s Casino. Others are asking Location Guides about Shanghai, our first port of call, over tea and cappuccino in Explorations Café. Still others are at the LGBT Meetup, the first of many gatherings for groups like Singles & Solos and military Veterans. Some passengers sunbathe on deck; others browse jewelry and clothing boutiques.
That night, we leave Hong Kong. On Deck 9, in the Crow’s Nest, with its wraparound windows, there’s a Bon Voyage Sailaway Party with cocktails, appetizers and late-night disco dancing. I take the cool sea air on the Lower Promenade Deck, then head back to my stateroom and drift off in my big comfy bed just as the ship’s engines are revving for our 11 p.m. departure.
The next morning, I find the “Daily Navigator” brochure outside my stateroom door. Over the next two days, we’ll cruise 805 nautical miles to Shanghai, enjoying a range of shipboard activities from dawn till the wee hours of the morning.
After breakfast, it’s lights, camera, action in the Wajang Theater as charismatic young chef Samantha Block, shipboard star of America’s Test Kitchen, demonstrates how to prepare tender poached and oven-roasted salmon. After lunch, I rejoin fellow foodies in America’s Test Kitchen for a private pasta-making class. Using hand-cranked machines, we prepare long strips of fettuccine, then hand-craft ravioli and tortellini with wild mushroom filling and brown butter-and-pine nut sauce.
Happily occupied with culinary classes, I pass on Team Trivia and the Texas Hold’em Tournament as well as Digital Workshops on Skype and Microsoft Edge. But, intrigued by the idea of seagoing art auctions, I attend a sparkling-wine reception in the Art Gallery, adorned with colorful works by contemporary American, French, Israeli and Russian artists.
For our very first Gala Night, everyone dresses in finery, from classy pants suits and sports jackets to tuxedos and cocktail dresses. Joining a half-dozen new friends in the Rotterdam, the ship’s elegant main dining room, I order artichoke-and-carrot soup with crème fraîche, rack of lamb with tomato couscous and lemon meringue cheesecake with blueberry sauce.
That night, there’s entertainment throughout the ship. The Ocean Bar trio plays standards from the “Great American Songbook.” Don tinkles the ivories at MIX piano bar. Classical music by Adagio, the piano-and-violin duo, wafts through the Explorer’s Lounge. In the Frans Hals Show Lounge, the big ticket is “Atlantic Crossing,” featuring English pop from The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to Adele and Coldplay.
Morning comes all too soon. But a breakfast of Dungeness crab Benedict with asparagus and tarragon-Hollandaise sauce in the Rotterdam makes life feel infinitely more civilized. My first Park West Gallery Art Auction opens with a $39,000 work by Peter Max, the ‘60s pop artist turned neo-Fauvist. It’s exciting to hear the rapid-fire staccato voice of the auctioneer, young South African transplant Clarke Delport. Among scores of paintings on offer are Matisse-like serigraphs of women, with blue eyelids, by Israeli artist Itzchak Tarkay, seascapes by French Impressionist Duaív and homespun works by Norman Rockwell. Studio animation art features characters like Betty Boop and Winnie the Pooh.
Incredibly, works start as low as $50. Plus there are prize raffles. I don’t win the Casino’s $230,000 Paradise Lotto. But I do get lucky at an art auction, winning three silvery Bella Perlina bracelets with dove, heart and cross charms symbolizing faith, hope and love.
The afternoon turns decidedly gourmet. After lunching on linguine with smoked salmon, scallops and shrimp, I join Jean-François Marottée, the ship’s Mauritius-born sommelier, for a “Wines of the World” tasting. Then there’s Afternoon Tea with finger sandwiches, cakes, and scones with Devonshire cream.
String Idols, an English violin-and-viola duo, performs music from Bizet to Broadway in the Frans Hals Show Lounge that evening. “A Tale of Three Cities,” a movie about Hong Kong-born film star Jackie Chan, is showing in the Wajang Theater. And, of course, there’s nightly music and dancing.
In the morning, the Volendam arrives at our first port of call, cosmopolitan Shanghai—and I can hardly wait.
IF YOU GO
Log on to www.hollandamerica.com or call 877-932-4259.
Monique Burns is a longtime travel writer and editor, and a European Correspondent for Jax Fax Magazine, a travel magazine for U.S. travel agents. A former Travel & Leisure Senior Editor, she travels frequently to Europe, but can sometimes be found in far-flung locales like India and Asia. After more than 30 years in the travel business, she still appreciates the world’s many cultural differences and can honestly say that she’s never met a place she didn’t like.