China cruises: heaven or hell?

China's cruise market is booming, but what's it like on board?

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‘Are you lost?’ a crew member asks as I stroll around the deck of the Sapphire Princess, docked in Shanghai and about to embark on a six-day voyage. I look around, and realise that as neither a Chinese pensioner nor a toddler, I’m the minority on board. In fact, the boat hasn’t even left the harbour before an impromptu guangchang wu (a public square dance, the daily exercise of ayis nationwide) breaks out up on the top deck.


I begin to worry that the Western stereotypes of cruises being filled with purple-rinsed old folks and bad cabaret singers may be equally as true in China now that the industry has set its sights on the market here.


Fortunately, my cabin, or ‘stateroom’ as operator Princess Cruises likes to call them, is sleekly comfortable and comes with private balcony. As the boat finally eases out of Shanghai late afternoon, I sit back and put my feet up – only to be called to a safety drill that lasts nearly 40 minutes. Two elderly women sitting opposite me fall asleep. It’s not the most glamorous of starts.


More exciting is Jeju Island, the southernmost island in the South Korean peninsula and our first stop (after 20 hours at sea). Disembarking is tedious and involves multiple tour guides pushing and waving numbered placards; it’s a classic Chinese tour group experience.


Once off the boat, our group is bundled into a coach and whizzed off to a scenic spot on the island’s cliff-top, before racing back to look around a local market. After this we head to the coast, where we’re given 30 minutes to stroll along the gorgeous seafront, jutted with rocks and jagged edges, watching locals fish. And then the time is up, we’re back on the boat and pulling out into sunny waters.


The next morning, I am woken early by the boat pulling into Busan, South Korea’s largest port. Standing sleepily on the balcony, the water glistening, I have a moment of perfect understanding of the attraction of cruises. Unfortunately, the peace is shattered somewhat by the South Korean tourist information office on the shore pumping out ‘Gangnam Style’ at full blast.


At Busan, we drive first to the site of the APEC Leaders’ Meeting in 2005; there’s a small bilingual museum, and a pleasant park outside. With the politics out the way, it’s time to shop. The Shinsegae department store sits beside the stunning, sandy Haeundae beach, but it’s clear which our guide is heading for. Keenly accommodating shoppers from China, all staff speak Mandarin, and purchases can even be delivered to the boat within an hour. Many on my tour have brought lists of requests from friends, and march off with purpose. After a while I slip out and dip my toes in the sea; Haeundae is easily a beach where you could while away the whole day.


After shopping, it’s time for a seafood lunch – including sannakji, a Korean dish featuring raw octopus, the tentacles of which are still squirming on the plate. There’s just enough time for a few selfies in front of the dramatic coastline at Taejonde resort before we’re bundled back to the boat.


Our final stop is Fukuoka, on the northern shore of Japanese island Kyushu, where we spend the penultimate day. We drive up to see the pretty Dazaifu Tenmangu temple; a visit almost ruined by 20 other coaches arriving at the same time. The streets up to the temple are lined with small shops and restaurants, but there’s no time to explore, our guide says – we have too many other places to see.


What the guide means, of course, is that we need to leave plenty of time for the next duty-free stop – this time the giant ‘Drugon’ shop selling medicines and health supplements. This is not the end, and after a tasty yakitori lunch we head to Canal City, a curving labyrinth of hellish retail. Hot and loud, it is absolutely packed with shoppers keen to snap up yet more tax-free deals. Having previously been rushed through the scenic spots, we’re forced to spend two and a half hours here.


The final day is spent at sea as we bob back across to China. Most events on board are free, including Tai Chi, basketball and Zumba. There’s also a library, gym, KTV and pool tables. The spa looks inviting but is hugely expensive given how cheap massages can be in Shanghai, coming in at a whopping 179USD (1,111RMB) for a 50-minute massage. There are also theatre shows every night – nothing Hamlet-esque, but a merry selection of musicals and dance numbers that seem to satisfy the target audience.


Indeed, almost all of the activities are designed to entertain elderly cruisers and their accompanying grandchildren – presumably sent off to sea while the kids’ parents enjoy a relaxing spa retreat somewhere. At one point I get chased by a small army of pensioners in a slightly terrifying game of ‘find a waigouren’ before being grabbed by a very determined Shanghainese grandmother, who drags me up on stage triumphantly as her prize.


Nevertheless, there are still plenty of ways to spend money on board. A couple of restaurants charge, including a surprisingly excellent steakhouse, which will do you a meal for 25USD (the same price as a hot pot spot, introduced for the Chinese market. The real culinary highlight though is Italian restaurant Sabatini’s, with a Petto di Pollo con Asiago e Pomodorini to die for, together with crisp calamari and fresh buffalo mozzarella. Alcohol has to be paid for; a beer will set you back between 5.75USD (Budweiser) and 4.95USD (Tsingtao).


And in case you haven’t seen enough shopping, there are stores on board too, selling the likes of Coach, Gucci, and Longines at duty free prices. While some of the herded touring and the relentless shopping trips can be gruelling, on balance the cruise is actually good value, with so much included in the upfront cost. It’s also easy to avoid the crowds by retreating to your balcony to gaze out over peaceful waters, while drifting off at night is majestic and almost worth the price alone.


The negatives are fairly obvious; there’s not really any way to escape the tour guides and coaches, as Princess doesn’t do any direct sales and everything is handled by a travel agency. If you’re a foreigner, prepare to have your photo taken a lot too; you are a sitting target for a boatload of older Chinese people armed with cameras.


But if you can enter into the spirit of things – and remember to keep a firm grip on your sense of humour – this is a holiday experience that at the very least promises to be unlike any other you’ve had.


Essential Information


The cruise

Our six-day East China Sea Cruise with Princess Cruises, booked through CITS, was 5,890RMB per person. That price is for a twin or double room with private balcony. The cheapest cabin, with neither balcony nor window, can be booked at 3,999RMB, while a cruise package staying in the luxury suite, including a bathtub and separate living room, will set you back 8,099RMB. For more details and to book see www.scits.com


The restaurants

The included buffet is hearty enough for breakfast and lunch; indulge at Sabatini’s and try the hotpot at least once, both 25USD. In Jeju, sample the Mandarin oranges the volcanic island is famous for. And back on board, treat yourself to a Chocolate Tiramisu (for an extra charge); The Princess recently teamed up with acclaimed chocolatier Norman Love to design a wonderfully decadent range of desserts.


Getting there

Boats leave from the Shanghai Wusongkou International Cruise Terminal in Baoshan district. The nearest metro station is Baoyang Lu toward the northern end of Line 3, from where it’s best to get a taxi (around 15RMB).


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