Travel and Beaches
Asia made easier with a cruise ship as home base
We may as well face it. For all but a fortunate few unflappable sojourners, travel is stressful. And big-time travel -- those trips to the exotic spots we all claim to want to visit before we die -- is big-time stressful. Still, many of us really do want to visit those spots. The Great Wall of China. The pyramids of Egypt. The Acropolis in Greece. So we roll out of our cozy beds at 6 a.m., board a crowded jet and endure an impossibly cramped seat as best we can. Perhaps another 13 or 16 or 20 hours tick uncomfortably by before we step off the plane – and into an entirely foreign culture. From our bed to Beijing or Cairo or Athens in less than one day. Exciting, yes. Unnerving? Definitely. This is true even for veteran travelers. I've been to 47 countries so far, places I've toured by car and bus, train and ship. As a 20-year-old, I hitchhiked around Europe and slept in open fields. In recent years, I've been lucky enough to cruise around six continents on ultra-luxury ships and stay in five-star hotels when ashore.All these experiences have taught me something, though, a lesson reinforced powerfully by my trip in May to some of Asia's most desirable destinations: If you want to lower the stress of a major overseas trip, you should travel by cruise ship whenever feasible. Preferably, an ultra-luxury vessel. I happen to love Silversea, one of the top lines in the industry. Of course, Silversea's all-inclusive style of cruising goes a long way toward de-stressing any voyage -- whether it's a week around the Caribbean or a month through the South Pacific. With a no-tipping policy, complimentary high-end wines, beers and liquors, and all-suite accommodations, with a butler for each suite, this is not a bad start to your journey,. In May my companion, Gwendolyn, and I left on a 12-day Silversea cruise that began in Shanghai, China, and continued to Dalian, Tianjin and Beijing before leaving that country for Jeju and Buson in South Korea. We finished up in Miyajima, Hiroshima and Tokyo, Japan. Our itinerary included the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. As usual on our foreign cruises, we stayed in hotels at each end of the voyage – the gorgeous Westin Bund Center in Shanghai and the justly renowned Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. In Shanghai, the hotel staff couldn't have been more helpful. But we still found that language barriers cropped up often. ("No, I just mean we would like to exchange money. … Umm, well, no, I was saying that we're looking for a restaurant with local foods." And so on.) Getting around on foot or by taxi was even more challenging. Not a single taxi driver spoke even a smattering of English -- a surprise in cosmopolitan Shanghai. Directions from strangers on the street were nearly as tough to come by. People clearly wanted to help but couldn't decipher our gestures and mangled translations anymore than we could figure out their best efforts. Eventually we managed, of course, but the language issue was more acute than in most big foreign cities in this age of English as international tongue. Even though Gwendolyn is Chinese-American, we both felt this was an unusually foreign-feeling foreign trip from beginning to end. But when we were alone on land, that sense of living in an alien world distinctly increased our stress levels. It was a very different feeling to settle into one lovely suite on a Silversea ship when traveling these countries, an apartment that went everywhere with us. It became our substitute home, a comfortable environment with familiar foods when we wanted them and familiar people who went out of their way to make us happy. And it made us feel safer when we were off the ship. Aboard Silversea's Silver Shadow, each guest received a wallet-sized card with emergency phone numbers for every port on the trip as well as the ship's direct number. We didn't need the card, but it was a nice feeling to have those numbers tucked away in my pocket throughout our cruise. In many ports, Gwendolyn and I explored entirely on our own. We're not timid American travelers, the type of passengers who stick close to the ship and look for the next McDonald's when they do venture into town. Far from it. Last year, we spent three weeks in Egypt and other Middle Eastern nations during the Arab Spring revolts. That included a five-day sail through the Gulf of Aden, the most pirate-infested waters on earth. We both love to wander foreign communities, soaking up the sights and sampling the local cuisine everywhere we go. But a cruise ship provides a welcome respite after a full day ashore wrestling with the unaccustomed, a degree of relaxation you otherwise might never quite feel in a place such as Beijing. On the Silver Shadow, there were no language confusions to sort out. There were no currency problems either, no working through conversions and guessing how much cash was sufficient to carry around. And in the port of Tianjin outside Beijing, we could stop worrying about the pollution once back inside the ship. Gwendolyn and I have inhaled extraordinarily thick smog in cities that include Hong Kong, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Cairo … and, yes, Shanghai. But the fog-like pollutants that hide the sun and turn the sky perpetually white in Beijing are in a class by themselves. Exchanging this choking smog for a clean, familiar environment was a huge relief after more than 12 hours ashore in and around Beijing on each of two days. These days were among the trip's highlights, of course. We opted for Silversea's first-class shore excursions there, first to the Great Wall and on the following day to the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the Olympic complex. Arranged before we left home, the tours contributed greatly toward helping us to kick back and enjoy our visits to these bucket-list sites. Tour coaches, comfortable by Chinese standards, ferried us on the lengthy, traffic-clogged drives. Our Chinese guide, Angela, was indispensable. Her advice about where to climb the Great Wall and what to expect when climbing on our own, for example, prepared us for the famed mountainous JuYong Pass section of the structure. "The left side is easier; the right side has no places to rest," she explained. "The number one rule is never to look around or take a picture when moving on the wall. The steps are very uneven and you will fall. Always look down at where you are walking." In Beijing the next day, Angela gave everyone a headset so she could speak to us by microphone among the swarming throngs at the Forbidden City. It was a very good idea that I'd never seen on any previous tours. She kept track of everyone's whereabouts for safety, yet had a fine instinct for knowing when to stop talking or to give us time to roam alone. Angela also slipped us past those crowds to enter the Forbidden City quickly, avoiding the long delays we would have endured if visiting independently. Our tour of Miyajima and Hiroshima several days later also was well-run, and even included a lesson in the Japanese art of origami. As you would expect, we found Hiroshima profoundly moving. And the island of Miyajima, considered one of Japan's three most scenic locations, offered remarkably photogenic beauty around nearly every turn. After disembarking in Tokyo, we felt slightly unsettled to be back on our own. We quickly adored that great city but struggled with the language again, as well as simply finding our way around. Getting money was a chore for us, too. Strange as it sounds, Gwendolyn and I walked for many, many blocks and puzzled over confusing directions before finally stumbling across a bank with an ATM that accepted our cards. It's not what we expected in that ultra-modern metropolis. Our brief stay in Tokyo was memorable, with the Imperial Palace and Meiji Shrine among our stops. Both of us want to return to Tokyo for a longer visit. But quite honestly, yes, it was stressful in some ways too. Much more so than our ship-based explorations during time in ports – even when wandering independently through teeming communities such as Buson, which is South Korea's second-largest city behind Seoul. Travel to romantic far-flung spots is worth every effort required, I've learned, repaying short-lived challenges with lifelong enrichments. I wouldn't have given up any of my foreign trips for anything. But you making the trip with a good cruise can make those challenges a lot less challenging.