Julie Peasgood discovers Asian traditions, culture and history with Fred. Olsen from Taiwan to Japan
We’re standing on a single-track railway line, holding down a giant paper Chinese lantern, one of a dozen couples doing the same. As instructed, my husband Patrick and I have written our wishes for the future all over ours, inscribing our hopes and dreams with the specially-provided calligraphy brush. Then a young Taiwanese man prepares to set fire to a bundle of what appear to be banknotes tied underneath the lantern, enabling it to act like a small hot air balloon.
But before it can float into the heavens, everyone shouts “train” and those of us that are still perched on the line quickly dive for safety, clutching our lanterns as best we can. Far from being frightened, the sheer craziness of the location only adds to the excitement, and when the train has passed through and the myriad of mini hot air balloons finally sweep into the sky, it’s both exhilarating and strangely moving.
The Feast of the Sky Lanterns is a ceremony performed in Chiufen village – a tiny piece of old Taiwan, about an hour away from where Fred. Olsen’s Balmoral has docked in Keelung Harbour. With a covered main street that’s only accessible on foot (largely because it winds up a mountain) it’s wisest to allow plenty of time to explore Chiufen’s maze-like street market, and to drink in the breathtaking views over Taipei and the lush valleys below.
The narrow, cobbled alleyways that branch off the main thoroughfare of the street market are lined with picturesque teahouses, upmarket souvenir shops and extraordinary food stalls, where you can sample the local specialities if you’re feeling adventurous. Soft, chewy, Taiwanese Taro balls, made from yams, originated here. Or there are live snails beckoning you with their tentacles (I wasn’t tempted) and even Stinky Tofu, a popular Asian delicacy – apparently the smellier, the better. But my particular favourite was ice cream encased in a deep-fried spring roll, served on caramelised peanuts and topped with spring onions. It worked, it really did.
Before Taiwan, our first destination had been Hong Kong. One of the most densely-populated cities in the world, it made the packed alleyways of Chiufen seem peaceful. We found the city a little overwhelming at first, so to experience it from the safety of an organized tour worked well. Our full-day excursion began with the top attraction, Victoria Peak, which has panoramic views of the city, Kowloon Harbour and Hong Kong’s iconic skyline – recently ranked as the best in the world. Being in a group meant we could escape the queues for the Peak Tram to the top – though this knee-trembling, gravity-defying feat of engineering would have been worth waiting for.
After peering down on the tallest skyscrapers imaginable we returned to ground level and Repulse Bay, a small, tranquil beach situated in the southern part of Hong Kong Island. A welcome retreat from the city’s crowded pavements, its name is derived from a 19th-century battle in which the British army repulsed attacking pirates. Locals and tourists alike visit the Kuan Yin Temple here, to pay homage to the god of wealth by touching it with their yen, dollars, euros and pounds in the hope that they’ll magically multiply.
Lunch was Dim Sum served in Aberdeen Harbour, where local fishermen still live and work among hordes of traditional sampans and water taxis. The Jumbo Floating Restaurant is the most famous landmark in the bay, then we rounded off our trip with a visit to Stanley, another fishing village that’s a tourist magnet courtesy of its market. Open every day, the market is a shopper’s paradise, with everything from tacky trinkets to cashmere and crafts. There’s lots of variety and best of all, nobody hassles you to buy.
Back on board Balmoral, we were grateful for the quality and variety of the food on offer. Hong Kong may have cured me of any craving for Chinese food for some time to come and after rather unwisely ordering a sea slug in a neighbourhood restaurant, I decided to stick to the Avon, one of the three formal restaurants on board.
With 710 cabins Balmoral is Fred. Olsen’s largest and newest cruise ship, and it has such a friendly, intimate ambience that it is the first choice for many of its loyal regulars. Our cabin was light, bright and spacious and we spent a lot of time enjoying the Rosario Strings – a trio of talented musicians from the Philippines, who play everything under the sun in a lovely, easy style and with great sensitivity.
But the main focus was on the ports of call, and Japan was our last and most eagerly-anticipated destination. On arrival in Osaka we were greeted by a brass band in full voice at 7am – accompanied by enthusiastic officials clapping and waving flags. This slightly surreal atmosphere continued with our trip to Shin-Kobe station, for a ride on the legendary Shinkansen, or bullet train. The station is full of immaculate food outlets, but sadly not a take-away cappuccino in sight – it’s only possible to have coffee if you sit in, which our sweet, but nervous guide wasn’t happy for us to do. Boarding is quite a regimented operation, and we all stood in line as the bullet train crept into view, like a shiny, flat-nosed shark. Smooth, silent and impossibly clean, it catapulted us through the countryside to Kyoto.
Next it was temple time, starting with Sanjusangendo Hall in Kyoto, notable for its imposing rows of Buddhist statues: 1,001 in total and carved in the 12th century from Japanese cypress, painted with gold leaf. Nijo Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, had us padding around its special nightingale floors, designed to detect the footsteps of ninja assassins. But for me, nothing rivalled the Kinkaku-ji Temple, better known as the Golden Pavilion. Built initially as a villa in 1397 and later converted to a temple, the top two of its three stories are covered with gold leaf. The mirror reflection of the pavilion in the tranquil pond that surrounds it had every camera clicking.
Returning to Osaka – Japan’s third largest city after Tokyo, and the home of high-end sushi – I paid an evening visit to the elegant Daimaru Shinsaibashi department store, before we set sail for Yokohama to disembark. Here there are beautifully-made artefacts, with all purchases wrapped in origami-like packaging. Food is also sold in the basement, and it’s a great opportunity to sample Japanese delicacies, which the smiling staff offer eagerly. Nibbling a green tea swiss roll cake, I’m told that “If you drink more than 10 cups of green tea every day you’ll enjoy happy health”. Sounds good to me – and at least one of my Chinese lantern wishes would come true.
A 17-night Cities and Landscapes of the Orient fly-cruise on Balmoral, sailing in March 2015, starts at £2,999pp, including flights and transfers. For more information visit fredolsen.co.uk/0800 0355 242.
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