Royal Caribbean’s first smart ship, Quantum of the Seas, is now sailing from Shanghai. Cruise International Editor Liz Jarvis joins a five-day cruise to Japan

Quantum's North Star sky pod
Quantum’s North Star sky pod

My son is hanging upside down in a giant plastic tube, his arms outstretched as he learns how to fly for the first time. Below us, several would-be surfers are experiencing total wipe out on the FlowRider, while a few steps away, just past the giant pink polar bear known as Felicia, brightly-coloured dodgems are whizzing around. When you consider that we’re on board Quantum of the Seas in the middle of the East China Sea, it’s pretty mind-blowing.

Waterfront night view of Pudong, Shanghai
Waterfront night view of Pudong, Shanghai

Our Asian adventure began in Shanghai: with its extraordinary skyscrapers, straight out of Blade Runner, it’s both intriguing and intimidating. We were both overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of pedestrians as we made our way (slowly, there is no other way) along the Bund, the main street, to Yuyuan Garden and through the noisy, chaotic and smelly Old City, with its proliferation of tourist shops and food stalls.

For my son, who had never been to Asia before, it was a bit of a culture shock, but the advantage of our cruise itinerary was that it also took us to Japan, which has a different vibe, without having to get on another plane.

The first port of call in Japan was Nagasaki. We were there the day after the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb, and at ‘Ground Zero’, where there’s a monument to mark the point of detonation, we found schoolchildren paying their respects to the 70,000 who died, chanting prayers and laying wreaths in the shadow of the remains of the Urakami Cathedral.

There were colourful murals created by children lining the nearby canal bank, with messages of peace and hope, and vibrant origami peace garlands everywhere, many made from paper cranes, the Japanese symbol of peace.

The bright lights of Shanghai's Nanjing Road
The bright lights of Shanghai’s Nanjing Road

Inside the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum we explored the excellent exhibition detailing not only what happened to this port city on 9 August 1945 and the horrendous aftermath, but also the history of nuclear weapons. The museum is controversial for that reason, but whatever your beliefs it’s still engrossing and well worth visiting.

We also walked to the Peace Park, with its memorials from around the world, and hiked up to the Sanno Shrine, half decimated by the bomb; the other half is still standing.

Our experience in Nagasaki was a thought-provoking journey into military history, but the following day we were able to experience a different side of Japanese culture in the city of Fukuoka.

Again we decided to do our own thing – remarkably easy to do as the ports on our itinerary were so close to everything. We began the day by taking a taxi to the Kushida-jinja, a spectacular Shinto shrine located right in the middle of the town, before walking and window shopping our way to the beautiful Ohori Park, home to the remains of the castle as well as the rather impressive art museum which has works by Dali and Lichtenstein, among others. We ended our day on the beach – manmade, but still a fabulous stretch of golden sand.

Quantum's climbing wall
Quantum’s climbing wall

With three days at sea this gave us ample time to experience everything that Quantum of the Seas has to offer. I had first sailed on the ship on its inaugural voyage from Southampton, and before we flew to Shanghai someone warned me that it would have been altered quite a lot for the Chinese market. While there are some minor changes – signs are now translated into Chinese, and sadly stage show Mamma Mia! hasn’t made the transition – the ship is still quintessentially the same, and there’s an unexpected bonus – the Chinese aren’t massive cocktail-drinkers so it’s incredibly easy to get served at the bars, even by the robot bartenders. The service is still the same excellent quality, the fabulous works of art are still intact. In fact the only real difference perhaps is at the included restaurants – the American Icon Grill, for example, now features only a few ‘American’ dishes. The rest are Chinese.

Quantum's robot bartenders
Quantum’s robot bartenders

Where Quantum (and sister ship Anthem of the Seas) excel, however, are with their speciality dining options, and I was delighted to find that the Wonderland experience (cover charge $45) was unchanged, still offering the same theatrical ambience (even if there was no candy floss available for my Cotton Candytini cocktail, it was still delicious). Every course was exquisite, particularly the melt-in-the-mouth pork shank, and my personal favourite, the Crispy Tempura Kim Chee Leaves, which hail from Korea.

Sushi at Izumi
Sushi at Izumi

At Izumi, the onboard Japanese restaurant, the sushi was fresh and expertly presented. I was particularly intrigued, though, to try Jamie’s Italian on Quantum; I was told that Jamie Oliver isn’t yet a household name in China so the Chinese guests will come to this restaurant for the opportunity to eat Italian food rather than because it’s food created by a celebrity chef. The quality hasn’t been compromised in any way – it’s still exactly the same standard as you’d expect at Jamie’s Italian on land. My crab spaghettini was delicious, as was my son’s penne carbonara (he even ate the wilted leeks).

We also dined at Coastal Kitchen, exclusively for suite guests, where again the service was impeccable and the food very good (particularly the fig and prosciutto flatbread and caramelised scallops). But one of the most delightful changes to Quantum to reflect its new itinerary and appeal to the largely Chinese-clientele – and an advantage of Royal Caribbean’s partnership with Dreamworks – is the addition of the Kung Fu Panda noodle bar. All dishes are very reasonably priced (from $2); I definitely recommend the char siu buns (soft and fluffy and filled with pork), which are as good as any you’ll find on mainland China or Japan.

We were some of the only English-speaking guests on board, and everywhere we went the crew were genuinely delighted to see us and made us feel welcome. In a way, though, being in the middle of so many Chinese-speaking passengers made the experience feel much more authentic. While there were a few confusing moments – mostly at embarkation and disembarkation, where it was incredibly noisy and few people understood us – everything else was remarkably straightforward. Although I don’t think the other guests had quite got the hang of the bumper cars; they seemed intent on avoiding each other, rather than trying to go into the back of each other.

A Shanghai bride looks out towards Pudong
A Shanghai bride looks out towards Pudong

On our final afternoon we took a trip on the North Star pod, for spectacular views of the ship and the East China Sea. We ended our cruise as we began, in Shanghai. With 24 hours before our very comfortable Virgin Atlantic flights home we had more time to explore. We took a trip via the psychedelic Bund Sightseeing Tunnel over to Pudong, home to all those skyscrapers, and also enjoyed seeing the city at night, when it’s at its sparkly best. It was a balmy evening and as well as the crowds transfixed by the lights, there were countless brides dressed in red satin, posing for photos with their grooms-to-be. We both left with a greater appreciation of Chinese culture and yes, a new-found affection for Shanghai.

Is it worth the 12-hour flight to Shanghai to take a cruise on Quantum of the Seas? Definitely. Either as an introduction to Asia, or for the chance to experience two very different countries on one trip, I can’t recommend it highly enough. And as the legendary Kung Fu Panda himself might say, there is no charge for awesomeness.

GETTING THERE: A four-night Best of Fukuoka cruise on Quantum of the Seas, departing Shanghai on 25 October 2018, starts from £479pp, cruise only, including all meals and entertainment on board. For more info visit royalcaribbean.co.uk or call 0844 493 3033. Don’t forget you will need a visa for China.

Whether you’re looking for a cultural holiday or relaxing break, find your perfect cruise here.