Marion and Ian are keen cruisers and particularly like travelling with Azamara Cruises. Their first trip with them and meeting myself about ten years ago was something of a happy accident as Marion explains before reviewing their latest expedition to the Far East...
“We had booked a Holy Land cruise on a Celebrity ship when political issues forced an itinerary change. We were offered alternative arrangements, none of which were appealing to us and resulted in us discussing options with our local travel agency where we fortunately crossed paths for the first time with Gillian who helpfully advised we would be able to change to an Azamara cruise.
Having always previously travelled Aqua Class with Celebrity, we had considered that Azamara may be a little expensive for our budget but the addition of complementary air travel and hotel accommodation, along with wine at lunch and dinner changed our perception.
We excitedly booked a cruise to the Black Sea and Greek islands, starting in Istanbul and finishing in Athens and enjoyed a fantastic trip with the highlight being our stay in Odessa, moored right at the bottom of the famous steps!
This is an appreciated aspect of the smaller Azamara ships, accommodating around 600 passengers maximum, they can dock in ports that are not suitable for the larger ships. This has meant, in some destinations, that we have simply walked off the ship, through the port administration and into the heart of the town.
The level of service impressed us from the start of that first trip, not just highly efficient but personal, friendly and informal. We were met at Istanbul airport, served with iced water and Turkish delight while we waited for our transfer, which was speedy and comfortable.
Two of our party had been delayed but instead of keeping the whole party waiting, which had been our past experiences, a taxi was arranged for the latecomers and we got to the hotel on schedule. Little touches.
Since then we have taken another six cruises with Azamara, visiting many of our 'bucket-list' destinations with our most recent trip in autumn 2019, embarking in Tokyo, visiting ports in Japan and China and finishing in Hong Kong.
We flew to Tokyo, via Doha, with Qatar Airlines from Edinburgh. We like to travel business class on long haul journeys, which, on Qatar is a very special experience.
We had chosen our own travel and pre and post cruise accommodation, an arrangement we find gives us more flexibility and with a good travel agent like Gillian, can be more economical with the bonus of finding just the right hotel.
This was our second trip to Tokyo, the first having been in April 2017 when the weather was cool and just right for active sightseeing, and we were unprepared for the heat and humidity in October.
The city is one I would recommend, combining the historical and modern but always very Japanese.
Getting around independently is very straightforward using the Metro where the destination boards are in Japanese and English and the people that we met were extremely pleasant and helpful - I found myself bowing constantly!
Eating out is also simple, with many restaurants displaying pictorial menus outside. In Tokyo, and throughout the Japanese part of the cruise, we ate in a range of restaurants and particularly enjoyed tepanyaki, where the food is cooked on a hot plate in the centre of the table.
After joining the cruise, we continued to explore independently in each port where shuttle buses were available for guests not using the ship's excursions. We took the Bullet Train from Ashoka to Kyoto and then used a hop-on-hop-off bus to see the city.
We also visited Hiroshima, which was a very different experience, making everyone stop and reflect.
Our cruise on the Inland Sea was not quite the planned one as we had to make changes to avoid two cyclones - apparently another feature of this part of the world in October along with the heat and high humidity!
We had primarily chosen this cruise for the opportunity to visit mainland China along with being very fond of Hong Kong and wanting to see more of it.
Our itinerary on this second part of the cruise was again disrupted by cyclones, prohibiting a visit to Shanghai but the entire trip was so special that we did not feel deprived by the changes in the slightest.
We were a little less confident about independent travel in China and, for our first day in the port of Tianjin we had arranged a private tour to Beijing and the Great Wall of China.
Having our very own driver and guide meant that we got the most from the day as we were able to move at our own pace.
The whole scale of China takes some getting used to, for example, there are 24 million people in Beijing which was a three-hour journey from the port.
The first week of October is known as Golden Week, 1 October being the anniversary of the founding of The Peoples Republic of China. The whole country is on holiday and many people travel long distances to visit family and friends.
Due to this, we were unable to visit the Forbidden City and had to be content with a drive round Tianamin Square. However, we were able to visit the Temple of Heaven and to enjoy a fantastic meal in a restaurant recommended by our guide.
The visit to the Great Wall was probably the highlight of the day. I had always imagined that we would get up on a wide wall and walk along on a flat or slightly inclined surface. Instead, we went up and down steep stairways which seemed to have been constructed for giants. We could certainly appreciate the sentiment behind the quote from Mao Zedong proudly carved on a huge rock: "He who has not been to the Great Wall is not a true man."
The next day, we decided to try independent travel and set off from the port to visit Tianjin itself, a city with an interesting history and the comparatively small population of 17 million! The shuttle bus took us to the station where, despite no one speaking English and us having no Chinese, we somehow managed to purchase tokens for the correct train, negotiate the ticket barriers and board the train. The journey cost £1, took one hour and passed through 18 stations. We were fascinated by the uniformed guards at each station who stood smartly to attention and saluted as the train pulled out.
But if we were fascinated by the people we saw, we were objects of equal interest to so many of them!
In Tianjin and in our last port of call Xiamen, we were regularly stopped for photographs which often involved us being squashed into the middle of huge family groups, each of them wanting the photo on their own mobile phone.
I always have a piece of knitting with me when travelling and this was another source of interest to our fellow passengers on the trains. It requires quite interesting signing to explain that you are putting the edging on a shawl!
Tianjin itself, was impressive, with a long history in international trade which we learned about from a large monument near the river. We took a river cruise past embankments reminiscent of St Petersburg with grand granite bridges and huge gilt statues and lined with people swimming, sunbathing and even fishing with nets right in the heart of the city.
1 October, the first day of the official Golden Week holiday, found us in Xiamen as Shanghai was engulfed in dreadful weather due to the cyclone. The holiday mood was infectious, and the ship was moored so near to the town that we were able to stroll and enjoy shopping, snacking, people watching and in turn, being watched and constantly stopped for selfies.
Our cruise ended in Hong Kong, where, despite concerns about the civil unrest, we enjoyed visiting many of our favourite places and restaurants.
Although there were unexpected and unforeseen events on this cruise, the crew were superb with the captain and officers making sure that we were fully informed of changes to the itinerary and why they were necessary.
The food was as tasty as always and the memories of warm nights spent eating dinner on deck in my favourite place on the ship, the Sunset Bar, always bring a smile.
Thank you, Gillian. Until our next voyage...