Cruising Taiwan and Japan

A spring cruise is a perfect way to experience cherry blossom season

Cruising Taiwan and Japan

Cherry blossoms signify more than just beauty in Japan

As we glide in a gondola down a historic canal lined with sakura trees, our sendo (boatman) sings a traditional ballad to cherry blossoms. They fall like pink snowflakes over our heads as our boat drifts peacefully along the waterways of Yanagawa Castle near Fukuoka, Japan.

Welcome to spring in Japan. The practice of hanami – which means cherry blossom viewing in Japanese – is more than just looking at pretty trees. It’s one of the most cherished traditions in East Asian culture.

“Cherry blossoms are a symbol of life’s transience,” explains our guide, as we slide beneath the arch of an ancient stone bridge. “The blooms last only two weeks so they represent life, death and renewal.”

I’m participating in a shore excursion with Holland America’s MS Volendam, a 1432-passenger luxury cruise ship registered in the Netherlands. Our 14-day Taiwan & Japan itinerary has been following the route of blooming cherry trees northward through the East China Sea since we departed Hong Kong.

Ship Life aboard MS Volendam

Cruising Taiwan and Japan

The MS Volendam, part of the Holland America Line, has capacity for 1432 passengers
Photo: Holland America

Our 14-day cruise, featuring ports of call in Hong Kong, Manila (Philippines), Kaohsiung and Keelung (Taiwan), Naha, Fukuoka, Nagasaki (Japan) and Shanghai (China), is just one of several itineraries offered by Holland America. Visiting all seven continents and carrying more than 800,000 cruise passengers a year, Holland America’s fleet of 14 ships offers more than 500 cruises to 400 ports in 98 countries, territories and dependencies around the world.

With capacity for 1432 guests, the MS Volendam is one of the fleet’s mid-sized ships, large enough to offer enriching diversions such as the Culinary Arts Center – a theatre where Holland America chefs, trained by America’s Test Kitchen experts, provide cooking demonstrations and workshops – yet still small enough you won’t feel lost as you might in a mega ship.

Cruising Taiwan and Japan

Relax on the pool deck of MS Volendam

Other onboard activities include a casino with slots and blackjack tables, the Explorers Lounge where you can sip an espresso while playing chess or browsing the lending library. A partnership with BBC Earth brings the outdoors in through nature-inspired films, speakers and other educational resources. Evening shows take place in a plush two-tiered theatre on Deck Four and include live performances of concert piano, comedy, dance shows and more.

Passengers looking to keep fit on board have plenty of options: a tennis court, jogging and walking routes on the promenade decks, shuffleboard, two swimming pools, ping pong, yoga and tai chi classes and an ocean-view fitness centre featuring state-of-the-art cardio and weight lifting equipment. A tempting array of extra onboard activities appears on days at sea.

Guests wrap up their full days with plush terry cloth bathrobes and nightly turndown service with chocolates. Luxurious beds featuring Euro-Top mattresses, premium linens and non-allergenic pillows ensure a good night’s sleep as we travel to our next port.

Cuisine is a Highlight

Cruising Taiwan and Japan

Sake cocktail class aboard MS Volendam

Dining aboard the MS Volendam is a treat. The ship’s restaurants are spacious so even the breakfast buffet on the Lido Market – replete with food stations serving made-to-order omelets, pancakes and waffles – never feels like a mob scene. Options include everything from a full English breakfast to Asian congee. Pinnacle, the premium (extra-fee) restaurant, features traditional steakhouse favorites with beef from Washington State’s legendary Double R Ranch. The gargantuan President’s Cut ($59 USD supplement) is a hand-picked 36 oz. bone-in rib eye grilled to perfection and worthy of a photo-op. During my voyage, Pinnacle was also home to a pop-up restaurant, Rudi’s Sel de Mer featuring Mediterranean cuisine such as the show-stopping Fruits de Mer, a tower of seafood brimming with lobster, crab, shrimp and octopus.

The two-story Rotterdam Dining Room is classic glam with sparkling chandeliers, white-jacketed waiters and gleaming wine buckets brimming with champagne. The a la carte menu includes Holland America Line Signature dishes such as classic Caesar salad and grilled salmon as well as recommendations from Master Chef Rudi Sodamin such as Ebi shrimp with lime glaze or Massaman beef curry served with fragrant coconut rice. Menus also feature recipes by members of Holland America’s Culinary Council which includes luminaries such as chocolatier Jacques Torres and celebrity chef Jonnie Boer of the Netherlands.

Cruising Taiwan and Japan

Spacious Pinnacle Suite aboard the MS Volendam
Photo: Holland America

For casual dining, Canaletto offers a contemporary a la carte menu designed around the classic Italian concept of sharing dishes. Poolside service includes several open-air bars as well as a grill station with gourmet hamburgers and snacks. A gracious afternoon tea is served in the dining room featuring ocean views. To fill in any gaps, complimentary 24-hour, in-room dining with daily fresh fruit is available. Happy Hours are opportunities to wrap up busy days of shore excursions with live music, inventive cocktails, whisky and wine tastings as well as mixologist lessons.

Fascinating Ports of Call

Cruising Taiwan and Japan

The Koxinga Shrine is one of the most
important sites in Tainan, Taiwan

Although it may be tempting to stay aboard and enjoy ship life, the attractions at our ports of call are enticing. Holland America Line’s exclusive Explorations Central (EXC™) offers tips from destination experts to help make our cultural encounters at each port of call meaningful. The toughest part is choosing between the curated EXC Tours offered at each port or opting for independent explorations.

In Hong Kong, I began with an escorted half-day tour of Ancient Hong Kong. Our first stop was Man Mo Yi Tai temple, an incense-filled Daoist place of worship in the New Territories. Next up was the bustling street market filled with unexpected sights such as paper Mercedes to burn as offerings, 1,000-year-old eggs (preserved in clay, ash and salt) and lotus root in mud.

“Good for reducing high blood pressure,” explained our guide as we gawked and sampled our way through the open air market.

Cruising Taiwan and Japan

Between 1429 and 1879, Japan’s Shuri Castle was the palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom
Photo: Akimasa Yuasa JNTO

Other port pleasures included a full day of immersion in Taiwan’s natural wonders. Our tour vehicle climbed a mountainside into the clouds where perched on the edge of a steep volcano was Tienlai Hot Springs. Cascades poured from rain shower platforms as we soaked in the alkaline waters of this luxury spa, surrounded by cherry blossoms and lush vine-draped forest.

In Naha Okinawa, known as the Hawaii of Japan due to the island archipelago’s sapphire waters, the main street of Kokusai-dori with its lively bars, restaurants and shopping malls is a short walk from the cruise terminal. I spent the day independently exploring its noodle shops, ceramic pottery workshops and the Zuisen Distillery where they produce awamori, a distilled rice spirit that dates to the 15th century.

At the Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki, Japan, visitors enter by walking along a circular path tracing a timeline from present day to 11:00 am on August 9, 1945 when the bomb unleashed a blast of heat, wind and radiation that killed 75,000 people and wounded 74,000 others. While the exhibits of artifacts from the devastation are heart-wrenching, the museum’s message is overwhelmingly one of world peace.

Cruising Taiwan and Japan

In addition to cherry blossoms, visitors can expect to see
wisteria in spring in Japan
Photo: ©K,Fukunaga ©JNTO

Within the Nagasaki Peace Park, blooming Sakura trees frame an enormous bronze statue completed in 1955. Built on the epicentre of the bomb’s blast, the figure’s right hand points upward to the threat of nuclear weapons while its extended left hand symbolizes peace.

At journey’s end in Shanghai, itself a marvel of modern architecture and ancient past, each guest receives a voyage log signed by the ship’s captain and cruise director. Along with a map tracing the route of our eight ports of call, it records statistics such as we’ve travelled a distance of 2769 miles at an average speed of 15.9 knots, been served by 619 officers and crew and consumed 17,472 eggs.

For me, the most cherished memory of our spring cruise is of delicate clouds of exquisite, ephemeral cherry blossoms. Their numbers? Infinite.

Travel Planner

Holland America Line:

Michele Peterson is an award-winning travel writer who specializes in food, drink and sun destinations. Her work has appeared in major magazines, guidebooks and travel anthologies. Get travel tips, discounts and recipes on her A Taste for Travel blog and via Twitter/Instagram @atastefortravel.

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