Round The World and other travels

A frequent flyer's collection of trip diaries

This is: Japan 2014

All aboard!

After much anticipation, our cruise departure day had arrived - but let's not get ahead of ourselves!

Both Bruce and I tend to be wary of buffet food at the best of times, so it was only after verifying that no viable alternative existed that we decided to opt into the breakfast buffet at the Grand Park. This turned out to be chaotic, mediocre and poorly executed - very disappointing indeed and far from cheap! I wondered what was going on with this current string of bad luck in the culinary department: three poor meals in a row after a previously unbroken run of stunning success stories since arriving in the country.

We decided to pass the morning by taking a local train to central Otaru for a look around: it was something to do while Sun Princess disgorged her previous passenger load and got spruced up for our arrival. We walked down to the canal area, which was of some (frankly, limited) interest to tourists. Visiting a downtown supermarket, we bought some champagne and cava to take on board the cruise, thereby using up our carry-on limit of one bottle of wine per head. The Moët & Chandon - sadly the last bottle in the shop - was a real bargain at JPY4,000 (less than GBP22)! In due course we took an 'Airport Rapid' train, similar to the one we had arrived on the previous evening, back to Otaru Chikko.

LEFT: Morning walk in central Otaru
RIGHT: Train back to Otaru Chikko

FAR RIGHT: Colourful Ferris wheel at Otaru Chikko

Back at the hotel, we packed, checked out and took a taxi for the short distance to the cruise ship. Thanks to the complete absence of crowds or lines, and with the benefits of Bruce's 'Elite' status, embarkation was swift and hassle-free. In no time at all we were on board our floating home for the next week and cabin steward Allan, from the Philippines, was showing us to our accommodation.

ABOVE: "After careful consideration, I think it will do."

As readers of this site will know, I have probably seen more than my fair share of luxurious lodgings over the years, so it's not often these days that a door is opened and my jaw drops in delighted disbelief at what I see in front of me. It happened this time, though. We had been allocated a fabulous and unexpectedly spacious junior suite (in the ship's terminology, a 'mini-suite') with living and sleeping quarters separated by a curtained archway. There was a double-balcony spanning both sections of the suite. We had a walk-in closet. The bathroom was accessible from both parts of the suite and could be divided internally into a separate toilet / hand-washing room and a bath / shower room. In summary, it was immediately clear that we were going to be very comfortable indeed during the week ahead. In fact Bruce was concerned that I would get too used to this level of luxury, as the room type that he usually got allocated was about half this size!

After settling in, we went for a slightly later-than-usual lunch in the ship's buffet restaurant. With various stories appearing in the media over the years about how bugs and infections can spread through a cruise ship, it was good to see the use of alcohol-based hand gel being enforced. We had a nice lunch of assorted cold items plus a few chicken wings. I was quite pleased with myself that, at this first of many tests of my will power, I had managed to leave without over-indulging!

We then took a self-guided tour of the ship, in my case trying to get to know the layout of this huge, floating resort. (Bruce had the distinct advantage here as all the ships of the fleet have a similar layout.) I was especially struck by the good-natured friendliness of the various crew members that we ran into along the way. The biggest surprise, however, was the make-up of the passenger load, nearly all of whom seemed to be Asian. I had been looking forward to experiencing the multicultural nature of this cruise, but was nevertheless surprised by the scarcity of Western faces. The largest ethnic group appeared to be Japanese, but the surprising bit was that this was closely followed by Chinese.

A short Sake 'barrel-breaking' (i.e. opening) ceremony took place in the main atrium at 3pm and attracted a considerable crowd. A compulsory emergency drill followed at 4pm, conducted in both English and Japanese. The Chinese passengers clearly didn't understand very well: some attempted to leave and many more simply fell asleep!

LEFT: A quick tour of Sun Princess. More photos are available by selecting 'Cruise Ship' from the menu above. 
RIGHT: Sake barrel-breaking ceremony in the main atrium.

Bruce had pre-ordered canapés and shrimps for departure, plus an ice bucket for the champagne that we'd brought on board from Otaru. The ship's slow and carefully executed departure took place exactly on-schedule at 5pm, with a send-off from a Japanese percussion band and (a little oddly, I thought) some trainee guide dogs. Two pilots were on board to guide Sun Princess through the gap in the breakwater; they were picked up by the pilot boat once the liner was safely outside.

LEFT: Celebrations to mark our impending departure
RIGHT: And we're off!

We sat out on the balcony enjoying our fizz and appetisers, making sure that some attentive and noisy seagulls didn't get too close. We soon had to put jackets on, subsequently moving back inside once darkness had fallen. We decided to observe Bruce's First Law of Hotel Stays (encapsulated in the equation first night = room service and applying whether or not the hotel is located on terra firma), ordering two soups and a pizza to share. We enjoyed our food while watching the excellent movie Philomena on the large-screen TV in our living room. I could feel the motion of the ship by now, but it was absolutely nothing to be concerned about.

What an excellent start to what promised to be a thoroughly enjoyable maritime adventure!

Saturday 13 Sep

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