Cruise East With Regent Seven Seas For New Frontiers
Pak, my South Korean guide, bats off questions about the threats raining down from across the border. “We are used to them,” she shrugs, resuming her explanation about the tunnel under the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that we are on our way to see. The triumvirate of fathers and sons by the name of Kim (Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and current incumbent Kim Jong-un) who have presided over North Korea for the past 60 years are fond of brinkmanship games that every so often thrust the world’s most secretive nation into the international spotlight.
“We just don’t know much about the North,” Dr Mark Elovitz, an expert in world affairs, had admitted during a lecture on Regent Seven Seas' Seven Seas Voyager as we sailed on an East Asia cruise from Osaka in Japan to Incheon in South Korea. His satellite image of the North at night showed a country without lights; pictures revealed a capital city devoid of cars. The ship’s mainly American audience was too young to have seen action in the Korean War but for many the excursion from Incheon to the DMZ was a pilgrimage, the chance to see where their fathers had served as they were growing up.
My cruise was an epic 17-night journey from Hong Kong to Tianjin (the port for Beijing). We also called at Okinawa, where 200,000 soldiers and civilians were killed in one of the fiercest Pacific battles of the Second World War (there was a visit to the former Japanese HQ), and Hiroshima, where the first atom bomb was dropped on August 6, 1945. The story of that day is told in the sombre but well executed museum at the Peace Memorial Park, on what was another well-attended excursion.
This was partly because people wanted to learn more about the bomb’s legacy but also because, like most of Regent’s shore excursions, the cost is factored into the price of the cruise. In fact, so much is included — flights, transfers, alcoholic and soft drinks, and gratuities — that the all-suite, all-balcony Seven Seas Voyager can justly claim the title of “most inclusive cruise ship in the world” (matched only by the two other Regent vessels). As I was discovering, unless you use the internet (and free Wi-Fi is available in Concierge Suites and above) or the spa, there is no need to put your hand in your pocket for anything.
The sense of getting something for nothing is always a pleasure and it encouraged passengers to mingle in the bars and lounges, as no one needed to worry about whose turn it was to buy drinks. I tried all the restaurants — the international Compass Rose, steaks in Prime 7, Mediterranean dishes in Sette Mari, which occupies half of the buffet in the evenings, and French cuisine in Signatures. All good, the antipasti and steaming hot soups in Sette Mari and the Gallic classics in Signatures stood out. Reservations are essential in Prime 7 and Signatures but in the other on-board restaurants you can dine when and with whomever you wish.
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North and South
Back on the South Korea excursion, our first stop was an electrified boundary fence at Imjingak Unification Park, where locals tie coloured ribbons containing messages to family members in the hope that one day they will be reunited. “Freedom and unification are words we use a lot,” Pak said as she pointed to the Freedom Bridge over which 130,000 South Korean and Allied prisoners of war crossed to return home after the Korean War. It was a particularly poignant moment. None of us needed to be told that many thousands more never made it back.
At the military lines at Panmunjom we drove past stony-faced armed guards (cameras forbidden but some dared to steal a shot) who checked our passports before waving us through into the DMZ. It was like going back to the Cold War and crossing from West to East Berlin.
From the Dora Observatory we viewed North Korea: to the left the Kaesong industrial complex, to the right a 160-metre flagpole erected by the North to outdo a 100-metre one donated by the South. We then headed to the third of four tunnels dug by North Korean forces under the 39th parallel (the DMZ) to launch an attack on Seoul. The irony that what was built to move 30,000 invading troops an hour into South Korea is now instead invaded by thousands of tourists each year was not lost on my group as we boarded a monorail train almost 75 metres underground.
From there we walked through the tunnel, 1,200 metres under North Korea, to the first of three concrete walls erected to keep the invaders out. It was the end of the road in more ways than one.
That evening we cruised overnight to Dalian in China, where I learnt to fly a kite, a favourite local pastime. It’s not as easy as it looks, but at least the sight of middle-aged Westerners running around and getting tied up in string provided a little amusement for the locals.
It was a light-hearted interlude but Dalian was a destination I would happily skip, unlike Tianjin (the final port but we stayed overnight so had a day for excursions), from where I took a trip to the Great Wall. If you’re in Beijing city, guides take you to Badaling but from Tianjin tours go to Huangyaguan, one of the wall’s oldest sections, built in 556AD, nearer the port (but still a two-and-a-half-hour drive) and, more importantly, less commercialised.
Having 'seen' the wall in pictures and on television, I thought I knew what to expect. But in places the steps seemed built for giants (I had to pull my 157-centimetre frame up by clinging to the wall) and were so steep that I got vertigo. I climbed for about 50 minutes, scaling a tiny fraction of the wall’s 8,000-kilometre length, stopping regularly, ostensibly to admire the view but actually to get my breath back.
When I sank back in my coach seat, Gloria presented me with a handwritten 'I climbed the Great Wall' certificate. At $A10, it was the first thing I had to pay for on the entire cruise. But with a butler back on board to keep my minibar stocked and polish my shoes, I had no complaints.
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This article was written by Jane Archer from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.