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Pamela Wade explores China aboard one of Silversea’s smaller ships. Bob is looking a bit rueful. “The agents told me - after I’d paid, of course - that it was a big mistake choosing Silversea for my first cruise. ‘You’re starting at the top,’ they said. ‘You won’t be happy with any other company after this.’ And they were right.” He sighs. “This is my sixteenth Silversea cruise. In nine years.”
We’ve been on board less than a day and already we know what he means - in fact, the pampering started long before we even laid eyes on the Silver Whisper’s sweeping white bow. Our fortnight of high living begins, both literally and metaphorically, with Cathay Pacific’s business class easing the journey to Hong Kong: twelve hours of relaxation that simply, er, flies by.
Met at the airbridge, no less, we are whisked in a Rolls-Royce to the Peninsula Hotel and a six-room suite high above that most spectacular of harbours. There follows a whirl of gloved pageboys, a bone-dissolving massage, a dégustation menu spread over four in-house restaurants, a screwdriver served by Johnny, who learnt it from Clark Gable, and peaceful sleep on a goose-down pillow. It’s all so fabulous that it’s hard to leave, but the Rolls-Royce makes it tolerable, and the welcome from a line-up of staff in black uniforms and white gloves as we board the Silver Whisper lets us pretend we’re arriving at our country house.
Though necessarily smaller than our palace at the Pen, our veranda suite is proof that you really can fit a quart into a pint pot. It’s all here: double marble bathroom, walk-in wardrobe, sofa, desk, dressing table with stool, and a spacious bed. Ah, the bed! Supremely comfortable, the twelve centimetres of pillow-top, coupled with the gentle rocking of the ship, ensures that we sleep like babies — although that could also have something to do with Buzz.
Properly called Aldrin, Buzz is the bartender at Grappa, a bar so tiny that seven of us fill it completely, and his mastery of the cocktail bookends most evenings with aperitifs and nightcaps. It aids our conviviality, if not our livers, that apart from some special wines, all drinks on board Silversea ships are included, starting with the bottle of Pommery chilling in our suite that turns out to be bottomless: empty it, and it’s magically replaced.
According to Bob, this is one point of difference that has him returning to Silversea again and again: aside from a few extras like spa treatments and some shore tours, everything is included, from theatre shows to gratuities, so there are no nasty shocks at check-out time. Another advantage is that being smaller than most cruise ships, the Silver Whisper is able to enter ports where the giants simply won’t fit. This is a triumph on our final morning, when we glide up the Huangpu River almost into the heart of Shanghai, beneath elegant bridges and between the fantastical skyscrapers of the Pudong and the European stateliness of the Bund.
Our size also allows us to slip into smaller ports where international tourists are still a novelty, and where everyday Chinese life continues as it has for centuries. At Xiamen, our first call, we join throngs of domestic holiday-makers enjoying its pedestrian main street, landscaped waterfront and the pretty little island of Gulangyu, a short ferry-ride across the river. It seems perverse to come to China and look at British and Dutch colonial buildings, but street-sweepers in bamboo hats and men trotting along pulling hand-carts remind us where we are, as do the manicured gardens and temples swathed in gold and red.
Dalian, two days’ sail north, also has a European influence, this time Russian and Japanese, but this is a modern, forward looking city summed up in the vast expanse of Xinghai Square by a trail of footprints set in bronze beginning with the tiny tulip shapes of bound feet and ending with those of young children symbolised by statues of a little boy and girl pointing to the future. Old things are not forgotten, however, and on a hill above the city centre I follow an ancient tradition and fly a kite, helped out in a fitful breeze by passers-by who take this activity seriously.
Shopping is also a serious business in China: Dalian is full of malls and markets, but for total retail immersion Beijing is the place. It’s a two-hour drive from the port of Tianjin through flat, brown country along a motorway lined by millions of young trees, each of them, astonishingly, pruned and staked.
Beijing comes as a sudden shock of high-rises, ring-roads and traffic, but our hotel for the night, another Peninsula, is near all the big sights of this ancient city — the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven — as well as within walking distance of a shopper’s paradise. We make up for days of indolence on the ship as we shuffle through intricately-decorated temples, hike across Tiananmen Square to view Mao’s portrait, climb on and off rickshaws in the hutongs where we squash into a tiny courtyard house, home to a little white Pekinese dog with one brown eye and one blue. We walk around the lake where swan-boats bob and couples waltz to piped music, duck into a bar for a local beer, take tea with our little fingers crooked (out for the ladies, in for the men), squeeze through markets and exhaust ourselves bargaining for watches and bags at the Pearl Market.
It’s Beijing done in 36 hours and we’re tuckered out on the drive back to Tianjin. The Peninsula has sent along a pageboy in white gloves and cap who serves us a picnic tea on a silver tray in the minibus and gamely ventures out in the dark, an unlikely sight in his white uniform, to ask directions from shadowy shapes lurking under motorway bridges. It’s all a little nerve-wracking, and we break into spontaneous applause when we finally spot the Silver Whisper’s graceful shape. It feels good to be home again.