No way is 2 1/2 days enough to even get the most cursory feel for Shanghai, but I'm grateful for the time nonetheless.
Because of commitments back home, I debarked this morning, our official day in Shanghai. The good news is I get to spend two more days exploring the city; the bad is that I miss out on Nagasaki and Beijing, at cruise's end. And while this cruise has had its fair share of dramatic moments along with extra sea days on an itinerary that already had plenty to begin with, spending more time onboard Sapphire Princess than was expected meant that I got attached.
Sapphire Princess started to feel like a neighborhood.
There were rituals -- morning coffee and an e-mail check on sea days in the gorgeous Internet Cafe, Katherine Hepburn and Audrey Hepburn flicks on the ship's in-cabin Romance Channel, the aforementioned lovely, lingering lunches at the International Restaurant, people-watching from a perch in Crooners, and a pre-dinner cocktail ritual at the clubby, pubby Wheelhouse. I attended my first-ever art auction, watched a couple of shows in the Princess Theater, sat in on a fascinating lecture about the Concorde's fatal Air France crash and supped at Sabatini's.
At the same time, it feels fairly astounding that there are places I didn't get to onboard! An avid spa-goer, I managed to work in just one massage, and shame on me for not taking advantage of the fitness facilities (every day there was an early morning "beginner's meditation” session that sounded so intriguing). I never tried out afternoon tea and took a pass on dinner at Sterling Steakhouse. The menu wasn't so interesting and the ambience -- the restaurant is tucked into a corner of the Horizon Court buffet -- was institutional, so there seemed to be no point. And aside from that first day at sea, the weather was so rainy that there was no point in hanging out by the pool.
Ultimately I spent 12 nights onboard, and it seems to have flashed by in an instant. And so, as I wheeled my suitcase across the dock to the car that would take me to my hotel in Shanghai, I felt as though I'd been kicked out of some kind of womb. I am on my own now.
Spending two full days (and nights) in Shanghai seems like a comparative luxury, particularly since, like any veteran cruise traveler, I've gotten used to the pressure and limitations of only-a-day-to-visit ports of call.
Since I'd already glossed over the city's major tourist points -- The Bund and the shops of Nanjing Road among them -- I'd narrowed my two day list down to places like Shanghai's old city, the recently restored Xintiandi district, the Shanghai Museum and a the French Concession, the last remaining colonial neighborhood.
Like most, if not all, major cities, Shanghai's turbo-charged growth mode has a down side, and here that means that most representations of the city's history are already torn down or will be. That's why a stop at the Old City God Temple and Yuyuan Garden is a must. The garden itself was completed in 1577 during the Ming Dynasty (would you believe there's still a live tree here from the original garden? It's a 70-ft. tall maidenhair).
To reach the garden, you actually have to go shopping (no tragedy that!); it's tucked inside a bustling outdoor bazaar. Actually everything bustles in this cramped neighborhood; once inside the gardens, even places like the Hall of Harmony, the Pavilion of Ten Thousand Flowers (not a terribly apt name for a visit in December as it was a bit bereft) and the Hall of Serenity are congested and the very antithesis of a Zen-like ambience. Tour groups clog narrow pathways, and crowds hog railings that overlook its most scenic wonders (definitely don't miss the grand rockery though, which consists of stones that have fused with rice glue to evoke mountains, caves and ridges -- at one point some centuries ago, this man-made peak was the highest point in the otherwise flat Shanghai).
Outside again, you're in the midst of the sprawling bazaar; it's a good place to shop for souvenirs, and though shops that encourage bargaining are on the wane in Shanghai, this is the place to negotiate your price. The advice I was given was to method act your way through this routine:
Step 1: How much is this...?
Step 2: Scrunch face in absolute horror. No! Too much! Walk away (slowly).
Step 3: Merchant shouts "come back!" And the negotiations begin.
Try to bargain the price down to at least half the original tariff; you might even do better than that.
Another experience not to be missed is the nine-twist zig-zag pedestrian bridge that crosses over the Huxin Ting Pond. The idea of the design is that the twists and turns slow you down, forcing appreciation of sights, senses and sounds. What really caused pedestrian traffic to slow to a crawl was the vast crowds pulsing in two directions over the narrow bridge. The fact that traffic halts whenever anyone paused for a photo op didn't help either. This happened at every one of the nine twists.
The old town is a great spot for lunch, and we timed our visit around that. You can queue up with locals for the city's best pork dumplings at Xiao Long Bao, a carry-out joint, or head to Lu Bo Lang. This is one of Shanghai's best known traditional restaurants, and if it's unabashedly touristy (if numerous photos lining the walls are any indication, Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton have dined here), it's a great experience nonetheless. Dim sum is an art form, and if crab is in season ... try it. Reservations are highly recommended, by the way. The place gets packed (and I saw plenty of locals among the tourists).
With two nights to spend in Shanghai, I had a vast number of choices of top-notch hotels at value prices. Shanghai's massive growth over the past decade has spurred construction of numerous new hotels; most of which are sleek, elegant, luxurious and -- astonishingly -- quite reasonable in price. Fairly new, The Regent Shanghai appealed for a couple of reasons. I liked its cruise connection -- Regent Seven Seas Cruises is a sister company -- and the hotel's gorgeous indoor infinity pool and Guerlain Spa were enticing.
And I ended up loving the Regent Shanghai, which still felt as intimate as a boutique hotel despite the fact that it caters toward business and convention travelers with its 500-plus rooms. Price-wise, my standard room on the 36th floor was about half the cost of rooms at the somewhat comparable Westin downtown, and stylistically, the furnishings -- huge flat-screen television, turn-down service, an elaborate marble bathroom with both rain forest shower and standalone tub -- were sleek and homey at the same time.
What I didn't realize -- because I simply didn't know my way around the city when I booked the hotel -- is that the Regent Shanghai has one downside: it's located in the middle of a nondescript neighborhood that's a good 15 minutes, by taxi, from downtown's major attractions. You can't walk anywhere -- an elevated highway creates a bit of a concrete barrier -- and beyond a cafeteria, there are no restaurants nearby (though the hotel, of course, has a handful of elegant and casual eateries).
Taxis are cheap, so the trip back and forth wasn't a big expense, but they weren't necessarily plentiful -- and 25 minutes spent waiting in a hotel queue to simply make the 15-minute trek downtown is an absurd and unnecessary inconvenience (a hotel spokeswoman said that The Regent Shanghai planned to offer shuttle service in the future; that would be a huge improvement).
Also, when riding in taxis -- from and to any place in the city -- do not forget to bring some sort of card with your destination names printed in Chinese (my hotel included them with my check-in materials). Taxi drivers do not speak a whit of English, and they will not understand you. Trust me: I left my leaflet in my room, and trying to direct the driver to the Shanghai Museum was a bit hairy (once there, I asked a museum staffer to write down the name of my hotel).
One advantage of staying far away from the madding crowds downtown at places like the Westin and the Grand Hyatt was the Regent Shanghai's calm and serene ambience after a frenetic day of sightseeing. Even better were the various ways I found to relax: a quick swim in the infinity pool after nightfall, with the lights of the city ablaze, and a shiatsu massage in the spa to work out all the knots and kinks I'd accumulated over the past two weeks (just in time, alas, to add a whole series of new ones after the marathon flight home that awaits).
As I roamed the city via taxi (this is by no stretch of the imagination a walking city), I found myself drawn more to places that represent some aspect of its history rather than the more contemporary aspects of Pudong's new town. Xintiandi, a group of restored old Shikumen (or traditional Shanghai courtyard houses from the 1930's), is a blend of old and new that reminds me in a strange way of places like Baltimore's Harborplace and Boston's Faneuil Hall. The structures are sleekly restored and house chic local shops that sell unusual jewelry, cards and art. I love Shanghai Tang; it's a China-based chain that I discovered in Hong Kong. Its blend of contemporary sensibilities with traditional styles in clothing and pricey home furnishings wreaked quite a bit of havoc on my credit cards.
Xintiandi's also a good place to eat; sidewalk cafes specialize in everything from bistro fare to Shanghainese food, and there are wine bars and just plain bars. Xintiandi, which was only restored in 2000, is also a magnet for night life.
Surrounding Xintiandi is a totally newly built area of expensive residential and office buildings, and it's here that many of the more global retail outposts that have discovered Shanghai are located. Just beyond this area (walk in the direction away from downtown) is Huai Hai Road.
A major shopping destination along the lines of Nanjing Road, it's packed with locals on weekends and is a great place to get a feel for contemporary life here. The shops blend old style with the newfangled, and you can find everything from food markets (try to avoid the butcher counters with their piles of dead, head-on chickens) to High Street-style fashion boutiques. One of the oddest spectacles was a highschool-aged troupe of pom pom girls and a band performing to tunes as if they were entertaining at half time; instead these kids, clad in signature colors of yellow and red (think mustard and ketchup) were attempting to entice passers-by to try a new McDonald's mega meal.
If Shanghai's future is largely based on the here and now, the Shanghai Museum is a great place to retreat to its cultural history. Nowhere near as packed as Yuyuan Gardens, the city's other major historical draw, the state-of-the-art Shanghai Museum features galleries dedicated to calligraphy, painting, ceramics and other Chinese art forms (along with temporary exhibitions -- on my visit, Rembrandt was featured). The museum makes quite an architectural statement -- it's got a square base and a round top (meant to symbolize earth and sky, respectively). The ambience inside is also a funky blend of old and new; one woman in the sculpture gallery went from piece to piece, taking a few moments to admire -- and then snapping a photo of each with her mobile phone. And the lights that illuminate the artwork actually use sensors to determine whether someone's looking at particular pieces; if no one's there, the lights go off.
From the "it doesn't matter why you came as long as you did" school of thought, I must confess that what really enticed me to visit the museum was its, er, shop. It's fantastic and goes way beyond the traditional museum stores' stocks of postcards and posters. If you are in the market for distinctive, original and oft-expensive (don't even try to bargain here) treasures, this is the best place in town, and I scored. There are gorgeous silks -- jackets and kimonos -- unusual jewelry, hand crafted housewares (even lamps), beautifully reproduced art in many forms, gorgeous cards, and of course, the usual stuff you see in museum gift shops such as exhibit guides and the like.
I'd planned to spend one of my nights revisiting The Bund, which is so electric after dark, but time ran out, as always more quickly than you anticipate. That's fine. Shanghai's another city on this trip that makes it onto the ever-growing list of “when I come back I will…” and The Bund at night gets a top spot.
Setting out on this memorable trip, my first extended exposure to the countries of eastern and southeastern Asia, I remember asking two questions: Will the presence of a mega cruise ship in a region that traditionally has been limited to more exotic and luxury-oriented vessels open up the possibilities for the traveler on a moderate budget? And can a mega ship -- the same style as those that ply the holiday-centric waters of the Caribbean -- deliver a satisfyingly exotic experience?
Missed ports aside, I got a chance to visit Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai, which are absolutely among the world's most exciting and interesting cities. As Asia is, for many of us, somewhat otherworldly, traveling by cruise ship enabled me to experience the region in a rather non-intimidating way. Now, with no hesitation, a trip back to see all the great stuff I missed, not to mention places I'd like to revisit, is absolutely on my radar.
In an e-mail I received right after returning home, a reader wrote, "My husband went to Singapore for business this October and he liked what he was able to see while there and came home infected with 'Asia Fever' as I call it."
Indeed, "Asia Fever" is definitely what a lot of us came home with. Many of the passengers I met onboard Sapphire Princess found this cruise (with its price and grand scale) to be the best value option for making a trip that's expensive to begin with, and that meant the difference between sailing to Asia or simply sailing a same-old, same-old cruise to another place.
Beyond making the region more accessible, though, the question remains: can a ship as large as the 116,000-ton, 2,670-passenger Sapphire Princess deliver a quality experience? In this case, the size is a detriment in some ways; port cities in Asia, such as Bangkok, Singapore, Shanghai and Hong Kong, are investing rapidly in new in-town facilities that are uber convenient. But we were too big (long and/or tall) to "park" there and instead docked at berths in cargo ports located some distance out of town. There was a fair amount of time spent traveling between our ship and the sites.
As well, if you're shopping for an Asia cruise, and you want to achieve enlightenment onboard and off, look carefully at lines that provide onboard programs that incorporate an itinerary's ports of call. I knew better when I choose this trip as my first -- Princess has long been consistent in its strategy for onboard entertainment (aside from, perhaps, Alaska, where the line does a fantastic job of incorporating the region into shipboard life); its programs by and large are not meant to reflect on the itineraries it serves. One of my first cruises ever was a Princess Amazon trip. I felt the same sense of onboard disconnect then -- and that was 10 years ago! Itinerary programming is not as important to me on cruises to the Caribbean. On exotic trips, it matters.
Regardless, now that I've seen a little of Asia, I'll be looking into ways to explore more of the disparate nations and electric cities that comprise this vast region. How I'll travel? Who knows at this point. Definitely, the benefits of cruising on Sapphire Princess far, far outweighed the negatives. It was an experience of a lifetime, and I can't wait to go back to Asia.
All images except for shopping street scene appear courtesy of Carolyn Spencer Brown.