Original posted in London to New York blog, May 8, 2010
Muroran, Hokkaido, Japan
BACK in my former life, when each day presented a load of empty sports pages to fill rather than a new experience to savour, the last few months were spent trying to explain how this trip was heading from London to New York without flying.
Very few people seemed to grasp the fact that at no point were we boarding a plane.
But we remain glued to the earth’s surface and, rather than flying across the Pacific Ocean, here we are on the Diamond Princess.
We have just crossed the International Date Line in the middle of the southern Bering Sea, about 90 miles away from the western reaches of the Aleutian Islands, still three full days away from docking in Alaska.
Writing this, flanked by one of the endless group of pensioners playing cards and a pool given added spice and enjoyment by the introduction of an impromptu wave machine supplied by the motion of the ship, it is hovering just above freezing outside and we are under strict instructions to wash our hands frequently to wipe out a Norovirus scare.
More than one member of our party has been sick since we got on board, but having witnessed both people involved moments before it happened, there is fairly strong evidence no virus was involved.
Rum and cokes, yes. An ill-judged bottomless cocktail offer by the waiting staff, yes. But viruses, touch wood, no.
But more of that in the next episode, let’s rewind to Tianjin in China and our arrival at the Diamond Princess.
We have stood out from the crowd from the off. Large chunks of crew and passengers we stumble across seem to know all about us before we meet (“Oh, you‘re one of THAT lot”).
Amid the pristine luggage lined up on the quayside and equally pristine passengers being processed through embarkation, 19 less than pristine backpacks and their owners descended into their midst.
For the first 24 hours, the mission was simple: get out around the boat and find out what there is to do, where to go and what bars we can go to without upsetting too many people.
By the end of the first night, we had achieved several of our aims, stumbling on the largely uninhabited Skywalkers Nightclub (throbbing to the tunes of DJ Brian), which has become our late-night hangout. Mainly as it is the only bar left open after 12.30am.
It reminds me, particularly when DJ Brian chucks on the cheese, of the nightclub in Only Fools and Horses where Rodney first dances with Cassandra (the one they go to after Del falls through the serving hatch), only with fewer people and a view over the empty pools and hot tubs at the back of the boat. And the Pacific Ocean if it wasn’t dark.
But it has served us well. As have the hugely-attentive staff, particularly the ever-cheerful Romel who had all our names and orders committed to memory within the first couple of days.
Courtesy of endless time changes (the clocks have gone forward almost every night, apart from the ones when we’ve gone backwards to tie in with shore visits and the one when we went forward, repeated a day and ended up 23 hours earlier than where we were – confused, you should try living it), there have been some extremely late finishes in Skywalkers.
Most of which have continued in the Horizon Food Court, our 24-hour home for breakfast, lunch, early dinners, snacks, late-night/early-morning food runs and endless cups of tea.
Imagine the glee experienced by the first post-club raiding group who discovered piles of pizza, hot dogs, chips and even, evidently, salad sat waiting for us at 3am – even after we had troughed down a four-course meal just a few hours earlier.
Disgraceful gluttony admittedly, but after the deprivations of the train, we are all more than willing to take food where we can get it – although that initial excitement has worn off as we work our way deep into the second week at sea.
Horizon Court is also the breakfast hangout of the lovely Vera, our Russian angel of the morning who has ensured our bleary-eyed party found each other every morning (at least the ones when we made it to breakfast) and were constantly stocked with tea and orange juice.
So, apart from eat and drink, what else is there to do at sea?
Swimming was a big part of our routine in the sun-kissed early days when we roamed the ship dripping water everywhere in search of the best pools.
On the first morning it was possible to track Phoebe around the boat by the wet footmarks she was leaving on the Lido Deck in her quest to find the pick of the pools and hot tubs.
Our eventual choice was the adults only (so why they let us in is anyone’s guess) pool at the front (sorry, fore) of the ship, conveniently located next to the spa, gym and the tennis/basketball court, which saw us sinking endless hoops throughout the day and night.
Actually, scratch that. That should read trying endlessly to sink hoops. A lot of balls were aimed, very few found their intended target.
Elsewhere, we have tried our hand at Cyber Golf (managed to stay unbeaten in two games, despite being a combined total of 27 over par for 17 holes), wine tasting, which was hugely informative, entertaining and alcoholic (although we never did find out how they dealt with the Rothschild) and an awful lot of lounging around.
The evenings have fallen into a familiar routine – meet around 7.30pm, have a drink or two before dinner, debate which restaurant to eat in and then debate which bar to drink in before heading up to Skywalkers.
We have varied the routine by going to shows (well, other have, my option was to sit in Churchills Sports Bar and wait for the others to walk out), to see a late-night film (we are still explaining Shutter Island to Mike) or even gracing the casino.
We took advantage of a few free lessons in the early stages and while Nick swept all before him on the roulette table, a glimmer of success on the Blackjack table was enough to convince myself to enter a tournament the next night.
So keen were we that Nick, Phil and myself left dinner before dessert to claim our places at the table.
Sadly, by the time dessert was served, we were all out with one hand of our qualifying round to spare – a result which was repeated when we had another go, although just one turn of a card stood between me and returning a very healthy profit (the anguished cry of the gambler).
The first week on board was broken up by a series of days ashore.
While few of us bothered too much in Dalian and Qingdao, having already seen a lot of China and being keen to enjoy the sunshine on deck, we were all keyed up to jump ship in Busan, South Korea.
But we had to wait. And wait. And wait, as thick fog closed the port until well into the afternoon.
When we were let off, with the promise of a late departure, we all went a bit nuts and decided to experience Korea by sampling what exactly they had to offer. In a bar.
And a fun time was had by our little raiding group (Mike, Pam, Marlo, me and the eager Freddie and Fran, both keen to break out of the restraints of the American legal drinking age) in a bar where we had to collect our drinks from supermarket style fridges, were fed copious free snacks, got handed free carry outs and were even given our own membership card.
Sadly, we never quite got away with the cowboy hat from the mannequin which was still on Marlo’s head until the girl behind the counter ran into the lift after us. An honest mistake.
Still, our exploits were nothing compared to the trip to meet a friend of Phoebe’s which left Nick passed out and unable to remember most of the previous evening and Phil asleep, at various points, in both the theatre and Horizon Court.
Sadly, our last two shore trips were also dogged by the weather.
An early party made it to the gates of the port in Vladivostok before turning back absolutely soaked – not that they missed an awful lot if the afternoon’s windswept organised excursion was anything to by.
The Eagle’s Nest lookout was dramatic, particularly in the high winds, but when the most interesting thing on view is our ship, it doesn’t say an awful lot for the place.
There was, possibly, even less to see in the rain of Muroran, Japan, but that was compensated by the sheer friendliness and welcome shown by the people who turned out in force to welcome us, translate and make our brief, soggy, visit a happy one.
Bedraggled, we stumbled back onto the ship for a solid week at sea.
What could go wrong…..
Next time: Pirates of the Pacific (And Its Endless Sequels), Cap’n Bob tackles the Norovirus and how to waste the same day twice.