It finally dawned on me the day we visited the Philippine island of Sabtang off the northern tip of Luzon why I felt in familiar surroundings. It was the third day of our cruise, and I had already met many of my 105 fellow passengers -- even a few whose names I remembered. But it wasn't this that made things seem familiar.
I was the last to climb aboard a Zodiac -- the rubber rafts that often ferried us from the ship to our shore excursions. As the Zodiac pulled away from the ship and we skimmed across the waves toward the mountainous island still hazy in the early morning sun, we were overtaken and passed by friskier rafts. "Penelope" passed us, then "Telemachus." "Scylla" zipped past, with "Circe" close behind.
Cautious not to tip the balance, I leaned toward the crew member maneuvering the Zodiac and asked his name. " 'Ulysses,' of course," he replied smiling. Of course. And -- of course -- how appropriate. We were aboard the Clipper Odyssey on its 2,160-nautical mile voyage across the western Pacific. Over 14 days we would visit three countries: the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan. This was to be our odyssey aboard the Odyssey, accompanied by 10 appropriately-named Zodiacs.
Our voyage had begun in Manila. On all voyages there are places that stand out. Old Manila was one of those places.
In the midst of the sprawling city of 11 million that Manila has become is the small enclave of Intramuros, literally "within the walls." The Spaniard Miguel de Legaspi sailed into Manila Bay in 1570, barely 50 years after Ferdinand Magellan first happened upon the Philippine Islands while searching for a western route to the Spice Islands of the East. Legaspi found a small Muslim settlement, Maynilad, which later became Manila, the center of Spanish rule in Asia for over 300 years. Intramuros was what the Spaniards called their first settlement, gradually enclosing it within thick walls for protection.
Although World War II exacted a heavy toll on Intramuros, restoration has been in progress since 1979. The sturdy walls erected by the Spaniards, punctuated with bastions, towers and gateways, stretch for almost three miles and are the highlight of a visit to Intramuros. Enclosed within these walls is Fort Santiago, the tip of Intramuros where the Spaniards first settled; Manila's cathedral, Casa Manila, furnished to look the way it did 200 years ago, and San Agustin, Manila's oldest and most famous church. San Agustin is also a favorite for weddings, to judge from the three I saw during a one-hour visit to the church and its adjacent cloister, which now houses a museum of religious art of the Spanish colonial period.
In contrast to this monument from the Philippine past was the morning we spent swimming and snorkeling off a pristine, uninhabited beach in the Hundred Islands National Park on the west coast of Luzon. I found it difficult to leave and was among the last to climb aboard a Zodiac (the "Poseidon" this time) to return to the Odyssey. Only the promise of an open-air barbecue luncheon induced me to abandon the idea of living the rest of my life on this lovely tiny island in the azure waters of the South China Sea.
During our three days there were visits to the eerie, history-filled tunnels of Corregidor, the last bastion to fall to the Japanese in World War II; to deserted Subic Bay, once the U.S. Navy's largest foreign naval depot, and to Sabtang Island, where village youngsters greeted us with a rousing rendition of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" played on drums and xylophones as we disembarked from the Zodiacs.
Our next port of call was Taiwan, an island I had visited five years before. Special for me was a return visit to Taipei's National Palace Museum, considered one of the world's top museums, in the same league as the Louvre, the British Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The National Palace Museum houses the world's largest collection of Chinese art, some 700,000 pieces spanning 5,000 years of Chinese history. The collection was housed in Beijing's Forbidden City for over 500 years. In 1949, it was brought crate by crate to Taiwan by the Chinese Nationalists to keep it from falling into the hands of the Communists.
In Taipei, we visited the monumental Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall and the serenely beautiful National Martyrs Shrine, following a Chinese feast at the grandiose and colorful Grand Hotel.
New to me on Taiwan was an excursion the following day to spectacular -- I do not use the word lightly -- Taroko Gorge located on the rugged eastern coast of Taiwan. Formed millions of years ago, the narrow gorge winds between towering cliffs and is considered the "creme de la creme" of Taiwan's many scenic wonders. There is a road that traverses the national park, of which Taroko Gorge is a part. Traffic slows along this road as drivers admire the vistas; hikers walk along the edge of the road peering over the railings to glimpse the ribbon of a river dotted with boulders far below.
Our Japanese menu of activities included exploring the Urauchigawa River (dubbed the "mini-Amazon") on Iriomote Island, one of Japan's most remote islands; wandering through the Machigawa Market in Naha on Okinawa photographing exotic-looking fruit, colorful pink and purple pastries and flamboyant print fabrics; strolling through the samurai village and gardens of Chiran on Kyushu Island; visiting Dairakuji, a Buddhist temple that has been in the same family for 400 years and where we were invited to partake of tea and meet the pet flying squirrel; remembering those who died at Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park, an emotionally wrenching experience especially for those passengers who fought in World War II; strolling through Korakuen, considered one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan, and exploring 400-year-old Himeji Castle, Japan's most beautiful.
But of all places we visited, two stand out: Iso Garden and Miyajima. Kagoshima on Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four major islands, is located in the shadow of Sakurajima, one of the world's most active volcanoes. Here, in 1658, Mitsuhisa, the local feudal lord, built a villa overlooking the bay with Sakurajima looming in the background.
Not much survived of the villa, but Iso Garden remains, with pathways meandering over stone bridges, past bamboo groves and around ponds. In its midst is a teahouse where we watched the elegant Japanese tea ceremony.
Directly across from Iso Garden's teahouse is a small shrine dedicated to cats, particularly one who went on a military expedition to Korea with one of the feudal lords hundreds of years ago. I paid my obeisance here in honor of my three feline daughters, Victoria, Sophia and Munchkin. There's a small gift shop next to the shrine selling cat-related items -- great gifts for "cat people" back home.
Itsukushima on Miyajima Island is one of the most photographed places in Japan. There are friendly deer who follow visitors about looking for a nibble. There's the picturesque orange torii gate just offshore. There's a five-story pagoda on a hillside. Beside the shore, there's the extensive, electric-orange shrine with meandering corridors and views of the torii gate. Itsukushima is a magical place. It was here I stood before one of the altars, clapped my hands to summon the gods and dropped a few hundred yen into a donation box. I was lucky to be here on this odyssey, and I wanted the gods to know I was thankful.
I've been cruising (in the non-slang use of the word) for about a dozen years and have seen quite a bit of the world from aboard a ship. My cruise through the western Pacific was one of the most enjoyable I've ever taken. Two factors determine a great cruise for me: places visited and the ship on which they are visited.
The Clipper Odyssey sails with just 128 passengers. You feel as if you're a guest aboard a large, private yacht. Cabins are spacious. Mine had a queen-size bed (twins, if preferred), sitting area with sofa, armchair, coffee table, desk, refrigerator and TV (choice of two films each evening after dinner), picture window, mirrored closets, lots of storage space and a bathroom with a tub deep enough for long soaks and bubble baths.
Dining is as elegant or as simple as the passenger chooses. There's an extensive breakfast buffet as well as quick-bite breakfasts. For lunch, you can sit down to a gourmet meal or choose a soup-salad-sandwich bar. Dinner offers at least four choices for main course (meat, fish, pasta and vegetable).
Other amenities: two comfortable lounges, two bars, swimming pool, mini-gym, small library and jogging track. Best of all -- the team of lecturers who made the places we were visiting come alive (some of the subjects covered: World War II, orca whales, music of the Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan; China as an emerging world power; conservation in southeast Asia).
Prices for the cruise I took range from $8,080 to $11,230 per passenger and include international air fare from Los Angeles to Manila.
On every cruise there are not only special places but also special moments. Here are a few of mine aboard the Odyssey: the colorfully-garbed Okinawan dancers who came on board to welcome us; the Japanese koto players who entertained us on our last night aboard; the drummers at Kagoshima who gave us a rousing -- and loud -- send off; the sushi demonstration -- with samples -- by the Odyssey's head chef; and what could beat this? Sukurajima's volcano erupting, all black ash and billowing white steam clouds, just as we sailed out of Kagoshima Bay. A send off to beat all send offs.
If you go
Clipper Cruises and its parent company, Intrav, offer an extensive menu of cruises aboard small ships (I counted 48 different cruises aboard the four Clipper ships in the latest catalog), river cruises of European waterways, land tours around the globe, and private jet tours. Call (800) 325-0010. Their Web sites are www.clippercruises.com and www.intrav.com.
Japan Airline's exquisite service and comfort in its Executive Class made the long cross-Pacific flight seem much shorter. Call (800) 525-3663.
Clipper Cruises uses the Peninsula Hotel in Manila for passengers arriving to join the cruise. The Peninsula is superb with a spectacular four-story lobby with tall arched windows and grand staircases curving up towards a balcony. Perfect for lingering over an afternoon cappuccino or an evening cocktail or nightcap while listening to classical music or jazz performed live from noon to midnight. There's a palm-fringed pool and spa, a business center, and among the four restaurants -- one of the best I've dined in on trips to the Far East, Spices, offering a sampling of six Asian cuisines. Rooms are spacious and elegant with wonderful, large bathrooms. Call (800) 223-6800. E-mail is email@example.com Web site is www.peninsula.com.ph.