On board the Diamond Princess

Countless entertainment options and gourmet experiences make this 15-deck cruise ship a mini universe of luxury
Show dancers perform at the atrium of the cruise Diamond Princess
Show dancers perform at the atrium of the cruise Diamond Princess

Somewhere on the high seas in the Pacific, as I lay me down to sleep beneath the stars on the third night out from Yokohama, I fell in love with &lsquoAkiko&rsquo, the companionable seagull. She was coasting alongside my cabin, flapping her wings with effortless ease, her striking whiteness framed against the midsum&shymer night sky like a moon in flight. On the first two nights out at sea after we began circumnavigating the largest Japanese island of Honshu, the weather had been inclement, which had dampened my mood somewhat, despite the air of festivity aboard the stately Diamond Princess, the luxurious cruise ship that served as my independent mobile republic for 10 days and nights. Some 2,000 other passengers from all over the world (and an additional 1,100 crew members) were on board this ginormous float&shying city, but the steady rain meant that the pleasures of alfresco on-deck activities&mdashor even just a movie under the stars &mdash &nbsphad to be forsaken in favour of somewhat more sedate indoor entertainment.

On the first night that we had good weather, therefore, I renounced the comfort of my soft, stateroom bed and stretched myself out on the deck-chair of my private balcony overlooking the ocean and drank in the cool Pacific night air and the steady lap-lap of the frothy waves whipped up by the ship. It was a blissful moment, the joy of which I felt an overwhelming urge to share. It was then that &lsquoAkiko&rsquo flew into my life. I know not from where she came &mdash there must have been a landmass near enough &mdash but she kept me joyous company for much of the night at some point I must have dozed off, but I imagined I heard the flap-flap of her wings for a long while before she flitted away like a hushed meta&shyphor into the night.

Now, cruises are jolly affairs, and there&rsquos something about being adrift at sea &mdash perhaps a sense of having broken free of the tethers of terra firma &mdash and wallowing in the lap of luxury that appears to induce a lightness of being all around. Cruise operators also do everything in their capacity to keep their guests in a state of elevated (even if engineered) exhilaration, with an elaborate grid of entertainment shows, balloon-drop parties, musical events, party games and other group activities that are geared for the maximisation of the pleasure quotient.

And, yet, on the first couple of days out at sea, I only felt an indescribable hollowness in my heart, an out-of-body sense of being a gawky bystander at a carnival parade. All around me were families and couples in intimate relationships, given to much public display of affec&shytion everywhere on the &lsquolove boat&rsquo. It seemed cruel to be travelling alone as I was (in the line of duty) &mdash except for my photographer colleague Sanjoy and a group of Indian travel trade representatives.

But, as &lsquoAkiko&rsquo had shown me, on a boatload of interna&shytional cruisers, acquaintances and friendships are easily made, even if they have a transitory, ships-that-pass-in-the-night feel to them. Soon enough, I was taken under the wing of Roseanna, a charming Russian-American who confessed to spending upto 250 days a year on cruises around the world her only worldly care was whether the Norman Rockwell painting she had whim&shysically bid for and secured at a champagne art auction on board would elevate her Los Angeles living room.

The service and waitstaff on board the Diamond Princess, whom the cruise operators evidently train to a nicety in the art of hospitality and being engaging con&shyversationalists, also enhance the travel experience. At the breakfast buffet at Horizon Court, the ship&rsquos all-day diner, we would unfailingly be greeted with grace and good cheer by floor hostess Anna, from Ukraine, who had given up a career teaching Russian literature for the Good Life at sea that literary influence animated her sparkling banter.

And at the formal, sit-down dinner in the stately International Dining Room, where we feasted nightly on soul-elevating repasts, Ni Made, a delightful member of the waitstaff from Bali, rounded off every meal with feisty (even if not flawless) renditions of popular Bollywood numbers for her guests from India. Of gaiety and jol&shylity, therefore, there was no dearth on board.

One early evening at sea, when I had still not mastered the lie of the land, so to speak, and was flounder&shying around mid-ship, I sought navi&shygation aid from a besuited gentle&shyman whose name-tag identified him as a member of the Princess Cruises team. Chris, it turned out, was a British pharmaceuti&shycal executive who lives in Japan with his Chinese wife, and was on board to give lectures &mdash in Japanese &mdash on (I kid you not) geomancy, quantum physics and the way to harness the power of the universe in daily life. Clearly, there were many more possibilities for amusement and personal enrichment than just playing tambola on the decks. And such is the spectrum of interesting folks you&rsquore likely to meet on board a Pacific cruise liner that I half expected to encounter a character like Somerset Maugham&rsquos Max &lsquoMr Know-all&rsquo Kelada.

The striking thing about &uumlber-luxury cruises such as these, particularly on the Asian cir&shycuit, is the, um, distinctive age profile of the critical mass of guests on board. Perhaps because cruises don&rsquot exactly come cheap, and the largely slow-paced nature of life at sea may not appeal to adrenaline junkies, they are made up, in large measure, of retirees or Baby Boomers who made it good. The effect of that audi&shyence mix manifests itself in many ways &mdash for instance, in the ripple of excitement that courses through the assemblage when the live band (which plays every evening at the ship&rsquos atrium) strikes up an oldie tune from the 1960s and 1970s nothing gets the partner dancers on their feet with age-defying agility quite like Elvis Presley&rsquos &lsquoCan&rsquot Help Falling In Love&rsquo or that timeless &lsquoNever on a Sunday&rsquo number.

Given the Japan-centric nature of the cruise, this peculiar passenger profile also pointed to one of the country&rsquos sociological realities a greying demographic, with attendant socio-economic spillover effects. Only a day before we&rsquod boarded, the front page of the Japan Times newspaper had showcased no less than four articles that mirrored this trend. The world&rsquos oldest man, a Polish-American, had died in the US, which meant that a Japanese man, who was next in line, was now the world&rsquos oldest the world&rsquos oldest woman is al&shyready Japanese. Just as significant is Japan&rsquos low birth rate, and the same day, the government announced a policy to provide fiscal incentives for young couples to have three or more children. The demographic &lsquotime-bomb&rsquo &mdash of an ageing population and declining fertility rates &mdash means that Japan needs imported labour, but a &lsquoforeign worker trainee&rsquo programme was drawing criticism for alleged exploitation by employers. And, most bizarrely for a society that places great store by ethnicity, just that morning, Japan had ordained its first foreign Shinto priest a blond, blue-eyed Austrian Japanologist.

The cultural characteristics that define Japan, it appeared, were in civilisational decline, which infused a certain poignancy to this cruise itiner&shyary focussed on the Ancient Capitals of Japan. Clearly, something drastic needed to be done to check the slippery slide. So I stripped myself nude and headed for hot water.

The Izumi Japanese Bath, a distinctly Japanese experience that I savoured, harnesses the therapeutic properties of water, steam and open air in a panoramic ocean-view setting that offers supreme sensory gratification for the body and a becalming indul&shygence for the mind. Now, traditional Japanese baths are high on ritual, and although the Izumi, which was recently added to the Diamond Princess as part of a $30 million refurbishment, is plush in the extreme, it yields no concessions in the matter of abidance of bathhouse protocol. The leaflet provided by the giggly reception desk usherettes offers &ldquohelpful tips&rdquo for bathhouse patrons. &ldquoTraditional Japanese baths,&rdquo it notes, &ldquoare enjoyed without clothing. It is customary to bring a small towel into the bathing area to enhance your privacy outside of the water. Once you enter the bath, the towel must remain out of the water.&rdquo

Now, the &ldquosmall towel&rdquo is in fact a micro-mini napkin that stands no earthly chance of enhancing anyone&rsquos privacy, and typically the protocol requires dexterous wristwork and a masterly sense of timing in order to ensure that the vestment is whipped off at the precise moment of bodily ingestion into the communal swirl&shypool. In other bathhouses that I&rsquove patronised elsewhere in Japan on earlier visits, the menfolk appeared to place a premium on modesty and clung on to the figleaf like their lives depended on it. But on board the cruise ship, perhaps the clubby camaraderie that prevailed in such a posh setting had induced a marked diminution in the level of inhibition about nudity. No one seemed overly concerned about wholesale denudement, and beyond a cursory curiosity about the diversity of the human form &mdash I shall say no more &mdash no one really cared.

In any case, given the vantage location of the Japanese bathhouse complex &mdash on the sun deck 15 aft, at the tail end of the ship &mdash there were far more enchanting and serene views to be had &mdash of the blue-green waters of the Pacific, which seemed to stretch from here to eternity. Later, seated in the alfresco, unisex hydro&shytherapy pool, where powerful underwater jets massaged my limbs, I felt the cool caress of a summer breeze. All around me, neck-deep in the tub, were convivial visitors from far corners of the earth, united in the shared luxury of that moment, and more generally the cruise experience. The pleasures that one savours, it has been well said, are enhanced manifold when they are more widely shared. I rejoiced in the splendid serenity of that Zen moment.

A 10-day luxury cruise experi&shyence such as this saddles you with delicious daily dilemmas about where to eat and what to do. The Diamond Princess spoils you for choice it has five main din&shying rooms there&rsquos also Horizon Court, the all-day diner three speciality restaurants (a sushi restaurant an Italian and a steakhouse) a patisserie a pizzeria (which serves pizzas by the poolside) a grill that dishes out burgers and hot dogs a wine bar an ice-cream bar and several lounges and bars spread all over the ship. Of course, you also have 24-hour room service, but to be cooped up in your cabin, however swank it may be, would be a shame. But if you wanted to indulge yourself, you could opt to dine on your private balcony.

A walk-through of the galley area showed up kitchen and cleaning operations on a military scale. On an aver&shyage, the ship takes in about 110 tons of food for a cruise &mdash from fine cheeses (sourced from Italy, France, England, the US, and Scandinavia) to fine wines to fine everything. Some 6,000 assorted pastries and about 200 litres of ice-cream are prepared daily. On an average, some 70,000 dishes and 24,000 glasses are washed daily, with saniti&shysation standards emphasised to the point of obsessive-compulsion. The heightened sense of hygiene extends to the housekeeping service in the cabins, which are made up several times a day, and where the shower heads are changed every few days.

Life on board the ship was so high on luxury and comfort that it required a battle with inertia to head out for the five shore excursions that had been lined up for us. The port calls at Kanazawa, Maizuru, Sakaiminato, Busan (in South Korea) and Kagoshima had a shared cultural history that traced back to the era of Japanese shoguns. What they also shared was the evolved sense of aesthetics that characterises public spaces in Japan, particularly the serene Zen gardens, where you can quite literally spend hours gazing at beauty in stone and sand. My favourite pitstop was Maizuru, a busride away from Kyoto, the ancient imperial capital, where life ambles slowly by like the beautiful women in colourful kimonos, elegant umbrellas and wooden clogs that go clippety-clop.

I was also looking forward to the Kagoshima stop&shyover, which held out the promise of a climb up the Sakurajima volcano , one of whose peaks remains active to this day, sending up giant puffs of fire and ash almost on a daily basis, which the local population have learnt to take in their stride with admirable equanimity. But a midsummer rain proved a bit of a dampener, and al&shythough we did climb to one of the dormant peaks to gaze upon a plaque immortalising a haiku by poet Takanu Suju, the more enchanting sight of the smoke-spewing mountaintop remained resolutely hidden behind a blanket of rainclouds.

Every shore excursion ends in a dockside farewell hosted by the local council, at which cultural perfor&shymances native to the region are showcased. Cheery, outsized mascots and pretty women in traditional attire line up for photo-ops, and cruise passengers scurry about in a last-minute scramble of souvenir-hunting. The air is decidedly festive, and it&rsquos easy to get caught up in the exhilarating mood of the moment. And, yet, on the last evening out in Kagoshima, as the dockside band struck up a soulful Japanese folk tune, a lump formed in my throat in fond remembrance of new acquaintances and old. A school of seagulls circled lazily overhead, and looking up to see if Akiko too had come by, I became aware that my face was moist. But perhaps it wasn&rsquot me being foolishly sentimental perhaps it was just the midsummer rain.

The information

Getting there
I flew Delhi-Tokyo on All Nippon Airways. Most international airlines fly from Indian metros to Tokyo. Return fares for New Delhi-Tokyo flights start at Rs 110,000 (business class) and Rs 37,000 (economy).

You&rsquoll need a double-entry Japan visitor visa to go on the cruise. Visa fees Rs 500, Apply at vfsglobal.com/japan/india.
You&rsquoll also need a single-entry South Korean visitor visa. Visa fees Rs 2,400. Apply at vfsglobal.com/korea/india.

1 Re = About 1.75 Japanese yen
1 Re = About 17 Korean won
All prices on board the Diamond Princess are US$-denominated $1 = Rs 60.7

The cruise
The Diamond Princess is a 15-deck luxury cruise ship that can carry up to 2,670 passengers (and a crew of 1,100). There are 1,337 cabins in four categories suites outside cabins with private balconies ocean-view cabins and interior cabins. The cruise-only fare for an interior cabin starts at $40 per person per day or $360 for a nine-day itinerary. The mini-suites start at $132 per person per day the ultra-luxurious Grand Suite comes at $1,004 per person per day. Port charges, taxes, and gratuities extra.

Each shore excursion costs an additional $50-150. Details at princess.com.

The Diamond Princess will sail in Japan till mid-October 2014, after which it will be redeployed in Australia/New Zealand offering 12-day itineraries from mid-December 2014 until mid-February 2015.

For bookings from India, contact Cruise Professionals, (91-120-4643838, toll-free 1800-103-0306) helpdesk@cruiseprofessionals.in cruiseprofessionals.in.

What to see & do
On board the Diamond Princess, you can do it all or do nothing at all. Those who seek a bit more action will be spoilt for choice. Everything from fitness centres to spas to countless entertainment and self-improvement options (movies under the stars, frontline showbiz performances, discotheque, karaoke, casino, lounge bars, library, culinary courses, wine tasting, classes in art history, navigation, arts & crafts, champagne art auctions, party games, the works). Plus, of course, there are the shore excursions to choose from. But those given to lethargy can practise the &lsquobeached whale&rsquo routine by the poolside.

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