The Shanghai surprise
You know you've had a wonderful Christmas when you wake up one morning before New Year and can't, for the life of you, remember if it's Tuesday or Wednesday.
I had that same chilled-out feeling on board Royal Caribbean's Spectrum of the Seas as we left the territorial waters of South Korea and headed for Shanghai on this vessel's debut voyage.
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Luckily, a member of the crew rises at dawn to change metal plates embedded in the floors of 17 guest elevators so 5,000 guests know, not where they are but when they are. Friday! It must be Okinawa.
Spectrum of the Seas, the biggest and most expensive ship in this part of the world, has been custom built for the Asian market but will appeal to all nationalities.
It came as something of a shock, after years of resistance, to realise I'm now of a vintage where the idea of an ocean cruise has become immensely appealing. Nowadays I'm at the upper end of the target demographic. Cruise operators are getting younger guests with plenty of coin.
We were berthed in a balcony stateroom with ocean views and I gazed at an eerily calm East China Sea as we sailed through shoals of giant jellyfish pulsing rhythmically just below the surface.
It was fantastic - but there is more luxurious accommodation onboard. Royal Caribbean is clearly targeting China's new financial elite. Shanghai alone boasts 166,000 millionaires. As an aside, it's estimated that of the 124 self-made female billionaires across the globe, 93 of them are Chinese.
We were not exactly staying in steerage - but those in First Class, as it were, can avail of private restaurants and lounges, exclusive pools and floor-to-ceiling sea views.
The Ultimate Family Suite can sleep 11 and is over two storeys. Kids will have great fun riding on the slide that links the loft bedrooms to the downstairs living rooms. There's also a floor-to-ceiling LEGO wall, air-hockey table, separate TV room and a 3D cinema, popcorn machine, media library and even video gaming consoles. Guests paying this premium also have a butler service.
Ah, the lives of the other half...
The ship boasts 33 places to eat including Sichuan Red - offering authentic cuisine from that province - as well as traditional Oriental tearooms. Another restaurant serves Japanese teppanyaki-style grilled foods and sushi, and you can watch chefs blessed with bewildering skills, precision and dexterity at The Noodle Bar. All great fun.
We had a chance to dine in Hot Pot, named after the traditional family style of Chinese dining. Two steaming cauldrons of broth - one more than gently spiced, the other a delicious light chicken stock - are brought to your table. The broths bubble away on burners and you immerse wafers of fillet steak, succulent prawns, noodles, Oriental vegetables and mushrooms and cook them to your liking in the simmering stocks. It's a tremendously convivial and leisurely way of eating.
It was interesting to compare the different food choices between Asian and European holidaymakers. Chinese guests, perhaps looking for something a bit different from their normal diet, relished thick cut rib-eye steaks and lobster tails - surf and turf, they call it - usually with a fresh green salad. For dessert they favoured huge amounts of cherries piled high in enormous bowls.
For cruising newbies, it's worth explaining how dining on a luxury cruise works. When you book your cruise, you receive a dining pass which means you can eat free in the main dining room as well as in a handful of alternative options.
That's more than enough choices for most - but if you want to push the boat out you can dine in a range of top-end restaurants, paying as you go. There's no cash on board. It's all card. Jamie Oliver has a place, and the renowned chef Dong Zhenxiang has an Alice in Wonderland-themed eaterie called Wonderland. It looked spectacular.
We enjoyed a show called Silk Road as waiters glided between the tables offering complimentary cocktails, and then we headed to Bionic Bar - which has no staff, but a giant robot.
You order your drink on an iPad and watch as the robotic arm that might have been exported from a Japanese car plant, mixes and pours your drink. It was a bit of a hoot and there was no backchat from our automated bartender - who didn't require a tip either.
The following morning we headed over to RipCord by iFly - a futuristic simulator where qualified skydivers take you into a chamber where powerful jets of air allow you to defy gravity and float six feet off the ground.
We enjoyed a final nightcap on the last night of the cruise wondering how many pounds we had put on and looked forward to docking in Shanghai for further adventures.
We figured it would be a pity to travel so far without making the most of our holiday to explore the exotic East. Flight time is a minimum 13 hours from Dublin (and that doesn't include stopovers). We decided to stay an extra three nights in Shanghai and a quick search online bagged us a double in the Swissotel Grand for €360 all in, which was an absolute bargain for a quality hotel in a central location in a city which is 11 times larger than Paris.
We were based just a stone's throw from Nanjing Road West, the world's longest shopping street at more than 5km. It is stacked with five-star hotels and luxury goods stores - Gucci, Prada, Tiffany, Valentino, Balenciaga. In fact, every luxury brand you can think of is here. Prices are pretty much on a par with Milan, Paris or London, so there's no real savings on imported luxury goods.
I was let off the leash for a while and spent a happy hour looking at watches I could never afford. Cheek by jowl and covering some 300 metres of this street which attracts 1.1 million visitors a day were all the top watchmakers - Rolex, Blancpain, Omega, Piaget and the rest.
If you are spending any time in this city it is well worthwhile getting to grips with its stellar underground metro system. It's easy to navigate with signs in English and Mandarin, and it's clean and superfast and costs just 30c a journey.
Right beside our hotel was the Buddhist Jing'an Temple, which dates back nearly 800 years. Surrounded on all sides by skyscrapers, the statues covered in gold leaf and the peaceful pagodas stand in heady contrast to the hubbub outside its high walls.
Shanghai has changed utterly in the decade since I was last there, and thankfully the chronic pollution has eased. Silent electric scooters are now the norm and they sneak up on you. In Shanghai, traffic lights are merely a suggestion, so be careful crossing roads. I was still slightly flustered from a near-death experience crossing the road at the haven of the temple.
It's still a "working" monastery and the monks in saffron robes come out in the evening and chant prayers to the tinkle of finger bells as the offerings of prayers are set ablaze. The air is scented with joss sticks of jasmine - and the entire experience is intoxicating.
Nanjing Road West might be great window shopping - but it is outside the pockets of most.Instead we hopped on the metro and headed over to Tianzifang market in the old French Quarter, a touristy arts and crafts enclave full of nook and cranny shops selling silk and other Chinese goods as well as being home to cafes, galleries and boutiques.
We shared potsticker dumplings and wontons, which floated in a chicken broth, and drank a couple of ice cold bottles of Tsingtao beer each for less than a tenner - a very pleasant Shanghai surprise.
Take Two: Top attractions
Fun and games
Virtual reality headsets allow guests to play a selection of VR games while sailing on the high seas. There is also lots more traditional fun and games, including bumper cars, archery and fencing.
By day, the Stunning Two70 venue allows guests to enjoy 270 degree views of the ocean while enjoying food and drinks. At night it becomes a West End-style theatre.
Royal Caribbean International's spectacular new Spectrum of the Seas has a number of itineraries planned for 2020.
* For example, a typical sailing in early March next year is "Best of Japan" a six-day cruise out of Shanghai taking in Kagoshima, Kobe and Kyoto (Osaka).
* Prices based on two people sharing on a cruise only basis start at €788 for an inside cabin and from €939 for a balcony. Suites start at €1,383.
* Another cruise available in February is the four-day trip from Shanghai to Kagoshima in Okinawa. Kagoshima is known as the "Naples of the Eastern World" because of its stunning bay.
* An inside cabin starts at €604, balcony cabins from €671, single cabins from €777 and suites from €832.
* See www.royalcaribbean.ie
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