SHANGHAI — Given the difficulties some joint-venture manufacturing concerns have faced recently in the People's Republic of China, we've just witnessed something akin to a miracle--a new cruise ship itinerary put together in less than three months that works as smoothly as the emperor's clockwork nightingale.
When San Francisco-based Royal Cruise Line made the decision not to return its 460-passenger Golden Odyssey to the Mediterranean this summer, operations director John Tirell headed for China to work out an alternative series of spring and fall cruises. This summer the ship is sailing in Alaska for the first time.
What Royal and the China International Travel Service, the tourism arm of the government, created delighted passengers on the first southbound China cruise, many of whom originally had been booked for the Mediterranean.
We boarded the ship in Kobe and spent the first several days at sea and making shore excursions in Nagasaki and Pusan. We were welcomed to China at 5 a.m. in Qinhuangdao, at a dock normally used to load coal.
On this morning it was covered with a red carpet and brightened by the shining faces of small children, a few of them stifling sleepy yawns. They were dressed in white, pink and green uniforms, waiting in the dawn mist to burst into music and song. The same kind of joyously warm greeting was echoed throughout the following days in Peking, Yantai, Shanghai, Suzhou and Wuxi.
While Royal's itinerary uses many of the same ports, cities and attractions as other cruise lines' China programs, there is a sense of lavishness. From Qinhuangdao, passengers travel the five hours to Peking on a comfortable private train with seats that swivel toward the windows and the scenic countryside.
A Peking duck dinner is served in a huge banquet room in Peking's parliament building, the Great Hall of the People, where heads of state are feted. And, rather than offering a choice between Suzhou and Wuxi on a one-day excursion out of Shanghai, Royal combines both in one busy but extraordinary day.
You visit the gardens and embroidery factory in Suzhou, then take a three-hour luncheon cruise on a barge, led by a water-spouting, golden dragon boat along the Grand Canal to the silk manufacturing town of Wuxi to spend the afternoon, returning to Shanghai by train.
In addition to the de rigueur sightseeing--exploring the Forbidden City, climbing the Great Wall, descending into the Ming Tombs, shopping at Friendship Stores, visiting rug factories, being led around Children's Palaces--the Golden Odyssey excursions have added some special experiences.
In small groups we visited Yantai families at home for tea and conversation; we wandered through a free-enterprise food market in the streets of Wuxi, and we mingled after a show with young performers in music, dance and Peking Opera.
Royal Cruise Line and the government agency have made a complicated and potentially exhausting land program run smoothly and efficiently.
On the Golden Odyssey, the secret of much of the congenial ambiance is cruise director Fernando T. B. de Oliveira, a Portuguese-born ship buff who knows every passenger by name by the second or third day out. Along with most of the staff and crew, De Oliveira has been with the ship almost from the beginning.
The Golden Odyssey was launched in 1974 with Greek flag, Greek officers and crew, and joined by its 800-passenger sister ship Royal Odyssey in 1982. The line's third ship, the 1,000-passenger Crown Odyssey, is under construction in Germany and due for a 1988 delivery.
Ship's Public Rooms
As on most mid-size ships, the Golden Odyssey's public rooms are mainly on one deck, with the bright, big-windowed Lotus restaurant at one end, the Ulysses Lounge with its small stage and dance floor on the other. In between are the little Wooden Horse Bar, a casino with two blackjack tables and two dozen slot machines, a reading room-library, a lobby and a small boutique.
On the deck above, in addition to an around-the-ship promenade, are a theater lounge, eight suites, and the Calypso Lounge that serves morning coffee, provides indoor seating for the pool deck buffet just outside, doubles as an afternoon tea hideaway with piano music and is still going strong after midnight as the disco.
The best cabin buys on the Golden Odyssey are the 16 midship deluxe cabins on Marina, Laguna and Coral decks that contain slightly more space than their neighbors, and have both tub and shower.
The cabins throughout are spacious enough, with bright-colored upholstery, at least one chair and dressing table stool with a four-drawer desk/dresser, plenty of closet space, a tile bathroom with shower, and a radio and telephone.
The dining room excels in Greek salads, pasta dishes and Greek specialties. Passengers determined to sample the line's new "Eat to Your Heart's Content" cuisine, however, had to struggle with anguished Greek waiters accustomed to lavishing rich foods on everyone. But the low-calorie, low-salt, low-fat meals worked. By eating them on alternate days, neither of us gained an ounce on the cruise.
The Golden Odyssey will return to "The Best of China, Japan and the Orient" this fall after the summer in Alaska, with sailings between Hong Kong and Kobe scheduled Aug. 29, Sept. 11 and 26, and Oct. 9 and 24 and resuming on April 7 between Hong Kong and Peking.
Prices for 1986 for the 19-day air/sea packages range from $3,497 to $5,697 per person, double occupancy, including round-trip air fare from Los Angeles and San Francisco, and all of the China and some of the Korea, Hong Kong and Japan excursions.