Relax and refresh on a slow boat to China

Photo of Bethany Hiatt

BETHANY HIATT chills out on a cruise ship with fresh appeal

Frazzled after a packed morning navigating Hong Kong’s subway, harbour ferries and bustling, humid streets, we feel a sense of calm relief as we step aboard cruise ship Celebrity Millennium.

Its public spaces feel airy, spacious and surprisingly uncrowded, even though about 2000 other passengers are also embarking this afternoon.

The ship will become home for me and my daughter, Elise, for the next 14 nights, as it meanders from Hong Kong to Shanghai, taking in ports in Taiwan, South Korea and mainland China, including two nights in Beijing.

Celebrity Millennium has just emerged from a complete redecoration and, according to the welcoming letter in our cabin, the refurbishment has taken more than 18 months, with input from more than 500 architects, designers and engineers.

I think I can still detect the faint aromas of newly laid carpet mingled with fresh paint as we explore above and below decks.

Passengers who have travelled on the ship in its previous incarnation tell me it’s almost unrecognisable. Dark, tired red and brown decor has been replaced with light and airy tones of teal and silver.

In our stateroom on deck seven we discover we have a floor-to-ceiling window leading on to a veranda, set with two chairs and a table. As well as twin beds, a comfortable sofa and a big flat-screen TV, the room packs in a lot of storage, including a wardrobe, drawers and a desk finished in a silvery grey timber. The bathroom is compact but adequate, with a generously sized shower. Neutral toned curtains, carpet and furnishings contribute to a sense of soothing relaxation.

More than happy with our accommodation, the next most important thing to check out is the food and we find our way to the Ocean View Cafe. Pale floorboards are teamed with fresh white and timber tables in the cafe, which takes up a big chunk of deck 10.

Instead of cafeteria-like rows, separate stations display the food attractively and make it easier for guests to move around and serve themselves. Food offerings cater for all, including an English breakfast station with ham on the bone and black pudding, American hamburgers and chips at dinner, Italian pasta choices and tasty Indian curries. An excellent selection of salads changes daily and we soon learn the bakery lays out steaming trays of fresh scones with jam and cream just before 4pm each day.

On our first evening we pile a platter high with camembert and blue cheese, crackers, flat breads, olives and dips and order a glass of red from the Sunset bar on the rear deck, just outside the Ocean View Cafe. We drink a toast to our new adventure from our vantage point overlooking the Hong Kong cruise ship terminal, watching the sparkling lights of tower blocks surrounding the harbour dwindle into the distance as the liner pulls away from the wharf and slips into the inky darkness.

Passengers slip quickly into their cruise routines, depending on whether it’s a sea day or the ship is in port.

During much of the cruise it’s too cold to avail ourselves of the deckchairs out in the open but the glass-enclosed solarium provides a welcoming warm retreat from the chill. And, for the first few days at least, tables on the rear deck provide a wind-free place to eat or relax with a drink on a sunny afternoon.

As we glide further north into cooler weather, Cafe Al Bacio offers a pleasant spot to enjoy a coffee and croissant, sitting in a yellow wing-back armchair next to a window overlooking the sea. Apart from the bright splashes of yellow, the effect of the chocolate and gold tones, the rolling waves and gentle music is soporific.

Another favourite corner is the Rendevouz lounge on deck four. While some passengers familiar with Millennium before its upgrade mourned the loss of the library, the lounge still provides a small selection of books tucked into alcoves in the wood-panelled walls. Plush grey chairs offer a cosy spot to read a book or gaze out the window or, as one guest I saw, fall asleep and snore gently.

While I am more than happy to retreat to a quiet chair with a good book, there are plenty of other options to while away the time on sea days. For some passengers it’s a chance to pamper themselves at the Canyon Ranch Spa while others huddle around tables playing cards or mahjong, or roll the dice at the casino.

On our second full day at sea, Elise sets herself a mission to fit as many activities into one 12-hour period as she can. I get roped into a few, starting the day with a stretch class followed by “foot fitness”.

After breakfast, while I am being gently pummelled by a massage therapist at the spa, Elise continues her challenge by attending a meditation session, a lecture, adult colouring and a cha-cha dance class.

After lunch, she drags me to bingo. But we have to leave early to make the start of a modern line dance class on the main deck, which we mostly spend falling about with laughter, before heading to Cafe Al Bacio to watch a performance by an acoustic duo.

That night is one of three pre-ordained “evening chic” occasions, where guests don cocktail attire. All glammed up, we head to the cavernous Metropolitan restaurant to enjoy a three-course meal served by friendly waiters, who make a point of remembering and greeting guests by name.

On another sea day, we take a brief behind-the-scenes tour of the ship’s enormous galley, seeing the bakery which is staffed around the clock and many of the other preparation areas.

Executive chef Rolando Webb, who leads more than 500 people in the ship’s food and beverage crew, was reportedly inspired to work on a cruise ship after growing up watching them dock at his home town, the Jamaican port of Ocho Rios. We are told that on an average day at sea the culinary team prepare and serve up to 9000 dishes for guests and crew.

We’ve been cruising for nearly a week when we realise we’ve so far only sampled the fare at the Metropolitan and the Ocean View Cafe, so book ourselves in for a meal at the Tuscan Grille, one of three specialty dining restaurants with an extra cover charge ($US45). True to its name, it specialises in Italian cuisine and we savour silky pasta followed by tiramisu.

Despite all the action aboard ship, it still provides a sanctuary to retreat to after our active trips ashore. Celebrity offers shore excursions at every port, including a trip to the Juyongguan section of the Great Wall outside Beijing and to the demilitarised zone separating North Korea and South Korea. While the ship excursion we take, to a tea ceremony in a South Korean temple, is fascinating and well organised, we mostly prefer to do our own thing, from climbing a mountain in Taiwan, to traipsing around walking trails in South Korea, exploring street markets and hiking the wild Jiankou section of the Great Wall.

With so much to see and do, two weeks roll by quickly. On our last night at sea, we once again grab a plate of nibbles, a chair on the rear deck and a glass of wine to toast our experiences.

Fact File

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Bethany Hiatt was a guest of Celebrity Cruises. They have not seen or approved this story.