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Apr. 8, 2020 | Wednesday
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Hometown Traveller: The Queen Mary 2

 

At the reception desk of a five-star hotel in Singapore, the front desk clerk pointed a silver gun at the foreheads of my wife and I.

“Hold steady. We must take your temperature before you can register,” the mask-covered face said. Welcome to the new world of travelling in the era of the coronavirus.

My wife Dawn and I were on a trip of a lifetime, a cruise on the Queen Mary 2, the only ship in the world that can be called an ocean liner, not a cruise ship (because of its unique hull construction).

With all its elegance, white-gloved, tea-serving waiters and champagne flowing lounges, the glamour of the black-tie nights (Roaring Twenties, Black and White, Royal and Maritime balls), the grand old dame supplied nutritious and delicious food, and offered a wide range of activities, from insightful and stimulating lectures, ballroom dancing, golf lessons, acting and art classes, even fencing.

We began the cruise in Dubai, a fascinating place created just 15 years ago from barren desert surroundings. Now, Dubai is a bustling city commanding an endless stream of skyscrapers.

It has one of the world’s busiest airports, connecting Europe with Asia and beyond. Just outside the city limits, we experienced an unforgettable “dune crashing” expedition into the desert.

After leaving Dubai, we sailed without incident through the Strait of Hormuz, which divides the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Iran’s top general had just been killed by the Americans and we were told we were being escorted by two British warships – though we never saw them. We sailed on to Muscat, the capital of Oman.

Oman’s Sultan (whom the people adored) had just died, so there were 40 days of mourning honouring him. The Sultan was famous for being the broker in the Middle East, specifically between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

He advanced Oman’s country’s education and health systems and built one of the most prized opera houses in the world, a must to see. His $350 million yacht sits in the Muscat harbour.

We sailed on to Sri Lanka, a place I had to see as my mother (in the British forces) visited there during the Second World War as an entertainer of the troops.

She said that if you ever wanted to see a Garden of Eden on Earth, go to Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon. We toured the oldest tea plantation and witnessed the women on the hillsides picking the “right” leaves (small and bright green ones) off the tea bushes. The plantation also featured cashew trees, pepper trees, plentiful rubber trees and cinnamon bushes.

Then came the “feared” official word from the captain of the Queen Mary 2: because of the coronavirus, the ship was heading for Australia (missing out a myriad of scheduled ports on the ship’s world-cruise itinerary (Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, etc).

We had a choice to get off at Kuala Lumpur and see southeast Asia or go straight to Perth, another eight days at sea. We decided, along with our travelling friends, to get off.

We then visited Kuala Lumpur, 34C, lush foliage, tasty food choices, a city fabulously rich with history and culture and an exotic bird sanctuary, featuring hundreds of colourful species from peacocks to parrots.

Singapore, with its bustling splendour (a tax-free playground for billionaires), features a spectacular botanical garden (the only one granted World Heritage status), a Formula 1 racing circuit and the world’s largest hotel rooms.

Next, we flew to Japan and stayed at a hotel in Tokyo with a spectacular view of Tokyo Bay. The virus-infected ship Diamond Princess was quarantined nearby in Yokohama Bay.

In Tokyo (in February), there was not much public mention or advertising for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games to be held in Tokyo this July, internal news was all about COVID-19, telling the nation to wear masks and advising telecom workers to work from home if possible, and all avoiding the mass transit routes.

Japan’s economy is at a stand-still because of the China-U.S. trade wars, and on top of that, the country is worried about attracting visitors for the Summer Games amid the global virus scare.

Almost everyone wore masks, as did we, in the Far East in February, including Tokyo. The Japanese people are ultra-courteous, polite and helpful. We took the public transit (fewer riders than normal) subway, monorail and train, and visited the famous sites, including Japan’s oldest Shinto shrine, the Sensoji Temple built in 628, the smell of incense wafting in the 13C air.

For Dawn and myself this was the trip of a lifetime, fraught with travel adjustments, yes, but intensely fascinating, allowing us to deeply inhale our world with its rich cultures and unique personalities.

However, it’s a new world out there for travellers, so be prepared!

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