Busan, Vladivostok and Petropavlovsk

This item appears on page 15 of the October 2011 issue.

Holland America Line’s 2011 repositioning cruise of MS Volendam from Singapore to Vancouver, BC, took 35 days, departing Singapore on April 14 and arriving in Vancouver on May 18.

Since I did not wish to book the full 35 days, I was attracted to the final segment, which departed Kobe, Japan, on May 2 and originally had stops planned at Yokohama, Hakodate and Kushiro before continuing to Alaska and Vancouver. However, nature intervened.

The devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck in Japan on March 11 forced the cruise line to omit the port calls in Japan, substituting Busan (formerly Pusan), South Korea, and Vladivostok and Petropavlovsk, Russia.

The cost for my 17-day cruise, including air from Seattle, airport transfers, cancellation insurance and taxes, was $3,732, single, in an inside cabin. Before sailing, I was offered an upgrade to a Verandah Suite for $798, which I accepted.

My arrangements were made through a local travel agent, but they also can be handled by Holland America Line (Seattle, WA; 877/932-4259).

After arriving in Osaka, I joined the other travelers who were boarding the ship in Japan and we were transferred to Kobe, where the Volendam was docked. The transfer took about an hour, and it was not particularly scenic.

The ship left Kobe about 10 p.m. and crossed the Sea of Japan to BUSAN. This is a booming city with lots of hustle and bustle. A free shuttle was provided from the pier to the downtown area, letting passengers off across the street from the interesting fish market and near the unremarkable international market.

Nearby is the attractive Yongdusan Park and the Busan Tower, which provides spectacular views of the city. During my visit, the Lotus Lantern Festival was in full swing, with many events in the park.

From Busan it was a day’s run north to Vladivostok and our first encounter with Russian Immigration. Officials came on board and looked closely at all passports, which had been collected in Kobe, before anyone could go ashore. They also checked everyone going ashore face to face at the gangway. While some considered the exercise bureaucratic overkill, others who had been to Russia before said it was something to be expected.

When returning to the ship we were met by the officials, who, again, wanted to see us with our passports, which were then turned back in to the ship’s office.

The ship wasn’t released to go to the next port until every passport was rechecked to make sure no one was still ashore. Consequently, we were about three hours late departing Vladivostok.

VLADIVOSTOK is a modern city with what appears to be a growing economy and lots of traffic. A busy seaport, it is the headquarters for the Russian Pacific Fleet.

During our day there it was cold and windy, but the people, including Immigration officials, were friendly.

Sights of interest within walking distance of the dock included the submarine museum; the nearby veterans’ memorial, and a pleasant park with a small chapel. There also was a large natural-history-and-cultural museum with many interesting displays but, unfortunately, no English-speaking guides to show visitors around.

Shoppers can visit the government-run department store GUM, but, be advised, they take only rubles.

PETROPAVLOVSK, on the south end of the Kamchatka Peninsula, was a three-day trip from Vladivostok across the Sea of Okhotsk. Upon arrival, we anchored off the harbor and Immigration officials came aboard and went through the same routine as in Vladivostok. They also set up a currency exchange on board, something that was not done at the previous port.

Whether it was the cold, the large piles of last winter’s dirty snow or something else, this city of about 200,000 seemed depressing. Large, rundown apartment blocks linger from the Soviet era, yet the area within easy walking distance of the tender landing was clean and attractive, with an imposing statue of Lenin.

Petropavlovsk has an interesting but dated cultural museum, where we got a tour in Russian, translated by our shore excursion leader. There is also a new Orthodox church plus an open-air market with various vendors.

A makeshift souvenir shop was set up on the pier, and it seemed to be the only place in town that would take credit cards.

Petropavlovsk does have great potential as a gateway for nature and adventure tourism, but work is needed if it hopes to host many cruise ships.

I found the Volendam to be a well-managed ship, and it had just completed a major interior renovation in Singapore before heading north. The cruise featured excellent historic and cultural lectures and individual entertainers.

The trip from Singapore to Vancouver, whether taken in full or in segments, is a cruise for travelers, with stops at exotic ports where interesting cultural experiences await. Whether Russia will be continued on the itinerary is open to question.

Clarkston, WA