With the words ''Welcome home," the crew greeted us as we boarded the ms Amsterdam for a 62-day Orient Explorer cruise. A non-flier, I had always wanted to visit the Orient, but it was a pipe dream, until I learned of this cruise to Asia, Australia, and the South Pacific. At last I would get to see the Great Wall of China and meet my Japanese penpal of 50 years.
Extended travel outside the country requires planning, and my husband, Elton, and I had plunged into it with enthusiasm. I attacked the packing with ferocity. Anticipating autumn in Japan, summer in the South Pacific, spring in Australia, and December in Boston, I filled several suitcases. Dress and casual clothes, 10 pairs of shoes, I packed it all. Books, puzzles, binoculars, cameras, Elton's crutches, and a wheelchair.
Other passengers were wiser. New Yorkers Janet and Mike Stoller brought one suitcase apiece. Monte and Kathy Kirsch of Anchorage came with only two backpacks and a garment bag. After all, the ship has a self-service laundry, dry cleaning services, and 2,000 books in its new Explorers Library and Café.
A 62-day cruise is not for the uninitiated. It seemed as though all 1,400 passengers -- most of them newly retired baby boomers and older -- had cruised before. Some wore shirts that proclaimed ''World Cruise 2003," ''South America and Antarctica 2005," and ''Easter Island." But plenty of us had not been on a ship more than 14 days. The Stollers said they were ''on the adventure of a lifetime. We enjoy the unexpected." The Kirsches had heard about the cruise from friends. Melissa Moriarty said she and her husband ''want to travel while we still can," a common refrain from older passengers.
In fact, cruises are excellent vacations for the physically challenged traveler or those with limited mobility. Most ships, including the Amsterdam, have handicap-accessible cabins and elevators and low thresholds allow even wheelchair-bound travelers independence on board. When ships anchor offshore and use tenders, wheelchairs might not be allowed; travelers should inquire in advance.
I had worried that 40 days at sea would include long stretches with nothing to do, but my fears were groundless. There were tai chi classes and regional performers, in addition to the usual shipboard activities. Guest speakers discussed the politics, history, and ecology of the places we would visit, the oceans, and the night sky of the Southern Hemisphere. Who knew that sea otters have 1,000 hairs per square inch or that stingrays are flat sharks?
Susie Manhoff from Mesquite, Texas, said she was ''impressed with the trouble the ship took to make us happy." In addition to bedtime chocolates, we often found gifts in the cabins -- rain jackets, umbrellas, decorative tiles, dolls, a tote bag and on Dec. 5th, the night Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) visits Dutch children, a box of chocolates.
And, of course, food kept us occupied. In many ports, the ship took on local fruits, vegetables, fish, and meat and served meals of regional cuisine. The shrimp on the ''barbie" in Australia was delicious, but I stayed away from the skewers of alligator, emu, and kangaroo meat. My daily ritual of seven laps around the deck (2 miles) became a necessity thanks to the chef and his chocolate desserts.
If other activities were interesting, planning days in port was critical. We had studied guidebooks, read the shore excursion brochure, and listened to the port lecturer and other passengers who previously had traveled to the Pacific Rim. Manhoff told us we could find unique Hawaiian shirts at Reyn's in Honolulu's Ala Moana mall, Helmut Murk of Toronto recommended the small cove next to the ferry terminal in the Samoan capital, Apia, for swimming and snorkeling, and the Stollers told us about Roy Sonnenburg, a birding guide in Brisbane, Australia.
Our first few days ashore, Elton and I took ship-led excursions. This allowed us to do things we could not have tried otherwise. A tour across unpaved lava beds on Kamchatka, the peninsula between the Bering Sea and Japan, brought us to the Avacha and Koryak volcanoes near Petropavlovsk on World War II Russian Army trucks.
The highlight of our odyssey for me was Japan. In Tokyo, we visited the home of Hideko Sato, my longtime penpal. While I had tried to master some Japanese phrases for polite conversation, I was ignorant of the intricacies of the Japanese custom of bowing. The Satos were gracious hosts, and while I may never know the identities of the sea creatures I ate, all but the sea urchin were delicious. While the visit was a chance in a lifetime, the earthquake that shook Tokyo on Oct. 19 was an experience I would have been happy to forgo.
We took the bullet train to Kyoto, Japan's seventh-largest city and its capital for more than 1,000 years until 1868, and experienced the beauty of its gardens, as well as the famed Golden Pavilion. We creaked across the ''nightingale floors" of Nijo Castle, whose sounds warned the emperors of approaching danger, and ventured on our own to a sushi restaurant. For veterans such as Chuck Manhoff, who had served with the First Marine Division in Okinawa in World War II, the war memorials in Nagasaki, as well as Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, held special meaning.
Political reminders are everywhere in Beijing, where People's Liberation Army soldiers walk the streets and posters of Mao Zedong still hang in public places. On a two-day tour of the city, we visited Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. We visited the Tombs of the Ming emperors, and climbed on the Great Wall. While I was climbing, my less able-bodied fellow travelers were resting on the tour bus or shopping at the market stalls at the base of this section of the wall.
Suffering sensory overload, we spent a quiet and contented morning at the Singapore Botanic Gardens and finished our day at the Raffles Hotel drinking its famed Singapore Slings.
Elton and I had hoped to tour the Sydney Opera House, but had to settle for a walk around the perimeter; 44 stairs discourage those with canes and crutches, and access for those in wheelchairs requires prearrangement.
We crossed the international date line twice, and traveled through 12 time zones, two oceans, and six seas.
The final four days passed in a flash of packing and partying. As we waited for the ship to offload the luggage in San Diego, goodbyes were long and heartfelt. The cruise that had seemed perhaps too long in the beginning, and not quite long enough at the end, was in truth, just perfect.
Contact Susan Klibanoff of Waltham at Eklibanoff@aol.com.