Orient Calls – cruising Asia

vintage asia cruise poster

Asia: It's the latest thing

Traditionally the Asian tourists are not big cruisers. Cruise lines like Star Cruises began mostly as floating casinos for the Chinese who love to gamble and it’s only more recently when a few Europeans and Australians began cruising that they’ve moved to more conventional itineraries with shore excursions.

But cruising in Asia hasn’t just been the domain of locally-based operators. P&O, for example, have a long history of carrying ‘tourists’ on ‘pleasure cruises’ to the orient featuring such then colonial ports as Hong Kong (the Riviera of the Orient) and Singapore (the city of tropical splendour).

Australians are now looking beyond the commonplace South Pacific and Mediterranean offerings and rediscovering cruising in Asia as the ‘orient’ builds world-class infrastructure to accommodate the growing fleet of vessels heading for their ports.

In just the last few years alone, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai have introduced space-age terminals exclusively for the cruise market as they battle it out for the lion’s share of the cruise ship port calls.

Spurred on by a GFC slump in American cruising that is only now starting to recover, the big cruise lines looked our way for new markets as the Americans stayed home in droves.

Carnival, Holland America, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Cunard are just some of the heavy-hitters sending their ships down our way to connect us with Asia.

Here are a few examples of who’s going there.

RCCL’s Voyager of the Seas and Mariner of the Seas will head to Japan, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam, China, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand and Taiwan.

Cunard, as part of their regular around-the-world itineraries, will visit Indonesia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, China, Japan and India.

Princess, an established visitor to Asia, will visit China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Brunei, Thailand, Vietnam and even Cambodia.

The historic former Dutch merchant line, Holland America, is not particularly known for its Asian itineraries, but in 1989, it became part of the massive Carnival group and began expanding its pleasure cruise fleet. Today, ms Volendam and ms Zaandam are regulars in the Asia-Pacific region visiting such ports as Hong Kong, Koh Samui (Thailand), Halong Bay (Vietnam), Nagasaki, Shanghai and Singapore.

Celebrity too will visit Vietnam, Thailand, China, Bali and more. Celebrity Millennium will sail between Singapore and Hong Kong with overnight calls in Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City and the majestic Halong Bay in Vietnam.

Apart from the major, deepwater ports, Asia is ideal for exploring some of the lesser known ports.

Azamara, for example will sail right into the heart of both Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) adding an extra dimension to the cruise experience when guests can walk off and virtually straight into the hub of these exciting cities and avoid the tiring coach transfers otherwise required. Azamara’s list of Asian ports vastly exceeds those of the much bigger vessels thanks to its smaller dimensions allowing access to such exotic spots as Langkawi (Malaysia), Puerto Princesa, (Philippines) and Yangon (Rangoon) in Myanmar (Burma).

If you’re quick, you might get one of the last cabins on SeaDream II, one of the world’s most acclaimed luxury small ships as it makes its Asian debut. Carrying just 52 spoiled couples, this delightful, ultra exclusive, all-inclusive vessel visits Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, China and Indonesia and may not return until 2015.

Similarly, Ponant, Hapag-Lloyd and Orion (now Lindblad National Geographic) delve even deeper into the Asian experience with vessels smaller again but lacking nothing in comfort and facilities. These ‘expedition’ and ‘adventure’ ships deliver a considerably more enriching experience, often visiting ports with little or no infrastructure, yet able to cope with just 100 or so passengers arriving by Zodiac fast tender.

Dig deeper again and you’ll find a wealth of river cruising options becoming increasing popular as travellers discover the wonders of the Mekong (in Vietnam and Cambodia) and the mysterious Irrawaddy (Burma) aboard the classic Pandaw vessels or those of the stylish Heritage Line. There is some concern that the Mekong and Irrawaddy may go the way of the Yangtze with numerous dam projects planned for the upper reaches of these famous waterways, the impact of which is undetermined. So, the message is clear, see these historic and significant rivers now while they retain much of their natural appeal.

When planning any Asian cruise, it’s wise to consider that the major ports with international airports are where the ships will ‘turn around’ or begin or end a sector and take new passengers. Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Bali (Denpassar) and Mumbai are typical such cruise hubs, so it makes sense to plan a few extra days at each end to explore these vibrant cities.

Some must-do shore excursions when in Asia

Take a local small boat cruise on the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Halong Bay. Sure, everyone does it, but you’ll know why when you do. It’s spectacular.

Nagasaki in Japan is best known for its tragic annihilation in World War II, but its European connections go back to the founding Portuguese. Like so much of Japan, the history and culture will enthral you.

From the modern Tianjin cruise terminal, head into Beijing for the iconic attractions of the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City. Say "nǐ hǎo" to Chairman Mao.

Hong Kong just screams out to visitors and if you’re not there for two or three days, you’re in danger of missing out on The Peak tram, Lantau Island or Stanley market. If you’re clever, you’ll allow time for a full day (at least) in stunning Macau too.

Singapore invites you with sleek, clean and efficient infrastructure and is a benchmark for all modern Asian cities. Sip a Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel, ogle the spectacular Marina Bay Sands complex and touch the sky from the Singapore Flyer.

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