On the eve of my trip to Singapore to meet up with Compagnie du Ponant’s Le Soleal for a 12-night Indonesia-centric voyage, I’m reflecting on the pros – and cons – of traveling to Asia.
In over ten years as chief editor of Cruise Critic, I’ve been to Asia just four times. That might seem like a lot of visits but when you compare it to the regions we cover more actively (such as Caribbean, Alaska and Mediterranean), it represents a small percentage of the cruises I’ve taken.
My three previous Asia cruises were completely distinct and all were indelible. There was the first-ever trip, via Princess Cruises (Bangkok to Shanghai with calls at Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan), which would have been a perfect sampler had we not run into three, yes, three, different typhoons that necessitated cancellations of most port calls. A trip on Crystal Cruises’ Symphony started in Singapore and then moved on to Thailand, with three days in Myanmar and then on to India. And with Azamara’s Quest, we took a Vietnam-focused trip that covered Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and the gorgeous and haunting Ha Long Bay before winding up in Hong Kong.
Asia hasn’t been on our radar much in the past, but at Cruise Critic, we see that changing these days. Once you get past the challenges of an Asia cruise – let’s start with the long flight, wacky time zone changes, and inevitable jet-lag for many of us – the region itself is vast, complex and frankly a little bit intimidating. After all, it’s comprised of so many countries with major differences, including languages, cuisines, cultures, religions, traditions, politics, architecture, lifestyles and landscapes. There’s no universal Euro or sort-of-universal dollar so understanding currencies requires an ability to use a mental abacus.
And yet: These are just the aspects of Asia that are most intriguing. This is also what makes it a wonderful part of the world to explore by cruise ship. Depending on your itinerary, you can visit a range of different countries, experience “sampler” visits to see which will lure you back on a return visit, and still have all the comforts of home when you get back onboard.
From here, a handful of hints to help you get started on planning your dream cruise to Asia:
Determine where you want to go In a poll launched last week in our Asia forum, we ask you to create your own ideal itinerary. Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Singapore top the list – as they should. Vietnam and Japan also resonate; Thailand less so, if only because of the ongoing conflict taking place there.
Lights, cameras, lebkuchen! There’s perhaps no better way to get in the Christmas spirit than visiting the home of many holiday traditions: Germany and its surrounding countries, which celebrate the season jovially with markets proffering local handicrafts, holiday sweets and plenty, plenty of gluhwein — mulled wine in a keepsake mug.
Christmas market cruises, offered by a number of river cruise lines, are the warm little center of this holiday experience. The ships slowly sail from port to port, and market to market, allowing passengers to get a feel for each city’s twist on tradition.
I’m currently onboard Viking Skadi, visiting markets along the Danube in Passau, Linz/Salzburg, Melk/Durnstein, Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest. It’s my second time on a Christmas market cruise — I previously traveled onboard Viking Danube in 2010 with my German-born grandmother — and have also traveled throughout Germany and Austria a total of four times (all during December!) Here are five things I think you should know about the Christmas markets before you go:
1. If you see something, buy something. Don’t hold out until the very last day to buy your gifts and keepsakes. While many elements of the markets are the same — rows of stands with small gifts such as ornaments, statuettes, hats and tablecloths — each market has its own local specialties. For example, Passau is known for its gingerbread, Nuremburg is better known for similar Christmas cookies called lebkuchen and Salzburg is the original home of award-winning chocolates called Mozartkugel (from Mozart’s birthplace).
The moment you fall in love is when you should buy. Otherwise, you will end up kicking yourself back on the ship, empty handed and dreaming of that one little angel that looked just so.
Everyone is looking for the deal of the century. So how do you choose the one that’s right for you? Check the Lido Deck each week to get the scoop on our favorite deals — then grab the phone and pack your bags.
THE DEAL: Viking River Cruises is offering a seven-night Europe river cruise onboard one of their many longships, sailing from Budapest or Nuremburg in November 2014. (Just in time for the famed Christmas markets.) Prices start from $1,756 per person for a standard cabin.
Talk about your TV marathons: In Norway, as the dark nights draw in, entertainment is all about ‘slow TV’. Slow TV has been around since 2009 when Norwegian broadcaster NRK made a film in real time, several hours long, about a train journey over the mountains between Oslo and Bergen. Norwegians were riveted to their screens. Seriously.
But it was a follow up program on Hurtigruten, documenting every second of a Bergen to Kirkenes journey on Nordnorge (five solid days and nights of viewing) which really thrust slow TV into the mainstream.
It was a huge hit in 2011 – 3.2 million television viewers watched parts of the trip, and hundreds of people went to see the ship in various ports. Norway’s royal family even got involved as Queen Sonja waved from the deck of the royal yacht, as the two ships crossed paths (if you have nearly 135 hours to spare, you can watch the full stream on NRK’s website). Lengthy programs on fishing, a wood fire burning and knitting followed, and a U.S. production company has bought the rights to bring the format over here.
Can’t wait until then? With another winter upon us, we have something for you, even if you’re a long way from the fjords. Opportunities to spend hours watching a ship putter around the Caribbean or the Mediterranean are already available – and have been so for some time.
Every Wednesday, we’ll be taking you on a journey around the world to some of the most interesting places our members have trekked, swum or merely witnessed from afar while cruising.
Whether these photos inspire you to plan a relaxing escape or walk on the wild side, we hope they ignite your senses and give you ideas for your next cruising adventure. If you have a photo you’d love to share, send it to us at email@example.com or post it in our member photo gallery.
Thanks to Cruise Critic member Jamman54 for submitting this photo of Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, taken while cruising to Grand Turk.
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Before boarding Celebrity Summit last week in Puerto Rico, I felt like I had a pretty good idea about what to expect. After all, I’d sailed on two of the line’s newer, bigger ships: Equinox and Reflection. I expected the touches that make a ship “Celebrity,” and I got them: Comfy seating at the pools; cold towels and beverages upon return from port; funky, sometimes interactive art; and the high-energy Martini Bar, a personal favorite.
The experience on Summit felt familiar, yet a couple of features were able to surprise me. Here are some of the things I didn’t expect:
1. The aft windows in the dining room. I’d seen the funny-looking rear ends of the Millennium Class ships from the outside and thought they were kind of quirky. Once onboard, I understood their real appeal — two-story, floor-to-ceiling windows in the dining room that provide incredible views. I had late seating, so it was dark by the time I got into the Cosmopolitan Dining Room, but I was able to enjoy the scenery outside the windows during lunch.
From the initial cutting of steel to the maiden voyage, member macusr watched Royal Princess unfold right before her eyes. And after waiting 500 days for her turn to cruise, she was ready to live the dream.
Her expectations were high. As a Platinum-status cruiser, she had sailed Princess many times in the past, with Emerald Princess as a favorite. But after her most recent cruise aboard Royal Princess, macusr says the Kate Middleton-christened ship rightfully earned a spot at the top.
Step aboard the S.S. Legacy, Un-Cruise Adventures’ one-of-a-kind heritage-style ship, and prepare to enter a time warp. Added to the fleet in August, the 88-passenger vessel, previously named Spirit of ’98, focuses on historic programs onboard and in ports, following in the footsteps of early explorers, prospectors and pioneers along the Columbia and Snake rivers and in Alaska. The crew dress in period costumes – and encourages cruisers to play along too.
Sound too corny for you? With Legacy, Un-Cruise is targeting the less sporty, more inquisitive cruiser. If the shoe fits, why not wear it showboating? Here’s what to expect if you go:
All In. Most cruises come with a cast of fascinating characters. Usually it’s the passengers. On this trip, it’s the crew. Even deck hands get in on the act, dressing as old-fashioned showboat workers.
Then there are the stars, the entertainment staff dressed as real people from the late-1800s. On my Columbia River cruise out of Portland, Oregon, entrepreneur Sam Hill roamed the decks in a felt hat, dark suit and tie. Sugar heiress and art patron Alma Spreckels dressed for success in flowing gowns. Dress code for the rest of us? What dress code? It’s totally casual.keep looking »