Asia as a cruise destination should be massively popular. It’s a sprawling region of complicated countries with fascinating traditions and histories that many of us know only through books, news and movies. And isn’t a cruise — which can seamlessly join Singapore to Bangkok to Taipei to Ho Chi Minh City to Okinawa to Shanghai — the best way for first-timers to get their virgin tastes?
It certainly seemed like a good idea when I booked Azamara Club Cruises’ Azamara Quest on a Singapore-to-Hong Kong itinerary (because of scheduling issues I had to join the 14-night sailing a few days late in Bangkok). After three days in Bangkok, I’m set to spend most of the Vietnam-centric cruise in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and Danang for the shrines of nearby Hue, not to mention the charming country village of Hoi An. And then we move into Halong Bay, a UNESCO-designated site; it’s also the kick-off port for an overnight stay in Hanoi, some four hours away.
I boarded my Cathay Pacific flight from New York to Bangkok (with a four-hour layover in Hong Kong) with excitement and trepidation. For this uneasy flier, there was more of the latter than the former. The first leg of my journey clocked in at 16½ hours, and even though Cathay Pacific has marvelous food and service (even in coach!) and an awesome entertainment system with five episodes of Season 2 of “Downton Abbey,” my will began to flag at about the nine-hour mark.
At this point it’s clear we have the equivalent of another trans-Atlantic length spur to go. And that’s before we even get to the layover, and the additional three-hour leg.
For exotic cruises like this one, the trip to the ship is the biggest downside. Another possible negative? Voyages are at least 10 nights and frequently longer (especially when you add in travel time), which put them out of reach of travelers who get limited vacation time. Then again, it’s impossible to get even the most superficial glimpse of Asia in anything less. It’s absolutely impossible.
At 2 a.m., after the calendar had turned on two days, Teijo, my husband, and I arrived at Azamara Quest to a heartening greeting. A crew member who’d been awaiting our arrival was curled up in a ball on a hideously uncomfortable chair at the port entrance and hastily shook himself awake as our taxi approached. We were onboard with our luggage within minutes, our check-in consisting of a friendly hello (and a “Please sign this paper to let us know if you’re Norovirus-inclined”). When we arrived in our cabin, an incredibly thoughtful gesture – plates of sandwiches, cookies, and fruit and cheese – awaited. In the darkest of night hours, we ordered a bottle of wine from 24-hour room service (jet lag’s best friend, both the wine and its round-the-clock availability) and went out onto the balcony to make friends with Bangkok’s industrial port scenery … and its nocturnal mosquitoes.
Still, I wonder: Is two days of travel and chaos, and the expense that comes with it, worth it? If we’ve traveled all this way to see beaches, impersonal museums and ubiquitous duty-free shops with the same stuff we have at home, absolutely no way. So in some way for me, as I’m sipping wine at 4 a.m. (at home, where my body clock is still set, it’s actually 4 p.m.) with a chicken salad sandwich, the jury’s still out. I’m tired and disoriented.
Still, this particular cruise appealed for a couple of reasons. I have only seen a small part of Asia, and what I’ve seen I’ve generally loved. And I chose this voyage, and this cruise line, because of Azamara’s penchant for destination immersion, which is a term that’s far different from destination intense. In Azamara’s case, it means fewer ports on the two-week itineraries, but more time in each as opposed to more ports of call for eight hours or less at a pop.
As I type this the sun’s coming up over Bangkok. It’s probably time to go to bed if I don’t want to waste the entire day. The good news is that with the ship in port for another day and a half, I can indulge the jetlag, to a certain point, and still immerse myself here. And I can already tell: It’s going to be a gorgeous, hot, humid day in Bangkok.
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