December 13, 2013 | By Carolyn Spencer Brown | 7 Comments
Photo courtesy of Teijo Niemela
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.
Figure out your sightseeing priorities. In Indonesia, temples and volcanoes abound. In Singapore, which is now experiencing a major boom, you’ll find an interesting balance between cosmopolitan pursuits of international shopping and dining, and the city’s growing embrace of all-things-green, such as its Gardens by the Bay project. Look for Disney and vertical cities in Hong Kong. In Vietnam, veterans are returning to reconnect with war memories; others are intrigued by the bustling and brash Ho Chi Minh City, or lovely Ha Long Bay, with its massive stone monuments poking out of the sea.
Those interested in exploring rural Asia and village life may want to consider a river cruise along the Mekong Delta, which trawls through Vietnam and Cambodia (and visits Angkor Wat) or China’s Yangtze. Myanmar, which has long just dabbled in international tourism, has little contemporary resources for travelers; a cruise on its Irrawaddy River, a new destination for many operators in 2014, offers a comfortable, yet immersive, way to see the country. And if a cruise to Japan, one of the world’s most expensive countries, is not cheap, imagine how much pricier it would be to travel overland, paying out of pocket for every expense, from food to transportation.
Choose your cruise line carefully. Most of the lines you’ve tried in the Caribbean, Alaska and Mediterranean offer seasonal trips (typically between the northern hemisphere’s autumn – spring ) using Singapore and Hong Kong as home ports. Cruise lines with larger ships – such as Princess, Holland America, Celebrity, and Royal Caribbean – offer a just-like-home onboard ambience and a variety of itinerary options. For a more intense, immersive experience, look for lines like Voyages to Antiquity that emphasize onboard education, small group tours, and have smaller ships that can accommodate more offbeat ports of call. Azamara Cruises and Oceania offer lovely hybrid experiences; a nice range of tours and onboard options on ships that are considered mid-sized.
To travel in the greatest comfort and style, you have your pick of upmarket lines, from the more traditional luxe of Regent Seven Seas to the yacht-style of Seabourn, Compagnie du Ponant, and SeaDream.
For the culturally adventurous If you want to cruise like a local, some of the best known cruise companies are actually marketing to cruisers from China, Japan, southeast Asia and the like. And because these travelers have different styles, the onboard experience has been tweaked to reflect that – so you’ll find sushi and sake bars, massive jewelry shops, and Asian and Western cuisine. If this intrigues you, look into Princess in Japan, Royal Caribbean and Star Cruises in Southeast Asia, and both Royal Caribbean and Costa in China.
What can we share with you about our travels to this exhilarating part of the world? What do you want to know? And just as importantly: Those of you who are Asia veterans, what guidance can you offer us about your own discoveries?