In the golden twilight hour just after we boarded Royal Caribbean's Spectrum of the Seas in Singapore for our four-night cruise to Penang, Malaysia and Phuket, Thailand, my friend and I grabbed a pair of Proseccos at the North Star bar high up on Deck 15 and soaked up the bustling happy vibes of the top decks.
Families enjoyed the midship pool and mini water park, and toward the back, eager cruisers lined up at the North Star observation pod, FlowRider surf simulator, climbing wall, and Sky Pad bungee trampoline (which the Cruise Director Bonnie told me would soon be discontinued).
The sailing gave us a good idea of what it's like to cruise from Singapore in 2023. Here's what we found.
Spectrum of the Seas is a Quantum Ultra-class ship that was originally built in 2019 for the Chinese market, with firsts like private areas for suite passengers and multiple Asian dining venues.
The plan was to cruise year-round from Shanghai, but of course the pandemic changed everything. Until Royal places ships back in China, Spectrum of the Seas will remain in Singapore, sailing Southeast Asia itineraries with a global passenger mix. That includes Singaporeans, Chinese mainlanders, Indians, Malaysians, Indonesians, and other Asians, plus some Australians, British and North Americans; English is the official language.
Unlike more predictable Caribbean cruises, sailings from Singapore are not a cookie-cutter operation, Hotel Director Michael Rasmussen said. Food and entertainment are tweaked from cruise to cruise depending on passenger make-up.
Accommodating 4,246-passengers double occupancy, our Spectrum of the Seas cruise in late March carried 4,925 passengers, including 705 kids. It was a pretty full house.
My friend and I joked the ship should be called “Queues of the Seas” (as a former British colony, in Singapore it’s “queue” not line) in reference to the long lines we encountered to enter the Windjammer buffet restaurant at breakfast, to lunch in the main dining room, and for the main production shows.
Which brings me to the Royal Caribbean app. A great tool for pre-check ins (we enjoyed a nearly contact-less and smooth embarkation process) and surfing the daily schedule, it failed as a way to book the alternative restaurants.
Just after boarding, we spent an hour trying to reserve dinners at several of the nine alternative restaurants (which range between $30 USD and $65 USD per person). They all came up booked solid or with only unappealing 5:30 p.m. spots.
I finally got some reservations help and we dined at Jamie’s Italian the first evening around 8 p.m., indulging in delicious seafood linguine. Service was doting, almost cloying. Maybe the servers were bored — there were only two other tables occupied!
This was the case each evening; none of the alternative restaurants we dined in were near full. Yet the app had told us there were no tables. When I asked the hotel director about it, he said skip the app (he clearly wasn’t a huge fan) and make a reservation in person or just walk-in.
App snafu aside, we appreciated Spectrum’s wide range of cuisines. We enjoyed not only Jamie’s Italian, but also the tempura and California rolls in Izumi, and the delicious Indian food in Windjammer buffet, where we ate dinner on the last night. Windjammer’s vast international selection was truly impressive, with stations serving not only Indian (north and south), but Chinese, Korean, Japanese, western, and more. There’s even a noodle bar.
We also tried the pricey Wonderland one evening, where multi-course meals are served with much fanfare from chatty servers in long velvet coats narrating as they lift off smoke-filled lids and present beakers of “tomato water.”
Though I didn’t occupy a suite, I was able to sample a few breakfasts and lunches in the private Silver Dining restaurant; a serene, elegant venue with excellent service and no lines.
Part of Royal Caribbean’s first suite enclave, passengers in the top suite classes get exclusive access to private restaurants, bars, lounges, solarium, and elevator. (Hotel Director Rasmussen told me private suite privileges are very popular with the Chinese and Singapore market.)
Our comfy balcony cabin, #8170, had a large sofa bed, desk/bureau, chair, mini fridge and roomy bathroom. Two closets were more than adequate. Our large 65-square-foot balcony sported two comfy chairs with foot stools.
The ship’s many other cabin options include the 2,766-square-foot two-level Ultimate Family Suite with karaoke room and a slide.
We wound up skipping the big production shows, although from the lines, we could see they were very popular, especially the ethereal, dreamscape-y Silk Road show in the Two70 lounge (the only show requiring reservations).
Our happy place was the two-level Music Hall enjoying tunes from the excellent house band and DJ, dancing our hearts out with dozens of others. Another night, we were in stitches watching the campy team games that involved popping balloons in compromising positions. We also gravitated to the rustic Schooner lounge for its singalong piano classics.
Among the short cruise options out of Singapore, I find this 4-night itinerary the most appealing, with one sea day and calls on both Penang and Phuket (Pro tip: avoid itineraries including industrial Port Klang, the gateway for long drive to capital city Kuala Lumpur).
Most folks, like us, went off on their own, though many excursions choices included speed boat tours to Thailand’s gorgeous Phi Phi Island and James Bond Island.
In Penang, we docked at the Swettenham terminal in the heart of George Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site founded in the late 18th century by the British East India Company as a vital port on the India-China trade route. The disembarkation process was very smooth and once on land we grabbed a map from a kiosk in the terminal and started walking.
Our first stop was the lovely late 19th-century Pinang Peranakan Mansion on Church St. Once the residence of a wealthy Chinese-Malay family (known as Peranakans), today it’s a museum showcasing antiques and collectibles.
Though it was very hot (consider using an umbrella to block the sun), we weaved around George Town’s old quarter, passing through the Indian neighborhood with its many gold jewelry shops and where we cooled down with fresh coconut water.
Next was an ice coffee at the historic Eastern & Oriental (E&O) hotel, built in the 1880s by the Sarkies Brothers, who also developed Singapore’s Raffles Hotel and The Strand in Burma. Then we walked past the ramparts of the 18th-century Fort Cornwallis on route back to the ship.
Phuket is a hilly island off the western coast of Thailand. Spectrum spent the whole day anchored offshore Patong Beach, a lively two-mile arc of golden sand lined with restaurants, shops and water sports opportunities. Note that the undertow can be strong, and the screeching ski-jets are relentless.
(During monsoon season, from May through October, ships anchor off the less desirable eastern side of the island.)
Not beachy types, we negotiated a tuk-tuk taxi to take us on the 30-minute scenic uphill drive to the Big Buddha, a giant 148-foot-high white marble statue with sweeping views of the island and sea.
Afterwards back in Patong, we lunched along the strip enjoying plates of green curry chicken and papaya salad, followed by a cheap and cheerful one-hour massage at one of the many joints lining the side streets, for the equivalent of about $14 USD.
Compared to cruises in the Caribbean or Europe, the vibe was quieter and gentler, as generally Southeast Asia cruises don’t attract a loud or late-night drinking crowd, or according to Hotel Director Rasmussen, neither a complaining or demanding crowd. Lines aside (all big ships have them), overall, this appealing polyglot cruise was relaxing and mellow.
Our last evening, like the first, strolling on deck with a refreshing glass of sparkling wine in hand, we enjoyed another beautiful sunset in a magical part of the world aboard a very well-run ship.
Heidi Sarna is the co-founder of the website QuirkyCruise.com. She was onboard Spectrum of the Seas on behalf of Cruise Critic.