For some, the convenient and secure cruise-ship cocoon is the only way to see the Far East, a vast region of exotic places, languages and cuisine. Leave the driving to the captain and the port navigating to the tour guides, all you have to do is show up and enjoy the ride.
Royal Caribbean's (www.royalcaribbean.com) 78,491-ton, 2,000-passenger (double occupancy) Rhapsody of the Seas spent six months in the Asia and Pacific region this past winter doing 2- to 14-night cruises for a vast market of both Asian and non-Asian guests. Her slightly smaller 69,130-ton, 1,804-passenger sister Legend of the Seas, will resume a similar set of itineraries starting in December mostly from Singapore and Shanghai.
On a 4-night Rhapsody sailing in December from Singapore to Phuket, Thailand and Langkawi, Malaysia, the 2,276 guests hailed from 30 countries. The vast majority were Asians --- Singaporeans, Chinese, Malaysian, Indonesian and Indian --- with fewer than 100 passengers in total form the US, Canada and the UK. Longer cruises, on the other hand, tend to attract the opposite mix --- mostly North Americans, Australians and British guests, with just a handful of Asians.
From cruise to cruise this past season, the passenger mix changed dramatically and that kept crew and management on their toes. For instance, Hotel Director Collin J. Clarke said when there are lots of Australians on board, alcohol consumption is high from the bars are hopping; when Asian guests are in the majority the opposite is true. I've never seen so many glasses of orange juice dotting the tables as I did at dinner in the Edelweis restaurant. In the Schooner Bar, the chatty guitar-playing Jimmy-Buffet-style singer was begging for requests, comments --- anything --- but the dozen or so people there just wouldn't throw him a bone.
The vibe in the show lounge depends on the passenger make-up as well. Cruise Director Matt Sole explained that Asians tend to be less demonstrative than North Americans and Europeans, so even if they loved a performance --- every night the theater was packed, so clearly the interest was there --- they may not show it.
"Asians are reserved and they don't clap a lot," Sole told me.
Activities like line dancing lessons and rock climbing drew a respectable crowd, everyone from elderly Chinese men and children to Indian teenagers. The kids program also attracted a larger percentage of kids than on cruises carrying mostly North Americans.
The challenge, Sole explained, was making certain adjustments to the cruise product to accommodate Asian customs and preferences, while staying focused on offering a predominantly North American-style cruise.
"As with our successful ex-UK product our intent is to offer the Royal Caribbean International experience that people know all over the world, with appropriate tweaks primarily in the culinary and entertainment areas. Because of the many non-English speaking guests on board, we have also recruited and trained a meaningful number of Chinese crew to serve on Rhapsody of the Seas," says Adam M. Goldstein, President & CEO of Royal Caribbean International.
According to Clarke, about 270 of the Rhapsody's 765 crew members are Mandarin speakers from China. Overall, about half come from Asia, including Indonesia, the Philippines and India. On my cruise, announcements were made in only English; on ex-Shanghai sailings, they're in both Mandarin and English.
Subtle tweaks to the onboard experience included putting electric hot water kettles in all cabins so guests could make tea. The green felt on the gaming tables in the casino was switched out with red felt (red is considered lucky to many Asians), mahjong was added to the card room offerings, and entertainment was predominantly visual.
Food wise, congee (popular Asian rice porridge) was offered daily and the lunch buffet in the Windjammer restaurant featured an Indian section --- with vegetable curry, dal, puri bread, rice and condiments --- as well as Chinese selections, ranging from hot and sour soup to stir frys, fish and chicken fried rice. For the Western palate, pasta, minute steaks, burgers and sandwiches were popular.
"Overall we are pleased with Rhapsody of the Seas' onboard delivery, especially given the diversity of our guests who come from dozens of countries," says Adam M. Goldstein, President & CEO of Royal Caribbean International, adding they were especially satisfied with the performance of the Chinese crew.
The guest relations staff was among the more efficient and personable I've ever encountered and my parents' cabin steward made a good impression on embarkation day when he cheerfully called out to them from down the hall: "Welcome Fred and Nancy Spangler!" In the Edelweis restaurant, our assistant waiter Hong gave 110 percent. At dinner, with sunsets melting into the Andaman Seas behind our oceanview table, my water glass was kept full (I drink a lot of water), my wine glass topped up, and my high-maintenance five year olds indulged with second pizzas and refills on milk. Hong went out of his way to chitchat with my mother, whom I was also traveling with, though neither one seemed to understand what the other was saying. As super efficient as our servers were, though, the food was hit and miss. Menus included both eastern and western dishes. The escargot was cold and served without a cocktail fork, while the Asian Duck was tough and the seafood stir-fry was bland. On the other hand, the pork and lychee salad was delicious and so was the vegetable pad Thai, chicken Quesada and Singapore noodles with shredded pork, chicken and vegetables.
Pros and cons aside, many of the Asian guests on my December sailing were first timers who raved about the cruise and found it luxurious. To this experienced North American cruiser, it was very mid-market in most ways.
The entertainment, however, was top of the line. The acts appealed to all ages, from my young sons to my 70-something parents. Four excellent soloists led the productions shows and belted out spine-tingling renditions of everything from Moon River to pop tunes. A ballroom dance couple was dazzling and I was pleasantly surprised by a troupe of drumming gauchos and an illusionist. The casino was busy, though nothing more than you'd see on any cruise. Karaoke was offered in a side lounge --- and you haven't heard truly bad karaoke until you've heard a schmaltzy rendition of "Silent Night" by a family of four.
What was truly unbearable, however, was lunchtime. With just two restaurants (a pittance in today's market; in comparison, the smaller Asia-based Star Virgo has nine venues), all 2,300 passengers seemed to want to eat at once. On two occasions, the Windjammer buffet restaurant was so packed; the five of us literally couldn't find a seat anywhere Â? inside or out. We had no choice but to make our way down to the Edelweis restaurant; it was backed up and chaotic too. When finally seated and served, waiters were lackluster and scurrying around to retrieve missing forks, napkins and water glasses from incomplete place settings.
Mornings, we avoided the crush by ordering breakfast from room service. We took refuge in our cozy cabin, a small 154 square-foot outside category-F room with new upholstery and bedding. Unfortunately, signs of wear and tear couldn't be overlooked, including dings, dents and pealing paint on the furniture and moldings.
Problems at the Singapore Cruise Centre (SCC) were another downer. Because the Rhapsody's mast is too high to fit under some cable car lines that run across the harbor there, passengers were bussed between the SCC and a cargo dock 15 minutes down the road. At the end of the cruise, it was a struggle finding the taxi stand (no signage) and once there, the line was literally hundreds deep.
Some relief in these areas is in sight for the 2008/2009 Asia season. With Legend of the Seas replacing Rhapsody, the ship's smaller size will improve the cruise experience. Legend has 200 fewer berths than Rhapsody does and she's compact enough to berth directly at the SCC. Further, in 2010, to accommodate large ships the Singapore government recently announced plans to open a brand new cruise centre in Marina South, an upcoming development in the central business district.
All and all, the Rhapsody was an affordable and carefree way to check out some top sites in the Far East.
The Ports Story
The Legend of the Seas, a slightly smaller near-sister to Rhapsody, is offering 3- to 14-night cruises between December 2008 and April 2009, mostly departing from Singapore or Shanghai. The shorter cruises focus on Thailand and Malaysia, while the two-week sailings visit ports in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and China. A few one-off itineraries call on South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. Here are some port highlights.
Laem Chabang (Bangkok), Thailand (overnight stay)
From this industrial port, it's a two-hour drive to Bangkok. The super ornate temples, golden Buddhas and spectacular Grand Palace and other sites are stunning. Pattaya Beach is just about 30 minutes from the port; it's a bustling resort town that manages to mix sex shops and girlie bars with family-friendly shopping malls and fast-food outlets.
Chan May (Hue, Hoi An and Da Nang), Vietnam.
It's about a 1.5-hour drive to both Hue and Hoi An, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Closer to the port are Da Nang and scenic China Beach, where soldiers went to relax during the American War, as the locals call it. In the 16th to the 18th century, Hoi An was Vietnam's most important trading post and today historic architecture remains, including Chinese temples and clan houses. Once the capital of Vietnam, Hue is equally historic and the main attractions include the old citadel, modeled after the Forbidden City in Beijing, plus impressive temples, pagodas, tombs and ornate gates.
Nha Trang, Vietnam
Scenic Nha Trang Bay is dotted with hundreds of colorful fishing boats and the picturesque beaches here are framed by palm trees and fruit orchards. In town, the main attraction is the ancient towers from the Cham civilization that thrived here between the 7th and 12th centuries.
Vung Tau (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam
Too large (as the Legend will also be) to transit the Saigon River to reach Ho Chi Minh City, the Rhapsody docked at Vung Tau for the two-hour drive into the city. Formerly called Saigon, the city was the logistical base for American operations during the Vietnam War until of course everyone was evacuated. Tours may include a visit to Reunification Hall, and the 18th-century Chinatown and Thien Hau Temple. A show at a Water Puppet Theatre and lacquer workshop tours are often also part of the mix. Ho Chi Minh is also the hub for touring the Viet Cong tunnels dug more than 60 years ago during the war.
Hong Kong, China
A beautiful harbor when smog doesn't get in the way, the 5-minute trip across Victoria Harbour from the cruise pier in Kowloon (on the mainland) to Hong Kong island aboard the historic green and white Star Ferries provides a great view of the city's skyline. Head for the Mid-Levels escalators, a series of outdoor escalators that take commuters from the central business district up through the residential neighborhoods clustered along Hong Kong's steep terrain. Take them to the end at Robinson Road and head for the Peak Tram (a 106-year-old funicular railway) for the quick trip up even higher to the top of Victoria Peak, at a height of 1,395 feet. On a clear day, the views of bustling Hong Kong belong are awesome.
After a long tender ride into port, the few excursions offered include a visit to a Buddhist monastery and temple and a drive to a couple of the region's best beaches. Cambodia is a very poor country and is still largely undeveloped, which is a pro or con depending on your persuasion. There's also an optional 3-day overland trip to the Angkor Wat temple complex and to meet up with the ship at the next port.
Primarily a beach port, Patong beach is the most convenient (just on shore from where the ship anchors) and offer water sports rentals, including parasailing, and nearby food and shopping. Kata and Nai Harn beaches are also nice and not more than a 30-minute drive, about the same time it'll take you to get to the island's most noteworthy temple, the gilded Wat Chalong monastery.
Port Kelang (Kuala Lumpur), Malaysia
This drab, industrial port is the access point to the capital of Kuala Lumpur (KL), an hour away by road. See the Petronis Towers, two of the world's tallest buildings, plus KL's Chinatown and the colonial British architecture. The massive Sultan Salahuddin Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, is on the way to KL.
The country's oldest British settlement, this charming island offers several worthwhile historical sites close by, including the Khoo Kongsi Chinese clan house, the Penang Museum, and the impressive Kek Lok Si temple, a tiered temple complex set on hills overlooking the island. If you can stand the heat and traffic, a guided town tour by trishaw is a fun way to see the sights.
This lush island is all about beaches; try Sailor's Beach just a few miles form the pier, a super wide stretch of silky sand and calm surf. The mountainous island is serene and not over-developed; a cable car station atop Machincang Mountain is a great look-out point for the region.
Sample starting fares, which include all meals, are $399 per person for a 4-night sailings round-trip from Singapore and $1,999 per person for 14-night voyages between Singapore and Shanghai.Talk with fellow Frommer's cruisers on our Cruise Message Boards.