Cruising in Asia is a great way to get a taste of the culture without the hassle of flying between countries, and the Costa Allegra is a casual, unpretentious option. Built 18 years ago, the 820-passenger ship is small and cozy compared to today's new behemoths. You won't need a map to find your cabin, and you won't lose track of your kids. In this age of skyscraper-size mega ships, Costa Allegra is refreshingly intimate. And it's international, too.
Not only does the crew hail from around the world, which is typical on cruise ships, but so do the passengers (which is atypical). Genoa-based Costa Cruises (www.costacruise.com) caters to a pan-European crowd. Most passengers come from Italy, France and Germany, and a fair number come from the U.K., Spain, Switzerland, North America, Australia, Russia, and Asia. Announcements are made in five languages. Given the demographic, European customs prevail, from the popularity of espresso and bottled water, to the atmospheric buon giorno and ciao from the ship's Italian officers. Pasta, seafood, parmegiano cheese, and crusty bread are meal-time favorites, and so is wine.
There are ships with better food and posh interiors that pass through Asia (Crystal, Silversea, Seabourn, and Cunard ships, for example), but those cruises tend to be much pricier and with a high-end vibe. The Costa Allegra is a comfortable everyman's cruise, and rates in Asia dip as low as $100 per person a day, including meals, entertainment, and most onboard activities.
In February, I cruised with my friend Chrissy and my 7-year-old twin sons round-trip out Singapore to ports in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. While a cruise through Asia is no substitute to spending a longer stint exploring on land, if you're pressed for time, are traveling with seniors or kids, and/or are more couch potato than swashbuckling adventurer, traveling by cruise ship works for the whole family.
Cruising For the Kids
My sons loved going to the playroom. Though extremely humble compared to the theme-park-like playrooms on bigger, newer ships, I loved that there were never more than 10 kids in Costa Allegra's playroom. My boys got lots of personal attention from the two counselors, Jun Lu (from China) and Isabella (from Germany). The boys played Monopoly, made costumes for Carnival night, and earned funny money throughout the week to spend on small toys at the end of the cruise.
The boys would spend time in the playroom on sea days, of which Costa's Asian itineraries typically have several, and would be eager to head back there after dinner as well. Each evening at 6:30pm, the four of us would dine in the elegant Montmartre restaurant at a lovely table near the aft-facing windows, with the boys tucking into pasta and pizza (which was excellent), and multiple glasses of chocolate milk.
Cruising For the Grown-Ups
My friend and I would share a bottle of wine --- the house white, an Italian Bianco di Custoza, was tasty and very reasonably priced --- and sample as many different dishes as possible. My favorite was a pasta with olives, broccoli and tomatoes, and also the delicious Casatiello, homemade bread from Naples with bits of ham in it. After a day of touring Asia, we looked forward to the pleasing ambience in Montmartre, where there was real candlelight on formal nights (a rarity in the cruise industry) and fun theme nights --- for example, on Italian night, there were red-and white-checkered tablecloths and waiters singing Volare and O Sole Mio.
For limited hours, Pizzeria Allegra served up four pizza pies each day, with delicious crust and toppings that included pineapple and ham, gorgonzola and sausage, and anchovies, olives, and capers. Breakfast and lunch were fine in the somewhat tired-looking Yacht Club lido buffet, where seating was tight and scarce at peak times. Our most disappointing meal was in the Amalfi alternative restaurant (with a cover charge of €20). The dishes we ordered were bland and the Wagyu beef missed the mark completely. Oh well.
Onboard Cruise Entertainment For Everyone
One of Costa's strengths is its young, friendly, and attractive international social hosts who are experts at engaging passengers of all nationalities. Lively dancing lesson by the pool were popular, as were the arts and crafts sessions, where passengers were guided through making everything from origami to macramé bookmarks, and crazy hats for the ship's Carnival Night costume party. Otherwise, when not in port, many guests were content to sunbathe by the small pool, play cards, read, down espressos, sip wine, and nap. There were two foosball tables and a poolside Ping-Pong table as well (my boys spent hours at both). The ship has a gym and a small spa with prohibitively expensive treatments -- when converted from euros (which everything aboard the ship is priced in), a 50-minute standard massage came to more than $175 when you added in a tip.
The pace was liveliest in the evenings, with the animated social hosts running the show. The typical after-dinner repertoire of entertainment included singing acts, a classical pianist, jugglers, Chinese acrobats, and standard song-and-dance cruise productions featuring show tunes and pop songs (Bee Gees, Pink Floyd, Elvis, Blondie, the Village People, and the Beatles) sung by two talented lead singers and accompanied by six dancers. A passenger talent show was definitely amateur hour, but very entertaining nonetheless, while a crew talent show was a bit lackluster (these things are hit and miss; on a previous Costa cruise the crew performers were American Idol-worthy!). Late-night theme parties and goofy contests were typically scheduled for around 10:30pm each evening and were always well-attended, including the election of a "Mr. Allegra," and a "Miss Allegra," plus a tropical poolside party, a 70s party, and a rock-and-roll party.
Reviewing Cruise Cabins
The cabins on this nearly two-decade-old ship were pleasant and utilitarian, but nothing special. Our standard outside stateroom had a pair of twin beds and two bunks that unfolded from near the ceiling. It was cozy, but there was ample shelf and drawer space. There were a pair of portholes (only 10 cabins have balconies), a mini fridge, and a small television. Generally, the ship's décor was a pleasant enough mish-mash of fabric and leather furniture in earth tones, some chrome and glass thrown in for good measure, and a handful of special touches, including a tile mosaic at the entrance to the restaurant, and a bar and seating area in the aft of Deck 6 set along an arc of wake-facing windows.
Fares include all meals and start as low as $100 per person per night for sailings through 2011 out of Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tiajin aboard the Costa Classica and Costa Romantica. For more information, contact www.costacruise.com.
8 Ports You'll Love
Ujung Pandang, Indonesia
Mountainous Sulawesi is the third largest island of the Indonesia archipelago. In the 16th century, the Portuguese called the island Ponto de Celebres, "Point of the Infamous", referring to the many pirates who haunted the area. Today, from port you can check out Chinese temples and a colorful fish market as well as the Dutch Fort Rotterdam, which dates back to the 16th century and houses a small museum. Many tours include a trip to the ancient port of Makassar to see the handsome Phinisi boats or Buginese schooners, the Leang-Leang prehistoric caves, and the Bantimurung waterfall.
Komodo Island, Indonesia
The point of a stop here is to have a gander at the famous Komodo dragon in its natural habitat within the island's national park. The largest lizard in the world and closely related to the dinosaurs, the giant monitor lizard can grow to more than 10 feet long and more than 300 pounds. Luckily the creature can't move very fast on land, though Komodo dragons are great swimmers.
Mythical Bali isn't what it used to be, with new hotels, villas, shops, and trendy restaurants popping up across the southern part of the island, but you can still appreciate the island's famous culture. You can see Hindu temples and shrines, terraced rice fields, lakes, and volcanoes. Beaches (black sand as well as golden ones) include Kuta, Siambaran, and Nusa Dua, a favorite of surfers. It's worth a drive to the charming town of Ubud in the interior; definitely try to catch a traditional Balinese dance performance during your visit. The dances have survived for centuries and feature elaborately attired dancers decked out in gold and ornate head gear.
The bustling city of Jakarta on the island of Java has a population of more than 8 million. Unfortunately, not much of its 17th-and 18th-century Dutch colonial architecture remains, but a good way to get a cultural fix is by a visit to the Taman Mini Indonesia Indah (Indonesia Miniature Park) on the outskirts of town about an hour's drive from the docks. A bit kitschy but worthwhile nonetheless, the park has pavilions that represent the provinces of Indonesia, featuring local architecture, clothing, dances, and traditions. The park's 250 acres also include museums, exhibits, casual eateries, and a handful of theme-park rides (my kids loved the bumper cars). There's a central lake with a miniature version of the Indonesian archipelago in the middle of it and a cable-car ride that spans the top.
Port Kelang (Kuala Lumpur), Malaysia
It's an hour's drive from the drab industrial Port Kelang inland to Malaysia's capital of Kuala Lumpur, where the major attraction are the Petronis Towers, two of the tallest buildings in the world. Kuala Lumpur tours typically include a tour of Chinatown and the city's colonial British architecture. The mosques in the area are also worth a look, including the massive Sultan Salahuddin Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, about 20 minutes from the port. Also worthwhile for families is the Zoo Negara, on the edge of the city, and nicely landscaped amidst jungle foliage. The 400-plus animals in residence include the Sumatran tiger, orangutans, and gibbons. If you don't sign up for a ship tour, taxis are lined up at the port and charge about $60 round-trip to Kuala Lumpur -- agree on total fare before getting in.
Ships anchor off the coast of Malacca, formerly one of the most important seaports in Asia that at various points was claimed by the Portuguese, Dutch, and British. In town, bicycle trishaws flamboyantly decorated with bright plastic flowers greet visitors and are a great way to do a mini-tour of the main attractions (bargain for the price; start at about $5 to $10 an hour and go from there). Check out the Porte de Santiago fortress built by the Portuguese in 1511 and the Stadthuys, the large dark red town hall built in the mid-17th century by the Dutch. Have a look at the ruins of St. Paul's Church, built over 400 years ago by the Portuguese, and visit Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, the oldest in Malaysia, built in 1646.
Primarily a beach port, Phuket is Thailand's largest island, and Patong beach is the most convenient stretch of sand for cruisers, being a 5-minute tender ride from where the ship anchors. You can rent chaise lounge, beach umbrellas, and water sports equipment, including parasailing. Food and shopping are all nearby. Kata and Nai Harn beaches are also nice and not more than a 30-minute taxi ride, about the same time it'll take you to get to the island's most noteworthy temple, the gilded Wat Chalong monastery. Also consider a drive to Promthep Cape, a panoramic headland at the island's southern tip.
Singapore: From high tea to jungle trekking, check out these 9 Offbeat Port Activities.
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