There are different ways to explore the Far East by sea. You can go by big ship, small ship or something in between. There's the posh, high-end type and the mass-market way. There are ships that cater to mostly Asians and other ones that target North Americans.
Genoa-based Costa Cruises (tel. 800/462-6782; www.costacruises.com) caters to a pan-European clientele. Most passengers hail from Italy, France and Germany, with a motley assortment of others rounding out the mix, from the English to Australians, Americans, Spanish, Swiss and the odd Asian or two.
By the end of a recent 11-night cruise round-trip out of Singapore to Thailand and Malaysia aboard the 22,441-ton Costa Marina, I was smitten by the cozy, multi-culti ship. A destination as much as the ports were, the flavors of Europe were everywhere, from the ubiquitous espresso to the crusty bread and bottled mineral water. The pool area was a mini Riviera, with suntanned bodies of all ages and sizes outfitted in skimpy bathing suits. The Italian officers and the exchange of buon giornos set an exotic tone even as the ship plied the waters of the Gulf of Thailand and Strait of Malacca.
At full capacity, the ship can carry nearly 900 passengers, though my sailing in early January had only half that -- mostly couples in their 40s, 50s and 60s -- a comfortable number on such an intimate ship.
Unlike today's city-sized megas that require a map to figure out where things are, the Costa Marina is more like a small town where it's easy to find your way around. The Marina's three main entertainment venues are on one deck, and there are only two restaurants to choose from. It's a cozy environment, but that doesn't mean there's a lot of co-mingling. One North American passenger who didn't seem to mind said, "I love this ship because I don't have to talk to anyone. I don't understand them."
It's a different story for the international crew. In addition to most speaking both English and Italian, many speak French, German and Spanish as well. Though announcements are kept to a minimum, they're translated into all five languages. It was fascinating to listen to the charming Italian Cruise Director Clem Cimini effortlessly glide between them all (she also speaks Russian and Mandarin). Like many other linguistically challenged Americans, I was green with envy.
Costa crew and officers are pros at serving an international clientele and understanding their idiosyncrasies. Americans, for instance, tend to like the air conditioning turned on higher than other nationalities. Australians drink beer, it's espresso for the Italians. Germans prefer things quiet, and the Spanish don't. And the list goes on.
In the restaurants, the candle lit Cristallo and the indoor/outdoor buffet restaurant, everyone's tastes were accommodated. By far, the Marina offered the most impressive cuisine I've had on a Costa ship to date. At breakfast, the crusty Italian rolls baked from scratch were addictive. The parmigiano cheese wheel and prosciutto ham at the lunch buffet every day were imported from Italy. A tasty Sicilian-style pizza was part of the spread at tea-time and appeared on the children's menu. Delicious freshly tossed pastas, from a three-cheese penne to curry gnocchi and spaghetti with tomatoes, zucchini and shrimp, were available each day at lunch and dinner as well as seafood and meats.
The themed cuisine of the lunch buffet's international corner included a different nationality every day, with Asian specialties, for instance, featuring sweet and sour pork, papaya salad with crushed peanuts and spring roll. At dinner in Cristallo (and occasionally in the buffet venue when it was open evenings), appetizers like grilled eggplant, seafood salad and baked provolone with soy sauce and oregano were scrumptious. The Italian wines to go with it all were something to look forward to after a long day of touring. Particularly memorable was a 2005 Beni di Batasiolo Chardonnay. On the Marina, my waistline didn't benefit from my love of the millefoglie, a flakey puff pastry cake layered with cream or chocolate, and one of the best cruise ship desserts I've ever eaten. For some reason, it was only the chicken and beef dishes that consistently left something to be desired.
Besides the food tasting great, in Cristallo the wait staff understood the nuances of good service and handled their international charges with finesse. Our dashing Romanian waiter Valentin, for example, checked if we wanted our salad before dinner (the American way), with dinner (like the Italians prefer), or after (as the English do).
The young super-friendly international social hosts were also pros at figuring out how to engage passengers of all nationalities. Once or twice a day a lively dancing lesson -- which ranged from mambo to the meringue -- was offered by the pool. On sea days, an arts and craft class was well attended. Passengers were guided through making everything from batik t-shirts to get-ups for a costume party. The occasional cooking demo, Italian language classes and port talks were sprinkled throughout the week as well, though there were no enrichment lecturers or live music on the pool deck. Between lunch and dinner, there were few organized activities on the agenda. Passengers filled their afternoons with sunbathing (some topless), card playing, reading, downing espressos, sipping wine and napping.
Come evening, the pace picked up. The impressive repertoire of entertainment acts were executed with the festive verve Costa is known for. Even though the show lounge and small stage are very basic and music was taped, the performances were excellent. The group included six talented dancers with boundless energy and a pair of lead singers, who expertly pulled off opera, ballads and classic evergreens as well as rock and roll. Favorites from around the world were worked into their routines, from "Quando Quando Quando" to "Danny Boy," a rendition of Elvis' "Love Me Tender" and even the Pink Floyd classic, "Another Brick in the Wall."
A big hit night after night was an old-school magician who did the classic slights-of-hand, from scarf tricks to the disappearing scantily-clad assistant routine. No one seemed to mind when he'd momentarily forget which language he was trying to communicate in. A crew talent show brought down the house and on two occasions and local folk dance troupes were brought aboard during extended stays in Thailand. Theme parties included a costume ball and an island night, complete with leis, beach balls, Latin music and coconut shell drinks.
There's no denying the 1992-built Marina (the hull and engines actually date back to 1969) has personality, and the peaks and valleys that go with it. Unlike newer ships, staterooms have real wood cabinetry and bathroom floors are teak. The 170-square-foot standard cabins have generous storage, neat little round vanity table and quirky nautical wall prints -- all a refreshing contrast to the generic hotel look of most new ships.
On the other hand, the cluttered children's playroom, meager selection of library books, amazingly slow Internet connections and low-tech show lounge were not particularly appealing. Few cabins have balconies (the eight suites do, but they're open to the deck above), most twin beds cannot be pushed together, and the small spa and beauty seemed like afterthoughts. There were no manicures or pedicures available and my masseuse seemed inexperienced, as though she was still in training.
Not a cookie cutter ship by any means, the décor includes the typical upholstered cruise ship lounge furniture plus more eclectic touches like leather chairs with chrome frames, ship models in display cases in the Marina Lounge, cream colored leather banquettes and oversized portholes in the Cristallo restaurant, and an abstract green glass atrium sculpture my four-year-old son Tejas aptly named "the lettuce."
The Costa Marina is appealing because it's not like every other ship out there. It's an original. Better yet, a Costa Marina cruise is affordable. According to Charlie Funk, co-owner of Nashville-based Just Cruisin' Plus (tel. 800/888-0922; www.justcruisinplus.com), an ocean view cabin on 14-night Marina cruise in the Indian Ocean next January is going for about $200 a person a day, about half of Star Cruises' Asia sailings, for instance.
"Experienced cruisers who want to see exotic ports on a smaller ship without paying a bundle will find the Marina a pleasant experience and excellent value," Funk adds.
Where the Ship's Been and Where it's Going
Next winter (after summering in the Mediterranean) the Costa Marina will spend several months doing cruises around Mauritius and eastern Africa. Sister-ship, Costa Allegra, will continue to be based in Asia cruising from Hong Kong and Shanghai, though no longer exclusively for the Asian market, as it was during 2006. The Allegra is now Costa's only ship in Asia, serving a North American and European clientele part of the year and an Asian one the other part. Costa Crociere President Gianni Onorato says they are targeting European and American passengers on the longer cruises in May, June, November and December, and focus on a Chinese and Asian clientele on the five-night itineraries offered in March, April, July, September and October. Longer 14-night sailings from Hong Kong include calls to Manila (Phillipines), Borena (Malaysia), Brunei, Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh (Vietnam), Singapore, and Sanya (China). The shorter sailings cruise Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tiajin (China) and visit ports in Japan and South Korea.
On my Costa Marina cruise this past January, many of the crew, including the shore excursion department, were experiencing the Malaysian and Thai ports for the first time, right along with the passengers. Though these ports are not currently on the schedule for the remainder of 2007, they're popular ports on many other cruise line itineraries in Asia, including Star Cruises and Silversea Cruises.
From the port Laem Chabang, Thailand, the main attraction is Bangkok, though many passengers on my cruise didn't realize the Thai capital was a two-hour bus ride each way from the port. If you could get past the four-hour schlep by bus, the excursions to see Bangkok's golden-spired temples, pagodas, Buddhas and ornate palaces were worthwhile. For those who wanted something closer, another excursion option was a day at Pattaya Beach, a bustling resort town that manages to mix sex shops and girlie bars with family-friendly shopping malls and fast-food outlets. The beach is long and narrow and the surf is fairly rough. There didn't seem to any rules against speed boats and jet skis zipping near the shoreline where some folks were brave enough to swim.
Similarly, it's an hour's drive or so from the industrial Port Klang inland to Malaysia's capital of Kuala Lumpur (KL), the major attraction from the port and home to two of the tallest buildings in the world, the Petronis Towers. KL 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 or so from the port. Aside from the ship's tours to KL, there are also taxis lined up at the port to take you there, round-trip, for about $60; about $10 more if you want to stop at the Blue Mosque on route. Don't expect luxury but definitely insist on a taxi with air conditioning and seat belts.
Ships anchor off the coast of Malacca, Malaysia, at one time one of the most important seaports in Asia. It's a 30- to 40-minute ride by local tender into the town, where bicycle trishaws flamboyantly decorated with bright plastic flowers greeted visitors. They're a great way to see the town's main attractions (bargain for the price; start at about $5 to $10 an hour and go from there), including the Porte de Santiago fortress built by the Portuguese in 1511 as well as other vestiges of the Dutch, British and Malay empires that once ruled.
The island of Penang, Malaysia, the country's oldest British settlement, is a super convenient and charming port, with several worthwhile sightseeing options nearby. If you can bare the boiling heat, a guided town tour by trishaw is a good way to see the sights, including the Khoo Kongsi Chinese clan house and the Penang Museum, as well as remnants of colonial architecture and the island's Indian neighborhoods. Another good option is any tour that includes a stop at the Kek Lok Si temple, a tiered temple complex set on hills overlooking the island.
Phuket, Thailand, the ultimate beach resort island, is an easy place to hop in a taxi and hit the sand or a local temple or two. The ship docks at a pier where a craft market sets up shop for the duration of the ship's stay and taxis are on hand for those wanting to tour solo. Hands down, the best beach is Kata, a super wide strip of clean sand. There are water sports for rent and also places for snacks, drinks and lunch. It's about a 30-minute taxi ride from port. The popular Patong and Karon beaches are much narrower and on recent visits, I found them to be crowded and littered with debris. As for temples, the most noteworthy is just a short 15- to 20-minute drive from port, the Wat Chalong monastery. You'll be awed by the gilded spires, golden buddhas and ornate details. For $40, we bargained with a taxi driver for a four-hour tour for four us in a new car with air conditioning and seat belts. We visited Wat Chalong; went for an elephant ride nearby at Island Safari Adventures (not included in the price); drove to Promthep Cape, a panoramic headland at the island's southern tip; and then relaxed for an hour at nearby Nai Harn beach, an appealing wide band of clean sand.
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