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Getting to Know Malaysia by Ship

A short cruise from Singapore is a great way to get a taste of Malaysia without exerting too much effort, and you can do it with a 3-night cruise to Penang and Port Kelang.

A short cruise from Singapore is a great way to get a taste of Malaysia without exerting too much effort. Aside from Asia-based Star Cruises, which offers year-round cruises in the Far East, Royal Caribbean is the other major cruise line with a big presence in the region. Royal Caribbean's 1,804-passenger Legend of the Seas offers 3-, 4- and 5-night cruises round-trip from Singapore to some combination of Penang, Port Kelang and Langkawi, Malaysia, and/or Phuket, Thailand. In a few weeks, the ship will leave Singapore for two months of chartered sailings from China before summering in the Mediterranean, but will return to the region again to begin year-round service there. Between November 2009 and January 2010, the ship will do short cruises out of Singapore to Malaysia and Thailand before repositioning north to cruise out of Shanghai, Tiajin/Beijing and Hong Kong, to ports in China, Japan, and Korea.

Last month my husband, young sons, and I signed up for 3-night cruise to Penang and Port Kelang, the port closest to Kuala Lumpur. After departing on a Friday at 4pm, by early afternoon the next day we were in Penang, a charming island with a multi-cultural legacy of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and British influences. Skipping the more cerebral stuff as we had been to Penang before (see sidebar, below), we instead hopped into a taxi bound for Ferringhi beach, enjoying the views of old colonial homes along the 30-minute drive. We paid RM100 RM (Malaysian Ringits) for the round-trip, but probably could have bargained harder. Our boys played in the surf and sand while we relaxed in the sun. Others took horse rides along the beach, went parasailing or maneuvered annoying four-wheelers through the sand. It wasn't the best beach I've been on (the sand was course and the water hardly turquoise blue), but it wasn't crowded and was reasonably clean and our kids had a fine time. (The beaches of Langkawi to the north are far superior).

Back on the ship at 7pm, we dined later than usual by the time we showered, and it was no problem thanks to Royal Caribbean's flexible new Â?My Time DiningÂ? reservation system. From day to day we could eat in the main restaurant whenever it was convenient for us between 6pm and 9:30pm. One of the most attractive spaces on the ship, the two-deck-high Romeo & Juliet restaurant, has floor-to-ceiling windows, tasteful glass and crystal accents, and a pianist to serenade diners. This venue and the ship's more casual buffet restaurant serve mostly continental cuisine, with at least one or two Asian dishes offered as well. Overall, the food was very average and at times disappointing.

In Port Kelang the next day, we opted to stay on board since we had been to KL before. The boys happily spent a few hours with the perky counselors in the Adventure Ocean playroom playing dodge ball and making mini volcanoes with baking soda and vinegar while we headed for the coffee shop, gym and spa. My husband hit the stair climber and I had a great spa sampler -- a facial and shoulder and scalp massage -- doled out by a sweet young Chinese woman named Faye.

Afterwards, it was family time again, and the four of us hit the greens of the 9-hole miniature golf course up on deck and scaled the adjacent outdoor rock climbing wall, both complimentary activities. Our newly-turned six year old sons were old enough to climb and they fearlessly scrambled up the vertical wall as though they had done it before. Dad also loved climbing and the three of them had a lovely bonding experience (and I had some great photo ops).

Evenings, entertainment ran the gamut from Las Vegas-style production shows complete with feather boas and sequin suits to singers, pop bands and theme nights. My favorite spots for a drink were the rustic and shippy Schooner Bar and the elegant Champagne Bar in the atrium, where one could people watch and enjoy complimentary canapés every evening before dinner. As a U.S.-based company offering a predominantly North American-style cruise experience even in Asia, Royal Caribbean does its part to adapt to the local customs too, with nightly karaoke, congee at breakfast, and electric tea pots in all cabins. Fairly typical of the passenger mix on short cruises in Asia, on our sailing about three-quarters of the passengers were from Singapore with the rest from other parts of Asia, the U.K, Australia, and Europe. Longer Asia cruises typically attract more North Americans and Europeans and fewer Asians.

In this age of mega ships carrying upwards of 3,000 passengers (the soon-to-debut Oasis of the Seas will carry -- ouch! -- more than 5,000 guests), the Legend is a comfortable mid-size and never overwhelming. The public rooms and open decks feel light, airy and spacious, all except, that is, for the small, lackluster cabins. The bathrooms are no frills and super compact (as a friend joked once, you may discover a new way to turn the shower off without using your hands!).

Though the 14-year-old Legend of the Seas has a somewhat retro look with its décor of brass, mirrors, marble and glass, the vibe is totally modern and super casual. Jackets at dinner, even on formal night, were a rarity (Singaporeans tend to be very casual dressers), though crocs and t-shirts were not. The unpretentious Legend is ideal for families or anyone looking for a laid-back, easy and affordable getaway. All you need to do is unpack your bags and leave the driving to the captain and everything else to the crew.

Fares include all meals and start at $380 Singapore Dollars (or about US$250) per person for 3-night sailings round-trip from Singapore. For more information, contact

Regional Ports

Port Kelang (Kuala Lumpur), Malaysia This drab, industrial port is the access point to the capital of Kuala Lumpur, an hour away by road, where the sites include the Petronis Towers, two of the world's tallest buildings, plus KL's Chinatown, colonial British architecture and shopping malls. Aside from the ship's tours, no-frills taxis are lined up at the terminal to take you to KL and to the massive Sultan Salahuddin Mosque (aka Blue Mosque) on route.

Penang, Malaysia

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 fascinating tiered Kek Lok Si 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.

Langkawi, Malaysia

This lush island is all about beaches. Hop in a taxi and spend an hour touring the island before heading for Sailor's Beach just a few miles form the pier, a super wide stretch of silky sand and calm surf that's perfect for families with young children. 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.

Phuket, Thailand

Primarily a beach port, Patong beach is the most convenient (just on shore from where the ship anchors) and offers 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 taxi ride, about the same time it'll take you to get to the island's most noteworthy temple, the gilded Wat Chalong monastery.