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How to Cruise Southeast Asia Like a Local

A cruise is a super convenient way to take in the highlights of the Far East. Unpack once and let the ornate temples, gilded Buddhas and golden beaches come to you.

A cruise is a super convenient way to take in the highlights of the Far East. Unpack once and let the ornate temples, gilded Buddhas and golden beaches come to you. Traditionally, U.S.-based lines seasonally position ships in Asia between about October and April and offer itineraries in the neighborhood of two weeks. For shorter mostly one- to five-night Asia itineraries that are a nice complement to a longer land-based tour of the region, local operator Star Cruises has a corner on the market.

The leading cruise operator in Asia and part of the deep-pocketed Malaysia-based Genting Berhad group, Malaysia-based Star Cruises (tel. 65/6223-0002; was founded in 1993 and is the third largest cruise operator in the world with 22 ships in service (and four more new builds in the pipeline) under the Star Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, NCL America, Orient Lines and Cruise Ferries brands. Five of the Star brand ships operate in Asia year-round, while the sixth, the SuperStar Libra, splits its time between India and the Mediterranean.

Though based in Asia and serving a mostly Asian market, the Star ships offer a solidly mainstream cruise experience that most North Americans would be comfortable with.

I found out for myself on a five-night cruise last June aboard the Singapore-based 1,960-passenger SuperStar Virgo to Phuket, Penang and Port Klang/Kuala Lumpur. Sure, the Kung Fu shows, Chinese acrobats, all-day karaoke and origami and mahjong classes tipped me off that the Virgo was an Asian ship, but the bingo, line dancing and Vegas-y stage shows sure didn't. And the midnight topless cabaret act (for an extra $13 per person) couldn't be categorized as anything but international. The first language on board Virgo is English, three of nine restaurants serve continental cuisine including Italian, and waiters buzz around with fruity cocktails as they would on any mega-ship in the Caribbean.

Built at the Meyer Werft shipyard in Germany from the same set of blue prints as the New York-based Norwegian Spirit, the 1999-built Virgo sports the ubiquitous cruise-ship-standard velveteen club chairs, burled wood veneers, marble accents and grandiose showstoppers, from the Greek-inspired pool deck to the giant sculpture of three gilded horses in the atrium (an auspicious symbol to the Chinese).

While North American passengers are definitely in the minority on a Star cruise, the diverse passenger mix is the ultimate equalizer, making almost everyone feel like a foreigner. Generally, Singaporean Chinese and Malays are in the majority, followed by a sizeable contingent of Indians from the Subcontinent, a decent number of Australians, a sprinkling of Japanese and other Asians, a handful of Europeans and the odd North American or two.

"It's a real challenge with so many nationalities," says Hotel Manager Eddie Teo, adding that there can be 50 at any one time.

Australians, New Zealanders and Americans, for instance, tend to be forward and chatty, while most Asian guests are more reserved. Indians often eat with their hands, Chinese would never. And the list goes on. Given the ethnic stew, some cultural clashes are inevitable. For example on the June cruise, a few female passengers from India went into the pools and hot tubs in their pajamas in spite of large pictorial signs and continuous gentle reminders by a pool attendant that proper swimming attire was required.

Cultural divides aside, for the most part the Virgo was a welcoming place for everyone, thanks to an international crew of 1,374 who did an outstanding job providing friendly, helpful and exceedingly patient service all the while handling the rigors of three turnaround days a week.

In the galleys, the chefs were busy running nine different restaurants, including four serving Asian cuisine exclusively (two more restaurants serve both Asian and western cuisine). Included in the cruise fare are three main restaurants -- one featuring authentic family-style Chinese cuisine, another international fare, and a third both Indian and Continental. Six more intimate venues have à la carte pricing. Like the NCL ships, all operate with a dine anytime, open-seating system. In the Chinese venue Noble House, an extensive book-length menu included delicacies like braised bird's nest soup for $56. More reasonable was the $30 six-course set menu, which included fried rice and sautéed scallops with asparagus and macadamia nuts. The Hainanese chicken rice dish for $6 in the Blue Lagoon café was excellent and my sons loved the $5.50 All-American hot dog and fries. A dinner of gyoza (fried shrimp dumplings), sashimi and Tempura Temaki (hand rolled sushi) in the Samurai Japanese restaurant was delicious, and well worth $38 for two. For Indian food that's certified halal, the Taj restaurant offers $8 lunch and dinner buffets of mostly northern India favorites like chicken tikka masala (boneless chicken in a tomato gravy), dal (yellow lentils) and vegetable biryani (rice and mixed vegetables). Smooth waiters serve seafood Carpaccio, porcini mushroom fettuccine, grilled live lobster and other tasty Italian dishes in the gilded, Versace-style Palazzo restaurant, where the tab will likely run $40+ per person on food.

The one weak spot in a glowing culinary report was the complimentary Mediterranean Buffet restaurant, severing both western and Indian food nearly round the clock. The dried-out fried eggs and pancakes at breakfast were nothing short of hockey pucks, and the slim pickings in the cute kid's mini-buffet area, complete with pint-sized table and chairs, were often unidentifiable (and unlabeled, surprising considering that some passengers don't eat beef or pork on religious grounds). In general, tables weren't bussed fast enough and an overall feeling of chaos sent us packing on more than one occasion to buy lunch in the serene environs of the Blue Lagoon café. As for room service, it comes with a cost; from $6 continental breakfasts to $8 for a plate of fried rice or a club sandwich. A 15% service charge is added to restaurant and bar bills, though otherwise there's a no-tipping policy on the ship.

If you occupy one of the 300 or so balcony cabins or the 18 suites you're entitled to extra perks including dining credits for the alternative restaurants ($300 per cabin for a 5-night cruise), free use of the spa pool, and priority check-in (a big plus, the Singapore Cruise Centre terminal is a crowded, chaotic place). Standard cabins are comfy and stylish with coffee/tea makers, but definitely on the tight side.

For roomy digs, take your children to the cheerful, ocean view Charlie's Childcare Center. Set up for ages one to twelve, a team of sweet female youth counselors are on hand to supervise arts and craft projects, language classes and free play in the room's climbing maze and ball pit. Easily the most flexible children's facility at sea, the playroom literally operates round-the-clock from 9am till 1am (staff will even escort kids to lunch and dinner); especially convenient if parents want to venture ashore alone. An absolutely cavernous adjacent arcade houses more than 50 video games, and just outdoors on a sequestered patch of deck is a playground, wading pool, hot tub and a bigger pool surrounded by a pair of fun water slides and a climb-on submarine. The caveat to this kiddy (and parent) paradise: it'll cost you. Unlike the complimentary day-time children's programming on the U.S.-based mega ships, this one runs $5 per child (ages 1-4) or $4 (for ages 5-12) per hour at all times (and $8 an hour after 11:45pm or for private babysitting).

The Virgo's Romp Through Southeast Asia

SuperStar Virgo is based out of Singapore year-round and every week offers a pair of two-night itineraries, plus a three-nighter. Typically 20% to 30% of passengers (mostly Australians, according Hotel Manager Eddie Teo) combine two itineraries for a five-night cruise. Virgo's two-night weekend cruises to nowhere departing Friday evenings are popular with Singaporeans who like to gamble and get away for the weekend without missing a day of work, while visitors to the region gravitate to the other port-intensive itineraries.

The three-night sailings depart Sundays on alternating itineraries, calling on Penang (Malaysia) and Phuket (Thailand) or Phuket and Langkawi (Malaysia). The Virgo calls at Georgetown on the 111-square-mile island of Penang. Though expect it to be a hot and sweaty affair, the town can be explored on foot. Stroll past the rustic shop houses and through the maze of small streets for a glimpse of the vibrant Chinese, Malay and Indian cultures that make up Malaysia. From the terminal, it's a 15- or 20-minute walk to the ornate 100-year-old Khoo Kongsi Chinese temple that's currently being restored. Another wise option is signing up for the half-day "Trishaw Ride in the Pearl of Orient" ($35) excursion, which includes a stop at the temple plus a visit to Wat Chayamangkalaram to see the what, at over 100 feet long, is the world's third largest reclining Buddha. In Phuket, a day at the beach seems most popular. Bus transfers to Patong Beach are $11. Though hit hard by the 2004 Tsunami, the area was bustling in June, with many passengers lining up to try parasailing with local outfitters. To the south, Langkawi is known as a beach, snorkeling and dive haven; grab a taxi and head for the white sands of Pantai Cenang beach. For something more cerebral, a popular tour option is a visit to the Langkawi Underwater World to check out more than 5,000 types of marine life.

The two-night itineraries that depart Wednesdays alternately call on Redang (Malaysia) or Port Klang/Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). Port Klang, the operations and sales and marketing headquarters for Star Cruises, is smack dab in the middle of a drab industrial area, but the port is a convenient access point to Kuala Lumpur (KL), an hour away by road. Malaysia's bustling capital city is home to the Petronas Twin Towers, among the tallest buildings in the world. The ship's "Asian Melting Pot Tour" includes a visit to the Towers and also the Blue Mosque and the six-tiered Thean Hou Buddhist temple ($30). Infinitely more scenic than Port Klang is tropical Redang Island in the South China Sea, where it's all about beaches, snorkeling and diving. Four special five-night Virgo cruises June through September, 2007 include calls to Bangkok, Ko Samui and Hua Hin in Thailand; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; and/or Redang Island.

Booking a Trip

To book a Star cruise, contact a travel agency in the United States; booking directly with Star Cruises in Singapore or Malaysia will wind up costing you more. Rack rates in US dollars (before potential seasonal or other discounts from your travel agent) for a five-night sailing on Star Virgo range from $1,640 to $1,820 per person for a balcony cabin and $1,000 to $1,080 per person for an inside. For a three-night Virgo cruise, fares range from $987 to $1,089 per person for a balcony cabin and $600 to $651 per person for an inside; the two nighters run from $660 to $730 per person for a balcony cabin and $400 to $430 per person for an inside. Other costs not typically associated with U.S.-based cruise lines include charges for all room service orders, hourly rates for use of children's playroom (even during the day), a charge for special entertainment (namely the midnight topless cabaret show) and more restaurants with à la carte pricing. That said, the good news is there's a no-tipping policy on the ship, so your restaurant waiter or cabin steward isn't expecting you to grease his palms (unless of course you want to).

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