World-class shopping, dining and culture draw luxury cruisers to Asia’s glistening hot spots —Bangkok, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo — but lesser-known Asian ports are also enticing for different reasons. Cruisers might visit with sea gypsies, dine with “the locals” in a rural home, stroll through a colorful market, relax on white-sand beaches, see farmers knee-deep in rice paddies, or gaze at elephants, waterfalls and ancient ruins.
Historically, Hakodate in northern Hokkaido was the first Japanese city to be fully opened to westerners under the Treaty of Amity and Commerce in the 1850s. Historic, western-style framed homes still line the Motomachi District’s cobblestone streets, while the old waterfront district’s brick warehouses now house souvenir shops and the Hakodate Beer Hall, where we enjoyed a brew and ika somen or raw squid that’s thinly sliced and shaped like noodles.
One treat is to ride the cable car to Mount Hakodate’s summit for panoramic views. Silversea Cruises’ guests can do so with “Panoramic Mount Hakodate & Sushi,” a Silver Shore Collection excursion. A half-hour drive takes guests to the Mount Hakodate Overlook for selfies and then it’s on to the Mount Hakodate Ropeway, a cable car traveling upward to an all-weather observatory at the summit. Next is a drive to downtown Hakodate for a demonstration of how tuna is “broken up” and a sushi lunch at a kaiten-zushi restaurant, where dishes are delivered via a conveyor belt. Guests just grab any dishes they like that pass before them or order other dishes not on the menu.
Prefer something more active? Weather permitting, fit cruisers can take Silversea’s excursion to Onuma Quasi-National Park, known for island-dotted lakes and Mount Komaga. On this outing, guests walk for more than four miles along the walking trails and lake bridges with a guide. Silversea visits Hakodate on its May 4, 2017 departure of the 382-guest Silver Shadow from Tokyo to Seward, Alaska. This 15-day cruise includes port calls in Japan, the Russian Far East and Alaska.
We sailed in the Grand 2 Suite, No. 601, located forward on Deck 6, and found it perfect for entertaining amid spacious living and dining spaces; we also liked the private bedroom with forward facing and slanted windows, delivering a sense of both light and privacy. The marbled master bathroom has a double vanity, separate shower and full-sized whirlpool tub. Grand Suites are available as either a 1,090-square-foot, one-bedroom configuration or as two bedrooms by adding the adjacent Veranda Suite, increasing the area to 1,435 square feet. One nice amenity of this suite is a complimentary dinner for two on one evening in Le Champagne, which features Relais & Châteaux cuisine.
Also calling at Hakodate is Seabourn Cruise Line’s 450-passenger Seabourn Sojourn. Its “Onuma Quasi-National Park” excursion includes a Lake Onuma boat ride prior to a one-hour hike. Another good option is Seabourn’s “Best of Hakodate” excursion. On this eclectic tour, guests ride the cable car up Mount Hakodate, visit the Hakodate Museum of Northern Peoples and Goryokaku Tower for views of the Goryokaku pentagonal fort with its carp-filled moat, landscaped garden and cherry trees, and peruse the exhibits at Hakodate Bugyosho (or the magistrate’s office).
The best inclusion of this tour, from our perspective, is a stroll through the Hakodate Morning Market with the bustle of hundreds of stalls selling fresh seafood — from salmon roe to crab, from scallops to sea urchin. Even if cruisers don’t opt for an organized tour, the market makes for a good stop. One local specialty is donburi, a Japanese rice bowl dish often topped with fresh seafood.
On May 4, 2017, Seabourn Sojourn calls at Hakodate during its grand 89-day “Pacific Rim Exploration” voyage from Singapore to Seattle, WA, which begins March 4. The cruise will also visit ports in Japan, South Korea, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Canada, Alaska and other countries. A shorter, 21-day “Kuroshio Route & Alaska” sailing from Kobe, Japan, to Seattle on May 11 also features Hakodate. While it won’t be ready for those sailings, Seabourn’s new signature fine-dining restaurant, The Grill by Thomas Keller, will be added during a December 2017 dry dock; it’s a collaboration between three-star Michelin Chef Thomas Keller and designer Adam Tihany.
For spa enthusiasts, the ship’s Penthouse Spa Suite (category PS) has 516 to 538 square feet of inside space, plus a private veranda of 172 square feet; spacious living and dining area with seating for four; separate bedroom; bathroom with a tub and special spa shower; and more. Pampered with the Spa Concierge services, guests have daily access to the spa’s Serene Area and can reach the Spa Lobby via a spiral staircase.
Romblon Island, the Philippines
If cruisers are seeking an enticing new port of call — something really off the beaten path — they should definitely check out Crystal Cruises’ “Malay Archipelago Mystique” itinerary departing February 23, 2017 from Bali to Singapore. During that luxury voyage, the 922-passenger Crystal Symphony will make a maiden call at Romblon Island in the central Philippines’ Romblon archipelago, which also consists of Sibuyan and Tablas islands.
Romblon is prized for its diverse marble deposits. Did you know Romblon’s marble is said to be equal in quality to that found in Italy? Cruisers can stroll in Romblon town to see more than two dozen varieties of marble in dozens of shades — green onyx to argo, white and black onyx. Workers crack the marble by hand tools from the mountain. Later, it’s processed by hand, often to the customer’s customization.
Skilled craftspeople also have created a slew of marble gifts and decorative pieces for sale on the island. So, cruisers can enjoy window shopping for vases, statues and even seating. But, cruisers don’t have to “go big” with their purchases as small pendants designed like manta rays or dolphins make great gifts for family members and friends.
Another enticement at Romblon is its eco-setting with white sands, palm-fringed shorelines, clear blue waters and interior mountains. Tiamban Beach is a visitor favorite. Onboard Crystal Symphony, Crystal has a plethora of top suites for guests, but one accommodation option that luxury cruisers with allergies should consider is a Deluxe PURE stateroom with veranda (A2 and A3 categories). These specially treated, allergy-free accommodations are on Seabreeze Deck 9.
Nha Trang, Vietnam
Known as Vietnam’s diving center, this vibrant seaside destination has hotels and beach play. Beyond the main beach are several less-crowded, cleaner and calmer beaches, including Bai Duong Beach, just north of town. Guests may arrange a private car and driver with the shore desk, and might head out to Bai Dai Beach (15 miles away) or the tranquil Doc Let Beach (30 miles out). Non-beach lovers can venture out to see waterfalls, take a guided pedicab ride or visit Long So’n Pagoda, which has mosaic dragons on its entryway and roofs. From the pagoda, fit cruisers can climb a giant white Buddha statue seated on a lotus blossom. At Dam market, vendors sell local products, souvenirs and seafood; regional specialties include bun ca (fish cake soup), goi ca (fish salad) and nem nuong (pork stew).
Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ newly launched $450 million Seven Seas Explorer sails a 12-night “Eastern Cultural Exploration” voyage from Singapore to Hong Kong on December 5, 2017; it calls at Nha Trang and ports in Thailand and China. The ship also sails a 16-night cruise roundtrip from Singapore on January 17, 2018 with calls at Nha Trang as well as ports in Thailand, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Brunei.
One nice perk is the recent addition of free, intercontinental roundtrip Business Class air for all Regent Seven Seas guests (on itineraries like this one in Asia). So why not luxuriate in a Master Suite, still available at press time on Decks 7 and 11? One plus for all guests is that Regent Seven Seas fares include free unlimited shore excursions, fine wine and spirits, unlimited Internet access, prepaid gratuities, ground transfers and luxury pre-cruise hotel stays.
In Nha Trang, we’d suggest taking the line’s “Nha Trang’s Rural Life” tour for an up-close cultural look at the farms, homes, schools and villages of the agricultural countryside. Cruisers will get to watch local farmers working on their fields, water buffalo in the grasses and ducks feeding on rice grains. This tour also includes visits to a small temple and a farmer’s house to see how local families live and raise farm animals. Cruisers will also watch a local family weaving floor mats in sedge or baskets in banana leaves and chat with monks at a pagoda. Time permitting, a market stop and a rice paper workshop visit are also made.
For those desiring to sail in 2018, sister line Oceania Cruises offers an 18-day “Homage to the Orient” itinerary from Tokyo to Bangkok on March 24, 2018. The 684-passenger Nautica calls at Nha Trang, as well as ports in Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam. We’d opt for the palatial 1,000-square-foot Owner’s Suites (OS category) with custom empire-style furnishings from Italy and bedrooms with queen-size Prestige Tranquility Beds and 1,000-thread-count linens. Also available at press time were the 322-square-foot Penthouse Suites (PH1, PH2 and PH3).
Nautica’s suites have private butler service, along with many perks, including unlimited access to the Canyon Ranch SpaClub private Spa Terrace, priority online specialty dining reservations, a complimentary in-suite bar set up and use of a laptop computer with wireless access. The Owner’s Suite also offers an iPad for complimentary guest use.
Cunard Line’s newly refurbished flagship, Queen Mary 2, sails a 21-night voyage from Sydney, Australia to Hong Kong on February 25, 2017, with calls at Port Arthur and Hobart, Tasmania; Sydney, Brisbane, Airlie Beach and Yorkeys Knob (Cairns), Australia; Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei; Ho Chi Minh City and Nha Trang, Vietnam. The best accommodations are the Queens Grill duplexes with a personal butler and concierge, and Princess Grill suites with concierge service. Both high-end categories offer access to the Grills Lounge and each has an exclusive restaurant. Past guests who step aboard will find the ship totally refreshed with everything from new carpeting to new dining venues as well as the liner’s first staterooms for solo travelers.
Kochi (Cochin), India
Nestled along a natural harbor on the Malabar Coast, Kochi, called Cochin in the Colonial era, once was the epicenter of India’s spice trade. Azamara Club Cruises calls here on its 14-day “The Spice Route” itinerary on Azamara Journey from Dubai to Chennai (Madras), India, departing November 3, 2016. Or, guests can take that itinerary’s 13-day option departing April 9, 2017 from Singapore to Mumbai (Bombay). We’d opt for the Club World Owner’s Suite or, alternatively, a Club Ocean Suite; both now include a complimentary Insider Access or Nights & Cool Places excursion.
Another perk for all guests is a complimentary AzAmazing Evening, which in Kochi is “The Culture and Traditions of Kerala.” Guests are welcomed by an elephant with regal trappings as they enter the palatial Le Meridien on Willingdon Island. Guests will savor superb harbor views, stroll across manicured lawns, relax on terraces and wander through a marketplace of tea and toddy shops. They’ll also see crafts in action and enjoy a cultural spectacle as elaborately costumed Kathakali dancers and Kalaripayattu martial artists perform.
Eclectic Kochi is a mix of mainland and island areas, linked by bridges and ferries. It’s home to European-built forts, palaces, museums and churches, built for use by Portuguese, Dutch and English residents during the Colonial era. It also has remnants of the British Raj, Kerala arts, Jewish synagogues and spice businesses. One iconic city symbol dating back to Kublai Khan’s era is an area with land-based installations for Chinese fishing nets that arch over the sea.
Within Ernakulam, Kochi’s new urban center, we’d suggest checking out Mahatma Gandhi Road for shops, temples and markets. Shoppers will discover handloom fabrics, handicrafts, gold jewelry, spices and traditional ladies’ soft dresses laced with gold threads. One “must-have” Kochi specialty is Aranmula Kannadi, an unusually made oval mirror with a tail-like handle.
We’d recommend Azamara’s “Backwaters of Alappuzha by Houseboat” shore excursion. It’s an eye opening look at local life. Cruisers will likely see farmers working knee deep in the paddy fields or long boats loaded with coconuts, pepper, coir (coconut husks) and rice headed to the coast. It’s the kind of “real life” exposure that delivers authenticity and creates once-in-a-lifetime memories for travelers taking an Asian cruise.
In addition to the major oceangoing lines, here’s a sampling of small-ship adventures calling at more remote Asian ports.
Coron, Philippines: Ponant’s sleek, modern L’Austral delivers guests into the lap of luxury — at least onboard — during its 15-day “From Philippines to the Japanese Coast” sailing from Kota Kinabalu (Sabah Borneo) to Osaka, Japan on March 18, 2017. It calls at idyllic Coron, known for white sandy beaches, lagoons, cliffs with caves and limestone karsts jutting out from the seas. One shore trip traverses the Twin Lagoon, which is enclosed by jagged limestone cliff; a small opening allows physically fit guests to enter and view magnificent rock formations.
Mergui, Myanmar: In Southeast Asia, Pandaw Cruises will sail a remote southern Myanmar coastal itinerary (multiple dates from October through March 2017) on Andaman Explorer, a classic 1960s motor yacht. Operating between Rangoon, Myanmar and Ranong, Thailand, the itinerary features time in Moulmein and Mergui, which is the setting for writer Maurice Collis’ book, “Siamese White.” The itinerary also visits the Mergui Archipelago, where few passenger ships — except permitted yachts and dive boats — venture. Cruisers can meet the Karen people and the Mokkein (sea gypsies). Good to know: Andaman Explorer was most recently owned by a United Arab Emirates shipping family who maintained it to a high standard. It was also previously owned by an Italian family associated with Carrera marble, so it has lots of marble flooring. After March 2017, Pandaw will refurbish the vessel in its signature Colonial styling and décor.
Sadec/Cai Be, Vietnam: Small-ship oceangoing line Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, perhaps best known for its Alaska, Baja California, Amazon, Galapagos and polar expeditions, plans a new 14-day expedition, “Vietnam and Cambodia: Along the Mekong River including Angkor and Saigon” using the 48-guest Jahan. From the Mekong Delta’s hamlet of Sadec, guests will board a local boat to visit a small community, where the villagers grow, process and fashion water hyacinths into floor mats and rattan baskets. At Cai Be, the draw is a floating market.