Discovering Asia's Food Scene on Luxury Cruises

Kobe, Japan, will be visited by Seabourn Sojourn in 2018, giving beef lovers a chance to sample Kobe beef in local restaurants. Seen here is the Kobe Port Tower, one of the landmarks of the city.

If travelers love Thai, Indian, Chinese, Indonesian or Japanese cuisine, it may be time for an exotic luxury cruise. Luxury and upper premium cruise lines have 2018 Asian itineraries that will take cruisers to fresh food markets, teach them how to prepare Asian dishes during cooking classes, or provide the flexibility for them to head into the world’s great cities to dine on Kobe beef, Cantonese dishes and much more.

Crystal Cruises’ 18-night “Across the Bay of Bengal” cruise sails March 28, 2018 from Singapore to Mumbai, India. The 1,080-passenger Crystal Serenity begins the 18-night itinerary with an overnight in Singapore, so cruisers can head out to dine independently in the city’s famed food courts, neighborhoods like Little India or Chinatown, or Michelin-star eateries.

To savor poached rice with lobster or braised four-head South African abalone, travelers can head to Summer Pavilion, a Michelin one-star restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Singapore. It specializes in contemporary Cantonese cuisine. We suggest the lunchtime dim sum, though, with such favorites as pan-fried shredded yam and pumpkin and an abalone, conpoy and mushroom dumpling. Prefer a decidedly “local” food court experience? We’d check out the financial district’s Maxwell Food Centre, particularly for the Tian Tian Chicken.

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Back on the ship, the 1,345-square-foot Crystal Penthouse Suite with Verandah (CP category) is a luxurious enclave suited for relaxing; plus it comes with private car transfers, unpacking and repacking of luggage, afternoon tea service, nightly hors d’oeuvres, complimentary laundry pressing and shoeshine, and in-suite massage.

During this itinerary, Crystal Serenity calls at Bangkok and Phuket, Thailand; Yangon, Myanmar (overnight); Colombo, Sri Lanka (overnight); Cochin, India (overnight); and Mumbai, India (overnight). What’s to do from the culinary side ashore? We’d suggest reserving the “Thai Cooking Experience” in Phuket. Cruisers will stroll through a fresh food market to soak in the aromas and sounds, before visiting the Sukko Cultural Spa, Phuket’s new center for health and well-being. As they sip a herbal welcome drink, travelers will receive a lesson in Thai cuisine and learn which ingredients and spices benefit a person’s blood type and “elemental” sign — Earth, water, wind or fire.

Also on the “Across the Bay of Bengal” itinerary, Crystal offers a “Cooking Experience & Myanmar Cuisine” excursion during the Yangon port call. This shore excursion combines a morning market tour to see fresh meat, fish, Indian and Myanmar spices and textiles with a visit to a traditional Myanmar kitchen. Cruisers will see how soup and curry are prepared, learn about the kitchen’s role as a household hub, and get tips from an executive chef. Cruisers will both watch and cook, before enjoying their creations during lunch. Also, Crystal offers a “Cuisine of Kerala” tour during the Cochin, India call.

Prefer the glittering, sometimes frenetic cities of northern Asia, plus beach time, cultural diversions and gorgeous scenery? We’d recommend Silversea Cruises’ 16-day “Tokyo to Hong Kong” cruise on the 382-passenger Silver Shadow, departing September 28, 2018. Other destinations visited are Osaka and Hiroshima, Japan; Busan, Jeju (for beach activities), and Incheon (Seoul) in South Korea; Tianjin (Beijing) and Shanghai, China. We’d suggest reserving an Owner’s or Grand Suite. For example, if cruisers are traveling with another couple or taking their family, the Owner’s Suite can be turned into a two-bedroom unit by adding the adjoining Vista Suite, creating 1,264 square feet of space. Among the suite perks is dinner for two in Le Champagne, one evening per voyage.

Mezzaluna in Bangkok is a fine-dining restaurant popular for its creative cuisine by Chef Ryuki Kawasaki and 180-degree city views. 

In Tokyo, culinary buffs can take Silversea’s “Sushi Making Experience.” After a 30-minute drive from the cruise pier to the bustling Tsukiji Fish Market in central Tokyo, travelers will walk through one of the world’s largest wholesale fish, vegetable and fruit markets. They’ll continue on to the nearby Tsukiji Tama-sushi restaurant and the chef’s workshop studio. After donning traditional sushi chef’s uniforms, cruisers will join in the interactive sushi demonstration — learning about the history, preparation and presentation of sushi and sampling their own creations.

Also, in Busan City, Korea, Silversea’s half-day culinary excursion gives guests an opportunity to learn how to prepare a traditional Korean meal. The program begins with a scenic, 40-minute orientation drive through downtown Busan and along bustling Seoyeon Street. At the Cooking Institute, cruisers will learn to prepare bulgogi, a barbecue dish of grilled marinated beef; or bibimbap, consisting of warm white rice topped with namul (sautéed and seasoned vegetables), gochujang (chili pepper paste) and soy sauce or doenjang, a salty soybean paste. A raw or fried egg and sliced meat are other additions. After dining on their self-prepared dishes, cruisers will then go shopping at Korea’s famed Lotte Department Store.

While in Osaka, Japan, cruisers can head out independently to dine at a myriad of Michelin-star dining venues. We suggest Hajime, a trendy, Michelin three-starred restaurant that’s the creation of Chef Hajime Yoneda. His signature dish? It’s chikyu created with more than a hundred varieties of herbs, vegetables and grains. Fujiya 1935, another three-star Michelin experience, serves tasty fusion dishes that reflect Japanese and French cuisine.

For those wishing to spend a few days in Hong Kong pre-cruise, plus enjoy the savory beef of Kobe, Japan, post-cruise, a good choice is Seabourn Cruise Line’s 21-day “Asian Seas Exploration” voyage, departing from Hong Kong on April 24, 2018. The 450-passenger Seabourn Sojourn calls at Kaohsiung and Keelung (Taipei), Taiwan; Miyakojima (Hirara), Naha Fukuoka (Hakata), Hiroshima and Takamatsu, Japan; Yeosu, South Korea; and Zhujiajian (Putuoshan), Dalian, Shanghai (double overnight), Yantai and Tianjin for Beijing (overnight) in China.

For a pampering experience with lots of space, we’d reserve the Grand Wintergarden Suite (category GR) on Deck 7; it combines suites 743 and 745, or alternatively, 744 and 746, all mid-ship, for a total inside space of 1,189 square feet, plus there are two verandas totaling 214 square feet. On the other hand, guests seeking one bedroom, might opt for the Grand Owner’s Suite on the ship’s bow, with at least 526 square feet of space plus the veranda. We’d opt for 800 or 801.

Often called the “Paris of the East,” Shanghai is a sparkling, frenetic hub for Chinese business, but also known for its cultural and culinary diversions. Seabourn’s “Heart of Shanghai” shore trip will showcase cultural sites from an insider’s perspective and guests will venture to a Shanghai residential area for a home-cooked lunch. Alternatively, guests can ask the ship’s concierge about setting up a private cooking lesson ashore. We’d opt for The Kitchen at Cooking Studio, which A&K Hong Kong taps for its VIP groups.

Disembarking the ship at Kobe, beef lovers should probably stay a day or so, just to sample the succulent Kobe beef in local restaurants. We suggest Ishida, also called Kobe Beef Steak Ishida Kitanozaka. Diners rave both about the beef (look for grade rating A5) and the chef’s presentation.

A week of time ashore in Vietnam is a prime draw for Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ 14-night “Hong Kong to Bangkok” voyage on April 18, 2018. The 700-passenger Seven Seas Voyager spends two days at Ha Long Bay (for Hanoi), two days in Da Nang, a day in Nha Trang and two days in Ho-Chi Minh City. This itinerary also includes two days in Singapore and three days at sea. While the top suites on this voyage are wait listed, the 604-square-foot Voyager Suites, accommodating up to four, were still available at press time. These pampering accommodations have a living room, separate bedroom, walk-in closet with safe, one and one-half marble bathrooms as well as a private balcony.

We’d recommend the half-day “Nha Trang’s Rural Life” excursion, providing an in-depth look at Vietnamese country life. Travelers will gaze at water buffaloes and ducks, farmers toiling in the fields and mountains on the horizon. Highlights include a visit to a farmer’s home to see how the family lives, cooks and raises domestic animals, as well as visits to a local market and rice paper workshop. 

During the Seven Seas Voyager’s port call in Ho Chi Minh City, a complimentary “The Art of Garnish — Vegetable Decoration” excursion takes travelers to Ba Diem Village, famed for cooks who are skilled at using vegetables for food decoration. It’s impressive to see their techniques using tomatoes, pumpkins, cucumbers and pineapples, and cruisers too can try out their newfound skills. 

When the cruise ends in Bangkok, those on a post-cruise stay can head out to the town. For anyone celebrating an anniversary, birthday or other special occasion, we’d make reservations for the fine-dining experience at Mezzaluna, inside the golden “dome” on the 65th floor at The Tower Club of lebua. Rewards include creative cuisine by Chef Ryuki Kawasaki and 180-degree city views. Menus vary daily, but past dishes have included tangerine marinated Scottish langoustine with lemongrass and sultana raisins and Nagasaki Wagyu beef ribeye grilled over white bincho charcoal with Perigord truffle.

For those seeking a cruise that delves into many Asian cultures, we like the 18-day “Bangkok to Mumbai” voyage of Oceania CruisesNautica. Departing Bangkok on April 11, 2018, the ship calls at Ko Samui and Phuket, Thailand; Singapore; Rangoon, Myanmar (double overnight); Colombo, Sri Lanka (overnight), and Cochin, Mangalore (overnight) and Goa (Mormugao), India. Three-night pre-cruise programs include “The Essence of Bangkok,” “Angkor Wat from Bangkok,” and “Chiang Mai from Bangkok.”

In Singapore, one of the top “bucket list” activities for many cruisers is a formal English tea service at Raffles Singapore, which once hosted Noel Coward, Rudyard Kipling and Charlie Chaplin as guests. Oceania’s “Orchids & Tea” shore excursion for a maximum of 16 guests is a good option for a Raffles experience. First, guests tour Singapore’s Botanic Gardens with the world’s largest orchid collection, and then, after a drive along Orchard Road, guests arrive at Raffles. It’s fun to peek at such iconic spaces as the Tiffin Room, Palm Garden, Writer’s Bar and Long Bar, before sitting down for a lovely high tea with English canapés, scones and local delicacies.

In Bangkok, Azamara guests get an opportunity to head out for a farmer’s market visit with the ship’s executive chef.

In Ko Samui, Oceania’s “Thai Cooking Class” excursion includes a local market visit, where the guide will point out essential ingredients in the preparation of a Thai meal, and a Thai cooking class and lunch at the Nora Beach Resort & Spa. After a welcome Thai herbal beverage, a chef will demonstrate cooking techniques and cruisers will don an apron and chef’s hat to help prepare the meal, often consisting of chicken soup made with fresh coconut milk and deep-fried, stuffed crabmeat served with Thai noodles. How about coconut ice cream or fresh fruit for dessert?

New throughout its fleet, Oceania recently introduced 14 new evening Tapas Menus as an added option for guests in the Terrace Café. Among the savory bites are crostini with bresaola, gorgonzola and fig compote; caramelized shrimp with onions and spicy chili sauce presented in a tasting spoon; watermelon sweet Thai salad with cashews, fresh herbs, cucumber and sweet chili; and Porcini and forest mushroom timbale with crema di grana padano.

Azamara Journey sails a 14-night “Borneo, Vietnam & Thailand” voyage, departing March 25, 2018, roundtrip from Singapore. This Azamara Club Cruises’ itinerary includes calls at Bintulu and Kota Kinabalu (Borneo), Malaysia; Muara (Bandar Seri Begawan), Brunei; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (overnight); and Klong Toey (Bangkok — double overnight) and Ko Samui, Thailand. Globally, Azamara’s “Cruise Global, Taste Local” approach encourages guests to head out and experience local food and beverages at markets, restaurants, wineries, breweries and distilleries.

We recommend “A Taste of Bangkok,” in which Azamara guests and the ship’s executive chef head out for a morning, farmer’s market visit in Bangkok. Cruisers will learn how to select the freshest produce as the chef picks ingredients for the night’s dinner on the ship. Guests also sample local delicacies before returning to the ship to relax for a bit. Later, the same day, they can tour the EST33 brewery to learn about the Thai brewing process and can sample three prized beers. The tour’s grand finale is an authentic Thai dinner (back on the ship) prepared for the group by the executive chef, using the market finds of earlier in the day.

In Kota Kinabalu, the line offers an “Island Getaway with Buffet Lunch,” a colorful and cultural presentation of lunch with local food, including chicken cooked in bamboo. In Bangkok, cruisers can take a cocktail cruise with a Thai dinner at the tranquil Chakrabongse Villas; some dishes are prepared using the Thai royal family’s recipes.

For a good night’s sleep, we opted for Azamara’s Club World Owner’s Suites, which were elegantly refurbished with contemporary décor in 2016. The suite comes with floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors in both the living room and master bedrooms; two flat-screen TVs; a marble master bath with tub and shower; refrigerator with minibar; spacious private veranda and more. Another pampering option? Check out the Club Continent Suites, also just refurbished.

The cruises listed above are just a few of the many exotic Asian voyages luxury lines have slated for 2018. Wherever the ships call, cruisers can head out to experience the region’s eclectic culinary delights. 

MARKET STROLLS

Hoi An Market: On February 3, 2018, Windstar Cruises’ 14-day “Icons of Southeast Asia” itinerary from Bangkok to Hong Kong begins on the 212-passenger Star Legend. Port calls include Ko Kut, Thailand; Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang, Da Nang and Halong Bay in Vietnam. At Danang, Windstar’s guests can take a shore excursion to the market at Hoi An prior to a hands-on cooking class. At Ho Chi Minh City, cruisers might head to a local market to barter for a form-fitting ao dai.

The Jagalchi Fish Market is Busan’s largest fish market with mostly female fish mongers.

Sihanoukville Market: Desire to sail on a new ship in Asia? Viking Ocean Cruises’ 15-day “Southeast Asia & Hong Kong” itinerary on the new 930-passenger Viking Spirit departs September 23, 2018, November 4, 2018 and April 7, 2019. The voyage is between Bangkok and Hong Kong. During a Sihanoukville, Cambodia, port call, a complimentary tour takes cruisers to Wat Krom for colorful murals; Independence Beach to stroll as Jacqueline Kennedy did in 1967; Sihanoukville’s market; and a village where fishermen prepare the day’s catch for market.

Okinawa’s Kitchen: Sailing to smaller or off-the-beaten-path destinations is Ponant’s nine-night “Islands of Southern Japan” itinerary on the 264-passenger L’Austral, departing March 31, 2018, from Manila to Kobe. Port calls along the way include Kaohsiung and Hualien, Taiwan, as well as Ishigaki, Naha (Okinawa) and Miyanoura (Yakushima Island) in Japan. On the “Best of Okinawa” excursion, cruisers head out to Shuri Castle, the Shikina-en Garden and Okinawa’s Kitchen, a colorful market displaying vegetables, large cuts of pork and tropical fish.

The Markets of Busan: Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth operates a 22-day “Sydney to Osaka” itinerary on February 28, 2018. During a Busan, Korea port call, Cunard’s “Beomeosa Temple & Markets” shore excursion visits the temple and Jagalchi Market, the city’s largest fish market with mostly female fish mongers. Cruisers will also stroll through the Gukje Marketplace’s maze-like alleyways with fresh fish, fruit, vegetables, clothing and electronic goods.

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