“Sometimes when folks get on a ship they park their common sense some place and retrieve it after landing,” observes a fellow traveller on Holland America’s Asian Explorer cruise from Singapore to Hong Kong. True! Primed to enjoy, one can don a new persona and drift into another world.  You can dress opulently, eat indulgently, drink with less inhibition and relate your old stories to new listeners. You are, as the song goes, a stranger in paradise with earthly cares tossed overboard.

From the Crow’s Nest bar on the Zaandam we watch Singapore slip into the twilight. The 14-day cruise will take us via coastal gems in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and China.

On board the nine-level cruiser are 1,400 Asians and Westerners, the average age being 55 years. “This trip is a dim sum introduction to Asia rather than a course-by-course banquet. We will definitely return to see more of Singapore,” says a guest who had flown in to join the cruise. “This mid-size ship is perfect for our family. We will get to see Asia in one grand sweep,” says Sharon Gaynor, an expat from Singapore.

“Travelling into under-developed areas and smaller ports calls for realistic expectations,” notes the Cruise Director. Guides may not be fluent in English, accents difficult to understand, restrooms lacking in standards and buses well-travelled. Also, doing shore excursions on your own involves risks. If you miss the boat, you are responsible for catching up with the ship. On cruise tours, the ship will wait for you or fly you to the next port.

On board, there is new emphasis on health and hygiene issues. The buffet is manned by gloved staff, food counters are constantly scrubbed and hand disinfectants are everywhere. Computer keyboards are swiped clean after use and tissues used on restroom doorknobs.  Officers do not shake hands and guests are encouraged to bump fists for well-being.

Computer and cooking classes and sporting activities are noticeably popular. Young techspert Kristan has seniors queuing to attend the Microsoft-sponsored Digital Workshops. Popular too are chef demonstrations and hands-on classes for apron-attired men and women. The ship’s stylish shops are happy haunts.

 Dining sets the aura of a memorable cruise.  While one can eat on board 24 hours a day, the tradition of midnight buffets and extravaganzas is waning. Instead, there is greater emphasis on fine dining.  Elaborate, sit-down meals are a daily indulgence in the glittering Rotterdam but there are options.  For us, the elegant Pinnacle Grill (a feature on all Holland America ships) is memorable. Here master chefs work alchemy with the finest of meats and seafood to present superb dishes on Bvlgari china, beautifully paired with wines by the cellar master Ivica. A highlight is An Evening at Le Cirque featuring an exquisite menu from New York’s famous restaurant. Dining here costs US $20 per head, with reservations.

Several ports we touch are gateways to major cities by air or road. The route: Koh Samui,  Laem Chabang (the port for Bangkok), Sihanoukville (Angkor Wat, Seam Reap), Phu My (Ho Chi Minh/Saigon), Sanya (Hainan Island, China),  Halong Bay (Hanoi, Vietnam) and Hong Kong.

Koh Samui, Thailand’s third largest island (after Phuket and Ko Chang) has sugary white shores skirted by hotels, condos and fishing villages. No structure is taller than the island’s highest coconut palm. In a show of monkey business, a primate scampers up a tree and tosses down coconuts. The revered Temple of the Big Buddha, an impressive 36-foot-tall seated figure, is a highlight.

At Laem Chabang, an overnight port, passengers depart for the bright lights of Bangkok. Some visit the ancient capital, Ayutthaya, and enjoy lunch on a rice barge down the Chao Praya River.  At Pattaya, 45 minutes away, there are elephant rides, jungle walks and raft trips. We savour the serenity of the deserted ship and walk the promenade deck. Four rounds on the 785 ft x 106 ft vessel equal about a mile.

Cambodia’s former fishing port, Sihanoukville is a popular beach resort with a French influence. We wander through the Central Market’s labyrinth of stalls crammed with wares, from gold ornaments to exotic seafood.  Then we give in to a persistent but polite tuk tuk man who takes us to delightful Sokha Beach Resort. A small group takes the three-night tour to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap (Angkor Wat) and will rejoin the ship at Nha Trang port, Vietnam.

Anticipation is in the air when the ship touches Phu My port. First-time visitors to Vietnam explore the historic highlights of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), tour the notorious Cu Chi tunnels where guerrillas operated during the Vietnam War, and discover the art of Vietnamese gastronomy at the Saigon Culinary Art Center.

Until now, the Zaandam has skimmed the glassy surface of the ocean with barely a hint of movement.  The average speed is about 17 nautical miles an hour. Then a northerly gale and high seas cause a stir.  The ship slows down and waits for the wind to die down so we can dock at Nha Trang. Eventually, Captain Jan Smit decides to skip the port. The group touring Angkor Wat will now have to fly to Halong Bay. 

 Sanya (Hainan Island), China’s southernmost city, has miles of oceanfront parks, grand hotels and towering condominiums. Its tropical climate has made it popular with Chinese seeking second homes. At the hillside Nanshan Cultural Resort, we mingle with Buddhist worshippers then drive to the impressive Guanyin Statue of Hainan, the third largest in the world.  The Pearl Museum is a well-designed attraction but the lustrous gems are pricy.

Hauntingly beautiful Halong Bay, Vietnam, is a scene that has evolved over 500 million years. About 16,000 limestone (karst) islands rise from the ocean.  On restored junks, visitors sail past islands with rock arches, sheer cliffs and peaceful coves. Thie Cung Cave is a cavern of brilliant stalagmite and stalactite formations.  The sunset scene of the junks’ orange sails rising between the islands is enchanting. Vendors along the pier-side offer strings of pearls for a pittance.

Sea days are devoted to mind, body and health issues. At the luxurious Greenhouse Spa & Salon, we are amazed at the popularity of acupuncture.  “Acupuncture came on board in 2004,” says practitioner Joseph Rueckl, highly sought for pain management, rejuvenation, etc. Activities abound — tai chi, wine appreciation, art auctions, movies and programmes for youngsters.

At day’s end, elegance is the keynote as well-dressed couples emerge to savour dining experiences orchestrated by Master Chef Rudi Sodamin who travels between HAL’s 15 five-star ships. About 90 stewards (mostly Indonesians and Filipinos) whirl through the various dining venues with meals prepared by 97 kitchen crew. Then it is time for live music and dancing at the glittering bars, a spin at the casino or the spirited nightly shows choreographed in Los Angeles. 

 The cruise ends in scenic Hong Kong’s Ocean Terminal, amidst a cacophony of colours, eager tourists and busy stores.   So what makes a happy cruise guest? For us, a safe and luxurious setting that shuts out worldly cares, fine meals on Rosenthal and Bvlgari china, entertainment and exotic destinations.  Each night, we smile on seeing a little creature of towel art on our bed painstakingly created by our diligent Indonesian steward.  The little elephant with beady eyes is our favourite.



IF YOU GO: www.hollandamerica.com for similar Singapore-Hong Kong cruises. SPECIAL INTEREST: Cruises, Holiday Travel, Seniors, Travelling in Comfort

Copyright Suna Kanga, Freelance Writer  and Photographer

 Travel & Lifestyle Singapore 

Email: srkanga@pacific.net.sg

Photos:Suna and Rusi Kanga and Holland America