MY LAST cruise to Asia was a year ago. For me, this fascinating region has it all, from majestic cities and gorgeous beaches, to amazing food and diversity of culture.
From Singapore to Japan, cruising this part of the world offers a rich variety of memorable experiences. I have explored South Korea's former ancient capital city, Gyeongju, sweltered in a traditional Japanese sand bath in Kagoshima, ridden a bike around Bangkok's backstreets and cruised among the striking monoliths of Halong Bay in Vietnam.
Where cruising is concerned, Asia has never been more popular. Singapore has just opened its second cruise terminal, the Marina Bay Cruise Centre. This new, two-berth facility is expected to welcome more than 100,000 passengers in its first year, and receive as many as eight ships by next month.
One of these is Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas. The 138,000-tonne ship began its 25-cruise Asian season last month, ahead of venturing Down Under for the first time later this year. It will be joined next year by the newly refurbished Mariner of the Seas, which heads to Asia next June to cruise from China and Singapore to south-east Asia, Japan and Korea.
Costa Cruises is also looking to double its capacity in Asia next year. Costa Victoria started cruising from Shanghai in May, replacing Costa Classica, and in May next year will be joined by the 2680-guest Costa Atlantica promoting "Italy at Sea", with Italian-style hospitality, shopping, art and cuisine.
Asia's popularity isn't all about the high seas, however. Uniworld River Cruises will have three new ships in the region next year. The French colonial-style River Orchid is set to cruise the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia, while in China guests wishing to explore the Yangtze will be able to choose between new cruisers the Century Legend and Century Paragon.
Package of the week
A new 37-night cruise tour package taking in the US, Central America, Alaska and Canada, has just been released by ecruising.travel. Starting on April 16, the tour begins with three nights in Las Vegas, moves to Miami for two more nights, then you board the Norwegian Pearl for a cruise through the Panama Canal, around Central America, Mexico and up the Pacific west coast to Seattle.
After travelling to Vancouver for one night, you join the Rocky Mountaineer train for a two-day trip to Kamloops and Banff, and a half-day in Calgary. The price of the tour has been reduced to start from $7989 a person, twin share, including flights, the cruise, the train, hotel accommodation and more. 1300 369 848, ecruising.travel.
Yacht Club's SeaDream I will make the line's first transit of the Panama Canal at the end of next year for a series of six week-long voyages of Costa Rica. The ship departs from Barbados on November 9 on a nine-day repositioning cruise to Balboa, followed by a five-day cruise to the temporary home port of Caldera.
If you're curious about cruising but don't want to commit to a long itinerary, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises are offering one-night sampler cruises on their new ships visiting Australia this year. The cruise on Voyager of the Seas departs on November 23, and Celebrity Solstice on December 9.
The NSW government has decided to impose a new head tax on cruise-ship passengers visiting Sydney. The tax of $20 a person is set to come into effect from next year and will increase by $5 a year until a further review in 2015/16.
LAUNCHED April PASSENGERS 169 REGULAR HAUNTS Europe's rivers BEST FOR Couples THE DETAILS Book a 15-day Jewels of Europe cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest next year by September 30 and get free flights. Priced from $6295 a person, twin share. 1300 723 642, scenictours.com.au.
Need to know
1 Scenic Crystal is the sixth "Space Ship" to join the fleet. At 135 metres long, it is one of the largest river cruisers in Europe. Among its features is the "silent drive" system, which reduces engine noise and vibration.
2 An addition to Crystal's balcony suites is the "Sun Lounge". The press of a button raises a hidden pane of glass from behind the railing, transforming the balcony into a private indoor-outdoor space.
3 Accommodation ranges from 13 standard staterooms on the lower deck, with a small window, to four lavish Royal Balcony suites on the top passenger deck. All are elegantly appointed with outside views and feature queen-size beds, pillow menus, robes and slippers, a TV and L'Occitane products.
4 There are five dining venues as well as a traditional dining room. Top picks include Portobello's for Italian cuisine and Table la Rive, which offers a six-course degustation experience with fine wines. The River Cafe is open for all-day grazing.
5 All guests enjoy unlimited complimentary drinks, wi-fi and private butler service. There is a fitness centre, three viewing decks, a wellness area that includes massage, hairstyling and beauty treatments, and views from the Panorama Lounge.
Port watch: St Malo, France
Need to know A charming town on the coast of Brittany, St Malo is famous for 16th-century pirates and an impressive, walled "old quarter". Small ships moor at a quay alongside the main sightseeing area, while larger ones have to anchor in the harbour and use tenders to transfer guests to shore. The walled city is next to the quay; taxis are available if you wish to venture further afield.
Do not miss If you do nothing else in St Malo, climb the ramparts to walk the perimeter of the old quarter, which stretches for more than 1.5 kilometres. Pick of the sights includes the National Fort, the Cathedral of St Vincent and the timber houses of the ancient Pelicot Street. Beyond St Malo, the excursion is to Le Mont St Michel, a monastery perched on top of a tiny island attached to the mainland at low tide.