Asia ocean and river cruising guide: The best cruises in Asia

From the neon-pulsating megacity of Shanghai to the misty, magical outcrops of Vietnam's Halong Bay; from stylish Singapore to the sluggish holy Ganges River in India with its many-armed gods and timeless rituals, Asia offers a superb variety of coasts, capitals and cultural sights. Yet strangely, it has never been considered much of a cruise destination, with many cruise ships making only cursory visits to the continent, often as part of longer world or repositioning cruises.

Finally, times are a-changing – and rapidly. As world cruising booms, so cruise companies seek new, alternative destinations to entice repeat customers, bringing Asia into focus. Those in Asia are also increasingly acquiring a taste and income for shipboard holidays.

The result? Countries such as Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, South Korea and Vietnam have been investing heavily in port facilities. Passengers on cruise ships in Asia reached the three-million mark last year, visiting 204 destinations on 1560 cruises. That's up an impressive 43 per cent on 2015, according to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).

"Asia looks set to overtake Europe as the No. 1 longer-haul destination for Australian cruisers in 2017 and 2018," says Stuart Allison, Princess Cruises' vice-president for Australia and New Zealand. "It's the next hot destination."

While Asian passengers are firmly in cruise lines' sights, the proximity of cruise-mad Australians to Asia – and their penchant for longer cruises than the Chinese, who favour just a few nights – hasn't gone overlooked. Managing director of CLIA Australasia Joel Katz says Asian ocean cruising attracted nine per cent of the 1.06 million Australians who cruised in 2015, with total numbers up 70 per cent on the previous year.

More recent figures from individual companies show the surge continues. Oceania Cruises says 23 per cent of its 2018 bookings for cruises in Asia are from Australian passengers, up from 13 per cent this year. For Regent Seven Seas Cruises, the number has jumped from 21 to 35 per cent.

"Asian cruises are a hugely popular choice among Australian guests," agrees Adam Armstrong, managing director of RCL Australia and New Zealand. "That's largely due to our close proximity, the relative ease in getting to key departure ports like Singapore and Hong Kong without jetlag, the rich and varied landscapes and cultures, and the exciting range of ships now sailing in Asia."

EASTERN PROMISE

RCL, which owns Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises, now operates six ships in Asia, with 29 voyages and 42 port calls scheduled between September 2017 and May 2018. That includes its boutique, newly refurbished Azamara Journey, calling for the first time at Surabaya in Indonesia and Bintulu in Malaysia among many other destinations.

Carnival Cruise Line, Costa Cruises and Princess Cruises are also focused on Asia. Last year, Princess Cruises carried more Australians to south-east Asia than any other cruise line; it offers cruises between Australia and Asia (such as Sydney-Tokyo on Diamond Princess and Melbourne-Singapore on Golden Princess in March next year), as well as cruises from Japan and Singapore.

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From Singapore between May this year and October 2018, Sapphire Princess will operate short round-trip cruises to Malaysia, a seven-day cruise to Vietnam and Thailand, and longer round-trip cruises around south-east Asia.

Norwegian Cruise Lines returned to Asian waters in 2016 for the first time in 15 years. This year, Norwegian Jewel sails itineraries to destinations such as China, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Vietnam, as well as a 40-night showcase journey from Sydney to Yokohama.

Smaller upmarket companies are just as eager. Regent Seven Seas Cruises offers 23 sailings across the Asia-Pacific next year, with visits to unusual ports such as Muara in Brunei and Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia. Ponant has eight Asian cruises on L'Austral, including a Vietnam-to-Myanmar itinerary around south-east Asia, and a cruise from Bali to Cairns that takes in Komodo National Park and New Guinea.

Meanwhile, Silversea is making five new voyages in the Philippines, while Silver Discoverer is visiting new ports in south-east Asia and Japan. "Asia is one of our most popular regions due to its relatively close proximity to our markets, stunning natural beauty and interesting cultures and wildlife. However, we're specifically seeing an increasing level of interest in Myanmar and the Philippines," says Amber Wilson, Silversea's managing director for the Asia-Pacific.

Young upstart Viking Ocean Cruises recently announced its new ship, Viking Spirit, will sail from Athens to Mumbai this August, marking the company's expansion into Asia. The ship will then sail from Mumbai to Bangkok and Hong Kong to Beijing before heading to south-east Asia on various itineraries.

Another newcomer, Dream Cruises, bills itself as Asia's first luxury cruise line. Its 3400-passenger Genting Dream offers seven-day itineraries out of Hong Kong which visit Singapore and Vietnam. From this December, however, the ship will be permanently home-ported in Singapore and call at 10 ports in south-east Asia on various cruises. The ship boasts the first Penfolds Wine Vault at sea and Bistro, the first restaurant at sea from Australian chef Mark Best.

BIG IN JAPAN

Japan is one of Asian cruising's star growth regions, thanks to its advantageous range of islands and ports within relatively short distances of each other, good infrastructure (and keen investment in further upgrades), and proximity to China and Taiwan. Cruise visits rose 40 per cent in 2016, and the number of cruises featuring Japan jumped from 71 in 2015 to a whopping 256 last year. The government wants the current million-odd cruise arrivals to top five million by 2020.

Companies such as Royal Caribbean International have dozens of Japan cruises mostly aimed at the Chinese market. Many, however, still look to international cruisers. Princess Cruises has a record 28 itineraries from Japan this year and has announced even more for next year. New shore excursions include sushi-making in Shimizu, hiking on Mt Fuji, taiko drumming in Miyazaki, and a visit to Okinawa's coral reefs. Diamond Princess has a shipboard sushi restaurant and Japanese-style bathhouse, and emphasises local entertainment.

In another interesting move, Cunard's Queen Elizabeth has just completed a cruise from Kobe to Japanese and South Korean ports, its first round-trip cruise from Japan. Small companies are turning Japanese, too. Among them, APT launched small-ship cruising in Japan last year, with an emphasis on Japanese culture, including visits to traditional gardens, a sake brewery and a geisha's home. Ponant has a new 11-day Art and Culture of Japan itinerary in 2018 between Otaru and Osaka that visits samurai houses in Sakaiminato, Beppu hot springs and Hiroshima, as well as making a maiden call at Ulsan in South Korea.

THE CHINA EFFECT

All eyes are turning to the potential in China. Already Royal Caribbean International's Ovation of the Seas homeports seasonally in Tianjin near Beijing, and Quantum of the Seas in Shanghai. Star Cruises' SuperStar Virgo and MSC Cruises' Lirica also operate cruises out of Shanghai, as does Princess Cruises' Sapphire Princess.

The company's new ship, Majestic Princess, will be based permanently in Shanghai for the Chinese market, and parent company Carnival Corporation has announced it will soon start building cruise ships in China for the Chinese market. Norwegian Cruise Lines' Norwegian Joy, launching late this year, will be exclusively for Chinese travellers too, home-porting in both Shanghai and Tianjin, with Mandarin the on-board language.

Cruises for Chinese passengers are generally short, but luxury companies have started to target Chinese passengers with more disposable time for cruises far beyond China's shores. Silverseas' new flagship Silver Muse, for example, has a Chinese-language website. "China is a key market and we see increasing demand for high-quality travel services, indulgent surroundings and more exotic destinations," says Amber Wilson.

WILDER FRONTIERS

China, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam are Asia's most-visited countries on cruises but, with 38 per cent of cruisers in Asia below the age of 40, according to CLIA figures, more adventurous destinations are on the rise. Last year, P&O – on an itinerary between Singapore and Cairns – became the first cruise company to call in at Dili in East Timor.

In February this year, Silversea made history with its first cruise ship call to Bangladesh when Silver Discoverer visited Maheshkhali Island. Heritage Expeditions' Spirit of Enderby recently became the first cruise ship to visit Bougainville in Papua New Guinea.

Lesser-known Indonesian islands and the Russian Far East – Asia's answer to Alaska – are seeing increasing interest. Heritage Expeditions recently pushed Asia's limits into the Arctic Circle along Siberia's northeast coastline, which has recently been liberated by both thawing pack ice and politics. Its attractions include volcanic landscapes, Siberian culture and wildlife such as polar bears, walrus and musk ox.

Tall-ship sailing specialist Star Clippers arrived in Asia for the first time late last year, sailing seven-night itineraries in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand; this year it added Indonesian departures from Bali and Singapore that offer adventures such as snorkelling on Satonda coral reefs, climbing volcanic Mt Bromo and Komodo dragon spotting. Australian company Coral Expeditions has also launched into south-east Asia, emphasising remote destinations such as Way Kambas National Park and Camp Leakey orang-utan sanctuary in Indonesia.

Papua New Guinea is another newly flourishing cruise region. The PNG government has been working on a cruise strategy since 2010, including port upgrades in places such as Kitava, Kaibola and Milne Bay. In 2013, the arrival of P&O's 2050-passenger Pacific Dawn in Milne Bay showed the strategy delivering results. What was once an expedition destination is now visited by mainstream cruise lines such as P&O, Princess and Carnival.

Princess Cruises now features PNG on 14 cruises, including nine dedicated PNG cruises from Brisbane and Sydney. P&O's Pacific Dawn has dedicated PNG cruises from Brisbane, Cairns and Sydney and last year recently added Madang and Kavieng as ports. There's plenty of scope for more since, despite its advantageous location between two booming cruise markets in Australia and Asia, only five per cent of PNG's visitors arrive by cruise ship, of which only half are Australian. With Asian cruising on the up and up, it's only a matter of time before those numbers grow.

Meanwhile, here's Traveller's choice of six of the best Asian cruises encompassing all corners of the world's biggest and most diverse continent.

JAPAN

THE CRUISE

If you want to see Japan's highlights in ultimate style, Captain's Choice takes you on Silver Discoverer to Tokyo, Hiroshima and Kyoto and to more tranquil destinations such as Hakone National Park and the remote Tsushima and Sado islands.

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This cruise coincides with Japan's spectacular cherry-blossom season, showcased on visits to Kyoto, Matsue Castle and renowned Kenrokuen garden.

SET SAIL

21-day Impression of Japan cruise with Captain's Choice. Departs April 1, 2018, from $26,500pp. Phone 1300 196 420. See aptouring.com.au

BAY OF BENGAL

THE CRUISE

Viking Spirit is at the vanguard of Viking's all-new Asian cruises, and here sails down India's west coast and around south-east Asia, calling at eight ports across five countries.

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Explore Goan heritage, tour George Town by trishaw and relax on Koh Samui's beaches. There are on-trend overnight stays in Mumbai, Colombo and Bangkok.

SET SAIL

16-day Across the Bay of Bengal cruise with Viking Ocean Cruises. Departs September 8, 2018, from $6295pp. Phone 138 747. See vikingcruises.com.au

INDONESIA

THE CRUISE

This new cruise on luxury expedition ship L'Austral, round trip from Bali, highlights Asia's geographical richness and the incredibly diverse terrestrial and marine ecosystems and cultures of the world's largest archipelago.

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Highlights include Taka Bonerate atoll in a gorgeous marine park near Selayar, the town of Maumere on Flores, and Palopo in Torajaland for incredible, traditional Tongkonan houses.

SET SAIL

12-day Discover Indonesia cruise with Ponant. Departs September 22, 2017, from $6370pp. Phone 1300 737 178. See ponant.com

INDOCHINA

THE CRUISE

This river cruise on Scenic Spirit between Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City (or reverse) visits temples, villages, Phnom Penh and Vietnam's wartime Cu Chi tunnels.

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A candlelight, themed gala dinner at an Angkor temple with Apsara dance show is a highlight. Other experiences include a Buddhist blessing, Cambodian circus performance, and sunrise over Angkor Wat.

SET SAIL

13-day Treasures of the Mekong cruise with Scenic. Multiple departure dates, from $7485pp. Phone 13 81 28. See scenic.com.au

INDIAN OCEAN

THE CRUISE

This Silver Discoverer expedition voyage visits many remote islands in the Maldives and off India, as well as coastal towns Beypore and Cochin, before finishing in Sri Lankan ports Galle and Colombo.

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Beaches, birds and underwater wildlife feature prominently. This is also a wellness-themed cruise with fitness programs, healthy menus, yoga classes and spa treatments.

SET SAIL

11-day Maldives to Colombo cruise with Silversea. Departs January 24, 2018, from $11,475pp. Phone 1300 306 872. See silversea.com

SOUTH CHINA SEA

THE CRUISE

Crystal Serenity sails from Manila to Singapore, overnighting in each, and visits Sihanoukville in Cambodia and three Vietnamese ports, as well as sailing one of Asia's most fabulous landscapes, Halong Bay.

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Three days in Hong Kong is a pause of unusual length on a cruise, enabling a thorough exploration or optional shore excursions far into China.

SET SAIL

16-day Far East Vistas cruise with Crystal Cruises. Departs March 12, 2018, from $US6520pp. Phone 1800 251 174. See crystalcruises.com

TAKE ME TO THE RIVERS

The growth in Asian river cruising predates the sudden interest in oceans, and remains strong. "Australia is one of our top markets, and we are seeing increased demand from families and soft adventure seekers from Australia," says Francesco Galli Zugaro, CEO of Aqua Expeditions (aquaexpeditions.com).

This year Aqua Expeditions is offering family incentives on Aqua Mekong cruises, which include activities such as cycling, kayaking and family-friendly movie screenings.

The Mekong River is certainly a busy place. Last year APT (aptouring.com.au) launched its second Mekong ship AmaDara and Scenic produced Scenic Spirit. This year, Pandaw River Expeditions has a new cruise between Chiang Saen in Thailand through Laos and Myanmar to Jinghong in China on the relatively un-cruised upper Mekong.

Next year, Evergreen Tours (evergreentours.com.au) has a new Mekong River program centred on an eight-day Mekong Navigator cruise, with departures already upped from three to five due to demand. And in September 2018, Avalon Waterways launches Avalon Saigon, doubling Mekong departures and introducing three new itineraries.

The Irrawaddy River also continues to flourish. The opening season for Travel Marvel (travelmarvel.com.au) in Myanmar was a sell-out, and the company features 16 departures this coming season (September 2017 to April 2018) on Princess Panhwar. The Strand Cruise, running for about a year, has now introduced themed culinary, music and photography cruises.

Also new on the Irrawaddy is the 44-passenger Scenic Aura (scenic,com.au), which launched 10-night itineraries between Mandalay and Pyay in September. "Myanmar as a river-cruise option is the hottest destination at present, proving a very popular holiday experience for those wanting to see the country before it's exposed to mass tourism," says Scenic's marketing executive Kristine McCarthy.

On the Ganges River, Travelmarvel has a new 20-day Colours of India itinerary with land tours in Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Kolkata, linked with a two-week river cruise from Patna to Kolkata. Meanwhile, Sanctuary Retreats (sanctuaryretreats.com) has just relaunched its new-look, 124-passenger Sanctuary Yangzi Explorer on the Yangtze River. Its itineraries visit the Three Gorges, mega-city Chongqing and ancient river town Fengdu, and provide on-board talks on Chinese history, tea ceremonies, and classes in tai chi and calligraphy.

Traveller Tours Indochina with Wendy Wu

Traveller is inviting its readers to join us on a special tour of Cambodia and Vietnam. For the serious traveller, this is a match made in heaven, and based on the two nations' turbulent and tragic histories, one, at times, of hell, too. Yet it's the impossible-to-ignore aspects of these two beautiful and exotic countries.

Traveller and our expert travel partner, Wendy Wu Tours, have created a 16-day exclusive tour that will be lead by Indochina specialists:

  • David Brotherson, an archaeologist and member of the Greater Angkor Project
  • Lindsay Murdoch, Southeast Asia correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, three-time winner of the Walkley Award
  • Annie Dang, writer and producer for Traveller and traveller.com.au at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age
  • Jimmy Thomson, journalist and author of three books set in Vietnam, including Tunnel Rats

The tour will includes visits to the temples of Angkor, a cooking class in Hoi An, visits to the imperial cities of Hue and over night cruise on Halong Bay and more. Each participant will be offered the choice of one of these exclusive experiences as a complimentary inclusion: footmassage in Siem Reap; rooftop cocktail in Saigon; historic Hue by cyclo and afternoon tea in Hanoi.

To book: Phone 1300 852 958 (Saturday, 9am to 4pm; Sunday, 10am to 2pm, and Monday to Friday, 9am to 5.30pm)

See: traveller.com.au/TravellerTours

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