Impressive coastal landscapes, extraordinary wildlife and hugely varied cultures make Asia a remarkable cruise destination, but in recent years big-ship arrivals have hogged the limelight, giving the impression that Asian cruising is all about mega-cities and familiar tropical-resort islands. If you're keen to explore beyond the obvious horizons, however, then pack your binoculars and pith helmet, because you can set sail into Asia's remotest corners. Expedition and small-ship cruising are a grand match with Asia, since far-flung destinations on this continent – from dense rainforest to bear-haunted tundra – are mostly inaccessible to individual travellers by land. Small ships, however, not only bring you there with ease but allow you to ring for the butler and relax in the spa too. Marine biologists, geologists and other experts accompany you, and you'll get the chance to kayak among dolphins, scuba-dive on pristine reefs and encounter remote communities far beyond the fringes of mainstream society.
Perhaps the most recent off-beat destination opened to cruising (by Asia-based company Pandaw) is Myanmar's Mergui Archipelago, a virtually unexplored, uninhabited scattering of rainforest islands and coral reefs. The company has also started edging along Myanmar's coastline, adding destinations such as Kawthaung, Mawlamyine, Myeik and Dawei to Asia's growing cruise-port roster.
Not that all destinations are wild or remote, however. Small ships have begun to take in well-populated (though seldom cruised) ports such as Kota Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo, Sihanoukville in Cambodia and Beypore in southern India. Popular destinations such as the Thai islands are being explored in a new way: Star Clippers cruises the Andaman Sea under sail, stopping off at uninhabited islands in Ko Tarutao National Park. In short, there's more to explore than ever on Asian cruises.
One of Asia's best expedition destinations is right on our doorstop. Indeed, some cruises sail there from Australian ports such as Darwin or Cairns, but the archipelagos of south-east Asia remain, for the most part, unexplored by Australians. Indonesia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea could hardly be better for sea exploration though, featuring thousands of scattered islands and atolls, a venerable seafaring history and abundance of colourful local cultures and vivid festivals. Rich marine ecosystems compete with unique terrestrial wildlife such as komodo dragons, orangutans and birds of paradise. Cruise infrastructure is relatively undeveloped, but nimble small ships can access indented coastlines, villages, dive reefs and wrecks and even 200 kilometres or so of PNG's Sepik River. The 36-passenger True North tackles the latter and other remote PNG destinations such as the Louisiade Archipelago, notable for scuba-diving. Expedition cruise lines such as APT, Heritage Expeditions, Ponant and Silversea also have itineraries to PNG and islands beyond.
While more cruises are now exploring Indonesia too, the Philippines remains an untapped cruise destination, with companies such as Azamara, Coral Expeditions, Seabourn and Silversea visiting only occasionally. Its karst islands recall the far more touristy Halong Bay in Vietnam, though with the added pleasures of coral reefs and white-sand beaches. The caverns and underground river of Puerto Princesa National Park provide an unusual subterranean landscape that can be explored by Zodiac.
JAPAN AND TAIWAN
These neighbours often feature together on itineraries and, while most cruise lines take in big port cities, small-ship companies are notable for visiting lesser-known ports of call too. Many – plus tour companies such as Abercrombie & Kent – now offer Japan cruises that sometimes stray as far as Taiwan. Both are beautiful, with mountains tumbling into the sea and dissolving into craggy offshore islands. Both have a long (and sometimes shared) history and age-old cultural traditions.
Ports of call in Taiwan include Kaohsiung on the happily named Love River, from which shore excursions take you further afield to spectacularly located Fo Guang Shan monastery or Taiwan's ancient capital at Tainan. At Hualien, the highlight is nearby Taroko Gorge National Park. The marble canyon is astounding, and gushes hot springs, so bring your bathers. Centuries of temples and pavilions, upswept eaves decorated with whiskered dragons, add to the wonderful scenery.
Taiwan is stitched to Japan by the Ryukyu Islands, a strung-out, subtropical Japanese archipelago where shore excursions take in coral reefs, WWII sites, farming villages and hilltop Shinto shrines. But "mainland" Japan boasts a plethora of terrific smaller ports such as volcano-smouldering Kagoshima and hillside Nagasaki. Here old European mansions sit on the hillside, providing outlooks over perhaps Japan's prettiest harbour, dotted with humped islands on silvery water.
In northern Japan, Hakodate, Otaru and large fishing-port Kushiro are interesting destinations. Kushiro is surrounded by national parks which protect rare Japanese red-crested cranes. From here cruise ships sail around Hokkaido's fabulously remote Shiretoko Peninsula, where waterfall-tumbled cliffs meet dense forest and snow-capped mountains.
RUSSIAN FAR EAST
You might not think of this as Asia, but the continent's answer to Alaska provides a chilly, wilder, sparsely populated cruise destination with outstanding scenery and wildlife – and not much jetlag. You won't find Alaska's big-port hordes here, only remote towns often only accessible by Zodiac. (In fact, this whole region was until recently off limits to foreign visitors.) A lack of good roads and other infrastructure makes cruising the only reasonable way to explore this whale-haunted, hard-core polar destination.
Some cruises take in Russia as part of Japanese itineraries, with Korsakov the main port of call. The city was founded in 1853 as a Russian military outpost on Sakhalin Island, which was under Japanese rule from the first half of the 20th century before being wrested back by the Soviet Union. Sakhalin has an extraordinary blend of Russian and Japanese culture and architecture, while natural resources have provided a recent boom. The island's capital, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, features gold-domed Orthodox churches and a statue of Lenin lingering in a time warp on the main square.
Expedition ships from companies such as Aurora, Heritage Expeditions, Lindblad, Silversea and Ponant push much further north, however, to admire the volcanic landscapes of the Kuril Islands, the magnificent Kamchatka Peninsula or the fiords of the Chukchi Sea. Cliffs features tens of thousands of nesting birds. Wrangel Island has large numbers of musk ox, reindeer, walrus and polar bear, not creatures you'd normally associate with Asia.
While Ganges river cruising has taken off in recent years, it's astonishing how few cruise lines explore India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, despite their ancient civilisations, booming contemporary cities and long history of sea trade, which has provided the region with fascinating cross-cultural influences in architecture, cuisine and religion.
For the most part, cruise lines visit big ports almost as an afterthought, as they relocate from the Mediterranean to eastern Asia. Some include the subcontinent and Maldives in broader Indian Ocean itineraries more focused on Africa.
Still, there are occasional exceptions worth watching out for, and their scarcity makes India unusual cruise territory, with tantalisingly "unknown" ports such as Trincomalee, Chittagong and Mangaluru, a thriving spice and coffee export town on the Arabian Sea, backed by the lush Western Ghat ranges. A number of cruises also sail the Andaman Islands.
Last year, Silversea had a photography-themed cruise between Colombo and Kolkata. Early next year, its expedition cruise between Chennai and Yangon visits numerous ports in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar, with a heavy emphasis on wildlife and rural communities. Shore excursions will explore wetlands at Gopalpur that support a million migratory birds, and passengers spend three days in the Sundarbans, whose mangrove forests harbour leopard cats, spotted deer, mongoose and dolphins.
Ponant sails from Colombo to Singapore early next year, stopping in Galle, Trincomalee, Chennai and the Andaman Islands as well as Malaysia. G Adventures offers more regular catamaran sailing tours on Sri Lanka's south and east coasts, though these stray from cruising into the sailing domain.
Abercrombie & Kent, phone 1300 851 800, abercrombiekent.com.au
APT, phone 1300 196 420, aptouring.com.au
Aurora Expeditions, phone 1800 637 688, auroraexpeditions.com.au
Azamara Club Cruises, phone 1800 754 500, azamaraclubcruises.com
Coral Expeditions, phone 1800 079 545, coralexpeditions.com
G Adventures, phone 1300 853 325, gadventures.com.au
Heritage Expeditions, phone 1800 143 585, heritage-expeditions.com
Lindblad Expeditions, phone 1300 361 012, expeditions.com
Pandaw, phone 02 8006 7013, pandaw.com
Ponant, phone 1300 737 178, ponant.com
Seabourn Cruise Line, phone 13 24 02, seabourn.com
Silversea, phone 1300 306 872, silversea.com
Star Clippers, phone 1300 295 161, starclippers.com
True North, phone 08 9192 1829, truenorth.com.au
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