If you're looking for an alternative fly-cruise holiday to long-haul Europe or the equally far-off Caribbean, why not consider Asia? It takes less than half the time to fly to the main cruise hubs of Tokyo, Singapore or Hong Kong and there is a wealth of exciting destinations to explore in this vast and varied region.
Cruising is the easiest way to sample several countries in one package. Whether you're interested in history, culture, taste-testing an amazing array of local cuisines, living it up in sophisticated cities, relaxing on laid-back beaches or snorkelling and diving in pristine marine parks, you'll find them all on an Asian cruise.
Where to start? Asia can be broadly divided into south-east and east Asia. Cruises in south-east Asia mostly depart from Singapore and Hong Kong and, depending on the length of the itinerary, ships call at ports in Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia. East Asia cruising focuses on China, Japan and Korea, with departures from Hong Kong, Tokyo, Beijing and Shanghai.
Cruise ships have been calling at Asian ports on their world voyages for many years, but some major lines now deploy ships in the region from November to March, and others year-round. Passengers can take their pick from lines operating everything from megaships to small-scale luxury vessels – and several Asia cruises also sail from Australian ports.
You can choose from hundreds of cruises out of Singapore, which is a great place to spend a few days before or after a cruise. No longer seen as a shopping stopover on the way to Europe, the tropical city state is rediscovering its colonial past, celebrating its multiculturalism and developing a thriving restaurant and bar scene, while Sentosa Island is a magnet for resort-loving families.
Cruises range from a few days to three weeks. A typical five-night round-trip from Singapore might call at Kuala Lumpur and Penang in Malaysia, and Phuket in Thailand, while a 14-night round-trip I picked at random visits Koh Samui and Bangkok in Thailand, Ho Chi Minh City and Nha Trang in Vietnam, and Kota Kinabalu and Kuching in Malaysian Borneo. All are fascinating places where more off-the-beaten track tours allow insights into the "real" Asia, away from often over-populated beach resorts.
There are plenty of variations on the theme – some ships on Singapore round-trips call at Sihanoukville (Cambodia) and Langkawi (Malaysia). Other destinations on south-east Asia cruises include Bali and Komodo, Myanmar, and Semarang in Java to see the ninth-century Buddhist temple complex at Borobudur.
Expert advice from your travel agent is recommended.One-way trips between Singapore and Hong Kong are also popular; typical stops over 14 nights include Bangkok, Koh Kood (Thailand), Sihanoukville, Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang and Ha Long Bay (Vietnam).
Cruises in and out of Hong Kong are reportedly unaffected by months of demonstrations and unrest in the city but again, check with your travel agent (the government's Smartraveller website currently says to "exercise a high degree of caution"). As visitor numbers have dropped, it could be a good time to go there – queues for attractions such as the tram to Victoria Peak are non-existent and you won't have to struggle through crowds to see the famous Man Mo Temple or shop at favourite street markets. The StarFerry service is still running across the spectacular harbour and nightly laser shows still light up the sky.
Most east Asia cruises depart from Tokyo, or its main port at Yokohama (38 kilometres from the city), but you can also embark on cruises from Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. Factor to spend at least a few days in Tokyo – even if you've been there before, this dazzling city always has something new (or very old) to explore.
Must-sees in Tokyo include the Imperial Palace and its gardens; shrines such as Buddhist Seso-ji (which dates back to 645AD) and Shinto Meiiji; Tsukiji, the world's largest fish market; the historic Golden Gai bar precinct; and Shibuya Crossing, apparently the busiest intersection in the world. Tokyo's shopping and dining scenes are are globally renowned, with plenty of neighbourhoods offering both in abundance, and for the ultimate city views, the 634-metre Tokyo Skytree is the tallest tower on the planet.
Round-trip cruises from Tokyo range from five to 18 nights and obviously the longer the cruise, the more of Japan, Taiwan and South Korea you will see.
There are also much longer one-way sections of world cruises that depart from Tokyo – for example, trans-Pacific voyages to Vancouver for the start of the Alaska season in May take about 20 days and call at several Japanese ports en route.
Depending on the length of the itinerary, ports of call in Japan might include Hakodate, Hiroshima, Kagoshima, Kobe, Kochi, Okinawa, Osaka, Otaru and Nagasaki. Taipei in Taiwan and Busan, Jeju, or Incheon in South Korea also feature on many cruises. The cherry blossom season, which reaches its peak in April and May, is the busiest time to visit east Asia (particularly Japan), but cruises in autumn for the spectacular "fall foliage" are increasingly popular.
Whichever season or itinerary you select, a cruise in Asia is sure to tick lots of boxes, and the multitude of choices available means there are prices to suit every budget.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale December 1.