The Seema Malaka Temple in Colombo, Sri Lanka // © 2014 Lance Lee
"If you dig long enough, you’ll get to China,” a preschooler said to her friend as they watched workers open a manhole on a street in Manhattan. The scene took me right back to my childhood, when I would imagine tunneling to the opposite side of the world to experience a grand adventure in an exotic new land.
These days, that grand adventure on the other side of the world is readily available to travelers via expedition cruising. Home to 60 percent of the earth’s population, Asia encompasses nearly 50 countries, each with its own unique traditions and cultures. While many Americans have visited the major cities in Asia, less traditional destinations in the region have sparked the interest of travelers who are keen to experience something different.
Most cruise lines have responded by including a mix of smaller, lesser-known Asian destinations along with the traditional must-sees on their itineraries. But some expedition cruise lines are going further, offering travelers the opportunity to explore in parts of Asia that many Americans know little about.
Silversea Cruises has put new ships on new itineraries in Asia as interest grows. According to Conrad Combrink, Silversea’s director of expedition planning and strategic development, itineraries for the line’s new expedition ship, the 120-passenger Silver Discoverer, focus on remote destinations that large cruise ships cannot access. This creates a unique experience, he said, “where we as the travelers are as much of an attraction as the destination is to our guests.”
Among these are distinctive Russian Far East cruises, calling in places that most visitors were previously unable to see. These destinations include Siberia, where the remoteness and winter ice limit exploration.
“Siberia is one of the most diverse and least-visited places on our planet,” Combrink said. “The combination of history, different cultures and incredible birds and mammal life is just out of this world.”
Lindblad Expeditions’ recent acquisition of the Orion (once owned by Orion Expedition Cruises) enabled the line to add more expedition cruises in Asia.
“We have a phenomenal new trip from Sri Lanka to Borneo,” said Jeremy Lindblad, the company’s business development director of Australia. “We haven’t been there in years.”
Lindblad’s strength in the expedition cruise market is based on hiring the best naturalists and bringing specialists on board, including Dr. Lawrence Blair, an anthropologist, author, explorer and Emmy award-nominee who has lived in Bali for 35 years.
Access Is Everything
Getting up-close is another important distinction of expedition cruising. On Windstar Cruises’ Treasures of Southeast Asia itinerary, the Star Pride (newly acquired from Seabourn) docks right in the city center of Hong Kong at the same terminal as the Victoria Ferry rather than using the cruise terminal. That provides passengers with a unique access point, from which they can immediately begin to explore the city.
Windstar’s private events are another key element of the line’s focus on exclusive access. On the Singapore & Malay Peninsula trip, guests can participate in A Feast for the Senses in Phuket, an event featuring traditional dancing, drumming and enjoying Thai dishes served at the award-winning Sala Bua (Pavilion of Lotus) restaurant.
Voyages to Antiquity’s goal with its Asia itineraries is to provide unique, extended experiences for guests. An example is a 2½-day stay in Yangoon, Burma, as part of the Grand Voyage from Nairobi to Singapore, which departs on Dec. 18. The Yangoon stay provides enough time for a full-day tour of Bago and optional excursions by air to Mandalay or Bagan.
Voyages to Antiquity fine-tuned its Asia product after completing its first year in the region in 2013 by working hard with local operators and making changes based on guest feedback.
More Land Options
“Cruise-tours are the core of the line’s business,” said Voyages to Antiquity’s guest services director Andrea Corman, “and they tend to be longer in Asia than in the Mediterranean. Guests really need pre- and post-cruise trips to deal with jetlag. People may want to spend time in Bali, for instance, but they appreciate the continuation of the hand-holding we offer at sea even when they are back on land.”
In recognition of that same trend, Azamara Club Cruises revamped its 2014 Land Discovery program to offer shorter tours with smaller and more intimate group experiences, a restructured night-touring program and an insider series. Passengers visiting Hong Kong, for instance, can sign up for a night tour including a tram ride to experience A Symphony of Lights, Hong Kong’s extravagant nightly multimedia show, from The Sky Terrace 428 on The Peak.
“The essence of Azamara’s brand is bringing guests into the destination with longer stays, more overnights and cultural immersion,” said president and CEO Larry Pimentel. “We can take you to places you’ve never been, or to places you have been, and make you feel like it’s the first time.”