Asia was made for cruising: Two great oceans wash the continent’s shores—the Indian, in the southwest, and the Pacific, on its eastern flank. Cobalt tropical seas, as exotic in name as they are in color, cradle far-flung archipelagos from Indonesia to the limestone outcrops of Thailand’s Gulf of Siam. These waters have teemed with merchant ships for centuries, carrying rich cargoes of spices and silks. Rivers wide and deep—the Yangtze, the Mekong, the Pearl—allow for sophisticated river cruising, too. But most of all, there is a maritime history that puts Asia in good stead for the rise of the modern luxury cruise. Even before the Venetian explorer Marco Polo set sail with 14 of Kublai Khan’s junks, the continent’s ocean-bound nations knew how to accommodate a fleet.
Cut to 2011 and the bustling coastal hubs of colonial times—Singapore, Shanghai, Mumbai—have metastasized to deliver new mega-terminals harboring supersized ships and their inquisitive, sophisticated cargo. Hong Kong signed a $628 million contract for its new Lord Foster–designed Kai Tak development, and Singapore is putting the finishing touches on a $410 million terminal on Marina Bay, with vast new hotel and entertainment complexes. Deeper inland, the megalopolises don’t groan under the influx of a big ship’s day-trippers as Venice might, or Gustavia on St. Barths. Asia’s cities inhale visitors, sucking them into metropolises where a couple million extra heads make very little difference to the stew of life. That stew, however, is nearly impossible to consume in a single sitting, and so one challenge for the discerning cruise traveler is to make the shore leave count when the standard itinerary allows for only a day in each port. No less important is finding the right vessel: one that offers a retreat from the chaos of the shore when needed, and excitement during the long hours traversing the high seas.
I do all the reconnaissance I can and settle upon Silversea, a true luxury cruise company—in a sea of competitors—with 15 years of experience in Asia. I will be sailing on the Silver Shadow for ten nights, going from Shanghai to Beijing to South Korea’s Jeju Island and Seoul. Though she’s the second-largest of Silversea’s six-strong fleet, she is small by industry standards, with a capacity of 382 guests. Using her charm and petite size, the ship can reach harbors others can’t and dock at the heart of cities, allowing for some spectacular approaches and departures. I like the look of her Art Deco–influenced interior, too—all plush burgundy, polished wood and shiny chrome—sparkling after a multimillion-dollar makeover. She’s into art, with ceramics and sketches by Picasso, Modigliani and other great names. And she’s interested in fine dining, with no less than two restaurants supervised by Relais & Châteaux. So, after gazing at full-color photographs of her, and receiving some helpful advice from the brilliant bespoke China outfitters Imperial Tours (see “Top Asia Tour Guides”), who will be taking me on private tours in a couple of key ports, I book a berth for my cruise. Five days later—my date was fast-tracked; Silversea recommends leeway between eight and ten months—I meet Silver Shadow for the first time as she waits patiently at Shanghai’s International Cruise Terminal, a flamboyant cluster of new glass buildings that sits, I’m thrilled to find, beside the Huangpu River in the very heart of the city.
I don’t linger in my cabin, though it’s stunning, with a large veranda and a spacious interior, but head out to see as much of Shanghai as I can in the ten hours we have before setting sail. Imperial Tours has laid out a whole retinue for me—a Chinese guide, a driver and a “China host,” a charming Frenchwoman who has lived in the city for years—and I ask them for a whirlwind tour. In the evening I look around the city’s Deco ballrooms—the dream palaces where Shanghai’s elite danced and drank the Jazz Age away. It’s late when we visit the smartest of the ballrooms, and most are empty for the night: the Astor House Hotel, the old French Club (now the Okura Garden Hotel) and the splendidly restored Peace Hotel, where my brilliant companion for the evening (Andrew David Field, a professor at NYU Shanghai who has published a book on the era) regales me with stories of decadent parties past. But the true icon is the Paramount, a Chinese-owned 1930s dance hall mythologized in the country’s theater and literature, which reopened ten years ago as a ballroom after years as a Maoist propaganda cinema. On its upper floor, middle-aged Shanghainese dance the rumba and the fox-trot—some of them with hired partners—to the woozy strains of a four-piece jazz band. Downstairs, the famous ballroom itself is now a smart modern nightclub. Here was the stage where Ruan Lingyu, the greatest movie star of the age, once sang; there, the floorboards stained with the blood of the taxi girl who dared to refuse a Japanese officer a dance. Though standard-issue laser lights and leatherette banquettes have now colonized the space, it’s easy to imagine its infinitely more particular past—perhaps partly because of the languid young hosts and hostesses who mill about in ’30s-ish outfits (cute caps and waistcoats for the boys; silky, body-hugging qipaos for the girls) waiting to greet the first customers of the night.
I’m up early to watch from the deck as we sail down the Huangpu River and out of Shanghai. The city’s magnitude dawns on me only gradually, as the skyscrapers at its heart diminish and disappear in an industrial landscape so vast and intricate, it defies imagination. The spectacle goes on for almost two hours. And when the tiny fellows on the coal barges below look up and wave at me, I feel like we’re pilgrims, catching one another’s eyes on the forest floor of some great cathedral.
Later I join my neighbors—my fellow travelers tend to be delightfully civilized—on deck seven for tea and a plate of pretty little cakes. The atmosphere on the ship is so wonderfully refined and governed by the gentlest of holiday spirits. But it’s also easy to be alone, beside the little swimming pool, in the quiet reading room with its vast windows, or on deck. And the greatest joy is the sea, which races endlessly past, sparkling in the sunlight beyond the lacy curtains that dance around my cabin’s open doors.
When I’m in Beijing, my thoughts dwell on politics in a meandering sort of way. That’s partly because it’s the capital. It’s also because Ai Weiwei, the dissident artist, has recently been detained—disappeared, more or less—by the government. (He has since been released.) And it’s also because of the city’s form, a grid of gray, windswept avenues well suited, I gloomily imagine, to tank maneuvers. The Forbidden City doesn’t help, either: This colossal 15th-century palace at Beijing’s heart is a supremely gaudy and thrilling statement of absolute power. But the truth is that Beijing’s energy now comes from below as much as above, not least in the form of terrific contemporary art engaged with every kind of social and political issue. I’m blown away by the 798 Art District, a derelict complex colonized by artists in the early aughts that’s almost as big as the Forbidden City. Illuminated by my guide Megan Connolly, a hugely knowledgeable New Yorker introduced to me by Imperial Tours, the best works I see are like so many windows into China’s soul.
My butler, Joy, a smart and charming man from Mumbai, made a “monkey” out of two towels and left it hanging from my door; it clutches a card welcoming me back to the ship from Beijing. Somehow a little sinister, like the horse’s head in The Godfather, but rather charming, too. I’ve discovered a “pillow menu” by my bed. Parts of it read like an actor’s voice exercise: “Prominent pillow. Popular pillow. Pronounced pillow. Fairfax polyester pillow.” Elsewhere it is more gently lyrical: “Tiara cotton and silks pillow. Buckwheat pillow. Memory foam pillow.”
Jeju Island & Seoul
Jeju is South Korea’s top domestic holiday destination, a big island famed for its balmy weather, warm seas and lush landscape. It seems as good a place as any to try one of the coach tours organized by the cruise company. But which one? The star attractions are volcanic craters and lava-tube caves—those and the haenyeo, women divers who scour the seabed for shellfish and other food. Backbreaking work, but an elderly few keep the tradition alive, and some even put on shows for tourists. Jeju is certainly lush—a lovely subtropical mix of pine and palm trees—and Halla Mountain, in the middle of the island, looks terribly inviting. The coach trip is relaxing, with no choice but to go with the flow. Jungmun, a resort in the south, turns out to be pleasant enough, too. There’s a bit of Disney about it, with a “teddy bear safari” and a hotel with big Moulin Rouge–style windmills on its grounds. And the indigenous sights—waterfalls, rock formations—are all perfectly packaged with car parks, ticket booths, grand public toilet facilities and stalls selling snacks like dried squid. That said, I could do without the compulsory hour at the bland Yeomiji Botanical Garden.
Upon such sacrifices, however, the gods themselves throw incense. I’m on one of the viewing platforms at our final stop, the truly spectacular Jusangjeolli—sea cliffs like massed ranks of giant black octagonal organ pipes. It’s then that I see them—three little figures in black wet suits clambering recklessly down the almost sheer stack of rocks like sinister Bond-movie frogmen, clutching baskets and tiny improvised floats. The last of the haenyeo. How strange to encounter them here, in this queer little Las Vegas on the Sea.
The last night at sea. I hold a party in my cabin: Joy persuades me. I now consider him a veritable Jeeves—not merely a butler, but a towel-sculptor, a life coach and a DJ, too. In preparing for my guests, he plugged my iPod into the Bang & Olufsen sound system and chose a perfect piece of Mozart to kick things off—the Sonata for two pianos in D major, K. 448. About 30 people turn up, including a contingent from the glamorous Australian Ballet. The Champagne flows, the supply of delicate little canapés seemingly endless. The night ends late, boozily and well. And as I bid farewell to my last guests, I catch the hazy dawn skyline of Incheon, the port of Seoul, on the horizon, where my extraordinary journey through Asia would come to an end, where we would disembark, this time for good.
Silver Shadow: The Nuts and Bolts
Cabins: Though even the smallest suites are spacious and sea-facing, it’s worth upgrading to a Veranda Suite for its roomy private deck. Among the grander options, the Owner’s Suites are the plum choice thanks to their sweeping verandas. Regardless of the choice, all suites contain either Ferragamo or Bulgari products, 320-thread-count Egyptian cotton linens and a professionally trained butler.
Dining: The Restaurant and La Terrazza serve contemporary international and Italian cuisine, respectively. The menus are conservative but sophisticated. But it’s the degustation menus at Le Champagne that delight. On North American Night, a Maine lobster cooked in its own juices was inspiringly paired with a Lail 2008 Blueprint Sauvignon Blanc.
Entertainment: The show lounge is lavish, but the entertainment tends toward the middlebrow. A series of lectures are informative but cursory. Only the guest speakers live up to expectations: The Chinese ballet dancer Li Cunxin gave three wonderful talks on his astonishing career, the basis for the film Mao’s Last Dancer. Restless cruisers can also take cooking, ballroom dancing and fitness classes.
Excursions: Silver Shadow’s range of coach trips, led by excellent local guides, is available for a fee in every port. They are enjoyable and stress-free, but the strict schedules can be frustrating. Small groups might do better to hire cars, drivers and local guides themselves, or work with an outfitter like Imperial Tours (from $560 a day per person for two people).
The Details: Silversea offers a 2012 itinerary similar to the author’s (minus Seoul, plus Japan), a 12-day trip taking place from May 6–17. The price per person, based on double occupancy, ranges from $7,240 for a Vista Suite and $9,040 for a Veranda Suite to $25,080 for an Owner’s Suite. To book or for more information, call 877-215-9986 or go to silversea.com.