A luxury cruise on Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ Europa 2 is the ideal way to explore the intriguing and exotic islands of Malaysia, discovers Liz Jarvis

George Town in Penang, Malaysia, has a mix of British colonial and traditional buildings © Getty Images
George Town in Penang, Malaysia, has a mix of British colonial and traditional buildings © Getty Images

Eagles, at least 20 of them, are circling overhead before swooping for fish as our motor boat zips over the jade-green water, through mangroves and past towering limestone cliffs dating back millions of years.

We’re in the magnificent Kilim Geopark on the Malaysian island of Langkawi, and if you’re a nature lover or want to release your inner Indiana Jones then this has to be one of the most exhilarating excursions you’re ever likely to experience on a cruise.

And the best is yet to come. We disembark at a jetty to be greeted by wild macaque monkeys (including tiny babies) before walking into a cave full of glittering stalagmites and stalactites and, most wonderfully of all, at least 100 bats. They’re all sleeping peacefully (and are illuminated briefly by torchlight so we can see them properly thanks to our brilliant guide).

We spend the afternoon enjoying a barbecue on the beach at Naam island, jet skiing and chilling on the white sand.

Colourful signs at Chew Jetty © Shutterstock
Colourful signs at Chew Jetty © Shutterstock

Our Southeast Asian cruise adventure began with an overnight stay in Bangkok, and includes two sea days, giving us plenty of time to experience some of the best aspects of sailing on Europa 2.

The Asian heat is a little too strong for me to sit out on the deck for long, but there’s plenty to do in the air-conditioned haven of the ship.

Highlights include a very informative and entertaining Champagne tasting with the Head Sommelier, where we sample (well, drink glasses of) some of the world’s most prestigious Champagnes, including Krug and Dom Pérignon (Bollinger is definitely my favourite).

There’s also a tour of the ship’s impressive art collection, which features 890 works, including pieces by David Hockney and Damien Hirst.

Sometimes it’s difficult to tear myself away from the seclusion of my veranda suite, with its honey-coloured bathroom (including a good-size bath with thoughtfully provided salts), Nespresso machine, chaise longue, super-comfy Scandi-style bed, large balcony and complimentary mini-bar. When I discover that the super-friendly and efficient room service team will let me order off-menu avocado toast, I’m in foodie heaven.

The restaurants on Hapag-Lloyd‘s Europa 2 are diverse and all the food served is of a very high standard. I relish the luxury of being able to get up at midday and still enjoy brunch cooked to order and eaten al fresco at Zanzibar. The French restaurant Tarragon is designed to look like a Parisian brasserie and is, without doubt, one of the finest restaurants at sea, with delicacies including oysters and a particularly delectable tarte au citron, and impeccable service. My favourite restaurant, though, is the very pretty Serenissima, which serves authentic Italian cuisine (and we’re there on ‘Caviar Night’, so we’re also treated to an incredibly generous serving of caviar).

And as we’re sailing in Asia, every evening there are magnificent crimson and gold sunsets, the perfect excuse for a sundowner in the balmy air.

Europa 2’s maiden call at Penang Island reveals treasures of a different kind. Penang may not have the skyscrapers of the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, but it does have mountains, rainforest and a dizzying and colourful array of temples, most notably the Buddhist complex at Kek Lok Si, with its extraordinary pavilions, flower gardens, carvings, mosaics and woodwork – plus some very big statues. There are more giant Buddha statues, elaborate mosaics and some very glittery dragons at the Thai Buddhist Temple and the Burmese Buddhist Temple, but at this point we’re all starting to feel as though we’ve seen enough temples for one day, and we head to George Town.

Europa 2’s Serenissima restaurant
Europa 2’s Serenissima restaurant

A UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site because of its temples and crumbling colonial villas, George Town is delightful. We visit the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, which belonged to a 19th century merchant and has some splendid antiques and chandeliers; and a stroll along the ramshackle Armenian Street reveals some impressive street art, including the incredibly clever murals by Lithuanian-born artist Ernest Zacharevic, as well as more Chinese clan houses. We finish our day in Penang at Chew Jetty, which offers a fascinating glimpse into life in a traditional floating village; we arrive just as the sun is starting to set and the sky is beginning to turn lilac, and it feels very peaceful and unspoiled, as though we’ve travelled back in time, which in a way we have.

Our cruise adventure ends in Singapore, where we visit the fantastic ArtScience Museum with its very cool installations, climb the psychedelic Supertree Grove at the Gardens by the Bay, and enjoy an excellent lunch at Spago at Marina Bay Sands, with its stunning views of the city state skyline.

It’s still dark when we get into our cab for Changi airport the following morning, with the lights on Europa 2 twinkling against a dark and stormy Singapore sky. Our Southeast Asian cruise adventure has been a privileged glimpse into fascinating different cultures while being an unforgettable journey of discovery.

GETTING THERE: A 15-night cruise on Europa 2 sailing from Colombo in Sri Lanka to Benoa in Bali, departing 28 February 2018, starts from £5,757pp, based on two people sharing a veranda or ocean suite. Ports of call include George Town in Penang, Malaysia (0800 0513 829; hl-cruises.com).

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