A Southeast Asian stay-and-cruise holiday with Princess Cruises gives you the chance to experience very different cultures, says Liz Jarvis
Luminous pink and purple triffid-like sculptures loom over us as the Singapore skyline turns inky black with the clouds of an impending storm. We’re at the Gardens by the Bay, the Southeast Asian island’s version of the Eden Project, and there’s a definite carnival atmosphere in the balmy evening air as local people and tourists alike gaze up in wonder, waiting for the Marina Bay Hotel’s evening laser display to begin.
Singapore, which celebrated 50 years since independence in 2015, has often, unfairly, been regarded as the city-state you stop at for a night or two on your way to Australia or New Zealand; but it actually becomes more interesting the closer you look at it. Yes it’s as spotlessly clean as you imagine it will be (this is the place that banned chewing gum, after all). But staying here for a few days before we set sail on our Princess Cruises Southeast Asia voyage also gives us the opportunity to discover its thriving cosmopolitan culture.
We spend a whole morning in Little India, with its vibrantly painted shops selling everything from spices to gold and saris, and the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple, decorated with intricate carvings. We also visit a Chinese indoor market (although this is probably one of the cleanest markets I’ve ever been to, there’s still plenty to look at, including orchids in every conceivable colour).
It’s at night though that Singapore really comes into its own, when the temperature has dropped enough to take the edge off the heat. We have cocktails at the Marina Bay Hotel, with its spectacular city views, and at a bar on the river (there are lots to choose from). Singapore has a thriving culinary scene, and we also eat some extraordinarily good meals, including dinner at the Tippling Club, run by celebrity chef Ryan Clift.
A visit to Raffles for a Singapore Sling is a must (although the version served on board our Singapore Airlines flights is actually better). But it’s still interesting to see the iconic hotel, with its colonial architecture and impressive history.
Our resort, the Sofitel Singapore Sentosa, is on the island of Sentosa with its lush tropical greenery and spectacular sea views. Every detail of the hotel is exacting – the splendid lobby, a large swimming pool, fabulous buffet breakfast eaten with glorious views of the bay and in the company of free-roaming peacocks; and the delectable afternoon tea – including macaroons and tiny gateaux served in precious mini-wardrobes.
When the time comes to embark on our cruise to Vietnam, it’s fair to say we’ve all fallen a little in love with Singapore, but the next stage of our Southeast Asian adventure is about to begin.
For me, the beauty of Princess Cruises is that wherever you board their ships feel reassuringly familiar, with subtle differences in the décor and restaurants, depending on where you’re sailing. So even though we’re in Southeast Asia, it’s still possible to enjoy a juicy steak served with Hawaiian salt in the Crown Grill, but there’s a statue of a Buddha watching over the Retreat pool.
On one of our sea days we spend an afternoon at the Sanctuary, where we sample the cocktail menu and indulge in the complimentary afternoon tea.
Our first port of call in Vietnam is Nha Trang; it’s raining and humid but the golden sandy beach and bay still look glorious. We explore the historic Po Nagar towers, and wander around the street market where women wearing traditional conical hats ply their wares. We also visit the silk factory, and it’s fascinating to watch the embroiderers work on their exquisite creations.
Back on board, we’re privileged to enjoy the Chef’s Table experience – the chance to go behind the scenes into the galley with the Maitre’d and Chef, and learn about the creation of our special menu while sampling hors d’oeuvres galore, before sitting down to one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten at sea.
Our cruise ends in Ho Chi Minh City, with its wide boulevards, parks and palatial buildings, including the Reunification Palace, the Notre-Dame Basilica and the Central Post Office with its impressive murals.
Everywhere we look there are brides posing for their wedding album photos in dresses as white and fluffy as meringues (they will wear traditional Vietnamese style clothes for their actual big day). There are also hundreds of scooters, which makes crossing the road a challenge (cars are prohibitively expensive to buy in Vietnam.) We have time for an excellent lunch, and we peruse the indoor markets, which are definitely not for the claustrophobic – there are countless stalls with a mind-boggling array of tat and everywhere you go there’s some sort of pho or rice dish being cooked; as with everything about the city it assaults the senses, but it’s also a quintessential part of the Vietnamese experience.
A quick stop at the Chùa Bà Thiên Hau Chinese temple to light incense and make wishes, and then it’s time to leave for the airport and our luxurious Singapore Airlines flights home. Despite the scooter and motorbike-fuelled chaos on the roads, when it’s bathed in the late afternoon sun there’s an ethereal beauty to Ho Chi Minh City. Like every aspect of our Southeast Asian stay-and-cruise adventure, it’s extraordinary.
An 11-day Southeast Asia cruise round trip from Singapore on Diamond Princess, departing on 16 December 2016, starts from £1,149pp (based on two sharing an inside stateroom), excluding flights. Ports of call include Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia; Nha Trang, Vietnam; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Sihanoukville, Cambodia; Bangkok, Thailand; and Ko Samui, Thailand. For more details, go to princess.com or call 0843 374 4444.
For more information on visiting Singapore, go to yoursingapore.com.
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