Author Sylvia Toh Paik Choo discovers the delights of cruising aboard Mariner of the Seas.
I am aboard Mariner of the Seas for a five-night Spice of Southeast Asia cruise, one of those journeys that has proved such a giant hit with Asians in Singapore and beyond.
We are moored at the Marina Bay Sands Cruise Centre; it’s a large building but is dwarfed by this Voyager class ship with its 15 decks, crewed by 1200 people who tend to the needs of 3114 passengers.
Her short local cruises sold out over Christmas and Chinese New Year. Now passengers are piling aboard for her latest journey.
Asians are taking to cruise like ducks to water. But they do so in their very particular way.
You’d think the first thought of guests coming aboard would be where’s my cabin? But as any cruise director will tell you, it’s straight to the buffet restaurant almost every time. After all, the luggage is being delivered to rooms, so why not eat first.
Windjammer Café on Deck 11 serves hot meals from 11.30am to 4pm, 6.30pm to 9pm and 10.30pm to 5.30am. There is no time of the day when you are not spoilt for choice scarfing. Restaurant manager Kaizad Patel says they serve 18,000 meals daily.
The cruise package price includes all food and soft drinks (liquor is separate) in all the main outlets (three floors of dining options). Charges apply only to specialty dining in Chops Grille steakhouse, Giovanni’s Table (Italian) and Johnny Rockets (American diner).
The glorious serves of food aren’t the only attractions of a cruise. Just think, there is no jet lag and no re-packing bags after every port of call. And there are all manner of backdrops for the selfie-obsessed – all those decks plus shore excursions.
Once you’ve sussed the shortest route to your cabin, you can either play it by ear and discover the ship deck by deck. Or religiously study the daily planner newsletter to make sure you miss nothing.
“There are more things to do than we have time for,” says Javier Luo, a university student travelling with his girlfriend Yilin Choo, both novice cruisers.
He’s not wrong; stretch class, footprint analysis, line dancing, trivia and a deck game tournament. All before 11am. The list goes on – hair show, jewellery making, cha cha dance class, Nintendo open play, dollar origami (bring your own dollars).
Retirees Mr and Mrs Cheng commute between homes in Singapore and Australia. Mrs Cheng stops cutting an impromptu rug and shares: “It’s liberating, a cruise brings you out of your shyness. It can be crowded, but it has a classy ambience.”
The man behind the ambience is Fang, “just Fang”.
“Also known as ‘the bald one’, I am the mood maker,” says the Beijing-born cruise director – a bit of a legend at Royal Caribbean for dealing with the many delicate differences between Asians, from Beijing to Bangkok.
“It is a floating hotel resort, the ship is the destination. The environment is unique because of the diversity in the dynamic of the crowds. Who are all here for a fun vacation, and my job is to keep them entertained, when they are not eating or sleeping,” he says.
The signature productions are out of Royal Caribbean International’s studios in Florida – Broadway-style musicals, comedy, magicians, juggling acts and performers.
I take in a performance by a pair of acrobatic ballet dancers from China who perform a first at sea when she pirouettes on his head. As she does, a collective hush falls in the ship’s Savoy Theatre, before the show-stopping duo take their bow to prolonged applause from an audience of 1500.
The audience is a mix of mates, young couples with first-born child, newly-weds, retired folk, multi-generational family groups and singles in search of a partner.
Hilda and Rad are lawyers in Manila. “We are trying to have a baby and the doctor told us, go somewhere relaxing. Take the pressure off,” Hilda says. I suggest that if they have a girl, they should name her Marina.
My five-night cruise calls at Port Klang, Langkawi (where the duty free is the cheapest in the region) and Phuket. Shore excursions are purchased on board and transactions are in US dollars.
From Phuket’s Patong pier, jump in a tuk-tuk to JungCeylon, a huge mall for eating, massages and shopping, at very tasty prices. It cost about 200baht (US$5.7) each way by tuk-tuk.
A three-generation Singapore family of nine, the Lees hire a van for a tour of Langkawi for MR500 (US$128). “We wanted to get away from the city,” the senior Mr Lee tells me. “Of course, we meet weekends at home, but this is better, we have been able to bond even closer as a family. And every member can find something to do on board.”
In fact many passengers skip going ashore, preferring the comfort and company of the ship’s bars, casino, cafes, shopping arcade, gym, library, theatre, sports arena, skating rink and art gallery.
CRUISE LINE: Royal Caribbean International
VESSEL: Mariner of the Seas
STAR RATING: 3 1/2
PASSENGER CAPACITY: 3,114
TOTAL CREW: 1200
ENTERED SERVICE: 2004
FACILITIES: Complimentary dining in main dining room, Windjammer Café, Jade Sushi and Café Promenade; two specialty restaurants; 15 bars, clubs, and lounges; theatre; ice-skating rink; rock-climbing wall; mini-golf course; basketball court; jogging and in-line skating tracks; casino; three pools; six hot tubs; fitness centre ; Vitality Spa; Library.
BOOKINGS: Five-night Spice Of Southeast Asia Cruise from Singapore aboard Mariner of the Seas, from USD$840 twin share (inside cabin). See royalcaribbean.com