A cruise through Southeast Asia — and its many seas — is a great way to see these exotic destinations

 

By Ray Chatelin

Special to AllThingsCruise

 

Little can prepare you for the majesty of the Taj Mahal. No glossy photo, no video, no printed page can equal the impact on your senses as you stand in the middle of the East Gate entry point that frames what is arguably the world’s most perfect piece of architecture.

This marbled monument to a tragic love story changes character with every nuance of light that peaks through the dawn mist and with subsequent visits throughout the day and evening.

At first light, the Taj Mahal, with its inlaid precious and semi-precious stones, and intricately carved floral embellishments is a pearly pink. Later, in the last light of evening, it radiates a delicate opalescence.

You marvel at the simplicity of its power and then let the mind wander to the emotions of the man who promised his dying wife that he’d create a monument to her memory. And what a tribute this mausoleum is – an iconic work of symmetrical art that can never be forgotten.

But, the Taj is just one element of a cruise through Southeast Asia, India and the Mid-East from Hong Kong to Athens aboard Oceania’s Nautica, an upscale 648-passenger ship that because of its size provides an intimate sense of cruising without sacrificing quality.

As wonderful as the cruising experience is in this relaxed atmosphere of haut cuisine, spas, fitness center, string quartets, and celebrity lecturers, Oceania cruises are port intensive.

This itinerary – scheduled again for April/May of 2012 – appeals to the traveler who wants to visit exotic places with the convenience of a floating luxury hotel. It’s not for cruisers whose cruising plans simply involve a suntan and lots of umbrella drinks by the ship’s pool, though the pool and its nearby bar area is a good meeting point on at-sea days.

Southeast Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Indian sub-continent, are culturally complex parts of the world and there’s certainly no easier way to experience these exotic destinations. The widely separated destinations of Singapore, Oman, Mumbai, Alexandria, Phuket, Hong Kong, the Suez Canal, as well as side trips into Cambodia, the ancient sites of the Middle East and elsewhere, can be explored in luxury with knowledgeable guides, and safety in a social environment that protects and informs passengers.

This itinerary highlights many of the world’s cultural heavyweights

Once leaving Hong Kong, still a vibrant and exciting city that deserves several days of exploration, the ship offers an itinerary that highlights many of the world’s cultural heavyweights. Among them are the French Colonial houses, pagodas and Chinese assembly halls of Hoi An, Viet Nam; the 12th century ruins at Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and the Bayon Temple with its countless sculptures in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

The ancient Nabataean city of Petra, carved from the limestone rock in Jordan, is a major side trip, as are the towering temples of Luxor and Karnak in ancient Thebes that give a brief glimpse into the workmanship and skills of ancient architecture; as does exploring the still inner tombs at the Valley of the Kings in Egypt with their still colorful art.

In the vast desert of Wadi Rum, experience a Bedouin feast where camels roam the same area where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed. There’s the Suez Canal and, of course, the many sights of Athens and the Greek Islands.

Oceania has created a luxury experience that’s one of the cruise industry’s best value-for-money options in upscale cruising. Once aboard you’ll find yourself pampered in a way that separates the line from its higher-priced lines by dispensing luxury without pretentiousness, elegance without excessiveness. The quality of staff and surroundings exudes opulence without the worry of bumping into the furniture or spilling a drink.

Premium staterooms are characterized by butlers, yet regardless of which kind of stateroom you have – ranging from inside to balcony suites, and 1,000 sq. ft. luxury penthouse suites – the line presents an air of social equality with its relaxed dress code of resort-casual dress, open seating dining, and an absolute intolerance of smokers. Break the no-smoking edict and you could find yourself disembarked at the next port of call.

Nautica offers four restaurants, without additional charges

Nautica and its mirror-imaged sister ships (Regatta and Insignia) has four restaurants including three specialty restaurants without additional charges. Menus in all restaurants are extensive and the food quality is generally acknowledged as among the finest in the industry. The line’s newest addition, the 1,250-passenger Marina, offers more amenities without sacrificing intimacy.

While 16 of the 35 days are at sea – the South China Sea, Andaman Sea, Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Gulf of Eden, and the Mediterranean – they are hardly wasted. They offer the opportunity to catch your breath, sort photos, to discuss with fellow passengers what you’ve seen, take classes, and to prepare yourself for the coming day(s).

Several air flights, offered as options away from the ship, are necessary to experience the best of the destinations. From Ho Chi Minh City (still called Saigon by the locals), for example, an Air Vietnam flight transports fellow passengers to Siem Reap’s modern terminal in Cambodia for the Angkor Wat segment.

After three days of being housed in the luxurious Le Meridien Hotel, Dragon Air returns passengers to meet the ship elsewhere. Both airlines fly new Airbus 320s.

And in India, a private jet (again in a new A320) flew from Goa, India to Agra for the Taj Mahal experience and then to Mumbai three days later to meet the ship. In Agra, the Taj Mahal was not just a one-pony show. Visits to the deserted ancient city of Fatehpur Sikri, the massive Agra Fort and the exquisite tomb of Itmad-ud-Daulah – all important Indian cultural sites – helped expose passengers to the rich cultural and historical depth of Indian society.

The ports of call in what amounts to an around-the-world travel experience, resonate long after the ship reaches its final destination. And the image of the Taj Mahal in the early morning light will likely be with you forever.

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