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Cruising Asia's modern miracles and ancient wonders aboard the Ocean Princess

Ocean Princess' stops in Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan offer a lesson in Eastern life.

January 18, 2011|By Karl Zimmermann | Special to the Los Angeles Times

Reporting from aboard the Ocean Princess — On a windy, showery February evening midway through our 16-night cruise from Laem Chabang, Thailand, to Shanghai, my wife, Laurel, and I stood on the balcony of our stateroom aboard the Ocean Princess, berthed at the tip of the Kowloon Peninsula. Across Victoria Harbour, the astonishing array of skyscrapers on Hong Kong Island had grown lively with light, a multicolored, ever-changing display of patterns and advertising icons — and there was more to come.

The ubiquitous Star Ferries — green and white, double-ended, distinctive in profile — scuttled back and forth, and other excursion boats joined the armada. Then, at 8 o'clock, laser beams, white and blue, erupted from buildings, further brightening the swirling clouds, and we felt ourselves at the magical heart of things — finally.

Until then, our cruise might have been called "The Great Container Ports of Southeast Asia." We'd sailed from Laem Chabang, a two-hour cab ride from Bangkok. After tendering into Koh Samui, our second port, also in Thailand, we docked in Singapore at an immaculate and orderly terminal, distant from the heart of the city, with acres of containers stacked as neatly as dominoes.

The biggest disappointment came next when the ship docked at Phu My instead of continuing up the Saigon River to Ho Chi Minh City. This meant 21/2 hours of bus travel in each direction, leaving us little more than three hours to explore this frenetic city, where motorbikes swarmed like hornets. We rushed through the Reunification Palace, the Rex Hotel and the Ben Thanh Market, grabbed a quick lunch, then, breathless, reboarded the bus, most sights unseen.

Planning your trip

Ocean Princess, (800) 774-6237,, will make four Asian cruises similar to ours, plus two longer ones, from February through April. Fares begin at $2,895 per person. Our cruise cost just under $2,000 per person, including insurance — and port charges and government taxes, which were substantial, though we still thought this was an excellent value for 16 nights in a balcony cabin.

For Laurel and me, the Ocean Princess' small size (our voyage was sold out with 652 passengers) had more to recommend it than just the port access it sometimes allowed. In fact, the vessel had everything we could wish for: a spacious, well-designed dining room, the Club Restaurant, with an adjoining bar; two alternative dinner spots (with a cover charge), the Sterling Steakhouse and the Italian-themed Sabatini's Restaurant; the Tahitian Lounge, with floor-to-ceiling windows; an open promenade deck with views of the sea and wooden deck chairs (and deck blankets, which I chose to call "steamer rugs"); the Casino Bar, which takes its name from its proximity to the ship's modest gambling venue but is really a cozy piano bar; and a fine library.

British roots onboard

The Casino Bar, Club Bar and library seemed right out of a British country house, with dark wood paneling, fireplaces (faux, of course), wing chairs and comfy sofas. The Casino Bar's only awkward touch was the wall of fake books behind the piano, the imperfect illusion fully blown when it was opened to control the room's electronics.

The library's books, of course, were real and plentiful, well selected and ordered. I happily repaired here when the winds blew so fiercely that the outer decks were declared off-limits or, during the final, most northern part of the cruise, when the weather was too cold even for steamer rugs. The wood paneling creaked companionably as the ship flexed in the high seas — a sound, like the room itself, reminiscent of the old liners.

We chose the Tahitian Lounge for cocktails when the lingering light of late sunsets — or the sparkling skyscrapers of Hong Kong — offered vistas. Otherwise, we preferred the Casino Bar, where we listened to Aussie David Crathorne play show tunes and old favorites. There, our drinks were served by Liseth, a Peruvian bar steward just arrived from Cuzco. She may have needed a quick study on the subtleties of unfamiliar cocktails, but she had nothing more to learn about charm.

Cabins tend to be cookie-cutter spaces and much alike from cruise line to cruise line, but we thought ours on the Ocean Princess was unusually comfortable and handsomely decorated, with furnishings tending toward French Provincial. The loveseat, coffee table and vanity were at the outboard end, separated by a wall of glass from the balcony, which was the best feature of all.

Football, lectures and a choir

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