There was a time…..a long time…..when people travelled only by sea. It was slow, yeah, and sometimes perilous. And so when airplanes started getting the speed, range, reliability and commecial feasibility that they have now, travelling by sea got largely relegated to stuff like cargo. In fact the last time my feet stepped on a ship was 22 years ago, until just now.
Still, there’s something about travelling slowly at sea that flying through the air at three quarters the speed of sound cannot provide. Sure, it takes more time, way more time, but if time is gold as they say, then travelling by ship must be like taking a bath in gold. Travelling by air nowadays has become so mundane, it’s like taking a bus. It’s lost its sense of being a special event. As a child I still remember cabin crew cheerfully welcoming me as I board, like I’m someone they are actually looking forward to have on the plane. Nowadays, you sometimes (depending on what class and what airline you are flying) feel like cabin crew are sizing you up on how much work they will have to do for you during the flight. But you cant blame the crew entirely, as some passengers act like their economy ticket entitles them to a personal butler and concierge service. Planes, like buses, also now get overcrowded that they have to drag people out (ahem, United).
Going inside a cruise ship however is a very different story. You get a five star hotel welcome. Here you are a guest, not just some guy who paid for a seat that could be raffled out anytime.
As my family and I were looking for a different kind of experience for the summer holidays, we grabbed a chance to book a cruise at a substantially discounted price. The cruise would start at the Malaysian resort island of Penang, and take us to Thailand’s most popular beaches, Phuket and Krabi, on onboard Star Cruises’ Superstar Libra. Though I have been on ships before, mainly inter-island ferries that used to take most people around the Philippines before budget airlines stormed the market, this is my first proper, leisurely cruise.
Being a relatively young market, the cruising scene in South-east Asia does not often get the latest, swankiest ships that ply the likes of the Carribean, or the Mediterranean. By global cruising standards the Penang-Phuket-Krabi loop is quite short, and by today’s cruise ship standards the Libra is quite unremarkable. Commissioned by the Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) in the late 80’s as the MS Seaward, it was designed for the 90’s type of crowd, and sailed in Florida and the Bahamas. When Star Cruises bought NCL in 2000 it was one of three ships transferred from NCL to Star Cruises’ Asian operations, to upsize the latter’s previously smaller Asian fleet, while NCL’s fleet was upgraded to 2000’s standards.
Given that history, the highlight of the cruise was certainly not the ship itself, but rather, the destinations and the manner by which you get there. We had never been to either Penang, Phuket or Krabi before, and given the time of year, there’s no better destination than the best of Thailand’s beaches, and there’s no better way to see them than approaching their coastlines from the sea, seeing the beautiful islets along the way. That however does not mean the ship is not comfortable. It is. Humble the ship may be by today’s standards, it still is a ship made for leisure, and it is maintained like a car in an enthusiast’s garage. It is a clean, beautiful white ship. It may not have the grand atriums, waterslides, and rides of today’s behemoth floating hotels, but there’s no stopping you from dining at its half a dozen restaurants, drinking at its poolside bars, enjoying its nightly shows or simply lounging at the sun deck. Another unique thing about cruising in Asia is the demand for gambling, and two-third’s of the ship’s deck 5 was made just for that.
One thing you will likely not experience in a cruise is hunger, unless you hole up in your cabin like a hermit. There will be food anytime of the day, all you need to do is get up and walk. Three of the Libra’s restaurants provide complimentary breakfast, lunch and dinner, and one has complementary snacks in the morning and afternoon. If you’d like a touch of fine dining at sea, there are ala carte restaurants open the whole time, and you’ll get the best the galley has to offer on gala night. Just as sure as the sun rises in the east, there will be food.
The delight of cruising is that it makes makes time slower…like the fabric of space-time in Einstein’s theory stretches when one is onboard a large metal vessel over a body of water. A minute suddenly feels much longer when one starts sailing, and there’s plenty of options to spend your sudden gift of time. You can lounge at the ship’s two pairs of pools and jacuzzis until the sun bakes you well done during the day, or until your skin wrinkles by a hundred years. You can drink like there’s no to tomorrow at the pool deck and sun deck bars (Unlike being in a hotel, on land, Star Cruises does not rip you off for alcohol. You can get 3 Coronas, Hoegaardens or the like for 32 MYR, which though not cheap, seems reasonable by Malaysian standards). You can shop or ogle at the modestly sized duty free stores (which have a suprisingly good stock of luxury items). You can dance on dance classes that seem to be going on all the time somewhere in the ship. Or, you can watch the nightly shows at the Stardust Lounge, the ship’s auditorium-cum-theatre in the fifth deck. These range from a magic show and acrobatic show done by a professional magician and acrobats, to a talent show presented by crew members.
If theatre, lounging by the pool, soaking up the sun, watching the shows, playing at the casino, getting drunk, or getting fat with the endless food, is none of of your thing – at all, then you can of course stay at your cabin (killjoy!). One disadvantage of the Libra compared to newer ships is the lack of balcony rooms. It seems having your own balcony on a ship wasn’t cool yet when the ship’s designers made their blueprint in the 80’s. But you do get cable TV, albeit with limited channels, and you can purchase wifi onboard for a number of hours, which is quite expensive but works reasonably well considering you are in the middle of the sea (not lightning fast but workable).
We got one of the smallest rooms with an outside view (courtesy of a porthole around 1.5 feet in diameter), in deck two. The room is small – barely enough for me, my wife and our 7 year old kid, but it is clean, with comfortable sheets, and we got it for a hefty discount, so no complaints. Be prepared to bath like you’re in a cramped army barracks though, as the ensuite bathroom encourages the art of making the most possible activity in the least amount of space. You can of course get a larger room, or a suite, but you’ll have to pay more, naturellement.