What I do not expect, as I walk up the gangplank, is to be taken hostage by a large furry blue duck. It won’t let me go until I have been photographed arm in arm with it. A bit further I’m mugged again, entwined with a glamorous Amazon. The duck and the chick make sure that nobody gets aboard the SuperStar Virgo without a couple of jolly start-of-holiday photographs. They’re big on photographs here: by the evening there are three versions of each guest hanging in the ship’s gallery. About 2,000 people are embarking this afternoon at the Singapore Cruise Centre, so that makes 6,000 photographs. And that’s before we even set off.
But then, that’s the thing about cruises: they deal in the surreal, or at least in keeping your eyebrows raised. The carpets are busily patterned; the lights are shiny and coloured and omnipresent; you can’t throw a pea without hitting stained glass and curlicues. I find my way through a maze of corridors to my ocean-view stateroom — a comfortable single bed, slightly less comfortable sofa, a large window, compact bathroom, a flat screen television and a fruit basket. This will be my home for three nights and four days of Star Cruises’ whirlwind courtship of Southeast Asia.
Lunch is amid gleaming glassware and silverware and nice linen at the Bella Vista Continental restaurant. My mixed grill is, well, mixed — the lamb and bacon is great, the sausage inedible. My companions tell me the salmon fillet is excellent, the calzone and fettucine pescatore not so much. But it’s pleasant to relax after a night flight and cruise check-in. I can’t wait to get out of the crowded Singapore harbour.
First, though, the mandatory emergency drill, where they show us how to put on our life jackets and assemble at our assigned muster stations, divided between capacious lifeboats. Then the whistle blows, the honky thing honks, and we’re off. The hallways instantly fill with people wearing everything from satin minis and pencil heels to stringy swimwear, all united in wondering where the hell everything is, and how to get there. It’s a big ship; day one is all about orienting yourself.
Very quickly, though, a large number of people have found the Galaxy of the Stars club and are on the floor making letters with their hands, as a band belts out YMCA and sundry encouragement — even though the Carnival Fun Fair Sailaway Party is in full swing at the Parthenon Pool, on Deck 12 Mid. That’s rocking — I sit at the Taverna overlooking the pool, under a massive beige canvas sunshade, and take in the music and synchronised dancers. Enthusiasm, I reflect, is all. I’m careful to stub out my cigarette completely in the ashtray; fire is the gravest danger at sea, and the only smouldering butts allowed on board are those performing on stage at the Lido Theatre every night.
A daily newsletter (predictably titled Star Navigator) detailing the next day’s on-board activities helps plan your day such that Dragon’s Beard Candy Making doesn’t clash with Salsa Class with Your Crew. I walk past the activity room where you can get golf clubs and chess sets for a couple of hours, and spend a little time in the quiet, well-stocked library, watching the sea slide by through lace-curtained windows. In the next room a phalanx of elderly Chinese women is playing murderously serious mahjong. Later I stand on the open deck as a spectacular sunset drapes the sky and water, and watch it fade over cocktails. It’s my favourite kind of weather: warm and slightly humid. Aah, Southeast Asia.
By morning we’ve moseyed up the west coast of the Malaysian peninsula in the Melacca Straits and are sailing into romantic, turtle-shaped Pulau Penang, erstwhile island outpost of the British Empire and tin mining country. Wearing little yellow stickers, we hop into a tender boat that takes us from the SuperStar Virgo’s docking site to the island jetty at the capital, Georgetown, and then climb onto a bus for the journey along the north coast to a fruit farm in Teluk Bahang district. This is one of several excursion packages you can choose from; we could also have opted for a trishaw ride around the capital.
The Taman Buah-Buahan Tropika tropical fruit farm was opened to the public a decade ago as an agro-tourism and educational project. It’s not a commercial venture. The farm is up in the hills, past the lovely beaches of Batu Ferringhi, with loos open to the seaview—25 acres covered with 300 kinds of fruit trees. During the hour-long drive, Adelene, our guide, gives us a comprehensive run-down on Penang’s history, culture and economy. The first thing we do when we get to the farm is fall upon a fabulous lunch which begins with fruit and goes on to a fantastic barbeque. I sink my teeth into the pretty black-flecked white flesh of dragonfruit, papaya, mangoes and melons and the famous durian (‘smells like hell, tastes like heaven’), and then into grilled squid, fish, chicken, beef and lamb.
By the end of lunch I’m more than ready for a walk around the farm. We luck out with Ali, a highly knowledgeable and entertaining guide and fruit devotee. He’s a big believer in fruit therapy, which uses the natural properties of fruit to heal and promote health. He shows us Japanese crab apples that are high on Vitamin C, extols the asthma-relieving properties of boiled guava leaves, prescribes coconut milk for orthopaedic and muscular problems, and recommends one banana a day to keep your memory sharp, all the while keeping us in splits. I’m intrigued by the powers of sky fruit, from the mahogany tree. It’s used to make sky juice, or sky fruit coffee — a weird tasting but apparently miraculous tonic that improves blood circulation, among other things. It’s expensive, but Ali claims that people return to buy the stuff from the farm’s little shop.
Next stop is the Wat Chaiyamang-kalaram, a.k.a. the Temple of the Reclining Buddha of Penang. It’s the biggest Thai Buddhist temple on the island, featuring a 33m gold-painted Phra Chaiya Mongkol with mother-of-pearl toenails. The image is a columbarium, where urns containing the ashes of the dead are kept in niches. The bodies of three revered monks who died in meditation are crusted with gold leaf stuck on by the faithful. The temple, complete with photographs of King Bhumibol and his queen, houses a Thai community. Opposite the road, behind street hawkers selling trinkets and knick-knacks, is a Burmese Buddhist temple; Sir Francis Light founded Penang as a consciously multicultural spot, now evident in a mix of Armenian, Acheenese, Chulia, Malabari, Burmese, Thai and Malay communities.
Our six hours are up and it’s time to get back to the SuperStar Virgo. I’ve visited Penang before, so I don’t mind that our particular excursion itinerary shoots us straight through; but it’s well worth gazing out to sea at Fort Cornwallis, where Sir Francis Light landed, wandering the streets of pretty Georgetown, visiting the fantastically ornate Khoo Kongsi and other temples, the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion, the Acheen street mosque and the pavement bazaars where you can get excellent ‘genuine fake’ items. If you have the stomach for it, try having pit vipers draped all over you at the famous snake temple in Sungai Keluang, further south.
Our floating hotel is having an early barbeque too, at the Parthenon Pool. You develop an inexhaustible appetite, aboard a cruise ship, as the body adapts to the fact that there’s an inexhaustible supply of food available 24 hours a day, and very little else to do if you aren’t keen on the casino or buying stuff in the boutiques. By the end of the meal there’s nothing for it but to waddle off and have a beer at the Taverna. There are flocks of Iranians around, celebrating Navroz with raucous singing and dancing; canoodling Indian newlyweds everywhere; and large families of Singapo-reans, Filipinos and Thais. They all jam the Lido Theatre later, where juggler Terry Parade of the Moulin Rouge in Paris stages a fabulous display of his skills. A hot cup of midnight coffee on the deck under star-spangled skies is a nice full stop to the day.
We wake up to paradisiacal Thai islets floating past, all silver-white beaches and nodding palms. The ship docks early at Phuket island, the largest of them and one of Thailand’s most popular holiday hotspots. Our bus chugs off through the town, past tiny spirit shrines, along bougainvillea-lush roads, along rubber plantations, to the Elephant Camp — it’s meant mostly for cruise passengers, so it doesn’t take walk-in tourists.
This time I’m in for big disappointment. This is a pretty compound where you can see Thai boxing and cooking and river canoeing craft and so forth, and it’s a safe enough place for kids who want to see animals at close quarters, but if you have any aversion to seeing an elephant play basketball or give a back massage, or a macaque walking around with a lacy parasol, skip it. The ‘elephant safari’ is a 10-minute ride along a road in a convoy of elephants, so you really have to be new to elephants to think this worth your morning.
The next stop is a cashewnut factory, which turns out to be quite interesting even though it’s really just a way to get you into the shop that sells cashewnut and other products (which are very good). There’s one nut per apple fruit, which is taken from its toxic shell and then painstakingly peeled by hand before being baked and seasoned. The result is in the shop: salted cashewnuts, chocolate, butter, sesame, honey, spicy, fried, even garlic. There are also plenty of other food products including jackfruit and durian, and dried fish.
Off we march a short distance away to Wang Talang, a great big two-floored shopping place where you can get precious jewellery (and watch the artisans at work right there), Thai silks and other souvenirs. There’s also Central Festival, which carries all the branded stuff. And if you haven’t shopped enough, there’s Big C, the cheap, cheap, cheap mall. In Thailand, you shop. And if, like me, you don’t shop, you sit at Mister Donut and have a cappuccino while everyone else shops.
We eat a great Thai lunch at the Thai Naan restaurant, and then, in a sudden downpour, head to the tourist mecca of Phuket: Patong beach. A beautiful 20-minute drive through misty hills later, just as the rain eases off, we alight on its golden sands and try to mentally edit out the industrial rows of deck chairs. I decide to have a foot massage under a casuarina on the beach rather than across the road in the mish-mash of parlours, bars and (surprise) shops. It would be lovely, except that I pick a very bad-tempered woman with electric blue nails whom I bargain down from 250 baht to 150 and who avenges herself by nearly flaying my shins with her sandy hands, pausing now and again to eat dried beetles.
Back on the ship I get on the treadmill in the gym and exercise while watching the water glide by as we start our journey back to Singapore. Tonight is heavy: there’s a jaw-dropping show called Sports Unlimited at the Lido Theatre, followed by the Captain’s cocktails and excellent dinner at the Bella Vista, followed by a jaw-dropping (in a different way) topless show called Passion back at the Lido, followed by a singing contest at the Galaxy of the Stars. I spend my last day at sea doing the right thing — reading on the breezy deck, until finally, around 6pm, the SuperStar Virgo slows and stops, and we’re back in Singapore.