Asia

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To Fuel the Soul

I am not a glutton – I am an explorer of food

If there’s one thing to know about Asians, it’s that they have a veritable obsession with food. Food, and the act of eating it, has had its significance in their culture since the days of emperors long past, and remains a vital part of their lives today – they are (notoriously) willing to travel far and wide, and spend inordinate amounts of time queuing for a sample of what they believe to be the best food in the world. It’s no wonder that cuisine is as much a crucial part of their travels as history, culture, and adventure. Here, we highlight a few food-themed itineraries that have caught our eye, whether it’s for their strong emphasis on eating local, their fusion of fashion and food, or their significance in uncovering a destination’s heritage. And everybody knows: calories don’t count when you’re on holiday.

Suspended in Time – Sipping on the Fruits of the Old World

Stepping into Venice is like entering a world frozen in time, a dreamscape where romance and mystery are still very’ much alive, and history and tradition are treasures to be revered. And if you’re an oenophile, there’s even more to look forward to! With Belmond Hotel Cipriani, visitors are invited to rediscover the Vineyards of Venice with a tour that will have you uncovering centuries-old estates, sipping on some of the rarest and purest blends in the world, and languishing in lush, sun-drenched vineyards – with wineglass in hand, of course.

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Belmond Hotel Cipriani

The Vineyards of Venice itinerary begins with the “Associazione La Laguna nel Bicchiere” (Lagoon in a Glass Association), where you will find the rediscovered vines of the San Michele in Isola monastery. After much work and patience, these old vines have been meticulously restored to their ancient splendour, yielding Dorana and Malvasia varietals that will eventually be hand-harvested and pressed by foot! Modern methods and chemicals are eschewed for a completely traditional process, exactly like how the peasants used to do it in eras past. The second stop on the Island of Sant’Erasmo is where the French family Thoulouze produces the wine Orto, a blend of three original ungrafted varietals: the Fermentino, Fiano di Avellino and Malvasia Istriana.

Finally, pay pilgrimage to the Venissa estate on the Island of Mazzorbo, one of the last surviving examples of walled vineyards in the world. The entire farm stretches over two hectares, completely surrounded by medieval wall; a commemorative marble stone indicates that it was reconstructed in 1727, while a picturesque 14th century bell tower and an 11th century Roman Catholic basilica church, the Chiesa di San Michele Arcangelo, stand testament to the ground’s ancient roots.

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Buon Viaggo With Costa Cruises

Costa Cruises marks 10th anniversary in Asia

Costa Asia recently celebrated a major milestone in Asia. It was the first international cruise company to deploy year-round homeport cruises in Asia in 2016 and in July this year, celebrated its 10-year anniversary in Asia.

Over the decade, Costa Asia has brought innovation and excellence to voyagers onboard their ships with their creative cruise experiences. Each Costa Cruise offers an authentic European cruising experience with their “Italy at Sea” concept. This concept sees travellers immersing themselves in Italian culture, cuisine and entertainment all onboard any of the Costa Cruises ships. One of its most popular ships is the Costa Victoria, where travellers can experience a spectacular Carnival of Venice at Sea!

One of the world’s most significant carnivals in Italy, the Carnival of Venice is an annual festival that originated after the victory of Venice in a war in 1162. The Venetian carnival was a celebration from then on that saw locals reunite with friends and family at St Mark’s Square to dance. Today, tourists flock to join in the age-old tradition that is filled with musicians, acrobats, clowns, magicians, puppeteers, elaborate masks, costumes and parades.

On Costa Victoria, the Carnival of Venice begins even before passengers get on board. Be greeted by festivities and celebrations in the spirit of the carnival with photo-taking opportunities with intricately designed Venetian costumes. Then at the Atrium of the ship, ‘live’ music formally welcomes guests to the Carnival of Venice. During this magical cruise, guests will be able to spot Venetian masks and people dressed in distinct Venetian costumes all set against a backdrop of Venetian decor and carnivalesque elements – the impressive Concorde Plaza will remind guests of the Mediterranean Sea with its marine oasis theme, and the soothing Spa pool the splendour of Pompeii, while the Capriccio Bar is adorned with mosaics designed by Italian artist Emilio Tadini.

Guests will have the opportunity to indulge in a variety of Carnival of Venice activities for a full Italian experience on Costa Victoria. Each day, find a copy of the pink ‘Today – the Daily Programme’ newsletter in your room that covers important cruise information, as well as a line up of the day’s activities. Each day features something new, such as Cocktails with the Captain, culinary demonstrations and a multitude of classes. Learn basic Italian phrases, how to make Costa Cruises’ world-famous tiramisu dessert and ballroom dances like the Cha Cha and Salsa. There are also seminars to attend on makeup, weight loss and skin care. For those who lead a more active lifestyle, there are ball game tournaments and lots of exercise classes led by crewmembers. Come evenings, be enthralled by performers in a ‘Viva l’Italia’ variety show, which sees singers and dancers performing Italian opera, do acrobatic circus tricks, hip hop dances and even impersonation acts from Las Vegas!costa-victoria-room

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Mod Sin: Culinar Eccentricy at Its Highhest – Singapore

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Chef Willin Low

Chef Willin Low demonstrates a flagrant disregard for rules.

During an eight-course omakase dinner at his restaurant Wild Rocket, I dig into his take on Singapore’s most ubiquitous dish, Hainanese chicken rice. Said dish is customarily composed of tender poached meat, fragrant ginger, garlic-and pandan-leaf-infused rice, and a cup of broth; Low’s version, served in a miniature black casserole dish, incorporates black-truffle butter and shavings of the prize fungus. It’s utterly decadent — and sacrilegious to Singaporean culinary purists.

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Wild Rocket Restaurant

Low became a celebrity for twisting regional fare into what he coined Mod Sin, short for modern Singaporean cuisine. Although long regarded a foodie destination, Singapore has remained grounded in the humble traditions of grandma’s kitchen and hawker stalls, despite Michelin-worthy, fine-dining spots like Tippling Club, LesAmis, Burnt Ends and Andre.

“When we started, we were worried that people would think we were trying to destroy traditional food,” Low Says. “But we’ve been pleasantly surprised at how receptive everyone has been.”

Wild Rocket continues to grow in popularity, with foodies clamoring for East-meets-West reinterpretations of staples like saucy chili crab and spicy laksa soup.

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Chef Malcom Lee

Fellow chefs also took note, and Mod Sin has swelled into a bona fide movement. Inspired by Low, chef-owner Malcolm Lee added a 2.0 approach to his restaurant Candlenut, which specializes in Peranakan cuisine.

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Candlenut restaurant

A defining dish, ayam buah keluak, is a flavorful chicken stew made with the black seed of buah keluak, an Indonesian fruit. Although toxic while raw, the seeds become edible when cooked properly — but the flavor is impossible to describe. Not even Lee can articulate it. It looks a bit like tapenade, but there’s nothing olive-y about it.

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Chef Violet Oon

I find my favorite Mod Sin buah keluak invention at Violet Oon’s National Kitchen, which opened December 2015 within the impressive and new National Gallery. Oon, a former food critic and Singapore’s answer to Julia Child, presents me with a spaghetti dish, the inky puree tempered with prawn, fried red bird’s eye chili and coconut milk. It’s insanely toothsome, pure umami with just enough chili heat and al dente bite. It’s my sixth course, but I clean my plate, and Oon glows with a mother’s joy.

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Violet Oon’s National Kitchen

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Chef LG Han

My next stop is Labyrinth, where chef LG Han tells narratives through his madcap Mod Sin five-or-10-course tasting menus. He presents a deconstructed Hainanese curry rice dish that would be true to Dada artist Man Ray: plated to evoke a forest scene with a potato resembling a white stone, a quail egg, and deep-fried mousseline atop quinoa curry and mossy-looking coriander sponge. His version of chili crab, typically a messy affair, entail easily chomped deep-fried-soft-shell crab with a scoop of savory-sweet chili ice cream.

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Labyrinth Restaurant

I’m disappointed when the procession of eye-pleasing surprises finally concludes. “What’s next?” I implore. “I’m working on an oyster omelet”, Han teases.

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Oyster Omelette

Clearly, eggs and rules will be broken.

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Bangladesh – Everything You Need to Know About This South Asian Secret

A South Asian secret best revealed among its waterways and tea-clad hills

DOESN’T INDIA OFFER RICHER EXPERIENCES?

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A Royal Bengal Tiger – South Asia, Bangladesh

Bangladesh’s top experiences rival those of its neighbour to the west, especially when it comes to tea and tigers. The Sundarbans region supports as many as 400 rare Bengal tigers, the world’s largest single population, roaming the largest mangrove forest. Set over gently rolling hills, the tea plantations of Srimangal are a dream for hikers and cyclists. Plus there are historic treasures aplenty.

ISN’T IT FLAT AND WET?

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The rocket steamer is approaching in the Sundarbarns Delta – Bangladesh

Rainy it can be (visit during the October to March dry season), but all that water makes for wonderfully green, lush scenery – and feeds the web of over 700 rivers quintessential to life here.
A river journey is a highlight of any trip, whether floating along in a small rowboat or staying on one of the last Rockets, paddle-wheel steamers from the 1920s. The forested peaks of Chittagong and Sylhet meanwhile offer some height (and hikes).

WHAT SORT OF WELCOME CAN I EXPECT?

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Some local children holding the flag of Bangladesh

Travel in Bangladesh tends to be slow-paced but rich, with many opportunities to explore local culture. The few tourists to the country generally experience a warm, open reception and less of the hassle encountered in more high-profile tourist destinations within India. Even with a population of 150 million it’s possible, in quieter rural areas, to feel like you have the country all to yourself.

HOW DO I MAKE IT HAPPEN?

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Srimangal’s tea plantations – Bangladesh

Bangladesh’s tourist facilities are still developing, so it’s best to go with an operator. Exodus’s 15-day Discover Bangladesh trip includes a cruise in the Sundarbans, Srimangal’s tea plantations, and Unesco-listed temples and mosques (from £1,949 inc flights). Explore offers trips combining Bangladesh with India (15 days from £1,819 inc flights;), as well as with Bhutan and Nepal.

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LAKSHMAN SAGAR – RAJASTHAN, INDIA

This somewhat stark beauty was once a 19th-century hunting lodge belonging to the Thakur of Raipur and it sits in an undulating desert setting of craggy outcrops, thorn trees and scrubland. There are 12 stone-and-adobe thatched guest cottages dotted around, some reached by a path that winds beneath an ancient banyan tree, others near a lake, where antelope and peacocks trip and sip each evening. There’s a swimming pool hollowed out of rock and a spa in a stone water tank.

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A room at Lakshman Sagar – Rajasthan, India

A shikar mahal that was the women’s quarters has been converted into a seating area, with plenty of shaded, cushioned nooks to escape the midday sun and a roof terrace for sundowners. Rooms are evidence of a zero-kilometre design philosophy: sari-upholstered benches add zip to the mud tones and chandeliers are created from dangling copper pots and wooden spoons. And as darkness falls, guests feast on cardamom – spiced lamb in the open-air pavilion, the night aglow with candlelight and magic.

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Singapore Night Festival

The Southeast Asian city that never sleeps takes nocturnal entertainment to the streets once again with the Singapore Night Festival. Night owls take over the Bras Basah/Bugis heritage precinct for two weekends in August to showcase a magical show in the dark during this annual midsummer celebration.

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A walk on Bras Basah – Singapore

This year’s Singapore Night Festival focuses on the theme of Inventions and Innovation and will see international and local artists combining science fiction with fantasy to create unforgettable performances that will dazzle through the night. Spread out over a few spots, including Armenian Street, CHIJMES, Singapore Art Museum, National Museum of Singapore and many more, festival goers can expect an array of events to fill up the night. Be treated to street buskers with acrobatic acts, Singapore musicians, installations and the highlight of every Singapore Night Festival – Night Lights.

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The interactive light show turns the facades of the Singapore Art Museum and National Museum of Singapore into blank canvases for a psychedelic and kaleidoscopic light show.

This year will also see the return of PERSPECTIVE talks and CREATIONS workshops, where registered guests will get the chance to discuss in an open panel with artists or make a souvenir commemorating their time at Singapore Night Festival at a workshop.

When dawn breaks, stay in the area to participate in a heritage walk around one of Singapore’s oldest neighbourhoods. The Original Singapore Walks by Journeys will take history buffs through Bras Basah on The Time of Empire walk. Unearth interesting facts about the 19th century as knowledgeable tour guides share about prominent names in Singapore’s history.

Learn more about the Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, the Sarkies brothers, The Straits Times and the cocktail drink that put Singapore on the map as you visit St Andrew’s Cathedral, Coleman Street, Raffles Hotel, Supreme Court and much more (US$28 per pax).

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St Andrew’s Cathedral

MAKE IT HAPPEN

  • Singapore Night Festival will be held over the course of two weekends from 19 to 27 August 2016. Various programmes are ticketed but the Night Lights shows are free.

  • Changi Airport in Singapore serves more than 100 airlines flying in from some 330 cities in about 80 countries around the world. National carrier Singapore Airlines is available in 63 international destinations in 35 countries.

  • Newly opened M Social Singapore is an ideal place to stay for the weekend. The Philippe Starck designed hotel is Robertson Quay’s newest and chicest accommodation that thrives on the idea of community and new experiences. Opening rates are available from US$187 per night for a Nice Room.

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    M Social Singapore Hotel – Singapore, Asia

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The many sides of Phuket offered by Centara Hotels & Resorts

Headed to the quintessential island getaway destination of Phuket? Centara Hotels & Resorts offers a diverse range of accommodations to fulfil your every holiday need, whether your agenda includes romance, adventure, or both

Best for the extended family – CENTARA GRAND WEST SANDS RESORT & VILLAS PHUKET

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Splash Jungle water park at Centara West Sands Resort

Generously-sized living and playing areas make the spacious Centara Grand West Sands Resort & Villas Phuket the perfect destination for indulging in some great family fun in the sun. A dedicated children’s water play area, two kids’ clubs, a multitude of swimming pools, and an endless list of leisure activities promise limitless entertainment for the little ones, while older guests who remain young at heart will love the adrenaline-pumping thrills and spills at the Splash Jungle water park. Barely 15-minutes’ drive from Phuket International Airport, and with an extensive range of family-friendly residences and suites, the resort is an ideal destination for adventurous holidays with the extended family and friends.

Best home away from home – CENTARA KARON RESORT PHUKET

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Backed by green hills and comprised of four residential zones, Centara Karon Resort Phuket provides an air of quietness and privacy that would make the perfect base for exploring the rest of Phuket and Karon Town. Karon Beach itself has excellent snorkelling spots at its southern end and is wide enough for beachgoers to never feel crowded. Couples and small families will enjoy The Terraces’ residential options, while larger families and groups of friends are spoilt with the spacious The Lagoon studios just steps away from the waterslide and pool. More private accommodations are also available with generous one- and two-bedroom Cabanas with spacious garden terrace and plunge pool.

Best for romance – CENTARA VILLAS PHUKET

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A room at Centara Villas Phuket

Found in a tropical oasis, where the lush jungle meets the serene sea, Centara Villas Phuket is a romantic hideaway of private Thai-style villas nestled within a haven of green, perched atop a dramatic incline for sweeping views of Karon Beach and the sea. Relax, rejuvenate, and find the inner tranquility that only nature can bring. Candle-lit dinner and drinks at The Cliff Restaurant and a refreshing Thai-style lunch at The Bayview Restaurant & Bar offering dramatic views of the glittering Andaman Sea.

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THE GREAT WIDE OPEN – Cultural Fusions in Mongolia

The future has arrived in Mongolia, both in the high-rises of its capital, Ulaanbaatar, and in the vast emptiness
If the Buddha were living now I think he would use social media,” said Baasan Lama, the fresh-faced abbot of Erdene Zuu, Mongolia’s oldest monastery. He flashed a luminous smile. “I already have a Facebook page.” From the folds of his thick red-and-gold robes, he pulled a small book he had published four months earlier that offers 108 tips for right action in a scattered world. “Short,” he told me, in no-nonsense English. “People don’t like to read long books these days!”

Visitors from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s boomtown capital, kept bundling into the small room where I was sitting with the Hamba Lama Baasansuren, as he is officially known, to receive his blessings and teachings. Not many minutes earlier, in the 17th-century whitewashed prayer hall next door, I’d listened to him lead chants while younger monks pounded drums.

The bulging-eyed black demons on the walls, the red-and-gold benches, the fragrance of juniper incense, and the flickering rows of candles and butterlamps all made me feel as if I were in Tibet.

The complex contained temples that looked Chinese and gers (the domed white felt huts also known as yurts) with chapels inside. A brick wall surrounded it, mounted with 108 tall, white stupas that seemed to ward off the emptiness of the Orkhon Valley, once the centre of the Turkic, Uighur, and Mongol empires and now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Erdene Zuu, locals had told me, stands on the ruins of Karakorum, the city that Genghis Khan’s son Ogodei built in 1235. Driving here across unending grassland, I’d seen only a handful of lonely white gers against the wide horizon and a few crop-circle gatherings of goats beside Bronze Age burial mounds.

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Erdene Zuu Monastery

Though Baasan Lama is only 37, he has spent the past 24 years in the temple, having taken on robes after his country emerged from 70 years of Soviet-imposed atheism. Now the strapping lama was presenting me with a sleekly produced CD he’d released to go with his book, featuring sing-along Buddhist chants that had become instant hits with the iPhone-tapping, Lexus-driving, sushi-and-Gucci movers of Ulaanbaatar. As two ‘monklets’ offered us cups of fermented mare’s milk and bowls of noodles with thick beef, the lama continued his impromptu discourse. “I’ve read the Bible,” he said. “And the Koran. I think that if Jesus and Mohammed and the Buddha were alive now, they would be good friends.”

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Silent Valley – V Resorts’ Queen Meadows, Ranikhet

With just about no one around at V Resorts’ Queen Meadows, Ranikhet, it is easier to meet your relaxed self

Are you the sort who likes to get away? Really, really get away? Where the loudest and possibly only noises you are likely to hear are the trill of the mynah or the shrill butterflies flitting about. Or the occasional loudly rustling breeze as it tries to dislodge pine cones. If your auditory range suddenly seems considerably enhanced, that’s because there is nothing else for as far as the sound travels.

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Dining can be enchanting at Queen Meadows

Queen Meadows is built on a hilltop in village Badhan, about five kilometres from Ranikhet. So literally is it cut off that guests have to trek up the last 600 metres — no wheeled transport goes up to the resort. Yes, there’s the badly needed rhododendron juice halfway during the climb, as I huff my indulgent city-fattened self up. Given that there are no signages leading to the hotel, anywhere, an escort car like the one that met me at Ganiadeoli a few kilometres away, is the norm. It stops at a bend by a hillside, and, but for the couple of staff, usually red-sari clad women, who carry luggage up the hill, there is no trace of anything to say that this is the point where the hotel begins! And, no, the 10-acre resort cannot be seen from the road below.

But then, that’s how this resort was envisaged by owner Sanjay Sarin, a former contractor with a strong pull to these mountains. He wanted to build a resort that “gives back to the hills”. There is literally no carbon footprint to speak of here. Almost everything I see is locally sourced, from the stone and clay for the villa walls to the aforementioned juice or the delicious food that comes my way periodically. For the nitpicker, there are of course mineral water bottles or glasses for French windows or spices that come from beyond the hill, but for the most part, one can live in unison with nature to a degree not easily achieved anywhere.

It has taken affable Sarin the better part of seven years to open the resort. Discover the stories as you chat with him over tea, or something stronger.

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Villas are at uneven levels

For starters, all structures have been hand cut, from the villa walls to umpteen steps leading up and down and everywhere (well, the hilltop isn’t flat, so no two structures are really at the same level). Yes, you have to trek up and down and all over as all the wood used has been sourced from the abandoned barracks at Ranikhet. In a region that is increasingly suffering from deforestation, the natural flow of water is maintained. His determination to not compromise even on the smallest detail has meant your footprint during your stay at Queen Meadows is quite literally invisible.

The green imprint in this shrine to eco-tourism goes deeper. At first glance, the unkempt-looking lawns might surprise, but Sarin is clear that the focus here is on growing food. The scarce water is judiciously used, and seasonal crops are mainly vegetables such as onions, peas and tomatoes. Fruit trees such apples, almond, pomegranate, and citrus varieties have been planted, while the local kafal, or bayberry, are plentiful already in the premises. A lime bush fruited so extensively in season that struts had to be put in place to support it, Sarin points out like a proud parent. Yes, it truly is tree to table here.

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A cheerfully up room

Take a relook at the eight 750-square-feet villas and seven 450-square-feet luxury tents, all of which function in the same sustainable manner. The villa walls are made of stone cladding with a clay wash of kharia and dhaan (rice) with the local auspicious aipan, or patterns, in red geru powder. The wooden ceilings are supported by metal rafters, though thatched roofs are visible too.

Flavors of Asia

Vibrant culture, incredible history and stunning scenery – no wonder Asian ocean and river cruises are so popular.

From the temples of Vietnam to the shiny new towers of China, the cultured frenzy of India to the beaches of Thailand, the jungles of Myanmar to the gleaming shopping malls of Singapore, Asia is a monumental place to experience.

The ability of cruises to take in one destination after another in a far-flung part of the world makes it possible to explore the region in a way that you never could on anything other than a backpacking jaunt. And the contrast between sub-tropical coast and glorious, history-packed interior brings a magic like nowhere else.

A report by cruise industry body CLIA in 2014 said capacity had grown by 20 per cent a year for two years running, with passenger numbers ready to top two million in 2015 as new and larger ships arrived.

Andy-Harmer“Asia has certainly become the cruise holiday magnet,” says Andy Harmer, Vice President of Operations CLIA, Europe. “It’s not just the prediction that China will become the world’s second largest cruise market in just a few years, but also the fact that more ships are moving east to cater for the growing demand from Western guests, including us Brits.

“And what a choice we have – round trips from Singapore taking in such amazing places as Ko Samui in Thailand, Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and Penang in Malaysia. And of course let’s not forget Japan and Korea, easily accessible from southern China. The choice of ships is also extensive, from resort style to intimate luxury brands.”

Simone Clark, Managing Director of leading cruise agent Iglu, agrees. “We are seeing a great increase in business to Asia, particularly in Japan and China. People want time to explore so we have put together tailor-made holidays that combine a premium cruise with an immersive land tour taking in such famous landmarks as Xi’an, with its Terracotta Warriors, the Great Wall and Tiananmen Square, and even with a Yangtze River cruise.”

Iglu’s 31-night Majestic China trip (from £2,849pp, full board, with flights, departing 30 October) combines a 17-night Princess Cruises voyage from Beijing to Singapore with a 12-night tour, including a four-night Yangtze cruise and stays in Shanghai, Beijing, Xi’an and Chengdu, featuring all the iconic experiences – panda sanctuary visit, Shanghai river cruise and Great Wall tour.