We lounge beneath a large umbrella, watching our companions bask in the sun. Many of them are escaping the winter in the Western Hemisphere, and are happy to send home photos of themselves bronzing in the perennial Asian summer.
At one end, a team in striped shirts flips burgers and grills hotdogs. A bartender shakes metal capsules filled with ice cubes and alcohol, and we’re soon served freshly made margaritas. A few feet away, a young man dishes out scoops of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream on waffle cones. On the upper deck, a group of Asian passengers works on their golf swing with a pro, while not too far away, a couple plays tennis. We’re happy to be horizontal.
We’ve just spent the day in Thailand and are on the way to Malaysia. We docked the night before in Phuket, where we skipped the ship’s recommended elephant show and instead ventured out on our own and reveled in a relaxing massage at a sidewalk store ont. Today, after a full day of touring that included witnessing a Buddhist monk’s ordination at Wat Chalong, the city’s largest temple, we are sailing toward Penang on board the Crystal Symphony, a floating luxury hotel. It’s my first time ever on a cruise ship, and I have made a resolution that it will not be my last.
Wat Chalong temple in Phuket, Thailand
Mom is a cruise veteran, sometimes sailing twice a year. It’s usually a family reunion of sorts—she, any number of her cousins, and their children. She’d been inviting my siblings and me to join them for years, but we’ve always declined. The thought of using up so many vacation days to be on board a ship at sea for multiple nights with dozens of relatives and hundreds of people I do not know is enough to give me cabin fever.
But this trip is different, a mother-daughter holiday, and it has been delightful. We’re on a ship that doesn’t feel like a ship, because we still have our land legs. It’s an all-inclusive luxury resort that floats, taking us from port to port, without having to unpack, repack, unpack. We only had to do so once when we embarked, and we didn’t even have to do that, really, because our butler, Sebastian, did it for us, popping open a bottle of Champagne to accompany the platter of chocolate-covered strawberries that met us on arrival in our stateroom.
And now, as cocktail hour approaches, we head back to our room, where Sebastian has set out canapés of shrimp and smoked salmon on our veranda, so we can watch the sun setting over the horizon before he draws a hot bath in our Jacuzzi. Not too much, and no drinks please, Mom requests, since we are dining at Silk Road by Nobu tonight.
Some of Nobu Matsuhisa’s most popular signature dishes are served on the Crystal Symphony—a lovely clear mushroom broth served in a tea kettle, lobster with a sprinkling of yuzu and truffles, wagyu with wasabi and pepper, crisp rock shrimp tempura with spicy cream sauce, broiled black cod marinated in miso, or yellowtail with jalapeño peppers.
Nobu’s sashimi salad, served onboard the Crystal Symphony
Practically all of the servers at Silk Road are Filipino, and they say hello and chat a bit with us. According to the Symphony’s executive chef, who is overseeing meals for about 1,500 people on this cruise (passengers and crew members), about 55 percent of the kitchen staff on the ship are Filipino, and he himself travels to the Philippines regularly to help supervise their training. Filipinos work very hard and have such a pleasant attitude, he says.
Tonight the servers ply us with platters of sushi, earthenware vessels of chilled sake, and stories of their voyages around the world. Many of them have children back home who are growing up with their wives, or other family members, and when asked, wistfully share stories about them too—how they head home to visit every year, how they find Internet cafés at every port to Skype with or e-mail their wives, how their children are doing very well in school. It is always heartwarming to catch up with Filipinos in di erent parts of the world.
After dinner, it is too late to catch the live musical show featuring excerpts from Broadway musicals at the Galaxy theater, and too early for the Beatles piano night at the Avenue saloon. We’re not into the slot machines at the casino, nor do we want to go dancing, so we opt for popcorn and a movie at the Hollywood Theatre. Aside from one other couple, we’re the only ones ensconced in the plush leather seats. While there are about 800 passengers on board the ship, it always feels as private as it does here, like we are on our own.
The next morning, we arrive in Penang, my favorite city on this cruise. First stop, the old streets of George Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, where we visit an old Peranakan mansion, built at the end of the 19th century, with ornate ironwork balconies looking out into a charming courtyard. A long wooden staircase with a lovely balustrade leads upstairs to rooms with elaborate screens, four-poster beds, mother-of-pearl inlaid chairs, and vintage bric-a-brac such as a record player, a radio, and old luggage.
Inside the beautiful Peranakan Mansion, a museum within the UNESCO World Heritage site of George Town in Penang, Malaysia
Downstairs, next door, bats hang upside-down in an ornate family temple filled with burning incense sticks, gold-leaf pillars, images, and offerings to ancestors.
Next stop, Kek Lok Si temple, the hilltop site of which is one of the largest temple complexes in Southeast Asia. The ascent to the temple of the giant 99-foot God of Mercy is a feast for the eyes: from the shops selling secular wares to the Liberation Pond filled with hundreds of tortoises, to the koi pond and the dozens upon dozens of gold-clad Buddhas with outstretched palms at the Amitabha pagoda. We pass vendors selling ribbons with wishes to hang from trees. Prayers for a child, good health, good finances, good relationships. Others sell tiles of marble to help in building more temples, shrines funded by the people.
Buddhas at the Amitabha pagoda at the same temple complex
Back on the Symphony, it’s time for tea for two at Palm Court. Silver platters of scones, salmon and cucumber sandwiches, and pretty pastries with pots of Earl Grey, with classics played on a grand piano. In the late evenings, Palm Court is the perfect place for a nightcap while listening to smooth jazz.
It’s Captain’s appreciation night, so it’s off to our stateroom to dress for dinner. Passengers head to the formal Crystal Dining Room in tuxedos and evening gowns for a supper of Alaskan king crab or prime rib or sole meunière served on tables dressed in Garnier Thiebaut and Frette linen, with Villeroy & Boch dinnerware and Riedel crystal.
After dinner, one of the passengers is fêted for sailing on her 238th Crystal cruise. After the passing of her husband, she sold her home in Australia and boarded the Symphony to sail off on a world of adventure, stopping at one wondrous port after another, constantly exploring. Crystal Cruises offers a whole selection of voyages: from the glaciers of Alaska to the fjords of New Zealand, from the waters of Mauritius to the pyramids of Egypt, from the rainforests of Brazil to the ruins of Pompeii, from the streets of London to the Antarctic peninsula.
Ah… What a life.
For inquiries and reservations, contact Adventure International Tours, Inc., [email protected], 884.9427, 8849438.