Asia-Pacific cruise holidays have become one of travel’s hottest tickets in recent years, with eager operators offering packed itineraries and massive liners to entertain and accommodate ever growing legions of eastbound vacationers. Good organization, hassle-free immigration, no language problems and a huge choice of dining and recreational facilities are prime selling points. But what if you want your Asian sea voyage to come with more privacy? What if you don’t like enforced craft classes before lunch or sharing the pool with raucous children? Enter the world of small cruise liners and private charters. They may not offer half a dozen all-day-dining restaurants or onboard cinemas, but they do allow you to sail Asian waters in sedate style. Here are four of the best.
RAJA LAUT: With a name meaning “king of the seas” in Malay, Raja Laut is an ironwood schooner that plies the waters of peninsular Malaysia, Thailand and Burma. Its six beautiful cabins accommodate up to 12 guests, who are waited on by a multiracial crew that could have stepped out of the pages of Conrad’s Lord Jim (indeed, literature buffs can follow in the great author’s wake, voyaging through Borneo, Brunei and Sarawak on an itinerary based on his travels). Trips can include spectacular diving, visiting deserted islands with steep karst formations worthy of a James Bond movie, and trekking through tropical rainforests. Prices vary depending on whether you want to charter the entire boat or join an ongoing trip. Visit http://www.rajalaut.com.
ROAD TO MANDALAY: Mucking in with 100 other passengers may not be your idea of a quiet time, but the nice thing about cruises on the Orient Express’ Road to Mandalay in Burma is that they include many side trips, so you can escape most of the crowd if you want to. Guided pagoda tours, market hopping and a train ride into the Kachin jungle are among the offerings. Alternatively, while the other guests are on excursions, you can simply sit on a deck chair, cocktail in hand, and take in the stunning riverscape. The four-night cruise to Mandalay and Bagan costs about $2,100; an 11-night cruise, including Bhamo, Bagan, Katha, Rangoon and Mandalay, is far better value at about $2,400. Even the most jaded travelers among you should prepare to be charmed. As Kipling said, Burma “will be unlike any other land you know about.” See http://www.orient-express.com.
OBEROI VRINDA: Cruising the backwaters of Kerala has become extremely competitive. Every resort with a website, it seems, has jury-rigged an “antique” fishing boat, or kettuvellam, to navigate the state’s palm-fringed canals. The Oberoi Vrinda, however, does it better than most. With just eight cabins and wonderful cuisine (you won’t get enough of the spicy prawn curry), this is a marvelous way to catch glimpses of Indian life—from women washing clothes on the banks to fishermen selling their catch from boats. Some shore-based sight-seeing is included, while cultural programs and traditional dances enliven the evenings. The standard four-day cruise costs $2,000. Visit http://www.oberoivrinda.com.
HEBRIDEAN SPIRIT: This handsome vessel offers the elegance of a luxury liner, but in smaller portions. Accommodating just 96 guests, Hebridean Spirit has plush cabins, a spa, a library and five-star dining, but none of the tacky nightclubs and gaming machines that clutter larger vessels. A number of genteel Indian Ocean cruises are available, taking in India, Sri Lanka and the Seychelles among other destinations. Lengths vary from six to 14 days and guests can look forward to any number of sun-dappled pursuits, from viewing giant turtles in the Seychelles to strolling through Madagascar’s bamboo forests. See http://www.hebridean.co.uk.