Pearls of the Indian Ocean
PHOTO: A cruise on the Kerala Backwaters is a must for visitors to the region. (All photos courtesy of Thinkstock)
Cruising is experiencing a boom in Asia with double-digit growth in the number of cruise ships operating in the region and new ports being introduced on expanded itineraries.
According to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), with the introduction of new and larger ships, passenger capacity in Asia grew at a 20 percent compound annual growth rate since 2013 to 2.2 million in 2015. There were 52 cruise ships with 1,065 Asian sailings scheduled this year visiting more than 168 ports of call in 18 countries.
“This year will be a record-breaking one in Asia with more travelers cruising the region than ever before,” says CLIA Chairman Adam Goldstein. “The cruise industry is responding by offering more cruises with experiences tailored to Asian travelers, as well as enticing international travelers with an easy way to visit Asia’s array of fascinating destinations.”
An example of one of these diverse Asian itineraries is Windstar Cruises’ “Pearls of the Indian Ocean” sailing from Singapore to Dubai. It combines the popular Southeast Asian ports of Penang, Malaysia, and Phuket, Thailand, with bustling cities on India’s western coast such as Kochi, Mangalore and Mumbai. These Southeast Asia cruises typically run from November through March, avoiding the hottest and most humid times of the year. Here’s a rundown of the top ports, including what to see, do, eat and experience.
Penang: With a history as an eminent British trading post in Southeast Asia, this port of call is reflected in the large collection of restored pre-World War II houses and colonial buildings in its capital Georgetown, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Central Georgetown is within walking distance of Swettenham Pier Cruise Terminal and easily navigable by foot or by a traditional, pedal-powered trishaw. Visitors can discover historic shophouses, some of which have been converted into boutique hotels, as well as heritage museums and covered markets. Penang’s demographic mix of Chinese, Malays and Indians has resulted in a dynamic street food scene, making Penang the cultural and food capital of Malaysia.
Throughout the historic center of Georgetown visitors will find a series of wrought-iron sculptures and hand-painted murals adorning the sides of buildings. These murals depict everyday life in the history of the city and anecdotal descriptions of the streets they adorn. A descriptive brochure and map of the mural locations is available from Penang Tourism.
One of the top attractions in Penang is the Pinang Pernankan Mansion, formerly the home of wealthy traders, and now a heritage museum filled with antique furniture and artifacts showcasing historic Peranakan culture. The Peranakans or Baba Nyonyas are descendants of Chinese traders who intermarried with local Malay women and developed a hybrid blend of customs, traditions and cuisine. Nearby, visitors can sample authentic Nyonya dishes, such as Assam Prawns flavored with tamarind, at Auntie Gaik Lean’s restaurant (No. 1, Bishop Street, 604-263-8121).
Phuket: This island destination in Thailand is 536 miles south of Bangkok off the Andaman Sea, one of the major trading routes between India and China. Phuket’s Old Town, built from the wealth of the flourishing tin industry of the last century, is filled with grand colonial mansions of former tin barons, as well as a plethora of cafés, temples, museums and shops.
Since the 1980s, the sandy beaches on the west coast of the island have been developed for tourism, with many new hotels, apartments and vacation homes still under construction. A total of 5,080 additional hotel rooms are expected to be completed by 2015. The most popular and crowded tourist area on Phuket is Patong Beach, which is filled with restaurants, bars and nightlife.
Completed in 2012, the Big Buddha of Phuket is one of the island’s most visited tourist attractions, situated on top of Nakkerd Hill with 360-degree views of the entire island. Funded entirely from public donations, the striking 147-foot structure is encased in 135 tons of white Burmese marble.
Nearby Phang Nga Bay National Park, covering an area of 154 square miles, is home to more than 100 islands with scenic limestone cliffs jutting vertically out of the sea. The area is ideal for boating to explore the sea caves with stalactite-filled tunnels and the collapsed limestone islands (karsts) with lagoon in their center. Also in Phang Nga Bay is Ko Tapu, the torpedo-shaped, 66-foot limestone rock renamed James Bond Island, which became famous after appearing in the Bond film “The Man with the Golden Gun.”
Kochi: This destination (previously known as Cochin) in Kerala is a popular cruise stop in India. The city has a centuries-old, spice-trading history with China, Arabia and Europe. Occupied by the Portuguese in 1505, it was from Kochi that the colonization of India began.
Cruise ships dock at Willingdon Island after passing by iconic Chinese fishing nets as they enter the port. Lining the waterfront of Fort Kochi, the historic heart of the city, the 32-foot-high, 60-foot-wide nets are believed to have been introduced here by Chinese traders from the court of the Emperor Kublai Khan. It is the only place in the world, outside China, where they are found.
Fort Kochi, a good place to spend half a day, is best reached by taxi or local “tuk-tuks” from the cruise port. The main sights include the 16th-century Mattancherry Dutch Palace with Hindu temple art and the adjacent Paradesi Jewish Synagogue in what is locally called “Jew Town,” a place lined with antique and spice shops.
Kochi also is a gateway to the Kerala Backwaters, a 900-mile labyrinth of palm-fringed canals, rivers and lakes. Visitors can enjoy leisurely views of paddy fields, coconut plantations and tranquil village life while cruising on thatched-roof houseboats. Full-day excursions on houseboats are available and multiple-day sailings can be booked for those staying longer in the region. The Kerala Backwaters is two-hour ride each way from the port.
The Lake Palace Resort in the backwater town of Alleppey is a good place to dine on South Indian fare. Reflecting Kochi’s colonial heritage, the historic Brunton Boatyard Resort on the city’s waterfront features Indo-European cuisine.
Kerala also is world renowned for Ayurveda, a centuries old lifestyle system composed of diet, herbal supplements, yoga and massage therapy individualized for each person’s dosha or energies. Ayurvedic oil massages are available in hotel spas and massage centers in Kochi, and are a bargain at around 1,500 rupees ($23) for an hour.
Mangalore: This Indian port city in Karnataka, not often visited by foreigners, is approximately 183 miles from the state capital, the better known Bangalore. It is one of the fastest developing cities in India with a high literacy rate and an economy dominated by agricultural processing and port-related activities.
One of Mangalore’s attractions is Gokarnath Temple, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Devotees of this temple belong to the industrious Billora community, which was traditionally discriminated against by the upper castes of society. Also worth seeing is the Chapel of St. Aloysius filled with ornate frescos and paintings by the Italian Jesuit Antonio Moscheni.
Many classical dances and folk arts are practiced in Mangalore. Yakshagana, for example, is a traditional theater form that combines dance, music, drama, costumes and distinctive staging. As a medium of entertainment, it offers an insight into the lifestyle and culture of the local people, and it is well worth catching a performance.
PHOTO: Magnificent British-Indian buildings can be found throughout Mumbai.
Mumbai: Formerly known as Bombay, this massive city is India’s economic, financial and entertainment powerhouse, with a population of more than 20 million. This is a city of extremes, where the $1 billion Antilia, the world’s most expensive private residence, stands not far from Dharavi, India’s largest slum with 1 million residents inhabiting just one square mile. There are guided tours of Dharavi, where you can see the cottage industries that generate $665 million annually.
The Portuguese claimed Bombay in 1534, naming the city Bom Baia, meaning “Good Bay,” and leased to the British East India Company in 1668. Many remnants of the British Raj can be seen throughout the city, including the iconic Gateway of India at the southern tip of Mumbai harbor. The 85-foot monument, built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911, was conceived as an entry point for passengers arriving on P&O ships from England.
Across from the Gateway of India is the magnificent Taj Mahal Palace hotel, the flagship property of the luxury Taj Hotels, Resorts & Palaces group. Since opening in 1903, the hotel has hosted kings, presidents and countless luminaries. Visitors can shop at the arcades for top-quality textiles and jewelry, or have traditional afternoon tea and a taste of Mumbai street food at the hotel’s Sea Lounge restaurant.
Near to the hotel is scenic drive along the two-mile seaside promenade known as Marine Drive lined with luxury hotels and Art Deco buildings. Just across Worli Bay is the Haji Aji Mosque, sitting on a tiny islet in the sea accessible only in low tide by a narrow, 500-yard walkway.
Other top attractions in Mumbai include the Prince of Wales Museum, which houses 50,000 exhibits of Indian history and is known for its collection of Rajasthani miniature paintings. Another top sight is the historic Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), formerly Victoria Terminus, a railway station built in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and featured prominently in the film “Slumdog Millionaire.”
For those interested in India’s independence movement, the Mani Bhavan (Gandhi Museum) is dedicated to the life and causes of Mahatma Gandhi. It showcases his personal belongings, photos and letters, including ones addressed to Roosevelt, Einstein and Hitler. For that “only in Mumbai” experience, the Dhobi Ghat is an open-air laundromat. Thousands of washers hand-scrub laundry from the city’s hotels and hospitals in concrete wash cubicles fitted with flogging stones.
Mumbai also has many markets and bustling bazaars, such as the Zaveri Bazaar, with thousands of gold and jewelry shops; Chor Bazaar (Thieves Market), India’s largest flea market; and Colaba Causeway, a commercial street near the Gateway to India with shops, restaurants and café s popular with locals and tourists. The best way to navigate around Mumbai is to hire a car and driver for around 1,500 rupees ($23) for the day or use a registered taxi by the port exit or at major hotels.
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A version of this article appears in print in the October 2015 issue of Vacation Agent Magazine.
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