She&rsquos lying there sunning herself on the deckchair next to the swimming pool. She must be 70 at least. Her emaciated body is all shrunk up inside her bikini, and stands out in the sea of firm young flesh all around. She has dark glasses on, a drink on the deck within reach and a book in her hands. She looks completely content. I find myself scripting her a history &mdash how she has saved and scrimped for years, determined to take a luxury cruise. How time and youth have raced ahead. When the money is finally enough, she&rsquos a crone &mdash but that&rsquos just a minor detail. She&rsquos finally got her sun deck, her tall drink, her dream cruise...
I saw this woman on my second afternoon on board SuperStar Virgo, the luxury liner that&rsquos taking us from Singapore to Penang and Phuket and back to Singapore. For some daft reason, her image sticks in my head, admittedly not the sanest, and comes to symbolise all the hype and magic that&rsquos usually tagged on to the whole cruising experience. And the ship does reinforce all those myths, with its décor, food, cabarets, music, the whole fandango of luxury cruising, and the seriousness with which you go about the business of having fun
I board the ship like a grumpy old woman &mdash the flight had been late, mealtimes had gone haywire, I was bilious, and we had waited at Singapore harbour endlessly. The only thing I want is bed, and I can&rsquot care less if it floats or doesn&rsquot. And when I finally get on board, a woman dressed in a hula skirt hugs me for a ship photograph... hmm... not very good timing, what I should show you the picture sometime How Not To Start A Cruise.
Having begun on this ominous note, I head for my cabin filled with foreboding, the large quantities of loudly happy co-passengers doing little to soothe my nerves. Thankfully for this magazine, one look at the room and all&rsquos well. Beyond a set of sliding glass doors, I can see a balcony and outside, the sea and Singapore harbour. Standing there, communing with my view, I can now handle anything the cruise throws at me.
First food, then sleep, then I stand woozily on the top deck watching the ship leave harbour. And it&rsquos a sight well worth the wooziness. The Singapore skyline recedes, the huge liners and cruisers miniaturise, and the crowded channel opens out to sea and then, as dusk settles, so does the view. Now, all I can see is a silhouetted shoreline and a few faraway vessels soon even the shoreline has vanished and then there&rsquos not even a horizon &mdash just one stretch of blackness. At night, lying in bed, this is what I see a vast inky space dotted with starlight.
It&rsquos only at night that you can do all this silent view admiring. The days are jam-packed with activity. There is, of course, the all-important job of eating and drinking and we do that steadily and thoroughly. Any wonder, given there are around 13 restaurants on board There&rsquos Samurai, the Japanese restaurant where I hone my chopstick skills. There&rsquos Taverna, the deck bar, where a stiff breeze blows the foam off your beer. Palazzo is an Italian-fusion speciality restaurant that serves delicious pasta, and Bella Vista has scrumptious breakfasts. The buffet at Mediterranean, however, is our regular haunt. The food is good, a mix of Continental and Indian (with a special Jain section), great desserts and cheeses plus endless coffee. But despite my best intentions, I can still visit only a few. I miss out on Noble House, the Chinese eatery, Blue Lagoon&rsquos Southeast Asian cuisine, and the Indian Taj.
Not surprising really, when you consider how much time I spend on board simply getting lost. I spend at least a quarter of my cruise walking the wrong way down endless corridors, getting off on wrong decks, or waiting at the wrong restaurants. Worse, in the middle of being lost, I land up someplace else that&rsquos so interesting (I found a souvenir shop on one of my wanderings and a pub on another) that I usually forget where I had been headed. None of this is making me friends &mdash I have stood up about three people and missed about four engagements. I don&rsquot think they should complain &mdash we&rsquore talking 76,800 gross tonnes, 879 ft length, 106 ft width, seven decks and 980 cabins... that&rsquos a lot of ship. And it accommodates a lot of passengers &mdash about 2,000.
The vast majority of travellers are Asian &mdash Koreans, Chinese, Singaporeans, Japanese, Malays, Philipinos and Indians. And unlike Europeans, they travel in families &mdash uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, babies &mdash so it&rsquos not that Titanic sort of thing with ties, tails and hushed talk. They mill around, sing, play games, shout in conversation, dance to loud music or just eat and drink non-stop, all very homely and India-like. What helps this ambience is that it is free cruising &mdash no fixed meal timings, dressing for dinner, etc. The informality is a big part of the appeal.
My brethren Indians have discovered cruising in a big way, and I don&rsquot just mean the expat Indians from Singapore or Malaysia. I spot the eminently spottable honeymooners, all elbow-length bangles and shimmering silk. I spot large Gujarati dynasties. I see quiet Maharashtrian families. Incidentally, quite a number of the crew is Indian as well. And the ship acknowledges this large presence handsomely. In the Karaoke bar, there are sheets of Hindi film songs. At the disc on the last night of the cruise, the D.J. plays &lsquoKajra Re&rsquo at midnight, and the floor erupts.
By now, I have done it all with touristy gusto &mdash taken a Swedish massage at the spa, drunk at the pubs, danced at the discs, been to the bridge, clicked and been clicked. But... exhaustion... there is still more to do on-board casino, music concerts, the pool, the jacuzzi, the library, mahjong parlour... how much can you pack into a two-day cruise Everything, apparently, but for that you should stay aboard during the shore halts. This cruise halts first at Penang and then at Phuket, and at both you have the option of getting the ship to arrange a coach tour. Like all guided tours, they leave you feeling faintly stupid and dissatisfied but with the sole merit of jamming in a zillion things into five hours. A far more satisfying thing to do would be to stay aboard and luxuriate on the ship. Like all excellent advice, I don&rsquot follow my own &mdash at both Penang and Phuket I spend the entire day ashore, sneaking home guiltily on the last boat.
On the ship, there is a definite buzz that tempts you to get out and mingle. And coming from an incurable anti-social, which is some admission. There are bands, shows, gaming tables, deck games and costume evenings. Even more tempting is the prospect of people-watching, always fun but infinitely rewarding on a cruise where you begin to recognise families and foibles. I can linger indefinitely at the dinner table, watching food piled on plates, the squabble for tables, the dessert rush. Or at the poolside bar, watching as two extremes populate the deckchairs &mdash one is the large red mountain of flesh burning up in a tiny bikini and the other is the large red mountain of flesh melting down in shimmering silk and stones.
And each moment is more delicious when you know that if the kitsch gets overpowering, there&rsquos always refuge in your private deckchair, the sea, the sky and the many miles to the nearest shore.
SuperStar Virgo leaves Singapore harbour at 4pm all passengers have to be on board by 2pm. You reach Penang the next day at noon and leave at 8pm. The next day&rsquos port of call is Phuket, which you reach at 8am and leave at 6pm. The ship docks back in Singapore at 7pm the next evening. A three-night cruise costs Rs 22,000-24,500 per person (Inside Stateroom) Rs 26,500-29,500 (Oceanview Stateroom) Rs 39,000-Rs 43,000 (Oceanview Stateroom with balcony) Rs 54,000-Rs 69,500 (Suite). You can make bookings through any travel agent or Star Cruise sales agent.
Delhi 11-41608401 Mumbai 22-22197000 Chennai 44-42051326 Kolkata 33-232946431800-22-5588. Website www.starcruises.com
Planning Factor in air charges to Singapore, and don&rsquot forget passports and visas. DISCOUNTS. It is quite a popular cruise in India, so book early. You get discounts for bookings made 45 or 60 days in advance. Avoid Christmas, New Year, Diwali and summer holidays because these times see peak-season surcharges. Look for the promotional rates often offered in tandem with the Singapore and Malaysia tourism boards.
Prices Meals and beverages at only a few of the restaurants are included in the ticket price. All the other restaurants, bars and services are charged unless they&rsquore included in your package.
Credit The cruise has a system whereby you get a shipboard credit card worth S$300 to use in lieu of cash on board, but any balance is non-reimbursable. Also, it can only be used for food, beverages and alcohol, not extras like souvenirs or chocolate, etc. It might be better to insist while booking that you won&rsquot take the card, and just use cash instead.