SuperStar Virgo: A voyage of discovery

The journey on board the SuperStar Virgo, the largest vessel in Star Cruises’ Asian fleet, is truly an unforgettable experience.

THERE it was – an invitation by Star Cruises for a three-day, two-night voyage. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. Having never gone on a cruise on the high seas aboard a 70,000-tonne vessel before, I jumped at the chance.

The last time I went on a cruise to Hong Kong was in 2007, with my wife, to celebrate our wedding anniversary. There have been many changes there since then. New buildings and infrastructure developments are taking shape rapidly. The scenic view at the terminal is still alluring, prompting me to take a selfie with my smartphone. It was springtime, and the temperature was hovering at 22°C amidst breezy conditions.

As I made my way to the docking bay, a gigantic vessel caught my eye. I stood rooted momentarily in astonishment, gazing vividly at the 13-deck, 268m long and 32m wide SuperStar Virgo.

The open-air swimming pool with a 100m long waterslide. – Photos SIMON KHOO

My cabin came with a private balcony and an ocean view, and facilities that matched those in any five-star hotel. There were even exclusive souvenirs for passengers. The vessel adopts a cashless system and any purchases are validated through the cabin access card.

Another Malaysian journalist and I eagerly explored the vessel on our own, deck by deck, our SLR cameras clicking away at every opportunity. The facilities include 11 restaurants and bars offering various cuisines and beverages, a performing arts theatre, karaoke rooms, a cigar lounge, a huge open-air swimming pool with a 100m long waterslide, jacuzzi, spa and beauty salon, rock-climbing facilities, gym, video arcade, childcare centre, library and yes, even a mahjong room, casinos and slot machines.

The vessel cruised at an average speed of 24 knots. According to crew member New Hong Yi, SuperStar Virgo marked its return to Hong Kong after six years. The vessel had arrived from Nha Trang, Vietnam, in early April and will remain at its home port until Oct 26.

SuperStar Virgo, we were told, has the capacity to carry up to 2,500 passengers in its 935 cabins and 1,870 lower berths. It offers cruises to Taipei (Keelung), Kaohsiung and Taichung in Taiwan; Sanya, China; and Halong Bay, Vietnam. There are also one-night cruises to the South China Sea.

A general view of the lobby area and the duty free outlets on the left.

To enable passengers to maximise their cruising experience, a solid 18 hours were spent at sea before its maiden trip to Kaohsiung port city. With plenty of time on board, the casino is a must-visit although I am not a keen gambler.

Dinner at Bella Vista (Western restaurant) on Deck 6 was simply scrumptious. I had, among other things, glazed scallop with mango salsa and baked cheese lobster. Diners were entertained by performers in colourful attire.

Before retiring to my “floating bedroom”, I joined a long queue of passengers making a beeline to The Lido theatre. A new in-house production dubbed Stone Of Atlantis

should not be missed. I was mesmerised by the hour-long performances featuring sensational American violinist Bryson Andres and breath-taking acts by Shaolin kung fu exponents, Pantera Duo from Russia and acrobatic group Trilogy from Ukraine.

The next day, I was up early. After a light breakfast, I joined a group of Singaporeans for a galley tour. Executive sous chef Chuah Chong Hooi took us around and provided insight into how food was prepared under stringent conditions. It was interesting to learn that the weekly food consumption for crew and passengers includes some 4,000kg of rice, 3,000kg of beef, 8,000kg of chicken, 2,800kg of fish, 4,000kg of potatoes, 40,000 eggs, and 4,500kg of watermelons.

No voyage is complete without trying out the facilities. Since I had the whole gym to myself, I did a routine, then had a dip in the pool, sliding down the waterslide and finally, soaked myself silly in the jacuzzi. I was on cloud nine – no worries about work (at least not at that time) – and enjoying life amidst the deep blue sea.

All these physical activities left me worn out so I proceeded for lunch, savouring Chinese food at the Noble House restaurant, another fine dining outlet with exceptional service. The chef’s recommended dishes that rolled out – fish, scallops and prawns – were simply out of this world! As I swallowed the last spoonful of dessert, an announcement rang out informing passengers to prepare for disembarkation.

The Liu-He night market is a not-to-be-missed experience, with numerous stalls selling local snacks, groceries and apparel.

I made a detour to Deck 11 to explore the Captain’s Bridge viewing gallery – a dedicated compartment depicting pictorial records and a brief history of the vessel, previous voyages and past captains. I also managed to do some window-shopping in the duty-free outlets. While queueing to disembark, I struck up a conversation with a fellow countryman and frequent traveller Cooper Huang. He shared with me his purchases bought at bargain prices. Good customer service by the sales personnel is what Huang values most, besides the savings.

After endless hours of being at sea, I was glad to be able to finally set foot on Taiwanese soil. First on the list was a visit to the former British Consulate building, located on a hilltop, overlooking Sizihwan Bay on one side and Kaohsiung Port on the other. Built in 1865 during the Ching Dynasty, the consulate was the first Western-style house in Taiwan, with a beautiful terrace.

Next was 85 Sky Tower Hotel, the highest building in southern Taiwan. On the 74th floor is the viewing deck which provides spectacular panoramic views of the city, Love River, Shou Mountain and the harbour. The high-speed lift – reputed to be the second fastest in the world – took us to the 74th floor in only 43 seconds (or 600m per minute).

Due to popular demand, the guide took us to have a taste of two local specialties – Taiwan Mango Ice, a famous dessert; and soupy noodles with internal organs. The Mango Ice was great stuff! However, I can’t say the same about the noodles – the sight of the innards put me off instantly. No way was I going to swallow that, even if the locals describe it as “tasty and succulent”.

Shopping was last on the itinerary, and we were taken to the Dream Mall – one of the newest and biggest shopping complexes – and the must-go Liu-He night market. Although the market is not as big and crowded as those in Taipei, it is still worth a visit. The marinated grilled squid, stinky beancurd, chicken nuggets and nougat are recommended.

A panoramic view of the city from the highest building in southern Taiwan, 85 Sky Tower Hotel.

On the way back, we made a pit stop at Jiu Zhen Nan, an outlet specialising in handmade Taiwan pastries since 1890. After sampling a few pieces, I was won over. In fact, all of us in the group made purchases. With about 45 minutes before sailing off, we went on a stroll along Banana Pier, where I emptied my wallet of more Taiwan dollars from more shopping; this time, for eight individually packed banana doughnuts and cookies. The attractive packaging with the catchy words “Sea You! Banana” did the trick. That’s sheer creativity in marketing, which the Taiwanese are known for.

After that, it was back to the sea – another 18 hours to reach Hong Kong!

I decided to try out Japanese food for lunch. I randomly ordered the most unique names listed in the menu, starting with Samurai salad, Chawan Mushi, Yakimono, Zaru Soba and ending with Banana Tempura. I never really liked Japanese food until then.

An announcement rang out that we would soon approach Hong Kong. My cabin access card was de-validated and returned to me as a memento. A souvenir picture was also handed to me on my way out. As I looked back, the cruise certainly lived up to its reputation for providing a sense of “discovery and surprise”. I vowed to return, only this time I won’t be boarding it alone.

The writer’s trip was arranged by Star Cruises Travel Services (M) Sdn Bhd. Visit its website for more information.

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