It’s Christmas Eve at Singapore’s $500 million Marina Bay Cruise Centre, and there are two giant ships waiting to load their guests.
On one side is the Mein Schiff 1, a 1,900-passenger vessel run by the German Tui line.
On the other is the mighty Mariner of the Seas, at 3,100 passengers one of the regions’ cruise giants.
Royal Caribbean won a reader’s choice award as the best Asian cruise line late last year. They have kindly invited ASEAN Cruise News on board to find out why.
We are watching the preparations for a full payload of guests – mostly young Asian families with children keen to experience a bit of Christmas cheer on the ocean.
The “no vacancy” signs show Asians have found a new way to celebrate major holidays.
The Mariner is also booked out for at least one of its Chinese New Year cruises.
“Our guests like our ships for the festive program onboard including Chinese New Year decorations, shows, menus and red packets (Ang Pao) for the children so they can celebrate with families and friends on the high seas, with everything including meals and entertainment and activities taken care of,” says the lines Ying Duan Chin.
The Mariner has been so successful that Royal Caribbean is planning to increase its sailings 25 per cent next season, from this year’s record 30 to 40 in 2016.
“Our trade partners in the region have played a significant role,” says Ying Duan. “They will also be excited to know that for the next season starting this October, we will increase this number to over 40 sailings and add new itineraries such as the 3-night cruise to Penang and the 4-night cruise to Phuket, which will give them and their customers even more options to choose from.”
Our visit coincides with a short pause for the Mariner’s 1,185 crew. They have just disembarked the last guests and – in one of the cruise industry’s true miracles – cleaned, swept and changed the linen in 1,557 statements.
Now, in the short pause before the merry payload of passengers arrive in search of Santa’s grotto, they are busily decking the halls to turn this huge vessel into a festive fun palace.
Canadian captain Mal Bardsnes comes over the intercom to engender some seasonal good will, telling his crew they will be entertaining passengers from Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. There are also more than 400 Australians.
Not that the crew need much of an excuse to get into the Christmas spirit. In the dining room, an enormous gingerbread and chocolate sleigh greets guests, with Rudolph’s red nose right there at the front.
Legendary Asian cruise director Fang Lixin, who has served 20 years with Royal Caribbean on big ships like the Legend and Voyager, is in charge of entertainment.
Tomorrow, this ship – Santa please note – will be in Port Klang, Malaysia.
But tonight, the elves will be on the ice skating ring. There will be midnight mass and milk and cookies to entice that sleigh. And eggnog.
Ying Duan tells us the five-night New Year cruise features Singaporeans, Australians and Indians and goes to Kuala Lumpur (Port Klang), Penang and Phuket, from Singapore.
And she warns that these cruises now book out early – there are already many families who have staked their claim to 2016!
“It’s a growing trend here to take a cruise at these two festive seasons – especially for young families.”
We visit some of the staterooms where large groups of relatives can have adjourning suites with connecting doors or stay across the hall from teens that want some privacy.
There is plenty to chose from: one Royal Suite, eight Owner’s Suites, one Family Suite which can take up to eight guests, 22 Grand Suites and 78 Junior Suites. There are 638 Balcony Staterooms.
The Mariner’s main dining room is the original, three-tiered style with two sittings. But there are plenty of other eateries, from the chef’s table at Chops Grille to Giovanni’s – no prizes for guessing the style of food there.
Then there is Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream and the legendary Johnny Rockets.
There’s a great atmosphere at the ship’s heart – the Royal Promenade, where the DreamWorks Move it! Move it! Parade takes place.
As we leave, families are storming up the gangways with excited children clutching toys and parcels. The Mariner may be at sea, but there is no doubt Santa will be popping down her funnel.
And even though it’s 33 degrees outside, there is only one show on at the cinema: White Christmas, of course!
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