From Manila to Taiwan, Star Cruises’ inaugural ‘Jewels of the South China Sea’ picks out some real gems
The five-night cruise visited Manila, the northern part of Luzon and Kaohsiung in the south of Taiwan, but Antony Otera would have preferred a little less shopping and a little more culture on the trip
We’re greeted with much fanfare when we arrive at Manila, the first port of call on Star Cruises’ inaugural “Jewels of the South China Sea” five-night cruise from Hong Kong. The colourful Banda Kawayan Pilipinas orchestra serenades us with Beatles classics played on musical instruments made from bamboo and other indigenous materials, while entertainers on stilts or dressed in tribal costumes dance to the beat of the drums.
First stop is the city’s historic core, where we find Rizal Park, a historical oasis in the heart of Manila, next to the Intramuros, or “walled city”. From there we visit San Agustin Church which, built between 1587 and 1604, is the oldest surviving church in the Philippines and a Unesco World Heritage site. A visit to Fort Santiago, a citadel built by the Spanish as both a defence structure and as a base of power, quickly follows.
A drive-by of Roxas Boulevard, Coconut Palace and the Cultural Centre gives us a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t tour of downtown Manila before we head to the enormous SM Mall of Asia, credit cards and Philippine pesos at the ready for four and half hours of retail therapy. I would like to have seen a little more of the history of Manila but no one else seems to be complaining, as the members of our bus tour disperse to the various levels of the mall for lunch before indulging in some bargain hunting. Four and a half hours to shop may seem a little indulgent for some – me included – but when I mention this to a fellow tour member clutching a sizeable shopping bag filled with trinkets, I’m quickly reminded that shopping is a favourite Asian pastime. Several other tour members within earshot nod in agreement.
The 13-storey SuperStar Virgo’s next stop – farther north in Luzon – proves the highlight of this cruise, despite us being packed like lemmings in small, unbearably hot and uncomfortable covered lifeboat-like vessels for the 10-minute trip to shore.
First stop is a buffet lunch in the Unesco Heritage Listed Vigan, the capital of Ilocos Sur, at local restaurant Hidden Garden (hiddengardenvigan.com), a thatch-roofed oasis that serves us a gastronomic potpourri of local dishes, including empanada (Ilocano-style tacos with Philippine sausages, papaya, eggs, herbs and mung beans), ukoy (Ilocano-style shrimp omelette with onions, herbs and tomato) and miki (Ilocano soup-based noodles).
With our tummies full, we stroll through the bonsai gardens behind the restaurant before clambering back onto the bus and making our way to the town’s historical centre, which is characterised by its preserved Spanish colonial and Asian architecture. Its centrepiece is the street called Calle Crisologo, which dominates the Mestizo district, with its cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages and rustic mansions with red-tiled roofs, thick walls, huge doors and staircases.
Here, we are given another opportunity to flex our credit cards, this time on genuine Vigan products including antiques, bags, jewellery, sweets, Vigan vinegar and woodcrafts. Much of the street is closed to vehicles (save for the horse-drawn carts taking tourists on rides).
The street is named after Mena Pecson Crisologo, author of, among other works, an Ilocano translation of Don Quixote entitled Don Calixtofaro de la Kota Caballero de la Luna.
Here, street dancers start regaling us with various Sevillanas-influenced moves. Toes tap and cameras click as wave after wave of dancers emerge from the shadows to entertain us with their quick feet and dizzying twirls.
A stop at the St Paul Metropolitan Cathedral impresses the architecture lovers in the group. Built in 1799 by the Augustinians in the distinctive Ilocano baroque style, its three-tiered facade shows some Chinese influence – the so-called Fu Dog carvings on the outermost doors, for example.
It was a day resplendent with history and culture and a sober antidote to the more frivolous, commercial bent of our Manila shore excursion.
Our final day on the cruise sees our merry band of 40 travellers alighting from a comfortable tour bus in Kaohsiung in Taiwan, before being shoehorned into a public bus for a shoulder-to-shoulder 10-minute ride to the museum at the former British Consulate at Dagou. Then comes the sweat-inducing 100-step climb to the actual former consulate residence located directly behind the museum.
In keeping with the lofty theme of this day’s adventures, we later stop at Tianliao Moon World, a tract of barren land in Tianliao District. Looking like a long-forgotten soundstage from a Stanley Kubrick sci-fi film, it is ostensibly a collection of dreary and desolate rock formations formed by the strong erosion of rain streams over many years. Reminiscent of the hills found on the moon, it inspires countless couples’ photos and selfies.
Any thoughts of a more earthbound venue for the penultimate stop on this tour are dashed as we pull up outside Taiwan’s 85 Sky Tower Hotel. There, a lightning-quick elevator ride to the 74th floor takes us to breathtaking views of Kaohsiung harbour and city. Moon mountains are no match for this bird’s-eye panorama of the city.
Star Cruises promises the “jewels” of the South China Sea and that’s what it serves up for the most part on its Manila debut, even if some of the shore excursions could do with a little spit and polish.
The “Jewels of the South China Sea” itinerary continues throughout May. Visit starcruises.com for a full list of fares and information.
The writer was a guest of Star Cruises.