By Gina Tabonares-Reilly
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Those who claim they don’t like cruising haven’t realized the essence of wandering in the middle of a breathtaking blue ocean. They don’t know the excitement at port calls to discover different destinations or new experiences.
There is something always exciting with cruising and the thought of seeing Japan and Taiwan again via shore excursions was enough reason for me to join a business class flight via Philippine Airlines with 11 others from Guam and Saipan.
The imposing presence of Superstar Virgo docked at Manila Port brought out sighs and excitement among first-time cruisers. I was amazed at how the mere sight of a big boat can convert someone into a kid who is about to enter a theme park. The excitement was so compelling it brought back memories of last year’s voyage with the same ship.
As soon as you step into the gangplank, you will feel it. Minus the chaos brought about by some passengers getting confused around the boat, cruising gives you the feeling of bliss, chill, play, thrill , nature, and nourish. The stunning oceanview from our room’s balcony reminded me that it was a perfect escape, a significant break from all the routines.
I walked toward the middle of the ship and saw the familiar decor of Asian aesthetic highlighted by the imposing presence of three golden horses by the lobby. Soon enough, the area was filled with people taking selfies and groufies.
My re-exploration brought me back to Blue Lagoon, a 24-hour restaurant at Deck 7 where I always go for comfort food or when I want to avoid the long queue in the main dining places. A few steps from its walkway was the entrance to KTV Lounge, yes, that part of the boat was where we solidified the group’s friendship marked by shots of alcohol, loud singing, laughing, and dancing—thankfully, its soundproof wall really works!
I took the carpeted stairs that led me to Resorts World Casino at Deck 8, the same floor where you can find the Duty Free Shops and other specialty stores. Too early to begin my shopping, I headed out toward Deck 12 where the cruise director and his team were starting to dance with some passengers who were ready to party. I passed by the party scene and headed out to Deck 13, the highest deck where you can see the whole vista of the ocean. The deck serves as a footstool before the throne of the ocean’s vastness. As the boat started moving away from the shadow of Manila Bay, the water started getting bluer, the trail of white bubbles of the waves has a calming effect, enough to set your mood to momentarily abandon the city life and embrace the nature’s pleasure right in front of you. Hello Kate Winslet, are you there?
This was it, the bliss I was looking for, a great time for solitary thinking, the relaxing ambience brought about by the ocean, the salty wind, and glorious sun, where you can take in as much as you could, and nobody was rushing you although a few steps away inside the boat the party was unfolding.
Despite having a thousand passengers, the big ship will always have a room or a corner if you want a space away from the party medley.
We had 24 hours before we got to our first port call in Naha, Okinawa. Except for the mandatory safety drill, everything else was free and easy. Our fam tour hosts led by Kathy Mercado, Resorts World Manila VP for International Marketing and Hotel Sales, with Janine Chua, Sharmaine Saringan, and Mae Bernardo, all RWM staff we call “angels,” made sure that all the 20 participants of the group tour were well-fed, entertained, and taken care of.
The third day of the cruise brought us to Naha, our first port call. Naha City is the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa, Japan.
From a 20-minute bus ride from the port, Akiko, our local guide, led us first to a nearby Aeon Mall where we found a wide selection of Okinawa food items, including snacks and nicely-wrapped Japanese cookies.
The highlight of the day was the trip to Shurijo Castle, the epitome of the history of Ryukyu Kingdom constructed around the 14th century. Designated as part of UNESCO’s World Heritage Site, our Shurijo Castle tour was too quick you wouldn’t get a chance to immerse yourself into the rich history of the site. From a couple of souvenir shots in front of the vermillion-colored castle and after some pictures taken by Usasuka where various ceremonies and celebrations were held by the throne of the king, our group was led to a corner where you can put your shoes back on, which earlier you were asked to place in a plastic bag. An hour is not enough to cover all the historical gates, towers, gardens, and buildings of the destination.
Our last Naha itinerary was a quick stop at Kokusaidori, a two-kilometer stretch of shops, bars, restaurants also known as International Road or Miracle Mile because of its rapid recovery after WWII. The street is bustling with tourists who are either buying souvenir items, getting a taste of Okinawa delicacies, or shrieking at the sight of habushu, a liquor containing poisonous pit vipers. Habushu is made with a base of awamori, a combination of ginseng, honey, and herbs. The live snake is either drowned in the alcohol or sedated, gutted, and sewn back before being placed in the jar. It is believed to increase sexual potency. Akiko-san also reminded us not to forget the famous purple sweet potato of Don Quijote before we head down to the port.
Excited for Taiwan, we got up early hoping to maximize our time in Keelung. A weather forecast said that it was raining so I opted for a light jacket with a hoodie. I underestimated Mother Nature. Not wearing the right gear I joined the group who opted to skip the Yehliu Geopark tour. The cold weather and the rain were too much for me to try a landscape of honeycomb and mushroom rocks that could be challenging. I heard from the brave ones that the geopark was really breathtaking.
An hour-long bus trip to Yehliu allowed us to enjoy the breathtaking view of the north-east coastline of Taiwan. Although it was cloudy several breakwaters with huge rock formations adorning the straits provided a magnificent picture.
Our last time in Taiwan was Keelung Night Market. Famous for their hundreds of night markets, your Taiwan visit is not complete if you don’t go and taste some of the many diversified Taiwanese street food.
You don’t need a big budget to feed a big appetite in Keelung’s Miaokou Night Market where a small food portion packs huge flavor, serving delights to gastronomics for pocket change.
The rainy weather failed to prevent us from a non-stop sampling and grazing. Surrounded by yellow lanterns, the first food we tried was the braised pork rice. The tasty marinade minced pork served on top of steamed rice hit the right spot on a rainy, cold weather. It didn’t take long before I saw some members of our group scooping some noodles. Someone told me the best way to find the best food at the night market was to observe where the line is, the longer the line, the better. So I followed the crowd. When someone stopped at the bubble tea milk counter, I stopped, too.
I was, however, not too brave to try intestines and frogs or anything strange-looking. The last indulgence I could not resist was the sweetened strawberries on a stick.
With the remaining 24 hours of cruising, I thought about my to-do list. I went to the spa and booked a 90-minute massage. The masseuse from India gave me one of the best massage for just 200 HKD ($30). An additional $14 for pedicure at the salon called Oscar’s, my pampering was complete and I was ready for Captain’s Ball.
There’s always a captain’s ball or a gala night for short cruises. The longer the cruise the more gala nights so make sure you bring enough dressy clothes in case you have to rub elbows with the ship’s captain.
On my way back to my cabin I saw women in long gowns and cocktail dresses taking pictures with their men in suits. The captain of Superstar Virgo took the centerstage at the promenade and introduced all the key personnel of the cruise ship. The Star Dining area was a picture of elegance and the only loud noise you could hear was the clinking of wine glasses or the clattering sounds of the dishes.
After the stylish dinner, our group headed to Zodiac Theater and enjoyed the magic show of Vincent Vignaud.
I must say that the Star Cruises live shows can be at par with other big cruises’ entertainment. The Superstar Virgo, however, pales in comparison when it comes to Wi-Fi connection. The ship’s low internet connectivity can be frustrating to other passengers but can serve as a digital detox for those who want to enjoy real bonding time.
Many different things can go wrong on a cruise and it’s a matter of perspective. A delay should mean extra time to sleep in, a long queue is an opportunity to meet new friends. You don’t need to hurry because once you get off from the boat, you don’t know when your next cruise will be.