Southeast Asian route offers a grand view of past and present

THE BALTIMORE SUN

To our east, the craggy coastline of Malaysia played hide-and-seek in the mist; to our west the distant shores of Sumatra beckoned hazily; and 650 miles to the north Thailand awaited with sun-drenched beaches and gilded temples.

Cruising along the Malay Peninsula between Singapore and Thailand's Phuket Island, we were following a maritime route used for centuries by Asia's great shipping powers. But while ancient vessels carried lucrative cargoes of silk, spices and gold, the four-masted Wind Spirit bore a body of 148 paying passengers -- who shelled out extra for casino chips, dinner wines and shore excursions.

Our predecessors sought to dominate the Far East. We just wanted a neat place to vacation. Our late November sailing was aboard the 6-year-old Wind Spirit, the youngest of the Wind Star Line's three motorized sailing ships.

We were not alone in choosing Southeast Asia as our destination or Singapore as our jumping-off point. The region has become cruising's hottest new location, with some 67 trips on 20 ships operating in 1993, up 34 percent over 1992. Singapore, already the busiest commercial port in the world, is rapidly becoming a pleasure-cruise capital as well, with its new $20-million cruise terminal for luxury liners bound for Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Australia and India. Its popularity is all the more striking since getting there certainly is not half the fun; the journey is a grueling 20-some hours from either U.S. coast.

Our weeklong round-trip journey was a voyage from the new to the old and back again. Beginning in skyscraper-studded Singapore, with its cellular phones, designer European clothes, and shiny BMWs, we sailed back in time to ancient Malacca, where ornately carved colonial wooden houses, delicate temples and dusty antiques shops lined narrow streets traversed by rickety trishaws (Malaysian three-wheeled pedal-powered rickshaws), and where old Malay ways still prevailed.

In between, we spent long, languorous days at sea, interspersed with an eclectic collection of port stops:

* In Pinang, we visited a fishing village perched on stilts, snapped photos of the 108-foot-long gilded reclining Buddha at Wat Chaymankalaram, and queasily explored the aptly named Snake Temple, where tourists pay photographers $4 a shot to have their picture taken with incense-drugged pit vipers wrapped around their anatomy.

* In Phuket, Thailand's largest island, we took a day trip in converted trawlers up tranquil Phang Nga Bay, where we lunched on prawns in coconut milk at a waterside restaurant, gazed at mammoth limestone outcroppings 100 feet high, and watched fisherman cast their lines into the glassy water.

* Langkawi Island offered a break from touring; we spent the day lazing on the powder-sand beach, stoked by barbecue and icy drinks served by the ship's crew at mangrove-shaded picnic tables.

The Wind Spirit was an ideal vehicle for navigating our historic route up the Strait of Malacca into the Andaman Sea -- a passage that links the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, and that was once the main thoroughfare of the lucrative spice trade. True, ours was no reproduction Tall Ship, with authentically cramped berths and creaking decks, but rather a modern cruise liner, with all the amenities from whirlpools and a casino on deck to VCRs and minibars in the cabins. And our captain was no peg-legged tyrant hoisting tankards of brew, but an affable young Norwegian with a penchant for crisp Chardonnay. Still, the Wind Spirit was a sailing ship, a 440-foot-long gleaming white vessel, with our masts towering 204 feet, and six huge sails that made us feel a little less like cruisers and a bit more like sailors -- albeit very pampered sailors.

When the sails were out, dispatched by a complex computer system that determined the ratio of motoring to sailing based on wind and sea conditions, passengers flocked to the decks to feel the wind in their faces and watch the six white triangles dramatically billowing out against a backdrop of wooden fishing junks, heavily laden freighters, and the dark forms of low-lying islands and hulking rock formations. At times, the captain even held navigation workshops on the flying bridge behind an auxiliary steering wheel, where all comers could play Admiral Nelson -- in bikinis and flip-flops.

Most of the passengers were veteran cruisers looking for a seagoing experience far from the traditional tourist traps of the Caribbean and Mediterranean, where giant ships queue up, depositing their passengers en masse to buy trinkets.

Not that we were averse to a little shopping. Singapore was a treasure-trove of swank international fashions, old Malacca offered tempting antiques stores selling hand-carved wooden crafts from Malaysia and Indonesia, and Phuket's exquisite cultured pearls beckoned seductively from shop shelves.

But we weren't of the ilk that shops till they drop -- except perhaps for a New York couple bent on setting a record for Husband Who Most Resembles a Pack Animal. The man mutinied in mid-Malacca, stomping off toward port, ignoring the cries of his wife: "But honey, wouldn't this be nice for the kids?"

Our sybaritism tended more toward the sensual: lounging in chaises under a caressing sun with a cold drink in one hand and a sizzling best seller in the other, scarfing down rich chocolate-chip cookies and cheesy pizzas at afternoon tea while a pianist played classical music on a white baby grand, indulging a moonlight after-dinner deck walk, listening to the waves licking the sides of the ship and gazing at the towering outline of the masts against the starry sky.

As for more structured shipboard activities, most passengers were content to entertain themselves -- in fact, they preferred it that way. The attitude had drawn many of our shipmates to the Wind Spirit, where organized events were purposely kept to a minimum: the captain's welcoming cocktail party, an aerobics class each morning, a very good Thai cultural show while we were docked at Phuket, and, OK, one vegetable-carving demonstration during a particularly long stretch at sea.

Other than that, our time was our own, and we did our best to let it flow freely.

We were aided in that quest by an unregimented ship style. All meals were open seating, and you showed up any time between the allotted hours and sat with whomever you liked, or alone if you chose. And if you didn't want to eat with the gang or during dining-room hours, you could order room service at no extra charge 24 hours a day.

Dress was always informal -- no black-tie nights or costume balls, as are common on many ships. Passengers simply were requested to eschew shorts in the restaurant after happy hour.

Shore excursions ranged from a few hours to all day, from temple tours to golf and snorkeling. Though we enjoyed the organized tours, which gave us a taste of life in each port, our most satisfying discoveries came from unguided meanderings on our own. On a cobbled street in old Malacca we came upon an elaborate holy-day feast in a Chinese temple, where a long table sagged under the weight of glazed pigs with ruby apples in their mouths, piles of fresh fruits and pastries, and giant (P garlands of fragrant flowers. In Pinang, we hailed a trishaw, and explored the colorful open market under pedal power. Even in ultra-modern Singapore, we found our way to the old-world ethnic warrens of Chinatown, Little India and Arab Street, then hiked a forested nature reserve just a 20-minute taxi ride from the traffic-clogged city.

Some passengers shunned extended visits ashore, choosing instead to take a quick peek in a new port, then return to a horizontal position on deck. Our two days entirely at sea forced even the most expeditionary types to cool their heels, except perhaps for occasional pilgrimages to the bar or a dip in the pool.

We had planned to join the 8 a.m. aerobics class each morning and to dance each night away in the lounge. We never did either. Instead we cuddled until 10 a.m. in our cabin, gazing out our twin portholes at the seascape and tuning in to CNN for glimpses of life in the real world. And at night, if the sun and the shore excursions hadn't drained us of all energy, we lingered over after-dinner drinks with new acquaintances, exchanging tales of travels past and tips for travels future.

For further entertainment we could grab a paperback or video from the library, burn some bucks in the small casino, or stretch out for a massage at the masseuse's station.

Mostly, however, we just lay about savoring the sea -- which throughout our cruise was accommodatingly calm. Tip a glass of water and I get sea-sick, but I never once felt queasy, except one night after an excess of lobster at a pool-side buffet -- and that was my own gluttonous fault.

Our week passed much too quickly -- as do all good vacations. Just as we had finally unwound completely, our mimeographed daily schedule announced a debarkation briefing, and the next thing we knew we were docking back in Singapore. I watched grudgingly as our steward readied our cabin for its next occupant -- who would take over our queen-size bed that very night.

It didn't seem fair that we had to abandon ship when there were still so many riches to be relished afloat. But then ancient mariners must have felt that way too, and even they had to yo-ho-ho it home eventually.

IF YOU GO . . .

Following are several cruise lines that operate along the Malaysian coast. Trip lengths and itineraries may vary significantly: Cunard Line, (800) 221-4770; Royal Cruise Lines (800) 227-5628; Seabourn Cruise Line (800) 929-9595; Seven Seas Cruise Line (800) 285-1835; and Renaissance Cruises (800) 525-5350.

The Wind Spirit operates weekly (Sunday to Sunday) cruises along the Malay Peninsula, between Singapore and Thailand, through May 1, after which it will reposition to the Caribbean. The liner's identical sister ships, the Wind Star and the Wind Song, cruise the Mediterranean and French Polynesia.

Cruise prices for the Malaysia itinerary are $3,295 to $3,395 per person, double occupancy, excluding air fare and port taxes. The 74 cabins, which occupy two of the ship's four decks, all have sea views. Shore excursions, which run $35 to $180, cost extra.

For more information, contact Seattle-based Windstar Cruises, a division of Holland American Line: (800) 258-7245.

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