5 Bucket-List Trips that Reveal Traditional Asia

Exotic Asia — where exciting, futuristic cities compete with laid-back, traditional villages to reveal the region’s pulsing heartbeat. And there’s no better way to sample them than on a cruise.

As Windstar Cruises adds Asia to its destinations for the 2017-2018 winter season, its Star Legend will call on major cities from Bangkok to Tokyo. But although the region is fast growing and swiftly modernizing, even in these bustling capitals old traditions live on — if you know where to look.

Here are five large ports where you can still experience Asia’s authentic traditions.


Singapore’s independence goes back only as far as 1959, so perhaps it’s no surprise that today’s city is primped with modern business districts and trendy architecture. To find Singapore’s soul you’ll want to seek out such hidden pockets as Kampong Glam, hub of the Muslim community. Anchored by Masjid Sultan, a graceful mosque with a glittering gold dome, the beating heart of the neighborhood is Bussorah Street, a cheerful pedestrian mall percolating with dozens of boutiques. Textiles are a star item, but watch for Persian carpets, Turkish lamps, bespoke perfuoremes, and quirky antique stores as well. Break up the shopping with a bite or a meal at one of the many cafés and restaurants serving a variety of Middle Eastern and Asian cuisines. Photo Credit Erwin Soo.

Da Nang, Vietnam

The thriving urban center of Da Nang may be home to Southeast Asia’s most iconic stretch of sand — the so-called “China Beach” of TV fame — but an overnight stop allows you to explore deeper into central Vietnam’s most important monuments and towns. My favorite: Heading 15 miles south to Hoi An, a charming trading port set alongside the mouth of the Thu Bon River. The homogenous old quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with 18th-century merchant homes, where the streets are closed to cars — perfect for ambling among the tailors and silk lantern shops. But schedule time for a lunch session at Morning Glory Cooking School, the first among many in Hoi An, where protégées of local chef Trinh Diem Vy will coach you through preparation of summer rolls and banana flower salad. Photo credit: xiquinhosilva

Hong Kong

The skyscrapers of Hong Kong are a pretty package to be sure, and the shopping for electronics may send you scurrying to empty an ATM. But just a few blocks from business-focused Central District, stroll down Hollywood Road to the hilly Wholesale District, where antique shops brim with curios and treasures alike. On Queen’s Road West, shops sell incense and funeral offerings for the dead, and at PMQ on Aberdeen Street — the historic former Police Married Quarters building — you’ll find a smart collection of studios and galleries offering contemporary Hong Kong crafts, artwork, and designer goods. Cap off this retail therapy with a visit to moody Man Mo Temple, a Taoist sanctuary built in 1847 and dedicated to the God of Literature (Man) and God of War (Mo). With elegant carvings, ceramic figurines, and incense suspended in coils from the ceiling, Man Mo is one of the oldest temples in Hong Kong.

Beijing, China

The port of call is Tianjin, but no matter — you’re headed to (or from) China’s capital city, Beijing, 105 miles inland. What better way to acquaint yourself with the might of imperial dynasties than to meet their most monumental achievement, the Great Wall. Alas, most visitors — 8 million a year — land at the commercialized Badaling section of the Wall, where T-shirt vendors dominate the scene. Instead, sign up for a tour to less-visited sites such as Jinshanling, where unrestored ramparts roller-coaster steadily, magnificently into the distance. The edifice was primarily built along airy ridgelines, which reveal a succession of continually evolving vistas as the hike undulates from one watchtower to the next. It seems at times like a walk atop the clouds of China’s history.

Osaka, Japan

Just south of Osaka, where Star Legend docks, lies the seaport of Sakai, one of Japan’s oldest settlements. Known for its keyhole-shaped burial mounds that date from the 5th century, Sakai is also famous for cutlery — the city was the base for Samurai sword making beginning in the 14th century. The sword smiths eventually shifted their focus to steel knives, and the craft remains a vital industry for the city. The Sakai City Traditional Crafts Museum hones the art, and masters are at work daily demonstrating production of handcrafted forged knives and scissors. If you take a shine to a blade, the store down below sells the high-quality cutlery, along with other Sakai goods, such as incense, Chusen dyed cotton fabrics, and bicycles.

About The Author

David Swanson is a San Diego-based freelance writer-photographer and contributor to National Geographic Traveler, Westways, the Los Angeles Times and other publications. Follow his travels and insights on Twitter: @DavidHSwanson.

When You Go

Windstar’s collection of 11 Asian cruises takes in both major capitals and sleepy fishing villages aboard the 212-passenger all-suite yacht, Star Legend. Explore Malay and Philippine ports on the 14-day Best of the Philippines & Borneo cruise, bookended by the striking skyscrapers of Singapore and Hong Kong. Icons of Southeast Asia focuses on the coast of Vietnam, including Da Nang, on a 14-day journey from Bangkok to Hong Kong. The 14-day Marvels of China & the Japanese Islands takes in the major ports of the Middle Kingdom from Hong Kong to Tianjin (Beijing), along with three remote tropical islands of Japan. Windstar’s 10-day Grand Japan itinerary journeys from Tokyo to the peace memorials of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and on to Osaka, gateway to Kyoto and Sakai.

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