As the world’s exotic rivers become more popular for cruising, the Mekong is increasingly taking center stage. With more cruise ships than ever plying this Asian waterway through Vietnam and Cambodia, each new one is upping the ante to stand out. Take the year-old 68-passenger Scenic Spirit from Australian-based Scenic Luxury Cruises and Tours. Designed specifically for the Mekong, it’s the most luxurious vessel on the river. At 279 feet, it’s also one of the longest, which gives it the advantage of roomier staterooms and more public space.
Here are five more reasons to love it:
All the 34 staterooms on the Spirit are suites, and they’re the largest on the Mekong River, ranging from a generous 350 square feet to a lavish 865 square feet. Talk about putting down a marker. Each also has a convertible balcony created with a sliding glass door. When it’s closed, the balcony extends to the floor-to-ceiling, wall-length window, which can be opened half way or all the way — turning the balcony into a private “sun lounge.”
The décor is tastefully minimalist, with light colored wood floors and modern furnishings. Luxury is subtle, but oh-so satisfying: soft Egyptian cotton sheets, adjustable queen-sized beds, pillow menus (anti-aging, anyone?), true walk-in closets (a rarity on ships), large flat-screen TVs and fully stocked mini-fridges that you can customize to your preferences — but of course.
Large en-suite bathrooms are simply divine with generous counter space (what a concept!), spacious walk-in showers with body jets, lighted makeup mirrors and L’Occitane toiletries.
Small details make a big difference on this ship. Thoughtful touches include umbrellas and walking sticks in each cabin, perfect for some excursions; two USB ports on the side of the bed (digital addicts, take note), and in-room bottled water kept perpetually replenished — a welcome provision for the hot, tropical climate.
Service with a Smile
With a staff-to-guest ratio of nearly 1:1 and a butler for every stateroom (the only Mekong ship to offer this), the Spirit goes all out when it comes to service. And what service it is. The gentle Cambodian staff are all smiles and warmth — whether welcoming you with ice-cold, scented washcloths and chilled drinks after a long, hot excursion or greeting you by name at dinner, with palms pressed together. Butlers are unobtrusive but available to fulfill most any request, from room service to restocking the minibar.
“Scenic knows their staff is the backbone,” says guest Ron Chou, an attorney from Ottawa. Gina Gushue, a passenger from Kingston, Ontario, agrees: “The staff are so genuine, from the heart.”
All-Inclusive All the Way
Put away your credit card. The Scenic Spirit has more inclusions in its price than any other Mekong ship. All shore excursions, alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages, minibar, 24-hour room service, Wi-Fi and gratuities (even for land-based guides) are included in the cruise price. Apart from the spa, you never have to think about how much you’re spending or what anything costs. What a relief.
Elevator On the Rise
Chalk up another first: The Spirit is the only Mekong ship with a passenger elevator between its five decks. Located midship, it’s a helpful feature, given that the typical passenger is over age 60. It’s also especially welcome when you return to the ship tired from a long walking excursion.
Expressions of the Vietnamese and Cambodian itinerary appear throughout the ship in ways large and small. Gorgeous orchids or lotus blossoms grace the public rooms and flower petals garnish many dishes. The in-room TV features movies about or set in Southeast Asia (think The Killing Fields, Apocalypse Now, Platoon and Good Morning Vietnam) for insight into local history and culture. Vietnamese artwork adorns the public spaces. And each guest receives a gift of a traditional scarf called a krama, which has been hand woven at a local Cambodian NGO.
Signature cocktails, customized by a mixologist for the ship, also reflect local flavors. There’s the Angkor Colada, named for the ancient Cambodian capital of the Khmer regime, which contains Cambodian green tea-infused rum, coconut cream, fresh pineapple and Malibu coconut liquor. The Mekong Margarita has tequila, fresh watermelon, kaffir lime leaves, and fresh lime juice, while the Vietnamese Mojito is made with light rum, fresh mint, lime, lemongrass and soda.
The focus on the destinations includes a tasty nod to local cuisine. Take such dishes as Hoi An green mango salad; smoked duck breast with sticky turmeric rice, passion fruit and jack fruit; and mango sticky rice with coconut sorbet for dessert. You can even learn how to make some culinary specialties in a cooking class with the chef.
The Australian cruise director, Paula Harrigan, sums up the experience best: “We understand Western needs but with Cambodian charm,” she says. “It’s the perfect way to see the developing world with five-star comfort and good cuisine.”
The former travel editor of USA TODAY, Veronica Stoddart is an award-winning writer and editor who has written for two dozen publications and websites. Follow her on Twitter @wanderlust13.