In seventh heaven

ANGELA WALKER
Last updated 10:08 29/07/2013

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Day one-  Singapore to Phuket

Once the realm of marauding pirates and all manner of nautical n'er-do-wells, today the waters of the Malacca Strait are as flat as a mill pond and completely benign, which befits our first full day on board Silversea's the Silver Shadow, a six-star cruise ship where the luxury of not having to lift a finger becomes an art form.

Since boarding the ship the previous afternoon in Singapore, my Gentleman Companion and I have acquainted ourselves with what's on offer: Several restaurants, a round-the-clock room service menu, pool, gym, lounges, notable art and the library.

As (nearly) all food and drinks are  included in the price - the fine dining restaurant Le Champagne carries a relatively token charge - there's also that ''no worries'' sense that comes with all-inclusive holidays.

But best of all is our young, handsome, attentive, charming, funny (enough already?) butler, Jerry, whose appearances in our suite several times a day become one of the highlights of our trip.

The 640 nautical miles from Singapore to Phuket also offers enough time to sample three restaurants in one day, acquaint Jerry with our drinks of choice with which to stock our fridge, and realise that to make the most of our voyage we must simply kick back and relax.

Due to events of the previous year, this is harder than it sounds but over seven days we give it our best shot. Resistance, really, would be futile.

There is also time on this day at sea to consider the notion of a holiday on a cruise ship. Some may dismiss it as sedentary, soft, just too easy. Right now, I can't think of anything better. Happily, I'm not proved wrong.

Day two - Phuket, Thailand

The island of Phuket is about the same size as Singapore and, in its geography, like a greener, lusher, considerably hotter Bay of Islands - at 8 am the temperature has crept past 30 degrees, the sun is burning brightly and the humidity is all-consuming.

As with each of the ports we stop at over the coming week there are a number of excursions to choose from - best to let your budget, energy levels and interests guide your choice.

Our half-day Panoramic Phuket tour first takes us through the town of Phuket, home at various times to Arabs, Portuguese, Chinese, English and French, and now a mish-mash of shops, markets, reminders of the island's past as a major source of tin, and quite beautiful Sino-Portuguese mansions in all manner of disrepair.

It's been just over 40 years since European backpackers began discovering the beaches of Phuket. Today, the island's east coast is full of hotels by the score, from cheap to high-end, hair-raising traffic, trashy bars and shops full of knock-off gear in the nearby towns. With this comes, somewhat inevitably, a sense of paradise lost.

At Chalong Temple, the island's largest Buddhist temple, the cyan blue sky perfectly sets off the literally dazzling gold and red temple buildings, pagodas and shrines.

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Buses come and go, tourists queue to worship at, and/or photograph, the various gold Buddhas, and every couple of minutes the happy calm is shattered as strings of fireworks are set off in the brick ''beehives'' dotted around the temple grounds. Instantly the serene becomes the surreal.

Back at the dock a temporary market place awaits. We later compare prices on the knock-off golf shirts we buy - I thought I'd done well with three for US$20 but the Gentleman Companion, initially impressed by my haggling, quickly trumps that with one for $6. (Note: A few months down the track his ''gold'' Daytona ''Rolex'' still keeps perfect time but that became largely redundant when the strap fell apart.)

A morning of sightseeing, shopping and haggling can be thirsty work. Jerry has this covered. Awaiting us in the suite is a hand-written note saying ''Welcome back!'', an ice bucket filled with wine and beer and a plate of sliced fresh fruit.

The suite is our air-conditioned haven for the rest of the day, between short stints on the veranda to catch some sun. The ship's library offers great magazines for me, gripping thrillers for him, and each day a selection of decent movies rotate on TV.

Jerry returns around 4pm to restock the fridge and to utter the phrase that I will never tire of hearing for the duration of our voyage: ''Is there anything else I can do for you?''

Actually there is.  A booking for two at The Grill for 7pm, please.

As the sun sets, we cook steak and pork on preheated volcanic rocks, trade banter with the engaging wait staff and feel reasonably confident that Jerry has nothing to do with the lightning show accompanying our open-air dinner - though who can be sure?

Day three - Penang, Malaysia

The Malaysian port town of Penang was once the centre of the spice route and, in the 1800s, a hotbed of heroin trading, opium dens, brothels and gambling.

Now, its historic town centre of Georgetown, just a few minutes' walk from where our ship docks, is a gorgeous mess of a place and equally intoxicating and addictive on its own merits. Near ruins of buildings cohabit with beautiful do-ups, grand colonial piles, all manner of temples, churches and shrines and a seemingly generous supply of garages, whose workspaces casually spill out onto the footpaths. I

ndian pop music booms from shops and restaurants - ''Food Wonderland's Economic and Chicken Rice'' is a linguistic standout. At one of the many temples, the acrid smoke from large pink sticks of incense fills the air, carrying the prayers of the worshippers to heaven. My only quibble with this captivating destination is I don't have more time to explore it.

Day four - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

The call to prayer issuing from a nearby mosque is an interesting juxtaposition to the economics of Kuala Lumpur Chinatown's trade in knock-off bags, watches, clothes, DVDs and sunglasses.

The haggling is good-natured but, in this heat, quickly exhausting. I retreat, the owner of a few more bags and T-shirts than when I started the day, back to the ultra-modern, vast and shiny Pavilion shopping centre in the middle of KL, our pick-up and drop-off spot for the hour's drive to and from Port Klang.

It's late afternoon when we get back to the ship, where we're met by a lineup of ship staff bearing a sign welcoming us back on board.

Jerry steps forward to relieve me of my shopping and I follow him dutifully back to the suite. Here I find a very relaxed suite-mate, club sandwiches and fruit, and a bottle of my favourite wine on ice.

Oh, and a bubble bath decorated with rose petals and surrounded by candles. Jerry, I admit, is starting to make life difficult for my husband.

Day five - Belawan, Indonesia

The excursion choices don't appeal today so my plans instead are for a day by the pool with the Elizabeth Taylor biography I've  borrowed from the library, combined with a spot of people-watching.

The pool is just big enough to stretch out in for a few laps, the cabana offers just the right amount of cover to afford some sun but not too much, and every now again a waiter strolls by at just the right time to offer cooling face towels or fresh fruit juice.

Our fellow passengers are a bit younger on average than previous cruises I've been on and share a United Nations-worthy breadth of nationalities. Indeed, tensions flare up at one stage between a Russian family and a German couple - all clad in luxury labels - over territorial rights to a group of sun loungers.

A far happier group works together on jigsaws while the majority is content to read, chat and drink - champagne, cocktails, tea, beer, whatever you fancy. Sadly, there are some poor sods missing the point of all this completely by working away on their laptops.

The Gentleman Companion and I reconvene at lunchtime to compare notes on our respective books, enjoy a beer or two and devour sublime cheeseburgers, in themselves reason enough for an encore voyage on Silver Shadow.

Day six - Melaka, Malaysia

Melaka, Melaca or Malacca? Depends largely on the travel guide you're reading but there is no confusion about the historic importance of this city, one of the region's most important trading centres from the 1500s on.

In that time, it has been fought over by the Dutch, Portuguese, English and, during World War II, the Japanese. 

New Zealand forces were stationed here post-1945 and we meet a flesh and blood legacy of that time. A hat seller at the ruins of the Formosa fortress hears our accents and cries out: ''Hey, I'm a Malaysian Maori!''

We have an enjoyable river cruise down the Melaca River, where monitor lizards lounge in the shade and old warehouses have been converted into a lively collection of bars and restaurants; take in the stocky and utilitarian Stadthuys and Christ Church - the two most imposing reminders of Dutch rule here; and visit the Sultanate Palace cultural museum, an apparently faithful replica of a 15th century palace.

Most notable among its exhibits is the mannequin that bears an uncanny resemblance to Michael Jackson. We exit the palace to find a swarm of trishaws awaiting us. Riotously decked out in lights, mirrors, flags, toys, umbrellas, car grills (mine's an Audi) and plastic flowers, we hop on board and are pedalled through Melaka, down the Street of Harmony, to the 360-year-old Cheng Hoon Temple, the oldest functioning Chinese temple in Malaysia and a visual feast thanks to its amazing lacquer work and carvings.

What makes the journey so memorable is a) seeing my Gentleman Companion take to this mode of transport with such relish, b) hearing the song that was played at my wedding blasting from the radio and c) my 70-year-old ''driver'', who prefers gardening but still enjoys a day or two every now and again pedalling his trishaw. He enjoys meeting people, he explains.

Day seven - Singapore

Sailing into Singapore as the sun rises is a treat. The prospect of exiting this delicious bubble is not. A more relaxing way to spend seven days will be hard to find.

Angela Walker travelled courtesy of Silversea.

- Sunday Star Times

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