Star Cruises' Virgo blends the best of East and West

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Kung fu shows, Chinese acrobats and all-day karaoke might tip you off that SuperStar Virgo is an Asian ship, but the bingo, line dancing and Las Vegas-style stage shows sure wouldn't.

Star Cruises' Singapore-based, 1,960-passenger SuperStar Virgo succeeds in offering a cruise experience that is mainstream by both North American and Asian cruise standards. The first language onboard is English, five of nine restaurants serve continental cuisine, including Italian, and waiters buzz around with fruity cocktails as they would on any megaship in the Caribbean.

The Virgo, built in 1999, sports velveteen club chairs standard on most cruise ships, burled wood veneers, marble accents and grandiose design show-stoppers such as the giant sculpture of three gilded horses, an auspicious symbol to the Chinese, in the atrium.

The leading cruise operator in Asia and part of the deep-pocketed Genting Berhad group, Malaysia-based Star Cruises was founded in 1993 and is the third-largest cruise operator in the world. It has 22 ships in service (and four more new-builds in the pipeline) under the Star Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, NCL America, Orient Lines and Cruise Ferries brands. Five of the Star brand ships operate in Asia year-round, while the sixth, the SuperStar Libra, splits its time between India and the Mediterranean.

"The experience gained over a decade ... and being the first to offer year-round cruises in Asia has put us in good stead to better understand and provide the best possible cruise experiences for our guests," said Jean Teo, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Star Cruises.

Star's hook has always been its variety of short itineraries in Asia. Virgo's two-night, weekend cruises to nowhere are popular with Singaporeans, many who return regularly to gamble. Otherwise, the itineraries are port-intensive rather than focused on gaming.

Three-night sailings go to Penang, Malaysia and Phuket, Thailand, or to Phuket and Langkawi, Malaysia, and a two-nighter sails for Redang or Port Klang/Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. Anywhere from 20% to 30% of passengers do a combined five-night sailing.

Of the approximately 2,000 passengers on a two-night cruise to Phuket, Penang and Port Klang/Kuala Lumpur in late June, about 700 flew in from India and even more were Singaporeans of Chinese and Malaysian descent. Australians rounded out the mix along with a sprinkling of Japanese, Europeans and others.

"It's a real challenge with so many nationalities," said Teo.

The Virgo was a welcoming place for everyone, thanks to an international crew who did an outstanding job providing friendly, helpful and patient service while handling the rigors of three turnaround days a week.

Good food, for the most part

In the galleys, chefs were busy running nine restaurants, including six serving Asian fare. Dining at three main restaurants, featuring Chinese, international and Indian/continental cuisine, is included in the fare. Six more intimate venues are priced a la carte.

As on NCL ships, all eateries on the Virgo operate with a dine-anytime, open-seating system. In Chinese venue Noble House, the extensive menu included delicacies like braised bird's nest soup for $56. The Hainanese chicken rice dish for $6 in the Blue Lagoon cafe was excellent, and my sons loved the $5.50 hot dog and fries. The Taj restaurant offers an $8 lunch and dinner buffet of mostly northern Indian food  like chicken tikka masala (boneless chicken in a tomato gravy) and vegetable biryani (rice and mixed vegetables).

The one culinary weak spot was the Mediterranean buffet. The dried-out fried eggs and pancakes were nothing short of hockey pucks, and items on the meager kid's minibuffet were often unlabeled -- and unidentifiable. Overall, tables weren't bussed fast enough, and a feeling of chaos sent us more than once to buy lunch in the Blue Lagoon.

Besides a 15% service charge added to restaurant and bar bills, there's a no-tipping policy. 

Passengers in the balcony cabins and suites are entitled to perks like dining credits for alternative restaurants ($300 per cabin for a five-night cruise), free use of the spa pool and priority check-in. Standard cabins are comfy and stylish but on the small side.

The oceanview Charlie's Childcare Center offers welcome relief for stir-crazy families cramped in tight cabins. For passengers ages 1 to 12, there are supervised arts and craft projects, language classes and free play in the room's climbing maze and ball pit.

As flexible as you'll find at sea, the playroom operates round-the-clock from 9 a.m. till 1 a.m. It's especially convenient if parents want to venture ashore alone.

A giant arcade houses more than 50 video games, and just outdoors on a sequestered patch of deck is a playground, wading pool, hot tub and a bigger pool surrounded by a pair of water slides and a climb-on submarine.

One caveat to this kiddy -- and parent -- paradise: the price. Unlike the complimentary daytime children's programming on U.S.-based megaships, this one costs $5 per hour for children ages 1 to 4, $4 for ages 5 to 12; the price rises to $8 an hour after 11:45 p.m. or for private baby-sitting.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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