Thanks to increased interest in travel to East Asia, several cruise companies have developed packages that pair luxurious tourism-by-water journeys to China, Korea, and Japan — countries that had previously been underserved by the cruise industry.
These grand experiences include exploring the hard-to-reach interior of China with trips down the Yangtze River; checking out the buzzing, high-energy metropolises of Beijing, Shanghai, and Seoul; and discovering Japan's most beautiful mountains. Guided excursions and local cultural experiences — from learning how to roll sushi in Tokyo to watching silk being woven in Shanghai — come standard. And instead of trying to navigate travel between countries and hotels in unknown places, all you have to do is get on board.
China — old and new
For those curious to explore China, from pagodas to pandas and everything in between, Uniworld's "Highlights of China and the Yangtze" 11-day cruise (prices start at $4,250 per person) includes the must-see attractions of this enormous country in an efficient itinerary. Starting in Beijing, you'll explore the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the Great Wall. A flight to Xi'an to see the Terracotta Warriors — incredible sculptures of members of the ancient Chinese army — is followed by a four-day cruise down the Yangtze River. The lushly green mountains with sheer cliffs and the mind-bogglingly big Three Gorges Dam can be observed from the decks of the Century Paragon, a five-star ship with its own onboard spa and suites that come with balconies. The trip ends in Shanghai, China's most cosmopolitan city, where shining skyscrapers contrast with the quaint colonial buildings of the French Concession district.
The Bund — or "Outer Beach" — of Shanghai
Hitting the highlights
For a tour that combines the highlights of Japan, China, and Korea (a fascinating country often left out of Asia itineraries), Silversea, whose luxury Silver Shadow cruise ship holds just under 400 passengers, offers a 16-day tour with prices starting at $10,250 per person. Beginning in Tokyo, you'll tour the Tsukiji Fish Market, one of the world's largest wholesale food markets, and take a sushi-making class from a Japanese sushi chef. In Korea, the tour goes from ancient to modern, with stops at Busan's 700-year-old Haedong Yonggungsa Temple; Jeju Island, where flower-strewn fields, tea plantations, and carefully landscaped gardens are backed by ocean views; and, finally, Seoul, a futuristic city where even the brightly painted temples and small local restaurants are sparkling clean and have lightening-fast Wi-Fi. From here, you'll cruise to Beijing, where you can take a helicopter tour of the Great Wall of China. The experience ends in two of Asia's great cities: Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Monks in the Ta Prohm Temple, Angkor, Cambodia
If you've already seen the sites in China, Japan, and Korea, cruise lines have also created options in Southeast Asia. Companies like Viking River Cruises now offer trips down the Mekong River, diving deep into Vietnam and Cambodia, with stops at the legendary archeological site of Angkor Wat, which contrasts neatly with explorations into the traffic-packed urban jungle of Ho Chi Minh City. One of its most popular offerings, the 15-day "Magnificent Mekong" tour (prices start at $3,700 per person) offers up the best of Southeast Asia: Beginning in Hanoi, you'll observe the French colonial architecture and lively markets of Phnom Penh before taking a turn for the rural in southern Vietnam. There, the purpose-built ship (which holds just 56 passengers) cruises down the Mekong, past bright green rice fields peppered with water buffalo. The tour ends in what's still called "Saigon" by the locals: a bustling metropolis of motorbikes, street food, and color.
Cruising through Asia is a relatively new idea, but in many ways, it's surprising that it took so long to come about. The ease of seeing China, Japan, or Vietnam by boat contrasts sharply with the difficulties of travel by land. While a water-based vacation in Europe or to the Caribbean are still popular options for travelers, for a change of pace, give Asia a try. It's never been easier.