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Six days at sea

The maiden voyage of Superstar Virgo from Manila to Kaohsiung to Hong Kong and back puts the Philippines on the luxury cruise map

Updated

By AA Patawaran

Video by JC Villanueva

  • MANILA ON THE CRUISE MAP Cultural dance performers greet Superstar Virgo as it homeports at the Manila South Harbour

  • TWEETIE DE LEON GONZALEZ
    My very first cruise was a trip like no other. I watched a different kind of sunset each day, which stayed by me as the ship pulled away. Dusk on a ship, and in my hands a little drink, is as romantic as I had imagined.

  • TETTA AGUSTIN
    I like the variety of the restaurants, the live music at the reception lobby, and the bands when we arrived and departed, as I watched them from my balcony. Of course the best part is being part of #AlwaysFamous.

  • JOAN BITAGCOL
    Moments at the balcony and the room. Listening to the sound of the waves while the sun is rising or just by simply opening the door. Opening the door for fresh air is a treat already.

  • LEAH PUYAT
    I was struck by the peace and depth of silence within my spirit when I entered the main shrine of the Fo Guang Shan Monastery. It was a contrast to the frenetic activity of our group. And my second favorite moment was seeing the nighttime lights of the Hong Kong skyline get smaller and fainter as we sailed away from Ocean Terminal.

  • ANGELETTE CALERO
    My favorite part of our cruise aside from the #alwaysfamous gang was the Vigan tour! So much history on Calle Crisologo

  • HELLO, ILOCOS! #AlwaysFamous arrives at the Port of Currimao in Laoag, Ilocos Norte

  • LIKE WATER Designer Rhett Eala, flanked by top model Jo Ann Bitagcol and Bb. Pilipinas-Universe 2016 Maxine Medina, as he takes a bow after his ‘Queen’ presentation

  • HELLO, ILOCOS! #AlwaysFamous arrives at the Port of Currimao in Laoag, Ilocos Norte

  • Lou Muñoz

  • LA LA LAND Jo Ann Bitagcol, Patrice Ramos-Diaz, Rajo Laurel, Liza Ilarde, Tweetie De Leon-Gonzalez, Rhett Eala, and Robby Carmona

  • ALL HANDS ON DECK Zumba every morning on the helipad

  • TAKE A PLUNGE The outdoor swimming pools as well as the Splash Pool for kids on the lido deck

  • IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE Marissa Tambunting, Angelette Calero, and Eds Genuino

  • AT THE HONG KONG HARBOR Star Cruises ambassadors LA Aguinaldo and Kylie Verzosa

  • RAPHAEL ROBES
    We saw all the fishermen scattered on the Philippine Sea and it hit me, how humbling it was, to see our everyday heroes, kumakayod sa gitna ng dagat just to make ends meet. Very blessed and fortunate, indeed.

  • RHETT EALA
    One of the best moments for me was when we were all dancing around the pool during the La La Land pool party. It was really a moment! So much fun and new and old friends getting closer and having a laugh.

  • MIKO RAVAL
    The best moment for me would have to be the last day on the ship, which I spent all night long on Deck 7 beside Blue Lagoon, having drinks and good conversations with friends old and new. We moved up to Deck 13 to witness the sunrise as we moved closer to Manila with its skyline against the horizon.

  • RAJO LAUREL
    I really enjoyed the Zumba sessions and the sunrise and the sunsets on board. I also loved the late-night chatter and the idle time with old friends.

  • PATRICE RAMOS DIAZ
    I loved being on the deck outside the Blue Lagoon idling away the time with friends with a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, depending on the time of day. The Wi-Fi was spotty so our smartphones were reduced to their camera function, which forced us to be in the moment. The sound of the ship skimming through the sea and the wind on our face, the view of nothing but the ocean, and the soft rays of sunlight created the perfect setting for bonding and endless photos. As I soaked in the beauty of those moments passing me by, I was struck with a sense of meditative calm I normally feel when I pray or when I do yoga. It’s those moments when you feel a deep appreciation for your life.

  • ROBBY CARMONA
    It was surreal to go to other countries without taking a flight.

  • LA AGUINALDO
    On the cruise, I realized that this is life, no agenda. This is the nature of things. This is reality. It just happens. And you go with the flow.

  • MICHELLE PANEMANGLOR
    There were so many great things to do and see onboard and on the port o’call trips arranged by the Virgo. From the spectacular shows at the Lido Theater to the shore tours at every port, but what truly stood out for me was the impeccable service by the crew, most especially the Filipino crew on board. There truly is a reason Filipinos in the service industry are world renowned.

  • JUSTINE GABIONZA
    From doing a fashion show on the grand staircase of the cruise ship, to eating different cuisines, attending themed parties and exploring Vigan, Kaohsiung, and Hong Kong, for me the whole trip was superb and memorable but I think the best part is meeting people, making new friends, and enjoying the company of my cruise mates. I just love the energy of the whole team.

  • MAXINE MEDINA
    I loved everything—the food, the parties, the sunsets… I want to do them all over again, but next time with my family.

    Something inebriating about arriving at the harbor, in this case the Port of Manila, Pier 15, just behind the historic Manila Hotel, and looking up at a great big ship, 268 meters long, 32 meters wide, and 13 stories high, that would sail away across the high seas.

    MANILA AS HOMEPORT

    It was a movie moment. In the case of the Superstar Virgo, operated by Star Cruises under Genting Cruise Lines, it was a major first, a true inaugural for a well-known ship that’s been cruising mainly Southeast Asian waters since it first floated out of drydock in Papenburg, Germany to be delivered to Star Cruises in Singapore in 1999, where she soon entered service for the Asian cruise market she was specifically designed for.

    I’d cruised the Straits of Malacca, Andaman Sea, and South China Sea on the Superstar Virgo that sailed from Singapore in the early 2000s, but I didn’t realize until I stepped into the Deck 7 lobby of the cruise ship that my voyage from Manila would be a homecoming of sorts.

    All of a sudden, taking in the grand staircase and the soaring atrium of the lobby, I was in a familiar place, except that I was doing something for the first time: I was boarding the first ever international cruise line to sail from Manila not so much away to exotic destinations but toward our vision, in the words of Philippine Tourism Secretary Wanda Corazon Tulfo-Teo, “as a regional cruise center to serve as homeport and eventually as center for cruise crew training, maintenance services, and ship building.”

    From Manila, the Superstar Virgo was to sail across the magical waters of Southeast Asia with ports of call in Laoag, Ilocos Norte; Kaohsiung, Taiwan; and Ocean Terminal, Hong Kong. That was six days and five nights at sea, minus the hours spent at the intermediate stops.

    I joined a party of 70 organized by long-time Star Cruises PR consultant, party planner, and travel connoisseur Keren Pascual and, as with every trip he has ever arranged, ours was a carefully selected coterie of lifestyle editors, travelers, fashion designers, lifestyle influencers, as well as top models and beauty queens, including Bb. Pilipinas Miss Universe 2016 Maxine Medina and Miss International 2016 Kylie Versoza, who, along with model L.A. Aguinaldo, was ambassador of Superstar Virgo. Quite a big party, but with everyone raring to have fun, it didn’t seem quite a challenge to organize us all. We hashtagged our group #AlwaysFamous.

    ALWAYS FAMOUS

    Every meal was a dress-up occasion, although we only dressed up formally on the eve of our return to Manila for the captain’s dinner at Genting Palace preceded by a fashion show featuring Rhett Eala’s “Queen” collection at the lobby’s grand staircase. The 20-minute show, directed by Robby Carmona and hosted by designer Rajo Laurel and supermodel Tweetie de Leon-Gonzalez, was a showcase of the graceful-as-liquid gowns that Rhett created in colors reminiscent of tropical waters for Maxine Medina for the Miss Universe pageant held in a Manila in February.

    Other than this one strictly formal occasion, the dress code for the rest of our stay at sea was easy and, more than anything, fun. It was a nice touch to get all 70 of us together on the same page. Dinner soon after we left the Port of Manila on Day One had us dressed in “luxe pajamas” at the open-air Taverna Bar and, with fashion models in our squad, you could imagine how our little slumber party on the upper deck, only the starlit sky above us, might as well have been a night on the town, albeit in fluffy slippers instead of stilettos, eye pads for head bands, and some stuffed toy or, in the case of Tessa Prieto Valdez, a pillow in place of a purse.

    Indeed, sleep was in no way in order, as the night was young. After dinner, we trooped to the Galaxy of the Stars, a concert lounge on Deck 12, where Filipino-Norwegian singer Markki Stroem performed a repertoire of jazz classics and jazzified pop songs like Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You.”

    The next day, we docked at the Port of Currimao in Ilocos Norte and, although there were many points of interest nearby, like the sand dunes of La Paz, the beaches of Pagudpud, and the baroque St. Augustine Church, a Unesco World Heritage Site completed in 1710, in Paoay, our group ventured over one hour away by bus to Vigan, Ilocos Sur for a buffet of Ilokano specialties—the Vigan longganisa, bagnet, and empanada—at Hidden Garden and a leisurely walk down the cobblestones of Calle Crisologo, a relic of the Spanish times. Even here, as a group, we chose to be color-coded, in earth colors and solid pastels.

    HIGH FASHION ON THE HIGH SEAS

    Back on the ship at dusk, we had just enough time to shower and change for dinner at Genting Palace, a large dining hall type of establishment on Deck 7. The dress code this time was Grease, the 1978 iconic musical that starred John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. The girls came in either side of the Olivia Newton-John character Sandy Dee, the one in pig tails and rock and roll skirt with petticoat who said, “I don’t drink (no!). Or swear (no!). I don’t rat my hair (eew!). I get ill from one cigarette (cough, cough, cough)!” or the other, to whom she later transformed, having found the guts in a black off-shoulder top under a feisty leather jacket, to declare “You’re the one that I want (you are the one I want), oo, oo, ooh, honey.” It was here, over wine so perfectly French, that I met Tetta Agustin, who regaled me and the others at the table with her stories worthy of the attention of Diana Vreeland. She was a top model for Hubert de Givenchy and Yves Saint-Laurent. I mean she wore YSL’s “Le Smoking” on the Paris runway in 1975!

    Dinner did not cap off our second night on board the Superstar Virgo because no sooner than I took the last spoonful of my ice cream dessert had I been dragged from aft to bow, from Deck 7 to the Deck 13, into a small club, in which, all drinks on the house, and tequila tray going around, we danced the night away to celebrate Markki Stroem’s birthday as well as Keren Pascual’s.

    The next day, we woke up, just in time for a Bloody Mary under the blue skies and to watch Superstar Virgo slide into the Banana Pier in Kaohsiung, the largest port city in southern Taiwan, where a traditional dragon and lion dance welcomed us warmly, replete with authentic Taiwanese souvenirs and snacks with which we were showered. We spent a few hours in this little city, the “Miami of Taiwan,” where, with 300 sunny days a year, the sun always shone, and whose cuisine had been likened to a small China, as the city’s restaurant bustled with all the regional nuances of Chinese cuisine—Shanghainese, Cantonese, Sichuan… Too bad, we didn’t get to go binging on street food for which Taiwan is known, though walking down a quiet, almost desolate street, Tetta and I found bottarga or the roe pouch of a mullet or tuna dried and cured in natural sea salts and laid down in the sun on the street to dry. A delicacy in the Mediterranean, as well as many other countries like Lebanon and Senegal, it is considered the “caviar of the south,” best served as an hors d’oeuvre in olive oil and lemon juice with bread or a crostini or in a pasta dish and Tetta was so regretful she did not buy enough. She did consider going back to get more, but she would have been left behind by the ship.

    JEWELS OF THE ORIENT

    And yes, it would have been tragic had she decided to buy more bottarga. The Virgo left the pier as soon as we got back on board, leaving us with only half an hour to change for dinner at the Pavilion on Deck 6. Nevertheless, everybody showed up at dinner according to the requested attire, a throwback to the 2000 Hong Kong film by celebrated filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai, In the Mood for Love, which starred Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung and the qipao (or cheongsam in Cantonese), and so the mood of the evening was romantically and decidedly oriental that even the men wore jackets with dragon embroidery or calligraphy or Mandarin collars. I should have worn a plain white shirt, a slim black tie, and a cigarette between my lips. That would have been so very Tony Leung. Another Markki Stroem concert and some drunken dancing followed at the Galaxy of the Stars.

    Our group had a Zumba session every morning on the helipad on Deck 13 or the Promenade on Deck 7. Sunrise is always a good idea, so is sticking to your fitness routine wherever you are, even in the middle of South China Sea, particularly the sometimes rough waters between the southern edge of Taiwan to the tip of southern Kowloon, otherwise known as Ocean Terminal in Hong Kong. But either the two single joined bed in my Oceanview Stateroom with balcony was a magnet or there was just nothing like sleeping in while adrift on the water, especially after a late night, and with the ship heaving, swaying, surging gently to cradle my dreams. I had a good night’s sleep every night on board the Superstar Virgo, and I would wake up refreshed and revitalized, too late for Zumba or the sunrise but early enough to catch the breakfast buffet at the Mediterranean or its terrace on Deck 12.

    Hong Kong was the next stop. We docked right outside the complex of malls, from Gateway to Harbour City. While some of my friends hurried to cross the bay to catch the vernissage of Art Basel Hong Kong, I chose to stay in Kowloon, mainly to browse the bookstores. My agenda was to get back on the ship while everybody was out. Alas, I took such a long walk in Hong Kong that I had only enough time back on the ship to lay myself on the lounge chairs on the view deck that I had to myself, along with its breathtaking views of the Hong Kong Harbor, with my just-bought book How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton on my lap. Alain de Botton also wrote The Art of Travel, which I consider one of my best finds by a living, contemporary philosopher with whom I have had the rare privilege of corresponding on social media. Dinner that night was at leisure, but I had a nightcap with friends from another cruise group at the luxurious smoking lounge of Galaxy of the Stars while an all-girl band outside was performing a playlist full of Madonna songs that shut me up mid-sentence to exclaim, “I haven’t heard that one in a long time.”

    ON THE HOME STRETCH

    The next day was D-day, the one day in our six-day/five-night voyage that we were to spend entirely on the high seas and we started the day in the right spirit, inspired by this year’s Academy Awards favorite La La Land, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. It was a brunch party with everyone dancing on the bow of the ship, under a clear sky with clouds bright white and silvery and shaped like candy. Lunch followed at Genting Palace and we had the rest of the afternoon to rest and dress to the nines not only for the Captain’s Gala but also Rhett’s “high fashion on the high seas” before it. There were many shows featuring acrobats and contortionists lined up after dinner at the Lido Theater, but many of us ended up at the 24-hour dining outlet Blue Lagoon, ordering wine by the bottle or slurping Chinese noodles from oversized bowls.

    Something very introspective about being on a ship sailing across the vastness, but ours was such a good company that I resisted the urge to spend interminable hours at my cabin balcony or to seek refuge at the Spa and Health Club, a pampering session at the hair salon, or a little alone time doing laps in the pool. I didn’t even find a minute to spend at the library and the writing room. I console myself that this trip, after all, was an inaugural, a milestone that put the Philippines on the cruise map, I was right to have spent it at five-day-long party.

    Besides, as this circular voyage from Manila to Kaohsiung and Hong Kong and back and on again runs through the summer months, until the end of May, I am sure I will have many opportunities to go sailing again for the silence. www.starcruises.com

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    • Yolanda Santos

      It’s good that Star Cruise’s Virgo has made Manila as its homeport. Cruising is still in its infancy stage in the Philippines but is expected to bring in 120,000 cruise passengers this year in the country.

      However, PH remains a cruise laggard compared to Singapore which bagged 1.2 million cruise passengers in 2016. Even small Taiwan expects to get 1 million cruise passengers this year.