If the thought of going on a cruise brings you out in a cold sweat – conjuring nightmare visions of being cooped up on a groaning old ship, with no viable escape route, surrounded by hordes of grumpy retirees playing bingo – you need to confront your fears fast. In the past decade, the world’s major cruise line players have upped their game dramatically, launching a range of ships with facilities and amenities to rival many a five-star resort. They have also reached out beyond their traditional clientele, with programmes and activities designed to appeal to a much wider audience, young and old. A prime example of this is the Cycle Cruise, offered by Star Cruises. Designed for those looking for something more exciting and active to the usual sedentary cruise experience, Star Cruises Cycling Cruises (starcruises.com) take a group of cyclists on a seven-day adventure, mixing guided rides and sight-seeing with local culinary delicacies and five-star service.
Given the opportunity to experience such a two-wheeled tour, encompassing both Taiwan and two of Japan’s outer isles, I jumped at the chance. Although somewhat apprehensive, I couldn’t wait to get back into the saddle and put my rusty legs to the test. Would I be able to keep up with a bunch of pros in full body lycra on state-of-the-art road bikes? Very doubtful. Also, looking at the trip’s planned itinerary, some of the rides seemed a little on the long side for a born-again novice – how would my feeble legs possibly manage over 60kms in one day if there were hills involved?
These fears were (mostly) put to rest at the pre-tour briefing a week before we set off. The cycling part would be run by Giant Adventure – Giant Bicycles’ sister bike tour company – who would provide not only bikes for us to ride but also a well-tuned professional support outfit on the ground. With back-up vehicles, multiple rest stops and the choice to ride or not ride, no one would be getting left behind. What’s more, at first glance, the assembled posse did not appear to be particularly full of hard-core cyclists. With ages ranging from early twenties to late sixties, this looked more like a group of bike fans who wanted an active fun holiday than an elite Team Singapore training for the next Tour. Panic levels returned to just above normal, I began to look forward to the trip.
The first day started very early as our bleary-eyed group caught the dawn Scoot flight out of Changi for the first rendez-vous at Kaohsiung airport. On arrival we were met by our Taiwan hosts, Giant Adventure, and were soon on a coach heading south. June is very hot in this region – any hopes of escaping Singapore for some cool respite were banished emerging from the plane. Hot and hazy, it wasn’t an ideal day for strenuous exercise. As the coach neared our destination, however, the air began to clear and soon sunny blue skies and verdant green countryside had replaced the pervading grey of the suburbs. Now we just needed a quick rainstorm to cool the air – a common occurrence according to our beaming and bubbly head guide Aya Lee.
Check in at the hotel allowed us a brisk 15 minutes to find our rooms, freshen up and change into gear before meeting up for bike fitting. Kentington Resort is a casual hotel, popular with school trips, located in open countryside near the south coast. Guestrooms are a series of wooden cabins set around the main building, which offers two restaurants, a fitness centre and swimming pool. My room’s huge bed looked extremely inviting and it was hard not to jump in and call it a day.
Once we’d all assembled, the Giant crew ran through the relevant safety guidelines, including hand signals and basic bike operations. Although supposedly entry-level, the Giant bikes were far removed from my aging hybrid back home – light, agile and fast, they were definitely up to the task and within minutes I was wondering how to spirit one back to Singapore.
We then set off on our (26kms) warm up ride – a time to get accustomed to the bike, shake the cobwebs from the legs and try to shock the body into life after a particularly harsh morning start. Luckily, despite the many craggy peaks surrounding the area, the ride was pleasantly undulating, with only a couple of steepish ascents to get the heart pumping. The heat had not yet relented – it was savage – so there were numerous rest stops to rehydrate and snack. Our posse was thankfully supported by two vans, equipped with emergency repair kits, spare bikes and lots of energy drinks and snacks.
26 kms later we were back at the hotel, most of us physically and mentally exhausted, with only enough energy to stumble to the restaurant for an early (and excellent) local dinner. With no further distractions, it was lights out by 9pm.
After a fantastic night’s sleep, we were up bright and early for an 8am departure. This was the longest ride of the trip – 62kms meandering up and down the countryside of the south coast. It was becoming easier to see who was a regular cyclist and whose legs, like mine, were still adjusting to the terrain. Stopping to take lots of photos en route was a good way of masking the heaving lungs, but at no times was it expected for us to go faster – the Giant crew positioned themselves throughout our elongated peloton so there was no pressure to keep up. Luckily there weren’t any leg-destroying hills to negotiate and the riding speed kept steady, with multiple stops again to ensure energy levels were kept in trim. After lunch we saddled up for the second leg, which took us through more beautiful countryside before ending directly at the next hotel, The Richforest Resort, located in the bustling holiday stretch of Kenting Road. Suitably exhausted again, and with no organised group dinner to attend, most enjoyed some traditional snacks from the town’s bustling night market before retiring for another well-deserved early night.
As a sizeable distance lay between us and our next destination, the Sun Moon Lake, we checked out early and were soon on the coach heading north. After lunch in Chiayi City, we left the coastal highway and cut inland to begin the slow climb up through the foothills to the lake. Passing through beautiful countryside and a series of impossibly long tunnels, this raised highway is an impressive feat of engineering.
The Sun Moon Lake, set in National Park, is a popular weekend destination for hikers and cyclists alike. With the altitude the air here is clean and fresh, making the climbs and descents much more fun. The lake itself is huge, the biggest in the country, and riding around it affords great views of the surrounding area.
After a day spent in the coach, we were keen to get back on two wheels as soon as possible, starting with a slow tour on the path around the lake. If you’re after a challenge, leave the flatness of the path for the road, where steep climbs and descents certainly get the heart pumping. We stopped for a breather at the Wen Wu temple which overlooks the lake and is a popular place to take in the beauty of the vista – before the road was completed it required a boat trip and a steep climb up hundreds of steps to get to the temple, so thankfully things are much easier now. It was then an exhilarating descent back to the water’s edge, tearing around bends at breakneck speed, trying to concentrate on the road and not be distracted the patterns of dappled light that danced across the water’s surface as the sun slowly sank out of view.
As the light began to fade it was back to the hotel for a long hot shower, a jacuzzi or even a spa treatment – the Fuli Hot Spring Resort is very well equipped – before we reassembled for another banquet-style dinner of local delicacies. The food in Taiwan is definitely a highlight and all meals on the trip were excellent, ideal for appetites awoken by strenuous exercise in the sun.
With a date with our cruise ship to the north, we boarded the bus early for the journey up to Keelung Port. It was a shame to leave the cool fresh air of the national park behind – this was a place I could easily spend more time exploring – but there was an excitement to finally get on board the ship after four days on land.
Recently renovated and bursting with facilities, Star Virgo is one of the most popular cruise ships in the fleet. My cabin certainly didn’t disappoint – comfortable and spacious, it featured wide-screen TV, mini bar, balcony and an excellent power shower. The bed was also supremely comfortable, something I would greatly appreciate over the next 72 hours. All meals on-board were included at a selection of restaurants, with alternative choices for those who wanted a more premium experience. Facilities on board are designed to suit all types. The active have a host of activities that include a jogging track, gymnasium, swimming pools (with water slide) basketball, mini golf and a wooden promenade – great for those on a dedicated step count! There are also dance sessions, stretching exercises and even kick-boxing classes, so if you’re on board to be active you’re in luck. For those on a more leisurely holiday, shops, movie theatres, karaoke, beauty salons and photo studios are just a few of the things you can take part in, in between watching the ship’s talented performers and artists strut their stuff.
Being part of the bike cruise allows guests special privileges. When we docked the following morning at Naha on Okinawa we were first off the boat, whisked away quickly to where our bikes and local guide awaited. Thankfully the weather was slightly overcast and cooler here and we did a manageable 37km circuit of the city’s suburbs, stopping for a casual lunch at a shopping centre. Once the ride was completed, we headed into the city’s main shopping thoroughfare to explore, most taking advantage of the restaurant selection for a slap-up meal, washed down by the excellent local beer.
The following day marked our final ride, a snaking 40km trail along the coast of Miyako Jima island, highlighting in a crossing of the impressive Irabu bridge. With a lunch stop for soba noodles and other stops along the coast, this was a fitting long ride to finish the week’s two-wheel adventure, passing through beautiful open countryside. With fitness levels raised and legs more conditioned to the terrain, we made good time so it was a bit sad to return the bikes to the Giant crew, knowing our partnership had reached the end of the road.
Back on the Star Virgo an impressive Gala Dinner awaited at the Star Dining restaurant, followed by farewell drinks at the ship’s main bar, the Galaxy of Stars. After such a long day in the sun, it wasn’t long before the soft comfort of the cabin bed again became too hard to resist.
Star Virgo arrived back in Keelung Harbour the following afternoon. Once again, the cycling group was disembarked first before being transferred by bus to Taipei for the final night as a group. The Green World Hotel is conveniently positioned close to Taipei Central Station, allowing easy access to the airport and the rest of the city by train. The area is also renowned for beef noodle soup – make sure to get your fix – and is only a few stops away by MRT to the towering Taiwan 101. Those still looking for some exercise have lots on offer in Taipei. An easily walkable city, with dedicated bike lanes and wide streets, the capital offers the urban explorer much to discover. Popular visitor sites include the impressive Memorial Square, built in honour of Taiwan’s former president, Chiang Kai-shek, and the gleaming rocket-shaped 101 tower. For a different perspective of the 101 tower, climb the Elephant Mountain nearby. After a hundred or so sweaty steps, climbers are rewarded with a sweeping vista of the city with its stunning mountainous backdrop.
Another major pull to the country is its thriving food culture. From bowls of traditional noodles to steaming dumplings and Michelin-starred gastronomy, the quality and value available makes visiting Taiwan a travelling foodie’s dream.
After a week of good food, excellent service and great fun, it was sad to say goodbye not just to Taiwan but to a new group of friends. Judging by the stories of some on the trip, taking part in the Star Cruises’ Cycling Cruises can become something of a habit – some were on their fourth such trip and were already planning the next one later in the year. With an enthusiasm for cycling reawakened, and such good memories of the trip, I think I might join them.
The next Cycling Cruise from Star Cruises/Dream Cruises is the 8-Day 7-Night Hong Kong – Naha – Miyakojima cruise from Oct 13-20, 2018 starting at $1,199 per person. Visit dreamcruiseline.com for more information.
Text and Photos by Justin Eeles