We arrived in Hong Kong aboard the Diamond Princess ship, and our first glimpse of the exotic, frenetic metropolis was from stunning Victoria Harbor, the largest harbor in China, and the third largest in the world. The deep, watery superhighway separating Hong Kong Island and Kowloon in the South China Sea was filled with cruise liners, cargo ships, yachts, ferries, and traditional Chinese multimasted junks. Flanking the harbor’s shores, for as far as we could see, were shiny stands of soaring skyscrapers, the largest concentration of tall buildings in the world.

Hong Kong, along with other East Asia cities, including Tokyo, Shanghai, and Taipei, had long been on our top-places-to-visit list. But planning a trip in the region can be problematic, requiring several flights and time-sucking and budget-busting travel from one city to another, hotels to hotels. The Tokyo to Hong Kong itinerary offered by Princess Cruises was a perfect solution. We tacked on a few days in Tokyo at the start of the cruise, and a couple more at the end to further explore Hong Kong, and visited some interesting places along the way, including Okinawa, Kyoto, and Taipei. We’re not the only ones who think that cruising this part of the world is an easy way to go; it’s one of the fastest growing segments of the cruising market.

Continue reading below

“Interest in cruising East Asia is growing steadily,” says Jan Swartz, the president of Princess Cruises. “The region still holds a certain mystery and mystique for Americans, and is especially appealing to travelers looking for destinations beyond the well-known Caribbean, South Pacific, and Mediterranean hot spots. And cruising is an easy way to explore this vast region, allowing travelers to visit many of the great cities of Asia in one vacation.”

Princess Cruises was a pioneer in the market and, in 2013, became the first big cruise line to homeport ships in Japan and China. Recently honored by Porthole magazine as having the “Best Asia Itineraries,” Princess will offer more than 25 sailings to East Asia this year. Many are convenient four- to seven-day cruises, with same city flight arrivals and departures. Popular port stops include Tokyo, Taipei, Beijing, and Hong Kong. Longer cruises may include stops in Singapore, Vietnam, Bali, and Australia.

Other big cruise lines have followed suit with more frequent East Asia sailings and varied itineraries to meet the growing consumer demand.

“The momentum for cruise tourism in Asia has significantly escalated,” says Lorri Christou of Cruise Lines International Association. “It’s a popular cruise destination for Americans and Europeans, and all the major carriers are creating interesting itineraries to destinations throughout Asia.”

According to CLIA, by 2017, China is expected to be the world’s second-largest cruise market, after the United States. Carnival, the industry’s largest cruise line and travel company with nine brands, plans to base at least four ships in mainland China this year, and Royal Caribbean International is also increasing its presence there, basing its new Quantum of the Seas in Shanghai. According to a recent CLIA study, 52 ships will provide 1,065 cruises in Asia in 2015, with a capacity for 2.17 million guests. That’s a 19.5 percent jump from the 1.4 million guest capacity in 2013.

And, it’s not just Americans with an interest in cruising Asian waters. “The appetite for cruising by Asians is also growing,” says Christou. Cruise lines are taking that into consideration, offering more onboard facilities and amenities targeted to their Asian passengers. Onboard our Diamond Princess ship, for example, we dined at Kai Sushi, with a traditional sushi bar and a menu of Japanese dishes, and relaxed in the new Japanese bath area, soaking in a hot stone bath and under cascades of warm water. We’d estimate that at least half the passengers onboard were Asians.

Our cruise was seven nights, one of the more popular itineraries. (Short cruises — under one week — are the fastest growing and largest segment of the East Asia cruising market, making up more than 80 percent of itineraries.) We arrived early to spend the three days exploring Tokyo on our own, before boarding the 18-deck, 1,337-cabin Diamond Princess. The ship had all the bells and whistles: several restaurants, anytime dining, full-service spa and fitness center, a slew of bars and lounges, theater, and four pools. We were most interested in seeing the port cities (the menu of guided shore excursions was impressive), but hanging out on the ship wasn’t bad, and certainly beat catching flights and locating hotels. Two days were spent at sea, and the rest in port, exploring the region’s historic sites and museums. In Okinawa, we visited Shurijo Castle, built in the 1300s for the Ryukyu kings. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the castle served as headquarters for the Sho dynasty. Destroyed during World War II, the restored castle and museum complex details life during the time of warlords and warriors.

When we docked in Osaka, we boarded a bus to the nearby ancient city of Kyoto, which once served as Japan’s capital and the emperor’s residence for more than 1,000 years. Today, it’s home to several impressive UNESCO World Heritage sites. We would have liked to spend more time here, but managed to cram a lot of sightseeing into a long day.

In Taipei, the cosmopolitan capital of Taiwan, we toured the National Palace Museum, home to nearly 700,000 pieces of ancient Chinese art and artifacts, many from the Forbidden City in Beijing, brought to Taipei by Chiang Kai-shek in 1949. The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall highlights the life of the controversial president of the Republic of China. Outside the museum, we strolled the public plaza, surrounded by Chinese gardens, the National Concert Hall, and National Theater.

By the time we disembarked in Hong Kong, we’d learned to speak a few Chinese and Japanese phrases, made friends with a couple from Tokyo who vowed to stay in touch, and crossed several must-see sights and cities off our travel wish list. It left us, like a growing number of travelers, with a gnawing appetite for cruising East Asian waters.

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at [email protected].