The scope and scale of cruising continues to grow, with a fascinating array of destinations around the world drawing ever more visitors, writes Sally Macmillan.
Whether you've taken 20 cruises or if you are planning your first, you'll be amazed at the incredible variety of places you can visit by ship. Over the past few years, as our appetite for cruising has grown, ocean and river cruise lines have been busy exploring every corner of the globe to find ever more appealing ports of call to tempt us on board.
Expedition lines, by their very nature and the size of their vessels, are at the forefront of discovering new, remote and less-travelled destinations. And while mainstream cruise lines are nudging into some of these territories there will always be places unsuited to megaships carrying thousands of passengers.
By the same token, voyages to regions that were once the preserve of hardy pioneers are now accessible to many more of us – today we can cruise (in considerable comfort) to destinations such as Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Arctic and Alaska, to name just a few.
River cruising is another huge growth area. As millions of travellers have discovered, sailing Europe's historic waterways takes you to the heart of the continent's many and varied cities, towns and villages.
In the search for more rivers to cross, cruise lines are launching ships on Portugal's Douro, France's Garonne and Gironde in the Bordeaux region, south-east Asia's Mekong and Myanmar's Irrawaddy and Chindwin. America's Mississippi, Snake and Columbia rivers are also attracting the attention of keen cruisers – and then there's the Peruvian Amazon and India's Ganges and Brahmaputra to explore. As we sail into another big year on the world's oceans and rivers, here's our pick of 2016's most desirable destinations.
WHY HERE Viking and Uniworld started cruising the Garonne, Gironde and Dordogne rivers in 2014; Scenic joined them in 2015 and this year APT's AmaDolce sets sail from Bordeaux for the first time.
PERFECT FOR Francophiles, wine-lovers and gourmet travellers.
SEE AND DO Enjoy visits to world-renowned wine regions such as St Emilion, Sauternes, Medoc and Cognac, drink in picturesque vineyard views (as well as plenty of wine), sample oysters at Arcachon and visit fairytale chateaux and castles.
WHO APT's 148-passenger MS AmaDolce (aptouring.com.au); Scenic's 169-passenger Scenic Diamond (www.scenic.com.au); Uniworld's 130-passenger River Royale (www.uniworld.com); Viking's 190-passenger Viking Forseti (www.vikingrivercruises.com.au)
LOIRE RIVER, FRANCE
WHY HERE Last year French line CroisiEurope launched the first ship to cruise the Loire, France's longest river. Loire Princesse's paddle-wheeler design allows it to navigate shallow waters.
PERFECT FOR Francophiles looking for another French river to cruise.
SEE AND DO Loire Princesse sails five- and seven-night itineraries round-trip from Nantes, a port city that's home to the 15th-century castle of the dukes of Brittany. Highlights include the Muscadet Wine Route and the famous Loire castles.
WHO CroisiEurope's 96-passenger Loire Princesse (www.cruiseabroad.com.au)
RIVER PO, ITALY
WHY HERE Big ships aren't popular in La Serenissima; they've been banned, then the ban reversed, so a small-scale river ship is a good option for exploring the historic canal city in intimate detail.
PERFECT FOR Experienced travellers who love good food, wine, art and architecture.
SEE AND DO Uniworld's 10-day Milan to Venice land/cruise trip with the 130-passenger River Countess includes eight days in Venice, with excursions to nearby cities and villages; CroisiEurope runs five-day round-trip cruises on the 158-passenger Michelangelo. Both ships visit the islands of Burano and Mazzorbo and the atmospheric fishing village of Chioggia.
DOURO RIVER, PORTUGAL
WHY HERE In April, Scenic will be the latest line to set sail on the Douro, joining relatively recent arrivals APT, Viking and Uniworld.
PERFECT FOR Wine enthusiasts and travellers looking for a peaceful cruise on one river rather than visiting several countries in one trip.
SEE AND DO Sailing between Porto and Barca d'Alva on the Spanish border, cruises cover four UNESCO World Heritage sites, including medieval Porto and the spectacular Douro Valley. Highlights include wine-tastings at picturesque quintas.
WHO APT's 106-passenger AmaVida (www.aptouring.com.au); Scenic's 96-passenger Scenic Azure (www.scenic.com.au); Viking River Cruises' 106-passenger Viking Osfrid, Torgil and Hemming (www.vikingrivercruises.com.au); Uniworld's 118-passenger Queen Isabel (www.uniworld.com)
WHY HERE Since 2000, the number of cruise passengers visiting Iceland has risen by 11.5 per cent a year and the Arctic countries of Iceland, Greenland and Norway's Svalbard archipelago continue to attract ever more eager travellers.
PERFECT FOR Seasoned cruisers and wildlife lovers with a sense of adventure.
SEE AND DO In summer, it's the Land of the Midnight Sun when the capital, Reykjavik, is the jumping-off point for tours to the wild volcanic interior, majestic waterfalls and bubbling geysers. In winter, you can see the aurora borealis, polar bears and go dog-sledding.
WHO Viking Cruises' 930-passenger Viking Star (www.vikingcruises.com.au); Holland America Line's Koningsdam, Zuiderdam, Prinsendam, Rotterdam (www.hollandamerica.com); Princess Cruises' Pacific Princess, Caribbean Princess (www.princess.com).
WHY HERE Increasing numbers of cruises from Southampton, Dover or Tilbury transport passengers around the coasts and (often remote) islands of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
PERFECT FOR History buffs and fans of traditional British-style cruising.
SEE AND DO From cities such as London, Edinburgh and Dublin to Midsomer Murders-type villages and countryside that ranges from soft green fields to rugged mountains and moors, there's plenty to discover.
WHO APT's 118-passenger MS Hebridean Sky (aptouring.com.au); P&O Cruises' Oriana, Aurora and Britannia (www.pocruises.com); Fred.Olsen Cruise Lines' 800- to 1300-passenger Black Watch, Boudicca, Braemar and Balmoral (www.fredolsencruises.com)
WHY HERE This vast, colourful continent offers a myriad of cruising choices – from Buenos Aires to Valparaiso around Cape Horn is just one option. A full circumnavigation is another; Princess Cruises' Sea Princess departs Sydney in January 2017 for an epic 84-night voyage. Or you could take in Cuba, Ecuador and the Galapagos islands in one 24-night adventure with Cruiseco's Silversea charter.
PERFECT FOR Experienced ocean cruisers with a sense of adventure.
SEE AND DO As well as staying in the vibrant city of Buenos Aires, the major drawcard of a round-the-horn cruise is the extraordinary Chilean fiords; penguin-spotting in Punta Arenas and calls to the world's southernmost port, Ushuaia, are also right up there.
AMAZON RIVER, PERU
WHY HERE Aqua Expeditions started cruising the Amazon in 2007 with Aqua Amazon. To meet demand it has added a second ship, Aria Amazon. Lindblad Expeditions and APT charter the 28-passenger Delfin II.
PERFECT FOR Physically fit nature and wildlife enthusiasts.
SEE AND DO Spot three-toed sloths, monkeys and toucans in the rainforest; meet riberenos (river dwellers); paddle a canoe or board a skiff on remote waterways alongside pink river dolphins and piranhas.
WHY HERE As Cuba slowly opens its doors to foreign visitors, now is the time to go – before mass tourism takes over. MSC Cruises' MSC Opera is the first global brand to home-port in Havana and MSC Armonia will join it in November.
PERFECT FOR Travellers who would like to experience Cuba more or less unchanged since the 1950s revolution.
SEE AND DO The Caribbean island republic has nine UNESCO World Heritage sites, a multicultural population and a strong musical culture. Ports of call can include Maria La Gorda, Cienfuegos, Santiago de Cuba and the Canarreos Archipelago.
MISSISSIPPI RIVER, US
WHY HERE When Viking Cruises boss Torstein Hagen decides to build ships to cruise the Mississippi, you know it's a happening place. The American Queen Steamboat Company's American Queen and American Cruise Lines' Queen of the Mississippi and American Eagle currently sail there.
PERFECT FOR Older-gen cruisers who enjoy American history and riverboat nostalgia.
SEE AND DO Most itineraries run between St Louis and St Paul (Upper Mississippi) and between New Orleans and Memphis (Lower Mississippi). Read Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn before you go.
SNAKE AND COLUMBIA RIVERS, US
WHY HERE Increasing numbers of travellers are discovering the Snake and Columbia rivers in the Pacific Northwest – for the dramatic scenery and traditional paddle-wheeler river boats.
PERFECT FOR Avid river cruisers who are looking for alternatives to European waterways and want to follow the epic journey made by Lewis and Clark 200 years ago.
SEE AND DO Between Portland, Oregon and Clarkston, Washington you'll sail through the 128-kilometre Columbia River Gorge, past 25 waterfalls and visit Hells Canyon – the deepest canyon in North America.
WHO American Cruise Lines' 150-passenger American Pride and 120-passenger Queen of the West (americancruiselines.com); American Queen Steamboat Company's 223-passenger American Empress (www.americanqueensteamboatcompany.com); book through Cruiseco (www.cruising.com.au)
WHY HERE "Singapore is the hub for growth in south-east Asia," according to Ann Sherry, CEO of Carnival Australia and chairman of CLIA south-east Asia. More ships are home-porting in Singapore this year.
PERFECT FOR Anyone looking for a holiday that includes city life, beaches, shopping and a delicious range of south-east Asian cuisine.
SEE AND DO Short cruises out of Singapore visit Malayasia and Thailand; longer itineraries include China and Vietnam. Make time to stay in dynamic Singapore pre- or post-cruise – cool ethnic neighbourhoods jostle with high-rises, art galleries and fabulous parks.
GANGES RIVER, INDIA
WHY HERE Uniworld's Ganges Voyager II is the newest, most luxe vessel to set sail on India's sacred waterway, following in the wake of APT's Ganges Voyager (2015) and TravelMarvel's Rajmahal (2014).
PERFECT FOR Culturally curious travellers who won't be fazed by being the centre of attention in small villages.
SEE AND DO These companies mostly combine land tours and river cruises in India's "golden triangle". The former British colonial city of Kolkata is on all itineraries – intense, fascinating and sometimes confronting. Riverside attractions include Hindu temples, Muslim shrines, village bazaars – and thousands of years of history.
WHY HERE Silversea Expeditions will be the first line to call at Bangladesh. In February 2017, Silver Discoverer will visit three Bangladeshi ports over four days during a 16-day sailing from Sri Lanka to India.
PERFECT FOR Adventurous travellers looking for destinations unspoiled by mass tourism; bird-watchers, wildlife-lovers.
SEE AND DO Explore the lake country surrounding Chittagong, including the Rampahar-Sitapahar Wildlife Sanctuary and Kaptai Lake; visit Maheshkhali Island on Zodiacs; see the World Heritage-listed Sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forests that are home to Royal Bengal tigers.
WHO Silversea Expeditions' 120-passenger Silver Discoverer (www.silversea.com)
IRRAWADDY RIVER, MYANMAR
WHY HERE Pandaw pioneered modern river cruising in Myanmar and as the country emerges from years of seclusion, more companies are starting to cruise the Irrawaddy.
PERFECT FOR Flexible-minded travellers (itineraries may change because of river conditions) who are sensitive to Myanmar being a developing, Buddhist country.
SEE AND DO Cruises between the former Burmese capitals of Mandalay and Bagan offer an insight into the country's spiritual, cultural and colonial heritage; longer itineraries include Yangon's impressive golden Shwedagon Pagoda and much more.
WHO APT's 60-passenger RV Samatha (aptouring.com.au); Avalon Waterways' 36-passenger Avalon Myanmar (www.avalonwaterways.com.au); Cruiseco's 56-passenger Cruiseco Explorer (www.cruising.com.au); Pandaw (www.pandaw.com)
CHOBE RIVER, BOTSWANA
WHY HERE Botswana's Chobe National Park boasts one of the largest concentrations of game in the world and the 28-passenger Zambezi Queen provides the perfect viewing platform.
PERFECT FOR Wildlife enthusiasts who are looking for a short, leisurely river safari.
SEE AND DO The Zambezi Queen cruises around a 25-kilometre stretch of the river, where you're likely to spot antelopes, elephants, hippos and a wealth of birdlife at the water's edge.
WHY HERE Princess Cruises' 2016 Japan itineraries focus on cultural festivals and Diamond Princess will be home-porting in Tokyo (Yokohama) and Kobe from April to September, sailing four- to 20-night cruises. New this year are circumnavigations of Japan and two calls to the island of Kyushu.
PERFECT FOR Seasoned cruisers who want to discover more about east Asia, particularly Japan, Korea and Taiwan.
SEE AND DO The ports of super-sophisticated Tokyo and scenic Kobe are the starting points for cruises that explore Japan's exotic mix of ancient traditions, historic sites, modern cities and breathtaking seascapes and countryside. Japan's distinctive cuisine is another major attraction.
WHO Princess Cruises (www.princess.com).
WHY HERE One of the key destinations on Arabian Peninsula cruises, Oman's low-key development and historic sites stand out beside the glittering cities of its UAE neighbours.
PERFECT FOR Cruisers looking for a taste of traditional Arabic life.
SEE AND DO Muscat, the capital, is one of the world's most picturesque ports. Wander through the old quarter, shop in the souk and visit the vast Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. From Khasab, local dhows take you to the wonderful Musandam fiords, the "Norway of the east".
WHO MSC Cruises' 2550-passenger MSC Musica (www.msccruises.com.au); Azamara's 686-passenger Quest and Journey (www.azamaraclubcruises.com); Royal Caribbean's 1830-passenger Splendour of the Seas (www.royalcaribbean.com.au)
PAPUA NEW GUINEA
WHY HERE Expedition vessels have visited PNG for years; now P&O Cruises' and Princess Cruises' Australia-based ships are offering cruises to our culturally diverse neighbour.
PERFECT FOR Cruisers who have done the Pacific Islands and would like to venture further afield without having to fly halfway around the world.
SEE AND DO Alotau, capital of PNG's Milne Bay Province, is the gateway to some of the world's most remote communities. Tribal ceremonies are performed at the Alotau festival and there are tours to World War II sites. Kiriwina, in the unspoiled Trobriand islands, is another regular port of call.
WHY HERE Included on some Papua New Guinea itineraries, the Solomons are renowned for pristine dive sites, dreamy lagoons and tribal culture.
PERFECT FOR Cruisers looking for off-the-beaten-track destinations not too far from home.
SEE AND DO Honiara is the island nation's capital and has some important World War II sites; a tour to Kakabona cultural village offers a valuable insight into traditional island life. Gizo is renowned for its coral reefs, snorkelling and diving; a few expedition cruises visit uninhabited islands for wreck dives.
FIVE CLASSIC CRUISE DESTINATIONS
Since 2010 the number of Australians cruising the beautiful Pacific islands (Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji) has more than doubled. Ships now depart from every state and it's never been easier to jump on board a bargain-priced cruise.
Whether it's Croatia, the Greek Islands and Turkey in the eastern Med, Spain, France and Italy to the west or North Africa to the south, the Mediterranean never goes out of travel fashion.
Cruises to the icy southern wilderness are often booked out months in advance, whether they're on hard-core expedition ships or boutique luxury vessels (suitably ice-strengthened of course). Don't delay if this is on your bucket list.
The most popular European river cruise itinerary takes you from Amsterdam to Basel (or vice versa), through historic towns and villages in the Netherlands, Germany and France. The 65-kilometre Rhine Gorge itself is a not-to-be-missed UNESCO World Heritage site.
It's not blue but it's a well-travelled waterway for many reasons – the fabled cities of Vienna and Budapest being just two of them. The river flows through 10 countries and highlights of a Danube cruise include the historic Austrian towns of Melk and Durnstein and Bratislava, capital of Slovakia.
FIVE SHIPS THAT ARE A DESTINATION
OVATION OF THE SEAS
Royal Caribbean's newest Quantum-class ship is heading Down Under in December. Its 4180 passengers will be kept busy skydiving, riding bumper cars and cruising between 18 restaurants and taking in sky-high views from the North Star viewing capsule. See www.royalcaribbean.com.au
Billed as "the future of fun", this 3954-passenger ship will boast several first at sea features when it launches in May, including the Sky Ride, an aerial cycling track suspended 30 metres above sea level. Beer lovers can enjoy a ship-brewed ale in the RedFrog Pub. See www.carnival.com.au
NCL's latest ship, Norwegian Escape, is packed with enough adventurous attractions and top-quality shows to entertain its 4200 passengers for days on end. And if you want an escape within the Escape, book into the Haven, which has its own suites, restaurant and pool. See www.norwegiancruiseline.com.au
HARMONY OF THE SEAS
Launching in May, Royal Caribbean's Harmony will become the world's biggest cruise ship. It will take more than seven days at sea to explore its seven "neighbourhoods", race down the 10-storey Ultimate Abyss waterslide and check out dozens of family-friendly shows and activities. See www.royalcaribbean.com.au
The fifth Celebrity Cruises ship to boast a real-grass lawn deck, the 3046-passenger Reflection offers more grown-up activities than high-tech playgrounds. Boules and picnics on the lawn, classes in the Art Studio and imaginative dining at Qsine are among the ship's many highlights. See www.celebritycruises.com.au