Family friendly small-ship cruising: Cruises that offer kids more than just onboard attractions

Family cruises are hugely popular on big, resort-style ships all over the world, but what are the options if you'd rather take the kids on a holiday that delivers more in the way of natural attractions, a bit of adventure and learning about different cultures?

Pandaw River Expeditions, which operates a fleet of small river ships in Southeast Asia, recently announced it is offering children a free cabin on its three most popular itineraries: "The Classic Mekong" between Cambodia and Vietnam, "The Mandalay Pagan Packet" on the Irrawaddy and "The Chindwin" in Burma.

Pandaw's founder and chief executive Paul Strachan said a river cruise in Asia provides an enlightening experience for children. "It takes them a world away from their daily lives, broadens their minds and nurtures a sense of adventure. Fares include daily excursions, full board, local drinks, cultural performances, movie nights and free mountain bikes to explore rural villages, temples and countryside."

Cruises depart in July, August, September and October 2018, during school holidays, and the offer applies to up to two children aged five to 18. pandaw.com.

Fiji has long been renowned for being a family-friendly holiday destination and Captain Cook Cruises offers a terrific selection of cruises and cruise-resort combos around the Yasawa and Mamanuca Islands. Children from age five to nine can do all sorts of beach and water activities with the Captain's Kids Club (so grown-ups can enjoy a few kid-free hours) and children aged eight and above can learn scuba-diving in the Padi Bubblemaker program. See captaincookcruisesfiji.com.

UnCruise Adventures runs Family Discoveries programs on its small-ship ocean and river cruises, in destinations such as Alaska, Hawaii and the Galapagos islands. Children must be eight or over. Just like adults, kids are enthralled by close encounters with wildlife and there are lots of onshore and onboard adventures that appeal to all age groups. See cruisetraveller.com.au.

Closer to home, Coral Expeditions' Great Barrier Reef sailings are a great choice for families with children of 12 and upwards. Cruises run for three, four or seven nights from Cairns on the 44-passenger Coral Expeditions II – ideal for a long weekend or a week of school holidays. While there is no specific program for kids, daily water activities such as snorkelling, kayaking, swimming and diving keep them happily occupied for hours. Exploring the reef with the ship's marine biologist adds an enjoyable educational element and visiting Fitzroy island, where passengers visit the Turtle Rehabilitation Centre and swim with turtles on the beach, is a major highlight. See coralexpeditions.com.

SHORE THING

THE PORT Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

WHO GOES THERE Azamara, Crystal Cruises, Costa, Cunard, Fred. Olsen, Hapag-Lloyd, MSC, NCL, Oceania, P&O UK, Princess, Regent Seven Seas, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn, Silversea, Star Cruises, Viking.

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WHY WE LOVE IT Malaysia's multi-cultural capital is an intriguing mix of Chinese, Malay and British colonial history. Its recent incarnation is as a technological and economic powerhouse. Shopping and eating out are popular pursuits for KL citizens and both are cheaper than in other big Asian cities.

TAKE A TOUR OR GO IT ALONE? Ships dock at Port Klang, 64 kilometres southwest of Kuala Lumpur. The drive can take up to 90 minutes and it's advisable to take a ship's tour or independent excursion to explore the city. Some cruise lines offer tours that drop you off in the centre so you can do your own thing for the day and return you to the ship in the evening. Princess Cruises' Sapphire Princess offers an excursion that takes in Klang, the former capital of Selangor state; an invitation into a traditional Malaysian home; views of the Istana Alam Shah, the Sultan of Selangor's official royal residence; the Blue Mosque, Malaysia's biggest mosque; plus free time to shop in Little India.

MUST SEE The view from Petronas Twin Towers' Skybridge; the Hindu shrine at Batu Caves; Merdeka Square and surrounding historic buildings; Petaling market in Chinatown; KL Butterfly Park, the largest of its type in the world.

MUST EAT There are thousands of restaurants, hawker stands and kopitiam (coffee shops) to choose from. Try roti canai (pan-fried flatbread stuffed with various savoury fillings), hokkien mee (stir-fried noodles), rendang (spicy beef curry) and wantan mee (pork and noodles).

NEED TO KNOW The climate is hot and humid, so pack summer clothes and take an umbrella and lightweight waterproof jacket when you're out and about. Cool down with an ais kacang, a delicious shaved-ice dessert.

ESSENTIALS visitkl.gov.my.

CRUISEFACT

Cruising contributed more than $5 billion to the Australian economy and helped support some 21,000 jobs in 2016-17.

NEWS

Ahoy Buccaneers

Kimberly coast cruise operator Ahoy Buccaneers has announced it is adding five Torres Strait Island cruises to its itineraries, beginning in October 2018. The six-night cruises will begin and end on Horn Island, 55 kilometres north-west of the tip of Cape York, and call at rarely visited islands in the Torres Strait group as well as better-known spots such as Thursday Island. Activities include snorkelling, fishing and taking in World War II sites. Ahoy Buccaneer offers budget-friendly cruises for adventure-minded travellers on its 19-passenger motor-yacht Oceanic; the 24-metre vessel has indoor and outdoor dining areas, two lounges, a deck spa and "basic" accommodation is in double-bed and bunk cabins. Qantas flies daily between Horn Island and Cairns and there's a free accommodation offer available until December 22. See ahoybuccaneers.com.au.

Faster to the fun

This month Carnival Cruise Line is launching its new Faster to the Fun package, which allows passengers to skip queues with priority check-in, first-in tender boarding and late or early disembarkation. A limited number of the packages will be available on Carnival Legend and Carnival Spirit, costing from $50 a cabin for a three-day cruise to $200 for cruises of 13 or more days. The package includes a dedicated guest services number for queries and having access to your cabin as soon as you board the ship. "Guests who purchase the program start their holiday early and can be the first onshore at each tender port, so they make the most of their precious holiday time," says Jennifer Vandekreeke, Carnival Cruise Line's vice president Australia. See carnival.com.au.

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