How could you possibly nominate Europe's best cruise experience? It might be sailing from Greek island Santorini as the sun sets on its volcanic crater, or arriving in Norway's Lofoten Islands surrounded by flower-studded meadows and splendid peaks. It might be sailing up the Thames towards London, or between the mighty Renaissance fortifications of Valletta harbour, or into Monte Carlo, with the sun winking off billionaires' yachts and palace windows.
Europe has more cruise options than any other continent, allowing you to explore remote landscapes, culture-dense cities and centuries of monuments – and sometimes all of these on a single cruise. Coastlines and rivers take you through an exhilarating mix of languages, cuisines and societies. Here are just some of the latest options.
The indented, island-studded coastlines of Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro have attracted holidaymakers since Roman times, when the Emperor Diocletian retired here. Now the region has emerged as the hippest place in the Mediterranean. Neon-blue waters, crumbling castles, chic yachting harbours and olive groves are beautiful, and the Adriatic's cultural history is a heady mix of Roman, Venetian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Italian and Yugoslav influences.
Some cruises take in the Adriatic coastline on itineraries between Italy and Greece, but small-ship companies often explore in more depth. Many cruises sail from Venice and visit highlights such as Split, Dubrovnik and Kotor, the Mediterranean's answer to a fiord.
Peregrine Adventures has a new cruise sailing Croatia's central coast between Split and Zadar with an inland excursion to Plitvice Lakes National Park. See peregrineadventures.com
Meanwhile, Tauck offers a new Venice and the Dalmatian Coast itinerary which also calls at yachting playground Hvar, the first-century Roman amphitheatre at Pula, and medieval Trogir, which sits on a well-defended islet and flaunts elaborate stonework emblazoned with coats-of-arms. The town is enlivened by guitar-strumming buskers and shopkeepers selling lavender oil and lace. See tauck.com.au
In 2019, APT launches Croatian cruises on the new 36-passenger Queen Eleganza and Evergreen Cruises sets sail with the 36-passenger yacht Adriatic Princess II on eight-day cruises between Trogir and Dubrovnik. See aptouring.com.au and evergreentours.com.au
Cruise ships sail into many Baltic ports through pine-scented islands where seagulls screech and public ferries chug. The salty air and pale northern light are exhilarating. Ships often tie up right in city centres where lively street markets, cafe-lined avenues and elegant boulevards unfold. Easy accessibility and safety, matched with Nordic design flair, history and contemporary bustle, make this an increasingly popular cruise region.
Most cruises take in Scandinavian capitals and an overnight (or more) in St Petersburg. The capitals of the Baltic states are low-key counterparts. Variously ruled by Denmark, Sweden, Germany and the Soviet Union, they have a delightful variety of cuisine, architecture and inhabitants.
Seabourn's newest ship, Seabourn Ovation, which sets sail this month, is sailing seven-day Baltic and Scandinavian cruises between Copenhagen and Stockholm. See seabourn.com
Tauck features a new 12-day itinerary this year which visits St Petersburg but also takes in interesting smaller ports such as Estonian capital Tallinn and medieval Danish centre Roskilde.
In 2019, Travelmarvel has a new Baltic cruise and Viking promises an 11-day Russia & the Baltic Sea cruise book-ended by Stockholm and Copenhagen, with three days in St Petersburg and visits to Tallinn, the Danish island Bornholm, and former Viking stronghold and medieval trading port Visby, ringed by fortified walls and 44 towers, on the Swedish island of Gotland. See travelmarvel.com.au and vikingcruises.com.au
NORWAY AND ICELAND
The fabled fiords of Norway – a name derived from the Viking phrase "way to the north" – are a highlight of the cruise world. Mountains and glaciers are framed in sea-valley cliffs where thousands of gannets and puffins breed. Red farmhouses cling to pockets of meadow.
Some cruises take in remote gems such as the Svalbard Islands (notable for polar bears) and the Danish-owned Faroe Islands west of Norway's coast, halfway to Iceland.
Viking's 13-day Iceland's Majestic Landscapes itinerary, new in 2019, begins in Bergen and sails several Norwegian ports before continuing to the Faroes and three Icelandic ports, finishing with an overnight in Reykjavik. Also notable is Viking's new winter cruise from London to Bergen during the Northern Lights season, and featuring overnight stays in Tromsø, Alta and Bergen.
Azamara Club Cruises' Azamara Pursuit sails from Southampton on its post-refurbishment voyage this August to visit eight destinations in Norway, following it with another country-intensive cruise to Iceland. See azamaraclubcruises.com
Travelmarvel has both a new Norway cruise and a circumnavigation of Iceland that crosses the Arctic Circle. Peregrine Adventure's eight-day Iceland's Wild West Coast journey explores the far-flung Westfjords. But whether sophisticated cities or regional fishing towns, Iceland's ports – like Norway's – invariably look out over magnificent natural harbours and glacier-carved fiords.
Poseidon Expeditions cruises the brooding Orkney Isles. Photo: Anthony Smith
THE BRITISH ISLES
Cruises in Britain and Ireland provide a refreshing alternative for those who've visited before and think they know this destination. Its rugged coastlines are far from the quaint cottages and sentimentalised history of inland England.
Proud of their distinctive heritage, the Scots and Irish – and even the northern English – haven't prettified the past to suit modern tourism's bland tastes. Tour guides relate stories of ancient defeats at the hands of the English, and landscapes are littered with battlefields, monuments and haunting tales.
Poseidon Expeditions has a new Best of the British Isles itinerary from Plymouth to Edinburgh around the coasts of Ireland and Scotland, while new ship Seabourn Ovation will sail 14-day voyages that combine the British Isles with the Norwegian fiords. Tauck's new cruise from Dublin visits Belfast, the Isle of Man, Liverpool, the Scilly Isles and Guernsey, sure to provide an interesting alternative look at Britain's edges. See poseidonexpeditions.com
In 2019, Celebrity Reflection home ports in Dublin to sail the British Isles and further afield. See celebritycruises.com.au
A new Scottish cruise from Travelmarvel explores the Orkney Islands, Inner and Outer Hebrides, and Loch Ness. You'll discover peat bogs, chilly beaches and lush valleys where shaggy highland cattle moan. Wild coastlines and moody weather are suited to those with poetry in their souls.
The Mediterranean is cruising's heartland. Distances between ports are small and shorelines are crammed with the remnants of a fabulous series of empires. Fantastic ruined cities, amphitheatres, crusader castles, mosques and whitewashed villages clash with glamorous ports, big cities and jetsetter islands.
Luxury small ships are providing more choice than ever. Ponant has rolled out more than 30 Mediterranean cruises in eight countries this year, some themed on music, gastronomy or golf. See ponant.com
Among Viking's new Mediterranean itineraries is a 15-day Mediterranean & Italian Sojourn featuring overnight stays in Barcelona and Venice, and visits to France, Monaco, Italy and Croatia. In 2019, Windstar launches an impressive 51-day Grand Mediterranean cruise between Lisbon and Barcelona on tall ship Wind Surf, which visits 42 ports in 11 countries. See windstar.com.au
Other cruises are more focused. Seadream Yacht Club now has sailings out of Malaga and Barcelona that concentrate on Spain's coastal towns and Balearic Islands, while Tauck's new Sicily, the Amalfi Coast & Rome cruise is an 11-night Italian meander finishing in Valletta. See seadream.com
In Greece, Peregrine Adventures has a new eight-day Hidden Gems itinerary, while Abercrombie & Kent has a charter on new ship Le Laperouse in 2019 which visits classics such as Crete, Santorini, Rhodes and Mykonos, as well as lesser-known Greek islands of Symi, Delos and Syros. See abercrombiekent.com.au
NEW EUROPEAN RIVER CRUISES
Facing ever-increasing competition, river-cruise companies are constantly rejigging European river itineraries and adding new options.
Crystal has nearly 200 new port experiences along the Danube, Rhine and Main rivers, while Tauck has expanded shore-excursion choices on the Danube, Rhine and Seine. See crystalcruises.com or tauck.com.au
Riviera Travel has created more Christmas-cruise departures and a new five-night Yuletide Markets sail to Budapest, Bratislava and Vienna. See rivieratravel.com.au
In 2019, look out for three new Danube cruises from Uniworld. See uniworld.com
Viking has a new Rhone Explorer round-trip journey from Lyon and a Holland and Belgium in Bloom itinerary between Amsterdam and Antwerp. Tauck offers an Autumn Along the Rhine beer-themed cruise finishing at Munich's Oktoberfest. See vikingcruises.com.au
Some unusual itineraries are appearing. Scenic has a 15-day Imperial Russia cruise this September which sails the Volga River between Moscow and Volgograd, visiting old trading cities Yaroslavl and Nizhny Novgorod. See scenic.com.au