Cruising options in Australia: The best places to see by ship

Along the Kimberley coastline, you can cruise between sapphire seas and rust-red rock in a land where waterfalls tumble and ancient handprints mark the land. Off the Whitsunday Islands, you might find Nemo and squeaky-sand beaches to fuel Robinson Crusoe fantasies. Too tame? Try cage diving with great whites in South Australia, or kayaking Tasmania's wild west coast. If you prefer the siren call of cities, cruises will take you to the races in Melbourne, the shops in Sydney or the balmy pleasures of Brisbane.

With so many great destinations accessible by ship, it's no surprise that cruise numbers within Australia are booming as more of us set sail to discover our sea-girt home. More than a million Australians now take a cruise each year, and one fifth of these cruise within Australia – a 30 per cent jump from 2013 to 2014, according to Cruise Lines International Association.

Numbers aren't yet in for 2015, but are likely to remain impressive. More ships than ever are home-porting in Australia, and an increasing number of circumnavigations, coastal cruises, expedition voyages and short breaks are being offered here. "Australian destinations rate highly in guest feedback and Aussie sailings fill fast," says Adam Armstrong, commercial director of Royal Caribbean International Cruises Australia. "In response, we're growing the number of local itineraries and domestic destinations on offer, such as Wollongong, Mooloolaba, Port Arthur, the Whitsundays, Port Douglas, Newcastle, Albany and Kangaroo Island."

In general, Australian cruises return you to the departure port. Examples might be Cunard's eight-day cruise from Sydney to Hobart, Kangaroo Island and Melbourne, or P&O Australia's six-night cruise from Melbourne to Port Lincoln, Adelaide and Kangaroo Island. The granddaddy of them all is the circumnavigation of Australia, though there aren't many of these. Cunard and Holland America Line have previously offered them, Princess Cruises has more regularly, this year offering Round Australia journeys from Brisbane (28 days) or Sydney (30 days) for those keen to do the whole continent on a single sail.

The most common Australian cruises last about a week, with Queensland in particular seeing growth. More cruise ships are visiting Cooktown, Port Douglas and the Whitsundays. This year, P&O becomes the first big cruise line to homeport in Cairns when Pacific Eden bases itself there between September and November, though it will operate cruises to PNG and the Pacific islands. P&O is also bringing the first cruise ships to Gladstone and Fraser Island; last year it introduced cruising to Moreton Island and Mooloolaba.

Celebrity Solstice has 12-night cruises return from Sydney calling at Newcastle, the Whitsundays, Cairns (where it stays overnight), Port Douglas, Willis Island and Brisbane. Royal Caribbean International has similar offerings from Sydney, and a March 2017 sailing from Brisbane that takes in the Whitsundays, Cairns and Willis Island.

If you're after a more adventurous style of cruising, then Coral Expeditions has a boutique cruise ship that operates out of Cairns to the Barrier Reef. Longer 12-night cruises run between Darwin and Cairns and take in Arnhem Land, Cape York and the Tiwi Islands, including shore visits to remote villages to meet Aboriginal artists, snorkelling on the Barrier Reef, an exploration of World War II history in Torres Strait, and a visit to Cooktown.

When it comes to expedition cruising, however, the Kimberley on the opposite side of the continent is the hot destination. Aurora Expeditions has already added an additional departure in 2017 after increased demand for its 2016 cruises, which are already 90 per cent full. "The Kimberley is booming," Aurora chief executive Lisa Bolton says. "The region has always been popular for self-driving and land-based tours, but travellers are now realising that cruising the Kimberley on a small-ship voyage offers a completely different perspective and experience." 

Other companies operating here include North Star Cruises and Kimberley Quest, which has a 25-metre vessel that carries just 18 passengers. The only mainstream cruise line with a dedicated Kimberley cruise is five-star Silversea, whose 120-passenger Silver Discoverer sails 10-day Kimberley itineraries between Darwin and Broome from March to May this year. Among the highlights are the dramatic tidal change at Montgomery Reef, King George's twin falls and a scenic flight over the Bungle Bungles. The cruise is accompanied by expert naturalists and photographers, and uses Zodiacs to make shore excursions on the rugged northwest coast.

North Star has some interesting alternative cruises in Western Australia. Its 11-day West Coast Explorer itinerary between Fremantle and Dampier calls in at the Abrolhos​ Islands, Ningaloo​ Reef and the Montes Islands, while its five-day Coral Atoll cruise concentrates on the Rowley Shoals off Broome, where a marine biologist accompanies snorkellers and divers among reefs and lagoons teeming with fish and bird life. 

North Star also has a South Australia cruise that ups adrenaline levels with shark diving and swimming with seals. But South Australia also offers a unique cruise product thanks to the Murray River, on which cruises continue to attract strong interest. "The Murray River is definitely a growing market, as shown in increased forward sales for our paddlewheeler Murray Princess cruises,' says Donna Gauci, general manager of SeaLink, which owns Captain Cook Cruises. "Bookings are higher than ever with many departure dates in 2016 already sold out." Captain Cook's Murray Princess offers three-, four- and seven-day cruises from Mannum with an emphasis on wildlife and eco-tours, cellars doors and pioneer history. It also has one-off departures themed for Australia Day, Anzac Day, Easter and Christmas in July, as well as cooking and music.

While cruisers often turn to warmer northern seas for their holidays, interest in Tasmania is also on the rise, with Burnie and Hobart getting mooring upgrades for larger vessels. Mainstream cruise lines now commonly have Tasmania on itineraries, such as a seven-day Princess itinerary round-trip from Sydney that visits Hobart, Port Arthur and Burnie (as well as Melbourne), or a five-night cruise with Carnival Cruise Line with ports of call at Hobart and Port Arthur. Varied shore excursions include sea kayaking, a wildlife sanctuary visit and a history tour of Richmond. 

Coral Expeditions, meanwhile, has a new seven-night cruise around southern Tasmania, return from Hobart. Among its shore excursions are visits to Grandvewe​ Cheeses, a scenic ranger-led hike along a section of South Coast Track, kayaking near Port Davey on the west coast, and visits to Bruny Island, Freycinet​ National Park, Maria Island and Port Arthur.

Royal Caribbean International has four-night Tasmania Taster sailings on Explorer of the Seas from Sydney to Hobart. They're just one of the increasingly common single-destination cruises that include the Margaret River (from Fremantle), Fraser Island (from Sydney), Kangaroo Island (from Melbourne) or the Hunter Valley (from Brisbane). Also popular are short cruises that might visit just a couple of places. P&O has the widest choice, but they're also offered by Carnival and Princess. In 2017, Cunard's flagship Queen Mary 2 will also make short cruises from Melbourne to Kangaroo Island, and Sydney to Port Arthur and Hobart. Such short breaks also include cruises timed around special events, such as P&O's Australia Open and Melbourne Cup cruises, Carnival's Melbourne Cup cruises, and North Star's cruises timed for the Sydney Hobart Yacht Race and New Year spectacles on Sydney Harbour.

 "The general trend in travel towards short-break holidays is certainly one of the factors driving the popularity of Australian cruises," says Cruise Lines International Association's Brett Jardine. "Cruise lines have responded by offering a greater range of local two-to-five-night itineraries. Instead of waiting until they arrive at their destination for the holiday to start, the fun and relaxation begins the moment guests board a cruise."

In their purest form, such short breaks become "cruises to nowhere", which are two- or three-night round trips (usually over weekends) without port calls. They had their genesis in party cruises, which allowed ships to sail far enough offshore to operate casinos and duty-free shops. These days they're rebranded as cruise "samplers", and indeed they can be an ideal way for novice cruisers to experience this style of holiday, or check out a particular ship. Carnival and P&O have many such cruises, and Royal Caribbean International's Legend of the Seas operates a three-night sampler from Sydney in February and from Brisbane in December. As good a reason as any to celebrate Australia on the high seas.

FIVE REASONS TO CRUISE AUSTRALIA

SAVE TIME

Air and land travel is time consuming. Cruising lets you travel overnight, leaving daytimes free for port visits, and packing in multiple sights in a short period.

SECRET SPOTS

You can see parts of Australia otherwise difficult to access, such as the Kimberley coastline, Cape York and Tiwi Islands.

ALL INCLUSIVE

Accommodation, food, transport and entertainment isn't just included but organised for you. It's a relaxed, good-value way to see more of Australia.

BEATS A ROAD TRIP

An Australian circumnavigation by ship is easier and more comfortable than the traditional road route by RV or campervan.

NO BORDERS

You won't need visas, foreign currencies or vaccinations, and you might even avoid air travel.

TRIP NOTES

Aurora Expeditions, phone 1800 637 688, see auroraexpeditions.com.au 

Captain Cook Cruises, phone 1800 804 843, see captaincook.com.au 

Carnival Cruise Line, phone 1300 385 625, see carnival.com.au 

Celebrity Cruises, phone 1800 754 500, see celebritycruises.com.au 

Coral Expeditions, phone 1800 079 545, see coralexpeditions.com 

Cunard Line, phone 13 24 41, see cunard.com 

Kimberley Quest, phone 1300 156 035, see kimberleyquest.com.au 

North Star Cruises, phone 08 9192 1829, see northstarcruises.com.au 

P&O Australia, phone 13 24 94, see pocruises.com.au   

Princess Cruises, phone 1300 551 853, see princess.com 

Royal Caribbean International, phone 1800 754 500, see royalcaribbean.com.au 

Silversea, phone 1300 306 872, see silversea.com  

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