The Pacific is by far the top cruise destination for Australians, but it isn't all about short itineraries on mega-ships. Brian Johnston charts the ocean's many other cruise options.
Most Australian cruise passengers in the Pacific sail to tropical islands on big, mainstream budget ships, which creates the perception that Pacific cruising doesn't offer many nuanced choices. Wrong. The ocean that covers a third of our planet's surface provides extraordinary cruise destinations far beyond the sunny archipelagos off Australia's eastern seaboard. After all, Alaska, Russia, Japan, PNG, New Zealand and Central and South America all sit on the Pacific Ocean. What's more, an armada of small, interesting and upmarket cruise ships will take you there. Here are eight ways to sail beyond regular Pacific cruise horizons, and on a ship that's sure to suit your style.
So, your idea of a good Pacific cruise involves butler service, posh French nosh, high thread counts and whale song in wellness centres? Then you're in luck, because high-end companies such as Azamara, Crystal, Seabourn, Silversea, Oceania, Paul Gauguin, Ponant and Viking will have you cruising in comfort. Most sail in Australia and New Zealand, and many in French Polynesia, but you'll find upmarket ships in every corner of the Pacific, even in remote expedition-style destinations such as Easter Island or Melanesia.
OUR PICK Regent Seven Seas Cruises' 14-night "Sydney to Auckland" cruise on Seven Seas Navigator takes you from Sydney via Melbourne and Burnie in Tasmania to New Zealand. Cruise the Milford Sound and visit ports such as Dunedin, Akaroa, Wellington and Napier. The all-suite ship has six dining choices and a top spa, and cruises include unlimited complimentary shore excursions. From $11,900 a person, departs February 28, 2020, rssc.com
CRUISE UNDER SAIL
Are you more sailor than cruiser? If so you can feel the salt on your skin with a small number of companies that operate tall ships or other vessels under sail. Space and facilities are more limited, but the thrilling experience of journeying beneath billowing canvas is compensation. Unfortunately, the Pacific isn't well-served by sailing ships, since neither Star Clippers nor Sea Cloud operate here. That leaves Windstar Cruises, which concentrates on French Polynesia but also sails the Pacific coasts of Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama.
OUR PICK Windstar Cruises' eight-day "South Pacific Uncovered" on Wind Spirit sails from Lautoka (Fiji) to Noumea (New Caledonia), and also takes in Vanuatu. Highlights include active Mt Yasur volcano, a turtle sanctuary at Port Vila, and gorgeous Ile des Pins, notable for its shimmering blue water, white sands and Norfolk Island pines. From $$2599 a person, departs February 21 and June 8, 2020, windstarcruises.com
Snug as we are on the edge of the South Pacific, east-coast Australians tend to think that "our" ocean features only coral atolls, palm trees and sapphire-coloured lagoons. The snowy volcanoes, pine-scented coastlines and glaciers of the North Pacific show there's much more to this vast ocean. Alaska and increasingly Japan are the two big, mainstream North Pacific cruise destinations, but the true-wilderness experience of the Russian Far East provides the greatest adventure. Companies such as APT, Crystal, Heritage Expeditions, Lindblad Expeditions, Ponant, Scenic and World Expeditions sail there.
OUR PICK Silversea's 18-day "Hokkaido to Hokkaido" cruise sails round-trip from Otaru in Japan aboard Silver Explorer and visits Russia's Sea of Okhotsk, including the Kamchatka Peninsula and Kuril Islands, notable for their geothermal landscapes. The caldera lagoon on Yankicha Island is accessible only by Zodiac and has steaming fumaroles. Tyuleny Island has huge colonies of fur seals and sea lions. From $18,900 a person, departs June 18, 2020, silversea.com
If the vision of a ship carrying thousands does nothing for you, don't write cruising off. You could find your niche on a small ship, something of a generic description for anything carrying fewer than 1000 passengers and sometimes just 200. They might be luxury, expedition-style or special-interest focused. With fewer on-board facilities and entertainment, small ships are often more destination intense. You have a surfeit of small-ship choice in the Pacific, with companies such as APT, Captain Cook, Lindblad, Paul Gauguin, Ponant and Silversea among companies operating there.
OUR PICK Coral Expeditions' 11-night "Passage to the Solomons" cruise on Coral Discoverer sails from Cairns to Honiara. Volcanic islands, coral reefs and wildlife such a dolphins and turtles are natural highlights, but you can also trace WWII history, dive on sunken naval wrecks and learn about local culture such as canoe building and ebony carving. From $9990 a person, departs October 16, 2019, coralexpeditions.com
Not everyone has the same idea of romance, but for most it's hard to beat sultry islands fringed with coconut palms and coral reefs, supplemented by lurid sunsets enjoyed over even more lurid cocktails. Cruise lines on which the romance factor is high include Crystal, Paul Gauguin and Windstar, and for destination you can't really beat the Society Islands in French Polynesia, where you can sail into classic honeymoon island Bora Bora and others just as scenic, such as Moorea or Huahine.
OUR PICK Oceania Cruises' 16-night "Papeete to Sydney" cruise on Regatta provides that loving feeling in romantic destinations such as Tahiti, Bora Bora, Samoa, Fiji and (for a bit of French sexiness) New Caledonia. Regatta will have just been completely redesigned, and Oceania is known for its top nosh, allowing you to feed your better half on Maine lobster, whole swordfish or pasta with truffles. From $6240 a person, departs November 17, 2019, oceaniacruises.com
Most Pacific cruises are operated by large ships looping around predictable ports in Hawaii, New Zealand or destinations close to Australia. Don't let that blind you to alternatives. If you're after a more adventurous cruise for a closer encounter with landscapes and small ports, then consider an expedition cruise on a small ship that carries Zodiacs and usually water-sports equipment too. Dozens of companies operate across the Pacific, such as Coral Expeditions and True North in Papua New Guinea, Heritage Expeditions in Melanesia and Ponant in remoter parts of New Zealand and French Polynesia.
OUR PICK Lindblad Expeditions' 15-day "Azure Seas" itinerary round-trip from Papeete on National Geographic Orion spends time in the Tuatmotu Archipelago and Marquesas Islands and includes diving or snorkelling, a hike to a waterfall and the chance to spot rare birds. The cruise is accompanied by dive masters and a National Geographic photographer. From $19,900 a person, departs April 26, 2019 and April 22, 2020, au.expeditions.com
The South Pacific, Hawaii and Alaska are all great destinations for families, though you'll have to resort to big-ship companies such as Carnival, Holland America, Norwegian, P&O Australia, Princess and Royal Caribbean if you're after the widest range of family-friendly amenities and experiences. That said, some smaller and more upmarket ships run family programs too, such as Hapag-Lloyd, Paul Gauguin and the American small-ship specialist Un-Cruise Adventures. Older children might well enjoy expedition cruises, but will have to be content in adult environments and with limited shipboard distractions.
OUR PICK Celebrity Cruises' 13-night "South Pacific, Fiji & Tonga" cruise return from Auckland on Celebrity Solstice visits the Bay of Islands, Lautoka and Suva in Fiji, Apia in Samoa, Pago Pago in American Samoa and Vavau and Nuku Alofa in Tonga. Solstice features three on-board kids' clubs variously targeted at three- to five-year-olds (ShipMates), three- to 11-year olds (Fun Factory), and teenagers (X Club). From $2401a person, departs April 1, 2020, celebritycruises.com.au
While themed cruises are gaining in popularity, not that many are available in the Pacific, with the exception of comedy and music cruises operated out of Australia by big ships. Still, keep your eye out for the occasional speciality cruises run by companies such as Silversea (wellness), Lindblad (photography) or Heritage Expeditions (birdwatching). Botanica World Discoveries runs garden-themed cruises to Northeast Asia and New Zealand. If wildlife is your thing, the Galapagos is your dream destination, and served by a host of small-ship companies such as Celebrity, Chimu Adventures, Lindblad Expeditions, Tauck and Silversea.
OUR PICK Peregrine Adventures' 10-day "Classic Galapagos: Southern Islands" cruise sails round-trip from Quito in Ecuador on Grand Queen Beatriz, which carries just 16 passengers. The itinerary includes regular hikes, swimming and snorkelling and visits Santa Fe island for sea lions, Isla Santa Cruz for giant tortoises, and Isla Espanola for its rich birdlife. From $7953 a person, multiple departure dates throughout 2019, peregrineadventures.com
The writer has travelled as a guest of numerous cruise companies.