Fresh waters, new frontiers

Taken a cruise lately? Join the club - nearly 700,000 of us did one or more last year. So, where next beyond the obvious? Louise Goldsbury has the answers.

In a world with five oceans and 165 major rivers, it would seem that cruise ships were blessed with a boundless aquatic playground. But most of the time, similar-sounding seven-day itineraries are rolled out year after year. The question is, if water covers 70 per cent of the Earth's surface, why is everyone sailing in the same areas?

Brett Jardine, general manager of Cruise Lines International Association Australasia, says itineraries are designed to meet demand. "According to our annual cruise passenger statistics, Australians love cruising from their doorstep and exploring their own country as well as neighbouring New Zealand and the south Pacific," he says. "Cruising from home removes the hassle of airports and means that passengers can spend more time unwinding on board."

For cruise companies, luring landlubbers onto their first voyage is the toughest challenge, so they tend to keep it simple. The next step is turning those first-timers into second-timers, or life-timers, which is most effectively achieved by offering alternative destinations. As Jardine says: "The cruise community is very loyal, and passengers often return time and time again to their favourite ships, so it's good to introduce new offerings to encourage seasoned cruisers to come back for more."

At a time when a record number of Australians are cruising - almost 700,000, including river cruising, last year - and with some people hitting 20, 50 or 100 cruises by now, there is a pressing need to find new frontiers in which to float.

Sven Lindblad, founder and president of Lindblad Expeditions, describes the ocean as the last frontier. "It's really not very well explored," he says. "But there is a hunger out there to have adventures, to discover new things. I am excited about where we're going next and what we can expose people to."

Aaron Russ, founder of Wild Earth Travel, agrees that human curiosity is a great motivator.

"I don't think there is so much a pressing need for new destinations as there is a pressing need to do something different," he says. "Also, for many people, doing something different to the masses is appealing."

Those masses on popular cruising routes have led to overcrowding in some places, which defeats the purpose of escaping at sea. In Australia, New Zealand and the south Pacific, a tiny town or island can be swamped by your fellow passengers. In Europe, Alaska and the Caribbean, it's not uncommon for six superliners to dock at one port, ballooning the small population by 20,000 or more.

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Busy rivers, such as the Rhine and Danube, can also have several vessels moored side by side, requiring passengers to walk through other boats to reach their own. Carrying fewer than 180 guests, these longships are fast running out of waterways to satisfy the thousands of repeat passengers.

Fortunately, more paths are opening up in every continent, with plenty of scope for sailing in relatively undiscovered nautical nooks. Small-ship expeditions and river cruises are among the best.

"With their smaller size comes great flexibility, which is a critical element in a successful exploration of a new destination," Russ says.

Speaking up for big ships, Jardine says the choice depends on the type of holiday sought.

"Many mainstream cruise lines offer an element of soft adventure, whether it's a call to a remote Pacific island, scenic cruising through a Norwegian or New Zealand fiord, or a journey along Alaska's coast," he says. "There is a sense of being off the beaten track on just about every cruise."

INTO AFRICA

Forget those scary stories about pirates in the Gulf of Aden - the latest African sea safaris have moved to the west coast. Luxury lines, such as Crystal Cruises (wiltrans.com.au), visit Ghana, Namibia, Senegal, Angola and Morocco, while Silversea adds a few more ports in Cameroon, Benin and Togo. silversea.com.

Delving further into the continent, G Adventures has a 32-day odyssey from Cape Town to Morocco, stopping at almost unbelievable cruising destinations: Congo and Sierra Leone. Far removed from the usual ship-organised tours, excursions probe the slave trade and voodoo. The 2014 cruise departs on April 6, with fares from $16,999 a person in a quad-share cabin, or $19,999 twin share, including airport transfers, guided excursions and accommodation before and after the 29 nights on MS Expedition. gadventures.com.

On the other side of Africa, in the Seychelles, Australian-owned APT has dreamt big for its new small ship, MS Island Sky. The 15-day Grand Indian Ocean Safari squeezes into the harder-to-reach southern atolls, such as Astove and Aldabra, which APT has been granted special permission to visit.

The trip starts in Mauritius, heading to St Denis on Reunion Island and remote areas of Madagascar, followed by Alphonse, Poivre, Praslin, La Digue and Mahe. Priced from $11,395 a person, twin share, the only departure is on February 11, next year. aptouring.com.au.

YANGON WITH THE WIND

Myanmar has opened up to cruise passengers as much as to land-based travellers. Cruises have boomed due to a shortage of hotel rooms in "the lost Burma".

This month, Orient Express launched its new vessel, the 50-passenger Oracella, on the Irrawaddy River. Throughout the year, sailings between Yangon and Bhamo take in key cultural sites as well as those seldom seen. The ship then turns off down the Chindwin tributary, passing mountain ranges in western Myanmar, reaching almost as far north as the Indian border. Passengers have the opportunity to witness a traditional novitiation ceremony of monks and to explore caves with 492 Buddha chambers carved into the hillside. orient-express.com.

Ocean liners have also jumped at the chance to add a Burmese port. At the end of this year, Azamara Club Cruises' 694-passenger Azamara Journey will host two nights in Yangon as part of its 14-day Burma and Malaysia cruise over Christmas-New Year. Fares include an evening excursion to the Burmese Festival at the People's Park on December 27. azamaraclubcruises.com.

Next year, during a round-trip sail from Singapore on February 17, Holland America Line's 1432-passenger Volendam stays overnight in Yangon, allowing time to follow the sacred pilgrimage to Shwedagon Pagoda. hollandamerica.com.

The most luxurious alternative is the 112-passenger megayacht SeaDream II, where guests will be pampered on two Mystic Malaysia & Myanmar programs departing Singapore on November 25 and Phuket, Thailand, on December 8. Also offering two days in Yangon, SeaDream Yacht Club's other Burmese ports include Kyun Philar and Pila Kyun islands in the Mergui Archipelago. seadream.com.

In 2015, Oceania Cruises' Insignia is spending two nights in Yangon during its epic 180-day global circumnavigation. The "upper premium" line provides free tours either to Bagan, one of the richest archaeological sites in Asia, or the former royal capital of Amarapura, which is home to a huge monastery and the world's largest book. Fares start at $38,700 a person. oceaniacruises.com.

Before them all was Pandaw River Cruises, the first since World War II to offer cruises on the Irrawaddy River. Ten per cent early-bird discounts are available on most sailings, from the 10-night Golden Land: Mandalay-Pagan-Prome tour to the Chindwin & Upper Irrawaddy: 20 Nights in Remotest Burma cruise. A last-minute discount can be had on an August 3 departure aboard the colonial-style Angkor Pandaw. Fares start at $US2425 ($2630) a person. pandaw.com.

According to my sources, at least two other river cruise lines are planning Myanmar itineraries. One is a well-known Australian company; the other is an American luxury line.

SPICE IT UP

Lindblad Expeditions, which merged with Australia's Orion Expedition Cruises, has introduced Spice Islands and the Coral Triangle for one of its first sailings of the newly acquired and renamed National Geographic Orion. What makes this voyage different from others in the Moluccas archipelago is the departure from Palau, one of the world's youngest and smallest nations.

Palau, 800 kilometres east of the Philippines, is best known as a scuba divers' paradise, which suits the new sea exploration equipment to be installed on the small ship.

The two-week cruise spends three days at Raja Ampat, which is claimed to be the richest coral reef ecosystem in the world, and then explores the little-known Banda Islands and an uninhabited East Timorese island before ending in Darwin. Departing on April 28, 2014, the 14-night cruise is priced from $14,290 a person, twin share. orionexpeditions.com, expeditions.com.

ICE WITH THAT

Small-ship expedition companies have forged the way to this intensive wilderness area, despite the icy conditions. Sometimes called the Russian Far East, it's home to volcanoes, black lava beaches, grey whales, reindeer, walruses, countless birds and the Arctic fox. Polar bears are the stars of this frozen stage, if you're lucky enough to see them, although Heritage Expeditions has reported more than 180 on a single Across the Top of the World journey. The New Zealand-based company, which has a decade of experience in the remote region, recommends Wrangel Island, a Russian prohibited zone for many decades, and the Sea of Okhotsk for true pioneer travellers. Expect to see a big tufted puffin colony and, hopefully, the Kamchatka brown bear. heritage-expeditions.com.

Last month, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises launched its first voyage to Wrangel Island and the Chukchi Peninsula. The 15-day trip aboard MS Hanseatic departs on July 29, 2014, from Nome, Alaska, with fares from €9400 ($15,600) a person including a round-trip charter flight from Vancouver. www.hapag-lloyd.com.

Silversea Expeditions presents a five-star version in terms of accommodation, service and adventure crew. One of Silversea's optional activities is a helicopter flight over the Valley of the Geysers in the Kronotsky Nature Reserve. silversea.com/expeditions.

SACRED WATERS

Few travellers think of the Ganges as a cruise destination, but it's gaining a strong following. The Assam-Bengal Navigation Company runs small airconditioned vessels along this holy river. In January, February and March, RV Bengal Ganga sails upstream from Kolkata and downstream from Varanasi for 12 nights. Other vessels explore the Upper Ganges and the Hooghly River through one of India's most beautiful regions.

The 2900-kilometre Brahmaputra River originates in the Himalayas and flows all the way to Assam. The RV Charaidew offers this journey, with tours into national parks, villages and temples. Nature lovers will enjoy the eight-day trip focusing on Manas, with the Himalayas as a backdrop, and Kaziranga, which is home to rhinoceros herds. activetravel.com.au.

VENICE UNMASKED

Not all new cruise routes have to be in remote and mysterious nations. This year, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises started operating on the Po River, which was previously navigated by only two European vessels. Inland day trips are organised by coach to Verona, Bologna and Padua. The River Countess is based in Venice for half the time, so it might please people who dislike the idea of barging in on a superliner. uniworldcruises.com.au.

Europe's first river cruise line, CroisiEurope, has a similar itinerary for a lower cost. www.croisieurope.com.

SEAS TO SHINING SEAS

New for 2014, Un-Cruise Adventures will begin a coastal Washington itinerary from Seattle. Over a week, the 60-passenger Wilderness Adventurer winds around the Olympic Peninsula and San Juan Islands, through Princess Louisa Inlet, South Hood Canal, Port Townsend, Deception Pass, Lopez Island, Orcas Island, Friday Harbour and Sucia Island. Another round-trip from Seattle, the 22-passenger Safari Quest, sails British Columbia's Yachters' Paradise in spring and autumn.

The only round-trip cruises from Portland, Oregon, are aboard the 88-passenger SS Legacy, a replica coastal steamer providing "heritage adventures" along the Columbia and Snake rivers. Week-long sailings that follow the paths of pioneers, explorers and Native Americans, include a jet-boat tour into Hells Canyon, wine tastings and a transit of eight locks. un-cruise.com.

After several years without any holiday cruises on the Mississippi River, two ships are bringing back the good old days. This year, American Steamboat Company's refurbished 436-passenger American Queen, featuring new single rooms for solo travellers, made a comeback. Themed cruises in 2014 are set to cover Elvis, Civil War history, southern culture and bourbon and bluegrass. americanqueensteamboat.com.

Last year, American Cruise Lines unveiled the first authentic paddle wheeler built for the famous waterway in almost 20 years. The 150-passenger Queen of the Mississippi sails round-trip eight-day voyages from New Orleans via Memphis, Nashville, St Louis, Cincinnati, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh. americancruiselines.com.

OLD FAVOURITES: CRUISING ROUTES WE LOVE

SOUTH PACIFIC

The most popular trip visits New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji and sometimes Tonga. For people in Sydney or Brisbane, where most ships depart, this is the easiest and cheapest way to cruise. Last year, these islands attracted 252,555 Australians (more than 36 per cent of the cruise market). pocruises.com.au.

AUSTRALIA

The recent rise in short-break cruises (one to four nights) has meant one in five Aussie cruisers keeping it local. East coast voyages, Melbourne departures and month-long circumnavigations are also gaining fans. Passenger numbers have doubled in the past three years. celebritycruises.com.au.

NEW ZEALAND

More ships than ever are crossing the Tasman and sailing around the north and south islands. Highlights include Dunedin, Wellington, Napier, Akaroa and scenic cruising through Dusky, Doubtful and Milford sounds. In the past four years, passenger numbers to New Zealand have rocketed by 350 per cent. royalcaribbean.com.au.

EUROPE

Last year, for the first time, more Australians flew to Europe for a cruise than all the American destinations (such as Alaska and the Caribbean) combined. The Mediterranean, northern Europe and the Baltic are this year's hot spots. hollandamerica.com.au.

AMSTERDAM TO BUDAPEST

When it comes to river cruising, the majority choose the Rhine and Danube combination for the chance to voyage through Holland, Germany, Austria and Hungary. Travellers are lured by the up-close views of riverside cities and villages, the walkable distance to most towns from the docks, and the fact there are fewer than 180 other cruisers.

CRUISING: A FIRST-TIMER'S GUIDE

• Consult an expert from the "Travel Agent Search" section of cruising.org.au.

• Talk to cruising friends and read online reviews by past passengers.

• If you are unsure about spending long days at sea, choose an itinerary that touches land every day. The Kimberley, Mediterranean or river cruises will be better options than New Zealand or the south Pacific.

• Consider a theme cruise (wine, golf, comedy, music) that matches your interests.

• Try a two-night sampler cruise.

THE NEXT GREAT CRUISE-SHIP INNOVATIONS

INDOOR ADRENALINE

Dodgem cars, simulated skydiving and a roller-skating rink are some of the attractions coming to Royal Caribbean's latest ship, Quantum of the Seas, now under construction.

UNDERWATER EXPLORATION

Lindblad Expeditions will next year equip the National Geographic Orion with a remote-operated vehicle that descends 300 metres (260 metres deeper than the scuba diving maximum) to broadcast images and sounds, live on big screens in the ship's lounge, of previously unseen marine life.

MORE FREEBIES

For its first ship, Viking Ocean Cruises is promising freebies usually only seen on river vessels. Fares will include free Wi-Fi, shore excursions at each port of call, self-service laundry, room service, and beer and wine at lunch and dinner.

ALL-INCLUSIVE ON RIVERS

The river cruise lines are borrowing ideas from luxury ocean liners, with many introducing complimentary drinks all day, butler service and larger suites.

SINGLE CABINS

Ship designers are thinking (slightly more) about solo travellers and installing additional one-person rooms. Check out Radiance of the Seas, Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Breakaway, P&O's Azura and the Lindblad Expeditions fleet.

About the writer

Named best travel writer 2013, Louise Goldsbury has explored the seven continents by land and water. As the editor of Cruise Weekly and in her 30s, she is often mistaken for a dancer or singer on cruise ships.

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