I AM in sunny southern California this week, where the US presidential elections in November are dominating the news. Back in Sydney, however, it's the latest International Cruise Council Australasia stats that are stealing the limelight, and for good reason.
The local market has grown 34 per cent, up from 27 per cent the previous year, with the number of Australians taking a cruise hitting an all-time high of 623,294.
We've also outstripped all other international markets; the US has reported a modest growth of just 4 per cent and Britain only 5 per cent.
According to the ICCA chairman, Gavin Smith, while many industries have suffered in tough economic times, cruising has continued to expand, becoming more popular in Australia year-on-year. Reasons include a broader range of ships to choose from and also recognition of the value cruising holidays can offer.
Although the south Pacific is our favourite destination, New Zealand has also surged 80 per cent. The figures for 2011 must have cruise operators in Australia jumping for joy, particularly those that have opted to deploy additional, larger ships here next season, including Carnival and Royal Caribbean.
Another outstanding figure in the report that caught my eye, however, was the growth of river cruising, up 22 per cent on 2010.
Having taken a river cruise in Europe last year, it's easy to see why it's in demand. Many seasoned high-seas cruisers are looking for a different on-water experience, and there's a new generation of river ships to choose from, many offering expanded facilities such as wi-fi, alternative restaurants and gyms.
Scenic Cruises christened its luxurious new crystal cruiser on the Rhine last month, with Scenic Jewel coming in 2013. A new South of France itinerary was also announced last week.
Viking is launching six longships this year and has announced the addition of six more for 2013. Avalon will add two new ships next year, with six new itineraries in Europe.
Also new to river cruising in 2013, and the Amadeus fleet, will be Amadeus Silver, set to cruise the Danube and Rhine.
Package of the week
Cruise on two of Cunard's Queens with an itinerary featuring the Baltics and a transatlantic crossing in this 29-night package.
The first cruise is a 14-day voyage on the Queen Elizabeth, a round trip from Southampton departing on July 13, with ports of call including Hamburg, Copenhagen, Stockholm, St Petersburg and Kiel. Then transfer to the Queen Mary 2 in Southampton for a traditional seven-day cruise to New York.
Priced from $9389 a person, twin share, the package includes return flights from Sydney, both cruises, two nights in London pre-cruise and three nights each in New York and Las Vegas before returning home. 1300 369 848, ecruising.travel.
Responding to demand for cruising in Japan, Princess Cruises has deployed Sun Princess there for a season. Its 87-day program features nine cruises and seven different itineraries through to July 2013. Most cruises will depart from Yokohama, the port serving Tokyo.
SeaDream Yacht Club is offering luxury spa treatments from La Prairie and Thalgo. Options include a 90-minute La Prairie Caviar Firming Facial, or a Thalgo Ocean Memory treatment, a 120-minute combination of body exfoliation and massage, finished off with an application of algae mousse.
LAUNCHED 2009 PASSENGERS 2850 REGULAR HAUNTS The Caribbean, the Mediterranean BEST FOR Couples, families THE DETAILS A 10-night Eastern Mediterranean cruise with various departures between June 22 and November 16 is priced from $1245 a person, twin share (based on the October 26 departure). 1800 754 500, celebritycruises.com.au.
Need to know
1 The second in the line's Solstice class; fans of Celebrity were happy to see the return of the trademark large white "X", which adorns Equinox's funnel. Its godmother is Nina Barough, founder of the Britain-based breast cancer foundation Walk the Walk.
2 Facilities new to the Solstice-class include Celebrity Tastings, a bar where you can sample wines and cocktails, 100 additional sun-loungers on deck and an art space with a bench enabling guests to linger longer.
3 Like all Solstice ships, Equinox has a vast range of accommodation, from spacious inside staterooms, to concierge-class staterooms with perks, and five categories of suites. It also has AquaClass staterooms for spa lovers, with extras including priority seating in the chic AquaClass restaurant and unlimited access to the spa's Persian Garden.
4 Pick a dining style and this ship has it. Dining venues include Silk Harvest, offering a contemporary blend of Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese; the modern spa restaurant Blu; and elegant fine dining in Murano.
5 CelebrityLife offers a program of activities tailored to fun, education, food appreciation and wellness. Equinox also has a live-grass Lawn Club, an AquaSpa, kids' facilities and several pools.
Port watch: Norfolk, Virginia
Need to know This famous town, on the eastern seaboard of the US, is home to the world's largest naval base and a major cultural centre. Ships dock at the Half Moone Cruise and Celebration Centre, located in the heart of the downtown area. Taxis are available at the pier, or you can use the Norfolk Electric Transfer (NET), a free bus service operating around the downtown area.
Do not miss Most of Norfolk's attractions are accessible from the pier. Beyond Town Point Park, Granby Street is lined with restaurants and bars. The historic district of Ghent is near the city, filled with old homes and churches. If you fancy hitting the beach, head for the quiet community of Ocean View on Chesapeake Bay, while the best excursions further afield include colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens.