The hottest cruise destinations: The most surprising places you can cruise to

Once the desire to cruise has taken hold, it's hard to shake. You've done the Pacific Islands and Australian coast, sailed the Med, Caribbean and maybe Alaska – so, where to next? And even if you consider yourself immune, you might be surprised at how many people who once thought cruising too staid and uncool are now signing up to sail to the world's most desirable destinations.

Pioneering expedition companies have opened up many previously inaccessible places to a wider audience over the past 30 years. Now major cruise conglomerates are racing to keep up with the demand for enticing "new" destinations that were – and still are in many cases – the exclusive preserve of luxury and expedition lines.

The pay-off for cruisers – and would-be cruisers – is having more choice of ships and ports of call around the globe than ever before. We can now explore places such as Antarctica, the Galapagos Islands, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia on ships that range from affordable mainstream to ultra-luxury expedition vessels.

Islands are an obvious choice for a cruise, but some are more remote and unspoilt than others. If visiting a Pacific island in the company of several thousand fellow cruisers doesn't appeal, what about a voyage to the virtually unpopulated Canadian Arctic archipelago? Or closer to home, Indonesia's sultry Spice Islands, Papua New Guinea's Conflict Islands or New Zealand's Subantarctic islands?

Shore excursions have become more wide-ranging and imaginative than ever before, to appeal to younger, fitter, more adventurous travellers. Longer stays in port, overnights and multi-day mid-cruise breaks allow more time to explore; pre- and post-cruise add-ons are also featuring on several cruise lines' new programs.

Here's a look at the latest cruise hot spots, and why you'd want to go there.

CANADIAN ARCTIC

WHY CRUISE THERE Canada's vast Arctic Archipelago comprises more than 36,000 largely unpopulated islands, scattered across the Arctic Ocean to the west of Greenland. Adventure cruisers can follow in the wake of early explorers who searched for the Northwest Passage – or even traverse the Passage with a handful of operators – and enjoy a wilderness experience that has been compared to cruising Antarctica 20 years ago. You'll see majestic glaciers and craggy fiords up close on Zodiac trips while on the lookout for seals, walrus, whales and polar bears. Visiting Inuit communities in remote settlements is a major highlight of any voyage to this extraordinary part of the world.

WHO GOES THERE Adventure Canada, Chimu Adventures, One Ocean Expeditions; July-August

DON'T MISS Auyuittuq National Park on Baffin Island; the Natinnak Centre in Pond Inlet, where you can see traditional Inuit carvings and jewellery and meet local artists; Beechey Island, a must for expedition history buffs.

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ESSENTIALS adventurecanada.com

chimuadventures.com oneoceanexpeditions.com

KAMCHATKA, RUSSIAN FAR EAST

WHY CRUISE THERE Set on a peninsula between the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean, the volcano-studded region is remote, isolated and spectacular. There are 20 climate zones across its 470,000 square kilometres, which are home to thriving populations of brown bears, reindeer, wolves and arctic foxes and some 1000 species of plants. You're almost guaranteed to see whales and sea otters on an expedition voyage around the peninsula – and you can't miss spotting Steller's sea eagles.

WHO GOES THERE Heritage Expeditions, Ponant, Silversea; limited departures May-September.

DON'T MISS The largest active volcano in the Northern Hemisphere; the world's biggest salmon run at Kuril Lake in the South Kamchatka Sanctuary, which attracts hundreds of brown bears in August; Kronotsky's famous Valley of the Geysers and the 10-kilometre-diameter Uzon Caldera.

ESSENTIALS heritage-expeditions.com au.ponant.com silversea.com

SOUTH AFRICA

WHY CRUISE THERE You can add a pre or post-cruise safari to cruises around South Africa, which usually start or finish at Cape Town or Durban – and visit a wonderful range of wildlife reserves on day tours from most ports of call. While many lines combine South Africa with Indian Ocean destinations, we're looking at South Africa-specific itineraries that take in destinations as diverse as the Namib Desert on the west coast and Zululand on the east coast.

WHO GOES THERE Oceania, Ponant, RSSC, Seabourn, Silversea; October-May.

DON'T MISS Robben Island, Table Mountain and Winelands in Cape Town; Addo Elephant Park from Port Elizabeth; Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park and iSimangaliso Wetland Park from Richards Bay, for Big Five sightings on 4WD game drives; Valley of a Thousand Hills, from Durban, for an insight into past and present-day African tribal cultures.

ESSENTIALS oceaniacruises.com au.ponant.com rssc.com

PANAMA AND COSTA RICA

WHY CRUISE THERE Sailing through the Panama Canal is on many travellers' wish lists – the 82-kilometre waterway that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans is recognised as one of the engineering marvels of the world. A range of itineraries combine a partial transit of the canal with calls to Costa Rica, allowing time to spot exotic wildlife and enjoy thrilling adventures in the jungle.

WHO GOES THERE Carnival, Celebrity, HAL, Lindblad, NCL, Princess, RSSC, UnCruise Adventures, Windstar; October-April

DON'T MISS Expert commentary on daytime canal transits and shore excursions in Colon to Miraflores Lock, to learn more about the canal. From Costa Rica's main ports of Puntarenas and Limon, head into the rainforests for zip-lining, horse-riding, white-water rafting and hiking; small-ship cruises call at pristine national park locations where you can swim, snorkel and take kayaking trips through jungles full of scarlet macaws, monkeys and endearing sloths.

ESSENTIALS carnival.com, celebritycruises.com.au hollandamerica.com au.expeditions.com ncl.com princess.com rssc.com uncruise.com windstarcruises.com

ANDALUSIA, SPAIN

WHY CRUISE THERE Seville was named as Lonely Planet's No. 1 city in its 2018 Best in Travel awards. That's just one good reason to take a cruise that visits the southern coastal region of Andalusia; others include Seville's Moorish heritage, Gothic architecture, grand plazas, tapas bars and flamenco dancing. Big ships dock at Cadiz, a history-rich destination in itself, for day tours to Seville; Malaga is another popular port. Granada's Alhambra palace and Cordoba are among Andalusia's historic treasures.

WHO GOES THERE Azamara, Celebrity, HAL, Oceania, NCL, Princess, RSSC, Scenic, Seabourn, Silversea; April-November.

DON'T MISS Sailing into Seville along the Guadalquivir River on small ships; Seville's Alcazar Castle, Plaza de Espana and the cathedral and Giralda Tower; a side trip to Jerez from Cadiz for sherry-tasting and The Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art; Cadiz's oldest neighbourhood, Barrio del Populo, and the Gadir Archaeological Site.

ESSENTIALS azamaraclubcruises.com celebritycruises.com.au hollandamerica.com oceaniacruises.com ncl.com princess.com rssc.com scenic.com.au seabourn.com silversea.com

PERUVIAN AMAZON

WHY CRUISE THERE Cruises on the Peruvian Amazon go over three, four or seven days, so combining one with a trip to Macchu Picchu or Lake Titicaca makes sense as Lima is a very long-haul flight from Australia. Itineraries are round-trip from Iquitos, a sprawling river-port city surrounded by jungle; it is a wonderful study in contrasts as well as the gateway to the mighty Amazon. The river runs about 6400 kilometres from the Andes mountains across South America, emptying a massive volume of fresh water into the Atlantic Ocean in Brazil. Cruises on the Peruvian part of the Amazon cover only a tiny area but the sights, sounds and experiences are massive and memorable.

WHO GOES THERE Aqua Expeditions, Delfin; year-round.

DON'T MISS The floating market in Belen, Iquitos; wildlife within the Pacaya Samiria Reserve, which includes squirrel monkeys, macaws, toucans, pink dolphins and an array of neon-bright reptiles; visits to remote villages by canoe, skiff or kayak.

ESSENTIALS aquaexpeditions.com delfinamazoncruises.com

WEST PAPUA & THE SPICE ISLANDS

WHY CRUISE THERE Indonesia's Spice Islands, or Malukus, can really only be visited by ship; there are flights and a ferry to Banda Neira from Ambon but they operate once or twice a week at most. And Banda Neira is just one of several islands in the group that were once fought over for the lucrative spice trade; today your small ship will probably be welcomed by locals paddling Kora Kora canoes. At Cenderawasih Bay in West Papua you can swim with whale sharks (nature permitting) and witness tribal ceremonies in the remote Asmat region.

WHO GOES THERE Coral Expeditions, Ponant, True North; limited departures August-May.

DON'T MISS Diving and snorkelling on unspoiled coral reefs; climbing the volcano on the island of Gunung Api, opposite Banda Neira; sailing into Triton Bay; swimming off deserted beaches in the Kei Islands.

ESSENTIALS coralexpeditions.com.au au.ponant.com truenorth.com.au

JAPAN

WHY CRUISE THERE To make the most of a trip to Japan – an island nation of incredible contrasts – opt for a round-trip cruise from Tokyo (Yokohama) or Kobe. Most itineraries include a stop or two in South Korea; 10- to 15-day cruises allow time to take in Japan's sophisticated cities, tranquil fishing villages, feudal castles, Buddhist shrines and Shinto temples across Honshu (the "mainland"). Azamara also includes Hakodate, on Hokkaido (Japan's northernmost island) and Takamatsu on Shikoku island on its Circle Japan cruise next April.

WHO GOES THERE Azamara, Celebrity, Cunard, Oceania, Ponant, Princess, RSSC, Silversea, Windstar; March-November.

DON'T MISS In Tokyo, eating ramen and sushi; shopping; visits to Meiji Shrine, Senso-ji temple and Tokyo Sky Tree. Mount Fuji; the Zen temples of Kyoto; Osaka Castle; Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and museum; Miyajima island, site of Itsukushima Shrine and its famous red torii gate that rises out of the ocean.

ESSENTIALS azamaraclubcruises.com celebritycruises.com cunardline.com.au oceaniacruises.com au.ponant.com princess.com rssc.com silversea.com windstarcruises.com

THE KIMBERLEY, NORTHERN WESTERN AUSTRALIA

WHY CRUISE THERE The rugged red Kimberley coastline stretches about 12,000 kilometres and is washed by massive tides that rise and fall up to 12 metres. Small-ship cruises between Broome and Darwin take about 10 days to explore the region's dramatic natural attractions; geologists, marine biologists, ornithologists and other experts are on board to share their knowledge and lead Zodiac trips, bush walks and, if you're on True North, helicopter rides. Silversea offers scenic flights over Purnululu National Park, home to the beehive-like Bungle Bungles.

WHO GOES THERE APT, Coral Expeditions, Ponant, Silversea, True North (plus smaller operators); April-October

DON'T MISS Montgomery Reef, which appears to rise out of the water when the tide drops and reveals a wealth of marine life; Vansittart Bay, where you can see the 1942 wreck of a DC3 plane and much older Aboriginal rock art; King George Falls (best seen just after the wet season has finished); and saltwater crocodiles lurking on riverbanks.

ESSENTIALS aptouring.com.au coralexpeditions.com au.ponant.com silversea.com truenorth.com.au

ARCTIC CIRCLE, NORWAY

WHY CRUISE THERE In summer you can see Norway's Arctic coastline, mountain peaks and picturesque towns by the light of the Midnight Sun; in winter you can do all that plus have an excellent chance of seeing the fabled Northern Lights. Norwegian line Hurtigruten sails year-round on a variety of itineraries that cross the Arctic Circle and go as far north as Kirkenes on the Russian border; a few luxury and expedition companies sail there in summer. Several major cruise lines sail to Norway from the UK and Scandinavia but for an in-depth experience of the Norwegian Arctic, complete with kayaking, Zodiac and quad-biking tours – and the chance to meet indigenous Sami people – the best option is a dedicated Norwegian Arctic voyage.

WHO GOES THERE Hurtigruten (year-round), Aurora Expeditions, Silversea, Ponant; limited departures May-September.

DON'T MISS The Lofoten Islands; the art nouveau city of Alesund; dog-sledding from Tromso; and birdwatching at North Cape.

ESSENTIALS bentours.com.au/hurtigruten auroraexpeditions.com.au au.ponant.com silversea.com

CLASSIC CRUISE DESTINATIONS

PACIFIC ISLANDS

Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji are the most popular itineraries among Australia's 1.34 million cruisers, with 471,000 taking a Pacific Islands cruise last year. All the major cruise lines sail round trips from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane; fares are budget-friendly and resort-style ships are family favourites.

AUSTRALIAN COAST AND TASMANIA

About 451,000 cruisers sailed around Australia and to Tasmania last year, from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Cairns and Fremantle. Tasmania had a record 127 ship visits last season; Coral Expeditions sails the Great Barrier Reef year-round; and P&O operated a record number of short Seabreak cruises.

NEW ZEALAND

Our neighbours across the ditch hosted 101,000 Australian cruisers last year. Round-trip itineraries from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane make New Zealand an easy choice for non-fliers near those cities. The two islands have much to offer, from magnificent scenery to Maori culture, extreme adventure and fabulous wine.

ASIA

Asia is our favourite long-haul cruise destination. Direct flights to cruise hubs Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Tokyo and Shanghai have made exploring this vast and diverse region by ocean and river ship easier than ever before. Choose a culture-focused trip, tropical beach escape or city-centric break – or a cruise combining all the elements.

MEDITERRANEAN

Sailing the western and eastern Mediterranean continues to be a must-do for avid cruisers. The choice of ocean ships is mind-boggling, from boutique luxury yachts to activity-packed megaships and everything in between. And the choice of countries, cultures and cuisines is unparalleled anywhere in the world.

OFF-SHIP TRIPS

LUCCA, FROM LIVORNO, ITALY

Livorno is often called Florence on itineraries but the classic Italian city is about 1.5 hours' drive from the port and it's usually choked with tourists. Lucca is a less-visited, medieval Tuscan town that's 35 minutes' drive from Livorno; a leisurely walking tour combined with a nearby vineyard visit is a rewarding alternative to the well-trodden tourist trail.

WINCHESTER, FROM SOUTHAMPTON, UK

This beautiful cathedral city is only 20 minutes' drive from the UK's main cruise hub and offers a charming, old-world view of England. Check out King Arthur's Round Table at Winchester Castle, the cathedral's atmospheric crypt and sample real ale at some quintessentially English pubs.

MACAU, FROM HONG KONG, CHINA

It's an hour away by ferry and while it's known for its gigantic casinos, Macau's colourful Portuguese-Chinese heritage is a major drawcard. Senada Square, the Ruins of St Pauls and Guia Lighthouse are UNESCO World Heritage sites; head to Taipa and Coloane for traditional fishing villages and multi-cultural eat streets.

CUSCO, FROM LIMA, PERU

If your cruise finishes at Lima (Callao), take one of a variety of tours to Cusco, once the capital of the Incan Empire and now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Flights from Lima take about 1.5 hours and many travellers combine a trip to Cusco with visits to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley of the Incas – you'll need at least a couple of days.

PETRA, FROM AQABA, JORDAN

The once "lost city" of the Nabateans dates to pre-Roman times; the carved Treasury facade alone is about 2000 years old and famously featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Day tours from Aqaba involve about four hours' bus travel and up to nine kilometres of walking, but it's worth it; Petra is one of the (new) Seven Wonders of the World.

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