VISITING Antarctica used to involve a long and sometimes uncomfortable crossing of the notorious Drake Passage on a small expedition ship or icebreaker. And it was expensive. As demand from less-intrepid travellers grew, mass-market cruise ships offered more affordable and smoother ways to venture to the White Continent.
From August next year, however, that big-ship scene may change - the International Maritime Organisation is banning the use and carriage of heavy fuel oils, the type commonly burned by big ships in the Antarctic, because a spill is considered too much of a risk.
Accidents do happen, as seen in 2007 when the MS Explorer was holed by ice and sank. Ships carrying more than 500 passengers may no longer be able to cruise in Antarctica so if you want to see the region's incredible ice masses, birds and other wildlife while on a big liner, this season may be your last opportunity.
Several lines have Antarctica cruises, including Holland America, Crystal and Princess. The season operates from November to February. A 24-day package from Cruise Express, departing on January 7, including flights, land accommodation and a 17-night cruise on the Star Princess, is priced from $9990 a person, twin share. 1300 766 537, www.cruiseexpress.com.au.
As experienced passengers seek new horizons, a traditional region, which fell out of favour for a while, is back on the map. Cruising the waterways of eastern Canada and New England between the end of September and the beginning of November offers visitors a new perspective on one of nature's beguiling events. The transition from summer to autumn, accompanied by dramatic colour changes in foliage and coupled with historical ports of call including Montreal, Quebec City, Boston and New York, make for a cruise with a difference. This northern season, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line are deploying ships to cover "leaf-peeping" season, while the Italian line, MSC, is venturing to the region for the first time. A 20-night package, including 16 on the MSC Poesia, departs New York on October 16 and is priced from $4350 a person, twin share. 1300 028 502, www.msccruises.com.au.
Perks for loyalty
Just as airlines have frequent-flyer programs, cruise lines offer free membership to loyalty clubs, many of which include incentives to keep passengers coming back. Seabourn Club members, for example, can save up to 50 per cent on selected cruises and earn a free seven-day cruise after sailing for 140 days with the line.
Members of Carnival's three-tiered past guests' recognition program have access to offers, stateroom upgrades, priority reservations and complimentary laundry services, among other perks. Keeping up the competition, Royal Caribbean has revamped its Crown & Anchor Society loyalty program. Staff members will be available on board every cruise to assist loyalty members, many of whom will receive an on-board credit when they book their next cruise, as well as priority notification of deals.