Australia cruise shore excursions: The 10 best places to see

It's the height of Australia's cruise season and the biggest one yet. We look at 10 top Down Under attractions – including wilderness areas, historic sites, wine country and wildlife – that you can visit on a day tour. Short tours are a great way to get an overview and many cruisers return to the spots they like best for a longer holiday. The Kimberley is so vast you need at least 10 days to explore it, so that's another story …

Brisbane: Australia Zoo

B69AC5 Koala eating gum leaves Koala at Australia Zoo Brisbane

Koala at Australia Zoo, Brisbane. Photo: Alamy

From animal encounters to wildlife shows and conservation projects, Australia Zoo is one of a kind. About 1000 animals and birds live on 40 hectares of bush, cared for by the "khaki collective". Australia Zoo is about an hour's drive from Brisbane and a tour allows about 4½ hours in the park. You can hand-feed kangaroos, meet koalas, wombats and dingoes with Roving Wildlife guides, and watch crocs and giant snakes doing their thing at the world-famous Crocoseum. Crikey!

Who goes there Cunard, HAL, P&O, Princess.

Top tour P&O, seven hours, from $149.99, children from $119.99; pocruises.com.au

Port Douglas: Daintree National Park

Tropical North Queensland travel

The Daintree is one of the oldest tropical rainforests in the world. 

Daintree National Park in far north Queensland is owned by the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people and falls within two World Heritage sites: the Great Barrier Reef and Wet Tropics of Queensland. It's one of the oldest tropical rainforests in the world, known for its biodiversity and huge array of animal species. A day tour from Port Douglas takes in the old sugar town of Mossman, Daintree Village and a cruise on the Daintree River. At the Rainforest Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary you'll experience three distinct natural environments and their inhabitants: rainforest, grasslands and wetlands.

Who goes there Carnival, Celebrity, Crystal, P&O, Princess, Royal Caribbean.

Top tour Princess, about six hours, from $189.95; princess.com

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Cairns: Great Barrier Reef

EYEYW2 Snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef; Queensland, Australia Snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef

Snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Alamy

The  reef is (still) one of UNESCO'S Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Although it is suffering coral bleaching, there are many areas where marine life continues to thrive. From Cairns, a 90-minute catamaran ride takes you to a pontoon where you'll spend about four hours snorkelling, diving, taking a tour on a semi-submersible vessel and walking through an underwater viewing chamber. Unforgettable.

Who goes there Azamara, Celebrity, Crystal, HAL, NCL, Oceania, P&O, Ponant, Princess, RSSC, Seabourn, Silversea, Viking.

Top tour Royal Caribbean, about seven hours, from $341.88, children from $289; royalcaribbean.com.au

Darwin: Litchfield National Park

Perhaps not as well known as Kakadu, Litchfield is smaller, closer to Darwin and a Northern Territory treasure. The unromantic-sounding termite mounds that stud the landscape are an extraordinary spectacle – cathedral mounds are up to four metres high. Your guide will explain the intricate construction – you just take amazing photos. Waterfalls cascade into clear, croc-free swimming holes: bliss on a hot day.

Who goes there Azamara, Carnival, Cunard, HAL, NCL, Oceania, P&O, Ponant, Princess, RSSC, Seabourn, Silversea, Viking.

Top tour P&O, eight hours, from $159.99, children from $149.99; pocruises.com.au.

Fremantle: Perth

You can tick off two cities in one day on this leisurely cruise from Fremantle to Perth along the scenic Swan River. The riverboat takes you past Perth's impressive Bell Tower, restored Swan Brewery, Kings Park and riverside mansions, while an onboard commentary outlines the city's development. Back in Fremantle, a guided tour covers highlights of the historic city where your ship is docked.

Who goes there Azamara, Celebrity, Cunard, Crystal, HAL, Princess, RSSC, Royal Caribbean.

Top tour Celebrity Cruises, 4.5 hours, from $87.87; celebritycruises.com.au

Hobart: MONA (Museum of Old and New Art)

Cruise ships dock within walking distance of Brooke Street Pier, where you can catch MONA's ferry for the scenic 25-minute trip up the River Derwent to the acclaimed subterranean museum-gallery. Exhibitions change regularly and MONA also hosts summer and winter festivals (Mofo and Dark Mofo); P&O has a cruise from Sydney to Dark Mofo in June 2019. On site are restaurants, bars and the Moorilla winery, so you can make a day of it.

Who goes there Carnival, Celebrity, Crystal, HAL, NCL, P&O, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn, Viking.

Top tour MONA ferry, $22 standard, $55 Posh pit; see mona.net.au

Kangaroo Island

Spend a day exploring Australia's third largest island and you'll discover a lot more than kangaroos. Seal Bay Conservation Park is home to a large seal colony as well as pelicans and penguins; Finders Chase is a ruggedly beautiful National Park, where you'll spot more native wildlife. The aptly named Remarkable Rocks have been formed over some 500 million years; more contemporary delights include locally produced honey, wine and cheese.

Who goes there Azamara, Cunard, HAL, NCL, Oceania, P&O, Princess, RSSC, Seabourn.

Top Tour Azamara, nine hours, from $525.35; azamaraclubcruises.com

Melbourne: Great Ocean Road

Driving the Great Ocean Road is a quintessential Aussie experience. This day trip offers endless photo opportunities, of the craggy coastline, those weather-beaten Twelve Apostles, forests, waterfalls and attractive little seaside towns. Check out the Shipwreck Museum at scenic Loch Ard Gorge or follow walking trails to see the blowhole. At Port Campbell you'll stop for lunch on the beach and the chance to look around the village and stroll along the jetty.

Who goes there Azamara, Carnival, Celebrity, Cunard, P&O, Princess, RSSC, Royal Caribbean, Silversea

Top tour Celebrity, nine hours, from $149.64; celebritycruises.com.au

Port Arthur

It's Australia's biggest and best preserved convict site, with more than 30 buildings, ruins and restored period homes set on 40 hectares of landscaped grounds. Ships anchor offshore and tender passengers to the site; you can buy tickets for tours on the spot, which are particularly good value for families. Included in the entry price are a 40-minute guided walking tour, a harbour cruise and access to the buildings, gardens and dockyard.

Who goes there Azamara, Carnival, Crystal Cunard, HAL, P&O, Princess, Seabourn.

Top tour Port Arthur Historic Site, two-day access, $39 (children $17, family $99); portarthur.org.au

Sydney: Northern Beaches & Hawkesbury River

If you're already familiar with the Emerald City and have visited Bondi Beach or the Blue Mountains, why not head north for the day? Ferries to Manly, for beaches and waterfront bars, depart from Circular Quay regularly; further north (by bus or taxi) is Palm Beach, where you can walk to the lighthouse for amazing views, or hop on a ferry for a 4.5-hour round-trip cruising the unspoilt Hawkesbury River.

Who goes there Azamara, Carnival, Celebrity, Crystal, Cunard, HAL, NCL, Oceania, P&O, Ponant, Princess, RSSC, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn, Silversea, Viking.

Top tour Palm Beach & Hawkesbury River Cruises, 4.5 hours, $40 (children $20); palmbeachrivercruises.com.au

FIVE POPULAR REGIONAL PORTS

Newcastle, NSW

*** ONE TIME TRAVELLER USE ONLY *** SunMay14Newcastle ; Newcastle NSW with children kids family ; Text by Daniel Scott SUPPLIED?https://images.destinationnsw.com.au Mandatory credit: Destination NSW Description: Aerial of Nobbys Lighthouse on the Newcastle coast.

Nobbys Lighthouse, Newcastle.

NSW's second biggest city features on numerous ships' itineraries. Its historic buildings, revamped Honeysuckle Boardwalk and vibrant inner-city arts and bar scene earned it a Lonely Planet Top 10 City nomination in 2011.  Spectacular surf beaches and nearby Hunter Valley wineries add to Newcastle's appeal.

Eden, NSW

When Eden's new wharf is completed, the Sapphire Coast port will be able to accommodate ships up to 325 metres long, such as the  317-metre Celebrity Solstice. Meanwhile, cruisers on smaller ships love its beautiful coastline, fascinating Eden Killer Whale Museum and outstanding local seafood and dairy producers.

Busselton, WA

Cruise ships dock at Busselton Jetty for tours to the renowned Margaret River wine region. However, Busselton itself is a lovely spot; the Heritage-listed 1.8-kilometre jetty is home to an underwater observatory, cafes, shops and bars. The adjacent beach is popular with families, or hire a bike and pedal through a forest of rare tuart trees.

Geraldton, WA

The Houtman Abrolhos Islands, a group of jewel-coloured coral islands, lie about 60 kilometres off Geraldton; scenic flights that can be combined with snorkelling are the way to go. Maritime history enthusiasts should visit the Museum of Geraldton and the striking memorial commemorating the lost crew of HMAS Sydney.

Hamilton Island, Queensland

P&O visits "Hammo" most months, along with overseas ships during the Wave Season. The island has made a miraculous recovery from last year's cyclone and it's business as usual for Great Barrier Reef tours, off-road ATV adventures and a drink or lunch at the super-stylish Hamilton Island Yacht Club.

FIVE THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

Tipping policies

There are no compulsory gratuity charges on P&O Cruises, Carnival's two Australia-based ships and Princess ships departing from Australia. The service fee is included in Celebrity and Royal Caribbean fares for all bookings made by Australians and New Zealanders. 

Travel insurance

People often think they don't need travel insurance when cruising locally but you need cover for unexpected cancellations, medical emergencies or treatments, and activities such as scuba diving and parasailing. P&O recommends Cover-More. See covermore.com.au

Age limits for children

Before booking a family cruise, check the minimum age for children, as policies vary. There are minimum age limits for children to use pools, waterslides, kids' clubs and gyms. Similar rules apply to families staying in separate or connected cabins – you can't just stick the youngsters in one cabin without an adult.

Shore tours

If there's somewhere you're really keen to visit, book a shore tour (either organised by the ship or independently) well in advance; some popular tours fill up quickly. If you've booked and paid for a ship-organised tour and it is cancelled for operational reasons (it might be unsafe to enter the port), check that the cruise line will reimburse you in full.

BYO alcohol

Taking your own alcohol onboard is pretty much frowned upon if not completely forbidden, so check your cruise line's policy. Some lines allow you to bring one or two bottles of wine a cruise, then charge corkage; others, such as Carnival and P&O, don't allow any BYO grog.

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