Until the local cruise season heats up again next summer, the choice of ships sailing in our region narrows considerably, so why not head off to Asia for your next cruise fix? Japan, to look at just one area of this vast and varied region, is high on many travellers' wish lists and cruising is a great way to explore the culturally rich island nation. Attractions include everything from ancient temples and traditional villages to mountains, colourful festivals, beaches and fast-paced cities where shopping, dining and clubbing reign supreme.
Right now, Japan's celebrated cherry-blossom season is in full swing. Spring is one of the country's busiest times for tourism and if you're thinking of taking a cruise there next April-May, it would be a good idea to book one as soon as possible.
Princess Cruises' Diamond Princess is returning for its sixth season in 2019, sailing round-trip from Tokyo (Yokohama) and Kobe, and is set to sail nine Spring Flowers cruises. The 2670-passenger Diamond Princess was built in Japan and Japanese onboard experiences include dining in the Kai Sushi restaurant, special "street" performances in the atrium and a traditional indoor-outdoor onsen bath, the largest of its kind at sea.
Other ships cruising during the 2019 cherry-blossom season are Azamara Quest, Celebrity Millennium, Crystal Symphony, Cunard's Queen Elizabeth, HAL's Westerdam, Oceania's Insignia, Regent Seven Seas Mariner, Silversea's Silver Muse and Windstar's Star Legend.
Back to 2018: for the ultimate resort-style cruise, Royal Caribbean's megaships Quantum and Ovation of the Seas are sailing in Japan between May and December, offering itineraries ranging from four to 12 nights from Shanghai (Quantum) and Beijing (Ovation, until it repositions to Sydney in October). Norwegian Jewel visits several Japanese ports on its cruises between Alaska, Tokyo and Singapore in September and October; MSC Cruises' Splendida is sailing between Yokohama and Shanghai in July and August.
Autumn is Japan's second-busiest tourist season and Princess is running its new Fall Foliage cruises in October, eight- or 13-day round-trip itineraries from Tokyo that rival Canada and New England's blazing autumnal spectaculars. Princess also operates summer cruises that take in Aomori's Nebuta Festival and the Kumano Fireworks Festival.
The annual Nebuta Festival is a week-long celebration held every August in the north of Japan's main island, Honshu; illuminated floats carrying huge rice-paper images of demons and warriors are pulled through the streets, followed by musicians and dancers – on the final night they're floated out to sea against a backdrop of fireworks. Kumano's Fireworks Festival, also held in August, is one of Japan's largest fireworks displays – and that's saying something. See princess.com.
SHORE THING: Split, Croatia
WHO GOES THERE Azamara, Celebrity, Costa, Cunard, Fred.Olsen, HAL, Hapag-Lloyd, MSC, NCL, Oceania, P&O UK, RSSC, Royal Caribbean, Silversea, Viking, Voyages to Antiquity, Windstar.
WHY WE LOVE IT The scenic Dalmatian coast has attracted visitors for centuries; Split's most famous landmark, the Diocletian Palace, was built between 295 and 305AD as a retirement retreat for Emperor Diocletian. While today the palace is a big drawcard for Game of Thrones fans it is also the heart of Croatia's second-largest city. Within its walls are 220 buildings – shops, restaurants, cafes – and it is home to about 3000 people. Beyond the palace are the lovely 16th-century districts of Varos, Dobri, Lucac and Manus. The bustling seafront promenade, Riva, is Split's other main attraction, for locals and tourists alike.
TAKE A TOUR OR GO IT ALONE? Ships dock within easy walking distance of the Diocletian Palace and city centre. A guided walking tour is worthwhile for an in-depth history lesson about the city; more active tours include walking and cycling around Marjan Hill and sea-kayaking from the foot of the hill. Ships and local operators offer tours to Trogir, the best-preserved Romanesque-Gothic complex in Europe, the waterfalls of Krka National Park and wine-tasting in and around Split.
MUST SEE Cathedral of Saint Domnius, inside the Diocletian Palace, for Jupiter's Temple and the view from the belfry; Mestrovic Gallery, former home of sculptor Ivan Mestrovic where about 200 sculptures are displayed; Poljud soccer stadium, home to Croatia's oldest soccer club.
MUST EAT The restaurant scene is booming, especially in the Varos quarter. Look for family-run venues such as Konoba Marjan, which serves lots of seafood dishes and pasticada, a traditional stew made from beef marinated in wine and prunes. Dalmatian cuisine is typically Mediterranean, based on fish, vegetables and olives.
NEED TO KNOW Croatia's currency is the kuna: one kuna is made up of 100 lipa, but euros are also acceptable. You can use credit cards for car rentals or excursions from most local operators but at small bars and restaurants it is advisable to have cash.
Lunch with a baroness and touring a French chateau with its titled owner are among the new experiential tours that luxury hotel-barge operator European Waterways is adding to its 2018 cruise itineraries. Its fleet of 17 luxury hotel barges includes the 12-passenger L'Impressionniste, which cruises France's renowned wine-making region of Burgundy; the 12-passenger La Belle Epoque, which will include a private tasting at the Alexandre Bonnet Champagne House in Les Riceys in the Champagne region; and the eight-passenger Anjodi, which will visit the Camargue National Park, renowned for its wild horses, pink flamingos and lush green wetlands. Guests will sample Camargue cuisine at a local restaurant in Aigues Mortes. European Waterways' fares include gourmet meals, fine wines, an open bar, daily escorted excursions, admissions and local transfers. See europeanwaterways.com
Queen Elizabeth II, one of the most famous ocean liners in the world, has finally been restored and reopened as a hotel, after languishing at Dubai's Mina Rashid port since 2007. QE2 was launched by HM the Queen in 1967 and was Cunard's flagship liner (a role she passed on to Queen Mary 2 in May 2004), undertaking 25 world cruises, crossing the Atlantic more than 800 times and carrying more than 2.5 million passengers. The floating hotel has been refurbished according to its original design, from carpets to the theatre and the Queens Grill restaurant will feature menus that include classic dishes served in the liner's heyday. It has 1300 rooms, 13 restaurants and bars and an interactive QE2 museum. See qe2.com/pcfc-hotels