If you missed life on the ocean wave in 2020, take heart. While international cruising remains in the doldrums, Australia's success in containing COVID-19 has already seen domestic small-ship cruise companies return to business.
Cruise companies will operate throughout 2021 under various government-approved cruise-safe protocols, and cruise-starved Australians have rushed to make bookings, reassured by various deposit-protection and money-back arrangements in the event that ships are prevented from sailing.
"We've seen significant demand for domestic voyages in 2021. For example, our 2021 Kimberley Coastal Cruises sold out in record time," says APT's product manager, Mladen Vukic.
The company has also seen significant demand for April and May cruises to Cape York and the Great Barrier Reef. An additional departure has been added for October 2021.
"This has also led us to expanding our small ship expedition cruising range to include even more diverse and isolated destinations across Australia," adds Vukic.
Cruise fans are seeing an opportunity to get back to sea and, with international cruise destinations out of reach, have begun reassessing Australia as a small-ship destination. Remote coastlines with minimal COVID risk look attractive, and experienced travellers are eyeing unusual domestic destinations accessible by expedition ships.
"I love going to adventurous, out-of-the-way places that you can't get to any other way, and which big ships don't visit," says Trish Rice. The veteran cruiser from Townsville has been to Antarctica, Alaska and Indonesia, but has happily switched her attention to Australia this year.
"I'm a scuba-diver, and on many Australian small-ship cruises you can get out onto reefs and dive multiple times. They get you to places you wouldn't go otherwise, such as Ningaloo Reef or the Montebello Islands."
Rice sailed on a Great Barrier Reef voyage in October 2020 with Coral Expeditions. In March, she will be aboard of Coral Geographer's maiden voyage between Cairns and Broome.
Travellers already familiar with domestic cruising are showing confidence too. Perth-based David Buttress has done some 30 Murray River cruises and won't be put off this year. He is booked on back-to-back cruises on Murray Princess in July.
"I'm a bit worried about borders shutting, but not about COVID itself, with the vaccine coming along and everything going so well in Australia," he says.
The great north-west
Ponant is planning multiple cruises in the Kimberley from April to September.
Coral Expeditions' comprehensive March-October season in the Kimberley will see three ships making many 10-day voyages between Broome and Darwin. APT cruises, slightly longer at 11 days, sail May to July. APT also offers 10-day cruises between Broome and Kununurra, with departures in May, June and September.
Australia's north-west coast is a magnificent collision of sapphire seas and rust-orange gorges, and features outstanding collections of indigenous rock art. Highlights of the stupendous landscapes include Horizontal Falls, King George River, the mid-ocean tidal cascades at Montgomery Reef, and bird-rich Lacapede Islands.
Although foreign-flagged cruise ships are currently banned by the federal government, some are counting on the ban being lifted soon. Luxury French expedition company Ponant is planning multiple April-to-September departures in the Kimberley, one of which additionally takes in Rowley Shoals, one of Australia's best dive spots. Silversea is similarly planning May-to-August cruises on expedition ship Silver Explorer.
West coast wandering
True North has its own helicopter.
In the rest of Western Australia, Coral Expeditions' 12-night cruise from Fremantle to Broome departs on March 10 and visits the Abrolhos Islands, Shark Bay, Ningaloo Reef, Cape Range National Park and Dampier Archipelago. In May, 10-night cruises return from Broome and also visit the Dampier Archipelago, as well as various other islands and reefs.
The very upmarket True North – which carries its own helicopter – is offering a 10-night "West Coast Explorer" cruise between Fremantle and Dampier in March, with abundant opportunities to snorkel, dive and fish. In September, True North sails round-trip from Broome on a five-night cruise to Rowley Shoals.
Ponant has a 10-night Fremantle-to-Broome voyage scheduled for April 8 and sails three other Western-Australian itineraries in September and October. Meanwhile, in August and September you can sail with APT between Broome and Geraldton on 10-day cruises that take in Rowley Shoals, Karratha, Burrup Peninsula, Coral Bay and Shark Bay.
Green and pleasant land
Coral Expeditions is cruising Tasmania.
Coral Expeditions' Coral Adventurer is sailing in Tasmania until March 18. Its "Coastal Treks" expedition focuses on hikes in destinations such as Freycinet National Park, Three Capes and Maria Island, while its "Coastal Wilds of Tasmania" expedition showcases wilderness areas and national parks, with opportunities to kayak, trek and birdwatch. Both are 10 nights return from Hobart, and visit Port Arthur.
APT will operate small-ship cruises in Tasmania this November. The eight-day "Tasmania Exploration" between Melbourne and Hobart (or reverse) visits King Island, Burnie, the Tamar Valley, Coles Bay, Freycinet National Park, Port Arthur and Port Davey.
For those planning to follow the winter sun in mid-2021, APT combines Cape York and the Barrier Reef on nine-day expedition cruises round-trip from Cairns in April and May. They include encounters with Torres Strait culture on Thursday Island, a Lizard Island call, and snorkelling on various reefs and islands.
Coral Expeditions has cruises on the Great Barrier Reef in June and July (as well as November and December), among them a 10-night Citizen Science voyage round-trip from Cairns that visits Cooktown, Lizard and Fitzroy islands, and several reefs for diving, snorkelling and whale-watching.
Coral Expeditions also operates April-October cruises to Cape York and Arnhem Land, with visits to the Torres Strait and Aboriginal art centres and rock-art sites. Some sail round-trip from Cairns, others between Cairns and Darwin.
APT's Caledonian Sky.
Although erratic border closures may continue to hamper the smooth operation of cruise ships, some are tackling more ambitious inter-state itineraries.
The March 21 maiden voyage of Coral Geographer takes in northern Australia, while APT's "East Coast Discovery" cruise from Cairns to Melbourne in October highlights destination such as the Whitsundays, Fraser Island, Brisbane and NSW ports Batemans Bay and Eden.
Coral Expeditions' ambitious 59-night "Australian Circumnavigation Voyage" departs Darwin in October. And in December, a 73-night circumnavigation will be undertaken by the world's newest and largest tall ship, Golden Horizon. Passengers can book any of 14 separate segments, such as a 16-night Cairns-to-Sydney cruise over Christmas and New Year.
Rolling on the river
Paddle-steamer cruises on the Murray River chug through classic Australian landscapes dotted with Aboriginal sites, colonial-era settlements and vineyards. One option is the PS Emmylou, which operates cruises of between one and six nights from Echuca.
Another option is Murray Princess, which runs cruises of varying lengths and has regular cruises on occasions such as Easter, ANZAC Day and Christmas. Its four-night Outback Heritage Cruise, for example, journeys between Mannum and Blanchetown in South Australia and visits a cellar door, farm, woolshed, Aboriginal archaeological site and wildlife shelter.
Murray River cruise enthusiast David Buttress is looking forward to his next cruise in July. "I love the tranquillity, the peace and the changing scenery as you do 12 kilometres an hour up the river," he explains. "It gets into your system. And don't we all need a bit of that this year?"