If you've been missing the salt spray, sunset cocktails and easy adventure of cruising, then break out the barrel of rum: Australia may be about to stage a cruise comeback.
Who doesn't like that moment in cruising when dockworkers scurry, lines are cast off, and the view lurches as your ship sails? You linger on deck, salty breeze disarranging your hair. The swimming pool winks at the harbour, urban cacophony fades, and ahead is open ocean. Trouble and travel inconvenience are stored away with your suitcase, and new destinations await.
The departure of a cruise ship is always exhilarating, but avid Australian cruisers have been becalmed for over a year. True, some international cruise ships are already operating, and in Australia domestic lines have been sailing for the last six months. It's only now, though, that a wider return to cruising seems likely.
The good news is that we can cruise at home and have glorious choices: rust-red Kimberley gorges; reefs and sapphire-sea islands in Queensland; forest-draped bays in misty Tasmania. Our sea-girt continent's remote and spectacular coastlines are made for cruising. Here are just a few inspirations for a return to sea.
Coral Expeditions' "Kimberley Icons" Cruise
Coral Geographer. Photo: David Li
The cruise A 12-night expedition voyage between Darwin and Broome takes in the age-old highlights of the Kimberley coast, plus Ashmore Reef and Rowley Shoals.
Highlights Meandering in a Zodiac up King George River gorges takes you to magnificent waterfalls, while Swift Bay is abundant with rock art. Horizontal Falls and Montgomery Reef – where falling tides on coral reefs create mid-ocean waterfalls – are two of Australia's more unusual natural wonders. Rowley Shoals has outstanding diving and snorkelling.
Ashore A fleet of inflatable boats and accompanying team of naturalists get passengers into the crannies of remote coastlines. At Doubtful Bay you can scramble to art-splattered rock shelters and explore Red Cone Creek.
On board The newly launched, 120-passenger Coral Geographer and near-identical Coral Adventurer are small, nimble ships with tenders and Zodiacs dedicated to expedition sailing. Regular lectures provide depth. You'll find a lounge, restaurant, gym and bars on a cheerfully stylish, light-flooded ship – great for informal, friendly Aussies happy to forego razzmatazz for rugged adventure.
Sail away From $9290pp. Departs October 15, 2021; September 12 and October 7, 2022; coralexpeditions.com
Silversea's "Auckland To Sydney" Cruise The Cruise
The cruise A 15-day cruise around New Zealand that explores a number of scenic sounds and harbours before crossing to Hobart and Melbourne.
Highlights Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound provide a symphony of cliffs backed by snowy peaks. Spray from waterfalls spritzes faces upturned in wonder. Almost every port approach – Akaroa, Tauranga – is splendid, and at Dunedin sheep-haunted hillsides are so close you can smell the grass. Kaikoura's waters heave with whales, and fur seals flop on rocks.
Ashore An excursion to Rotorua tempts at Tauranga, but beaches and village-style shopping are a stroll from the dock, and the four-kilometre track around Mount Maunganui is splendid. Stewart Island offers hiking, kayaking and exploration of Rakiura National Park. The capital, Wellington, provides a jolt of urban buzz.
On board Silversea's luxurious, 596-passenger flagship Silver Muse aims for understated, European-style elegance, a tranquil atmosphere (there are no child-dedicated facilities) and attentive, somewhat formal service. Despite the ship's small size, it has expansive public areas, multiple bars, eight upmarket dining venues, wellness centre and generous suites with butler service – perfect for well-heeled but low-key retired couples, especially if celebrating a special anniversary.
Sail away From $11,970pp. Departs January 3, 2022; silversea.com
Celebrity Cruises' "Great Barrier Reef" Cruise
The cruise A 12-night return journey from Sydney to Far North Queensland, with four days at sea allowing plenty of time to enjoy the on-board experience.
Highlights There's nothing like snorkelling amid a kaleidoscope of coral, giant clams and flitting fish, and here you can explore the Great Barrier Reef's underwater world three times thanks to port calls at Airlie Beach, Cairns and Port Douglas. Stopovers in Brisbane and Newcastle permit a change of pace.
Ashore Take an excursion to the Whitsundays' famous Whitehaven Beach, where powdery sand swirls into peacock-blue waters. Set off for an eco-experience in the Daintree Rainforest, and take the scenic Skyrail to Kuranda. An off-road adventure at Mt Tamborine reveals the beauty of the Gold Coast hinterland.
On board The 2852-passenger Celebrity Eclipse is a notch down from luxury while retaining stylish décor and excellent service. It offers far more space and entertainment options than a small ship, yet without a megaship's sometimes raucous atmosphere. That makes Celebrity the Goldilocks choice for couples looking for sophistication and sociability.
Sail away From $2799pp. Departs November 1, 2021; celebritycruises.com/au
Aurora Expeditions' "Mawson's Antarctica" Cruise
The Greg Mortimer in Antarctica.
The cruise A 25-day round trip from Hobart taking in the Australian Antarctic Territory, far-flung Macquarie Island and some of New Zealand's more remote outposts.
Highlights The wild and windy subantarctic islands are World Heritage-listed for their geology and abundant wildlife, including millions of seabirds and penguins and vast elephant-seal herds. Antarctica is replete with icebergs, glaciers, more wildlife and the remnants of explorer history. Weather permitting, the ship might reach the south magnetic pole.
Ashore A boardwalk on Macquarie Island leads through royal penguin rookeries and dozing fur and elephant seals. Campbell Island features eroded volcanic scenery and albatrosses with three-metre wingspans. In Commonwealth Bay, you can walk to Mawson's Hut, a leftover from Australia's 1911 Antarctic expedition.
On board The 132-passenger Greg Mortimer is built for expedition cruising, with activity loading platforms, 360-degree observation decks and a cutting-edge bow that increases stability. It features a wellness centre and gym, sauna, library, restaurant and lecture room. Deck jacuzzis are the spot for iceberg spotting. The atmosphere is informal, the food excellent, and the frequent enrichment lectures informative. For the suave but active traveller who thinks they've done it all.
Sail away From $36,355pp. Departs December 11, 2021; auroraexpeditions.com.au
Princess Cruises' "Tasmania" Cruise
Sapphire Princess. Photo: Getty Images
The cruise A seven-day return trip from Melbourne, including a scenic cruise in Great Oyster Bay and the Freycinet Peninsula.
Highlights Two days on Phillip Island, an overnight in Hobart and a day at Port Arthur give you time to explore, while two days at sea allow you to kick back and unwind. From Hobart, you can strike out to Mount Wellington, the Richmond Valley or Bruny Island, or walk from the ship to the town's historic core and Salamanca Market.
Ashore A plethora of options is one of the reasons Princess Cruises will suit diverse family members. You can take food-and-wine tours, ghost tours and eco-boat adventures, or see Hobart by horse-drawn carriage or sea kayak. On Phillip Island, you can visit the Grand Prix Circuit, penguins or a chocolate factory.
On board The 2670-passenger Sapphire Princess has multiple activity options, including sports courts, spa, swimming pools, casino and music and entertainment venues, making it a hassle-free choice for multi-generational families. Youth programs will keep the kids occupied but there's something for everyone. Numerous dining venues offer notably good food.
Sail away From $1049pp. Departs March 23, 2022; princess.com
Australian domestic cruise lines such as Coral Expeditions, True North and Murray Princess have been operating successfully since late 2020 after a series of pandemic-related shutdowns. But overseas-flagged ships are currently prevented from sailing here by federal regulation. Companies such as Royal Caribbean and P&O Australia are lobbying for bans to be lifted from June, though that date may shift. And they will likely only offer domestic or bubble itineraries, with P&O Australia announcing that it won't sail to
Pacific Island nations this year. Luxury lines such as Ponant and Silversea are eager to sail the Kimberley and other destinations.Expect the cruise scene to evolve as government regulations change and borders reopen. Ships will carry reduced numbers and cruise companies have committed to strict public-health measures. Passengers will be required to produce negative COVID tests and vaccination may eventually be mandatory.
Despite the uncertainty, there is renewed interest in cruising. Companies are reporting brisk sales from Australians, especially for 2021 and 2022 cruises in Australia, New Zealand, the Mediterranean and polar regions. Fair winds seem to have picked up for a travel sector long in the doldrums.