Australian cruising returns: The best sailing itineraries to book now

Despite a pandemic being declared two years ago, the resumption of cruising overseas in that time has seen 8 million passengers sail to more than 80 countries, according to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).

Here in Australian waters cruising was mostly suspended during the pandemic but now, in an announcement considered long overdue by cruise devotees and the industry itself, the federal government is to finally lift its cruise ban from April 17 after a two-year suspension of most cruising in Australia.

But it's not quite "anchors aweigh" just yet. State and territory governments have to finalise their health protocols and major cruise lines have already cancelled cruises through to the end of May. And it takes time to redeploy ships and sell cabin space.

The majority of Australian cruises aren't likely to return before the start of the 2022/23 summer season, although P&O Cruises Australia is flagging an optimistic return from May 31 (subject to approval) with the staggered launch of sailings from Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney.

Certainly there's an appetite for Australian cruises and increasing demand for longer itineraries.

Holland America and Princess, for example, have already sold out their epic month-long Australian circumnavigation cruises towards year's end, and bookings across the industry have been surging.

"Over the past few months we've seen a steady increase in demand for most of our key destinations, with domestic voyages being strong for the remainder of 2022," says Craig Bowen, managing director of Cruise Traveller, which represents 54 small-ship, river and expedition cruise lines.

With an ever-increasing range of itineraries and destinations on offer, a huge variety of ship sizes and holiday styles, and no need for the complications of international travel, Australian cruising looks set for fair winds and following seas.

Here's Traveller's special guide to all you need to know about the great Australian cruise restart including the best and most rewarding dinki-di destinations to which to set sail.

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THE DESTINATION

The Kimberley, WA

Zodiac in King George river, Kimberley, Australia tra5-deals
The King George Falls in the Kimberley with Silversea

The Kimberley is best explored via expedition ship or Zodiac. Photo: Supplied

THE CRUISE

Non-existent roads mean there's no other way to explore premier the Kimberley's wild coast and river gorges than on an expedition ship and by Zodiac. The landscapes and waterfalls are staggering, but so too is the Indigenous rock art and bird life. Cruises usually operate between Broome and Darwin.

DON'T MISS

Montgomery Reef is one of Australia's most unusual natural wonders, where tides dropping over reefs create mid-ocean waterfalls. Mitchell Falls, though reached by an expensive add-on helicopter flight, is a thundering wonder amid arid red rock.

WHAT'S MY LINE

Cruise on foreign-flagged vessels and you have to make an unnecessary detour to Indonesia. Home-grown Coral Expeditions is a Kimberley expert and extends some cruises to outstanding dive spots Rowley Shoals and Ashmore Reef.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

12-night Kimberley Icons cruise from Darwin to Broome or reverse. Departs September 12, 13 and 28, 2022. From $9290 a person, see coralexpeditions.com

THE DESTINATION

South Australia

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Emu Bay, Kangaroo Island, South Australia

Smaller vessels can explore Kangaroo Island among other pristine destinations. Photo: Jayden Beville

THE CRUISE

Believe it or not, SA is the new frontier of Australian cruising with an increasing number of expedition ships exploring destinations such as Kangaroo Island, the Eyre Peninsula, Coffin Bay National Park and wildlife-rich islands such as the Pearson and Gambier islands.

DON'T MISS

Streaky Bay, a coastal town on the western side of the Eyre Peninsula, 303 kilometres by land north-west of Port Lincoln has voluptuous sand dunes, pink granite outcrops and sapphire waters, as well as interesting pioneer history and terrific seafood.

WHAT'S MY LINE

The vessel True North is as close as you'll get to the billionaire-yacht feeling unless you're a mining magnate. It hosts 36 passengers and carries six adventure boats and a six-person, air-conditioned helicopter.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

Eight-night Southern Safari cruise from Adelaide to Ceduna (with charter flight back to Adelaide). Departs January 9, 2023. From $9995 a person, see truenorth.com.au

THE DESTINATION

Great Barrier Reef, Qld

Scott Morrison will pledge an additional $1 billion for the Great Barrier Reef.

Larger ships combine marine excursions with onboard entertainment. Photo: Getty

 

THE CRUISE

Usually sailing from Sydney or Brisbane, these cruises involve sunny destinations, swimming and snorkelling with days at sea to indulge in the varied entertainments of larger ships. There are however expedition alternatives that escape to quieter outer reefs and islands.

DON'T MISS

An excursion to famed Whitehaven Beach, where powdery sand swirls into peacock-blue waters, or to Hardy Reef's pontoon for a plunge among wrasse, groupers, turtles and multi-coloured fish. On some itineraries, urban centres like Brisbane, Townsville or Newcastle provide a change of pace.

WHAT'S MY LINE

Royal Caribbean operates the world's largest cruise ships, perfect for those keen on super-relaxing, sociable resort-style holidays with restaurants, bars, big shows, water slides, swimming pools and other entertainments all in one package.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

10-night Great Barrier Reef cruise return from Sydney. Departs November 22, 2022. From $1511 a person, see royalcaribbean.com

THE DESTINATION

Cape York, Qld

APT's Caledonian Sky is perfect for cruisers after something more rugged.APT's Caledonian Sky is suit those after something rugged. Photo: Graham Werner

THE CRUISE

Queensland cruises can be predictable but expeditions ships that head north from Cairns will suit those looking for a more off-beat and rugged experience. Itineraries often visit mainland Cooktown and Cape York, various Barrier Reef islands, and Thursday Island.

DON'T MISS

Friendly Cooktown, further north of Cairns, offers a fascinating history related to Captain James Cook, the gold-rush and early Chinese settlement. Thursday Island has World War II and pearling history but, above all, Indigenous culture. Be sure to visit Gab Titui Cultural Centre for its art gallery and cultural artefacts.

WHAT'S MY LINE

APT is best known for Kimberley cruises but also offers interesting Australian alternatives. Its ship Caledonian Sky carries 99 passengers on an intimate, all-inclusive experience with excursions made by Zodiac.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

Nine-day Cape York and the Great Barrier Reef Expedition return from Cairns. Departs October 17 and 25, 2022. From $9995 a person, see aptouring.com.au

THE DESTINATION

Murray River, SA, Vic, NSW

Supplied PR image for Traveller. Murray Princess river cruise ship from Captain Cook Cruises

All aboard the 120-passenger paddle-steamer Murray Princess. Photo: Supplied

THE CRUISE

The Murray provided trade and transport routes crucial to Australian history. River-cruise ships are modest but sail an interesting range of itineraries from various ports, some concentrating around Echuca and Swan Hill, others exploring rugged lower-river reaches. Enjoy former frontier settlements, cellar doors, homestead visits and an abundance of birdlife.

DON'T MISS

At Ngaut Ngaut Conservation Park, Indigenous guides conduct tours that explain rock art, oral histories and the environment. Loxton has a lovely riverside setting and a historical village that recreates 45 fully-furnished European settler buildings.

WHAT'S MY LINE

Murray Princess has cruises aboard a 120-passenger paddle-steamer that focus on the wildlife, culture and history of the South Australian section of the Murray.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

Seven-night Murraylands and Wildlife cruise from Blanchetown to Murray Bridge. Regular departures year-round except December and January. From $2379 a person, see murrayprincess.com.au

THE DESTINATION

South-east Australia, NSW, Tas, Vic, SA

Celebrity Edge Naming Ceremonies. Fort Lauderdale, Florida USA. November 2018. Photo by Steve Dunlop steve@stevedunlop.com www.stevedunlop.com +447762084057
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The cutting-edge Parabolic Ultra Bow was designed to slice through the water, reducing friction and increasing speed

Celebrity Edge will launch a nine-night Australian Wine cruise. Photo: Supplied/Steve Dunlop

THE CRUISE

Larger cruise ships offer various itineraries out of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide that nip between cities, visit the occasional small in-between port, and often detour to Hobart. These are good short introductions for cruising first-timers, and relaxing getaways for anyone needing an easy, everything-organised break.

DON'T MISS

Outside Hobart, the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) has a magnificent setting and startling collections of contemporary art. From Adelaide, you'll want to nip into the Barossa Valley for wine tasting.

WHAT'S MY LINE

Celebrity Cruises operates large but not mega-ships in a premium niche that creates a great balance for those keen on combining destination cruising with relaxing resort-style experiences and entertainment during days at sea.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

Nine-night Australian Wine cruise return from Sydney. Departs Feb 7, 2023. From $1748 a person, see celebritycruises.com

THE DESTINATION

Southern Australian coastline, WA, SA, Vic, Tas, NSW

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Azamara Quest docked in Melbourne

Azamara's mid-sized ships emphasise destinations. Photo: Supplied

THE CRUISE

A whole range of cruise ships redeploy from the Pacific to Asia via Western Australia, which results in occasional, and interesting, longer cruises along the southern coastline. Typical smaller ports are Eden NSW, Kangaroo Island, SA and WA's Esperance, Albany and Busselton for the Margaret River region. Regular days at sea allow you to relax and enjoy the sailing experience.

DON'T MISS

Albany's King George Sound is a magnificent harbour and, as WA's first European settlement and a whaling port, has absorbing history. The National Anzac Centre is a must-visit, and the coast is splattered with national parks.

WHAT'S MY LINE

Azamara's mid-sized ships operate itineraries that emphasise destination and longer (sometimes overnight) stays in port. Dining choices and service levels are impressive; a luxury feel comes with a mid-range price-tag.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

14-night Australia Intensive Voyage from Fremantle, WA, to Melbourne, Vic. Departs December 21, 2022. From $6289 per person, see azamara.com

THE DESTINATION

Tasmania

French-flagged Ponant’s Le Lapérouse allows guests to explore swathes of wilderness accessible only by small ship.

Ponant’s small ship Le Lapérouse will celebrate New Year in Hobart. Photo: Nick Rains

THE CRUISE

Doing Tassie on a big ship out of Sydney or Melbourne barely gets you beyond Hobart and Port Arthur; beware the "scenic cruising" day at Freycinet without disembarkation. A much better option is a small-ship or expedition cruise whose longer itineraries get you into Tasmania's wild coastline crannies and include cultural attractions.

DON'T MISS

King Island's wind-whipped cliff tops, rolling hills and chilly cloudscapes are exhilarating, so take a hike to the nearest lighthouse. Zodiac excursions off the Tasman Peninsula allow for seal, whale and penguin spotting beneath spectacular cliffs and rock formations.

WHAT'S MY LINE

Ponant is an elegant French cruise line that combines luxury and fine dining with expedition destinations. Teams of knowledgeable wildlife and other experts enrich the experience.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

11-day Food, Wine & Yacht Race cruise return from Hobart. Departs December 23, 2022. From $11,540 a person, see au.ponant.com

THE DESTINATION

Coral Coast, WA

WESTERN AUSTRALIA oct2cover traveller best coastlines cover ; text by ben groundwater ; HANDOUT image supplied by Tourism Western Australia https://imagegallery.tourism.wa.gov.au
credit: Tourism Western Australia and credit @jakewiltonphotoon when used on social media
Female swimming through a Shoal of Fish at Ningaloo Reef, Coral Bay

Experience spectacular snorkelling while exploring Ningaloo. Photo: Jake Wilton/Tourism WA

THE CRUISE

The Kimberley hogs the cruise limelight in WA but magnificent alternatives lie further south on expedition cruises, often out of Broome, that explore the Dampier Archipelago, remote reefs and islands, Shark Bay and elsewhere. Expect lots of swimming and snorkelling, abundant wildlife and remote, unusual destinations of clashing blue seas and red earth.

DON'T MISS

The Houtman Abrolhos Islands are ringed by the Indian Ocean's most southerly coral reefs, have spectacular seabird colonies, and allow for great fishing for coral trout, snapper and grouper.

WHAT'S MY LINE

Coral Expeditions operates very small ships which are smart, well-run and perfectly designed to get you into small bays and among scattered archipelagos and reefs.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

12-night Exploring Ningaloo, Montebello and Abrolhos Islands cruise from Fremantle to Broome or reverse. Departs October 10 and November 30, 2022. From $9290 a person, see coralexpeditions.com

THE DESTINATION

Australia circumnavigation

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(handout image supplied via journalist for use in Traveller, no syndication)Princess Cruises resumes operations in Australia from June 16, with Coral Princess homeported in Brisbane for her inaugural Australian season.

Coral Princess will embark on epic 28-day circumnavigation. Photo: Supplied

THE CRUISE

Larger ships and very occasional expedition vessels tackle the full tour. This is a fantastic have-it-all cruise for the unhurried and those who crave variety, from big cities to small coastal towns and occasional islands. Some itineraries call at Bali or Komodo. Most circumnavigations are already sold out for 2022, so make big plans for 2023.

DON'T MISS

Busselton, with its long heritage jetty, is gateway to the Margaret River and has abundant excursion options, including visits to wineries and the limestone landscapes of Cape Naturaliste. Ngilgi Caves have dramatic stalactites and stalagmites and rich indigenous stories.

WHAT'S MY LINE

The vibe of Princess Cruises is family-oriented but with plenty to suit adults and some adults-only areas its ships provide great multi-generational holidays.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

28-day Round Australia cruise return from Sydney. Departs October 25, 2023. From $5998 a person, see princess.com

THE DESTINATION

New Zealand

Norwegian Spirit - Norwegian Cruise Line Aerial Tortola - British Virgin Island
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The revitalised Norwegian Spirit makes its Australia debut in December 2022. Photo: Michel Verdure

THE CRUISE

OK, New Zealand isn't a domestic destination, but who's quibbling when it comes to our beloved near neighbour? Port towns in this spectacular nation are made for scenic sea approaches, and if you cruise out of Australia then local ports such as Eden, Burnie or Hobart are an added bonus.

DON'T MISS

Burnie on Tasmania's scenic northern coastline. Rolling farmland provides great farm-door opportunities and eye-catching fields of poppies. Launceston and seaside Devonport are popular excursion destinations.

WHAT'S MY LINE

Norwegian Cruise Line is sending its completely revitalised Norwegian Spirit to Australia for the first time in December 2022. With 10 bars and lounges, 14 dining options and an expansive spa, the ship appeals to indulgent adult cruisers.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

12-day "Australia and New Zealand" cruise from Sydney to Auckland. Departs Dec 22, 2022 and Feb 8 and 4 Mar, 2023. From $3160pp, ncl.com

FIVE OF THE BEST AUSTRALIAN PORTS

PENNESHAW, SA

Kangaroo Island's cruise port provides access to an outstanding destination recovering from its dreadful bushfires. Cliffs, dunes, windswept beaches, lagoons and rolling farmland combine in lovely landscapes. Excursions visit local wine, honey and eucalyptus-oil producers and thriving sea-lion colonies. See tourkangarooisland.com.au

HOBART, Tas

This salty, sea-gazing city oozes maritime history, from the historic cottages and pubs of Battery Point to the Salamanca Place warehouses now turned into cafes and craft shops. Excursions take in Georgian-era town Richmond, Mt Wellington, Port Arthur and gloriously scenic Bruny Island. See discovertasmania.com.au

BROOME, WA

Red earth meets turquoise ocean in this Kimberley town where jetsetters, backpackers and rugged outback types mingle. A tiny Chinatown reminds of its 150-year Asian heritage, while Pearl Luggers relates Broome's pearling industry. Enjoy a pre-cruise stay at Cable Beach, renowned for its sunsets. See visitbroome.com.au

TOWNSVILLE, Qld

Australia's largest tropical city is overshadowed by Cairns but has a charming town centre, lively restaurant scene, terrific waterfront and relaxed vibe. Sights include Reef HQ Aquarium, Museum of Tropical Queensland and nearby Magnetic Island. Waterfall-draped Paluma Range National Park is an hour north. See townsvillenorthqueensland.com.au

EDEN, NSW

One of Australia's more recent cruise ports sits on the sumptuous Sapphire Coast with Ben Boyd National Park just around the bay. Walk into town to sample oysters before visiting the Killer Whale Museum. Whale-watching is a popular excursion; penguins and seals are also spotted. See visiteden.com.au

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