Best cruises for first-timers: 20 amazing cruise trips for those who've never tried it

The local cruise industry last year reached a new milestone: more than 1 million Australians took a cruise holiday. Australia is the world's fastest-growing source of cruise passengers, with numbers surging 20.4 per cent last year – and a similar average annual growth over the past 12 years, according to Cruise Lines International Association. Those of us who cruised spent an average 9.7 days at sea and 13 days on rivers.

 Still, the vast majority of Australian holidaymakers have yet to experience cruising's assorted pleasures, and some sceptics seem determined to resist its siren charms. Cruising is cursed with unchallenged generalities: it's boring, too upmarket, too downmarket, superficial, only for retirees, full of kids, not "real" travelling. Such universal statements would sound absurd if applied to travel as a whole. The cruise experience, too, comes in all shapes, sizes, price points and varieties, with informed choice the key to a cruise that suits. 

Here, then, are 20 cruises to get naysayers coming around to the idea that this type of holiday, enjoyed by a million other Australians, might be worth trying.

NORTH SEA CIRCLE
Crystal Symphony, Crystal Cruises, 14 days

PERFECT FOR Travellers who realise they can't actually do it themselves.

One of the conceits of those who dismiss cruises is that they can travel by land and visit port cities themselves. True in some places, but you'd be hard-pressed to recreate in two weeks this adventurous journey, which takes you from the Norwegian fjords to the Shetland and Faroe islands and on to Iceland. And why would you want to? Some destinations are meant to be admired from a ship, and few things beat the Viking thrill of sailing between the towering mountains of Sognefjord in Norway.

SET SAIL   from $5845pp, departs July 9, 2016, see crystalcruises.com.

EASTERN CARIBBEAN
Disney Fantasy, Disney Cruise Line, 7 nights

PERFECT FOR Families out to demonstrate that cruises aren't just for retirees.

Ships are the same as any travel product: the secret is in choosing the right one for you. Yes, some are filled with the over-60s crowd but, if you want to join happy families afloat, then Disney is the most child-oriented cruise company at sea, and has great clubs and facilities for both young kids and teens. This cruise, providing warmth in the southern winter, sails return from Port Canaveral in Florida and visits the British and US Virgin Islands and Castaway Cay, Disney's very activity-driven private island.

SET SAIL  From $6018pp, departs  June 4, 2016, see disneycruise.disney.go.com.

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EASTBOUND TRANSATLANTIC CROSSING
Queen Mary 2, Cunard Line, 7 nights

PERFECT FOR Lovers of quality entertainment and music.

From renowned comedians to national orchestras and top-notch jazz musicians, you might be surprised at the big-name acts performing some ships; the evening entertainment isn't all sequins and silliness. On this cruise, you have the chance to hear hall of famers Crosby, Stills & Nash. The trio performs three shows and does a  Q&A session. 

SET SAIL From $1179pp, departing September 4, 2015, see cunardline.com.au.

ELEGANT ELBE
Viking Astrild, Viking River Cruises,10 days

PERFECT FOR The European river cruiser who thinks there's no reason to return.

So you've done the Danube and Rhine, and think there's nothing new when it comes to European river cruising. But here's a good reason to return: a journey on an entirely different river, the Elbe, on a ship just launched. The itinerary between Berlin and Prague takes you through the scenic Sandstone Mountains  and visits great cities such as baroque-era Dresden, Meissen (famous for its porcelain) and the Reformation town of Wittenberg.

SET SAIL From $3795pp,  departs up to November 21, 2015, see vikingrivercruises.com.au.

HONG KONG TO SINGAPORE
Silver Whisper, Silversea, 9 days

PERFECT FOR Thoughtful travellers who want to further their understanding of the destinations they visit.

If you think cruising is for dummies, you haven't had the pleasure of Silversea's impressive range of guest lecturers, all experts in fields such as politics, science, history and music. On this voyage you naval and history buff John Tabbutt-McCarthy is guest speaker.  The cruise makes four stops in Vietnam, with a variety of enrichment lectures along the way.

SET SAIL From $4150pp, departs December 12, 2015, see silversea.com.

GRAND PRIX OF MONACO
Star Breeze, Windstar, 7 nights

PERFECT FOR Formula One enthusiasts and anyone who thinks shore excursions only provide the standard tours.

Glamorous French and Italian ports feature on this cruise, but what sets it apart is its special access over two days to the Monaco Grand Prix, where you can enjoy all the action of the Formula One time trails and racing – including grandstand seats for the final. The cruise is hosted by a Formula One racing expert who provides behind-the-scenes insights; there will also be two grand prix cocktail receptions. 

SET SAIL From $8356pp, departs May 23, 2016, see windstarcruises.com

JOURNEY IN SOUTHERN LANDS
Le Lyrial, Ponant, 21 nights

PERFECT FOR Those with a hankering for something different, French flair rather than all-American service style.

Americans form the bulk of the cruise market, but not every cruise provides an American on-board experience – or even mostly American passengers. On board French small-ship company Ponant about half the  passengers and all the senior staff are French. Service is distinctively Gallic. Best of all, you'll can sail remote sub-Antarctic destinations – including the Falklands, South Georgia and Tristan da Cunha – while tucking into several evening courses of fine French fare. Pass the Sauternes and the blue cheese, merci.

SET SAIL From $9520pp, departs March 4, 2017, see ponant.com.

BURGUNDY & PROVENCE
SS Catherine, Uniworld, 8 days

PERFECT FOR The gourmet traveller.

Uniworld is noted for its five-star dining experience, use of locally sourced produce, locally inspired menus and off-ship foodie experiences, and southern France could hardly be a better place to sample them. Among shore excursions is a gourmet "local secrets" walking tour of Lyon, red-wine tasting at Tain l'Hermitage on the Rhone riverbank, and a visit to the open-air markets in medieval Beaune. On-board evening meals highlight the cuisine of Provence and the wines of Burgundy, and finish with fabulous French cheese plates.

SET SAIL  From $4349pp, numerous departures up to November 8, 2015, see uniworldcruises.com.au.

EASTERN MEDITERRANEAN
Sea Cloud, Sea Cloud Cruises,10 nights

PERFECT FOR Yachtie types who believe sailing should actually be about sails.

Not all cruises are about big ships that resemble resorts. Sea Cloud is a sailing ship, a bona fide windjammer built in the 1930s for an American heiress along the lines of the square-rigged cargo ships. If you're going to sail the Aegean between Athens and Istanbul, there could hardly be a better way than on one of the world's most impressive sailing yachts, with 30 sails, some still hoisted and lowered by hand.

SET SAIL  From $6310, departing July 1, 2016, see seacloud.com.

CHRISTMAS TIME ON THE DANUBE
Avalon Panorama, Avalon Waterways, 9 days

PERFECT FOR Anyone wanting to be docked right in the middle of the action – as good as being in a hotel.

Passengers understandably grumble that ships in some ports are docked miles from town centres. If you want to be Right There, then river cruising in Europe is for you. This cheery itinerary through light-twinkled, market-bustling Danube towns in December has you docking within sight of Regensburg cathedral, and right at the foot of Passau's beautiful baroque centre. Just the opportunity to plunder Christmas markets for gingerbread, souvenirs and warming mulled wine.

SET SAIL  From $3013pp, departs December 2 and 14, 2015, see avalonwaterways.com.au.

CORSICA & CANNES VOYAGE
Azamara Quest, Azamara Club Cruises, 3 nights

PERFECT FOR People alarmed at the thought of being cooped up on a ship for too long.

For those who baulk at the 20-day cruise, there's good news: short weekender-type cruises are becoming increasingly popular, and are a good way of getting from A to B as part of a longer journey. This Azamara cruise visits Corsica (docking at Propriano) and Cannes on the route between Barcelona and Nice – quite a stylish little route. It will also give you the chance to trail Azamara Quest, which will be making its debut in Australia in December.

SET SAIL From $620pp, departs October 8,  2015, see azamaraclubcruises.com.

YACHTERS ALASKAN FRONTIER
Safari Quest, Un-Cruise, 8 days

PERFECT FOR Those fond of the out-of-the-way, who think ports of call are too predicable.

Safari Quest takes 22 passengers into one of the most cruised destinations in the world, Alaska, but on flexible itineraries that might wander with the weather and wildlife sightings. Head off into the wilderness of Dawes Glacier, Fords Terror, Frederick Sound and Icy Strait on foot, kayak, paddle board or whale-watching skiff – and not a souvenir shop in sight.

SET SAIL  From $9312pp, numerous departures between June 10 and August 19, 2016, see un-cruise.com

AMAZON: ON THE RIVER OF LIFE
MS Hanseatic, Hapag-Lloyd,18 days

PERFECT FOR Those who want to feel like an early explorer.

Is starting a cruise in the jungle-surrounded Peruvian town of Iquitos, 4000 kilometres from the mouth of the Amazon, adventurous enough? This cruise meanders across inland South America all the way to coastal Belem in Brazil. In the best tradition of naturalists and explorers, take to Zodiacs along the way to discover the rhythms and rainforest of the Amazon, Rio Negro and its subsidiary waterways. After you've communed with monkeys and macaws, you can (unlike real explorers) happily retreat back to your luxury accommodations.

SET SAIL From $11,866pp, departs April 9, 2016, see hl-cruises.com.

MYSTICAL MYANMAR
Scenic Aura, Scenic Line, 10 days

PERFECT FOR People who don't want the big-ship experience among hundreds (sometimes thousands) of other passengers. 

When Scenic launches its newest Irrawaddy ship Scenic Aura it will be a cruise world away from the 5000-passenger megaships that might put you off cruising. The boutique boat has just 22 all-balcony cabins for 44 guests, promising a rather intimate cruise experience in a part of the world not yet overrun by tourists. Among the treats along the way will be sunset drinks overlooking Bagan, visits to lakeside villages and an exploration of former capitals Inwa and Sagaing, as well as overnights in Mandalay and Yangon.

SET SAIL From $10,745pp, numerous departures from September 17, 2016, see scenic.com.au.

MONTE CARLO TO VENICE
Seven Seas Explorer, Regent Seven Seas,14 nights

PERFECT FOR Those who think cruising is an unrefined, budget holiday.

Seven Seas Explorer makes its maiden voyage on 20 July, and promises to be the most luxurious ships on the ocean. Carrying 750 guests, the all-suite, all-balcony ship will have huge suites and Regent's usual luxe offerings, such as speciality dining venues and a full spa. It will also debut a culinary arts kitchen where you can learn to whip up a sophisticated seafood meal. Even the destinations on this Mediterranean voyage are chic: Monte Carlo, St Tropez, Ibiza and Venice.

SET SAIL From $11,679, departing July 20, 2016, see rssc.com.au

WESTERN CARIBBEAN FROM MIAMI
Norwegian Escape, Norwegian Cruise Line, 6 nights

PERFECT FOR Those who love an action-packed time.

Norwegian Escape launches in November as the cruise company's biggest and most fun-packed ship. If your idea of a cruise is a thriller and some knitting, this isn't the one for you. The ship features a three-storey 99-challenge ropes course, zip line, the largest aqua park at sea, a mini-golf course, basketball court and an expansive sports complex. You can also liven up your two days at sea en route to Cozumel (Mexico) and Roatán (Honduras) by trying the Aqua Racer slide and Free Fall slide.

SET SAIL From $1379pp, departs July 31, 2016,  see norwegiancruiseline.com.au.

SOUTH AMERICAN DISCOVERY
Saga Pearl II, Saga Cruises, 73 nights

PERFECT FOR  Those who think variety is the spice of life.

Surely it would be difficult to come up with a cruise that offers more than this one: the Galapagos Islands, Colombian rainforests, ancient cities of Peru, daylight sailing through the Panama Canal, Patagonian ice fields, the vineyards of Chile, the Falkland Islands and navigation around Cape Horn. And if that isn't enough, you'll have two days to tango through Buenos Aires and time to sashay along Rio's Copacabana Beach. The 14,000-kilometre journey circumnavigates South America and surely puts paid to the oft-touted misconception that cruising is somehow boring.

SET SAIL From $25,246pp, departs January 6, 2016, see travel.saga.co.uk

MAGNIFICENT EUROPE
AmaStella, AmaVenita and AmaVerde, APT, 15 days

PERFECT FOR The culture vulture. 

River cruising has long had a strong cultural focus, but APT is taking it further with a special series of sailings in conjunction with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. An ensemble of musicians from the orchestra will perform on board, showcasing Europe's musical heritage, from the classics to works by new composers on the music scene. You'll also visit enjoy a recital at the Hungarian Opera House, visit Mozart's birthplace in Salzburg and attend a private musical soiree in Vienna.

SET SAIL From $7795pp, six departures in March 2016, see aptouring.com.au.

SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE ADVENTURE
MS Midnatsol, Hurtigruten,17 days

PERFECT FOR People who think family cruising is just about cartoon characters and water slides.

Megaships and their multitude of facilities aren't the only way to cruise with kids. Hurtigruten has set out to appeal to families with their new Antarctica cruises, with a lively presentation of science in its Young Explorers program for teenagers through a series of lectures and experiments in an interactive science laboratory that allows you to study meteors and examine ancient ice cores. It isn't all theory either: you can snorkel and kayak in Antarctic waters, sleep under the stars on deck, and encounter penguins, whales and seals.

SET SAIL  From $7720pp, departing March 1, 2017, see hurtigruten.com

PACIFIC ISLANDS FROM SYDNEY
Carnival Legend, Carnival Cruise Line, 9 nights

PERFECT FOR Multi-generational travellers.

With interconnecting cabins, a range of high-energy activities, good kids' clubs divided into four age categories, and an adults-only Serenity retreat and Cloud 9 Spa, Carnival Legend is all geared up to keep everyone content – and also has entertainment aimed at getting everyone together. This cruise calls in at Isle of Pines, Lifou Isle, Mare and Noumea in New Caledonia, where shore excursions are just as varied: scenic drives, beach flopping, guided cave walks, river kayaking and a visit to the state-of-the-art Noumea Aquarium.

SET SAIL  From $1259pp, departing February 3, 2016; see carnival.com.au.

* Fares quoted are for double rooms. 

MAKING WAVES

Five ways cruising has changed

■ More variety: the different   ships, ports visited and shore excursions provide a huge choice.

■ Costs have come down, putting cruising into the price range of the ordinary traveller.

■ Ships are larger, with more amenities. There has also been a boom in small-ship cruising aimed at expedition-style journeys.

■ Freestyle dining, alternative and specialty restaurants and quality fare is now the norm.

■ Expectations of what defines luxury in cabins are being met. There are also more family-friendly cabins.

CAST OFF

Five reasons to cruise

■ No transport headaches, no endless repacking, no hunting down your next hotel or meal: cruising takes the annoying logistics out of multi-destination travelling.

■ Seeing places you'd never get to as an individual, whether it's Antarctica, the Marquesas Islands or Inside Passage.

■ A choice of on-board activities, entertainment and excursions to suit the varied tastes and moods of family members – and there's plenty to enjoy together, too.

■ Great company, and many are younger, better travelled and more interesting than the cruise-passenger stereotype suggests.

■ Value for money: cruising is a package holiday with many inclusions and a clear, upfront cost.

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