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Sailing into Molde, I recently I discovered by blind luck, is one of the world's loveliest, if not obscure, cruise experiences. Like most people, I cruise with dreams of sailing into big-name destinations such as Rio, Bora Bora or Hong Kong, and not of arriving in an unassuming, ordinary town of 25,000 people in Norway. And yet, what a treat.
Molde sits on a fiord indented into the rugged peninsula of a larger fiord, scattered with pine-topped islands and backed by mountains. It's said you can see 222 snow peaks. Molde is the perfect reminder that, while we're all entranced by famous ports of call, more obscure destinations supply wonders too. With cruise lines constantly rolling out new itineraries and maiden ports of call, travellers have an ever-expanding choice of unexpected delights.
If you're keen to escape the mainstream, the seven seas are full of remote archipelagos and small coastal towns can provide an outstanding experience. The huge choice is partly due to the boom in the number of smaller cruise ships. "More and more purpose-built small ships are coming into the market," says Joel Katz, managing director of Cruise Lines International Association Australasia. "They're featuring additional global itineraries in more off-the-beaten track, exotic destinations where larger ships can't go."
Yet even big ships call in at a surprising range of destinations and in densely-cruised hotspots such as Europe or the Caribbean you can still find port towns that are surprisingly free of tourists. Add seldom-visited islands, and you can be sure you haven't cruised it all yet – and probably never will. Here are 12 examples that highlight the sheer pleasurable variety of contemporary cruising off the charts.
WHERE IS IT Clinging like a limpet to cliffs on the southern tip of French island Corsica, with views across to nearby Sardinia and an enviable Mediterranean climate. See visit-corsica.com
DISCOVER Only small ships can penetrate the narrow, pirate-lair port between limestone cliffs and overlooked by the rock-topping old town. (You'll be tendered ashore from larger ships). The yacht-filled harbour is surrounded by cafes.
TOUR You probably shouldn't stray too far. The citadel, founded in the ninth century, is a warren of shadow alleys overlooking glittering sea. There are many fabulous outlooks, particularly if you stroll the cliff-top paths to the south towards the lighthouse.
THE DETAILS Azamara Club Cruises's Mediterranean Wonders itinerary on Azamara Quest from $3546 a person. See azamaraclubcruises.com
HOUTMAN ABROLHOS ISLANDS
WHERE IS IT A chain of more than 120 islands some 80 kilometres off the coast of Geraldton in Western Australia, boasting the Indian Ocean's most southerly coral reefs. See visitgeraldton.com.au
DISCOVER A rock lobster fishery sees a small, seasonal fisherman population, but otherwise visitors are limited on these spectacularly coloured coral islands. The islands are premier seabird nesting sites and notorious for having wrecked the Dutch ships Batavia in 1629 and the Zeewijk in 1727.
TOUR A heli-flight over the reefs is splendid; otherwise take to snorkelling for an underwater view and a likely encounter with sea lions. Expedition leaders will take you bird-watching. You can also fish for groper, snapper and coral trout.
THE DETAILS True North's West Coast Explorer itinerary on True North from $11,695. See truenorth.com.au
PESO DA REGUA
WHERE IS IT A dot on Portugal's Douro River halfway between Porto and the Spanish border, which developed as an 18th-century wine port. See visitportugal.com
DISCOVER Regua is a town of practicality and transport hubs, but its riverfront is delightfully scenic and its old town blessedly free of tourists, with a genuine local feel. The town is beautifully enfolded into vine-clad hillsides on an S-bend of the Douro.
TOUR Shore-excursion options will have you in a dither. Choose between nearby, ornate pilgrimage town Lamego, baroque Mateus Palace notable for its rosé wine and cypress-shaded gardens, or the valley around Tarouca with its clear, bubbling river, fortified bridge and venerable monastery.
THE DETAILS Scenic's Unforgettable Douro itinerary on Scenic Azure from $6295. See www.scenic.com.au
WHERE IS IT These New Zealand islands, which include Campbell, Auckland, Snares and Antipodes islands, are collectively World Heritage listed, as is Australia's Macquarie Island. See newzealand.com
DISCOVER Visitors are restricted and the islands highly protected, leaving them with some of the most abundant wildlife and wildflowers in the world, including many species found nowhere else. The Auckland Islands are notable for rare yellow-eyed penguins and Gibson's wandering albatross.
TOUR Zodiac excursions accompanied by naturalists and geologists get you onto the islands for wildlife encounters. On Campbell Island, a six-kilometre hike along Col Lyell Saddle Boardwalk provides sea legs with a good workout amid wild (and likely wet) landscapes of worn-down volcanos.
THE DETAILS Ponant's Subantarctic Islands itinerary on L'Austral from $13,090. See ponant.com
WHERE IS IT The easternmost of the United Arab Emirates and the only one on the Oman Gulf, slow-paced, beach-flanked Fujairah is more focused on heritage than flashy skyscrapers and malls. See fujairahtourism.ae
DISCOVER The vast, gleaming urban Sheikh Zayed Mosque contrasts with the 700-year-old Al Bidya Mosque beyond town. Fujairah Museum documents 3000 years of history and culture and has a reconstruction of an old barasti palm-woven house.
TOUR Take an excursion into the rugged Masafi Mountains for some dune-bashing or inspect Fujairah Castle against its desert backdrop. The coastline and Hajar Mountains can be surprisingly green. Some passengers sail the Musandam fjords by dhow, the traditional Arab boat.
THE DETAILS Silversea Cruises's Mumbai to Dubai itinerary on Silver Spirit from $5130. See silversea.com
ILES DES SAINTES
WHERE IS IT An eight-island dependency of the French overseas territory of Guadaloupe in the Leeway Islands, visited on various Caribbean itineraries, but only by small ships. See visitguadeloupe.co.uk
DISCOVER As proof that you can still get away from it all in the much-cruised Caribbean, only yachts and small ships enjoy the sapphire waters of this island group. Only two islands have low-key towns such as Bourg and Terre-de-Haut; otherwise it's just you and the coconut trees.
TOUR Some claim Baie des Saintes is one of the world's most gorgeous bays, and Fort Napoleon provides a heavenly panorama. Otherwise, it's all about hitting the beaches, enjoying the water sports or scuba-diving.
THE DETAILS Star Clipper's Leeward Islands itinerary on Star Flyer from $2902. Phone 1300 295 161. See starclippers.com
WHERE IS IT No, not that one. A port and former industrial centre on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia off the coast of eastern Canada, and just north of Maine. See sydneyport.ca
DISCOVER A lively history of immigration and seafaring and Sydney's strategic importance in World War II make for a surprisingly interesting visit. A revived waterfront and historic buildings dating back to 1787 provide charm.
TOUR The coastline beyond town is beautiful. The island's attractions include the Alexander Graham Bell Museum (the inventor lived here) and Louisbourg Fortress, North America's largest historical reconstruction. Active cruisers can choose to hike part of the Cabot Trail.
THE DETAILS Celebrity Cruises's Canada & New England itinerary on Celebrity Summit from $2129. See celebritycruises.com.au
WHERE IS IT A spectacularly rugged archipelago halfway between Norway and the North Pole, accessible only to expedition ships, with main port Longyearbyen located on the largest island, Spitsbergen. See visitsvalbard.com
DISCOVER The Svalbards have attracted global-warming interest for their polar-bear populations. Shore excursions to view the bears are a highlight. Over half the islands lie in nature reserves or national park, home to walrus, seals, Arctic foxes, reindeer and puffins.
TOUR Active excursions take you kayaking or glacier hiking with the occasional traverse of a crevasse, a sport Norwegians call brevandring. Otherwise, visit a research centre, national parks, an old whaling station or Longyearbyen, with its colourful houses and red churches.
THE DETAILS Hurtigruten's Grand Arctic Circumnavigation itinerary on Fram from €6327. See hurtigruten.com
WHERE IS IT Lithuania's third-largest city sits on the Baltic coast at an ice-free river mouth that made it an important historical trading port. See klaipedainfo.lt
DISCOVER Like many small European cities, Klaipeda mixes venerable (mostly German) history with cobbles, medieval architecture, a castle and lively university-student vibe. Small museums dedicated to art, clocks, history or maritime tradition are browse-worthy.
TOUR There are nearly 200 exhibits at Martynas Mazvydas Sculpture Park. The Cold War Museum and Plokstine Missile Base allow a poke inside a once-secret Soviet site. The city dissolves into forest and beach, though a Lithuanian constitution is needed to brave the frigid waters.
THE DETAILS APT's Best of the Baltics itinerary on Island Sky from $15,995. See aptouring.com.au
WHERE IS IT A long chain of Japanese sub-tropical and tropical islands stretching between Kyushu and Taiwan, generally visited on cruises from Hong Kong or Japanese ports. See visitokinawa.jp
DISCOVER Ishigaki, where most cruise ships stop, reveals World War II sites, picturesque Kabira Bay (where glass-bottom boats showcase corals) and Tamatorizaki Observatory. A hilltop Shinto shrine provides good views over town and the island's jungle-covered hills and white-sand beaches.
TOUR Shore excursions visit Iriomote Island's national park for hiking or kayaking along the mangrove-dense shoreline, and tiny Taketomi Island for its well-preserved farming village, where locals sell handicrafts such as black-pearl jewellery and woven textiles.
THE DETAILS Princess Cruises' Southern Islands itinerary on Diamond Princess from $1579. See princess.com
WHERE IS IT This west-coast Indian port (formerly Mangalore) has an enviable location on two rivers wedged between the palm-fringed Arabian Sea and Western Ghat ranges. See karnatakatourism.org
DISCOVER A thriving business centre and exporter of spices, coffee and cashew nuts, Mangaluru has a laidback atmosphere thanks to beaches, many ornate Hindu temples and heritage houses. Fortifications and churches date to British colonial times.
TOUR The lush rainforest of the Western Ghats, an artisan village showcasing stone-cutting, pottery-making and weaving, or a visit to a cashew factory are among the choices. Join a guided tour to get to grips with Hindu and Jain mythology and architecture.
THE DETAILS Seabourn Cruise Line's Seas of Sindbad itinerary on Seabourn Encore from $14,299. See seabourn.com
WHERE IS IT A Russian island of the Arctic Ocean with low-lying central mountains and notable wildlife, visited on expedition cruises to the Russian Far East. See ostrovwrangelya.org
DISCOVER One of the world's best polar-bear destinations, but also home to walrus, snow geese and native Yupik and Chukchi people, Wrangel is about as remote as you can get – unless your ship also manages (depending on weather conditions) to visit nearby Herald Island.
TOUR A three-day, cross-island expedition into the high tundra in six-wheel vehicles allows for spotting polar bears, Arctic foxes, reindeer and mush oxen. Passengers stay overnight in basic ranger's huts.
THE DETAILS Heritage Expeditions' Across the Top of the World itinerary on Spirit of Enderby from $US11,200. See heritage-expeditions.com
CAPTAINS' CHOICES: FOUR SKIPPERS ON THEIR OFF-THE-GRID DESTINATIONS
CAPTAIN ERWANN LE ROUZIC, LE SOLEAL, PONANT CRUISES
"Ponant specialises in journeys to secluded islands and less-visited regions from the Arctic to Easter Island, but sometimes uniqueness lies just in front of our eyes. Ushant – or Ile d'Ouessant in French – is a remote island off Brittany's rugged west coast, seldom visited due to the difficulty in accessing its tiny ports and the fact that it's a protected area. This April, Le Soleal was the first yacht cruise to visit. We tendered ashore from Lampaul in the island's south, and the community prepared a special welcome. Our guests tasted local crepes and cider and came back filled with great memories of the island and its dramatic landscape." See ponant.com
CAPTAIN MAROJE BRAJCIC, MS INSIGNIA, OCEANIA CRUISES
"The thing I love most about my job is sailing to new and exciting places. As a captain with Oceania Cruises, which visits more than 370 different destinations every year, I've been lucky enough to visit many exotic ports in every corner of the Earth. Right now, I'm most excited about visiting Cuba next because, until recently, it was accessible only to very few cruise lines. The Caribbean country is said to boast a unique and undiscovered feel, from the colonial cobblestoned streets of Havana and the tranquil French-influenced charm of Cienfuegos to the cultural richness of Santiago de Cuba. I can't wait to explore all that." See oceaniacruises.com
CAPTAIN ALESSANDRO ZANELLO, SILVER MUSE, SILVERSEA CRUISES
Not many people have heard of my hometown port, Portovenere in Italy, a gorgeous location in the Gulf of La Spezia, gateway to the Cinque Terre. It's not as famous as nearby Portofino to the north, as it doesn't have the same glamorous boutiques and restaurants, but it's a beautiful destination and definitely one to visit. Another favourite destination is the Isle of Pines in New Caledonia, really an absolute paradise. I also once sailed Silver Spirit to Kiribati in the South Pacific, but the swells were so big unfortunately we couldn't operate the tenders! I'd like the chance to return one day and go ashore." See silversea.com
CAPTAIN JOHANNES TYSSE, AZAMARA JOURNEY, AZAMARA CLUB CRUISES
"Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest are the largest ships to have sailed up the Guadalquivir River [the second-longest and most navigable river in Spain]. From a navigational point of view, Seville [through which the river runs] is one of my favourite cities to visit by ship. Only smaller ships can sail up due to draught restrictions, and you have to arrive on a high tide to be sure there's enough water. As well, you have to turn around after transiting a lock, then go backwards the last mile and pass through a drawbridge before docking more or less downtown. Seville itself is a beautiful, fascinating city with lots of history and culture. I also like Hydra in Greece, a quiet and charming island with no cars and beautiful narrow streets lined with tavernas." See azamaraclubcruises.com
FIVE MORE FRONTIERS OF CRUISING
River cruises mostly ply the Peruvian Amazon, and few expedition ships tackle any river. Small-ship company Hurtigruten (hurtigruten.com) and luxe line Oceania (oceaniacruises.com) sail upriver as far as Manaus. Luxury German company Hapag-Lloyd (hl-cruises.com) makes comprehensive 4000-kilometre journeys to Iquitos, last port navigable by ship.
These four tiny, French-controlled, nature-reserve islands lie in the Mozambique Channel between Madagascar and Africa. Le Lyrial from French company Ponant (ponant.com) became the first cruise ship to visit three of the islands – Europa, Glorieuse and Juan de Nova – and will likely make them an expedition regular.
Myanmar is a hot river-cruise destination, but cruise companies stick mostly to the Mandalay-Bagan-Yangon route. Asia-based company Pandaw (pandaw.com) recently launched new, seven-night expedition journeys on the 16-cabin ship Katha Pandaw into the maze of tributaries, Twente Canal and Yangon River that make up the delta.
The legendary Northwest Passage across the Canadian Arctic is now tackled by several cruise ships, but Russia's Northeast Passage is only attempted by a brave few such as Heritage Expeditions (heritage-expeditions.com) and Peregrine Adventures (peregrineadventures.com). Four Peregrine voyages can be linked for a full Arctic circumnavigation.
These French Polynesian islands are far less frequented than Tahiti or Bora Bora. Paul Gauguin Cruises (pgcruises.com) visits on various itineraries, and also takes in the infrequently visited Tuatmotu Islands. Aranui Cruises (aranuicruises.com.au) brings both passengers and cargo on 14-day round trips from Papeete to these remote Pacific outposts.
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