Rivers of gold

In the same week that P&O held a keel-laying ceremony for the biggest cruise ship to be built for the British market, Viking River Cruises' founder and chief executive announced it was building two ships for its new ocean cruises division.

The two companies are going in different directions with their new vessels. Carol Marlow, P&O Cruises' British managing director, said of the 128,000-tonne, 3611-passenger flagship: "We will combine favourite classic features of ships such as Oriana and Aurora, the wide choice and variety of Ventura and Azura, and a host of new concepts which will include some yet-to-be-announced sophisticated 'wows'."

Small is more beautiful in the eyes of Viking founder and chief executive Thorstein Hagen. "It is our view that in the race to build bigger ships, many cruise lines have lost sight of the destinations to which they sail," he said. "With our new ocean cruises, we are applying the same principles behind our award-winning river cruises to our itinerary and ship design, privileged-access excursions, and on-board experiences, to make destinations the true focus."

Both ships will set sail in 2015. Viking Star, which will carry 928 passengers, is the first of two ships to be built for Viking. The second will be delivered in 2016, with options to build four more.

What does it mean for passengers? More choice — of ships, cruising styles, prices and itineraries. P&O has been in the business since 1837 and knows its stuff, and Viking is riding the wave of launching a record number of river ships.

So you can be assured that whatever your taste, there's something to suit. And as for the shipbuilders — Italy's massive Fincantieri operation, which is building these vessels — why didn't we buy shares years ago?

Package of the week

Cruise Express' new 68-night package will take Australians to Alaska, across the Pacific and on a circumnavigation of Australia. It combines three back-to-back cruises aboard Holland America Line's Volendam.

Departing Australia on September 15, passengers fly to Vancouver from any Australian capital city, stay at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel for three days, then take a seven-night round-trip Inside Passage cruise to Alaska; a 24-night voyage from Vancouver to Sydney via Los Angeles, Hawaii, Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia; and a 34-night cruise circling Australia and Indonesia.

Priced from $9999 a person, twin share. 1300 766 537, cruiseexpress.com.au.

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News in brief

Highclere Castle (also known as Downton Abbey) is a new addition to eWaterways' River Thames itineraries. Boutique hotel barge Magna Carta's August 25 and September 8 departures take in the impressive residence.

Lindblad's newly acquired National Geographic Orion will venture further afield in 2014. Included in the new itineraries are Micronesia and the islands of Moluccas — a heady mix of island cultures, World War II naval and military sites and brilliant snorkelling and diving.

Captain Cook Cruises is building a $3 million, 24-metre rocket catamaran to join its fleet on Sydney Harbour this October. It will carry 127 passengers on coastal cruises and 198 within the harbour.

Shipshape: Crystal Symphony

LAUNCHED 1995 PASSENGERS 922 REGULAR HAUNTS Europe, US, South Pacific, Asia, Australia BEST FOR Couples, families, older singles THE DETAILS The 14-day Kiwis and Koalas cruise from Auckland to Sydney, departing February 2 next year, starts at $US6667 ($6912). Wiltrans, 1800 251 174, wiltrans.com.au.

Need to know

1 Crystal Symphony is one of a pair of cruise liners run by the Japanese-owned and US-based Crystal Cruises. At 51,044 tons, it is slightly smaller than its sister ship, Crystal Serenity. Since 2006, Crystal Symphony has been refurbished at a cost of $US65 million.

2 Rated as five-star by the cruising bible Berlitz's Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships, Crystal Symphony accommodates a maximum of 922 passengers, so there's plenty of space for everyone. There are 461 staterooms, more than half with balconies, and the top suites are on deck 10.

3 To appeal to families, Crystal Cruises is introducing nine interconnecting suites. Fantasia, the kids' club, is for children over three, and on cruises with more than 10 children, juniors' activities directors supervise a range of games and crafts.

4 There are 10 dining venues, including the speciality restaurants Prego (Italian) and the Silk Road Restaurant and Sushi Bar (Asian), staffed by Nobu-trained chefs. The main venue, Crystal Dining Room, has three sittings for dinner.

5 Crystal Cruises' fares are now all-inclusive, covering meals in all restaurants, gratuities, and alcoholic and soft drinks throughout the ship. The penthouse-class suites have butler service.

Stop watch: Split, Croatia

Need to know The port is just 10 minutes' walk from the heart of the picturesque old town, which is set within the walls of the 4th-century Diocletian's Palace. Most of the major and smaller cruise lines stop here during the European summer season. Split is the second-largest city in Croatia, with a population of more than 200,000.

Do not miss Most of the city's historic attractions are inside Diocletian's Palace, including St Domnius, the oldest cathedral in the world. You can climb the bell tower but be warned, it's steep and can be noisy when the bells ring. Viator (viator.com) offers guided walking tours of the city. You can also hire bikes and ride along the Riva, the cafe-lined waterfront promenade. The artistically inclined should visit the Mestrovic Gallery. There are also beautiful beaches and a daily open-air market.

Q&A

My seventysomething mother is keen to learn some basic computer skills when we go on our next cruise (probably around Australia or in the Pacific). What ships run these sort of courses?
- D. Wheaton, Mudgee.

Most of the major cruise lines operating from Australia (or visiting between October and March) offer courses designed to enhance computer skills for beginners. They may include digital photography, internet use and social media.

Ask your travel agent about the many classes available. I like the sound of "Computers for the Terrified" and "Computers for the Not So Terrified", run by the Digital Living program on-board P&O Cruises' UK ships.

Deals

Offer of the Week

Celebrity Cruises Book a balcony stateroom on select Celebrity Solstice New Zealand cruises from November 2013 to March 2014 and receive free pre- or post-cruise economy class flights from Sydney, Brisbane or Melbourne. A 12-night Auckland to Sydney cruise departing on December 10, 2013, starts from $1999 a person for a balcony stateroom. Valid until July 31. 1800 754 500, celebritycruises.com.au.

Plus

Cruise Guru Join Cunard's classic liner Queen Elizabeth on its world voyage for the 23-day sector from San Francisco to Sydney, on February 6, 2014. You can save up to 55 per cent; inside cabins start at $2740 a person, twin share. Online bookings only. 13 13 03, cruiseguru.com.au.

Russian Travel Centre Early-bird savings are available on selected May and June 2014 cruises on MS Pushkin between Moscow and St Petersburg. Fares from $1436, valid until June 30, 2013. 1300 668 844, eetbtravel.com.

Abercrombie & Kent Save $US1000 ($1039) a person on the 12-day Arctic Cruise Adventure: Polar Bears & Midnight Sun on Le Boreal, departing on July 29, 2014. Book by September 30. Fares from $US8995. 1300 851 800, abercrombiekent.com.au.

sallymacmillan@bigpond.com

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