There’s never been a better year than 2015 to experience an ocean or river cruise (or maybe even both), write Sally Macmillan and Brian Johnston.
Even for seasoned ocean cruisers, knowing who's who in the business can be a bit of a challenge. There are ships that sail here year round, some that are based here every year for the so-called "wave season" from now until April, then more that visit our shores once or several times on their round-the-world voyages.
Every year more ships arrive and we're in for another record season – there will be more than 600 ship visits by 36 ships to ports around the country. Three are making their maiden visits to Australia: Carnival Cruise Lines' Carnival Legend, which arrived with great fanfare on September 22; Ponant's L'Austral, which sails into Cape York on December 24; and MSC Orchestra, which will arrive in Cairns on March 13, 2015.
Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises will have five ships Down Under for the season, and for the first time there will be two Australian-based Celebrity Cruises ships. Voyager of the Seas arrives in November, fresh from a multimillion-dollar refurbishment that will add a host of new features, notably the famous FlowRider attraction that proved so successful on Oasis and Allure of the Seas.
Many ships also follow the sun around the world. When it's cold and gloomy in the northern hemisphere winter we're blessed with a blissfully warm, if not always dry, summer – and a plethora of visiting vessels. Some are in Australasia on annual world cruises, and others operate one or more itineraries in the region while they are here.
Whether you're looking for a world, half-world or local cruise on an overseas ship for the coming season, you'd be advised to book as soon as possible. All in all, the choice of ships for cruisers who want to sail in Australasia is bigger and better than ever before. And, not to be outdone, an entire flotilla of new ships sets sail on the world's rivers next year to service the seemingly insatiable demand for holidays afloat. It isn't hard to see the attraction: river cruisers enjoy the ease of a drifting hotel that takes them effortlessly from place to place without ever having to unpack, battle unfamiliar roads or hunt for evening meals. So, we've prepared this comprehensive, useful and timely ocean and river cruise guide to help you plan and book your next, or first, dream cruise for 2015.
ROYAL CARIBBEAN INTERNATIONAL
Voyager of the Seas, Radiance of the Seas, Rhapsody of the Seas: Rhapsody is back for its final season – next year the larger, newer Explorer of the Seas will replace it, sailing out of Sydney. Radiance, carrying 2146 passengers, is the 3114-passenger Voyager's smaller sister and features several of the same signature restaurants and bars as well as the popular rock-climbing wall.
Voyager arrives in November just after undergoing its multimillion-dollar revamp – the exciting FlowRider surf simulator is the star attraction, along with a new big screen by the pool and 3D cinema, and classic Royal restaurants Giovanni's Table (Italian), Izumi (Japanese) and the Chops Grille steakhouse. FlowRider sessions are free and if you want to improve your skills private lessons are available. See royalcaribbean.com.au.
Don't miss: Voyager's retro-chic R Bar, ice-skating rink and live appearances by DreamWorks characters such as Shrek and Princess Fiona; the shops, pubs and shows in the Royal Promenade.
Highlights: Rhapsody's itineraries include a new 10-night Tasmania cruise in February; Radiance is sailing out of Sydney and Perth offering seven to 18-night cruises around Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific; Voyager is operating two- to 16-night cruises, also in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific.
What's new: From November 2015: Legend of the Seas will be based in Brisbane and Explorer of the Seas will be based in Sydney for the 2015-16 season.
Celebrity Solstice, Celebrity Century: At six years old, the 2850-passenger Solstice is the newest ship to sail Down Under and is back for the third year; the 1814-passenger Century is sailing its last season with the line. Both ships feature the top-rated speciality restaurant Murano, although the standard of food is high in all their restaurants and cafes. See celebritycruises.com.au
Don't miss: Solstice's top-deck Lawn Club; cocktails at the Molecular Bar; magnificent views from Century's Grand Dining Room.
Highlights: Solstice is sailing itineraries ranging from three to 18 days to the South Pacific, New Zealand and around the Top End from Perth to Sydney. Century is sailing 11 seven- to 23-night cruises in the region.
What's new: Canyon Ranch SpaClub is now Celebrity Cruises' pampering company of choice.
Queen Mary 2, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria: The distinctive Cunard liners, which accommodate 2620, 2092 and 2014 passengers respectively, attract huge crowds whenever they sail into a port and this season all three queens will be cruising in Australia and New Zealand. On March 12, QM2 and Queen Victoria will create a royal spectacle when they rendezvous on Sydney Harbour. See cunard.com.
Don't miss: QM2's planetarium, afternoon tea in the Queens Room, dressing up for dinner.
Highlights: Queen Elizabeth will cruise through the waters off the Gallipoli Peninsula on April 24, after transiting the Suez Canal.
What's new In 2016: all three ships will visit Sydney and Brisbane as they head north to Hong Kong on three different routes.
HOLLAND AMERICA LINE
MS Oosterdam, MS Volendam, MS Amsterdam The 1918-passenger Oosterdam is in Australia until April, the 1440-passenger Volendam is here in October and November, while the 1380-passenger Amsterdam will sail four itineraries out of Auckland and Sydney in February as part of its world cruise. See hollandamerica.com.au
Don't miss: The speciality restaurant Pinnacle Grill on all the ships; cooking shows in the Culinary Arts Centers.
Highlights: Volendam's 16-day Great Barrier Reef cruise from Sydney to Singapore, departing November 22.
What's new: HAL's new 2650-passenger ship, MS Koningsdam, is due to launch in February 2016.
Pacific Jewel (based in Sydney), Pacific Pearl (Sydney and Auckland), Pacific Dawn (Brisbane): The three family- and budget-friendly ships take thousands of passengers on Pacific island holidays, on short breaks around the Australian and New Zealand coasts and, increasingly, to exotic spots such as Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. pocruises.com.au
Don't miss: Salt grill by Luke Mangan; P&OEdge adventure park.
Highlights: P&O's ships are sailing a record 143 cruises in 2014-15, including round-trip itineraries from Adelaide, an extended season of cruises from Melbourne to South Australia and Tasmania, and eight cruises from Fremantle.
What's new: The 1500-passenger Pacific Aria and Pacific Eden join the fleet in November 2015; Aria will be based in Brisbane, and Eden in Cairns for two months in 2016.
Dawn Princess, Sea Princess and Sun Princess: are based in Australia year round. The Diamond Princess will be in Australia for the next two seasons, showing off its recent $30 million makeover. Princess ships have legions of loyal fans and are best suited for 50-plus couples and singles. See princess.com
Don't miss: Diamond Princess' new Japanese bath complex; scholarship@sea program of activities.
Highlights: Itineraries range from two to 14 days from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Auckland.
What's new: The 2600-passenger Golden Princess will be based in Melbourne from October 2015 to March 2016, so we will have a record five Princess ships in the region.
CARNIVAL CRUISE LINE
Carnival Spirit and the newly arrived Carnival Legend: are based in Sydney year-round. Both ships will sail Pacific island itineraries, coastal hops, and longer cruises to Asia, Polynesia and Hawaii. Non-stop activities day and night appeal to young families, singles and couples. See carnival.com.au
Don't miss: locally brewed beer in the Red Frog Pub; "long lunch at sea" in Nouveau steakhouse.
Highlights: Adrenalin-seekers love the Green Thunder waterslide, and family groups have a great selection of connecting cabins and spacious quad suites.
What's new: Dr Seuss characters, games and movies and the Hasboro Game Show on Legend; Spirit's first Melbourne Cup cruise, a seven-nighter from Sydney that includes three nights in the Melbourne.
FIVE STEPS TO DECIDING ON YOUR DREAM CRUISE
1. With nearly 1 million Australians taking a cruise each year, there's now such an amazing choice of ships, destinations and itineraries these days that if you're new to cruising it really pays to do some research.
2. Booking a cruise is not as simple as booking a flight, or a week in a hotel. If you're new to cruising, the most important thing is to find the style of cruising and ship that suits you.
3. If you're looking for a peaceful escape with a special person you don't want to be stuck on a ship that's packed with noisy kids during school holidays, even though the fare might appear to be a terrific bargain.
4. Travel agents who belong to CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association) Australasia are qualified by training and personal experience to give you the best possible advice. They can save you time and money. To find a CLIA agent, go to cruising.org.au and click on the "Travel Agent Search" tab.
5. Visit Traveller's new website, traveller.com.au (where you'll find a wide range of inspiriational features and guides on cruising), check out the cruise lines' websites and talk to friends who've been cruising.