Plenty of travellers are delighted to go to sea with a casino, climbing wall, a water slide and lavish stage shows as part of the package.
For those who’d rather book into the local mall than holiday like that, there’s expedition cruising which, despite its extreme-sports title, caters for every level of able-bodiedness.
“Expedition cruising is undoubtedly one of the strongest growth areas in cruising – there are a lot more ships and itineraries on offer than 10 years ago, and more are on the way,” says Joel Katz, managing director, Australasia, of Cruise Lines International Association.
“Small ships provide access to locations that would ordinarily be very difficult to reach by land, and many explore remote destinations that larger ships are unable to access.”
They will even stop where there’s no port at all, with tenders taking guests to islands, up rivers, under thundering waterfalls and over teeming reefs. Expert guides will be hand to bring the geology and wildlife to life.
In May, Australian-born Coral Expeditions launched its new vessel, Coral Adventurer, and announced that a sister ship, Coral Geographer, will join the fleet by January 2021.
“Growing interest in expedition cruises has led to enormous investment by many cruise lines,” Mr Katz says. “Of the more than 120 new cruise ships on order from the world’s shipyards and due for delivery by 2027, around one-third are small ships or expedition vessels.”
Expedition cruising is not for the faint of budget. But unless you’re a round-the-world yachtie, it opens up a passage to an otherwise unattainable experience.
Here’s a quick guide to three premier expedition cruise companies sailing around Australia (including literally).
This Australian company has one vessel, True North, which takes just 36 guests and 22 crew. “The founding director [Craig Howson] is still managing director, after more than 32 years of operation,” says Peter ‘Tremby’ Trembath, brand director for True North Adventure cruises.
The company has added two new itineraries this year. “We’ve added variety, which is important because of our levels of repeat custom – one guest has done 32 trips with us.”
Mr Trembath says they see a growing hunger among travellers for deeper experiences.
“World travellers are less concerned with frills and more focused on immersion, and that desire is reaching across all age groups. We are seeing younger people joining our cruises, because they’re less motivated by resort-style opportunities.
“We let our guests step outside of their comfort zone during the day, knowing that each night, they come back to the comfort, style and security of the True North.”
Selling point: The ship’s shallow draft, helicopter on the back (the only expedition vessel in the southern hemisphere with that James Bond-esque feature) and a fleet of 24-foot rigid-hulled speed boats mean that True North can get to more out-of-the-way places than others.
“Our guests can go swimming most days in the Kimberley because we’re able to sail right up the river systems and access areas where there are no saltwater crocodiles,” Mr Trembath says.
Dream cruise: Dream cruise: West Coast Explorer, taking in Ningaloo Reef and the Montebello Islands off the Pilbara coast, March 2020. From $18,995 per person.
Australian born-and-bred Coral has its headquarters in Cairns. Coral’s shiny new Coral Adventurer brings its fleet to four; it recently completed its maiden voyage, showing off new levels of luxury, including suites with giant bath-tubs.
But Coral Expeditions is about much more than show. Guests can get up close to the operations on the open bridge. While the technology on the Adventurer is state-of-the-art, the captain also gives guests traditional navigation lessons, even using astrolabes (a device used by ancient astronomers and navigators). Coral also uses Adventurer to support science.
“We’re finding some research projects that marry with our expedition itineraries, and the scientists will also be guest lecturers during the trip,” says Jeff Gillies, commercial director with Coral Expeditions.
An expedition with Coral will often be to brand new destinations. At the ship’s Darwin launch event, Captain Gary Wilson told guests that their first stop on the next cruise to West Papua would be “a tiny little port up the river – we’ve never been there before and we’ve got to find our way in and I’ll be sending the tenders ahead of the ship to sound the river first.”
Selling point: Purpose-built tenders are lowered into the water from a hydraulic platform, allowing less able cruisers to easily step on board from the main deck for the expedition experience. The crew is mostly Australian and New Zealanders and Coral has wonderful expedition leaders, such as author and zoologist Ian Morris, who speaks Djambarrpuyŋu, Warramirri and Gupapuyŋu, the local Indigenous language areas visited on the Cape York and Arnhem Land itineraries. Repeat guests on Coral are often following their favourite expedition guides.
Dream cruise: The 35th Anniversary Circumnavigation of Australia, 59 nights celebrating the nation’s culture, nature and maritime history, including private flights for Christmas dinner under the stars at Uluru. November 2020. From $38,860 per person.
Silver Discoverer and Silver Explorer have been plying routes around Australia and New Zealand. This past June was Discoverer’s final foray along the Kimberley coast, but don’t mistake that for pulling back.
“Expedition cruising is increasing in popularity, with guests wanting to venture further and push the boundaries of travel,” says Adam Armstrong, managing director of the company’s Australia and New Zealand arm.
Several new expedition ships are being built for the Italian company, and Silversea will return to the Kimberley for the 2021 season.
“The expedition cruising sector will experience significant growth in the next 10 years,” Mr Armstrong says. “Silversea guests want to combine authentic expedition experiences ashore with exquisite luxury afloat, and in Australia, our expedition cruising represents around a quarter of bookings – mainly the regions of Antarctica and the Arctic, as well as the Kimberley.”
In 2021, Silversea will go all out to celebrate a decade of expedition cruising: a 167-day Expedition World Cruise, covering 39,000 nautical miles, 30 countries and six continents, including Australia. Silver Cloud is the ice-class ship set to make this mighty voyage, with Zodiacs taking guests exploring nature in more than 60 per cent of the destinations.
Selling point: High luxury on the high seas, including your own bow-tied butler, fine dining and a pianist playing a baby grand in the lounge – but also expert expedition teams who turn your cruise into a classroom in the best possible way.
Dream cruise: Dunedin to Melbourne, including Macquarie Island and Flinders Island, February 2021. From $18,450.
Journalist Jane Nicholls has previously been a guest of Coral Expeditions and Silversea