Australia is regularly voted one of the world's top cruise destinations. Why? Some say it's the sunny weather, oversupply of beaches and the eye-candy that goes with it, while those with more mature visions suggest it could be Sydney's scenic harbor and its iconic features.
The brochures you see on the travel agent racks will most likely feature Sydney, with the iconic Opera House and Harbour Bridge, as the epicenter of cruising, but there are actually numerous ports, large and small, around the country that cater to full-sized cruise ships.
Australia is a lot more than just Sydney -- and even cruising. Coastal cruises will visit these major port cities and open up opportunities to venture inland to visit local attractions like wineries, national parks, tourist attractions and shopping precincts. Beyond the cities, there are vast mountain ranges, UNESCO World Heritage natural and historic sites, cultural and indigenous attractions, plus a world of fun for both adrenaline types and more sedate muses.
Hence, it is quite feasible to begin or end a cruise at any of these ports, linking your vacation to a land tour extension. Let's face it: Australia is a long way away for most folks, so why not make full use of your time Down Under with an outback tour to Uluru or Alice Springs?
Furthermore, Australia has one of the safest, most efficient airline networks in the world, generally very good roads, excellent healthcare, emergency and hospital facilities and is rated by numerous authorities as "low risk" and among the safest destinations for travel.
New Zealand, on the other hand, is an entirely different country, both geologically and culturally. Sure, the Aussies and Kiwis enjoy a healthy sibling rivalry on the sporting field, but New Zealand has its own distinct offerings that cannot be compared to Australia in any way. The Maori culture is one of the strongest in all of Polynesia, and any visit to New Zealand is not complete without a taste of their impressive civilization.
If you've seen the breathtaking, sweeping vistas portrayed in blockbuster movies like "Lord of the Rings" and TV series like "Xena: Warrior Princess," you won't be disappointed; this is where they were filmed.
Who Goes There?
Just about every cruise line visits Australia at least occasionally with the major players regularly sailing Down Under.
P&O Australia is the local mainstream cruise line, catering to Australian cruisers with cruises mainly from Sydney. The line has more recently been joined by fellow Carnival Corp. brands Princess,Carnival, Holland America Line and Seabourn. Cunard has even been offering some round-Australia options.
Sister lines Royal Caribbean and Celebrity have long offered cruises Down Under, but 2013 will be the first season where the lines have based vessels in Australia for the entire so-called Wave Season (January-March). The sister lines are also sending larger, newer ships than before --Voyager of the Seas and --Celebrity Solstice, for example.
Australians also have a passion for small-ship and adventure cruising, and domestic brands Orion, CoralPrincess, North Star and Captain Cook regularly visit remote regions like the Great Barrier Reef, the Kimberley (in the far North West), Cape York and Top End. These lines also sail for and within nearby destinations like Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and the Melanesian islands.
Compare Australia cruises here.
Choosing an Itinerary
Destinations for most cruises departing Australia are almost entirely one variation or another on nearby international ports like Noumea (New Caledonia), Port Vila (Vanuatu), Port Denarau (Fiji) or like Auckland (New Zealand) with a few occasionally venturing as far as Apia (Samoa) or Nuku'alofa (Tonga). Of cruises that do not visit international ports, most head north toward the ample sun and sand of Queensland, visiting such ports as Newcastle, Brisbane and perhaps Cairns. Most of the itineraries depart Sydney, but Melbourne and Brisbane also feature local stalwart P&O, whose ships venture down to Tasmania and across to Adelaide. For locals, the choice of both vessel and destination is expanding rapidly. For visitors, cruising in Australia presents three basic options: to, from and within.
South Pacific Islands: One of the most popular local choices is a cruise to or from a homeport, most commonly Sydney but also increasingly Brisbane and Melbourne, where P&O's domestic fleet of Pacific Pearl, Dawn and Jewel dominate. Traditionally, the well-worn route pioneered by P&O across the Tasman to the South Pacific included Fiji, Noumea, Auckland and Port Vila, but it has been progressively expanded to include all of New Zealand, more of Vanuatu and New Caledonia, some of Samoa and occasional forays as far as French Polynesia and Hawaii. Norfolk Island also desperately wants to get in on the action but is hampered by difficult shore access, despite a purpose-built, movable wharf.
Great Barrier Reef: Cruises through the world-famous coral reef are popular, but if you want a true "Finding Nemo" experience, you'll need to spend a bit more time ashore at one of the ports like Townsville or Cairns. Big-ship cruises along the Queensland coast will offer day-trip opportunities for reef-snorkeling and diving, but small-ship operator Coral Princess offers the most immersive overnight experience.
Circumnavigation of Australia: In recent years, both Princess and Cunard have offered complete circumnavigations. These sell out well in advance, as they present a superb opportunity to see every port in the country.
Kimberley and Australia's Northwest: This spectacular part of the country is no longer a best-kept secret after its global exposure in the movie "Australia." Big ships will swing by as part of a circumnavigation, but for a comprehensive exploration, you'll need to get aboard one of the expedition vessels.
Expedition and Small-Ship Options: With Australia's vast coastline, there are numerous operators offering small-ship explorations to such locations as the Kimberley, Cape York, Top End and Murray River. Premium pricing and limited capacity keep numbers low, but the demand continues to grow, with increasing numbers of adventurous foreign visitors opting for these exclusive itineraries.
New Zealand: Now a destination and discreet cruise market in itself, the Land of the Long White Cloud is a much-favored cruise destination for Australians and presents a perfect excuse for overseas visitors to get aboard a spectacular cruise. Sydney-to-Sydney with a semi-circumnavigation of NZ is a superb itinerary, and you can find some cruises that add a few Australian ports into the New Zealand itinerary.
Papua New Guinea: For big-ship fans, P&O's return to Papua New Guinea in 2013 will reopen a nostalgic destination for the 175-year-old line, but for those wanting a more intimate "small footprint" experience, Orion, Coral Princess and North Star all deliver exceptional expedition products.
Find Australia and New Zealand itineraries here.
Best Time to Go
Australia can be considered an all-season, year-round cruise destination, although the so-called "Wave Season" (mid-December to mid-March) is when Aussies go cruise-crazy, and you'll find the greatest choice of departures, vessels and itineraries. While winters (June to August) in the southern states can be chilly, you won't need snowshoes or thermal undies. Summers (December through February) can be hot -- darned hot -- so if you're visiting over the Christmas period, be prepared with wide-brimmed hats, sunscreen and water bottles for those days when temperatures get into the 30's Celsius (high 80's and 90's Fahrenheit). Summer is also a standard holiday period for families, so expect crowds around major attractions.
Sydney : This historic and beautiful port was first settled by British convicts and their overseers in 1788 after identification by Captain Cook as a possible safe anchorage 10 years prior. As such, the downtown precinct immediately around the Overseas Passenger Terminal in The Rocks makes for a fascinating exploration, easily done independently on foot. Stroll across the Harbour Bridge (or climb it), visit the Opera House, meander through the gorgeous Botanic Gardens or, if time permits, take an inexpensive ferry down the harbor to Manly. Major department stores, swanky restaurants, quaint pubs and designer shops are a just a stone's throw away. Beyond the immediate port district and city, organized (full-day) shore tours can take you as far as the scenic, UNESCO-listed Blue Mountains or even the famous 4,000-acre Hunter Valley wine district for some "tipple and tucker."
Melbourne: Australia's second-most populous city is proud of its non-convict heritage and therefore conducts itself with an air of cultural superiority -- or at least that's what Sydneysiders say! Its proud sporting history includes the vast Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) and the picturesque Albert Park Grand Prix circuit. Much urban renewal has taken place around the port area, but many of the historic buildings have been preserved and converted for commercial and retail use. A guided or self-guided walk around Flinders Street and Federation Square reveals a quirky, semisecret underground of cool boutiques, cafes, vintage shops and backstreet chic. Away from Melbourne, day-tours are typically offered to Phillip Island, where the delightful Fairy Penguins will entertain you, or to the natural beauty of the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula or Dandenongs Ranges. There is a wealth of gastronomic and winery options at many of these destinations.
Brisbane: Playfully christened "BrisVegas" by locals and visitors alike, the most northern of the eastern seaboard capitals enjoys a reputation for lively nightlife in a semitropical environment. While all-day and half-day city tours around Brisbane will keep most cruisers busy, there is an option for longer trips to Steve Irwin's famous Australia Zoo or one of the exciting theme parks along the Gold Coast. Natural attractions like Mt. Tamborine and the rainforests of the Canungra Valley are also on offer.
Adelaide: Described by its larger sibling cities as "a big country town," this city of arts certainly has a more relaxed semirural atmosphere. The port often plays host to vessels transiting between the east and west coasts. Remote Outer Harbour requires a train, bus or taxi to deliver visitors to the city center, where Expansive parks and gardens, museums and art galleries await visitors. Outside of the city, day-trips are easily made to the famous wine districts of the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale.
Fremantle (Perth): Although it's the port access for Perth, Fremantle has embraced its maritime roots and become a destination in itself with a pair of superb museums and several quirky pubs and shopping areas to cater to cruise visitors. If you want to get out of Fremantle, tours to Perth can take you to Kings Park, the Zoo, the famous Perth Mint or into the glorious Swan Valley for a "foodie frolic" at the area's wineries, restaurants, breweries and distilleries, as well as local markets. Never swum with wild dolphins? You can do that there, too.
Other cities around Australia currently welcoming large cruise ships include Cairns, Townsville, Darwin, Newcastle and Hobart.
Across the Tasman
Auckland: New Zealand's most populous urban center is a proper maritime city, with many yachts in the harbor. Visitors will find super museums and galleries, great shopping and cuisine, and wonderful wines. Away from the city center, tours head out to the wine-growing district, glow worm caves or coastal sites like the raucous Gannet colony at Muriwai.
Wellington: Wellington is New Zealand's capital city. It's a lovely stroll along the waterfront, where several museums, including the magnificent Te Papa, are located near the retail district. Or, head to the hills for a view via the local cable car. Beyond the city is one of the country's most famous wine districts, set among the natural splendor of the Tararua Mountains. A fan of "Lord of the Rings"? Visit the film locations on a dedicated excursion.
Other ports around New Zealand with their own charm and character include:
Dunedin, where the signature tour includes historic homes, manors and castles;
Christchurch, which still retains the charm of an English Victorian town; and Napier, a gateway to the Hawkes Bay wine and food region.
For more on these ports, see our Australia and New Zealand port profiles.
Australia Cruise Tips
Australia is such a vast and multifaceted land, planning time ashore either before or after your cruise is a given. Get to the Outback if you can; it's a whole different world. Maximize your time on the ground by traveling between cities by air. Consider the economical Qantas Walkabout Air Pass for flexibility and value.
Unless you are on a very tight turnaround, take a full-day shore excursion in capital cities where you can. For example, visit the Blue Mountains from Sydney or the Yarra Valley from Melbourne. Private operators are available if you research ahead.
Duty-free shopping aboard Aussie cruise ships is excellent, whereas airports are not the best places to find deals.
If you're longing for an immersive experience on the famous Great Barrier Reef, the larger cruise lines are not fully set up to deliver this in a way to do it justice. Day-cruises out of Cairns or Townsville are better, or book onto one of Australia's small-ship operators like Coral Princess Cruises, which offers comfortable live-aboard itineraries for snorkelers and divers.
For tourist entry into Australia, most European and North American visitors will need to obtain an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA), either online or through a travel agent. It's valid for up to three months. For visa information, go to the Australian Government's Visa Wizard Web site. Note that most passengers taking cruises of up to 30 days that leave from and return to Australia are "round trippers," meaning that, for immigration purposes, you have not left the country. For more details, click here.
--by Roderick Eime, Cruise Critic Contributor