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What's Up Down Under?
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Editor's note: More than ever, Cruise Critic is keeping an eye on changes in cruising that affect its increasingly devoted Australia- and New Zealand-based members. Carnival is the first North American-based line this year to create some excitement in the world's top-two countries when it comes to massive growth in interest in this kind of travel. And we're excited, too, about the arrival of Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas, Celebrity Solstice and Holland America's Oosterdam -- all new classes for anyone cruising Down Under. We look forward to hearing more interpretations about Aussification.

Caribbean's Carnival Spirit made a splash when it cruised into Sydney for the first time on October 17, 2012. But while it's the biggest ship to homeport in Australia, it has hardly sailed into uncharted or uncrowded waters.

Carnival Spirit has quite a bit of competition this summer.

If the 88,500 ton ship had arrived, say, six years ago, it only would have been tussling with P&O Australia's Pacific Sky. But things have ramped up Down Under, and plenty of vessels are pulling in and out of Sydney.

P&O Australia now has three ships (all rated three-star by Berlitz) -- Pacific Dawn, Pacific Jewel, and Pacific Pearl -- offering the mainstay South Pacific and New Zealand cruises, interspersed with itineraries that venture farther north to the Coral Sea and Asia. And like Carnival Spirit, they are there year-round and offer sailings from several Aussie ports.

Princess Cruises has identical Dawn Princess and Sun Princess based in Australia year-round, offering a mix of South Pacific, New Zealand, and Queensland coastal cruises, as well as Australian circumnavigation cruises. In recent years, Princess began offering cruises around the world from Sydney.

Royal Caribbean International arrived in 2007 with its 78,491-ton Rhapsody of the Seas, and it has been sailing in Australia during the summer season, from late October to mid-April, ever since. To date, some 180,000 Aussies have cruised on Rhapsody, and with $54 million spent on it recently, it should continue to have a good following.

Sibling Radiance of the Seas arrived on the scene in October 2011, and the two RCI ships will spend the Aussie summer cruising the Australian coast on short cruises, doing the South Pacific islands loop and offering the classic 14-night trips to New Zealand before it heads off on 18-day transpacific cruises back to the U.S.

Joining the RCI pair is big sister Voyager of the Seas, which arrived in Fremantle (the port of Perth) on November 5, 2012, for a five-month summer season. It has the honor of being the biggest ship to ever offer seasonal cruising from Australia and will be deployed mainly on the New Zealand run, as well as one South Pacific cruise, a coastal jaunt to Tasmania and two 18-day cruises between Fremantle and Sydney, stopping at Aussie ports. RCI has heralded this ship in an aggressive advertising campaign, but we'll have to wait to see what sort of interest such a goliath generates.

And if this isn't enough for Australia and its market of around 600,000-plus cruise passengers, Celebrity Cruises is bringing two ships to battle on the same runs (Millennium and newcomer Solstice), and Holland America Line (a summer visitor for the past five years or so) has increased its capacity by 25 percent this year with the arrival of repeat visitor Volendam and newcomer Oosterdam, which made its maiden call on Sydney on October 24, 2012.

While cruising has captured the imagination of fun-loving folks, the city-dwellers have only just now caught on to the craze.

To mark the start of what cruise lines call "Wave Season," the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, launched a new program of "volunteer ambassadors" -- a band of meeters and greeters who will welcome cruise passengers as they step off ships at Sydney's cruise terminal at Circular Quay. Dressed in red, the friendly locals (many who worked as volunteers during the Sydney Olympics in 2000) are on hand to point visitors in the right direction and even advise on the best shopping.

With all this cruise activity, it's hard to know just how well Carnival Spirit -- and the others -- will fare. Spirit sailings are looking healthy for the first handful of cruises, and all quad-share cabins have sold out until March, Australia/New Zealand director Jennifer Vandekreeke said. The sunny American, who has been living in Australia for the past 18 months, said Carnival aims to grow the market and expects that about 70 percent of its passengers will be those who have not cruised before and want to try something new.

Yes, Carnival Spirit offers a lot to please funsters and families -- that Green Thunder waterslide will be a huge hit, as will the free Serenity pool area for adults. Carnival Spirit is younger than P&O's three ships by about eight years, but the local ships have a strong following and offer circuses at sea, laser light shows and great alternative dining in the form of local celebrity Chef Luke Mangan's restaurant Salt Grill. Princess Cruises' ships have a subtler approach to decor, so they'll have their own takers, much like the Holland America Line ships. Oosterdam certainly impresses with its wonderful Crow's Nest and Explorations Cafe.

The big Carnival Spirit contender is likely to be huge Voyager of the Seas, sailing in with an ice-skating rink, mini-golf, a rock-climbing wall, a full-size basketball court and new DreamWorks characters for the kids -- think Shrek and Princess Fiona mingling with passengers.

--Caroline Gladstone, Cruise Critic Contributor


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