Australia's long summer of cruising has drawn to a close as the last of the seasonally based overseas ships headed out of Sydney Harbour in April.
While cruise lines might be expected to take a bit of a breather, they have in fact been planning a larger onslaught for the coming season (the 2014-15 summer from September to April) and refurbishing their ships to woo an Australian market now comfortable with cruising.
Carnival Cruise Lines, which debuted in Australia with Carnival Spirit in late 2012, will be doubling its capacity in September 2014, when sister ship, the 2,124-passenger Carnival Legend arrives for a seven-month season.
Just as Spirit was given the "Aussification" treatment -- a slew of added modifications, including Australian power outlets, slot machines and a big scary waterslide -- Legend will arrive fresh from a makeover.
Once Legend arrives, the 2,124-passenger Spirit will be free to operate a handful of new short sampler itineraries aiming to entice first-time cruisers, while Legend will take over the classic eight- to 12-day Pacific Island cruises from Sydney. Legend will show off FunShip 2.0 features not experienced by Australians before, such as the Caribbean-themed Red Frog Pub and the Cherry on the Top candy store, in addition to a new Bonsai Sushi Bar.
The Green Thunder waterslide and the SplashZone for kids, which are hits onboard Spirit, were also added in the February 2014 makeover.
Princess Cruises has certainly revved up its presence and itinerary choice in Australia in the past few years and now cruises with five ships from Sydney, Melbourne, Fremantle (Perth) and Brisbane, claiming it offers the most choice of any cruise line based Down Under. The line considers Australians its biggest market outside the U.S.
During the 2013-14 season, Dawn Princess and Sea Princess, both 1,990-passenger ships, were based in Australia year-round, and the Sun Princess (which carries the same number of passengers) for most of the year. Diamond Princess, which carries almost a third more passengers (with capacity for 2,670) than the other three ships, also operated a handful of cruises between Australia and New Zealand this past summer.
The big news for Princess is that the 2,590-passenger Golden Princess will be based in Melbourne, making it the biggest ship to homeport there. It increases the line's capacity in the port by more than 20 percent. Itineraries will include New Zealand, the South Pacific and Tasmania.
Diamond Princess will return to Australia in the 2014-15 summer season as the line's Sydney flagship and offer a new program of itineraries including two 28-night circumnavigations of Australia as well as cruises between Australia and New Zealand, a cruise to Tasmania and a five-night roundtrip cruise between Sydney and Melbourne.
Princess pioneered the Australian circumnavigation voyage several years ago, and deploying Diamond Princess on the route has markedly increased capacity. Circumnavigations can be broken into sectors, or in the case of Dawn Princess, which will also operate a similar itinerary, can be extended by adding New Zealand -- turning it into a 35-night trip.
On several ships, Princess has also added several shorter getaway cruises between Australian cities -- such as between Sydney and Melbourne or Brisbane and Sydney -- to lure newcomers. With Sun Princess sailing from Fremantle, the line now offers year-round cruising from both the east and west coasts.
Diamond Princess will also sport a $30 million new look when it returns to Australia in November. A new sushi restaurant, a Japanese "bathing area" complete with onsens (hot springs) and open-air hydrotherapy pool, and extra staterooms and luxury shopping outlets have been added to appeal to the Japanese market, although, Australians are also sure to embrace them, too. Diamond Princess and Sun Princess -- which received the Japanese-style makeover last year -- alternate their time between Australia and Japan.
Not to be outdone, Royal Caribbean grabbed center stage in early April, announcing it would add 20 percent capacity Down Under in the 2015-16 summer season, when it brings the 3,114 passenger ship Explorer of the Seas.
Explorer will cruise alongside slightly smaller sister ship Voyager of the Seas, which debuted in Australian waters in late 2012. Explorer will replace the 1,998-passenger Rhapsody of the Seas, which will have cruised eight seasons in Australia and carried more than 300,000 Aussies when it leaves at the end of 2015. The swap means an extra 1,400 berths or about 20 percent more capacity for Royal's fleet in Australia.
Royal Caribbean announced it will refurbish both the Voyager (in November 2014) and the Explorer (April 2015), adding the line's signature FlowRider, new restaurants and other bells and whistles. The 2,112 passenger Radiance of the Seas, which has operated in Oz for several years, will remain.
"We are thrilled to introduce Explorer of the Seas as the latest world-leading cruise ship to Australia -- a major milestone that reinforces Royal Caribbean International's position as Sydney's biggest cruise line," said Gavin Smith, RoyaI Caribbean's regional vice president of the Asia-Pacific region, when he announced the changes in Sydney in April 8.
Smith said the ships, and their $200 million refurbishments, represent the largest investment by a cruise line in Australia and demonstrated the company's "absolute commitment to the local cruise market."
Celebrity Cruises looks like it is also in Australia to stay with the return of the 2,850passenger Celebrity Solstice in October 2014 for its third season, and the arrival of the 1,814passenger Celebrity Century, also in October, to sail on eight cruises.
Together, the two ships will offer 27 cruises in the region, a 50 percent increase from the previous season. These cruises will range from three to 23 nights, departing from Sydney, Fremantle and Auckland. Port Lincoln, South Australia; Burnie, Tasmania; and Cairns, Queensland represent new ports that will see stops during the season. Highlights of Celebrity Century's short season include a cruise combining tropical Queensland with the South Pacific islands and an eight-night South Australian cruise.
Celebrity Solstice will add a nine-night cruise to the South Pacific, making a total of three cruises to the islands; the others are eight nights. Also on Solstice's schedule is a 34-night circumnavigation that can be broken into two legs (northern and southern regions), with the southern route able to be combined with a New Zealand cruise.
Holland America Line will return in the 2014-15 season with the 1,440 passenger ship Volendam and the 1,916-passenger Oosterdam, which has come Down Under for the past two seasons. The former will cross the Pacific, circumnavigate Australia and then head north to Asia over a 10-week period, and these itineraries can be booked as 50-plus day cruises or shorter segments. Oosterdam will operate New Zealand and South Pacific itineraries in a longer season from October to April.
Meanwhile, the pioneer and stalwart of Australian cruising, P&O Australia, continues with its three ships -- Pacific Pearl, Pacific Jewel and Pacific Dawn -- which carry 1,800, 1,950 and 1,950 passengers, respectively, and now offer cruises from every mainland state of Australia.
The 2014-15 programs are offering a record 143 cruises, and new itineraries take in the wine-growing region of Margaret River in Western Australia and Kangaroo Island off South Australia, while cruises to Papua New Guinea departing from Sydney and Brisbane have been a huge hit.
--Caroline Gladstone, Cruise Critic Contributor