Sydney Opera House

A decade or so ago, a cruise to nowhere was best described as a party cruise.

You sailed out of port on Friday afternoon and returned to shore 72 hours later, after action-packed days and nights filled with eating, drinking and dancing.

These days, Australian-based cruise lines are calling them "sampler" cruises or short breaks. Several of the offerings are themed around topics like food and wine, comedy and lifestyle.

Typically they depart from and return to the same port and spend three days cruising up and down the coastline, far enough out to sea to legally operate the casino and duty-free shops. Some are less than 24 hours long. Others depart from one Australian port and cruise for one to two nights to another port for disembarkation, with no calls in between.

While the latest CLIA Australasia figures show that a record number of Australians are cruising (833,348 in 2013), there are still many Aussies who have never taken a cruise, and it's those people that the cruise lines are targeting. Sampler cruises and short sea breaks are a way to test the waters and allay the fears of non-cruisers who name seasickness and being trapped on a ship with thousands of others as the top reasons why they haven't considered a cruise holiday in the past.

Most sample cruise itineraries operate on weekends with Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights at sea. However, there's also a sprinkling of three-night Thursday-to-Sunday cruises, while Royal Caribbean has two- and three-night cruises that run over weekdays.

Who Does It?

P&O Cruises operates by far the lion's share of these cruises, while Royal Caribbean Cruises, Celebrity Cruise Lines and Carnival Cruise Lines -- each have a handful.

P&O has been running cruises to nowhere for many years, but it was only in 2009 that it launched its themed SeaBreaks and added more one-way short cruises. The decision paid off, as P&O saw a passenger increase of 38 percent in 2012 (up from 2011) for its short cruises of less than five days.

Last year P&O operated a total of 17 roundtrip two- and three-night SeaBreaks and about seven one-way SeaBreaks between two different ports. The number has increased this year as two extra ships -- Pacific Eden and Pacific Aria -- join P&O in November 2015. By 2016-17, the line plans to have 84 short "SeaBreaks".

These new SeaBreaks will leave from Melbourne, Cairns and Adelaide, while Fremantle will have extra themed food and three-night wine cruises. Music-themed cruises are also on the way.

Carnival Cruise Lines, which began cruising in Australia in October 2012, ran its first "weekend sampler" cruise in September 2014. It also has four scheduled for 2015 and three for 2016.

Royal Caribbean has four short cruises in the 2014-15 season and six in the 2015-16 season. Sister company Celebrity had just one three-night (Thursday to Sunday) sampler cruise in October 2014.

Departure Ports and Itineraries

Traditionally, most weekend cruises to nowhere depart from Sydney, Australia's largest city. Cruises generally depart in daylight, around 4 or 5 p.m., and return at dawn. The sea days are spent cruising up and down the New South Wales coast.

A few cruises depart from Brisbane, and P&O operated two from Fremantle (the port of Perth, Western Australia) in early 2015.

Choosing a Cruises to Nowhere

Themed cruises. P&O is the only line operating themed cruises. Its Food & Wine SeaBreaks offer free cooking demonstrations and health and nutrition talks. Other paid (and ticketed) events on offer are cocktail- and martini-making classes, food-and-wine pairing classes, chocolate-and-wine pairings and whiskey-tasting classes. Prices range from around AU$16 to $30 and are on a first-come-first-served basis. P&O's celebrity chef, Luke Mangan, who has a restaurant on each of the P&O ships, travels on some of these itineraries. Comedy SeaBreaks feature several well-known Australia comedians who perform in the adults-only Sit Down Comedy Club as part of the cruise fare. Also on offer are ticketed comedy workshops for aspiring comedians, who later get a chance to show off their routines in a talent quest, known as the Comedy Gong Show. Lifestyle SeaBreaks offer a variety of different workshops and classes for various interests. They may cover arts and crafts, fitness, wellness/health, cocktail-making and even juggling. The lineup changes, and most of the workshops are ticketed. (Small charges apply.)

One-way cruises to nowhere. P&O's one-way SeaBreaks (usually two nights) run between Sydney and Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, and Brisbane and Sydney. Some of these itineraries offer "scenic cruising," where the ship sails close to a particularly prominent land feature with commentary from an onboard expert. A four-night one-way cruise (with a comedy theme) operates from Sydney to Auckland.

Best Time to Go

P&O Cruises themed SeaBreaks and one-way SeaBreaks operate throughout the year. However, there are less in the long Australian school holiday season (from late December to end January). The other cruise lines operate their limited number of short cruises in the warmer months (from September to April).

Cruise to Nowhere Tips

Board early to make the most of your two- to three-night break.

Don't take too much luggage, as you might want to party into the wee hours of the morning on the last night and then carry (or wheel) your bags off the next day after breakfast. This saves packing at night and putting your bags outside the cabin door.

Think about gathering a few friends together to make it a weekend event. Cruises to nowhere are popular with hens' night groups (female stag parties), birthdays, girls' get-togethers, family and colleague reunions, and other parties.

Children are welcome on themed cruises, as the kids clubs still operate. However, passengers don't have to get involved in any of the themed activities if they don't want to. The ship operates normally, and cocktail-making classes and food-and-wine pairings, for example, do not hinder the normal flow of the ship.

Make a long weekend of it, and take Friday and Monday off work. No one wants to return to the office on Monday morning still rocking.

Book as soon as you can for the ticketed events on themed cruises, as they tend to sell out quickly.

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