Australia is a huge land -- an island continent with a coastline of more than 35,800 km and many offshore islands. Cruise ships can dock in the major cities and anchor off other regional cities and tender passengers into port. The bulk of the vast country lies between latitudes 10 and 43 degrees south and hence has a range of climates -- from tropical to temperate. A cruise is the ideal way to cover long distances in comfort and style.
For those not in the know, Australia is made up of six states (Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and the island of Tasmania) and two territories -- the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), the latter containing the nation's capital, Canberra.
With the exception of the ACT, all of the states and territories have coastlines, so it's possible to visit the major tourist attractions while on a cruise.
Australia's natural attractions are diverse and include deserts, rainforests and coral reefs, strangely shaped rock formations and beaches that stretch for miles. Its wildlife, too, is legendary, from the iconic kangaroo and koala to the hard-to-find platypus and nocturnal bilby.
Australia is also blessed with more than 60 designated wine-growing regions, from the well-established Hunter Valley two hours' north of Sydney to our southernmost State of Tasmania, almost all of which are quite close to the coast.
Manmade attractions run the gamut of modern glass and steel cities to the ruins of 19th-century convict buildings that tell the story of Australia's early European settlement. Aboriginal history can also be explained on a variety of tours, particularly those that explore the Northern Territory and Cairns.
While the big cities are well known to many, here's a slideshow of some of the regional towns and sights, all of which can be visited on a shore excursion.
--By Caroline Gladstone, Cruise Critic contributor
Blue Mountains (New South Wales)
This huge dissected plateau west of Sydney provides wonderful views of valleys and sandstone escarpments. Great lookouts take in Echo Point with its vistas of the dramatic rock formation known as the Three Sisters. Covering an area of 2690 square kilometres, the World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains National Park has plenty of walking trails to suit all levels of fitness; one of the best is the National Pass and Grand Stairway comprising hundreds of sandstone steps carved into the cliff face. The Blue Mountains' main hub is Katoomba, about a 90-minute drive from Sydney. A tour takes between six to eight hours.
Tip: For the non-hiker, there are high teas in grand old hotels, a thrilling ride to the valley floor on a steep railway line and excellent shopping in the pretty village of Leura.
Great Ocean Road (Victoria)
One of the best road trips in Australia hugs the Southern Ocean and national parks for some 243 kilometres. Built between 1919 and 1932 by returned World War 1 servicemen, the Great Ocean Road's highlights include the world-renowned surfing spot, Bells Beach, beautiful Apollo Bay and amazing limestone rock formations at Port Campbell. The best known of these are the 12 Apostles, while dramatic Loch Ard Gorge, London Arch and the Bay of Martyrs are also spectacular examples of the erosive power of the roaring seas. A full day tour from Melbourne takes around eight hours.
Tip: The stretch from Cape Otway to Port Fairy is known as the Shipwreck Coast for the hundreds of 19th- and early 20th-century vessels that crashed against its shores.
Mornington Peninsula (Victoria)
Lapped by water on three sides, the Mornington Peninsula is a bountiful region of wineries, food providores and beaches. Hilltop restaurants with sweeping views over the bay and farm gates selling olives, olive oil, cheeses, bread and chocolates will satisfy the most demanding foodie. The peninsula is just over an hour south of Melbourne and tours last a full day.
Tip: Excellent pinot noir and chardonnay are the region's hallmarks, however wine-lovers can also sample fine pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, Riesling and Shiraz at any of 50 cellar doors.
Kangaroo Island (South Australia)
The name evokes wildlife and Kangaroo Island, just a hop away from Adelaide, delivers plenty of furry encounters. Australia's third-largest island has a huge colony of sea lions basking on the beaches at Seal Bay, koalas dozing in gum trees, kangaroos galore and fairy penguins waddling along its shores. Weirdly shaped formations known as the Remarkable Rocks and the dramatic Admiral's Arch are the drawcards of Flinders Chase National Park on the island’s west coast, which also hosts a colony of cute New Zealand fur seals.
Tip: A tour from Adelaide would take the best part of eight hours as a ferry ride is involved. If your cruise ship berths at the island, the tours are about four hours.
McLaren Vale (South Australia)
McLaren Vale is the name of both a town of some 5070 people and one of the most accessible wine regions in Australia. Vineyards and beaches are the main attractions of this popular spot on the Fleurieu Peninsula, located 39 kilometres south of Adelaide. The town is jam-packed with restaurants, cafes and art galleries and the rolling hills offer 60 cellar doors to sample local wines.
Tip: Lunching at a winery or browsing a farmers’ market is a day well spent.
Broome (Western Australia)
Red rocks, turquoise waters, pearls, boab trees and spectacular sunsets -- just a few of the charms of Broome, a frontier town 2415 km north of Perth. A former 19th-century pearling station that gave the town its diverse cultural mix, Broome continues to produce beautiful cultured pearls in its warm waters. The 22 kilometre-long Cable Beach is the place to take a camel ride or to gather with the crowds to enjoy dramatic sunsets. A visit to nearby Gantheaume Point reveals dinosaur prints and burnished red rock formations at the water's edge. Various city and pearl-farm tours take from two to three hours.
Tip: For a thrill, take a hovercraft ride over the tidal flats of Roebuck Bay to the wrecks of flying boats that were bombed by the Japanese during World War 2.
Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef (Queensland)
A gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns is also a perfect city to experience Australia's rainforest. Lovers of heights will enjoy the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, which skims over the treetops and Barron Falls en route to the quirky township of Kuranda, which is crawling with tourists and creative types. The return journey via the Kuranda Scenic Railway is a nostalgic step back in time. Tours to Kuranda vary from four to six hours. A leisurely alternative is a 2.5 kilometre stroll along the city's Esplanade and a luxurious dip in the man-made Cairns Esplanade Lagoon.
Tip: Fast catamarans operate from Cairns to pontoons on the Outer Reef for snorkelling, diving and semi-submersible boat rides, while light aircraft and helicopter flights soar over the brilliant coral cays. Great Barrier Reef tours will take a full day.
Port Arthur (Tasmania)
Located on the Tasman Peninsula, Port Arthur is the country's best surviving example of a large-scale convict penitentiary. Reserved for the most hardened criminals transported from England, it operated from 1833 until 1873 under notoriously brutal circumstances. Today it's an open-air museum of more than 30 buildings including the roofless church, guardhouse, hospital and lunatic asylum. Many cruise ships anchor just off the site, with tenders taking passengers ashore. Entry to the Port Arthur Historic Site is included in your cruise fare.
Tip: If your ships docks 96 kilometres north in Hobart, a day tour will include viewing of the peninsula’s geological formations including the Tasman Arch, the blowhole, the isthmus of Eaglehawk Neck and the Tessellated Pavement, a huge sea-level platform that resembles a tiled sandstone floor.
Litchfield Park (Northern Territory)
An unforgettable excursion from Darwin, Litchfield National Park is another amazing landscape that is home to several spectacular waterfalls and rock pools. Spread over a large area are huge magnetic termite mounds, standing one to two metres high, which can be viewed from purpose-built boardwalks. The cathedral mounds are even taller and set amid lush palms. Full-day tours include a visit to the Wangi Falls, swimming in a refreshing waterhole (depending on the season) and lunch in a rustic cafe.
Tip: Litchfield is regarded as a more accessible alternative to the much larger Kakadu National Park, which is further afield. Free time is usually provided to explore the frontier city of Darwin before the ship sails.