Friendly crew, well-crafted shore tours, improved specialty dining
Long queues to enter main dining rooms and upselling in the spa
Relaxed atmosphere with dining and entertainment options for all ages
A thriving city of over six million people, Santiago has recovered from a difficult period in its long history. In contrast to some nations in Latin America, Chile had a long tradition of peaceful democratic rule and was prosperous, thanks to its rich deposits of nitrates and copper. But on September 11, 1973 a bloody military coup appointed Augusto Pinochet as head of the government. Pinochet's was a reign of terror, with opponents tortured or put to death. Thousands of Chileans were expelled or fled the country to escape the regime. While the wealthy prospered, unemployment and poverty soared during his 17-year reign. Pinochet was finally ousted in 1988, and order and democracy have returned. The many new buildings being erected show that Santiago is flourishing under a stable and progressive government.
This is a sprawling city with a narrow river wandering through it, but with a good look at a map, it is easy to get your bearings. Centro is the downtown area and the oldest part of Santiago. The artistic enclave of Bellas Artes and some unexpected neighborhoods within might make you think you had stumbled into Paris or Rio; streets are busy and filled with dozens of buses. History is found here in the Spanish Colonial buildings in the leafy Plaza de Armas and the stately Civic Quarter; the grandest European-style buildings, including the Municipal Theatre, the National Library and the Palace of Fine Arts, were built after Chile gained its independence in 1818. The funky Bellavista quarter and the big Metropolitan Park are just to the north of downtown, across the River Mapocho.
Puerto Montt, tucked into a V-shaped slit along the side of a mountain, isn't a big city, and when you arrive from the ship via tender, you might think you've been plunked down into a corner of Bavaria ... if it weren't for the signs in Spanish. Founded in 1852 and named for Manuel Montt, the president of Chile at the time, Puerto Montt was populated by German immigrants who brought with them their architecture, customs and culture.
You'll still experience Germanic influence today: Don't miss munching "kuchen," a German-influenced fruit flan, accompanied by the local German-style beer, Kunstmann. But what Puerto Montt is really all about is recreation -- lots of it. Though the small, mostly industrial city lacks the urban energy of Santiago to the north and the pristine beauty of the Tierra del Fuego region to the south, Puerto Montt -- at the southernmost end of Chile's Lake District -- is set among lakes, fjords and rivers, and nestled at the foot of snow-capped mountains.
Punta Arenas is no longer the important stop on South America trade routes it once was, but the gateway to Chilean Patagonia still has some stuff to strut: a couple of penguin colonies, a trippy municipal cemetery and some surprisingly good restaurant choices.
With roughly 150,000 inhabitants, Punta Arenas – or Sandy Point – bills itself as the southernmost city on the planet. (The far smaller Ushuaia, Argentina, a day's cruise away, is the southernmost "town.") And if it feels like you're in the middle of nowhere, that's because you are.
Looking out over the Strait of Magellan, this windswept shore marks the dividing line between Patagonia to the north with its maze of fjords, rivers, steppes and mountains, and, to the south, the great frozen mass of Antarctica.
Until the Panama Canal was built in 1914, the Strait of Magellan was the main shipping route for commercial vessels traveling between the Atlantic and the Pacific. At the same time, it was also a major world supplier of wool. Today, as the center of Chile's only oil reserves and more than half of its lamb production, the region has rediscovered some of its previous grandeur. It doesn't hurt, either, that dozens of cruise ships call on Punta Arenas between November and March, the summer high season.
Little can prepare you for your arrival into the southernmost city in the world, the city closest to Antarctica, bordered by the last peaks of the Andes mountains and the Beagle Channel (named for Charles Darwin's ship, HMS Beagle) -- surrounded by lakes and bays, forests and glaciers, and one of the fastest-growing tourist destinations in Argentina. More than 300 cruise ships call here during the season (October to May), disgorging thousands of passengers, all of whom contribute substantially to the city's economy.
Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) is an archipelago located at the southernmost tip of the South American continent. It's bisected and divided; part belongs to Chile and part -- the portion in which lies Ushuaia -- belongs to Argentina. In fact, there is a friendly rivalry, of sorts, since Chile claims the southernmost town in the world, Puerto Williams with a population of about 2,800.
Stanley, capital of the Falklands, is the only town in the archipelago of 778 islands and is home to almost 75 percent of the total population of 2,932 people. Its human population is greatly outnumbered by about one million penguins and half a million sheep.
The Falklands are a remote island group in the South Atlantic, about 300 miles east of South America's Patagonian coast. They cover about 4,700 square miles -- roughly the size of Connecticut or half the size of Wales. The landscape is harsh and windswept, boggy and treeless.
Residents of Montevideo travel to nearby Buenos Aires or Sao Paulo when they crave big-city excitement, which may suggest that there's not much going on in the Uruguayan capital of 1.4 million. But don't dismiss it yet! Montevideo, at the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Rio de la Plata, is an intriguing mix of old and new.
The 18th-century buildings in Montevideo's historical "Ciudad Vieja" (Old Town) are just steps away from Plaza Independencia (Independence Square), the bustling, modern main square -- and even that was once a citadel. (One gate's stone base has been left standing to mark the division between the old and new parts of the city.) Montevideo was founded in the 18th century by the Spanish, and over the years its citizens fought against the British, Spanish and Portuguese for independence, as well as neighboring Argentineans and Brazilians. Today, politically and economically stable, the city serves as Uruguay's major commercial center, though colonial customs -- long siestas, afternoon tea -- still exist.
Buenos Aires is often referred to as "The Paris of South America," but it's so much more than that. The city features characteristics of great global cities like Paris, Vienna, Rome, Barcelona, Havana, San Juan, Miami and others. But Buenos Aires stands alone, a sprawling metropolis of more than 12 million people, located well below the equator (closer to Antarctica, in fact) in the upper-eastern quadrant of Argentina.
Anyone who has seen the stage or movie version of "Evita" has witnessed the colorful history of the city. Buenos Aires (which, roughly translated, means "fresh air") was founded originally in 1536, but the Spaniards sent to colonize the mouth of the Rio de la Plata were forced away by the indigenous population. A second, more successful attempt was made in 1580, and it wasn't until the early 1800s that the city and then the country emancipated itself from the Spanish crown, becoming the Republic of Argentina.
Spread out over an area the size of Rhode Island with a population of almost 8 million, Peru's capital has been a city of fusion from the time the first adobe bricks were laid on the original two-story government palace -- a Spanish stronghold in the land of the Incas and far older cultures. Lima is a jumble of Renaissance architecture, pre-Hispanic ruins and museums filled with pre-Columbian artifacts that pre-date the Incas. Likewise, Limeans themselves represent a complex mix of ethnic heritage, ancient Indian cultures from the northern coast and the Andes, Spanish conquerors, and a large Chinese population that grew following immigration from China, which began in the mid-19th century.
It's true that parts of Lima were inhabited more than 10,000 years ago, but let's start with the city's official beginning. Two years after taking down the Inca Empire, Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro founded Lima in 1535 on the bank of the Rimaq River, eight miles from the Pacific Ocean. Finding a good natural harbor nearby, Pizarro also created Callao, which became Spain's main port in the New World. Until the mid-18th century, Lima was the wealthy capital of Spanish domination in South America, an enormous viceroyalty that stretched from what's now Columbia to central Chile.
Costa Rica is a small country, about the size of West Virginia, but it's got massive appeal as one of the most ecologically diverse places on earth. Even though Costa Rica covers less than .03 percent of the earth's total surface, you can find nearly five percent of the planet's plant and animal species there. Its location -- between Nicaragua and Panama on the isthmus connecting North and South America, with the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Caribbean Sea to the east -- has enabled flora and fauna from both continents to thrive there.
Cruise passengers visiting Costa Rica's Pacific Coast will come ashore in one of two places -- Puerto Caldera, a commercial port serving the nearby seaside town of Puntarenas, and Puntarenas itself. Puntarenas is a lively town that hosts josefinos (residents of the capital city of San Jose) on holiday, as well as international tourists. The main drag, a wide walkway fronting the beach that's jam-packed with places to shop and eat, is even called Paseo de los Turistas -- loosely, "stroll of the tourists."
San Juan del Sur is a popular vacation destination in Nicaragua, particularly among surfers and divers. Visitors will find several beaches, bars and restaurants along the coast, each with its own appeal. Beyond the sea, travelers can explore the local villages on a motorcycle tour or visit the La Flor Beach Natural Reserve where Olive Ridley sea turtles are bred.
--By Shayne Thompson, Cruise Critic contributor
Once a small fishing community, Puerto Vallarta has emerged as one of Mexico's most popular destinations. With cobblestoned streets that climb straight up to the jungle, the town was largely unknown to the rest of the world until Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor embarked on a love affair while filming "Night of the Iguana" in 1963.
Now, the colonial "old town" is a favorite of history buffs, photographers and bargain hunters, while areas such as Marina Vallarta and Nuevo Vallarta attract beachgoers, boaters and those looking for all-inclusive resorts. The southern coastal areas of Mismaloya, Yelapa and Las Animas Quimixto are scenic wonders of coves and gullies, ideal for snorkeling; the latter two are reachable only by boat.
The City of Los Angeles has a lot more going for it than Woody Allen leads us to believe. Stretching along the Pacific from Malibu to Long Beach, the region offers plenty to see and do in what can only be called a sun-kissed blend of adventure, culture and whimsy. It all melds stylishly with an anything-goes attitude, and whether you're kicking back on one of its fabled beaches, grabbing a ride at a world-class amusement park, plunging into glittery shops for the latest Oscar-worthy fashions (you need to practice a regally bored look to fit in better), dining at Tinsel Town hot spots or exploring inspiring world-class museums -- you're in for a magic-carpet ride like no other. And in a city dominated by "show business" -- prepare for a ride that comes with a good deal of self-indulgent dazzle anytime of day, be it a Malibu glamour tan while nonchalantly reading Variety, catching the Pussycat Dolls at the Viper Club on Sunset Boulevard or browsing breathtaking art works at the Getty.
For those who never watch TV or go to the movies, we should tell you that L.A. is a sprawling metropolis (with an atypically high percentage of beautiful people) with no "center" -- which means you'll wind your way through various neighborhoods and independently incorporated communities, keeping your eyes peeled for celebs and clusters of paparazzi everywhere. (Did you know that the city's Zagat restaurant guide actually has a "stargazing" category?) And still under the heading of Geography 101, try to think in terms of the major "areas" like Santa Monica and Malibu, the San Fernando Valley (the "valley" to locals), the Westside and Beverly Hills, Hollywood, West Hollywood, Downtown and Pasadena.
All cabins have outside views and itineraries maximize time on land
Bedroom layouts make rooms seem even smaller; limited storage space
Choose L'Austral for its adventurous itineraries and upscale vibe
Nassau, with its blend of influences from West Africa to England and from Haiti to the United States, is one of the most popular (and often congested) cruise ports in the Caribbean and Bahamas.
The yellow and blue stripes on the Bahamian flag represent the nation's sandy beaches and surrounding ocean, while the black triangle stands for unity and the people's determination to develop the land and the sea. With endlessly developing hotels, resorts and shopping areas, it isn't hard to make this connection in Nassau, the capital of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas.
Rio de Janeiro has earned its sexy and scintillating reputation (and its nickname, "Cidade Maravilhosa," or "The Marvelous City") the easy way -- it simply lives up to it everywhere you turn. The dramatic landmarks of Sugarloaf and the Christ statue lording over spectacular stretches of famed urban beaches like Copacabana and Ipanema; delicious food and wine with a Latin flair; the sensual moves of samba dance and rhythms of traditional music on display every day of the year including, of course, the bacchanalian Carnival; and a passionate, cosmopolitan and, most of all, friendly people are only some of the ways that Rio constantly affirms its status as a favorite travel destination. In fact, in almost every conversation or poll about "favorite cities" in the world, Rio is at or near the top. That's probably why the Olympic Committee chose it to host the 2016 Summer Games.
While not the largest city in the 190 million-resident behemoth that is Brazil -- that honor goes to Sao Paulo -- Rio's six million diverse residents (called "Cariocas") are keenly proud of their city's stature. They are the most outspoken, lively and just plain fun people you'll probably ever encounter. The Cariocas' unmistakable joie de vivre and welcoming spirit is infectious, as they'll gladly share their local secrets on where to go to experience the most important architectural treasures, the most cutting-edge art museums, the most action-packed water sports, or the most memorable caipirinha (the national drink that packs a wallop). But this isn't surprising. Who wouldn't have an open outlook on life living in this perpetually sunny, joyful and fascinating melange of Portuguese, African, European and South American cultures?
All cabins offer sea views
Itineraries in Europe, South America and Antarctica
Advanced stabilizing system minimizes rough weather conditions
Le Soleal's small size enables it to reach smaller, way off-the-beaten track ports of call
Ship has a decided French air, which might not appeal to all North Americans or Australians
Upscale, small ship experience with maximum time in port
Food-focused ship emphasizes quality dishes, culinary enrichment and dining variety
Entertainment is limited; service and fare inclusions are not at luxury levels
A beautiful ship for those looking for an intimate cruise without a true-luxury price tag
Santos, the gateway to the Brazilian capital of Sao Paolo, has long been nicknamed "the coffee port." Though no coffee (except for a few show trees) actually grows in Santos, the city is synonymous with the bean and ties its history to the growth of Brazil's coffee trade (military officer Francisco de Melo Palheta brought the first coffee plant to Brazil in 1727).
In the mid- 19th century, coffee production exploded in the countryside around Santos and Sao Paolo, buoyed at first by millions of slaves and then by the end of the century by European immigrant workers. For 150 years, Brazil has been the world's largest coffee producer (arabica and robusta are the dominant varieties) growing about a third of the world's crop.
Punta del Este is known for being something of a cosmopolitan hub on Uruguay's southeastern coast and fittingly so. It's home to a number of museums and galleries, upscale shops and boutiques and fine dining restaurants. But the city's beaches and woodlands are also popular among locals as well as tourists. For a change of pace, consider a hike to Arboretum Lussich for great views and a peek at the local wildlife.
Two nearby volcanoes erupting from an emerald sea created Tahiti, the largest and most populated of the Polynesian islands. Tahiti Nui (meaning big) is the largest section of the figure-eight shape, while Tahiti Iti (little) forms the smaller area. Though connected by a narrow strip of land, from the air they almost appear to be two separate islands.
Tahiti serves as the gateway for cruisers traveling to the Society Islands and other South Pacific destinations. Because passengers land at Faa'a International Airport, Tahiti is the jumping-off point for embarkations.
Bora Bora is the haute haunt for honeymooners and celebrities, some of which have reportedly stayed in over-the-water villas at a cost of $15,000 per night. And a meal or drink at the island's famous Bloody Mary's Restaurant & Bar, which has hosted stars from Willie Nelson to Nelson Rockefeller, is as much a part of the Bora Bora experience as swimming in the gorgeous blue-green lagoon three times the size of the island's actual landmass. What's good news for cruise passengers is that it's cheaper to visit Bora Bora by sea than on a land-based vacation -- and you generally get a two-day call.
The island is a high-end playground dependent on tourism (i.e. you'll find more resorts than old fishing villages and simple lifestyles here), but it's still not as slick and Hollywood-chic as you might expect. Internationally acclaimed novelist James A. Michener once wrote that Bora Bora was the world's most beautiful island, and we have to think he was in the right ballpark with that one. Within the warm turquoise waters and snow white ring of sand is a mountainous interior dominated by two majestic peaks -- Mount Pahia and Mount Otemanu, the remnants of an extinct volcano.
Raiatea is one of the largest islands in French Polynesia -- second only to Tahiti -- but don't let its size fool you into thinking that it is dripping with tourists. While Bora Bora offers celebrity chic and Moorea is simply exquisite, Raiatea is a secret find. Outside of the main port town, Uturoa, the 105-square-mile island is quiet and lightly populated, yet there's much to do and see along the coast and within its untamed, rugged interior.
Natural beauty aside, Raiatea is known as "the sacred isle" because it was the center of religion and culture in the olden days of Polynesia -- and there is certainly an enticing mystique about it. Members of various Polynesian kingdoms once journeyed here by canoe for tribal meetings, ceremonies and even human sacrifices at Marae Taputapuatea in Opoa to the southeast. Today, visitors can visit the outdoor ancient worship temple and glimpse petroglyphs carved in basaltic stones found along the coast.
Kids younger than 18 always sail free
Great spa includes thermal suite and smoothie bar
Sails from Europe, Brazil, U.K.
The capital city in the land of Leonardo, Michelangelo and the popes is today a living museum with gorgeous artwork, amazing architecture and inspiring ancient sites. At the same time, it's alive and vibrant in a 21st-century way. It's an unforgettable city to visit, and we'll warn you right now that once you've experienced it, you'll want to go back for more.
One of our favorite things to do there is walk and ogle. On a recent visit, we took one day to do the route from Vatican City and St. Peter's Basilica -- with its jaw-dropping art, statuary, and religious significance -- to Via del Corso, where our quest for the latest Italian fashions was more than fulfilled amidst the well-dressed crowd of Roman shoppers. The next day, we went on an ancient history quest past ruins and columns, traversing the same streets Julius Caesar strode (and rode) to the Colosseum, where gladiators once battled. Walking on, we were awed by the Pantheon, the well-preserved ancient symbol of Rome and now a great hangout spot.
Sometimes, cities are lucky enough to reinvent themselves. Genoa, given short shrift in travel guides 20 years ago, has undergone a striking renaissance since 1992, when it hosted an international expo to commemorate the 500-year anniversary of the discovery of the New World.
Nowhere is that benefit more evident than at Porto Antico, the old port close to the marine terminal, where many of today's cruise ships now dock. What once was a seedy waterfront on Northern Italy's Mediterranean is now a charming blend of old and new structures, featuring cafes, shops, a movie complex, a maritime museum, a spectacular play and cultural center for kids and, most importantly, the largest aquarium in Europe.
Marseille, gateway to Provence, is France's largest port and second largest city, with a vast history stretching back more than 2,000 years to its foundation by the Greeks in the 6th century BC.
While much of the city is urban sprawl, it has a spectacular setting between dramatic limestone hills and the Mediterranean, and the once-industrial streets now feature stylish shops and cutting-edge art galleries, thanks to investment from its role as European Capital of Culture 2013.
The capital of Spain's Catalonia region is one of the country's -- maybe even Europe's -- most beautiful and vibrant places. A city of contrasts, it is like no other in Spain; this is most evident in its architecture, a marriage of Gothic spikes and modern curves. (One name to keep an eye out for is Antoni Gaudi, Barcelona's most famous architect.)
Barcelona is also a city of distinct neighborhoods. The old city -- Ciutat Vella -- is the heart of everything, with museums, shopping and cafes. Then there's the port area, Port Vell, which features bars, restaurants, shops, an IMAX theater and the largest aquarium in Europe. (Port Vell is different to the working port area where cruise ships dock, but it's not too far away.) Enchanting and ancient, the Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter) is the center of the old city and brings together the best of Barcelona in a series of narrow streets, shops, cafes and magical corridors.
Lisbon, Europe's westernmost capital and Portugal's cultural hub, lies on the Atlantic coast at the mouth of the Tagus River. The city is a delightful mix of must-see museums, castles and cathedrals. Its charming neighborhoods feature residences decorated with colorful tiled facades, sidewalk cafes along pedestrian thoroughfares and enchantingly original boutiques. The sidewalks are often paved with black and white volcanic stones in patterns specific to this city.
Lisbon has a refreshingly noncommercial feel, old-fashioned and relaxed, and exploring on foot is a delight. Portugal enjoyed its heyday long ago, and some of the older buildings that reflect this era are as opulent as they get. However, much of the city was leveled in the devastating earthquake of 1755, so visitors will notice that the city's architecture is not as old as that found in some European capitals. Prices tend to be lower than in the rest of Europe, especially in the moderately priced meals, wine and entrance fees to the main attractions. If you like fish and shellfish, you've come to the right city. Pastry shops abound, many with lovely storefronts, providing sit-down respite for coffee, tea and something sweet.
In the early 1400's, Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal sent his best sailors and cartographers to examine the coast of Africa. The party got blown off course and ended up 310 miles to the west, stranded on the beach of what is now Porto Santos, one of the Madeiran islands. When they returned to Lisbon and told the prince what had happened, he immediately sent them back to colonize the island, which led to the discovery of Madeira, just 25 or so miles away to the southwest.
Much richer in natural resources and natural beauty, the island of Madeira was colonized first, primarily by agrarians from the Algarve district in Portugal; the drier, smaller, sparser Porto Santos wasn't exactly ignored, but did play second fiddle to Madeira. There are two other (uninhabited) islands in the Madeiran archipelago: Ilhas Desertas and Selvagen. But it's Madeira, and the capital city of Funchal, that have flourished in the six centuries since its discovery.
Port Canaveral, in the center of Florida's east coast, is not only the surfing capital of the Atlantic. It is also home to rocket and shuttle launches, the largest sea turtle nesting area in the country, the largest scallop fishery on the planet and a national refuge with more endangered species than any other.
Even with all of these superlatives, most cruise passengers associate Port Canaveral with Orlando, just 45 miles west -- and with Walt Disney World, Universal theme parks and SeaWorld so close, it would be difficult to find a cruise port anywhere that offers access to more theme parks and family-friendly tourist attractions. But, for those who've already had (or care to pass up) the Orlando experience, Port Canaveral is definitely worth a pre- or post-cruise visit.
The island of Rarotonga lies at the heart of New Zealand's Cook Islands, its beautiful lagoon sheltered by an encircling reef system. While narrow sandy beaches ring the island, the center is dominated by dramatic, lush green mountains reminiscent of "Lord of the Rings," which was filmed at least in part in New Zealand (proper; not here).
While most of the ports are in French Polynesia -- and within a few hours of each other by cruise ship (like Moorea and Tahiti) -- it takes a full day to sail to Rarotonga and another day to get back. So why is this out-of-the-way port a mainstay on South Pacific itineraries? For starters, the sea days are a nice benefit for those who consider their ship as much a destination as the ports; plus, we found the day's journey down and another back increased anticipation and whet the appetite for a change of pace from French Polynesia.
Auckland, New Zealand's biggest city, is a common starting and ending point for Australia/New Zealand cruise itineraries. Perched near the upper end of the North Island, it has an ideal location for cruise lines looking to schedule calls in other North Island ports (Wellington, Napier, Picton) and South Island towns (Dunedin and Christ Church) in between here and Sydney.
Auckland is, no doubt about it, the most bustling and cosmopolitan city in New Zealand. But what surprised me when I first arrived, after nearly 26 hours spent traveling from the U.S. East Coast, was that it didn't feel at all as exotic as I expected -- at least at first glance.
A cruise ship visit to Tauranga (pronounced "Tao-ronger") is like getting three port calls for the price of one: Tauranga, Mount Maunganui and Rotorua. Situated in the Bay of Plenty, Tauranga deserves a half-day or more of exploration. The busy city has several historical highlights (like the Elms Mission Station, said to be the oldest building in the Bay of Plenty), interesting architecture (check out the Brain Watkins House, built with local kauri wood) and tasty seafood-focused dining at the restaurants and pubs along the revitalized waterfront.
Cruise ships actually dock in the nearby town of Mount Maunganui, which is also worth visiting. There, visitors can embrace nature and the outdoors at the surfing hotspot of Mount Beach, with easy to strenuous hiking at Mount Maunganui, and in soothingly hot or warm saltwater pools at the mountain's base. Urbanites can also find lots of shopping and restaurants on busy Maunganui Road.
The New Zealand port city of Napier, in the vast Hawke's Bay region on the eastern seaboard of the North Island is like nowhere else on the planet. A big call perhaps, but when you consider that the entire city was destroyed by an earthquake in 1931 and completely rebuilt in the dominant architectural style of the time, Art Deco, Napier is a design time capsule.
It seems around every corner you find yet another striking example of this distinctive building style. You'll see antique emporiums, 1930s vintage cars and enthusiasts pointing and chattering excitedly about architectural details or following guides around town in close formation.
You can't beat Wellington on a good day, so the saying goes. But New Zealand's cosmopolitan capital city, located at the southern tip of the North Island, rolls out the 'fun carpet' even when the legendary wind is blowing. Located in the centre of New Zealand, all roads lead to Wellington -- as do all ferries cruising over from the South Island, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) away across Cook Strait.
According to Maori legend, the two main islands of New Zealand are actually the great canoe of Maui (the South Island) and the giant fish he caught (the North Island). Wellington Harbour is the mouth of that huge fish. So where did the city's name come from? From Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington and British Prime Minster from 1828 to 1830.
Hobart, capital city of Tasmania, Australia's smallest state, has come a long way. Once a remote, sleepy place, it's now a major tourist attraction for overseas visitors and Australians looking for a temperate climate and natural beauty.
Located at the mouth of the navigable Derwent River, the port city of Hobart is fringed by hills and the presence of Mt. Wellington, which looms at 4,176 feet.
Sydney is a definite stop on just about any cruise that travels Down Under and often serves as a starting or ending point for ships that also travel to New Zealand. Australia's largest city, Sydney is also one of the world's most intriguing ports of call, with its appeal extending from a sophisticated and vibrant urban metropolis to stunning natural wonders.
Although it is a modern city strongly influenced by British roots and current American popular culture, Sydney's real character is derived from its exotic location and brash beauty. Walking through the glass and concrete downtown, known as the Central Business District, you could be in any other Western-culture metropolis -- until a fluorescent red and green lorikeet parrot swoops overhead or an unexpected flash of the brilliant blue harbor appears between the skyscrapers.
Arriving by sea to the city of Wollongong allows cruise passengers the opportunity to better appreciate this picturesque port. When the sky is blue, it's in Technicolor. Add to this the craggy coastline, landmark lighthouses, dramatic escarpment and soaring smokestacks: These are a few of the first impressions visitors arriving to the New South Wales South Coast city will experience. While Wollongong -- or "the Gong" as it is affectionately known -- was built on steel manufacturing and mining, the city with the country's biggest steelworks is now undergoing somewhat of a reinvention as the demand for steel and coal continues to dwindle. Sure, the smokestacks still dominate the skyline, but the city is also entering a post-industrial phase with its eyes firmly fixed on the future.
Wollongong University can take some credit for the city's reinvention. Rated as one of the best universities in the world, it has added a lot to the area's mosaic of multiculturalism and contributed to the sense of optimism that has further improved the city's prospects.
With a string of bays and beaches stretching along a peninsula protected by coral reefs, Noumea is a slice of the French Riviera in the South Pacific. The capital of New Caledonia and a territory of France, it's a perfect destination for gastronomes and cultural connoisseurs. Everyone from water sports enthusiasts to nature devotees can find plenty of diversion in and around this "Provencal" city.
The islands of New Caledonia, east of Australia and north of New Zealand, are becoming ever more popular stops for cruises originating in Sydney, Auckland and Brisbane, in addition to transpacific and world itineraries. Stops at Noumea might precede those at more isolated beaches on New Caledonia's islands, including the Isle of Pines, Lifou in the Loyalty Islands, and Poum to the north.
Cairns, Australia's closest port city to the Great Barrier Reef, was once little more than a jumping-off place to the reef or the remote Daintree rainforest to the north. Now, with the busiest airport and cruise port in Australia's northeast state of Queensland, and enough tour operators to plan a month of activities, there's reason for travellers to venture beyond the reef and the rainforest.
Most cruise passengers won't have enough hours to do the best of what Cairns offers -- a major diving or snorkelling trip to the outer reef, for instance, takes a full day -- but there are plenty of tour choices that are unique to Australia. They include a half-day snorkelling trip to see an amazing array of sea creatures on a nearby portion of the reef, hugging a koala at a tropical zoo, or just hanging around the beach of a city-built saltwater lagoon swimming pool designed to separate tourists from the crocodiles that frequent some of Cairns' ocean beaches.
This major Milne Bay port has come alive in recent years, thanks mainly to attention from P&O, which has worked hard with local authorities to bring it up to standard for its large ships.
Alotau is the location for the spectacular annual Kenu and Kundu (canoe and drum) Festival, which completely takes over the town. Held in November, it's quite a carnival, and P&O has made it a feature of its itinerary.
Darwin might be better known as a departure point for visits to Australia's Kakadu and Nitmiluk national parks, but this modern city in the Northern Territory has plenty of attractions for the one-day cruise visitor. Its streets are lined with Aboriginal art and craft galleries, boutiques selling locally cultured pearls, and restaurants and cafes where ethnically diverse cuisine highlights Australia's bountiful produce and seafood. From feeding crocodiles in the central business district (CBD) to historic World War II oil storage tunnels and a lively waterfront wave pool, Darwin offers an enjoyable day out for travellers with a variety of interests.
The city of Darwin -- named after Charles Darwin, who stopped there aboard HMS Beagle in 1839 -- is home to a growing population of 130,000. It is the smallest Australian capital city and closer to the capitals of five other countries than it is to Canberra, the capital of Australia. It is also the most modern, as the city was largely levelled by devastating Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Eve in 1974. Prior to that, Darwin had a colonial bungalow look with many buildings rebuilt after some 64 airstrikes by the Japanese during WWII.
Komodo National Park encompasses this entire Indonesian island, which is the native habitat of the komodo dragon. Upward of 4,000 dragons freely roam on Komodo Island. The island features varied terrain that includes rainforests, white sand beaches and savannahs, and is home to lots of wildlife and unique native plants. The waters are home to some of the best diving sites in the world and have more than 385 varieties of coral, making it an ideal place to scuba or snorkel.
Bali is a small island -- measuring just 153 kilometres wide by 112 kilometres long -- but it offers a variety of landscapes and a wealth of experiences to appeal to many tastes.
While rampant development over the past 40 years has seen this once quiet rice-growing and fishing community become Indonesia's tourism success story, attracting around 3.2 million visitors a year, there are still many paddy fields and pockets of traditional Balinese life to explore, as well as secluded beaches.
In its own way, Singapore is an oasis in Southeast Asia. It enjoys a low crime rate, and its infrastructure -- from road and mass-transit systems to a state-of-the-art airport at Changi -- is highly sophisticated. The city also is clean -- so much so that, for years, people were forbidden by law to chew gum in its streets, and eating on the subway can result in a heavy fine. This modern and dynamic destination -- which ranks either as a pro or a con, depending on your sensibilities -- is to cities what Disney is to theme parks.
Technically a city-state, Singapore, connected with manmade bridges to Malaysia, is made up of a main island and more than 60 surrounding islets. The mainland spans 42 kilometers east to west and 23 kilometers north to south. In the north, it shares a border with Malaysia; in the south, islands belonging to Indonesia can be visited via a short ferry ride. Singapore is located just north of the equator and is sultry, tropical and humid year-round.
Malaysia's capital city of Kuala Lumpur has experienced tremendous changes in the past quarter-century. In 1990, it was not yet an economic or technological powerhouse; the city was easy to navigate, and there weren't many high-rises. But since then, strong Asian economic development has given this 150-year-old city a new look and vibe, with tall skyscrapers, luxurious hotels and expansive shopping malls. The shopping, in particular, enjoys an advantage over that found in Kuala Lumpur's Asian counterparts like Singapore and Hong Kong because prices are phenomenal -- Kuala Lumpur is a great place to find quality at massive discounts.
A bit of the credit for the city's burgeoning reputation as an Asian destination can be given to the 1999 movie "Entrapment." The sexy thriller starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Sean Connery was partly filmed at the city's 1,482-foot-high Petronas Twin Towers (which briefly, on completion in 1998, held the title of "world's tallest building"). Although the towers no longer top the list, they are still among the most recognizable skyscrapers in Asia.
Colombo is the capital of Sri Lanka, and is quite urban and filled with sights, landmarks and attractions that chronicle its history and the many cultures that have influenced it. There are any number of activities to choose from in the city from lounging at the beach and dining in seafood restaurants to shopping at upscale boutiques, perusing the national museum and Buddhist temples.
--By Shayne Thompson, Cruise Critic contributor
Mumbai is a massive metropolis of more than 20 million people, and it's defined by its exuberance, energy and sheer madness. Unlike other destination cities in India, it's not known for its great monuments, arts or sights. Its appeal for visitors is its friendly people, cultural diversity and vibrant markets.
Chaos does not even begin to describe Mumbai, where people do daily battle with who knows how many motor vehicles. Indeed, the cacophony of hooting horns is a constant, and just crossing the street is risky business. Bustling crowds add to the lively atmosphere and never-ending assault on the senses.
As the hordes who now sail from Dubai will attest, cruising the Middle East may be fascinating, but it's not very picturesque, given that vast tracts of scrub desert are not especially easy on the eyes.
Salalah, Oman's second-largest city, is an exception. While not as beautiful as the country's capital, Muscat, Salalah has considerable charm as a cruise port of call. Its annual Khareef (monsoon) gives the city and the nearby al Qara Mountains a temperate climate, creating an emerald oasis amid the sand dunes.
Once a sleepy village with an industrial port, Aqaba is quickly turning into an upscale travel destination. The city of 90,000 was declared a Special Economic Zone in 2000, and while downtown still has a slightly dusty character -- you will see women in traditional veils and the occasional camel -- development and modernization are happening at a fast pace. The city now has a big modern mall and an intercontinental hotel opened on Aqaba's long and sandy North Beach strip, with more hotels currently under construction.
Aqaba may be on the precipice of rediscovery, but the city itself has long held intrigue. Located at the northern tip of the Red Sea and blessed with location, location, location, Aqaba was a prime port even in ancient times; its history dates back some 5,500 years.