Coral Expeditions II was purpose-built for the waters of Australia's Great Barrier Reef, and at just 35m (115 feet) in length, is ideally suited to exploring the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Marine Park. Its catamaran design handles choppy waters well and its small size enables it to visit places larger vessels can't, making reef exploration a breeze. Travellers embarking on a cruise get the feeling it's an intrepid adventure, setting off to sail around deserted islands and pristine reefs well beyond the reach of day trippers.
Two differing round-trip Great Barrier Reef itineraries depart from the port of Cairns in Queensland -- a three-night south-bound cruise and a four-night north-bound cruise, each offering a snapshot of the marine park's diverse ecosystem. Combine them and you have a weeklong holiday that will have you struggling to remember the number of islands you have visited or reefs you have dived.
The name is key to what this ship is about -- it is an expedition vessel, and activities are focused on island, reef and shore-based expeditions, therefore it doesn't have the swish onboard attractions of bigger cruise ships, such as swimming pools, climbing walls, theatres and spas. The attractions are natural -- uninhabited sand cays, continental islands, historic coastal townships and coral reef outcrops. Fitness is experienced in the great outdoors, not in an air-conditioned gym -- think beach walks, bushwalks and township visits, swimming, snorkelling, diving and kayaking. With that in mind, and the fact there is no lift onboard and the stairs between the three decks are quite steep, this is not a ship for the mobility-challenged.
If you've always dreamed of finding Nemo, the clown anemone fish from the movie, or just want to visit the Great Barrier Reef without the hordes of tourists, this is the ideal cruise. Coral Expeditions II is small enough to be allowed to anchor close to island fringing reefs, and has exclusive moorings on ribbon reefs and coral bommies. Anchoring stern-to these reefs enables passengers to float off the swim platform straight over the coral -- you can't get any closer than that. A standout feature is the hydraulic glass-bottom boat platform, which raises the boat to deck level, so passengers can step aboard straight from the deck, before the boat is lowered into the water. Once the boat, which is also used as a tender to ferry passengers ashore, has moved, the platform provides a convenient means for snorkelers and divers to access the water. Enrichment lectures by onboard marine biologists have passengers mesmerised by the beauty, and fragility, of the reef and the antics of its marine inhabitants. (Did you know parrotfish sleep in a bubble of their own mucus?)
While certified divers will revel in the multiple opportunities to dive each day (fees apply), novices can take a free scuba skills session with a qualified dive instructor on board and, if feeling confident, can continue with one or more introductory dives (fees apply). It certainly beats learning to dive in a swimming pool, with the immediate rewards of colourful coral gardens and psychedelic fish and, even if you never dive again, you can brag you have dived Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Those who don't like getting wet can still experience the underwater world through multiple glass-bottom boat tours at each reef, a touch tank of small reef creatures put together by the marine biologists and a fish feeding session attracting the likes of giant trevally and tawny nurse sharks (once all swimmers are out of the water, of course).
While the ship was built in 1985 it hides its age well, having had a complete makeover when purchased by Coral Expeditions (then Coral Princess Cruises) in 1996, annual monthlong tidy-ups and a major refit in 2015, with improvements ongoing. It's not luxurious by modern ship standards, but the extensive use of teak gives the cabins and dining saloon a lovely old-world maritime feel, while the upper deck with its wrap-around windows is more contemporary. The Sun Deck, adjacent to the Lounge, has plenty of tables and chairs. As an expedition ship there are no balcony rooms or full-length cabin windows, but this hardly matters, as you tend to spend such little time there.
Another advantage of a ship this size is it doesn't feel overcrowded. Although it can accommodate 44 passengers, it rarely takes more than 40, and some cruises have even less. It's easy to get to know other passengers, yet you can always find a small corner by yourself to read or snooze. During pre-dinner drinks, the lounge is abuzz with excited chatter about the day's sightings, but such active days require a good night's sleep, so most passengers retire early and the lounge is all quiet by 9:30 p.m. or 10:00 p.m. A party ship it's not.
For many passengers it is the crew that makes the ship so memorable. Friendly, multi-skilled and extremely hardworking, they are approachable, knowledgeable, accommodating and fun. They'll be calling you by name in no time and are always available to help, whether its navigation details from the captain on the bridge or help with fish identification from the marine biologists. The only time service is a bit slow is at the start of pre-dinner drinks in the lounge when the two bar staff struggle to fulfil the number of first drinks, especially if there are lots of cocktail orders. Food is of a high standard and the smell of just-baked biscuits as you clamber out of the water tired and hungry is bliss.
Coral Expeditions II was previously Coral Princess II, but underwent a name change along with the company in June 2015, to better reflect the nature of the business, the ships and their exploratory cruise itineraries. An expedition cruise on the Great Barrier Reef is certainly an enriching, rewarding and enjoyable way to experience one of the world's most beautiful natural wonders.
For more details about cabins, dining and things to do, see the separate sections of this review.
With an itinerary focused on exploring the islands and reefs of Australia's World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef, the ship attracts nature-lovers and divers of all ages from across the globe. Australians account for about 30 percent of passengers (more during Australian holiday periods), while the majority of the balance is made up by British, North Americans and Europeans, visiting as part of a Sydney, Rock & Reef itinerary.
While good value, the cruises are not cheap, so passengers tend to be more mature -- 30+ and well-travelled, including active retirees (there are no lifts on the ship so it's not for the mobility-challenged). There are some younger people, including honeymooners, but it is out of the price range of young budget travellers. Families are well represented, including many multi-generational groups during school holiday periods. There's a generous sprinkling of solo travellers who find it easy to mingle with like-minded passengers in the lounge and over dinner.
As this is an expedition cruise ship, formal attire is not required so leave the dinner jackets and stilettos at home. Smart casual apparel is all that's required; more casual during the day and a bit smarter for the evenings.
Given you are changing into your swimwear two to three times a day for snorkelling and diving, quick-change clothes are easiest. It also pays to take several swimsuits if you don't want to be putting on cold, wet swimming costumes after lunch, as they are not allowed in the dining room. With so much time spent in the water, especially snorkelling, sunscreen is essential and a swimming shirt (a T-shirt or rash shirt) is recommended. Hats and sunglasses are important and reef shoes or plastic sandals are handy for beach visits and sneakers for bushwalks.
Even when you smarten up a little for dinner, this is no place for heels. The ship can sway in choppy water and there are narrow stairs between the top deck lounge, where pre-dinner drinks are served, and the dining room on the lower deck.