In the legendary Australian outback region of the Kimberley, True North was the first ship with its own helicopter -- a point of difference that has long lured travellers to this little Aussie adventurer. Since launching in 2005, it has continued to evolve with more destinations, new activities and improved dining.
This sleek vessel was purpose-built for shallow coastal waters and river systems, so it avoids the high seas and favours remote areas that are inaccessible to big ships. Drilling down even closer to the action, there are six expedition boats for small-group, water-based sightseeing, fishing, diving, snorkelling and excursions ashore.
The relaxed ambience is evidenced by a barefoot rule onboard and an open-door policy that allows passengers to chat with the captain on the bridge, take a tour of the engine room with the chief engineer or visit the chefs in the ship's galley. The 22 young, all-Australian crew are friendly and enthusiastic and, with a maximum of 36 passengers, the service is personalised.
Every February this hardworking ship undergoes a six-week refit to maintain or upgrade the exterior, interiors and under the hood. Some of the furnishings could do with replacing, but there is plenty of interior space, comfy sofas and natural light to feel at home.
Rather than focusing on onboard luxuries, True North prides itself on the luxury of quality time immersed in amazing places to enjoy memorable experiences and learn new things. Its growing portfolio includes South Australia, Western Australia's Rowley Shoals, Montebello islands and Abrolhos islands, and four-night cruises out of Sydney over the festive season. Overseas, the ship explores parts of Papua New Guinea and Indonesia where tourists are rarely seen.
A new itinerary for 2019 ventures to the southwest from Esperance to Albany, Rottnest Island and Perth. An advantage when sailing in Australia is that this Australian-registered ship is not required to exit territorial waters -- a law that sees international ships forced to make a time-wasting detour to another country.
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Scuba divers will get the most value out of True North because there is no extra charge for diving. On our West Papua cruise, for example, divers went exploring underwater three times a day and didn't pay any more than those who snorkelled; both activities are included in your fare and most equipment is provided.
Some high-end travellers may be disappointed by the lack of open deck space, no private balconies and no pool (which would be welcome in croc-infested waters of the Kimberley). Also, the fares are not fully inclusive; extra charges apply to laundry, internet, helicopter flights and alcohol. A selection of complimentary drinks is offered at some events held off the ship, such as picnics and beach outings.
Overall, a cruise on True North is an enriching experience. If you love soft adventure and getting off the beaten track with likeminded people who embrace the ship's community spirit, True North is the real deal.
The vast majority of passengers hail from Australia, with some from the U.S., New Zealand and Europe. The Kimberley itineraries attract a more international mix, while the other destinations attract 90 percent Australians. Due to the expensive fares, most passengers are high-earning professionals or retirees, mostly aged 55 to 75, although you will sometimes find younger cruisers in their 40s. Solo travellers are welcome and mingle well with the couples. True North has no specific facilities or discounted fares for children. Because it's a trip that doesn't come cheap and all cabins take a maximum of two people, it's unlikely you'll see any kids onboard but if this is a concern, ask before booking your cruise.
True North's onboard barefoot policy is a good indication of the casual nature of its cruises. Shorts, T-shirts, a hat and sunglasses are recommended for the daytime, although long-sleeved shirts and pants offer better sun protection in these harsh climates. Depending on the activity ashore, footwear can include reef sandals, sport shoes or hiking boots. As with most expedition cruises, a weatherproof jacket can be useful for excursions. There are no formal nights; however there is a dress-up costume party (costumes are provided, but you can bring your own).
The ship's no-shoes rule assists with safety, keeps the vessel in showroom condition and helps to promote a relaxed vibe. Wearing no shoes to a gourmet dinner takes some getting used to, but everyone quickly gets into the spirit of things.
Fares include excursions, meals, tea, coffee, soft drinks and filtered water. Alcohol is an extra charge but complimentary wine, beer and cocktails are served at some land-based activities such as beach parties and picnics. The general rule is if it comes out of an esky (cooler), it's free. Welcome drinks are also handed out upon arrival. Tipping is not expected but passengers are welcome to tip crewmembers. The onboard currency is the Australian dollar.
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