Complimentary shore excursions are offered at least twice daily. Activities include scenic walks, harder hikes, game fishing, snorkelling, diving, picnics (sometimes at sites only accessible by helicopter), water sports on the beach and cultural experiences such as meeting the locals, attending a traditional ceremony or learning about Aboriginal rock art.
Most tours do not carry fees, except for aerial sightseeing (departing off the ship's heli-pad) or any transfers by helicopter. While expensive, having an air-conditioned, six-person Eurocopter EC 130 on hand provides passengers with a unique opportunity to see locations from the sky and take spectacular photos through its large windows. It's also an opportunity to fly to -- and land in -- remote places to fish in billabongs and rivers. In the Kimberley, passengers can fly to the top of King George Falls and hike back down. Depending on the destination, pricing starts at AU$295 for a 15-minute flight. Longer scenic flights can extend to one hour.
* May require additional fees
The helicopter programs are run by Rob Colbert, chief pilot of Skyhook Helicopters, who has been working with North Star cruises since 1996. Colbert provides commentary on fishing, local history and culture. The helicopter is featured on all of True North's itineraries, except for the Coral Atoll cruises and the Southern Safari. (In 2017 the Indonesian Government cracked down on foreign helicopters so, unless an exemption is granted, True North is not permitted to operate its helicopter on West Papua cruises.)
There are six hardy expedition boats (not rubber tenders), which means everyone gets going quickly and there's plenty of room to spread out on excursions. Due to the ship's shallow draft (2.5 metres), passengers need only step from the ship's marina platform onto a boat, with a helping hand from one of the crew.
True North is well equipped with fishing and snorkelling equipment and cylinders, weights and weight belts for scuba diving. Divers take note, however: besides providing proof of certification, you will need to arrange and bring your own personal dive equipment including regulators, BCDs (buoyancy control devices), wetsuits and dive computer. If you don't have a safety sausage, you will need to buy one onboard. Finally, if a night dive is offered on your itinerary, you will need to bring a primary light source.
Fishing is popular aboard True North, and it can involve venturing out on the expedition boats or going further afield by helicopter. You may even have the opportunity to catch dinner for that night.
Other common excursions include exploring rock art sites across the northern and southern Kimberley coastline, including the famous Bradshaw art, also known as Gwion Gwion and those created by the Wandjina peoples. In Papua New Guinea, visitors have the opportunity to spend time in the communities along the Sepik River, mixing with the fascinating and welcoming people of Banda, Gam and Waigeo in remote West Papua. Swimming with whale sharks is another highlight of the West Papua cruises, with two days devoted to this incredible experience.
Regular specialist guides are on hand to share their knowledge. Australian marine biologist Dr Andy Lewis is often on the cruises to tropical coral reef environments, such as Rowley Shoals, Papua New Guinea, West Papua and the Louisiades. Besides taking cruisers to the best snorkelling spots, he'll also provide in-water commentary on local marine life.
Crocodiles, whales and lemon sharks are all but guaranteed on Kimberley cruises. Whales and dolphins may also be sighted on True North's other itineraries. During snorkelling and diving sessions, passengers will see a remarkable variety of fish and coral, with the chance of spotting a reef shark or turtles. In West Papua, whale sharks are found in Cenderiwasih Bay. The ship's photographer takes photos and videos to create a DVD, which is provided to passengers to take home (free of charge) at the end of the trip; a hardcover photo book is also sold separately. Many people bring their own underwater cameras or GoPros and just use their smartphones above water.
Presentations are offered daily in the lounge for passengers to learn more about each destination's culture, history, wildlife and flora, as well as projects where True North Adventure Cruises is involved. A presentation on Western Australia's freshwater pearls precedes an opportunity to buy onboard for a discount. True North's naturalists may also show their best photos of the day on the large screens. On itineraries with snorkelling, underwater photography is shared. On our West Papua cruise, a marine biologist gave a talk about his research into whale sharks and the tagging program that follows their movements in the region. True North passengers are invited to sponsor the tagging of a whale shark to help fund the project.
Daytime and Evening Entertainment
The ship has no formal entertainment. A crewmember may pick up a guitar and sing but don't expect any other live music or shows. A dress-up party night is held once per cruise, where passengers pick costumes out of True North's extensive onboard collection or bring their own funny outfit. This is when dancing is most likely to break out in the lounge. Another evening is designated as lady's night, when the women are invited to inspect diamonds and pearl jewellery for sale; free sparkling wine is served to lubricate their purses. On cruises of 10 to 14 days, an additional quiz night is held.
In-cabin entertainment consists of a flat screen television, and the DVD players were replaced in 2018 with movies loaded onto a USB. On the last night, an end-of-trip collection of photos from your cruise is shown on the big screens. (The video is saved onto USB sticks for each passenger to take home as a momento.)
The bar is located on the Upper Deck. It's a spacious room spanning the width of the ship, with picture windows running along each side offering views at every turn. The decor has the same beige carpeting featured in cabins, wooden coffee tables, comfy couches with orange cushions, swivel armchairs, and local artwork. At one end of the lounge are two large flat-screen TVs for presentations and shelves stocked with books, DVDs and board games that passengers can borrow. At the rear, the lounge extends outside to a covered sitting area; the interior bar also has a small extension outside so it can be opened up to create an alfresco drinking spot. In the humid destinations visited by True North, most passengers tend to congregate indoors for the air-conditioning.
Alcohol prices are reasonable by Australian standards, with spirits around A$8, cocktails for A$15 and bottles of wine from A$30. Soft drinks and mineral water are free of charge. Most passengers buy bottles of wine and if it's not finished, store it for consumption the next day. There are several opportunities for a free alcoholic drink. Upon arrival on embarkation day, sparkling wine cocktails are refilled until the official welcome by crew. Bottled beer, wine and sometimes a jug of Pimms or margarita are also free-flowing at beach parties and heli-picnics.
For a quiet place to relax and read, head to Allure Lounge at the front of the Main Deck. With leather seating, small tables and a water view over the bow, it also doubles as the ship's jewellery showroom.
At the stern is a marina of diving and snorkelling gear, tenders and a small platform. At the bow is a sun deck where passengers can watch the wildlife and scenery and get up close to a waterfall. Get your exercise through swimming and hiking as there is no recreation facility on the ship.
Satellite internet is available throughout the ship, although the strongest connection is in the bar. The position of the closest satellites, cloud cover and mountain ranges can affect speed but it is generally adequate for email and social media. Fees range from A$50 for a one-week cruise to A$100 for longer cruises.
The ship has an office, which serves as a reception, and a collection of books is located in the bar. Adventure clothing, hats, sunglasses, rash vests, Keen footwear and local pearl jewellery are sold onboard. There is no guest laundry but passengers can fill a laundry basket (provided in cabins) and pay A$20 per load for it to be washed within 24 hours.
The ship has no spa, gym or sports, except for diving and snorkelling.
Although family groups are welcome, the ship is more suitable for adults. There are no facilities or special provisions for children, aside from a couple of board games. A teenager would enjoy the water sports and some other activities but they may be the only passenger aged under 45. For younger kids, check with the cruise line before booking. A mattress can be provided on the floor of the parents' cabin for no additional cost and the chefs can create meals for the kids, who are usually requested to dine separately from the grown-ups in order to maintain the dinner party vibe. There is no minimum age to sail.