Cruising Down Under
Experience the beautiful landscapes, chic cities and unique cultures of Australia and New Zealand
By Justin BoydSurrounded by bodies of water and little else, Australia and New Zealand are ideal for a cruising adventure. They offer majestic fjords and expansive coral reefs, wildlife parks and rain forests, alluring cities and old outback towns. Travelers can explore unique Aborigine, Maori and Polynesian cultures, and engage in a variety of outdoor activities.
The two countries are nearly a day's travel from North America, and once you've arrived, there's a lot to take in. Cruising is one of the best ways to sample the offerings Down Under.
"Cruising is a very nice way to see this vast area without constantly being in flight," says Cheryl Cunningham, director of special projects for Vacations To Go, a national travel agency specializing in cruise discounts. "By way of cruising, you're able to board a ship and know that it's going to be your home for maybe the next 12 to 20 days. And you're able to cruise from one destination to another, from one major city to another, and see the important sights in several different regions. It's much more relaxing, and you can see more."
Because of Australia and New Zealand's close proximity, most cruises make stops in both countries. The cruising season Down Under runs from October through March, the warm-weather period in this part of the globe. Most itineraries range from 12 to 16 days. Some Australia/New Zealand cruises also make calls in Asia, Hawaii and the South Pacific.
In Australia, cruise ships often spend time in the metropolises along the continent's east coast. They sail into Sydney Harbour, bustling with sailboats, ferries and catamarans and dominated by the instantly recognizable Sydney Opera House. Watch the surfers at Bondi Beach, or stroll the streets of Chinatown or The Rocks, the city's oldest district.
To the south, Melbourne boasts one of Australia's finest public parks, the Royal Botanic Gardens. Wander amid its lakes and diverse plant collections, from rain forest species to herbs and perennials to succulents and cactuses. Melbourne also is a gateway to the Yarra Valley wine country, and cruise ship passengers can purchase shore excursions that allow for winery tours and tastings.
North of Sydney lies Brisbane, near Queensland's Gold Coast. Visit the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary -- Australia's oldest preserve for the marsupial mascots -- or embark on an interpretive walk through the rain forest of Lamington National Park. Reef and rain forest meet in Cairns, in the northeast corner of Australia. It's a jumping-off point for snorkeling and scuba excursions to the Great Barrier Reef, and a gateway to Daintree National Park, an expanse of long, sandy beaches, rocky headlands and primeval forest of cedars, ferns and mosses.
Those who wish to see more of Australia can opt for a cruise tour, which combines a sailing with a multiday land package that includes hotel accommodations. During the land tour portion, travelers often venture into the rugged, untamed outback to see the giant Uluru sandstone monolith -- also called Ayers Rock. If you're lucky, your visit will be timed with the sunset, when the rock's surface reflects a vivid palette of red, pink and orange. Travelers also spend time in Alice Springs, the heart of the outback, and have opportunities to learn about the Aborigine people.
Land tours can also include visits to wildlife parks to view kangaroos and koalas, and excursions to the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest coral reef system, known for its unique, diverse marine life and clear waters. Stretching for 1,400 miles along Australia's northeast coast, it is a haven for snorkelers and scuba divers.
As your floating hotel moves from the cerulean waters of Australia to the emerald green hillsides of New Zealand, it would likely make a stop at Hobart on the island of Tasmania. Hobart is Australia's second oldest city, its history reflected in the old stone cottages of Battery Point, now occupied by pubs, antiques stores and tea shops. At cobblestoned Salamanca Place, near the waterfront, 1830s Georgian warehouses have been converted to galleries, shops, cafes and restaurants. Head to Bonorong Wildlife Park to meet the local wildlife, such as koalas, wombats, kangaroos, wallabies and of course, Tasmanian devils.
The landscape of New Zealand ranges from beautifully sculpted mountains to sharply dropping cliffs, from clear blue lakes to sandy beaches. Cruise ships typically divide their time between the South Island, perhaps stopping at Milford Sound, Dunedin and Christchurch, and the North Island, where you'll find Wellington, Tauranga and Auckland. While ashore, passengers can take in alpine scenery, re-created Maori villages, kiwi fruit farms and geothermal wonders. You might even learn how a New Zealand sheep farm operates, perhaps even participating in some of the daily chores.
Milford Sound is the crowning glory of New Zealand's Fiordland National Park, its snowcapped peaks perfectly reflected in the mirrorlike surface of calm, blue waters. Dunedin is a well-preserved city of Victorian and Edwardian structures. Founded by Scottish settlers in the mid-19th century, it proudly wears its Scottish heritage today (look for the statue of Robert Burns in the town's center). Christchurch has a decidedly English feel, with its 19th-century neo-Gothic cathedral, public gardens and the Avon River flanked by grassy banks and weeping willows.
Wellington is the capital city, tucked between a harbor and green hills at the southern tip of the North Island. Visitors can ride the cable car to the upper reaches of the hilltop Wellington Botanic Garden for views of the city and waterfront; explore Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand's national museum; or participate in a guided walk through the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary, an urban conservation project designed as a haven for endangered native birds and other wildlife.
From Tauranga, passengers can travel to the hissing steam vents, shooting geysers and hot mud pools of the Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve. To the north, Auckland is set between two harbors and known as the "City of Sails" for the large number of boats that gather here. It has a sizable concentration of Polynesian residents, and their culture is reflected in the city's festivals, local crafts, shops and Pacific Rim cuisine. For 360-degree views of Auckland, ride to the top of Sky Tower, the Southern Hemisphere's tallest building.
Those who fly from North America to Australia or New Zealand will cross the international date line and "lose" a day. Plus, the flight can take the better part of a day (about 14 hours from Los Angeles to Sydney, for example). For these reasons, travelers should leave their hometown for their Down Under port of embarkation at least two days before the ship's scheduled departure date. Cunningham advises that it is best for travelers to leave three or four days before the cruise in order to rest up and get acclimated. Many cruise lines offer pre-cruise hotel packages.
Holland America Line, Silversea Cruises, Princess Cruises, P&O Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises are among popular lines sailing in Australia and New Zealand. P&O, a sister company of Princess, offers winter sailings of Australia and the South Pacific islands. Celebrity Cruises alternates two-week sailings out of Auckland and Sydney aboard its 1,770-passenger Century.
Those who wish to incorporate some "island time" into their Down Under vacation can look for Australia-New Zealand itineraries that continue into the South Pacific. These itineraries take in the breathtaking, unspoiled beauty of French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, American Samoa and Fiji.
Travelers also can opt for sailings that remain solely in the South Pacific. These cruises typically last seven to 15 days and are available year-round. Some depart from, or sail to, the Hawaiian Islands. South Pacific sailings typically stop in Tahiti, the Polynesian paradise that once lured artist Paul Gauguin. Its sapphire waters and flourishing tropical landscape make it a favorite among honeymooning couples. Hike into the mountains, explore a lagoon via a glass-bottom boat, shop for Tahitian black pearls or participate in a wide array of water sports.
"It's just a natural wonder," Cunningham says of Tahiti. "It's a beautiful grouping of islands that are just gorgeous and very lush."
Princess' 688-guest Ocean Princess offers seasonal sailings of the South Pacific islands from the French Polynesian capital of Papeete. The cruise line and ship named for Gauguin also are very popular and sail year-round.
Because of their versatility and diverse activities and landscapes, cruises to Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific usually go fast. Cunningham says those looking for the best deal should probably start their search at least three to four months prior to their planned vacation. The earlier you book, she advises, the more choices you will have in putting together your dream adventure.
Information: For more information on cruises in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific, visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962.