All aboard! There has never been a better time for cruising. If you're thinking of setting sail for the first time, Brian Johnston has some tips for a fun time at sea.
Sit on the deck with the sun on your face and a glass of bubbly in hand. Gaze over blue bays and beautiful harbours, mighty fjords or shimmering reefs. Better yet, do it all without having to lug a suitcase, read a map, traipse from hotel to hotel or worry about where to eat.
Cruising is surely the ultimate in relaxing holidays and is now more exciting than it has never been, with something for everyone. Spectacular mega-ships cater to those hankering for glittering entertainment and a sociable nightlife. Boutique and river ships offer a more intimate atmosphere, while floating resorts cater to families or those holidaying with grandchildren.
Meanwhile, adventure cruises head to remote destinations, themed cruises absorb you in art history or culinary pleasures, and river cruises enable you to explore far inland. Have fun, improve your skills, indulge your enquiring mind: that's modern life on an ocean wave.
The only drawback is that so many options can be confusing. Don't worry. A good travel agent can point you to a cruise line that suits your interests and budget, and there's a wealth of information online.
Here's what to think about when booking your first cruise:
1. Start early. Last-minute cruise deals are becoming rare. Plan at least four months in advance to get the best price and cabin choice.
2. Choose the ship. Size, amenities, entertainment options, luxury levels and ambience vary greatly, so do your research.
3. Choose the cruise. Destination, style of shore tour and cruise length – from three days to many months – should be considered.
4. Check inclusions. Most package deals cover meals and onboard activities and entertainment. But you usually pay extra for drinks, shore excursions or speciality restaurants.
5. Upgrade. Pay for the best cabin category you can afford, especially if marking a special occasion. A larger cabin, higher deck and larger external window (even a balcony) is worth the extra.
6. Think about excursions. Standard city tours can be enjoyable – and cheaper – on your own. Spend money on more interesting options, such as scenic flights or cultural visits.
7. Make plans. You don't have to pre-book shore excursions, spa treatments or speciality restaurants, but doing so beats the onboard rush and can save you money.
8. Book travel insurance. It covers you against costly cancellation fees, delays and medical emergencies.
9. Extend. Often you get little scheduled time in departure and arrival ports, so consider booking hotel nights, so you can relax before and afterwards.
Before you sail, you get a package of information giving details of your itinerary, ship and what to expect. Keep luggage to a minimum, since cabin storage can be limited. However, bear in mind that some ships have an evening dress code, while shore excursions may require recreational wear.
There's something thrilling about pulling away from the dock and setting sail. The first night usually comes with an extra buzz and party-like atmosphere. Next day, passengers settle into their own rhythm, whether it's a busy social round or quiet time for two.
Many people cruise just to enjoy the resort-like facilities of the ship: not only swimming pools, spas, casinos and cinemas but everything from ice-rinks to climbing walls and croquet lawns. You can attend cooking or language workshops, dance lessons or trivia competitions. Comedy clubs, Broadway-style shows and circuses provide evening entertainment. It's entirely your choice to do as much or as little as you like.
Shore excursions are also optional so, if you want, you can stay on board or go ashore by yourself. These organised, pre-planned group tours cover sightseeing in ports, inland trips, or activities such as snorkelling, scenic flights, beach barbecues or white-water rafting. Time in port may be a few hours or the entire day and evening in larger cities.
Most of all, as you embark on your first cruise, don't worry too much: first-timer cruisers aren't uncommon. Cruise staff are generally very helpful, while regular cruisers – those old salts with the wind in their hair – are happy to explain how things work. Just relax and enjoy. If you think sailing into the sunset is something that only happens in romance novels, it's about time you tried it for yourself.
CONSIDER THIS: TOP CRUISES
Start your cruising in Australia or New Zealand. From short trips to major journeys, large cruise liners to intimate ships, our own backyard offers an affordable experience for everyone.
- QUEENSLAND: P&O Cruises takes in the pleasures of the Whitsundays, Cairns and Port Douglas
- BARRIER REEF: Short, small-ship cruises with Coral Princess to Cairns, Townsville and Lizard Island.
- NORTHERN COAST: The Barrier Reef, Cape York, Arnhemland and Kakadu on a remarkable journey with Coral Princess.
- KIMBERLEY: Orion Expedition Cruises combines luxury and adventure; some itineraries focus on Aboriginal art.
- TASMANIA: P&O Cruises sets sail to colonial history and national parks.
- GORDON RIVER: Lady Jane Franklin II explores southwest Tasmania's rugged wilderness on day cruises.
- MURRAY RIVER: Captain Cook Cruises offers a four-night float on a paddle steamer.
- AUSTRALIAN CIRCUMNAVIGATION: Sail around the entire continent from Sydney in 28 nights on Dawn Princess.
- AUSTRALIA TO NEW ZEALAND: Cruise from Sydney to Auckland over 12 nights on Celebrity Century.
- NEW ZEALAND: Mid-size MS Zaandam takes in New Zealand's superb scenery, including Milford Sound and Bay of Islands.
To find out more about cruises in Australia and New Zealand, go to individual cruise-line websites, or browse these useful pages:
www.cruisingaustralia.com covers Australia only, from the big ships all the way to scenic harbour cruises.
www.cruiseaway.com.au is clear and comprehensive, with a useful overview of cruise lines and destinations.
www.cruising.com.au includes the detailed itineraries of just about every cruise imaginable.
www.cruises.com.au has a news section to keep you abreast of the latest in cruising.
www.creativecruising.com.au highlights some smaller, more interesting cruise options.
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