How to Choose Your Cruise: Australia and New Zealand

My first-ever cruise was from Broome to Fremantle, the port for Perth, on a small luxury expedition ship – an eye-opening experience on many levels for this transplanted English Sydneysider. I’d seen plenty of photographs of Western Australia’s striking coastline but when you fly into Broome for the first time, the raw, vibrant colours of land and sea really hit home. Red earth and bushy scrub are offset by that extraordinary turquoise ocean – and the lengthy flight from east to west reminds you how vast and varied the island continent of Australia really is.

Sunset at Cape Leveque in the north west of Western Australian near the town of Broome/ Shutterstock

There’s a lot to discover in our own big backyard and beyond, to New Zealand. You can explore sophisticated, easily navigable cities and ancient places sacred to the world’s oldest living civilisation. Geographically diverse regions range from tropical rainforest to arid desert, vineyards and rolling green farmland, and from coast to coast you can find wild unspoiled beaches and extraordinary reefs (the Great Barrier Reef and Ningaloo aren’t the only ones). And an expedition voyage around the rugged Kimberley coastline takes you to one of the world’s great wilderness areas – social distancing has never been an issue there.

Then there’s a wealth of adventurous, cultural and foodie experiences, which all have their own particular local flavour. High-adrenaline activities include cage-diving with great white sharks in South Australia’s Port Lincoln, abseiling in Tasmania and climbing to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge; and, naturally, surfing, diving and water sports abound in just about every coastal destination you can name.

Although many of us are accustomed to getting our culture fixes in Europe’s classic cities, seeing Aboriginal rock art dating back tens of thousands of years in caves in the remote Kimberley is, quite simply, awe-inspiring. Tasmania’s World Heritage site Port Arthur teaches us sombre lessons about Australia’s convict history while visiting Mona (Museum of New and Old Art), another Tassie ‘institution’, is always thought-provoking – and fun.

Tours exploring Australia’s Indigenous culture are going from strength to strength, whether in the heart of our major cities or deep in the red centre. In Sydney, for example, you can join a spectacular scenic coastal walk led by an Aboriginal guide who will introduce you to Dreaming stories, traditional uses of plants and animals for food, medicine and ceremony – or discover hidden Aboriginal sites in the middle of the busy Rocks area with the help of a First Nations expert.

Melbourne city skyline at twilight in Australia/Shutterstock

Wine-lovers can sip and sample to their heart’s content at vineyards and cellar doors within easy reach of Sydney (Hunter Valley), Melbourne (Yarra Valley), Adelaide (McLaren Vale, Barossa Valley and Adelaide Hills) and Busselton (Margaret River). Boutique distilleries and craft breweries are springing up all over the country, producing an array of spirits and imaginatively named beers and ciders.

As for culinary adventures, we are seriously spoilt for choice. Chefs are putting native Indigenous ingredients – bush tucker – on the menus at some of Australia’s top restaurants; think Melbourne’s Attica, Adelaide’s Orana and Sydney’s Quay and Bennelong. Coastal towns vie with each other to be the ‘seafood capital’ – Port Lincoln might just win that one – and you’ll find regional specialties and ethnic cuisine in just about every city and town. However, nothing beats a takeaway lunch of fish and chips on the beach on a glorious summer’s day.

Across the Ditch

Nature of NewZealand/Denis Elterman

In a nutshell:

New Zealand has long been a favourite destination for Australian travellers – and of course for Kiwis keen to spend quality time exploring their homeland. Stunning landscapes that starred in The Lord of the Rings movies (among others) boosted the country’s international profile; today, there are dozens of tours that visit the famous locations on both the North and South Islands.

What you’ll see: However, it’s not just about photogenic scenery. The Land of the Long White Cloud has a proud Maori heritage, thriving wine and food scenes and a diverse collection of small laid-back towns and attractive cities. Auckland, where most cruises start or finish, is one of my favourite Antipodean cities; the downtown area is eminently walkable and shops, restaurants, art galleries and museums are easily accessible from the dock. A 40-minute ferry trip whisks you off to Waiheke Island, a haven of vineyards, cellar doors and olive groves, while energetic walkers can hike a variety of scenic coastal or forest trails surrounding the city.

Skyline photo of the biggest city in the New Zealand, Auckland. The photo was taken during the golden sunset across the bay/shutterstock

New Zealand’s compact capital, Wellington, has character aplenty. The national Te Papa museum is always worth visiting – even if you’ve been before new exhibitions and events are staged regularly and it is one of the best places to immerse yourself in Maori culture. Wellington is also renowned as the ‘craft beer capital’ – a tour of local breweries and pubs reveals a whole other perspective on this creative, offbeat city.

On the South Island, Christchurch is well on the road to recovery from the devastating earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. Although much of its Gothic heart was destroyed, a new city is emerging alongside the restoration of its English heritage. Friendly locals will welcome your visit and walking tours take in old and new highlights.

New Zealand’s dramatically diverse geography lends itself to many outdoor activities, particularly extreme ones; after all, this is the country where commercial bungee-jumping was first established. Add white-water rafting, jetboating and all sorts of water sports and there’s something for every adventure-seeker.

Likewise, there’s something for every food and wine aficionado. And yet:  the most distinguishing aspect of New Zealand is the Maori culture. In Rotorua, famed for its geothermal geysers and boiling mud pools, you can take part in a traditional Maori welcome ceremony in the Whare Tupuna meeting house and witness ceremonial singing and dances such as the haka.

Scenic cruising through Milford and Doubtful Sounds is the best way to see the magnificent alpine scenery of Fiordland National Park. Rainforest carpets, sheer cliffs and dramatic waterfalls plunge from great heights – and there is a reason for this. Milford Sound is one of the wettest places in the world. I’ve sailed the Sounds several times and only once was the sky clear – however many professional photographers prefer it when mist drifts along the water and the mountains are shrouded by cloud. And who am I to disagree?

Choose your cruise: The sheer scale and distances involved in travelling around Australia and New Zealand make cruising the ideal way to take in the countries’ main attractions. Here’s our selection of emblematic itineraries:

It’s Your First Close-to-Home Cruise: New Zealand and Australia

/Denis Elterman

In a nutshell:

This voyage takes in New Zealand’s main attractions across the North and South Islands, along with a call to the stunning, less-travelled Stewart Island.  Three of Australia’s popular east coast ports, Hobart, Melbourne (or Sydney) and Eden, round out a comprehensive yet unhurried itinerary.

What you’ll see:  Those of us who are first-timers when it comes to close-to-home voyages are amazed by the variety of things you can see and do in our neighbouring countries. As well as New Zealand’s major cities Auckland and Wellington, Silver Muse calls at picturesque ports such as Tauranga on the North Island and Picton, Akaroa and Dunedin on the South Island.

To pick just a few personal favourites, kayaking on Queen Charlotte Sound out of Picton is one of the best ways to soak up the scenic splendour of the Marlborough Sounds. However, as the town is set in the heart of the renowned Marlborough wine region, you may be tempted to take a tasting tour instead.

/Denis Elterman

One of Akaroa’s claims to fame is that it was the only place in New Zealand to be settled by the French, back in 1840. As you walk around the little town, you’ll see French street names, pretty colonial cottages and a sprinkling of French-influenced restaurants. Grab a baguette or quiche to take away at the Sweet As Bakery if you don’t have time to sit down for lunch –bon appétit!

Akaroa is also home to rare Hector’s dolphins – you can swim with the miniature mammals in the beautiful deep harbour, or take one of several local cruises from the wharf to see them in action.

Dunedin, on the Otago Peninsula, has a long-established Scottish heritage; its name is a Gaelic version of Edinburgh and the two are official ‘sister cities’. The first hardy pioneers arrived from Scotland in 1848 and Dunedin was founded by the Scottish Free Church. Today, you’ll find tartan shops, kilted bagpipers performing on the streets, bars serving traditional malt whisky and haggis, and the best-preserved Victorian and Edwardian architecture in the Southern Hemisphere.

It’s well worth joining a guided tour of Larnach Castle, which dates back to 1871; you’ll hear juicy stories about its original owner, William Larnach, as well as seeing a fabulous collection of antiques as you stroll around the lavishly restored rooms.

Arguably more impressive than the architecture, however, are wildlife tours of the Peninsula. This rugged area is home to rare birds such as the northern royal albatross, cute little blue penguins and yellow-eyed penguins, as well as fur seals that you can see at surprisingly close quarters. I have fond memories and great photos from a wet and wild off-road trip on a six-wheel amphibious vehicle, one of the excellent tours offered by Silversea from Dunedin.

Choose your cruise:

Silversea offers New Zealand-focused itineraries, with a few stops in Australia, through 2023. 

Australia: On an Expedition Cruise, a Semi-Circumnavigation

Indonesia /Denis Elterman

In a nutshell:

Some of Australia’s most desirable and often remote destinations as this 25-day expedition voyage travels along the southern and western coasts.  Bookmark this one if you’re looking for adventure and thrilling wildlife encounters that only a few of us ever get to experience.

What you’ll see:

Luxury expedition vessel Silver Explorer will travel along the vast scenic coastline of Australia – along with a side trip to Indonesia – on an itinerary that reveals the incredible diversity of the regions’ history, wildlife and landscapes.

Silver Explorer’s expedition team are onboard to share their expert knowledge of marine biology, ornithology, geology, cultural history and more. Their insights add immeasurably to your experiences, in lectures, on zodiac expeditions or chatting over dinner.

Zodiac trips to otherwise inaccessible places on this voyage allow you to observe rare natural phenomena and animals at close quarters – well, maybe giving saltwater crocodiles a wide berth – swimming with whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef is one of life’s most sublime experiences.

/Denis Elterman

Kangaroo Island, which was badly damaged by the bushfires of early 2020, is home to archetypical Australian animals such as koalas, kangaroos (of course), wallabies and echidnas. The island is making a remarkable recovery and most national parks have re-opened. One of the best known is Seal Bay Conservation Park, where you’ll see a big colony of endangered Australian sea lions that call this beautiful beach home.

KI, as locals call it, is also a renowned foodie destination, as indeed are many other ports of call on this itinerary. Feasting on Coffin Bay oysters in the middle of an oyster lease takes al fresco dining to a new level – I don’t even like oysters but thoroughly enjoyed learning how to shuck them – while Margaret River produces enough fine wines to satisfy the choosiest connoisseur.

A scenic flight to the remote Houtman Abrolhos Islands reveals an intricate, exquisitely coloured reef system; the area is renowned for its diving and snorkelling sites. Lobster fishermen live part time on 22 of the islands, along with some two million birds, some of them very rare.

When I was there some years ago, I was lucky enough to meet Max Cramer, a noted maritime historian who co-discovered the wreck of the 17th-century ship Batavia off the archipelago’s Wallabi Group. The Museum of Geraldton tells the full gory story of the mutiny that followed the shipwreck; experienced divers can explore the Batavia on Morning Reef.

Finally, spending seven days in the Kimberley is the culmination of a highly sought-after itinerary – see [below] for highlights.

Choose your cruise:

Silversea’s Australia-centric expedition cruises take place on the 144-guest Silver Explorer.

Exploring Australia’s Kimberley

/Denis Elterman

In a nutshell:

This 10-day expedition voyage sails along the spectacular coastline of Western Australia’s rugged Kimberley, dipping in and out of bays and archipelagos formed billions of years ago. The region’s splendid isolation offers an adventurous escape that’s about as far from city life as you can get within Australia.

What you’ll see:

This remote wilderness is unimaginably vast – twice the size of Victoria and three times as big as England, surrounded by some 12,000 kilometres of coastline. The ochre-coloured land is ancient and its sheer scale imparts a sense of mystery that verges on the spiritual – no wonder it attracts so many artists and photographers.

You’ll be awed by towering red cliffs, deep sandstone gorges, impressive waterfalls and Aboriginal rock art dating back thousands of years. In the Buccaneer Archipelago, a collection of more than 800 islands, you’ll witness extraordinary natural phenomena caused by giant tides of up to 10 metres.

Montgomery Reef/ Denis Elterman

One particular standout is a zodiac trip to Montgomery Reef: as the tide drops at a rapid rate, the reef appears to rise up out of the sea. Cascading waterfalls reveal green turtles, reef sharks and sometimes dugongs, and dolphins, while seabirds swoop to snatch fish and other marine prey.

From mid to late July, the world’s largest migration of humpback whales makes its way along the Kimberley coast, so sightings are almost guaranteed; the region is also a paradise for birdwatchers. Every day, zodiac trips and hikes led by the expedition team reveal a wealth of natural and cultural treasures – there’s always something that will take your breath away.

The outback town of Wyndham is the gateway for scenic flights over the Bungle Bungles, distinctive striped beehive-like rock formations in Purnululu National Park; or you can take a leisurely cruise along the meandering Ord River.

Choose your cruise:

Silversea’s 144-guest Silver Explorer offers this itinerary to Kimberly.

Seven Ports, Three Countries

Hole in the rock, Bay of Islands, North island of New Zealand/Shutterstock

In a nutshell:

A multi-week cruise from Auckland to Bali is just the thing for a leisurely, luxury summer holiday. Enjoy a day out in the Bay of Islands, take your time exploring new or favourite attractions in and around Sydney, Brisbane, Cairns and Darwin, and while away a couple of days soaking up culture and photogenic scenery in blissful Bali.

What you’ll see:

After making the most of a day in Auckland, a guided tour of the Waitangi Treaty Grounds in the idyllic Bay of Islands delivers an essential lesson about the fusion of British colonial and Maori history. You can also try your hand at traditional Maori crafts – I was predictably hopeless at weaving flax.

An overnight and full day in Sydney allows time to explore the city’s many attractions, or to get out of town; a helicopter trip to the Blue Mountains, perhaps, or why not take a seaplane to Palm Beach for lunch in the glorious Northern Beaches?

There’s plenty to do in sophisticated but laidback Brisbane, where Silversea also offers a fabulous mid-voyage land adventure to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef and Daintree National Park. Another mid-voyage land adventure whisks you from Cairns to Uluru in the Red Centre, or you can join a selection of exhilarating rainforest and reef tours for the day.

Pendet Traditional Balinese Dance in Garuda Wisnu Kencana, Bukit Peninsula, Bali/ shutterstock

Closer to Bali than Bondi, Darwin is a former frontier town that’s become an increasingly cosmopolitan city. Set on the Timor sea, it is surrounded by huge tracts of national parks. Kakadu might be the best known, but Litchfield Park is more accessible – a 1.5-hour drive rather than three hours – and equally remarkable.

During two days in Bali, the lushly beautiful ‘island of the gods’, Silversea offers a range of excursions that feature temples, palaces, wellness retreats and Balinese arts and crafts villages. Why not extend your stay before flying home?

Choose your cruise: Options for cruises around Australia and on to Bali or Singapore abound.