Not plain sailing: the world’s best cruising regions
Despite the fact most cruise ships now resemble floating cities with high-speed wi-fi and virtual reality pods, there remains something pleasingly old-fashioned about travelling by sea, floating from one port to the next on a voyage of discovery.
The cruise industry, however, is forward-facing: itineraries are more varied than ever – from new takes on traditional destinations like the Med to trailblazing tours to Antarctica – and more operators are placing an emphasis on sustainable tourism.
Cast off your preconceptions with this rundown of classic cruise destinations from Lonely Planet's new title, The Cruise Handbook.
Cruising in Alaska offers a window into a vast, primordial wilderness once only accessible to intrepid, highly-supplied explorers or fortune-hunters sick with gold fever. From the comfortable deck of the ship, you’ll be treated to a memorable feast of calving glaciers, daunting mountains, majestic wildlife and the atmospheric ruins of mines from the Klondike Gold Rush.
What’s the highlight? Alaska guards an estimated 100,000 glaciers covering an area approximately the size of Maryland. Glaciation isn’t just an Ice Age legacy here, it’s a process that’s still occurring on the grandest of scales. Massive ice floes such as the Hubbard Glacier gouge out U-shaped valleys on their journey to the coast where they jettison huge icebergs into the ocean. Cruise ships draw near some of these glaciers, but to get the chilliest of close-ups, jump on a jet-boat tour in Whittier, or take a bus to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Centernear Juneau where you can snap on crampons and partake in a guided glacial hike.
- Departs from: Seattle, Washington; Vancouver, BC; Anchorage, Alaska.
- Season: Alaska cruise ships set sail early May and close in September.
From Istanbul and Rome to southern France and the Spanish coast, Mediterranean cruises cover it all. Part history tour, part beach and sun vacation, part culinary odyssey, this region offers a veritable feast, whether at a world-class city or dipping into the Greek islands.
What’s the highlight? Food on the Mediterranean is king: pesto in Genoa, souvlaki and baklava in Athens, halvah in Haifa, pasta... well, everywhere in Italy. Mediterranean food has been touted as one of the healthiest (and most delicious) diets in the world for a reason. Mediterranean cruises are now joining their riverboat counterparts by offering more interactive culinary excursions on shore: making ravioli in Italy, tasting cheeses in France and visiting wineries in Portugal. But finding a taste sensation doesn’t necessarily require an organised tour – just simply wander away from the port and into any restaurant that looks busy; chances are it’ll be a meal to remember.
- Departs from: Barcelona, Spain; Civitavecchia (Rome), Italy; Athens, Greece; Istanbul, Turkey.
- Season: Many Mediterranean cruises run year-round, or close to it.
Baltic and Norwegian coast
Since the beginning of the Viking Age of longships, Scandinavians have been at sea. Baltic cruises give an overview of this beautiful and culturally diverse region with stop-offs at big-name hotspots like Stockholm, Copenhagen, Riga and Tallinn, while Norwegian cruises take you into some of the world’s grandest fjords and provide access to indigenous Sami culture.
What’s the highlight? Visitors almost always need a visa to visit Russia, and acquiring it can be quite expensive and time-consuming. One way around this visa is to take a Baltic cruise that stops in St Petersburg. Cruise lines cater to travellers who want to see Russia without the visa, and often spend one, two or even three full days in St Petersburg. The Hermitage Museum alone – the once-royal residence with its three million artefacts and pieces of art – needs an entire day. That’s not to mention the gilded palaces and residences, ballet and folkloric performances, and stately domed cathedrals. Just remember: this is one Baltic stop where you’ll need to book an organised tour, as passengers can’t enter the city without one.
- Departs from: Stockholm, Sweden; Copenhagen, Denmark; Oslo, Norway; St Petersburg, Russia.
- Season: Norwegian coastal cruises run year-round, but for cruising the Baltic Sea, the season is May to September.
Australia and New Zealand
Cruising “down under” offers an easy, enjoyable and cost-effective way to experience the best of Australia and New Zealand. Cruising Australia’s long travel distances is a pleasure rather than a chore and the colourful variety of ports offers travellers of all ages an irresistible mix of culture, adventure and outdoor fun.
What’s the highlight? Natural wonders are everywhere when cruising in Australia and New Zealand. Snorkel among jewel-bright fish on the Great Barrier Reef or take a walk through Australia’s World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest. Near Port Douglas you will find Mossman Gorge, the oldest continuously surviving rainforest on earth. In New Zealand, you can swim with wild Hector’s dolphins in Akaroa or see boiling mud in Rotorua. Soak up the sun on the pristine white sands of Whitehaven Beach or cool off in a waterhole outside Darwin at Litchfield National Park. The mighty waterfalls, misty fjords, lush rainforest and towering granite peaks of New Zealand’s Fiordland are beautiful, rain, hail or shine.
- Departs from: Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide, Australia; Auckland, New Zealand
- Season: Cruises are available year-round with the biggest and best choice of ships during peak season, which runs from October to April.
The Antarctic is a naturalist’s dream. Untouched by humans, visitors can truly disconnect from civilisation as they experience an environment sculpted by nature’s powerful forces. Whales, penguins and seals live happily in the shadow of craggy peaks while magnificent icebergs drift through glassy waters.
What’s the highlight? Quite simply, the joy of escaping into a pristine world of blue-white ice that glistens in the summer sun. Marvel at the rocky peaks stretching to the sky and reflected in the perfectly glassy surface of the ocean below. Listen to sounds of penguins singing, ice calving and whales surfacing – there’s nowhere else like this in the world… well except maybe the Arctic (an alternative intrepid cruise option).
- Departs from: Ushuaia, Argentina; Punta Arenas, Chile; Invercargill, New Zealand.
- Season: Travel is only possible during the Antarctic summer from November to March.
The Caribbean is the world’s leading cruise destination, outpacing every other region in passengers. It’s not hard to guess why. Nestled in a warm and sunny climate, with over 30 distinct ports, the region is rich in colonial plazas and beaches. Each of the western, eastern, or southern cruises offers a different and specialised selection of balmy delights.
What’s the highlight? Southern Caribbean cruises stopping in Bonaire give scuba divers a luxurious taste of one of the world’s best reefs. Bonaire National Marine Park has been protected since 1979 and offers incredible biodiversity. Some cruise lines, like Royal Caribbean, even offer PADI certification on board. Heading to the western Caribbean? You can find great diving off the coast of Cozumel, Mexico.
- Departs from: Miami, Cape Canaveral and Ft Lauderdale, Florida; Galveston, Texas; San Juan, Puerto Rico
- Season: Best in the winter months, December to March, as temps are warm and balmy but not over-the-top hot.
Africa and Egypt
Africa is an entire world unto itself. Colourful and chaotic, breathtaking and humbling, its range of experiences span from intimate wild animal encounters to stunning beaches and buzzing urban areas. Not for the faint of heart, but for those with a bit more of an adventurous soul, this melting pot of cultures, cuisines, religions and history is guaranteed to amaze.
What’s the highlight? Cruises in Africa cover a wide gamut, from voyages along the Suez Canal to wildlife spotting on the Chobe River and conventional cruising out of South Africa. But for ancient-history buffs, a cruise along Egypt’s Nile River is an absolute-must, bucket-list item. These cruises are often coupled together with a cruise tour of Cairo and the Pyramids of Giza and provide the opportunity to see some of the most important ancient Egyptian relics, such as Luxor, the Temple of Karnak, the Valley of the Kings and the Temple of Kom Ombo, in one fell swoop.
- Departs from: Alexandria and Luxor, Egypt; Tunis, Tunisia; Algiers, Algeria; Casablanca, Morocco; Cape Town, South Africa.
- Season: Avoid Northern Africa in summer and remember that South African seasons are the reverse of those in the Northern Hemisphere.