Balmy days and nights spent exploring the calm Coral Sea waters and tropical islands. Welcome to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, undoubtedly one of the world’s great cruising destinations. From Ribbon Reef in the north to Fraser Island in the south, the UNESCO World Heritage site is a showreel of stunning locations.
At the Reef’s southern tip, Fraser Coast has captured the imagination of nature-lovers and travellers alike as the whale-watching capital of the world, with thousands of humpbacks migrating past each year.
And with new, more nimble expedition ships such as ultra-luxurious Crystal Endeavor making their way onto the world’s seas, adventure travellers are being taken beyond the ordinary in search of the unexpected in far-flung regions from the tropics to the Poles.
As early as 2017, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) singled out the growing trend of expedition cruising, a trend spurred by the record growth of adventure travel.
Once regarded as the preserve of rugged, wildlife-loving explorers, expedition cruising is beginning to enjoy mainstream appeal. This is the dawn of luxury expedition cruising, where travellers test their sense of rugged adventure during the day then return to a world of fine dining, top-notch service and pampering.
“Compared to 10 years ago, it’s no longer the case that clients have to sacrifice the finer luxuries on an expedition cruise,” said Poppy Whitbread, marketing manager at Lightfoot Travel, which has been selling expedition cruises since it first began operations in 2009.
Travel agents are also seeing opportunities to service clients who are approaching expedition cruises as part of a longer itinerary and less of a standalone product. “We are helping our clients from Asia to incorporate expedition cruises into longer itineraries, typically adding five to seven days to their holiday,” said Ms Whitbread.
Fraser Island is the whale-watching capital of the world.
New ships, new adventures
There has never been a better time for agents to dive into the expedition segment. This year alone will see at least 10 new expedition ships take to the seas, with many in the medium-sized category that carry between 100 to 200-odd passengers.
Among the most highly-anticipated is Crystal Endeavor, an expedition yacht built at an eyewatering price tag of US$195 million, which will begin its globetrotting mission this August from Tokyo.
The exclusive all-suite and all-verandah ship will be home to just 200 guests as they explore the world’s remote regions on board one of the most spacious expedition vessels.
Travellers will call the ship’s 100 suites their elegant new home as they venture on voyages for two weeks and longer. Rivalling the size of luxury hotel rooms on land, its suites start from the generous 28sqm Deluxe Suite up to the palatial 119sqm Expedition Suite. Not only that, travellers can expect their every request from a comforting midnight snack to unpacking to be fulfilled by Crystal’s expertly-trained butlers.
Dining will be a treat with Michelin-inspired options such as Master Chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s Umi Uma & Sushi Bar. It will even have a casino on board – the first for expedition ships – as well as a shopping boutique.
The social hub of Crystal Endeavor is the Palm Court for afternoon teas by day and entertainment by night.
Roaming the world’s remotest corners
Amid its luxurious array of creature comforts, the ship retains its strong expedition focus. What is apparent are its cleverly designed venues that maximise the views of spectacular scenery outside.
Perched at the top two levels of the ship’s bow, guests will enjoy floor-to-ceiling views from the Palm Court or can opt to wander to the ship’s rear to the two-storey, glass-enclosed Solarium for a relaxing swim.
Off the ship is where the real adventure begins. Expeditions to the world’s most vivid tropical regions uncover a natural world teeming with unique biodiversity.
Travellers are well-equipped to zoom on zodiacs for shore landings on untouched beaches and national parks, kayak along coastal areas as well as snorkel in crystal clear waters to see colourful corals, fishes and turtles that inhabit some of the world’s richest ecosystems.
Watch huggable Koalas in action at Magnetic Island situated off the coast of Queensland.
In November, guests of Crystal Endeavor will have the rare opportunity to go on a comprehensive top-to-bottom expedition of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef with scenic detours to the outlying islands along the eastern coast.
Enriching the expedition experience is a dedicated expedition team consisting of 25 experts in fields ranging from marine biology and ornithology to history and more to provide their in-depth insights and unique highlights of the tropical region.
Travellers begin their 14-night exploration from the Tropical North Queensland city of Cairns all the way to Sydney, winding along the coast to visit Magnetic Island, a wildlife haven where visits can gaze at sleepy-eyed koalas, huggable rock wallabies and brushtail possums. The national park, which stretches 52sq km, provides a rich backdrop for scenic walks or cycling.
But the main event will undoubtedly be the remote excursions far out on the Coral Sea, where four dedicated days have been allocated for expedition stops.
There are perhaps few places that are like Percy Isles, which is part of the Northumberland Islands off the tropical coast of Queensland. Only accessible by private boat (there are no public ferries), guests of Endeavor will have a chance to visit the largest of the three islands, Middle Island, a national park teeming with some 600 species of flora and fauna.
Sheep grazing along the coasts of Christchurch.
Deep into destinations
Another enticing option for travellers is a voyage to Tasmania and the remote coastal stretches of New Zealand’s South Island.
The 14-night voyage traces the less-visited areas of Tasmania such as Coles Bay on the eastern coast, recognisable by its pinkish granite mountains and home to abundant wildlife at the neighbouring Freycinet National Park, and Maria Island, affectionately known as the Noah’s Ark of Tasmania when it became a haven for imperilled Australian species in the 1960s such as emus, swift parrots, bare-nosed wombats and eastern grey kangaroos.
Travellers can opt to take their exploration to new heights with a soaring helicopter ride over the bays and waters or plunge up to 298 metres into the water in a submersible in search of corals, fishes and turtles that inhabit some of the world’s richest ecosystems.
Crossing over the Tasman Sea to New Zealand, the ship’s route begins from the southwest Milford Sound to the southern tip of Stewart Island, the spot to watch the birds on Ulva Island, and makes a stop at the Scottish-influenced Dunedin before concluding in Christchurch.