While the Australian dollar is scaling unprecedented heights, now could be the time to book that adventure to the wilderness of your dreams. Remarkable cruises head for the world’s most stunning unspoiled regions. Words: Peter Needham.
1. Southern Africa
Listen for the trumpeting of the bull elephant and the unmistakable whoop of the spotted hyena. Southern African shore excursions head to wildlife-rich wilderness areas and although Mombasa, the popular Kenyan resort and game-park gateway, suffered a massive plunge in cruise-ship visits in 2010 (experts blame piracy off the coast of neighbouring Somalia for the decline), other parts of Africa remain as popular as ever. South Africa’s Sabi Sabi Game Reserve is just 90 minutes from Cape Town.
Silversea Cruises’ remarkably luxurious expedition ship Prince Albert II (each suite has a private bath and the services of a butler) will operate an ambitious 22-night African cruise to South Africa, Namibia, Angola, Benin, Togo, Ghana, Gambia, Senegal and Sierra Leone in March 2011.
This expedition cruise costs AU$12,792 per person and has proved so popular that it is already wait-listed.
In Walvis Bay, Namibia, 4WD vehicles will explore the coastal dune belt, home to pelicans, flamingos and the endangered Damara tern.
In the same month, Silversea’s Silver Wind will visit South Africa and Mozambique. Optional South African excursions include one to Phinda Private Game Reserve, which borders the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to Africa’s ‘big five’ (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo) – plus more than 380 species. www.silversea.com
Crystal Serenity’s ‘African Adventurer’ cruise (April/May 2011) includes a shore excursion to Kakum National Park rainforest in Takoradi, Ghana. www.crystalcruises.com
Alaska is synonymous with wilderness and scenic majesty. The most northerly state of the USA boasts huge unspoiled tracts teeming with wildlife and native vegetation. Denali, also known as Mt McKinley, is North America’s highest mountain peak, roamed by grizzly bears, caribou, wolves and moose. Birds and wildflowers grace Denali’s slopes in the northern summer, when most cruises take place.
During that period – May to September – Princess Cruises’ 2011 Alaska program includes 104 Alaska departures aboard six ships, with three itinerary options. The line-up includes Diamond Princess, Coral Princess and Island Princess on the line’s ‘Voyage of the Glaciers’ route through the Gulf of Alaska; Golden Princess and Sapphire Princess sailing the Inside Passage from Seattle; and Sea Princess cruising on 10-day journeys from San Francisco. Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, a marine wilderness, is another highlight, known for its tidewater glaciers and dramatic ‘ice castles’. These two national parks – Denali and Glacier Bay – are Alaska’s top two attractions. www.princess.com
Holland America Line is running many Denali cruise tours in 2011, topping seven spectacular days at sea with up to 12 days on land. Tours use the McKinley Explorer train to traverse Denali National Park. www.hollandamerica.com
Alaska lost a stalwart small-ship operator when Cruise West closed earlier this year, but Sydney-based Adventure World is now representing another Seattle-based line, American Safari Cruises, which runs small-ship cruises in Alaska’s Inside Passage (including Glacier Bay National Park). www.adventureworld.com.au, www.americansafaricruises.com, www.innerseadiscoveries.com
Linked inextricably to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, the Galapagos is a wondrously diverse archipelago of volcanic equatorial islands in the Pacific, 972 kilometres west of Ecuador. Ecuadorian territory and a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Galapagos has a fast-growing human population of perhaps 30,000, along with its domestic animals. Original residents include Galapagos sea lions, land and marine iguanas, giant tortoises (Darwin rode one but you mustn’t), green turtles, Galapagos penguins and blue-footed booby birds. Visitors love the latter for their large, blue, flappy feet. As Darwin noted, many animals here seem quite tame.
Galapagos cruises usually involve a flight from the Ecuadorian mainland. Celebrity Xpedition (Celebrity Cruises) operates regular Galapagos cruises lasting seven or 10 nights. These are enormously popular and tend to book out well in advance. Inside cabins and Verandah cabins book out first, leaving mid-range Ocean View cabins and top-of-the range Suites available. An Ocean View cabin costs from AU$3,909 per person for a 10-night cruise (sailing from Baltra, Galapagos, on January 30, 2011) at the time of writing. Prices fluctuate quite widely, according to sailing dates. www.celebritycruises.com
The 48-passenger National Geographic Islander (a ship run by National Geographic in alliance with Lindblad Expeditions) and National Geographic Endeavour also operate Galapagos cruises, catering mainly for American guests. Locally based ships accommodating between 40 and 100 passengers (Galapagos Explorer II and Galapagos Legend are two of the better known) run cruises lasting about a week. www.expeditions.com, www.galapagosexplorer.com
Antarctica, where penguins outnumber people, is a fragile wilderness protected by treaties stipulating that no ship carrying more than 500 passengers may make landings. From next August, no ship carrying or using heavy fuel oil will be allowed in Antarctic waters. Passenger numbers to Antarctica are expected to drop from more than 15,000 a year to about 6,400.
“From 2011 onwards, there will be far fewer ships sailing to Antarctica,” confirms the business head of Bentours, Jeremy Hearst. Bentours’ Antarctic cruises, operated by Hurtigruten and Gap Adventures, met the new requirements and would not be affected, Hearst added, so should “sell out fast for the 2011/2012 cruising season”. www.bentours.com, www.gadventures.com, www.hurtigruten.com
Apart from the great white continent, the Antarctic region is dotted by islands, some with such memorable names as Inexpressible Island, Fabulous Island and Deception Island.
Aurora Expeditions caters for small, low-impact groups keen to experience Antarctica, “be it climbing, scuba diving, sea kayaking or sitting quietly and absorbing the beauty”. Aurora has introduced a fly/sail option on five new voyages to the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia, departing from or returning to King George Island (in the South Shetland Islands) or Port Stanley (in the Falkland Islands).
Flights depart from either Punta Arenas or Santiago, cutting out one Drake Passage crossing and giving passengers an in-depth exploration of the Antarctic Peninsula on a shorter overall trip. Expeditions are scheduled right through into 2012. www.auroraexpeditions.com.au
One of the paradoxes of the United Kingdom is that so many people live in the country’s south and so few in the north. England is densely populated (395 people per square kilometre), while Scotland’s population density is just 65 people per square kilometre.
About 70 per cent of Scotland’s population lives in the Central Lowlands, leaving the glorious Highlands largely devoid of inhabitants but full of grand expanses, wonderful scenery and plentiful wilderness. Scotland’s Western Isles (Hebrides) are especially remote and beautiful, having been described as the last natural wilderness in Europe.
The Fred Olsen Cruise Lines ship Black Watch (named after a Scottish regiment) runs the occasional cruise around Britain from Dover. One departing on June 10, 2011 will visit Tobermory on the Isle of Mull and Scotland’s Orkney Islands. www.fredolsencruises.com
Holland America Line (HAL) has quadrupled its ex-UK sailings for 2011. On August 29, 2011, HAL’s 793-passenger Prinsendam will commence a 14-day ‘Celtic Worlds’ round-Britain cruise from Tilbury, visiting the Scottish ports of Oban, Portree (Isle of Skye), Scrabster and Queensferry. www.hollandamerica.com
Hebridean Island Cruises runs the small (50-passenger) luxury cruise ship Hebridean Princess, which was famously chartered by Queen Elizabeth II for her 80th birthday. Guided walks cover hills and mountains, seashores and lochs, “with the promise of a nip of whisky and a fine and hearty meal back on board”. Cruises last four and 10 nights, departing mainly from Oban. One itinerary finishes with a visit to the charmingly named islands of Rum and Muck. www.hebridean.co.uk