Main photo: Chinatown in Singapore (Getty Images)
It’s only been 200 years since the planet’s seventh continent was first sighted, but in that time a lot has changed. Once accessed only by hardy explorers, it’s rapidly becoming a popular cruise destination — yet the sense of awestruck wonder and discovery remains the same. Setting sail from Ushuaia, your luxury cruise ship will cross the infamous Drake Passage, flanked by albatross, petrels and other resilient seabirds. It’s a taste of the remarkable wildlife to follow – expect to find Weddell seals balancing on ice floes, humpback whales fluking in glacier-backed bays, and millions of penguins who never fail to entertain. Activities are split between Zodiac boat rides through sculpted icebergs and shore excursions along the Antarctic Peninsula, where pristine snowscapes create some of the most extreme environments on Earth.
2. The Mekong
Weaving a route through six countries, the Mekong river presents a fine tapestry of Southeast Asian life. Most itineraries focus on the waterway’s lower section, exploring Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, with shore excursions to several Unesco World Heritage Sites. In Luang Prabang, rise at dawn to witness the 600-year-old ritual of Tak Bak, where offerings of sticky rice are presented to saffron-robed monks; at Angkor Wat, explore 400 acres of 12th-century temple ruins entwined by Banyan tree roots. Hectic Ho Chi Minh city provides a snapshot of a modern world. The finest treasures, however, are uncovered on the river: sail past fishing villages backed by iridescent green fields and buy from vendors selling a rainbow of produce from their longboats.
Starting in the Himalayas and running into the Bay of Bengal, the Ganges is the spiritual artery of India. Hindus wash, swim and float candles in the river, which has become a focus for the country’s irresistible carnival of colour and chaos. The destination is growing in popularity, even though low water levels mean most trips use tributaries the Hooghly, Jalangi and Bhagirathi. Start in Kolkata, a city decorated by vestiges of British colonial rule, and pass by curiosities such as terracotta temple Kalna and the Hazarduari Palace in Murshidba, home to 1,000 doors. Add on a visit to holy city Varanasi, on the Ganges proper, one of the oldest civilisations in the world.
An archipelago of almost 7,000 islands, Japan is a joy to navigate by cruise ship, marvelling at coastlines and accessing remote national parks. Pick a voyage visiting the largest main island, Honshu, where capital city Tokyo sits at the mouth of a bay. What started as a fishing village has become a high-tech city, where ancient temples and imperial palaces share a skyline with skyscrapers and neon-lit computer arcades, festooned with cherry blossom in March and April. Take a shore excursion to the snow-capped Mount Fuji, less than 100km away, and discover Ishigaki island, where urbanites swap concrete for sandy beaches and rare blue coral reefs. Other island highlights include mountainous Shikoku, famous for its centuries-old markets, and Okinawa, the birthplace of karate.
Fine gastronomy, grand historical monuments and charming countryside views are part and parcel of a journey along the Rhône, a top choice for a European river cruise. Rising from the Rhone Glacier in Valais, Switzerland, the waterway wends into France, where it meets the Soane river, and many itineraries continue south. Squeeze through the narrow “traboules” passageways of Lyons, stopping to eat at a plethora of Michelin-starred restaurants, admire the Roman amphitheatre in Arles, a city that once inspired Van Gogh, and wander the medieval streets of Avignon, dominated by Gothic powerhouse, the Palace of the Popes. Resplendent lavender fields, magnificent winelands and the plunging limestone cliffs of Pont d’Arc provide eye candy along the way.
6. The Rhine
Coursing through the heart of Europe, a trip along the mighty Rhine is an enduringly popular cruise. Many itineraries operate between Basel and Amsterdam, promising dramatic scenery, medieval villages and romantic turrets plucked from a fairytale book. Most of the epic architecture is concentrated in the middle section: a 65km stretch between Bingen, Rudesheim and Koblenz, a Unesco World Heritage Site. The landscape of volcanic hills, dense evergreen forests and terraced vineyards has inspired numerous writers, including the Brothers Grimm. With almost too many cathedrals and castles to discover in one go, cruise reviews recommend a repeat trip.
At the height of summer in Norway, the sun’s rays barely dip below the horizon, leaving more hours to marvel at the country’s scene-stealing fjords. Sail through steep gorges tumbling with waterfalls, admire reflections of red fishermen’s houses in glassy glacial waters, and glide with eagles on electrifying RIB boat rides. A popular cruise itinerary will include Gerainger Fjord and its Seven Sisters Falls, thundering with such power you can taste the spray. In Stavanger, stroll through Europe’s best-preserved wooden house settlement and take a shore excursion to Pulpit Rock, one of the planet’s most-impressive viewing platforms. Bergen’s colourful Hanseatic wharf, Bryggen, is equally thrilling, along with the town’s 13th-century waterfront fish market.
Scattered with idyllic islands and fringed by sandy beaches, the coastline of Croatia is perfect for a Mediterranean cruise. A joy to reach by water, the walled city of Dubrovnik could easily rival Venice for romantic grandeur; fans will recognise it as a set from Game of Thrones. Visit the Franciscan Monastery, with its ancient pharmacy and library of 30,000 volumes, or sunbathe on Banje Beach in eye line of the medieval town. Other historical highlights along the Adriatic include Split’s sprawling Roman masterpiece, Diocletian’s Palace, and Pula’s amphitheatre dating back to 27 BC. In between, hop on and off islands – Hvar is famous for its lively bars while sleepy Mljet has an atmospheric 12th-century Benedictine monastery.
9. The Caribbean
Thanks to its wealth of glorious beaches wrapping around islands within easy reach of one another, the Caribbean is a popular cruise destination for sun-seekers; with most itineraries, it’s possible to wake up in a new country every day. Each nation has its own distinct character, meaning there’s enough to please wildlife lovers, history enthusiasts and food fans. In laid-back Jamaica, beach shacks sizzle with the smell of jerk chicken and the sounds of reggae, while Grenada entices visitors with aromatic spices and delicious chocolate. Remnants of colonial history can be found at the Garrison fortress in Barbados and Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park in Saint Kitts; for a nature fix, snorkel with turtles in Tobago, or fill your plate with fusion cuisine in St Maarten.
A cruise is the perfect introduction to Australia’s riches, whether you opt for a full circumnavigation or a sector of a longer South Pacific voyage. The Sydney Opera House, Sydney Harbour Bridge and Bondi Beach are the obvious bucket-list spots for first-timers but there’s far more to see. In and around Melbourne, there’s edgy street art and the beauty of the Mornington Peninsula. Arty Adelaide is the jumping-off point for the vineyards of the Barossa Valley, while the white-sand beaches of nearby Kangaroo Island are a more off-the-beaten-path stop. Laid-back Perth is endless surf beaches, cool farmers’ markets and the food and wine trails of the Swan Valley. For days exploring the Great Barrier Reef, pick a cruise line calling at Cairns. Or why not join an expedition to the wild, remote Kimberley Coast for cascading waterfalls, sculpted cliffs and Aboriginal rock art?
11. The US
Whether you bookend your voyage with a few days in New York or simply have a day to see the sights, the Big Apple buzzes with energy. Manhattan is a place to walk, wandering through the different neighbourhoods, taking it all in, from the steaming noodle bars of Chinatown to the quirky shops and restaurants of Greenwich Village, or the glitz of fabled Fifth Avenue. Make time for some of the museums and galleries — The Metropolitan Museum of Art is truly spectacular — and lose yourself in the green expanse of Central Park. Stroll through the canyons of Wall Street, pay your respects at the poignant 9/11 memorial and ride the iconic Staten Island Ferry for views of the Statue of Liberty.
Leave your cruise ship in Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro for a trip to the heart of Iguazu National Park, spanning the borders of Argentina and Brazil. Here, the Iguazu Falls is a phenomenal testament to the power of nature. Some 275 cascades thunder into a 270-foot abyss as the Iguazu river pours over a cliff face nearly two miles long, making it one of the world’s largest waterfalls. To see the highest and most dramatic fall, Devil’s Throat, you’ll walk out onto a catwalk over the Upper Iguazu River for jaw-dropping views of the cascades. While you’re walking around the park, look out for the colourful wildlife: toucans, parrots, capuchin monkeys and coatimundis. You may even spot a jaguar.
13. The Danube
A voyage along the Danube is one of the most intriguing European river cruises, taking in no less than four capital cities: Vienna, Bratislava, Belgrade and Budapest. Voyages range from a few days, calling in at Vienna and Budapest, to more than two weeks if you sail the entire navigable stretch of the river, from Passau to the Black Sea, an increasingly popular cruise. Either way, the highlights come thick and fast. Vienna is the home of Strauss waltzes, grand coffee houses, world-class opera, dancing Lipizzaner horses and some of the world’s finest baroque palaces. In Budapest, the old ramparts and the turreted Fishermen’s Bastion gaze down over the Danube from a steep hill. The scenery along the river changes constantly, from the lush vineyards of Austria’s Wachau Valley to the craggy Iron Gates Gorge and, eventually, the vast skies of the steppes.
Known as “the Last Frontier”, Alaska is America’s least-populated state. Cruises here really give you the opportunity to see what nature is like when it’s let off the leash. The shore excursions in Alaska offer the opportunity to make indelible memories — take a brown bear safari, snap photos of sea lions, go whale watching and attend a salmon bake to dine on salmon that’s minute-fresh from the net. Highlights of itineraries around this largely untamed land include Unesco-listed Glacier Bay National Park with its meringue-like landscape of ice and snow, and College Fjord, which is lined by looming shark fin-shaped mountains and is home to the world’s largest collection of tidewater glaciers.
With more than 6,000 islands laid out like a dot-to-dot puzzle in the Aegean and Ionian seas, Greece is a land made for exploring by ship. Start in Athens and spend your first couple of days exploring the capital before heading to the port of Piraeus to embark. Top cruise destinations include Mykonos, with its waterside cocktail bars and sun-bleached beaches; Rhodes, with its Unesco Old Town and uninterrupted bands of sand; and Santorini, where white houses cling to the cliffsides of the volcanic caldera like snowdrifts, and the sunsets appear so fierce they look like they could set the sea on fire.
Singapore may be the springboard for cruises into Indonesia, Australia and the South Pacific and the final stop on sailings from Hong Kong and Thailand, but it’s far more than a boring bookend as far as destinations go. This island city-state is home to sci-fi style architecture, verdant green parks, mile-long shopping streets, and Florida-beating theme parks. Take a swim in the world’s longest elevated swimming pool at Marina Bay Sands, visit the world’s first nocturnal zoo, and walk the aerial pathways suspended between the other-worldly tree sculptures at Gardens by The Bay. For something more traditional, head to grand Raffles hotel to sip on a Singapore Sling.