There is so much more to seafaring than the Caribbean
For cruise passengers, 2019 is shoring up to be a particularly exciting year. Not only are ships returning to places that have been perceived as politically-sensitive in recent years — such as Turkey and Egypt — they are also heading on increasingly remote voyages, to places that feel like the ends of the Earth. Here, the seafaring trips to prioritise in 2019.
Havana has been drawing thousands of mass-market cruisers since restrictions on US travel were eased in 2016. This year luxury lines join the party, offering deeper experiences and spending more time in ports than the larger ships. SeaDream Yacht Club — known for its casual atmosphere and extreme pampering from the crew — heads to Cuba this month with the 112-passenger SeaDream II, sailing between Havana and the French-founded city of Cienfuegos. Among its port calls is Isla de la Juventud, Cuba’s second-largest island, where you can snorkel among sponges and corals in the Punta Frances Marine National Park before returning to your ship for a standout Thai massage.
SeaDream is hardly the only plush way to visit Cuba by ship. Silversea launches a series of five voyages in February, and Seabourn begins sailing to Cuba in the fall. Bonus: Havana celebrates its 500th anniversary in November, making for tonnes of festivals, concerts, art exhibitions and other special events. SeaDream II sailing, from US$5,999 (RM24,710) per person for seven days
While the country is rebounding from a tourism slump that began with 2011’s Arab Spring, and this year luxury lines are returning to Egypt, meaning your World Cruise or Middle East itinerary will actually stop there rather than just pass through via the Suez Canal. Ocean lines such as Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Oceania Cruises and Silversea will call on Safaga, with access to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings — albeit on a dusty 124-mile (199.56km) bus transfer from the Red Sea through the desert — in the spring and fall.
River lines are exploring farther afield, stopping not just in Cairo and Luxor, but in archaeologically spectacular Aswan as well. Book a top suite on the 42-passenger Oberoi Philae, a steamwheeler replica that is chartered by companies such as Lindblad Expeditions, and you can lounge in your own open-air whirlpool while pretending you are Cleopatra on the Nile.
Passage through Egypt sailing with Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic on the Oberoi Philae, from US$8,480 (top suites from US$13,260) for 13 days
One of the most remote places on Earth, Arctic Greenland will be a hot spot with cruisers in 2019. Until recently it has only been possible to explore the area’s untouched fjords, glaciers, colourful towns and Viking sites on basic expedition ships. Now, new ships are being purpose-built to serve as base camps in icy waters. Among them, Norway-based Hurtigruten’s hybrid electric, 500-passenger Roald Amundsen, has a nifty underwater drone delivering video from down below and an infinity pool up on top. From either of those vantages — or even closer-up on excursions — you will be able to spot humpbacks and other whales, or see the northern lights high above.
Viking Heritage Cruise, from US$7,305 for 14 days
Cruising has always been the best way to see these remote islands, where you can snorkel and kayak with sea lions, get up close to sea iguanas, and go eye-to-eye with blue-footed boobies — all animals that are seemingly unfazed by your presence. And while there is no need to rough it, this year will see the introduction of several ultra-small ships to make the trips even more intimate. Most notable is the 100-passenger, all-suite Celebrity Flora, which premieres in June with special cabanas for overnight glamping. If you want to go even smaller, check out the new 16- to 20-passenger yachts available from Adventure Life.
Celebrity Flora sailings, from US$8,999 for seven days
A record-breaking 1.36 million cruisers are expected to arrive in Alaska from April to October this year — up from one million in 2017. Do not let occasional crowds scare you away, though. Seeing and hearing a glacier calve a house-size chunk into the sea is an experience that never gets old, and those increased tourism numbers simply mean there are more ways to do it than ever.
Princess Cruises is celebrating 50 years of bringing guests to see the flowing ice; Cunard returns after 20 years away; and Viking Ocean and Azamara Club Cruises are both making their debut in the Last Frontier State. (Pick Viking if you want more inclusions in your fare, Azamara if you are looking for an intimate sailing experience, Cunard for its old-world glamour.)
Alaska-bound fans of giant ships with whiz-bang amenities will find two new options this season, as well: the Norwegian Joy, with its top-deck racetrack, and the Ovation of the Seas, complete with robot bartenders.
Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth sailings, from US$1,549 (US$9,304 for the luxurious Queens Grill suites) for 10 days
After an attempted military coup in 2016, most cruise companies diverted their ships from Turkey to Greece. That pattern is slowly being reversed as tourism to Turkey picks back up. On the cruising front, that may have something to do with Turkish government financial incentives, which now run from US$25 to US$45 per passenger, according to ports operator Global Ports Holding.
See the impressive Blue Mosque and Roman Hippodrome with all-inclusive luxury line Regent Seven Seas (offering overnight stays beginning in June), and you will still have time to go on a shopping spree at the Grand Bazaar. Or try voyages on Regent, Holland America Line or Royal Caribbean, which are all adding back stops in Kusadasi; it is where you will get to see the Greco-Roman city of Ephesus and walk the same marble streets as Roman General Mark Antony.
Athens to Venice on Seven Seas Voyager in June, from US$8,999 for 11 days
Papua New Guinea and West Papua, Indonesia
Even for travellers who feel they have seen it all, the prospect of sailing the remote far west Pacific sounds like a thrilling opportunity to encounter communities far removed from the modern world. Australian small-ship line Coral Expeditions will make that prospect a reality when it unveils its 120-passenger expedition ship Coral Adventurer in May, sailing from Darwin to West Papua, Indonesia. The route is identical to the one Dutch explorer Abel Janszoon Tasman took 375 years ago, on his second great voyage. Additional itineraries add Papua New Guinea, the other half of the jungle-covered island, where you can learn about spirit masks and dip in hot springs before retreating to the tasteful comforts of the ship, whose wine cellar includes vintage Australian reds.
Coral Expeditions is not the only company showcasing the archipelago: French yacht line Ponant will sail the region in May with its swanky new vessel, La Laperouse. (You know it as the ship with an underwater bar and lounge.)
Coral Adventurer sailings, from US$6,815 for 10 days
Receding glaciers may add a sense of urgency for travellers who wish to explore the seventh continent. For a firsthand look at what is going on — and to understand the much broader potential global threat from the melting — cruise lines explore Antarctica’s icy waters from November to March. You will approach icebergs and glaciers, where the only sound you hear may be cracking ice. Sightings of orca and sperm whales, elephant seals, and human-size penguins are part of the scene. This year, so are new expedition ships with lots of toys, such as the 200-passenger Scenic Eclipse, equipped with a seven-seat submarine and two seven-seat helicopters for exclusive remote explorations of the white continent.
Scenic Eclipse sailings, from US$18,095 for 11 days. — Bloomberg