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Round Australia on two top ships

June 12, 2017

One sunny day in 1891, a German ship belonging to Hapag-Lloyd Cruises set off in the Mediterranean with no itinerary in mind. The captain declared, in effect, he was going nowhere, and cruising was born.
In today’s world of cruise ships, it would appear not a lot has changed in that many passengers don’t particularly care about where they are going, or indeed about being at sea. What lures them aboard modern mega-ships ships is an intoxicating array of bars, theme restaurants, jingling casinos, waterslides, zip lines, rock-climbing walls, the whole fandango topped with pools crammed with kids.
But there is another way – voyages, where you are going somewhere. Cunard does crossings, Southampton to New York, which is a hugely significant journey – think of the Mayflower and Ellis Island, the Blue Riband and Titanic.
Other lines sail adventurous routes, such as Antarctica, the Galapagos Islands, they take a passage to India, or a voyage to Australia, which has the added advantage of avoiding two long flights, including the ones where you stop for a camel ride.
Australia has long been one of my favourite places, particularly for a winter good-weather escape, while sailing into Sydney harbour is one of the world’s greatest travel experiences.
And why did it take so long to find this huge continent? Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras (560–480 BC) and his followers were the first to document the theory of land masses in the southern hemisphere to counterweight the northern hemisphere to ensure a balance in the globe. This idea of a large southern continental mass strongly influenced cartographers until the late1400s with the belief in the unknown Great South Land.
However despite the close attention of Portuguese, Dutch and French navigators, what
became known as Australia was not circumnavigated and charted until 1810 by British Lieutenant Matthew Finders.The pioneering voyage of 1770 by Captain James Cook had established that the mythical Great South Land was Antarctica, and both it and Australia were separate continents.
Along the way many great voyages had been undertaken, not a few ending in tragedy, such as the disappearance of the French navigator La Perouse, whose ships were last seen off Botany Bay by the First Fleet. His ships were wrecked on the Solomon Islands with no survivors.
Last winter, motivated that two fine ships were offering a near circumnavigation of Australia, I packed my bags.
I did have one long flight to get to the region, but it was to Bangkok and the magical Oriental Hotel. Five nights indulgence there, a quick hop to Bali, then Ubud where the new Ritz-Carlton has beautiful villas and bigger pools than the Aman resorts.
Seminyak is worth a quick visit if only to go to Sardine, a seafood restaurant with Balinese flair in a gorgeous paddyfield setting, owned by a guy from Beaune, France. His father had Hotel de la Poste in Beaune, and I knew him.
The first cruise was on the new Seabourn Encore, bound for Sydney.
This is a handsome vessel, the first third-generation ship for Seabourn following the 10,000 tonners with 212 passengers, and Odyssey class, which are 32,000 tons and carry 450. Encore weighs in at 40,000 tons and takes 600. Getting up there, you might think, but still a small ship compared to the whoppers with 6000 passengers on board.
These days, ships for 900 are described as small. To which any old salt might say, “Yeah right,” and point to the hugely popular little ships of Sea Dream Yacht Club. The two vessels are 4000 tons and cruise with just 112 passengers. Their owner is Atle Brynestad, who founded Seabourn in 1986 and later sold it to Carnival Corp.
All cabins on the Seabourn Encore are forward, with the pool, restaurants and spa aft, but there is a top-deck area forward, the Retreat, where you can pay an extra $250 and more for cabanas and a hot tub. Fine if you want a quiet area but it is a long way from the excellent pool.
Also forward is the Observation lounge, with a sociable bar and attractive seating offering good sea views. Team Trivia was hosted here by outstanding cruise director Handre, and might have been the most popular event on board.
Cabins are first rate in the best Seabourn tradition, but an unnecessary piece of furniture at the end of the bed cramps movement. No a big problem though, and more than made up for by our butler; so good I would like to have taken him home.
Seabourn Square has guest services staff dealing with passenger queries in person and on the phone, shore excursions, et al. It also has a coffee bar, newspapers and is a big success as the social hub of the ship. Other cruise lines please copy.
I also enjoyed the Club, a cozy room with a house band, but arguably the best watering hole was Katy’s Piano Bar at the Grill. Barmen at both were perfect, and blokes you could talk to. On the other hand the star at the latter was Katy, an entertainer with a big future.
The Grill by Thomas Keller, as it is called, Seabourn’s new headline dining venture, was heavily booked and I liked it, although I heard some complaints about the service. The main restaurant is very attractive and presented some good dishes daily, backed up by an a la carte menu where you could always get favourites such as delicious rack of lamb.
The small Sushi was popular, as was the Patio deck diner, while the Colonnade, the indoor/outdoor restaurant anchoring the aft end of Deck 9, catered for breakfast, lunch and evening theme menus. It was often busy, and the outdoor section could be noisy. If you know smaller ships you will notice the difference here.
My only other gripe was the Grand Salon showroom which has too many pillars. Production shows have talented artists but poor material. There were several good individual performers and popular speakers such as Lord Digby Jones and an Australian maritime pilot, Peter Martin, a key man for this itinerary, not only for his sea yarns but local information, such as where to get the best fish and chips in Cairns (Barramundi at Dundee’s on the waterfront).
In days of old there were more pressing issues for the likes of Captain Cook, who had to beach his ship for repairs just north of here after Endeavour hit the Great Barrier Reef.
The Whitsunday Islands were a popular stop, lush islands that must have put paid to early explorers’ notions that Australia was an arid land with no settler potential, but it was Sydney that everyone was waiting for.
Some wanted to see the Opera House, others the bridge, and a few couldn’t wait to get hold of a pint at the Lord Nelson, or indeed the Mercantile pub. All of this was on my mind when I awoke early, minutes before the Encore turned between the heads and entered the most spectacular harbour in the world.
What was it like, I wondered, for the 1400 souls aboard the 11 vessels of the First Fleet, as it became known, to be here on August 26, 1788, now Australia’s national day? They had just experienced one of the planet’s great sea voyages of eight months – stops at Rio, Cape Town, and the Roaring Forties along the south coast.
Most of them knew they would never leave this place, and what awaited them? The full story of the First Fleet is brilliantly told in Robert Hughes’ book the Fatal Shore. Nobody should go to Australia without reading it.
Luckily we berthed at the Ocean Passenger Terminal at Circular Quay, close to where the First Fleet anchored. If a bigger ship had been in port we would have to go under the bridge to dock at charmless White Bay. It’s almost worth choosing your ship to be at the OPT, a perfect location opposite the Opera House. Here you can watch the ferries go by, many of them named after the convict ships, and what’s more, walk around the historic Rocks district.
Like many of the disembarking passengers, I stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel in Sydney. The views from here are amazing, but unfortunately a fast transit system is being installed at the hotel’s front door, a project that will last at least two years. In the meantime I would avoid any hotels on George Street.

And so to Melbourne, where the Silver Whisper, fresh from a refit, waited for the next leg. And who was there but Fernando, a legend among cruise directors, with his big smile and infectious enthusiasm. Someone poured me a lively gin and tonic, and we were off to a good start.
I should add that on both ships all drinks and wines are included, and tipping is not necessary.
During dinner we left Port Phillip Bay passing Portsea to port. This is a delightful little resort with a sporty golf course. In fact this whole area is a place to linger. It’s just a short ferry ride to the other side and Barwon Heads links course, and a hop, skip and a jump to Angelsea Golf Club, famous for the kangaroos on its course. Here you’re on the Great Ocean Road, one of the best drives in Australia, leading to Adelaide and its vineyards.
A stroll around Silver Whisper showed the recent refurbishment was a good job well done. The ship, built in 2000, sparkles like new with beautiful carpets, flooring and furniture. My cabin impressed with fresh furnishings, handsome and warm light wood and an elegant marbled bathroom.
Similarly the main restaurant, with the same light wood and clever lighting, was a pleasure, and several nights there were dinner dances, when the ship’s band, or a DJ, had many passengers up and dancing. Where else can you do this?
First port was Adelaide. A vineyard visit is an option here and fleets of buses and taxis took passengers into the Barossa Valley and Adelaide Hills. Having done the wine routes, I took a tram to the beach at Glenelg, named after the village in Scotland close to Skye.
We left Adelaide with a stiff breeze and the captain’s warning it would be rough about 3 am. Then Silver Whisper slipped by north of Kangaroo Island and entered the Great Australian Bight.
This is one of Australia’s mot demanding stretches of water. Joshua Slocum, first person to circumnavigate the world single-handed, choose to avoid it, and yachting author Jeff Toghill described it as the world’s most unpleasant stretch of coastal water.
On the other hand it can be quite benign, but that is usually when sailing west to east. We were going the wrong way! It was as rough as the Drake Passage, the fearsome stretch of water between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula. As was said in the Goon Show: “Act three, at sea – harrumph…”
Little calmer the next day, but just 16 deg outside. The shop could have done a roaring trade in fleece jackets, but nothing remotely warm for sale. Duh….
Next day (three sea days from Adelaide to Perth) it warmed up and and the chart screen showed Esperance on the coast due north. Been there … next landmark was Albany, right on the southern tip of the west coast, which has a fine links golf course.
Then Freemantle, the port for Perth, and a sunny day. Phew. Visited the excellent Maritime Museum, Shipwreck Galleries and the gaol. Always a gaol! Fremantle a good stop, with many old colonial buildings, an artsy vibe and a street known locally as Cappuccino Row. Here and in Perth smiles galore with genuinely friendly people.
With great beaches, and the Margaret River wine area nearby ,you can see why this is considered one of the best places in the world to live.
Friends took us to JoJo’s Cafe, actually a very nice restaurant with an attractive riverside location, which humbly describes itself as a casual joint. That’s Australia.
Then up the coast to Geraldton where we docked beside a huge gantry loading iron ore on to a Chinese freighter. A free bus, something Silversea is good at, took us to a visitor centre where a swarm of volunteers waited. Nearby we found an excellent museum with stories of HMAS Sydney, an Australian warship sunk by a German raider, and the Dutch merchant ship Batavia, a fascinating saga of mutiny and murder.
The remaining days took in Exmouth, famous for its Ningaloo reef and swimming with whale sharks. It was not the season for this but most were happy to enjoy the ship with sun-washed leisurely activities around the pool, where waiters dispensed tall drinks and meals.
We found time, thankfully, to slip into Le Champagne, where for a modest charge had a dinner which could be accurately described as truly gourmet, when we had caviar to go with the champagne that was flourished freely around the ship.
If only we had Cook and Flinders to join us. Their stories would have been worth a glass or two.

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