An Australian stay-and-cruise adventure is a fabulous way to experience cosmopolitan Sydney and the extraordinary natural beauty of Tasmania, discovers Cruise International Editor Liz Jarvis
We’re sailing under Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Opera House just ahead of us. The sun is dazzling, the sky is blue and there are people lined up on the shore waving to us. As iconic cruise moments go, it’s right up there, and all of the guests on the top deck of Dawn Princess fall into silence as we gaze up at the majestic ironwork above us and marvel at the skyline of one of the most captivating cities in the world. As a prelude for our cruise to Tasmania it’s simply unforgettable, a taste of what’s to come.
Our Australian adventure began with five days in Sydney, a chance to relax after the long flight and explore. With its glorious beaches, parks, museums, superb shopping, restaurants and cosmopolitan atmosphere, it’s an easy city to fall in love with and a hard one to leave.
Dawn Princess is smaller than many ships in the Princess Cruises fleet but it has the same air of relaxed glamour, as well as pleasing authentic touches to remind you that you’re definitely cruising in Australasia. I’m delighted to find that there’s a New Zealand ice-cream parlour on board, arguably the best gelato in the world, selling a variety of flavours including my favourite Hokey Pokey (honeycomb toffee), with donations made to the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal Fund. In the spa I treat myself to a blissful full-body Rotorua mud mask and massage, which certainly goes a long way to relieving my jet lag. And, of course, there’s always Vegemite available at breakfast.
Tasmania (or Tassie, as Australians call it) may be small in comparison to the mainland but we’re told it’s actually the size of Holland and Belgium combined. Our first port of call is the town of Burnie, and from here we join a full-day excursion to Cradle Mountain National Park. It’s a two-hour drive but our excellent (German-born) guide keeps us entertained with local history and knowledge and, by the time we arrive at the park, we’re all in very good spirits and ready to explore.
Wild for nature
With its ancient rainforests and alpine heaths, waterfalls and impossibly tall trees, including King Billy pines and beech, the park is utterly breathtaking, with a rugged natural beauty. It’s November and still early spring in Tasmania so it’s not exactly warm, but the sun is bright and there are birds everywhere as we make our way along the boardwalk under the shade of the tree canopy.
Suddenly we hear a rustling in the bushes and there in front of us is a wild wallaby and a tiny joey. They are absolutely gorgeous, and stay perfectly still for an all-too brief moment before the baby climbs into its mother’s pouch and she hops away. We also spot a wild wombat – and discover they can move surprisingly fast. After trekking through the forest we’re taken to magnificent Dove Lake, with its backdrop of Cradle Mountain, and spend a short while enjoying the tranquility.
On our two sea days I make the most of the onboard pools and decks and also spend an afternoon in the Sanctuary retreat, where I enjoy a fishbowl-sized strawberry daiquiri and a sumptuous afternoon tea of finger sandwiches, cakes, pastries and warm scones. While it’s sometimes too windy to sit outside, there are plenty of spaces inside to chill out with a book or catch up on some sleep. And we also indulge in dinner at the superb Sterling Steakhouse, which has great sea views. There are quite a few Brits on our sailing but of course we’re outnumbered by Aussies – who are all super-friendly.
Our next port of call is Port Arthur, the site of the 19th-century penal colony where many British convicts were transported, including young boys, which makes me weep.
We opt for an excursion to a local wildlife sanctuary, where we meet kangaroos and wallabies and also see Tasmanian devils for the first time. Forget the cartoon depiction; they’re actually intriguing little creatures with alarmingly sharp teeth and beady brown eyes. Sadly they’re currently endangered because of a rather vicious facial tumour disease. It’s a joy to watch them interacting and playing with each other, although I can’t help wishing that they were roaming free.
Charm in abundance
The final stop on our Tasmanian itinerary is Hobart, with its charming historic waterfront. It’s a fantastic place to wander around and get fish and chips but we also join an excursion to the wonderful Bonorong Sanctuary, which helps injured and orphaned wildlife, including wombats and koalas. One of the volunteers is known as The Wombat Lady because she has hand-reared so many orphaned wombats (their mothers killed by cars), and she introduces us to a joey wrapped in a pink blanket. We also feed the rescued kangaroos. This is quite an experience because they grip our hands with their paws (and claws) when they want food, which is pretty much all of the time, and every so often they pull themselves up to their full height, which is slightly intimidating. But they are happy to have their ears tickled and their very soft coats stroked, and it’s impossible not to fall in love with them – and feel more than a little shocked to see kangaroo hides on sale at the airport on the way home.
We arrive back in Sydney at dawn, the sky above the Harbour Bridge a riot of lilac, crimson and gold. Only Cathay Pacific’s sublime business class makes the flight home a little more bearable because I’m genuinely sad to have left Australia, and that glorious moment of cruising past the Sydney skyline will stay with me forever.
Where to stay: With its impressive location just moments from Sydney Harbour and the Royal Botanic Garden, the luxurious Intercontinental Hotel is a superb base for exploring the city. Executive rooms have views of the harbour and give you access to the rooftop club lounge, which offers incredible breakfasts and hors d’oeuvres served with panoramic views – sit outside and enjoy the sunshine. Décor throughout the hotel is sumptuous and contemporary, and rooms are furnished in soothing coffee and cream. Attention to detail is superb – in executive rooms they offer complimentary pressing, and leave a little boomerang to say goodbye on your final night (+ 61 2 9253 9000, ihg.com).
Getting there: An Australia & New Zealand 12-night cruise sailing on board Diamond Princess from Sydney, with calls including Hobart in Tasmania next February, starts at £939pp, based on two people sharing an indoor stateroom (0843 374 2261; princess.com). Cathay Pacific has flights from London to Sydney via Hong Kong, with fares starting from £600.57 (0800 917 8260; cathaypacific.co.uk).