Plotting the best course

Scenic Crystal cruise ship.
Scenic Crystal cruise ship.

Louise Goldsbury sets out the case for ocean versus river cruising.

To define the difference between ocean and river cruising is to contrast a resort holiday with a boutique hotel - the mode of travel may be similar but the journeys are barely comparable. Much greater than the two respective types of waterways, the distinction comes down to each ship's features, activities and level of service, as well as the vibe created by your fellow travellers and crew.

Small things can make a big difference. For example, most river vessels carry fewer than 160 people and offer free shore excursions, wi-fi, and wine with lunch and dinner. Whereas, on the open seas, ship capacities range from 100 to 6000 passengers, with extra charges for tours, internet and, usually, drinks. (Regent Seven Seas is the only ocean-going cruise line to include all shore excursions and an open bar.)

Then there are the subtle variations between companies. All riverboats exteriors look much the same, but inside is another story. The suites on Avalon Waterways look more like a room at the Park Hyatt, while Uniworld's newest designs are inspired by Versailles, decked out in lavish antiques and with the rare feature of a pool.

APT also has pools on its two latest river ships, as well as seven dining venues. Scenic Tours emphasises innovations such as electronically assisted bicycles and GPS headsets for self-guided tours.

Another difference is that Scenic, APT, Uniworld and Sea Cloud Cruises have all-inclusive fares, but Avalon and Viking provide fewer inclusions (often for fewer dollars) for those who rarely use the freebies.

Choosing an ocean cruise is much tougher because the ship, sometimes more than the destination, can greatly influence your holiday. The major brands vary widely in number and type (or stereotype) of passengers and the size and style of ship.

The superliners (P&O, Princess, Cunard, Carnival, Holland America, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises) provide more-diverse amenities, which is great for all ages and multi-generational families. However, sharing the experience with a couple of thousand others means longer queues for check-in, disembarkation and the buffet. Of the Australian-based ships, Celebrity Solstice is the highest rated, with an elegant atmosphere, spa cabins, and excellent restaurants and cocktail bars. The other lines are geared more towards fun-seekers, except for Cunard's Queens, which are best for a grander celebration of a special occasion.

A smaller vessel (whether river or ocean, accommodating fewer than 500 passengers) avoids the crowds but lacks the buzz of a lively pool deck. Those preferring this kind of quiet escape should consider anything beginning with S (Seabourn, Silversea and SeaDream), where the focus is on fine dining and five-star service. "Upper premium" Oceania Cruises also prides itself on its cuisine and runs the only hands-on cooking classes at sea.

For the best of both worlds, Regent and Crystal Cruises combine luxuries with a larger ship: complimentary drinks and trips, and an all-day program of events. If you're more of a night person, Azamara Club Cruises has the most overnight stays and evening tours, plus free drinks on board.

The two best ways to choose a cruise are to speak to a travel agent and analyse advertisements and websites. Children on water slides are strong signs of a family-friendly holiday, while a butler holding champagne is a big hint that only adults are encouraged. for travel agencies specialising in cruises.


Chris Hall, general manager, APT

The difference is probably even deeper than river versus ocean cruising. It is more about the experience of small groups. Life on the river is not quite cruising; it is meandering, exploring, getting close to people and culture.

Essentially it is an intimate experience due to the small numbers of people on a river ship — about 150. Your fellow guests become friends, the crew becomes like family, your waiter knows what you like to drink — it's an incredibly personal experience. With such a high crew-to-passenger ratio you feel like they are there just for you.

With a smaller ship, you are often right in the heart of picture-postcard towns. You can pop on and off in each town or village and do what you want to do. The destinations are not restricted by the size of the ship and the ports you can access. If it's on the river, it's a potential stop to explore.

Small numbers mean you also feel less like a tourist; you can easily fit in with the locals while learning about each location with guides who are passionate about their home.

With some river cruises, there are no optional extras. Everything is included — all you need to do is enjoy yourself and leave your wallet in the safe.

A river ship is more of a boutique hotel experience. All cabins are on the outside but still have little extras such as room service and butlers. Rather than the big show productions at night, it is a more intimate club feel in the bars.

For those who fear seasickness, river cruising provides a smooth passage with no waves.


Ann Sherry, chief executive, Carnival Australia

Ocean cruising is without a doubt the most fantastic way to travel — and one of the easiest. Once you step on board a cruise ship, you just sit back and relax as the destinations come to you, enjoying languid days and nights as well as calls to some of the world's most beautiful ports.

What I love about ocean cruising is that you can travel great distances and visit a stunning array of places without having to change hotel rooms or worry about airports and taxis. Whether you're sailing through the remote islands of the Pacific or cruising the romantic ports of the Mediterranean, a cruise ship delivers you to beautiful destinations in speed and style.

Then there are the days at sea — there is something sublimely relaxing about travelling the world with nothing around you but the bluest of seas.

Ocean cruising is the only form of travel where you can truly relax and escape the shackles of land.

As much as I love the ports, I also adore the ships. Ocean cruising has come into its own over the past decade and our ships are very much destinations in their own right. Whether you're watching an aerial circus act, dining in a celebrity chef's restaurant, kayaking from a private marina, watching the stars or having a massage, there is a fantastic range of activities and sensational dining.

Of course, you can just relax and read a book on your private balcony. The options are as vast as the world's oceans, which is why there's an ocean cruise holiday to suit everyone.

This story Plotting the best course first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.