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Tipping on Ships: An Australian Culture Clash
Tipping on Ships: An Australian Culture Clash
14 Best Cruises for First Timers
Ovation of the Seas (Photo: Royal Caribbean International)

14 Best Cruises for First Timers

14 Best Cruises for First Timers
Ovation of the Seas (Photo: Royal Caribbean International)
Tiana Templeman
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Planning your first cruise can feel overwhelming. There are so many choices, from 'party boats' on a 'cruise to nowhere' and luxury yachts in the Mediterranean to river cruises in Asia and expedition ships in Antarctica. You need to put some careful thought into just what kind of traveller you are and which type of cruise you really want, while also factoring in budget, departure port and length of the trip.

So how do you figure out if a cruise line's personality is compatible with your needs? You could ask a travel agent -- or simply read through our handy shortlist of the very best cruise lines for first-timers.

  • P&O Cruises
  • Royal Caribbean International
  • Carnival Cruise Line
  • Princess Cruises
  • Celebrity Cruises
  • Holland America Line
  • Cruise & Maritimes Voyages
  • Norwegian Cruise Line
  • Oceania Cruises
  • Viking
  • Ponant
  • Cunard
  • Azamara
  • Coral Expeditions

    A Rendering of Luke Mangan's Salt Grill, to Feature Aboard P&O’s new Pacific Explorer (Photo: P&O Australia)

    1. P&O Cruises

    Best for: Value

    Why: P&O does charge extra for some things, such as poolside ice cream and burgers, but in other ways it has vastly improved in recent years thanks to smart refurbishments, new menus, celebrity chef restaurants and an ever-expanding array of itineraries. The fleet has departures from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Fremantle and Adelaide so most Australians don't need to pay for flights to board a cruise. The need to constantly fill so many cabins means there are often very good deals, particularly in the off-season (from May to September). Special offers for low-season cruises can see prices fall to as little as $100 a day twin share.

    None of the ships in the fleet are new; even the latest vessel, Pacific Explorer, was previously with Princess Cruises. Nonetheless, extensive refurbishments have created some lovely spaces on Explorer, Aria, and Dawn, including new Asian and Italian restaurants where dining is all part of the cruise fare. The Pantry food hall concept has replaced the age-old buffet, while Luke Mangan's Salt Grill is a popular place to dine (at an affordable $59 for a three-course banquet) for a special occasion. A Taste of Salt on Pacific Explorer costs $99, which is the cheapest seven-course degustation at sea. The $20 high tea is also fabulous value. Expect a 3.5-star experience, not a 5-star experience, and you won't be disappointed.

    Runner-up: Runner-up: Carnival also has some great fares, especially in the shoulder seasons from September to November and around March and April, with the exception of Easter and school holidays. Prices can get as low as $90 to $125 a day with certain deals. On the Sydney-based Carnival Spirit and Carnival Splendor, the food and service are exceptional. Most restaurants are complimentary, including pool deck venues offering Mexican, burgers and self-serve icecream. The hair-raising waterslides are another big hit. All entertainment is free.

    Both ships are around 15 years old and have over-the-top decor that takes a bit of getting used to -- think Las Vegas meets the ancient world where Grecian urns, Egyptian mummies and ceilings painted with nymphs and gods are the theme. You won't find much elegance on Spirit or Legend but you will find lots of family-friendly fun.

    The Flow Rider on Royal Caribbean International (Photo: Royal Caribbean International)

    2. Royal Caribbean International

    Best for: Families with Tweens and Teens

    Why: This is the wow-factor cruise line with more innovative, high-tech features than any other company at sea, so it naturally suits thrill-seekers and teens. Royal Caribbean introduced the world to rock-climbing walls several years ago and followed up with ice-skating rinks, surf simulator machines, slides that send their riders down 10-deck drops, bumper cars, sky-diving tunnels and glass domes that transport passengers via a crane-like arm high above the waves. Tweens are also able to take these thrill rides if they meet height requirements. Australia-based Ovation of the Seas comes with bumper cars, sky-diving and the North Star observation capsule, while Voyager of the Seas has an ice rink and surfing machine. There are diner-style burger joints and special teen hangouts, too.

    Runner-up: Carnival Cruise Line's ships have one of the fastest and steepest slides at sea and teens love it. Tweens have the yellow Twister waterslide to call their own, plus there are burgers, tacos and BBQ snacks to feast on and a big screen showing movies by the pool.

    Carnival Splendor WaterWorks (Photo: Carnival Cruise Line)

    3. Carnival Cruise Line

    Best for: Families with Small Children

    Why: Mini waterslides, character breakfasts, fun food and activities galore in the kids' clubs -- Carnival certainly looks after the little ones. While younger children can't ride Green Thunder or even the sedate yellow Twister, they can race each other down the tiny twin purple waterslides and squeal with delight under the big dunking bucket in the SplashZone. Through its Seuss at Sea partnership, Carnival offers youngsters the chance to meet Dr Seuss characters, such as Cat in the Hat and assorted strange friends, at a special Green Eggs and Ham breakfast, live shows and parades. The fun continues with towel-animal making classes and the cute Towel Animal Theatre where the fluffy creatures come to life. Kids and parents can also share the fun of Hasbro, The Game Show, where board games are played out on the theatre stage. Carnival also has five age-specific kids' clubs for children from three to 15. Late night babysitting is available for children aged three to 11 (from 11pm to 1am, for a fee), while toddlers and babies under three can play in the kids' club while supervised by their parents.

    Runner-up: On Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas, babies from six to 36 months are looked after in the nursery by child-care professionals (at an hourly rate), while free playgroup sessions (with parents) are also available for this age group. Kids' clubs cater for youngsters aged three to five, six to eight, nine to 11 and includes structured activities and hangouts for teens, too. There are fun parades along the Royal Promenade at least once during every cruise. Baby foods and nappies can be pre-ordered by parents before boarding.

    The Sanctuary on Regal Princess

    4. Princess Cruises

    Best for: Relaxation

    Why: This big ship cruise line, with almost 20 vessels in the fleet, has a huge following. Established in the mid-1960s, it's the original Love Boat line (the ship featured in the TV show was called Pacific Princess). Half a dozen Princess ships are based in Australia, offering plenty of itinerary choices. It is known as the leader in New Zealand cruising and recently expanded its range of shore excursions. An annual world cruise departing from Sydney and Auckland is also operated by Princess, providing great convenience for locals. The bigger ships in the fleet have great facilities including multiple pools, several main dining rooms, exceptional specialty restaurants, outdoor movie screens and good entertainment. Hot deals and bonuses such as upgrades to balcony cabins are offered regularly. You can enjoy long, decadent dinners at the excellent Crown Grill steakhouse or Curtis Stone's Share, sit back and enjoy the open-air cinema with popcorn and blankets, take advantage of the happy hour at the Wheelhouse Bar, find a quiet spot in The Sanctuary or the adults-only pool nearby, or relax in your cabin with free room service (which you don't get on other Australian ships).

    Runner-up: Celebrity Cruises is known as a premium cruise line, a cut above other ships that carry 2500-plus passengers. It was an instant hit with Australians when the 2008-built Solstice was deployed in 2012 to Sydney to operate summer cruises. Interiors and furnishings are elegant and passengers tend to match the sophisticated surroundings. The ultimate place to relax is on the grass at the top deck Lawn Club, perhaps with a picnic. Outdoor pools and the covered solarium pool are also inviting. Things liven up at night, especially during shows in the theatre and at the Martini Bar where waiters perform mixology feats to the thrall of the crowd, but there are no crazy waterslides or other noisy features.

    Crush on Celebrity Silhouette (Photo: Cruise Critic)

    5. Celebrity Cruises

    Best for: Indulgence and Luxury Seekers

    Why: Celebrity Cruises is known as a premium cruise line, a cut above other ships. It was an instant hit with Australians when the 2008-built Solstice was deployed in 2012 to Sydney to operate summer cruises. Interiors and furnishings are elegant and the ambience is sophisticated; not like a holiday camp at sea. Celebrity also stands out for its varied dining choices (French, Italian, Asian and more) in beautifully decorated restaurants with great service. Things liven up at night, especially during shows in the theatre, deck parties and at the Martini Bar where waiters perform mixology feats to the thrall of the crowd. Celebrity likes to bring the entertainment to the people so they'll bring the singers to the busiest bars without you having to seek it out.

    Runner-up: Paul Gauguin Cruises calls the beautiful islands of French Polynesia home, operating year-round seven-night cruises to the Society Islands, interspersed with occasional forays to the exotic Marquesas Islands, Fiji and the Cook Islands. The all-white 332-passenger ship is a great way to see these expensive isles in the lap of luxury without breaking the bank. Fine dining in three restaurants and all beverages, including alcohol and speciality coffees, are included in the fare along with access to private islands and beaches in Taha'a and Bora Bora.

    6. Holland America Line

    Best for: Mature Travellers

    Why: There's a lot to like about veteran cruise line Holland America (it's been around since 1873) from the teak wrap-around promenade decks and dedicated cinemas to the stylish afternoon teas and cooking classes held in the Culinary Arts School.  The 15-strong fleet used to be known as mid-size (carrying under 2000 people) but the latest ship, Nieuw Statendam, takes 2,666 passengers. Decor is subdued and stylish: the Explorations Cafe is one of the nicest public spaces on any ship with good coffee and a library. Passengers tend to be older on the line's longer itineraries (which include annual visits to Australia for the summer season) and on cruises in the off-season. Expect, however, to find families on Alaskan and Caribbean cruises in the school holidays.

    Holland America has a loyal following, and while appealing to an older crowd in general, it's far from stodgy. There are lively nights in the piano bar, excellent live music and B.B. King's Blues Club on most of the ships. The fun is always ramped up when Aussies get on board.

    Runner up: Princess Cruises offers a variety of longer itineraries including world cruises, Australian circumnavigations and exotic journeys to destinations such as South America. It's because of this that the passenger profile tends to be a bit older. The ships have a wealth of lovely features, including promenade decks, dedicated cinemas and an excellent daily afternoon tea service. The private adult relaxation area, known as the Sanctuary, is the ideal place to escape from the youngsters during cruises in the school holiday season.

    Vasco Da Gama (Photo: Cruise & Maritime Voyages)

    7. Cruise & Maritimes Voyages

    Best for: Singles and Solo Travellers

    Why: With a 'home-away-from-home' atmosphere and friendly, attentive service, CMV is a good choice for solo travellers who enjoy traditional ocean cruising on smaller ships. The UK-based line has six ships to choose from, including the Australia-based Vasco da Gama, which headlines the line's Australasian deployment. Homeporting in Adelaide and Fremantle, and also cruising from Auckland, Sydney and Singapore, Vasco da Gama has 40 dedicated single cabins. Onboard Columbus and Magellan, 150 twin cabins are set aside for single occupancy with a modest 25 percent supplement on the twin share price. On sailings of six nights or more, there is a program of solo traveller events including a welcome cocktail party and get-togethers with the opportunity to meet like-minded travellers.

    Runner up: Norwegian Cruise Line's newer ships have studio cabins designed for one person as well as communal living rooms to meet likeminded travellers. The older ships, such as Norwegian Jewel, which is based in Australia each summer, are not as solo-friendly. The main issue is the Freestyle Cruising concept, where people can dine at any time, which makes is harder to organise tables that a single passenger can join. At 6pm each evening, however, the Sailing Solo Social (18+) is held at Malting's Bar, which is a good way to find new friends or fellow diners. The American style of sitting at the bar is also a less obvious way to eat alone as you can chat to the bartender or the person at the next bar stool. O'Sheehan's and the Sushi Bar are the best casual venues on Norwegian Jewel for singles, or you can join the noisy fun at shared tables in Teppanyaki.

    Pitbull performing at Norwegian Cruise Line's CruiseWorld 2018 event (Photo: Norwegian Cruise Line)

    8. Norwegian Cruise Line

    Best for: Entertainment Enthusiasts

    Why: Norwegian ships offer musical revues, comedy and improv shows, live music and guest performers, but the line really shines with its newest ships: Norwegian Escape, Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway. The line takes its inspiration from land-based hits, and cruisers can experience Broadway musicals like Rock of Ages, After Midnight or Million Dollar Quartet; and music by duelling pianists and blues bands. The line even turns meals into theatre with dinner show Cirque Dreams. Throw in plenty of bars, discos, bowling and Wii, and you will never be bored onboard. Australians can enjoy the lively song-and-dance revue, Band on the Run and daring aerial acts of Le Cirque Bijou on Norwegian Jewel.

    Runner-up: Royal Caribbean's Ovation of the Seas was a close second for its next-level shows in the spectacular, double-deck Two70 venue. Look forward to robotics, acrobatics, 3D movies, slick choreography, comedians, an amazing sound system and fantastic special effects. Live music and dancing can be found in several bars, not to mention the robot bartenders. Kids entertainment is also top-notch. In other regions, Royal Caribbean's Oasis Class ships have edge-of-your-seat high-diving shows in the Aquatheatre pool and Broadway-style theatre productions such as Grease. Expect to be wowed onboard Voyager of the Seas by ice-skating shows, musicals, and dance bands galore.

    Jacques on Oceania Riviera (Photo: Cruise Critic)

    9. Oceania Cruises

    Best for: Foodies

    Why: Oceania Cruises takes the cake for having one of the largest collections of speciality restaurants -- on its newer ships Marina, Riviera and Sirena, all of which are included in the cruise fare. They include Toscana serving Italian cuisine, the Polo Grill steakhouse, Red Ginger serving Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese's fare and the signature French restaurant, Jacques, where the menus were designed by internationally renowned French chef and TV personality, Jacques Pepin.

    Runner up: Celebrity stands out for its varied dining choices (French, Italian, Asian and more) in beautifully decorated restaurants. There are 10 restaurants to choose from onboard the Australia-based Celebrity Solstice, including the glamorous suite-only Luminae and Blu, a spa-inspired restaurant exclusively for guests staying in AquaClass cabins. For those who don't want to spend the extra money, the complimentary buffet and main dining rooms are lovely too.

    Viking Sun (Photo: Viking Cruises)

    10. Viking

    Best for: Romantics

    Why: If you want to be sure romantic strolls along the deck won't be interrupted by the pitter patter of little feet, Viking is for you. The line's contemporary and sophisticated adults-only ocean (and river) cruise ships do not permit any guests aged under 18 onboard. Every cabin has a balcony for watching the sun set over swoon-worthy romantic destinations such as Bora Bora, Santorini, and Venice. With specialty dining and wine with meals included in the fare, couples can gaze into each other's eyes over dinner every night without worrying about the final bill.

    Runner-up: Sleek white yachts with billowing sails, sluicing through calm blue seas -- that's what cruising is all about on Windstar Cruises' three original yachts. Whether it's the four-masted twins Windstar and Wind Spirit (each carrying just 148 passengers), or the five-masted 302-passenger Wind Surf, a voyage around the Caribbean, the Amalfi Coast and the Tahiti islands ticks all the boxes for romantics. The motorised yachts, which can slip into quiet bays and coves, away from the bustling ports and big ships, have none of the bells and whistles of big ships and all the features of classy yachts: teak decks, cabins with portholes (no balconies) and plenty of space to relax in a deck chair.

    Abercrombie & Kent's grand-slam 48-day Grand Arctic Voyage (Photo: Ponant)

    11. Ponant

    Best for: Adventurers

    Why: Ponant Yacht Cruises & Expeditions' itineraries range from the Arctic to Central and South America, Oceania to Atlantic and Northern Europe. The line's newest ship, Le Laperouse, carries 92 passengers and offers sailings from five Australian ports. It is the world's first to feature the Blue Eye, a multi-sensorial underwater lounge with non-intrusive underwater lighting, hydrophones that retransmit the natural symphony of deep water, and Body Listening sofas that use corporal resonance to create a sensorial listening experience. Sailing aficionados will enjoy Ponant's three-masted 64 passenger sailing ship, Le Ponant, which ventures to ports of call only accessible to small capacity yachts.

    Runner-up: Most Aussies will know Lindblad as the company that purchased popular small expedition ship Orion and rechristened it National Geographic Orion. A well-established expedition line, founded 50 years ago by Eric-Lars Lindblad, the company works in partnership with National Geographic. Its ships (and chartered vessels) explore the world from the Arctic to the Antarctic and everywhere in-between including Europe, Asia, Alaska, Galapagos, South America and Cuba. The company operates Zodiacs for shore landings and carries a highly experienced expedition team of scientists and historians.

    Alaska Presentation Onboard Queen Elizabeth (Photo: Christina Janansky/Cruise Critic)

    12. Cunard Line

    Best for: Enrichment Seekers

    Why: Cunard and its trio of Queens ooze culture. The cruise line's enrichment program invites onboard such luminaries as NASA astronauts, polar explorers and experts on journalism, climate change, politics and national security. Passengers can also indulge in cultural pursuits with book clubs, ballroom dancing, West End-style theatre (in a box seat, no less), a planetarium (on Queen Mary 2 only) and learning the art of acting with Royal Academy of Dramatic Art members. Passengers have the opportunity to trace their family tree, too, under the tutelage of experts from Ancestry.com.

    Runner-up: European river cruises are worth considering, and not just because you won't get seasick. Complimentary shore excursions focus on the history, religion, art and architecture of ports visited in medieval towns, bustling cities and villages riddled with castles and vineyards. In Asia, learning about the culture and lifestyles of people in Myanmar, India, China, Cambodia and Vietnam is fascinating. Vessels rarely hold more than 200 passengers, giving guests a chance to easily mix and mingle. River cruises also offer all-inclusive fares that feature wines with dinner, complimentary Wi-Fi and excursions in each port, which make single budgets go further. Many river cruise lines waive the single supplement, which attracts a lot of solo travellers.

    St. Petersburg (Photo:hramovnick/Shutterstock)

    13. Azamara

    Best for: Destination Explorers

    Why: One of the big drawcards with Azamara is the line's focus on the destination itself; the ships stay overnight in many ports, while each itinerary has one free 'AzAmazing' excursion, which can be special cultural performances such as a night at the ballet in St Petersburg, Russia. Azamara vessels, Quest and Journey, are small by today's standards, carrying just 700 passengers each, so it is possible for these ships to access lesser-known, harder to reach ports. Free transportation from the dock to city centres is also provided, making getting to and from the ship easy and affordable in port.

    Runner-up: All guests onboard Regent Seven Seas Cruises receive unlimited complimentary shore excursions as part of the line's all-inclusive touring program. Options cater for all abilities and interests, with choices ranging from whale watching in Alaska to beer appreciation in Montevideo, and touring Phang Nga National Park in Phuket. If you want to step it up a notch, heavily discounted Regent Choice shore excursions offer the chance to do something more extravagant such as touring a grand country estate with one of the owners followed by a lavish picnic or an exclusive visit to Luxor in Egypt.

    The Great Barrier Reef (Photo: superjoseph/Shutterstock)

    14. Coral Expeditions

    Best For: Culturally Curious Cruisers

    Why: Set sail for adventure with Coral Expeditions, a boutique Australian eco-tourism expedition line that explores the waters of the South Pacific, Cape York, the Kimberley, Arnhem Land, Tasmania and the Great Barrier Reef. With an open bridge policy and off-the-beaten-track itineraries that attract adventurous, well-travelled passengers, Coral Expeditions encourage guests to deeply engage with remote destinations and the people who live there. Guest lecturers such as Richard Aldridge, an expert on the tribal art of New Guinea and the Maluku Islands, offer additional insight during the voyage.

    Runner Up: Captain Cook Cruises offer culturally immersive small ship cruises in Fiji with weekly three to seven-night itineraries exploring the Mamanuca and Yasawa Islands. Activities focus on the local culture and include meeting Fijians and visiting their small towns, talks by an onboard marine biologist, and a traditional village feast. With a predominantly Fijian crew, passengers can also engage with Fijian culture onboard by asking questions and socialising with the crew during passenger events.

    Updated October 22, 2020

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