South of the Equator: New Island Destinations for Luxury Cruises

(Photo by Getty Images / Suratman Alimuddin) At Raja Ampat Island, active travelers who climb a popular viewpoint on Piaynemo, on a clear day, will be treated to breathtaking views of rock islets jutting from blue-green ocean waters. // Photo by Getty Images / Suratman Alimuddin

Sailing to far-flung destinations in 2020, 2021 and 2022, luxury cruise lines are planning maiden calls to island destinations in the Southern Hemisphere. From a remote Indonesian archipelago to a coastal Ecuadorian island with Galapagos-like “touches” and a western Australia island that’s home to sea lions, these and other new “South of the Equator” options will appeal to guests with an adventure mindset. 

Raja Ampat Islands, Indonesia

Avid scuba divers and snorkelers likely will relish exploring the Coral Triangle’s Raja Ampat, an Indonesian archipelago of 1,500 small islands, cays and shoals surrounding four main islands: Waigeo, Batanta, Salawati and Misool. Located off the northwestern tip of Indonesia’s West Papua Province, Raja Ampat, translated as “The Four Kings” has stunning eco-beauty and marine diversity. 

Ancient mythology purports that a woman found seven eggs and four hatched to become kings of those four main islands, while the other three became a woman, a ghost and a stone. Legends aside, though, it’s a fact that Raja Ampat’s dive sites offer scuba enthusiasts the chance to view an incredible diversity of marine species in just one dive. Just 30 feet to 100 feet beneath the surface, divers will often encounter hundreds of different species of corals, coral fish and mollusks. They could also see pygmy seahorses, gigantic manta rays, wobbegongs (bottom dwelling sharks), snapper, batfish, barracudas, turtles and much more.   

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Truly notable? Resting on the sea floor are giant sea clams that weigh up to 500 pounds and can be four feet in length. Beyond the underwater attractions, Raja Ampat’s isles also offer soft beaches, rocky islets, spooky caves and steep, jungle-covered terrain. Keep your eyes peeled for the cendrawasih (bird-of-paradise) and a marsupial called the Waigeo (or Waigeou) cuscus or spotted cuscus.

While spending one day at Raja Ampat would be a delight, luxury travelers can spend five days here on Crystal Expedition Cruises. The new 200-passenger Crystal Endeavor sails here on a 16-night “30th Anniversary Collection” cruise from Bali (Benoa) to Cairns, Australia on October 15, 2020. Guests will explore the islands via hiking, beach combing, snorkeling, diving and even from the ship’s seven-person submersible and two helicopters. 

Expedition activities will depend on the ship’s schedule and daily conditions. That said, if the opportunity presents itself, we’d suggest fit travelers hike / climb to a popular viewpoint on Piaynemo (or Pianemo); on a clear day, views resemble what travelers see in slick travel brochures or a movie scene — rock islets jutting from blue-green ocean waters. It’s a stunningly beautiful setting. 

Beyond time in Raja Ampat, this Crystal expeditionary itinerary also calls at Sumbawa Island, Komodo Island, Larantuka, Kalabahi, Lucipara, Banda Neira, all in Indonesia, as well as Thursday Island, Cape York, Lizard Island and the Ribbon Reefs, all in Australia. The itinerary has proven popular, so top suites are “call for availability.” With that said, deluxe suites with verandas (S1 to S7 categories), which have 304 square feet of space and butler service, showed availability at press time. An added plus of this voyage is that it’s a Nobu Matsuhisa Culinary Cruise.

Isla de la Plata, Ecuador

If travelers don’t have a week to spend in the Galapagos Islands, hundreds of miles from mainland Ecuador, but they’d love to see blue-footed boobies, Luxury Travel Advisor suggests the next best thing — Isla de la Plata, Ecuador, a small island only 25 or so miles from the South American mainland. In 2021, Seabourn will make a maiden call at this island. 

Launching in summer 2021, the 264-passenger Seabourn Venture, the line’s first expedition vessel, will sail a 14-day “Panama Canal and the Humboldt Route” itinerary departing October 21, 2021 from Bridgetown, Barbados through the Panama Canal and along the western South American coastline before ending in Callao, Peru. Calls include Isla de La Plata, as well as Santa Marta, Colombia; Bocas Del Toro, Panama; Manta, Ecuador; and Salaverry and Islas Guanape, Peru.

Meaning “island of silver,” Isla de la Plata is part of Machalilla National Park, which has abundant, exotic wildlife, gorgeous beaches and a rich history. Some believe the island is so-named for the yet-undiscovered treasure hidden by Sir Francis Drake, the famous 16th-century English explorer, while others simply point to the cliffs’ silvery color (caused by guano deposits).

At Isla de la Plata, Ecuador, cruisers will be delighted to find lots of “boobies,” including blue footed boobies, one of which is shown above. // Photo by Getty Images / xeni4ka

One fact is clear, though. As in Ecuador’s Galapagos, cruisers will be delighted to find lots of “boobies,” including blue footed boobies, red footed boobies and Nazca boobies. Cruisers also could possibly see frigate birds, pelicans and giant albatrosses, plus marine critters, including colorful fish, sea turtles and dolphins. Not surprisingly, snorkeling is a favorite activity, and, at times, guests could find themselves sharing the area with sea lions. 

As the line’s first purpose-built expedition vessel, Seabourn Venture is built to PC6 Polar Class standards with a new innovative design created for the ultra-luxury traveler. Two custom-built, six-person submarines will be carried onboard, so guests can get underwater views of the eco-system. Also, the new ship will carry double sea kayaks, mountain bikes, e-bikes and two dozen Zodiacs that can accommodate all guests at once, in contrast to some other expedition ships that carry fewer Zodiacs and split guests into multiple groups.

For the ultimate in luxury, the 1,399-square-foot, two-level Grand Wintergarden Suite is a mid-ship, two-bedroom suite (Nos. 7353 or 7364). Entering on Deck 7, guests have a comfortable living and dining area downstairs, as well as the second bedroom and bath. A sculpted staircase leads up to the master suite with expansive glass views and a five-piece master bath with a whirlpool tub and separate shower. Bedrooms have a queen-size bed, convertible to two twin beds.

One of the many perks and amenities of staying in this opulent suite is that the pantry’s wet bar is stocked with a customized selection of spirits, including a bottle of coveted Shackleton Blended Malt Scotch Whiskey. That’s based on the spirit supplied to the 1907 British Antarctic Expedition, crafted using a selection of the finest Highland Single Malt Scotch Whiskies.

Lenakel, Tanna Island, Vanuatu

Vanuatu’s sixth largest island, Tanna Island served as the British Empire’s cotton plantation island in the late 19th century. Today, Lenakel is Tanna’s largest town. Nearly half the island’s population is under the age of 15, yet Melanesian heritage, culture and traditional values are still revered. 

Interesting tidbit? The famous John Frum Cult, a so-called “cargo cult,” has roots on Tanna’s eastern coast. Some villagers worship a mysterious American (a ghostly Messiah of sorts) whom they believe one day will shower their remote island with riches. These cults developed in the 1940s across the South Pacific after American troops descended in droves on isolated remote isles inhabited by indigenous tribes who, at that time, had little or no exposure to the “outside world.”

One new option to reach this off-the-beaten-path spot is Silversea Cruises’ 596-passenger Silver Muse, calling at Lenakel on its 28-day roundtrip voyage from Auckland, New Zealand, departing January 5, 2021. Among other ports of call are Napier, Picton, Kaikoura, Lyttelton (Christchurch), Dunedin (Port Chalmers), Stewart Island and the Bay of Islands, all in New Zealand, plus Melbourne (overnight stay) and Sydney, Australia; Pine Island and Noumea, New Caledonia; Luganville and Pentecost Island, Vanuatu; Lautoka and Dravuni Island, Fiji, and multiple days of scenic cruising, too. 

Members of the Isaka tribe are shown at the foot of Tanna Island’s Mount Yasur, an active volcano which has been erupting for more than eight centuries. // Photo by Getty Images / Pietro Pazzi

For those heading ashore on Tanna Island with a yearning for dreamy adventure, the famed Blue Cave awaits. Travelers access this hidden sea cave at the base of a rock cliff by diving / swimming a very short distance under water to come up inside a grotto, which has a hole in the roof and an iridescent blue pool. The visual effect is akin to a fairytale-world as the light dances on the water to create a stunning blue effect.

We’d suggest a visit to Mt. Yasur, an active volcano nicknamed the “Lighthouse of the Pacific.” It’s been erupting for more than eight centuries. The volcano’s glowing light attracted Captain James Cook, the first European to visit the island in 1774. Today, the volcano is reachable via an ATV tour or by taking a helicopter sightseeing flight. Hearty travelers who arrive by ATV can choose to make a steep, 30-minute hike up the volcano, be rewarded with summit views and often can feel rumbling and watch smoke, lava bombs and ash erupt skyward. Alternatively, a lower viewing area is available for those not wishing to make the climb. 

Not for this maiden call, but possibly for the future? Luxury Travel Advisor has been told that Silversea has “access” to all of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.’s (RCL) private islands, based on RCL’s 67 percent stake in Silversea. Currently, the Silversea team is exploring any appropriate opportunities at RCL’s newly announced “Perfect Day at Lelepa” private island experience in Vanuatu; it’s slated to open in 2022. 

Onboard Silver Muse, top accommodations for space are the two-bedroom Owner’s Suites, which can range from 1,281 square feet to 1,389 square feet of space with a spacious living / dining area, plus separate bedrooms. Guests are served by a dedicated butler. The master bedroom has a king-sized bed and the second bedroom has a queen-sized bed (both are convertible to two twins). Luxurious bedding includes hand-made Savoir mattresses and down duvet covers. 

Moorea, French Polynesia

Joining the plethora of lines already sailing to French Polynesian ports is Viking Ocean Cruises, which will have a maiden call at Moorea during its 2020-2021 “World Cruise.” Departing December 14, 2020 from Miami, the 930-passenger Viking Sun will visit 75 ports on six continents. In addition to the line’s first visit to Moorea (Opunoha Bay) and inaugural calls at two Hawaii ports, the 162-day itinerary will take guests to the Caribbean, South Pacific, Asia, Middle East, Egypt, Israel and Mediterranean before ending in London. A 140-day version of this World Cruise also sails from Los Angeles. While space in top suites was sold out at press time, deluxe veranda cabins were still available.  

Famed for its unprecedented beauty and turquoise waters, Moorea and its surrounding barrier reef was described by Charles Darwin as a “picture in a frame.” It’s easy to see why. Guests desiring to take Viking’s new “included” shore excursion, “Moorea Lagoon and Scenic Cruise” will head out to traverse the lagoon, sailing in the wake of such 18th-century explorers as Samuel Wallis and Captain James Cook. Guests will view jagged mountain peaks, green forests and ferns, pastel painted houses and tropical flora, including hibiscus. 

Moorea in French Polynesia will be visited by the 930-passenger Viking Sun during its 2020-2021 “World Cruise.” // Photo by Getty Images / Aaron Hawkins

Other new Viking shore excursions include a “Catamaran Cruise around Moorea” and an “Aito Off-Road Safari.” To dive deeper into the local culture and lifestyle, we’d suggest Viking’s new “Moorea Culture and Tradition Tour,” featuring a scenic drive, stops at the Belvedere and Toatea lookouts, a visit to a Temae Point residence to see the open-air kitchen, watching as the host prepares lunch with seasonal, fresh local ingredients. After dining on that meal, tour-goers will learn the art of pareo-tying and flower lei-making. 

Or, if travelers head out on their own for lunch, two fun casual lunch options are Restaurant Pink Coconut, which has a spectacular view of Moorea from Marina Taina, and Coco beach Moorea with Polynesian cuisine; it’s located on a small, close-by offshore islet and easily reachable by a pontoon boat ride. Hint: If heading for Coco beach Moorea, take along snorkeling gear as diners have spotted gigantic manta rays in adjacent waters.

Penneshaw, Kangaroo Island, Australia 

Best described as a “zoo without fences,” Kangaroo Island (or KI as the locals affectionately call it) is just eight or so miles off the coast of South Australia. It’s Australia’s third largest offshore island (following Tasmania and Melville Island) at 96 miles long and 35 miles wide. Most notably, it’s home to substantial wild populations of native Australian animals. 

Making a maiden call at Penneshaw is Hapag-Lloyd CruisesEuropa 2 on its 16-day “Premiere - Western Australia” itinerary from Melbourne, Australia to Bali (Benoa), Indonesia, departing January 6, 2021. Penthouse Suites on Decks 8 and 10 were still available at press time; these have pampering butler service and such features as walk-in closets and whirlpool baths.  

Kangaroo Island’s Seal Bay is home to Australia’s second-largest sea lion population, and guests have an opportunity to spot dolphins and seals offshore. We’d suggest booking Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ new half-day shore excursion, “Kangaroo Island, Seal Bay Beach Walk and Sea Lion Encounter.” Cruisers will walk along a coastal boardwalk with a specialist guide, take stairs down to the beach and have a close-up beach experience with rare, endangered Australian Sea Lions.

Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ Europa 2 will make a maiden call at Penneshaw in Kangaroo Island in 2021. Shown here is the Hog Bay in Penneshaw. // Photo by Getty Images / edjosephotography

Alternatively, guests can check out the kangaroos, koalas, wallabies and penguins at Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park or pop into the Penneshaw Maritime and Folk Museum, an old-school building with three themed rooms of displays and artifacts. The School Room showcases historic photographs and educational objects, the Maritime Room delves into the history of the sealing and whaling industries, as well as commercial shipping, while the McKenzie Room focuses on island life, the isolation of former settlers and the community’s pioneer spirit. Maritime buffs can check out the lifeboat from the S.S. Karatta, displayed outside. 

Kangaroo Island is also one of multiple maiden port calls in 2020 for Windstar Cruises, which is offering itineraries for the first time to Australia and New Zealand. One itinerary is “Penguin Parades to Pinot Noir: The Wild Side of Australia and Tasmania,” a 13-night Star Breeze voyage from Melbourne to Sydney, departing on December 10, 2020. 

In early 2020, that ship will emerge from Windstar’s Star Plus Initiative “stretching” project; a new mid-section will create more public spaces and high-end suites and increase capacity to 312 guests. Beyond its maiden call at Kangaroo Island, this voyage will call at many other new Southern Hemisphere ports for Windstar, including Phillip Island, Australia and Hobart, Tasmania. 

Kangaroo Island’s Seal Bay is home to Australia’s second-largest sea lion population. // Photo by Getty Images / Lux Blue

Isla Pan de Azucar, Chile

With a mystical quality, Isla Pan de Azucar (or Sugar Loaf Island), Chile has rugged shores and at twilight, its base is often shrouded in thick fog, or camanchaca. The isle is a magnet for wildlife and birds. Arriving to fish and breed are thousands of Humboldt penguins, a big visitor draw. Travelers also can spot many species of birds (kelp gulls, Peruvian boobies and pelicans, among them), as well as sea otters, seals and sea lions. 

Landing is forbidden on the island, but guests heading out by Zodiac, fishing boat or even from a small cruise ship can observe the wildlife. One way to get there is via Scenic’s new expeditionary yacht, Scenic Eclipse, which sails an eight-day “Latin American Delight” cruise from Lima (Callao) to Santiago (San Antonio) on October 21, 2020. 

During the ship’s inaugural year, maiden port calls in the Southern Hemisphere will include not only Isla Pan de Azucar, Arica and Iquique in Chile, but many other South American ports, as well. Top digs? The oversized Owner’s Penthouse Suites on Deck 9 have curved terraces with a lounge area, sun loungers and a private whirlpool. Inside, the living area has a cinema-surround and 70-inch HDTV, plus a library including Kindle e-books, while the dining room table seats up to eight people. 

This suite’s bedroom offers a pampering king-size Scenic Slumber Bed and 60-inch HDTV. The master bathroom offers a dual steam shower with light therapy, his-and-her vanity space and a spa bath. One pampering plus? This suite has a spa day bed, so guests can arrange for in-suite spa treatments. Scenic provides a one-hour complimentary spa treatment for this suite. Other perks for Owner’s Penthouse Suite guests include guaranteed dining in specialty restaurants, guaranteed preferred choice of shore excursions and many other luxury perks. 

A Master Suite on the 700-passenger Seven Seas Voyager will have two bedrooms, two-and-a-half baths, a large living room and two private balconies. // Photo by Getty Images / Regent Seven Seas Cruises

Fort Dauphin (Tolagnaro), Madagascar

For those desiring a truly exotic journey, Regent Seven Seas Cruises operates an “Adventure in Africa” voyage from Abu Dhabi to Cape Town, departing October 30, 2021. During that 22-night voyage, the 700-passenger Seven Seas Voyager makes a maiden call at Fort Dauphin (also called Tolagnaro), Madagascar. Occupied by Europeans in the 17th century, Fort Dauphin became a trading outpost. Those in search of history can check out such sites as the museum of Anosy (for Colonial history) or the Fort of the Portugueses. Fort Flacourt, another popular option, is currently closed for repairs. 

Most travelers, though, desire to see one thing in Madagascar — lemurs. So, check out the Nahampoana Reserve, home to ring-tailed lemurs, habituated lemurs, Verreaux’s Sifaka lemurs and red-fronted brown and bamboo lemurs. Sifaka lemurs, recognized by their small white fuzzy heads and black faces and snouts, are stars among the bunch, as they seemingly dance as they move across the ground.

If travelers prefer a beach experience, we’d suggest Sainte Luce, a fishing village with long beaches. Flora enthusiasts can keep their eyes peeled for the Triangle Palm Tree, which exists in Madagascar only around the area of Fort Dauphin, but they’re more likely to spot such other species as the Madagascar Pitcher Plant, Oil Palm, Canela Cinnamon, Lemon Eucalyptus and young Baobab Trees. Many of these are viewable at Nahampoana Reserve.

Madagascar is home to lemurs. Shown here are ring-tailed lemurs that can be spotted by cruisers at the Nahampoana Reserve. // Photo by Getty Images / seewhatmitchsee

One good option for active, fit cruisers is to climb Pic Saint Louis for spectacular views of Fort Dauphin and the nearby islands. The shortest climb is also the steepest and takes about 90 minutes; a second option is about two to three hours of climbing. For security reasons, always go with a guide. Also, leave plenty of extra time to return to the ship. 

Seven Seas Voyager’s suites are all high-end, but we’d opt for a Master Suite on either Deck 7 or Deck 11; these suites have a look of “Park Avenue chic” with elegant rosewood furniture, luxurious fabrics and a crystal chandelier, plus a personal butler is available to pamper guests. Guests can expect two bedrooms, two-and-a-half baths, a large living room and two private balconies. 

Throughout the cruise industry, expanding luxury cruise line fleets have resulted in new itineraries to more far-flung locales. Travelers likely will love these “maiden” calls for both bragging rights and authentic, off-the-beaten-path experiences.

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