An epic journey by boat is a staple of so much great fiction – whether it’s Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness or Steven Seagal’s finest work in Under Siege, there’s something about a watery voyage that seems to get the imagination firing on all cylinders. Unsurprisingly, for nations surrounded on all sides by the ocean, Australia and New Zealand are both home to some spectacular journeys. Skeptics might shrug their shoulders and roll their eyes at being stuck on a boat but it’s the variety on offer, especially in Australia, that really commends the boat trip.
Of course, in the northern states, there’s a stack of diving, snorkelling and island-hopping to be done. Any visit to Australia would be incomplete without a stint bouncing around the Whitsundays, casting off from Airlie Beach, or a tour of the Great Barrier Reef in all its tropical glory.
But the further south you go, the more bountiful the options become. Sydney’s harbour isn’t just there for postcards, you know – it’s a cracking way to get around Sydney, provided you’re not in a mad rush. So hail a water taxi, jump on board a ferry, or book yourself into a whale-watching tour that will take you out past the heads and along the coast.
Even further south – about as far south as you can go, really – Tasmania has a burgeoning reputation as a tourism hotspot. Australians might be a little bit rude about Tassie, but if you’re impressed by untouched wilderness and first-rate wine and cheese, Tasmania’s reputation as the mainland’s poor cousin is old-hat.
And that’s just in Australia. Further afield, there are the inner-city straits of Hong Kong to explore, the remarkable Fijian archipelagos to navigate and the bejewelled expanses of Vietnam’s Halong Bay (main image) to potter through. If you’re feeling even more adventurous, then you can head deep into the jungles of the Amazon or splash out in the Galapagos Islands. So, if that doesn’t have you convinced about the appeal of the best boat trips, then read on. For your next trip, pack your sea legs, stow your luggage and settle in for the ride of a lifetime. At the end of the day, it sure beats taking the bus.
Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
A few days’ sailing on a traditional junk around Halong Bay makes a welcome respite from the motor-scooter madness of big-city Vietnam. Sprinkled with thousands of limestone karsts, this bay is genuinely breathtaking. Most tours also include kayaking around lagoons and, if you have time, make a stop at Cat Ba Island and visit the fascinating Hospital Cave, an impressive feat of engineering during the war. In old Sino-Vietnamese, Ha Long means “descending dragon” and the legend goes that when the Vietnamese had to fight against invaders, the gods sent dragons as protectors. These dragons began spitting out jewels and jade, which turned into the islands and islets dotting the bay, linking together to form a great wall against the invaders.
Franklin River, Australia
Rubber-rafting down Tasmania’s wild Franklin River is a challenging and, at times, treacherous undertaking but hopefully you still have the wherewithal to take in one of Australia’s most spectacular natural environments. The isolated wilderness of Tasmania’s World Heritage area protects ancient plants and endemic creatures. During your trip through the rugged wilderness of Tasmania’s west coast, you may encounter some peculiar little animals, including platypuses, wallabies, quolls, cormorants and white-breasted sea eagles. It can take more than a week to do the Franklin river properly and access varies because of the possibility of flooding. But if you’re there when it’s all happening, make sure you give it a go.
Milford Sound, New Zealand
It’s New Zealand’s most famous tourist destination and Rudyard Kipling once referred to it as the “eighth wonder of the world”. The sheer scale of it explains why Milford Sound, named after Milford Haven in Wales, is the most visited fiord on New Zealand‘s South Island. You can take a cruise – they depart regularly from the main wharf at the Piopiotahi Marine Reserve. You can also do an overnight cruise on a boat that sails the full 22km length of the Sound and offers kayaking trips to shore. The Maori name, Piopiotahi, comes from the piopio – a small thrust-like bird. When Maui, a mythical Maori hero, died during his attempt to win immortality for all mankind, a piopio is said to have flown to these majestic fjords to mourn him.
Bruny Island, Australia
This wilderness cruise is probably Tasmania’s most popular tourist attraction and if you make it across Bass Strait then it’s not something you want to miss. Bruny Island, off Tasmania’s south-east coast, is primarily a day-trip destination – you can get picked up in Hobart or make your own way across from Kettering by ferry. Highlights of Bruny Island include its towering sea-cliffs and coastal wildlife, which include seals, dolphins, whales and albatrosses. The sunny beaches of Australia’s northern states might be the more obvious destinations but there’s an unspoilt natural beauty about Bruny Island that’s quite dramatic and it’s a big reason why Tasmania has begun to carve a niche for itself as a place
that is increasingly worth a look.
How to describe the bliss of a couple of days sailing the palm-fringed lagoons, lakes, rivers and canals that meander through this southern Indian state, known as ‘God’s own country’? Calling it Paradise sells it short. Kerala is astonishingly green, and a medley of shades make an appearance as you glide past the coconut groves and backwater villages that flank this labyrinthine network of snaking, interconnected waterways. But it’s not just the peaceful beauty of the still waters and verdant fringes that set this scenery to ‘stun’. The houseboats themselves – once used to transport grain, and now converted into floating accommodation for tourists – add to the exotic mise-en-scene, their wooden hulls covered over with thatched roofs.
Kowloon, Hong Kong
Most of the best boat trips focus on the natural world and rare stretches of wilderness but the ferry ride from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island is remarkable for the views it offers of the city’s startling skyline. It’s also one of the best value-for-money trips in the world. You can view it all from the top deck, watching as Hong Kong roars into life. The historic trans-harbour commute first began in 1880 and by far the most iconic journey is Kowloon’s Tsimshatsui to Central on Hong Kong Island. The view can be best enjoyed in the evening, when the city’s towers are lit up like fairground rides. And if you have enough time between snapping pictures on the nine-minute journey, you can even enjoy some local fare in the ferry’s cafe.
The Yasawa Islands, Fiji
Fiji is small enough that you can generally design your own itinerary but the Yasawas, further north than the Mamanucas, are a pretty safe bet. There are about 20 islands in this chain, pockmarked with bright blue lagoons, volcanic landscapes and some of the Pacific’s best beaches. There are plenty of opportunities to stop and go swimming or snorkelling – Manta Ray Island is a highlight, but there’s also some cracking marine life around Tavewa, Nacula and Nanuya Lailai. Sawa-i-Lau is also great if you fancy a bit of cave exploration. You’ll be able to find plenty of cruise operators in Fijii, offering a range of options between about five and 12 days. But if you’re heading over there in peak season, then it’s not a bad idea to book in advance.
If you’re heading all the way to Cairns to check out the Great Barrier Reef, you may as well make the most of it and book yourself onto a liveaboard diving tour. It will allow you to spend three days cruising around the reef, snorkelling at various spots, including a couple of outer reef locations further away from the main hotspots. It also means you’ll get to dive at night, which is a whole different kettle of tropical fish. Of course, if you don’t have the time or the cash for an extended tour of the Great Barrier Reef, you can still book day trips, which are great if you haven’t done much diving before and need an expert to put you through your paces. Either way, it’s an absolute must if you love the open water and have a trip planned to this part of Australia.
Amazon River, South America
From its source in the Peruvian highlands to its mouth near Belém in Brazil, the Amazon River is a monster, more than 6,200km long and carryings one-fifth of the world’s fresh water. As a result, there’s plenty of choice when it comes to taking your Amazon cruise – you can jump on board in Ecuador, Brazil, Bolivia or Peru, spending days bobbing downstream on the Amazon or exploring its many tributaries. The edges of the river are thick with jungle in some parts and crowded with settlements in others. Make sure you book a cruise that allows you to go on land and hang out with some of the local tribes. In the meantime, though, all you have to do is string up your hammock and enjoy the ride.
The Whitsundays, Australia
You’ve undoutbedly heard plenty about the Whitsundays – it is, after all, one of Australia’s most popular and most stunning destinations. And really, the only way to do it justice is to jump on a sailing boat and leave dry land behind. You’ll likely start off at Airlie Beach, which is a cracking party hub with plenty of outdoor nightlife and a revolving door of sun-kissed backpackers exploring Australia’s east coast. It’s also the place to start your boat trip – there are a stack of options to choose from, depending on your budget and how much time you have up your sleeve. Every one of them, though, will stop off at the glorious Whitehaven Beach, which features in a million postcards from the region. It’s also worth booking onto a trip that includes diving at Knuckle Reef Lagoon.
Tonle Sap Bay, Cambodia
Not only is Tonle Sap bay the largest freshwater lake in south-east Asia but, remarkably, the direction of its flow changes twice a year, making it one of the richest inland fisheries in the world. If you visit, you can take the speedboat from Battambang to Siem Reap, a route overflowing with visual treats. The six-hour journey passes a wealth of life on the water – floating pig pens, entire villages built on rafts, the odd ochre-robed monk paddling his way home in a canoe. Sit up on the roof of the boat for the best views, but go below deck as you near Siem Reap. Unforgiving waves are thrown up around a flooded forest, and you could easily tumble overboard. The lake is filled with snakes so it’s probably not the place to jump out for a quick dip.
Sydney Harbour, Australia
What would a trip to Sydney be without taking a turn on the city’s gleaming harbour? And, of course, there are plenty of ways to tick it off your list. If you’re trying to get from the north to the south or the west to the east, you can do a lot worse than catch a ferry – a trip from Circular Quay to Manly shows off the harbour beautifully. Or if you’re starting further west, maybe catch a water taxi so you can take in the leafy outcrops around Cockatoo Island, either side of Greenwich and Birchgrove. When it comes to arriving at dinner in style, this mode of transport is hard to beat. Of course, if you want to cruise out of Sydney Harbour and into the Pacific Ocean, then book yourself into a whale-watching cruise, which will either take you north to Manly
or south to Coogee, depending on where the whales are most likely to be spotted.
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
The Galapagos Islands, just off the western shoulder of South America, are famed for their vast number of unique species. There are 15 main islands and three smaller ones, and although it’s not easy to get there – you’ll need to fly in from Quito or Guayaquil in Ecuador – it’s worth it. There are stacks of providers and trips touring the Galapagos by boat can be booked for anywhere from three days to three weeks. You’ll spend your time swimming with sea lions and floating nose-to-beak with penguins. As wildlife experiences go, the Galapagos is one you’ll never forget. You can also book a liveabord – that’s everything from from small yachts to large cruise ships, but the most common is a motor sailer, a medium-sized motor boat, which holds about 20 people.