“Sit down now!” “Don't step onto the boat until you are told to do so!” “Give me both hands first!” Such are our stern orders as we prepare to go ashore at Maria Island, one of Tasmania's gruesome penal sites off the east coast of the 'apple isle'. Whoa-betide any clumsy lubber who should fail to observe these directions.
No, we are not re-enacting a chapter from “For the term of his natural life” and our instructions are not being delivered by some savage cat-o-nine-tails wielding overseer, but rather our diminutive Zodiac driver keen to ensure her self-loading cargo is stowed promptly without incident. I shouldn't wince at the directness, as I'm sure the guests making this short journey 150 years ago received far less polite requests.
I am aboard MS Caledonian Sky, formerly Hebridean Spirit, a recently refurbished expedition vessel and one of the eight compact Renaissance class ships that include the former Orion II, Island Sky and Sea Spirit. Most have had numerous names and lives with at least as many masters but they have proven themselves perfectly capable in delivering at the soft end of expedition cruising.
Several of the expedition team I have met on previous ships, reinforcing the 'small world' of adventure cruising but my biggest surprise is to find Australian Capt Frank Allica back at the helm after last sailing under his charge on Orion II.
“She's been much better maintained than Orion II,” Capt Frank tells me candidly as we sit for a coffee out on the sun-drenched Lido Deck, “and not had such a hard life.” His relaxed demeanour speaks volumes.
The MS Caledonian Sky accommodates a maximum of 114 passengers in 57 spacious outside suites across seven categories, 23 with private balconies. Many have walk-in wardrobes and some feature bathtubs, making them deserving of the 'luxury' title. There are two restaurants, a Club, small gym, library, clinic, salon and lounge/lecture room across five decks.
The significance of this vessel's arrival in Australian waters is its new position in the Noble Caledonia fleet and the 85th anniversary of APT, the Australian family-owned business which bought a strategic stake in Noble Caledonia this year. Formed in 1991, Noble Caledonia operates river cruises, expedition cruises, small ship cruises and land tours in 15 world regions, including Antarctica and the Arctic with seven vessels hosting between 50 to 160 passengers. Noble Caledonia owns two vessels and operates the others on long-term charters, marketing its holidays to a predominantly UK clientèle. A point made clear by the make up of passengers aboard this itinerary, the Antipodean Odyssey, a journey beginning in Wellington NZ, crossing the Tasman and culminating in Sydney after visits to Hobart, Port Arthur, Wine Glass Bay, Maria Island, Flinders Island and Melbourne. From Sydney, she continues to Cairns, West Papua, Indonesia, Borneo, the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, Kamchatka, Alaska and Vancouver where she arrives in July.
For comparative purposes, these itineraries are approx. A$750 per person, per night twin share (without airfares) and includes wine, beer and soft drinks with meals, all excursions, taxes and gratuities. Extras include premium drinks and minibar outside meal times, espresso coffee and Internet (GBP12 for 100mins).
For details of future sailings contact 1300 278 278 or see www.aptouring.com.au
About The Expeditionist
Roderick Eime has spent his whole life getting lost and the last two decades doing it professionally. From 4WD journeys across Australia to icebreakers in the polar seas, Rod isn't happy unless he's wondering where he is. In his quest to find oblivion, he's sailed all five oceans and many of the great rivers reporting for magazines and newspapers but has yet to fall off the edge of the world.