Anthony Pearce talks to Gary Wilson and Jeff Gillies from the Australian small-ship line, about the adventures to be had on their historic voyages programme
Coral Expeditions, the Australian small-ship cruise line, has made a name for itself with its pioneering and unusual itineraries. From mini-cruises across the Great Barrier Reef, to exploration of the Kimberley, Tasmania, and further afield to Papua New Guinea, the Spice Islands (Maluku Islands) and Indonesia, these cruises are the antithesis of the big ship experience, visiting unspoiled destinations with a focus on immersion, adventure and education on vessels of no more than 120 guests.
Those familiar with the Cairns-based company will not be surprised to learn that, for its 35th anniversary next year, it has something special planned: a 60-day circumnavigation of Australia, with a flight to Uluru for a special Christmas dinner under the stars.
“It came about in a funny way,” Gary Wilson, the line’s senior master, tells Cruise Adviser when we meet in London. “We were working through some other destinations, working on circumnavigations of Sulawesi and Tasmania, and management said well, ‘What about circumnavigation of Australia?’”
An experienced captain, maritime history buff and entertaining storyteller, Wilson is a huge asset for the line and personifies its philosophy. “We wanted to make our 35th birthday a big signature event,” he says. “Because next year is the 250th anniversary of Cook’s voyage with Endeavour; the 200th anniversary of Philip Parker King exploring the Kimberley on the Mermaid; the 75th anniversary of the end of World War Two; and it’s our 35th anniversary, we just thought, well, let’s do a maritime history trip – 35 sites of maritime history around Australia to correspond.”
Wilson is joined by Jeff Gillies, the company’s commercial director, on a visit to Coral Expeditions’ London office, where Amy Sharpe, UK sales manager, formerly of eWaterways, is based. Gillies says the UK is the international market Coral Expeditions will be focusing on. “In terms of sheer numbers, it’s a bit of a tie between the Great Barrier Reef and the Kimberley for Brits. The Great Barrier Reef product is the most popular for first-timers; those that have been with us before are looking for a longer expedition voyage,” he says.
Wilson adds that the line is “starting to see the numbers of Brits creep up on international destinations: Papua New Guinea, the Spice Islands – some of the more exotic places that are hard to get to.” With a fleet of three, and a fourth on the way, the line is expanding across Oceania and the Pacific; Gillies tells me the line has an eye on the Philippines and Japan.
“We keep trying to find places that are a bit unique,” Wilson says, noting that when they first sailed to Saparua in the Spice Islands two years ago, they were told they were the first cruise ship ever to visit.
“That first trip, the king of Saparua came on board and when we said that would come back the following year and bring the new ship he was very excited about that,” Wilson says. “When we did I got crowned as a sort of honorary king as well!”
He also tells a story from Papua New Guinea, when 300 warriors came out to meet the ship. “We invited the elders on board for lunch. They’re all in their traditional dress, with bones through the nose. Three or four of them had this headdress on with a type of cuscus fur, and our guide said, ‘Gary, do you what the significance of that fur is?’ ‘No…’ He said, ‘Those are the warriors that are cannibals – and they’ve done the deed!’”
Gillies says this kind of spontaneity is par for the course with Coral Expeditions. Itineraries aren’t set in stone, particularly in regions with unpredictable weather, where Plan A often becomes Plan B, or even Plan C. The ships are small and agile enough, he says, to find another place to land at if they can’t visit the intended port. “We’ve got that ability to scoot around into the leeward side of an island – and ultimately that’s part of the adventure,” he says. “The second the guests get a sense that they’re joining in something that’s a little bit out of the ordinary, they get this visceral sense of adventure.”