No bird is more revered throughout Japan than the crane. The red-crowned crane, considered a mystical creature that can live for a thousand years, symbolises longevity as well as happiness, fidelity and love.
These elegant cranes – the world’s largest – can be seen in many places in and around Kushiro, a famously misty town on Japan’s remote northerly island of Hokkaido. Kushiro-shitsugen National Park, Japan’s largest undeveloped wetlands, is a photographer’s dream – especially when the cranes engage in their graceful courtship dance against the snow each winter. Cruise passengers on a shore excursion can see the cranes at the park’s Japanese Crane Reserve (which also sells crane-shaped and crane-themed souvenirs) as well as at Kushiro City Zoo.
Cruising might seem an unusual way to get off the beaten track in Japan but ships can take you to places that don’t feature on the usual tourist trails. Another cruising port of call on Hokkaido (best known to Australians for the skiing resort of Niseko) is Hakodate in the south. Options here might include heading to a sumo museum that honours two grand champions. Those who feel brave enough to don the (very brief) sumo outfit can also try their hand at sumo wrestling.
Some ships that cruise to the southern end of Japan’s “mainland” of Honshu offer shore excursions to Hiroshima. The city was the target for the first US atomic bomb – today the A-Bomb Dome in the city’s Peace Memorial Park is an unmissable sight and a poignant reminder of the atrocities of war. Cranes also feature strongly in the park – not the feathered variety but paper ones. People fold tiny origami paper cranes and send them to the park’s Children’s Peace Monument as an expression of their desire for world peace.
Savvy cruisers will explore Japan in spring or autumn so they can see the famous cherry blossoms or autumn colours that others pay a premium to see when they’re staying in hotels. Rooms can be hard to find during these peak periods in cities such as Kyoto (where hotels can be booked out for five months of the year).
Singapore is also a popular port to start or finish a cruise. There’s much to see in this vibrant island-state so build in a few extra days around your cruise for sightseeing. While Singapore Zoo in the heart of the island is world-famous, it’s right next door to two other nature parks (the really energetic can see all three in one day but that makes for a long day out). River Safari, the newest of the trio, adds a theme-park element to the zoo experience with an exhilarating Amazon boat ride that whips you past flamingos, a maned wolf, spider monkeys and more (you might want to ride it a second time to see everything). Night Safari, which opens at 7.30pm, uses theatrical moon-glow lighting to add an eerie atmosphere to walks that showcase nocturnal animals, such as fishing cats. You can also take a tram ride through the park to see Asiatic lions and Malayan tapirs.
Another entire day can be filled exploring Gardens by the Bay – a 101-hectare nature park notable for the futuristic metal super-trees that dominate the skyline. The park is also home to two glass conservatories. The dry Flower Dome, the world’s largest greenhouse, features a rotating roster of themed floral displays. Inside the moist Cloud Forest is the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, tumbling from a 35-metre-high mountain enveloped in lush vegetation. Both of these horticultural retreats, with temperatures maintained at 23-25 degrees Celsius, provide a welcome escape from Singapore’s humidity.
New Zealand is also built for cruising. If you have spare time in Auckland, explore hip redeveloped precincts such as City Works Depot (check out Odettes Eatery and Brothers Beer). At Britomart near the waterfront, you can grab an unusual snack – banoffee dumplings – at the atmospheric Xuxu Dumpling Bar. On Queen’s Wharf where cruise ships dock, a striking sculpture in the shape of a miniature weatherboard house was unveiled in February. Michael Parekowhai’s The Lighthouse references social-housing architecture while making a statement about Auckland’s soaring real-estate prices. Peer into the windows to see a shiny silver statue of Captain James Cook.
For an excellent day-trip, head to photogenic Waiheke Island, which is home to more than 20 wineries. Explore the island’s cellar doors by public bus, taxi or rental car. A popular excursion for cruise passengers is to head to Waiheke (the ferry trip takes only 35 minutes) to zip-line over vineyards into a patch of native forest that includes nikau palms that resemble upside-down brooms. With dual zip-lines, you can even spin along at speed while racing a friend.
Perhaps your dream cruise involves nosing around the ports of the Mediterranean, visiting cities such as Barcelona and Rome. In Barcelona, check the progress on Antoni Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece, the church known as La Sagrada Familia (the fantasia is due for completion in 2026).
Even in Rome, the most classic of cities, there’s something new to see. After ticking off sights such as the Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum and the Mouth of Truth (made famous by the film Roman Holiday), head to the Tiber River. Along a 550-metre-long stretch of the travertine walls is an epic mural blasted from the grime by powerhoses. South African artist William Kentridge’s Triumphs and Laments, unveiled in 2016, depicts Rome’s history through 80 iconic images. It’s expected to last four or five years, until the walls blacken once again.