By TIM JOHNSON
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, May 26, 2018
The local Indigenous population once called this river "a place of mist and shadows," but today, here on the bottom side of Down Under, it's going to be one of the hottest days of the summer, with a southern sun driving the mercury up to a toasty 40 C, no mist or shadows in sight. Nearby, a black swan paddles on the dark waters and, a few minutes later, a tern dive bombs the Yarra River, perhaps in search of a little lunch. Sharks swim beneath our Zodiac, and I wonder if they're hungry, too. Playing down the situation like a true Aussie, our guide minimizes the threat.
"Ah, they're just little gummy sharks, not great whites," says Hugo Mylecharane, a proud Melbourne local.
Were it not for the massive skyline rising on the horizon, we could almost believe we're in one of Australia's famed wilderness areas. "The Yarra is the lifeblood of Melbourne," Mylecharane says, as sweaty joggers pound down the riverside paths and bikers roll overhead, crossing one of the many bridges that span the waterway. "In the 19th century, this was one of the most polluted rivers in the world, but they've cleaned it up," our guide observes. "Pretty cool - platypus have been spotted just 10 kilometres from here, upriver."
I'm cruising - Down Under - aboard the Seabourn Encore, the newest vessel in the Seabourn fleet. Small by modern standards, carrying just 600 guests, it's a ship equipped for true luxury, from the Retreat, a superexclusive space on the top deck with private cabanas and a dedicated concierge, to the Grill by Thomas Keller, a place that grants me many indulgences, including perfectly rare rib-eyes and sirloin strips and big bowls of creamy mashed potatoes, all of it overseen by the French Laundry founder. And the ship is rather agile, too - with a shallow draft, the 40,000-tonne Encore can sail into waterways necessarily bypassed by bigger ships.
It's something we've been doing since we set sail in Auckland, calling at ports down the east coast of the North, South and Stewart Islands, then making the tricky turn into Milford Sound, a narrow fjord that's home to tumbling waterfalls and the world's tallest sea cliffs. Crossing the Tasman Sea toward Australia, I strike up a conversation with cruise director Handré Potgieter, a popular and perpetually bow-tied presence around the Encore, about the ship's adventurous side.
He explains that the program, formally known as Ventures by Seabourn, grew out of the company's Antarctica voyages, extending that adventurous spirit to other trips, with expedition teams of 17 to 20 sailing as part of the crew.
They include a wide variety of experts - from ornithologists to marine biologists and glaciologists.
On board, the team gives lectures and keeps office hours out on the stern or the top decks, where they search the waters for wildlife, and guests can come with questions.
It's a unique combination - expedition cruises are often roughand-ready affairs, conducted on purposefully austere research vessels - but the Ventures program brings the elements of those adventurous trips on board an ultraluxe ship, allowing guests to get their boots a bit dirty during the day, while later dining and bedding down in a five-star environment.
Expedition excursions are the heart of the program, and they're not limited by age. "In Antarctica, we had a 92-year-old that made every landing - she still had a burning passion for travel," Potgieter says, smiling at the recollection. He adds that, with a full schedule of hardy hikes and kayak trips and Zodiac explorations, they're also attracting a younger crowd on board, including multigeneration families. So far, Seabourn includes the Ventures program on a number of its voyages, including to destinations such as Iceland and Norway, with plans to roll it out further in the future.
Not all of my pursuits on the Encore are adventurous. For example, I spend a whole afternoon at the Retreat, slowly marinating in the hot tub, then cooling off while watching the flat-screen TV in my cabana and thoroughly abusing the ship's unlimited-caviar-and-Champagne policy. I eat far too many meals at the Grill, trying every steak on the menu, then later popping across for a snack at the sushi bar, on the same deck. And down in the Club, I become a mainstay at afternoon team trivia, the lone North American in a group of ultracompetitive septuagenarian Britons, our team ultimately taking home one of the crowns in the cumulative points championship, celebrating the victory shamelessly by donning homemade paper bow ties and raising multiple toasts to our triumph.
In Melbourne, fully rejuvenated after three Champagne-filled days at sea, I enjoy the remainder of the Zodiac cruise, launching
two rafts right from the stern of the Encore, rolling out onto Port Phillip Bay and up the mouth of the Yarra.
Playing on their traditional, and rather intense, rivalry, guide Mylecharane tells us early, "My job today is to convince you that Melbourne is better than Sydney - which shouldn't be too hard."
And he does a good job, showing us the slower, natural side of Australia's fastest-growing city, a whole different perspective.
We pass under the longest bridge in the country (with towers that make it just a tiny bit higher than the Sydney Harbour Bridge), then learn how the local Aborigine population, here for thousands of years, became the world's first farmers by using weirs to farm eels in these waters, and how, much later, a 19th-century gold boom utterly transformed this river, and this city. After passing a high-school team of rowers working their way upriver under the sun and passing under a footbridge so low I feel I need to duck, we arrive at Melbourne's rather underappreciated opera house, a fairly bland, beige-coloured building. But Mylecharane is unbowed. "It's just perfect for Melbourne - impressive inside.
Melbourne is a city that reveals itself slowly."
A couple of days later, we reach our ultimate destination, sailing past that other opera house in Sydney, coming in from the sea early in the morning. First, we pass rugged North Head and the Hornby Lighthouse, as the pinks and oranges of full dawn spread out on the city's famous harbour.
Up on the top deck, blinking sleep out of my eyes, it feels a bit like a dream as the glittering skyline becomes larger and taller, each of Sydney's famous landmarks becoming clear - the Harbour Bridge first, and then the Opera House. It's lovely - the white "sails" of the roof a little vermilion under the early sun. But Mylecharane may have convinced me - he's right, very few places are quite as lovely as the Yarra, in a Zodiac, on the hottest day of the summer.
The writer travelled as a guest of Seabourn Cruises. It did not review or approve this article.
Sailing into Sydney's harbour felt a bit like a dream to the writer, as the glittering skyline became larger and taller, with each of the city's famous landmarks becoming clear.
Melbourne, top, one of the ports of call of the Seabourn Encore, is home to the Yarra River, one of Australia's famed wilderness areas. While on board, passengers can enjoy true luxury in the Retreat, above left, a superexclusive space on the top deck with private cabanas and a dedicated concierge.
TOP: GETTY IMAGES/ISTOCK; BOTTOM ILLUSTRATIONS BY SEABOURN