North Star Shines in the West

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Expedition cruiser, Rod Eime, climbs aboard Western Australia's premier adventure yacht, True North, for a unique and intimate sampling of our west's own special character. Photos by the author and Austal Ships.

The scene is almost beyond belief. True North is anchored in the pristine waters of UNESCO World Heritage-listed Shark Bay, 500 kilometres north from Perth along the stark, shipwreck-littered Western Australian coastline. A huge loggerhead turtle pops up to see what's going on while a squadron of bottlenose dolphins cruise serenely past in search of food and frolic. A delicate brocade of velvet clouds adorns the far horizon of an otherwise cloudless sky.

One of Australia's newest, purpose-built expedition cruise yachts, True North, is superbly equipped for this, its home ground and has already racked up an impressive array of state and national tourism awards including the most recent, the coveted Australian Tourism Association (ATA) award for best adventure tourism product.

Commissioned in February 2005 she displaces 740 tons and measures 50 metres. 36 passengers are accommodated in 18 twin cabins of three classes, Explorer, River and Ocean, and are served by a crew of 18.,

Billed as a luxury vessel, she is certainly well appointed, yet those who have experienced the unrestrained opulence of 6-star mega-vessels will tend to see her as a mere runabout. One person well qualified to make the comparison is Cruise Director, Gabi, who spent 6 years aboard the Crystal fleet as a senior concierge.

"Passengers tend to be a lot more relaxed and friendly on True North," she says standing barefoot (in True North custom) with the rest of us in the dining room, "they want to get involved in all the activities and don't expect the constant attention on something like a Crystal liner."

Not that Gabi and the staff are looking to slacken off; they are constantly on call and ready at a nod to bring a drink, help you up a gangway or see to your fullest enjoyment of the cruise. I confess to being a service nut, ever sensitive to staff's attention to detail, and this crew, from the humble stoker to Captain Kev himself is very hard to fault.

Co-director, Craig Howson, is aboard for this unique 10-day itinerary, the West Coast Explorer. "This trip really began as a positioning journey for us from Freo (Fremantle) to Broome for the start of our busy Kimberley season. We'd bring some friends and just have a bit of a dive, some fishing and a party, but the word soon got out how much fun we were having."

Carrying full passenger capacity, I am surrounded mainly by locals from Perth, Fremantle and Rockingham, many being loyal repeat cruisers. Jack and Edie from Perth are on their fourth voyage, as is my cabin mate, Norm from Canberra. Committed adventure cruisers, Paul and Marilyn are from California, and veteran divers Mark and Ayla hail from the UK on their first trip to Australia.

This particular voyage expands on the established "expedition" product with added "adventure" compents. Catering for ticketed divers, hardcore fishermen and sightseers alike, it still gives regular travellers the opportunity to experience North Star Cruises' "go wild in style" motto firsthand.

This company's first mass market exposure was a Malcolm Douglas episode that went to air in 1999. "The phones ran wild," recalls Craig, "I had to fly Mum and Dad up from Perth to help packing brochures!" Our very own Steve Irwin's coverage of the same west coast journey in 2003 for his runaway-success wildlife and adventure TV show backed it up and kept the ball rolling.

"We were very pleased that Steve was able to experience the trip exactly as we described it," says Craig.

The ten-day, once-a-year trip departs Fremantle on 1 March, and takes in such locations as the historic Abrolhos Islands, scene of the Batavia tragedy, scenic Shark Bay, popular Coral Bay, famous Ningaloo and the almost unknown Monte Bellos group. Normally equipped with a permanent helicopter for their highly successful Kimberley itineraries, it is not carried on this cruise.

"This trip will always be a 'limited edition'," explains Craig, "it's the perfect time of year in a small window of opportunity."

As with most smaller expedition vessels, don't expect too many indulgent additions. For example, True North has no sauna, gym, spa or beauty salon, but bartender Ross makes cocktails to rival the best!

Fact File:

Vessel: True North
Constructed by: Austal Ships, Freemantle

740 tons Length: 50m. Monohull.
Draft: 2.2 metres

Passengers: 36 in 18 cabins. 3 Classes.
Crew: 18
Cruising Speed: 14 knots. Stabilised.
Operator: North Star Cruises
Phone: 08 9192 1829

Itinerary: West Coast Explorer: 10 nights Fremantle to Exmouth. Annually in March. From A$6495 (Ocean Class, Twin Share). Fully inclusive. (Extras: bar, laundry, phone, internet)

Tips: Suitable for divers, fishers, snorkelers, walkers, swimmers, nature, history and wildlife buffs. Slightly more energetic than regular expedition cruises with the array of activities offered, but loafers can be easily catered for too!

Explorer Class Stateroom

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