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Insider Tips for Planning Your Ultimate Kimberley Expedition Cruise and Getting the Best Deals

Updated: Apr 23


Australia's Kimberley Region - like nowhere else on earth.


Period.



Ah, the majestic, fantastical Kimberley, where the ochre-red cliffs of the desert plummet into the turquoise-hued waters of an exotic sea and thirsty rivers, a mystical union unfolds—a symphony of earth and water, whispered secrets carried by coastal breezes and sun-kissed beaches that guard ancient stories of the Dreamtime.



 

This is my personal guide to help you unlock the wonders this region has hidden away. The recommendations below are based on my own experiences and designed to help you plan your own Ultimate Kimberley Adventure. I also share insider secrets that you won't find anywhere else on how to secure the best prices. This is a big guide because this is a big region and an even grander adventure. You can't afford to stuff it up.



Please contact me with any questions about the region or expedition cruising.


6-Star cruises @ 3-Star Prices


Fleet Captain James Hardy

Text 0430 200 535 - james@kvi.travel


 

In this guide, you will learn the following - use this menu to click ahead at any time.


 


If a Kimberley cruise isn't on your bucket list .... Shame on you, it should be.


But even if the Kimberley is but a distant dream, remember to return to FAB when ready.


We will always find you the cheapest possible deal on the world's best 6-star ships.


That's a guarantee you can take to the bank - along with all the lovely bubbly money we will save you.


Everyone at Team FAB is an expert in Expedition Voyages, and, more importantly, no one in the industry knows the discounting cycles better than us.


Why the Kimberley


No place on earth comes close to this region's ancient, rugged beauty, exotic wildlife, and unique landscapes. Wake each day to an array of wonders that will leave you in a perpetual state of awe that will be etched into your soul forever. If that sounds hyperbolic, 'do your own research' and ask anyone who has been.


Welcome to the Kimberley region, a land carved over millions of years by the powerful forces of wind, rain, and tidal flows.


But what is it that truly sets the Kimberley apart?


Most have but a vague notion of that remote and blank expanse on maps of Australia's westernmost point, but what does it encompass? What makes an expedition cruise to this legendary land stand out from all other cruises?


If you take nothing else away from this guide, pause to watch any of these short reels, and you'll begin to grasp the distinction. They encapsulate what lies in store for you better than my clumsy words ever could or even those of a learned scholar.



To be brutally honest with you, when I cruised the Kimberley last season, I had no idea what to expect. In hindsight, I am ashamed to admit that my narrow, perceived ideas had me go in prepared for a lot of red dirt, blue water, and not much more. I could not have been more wrong. This cruise, more than any other, changed my life and my perspective on life.


The Kimberley is an untamed wilderness, the likes of which you will have never seen before. You will hear that a lot because it's true.


Those fortunate enough to experience the Kimberley come away surprised at the deepness of the intimate connection they invariably forge with the world that has barely changed since prehistoric times.


All who visit learn very quickly that their every move is watched over by ever-vigilant crocodiles who have remained remarkably consistent in their form and behavior over the course of millions of years. Their lineage traces back to the Mesozoic Era when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Not much has changed here in eons, and these ever-ubiquitous Crocs prove that the old adage is undoubtedly correct: why change if you don't have to?


I guarantee you this: your Kimberley Expedition will undoubtedly be one of your life's great adventures. It most certainly is not just another cruise. It will transcend mere travel and become a tonic for your soul.



There are two Kimberleys


Depending on whether you venture by road or sea, there are effectively two distinct Kimberley experiences. It is essential to understand that there is almost no way to access the coast on the road between Darwin and Broome. If you want to see her most spectacular crown jewels, you need a ship. And not just any ship.


Those who claim to know the Kimberley having visited only by road are in for some surprise.


Understanding the need for protection and how this will impact your experience


As this unique ecosystem is so pristine and has remained unchanged for millennia, traditional owners and successive governments have instituted ever-increasing restrictions on the tourism industry. Although these protections need to be applauded, understanding these dynamics will help provide context to current itineraries, how these may change in future years, and, ultimately, what you will end up paying for your fare.


Perhaps the most critical restriction on operators is a cap on the size of vessels permitted to cruise coastal waters, rivers, and anchorages. As with the limited access by road, there is also a complete lack of coastal towns or ports. This means that only ultra-small vessels are viable, mostly no larger than 200 people. Finally, traditional cruise ship tenders are unusable for going ashore without docking infrastructure.


This is why you will never see larger mid-range operators advertising Kimberley Itineraries. Even if they could get permission, which they won't, they cannot conduct beach landings, which is the only way to get passengers ashore.


Occasionally, you may see a line like Princess or Cunard offering circumnavigation voyages around Australia that appear to include the Kimberley region. Just be mindful that if you book one of these larger cruise ships on the run between Darwin and Broome, you will not be able to go ashore, and the ships will be kept some considerable distance from the coast.


The only way for an operator to land passengers along the Kimberley coast is to use a fleet of zodiacs, and only custom-built expedition ships can accommodate these. Additionally, a large team of expedition leaders is required to operate such a fleet, and all of these need to be experts in different disciplines, from marine and bird life to history and geology. These expedition teams can number as many as 40 people and do not come cheap, significantly increasing operating costs. At the same time, the caps on passenger numbers mean that such costs cannot be defrayed as they can be on higher-capacity vessels.



Don't leave it too late.


Everyone, especially Australians, should have the opportunity to experience the Kimberley, which, after all, is in our own backyard. Although I'm sure everyone understands the need to preserve the natural environment, the strictness of the regulations automatically rules out mass tourism, and this is where I am conflicted. The protections and limitations detailed above mean that only those with significant financial resources can afford a Kimberley Expedition Voyage. A Kimberley Expedition cruise will be out of reach if you are slogging away at a job with minimum wages or have a family to raise.


Sadly, this situation will only worsen in subsequent years as demand increases against capacity constraints that can not be significantly improved and as ever more severe restrictions come into force. One example is that operators are now restricted from taking zodiacs or fast boats 'through' the narrow Horizontal Falls. (The good news is that the experience has not been significantly diminished .... yet.) Just be mindful that, as with climbing Ularu, what might be possible this season may change in the future.


Unlike traditional cruising, all standard excursions are included in your fare and conducted by hardy zodiacs. The diverse team of naturalists and scientists leading each excursion will deepen your understanding and appreciation of this unique ecosystem. Some ships offer sea kayaks for an additional fee, which everyone raves about, while Seabourn goes one step further and has their own 6-person submarine.



When to go


The season is relatively short from late May through late October, with the best weather between June and September. As such, voyages at either end of the season will be slightly cheaper.


Like everything in far north Australia, every single element of life swings on rain. Or the lack thereof. The Kimberley has only two seasons, The Wet and The Dry.


Once The Wet starts, the rain will continue for months without pause, making any tourism operation nonviable. Hence, why cruise ships, like migratory birds, fly off to follow the sun.


Waterfalls: Early in The Dry is the best time to view magnificent waterfalls as these will be photogenic torrents cascading down rocky cliffs. They will have less volume late in the season.



Whales:  Almost as if by divine compensation, the whales come out to frolic as the water evaporates off the sun-scorched earth. They first appear in Kimberley waters, their summer breeding grounds after the frigid cold Antarctica, toward the end of May or early June, with the peak of the northern migration occurring in the last week of July.



Calving occurs in Kimberley waters between June and November, and just like us, they linger as long as they can to enjoy their summer holiday.


In a nutshell, if you want waterfalls, go early; if you'd prefer whale soup to be on the menu, go later, which is why June/July/Aug are considered peak.


The bottom line is that it doesn't matter when you go; just go.


 

How to get there



Almost all itenaries are ten days long, and these will run back-to-back throughout the season from either Broome or Darwin.


Broome and Darwin are both served by Qantas, Virgin, Qantaslink, and Alliance.


Darwin is a large city and an international gateway, with daily flights to and from most major capitals, Singapore, Bali, and other Asian cities.


Broome is a wee outback town, a long way from nowhere, bang in the middle of the nowhere, which is part of its charm. It is home to an equally small airport. Daily flights only operate to and from Perth in the south. Direct flights between Darwin and Broome are not usually an option.


Direct flights to Melbourne and Sydney by Qantas are only offered two to three times per week. You will always be able to find a flight out the same day you disembark, but if your destination is the West Coast, you may have to go via Perth. Therefore, staying a night or two may be more prudent and cheaper until you can get a direct flight home.


For those with extra time and the cash to splash, the Ghan from Adelaide to Darwin is worth considering to extend your once-in-a-lifetime adventure.


 

Itineraries



All itineraries - by the large operators will be almost identical.


You will have a choice of starting in Darwin or Broome. There is no material benefit of either one over the other.


The bottom line is that although Darwin is more convenient, with daily flights, everyone will have to plan around fewer options in Broome - (either at the start or end of your cruise). If your window of travel is limited, don't fuss about the direction of travel.


Highlights featured in almost all itineraries offered by all operators


  • Darwin is the smallest, wettest, most northerly, and quintessentially Australian of the mainland capital cities. She is a bit of an odd bird and reminds me of Pirate Town, with a kaleidoscope of exiles streaming in from across the globe. Scottish backpackers mingle with uber-rich Americans and drown beers with Crocodile Dundee wannabes. Everyone here is about to either head off or has just come back caked in the dust of the outback. Why do the come?

  • Kakadu National Park, a World Heritage-listed treasure, lies just two and a half hours from Darwin.

  • Litchfield National Park, a mere 90-minute drive south of Darwin, is a hidden gem in the Northern Territory. Its stunning landscapes, refreshing swimming holes, and iconic magnetic termite mounds make it a top destination for all visitors to the Top End.

  • Darwin has a rich history that is worth unearthing. Did you know that bombs were dropped on Darwin than on Pearl Harbour?

  • "Christmas Eve of 74" is etched in her DNA.

  • Speaking of Pearls, if these are your thing, this is home to the South Seas global headquarters of Paspaley Pearls

  • Finally, if you hail from overseas or are under 50, to understand Darwin's DNA, you need to learn the words to this song, Santa never made it into Darwin.

On Christmas Eve of '74

A warning sounded out

On all the broadcast stations

A great storm was near about

Boys and girls all sleeping there

Tomorrow of their day

Mums and dads all prayin'

The storm would blow away

Santa never made it into Darwin


  • Ancient Rock Art: Wander among the timeless galleries of Wandjina and Gwion Gwion figures—prehistoric masterpieces etched into the Kimberley's rugged cliffs.


  • King George River: Stand in awe before the towering Twin Falls, where water cascades from great heights, painting rainbows against the ochre rock.


  • Horizontal Falls: Brace yourself for an exhilarating ride on the turbulent white water caused by the narrow tidal choke points, as the massive tides of the region suck megalitres of water per minute from the inland river system that is reluctant to let go of a drop.



  • Montgomery Reef: Witness the miracle of emergence as this submerged reef, way out at sea, reveals itself during low tide, teeming with marine life.




  • Mitchell Falls: Fly low and fast across these ancient gorges to reach the multi-tiered waterfall, where pristine waters plunge into emerald pools.



  • Buccaneer Archipelago: Explore a labyrinth of hidden coves, secret beaches, and rugged islands—a sailor's dream come true.


  • Ashmore Reef: A sanctuary for seabirds, marine turtles, and other diverse marine species If conditions permit you may be lucky to experience an ocean swim.  


  • Broome: Along its Indian Ocean coastline, the white sands of 22km-long Cable Beach offer a dramatic backdrop for sunset camel rides. At Gantheaume Point nearby, dinosaur tracks are revealed in the beach’s red rocks during low tide.

  • Camel rides on the beach at sunset are an Iconic part of a Broome sojourn.


 

The Weather


Temperatures can be extreme during the heat of summer, which can be compounded as humidity increases late in The Dry. However, being at sea and on the coast greatly helps with soothing breezes. Provided you are sun smart, the heat need not be oppressive.


The one reliable aspect of The Dry is that the weather is remarkably consistent, and you rarely see clouds in the sky.


Many overseas visitors are surprised to learn that the ever-present crocodiles really are on a mission to eat them. These, along with marine stingers, mean there is no safe place to swim between Darwin and Broome in the ocean, off the pristine beaches or even freshwater rivers. As such, don't make the mistake of booking a Kimberley cruise on a ship without a pool. Many of the smaller vessels and even some 6-star ships lack these.


Dry Season (May–October):



Temperature Range: Expect daytime temperatures between 20°C and 35°C. As the season progresses, the heat and humidity gradually build.


Peak Months: June, July, and August are the driest and most pleasant, with clear, blue skies and temperatures reaching the 30s.


Misnomer Alert: Despite being called "The Dry Season,” occasional showers can occur, especially in early May and late October as the seasons transition.


Wet Season (November–April):



Rainfall: Over 90% of the region’s annual rain falls during these months. When the skies open, it’s a spectacular deluge.


As the weather is so consistent, seasickness will generally not be a problem except for some ocean swells. If concerned, read this: Sea Sickness Cures.


 

Life onboard - How do expedition cruises and ships differ?



Expedition cruises are like no other cruise and can be physically demanding, not just because of the agility needed to get into and out of zodiacs but also because there is so much you will want to see and do. You won't have much time even to read a book. Why would when you can write your own when you get home?


Most days, expect up to two shore excursions, a one-hour expedition briefing, and wildlife and history lectures. The best ships have been custom-built for such briefings.



Invariably, when you do happen to find some downtime or are perhaps having lunch, don't be surprised to hear an announcement from the bridge that a pod of whales is breaching off the port beam—and then, the race will be on in earnest to get the best photos for social media.


On an expedition voyage, there are no pre-scheduled ports of call, as all off-ship excursions are subject to prevailing conditions.


As with almost every living thing on the coast, the tides will influence your days more than any other factor. The Kimberley region experiences some of the world’s largest tides due to its unusually massive continental shelf stretching hundreds of kilometers offshore toward Indonesia. This expansive shelf amplifies the gravitational forces of the moon and the sun, resulting in tides that can rise by over 14 meters, equal in size to a 5-story building.


 

Life onboard a 6-star expedition ship - this galley features Ponant.



Your suite


If your budget permits, take our advice and book one of our preferred 6-star operators, which features all-suite ships.


If you are happy to pay a premium to sail on a 3-star ship ... knock yourself out. See specs by cruise line below. The suite pictured below is Seabourn.



Entertainment


Because expedition ships are smaller, entertainment options will be less than on traditional cruise ships. There will still be roaming musical trios, piano players in the bars, and perhaps karaoke and trivia, but don't expect shows with a cast of entertainers. Besides, the place you will want to be each evening is up on deck to watch the world's most impressive sunsets, serenaded by the sounds of silence and the theatrical lighting of a million stars.


Dining



Our 6-star preferred operators will provide a literal smorgasbord of gourmet experiences that seem beyond the realms of possibility, given that you are exploring one of the most remote and hostile parts of the world. Think lobster, steak, delicate French cakes, pastries, and unlimited caviar. All served up on starched linen with the best wines and, in the case of Silversea, your own butler.


Dress codes


A feature of all expedition cruises across all brands is that dinner dress codes are universally casual, even on Silversea. So there is no need to pack formal outfits or anything particularly dressy.


How old is the ship?


One question to ask when booking is, "How old is the ship?". Technological advances mean the new ships provide a luxury that surpasses anything built 20 or 30 years ago.


Older ships may have a percentage of ocean-view cabins without balconies, some even with port holes, while the new kids on the block are all-balcony ships. If you are concerned about seasickness, the latest ships will always have better aerodynamics through the water and state-of-the-art stabilizers.


The best expedition ships are custom-built, so you will enjoy unique docking facilities to make entering Zodiacs quicker and safer. Rule of thumb, like with aircraft, it is always advisable to book the latest model with the most modern features like lie-flat beds,


At the 6-star level, the onboard and expedition experience will be almost identical across brands. With the prices they charge, it has to be. So, an older ship should not be a deal breaker, especially if it has been recently refurbished, which is a must. All that I'm suggesting is that if you have a choice of two options on or around the same day and price, always go with the newer ship.


 

Typical shore excursions



All shore excursions are conducted exclusively by a fleet of onboard Zodiacs piloted by one of the expedition team members who will be an expert in a particular field, such as marine or bird life, geology, or history.


These standard excursions are all included in your fare. Many guides have larger-than-life personalities; their passion and zeal will add much to your once-in-life experience. Invariably, they will be as excited and in awe of the wildlife daily encounters as you will be.


Some operators, such as Seabourn, have optional excursions by Kayaks (Croc dependant), or even their own submarines with an additional charge. ($125 and $1000 USD p/p, respectively)


Almost all itineraries will also offer helicopter flights by external operators to Mitchell Falls. These are expensive—approximately $750 USD p/p —but I highly recommend these if your budget allows. Apart from the adrenaline rush, flying over the rivers, mangroves, and plains provides an unrivaled sense of context not possible at ground level. NB: Prebook these if you can, or as soon as you get onboard, as they will sell out.