Review – True North

WETSUIT on, mask adjusted, I take a deep breath and slowly lower myself into a protective cage in South Australia’s Neptune Bay. I admit swimming with great whites has never been high on my bucket list but an opportunity to see these predators of the deep up close and personal proves too intriguing.
Feeling nervous, I am even more jumpy after a safety briefing reminds us not to put our fingers outside the cage. There’s also chatter about Big Mamma – a whopper hovering nearby.
My eyes dart from left to right scanning the deep green waters. Daring to relax just a little, I start to think it may be a rare no-show day but next minute I spot a huge white and grey shadow rising from the depths.
It glides by the cage eye-balling me on the way and I am both mesmerised and terrified at the same time.
Tough sand-papery skin reveals battle scars as it does another swim by and just when I think he’s on his way, the shark lunges ferociously at the bait thrown from above, whacking the side of the cage. That’s when I decide my next encounter with a shark will be from behind aquarium glass and make a hasty retreat, scrambling up the steps. I am content to watch the rest of the action from the back of the Calypso Star Shark Cage Dive boat, a slick operation.

Shark cage diving is just one of the adventure activities offered on a True North eight-night cruise around the Great Australian Bight. The sleek boat oozes laidback luxury and caters for 36 passengers and 20 crew members, whose aim is to ensure passengers enjoy a cruise of a lifetime. Although the True North, part of North Star Cruises Australia, is best known for its iconic Kimberley cruises, it also sails in other Australian, Indonesia and Papua-New Guinea waters.

While the shark-cage diving certainly was an adrenalin charge, other underwater encounters on the cruise proved to be more my speed. I spend a few hours at Hopkins Island with doe-eyed Australian sea lions that are just so cute and playful. Mothers and pups salute the sun lazing on weather ravaged rocks. Aware they are often shark tucker, I swim in the shallows and next minute they are diving through the waves around me.

My third underwater encounter is with Southern Bluefin Tuna and again I pull on a wetsuit, mask, snorkel and fins, and jump into a tuna pen on the Swim with Tuna tour, 15 minutes out to sea from Port Lincoln. Among the fastest fish in the world, they dart towards me then at the last minute change direction. Dolphins also like the company of True North and its six tender boats that head out daily. Riding in the wake they show off, spinning through the air.

Stunning scenery, history, wildlife encounters, fresh seafood, beachcombing and fishing are the themes of this cruise that showcases Kangaroo Island, Port Lincoln, rugged shorelines and isolated islands sculpted by the wind and sea. Before boarding, we do a whistle stop tour of picturesque McLaren Vale, home to some of South Australia’s best drops, and visit Red Poles Art Gallery, try the plump olives at Lloyd Brothers, wine tasting at Wirra Wirra cellar door and lunch at the award-winning Penny’s Hill, where Tony Parkinson’s mantra is minimum crops – maximum quality.

There’s just one rule on board – it’s a barefoot zone only. Stilettos and sandshoes packed away, it’s surprising how quickly everyone slips into holiday mode.
Landlocked excursions include Kangaroo Island with a visit to Flinders Chase National Park and the outstanding Remarkable Rocks. Wind and waves have carved these colourful rocks into incredible shapes and we also visit Admiral’s Arch and see seals basking in the sun. A stop at Andermel Marron for a taste of fresh crayfish farm and a wine tasting at the Two Wheeler Creek Winery are other highlights. Visits to Coffin Bay and Streaky Bay — named by explorer Matthew Flinders because of the bands of colours, are also memorable and end with an oyster pie.

Gourmet afloat

Dining is much looked forward to with talented chef Andy Tonge, who worked with Shannon Bennett at Vue de Monde, serving gourmet cuisine. Come breakfast it’s hard to decline the dukkah-crusted poached egg with chickpea puree or berry pancakes with roasted pistachios and maple syrup.
Lunch maybe confit of duck with soba noodle salad, tempura king prawns with Wakami salad or Neptune Island tuna and nicoise salad.
Evening drinks feature seafood treats such as fresh oysters, kangaroo fillet with hibiscus, char-grilled marron tail, pearl meat ceviche, tuna sashimi and blue swimmer crabs.
For mains, there are standouts such as slow-roasted veal loin, seared snapper and crispy skin Tasmanian salmon with Broome mango cous cous.
For a sweet finale, white chocolate with warm rhubarb and honey emulsion earns a round of applause.

The great thing about True North is you can be as busy or as laid back as you like. You can fish, go beachcombing or laze with a good book. Days are action-packed with little time to spend in the comfortable cabins cared for by True North angels ensuring everything is pristine and in its place.
But be warned, cruise over, it’s hard to adjust to reality and slipping back into shoes.

Contact details
About True North
True North features 18 cabins: Explorer and River Class staterooms have king-size beds while Ocean Class twins feature roomy singles. All have ensuites, in-cabin entertainment and satellite phones. There’s a sundeck, observation lounge, ship’s lounge, alfresco bar and a sports deck. Daily activities include scenic walks, culture, fishing, snorkelling, picnics, exploring and nature-based tours.
North Star Cruises –

Helen Hayes & Sue Wallace
© The Finer Things