Unlike the megaships sailing the Caribbean these days, expedition cruising is more about the experience and less about relaxation. You’re not going to be playing shuffleboard on the lido deck before an ice skating show, but rather will be led on a grand adventure through some of the most remote places on earth.
Expedition ships are typically smaller, focus on less-travelled locations, and offer an emphasis on education instead of entertainment. But you don’t have to sacrifice comfort or even extravagance, as some of the lines focus on the luxury traveller. You’ll experience some rough terrain and seek remote villages but come home every night to your climate-controlled cabin with creature comforts. Some ships have spas, internet cafes, gyms, and libraries, while some are more rustic. Dinners are typically one seating with a lounge for cocktails, lectures, and entertainment. The atmosphere on board is typically more casual than most of the luxury ships. You won’t need your evening gown and heels.
Naturalists make up the expedition team and are on hand to help you explore during the day, and they offer a lecture or other enrichment in the evening. Shore excursions, depending on destination, range from scuba and snorkelling to hiking, ice climbing, or kayaking.
Here are some of the top destinations you can visit by expedition cruise:
Antarctica is the harshest, most remote and difficult location on the globe to visit. So, naturally the most adventurous have made this a niche explorer destination. There are no native humans within 500 miles of the coastline, but animal species abound. Most itineraries take off from South America in Buenos Aires and Ushuaia.
Expect to see penguins, orcas, polar bears, seals, a plethora of flying and diving bird species and grand whales of all species and sizes. You might also be able to chat with researchers stationed near shore.
When to sail: Weather can be unexpectedly harsh, so the cruising season to Antarctica is short — only during its summer, from November through February.
Travellers fly into Lima and then into the jungles of Iquitos where they embark. Amazon vessels are smaller and more intimate for river cruising, with sleek modern vessels or classic teak riverboats.
Amazon cruises are less about shore excursions and more about the river journey itself. Stops will be made at small villages where you can interact with locals and buy souvenirs. Naturalists on board will illuminate exotic birds and other wildlife of note. During the high season you can take skiffs into some of the smaller tributaries, and when water levels are lower, you can take guided walks along the shoreline.
While in Peru, make sure to schedule an excursion to experience Machu Picchu. Spend a day hiking the Inca Trail and exploring Cusco.
When to sail: December through May, water is at its highest levels (which fluctuate up to 45 feet), but temperate weather makes this destination ideal year-round.
Pre or post excursions to Machu Picchu.
Made famous by evolutionist Charles Darwin, 97 percent of the islands in the Galapagos are designated as a national park, resulting in tourism being strictly controlled. This makes cruising ideal for this destination. For this reason, ships are smaller by design and limited to 100 passengers.
On shore, you’ll hike with your naturalist to discover the unique plant and animal ecosphere. Or you can swim and snorkel off the coast with sea lions and hammerhead sharks.
When to sail: Due to its equatorial location, the Galapagos are a perfect destination year-round, but thanks to unpredictable winds, the temperature might vary significantly between days of your voyage.
Reaching farther north than Alaska or even Siberia, Arctic Norway is home to the some of the most awe-inspiring natural sights in the world. Embarkation is typically from Iceland, Greenland, or the Norwegian cities of Tromso or Longyearbyen. Itineraries focus on the Svalbard archipelago. Some cruise lines offer destinations in the fjords of mainland Norway as well.
Passengers take the zodiac boats for zooms along the rocky coastline or amidst the icebergs in search of polar bears, walruses, foxes, and caribou. You’ll have a naturalist on your expedition team in case of polar bears.
When to sail: The season is short due to weather, so June through August is ideal. In July, ships can venture the farthest north, and polar bears might be seen!
Destinations in the South Pacific include islands Polynesia, Micronesia, Melanesia and the islands off of Australia and New Zealand.
The focus of your expedition here will be marine biology, especially coral reefs and rainforest biodiversity. Islands have been isolated, so indigenous cultures have been less disturbed, and one can witness day-to-day life — immerse yourself in native culture.
Scuba and snorkelling are the most popular activities. The circular reefs create some of the clearest waters in the world. There is also extensive military wreckage from WWII to explore.
When to sail: June through November are ideal to avoid the rainy season.
Text by Laine McDonnell Translated by Zhao Wen