Expedition cruising: 12 ultimate adventures on the high seas

Elissa Richard

For maritime-minded adventure seekers, an expedition cruise delivers voyages dedicated to the cultural richness and natural majesty of some of the world’s most remote locales. Operating on smaller vessels that are largely devoid of bigger cruise ships’ bells and whistles and jam-packed activity schedules, expedition voyages focus largely on off-the-path discovery, with skiff-run excursions that curtail the need for proper ports, essentially opening up the shore-accessible world as your oyster.

With shore excursions taking center stage, only light entertainment and diversions—usually focused on education and enrichment—are offered back onboard. A specialized staff, known as the expedition team, is usually composed of a motley crew of experts like marine biologists, naturalists, anthropologists, photographers, and other special guest lecturers who can offer some special insight into the cruise region’s culture, history, politics, or wildlife.

The expedition vessels themselves are typically intimate affairs, accommodating anywhere from 20 to 200 passengers—you can expect to mingle with well-traveled, independently minded fellow guests, with a shared penchant for adventure. The ships’ small passenger capacity, coupled with the sharing of daily activities in relatively small groups, encourages easy camaraderie and lively discussions between guests.

While most expedition cruise vessels are fairly bare bones, with function winning out over form for their assorted maritime missions (like icebreakers to plow through polar region pack), others manage to layer on luxury elements, like gourmet cuisine and other plush appointments (gyms, spas, etc.). And while the rest of the lot are resigned to more basic, yet comfortable, amenities—maybe a lounge, dining room, and observation deck on top of the small guest cabins—they certainly beat out, by leaps and bounds, the actual “roughing it” that would likely otherwise be required (if a possibility at all) to take in the little-visited locales on shore.

Just keep in mind that if you do opt for a fairly high-end cruise, this still isn’t the market for white-glove service and other froufrou frills. Onboard atmospheres are reliably laidback and relaxed, and evening activities require nothing more than casual dress—formal nights have no place on expedition itineraries (probably because hiking boots don’t pair so well with ball gowns!).

As to where you can sail, the nature of expedition voyages, with their small, specially equipped vessels, means almost anywhere you can imagine, so long as it has accessible coastline. Perhaps it’s the icebergs of Antarctica or the Arctic, the majestic fjords of Alaska or Norway, the lush environs of the Galapagos or the Amazon (see 7 amazing Amazon river cruises), or the unique tribal cultures and rich coral reefs of the South Pacific. In many cases, you’ll gain access to remote locales and tiny harbors that would be difficult (if not impossible) to reach by land or via larger cruise ships.

Keep in mind that you’ll have to be fairly fit to sign up for such a sailing—accessing secluded shorelines means that you’ll likely be climbing in and out of Zodiac boats, rather than conventional tenders, and you may have to make “wet landings” ashore (requiring you to jump out of the Zodiac and wade to shore). And once you do reach land, you may be required to navigate rough natural terrain like rocky beaches or steep inclines.

Wherever you ultimately sail, expedition cruising will demand a greater need for flexibility. Unpredictable factors like wildlife sightings or weather conditions, particularly in the arctic regions or the tropics, can easily change the course of a planned itinerary. And given that you’re visiting places that likely don’t receive many tourists, chances are that your on-the-ground excursions will encounter some hiccups—of course, such spontaneity is also the spice of expedition life!

Ready to set sail? Read on for a dozen hand-selected expedition cruise itineraries on offer from the industry’s prominent players:

1. Celebrity Xpedition Cruise to the Galapagos Islands
Cruise Ship: 96-passenger Celebrity Xpedition
Ports of Call: Cruise round-trip from Baltra in the Galapagos to assorted islands in the Galapagos chain
Cruise Length: 7 nights
Embarkation Dates: Select dates year-round
Book It: Rates from $2,899/person

2. Whale-Watching Expeditions in Patagonia with Cruceros Australis
Cruise Ship: 136-passenger Via Australis
Ports of Call: Cruise from Punta Arenas, Chile, to Ushuaia, Argentina, with whale-watching around Carlos III island, and stops at the Hornos Islands, Pia Glaciers, and more
Cruise Length: 4 nights
Embarkation Dates: Dec. 17, 2013; Jan. 10, 2014; Feb. 10, 2014; March 13, 2014
Book It: Rates from $2,148/person

3. Sail Alaska’s Northern Passages & Glacier Bay with Un-Cruise Adventures
Cruise Ship: 76-passenger Wilderness Explorer
Ports of Call: Explore remote Alaskan islands and shores between Juneau and Stika, with three days spent in Glacier Bay National Park
Cruise Length: 7 nights
Embarkation Dates: Select summer sailing dates from May through August 2013
Book It: Rates from $2,795/person

4. Hurtigruten Expeditions to Antarctica with Camping Option
Cruise Ship: 200-passenger MS Fram
Ports of Call: Cruise round-trip from Ushuaia, Argentina, to Antarctica; expect six or more landings on average
Cruise Length: 9 nights
Embarkation Dates: Nov. 22, 2013; Jan. 13, 2014; Feb. 15, 2014
Book It: Rates from $6,302/person

5. Cruise to Remote Russian Islands & Japan with Luxury Compagnie du Ponant
Cruise Ship: 264-passenger Le Boréal
Ports of Call: Cruise from Petropavlovsk, Russia, to Otaru, Japan, with port calls in remote regions of Russia
Cruise Length: 10 nights
Embarkation Dates: Oct. 5, 2013
Book It: Rates from $7,526/person

6. Discover Borneo this Fall with Orion Expeditions Cruise from Bali
Cruise Ship: 106-passenger Orion
Ports of Call: Cruise from Bali to Indonesia (Semarang and Sulawesi) and Borneo (Tanjung Puting National Park)
Cruise Length: 10 nights
Embarkation Dates: Sept. 29, 2013
Book It: Rates from $8,805/person

7. International Expeditions Sailing to Turkey & Greece
Cruise Ship: 46-passenger Panorama II
Ports of Call: Pre- and post-hotel stays in Istanbul and Kusadasi, followed by a cruise from Dalaman, Turkey, with assorted excursions in Turkey (Kayakoy, Marmaris, Bodrum, Kusadasi, Didyma, Ephesus, Izmir) and Greece (Rhodes, Lindos, Symi, Kos)
Cruise Length: 9-night cruise, plus one-night pre- and post-hotel stay in Istanbul, plus one night in Kusadasi post-disembarkation
Embarkation Dates: Sept. 15, 2013
Book It: Rates from $4,798/person

8. Pacific Northwest Voyage to British Columbia & Alaska on Lindblad Expeditions
Cruise Ship: 62-guest National Geographic Sea Lion and National Geographic Sea Bird
Ports of Call: Cruise from Seattle to ports in British Columbia and Alaska; disembark in Sitka, Alaska (reverse itineraries available in September)
Cruise Length: 14 nights
Embarkation Dates: May 3, 2014; May 4, 2014; Sept. 6, 2014; Sept. 7, 2014
Book It: Rates from $9,990/person

9. Hapag-Lloyd Expedition to Madagascar and Africa
Cruise Ship: 164-passenger MS Bremen
Ports of Call: Sail from Mauritius to several ports in Madagascar; disembark in Cape Town, South Africa
Cruise Length: 17 nights
Embarkation Dates: Dec. 1, 2013
Book It: Rates from $7,020/person

10. Quark Expeditions Cruise to Greenland and Canada’s High Arctic
Cruise Ship: 114-passenger Sea Explorer
Ports of Call: Explore landing sites on Greenland’s west coast and the Canadian Arctic
Cruise Length: 11 nights plus one pre-cruise hotel night in Reykjavik, Iceland
Embarkation Dates: Aug. 24, 2014
Book It: Rates from $5,995/person

11. New Galapagos Itinerary on All-Suite Ship with Upscale Silversea
Cruise Ship: 100-passenger Silver Explorer
Ports of Call: Sail from Baltra Island in the Galapagos to assorted Galapagos islands
Cruise Length: 7 nights
Embarkation Dates: Select sailing dates year-round
Book It: Rates from $5,450/person

12. Circumnavigate Papua New Guinea with Zegrahm Expeditions
Cruise Ship: 100-passenger Caledonian Sky
Ports of Call: Cruise from Port Moresby to numerous ports around the island nation of Papua New Guinea
Cruise Length: 10 nights
Embarkation Dates: March 8, 2014
Book It: Rates from $10,970/person