Expedition cruising: 12 ultimate adventures on the high seas
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.