Last summer, Clara Davies, a 37-year-old lawyer from Melbourne, Australia, visited the North Pole with Quark Expeditions. As the ship sailed toward the pole, the ice thickened so much that the ship had to crunch through 10 feet of frozen sea before arriving at true north. “Knowing I was one of the few people who’d ever been there made it an almost spiritual experience,” Davies says. Not as spiritual, but just as memorable? The polar plunge she took—followed by a vodka shot.
All across the globe, exploration ships—outfitted with a high capacity for fuel and food, and made with shallower hulls to ply new, previously uncharted waters from Borneo to Burma’s Irrawaddy River—are more in demand than ever. “People want to visit places that are rarely seen,” says travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt of consulting firm Hudson Crossing, “but with the security that a ship can provide.” And it’s not just sporty types: according to Sven Lindblad, founder and president of Lindblad Expeditions, whose father pioneered expedition cruising in the 1960’s, passengers now include multigenerational families and sybarites who expect five-star style. “The growing fascination with ecology is part of the draw,” Lindblad says. “But there’s also an emerging interest in heroes and explorers...the idea of getting out of your comfort zone and into the wild.”
Before high-end cruise lines entered the scene, many of my own global adventures included a stash of freeze-dried soups, back-stiffening hours in a dugout canoe, and—once I’d smartened up—a self-inflating air mattress. At an indigenous ceremony in New Guinea, my husband and I watched the women of the Sepik River tribe strap live crocodiles across their chests, the snouts wrapped shut for safety—after we’d spent a sleepless night in a thatched-roof hut, complete with a few pitch-black slogs to the latrine. But on our voyage to Greenland aboard Hurtigruten’s 256-passenger Fram? After a day spent hiking on glaciers off the mainland or watching for bowhead whales with naturalists, we curled into the body-contoured leather chairs by the ship’s floor-to-ceiling windows—and toasted the day with martinis.
We aren’t the only ones happy that “adventure” and “roughing it” are no longer synonymous. When French luxury line Compagnie du Ponant announced it would follow in the course of legendary Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen with a 20-night Northwest Passage sailing this August aboard its new 132-stateroom Le Soléal, the $16,091 trip sold out in four days. Silversea and National Geographic Expeditions have introduced similar tours, and Ponant will offer the trip again in 2014.
While some travelers are marking their bucket lists, “others are seeking true life-changing moments,” says Terri Haas, chief commercial officer of Ponant. To help passengers understand both climate and local culture, top ships provide unprecedented access to experts. Aboard Zegrahm Expeditions ships, explorer and company cofounder Shirley Metz shares knowledge gained during 40 Antarctic visits (including an 800-mile journey on skis from Hercules Inlet to the South Pole). Former Colombian president César Gaviria Trujillo joins Lindblad/National Geographic in Latin America to reveal insights on the region’s political climate. On Orion Expeditions’ Borneo cruise, Kalimantan Tengah–based Camp Leakey founder Dr. Birute Galdikas teaches guests about the habitat loss that is endangering the island’s dwindling orangutan population.
Adventure cruises are best for the agile (Zodiacs are used for many excursions) and spontaneous (weather dictates the schedule each day). But despite rugged shore excursions, “people still want plush pillows and attentive service,” says Ellen Bettridge, Silversea Cruises President for the Americas. The popularity of Silversea’s Silver Explorer, a 132-passenger expedition ship that sails to six continents, has led the luxury line to add year-round itineraries in the Galápagos aboard its newly acquired, 100-passenger Silver Galapagos. Similarly, Seabourn is heeding guests’ requests and adding Antarctic itineraries this fall. On a voyage through the Northwest Passage to the Bering Strait with Ponant’s Le Soléal, you can search for endangered polar bears before a visit to the hammam in the ship’s spa. With Celebrity Xpedition in the Galápagos, spend your morning swimming with sea lion pups before a lunch of grilled wahoo, caught by local fishermen, at Darwin’s Restaurant. You can even camp overnight on the Antarctic ice before returning to your fluffy duvet aboard Hurtigruten’s Fram.
Our Greenland trip took us to Disko Bay, where we visited a remote Arctic village, population 130. Here, the effects of climate change are no inconvenient truth; it’s the difference between a successful winter hunt and hunger when the ice is too thin to support a hunter and his dog team. Beneath the endless summer sun, we sailed among glowing icebergs calved from the same blue glacier that birthed the Titanic’s nemesis, and began to grasp the perilous impact of the polar melt. If our lives weren’t entirely changed, surely our perspective had sharpened.
Jane Wooldridge, business editor at the Miami Herald, is T+L’s cruise editor.