World's Most Scenic Cruises
No matter how many times he steers the 450-passenger Seabourn Sojourn through Norway's Lofoten Islands, captain Hamish Elliott eagerly anticipates his favorite point—when a fairytale-like landscape comes into view.
"The entrance to Trollfjord is hidden until the last moment before the ship arrives, and then all of a sudden you have towering cliffs to either side," Elliott says. "It doesn't take much imagination to believe you can see the fabled Trolls."
Scenic views are the most priceless part of the amenity-packed cruise experience. And, as savvy travelers seek more adventure opportunities, cruise lines are responding by charting a course to ever more beautiful—and remote—corners of the map.
The world's most scenic cruises include the Kimberley, a gorgeous coastline of rugged red cliffs and white sands in northwestern Australia. In this outback, where the Indian Ocean meets the Timor Sea, remote islands proliferate, and rivers and inlets—accessible only by small ships—lead to isolated gorges, towering rock faces, and waterfalls. With their shallow drafts, these small cruise ships can get close to the sights, and they come equipped with inflatable Zodiacs that allow for intimate coastline exploration.
But big ship lines, too, are bringing passengers to ocean-accessible scenic wonders like Alaska's Inside Passage, where the roar of calving glaciers is best experienced from the vantage point of a ship's deck. Even Carnival Cruise Lines, with its strong base in the Caribbean, is positioning a ship year-round in Sydney, beginning in Fall 2012. It's easy to see the reasoning: the South Pacific, South America, and Africa are all hot cruising destinations, according to the Cruise Lines International Association, the industry's top marketing group.
Whatever the size of your ship, you don't need to rough it; small doesn't mean no-frills. On the 92-passenger Celebrity Xpedition in the Galapagos, you can start your day spotting blue-footed boobies and end it in a hot tub; on the Clipper Adventurer in Antarctica, you can follow mountaineering with a massage.
Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but on the world's most scenic cruises, Mother Nature serves up views that will please the most jaded traveler—and may even change the very way you look at the world.
Located some 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, and virtually untouched by man, these islands have fostered hundreds of species found nowhere else on earth. Giant tortoises, curious iguanas, blue-footed boobies, and Charles Darwin's famous finches are the main attractions. You'll cruise past volcanic peaks and beaches, with opportunities to schmooze with land critters, snorkel with sharks, or watch the birds and contemplate the ongoing evolution in this wild spot.
Sample Itinerary: 7-day on the 92-passenger Celebrity Xpedition, from Baltra, Ecuador. From $3,499 per person, based on double occupancy.
The rugged red cliffs and white sands of northwestern Australia make for one of the wildest, most beautiful coastlines in the world—and the best parts are accessible only by ship. In this outback, where the Indian Ocean meets the Timor Sea, remote islands proliferate, and rivers and inlets lead to isolated gorges, towering rock faces, majestic waterfalls (as high as 328 feet), and roving saltwater crocodiles.
Sample Itinerary: 10-day, from the frontier cities of Darwin or Broome, on the 50-passenger Coral Princess. From $7,337 per person, based on double occupancy.
Cruising the calm waters of Alaska's Inside Passage delivers high-drama views, namely, the awesome sight of immense glaciers thunderously calving into the sea. But what may linger in your memory is the sheer vastness of the wilderness, icy and forested. Keep your binoculars handy to catch glimpses of whales, eagles, and, if you're lucky, a grizzly.
Sample Itinerary: Weeklong Eastern Coves on the 68-passenger Wilderness Discoverer or 57-passenger Wilderness Adventurer, between Juneau and Ketchikan. From $1,795 per person, based on double occupancy.
Antarctica and the South Shetland Islands
The captain charts a course south from Argentina's tip to the "Great White Continent," where wild beauty comes in the form of spectacular glaciers, giant white and blue icebergs, and snowcapped mountains. In this stark setting, you can spot orca and sperm whales from the deck and observe penguins and elephant seals up-close on island stops. What you won't find is any sign of humans (beyond a smattering of scientific research stations).
Sample Itinerary: 11-day Antarctic Explorer, round-trip from Ushuaia, Argentina, on the 122-passenger Clipper Adventurer. From $4,890 per person, based on double occupancy.
In the heart of the Malay Archipelago awaits the third largest island in the world, where ancient tropical rainforests support a zoological wonderland. There are interesting plants and animal- and bird-life galore, and offshore, the reefs are full of colorful coral and marine life. Don't miss the monkeys in the wild, particularly orangutans.
Sample Itinerary: 10-day Camp Leaky on the 100-passenger Orion II (includes a stop at the orangutan rehab center featured in the IMAX film Born to be Wild). From $6,930 per person, based on double occupancy.
As you island-hop across the Indian Ocean, passing Mauritius, Reunion, and the Comoros, you'll be wowed by such sights as volcanoes (both extinct and active), dense forests, and some of the most pristine beaches and teeming coral reefs in the world. The East African cruise experience peaks at Madagascar, so big it's been dubbed the "eighth continent," which presents the added allure of lemurs—those spooky primates whose eyes make them look perpetually startled.
Sample Itinerary: 15-day East Africa, from Mauritius to Zanzibar on Zegrahm Expeditions' 110-passenger Clipper Odyssey, one of the only ships that devotes more than a day to the remarkable island of Madagascar. From $12,480 per person, based on double occupancy.
Ancient architectural wonders combine with whitewashed towns, beaches, and abundant sunshine to make the Greek Isles a highly desirable cruising destination. The most magnificent scenery belongs to Santorini, where your ship sails into a bay that is actually a giant caldera, created when a volcano erupted in 1500 B.C. Multihued cliffs and the 1,000-foot-high town of Fira complete the view.
Rudyard Kipling called Milford Sound “the eighth wonder of the world,” and it’s hard to argue when you behold the ethereal beauty of a waterway little changed since the Maori people discovered it more than 1,000 years ago. In South Island’s Fjordland National Park, the sound cuts through steep cliffs carved by glaciers. Your ship may get close enough to a roaring waterfall for you to feel the spray.
The colorful leaves that light up the Eastern Seaboard each fall are recognized worldwide as one of nature's best shows. Seeing the red and gold display from the sea is a refreshing alternative to traffic-clogged roadways. Plus there's the added delight of rugged coastline and sightings of humpback and minke whales. Cruises typically head up to Canada, and some seek out a route that includes the tree-lined fjord of the Saguenay, which cuts through what may be the oldest rocks on earth.
The crystal-clear Norwegian Fjords serve up an embarrassment of natural riches. These stunning waterways cut right through 1,000-foot cliffs, revealing snowcapped mountains, glacier-fed waterfalls, and rolling lowlands. The spectacular views just keep on coming and continue well past dinnertime as you cruise with the midnight sun.
Baja California/Sea of Cortez
"The world's aquarium" is what Jacques Cousteau called the protected azure waters of the Sea of Cortés. Cruisers who venture here get to mingle with marine life like the California gray whales that come to Baja to breed. But the dramatic desert-meets-sea scenery is its own calling card, with views ranging from giant cacti and craggy lava-shaped cliffs to mangroves and pristine beaches.
Sample Itinerary: 7-day Among the Great Whales on the 62-passenger National Geographic Sea Bird, from La Paz/San Carlos. From $5,240 per person, based on double occupancy.
When you picture paradise, chances are it looks a lot like French Polynesia, an ethereal collection of islands where dark volcanic peaks loom above the greenest of green foliage and turquoise sea. Admire the vivid hues from a deck chair, then don snorkels to get an underwater look at bright corals and tropical fish in every color of the rainbow.
Sample Itinerary: 7-day Tahiti & Society Islands on the 332-passenger Paul Gauguin. From $4,397 per person, based on double occupancy.
There's an eerie beauty and otherworldly quality to the Scottish Hebrides, hundreds of sparsely populated islands with rocky cliffs and barren seashores. Rolling moorland leads to striking rock pillars and pinnacles on Skye's Trotternish Peninsula, while a volcanic peak dominates Eigg, and whales and dolphins frolic off Ulva and Mull. You'll also be taken in by views of spectacular lochs, bird reserves, and the occasional castle or mysterious stone circle.
Sample Itinerary: 7-day Footloose to the Western Islands on the 50-passenger Hebridean Princess. From $5,060 per person, based on double occupancy.
Around the North Pole the polar bear is king. These huge carnivores live among the pristine beauty of glistening glaciers and enormous icebergs that will take your breath away—no matter how many photos you've seen. Encouraged by the midnight sun, Arctic wildflowers bloom, and thousands of rare seabirds, walruses, reindeer, beluga whales, and other creatures also make appearances.
Sample Itinerary: 6-day Polar Encounters on the 100-passenger M/S Fram, from Longyearbyen, Norway. From $3,230 per person, based on double occupancy.
Encounters with playful howler monkeys and macaws—maybe even the spotting of a distant jaguar or boa constrictor—are part of the intense nature immersion that comes with cruising the Amazon. The whole route teems with wildlife, from endangered pink Amazon dolphins to three-toed sloths to millions of butterflies. And on a small ship you can nimbly explore remote areas of jungle and beautiful hidden black lakes.
Sample Itinerary: 7-day on Aqua Expeditions’ 24-passenger M/V Aqua, round-trip from Iquitos, Peru. From $5,950 per person, based on double occupancy.
For fairy-tale scenery, it’s hard to beat the Rhine region of cliff-top castles, half-timbered villages, and deep forests. In the river’s midsection, a 50-mile stretch is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And at the narrowest point is Lorelei Rock, a famed 394-foot cliff named for the “Rhine Maidens,” whose lovely song, legend has it, lured boaters to hazards.
The scenery in Hawaii ranges from tropical forests to beaches to volcanic peaks—and a cruise lets you experience this breadth by taking you past all the major islands. Spot humpback whales in the waters off Maui, check out the Big Island’s volcanic sights including the active Kilauea volcano, hang with surfers on Waikiki Beach, and enjoy the amazingly green and wild landscape of Kauai.
Neat rows of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes and stately châteaux line the narrow passages of canals in the Côte d’Or region of central France. Small barges cruise through ancient locks—some with wheels still turned by human lockkeepers. Stop off at historic Dijon for its 19th-century market or the famed wine town of Beaune, home to many Michelin-star restaurants.
Sample Itinerary: 6-day cruise on French Country Waterways’ 12-passenger Nenuphar, between Dijon and Saint-Leger-sur-Dheune. From $5,095 per person, based on double occupancy.
The engineering wonder that is the Panama Canal allows ships to cross between the Atlantic and Pacific without having to go way south around Cape Horn. For cruisers, the 51-mile passage provides a fascinating daylong opportunity to watch your ship and others maneuver through a series of locks and gates that rise and fall as you cross the Continental Divide—with what at times looks like only inches to spare. Lush rainforest scenery is the backdrop, at its best around Gatun Lake.
Season: Spring, fall, and winter.
Take a slow boat in China as you pass the dramatic Three Gorges, with forest-covered mountains and riverbanks that at times feel so close you could practically reach out and touch the steep walls. Mother Nature combines with human ingenuity at the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest river-diversion project of its kind. You’ll see tiny villages clinging to cliffs, and some itineraries visit New Zigui, a city built to accommodate the million people displaced by the controversial dam and the Yangtze’s rising waters.
Sample Itinerary: 4-day Three Gorges Highlights, between Yichang and Chongqing, on the 378-passenger Victoria Jenna. Fares from $980 per person, based on double occupancy.
Columbia and Snake Rivers
The Pacific Northwest unfolds before you with snowcapped mountains and impressive gorges, waterfalls, forests, and vast plains as you cruise the Columbia and Snake rivers on a route similar to that taken by Lewis and Clark. Modern-day diversions include eight dams, the wineries of Washington State, and jet-boating in Hells Canyon.
The Suez Canal provides a 120-mile shortcut from Europe to Asia and an unusual experience for cruisers. The engineering feat that created the canal, which opened in 1869, involved excavating amazing quantities of sand. Views during a daylong passage include miles of desert, complete with the occasional camel, but also fishermen and towns along the way. The canal has no locks, and since it’s only 300 yards wide, cruise ships and freighters alike go through in single-lane convoys.
Season: Spring and fall.