Great Adventure Cruises
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.
A trip aboard the 96-passenger Celebrity Xpedition is manageable enough for a multigenerational crowd—but that doesn’t diminish the thrill of watching 800-pound tortoises lumber near you. At night, head to the bar for a pre-dinner cocktail and a talk by a naturalist about the next day’s activities. celebrity.com; seven-night cruises run year-round; from $3,200 per person.
As rain forests worldwide diminish, there’s no better time to explore the world’s largest remaining tropical rain forest, along the Amazon River. Daybeds on the observation deck of Aqua Expeditions’ 16-suite Aria Amazon let you observe the landscape as towering rubber trees, palms, and fig trees slip past. aquaexpeditions.com; seven-night voyages run year-round; from $6,615 per person.
Passengers on the 256-passenger Fram can brave the Drake Passage, cruise among icebergs, land on the White Continent, and pitch a tent on the ice (weather permitting). A lottery determines which guests get to spend the night in a two-person pop-up tent—not nearly as comfortable as the ship’s contemporary cabins, but undeniably memorable. hurtigruten.us; trips range from 10 to 19 days and are offered from November to February; from $6,300 per person.
Bali and the Spice Islands
Azamara Club Cruises brings indulgence to the bush. Its 17-night Explorer’s Asia itinerary on the 694-passenger Azamara Journey mixes a caviar-and-champagne bar and a chef’s table in the steak house with visits to Bali’s Elephant Safari Park, where guests can feed and bathe Sumatran elephants. azamaraclubcruises.com; sails March 17, 2014; from $5,300 per person.
Iceland and Greenland
This 12-day voyage aboard Silversea’s Silver Explorer ferries guests from Iceland—home to fiery volcanoes—to the remote, frosted towns of Greenland. You’ll pass fantastical twists of ice, follow whales and hear first-person accounts on the rigors of daily life in a frozen land. silversea.com; sails July 28, 2014; from $9,750 per person.
As the climate has warmed, polar bears’ habitat and accessibility to food have waned, leaving the species endangered. Their stark beauty has made sightings a highlight of far-north cruises. Wanderbird, a trawler converted for comfort, heads to Greenland along the Labrador coast (where last summer owner-sailors Rick and Karen Miles spotted 18 of the majestic beasts). wanderbirdcruises.com; 21-day sailings leave Labrador in July and August; from $8,000 per person.
The country also known as Myanmar is becoming more accessible, opening up its Buddhist temples and 1,000-year-old pagodas to Westerners—and beginning in January 2014, to passengers aboard Viking River Cruises’ Mandalay. In 15 nights on the Irrawaddy River, you’ll shop in rural markets and villages devoted to pottery. vikingcruises.com; from $5,000 per person.
Australia and the South Pacific
On this 17-day voyage with Lindblad/National Geographic, the 102-passenger National Geographic Orion (soon to join the Lindblad fleet) will be equipped with a state-of the-art, remotely operated submersible capable of roving to depths of 1,000 feet. expeditions.com; from $14,730 per person.
From Bangkok to Rome
On Oceania Cruises’ 35-day voyage, passengers can visit tombs near ancient Luxor on a day excursion—without the need to stay ashore in (potentially) unstable Egypt. Another stop? The holy city of Jerusalem. oceaniacruises.com; sails March 31, 2014; from $8,999 per person.
From Greenland to Russia
In 1906, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first to successfully complete the Northwest Passage linking Europe to Asia. Compagnie du Ponant is one of a handful of companies inaugurating sailings between west and east through this northern route. ponant.com; 2014 dates forthcoming; from $16,091 per person.
Rarely seen orangutan preserves are part of the agenda with Orion Expeditions’ Faces in the Forest journey. Joining the passengers at Camp Leakey, in Kalimantan Tengah, is its founder, Dr. Birute Galdikas, who introduces guests to orangutan orphans and shares insights from decades of studying primate behavior. Other things to watch for? Hornbills and proboscis monkeys. orionexpeditions.com; sails Oct. 25 and Nov. 18, 2013; from $13,670 per person.
Aboard Zegrahm Expeditions’ newly refurbished, all-suite Caledonian Sky, you’ll explore the network of reefs and watch for plumed birds of paradise—not to mention island rituals such as the annual yam festival, fertility dances, and kula shell trading. zegrahm.com; trips depart in March; from $10,970 per person for the first leg and $12,470 for the second.
The only small-ship line to cruise between the Hawaiian islands? The cheekily named Un-Cruise Adventures. From November through April, its 36-passenger Safari Explorer itineraries include the cowboy isle of Molokai and night snorkeling with giant manta rays off the Big Island. un-cruise.com; from $3,595 per person.
Bypass the fame—and crowds—of the South Island’s Milford Sound and head to the serenity of neighboring Doubtful Sound. On an overnight sailing aboard the 70-passenger Fiordland Navigator, guests experience the sweeping beauty of waterfalls and soaring 3,000-foot peaks from the ship and from kayaks. realjourneys.com; offered throughout the year, from $210 per person for a one-night cruise.
Norway’s Northern Lights
A winter cruise north of the Arctic Circle might sound crazy. But Hurtigruten’s northern lights winter voyages are one of the most commodious ways to catch the greenish glow of the aurora borealis. By day, guests can go dogsledding or catch a snowmobile safari. hurtigruten.us; six-night sailings from $1,286 per person.
Travelers on Holland America’s 12-night voyage from Singapore to Hong Kong may feel like they’ve stepped from the 1930s colonial-era glamour of the film Indochine. The itinerary includes three Vietnamese ports, plus side trips to the Buddhist temple complex of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. hollandamerica.com; the December 9 cruise aboard the 1,432-passenger Volendam starts at $1,200 per person.
Sail literally to the end of the earth on this five-night cruise from Punta Arenas, Chile, to Ushuaia, Argentina. The 100-cabin Stella Australis passes through aptly named Glacier Alley to the 1,400-foot-high sheer rock face of Cape Horn. adventuresmithexplorations.com; September to April; from $1,346 per person.
Look for sloths, monkeys, and exotic birds in the rainforest, then transit the Panama Canal and visit the Kuna people of the San Blas Islands. This seven-night voyage aboard a 36-cabin megayacht ends in the sultry Colombian city of Cartagena. adventuresmith.com; December through March; from $2,590 per person; a 25 percent discount applies to bookings before September 30.
Great Barrier Reef
The best snorkeling and diving lies beyond the reach of day-trippers from Australia’s mainland. But hop aboard a four-night cruise from Cairns with Coral Princess II, and you get to visit far-flung ribbon reefs and Lizard Island, where you’ll have a cove filled with giant clams to yourselves. coralprincess.com.au; from $1,946 per person.
Cambodia and Vietnam
On this Mekong voyage, slip through the rice fields of Southeast Asia, with stops for oxcart rides, village visits, and the capitals of Cambodia and Vietnam. AmaWaterways’ 16-night trip, available July through April, includes optional excursions to Angkor Wat and colonial Hanoi. amawaterways.com; from $3,700 per person; shorter trips are also offered.
Many of the world’s remaining polar bears forage and hunt in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, where visitors may also see reindeer and walruses amid the ice floes. Get your own up-close view during the seven-night “Realm of the Polar Bear” voyage aboard the 124-passenger Expedition, arranged by AdventureSmith. adventuresmithexplorations.com; June and July; from $3,599 per person.
The South Pacific
Experience the island life of James Michener’s South Pacific on an 11-night cruise from Fiji to Australia, with stops in the Cook Islands, Solomon Islands, and little-visited outer isles of Papua New Guinea. pgcruises.com; June 14, 2014 sailings aboard the 332-passenger Paul Gauguin start at $5,995 per person.
You travel to Alaska for adventures, and Un-Cruise packs them in. The company’s “Alaska Unleashed’’ itinerary features backcountry treks, glacier hiking, kayaking, paddleboarding, and snorkeling, with opportunities for encounters with bears, sea lions, and whales. un-cruise.com; 7-night sailings aboard the 36-cabin Wilderness Adventurer are priced from $5,600 per person.