Cruising doesn’t have to be about big ports and shiny terminals. Get off the beaten track on an expedition cruise

Welcome to the world of expedition cruising, which is as chalk is to cheese when compared to your traditional 14-night voyage around the Med or the Caribbean. Expedition cruising is all about sailing on small ships to exciting places big ships can’t get to. That might mean extreme adventures in destinations way off the beaten track such as Antarctica (big ships do have sightseeing cruises to the White Continent, but are not allowed to take passengers ashore) but also ‘soft’ discovery cruises to exotic countries such as Libya, Syria and Africa.

Whichever you choose, these voyages are all about learning. So rather than a troupe of singers and dancers, expedition and discovery cruise ships have biologists, geologists, historians and other experts on board to talk on subjects related to the places you are visiting. It could be whales on a cruise to Alaska, polar bears if you’re heading to Spitsbergen, Roman history if visiting Libya or rainforests cruising around Borneo.zodiac in arctic

Who should go?

Exploration cruises are perfect for adventurous types who don’t want the hand-holding you get on many big cruise ships. For fellow passenger Bill, who joined me on a recent cruise circumnavigating Spitsbergen, a ship is simply the best way to see out-of-the-way places.

“Of course this isn’t really a cruise,” Bill said over breakfast as we set off with National Geographic Journeys, summing up what fellow passengers felt.

There’s a ship and water, plus good food served by smiling Filipinos, but none of the passengers came on this cruise to be pampered and fussed over, or to visit big cities and museums with crowds of other visitors. Instead, they were seeking adventure and discovery, albeit in relative comfort.

“Our exploration-style cruises appeal to baby boomers who never had a gap year and want to do something exciting to make up for that but don’t want to rough it,” says Kathryn Beadle, sales and marketing director at Hurtigruten. “They want to be educated while away.”

They are generally not ideal if you like traditional cruise trappings such as dress codes and formal nights. However, there are exceptions. Cruise lines Swan Hellenic and Spirit of Adventure have formal nights, although they are not rigorously imposed. Voyages of Discovery keeps the traditional two-sitting fixed dining regime and also has formal nights. That did not go down well with passengers on my Antarctic cruise who had to drag dinner jackets halfway across the world along with their Wellington boots.

Wellington boots, incidentally, are vital in Antarctica as invariably when landing you have to step from the inflatable landing craft into water and then onto land.

Zodiacs are also used to go ashore in the Galapagos, in Greenland and the Kimberley in Australia, where Captain’s Choice charters MV Orion in summer, so you do need a degree of fitness and mobility to visit these places, as getting in and out of Zodiacs can be a challenge.

If an extreme adventure sounds too strenuous, consider a discovery-style cruise. Unfortunately, the ships are often elderly and often not best equipped for disabled passengers, so ask the cruise line for advice before making your booking.

An exploration cruise is also a bad idea for young children – the excitement of seeing nature in the raw soon wanes – but they are brilliant for young teens who do not need constant entertaining. It’s not cheap, but it’s an experience they will never forget.

Where to go?

If you fancy somewhere unusual but not too extreme, Voyages of Discovery is circumnavigating South America for the first time in January, with an option to do a land tour to Machu Picchu in Peru.
There are also discovery cruises to Libya, Syria, Lebanon, around Africa and India, in the South Pacific and in Asia with Swan Hellenic, Voyages of Discovery, Voyages to Antiquity, Spirit of Adventure and Paul Gauguin. Antarctica is top of the list for cruisers seeking the ultimate adventure. You get to cruise past giant icebergs, to see whales and penguins, and say you have set foot on the most remote continent on earth. Silversea, Hurtigruten and Compagnie du Ponant, Hapag-Lloyd and National Geographic Journeys all have cruises there.

Kathryn Beadle says Antarctica is Hurtigruten’s biggest seller and once guests have been, they want to do the Arctic. “There is definite kudos to being able to say you have done both Poles,” she explains.

You can get up close to dancing booby birds, iguanas and sea lions in the Galapagos, with cruise lines including Celebrity Cruises and Yacht La Pinta.

In the Sea of Cortez, between Baja California and Mexico, there are whales, dolphins and giant cacti to spot. If you cruise with National Geographic Journeys, you can also go swimming, snorkelling and kayaking.

Orion Expeditions has cruises around the Kimberley, the vacant but beautiful land around the top of Australia, to Papua New Guinea and to New Zealand’s sub-Antarctic islands. Starting 2011, it will have a second ship exploring the Russian Far East, the Inland Sea of Japan and Borneo.zodiac in amazon

Special interest cruises

If the excitement of an expedition cruise seems a little too much, as an alternative to discovering unusual places, you can also use your cruise to learn about wine, food, music, antiques – even how to stay fit and healthy.

Most themed cruises are based around activities on the ship but Princess Cruises reckons it’s more fun for guests to create their own themed holiday. On their Mediterranean cruises leaving from Southampton, they suggest visiting Cava country to find out how Spain’s famous sparkling wine is made, the countryside around the port of Livorno to discover the wineries that make Chianti, and bodegas outside Seville to learn the sherry-blender’s craft.

None of these trips is organised by Princess, so this is definitely for adventurous types who don’t want their hands holding throughout the holiday. “We want guests to have an enjoyable holiday, and wine tasting is one thing we believe many people will get pleasure from,” says Princess’ Pieter van der Schee. “Hopefully the brochure will just help to give them ideas.” If that sounds too daring, why not pick one of the many organised special-interest cruises on offer and take pleasure from learning something new while on holiday?

Fred.Olsen Cruise Lines’ ArtsClub has lectures, wine tastings and dance lessons to go with gardening, history and ballroom dancing cruises. There are also wildlife-themed cruises up the Amazon, antiques cruises in the Baltic and painting classes in the Black Sea. Fred.Olsen also has a Flagship Golf programme which combines on-board lessons with a PGA Pro and four rounds of golf at top courses in the Caribbean, Canary Islands and Mediterranean. It costs an extra £375 per person to take part everywhere except the Caribbean, where it costs £425.

Crystal Cruises has a big selection of specialinterest cruises covering everything from fashion and style to jazz and golf. There are lessons on board and optional excursions to famous courses. There are wine and food cruises, voyages with lectures about science and technology, even mind, body and spirit departures with guest instructors to show how yoga, Pilates and Tai Chi help keep you fit and healthy.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises has cruises with workshops where you get hands-on culinary training from chefs from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. This chocoholic’s dream features demonstrations of how to make the confection (plus tastings, of course).

Silversea has wine-themed cruises with on-board lectures and optional private tours to wineries. Silversea also organises culinary voyages with guest chefs who lay on cooking classes, prepare special menus and even escort you to the local markets to see how they pick the produce they will be using later.

Whether you’re looking for a cultural holiday or relaxing break, find your perfect cruise with our Cruise Finder.