Expedition cruises offer unparalleled opportunities to explore the world’s most intriguing destinations and go off the beaten track by ship, from Alaska to India. Here Deborah Stone selects the top 10 expedition cruises for the year ahead

The Galápagos

Celebrity Flora joins the Celebrity fleet in 2019 and will be the first ship of its kind to be designed specifically for the Galápagos Islands. This might be an expedition cruises ship but it’s also extremely comfortable, with gourmet dining,  premium beds in every stateroom, plus complimentary wifi and room service. Twice-daily expeditions are included and run by experts, with destinations depending on whether you join an Outer Loop or Inner Loop cruise of the islands. What you are guaranteed to see, though, are pristine volcanic islands with Treasure Island beaches and wildlife including huge marine iguanas and Galápagos Penguins. You’ll board Celebrity Flora at Baltra, a former US military base, where the region’s airport can be found, then visit Gardner Bay to visit a sea lion colony and see Sally Lightfoot Crabs scuttle away in a flash of red. There are flamingos at Cormorant Point, where Charles Darwin met the islands’ governor, and iguanas and giant tortoises at Urbina Bay. If you’re sailing back-to-back cruises, you will visit different islands with the chance to see even more unique wildlife, such as the Blue-Footed Boobies.

Celebrity Cruises’ seven-night Galápagos Outer Loop cruise departs 10 November 2019, and costs from £6,639pp, based on two sharing, cruise only.

Australia

Hapag-Lloyd Cruises is consolidating its reputation for unusual destinations and luxurious accommodations with its third new expedition cruises ship, Hanseatic Spirit, which will be the fleet’s first adults-only ship. It will be in action by 2021 but before this the company will add two more expedition ships with Hanseatic Nature arriving spring 2019 and Hanseatic Inspiration in autumn 2019. In the meantime, MS Europa 2 is sailing from Bali in Indonesia to New Caledonia’s Noumea via northern Australia and the Great Barrier Reef. This is a cruise for Zodiac boat explorations, with unspoilt islands, snorkelling among the coral reefs of not only the Great Barrier Reef, but also the New Caledonia archipelago’s reefs in the Coral Sea. These islands are also perfect for hiking and seeing native wildlife and plants. At Cairns there’s a catamaran trip available to a snorkelling spot on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and helicopter or seaplane rides are available at Hamilton Island, one of the 70 world-famous Whitsunday Islands, with their protected national parks.

Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ 18-day Bali to Noumea cruise departs 20 January 2019, and costs from £7,650pp, based on two people sharing, cruise only.

The Amazon

Most Amazon cruises are confined to Brazil and a familiar itinerary via the river mouth to towns such as Manaus. But Aqua Expeditions offers a more unusual experience on board luxury ship Aria Amazon in Peru. 

Exploring the Amazon tributaries, Maranon and Ucayali, guests can kayak in hidden blackwater lakes while watching out for pink dolphins, see giant water lilies in San Jose flooded forest and fish for piranhas. 

The ship’s naturalist guides point out medicinal trees and poison dart frogs and at night there’s a hi-tech telescope for watching the stars. There’s also an excursion to what is claimed to be “the birthplace” of the Amazon River, near Nauta, and a visit to a remote Amazonian village. All excursions are included and the luxurious ship has bikes for particularly energetic guests.

The company specialises in river ship cruises and sails the Mekong in Cambodia and Vietnam as well as the Amazon, with its two boutique ships, Aqua Mekong and Aria Amazon. 

Aqua Expeditions offers seven-night cruises on board Aria Amazon, regularly throughout the year, from £6,954pp, based on two sharing, cruise only, including transfers, excursions, wine and beer.

Southeast Asia 

Holland America Line’s Maasdam has been offering Up-Close Discovery experiences with expert guides and local scholars on itineraries all over the world since September, with the final cruise of those currently available taking place in May 2019. The 1,258-passenger ship’s Explorations Central programme has cruises from 12 to 34 days, with Zodiac excursions included in the new In-Depth Voyages. These will offer several themes, so passengers can create their own bespoke expedition. These include photography, science and nature, food and drink, arts and culture, which can be dipped into as much or as little as you want. For instance, HAL’s 20-day Southeast Asia Highlights, a return trip from Singapore, can be taken as a regular luxury cruise calling at Laem Chabank in Thailand for trips to Bangkok, Sihanoukville in Cambodia to see the temples of Angkor and Da Nang in Vietnam to visit the old imperial palaces of Hue. But Explorations Central excursions will give an extra aspect to explorations, thanks to their immersive nature and expert guides.

Holland America Line’s 20-day Southeast Asia Highlights cruise departs 15 February 2019, from £1,799pp, two sharing, cruise only.

Alaska 

Seabourn’s Ultimate Alaska Sojourn takes you to destinations you won’t see on the other expedition cruises to America’s “Last Frontier”. This expedition transits the Seymour Narrows and cruises through Queen Charlotte Sound before it gets to the more familiar Ketchikan. At Rudyerd Bay, 40 miles away, there are expeditions through Misty Fjords, which has sheer drop mountains and 1,000ft waterfalls pouring into the rainforest, clinging to virtually bare rocks.

The luxurious Seabourn Sojourn sails through Misty Fjords into Behm Narrows to arrive at Wrangell where there are eagles to spot during treks through the rainforest and whales to see during boat trips. This is a particularly scenic trip, with cruising through Sumner Strait and Transit Decision Passage, so pack your binoculars. But you’ll also need your walking boots for off-the-beaten-track spots such as Inian Islands, where the nutrient-rich waters encourage whales and sea otters. On the islands themselves there are brown bears.

Seabourn has ordered two new expedition ships, expected for delivery in summer 2021 and summer 2022. They will have two submarines, kayaks and Zodiacs. The ships are expected to sail to the ultimately remote Arctic and Antarctic.

Seabourn’s 11-day Ultimate Alaska Sojourn cruise departs 7 January 2019, and costs from £4,499pp, two sharing, cruise only.

The Northwest Passage

Sometimes you can hear the ice cracking when a glacier calves and you’ll always hear the massive chunk of ice fall into the icy sea to become a glacier – especially if you’re out on a Zodiac boat excursion or taking part in a kayak safari. Scenic’s cruise through the legendary Northwest Passage begins in Greenland and takes you across Baffin Bay, where elusive Beluga Whales can be spotted. There are naturalist-guided tours of Baffin Island and Beechey Island, then it’s on through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago through the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic Ocean into the Pacific. This part of the cruise takes several days and depends entirely on the ice conditions, but there may be Zodiac landings and once through the passage the route takes in the Bering Strait, where at one point Alaska in the USA is less than seven kilometres from Russia.

Scenic Eclipse, the world’s first Discovery Yacht, is expected to launch in April 2019 after a delay due to build issues. Its sister ship Eclipse II is also under construction in Croatia. Eclipse will have a helicopter and submarine, Zodiacs, kayaks and e-bikes. It will sail expedition cruises mostly in the Arctic and Antarctic.

Scenic’s 24-day Across the Northwest Passage cruise departs 15 August 2020, and costs from £21,935pp, two sharing, cruise only.

The Caribbean

Scuba diving will be one of the many activities on Ponant’s Caribbean expedition itinerary Between Martinique & Panama. There will be opportunities for PADI or equivalent qualified divers to go out with an experienced instructor, as well as Zodiac excursions around the stunning San Blas Islands, where passengers will also meet Kuna Indians. Le Dumont-Durville leaves Martinique and sails close to the Soufriere volcano and to the island of St Lucia. There is diving and snorkelling in the turquoise seas around Venezuela’s Los Roques archipelago and a visit to the colonial city of Cartagena in Colombia, leaving several days to explore the clear waters of Panama and the San Blas archipelago.

This year, Ponant launched its most ambitious expedition cruises ship, Le Lapérouse. Bound for Australasia, it has the first below waterline bar with spotlit windows. It’s the first of six Explorer Class ships for France’s only cruise line, with Le Champlan arriving in December 2018 and two more in 2019 and 2020.

In 2021 it will launch the world’s first hybrid electric Polar exploration ship Le Commandant Charcot.

Ponant’s 10-day Between Martinique & Panama cruise departs 7 December 2019, and costs from £3,004pp, two sharing, cruise only.

The Antarctic 

Cross the Antarctic Circle to the White Continent on National Geographic Expeditions’ Beyond The Polar Circle cruise and you’ll see Gentoo, Adelie and Chinstrap Penguins, seals and seabirds on Zodiac excursions while getting close to massive icebergs and ancient glaciers. You may even see Humpback Whales.

This cruise leaves Ushuaia for the Falkland Islands, where seabirds include albatrosses as well as penguins, and it calls at South Georgia where King penguins rule among Fur Seals and Elephant Seals. If the weather is permitting, there is also the opportunity to take a Zodiac boat trip to explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s famous expedition landing site on South Georgia.

National Geographic charters Ponant’s expedition ship Le Soléal for this cruise but it also uses Lindblad ships for others and has expanded into European river cruises using Scenic river ships.

National Geographic’s 16-day Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctica cruise departs 14 November 2019, and costs from £9,878pp, two sharing, cruise only, including all excursions, bar drinks and wine at meals.

India

India is still largely inaccessible by ocean cruise ship, with just a few large ports included in world voyage itineraries. However Silversea’s expedition cruise Malé To Chennai delivers the essence of India and the Indian Ocean, with calls on the sub-continent’s mainland and lesser-known islands. The all inclusive cruise on board Silver Discoverer, equipped with a fleet of Zodiac boats, will explore the underwater world of the Lakshadweep Islands and take passengers to Kerala’s famous Backwater as well as UNESCO-listed sites in Sri Lanka. 

Expedition staff give lectures to prepare passengers for snorkelling with a marine biologist off islands in the Maldives, such as Uligamu where Hawksbill Turtles and Manta Rays may be seen. Most of the 36 islands of the Lakshadweep Sea are home only to birds and Hermit Crabs but the reefs are perfect for snorkelling. There’s also time to visit cultural sites, such as Padmanabhaswamy Temple and the Horse Palace in Vizhinjam, India, and Sri Lanka’s UNESCO-listed fort at Galle. 

Silversea, winners of Best Expedition Cruise Line at the British Cruise Awards 2018, recently announced Project Invictus, their fleet-wide programme of upgrades. Silver Whisper will get the Silver Muse treatment – a more modern styling – with the addition of Zodiac boats. Silver Wind is reported to become an expedition cruises ship, like its sister ship Silver Cloud.

Silversea’s 12-day Malé To Chenai cruise departs 10 January 2019, and costs from £7,900pp, based on two sharing, cruise only.

The Arctic

We forget how accessible the Arctic is to Britain, with wonders such as massive glaciers and icebergs and incomparable wildlife. Seeing your first polar bear in its natural habitat will send shivers down your spine. G Adventures’ Arctic Highlights cruise takes you from the land of the polar bears – Norway’s northern island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago – over to the wilderness of east Greenland and on to Iceland. During days at sea you’re almost certain to see Minke Whales, dolphins and Orca Whales, with Humpback Whales a regular sight too. The tiny settlement of Ittoqqortoormiit is home to the only people you will see between Longyerbyen on Spitsbergen and Greenland’s Scorbysund fjords, more than a week later. And after two weeks seclusion, you’ll look forward to spending a day in Reykjavik, where you can enjoy Iceland’s most famous geothermal springs in The Blue Lagoon. In addition to expedition cruises to the Arctic and Antarctic,
G Adventures has small ship river cruises along the Ganges, the Amazon and the Mekong, plus adventure cruises in the Galapágos. And next year the company will increase its expedition choices in Galapágos to five ships, with the addition of the exclusive 16-passenger yacht, Eden.

G Adventures‘ 15-day Arctic Highlights cruise departs Spitsbergen on 1 September 2019, and costs from £4,349pp, two sharing, cruise only.

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