In this expedition cruise guide, cruise expert Sara Macefield reveals everything you need to know about adventuring off the beaten track.
Watching an inquisitive polar bear pacing along a snowy shoreline in the frozen depths of the Arctic Circle was a thrilling natural encounter I have never forgotten, and in this expedition cruise guide you can find out how to have similarly spectacular experiences.
Admittedly, I would not have wanted to get too close to the polar bear, but there was no chance of that. As soon as the young male appeared, our armed minders hastily ushered us back into our tenders and fired a warning shot at the curious visitor who reluctantly turned tail and lumbered off.
But the buzz and drama that his appearance caused, along with the spectacular surroundings in this part of the Svalbard Archipelago, located just 600 miles south of the North Pole, illustrated perfectly why expeditionary cruising is proving so irresistible to more and more travellers.
The chance to sail to some of the most remote pockets of the planet, which in many cases can only be reached by ship, offers an enticing opportunity to tick off amazing once-in-a-lifetime experiences of unforgettable wildlife encounters, pristine landscapes untainted by the modern world and indigenous tribes.
Thanks to a new wave of modern expedition cruise ships, those wanting to follow in the footsteps of early explorers can do so in incredibly more luxurious surroundings and even enjoy the added buzz of high-tech toys like helicopters and submarines.
With so many tantalising destinations to discover, it’s not surprising that a new generation of adventurers chasing their dreams is transforming expeditionary cruising into one of the fastest-growing sectors of the cruise market.
Where to go on an expedition cruise?
The Polar regions are the biggest draw for pristine scenery and unforgettable wildlife with the Arctic famous as the Kingdom of the Polar Bear, while promising the allure of natural phenomena the Northern Lights or 24-hour daylight of the Midnight Sun. Some sailings even venture as far as the North Pole.
Greenland, the Canadian Arctic (traversed by the famous North West Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans) and the Russian Arctic along its Siberian coastline, have also started appearing in cruise itineraries.
In the Southern Hemisphere, Antarctica remains the ultimate prize for its virgin landscapes, diverse array of marine life plus thousands-strong colonies of penguins.
Cruises to the White Continent explore the Antarctic Peninsula, but that’s not the only draw in this part of the world. Sailings around the tip of Cape Horn and to the Chilean fjords and Patagonia capture the rugged beauty of this remote region.
However, it’s not just the earth’s colder regions that unlock the door to expedition cruise ship adventures.
From the steamy jungles of Borneo and the Amazon to one of the world’s last great exotic wildernesses, Papua New Guinea, is where travellers will find age-old tribes and head-hunters who practised their grisly customs until well into the last century.
Dreamy island hideaways in the South Pacific or the outposts of Indonesia’s exotic Spice Islands, along with the Andaman Islands and remote Mergui Archipelago off the coast of Myanmar (Burma) offer a different but no less alluring style of adventure.
For wildlife on an expedition cruise, the Galapágos Islands deserve their bucket list billing. Sitting in its own ecological bubble off the coast of Ecuador, this natural treasure trove is famous for its indigenous species, wonderful birdlife and creatures that have no fear of humans.
During a one-week cruise around the islands, I will never forget the high-octane thrill of ducking and diving through the waves with playful sea lions; spotting lines of penguins shooting past me; and ponderous turtles feeding off rocks on the seabed.
The adrenalin and excitement of such moments stays with you forever, turning memorable moments into life-affirming experiences.
Who goes on an expedition cruise?
Never has there been such a choice of lines and ships, offering everything from hardcore expeditions on ice-breakers to adventures on upscale mega-yachts offering the latest mod-cons and luxuries. If you want to rough it, you can, but nowadays there’s no need to.
Luxury line Silversea was the first big name to bring more than a touch of home comfort to adventure cruising and its Silversea Expeditions ships sail everywhere from the Russian Far East and Australasia to the South Pacific and the Galapágos Islands.
Upmarket river cruise company Scenic takes its first step into ocean cruising this summer with swanky “Discovery Yacht” Scenic Eclipse, full of jet-set touches with two onboard helicopters, a submarine, Zodiac boats and kayaks for no end of exploration.
If sleeping under the stars is your thing, then try Celebrity Cruises’ new expedition cruise ship Celebrity Flora, one of the cruise line’s two ships that sail year-round in the Galapágos Islands, where you can try glamping on deck in plush cabanas.
Specialist company G Adventures prides itself on getting under the skin of the destinations it visits, with its ship G Expedition visiting the Polar regions and Norwegian fjords accompanied by a team of guides plus expert historians and naturalists.
Norwegian company Hurtigruten’s is another with its latest expedition cruise ships equipped with an onboard science centre, plus underwater drones.
But while others, including Ponant, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises and Seabourn, are introducing more opulent expedition ships, there are dedicated adventure companies such as Lindblad Expeditions, Aurora Expeditions and Un-Cruise Adventures already established in this sector.
Some have their own vessels or provide sailings on others. One of the leading companies is Quark Expeditions, which offers trips on a variety of craft including a Russian nuclear-powered ice-breaker that sails to the North Pole with a helicopter and Zodiacs for exciting excursions.
What’s it like on an expedition cruise?
Don’t expect expedition cruise sailings to resemble mainstream-style ocean cruises. Ships are small and there are no waterslides, black-tie dinners or glitzy entertainment shows.
Instead of this, there’s more of a house-party atmosphere and early nights with many guests retiring not long after dinner due to early-morning starts. Ship activities tend to revolve around films about the destination and talks by onboard experts.
Flexibility, particularly in the Polar regions, is key as weather and sea conditions affect the itinerary. Nature calls the shots in a positive, as well as a negative, way so if there’s a chance to spot wildlife, your ship may change course or stay longer in a particular place to maximise the experience.
Passengers need to be fit and active as there can be three excursions in a day and these can be physically demanding with trips in Zodiac boats (sometimes involving “wet” landings where guests have to jump into the shallows before wading to shore), alongside hikes and nature walks.
This is especially true of Antarctica where passengers can paddle between icebergs on kayaking trips, try diving and snorkelling, and even take a “Polar plunge” in the icy waters if they’re brave enough.
Another bucket list experience is to camp overnight on the icy terrain, though in keeping with the “leave no trace” philosophy, there’s strictly no litter; strict smoking restrictions (you have to collect your ash until you can dispose of it properly); and even calls of nature are restricted to a portable loo that is transported back to the ship the following morning.
Good outdoor clothing for Polar exploration is a must, but you don’t need to bring your wellies. Cruise companies provide footwear and generally give away expedition jackets, but you need to pack other waterproof clothing, including gloves and hats, and remember to dress in layers.
As expedition vessels tend to be smaller, with flat hulls enabling them to sail close to the shore, they are also more susceptible to sea movement, so arm yourself with seasickness pills.
The most notorious stretch of water is Drake Passage, running between Cape Horn and Antarctica, seen by some as a rite of passage, though if you can’t face the prospect of the so-called “Drake Shake”, take a flight from Punta Arenas in Chile to King George Island in Antarctica instead.
Sailings on board expedition cruise ships don’t come cheap, running into thousands of pounds, but nearly everything is covered, with excursions included in the price and, in some cases, drinks and wifi too – so you can keep your social media fans up to date with your adventures every step of the way.
While such trips can cost the earth, you can’t put a price on the wondrous feeling that comes from experiences that are simply out of this world.
Discover our pick of the top itineraries in our round-up of the 8 of the best expedition cruises.