The term "nature cruise" means different things to different travelers. You may expect a packed schedule of daily Zodiac landings, hikes and diving adventures while someone else pictures something less physically intense -- maybe a catamaran cruise for animal sightings or a coach tour on land. Thanks to myriad cruise lines like Silversea, Un-Cruise Adventures, Lindblad Expeditions and Celebrity Cruises, there is an incredible array of voyages that will get you close to nature.
Want to visit the poles? You can do that: head to Antarctica for penguins and the Arctic for polar bears. Prefer something closer to home? Sail Alaska's Inside Passage and watch glaciers calving in the distance as whales gracefully swim alongside your cruise ship.
The fact is, for lovers of natural wonders, nothing beats the up-close-and-personal experiences of cruise ship itineraries specifically designed to showcase wildlife.
You can opt to travel aboard an expedition ship that offers onboard naturalists and expedition leaders and generally has a flexible itinerary that follows the wildlife. The smaller size of expedition vessels -- and the Zodiacs they use for landings -- means that you'll visit places big ships can't because of their size. That alone can make it much easier to get close to wildlife like penguins or bears.
Others prefer a conventional cruise with shore excursions. This is a format familiar to most Cruise Critic readers and aimed at the traveler who wants a healthy dose of nature via shore excursions and deck sightings without giving up the creature comforts and trappings of the big ships. In some ways, it may be the best of both worlds, but there's a caveat: unlike expedition-oriented cruise lines, which incorporate the cost of shore adventures into the ticket price, big-ship lines charge for shore excursions -- so do the math to determine which type of cruise makes the most sense for your budget.
A variety of cruise lines also offer combination cruise/land tours so you can explore places like Alaska's Denali National Park or go on an African safari either during overnight stays in port or pre- or post-cruise.
If you've got your binoculars, bird books and hiking boots ready to go, here are the best cruises for nature-lovers by region:
Best Cruise: Princess Cruises
Why: Many lines call upon the pristine ports of Alaska but few have as much experience in the region with cruise and land tour packages as Princess Cruises. Multiple ships offer seven- and 10-night sailings along the Inside Passage for pinnacle destinations like Tracy Arm Fjord and Glacier Bay.
Best Features: Seven-night round trip voyages are available from Seattle and Vancouver. San Francisco is the embarkation point for 10-night round trip itineraries, and Princess offers both a northbound and southbound version of its "Voyage of the Glaciers" tour between Vancouver and Whittier (Anchorage). Sailing the Inside Passage gets passengers as close as possible to glaciers and wildlife. Princess offers a plethora of shore excursions from low impact to more strenuous so singles and young couples, families with children, seniors and those with limited mobility can usually all find something of interest. Passengers can choose from an array of activities including kayaking, hiking, flightseeing, scenic train rides, dogsledding and ziplining, in addition to birding, whale watching and glacier viewing. Additionally, Princess offers cruise tours in Alaska that combine a stay on land at resorts like Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge with a cruise. That means having the flexibility to spend a few days exploring places like Denali National Park or the Kenai Fjords before or after your voyage.
Destination Highlights: Leaping salmon! Breaching whales! Soaring eagles! Grizzly bears! Calving glaciers! Actually, the list of what isn't in Alaska, naturally speaking, is shorter than the list of what is. You can get intimate with a glacier itself, hiking across crevasses or creeping up to its face in a skiff or kayak as it calves off new icebergs. Eagles, puffins and other exotic birds are as common here as pigeons in New York City. For those wanting to see or photograph aquatic mammals, Alaska's waterways are home to many species of seals and sea lions, as well as its most popular leviathans -- humpback and killer whales, as well as the smaller (but no less popular) dolphins and porpoises.
Mexico's Sea of Cortez
Best Cruise: Un-Cruise Adventures
Why: Un-Cruise Adventures combines the pampering elements of a luxury yacht experience with off-the-beaten-track ecotourism. Safari Endeavour carries 84 passengers, and its itineraries focus on the flora and fauna of the area, with many opportunities for wildlife spotting.
Best Features: The "Baja's Bounty" itinerary to Mexico offers plenty of time to search for whales, dolphins and birds, such as blue-footed boobies, pelicans, cormorants and gulls. Plus, passengers can get out into nature themselves with days spent kayaking, snorkeling, swimming, beachcombing and hiking. Onboard, meals are always open-seating, sit-down affairs, and all drinks are included in the cruise fare; the chef may even pick up some local seafood and plan the menu accordingly. You can keep an eye out for sea lions and whales while you relax in the ship's hot tub.
Destination Highlights: The Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California, has been referred to as "the world's biggest fish trap." There, tidal currents bring in a multitude of marine life from the sea's confluence with the Pacific Ocean at Cabo San Lucas. As a result, there is a very long food chain, extending all the way from plankton to sperm whales. You can expect to see whales and, perhaps, whale sharks, as well as giant, leaping Pacific manta rays. During the winter season, when the California gray whales come to the Sea of Cortez to calve (give birth), you get almost within touching distance from a Zodiac raft. You can also snorkel around numerous reefs and islands and even dive with sea lions.
Best Cruise: Windstar Cruises
Why: Windstar's seven-night Costa Rica itineraries give passengers the time they need to explore many of Costa Rica's natural attractions -- from mangrove tours and cloud forest hikes to zipline adventures through the rainforest. And, when you come back from a day of touring national parks, you can retreat to the upscale Star Breeze with its convivial atmosphere, gourmet food and well-designed cabins.
Best Features: The 212-passenger Star Breeze makes it easy to get in the water with its water sports platform. You have complimentary access to kayaking, sailing, water skiing and windsurfing, or you can check out floating mats and tubes or snorkel equipment for more serene swimming. Onboard service is accommodating without being obtrusive. Windstar also brings a local naturalist onboard in Costa Rica to inform passengers about the ports of call. The cruise line offers a special complimentary beach barbecue on Tortuga Island that's always a lot of fun.
Destination Highlights: Tiny Costa Rica may cover less than .03 percent of the earth's surface, but nearly 5 percent of the planet's plant and animal species call the Central American country home. Windstar's itinerary takes you to the Curu National Wildlife Refuge, Corcovado National Park, Tortuguero National Park and Manuel Antonio National Park, where you can spot capuchin and howler monkeys, ocelots, crocodiles, armadillos, sloths, anteaters, egrets and many, many birds. Landscapes range from mangrove forests and volcanoes to cloud forests (moist, tropical or subtropical rainforests that occur high in the mountains). You'll also visit Monteverde Cloud Forest with trees that are more than 300 years old. And, when your camera's memory card is full, you'll have plenty of opportunities to chill out during beach landings.
The Galapagos Islands
Best Cruise: Celebrity Cruises
Why: The 94-passenger Celebrity Xpedition offers the best mix of traditional expedition cruising with the softer, more indulgent touches that come with Celebrity's own distinctive style (particularly in its culinary offerings but also in onboard entertainment). There's no reason you can't enjoy a dry martini while listening in rapt attention to a naturalist's lecture.
Best Features: Unlike big-ship Celebrity cruises, drinks and tips are included in the price, leading to a more sociable onboard atmosphere. Dining options abound, from traditional five-course dinners and early-evening snacks to an alfresco barbecue and room service. For pampering, head to the gym, beauty parlor, sauna or hot tub. Excursions come in low-, medium- and high-intensity varieties, so passengers of all interests and abilities can enjoy the islands at their level -- and there are plenty of options for wildlife viewing.
Destination Highlights: The Galapagos' most famous visitor, Charles Darwin, developed major portions of evolutionary theory by observing the adaptation of bird species -- especially finches. Modern birders eagerly follow in his footsteps when they visit. Along the islands' shores reside numerous land-based and aquatic birds, including penguins, which share their habitat with different types of seals and sea lions. And, of course, there are the reptiles that most people think of immediately when the Galapagos are mentioned: iguanas and giant tortoises.
The Amazon/South America
Best Cruise: Aqua Expeditions
Why: Cruise lines -- big and small -- make it easy to explore the Amazon these days. But, if you want an authentic journey down one of the world's most majestic rivers, consider sailing a smaller ship like Aqua Expeditions' 24-passenger Aqua Amazon or 32-passenger Aria Amazon. The line offers three-, four- and seven-night itineraries, but the exact routes vary depending on if you travel during low water or high water season. The ships themselves are quite luxurious, and the cruise fare is inclusive of all excursions, beverages, transfers to and from the vessel on arrival and departure as well as the entrance fee to Pacaya Samiria National Reserve.
Best Features: Daytime activities feature excursions on smaller boats to explore the Amazon's tributaries (Maranon, the Ucayali and the Puinahua), as well as several black lakes and dense rainforest. You'll also have the opportunity to meet local river communities like the Cocama Indians of Puerto Prado.
Destination Highlights: No matter which itinerary you select, you'll trek through the jungle, visit local villages and put your binoculars to good use looking for pink dolphins, sloths, birds of all sorts (including toucans) and alligators. A highlight is the "meeting of the waters," where the black waters and tan waters of different rivers meet up and run side by side without mixing. Piranha fishing is also a popular activity.
Best Cruise: Ponant Yacht Cruises & Expeditions
Why: Some of the newest and most technologically advanced ships sailing to Antarctica are part of the French-based Ponant Yacht Cruises & Expeditions fleet. Le Boreal, L'Austral and Le Lyrial offer a variety of 10- to 16-night voyages, most of which are round trips from Ushuaia, Argentina.
Best Features: Ponant's intimate yet hardy ships -- catering to 224 to 264 passengers -- offer daily Zodiac expeditions on their Antarctica trips, where you can expect to see gentoo, Adelie and chinstrap penguins plus minke and humpback whales, Weddell seals and sea leopards, plus an incredible array of seabirds, from snow petrels to albatross to imperial shags. Onboard naturalists accompany you to research stations and former whaling stations to provide some context to life as it exists on the White Continent.
Destination Highlights: Antarctica is a nature lover's dream, offering many species of seals, whales and birds (including penguins and albatrosses). Hiking opportunities present themselves on Deception Island, Neko Bay and Paradise Bay. The most awe-inspiring scenes may be enormous, tabular icebergs breaking off from frozen ice shelves.
Best Cruise: Hurtigruten
Why: There is a preponderance of evidence that the polar ice caps are melting and that means the habitat for animals like the beautiful polar bear, Arctic fox, narwhal and snowy owl is receding along with the ice fields. Experience life in the Arctic now while you have the best chance to view animals that you won't find elsewhere. An added bonus is the possibility of viewing the northern lights, or aurora borealis, from the deck of your cruise ship while you're in the Arctic Circle.
Best Features: Hurtigruten's expedition-style voyages are ideal for those who aren't looking for luxurious digs but instead are more intent on seeing nature's wonders. The line's "Circumnavigating the Realm of the Polar Bears" itinerary aims to take passengers well above the 80th parallel and get the ship closer than 600 nautical miles from the Geographical North Pole. With a focus on Svalbard, Spitsbergen and the High Artic, the voyage offers plenty of expedition landings, hikes and the opportunity to kayak.
Destination Highlights: The Arctic is the Land of the Midnight Sun and, yes, that means that during the summer months, the sun is still out at midnight. The region's remoteness is enough of a draw for some people. Others put this destination on their bucket lists because they want the opportunity to view powerful polar bears, walruses and whales along with more gentle creatures like the Arctic fox, reindeer and seabirds. The opportunity for athletic pursuits -- hiking, caving, kayaking and dogsledding -- is also intoxicating to some.
Best Cruise: Silversea
Why: Southern Africa tends to be a one-time destination for many cruise lines, which may feature a port or two on world cruises with no other calls all year. Although it does not devote a full season to Africa, Silversea's Silver Cloud offers several cruises with manageable 14- to 15-night itineraries. Passengers can opt for mid-voyage safaris, especially in ports with overnight calls, or arrange for pre- or post-cruise stays that include animal-viewing experiences.
Best Features: Your vacation goal may be to experience nature and wildlife in an exotic destination, but Silversea's goal is to pamper you with a luxurious, intimate ship. Silver Cloud isn't an expedition ship: all cabins are suites with views, if not balconies; an upscale alternative restaurant pairs degustation menus with fine wines; and a pool and spa are available to help passengers relax after a day of sightseeing. Itineraries visit ports in Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa.
Destination Highlights: No surprises here -- Africa's natural treasure is its wild game. East Africa (Kenya and Tanzania) and Southern Africa (Namibia and South Africa) are the two main areas for safaris. Look for the Big Five -- lions, rhinos, leopards, buffalo and elephants -- as well as giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, monkeys and all sorts of birds. Madagascar is a haven for birders and anyone interested in seeing a wild lemur.
Australia and New Zealand
Best Cruise: Royal Caribbean International
Why: In recent years, Royal Caribbean has made a true commitment to sailing Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific. From affordable two-, three- and four-night sampler cruises to longer 12- to 16-night itineraries, the cruise line has something that will work for just about everyone. Explorer of the Seas, Legend of the Seas, Radiance of the Seas and Voyager of the Seas sail Australian waters, and Royal Caribbean's upcoming vessel, Ovation of the Seas, will also undertake a mini-season in Australia starting at the end of December 2016.
Best Features: Royal Caribbean caters to a wide variety of cruise travelers, but when the line sails Down Under, it puts an emphasis on shore excursions that get you close to nature. One of the most popular excursions is to Green Island, a 6,000-year-old coral cay at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. This tour offers beach time for swimming and snorkeling or you can view the reef from a glass-bottom boat. Other tours head to Cairns Botanical Gardens, Kuranda Rainforest, Cedar Creek Falls and, in Tasmania, the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary to see marsupials like the Tasmanian devils, the Eastern quoll, the pademelon and the bettong. Plus, if you want to encounter a kangaroo or koala, tours are available to make that possible.
Destination Highlights: Wildlife abounds in Australia and New Zealand, on land and sea, and North Americans will find the scenery and creatures quite different from those at home. The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef in the world. Snorkelers and divers will easily spot many of the 1,500-plus species of fish that live there, in addition to hundreds of coral species, sea turtles, whales, dolphins, sharks, stingrays and giant clams. Look for Queensland itineraries that include time at the reef. Tasmania is the setting for much biodiversity; more than one-third of the state is composed of national parks. Some of the oldest trees in the world, as well as the namesake Tasmanian devil, can be found there. New Zealand itineraries, which are often round trip affairs out of Sydney, are rich in sea days to explore Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound and Dusky Sound as well as long visits to compelling ports of call like Dunedin, Tauranga, Auckland and Bay of Islands.
Best Cruise: Lindblad Expeditions - National Geographic
Why: Lindblad Expeditions -- with its partnership with National Geographic -- is one of the leaders in ecotourism around the globe. The company puts an emphasis on bringing small groups of like-minded individuals together for thrilling adventures both at sea and on land. The company hires the best naturalists, historians and photographers to join passengers on each cruise and educate them on the geographic region's history and culture, flora and fauna, and more.
Best Features: Several times a year, the 106-passenger National Geographic Orion visits Southeast Asia for its "Wild Encounters from Borneo to Bali" itinerary. On this cruise you'll have the privilege of meeting Dr. Birute Galdikas who is to orangutans what Jane Goodall is to chimpanzees. Dr. Galdikas will welcome you to Camp Leakey, a research station and conservation center that cares for and rehabilitates orangutans so they can re-enter their natural habitat: the rainforest.
Destination Highlights: Wildlife is the key reason to book this trip. In addition to a rare visit to Camp Leakey, you'll head to Tanjung Puting National Park in Central Kalimantan to see wild orangutans and Bako National Park for proboscis monkeys. Birders will stay busy training their binoculars on hundreds of species of birds, including hornbills and Asian fairy-bluebirds. As you sail past the uninhabited islands of the Natuna and Anambas archipelagos in the South China Sea, you'll stop at remote shores to snorkel pristine coral reefs and enjoy empty beaches. The ship even has a glass-bottom Zodiac for additional viewing of sea life.
--by Erica Silverstein, Features Editor, with additional reporting by Steve Faber and Andrea M. Rotondo, Cruise Critic contributors