Early in my cruising experience, I encountered a couple who had just returned from a soft adventure cruise. I was surprised to learn that their vacation lacked almost all of the attributes that I had equated with the quintessential cruise experience. No production shows? No bingo? No organized activities? Years later, I had the opportunity to travel on a similar expedition-oriented voyage. Ironically, I hardly missed any of those things that had previously defined a major aspect of cruising.
On the surface, "expedition cruising" is a tough, seemingly contradictory concept to wrap your head around. Christopher Columbus lining up with his shipmates on the Santa Maria for the midnight buffet? Having hardtack and dried salt cod at the captain's welcome aboard dinner on your next Caribbean cruise? Well, no.
As the name implies, expedition cruising is a taste of exploration and adventure in off-the-beaten-path places. It's an experience more likely torn from the pages of National Geographic than Travel + Leisure; in fact, National Geographic, in partnership with major expedition operator Lindblad Expeditions, is a prominent player in this niche. Expedition ships are small, with shallow drafts, and are able to inch closer to those less-visited, out-of-the-way ports or scenic wonders. A seven-night expedition sailing in many ways feels more like a weeklong shore excursion than a cruise.
What sets expedition cruising apart from "normal" cruising is the relationship between the voyages and ports. On a typical ship, the cruise experience is made up in equal measure by experiences ashore -- both organized and independent -- and various activities and entertainment onboard, provided by a "cruise staff." When conventional ships add programs of an educational or informational nature, they are defined as "enrichment," an augmentation to, rather than the main thrust of, the cruise experience. They are the seasoning, not the main course.
In lieu of cruise director and staff, expedition ships are led by an "expedition team," with a team leader and sometimes a support staff of naturalists and science-oriented guest lecturers who give presentations on the politics, culture, history, geology, geography, biology, ecology or anthropology of their vessel's destinations. In this context, the educational becomes the meat and potatoes, with a soupcon of entertainment occasionally thrown in to spice things up and keep the trip from getting too serious.
Aboard an expedition ship, the expedition leader often has a lot greater say in day-to-day scheduling and destinations, and both aspects are more fluid than in the daily programs of conventional ships. This permits the flexibility of changing course or altering plans on a dime to take advantage of weather, sea conditions, wildlife sightings or any other serendipitous occurrence.
Clearly, this format is not for everyone. One keystone of expedition cruising is the extensive use of Zodiac inflatable crafts instead of conventional tenders. Not only does this require more agility transferring to and from the ship, but often the destination is a beach or rocky shoreline lacking any sort of a pier, necessitating a "wet landing" (having to jump over the side into the water and wade to shore).
Once ashore, groups are often divided up into smaller packs based on fitness level and interest, with the heartier travelers taking off on hikes of various degrees or long kayaking outings and easier-going folks taking a leisurely, naturalist-led walk along a shoreline to look in tidepools or search for rare birds.
A number of cruise lines have attempted, with some notable successes, to create a fusion between the exploratory aspects of expedition cruising and the civilized perks and service we've all come to appreciate. The upscale Silversea Cruises, for example, launched an expedition ship, Silver Explorer (formerly called Prince Albert II), that's a model for expeditionary voyaging with high-end luxury touches. Can you see yourself zipping among Arctic icebergs in below-zero weather aboard a Zodiac for a few hours, then being greeted upon your return to the ship by a nattily dressed butler handing you a steaming cup of hot chocolate flavored with Bailey's Irish Creme? That's par for the course on a luxury expedition voyage.
If you think expedition cruising is something you'd like to try, you may be wondering what the best cruising regions are, what you should expect to experience and which lines go where. Though there are expedition-type adventures virtually anywhere on earth a boat can float, here's our primer on the most popular locations for sea-based exploration adventures.
Alaska is arguably the favorite choice for cruise travelers looking to get their feet wet in expedition cruising. When it comes to the natural world (biology, ecology, geology, climatology -- virtually any "ology" you can think of), Alaska has it all, and there's no better way to capture nature's magnificence. For one thing, the ships are small enough to navigate areas that normally only shore excursion craft could tackle. Also, they almost always anchor overnight in these remote coves so that, at dawn or dusk -- when most animals wander down to the shore to hunt -- you'll be right there to capture a glimpse from your vessel's deck or through your cabin window from a stone's throw away. If the action doesn't take place right next to your ship, there undoubtedly will be daily Zodiac excursions.
And, of course, there's the guidance and organization of an expedition leader to tie it all together. If you like wildlife and scenic photography, you'll want to go shopping for a bazillion-gigabyte card for your digital camera.
Who Goes There? Lindblad Expeditions' twin ships, Sea Bird and Sea Lion, ply the Inside Passage. Lindblad is notable for inviting families on its Alaska trips (as well as those in the Galapagos and Costa Rica). InnerSea Discoveries sails Alaska cruises on 68-person Wilderness Discoverer and 57-passenger Wilderness Adventurer. And, for those who want a modicum of luxury and gourmet meals with their explorations, American Safari Cruises (a sister company of InnerSea Discoveries) posts its three luxury yachts in Alaska for the season: 36-passenger Safari Explorer, 22-passenger Safari Quest and 12-passenger Safari Spirit.
When to Go: The primary season runs May through August. During the edges and on the shoulders of that season, many expedition operators extend the wilderness experience into the milder climes of British Columbia.
What to Do Ashore: It's all about nature. You can hike to see a glacier or, on one of the ship's Zodiac crafts, get close enough to icebergs to hear the snap, crackle and pop of 1,000-year-old air bubbles as they're released from the ice. Go kayaking, perhaps with a seal catching a ride on the back of your boat. Cruise along the shoreline to see bears and sea lions from a safe distance. You can enjoy visiting with Tlingkit Indians in their own villages, watching for whales from the deck, staying up late as twilight lasts past 10 p.m., or catching your own salmon and having the fish flash-frozen and shipped to you at home.
While there are voyages in the Brazilian Amazon, Peru is more popular and accessible. Travelers fly into Lima before connecting with flights into the jungle-locked city of Iquitos. (The only way in or out is by airplane or boat; there are no roads connecting Iquitos with the rest of Peru.) Ships embark in Iquitos or the newer port just upriver in Nauta.
Who Goes There? International Expeditions offers the best "of the place" voyage experience on the river, offering trips on an intimate teak riverboat that accommodates 27 passengers. For a more chic and modern vessel, Aqua Expeditions cruises nearly the same route on its boutique hotel-like ship called Aqua. Local naturalist guides are onboard both vessels, and all Amazon trips can be combined with pre- or post-voyage extensions to Machu Picchu.
When to Go: The weather remains consistent year round in the Amazon Basin, so you can have your pick of months to visit. The water levels do fluctuate, however -- up to an astounding 40 feet! -- with December through May being the high-water season and the rest of the year low-water season. High-water season floods the forest, allowing you to move deeper into it via skiff and zip around smaller tributaries that otherwise are inaccessible. Low-water season permits more onshore walks.
What to Do Ashore: Depending on water levels, you could take walks through the rain forest to look for monkeys, sloths, insects and fascinating plant life. Most trips also stop at small villages along the way, where you can interact with locals by visiting their schools and buying handicrafts. But, plan on little time ashore because the voyages tend to focus on the river itself, with motorboat rides along the water's edge to look for bird life.
Little-known among most travelers, except in expeditionary circles, Arctic Norway -- specifically the archipelago of Svalbard -- sits higher north than Siberia or Alaska, providing some of the most spectacular scenery on the globe. Like Antarctica, the region requires ships with ice-strengthened hulls and has a very short visitor season. Most tours depart from the Norwegian cities of Tromso or Longyearbyen (though some expeditions embark in Iceland or Greenland) and generally weave among the islands of the Svalbard archipelago, including the largest, Spitsbergen. With a few exceptions, they generally make landfall at all of the same noteworthy spots.
Who Goes There? Many of the leaders in Antarctic cruises relocate their ships to the Arctic during the Northern Hemisphere's summer months. Silversea's Silver Explorer offers an exceptionally posh way of seeing the region, with expert naturalist guides, the highest quality Zodiacs on the sea and a highly international crew. Lindblad Expeditions offers at least a half-dozen departures each summer, and Zegrahm Expeditions usually offers at least one. Hurtigruten, a Norwegian company, might know these waters better than most, offering up to six different itineraries, some of which include cruising the fjords of mainland Norway.
When to Go: The cruising season is short -- generally June through August -- because it's too risky to try to navigate through pack ice other times of year. Ships generally can reach the most northerly points in July, increasing your chances of seeing polar bears.
What to Do Ashore: You can take naturalist-led guided hikes across the spongy tundra to see arctic foxes in their brown coats, molting caribou, lazing walruses and the remnants of this region's beluga whale-hunting history. Oftentimes, armed polar bear guards will accompany you. (But don't worry -- the chance of an encounter, or a shooting for that matter, is exceptionally rare.) Carpets of wildflowers add a surprising burst of color against an otherwise brown and grey landscape. Zodiac rides take you close to icebergs -- and to the smaller chunks of ice known as "bergy bits" and "growlers" -- bobbing on the chilly water. You'll also zoom by the steep, rocky cliffs of islands inhabited by thousands of sea birds, making a cacophony of noise that cannot be imagined.
Could there be a more inhospitable spot on Earth than Antarctica? Unless you're a penguin, orca or seal, probably not. But what could make a place more desirable to the traveler looking for the under-visited than that? There is no native population in Antarctica or within 500 miles of its coasts, yet the sea abounds with life.
Nature has granted animals an adaptation that prevents them from freezing to death. For many, survival is possible through a thick, insulating layer of blubber. Meanwhile, fish thrive thanks to naturally produced "antifreeze" in their blood. Fortunately for those creatures who consider fish the tasty next-lower rung on the food chain, this antifreeze is protein-based, not derived from toxic hydrocarbons.
Who Goes There? Lindblad holds a leadership role there, offering Antarctic expeditions since 1966, and even has a few coves named after its founders. Natural Habitat Adventures offers trips via Lindblad ship National Geographic Explorer and five other hull-strengthened ships, providing ample departure dates and pricing options, not to mention a full slate of highly trained naturalists. Other tour companies, including Gap Adventures, Zegrahm Expeditions, Hurtigruten and Quark Expeditions, offer comparable trips, often on the same ships.
Orion Expedition Cruises features a trio of Antarctic voyages -- two out of Hobart, Tasmania, and one from Bluff, New Zealand -- aboard its five-star expedition ship, Orion. Silversea's Silver Explorer and Compagnie du Ponant's Le Boreal (which is operated by Abercrombie & Kent for these voyages) also take travelers on posh Antarctica expeditions, with departures from Ushuaia and Buenos Aires. Generally speaking, South America is the preferred departure point, as it is closer to the region of Antarctica that's favored for cruise exploration.
When to Go: Antarctica has a short cruising season, with harshly inhospitable weather the majority of the year. Being below the equator, the seasons are reversed, so the peak summer months of November through February are the only times expeditionary travel is offered.
What to Do Ashore: Antarctica is the juxtaposition of a rich biodiversity on the coast with the utter and spectacularly beautiful desolation of the Antarctic terrain. Expect to see whales of both toothed and baleen varieties, seals of multiple species, birds on the wing and waddling and diving penguins of varying species and sizes. Not to imply that human endeavors are slighted! You can expect to see various research stations, whose personnel will be surprisingly eager to discuss their work with you.
The Galapagos Islands
Famed evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin was a naturalist aboard survey ship H.M.S. Beagle, was fascinated by the variation of similar species evolving in nearby, but physically isolated, islands. In the 20th century, Thor Heyerdahl reportedly uncovered shards of pottery in the Galapagos that, to him, suggested a match with shards from South American Indian archeological sites, leading him to the theory that the islands of the South Pacific were populated by ocean-crossing migrants from South America.
There is so much interest in the Galapagos, in fact, that the government of Ecuador, which administers the islands, has designated 97 percent of them a protected national park, with tourism strictly controlled.
Who Goes There? Lindblad, again, has a historic edge there, but its ships tend to be larger than a lot of other cruising vessels in the Galapagos, taking up to 96 travelers. Gap Adventures and Natural Habitat Adventures operate voyages on well-appointed yachts that can accommodate up to 20 passengers only; Evolution, the ship used by International Expeditions, is slightly larger with 32 spots. The smaller ships allow you to visit some islands that the larger ships cannot get to. For those who seek a bit of luxury, Celebrity Xpedition also offers sailings on a small ship that blends five-star pampering with total immersion in the depth and details of the Galapagos.
When to Go: Because the Galapagos straddles the equator, the warm and tropical climate is relatively unchanging. Water temperatures are generally in the upper 70's, but they can dip into the low 70's, thanks to the varying movement of the Humboldt Current. The current whisks cold water north from the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica; unfortunately, its movement is unpredictable. You could snorkel sans wetsuit one day, then need the extra layer the next afternoon.
What to Do Ashore: For the average eco-fascinated tourist, it's all about being able to hike this unique biosphere, learn about the geology, come face to face with the islands' unique species and learn firsthand what Darwin deduced, seeing his epiphanies through your own eyes. For those who dare to brave the unpredictable temperatures of the water, there is the draw of snorkeling or diving with sea lions, whales and schools of hammerhead sharks.
The Sea of Cortez
At a geologically infantile six million years of age, it's one of Earth's youngest seas, a long narrow body of water separating the Baja California peninsula from the main part of Mexico. On many maps it's called the Gulf of California; on others, it's printed with the more accurate Spanish name, Cortes.
It has also been called "the world's largest fish trap," as fish swept into it by tides and currents are often unable to find their way back to the Pacific through the narrow straits at the tip of Cabo San Lucas, where the Sea of Cortez meets the larger ocean. Or, perhaps they stay because of the rich and varied food chain, with an unusually abundant supply of plankton. At the top of the food chain are several varieties of whales, dolphins and pinnipeds (seals and sea lions), not to mention sharks and giant Pacific manta rays.
The islands of the Sea of Cortez are stark and arid and show the twisted striations and folded and refolded strata that reflect the region's tortured geologic past. The biodiversity ashore may be subtler than in the undersea realm, but it is similarly rich in flora (desert plants, including varieties of cactus and succulents) and fauna (mainly birds and reptiles).
Who Goes There? By and large, the same players that ply Alaska's Inside Passage in the summer -- namely, Lindblad Expeditions and American Safari Cruises -- fill the expedition niche in the Sea of Cortez with at least one vessel during the winter months.
When to Go: Most lines sail the Sea of Cortez between the months of December and April to avoid the hottest of the summer months, but also because this time frame is the peak of whale-watching season. (Whales are found year-round in the Sea of Cortez, but gray whales migrate there annually to birth their calves between December and March.)
What to Do Ashore: Whale-watching is of prime interest to expedition cruisers in the Baja. By Zodiac (within the limits of environmental law), it's possible to get incredibly close to these beautiful leviathans and their offspring. There are ample opportunities for both scuba and snorkeling aficionados; up-close-and-personal encounters with sea lions at the island of Los Islotes top everyone's list, though diving with hammerheads, manta rays, moray eels and even the occasional whale or dolphin also rate high on the aquatic drama scale.
For those who prefer enjoying their explorations without getting wet, there are nature hikes that feature naturalist discussions of the geology and ecology, concentrating on desert flora and close-up encounters with its birds and reptiles.
The South Pacific
The region is, in reality, a combination of two main areas: the large island nations of Australia and New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands (all the "-nesias": Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia, spread-out groups of small islands differentiated by the indigenous peoples that populate them).
South Pacific expedition cruises offer a balance of culture and nature. The islands' relative isolation has protected native traditions there more so than in many other regions. Numerous shore excursions take cruise travelers to visit those whose ancestral lifestyles are part of their day-to-day functioning, rather than a demonstration to educate First World visitors. Natural science exploratory forays in the Pacific Islands focus heavily on marine biology, with the biggest emphasis on coral reefs.
Australian itineraries feature a mix of nearly all scientific disciplines, with the proportion of elements of that mix dictated by the region cruised: Trips along the eastern coastline will focus most heavily on the marine sciences, due to the proximity of the Great Barrier Reef, with rainforest ecology a close second. Australia's northern and southern coasts provide striking scenic and geologic viewing opportunities.
Who Goes There? Virtually every expedition cruise operator sails Pacific Islands voyages, though the number of destinations is so vast that all offer multiple itinerary options. Zegrahm Expeditions always offers highly exotic southern Pacific itineraries annually, with snorkeling and shore visits at such faraway islands as Fiji, Palau, Tahiti, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and the Maldives. Though a number of expedition ships touch the Great Barrier Reef and Queensland coast, the top choice for an Australian expedition sailing is with Australia's own Orion Expedition Cruises. In addition to the aforementioned, well-known spots in Australia, Orion also includes the lesser-known Kimberley Coast on the north shore and the wild, unspoiled island of Tasmania to the south.
When to Go: Pacific Island and Aussie destinations lie south of the equator, and, because the seasons are reversed, our summer and autumn months (June through November) are prime for visiting. It rains less frequently during this period, and there's a reduced possibility of tropical cyclones. Because of its distance from the equator, Tasmanian itineraries are scheduled at the beginning and end of the southern hemisphere's summer (March and December), bracketing the Antarctica season to minimize cold weather issues. Cruises along the Kimberley tend to run late April through early September.
What to Do Ashore: In the Pacific Islands, snorkeling is an obvious choice. There, you'll find some of the clearest waters in the world, especially in the lagoons of islands and atolls sheltered by circular barrier reefs. The region is also a mecca for scuba divers. Not only are the reefs on the outside of the lagoons spectacular, but they also are populated with awe-inspiring sea creatures of enormous proportions -- sharks and manta rays, to name a few.
Because these islands were key to the Pacific theater of World War II, there is much in the way of military wreckage; planes, destroyers and tanks beckon underwater explorers. WWII historical artifacts can be found ashore, as well, adding additional interest for the expeditionary history buff.
The Pacific Islands are also treasure troves for Polynesian, Micronesian and Melanesian native cultures, and expedition cruises offer ample opportunities for passengers to immerse themselves in those cultural experiences.
Along the Great Barrier Reef are similar snorkeling and diving experiences. The Kimberley Coast offers incredibly dramatic natural spectacles, many of which can be enjoyed from trips by Zodiac rafts, including amazing horizontal waterfalls created by huge tidal changes. In Tasmania, it's the wildlife, hiking and spectacular vistas that have Orion's passengers talking for months after returning home.
--by Steve Faber, Cruise Critic Contributor