On a cruise to Antarctica, we were sitting out on the sun deck for lunch when the anchored ship was suddenly surrounded by playful penguins. On shore, less than 100 yards from the bow, there were thousands more watching us with as much curiosity as we watched them. On a cruise to Alaska, we spent hours up on deck, watching glaciers calve and abandoning half-eaten lunches to rush to the dining room windows whenever a whale was spotted.
For lovers of natural wonders, nothing beats the up-close-and-personal experiences of a ship -- and an itinerary -- specifically designed to showcase wildlife. Nature-loving seafarers may spot hundreds of blue-footed boobies on the Galapagos Islands or dazzling natural snow and ice sculptures in Antarctica. They can also choose shore excursions that take them deep into rainforests or even on African safaris.
Luckily, for those who care more about bird-watching, scenic photography and underwater life than spas, beaches and city tours, plenty of cruise lines offer itineraries that focus on the natural world. Passionate about getting a close encounter with Mother Nature's best? Here are three basic formats from which to choose:
Expedition Cruises: These represent the purest way for the seagoing passenger to view nature. Generally speaking, expedition cruises share three attributes that make them best suited for the task. First and foremost, each ship has an onboard naturalist, or expedition leader, with a specialty in the flora, fauna and geology of the region. In lieu of conventional cruise-line entertainment, most onboard presentations are of an educational nature, meant to enrich the cruise experience and passengers' knowledge.
The second primary attribute is flexibility of itinerary. Based on weather, wildlife sightings, season or events onshore, the itinerary may be modified or totally changed. For example, the itinerary may call for travel to a particular bay, but if the captain or expedition director hears reports of a large number of bears fishing for salmon along the shore two bays down, they will ditch the scheduled stop to follow the wildlife.
Third, most expedition vessels are quite small, able to fit into spots big-ship passengers can only get to on shore excursions. And, if the ship is still too big, Zodiac rafts can be deployed to take cruisers even closer to the face of a glacier or a penguin colony, or travelers can make use of onboard kayaks to paddle amid a school of basking whale sharks. While the ships' smaller sizes are ideal for nature-viewing, the flip side is that most are too small to offer mega-ship-style onboard amenities, such as pools, theaters, alternative restaurants, gyms and spas.
Conventional Cruises 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 without giving up the creature comforts and trappings of the big ships. Perhaps it's a cruise to Alaska on Princess, Holland America or Royal Caribbean with excursions to see whales, eagles or bears. Or, maybe it's a Caribbean cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line or Carnival with tours into the rainforests and reefs of Belize or Dominica. 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 -- and that can add up. However, days devoted to scenic cruising -- say, in Alaska's Glacier Bay -- are included in cruise fares. Just don't forget to bring your binoculars.
Combination Cruise/Land Tours: Regardless of your ship or cruising-style choices, serious nature lovers can't ignore the fact that many of the best natural treasures are located inland. In Alaska, it may be the vast reaches of Denali National Park; on an Indian Ocean cruise, it might be an African safari. Some of these destinations may be visited with an overnight or multiday shore excursion, but you might miss out on ship time for which you've paid. However, depending on the itinerary, you can often book a pre- or post-cruise land stay, either through the cruise line's cruise tour department or on your own, so you can hit the rest of the highlights before you head home.
If you've got your binoculars, bird books and hiking boots ready to go, here, by region, are our top cruise picks for nature lovers:
Why: With Cruise West no longer dominating the small-ship, eco-travel scene in Alaska, newcomer InnerSea Discoveries is ready to step in, offering active cruises to off-the-beaten-path destinations with a focus on wildlife and outdoor activities. The line's two ships carry 49 passengers each.
Best Features: Itineraries highlight the remote waterways and secret coves of the Inside Passage, bringing passengers as close as possible to glaciers and wildlife. Passengers can choose from an array of activities including kayaking, paddle boarding, hiking, caving, beachcombing, fishing snorkeling and sporting contests, in addition to birding, whale watching and glacier viewing. Select cruises are geared toward photographers or families with children, and in some destinations, passengers can choose to camp overnight onshore (with all equipment provided by the ship). Expedition leaders and naturalists are onboard to educate guests and lead trips ashore.
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. 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 -- the cetaceans: humpback and killer whales, as well as the smaller (but no less popular) dolphins and porpoises.
Beware: Alaska's weather can be iffy -- rain and snow are as likely as sunny, hot days on summer cruises. So, be prepared to tour in any weather condition.
Why: American Safari combines the pampering elements of a luxury yacht experience with off-the-beaten-track eco-tourism. Safari Quest carries just 22 passengers, and its itineraries focus on the flora and fauna of the area, with many opportunities for wildlife-spotting.
Best Features: The Mexico itinerary 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, hiking and even meeting with locals. 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 sea 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 Grey whales come to the Sea of Cortez to calve, you can expect to get almost within touching distance from a Zodiac raft. You can also snorkel around numerous reefs and islands and even dive with sea lions.
Beware: Safari Quest is not suitable for children younger than 14, and cabins are not designed to accommodate third guests. So, if your family includes teens or if your party has an odd number, extra cabins will need to be booked.
Why: Windstar's all-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 Wind Star with its convivial atmosphere, gourmet food and cozy cabins.
Best Features: Wind Star makes it easy to get in the water with its onboard marina. 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, and you will feel pampered in this luxury setting. Windstar also brings a local naturalist onboard in Costa Rica to inform passengers about the ports of call.
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, Curu Biological Reserve, Corcovado 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). And, when your camera's memory card is full, you'll have plenty of opportunities to chill out during beach landings.
Beware: If you aren't passionate about bird-watching, you may find fellow birding passengers a bit over the top.
Why: This 94-passenger, 2,329-ton ship 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 al fresco BBQ 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.
Beware: The flights involved with Galapagos visits are very long, so we recommend that you plan a pre- or post-cruise stay in and around the fascinating city of Quito, Ecuador, to break up the journey.
The Amazon/South America
Ship: Iberostar's Grand Amazon
Why: We recommend Iberostar's 144-passenger Grand Amazon for an authentic Amazon trip. Lots of big-ship lines offer cruises on the Amazon river, but the best way to genuinely get a feel for not only its nature aspects but also its culture is to sail on a smaller ship. (The truly adventurous can book passage on typical bring-your-own-hammock Amazon River vessels; we recommend cruising in a bit more comfort.) What we like about Iberostar, a hospitality company that operates hotels and small ships in the region, is that it knows its way around.
Best Features: Daytime activities feature excursions on smaller boats to explore dense virgin vegetation, including a wide range of trees, plants and animals, as well as local river communities; fishing classes are another option. At night, we love the live music shows and low-key theme parties.
Destination Highlights: Choose from itineraries on the Rio Solimoes or the Rio Negro, where you can 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.
Beware: You'll feel guilty living in such luxury after visiting very basic local villages.
Why: The partnership of two well-established companies, National Geographic and Antarctica-expert Lindblad Expeditions, is a winner. Their combination of onboard and onshore luxury, expert expedition leaders and nature-viewing is hard to beat on any size ship.
Best Features: The 148-passenger ship (with 81 outside cabins, including a dozen balcony cabins) features multiple dining venues, a full spa with sauna and gym, and a library -- who says you have to rough it on an expedition cruise to the bottom of the world? Naturalists, expedition leaders, photographers and National Geographic writers sail on every voyage and support the line's emphasis on top-notch enrichment with lectures and workshops. For techno-geeks, remote-controlled cameras located on deck and underwater broadcast footage throughout the ship. Sailings feature up to six days devoted to exploring Antarctica proper (much more than many ships of any size), as well as even longer itineraries that also include the fascinating natural world of the Falklands and South Georgia.
Destination Highlights: The "White Continent" is a nature lover's dream, offering many species of seals, whales and birds (including penguins and albatrosses). Zodiac trips take guests closer to nature as the ship visits destinations on the Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetland Islands, and passengers will have the chance to kayak through fields of icebergs. The most awe-inspiring scenes may be enormous, tabular icebergs breaking off from frozen ice shelves.
Beware: The longer itineraries offered by this ship (14 to 24 days) are a plus for many but can be prohibitive to others. In addition, the ship's size and time at sea may inevitably lead to some seasickness, especially in the notoriously choppy Drake Passage.
Why: South 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 offers several South Africa cruises with manageable 10- to 17-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 Wind 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, South Africa, Mozambique and Madagascar.
Destination Highlights: No surprises here -- Africa's natural treasure is its wild game. East Africa (Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania) and South Africa (Botswana and South Africa) are the two main areas for safaris. Look for the Big Five -- lions, black rhinos, leopards, buffalo and elephants -- as well as giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, monkeys and all sorts of birds. The Seychelles are a haven for birders, as well as snorkelers and scuba divers, who will find lush reefs with ample sea life under the islands' clear seas.
Beware: Safaris aren't cheap, whether you do them through the cruise line or on your own. The nicer the accommodations, the more you'll pay. But, the chance to see Africa's amazing wildlife is well worth the cost of admission.
Why: Orion Expedition Cruises is an Australian company focused on introducing travelers to off-the-beaten-path destinations and natural places, all in the utmost luxury. This ship boasts itineraries to the Great Barrier Reef, Tasmania and the Kimberley; an ice-strengthened hull and marina platform for launching Zodiacs; and gourmet food and luxurious accommodations.
Best Features: The 4,000-ton, 106-passenger Orion is like a luxury cruise ship in miniature. Dinner menus have been created by a celebrity chef (Serge Dansereau of Sydney's Bathers' Pavillion restaurant), and entertainment extends beyond enrichment lectures to include musical soloists, a crew talent show and team trivia (with free drinks for the winners). Of the 53 cabins, 31 are considered suites, and six have French balconies; all offer marble bathrooms with designer toiletries, rich carpeting and wood accents, and flat-screen TV's. The ship's expedition team includes experts in science, history and culture.
Destination Highlights: Wildlife abounds in Australia, 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. 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. Visits to Flinders and Maria Island and Freycinet National Park may yield views of wallabies, wombats, echidnas and birds, such as eagles, cockatoos and rosellas. You'll also spot dramatic limestone and sandstone cliffs that offer great mountain views. The Kimberley is the place to spot crocodiles and visit historical sites of aboriginal people and settlers, all set in gorgeous landscapes of rugged gorges, red cliffs, mangroves, rainforests and white-sand beaches.
Beware: Between Zodiac wet landings and nonaccessible areas of the ship, Orion cruises are not recommended for travelers with mobility issues.
--by Erica Silverstein, Features Editor, with additional reporting by Steve Faber, Cruise Critic Contributor