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Don't let the grail of an expedition cruise to Antarctica or the Arctic blind you to the world between the polar extremes. Certainly, it's a privilege to follow in the immortal frozen footsteps of Ernest Shackleton and his crew, and a passage through the Arctic calls out with its novelty and continent-spanning scale.
Yet, elsewhere on the planet, the ability of nimble expedition cruise ships to cozy up to remote destinations -- some of which were previously inaccessible to all but the most driven, resourceful travelers -- has opened up places that rival the aforementioned icy wonderlands in wilderness and wildlife. And, they're not all as bound by seasonal limitations. These are unique experiences, the kind of trips that Silversea Expeditions, for instance, features in its Wild Expedition series. These ports of call share with each other uncommon natural beauty, vibrant local cultures, incredible wildlife and active exploring.
Consider these 10 destinations that span the Pacific coast of South America all the way around to West Africa's Atlantic coast. Each features notable local culture and natural wonders -- and the ability to dive deep into each from the ship and/or while ashore.
Get oriented: Twenty-six natural atolls make up the Maldives archipelago, a sun-drenched, low-lying island nation southwest of India in the Indian Ocean. Most of the atolls are located just north of the equator.
Nearest big cities: Colombo, Sri Lanka; Chennai, India
One thing you must experience: Beaches. They're the classic white sands and clear blue waters variety; the kind that appear on magazine covers and in your daydreams about paradise.
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- Visit Friday Mosque in Male, Maldives' capital. The oldest mosque in this Muslim country, made with coral stone pulled from the sea, has been a center of local culture since 1658.
- Snorkel the Baa Atoll Biosphere Reserve, a protected area of 75 islands. Manta rays and whale sharks are abundant, as are marine turtles. Five of the seven known species of turtles swim here.
- Hang out in seclusion on a sandbank. These not-quite-islands are slivers of isolated sand, and they're great for playing out those daydream fantasies of uncrowded, beach-bound paradise.
Get oriented: The island country sits in the Indian Ocean, just southeast of the southernmost points in India. It's a bit smaller in size than Ireland, but, with its tropical location, worlds away in climate. That is to say: It's warm.
Nearest big city: Colombo, Sri Lanka
One thing you must experience: Local culture. UNESCO has designated eight World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka; six of those are cultural.
- See the Buddhist murals and 157 statues at the Golden Temple of Dambulla. It's been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1991 -- and a pilgrimage destination for more than 2,000 years.
- Commune with leopards in Yala National Park. Elephants and migratory birds are among the animals that also live and pass through here.
- Walk through Sri Lanka's last primary tropical rainforest. The Sinharaja Forest Reserve, another of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites, preserves a patch of rare, endemic trees.
Get oriented: It's the fourth largest island in the world, located off the east coast of Africa, directly across a channel from Mozambique. Its isolation and size helped Madagascar evolve into one of the most diverse places in the world as measured by flora, fauna and landscapes.
Nearest big city: Antananarivo, Madagascar
One thing you must experience: Lemurs. The big-eyed primates, perhaps a cross between cat, squirrel and dog, are perhaps the most beloved animal found on Madagascar. It's the only place in the world they're found in the wild.
- See those lovely lemurs at Tsingy de Bemaraha Integral Nature Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's a protected habitat for lemurs, birds and other animals, and home, too, to "tsingy" -- a landscape of dramatic limestone needles.
- Visit the Vezo. The seminomadic people welcome visitors to their fishing village in Belo sur Mer, sharing their culture and white sand beaches for a while.
- Travel the Avenue of the Baobabs. The main attraction isn't the road. It's the baobabs, thick, centuries-old trees that line the sides. The trees are stunning; their branches look like a tree's roots.
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Get oriented: Follow the dotted lines for the Northern, Southern, Eastern and Western hemispheres to where they converge in the central Pacific. That's where you'll find Kiribati, an island country whose three island groups (33 islands total) spread into each of the planet's four quadrants.
Nearest big cities: Tarawa, Kiribati; Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
One thing you must experience: The water. Kiribati's water-to-land ratio is the largest of any country.
- Try to catch an elusive giant trevally. Kiribati offers the rare opportunity to fly fish in saltwater, and one of the grail targets for anglers comes calling in the salt flats of Kiritimati, aka Christmas Island.
- Visit the largest designated marine protected area in the world. It's the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), which encompass one of the nation's three island groups, the Phoenix Islands. According to UNESCO, which declared PIPA a World Heritage Site in 2010, 500 species of fish live here.
- Dive among sunken World War II ships. WW2 hit this area of the Pacific hard. Ruins can be found on land and underwater.
Get oriented: The isthmus that is Panama connects Central and South America, as well as the Pacific and Atlantic oceans via the Panama Canal.
Nearest big city: Panama City, Panama
One thing you must experience: The Panama Canal. The man-made wonder is an icon for a reason.
- Commune with animals (and a dark past) on Isla de Coiba, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once a penal colony with more than 1,000 prisoners, Central America's largest island now welcomes free-roaming sharks and crocodiles.
- Explore Darien National Park. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the wildest and most diverse places on earth, with landscapes ranging from swamplands to sandy beaches. Keep an eye out for parrots.
- Visit the Embera. Members of an indigenous tribe of the Darien welcome visitors to learn about their culture and way of life.
Get oriented: The rain-starved Southern African country borders Angola, Botswana and South Africa, with an extensive coastline along the South Atlantic Ocean.
Nearest big city: Windhoek, Namibia
One thing you must experience: The Sossusvlei dunes. The country's iconic towers of red sand reside in Namib-Naukluft National Park.
- Walk Sesriem Canyon. Another stellar attraction in Namib-Naukluft National Park, the several-million-year-old canyon is a rarity in the Namib desert: It contains water year-round.
- Explore Walvis Bay. It's a town as well as a body of water. In the protected outer lagoon, wildlife abounds, including bottlenose dolphins, pelicans and flamingos.
- Visit the Eduard Bohlen Shipwreck. The ship ran aground in 1909. In the years since, the shoreline has grown with shifting sands, making visiting this shipwreck an eerie land-based pilgrimage through the Skeleton Coast. It's currently approximately 1,000 feet from the water's edge.
Papua New Guinea
Get oriented: It's comprised of the eastern half of the second largest island on the planet, located across the Coral Sea from the northern Australian state of Queensland.
Nearest big city: Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
One thing you must experience: Local culture. Melanesians, as the majority of the country's population is known, speak more than 800 languages among themselves, reflecting the diversity and complexity of the country. Cultural events for travelers abound.
- Visit a village. Many villages around the country welcome visitors who come as part of a tour, including the famed Asaro mud men.
- Hike the Kokoda Track. The 60-mile-trail across the Owen Stanley Range played a key role in a World War II battle, with underdog Australians fighting off a larger Japanese force. Follow in their footsteps and visit villages along the way.
- Dive into the "Coral Triangle." The northern reaches of Papua New Guinea sit inside one of the most coral-rich areas of water in the world. There's first-rate diving and snorkeling.
Chile's Southern Coast
Get oriented: Long, lean Chile breaks into beautiful rugged pieces not too far below the Tropic of Capricorn, before curving east to complete the South American continent. That's where the magic happens.
Nearest big cities: Santiago, Chile; Montevideo, Uruguay
One thing you must experience: The fjords. They're an icy highlight of the islands, channels and other natural wonders that comprise the coastal area above Cape Horn.
- See the Pio XI Glacier. Dozens of glaciers spill forth in slow-motion along the Chilean Patagonian coast; few have the scale of this one. It's the size of Santiago. Some expedition cruises can get up close to the glacier via Zodiac.
- Traverse Glacier Alley. If one vast glacier isn't enough, see many on a sail through the Beagle Channel, which separates Chile from Argentina.
- Hang out with Magellanic penguins. There's a colony in the area, with an estimated population in the hundreds of thousands. Magdalena Island and Tucker Island are among the spot where the penguins thrive.
Get oriented: It's the island portion of Canada's most eastern province, Newfoundland and Labrador. It's also the easternmost part of North America, situated hundreds of miles southwest of Greenland.
Nearest big city: St. John's, Canada
One thing you must experience: Iceberg Alley. When ice breaks off the glaciers of Western Greenland, it often floats down to the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. Spot the bergs from land or sea -- or Twitter.
- Visit the first European settlement in North America. Vikings landed at L'Anse aux Meadows on the northern coast of Newfoundland more than 1,000 years ago. It's now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Historic Site.
- Walk on a Mars-like landscape. Gros Morne National Park contains rocks similar in composition to those found on the red planet. Scientists hope the area can help us understand our planetary neighbor. It, too, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Watch whales. What's believed to be the world's largest population of humpbacks visits the waters off Newfoundland and Labrador each year between May and September. And, oh yeah, 21 more species of whales and dolphins come, too. Take it all in from sea or on land.
Get oriented: The westernmost point in Africa resides in this West African country, which sits roughly 1,000 miles above the equator.
Nearest big city: Dakar, Senegal
One thing you must experience: The House of Slaves. On Goree Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, slaves passed through the "Door of No Return" on the way to their awful fates. It's a place to remember and understand humanity's dark side.
- Visit the home of more than 1 million birds. Djoudj National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Senegal River Delta, sees purple herons, African spoonbills and other birds pass through a vast landscape filled with streams and ponds.
- Walk to an island made of seashells. Clam and cockle shells make up the man-made island of Fadiouth, which is reachable by a wooden bridge from the mainland fishing village of Joal.
- Gaze at a pink lake. High salt content and algae have turned Lake Retba the color of pink lemonade. Don't wear your Speedo. It's not a place to swim.
Michael Yessis' features on travel have appeared in the Smithsonian Magazine, USA Today, and the Travel Channel.