Expedition cruises, in their own intrepid way, are helping to make the world more accessible. The relatively small size of expedition ships -- passenger capacities lean toward the low hundreds, not several thousands -- allows them to snuggle up to places bigger cruise ships can’t go. And when it seems like an expedition cruise has reached its limits and can’t go an inch farther, out come the Zodiacs, helicopters, kayaks and submarines, deploying travelers onward to the next leg of their journey.
To all of this, travelers are saying, "Let's go!"
Indeed, rugged and relatively isolated places around the world are showing up more frequently on travelers’ radars. Part of this can be attributed to a desire for learning, according to Navin Sawhney, Americas' chief executive officer of Ponant Yacht Cruises & Expeditions. Speaking at Seatrade’s global cruise conference in March, Sawhney noted, "a huge consciousness around protecting, learning and conservation that's driving all of this."
Considering an expedition cruise?
Check out our picks for the top 10 destinations, from those like Antarctica that might already be on your radar, to some, like the U.S. Aleutian Islands and Micronesia, that are just waiting to tempt you.
This is the icy continent at the bottom of the world, or as British explorer Ernest Shackleton called it, "the end of the axis upon which this great round ball turns."
Closest city: Ushuaia, Argentina
Why it should be on your travel radar: The vast, mostly untouched wilderness has captured the imagination of travelers for generations with its wildlife, icy beauty and lore. It’s a hard-to-get-to destination that’s rightfully on nearly everyone’s bucket list.
Commune with penguins. Many species live in Antarctica, including gentoo and chinstrap.
Visit Antarctica’s research stations and talk to scientists about their work and the state of the continent. Dozens of countries operate facilities, some of which are open to visitors from expedition cruises.
Walk in the footsteps of explorers. Shackleton and others trod upon the same icy landscapes. You can follow some of their paths and see some of their old shelters and stations.
That’s the umbrella name for five uninhabited island groups -- the Antipodes, Auckland, Bounty, Campbell and Snares Islands -- roughly a few hundred miles below New Zealand’s South Island.
Closest city: Dunedin, New Zealand
Why they should be on your travel radar: One of the world’s most diverse populations of pelagic birds makes its home in this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
See some of the 126 species of birds, including in the designated Important Bird Area in one of the five island groups: the Auckland Islands.
Glimpse an albatross. Ten of the 22 known species live in great numbers on the islands.
Take a Zodiac to view the Snares Islands group, some of the few remaining islands on earth that haven’t been modified by humans or alien species. Note: Landings are prohibited.
The Federated States of Micronesia consists of four major islands -- Chuuk, Kosrae, Pohnpei and Yap -- in the western Pacific Ocean, just north of Papua New Guinea.
Closest cities: Palikir, Micronesia; Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
Why it should be on your travel radar: Currents of the Indian Ocean, Philippine Sea and the Pacific Ocean converge here, helping make it one of Earth’s most diverse seascapes. The waters of the remote nation are clear, warm and filled with more than 1,200 species of fish.
Dive down to the Ghost Fleet, wrecks of World War II warships-turned-artificial reefs in Truk Lagoon in Chuuk.
Visit the ruins of Nan Madol, 92 man-made stone islands created almost 1,000 years ago off the shore of Pohnpei. It’s still a mystery how the stones were transported to create Nan Madol.
Snorkel in the islands’ many lagoons or among their reefs. Black-tipped reef sharks and abundant tropical fish are among the highlights.
Palawan, the southwesternmost of the large islands in the Philippines, sits several hundred miles from the capital city, Manila. Coron sits just above Palawan in the Sulu Sea.
Closest city: Manila, Philippines
Why they should be on your travel radar: Sparsely populated Coron Island’s steep ravines and rock formations helped it gain a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Palawan is more established among travelers, but still features secluded lagoons and shores to explore.
Meet members of the Tagbanua tribe, the native people of Coron island.
See the turquoise waters of Kayangan Lake from a traditional Philippine outrigger boat, a bangka.
Snorkel or dive into the thermocline waters of Barracuda Lake. Temperatures vary sharply with depth. Jagged limestone walls form the circumference of the lake where, yes, barracudas swim.
The route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean traverses the ice-laden waters of the Arctic, as you travel through the northernmost U.S. and Canada.
Closest cities: Nome, Alaska; Kangerlussuaq, Greenland
Why it should be on your travel radar: For hundreds of years, the route existed only in dreams. And it proved quite deadly for some of those dreamers. In recent years, climate change and shrinking sea ice have opened it up for passages at certain times of the year.
Visit Beechey Island, where, in 1845, a Northwest Passage expedition led by Sir John Franklin came to a tragic end. Graves of some of the crew members are marked in the harsh, icy landscape.
Glimpse arctic wildlife. Polar bears abound throughout the journey. Bowhead whales, orcas and arctic foxes are among other animals doing their thing this far north.
Meet Inuits. Expedition ships often stop at villages along the passage, allowing cruisers to glimpse the everyday life of indigenous people in the north.
The archipelago of almost 70 volcanic islands arcs from near the southwest corner of Alaska, atop of the Ring of Fire, to about 500 miles off Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula.
Closest cities: Anchorage, Alaska; Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Russia
Why they should be on your travel radar: Native, Russian and U.S. cultures mesh amid a potent combination of nature’s power and stark beauty.
Cozy up to the almost 4,000-foot active volcano on Kiska island, which, along with another Aleutian island -- Attu Island -- was occupied during World War II by Japanese troops.
Spot wildlife, including whales and grizzly bears, throughout the islands. The Aleutians are part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
Immerse yourself in the cultural history of the archipelago at the Museum of the Aleutians on Unalaska island.
More than 100 islands comprise this island nation in the Indian Ocean, located about 700 miles north of Madagascar.
Closest cities: The Seychelles main city of Victoria; Antananarivo, Madagascar
Why it should be on your travel radar: The number of secluded coves, hidden beaches and undeveloped areas is staggering, and it’s a year-round sunny destination that doesn’t often experience extreme temperatures.
See the Aldabra Atoll, four remote uninhabited coral islands that form a shallow lagoon in the middle. The area, which became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the early 1980s, is home to more than 150,000 giant tortoises.
Go birding in a palm forest on Praslin island. Vallee de Mai, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, contains natural palms where blue pigeons, endangered black parrots and other birds live.
Volunteer with Nature Seychelles. Climate change has endangered habitats and species in the region, including contributing to the bleaching of coral reefs. The non-governmental organization has been working with the Seychelles government to restore reefs, and it offers opportunities to volunteer with other conservation efforts.
The island country’s northern frontier sits mostly below the Arctic Circle, more than 200 miles from the capital city of Reykjavik.
Closest city: Iceland's Reykjavik
Why it should be on your travel radar: It’s on almost everyone’s travel radar these days, largely because of the country’s cultural exports and volcanic beauty. Yet, parts of Iceland remain difficult to reach and are open to intrepid exploration.
Visit Grimsey island, about 25 miles north of the mainland. It’s said the bird population, with one of Iceland’s biggest puffin colonies, outnumbers the permanent human population by a factor of 10,000. About 100 people live on the island year-round.
Straddle the Arctic Circle. The imaginary line at 66.5 degrees north of the equator cuts through Grimsey island.
Kayak the Isafjorour fjord. Iceland’s icy beauty shines here. Get up inside the fjord on the water among the birds and seals.
This is an arm of the North Atlantic that reaches up between Canada’s Baffin Island and the western edge of Greenland.
Closest cities: Kangerlussuaq, Greenland; Reykjavik, Iceland
Why it should be on your travel radar: Because of generally difficult conditions, human impact on the deep, wide bay has been minimal. It’s a harsh but rewarding trek for those who make it.
Visit the Northern Hemisphere’s largest icebergs. You’ll find the Ilulissat Icefjord in Disko Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Greenland.
See polar bears, narwhals and other wildlife at the Ninginganiq National Wildlife Area in Canada’s Nunavut territory. Bowhead whales play here in great numbers, too.
Reach the geomagnetic North Pole. It’s wide and it moves, but you can currently bag one of earth’s four north poles -- geographic, magnetic and the northern pole of inaccessibility are the others -- in the bay’s northern reaches.
The Kimberley stretches along the north shore of the state of Western Australia, across the Timor Sea and Indian Ocean from Indonesia.
Closest cities: Broome and Darwin, Australia
Why it should be on your travel radar: Among the vast, remote spaces of Australia, The Kimberley stand out for its frontier wildness and rugged coastline. While it’s three times as large as England, fewer than 40,000 people live here.
See crocodiles. Saltwater crocodiles are among the abundant wildlife in the region. Watch for them from a Zodiac; many expedition cruises to this area take passengers to explore the nooks and crannies of the coastline.
Get wet at King George Falls, the highest waterfalls on the continent. They’re as Instagram-worthy as you’d might expect of dual falls cutting through rust-red rock.
Experience aboriginal art. The Kimberley is steeped in aboriginal culture, including ancient rock art galleries dating to the earliest settlements in the region.