If you think ‘expedition cruising’ sounds adventurous, extreme and not something your average Joe and Joanna Bloggs does, you’re wrong.
Sure, sailing to a remote wilderness past rugged landscapes might sound very Indiana Jones, but for all the wild elements you might face outside, inside it is a very different story.
Expedition cruises tend to dock at remote areas with little or no human existence, so there are very few docks or harbours. It’s fair to say you have more chance of bumping into a penguin than you do a shop selling designer handbags.
Like years gone by, you will become a brave explorer. You will venture off into the unknown where you will come face to face with Mother Nature at her finest, finding yourself awe-struck every step of the way.
Do you have a special interest?
Expedition cruising appeals to travellers with special interests or hobbies, including nature enthusiasts, animal lovers, photographers, artists, historians and avid readers.
For many it is an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of an explorer, naturalist, historian, ecologist or artist. Adventure cruising is an education in itself, so you needn’t be an expert on the subject before your journey; you’ll learn plenty as you explore.
Onboard you will hear talks, watch presentations and film shows as well as learn from local guides; all of which complement your adventuring. Some ships are set up like a university at sea, offering lectures, film screenings and information sessions with local experts.
Comfort vs luxury expedition cruising
Most modern day expedition ships offer all the creature comforts you have come to expect of cruising, even more if you choose a luxury expedition. Often you will find plush bedding, a spa, pool, restaurant, library and perhaps even a cinema.
Although ships vary in size between cruise lines, in general, they are not Herculean. Instead, because they need to navigate narrow inlets and anchor in shallow waters, the average ship tends to be more compact, ranging in size from 10 – 400 passengers.
With the ships being that much smaller, they have a more ‘familiar’ feel as you’re likely to mix with the same people daily, get to know their names and form friendships. Some of the crew will be made up of local experts who will, of course, have in-depth localised knowledge, so you might well find yourself on land fully immersed in the culture which would be otherwise impossible were you there in your thousands.
Cabins range from top-end luxury to basic quarters on a former crabbing ship. While the more basic ships have small cabins and bunks, it is far from camping.
As well as exploring you will get the opportunity to enjoy the ‘downtime’ elements of cruising; watch the sunset with a glass of wine in hand or watch the magnificent Northern Lights while sipping a creamy hot chocolate.
While trips onshore are frequent, many expedition cruises offer hiking, glacier kayaking, snowshoeing, camping and zodiac cruising, so there’s plenty to keep you occupied. Now, all you need to do is decide where to go.
There’ll also be plenty of time for dining, swimming, reading a good book and, dare we say it, resting your eyes. This type of cruising is an expedition, not a punishment!
Go where hardly any man/woman has gone before
What an adventure ship might lack, it more than makes up for in its ability to navigate natural harbours and bays that a larger cruise ship could never attempt.
This ability to pull in and perhaps alter course due to weather or ‘sightings’ means that expedition cruising can be spontaneous with no two trips being the same. In fact, some ships do not have set routes and are entirely at the mercy of weather and wildlife. While for some, the unknown could be off putting, others will enjoy the organic nature of leaving the more delicate details down to Mother Nature.
Highlights for many include getting up close to wild animals, landscapes and natural phenomenon like the Northern Lights and of course, these elements are out of our control. It’s at times like when your boat stumbles across a pod of whales feeding that you will be grateful that expedition cruising is not so structured.
Where can I cruise to?
The five most common expedition cruising destinations are Alaska, the Arctic, Antarctic, The Kimberley and the Galapagos Islands. Each offer something unique to the visitor with many passengers choosing a cruise based on their interests.
Which cruise line should I choose?
When it comes to luxury, Ponant and Seabourn sit at the top end of town, with other operators vying for a space in the middle.
There are only a handful of truly small ships (10 or so passengers). It would be fair to say that the smaller the ship, the more ‘expedition’ focused the voyage.
Adventure Cruising for Families
This is multi-generational travelling at it’s best. Children live for adventure and it is fitting that soft expedition style cruising will undoubtedly excite every member of the family, not to mention you will create travel memories that will have a lasting impact on your children.
Lindblad Expeditions is the go-to cruise line for families, offering cruises tailored specifically to the kids. Daily activities are carefully planned to suit a range of demographics onboard suiting a range of interests and fitness levels. Zodiac cruises to slow walks, and best of all quality time with your loved ones.
The five must-go expedition cruising destinations
Wild and unspoilt, a trip to Alaska doesn’t disappoint. It is known for its huge glaciers, sparkling lakes, awesome marine and wildlife. With most towns accessible by sea or air only, cruising proves to be the ideal way to explore this region. Once considered a destination for retirees, Alaska is emerging as a destination popular with families. Dog sledding, kayaking and wildlife spotting are some of the activities that can be enjoyed amongst stepping back in time and learning about Alaska’s history surrounding the Gold Rush era and Native American culture.
Which cruise lines operate in Alaska?
Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, Ponant, UnCruise & Celebrity Cruises.
Which ships cruise in Alaska?
Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic: NG Venture (100 passengers), NG Quest (100 passengers), NG Orion (100 passengers), NG Seabird (62 passengers), NG Sealion (62 passengers)
Ponant – Le Champlain (180 passengers), Le Bougainville (184 passengers) and Le Dumont d’Urville (188)
UnCruise – Safari Quest (22 passengers), Safari Endeavour (88 passengers), Wilderness Discoverer (76 passengers), Wilderness Explorer (74 passengers), SS Legacy (90 passengers)
Best time to travel to Alaska
Between May and September when the weather is at its best for the year with plenty of cruise options to consider. Going too early might mean wildlife are still hibernating, so try to wait until mid June onwards. Salmon are at its peak in July, which means there is a good chance of spotting some hungry bear looking for a feast! September is popular with travellers as it offers the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights.
Travel from Australia
Fly to Canada or USA and embark the ship in Vancouver, Seattle or San Francisco. UnCruise begins their voyage from Sitka or Juneau.
Adventure rating: 3/5
Alaska is very popular for cruisers looking for the perfect combination of landscape, nature and an abundance of wildlife. The variety of cruise companies mean you can take your pick depending on your interests, the level of luxury and ship size from 2,000 plus passengers to a former fishing boat for ten.
Weather in Alaska can vary by 15c in one day, so make sure to bring plenty of layers, as this makes it easier to regulate your temperature.
Considering it is the frozen frontier and the most inhospitable place on the earth, Antarctica might be unsuitable for human existence, but it’s certainly not for wildlife. The seas thrive and thrash with life, and so it’s no wonder it’s a ‘must-see’ for animal enthusiasts, naturists, photographers, researchers and scientists.
Which cruise lines operate in Antarctica?
Aurora Expeditions, Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, Abercrombie & Kent, Hurtigruten, Expeditions, Quark Expeditions, G Adventures, Polar Latitudes, Oceanwide Expeditions, One Ocean and Zegrahm.
Which ships cruise in Antarctica?
Aurora Expeditions – Greg Mortimer (120 passengers), Polar Pioneer (54 passengers)
Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic – NG Explorer (148 passengers), NG Orion (148 passengers), NG Endurance (148 passengers)
Hurtigruten – MS Midnatsol, (365 passengers)
Quark Expeditions – World Explorer (17 passengers), Ocean Endeavour (199 passengers), Ocean Diamond (189 passengers), Ocean Adventurer (128 passengers)
G Adventures – G Expedition – (134 passengers)
Silversea – Silver Explorer (132 passengers)
Ponant – Le Boreal-class (264 passengers)
Seabourn – Seabourn Quest (450 passengers)
Travel from Australia
Embarkation in Ushuaia, Argentina or Punta Arenas, Chile. Also options cruising with Aurora from Hobart or Invercargill in New Zealand if considering the Sub-Antarctic Islands or an extended cruise to Mawsons Hut.
Best time to travel to Antarctic
Cruising in the Antarctic runs from November to March and coincides with Summer and Autumn. December and January are peak season with long daylight hours and bearable temperatures. It is also the time that penguins and whales appear. It is impossible to visit in the winter months due to the sheer enormity of ice packs and towering glaciers, not to mention nearly total darkness.
Due to regulations, only ships with less than 500 passengers can land ashore.
Adventure rating: 5/5
This is a Bucket list trip and one that some save a lifetime for. The scale of this Continent will have you in awe and witnessing nature at its best will leave you with lasting memories. Be prepared to see little to large creatures including Penguins, Seals and Killer Whales. These expedition cruise operators will have you immersed in the area with zodiac excursions and visits on land.
Check if your cruise operator offers a gear package. Some offer these packs free of charge and save you $2000 and having to buy equipment such as waterproof/windproof jackets, big pants, insulated rubber boots, waterproof backpack, binoculars and trekking poles.
Even if photography is not your strongest suit, it’s worth buying a decent camera. You’ll find some of the most spectacular scenery and wildlife in the world in the Antarctic, and you want your pictures to do it justice.
Wildlife enthusiasts and naturalists will love the Arctic and what it offers in terms of Polar bears, arctic foxes, caribou, walruses, whales and a plethora of sea birds. You’ll also learn about the region’s history, about its tradition of whale hunting and enjoy zodiac rides through towering icebergs and rocky cliffs.
Which cruise lines operate in the Arctic?
Silverseas, Lindblad Expeditions, Hurtigruten, G Adventures, Quark Expeditions, and Ponant.
Which ships cruise in the Arctic?
Silversea Expedition – Silver Explorer (144 passengers), Silver Cloud (254 passengers)
Hurtigruten – M/S Roald Amundsen (530 passengers)
G Adventures – G Expedition (134 passengers)
Quark Expeditions – Ocean Nova (78 passengers), Ocean Adventurer (128 passengers), World Explorer (172 guests)
Ponant – L’Austral (264 passengers), Le Soleal (264 passengers), Le Boreal (264 passengers)
Travel from Australia
Most embark in Tromso or Longyearbyen, Norway with fewer starting in Iceland and Greenland.
Best time to travel
The Arctic summer is brief, so you need to plan your window of activity well in advance for expedition cruising. The best times to visit are in late June and early July when the sun is above the horizon 24/7; which is also the best time to see the vast amounts of sea birds and whales. Travel there in September, and you can combine your trip with seeing the aurora borealis. October is considered the best time of year to see Polar Bears (don’t worry you will be protected by Polar Bear guards when you are on land)
Adventure rating: 5/5
You know you’re on a real expedition when you need to board an ice breaker with a helicopter landing pad. Also, the possibility of ‘bumping into’ a polar bear and zipping around icebergs in zodiacs adds to the ‘adventure’ factor.
Don’t forget your sunglasses and sunscreen! Even though it’s cold, the sun reflects off the snow and is damaging to skin and eyes. We recommend you pack sunglasses (or sun goggles), a sunscreen of at least SPF30 and lip protection.
Considered one of the last untouched and therefore unspoilt regions in the world, the Kimberley is home to stunning gorges and falls, untold amounts of Aboriginal cave art and are the annual visiting place for around 40,000 humpback whales (the largest pod in the world).
Which cruise lines operate in the Kimberley?
Ponant, Coral Expeditions, Silversea and Kimberley Quest
Which ships cruise in the Kimberley?
Ponant – Le Laperouse (264 passengers)
Coral Expeditions – Coral Adventurer (120 passengers), Coral Discoverer (72 guests) Coral Expedition (44 passengers)
Silversea – The Silver Discoverer – (120 passengers)
Kimberley Quest – The Kimberley Quest II (18 passengers)
Best time to travel to the Kimberley
Cruises in the Kimberley only take place during the dry season from April to September. Otherwise, the water levels are too high and the waterfalls so powerful that adventure cruising would be unsafe.
Travel to The Kimberley
The embarkation point for a Kimberley cruise is usually Broome or Wyndham in Western Australia.
Adventure rating: 3/5
This expedition has more of a crossover with a cruise. While you will still dinghy into small coves and enjoy pursuits, there’s also plenty of time to sit on the deck and enjoy the quieter life. The coastline between Broome and Wyndham is home to an archipelago of islands and inlets offering some amazing scenery from your vantage point at sea. You will also experience ‘Horizontal Falls’. Described by David Attenborough as “one of the greatest wonders of the natural world”.
Your cruise ship will often stop at gorges and waterfalls for a swim. Be careful and heed advice and warnings regarding crocodiles.
Sail to the Galápagos Islands and follow in the footsteps of Charles Darwin, who visited in 1835 and based his theory of evolution on the finches. The volcanic archipelago in the Pacific Ocean is a favourite for wildlife-viewing, in particular, giant tortoises, albatross and species of plants and animals not found anywhere else on the planet. The islands are part of a national park.
Which cruise lines operate in the Galapagos?
Celebrity Cruises, UnCruise & Lindblad Expeditions
Which ships cruise in the Galapagos?
Celebrity Cruises – Celebrity Xperience (100 passengers)
Best time to travel to Galapagos
The Galapagos Islands is a year-round destination, but you might want to time it to coincide with better underwater visibility or seeing albatross. Each month offers its benefits, with May and June being the most pleasant in terms of slightly cooler temperatures. January and February are consistently voted as the best months as it’s the best time to snorkel with penguins and the weather is always warm.
Travel from Australia
Cruises embark from within the archipelago (San Cristobal or Baltra), however you will need to fly into Quito, Ecuador where most cruise operators offer a charter flight into the Galapagos that is included in the cruise cost.
Adventure rating: 3/5
While this is following in the footsteps of Charles Darwin, you will get to encounter a vast amount of wildlife. Watch out for sharks and giant tortoises!
Don’t forget that when you have down time, the Galapagos has stunning surf beaches and there are some great places to eat. In Santa Cruz, they close the main street at night and line it with tables and chairs, making for a very atmospheric dining experience.