Memories are made of this: cruises that take you to the remotest parts of the planet
Travelling to the furthest corners of the world, expedition cruises are guaranteed to surprise and delight as Nicole Carmichael discovers.
You’ve cruised the Med, the Caribbean, the Bahamas and Barbados, seen the Norwegian Fjords, hopped over to the Baltics and ticked off all of Europe’s best river cruises. Now it’s time for something completely different…
There was a time when only the most intrepid explorers would venture into areas like the Arctic, Antarctic and the Amazon Rainforest, and unless you were part of a wildlife documentary team or a scientist studying the planet’s most remote corners, it’s unlikely it would be your first choice for the annual holiday.
Now it’s possible to visit virtually every inch of the globe on a ship, and in some cases you don’t even need to fly. Best of all, with fantastic onboard experts and expedition leaders to enrich your experience, you won’t need to do tons of research before you start packing.
Travel in style, comfort and safety and you’ll return home with a lifetime of memories, possibly way too many photos and adrenalin-pumping anecdotes you could never have imagined as no two expedition cruises are ever the same. You’ll be pushing the boat out in terms of budget, but if an expedition cruise is at the top of your bucket list, then look no further.
Ready? Let’s go!
Located in the northwest of the United States, Alaska borders the Canadian province of New Columbia and The Yukon to the east. It also shares amaritime border across the Bering Strait. It’s by far the largest state in America – bigger than the combined size of Texas, California and Montana.
Alaska is most famous for its fantastic natural flora and fauna and, as over half of the state is public land, it has a multitude of national parks, forests and wildlife refuges.
Wildlife lovers flock here to see Alaska’s Big Five land animals – bears, moose, Dall (distinctly goat-looking) sheep, wolf and caribou. It’s also one of the planet’s greatest places to see mighty marine mammals such as humpback and gray whales and orcas.
There’s no other place in the world where you could possibly witness a black bear out hunting for food, while being watched by a bald eagle and a pod of whales just cruising offshore. So it’s no surprise Alaskan animals create the biggest draw to this pristine wilderness. Here you can reconnect with nature and see creatures thriving in their native habitat.
Over a dozen major ocean cruise lines offer Alaskan itineraries, from Royal Caribbean to Cunard and NCL, while you’ll also find a selection of specialist major expedition cruise companies that offer smaller select trips to Alaska.
Mid-May to mid-September is the best time to visit in terms of wildlife visibility and comfortable weather conditions for sighting, as days are longer and warmer (around 15°C to 21°C). Go between January and April for winter sports and a chance of seeing the Northern Lights.
Thermals at the ready? The Arctic polar region is the northernmost part of the earth, comprising the Arctic Ocean, adjacent seas and parts of Canada, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the US.
David Attenborough’s Frozen Planet certainly whetted the appetite for winter-loving travellers to visit this stunning landscape, where the average temperature in its warmest month (July) is still below 10°C.
In winter, the temperature can drop to minus 40°C, so the best time to visit is high summer, between June and September. During this time the sea ice begins to break, which allows access to cruising ships, and the wildlife becomes more active at the start of the season before their annual migration.
The opportunity of seeing a polar bear in the wild is the biggest draw to the Arctic, while sightings of other inhabitants such as the Arctic fox, Arctic hare, narwhal, walrus, orca and beluga whales are also pretty memorable.
Aside from the wildlife, one of the main reasons to head here is to see the Northern Lights and there are numerous places here where you can enjoy this stunning natural phenomenon. Magnificent fjords, glaciers and untouched wilderness as far as the eye can see add to the epic experience.
For the ultimate Arctic experience, specialist Arctic expedition cruise ships travel to the heart of the Polar regions, carrying anything from 80 to 250 passengers. Onboard experts who know the area well will further enhance the experience for you and, if you shop around, you can find some amazing bargains from the major ocean cruise companies too.
The world’s biggest river spans 40 per cent of South America, coursing its way through nine countries. It’s also home to over a third of all animal species. Statistically, it doesn’t get more impressive than the Amazon, so it’s no wonder that it tops the expedition bucket list.
Several major ocean cruise companies offer itineraries to the most accessible parts of the Amazon, including Silversea, Regent Seven Seas and Seabourn. Ocean cruise companies tend to focus on Brazil as a launching point as it is home to nearly 60 per cent of the Amazon rainforest, but to truly get to the heart of the Amazon and experience its countless varieties of flora and fauna, only a river boat will do.
Opting for one of the most reputable Amazonian expedition cruises will really maximise your chances of seeing the authentic Amazon, and Rainforest Cruises, G Adventures, Aqua and Exodus offer a variety of great itineraries, generally using Peru and Equador as a starting point.
Depending on which part of the Amazon you are heading to, the best time to visit will vary as the timing of wet and dry seasons will shift. As a general rule, the wet season takes place from December to May. This means that water is high and so remote areas are more accessible by small boats, so there’s more of a chance of seeing toucans, macaws and primates in the jungle canopy and all manner of incredible marine life.
In the dry season from June, jungle pathways are more accessible so it’s easier to spot snakes, lizards and caiman crocodiles. Temperatures also vary greatly depending on the area of the Amazon, but typically temperatures in the dry season in Equador and Brazil range from 29°C to 35°C.
Antarctica has variously been described as the least understood and harshest continent on the plant, the largest desert in the world, the wildest continent and its most beautiful.
Situated in a remote area in the Southern Hemisphere, encompassed by the Antarctic Convergence – an uneven line of latitude where cold, northward flowing Antarctic waters meet the warmer waters of the world’s oceans – it’s one of the most remote destinations on the planet.
The site of the South Pole is a virtually uninhabited, ice-covered landmass and most cruises to the region visit the Antarctic Peninsula, which stretches toward South America. This isolated peninsula shelters its wildlife including many varieties of penguins – including king and emperor, Adélie and the ‘smiling’ chinstrap – plus seals, snow petrels and killer whales.
It’s also home to the wandering albatross which has the largest wingspan of any bird on the planet at an impressive 3.5 metres.
Being in the Southern Hemisphere, the best time to visit Antarctica is between late October and late March, when temperatures range between 4°C and 8°C. It’s also the only time when an expedition cruise there is possible as The Drake Passage (a two-day sea crossing to get to and from Antarctica) is calmer.
A select number of major cruise lines visit Antarctica, including Viking, Seabourn and Silversea, plus specialist expedition companies such as Lindblad Expeditions, Quark Expeditions and Poseidon Expeditions.
Located 600 miles from Ecuador, the extraordinary Galapagos archipelago is made up of around 127 islands, islets and rocks, only four of which are inhabited – by humans, that is.
The entire island group is so teaming with animals and beautiful botanicals that it inspired Charles Darwin’s 1859 work On the Origin of Species. In 1959, the majority of the land was classed as a National Park and it’s now also a UNESCO World Heritage Centre.
The Galapagos giant tortoise, the comical blue-footed booby, the great frigate bird, Galapagos penguin and marine iguana are just a handful of the creatures which make the area such a draw for visitors. In 1998, the Ecuadorian government created the Galapagos Marine Reserve, a legal framework to protect the islands from over-tourism, and it still strictly regulates the number and type of tourist boats to lessen their environmental impact.
Now the only way to reach this little piece of paradise is by air from mainland Ecuador. November and December are generally the best time to visit, as calmer seas mean better visibility for undersea adventures, but it’s a year-round destination as every month has its delights.
For example, the cool season (from June to November) is the best time to view penguins, dolphins, whales and other large marine animals.
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