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Above and beyond: Best expedition cruises offering incredible journeys to the ends of the earth

Author: Dave Monk

Published on:

Updated on:

From Antarctica to Alaska and the Galapagos to the South Seas, today’s expedition cruises offer incredible journeys to the ends of the earth. Discover more about the incredible places your next cruise could take you.

Venturing to the remotest corners of the world used to involve a fair bit of effort and inconvenience – dog sleds, blizzards, crevasses, even frostbite. But now you can reach the Arctic and Antarctic aboard a luxury expedition ship, gazing out from a warm, comfortable lounge or balcony suite at jaw-dropping landscapes and amazing wildlife.

Expedition cruising was already one of the industry’s biggest growth sectors before the pandemic. But now, after a year and a half of travel restrictions, cruisers are rushing to invest their savings in voyages that offer adventure in distant destinations – whether it be the poles, the Amazon, the Galapagos islands, Alaska, South America or the South Pacific.

With a glut of ships launching in 2022, there’s more choice than ever, the newcomers including Swan Hellenic Vega, Aurora’s Sylvia Earle and Viking twins Octantis and Polaris.

All are hugely well equipped, and some – such as Seabourn Venture and Scenic Eclipse and – even carry mini-submarines.

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Though tough on the outside to withstand polar ice, these newcomers have sumptuous interiors with deep carpets, relaxing sofas and soft beds.

But there’s a serious side, too. Many ships transport scientists who are studying the effects of climate change, and some have hybrid power, with battery packs that allow them to operate silently and emission free in sensitive areas.

Martin Johnson, co-founder of expedition travel specialists Polar Routes and Latin Routes, says: ‘After the events of the last two years we have seen a sharp rise in clients wanting to make up for lost time by booking expedition cruises. While these iconic destinations would once have sat on the bucket list for some distant point in the future, they are now being moved up to today – and with a huge variety of ships and operators to choose from, expedition cruising offers one of the best ways to explore.’

So turn the page and take your pick. You have the whole world to choose from – but wherever you go, you can be sure it will be the voyage of a lifetime.

Expedition ships are generally are much smaller than massive cruise liners. Credit: Quark Expeditions

Alaska

Where?

The most northerly US state is seven times the size of the UK but cruise ships normally call only at its southern ports, sailing from the US city of Seattle or Vancouver in Canada as far as Seward or Anchorage.

Why?

A spectacular land of mountains, glaciers and fjords, Alaska is home to bears, whales and eagles. Excursions can include wildlife tracking or visiting a traditional Tlingit village.

When?

The season runs from late April to mid-September. Early on, it’s quieter and good for spotting baby animals and grey whales. Mid season is best for humpbacks and warmer temperatures.

Later in the year, wildlife is migrating and feeding up for winter. Weather is changeable, so pack plenty of layers.

- READ MORE: Guide to Alaska: What to do and see in Alaska with Princess Cruises -

Who goes there?

Alaska attracts 1.4 million cruisers a year, mainly on big ships, but among the lines offering a more adventurous experience are UnCruise and Alaskan Dream Cruises.

Also operating in the region are American Cruise Lines and American Queen Voyages, which is introducing the 186-guest Ocean Victory in 2022, with sister ship Ocean Discoverer the following year. One of the more unusual craft is the 12-guest converted tug Swell, operated by Maple Leaf Adventures.

Get on board

UnCruise 12-night ‘Inside Passage & Glacier Bay’ cruise aboard Wilderness Explorer, from Seattle to Juneau, departing May 3, 2022, from £3,789.

Appreciate the breathtaking views on your next expedition to Alaska. Credit: Shutterstock

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Arctic

Where?

The Arctic Circle takes in the north of Canada, Alaska, Russia and Norway, as well as most of Greenland. Some ships, such as Ponant’s new Le Commandant Charcot, even venture right up to the geographic North Pole. The top of Norway is the most accessible wilderness from the UK, with Hurtigruten ship Maud sailing year-round from Dover as far as the North Cape – the northernmost point of the European continent.

Why?

The wildlife here includes walruses, whales and seals, while polar bears are found in places such as Svalbard and Franz Josef Land. Another reason for going to Greenland is to see the glaciers, which are spectacular.

When?

The midnight sun lasts from April to August, so visit between late September and March for a chance to see the Northern Lights. Svalbard is best between May and July, while Greenland is recommended between August and October.

- READ MORE: Discover polar bears & walruses on Seabourn’s Arctic cruises -

Who goes there?

Both Hurtigruten and newcomer Havila Voyages operate regular Norway cruises from Bergen to Tromso, and Hurtigruten also offers more adventurous forays from Svalbard and along the Northwest Passage. Other visitors include G Adventures, Lindblad Expeditions and new luxury expedition vessel Scenic Eclipse. Poseidon and Quark sail a Russian icebreaker to the North Pole, and the Arctic will also be served by the new Swan Hellenic ships.

Get on board

Hurtigruten 21-night ‘Ultimate Winter Expedition Cruise’ aboard MS Maud, round trip from Dover via Tromso and North Cape, departing November 17, 2022, from £4,500.

Get a glimpse of polar bears on your Arctic cruise in Svalbard. Credit: Shutterstock

Antarctic

Where?

Cruise ships regularly visit the Antarctic peninsula, which is the part of the seventh continent nearest to departure ports in Chile and Argentina.

Many itineraries also include the Falklands and South Georgia. It’s a great adventure but beware – the notorious Drake Passage can be choppy.

Why?

Dramatic scenery and wildlife such as whales, dolphins, seals and vast colonies of penguins make this a bucket-list special.

When?

The Antarctic season runs between November and March. November has more snow, January and February are popular for the chance to see penguin chicks and also have the best weather, while March is great for whale-watching.

- READ MORE: What’s it like to cruise Antarctica? -

Who goes there?

Antarctica attracts a whole host of expedition lines, including some of the most luxurious, such as Seabourn, Silversea, Scenic and Ponant. New line Atlas Ocean Voyages is heading there, along with Quark Expeditions’ newcomer Quark Ultramarine, Crystal’s recent addition Crystal Endeavor and the two new Viking expedition ships.

You’ll also find specialists such as Aurora, Heritage, Hurtigruten, Lindblad, National Geographic Expeditions and Poseidon. To avoid Drake Passage, take a fly-cruise with Antarctica 21.

Get on board

Quark Expeditions 22-night ‘Epic Antarctica: Crossing the Circle via Falklands and South Georgia’ cruise aboard Quark Ultramarine, round trip from Ushuaia, departing January 29, 2023, from £20,700 including flights from Buenos Aires.

Check off Antarctica from your bucket list as you experience the dramatic scenery and wildlife. Credit: Shutterstock

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Amazon

Where?

At 4,000 miles long, the mighty Amazon exceeds the distance between New York and Berlin. It flows from the Andes to the Atlantic, and travellers can experience sections of the river in Peru and Brazil.

Why?

The river and its banks are home to pink dolphins, monkeys, sloths, macaws and butterflies. Lagoons teem with fish and caiman. Guests may also visit local villages along the tributaries.

When?

December to May is the wet season when rains swell the river, making it easier to explore by boat and kayak. During the dry season, from June to November, it’s easier to explore the rainforest on foot.

- READ MORE: Top 10 destinations for 2022 and how to cruise there -

Who goes there?

Some of the bigger cruise lines cross the Amazon’s mouth, but to really explore the river requires smaller, more specialist operators, sailing out of Peru. Aqua Expeditions’ ship Aqua Nera takes guests into the depths of the forest while they enjoy fine regional cuisine by Peruvian chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino.

Uniworld charters Aria Amazon, an all-suite ship with floor-to-ceiling windows, a hot tub, lounge bar and outdoor observation deck. G Adventures offers the 28-passenger Amatista.

Get on board

Aqua Expeditions 7-night ‘Amazon River Expedition’ cruise aboard Aqua Nera, round trip from Iquitos (Peru), departing December 31, 2022, from £7,458.

Take an expedition cruise to the Galapagos for a chance to see exceptional wildlife. Credit: Shutterstock

Galapagos

Where?

The archipelago famous for its role in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution lies off the coast of Ecuador.

Why?

The chance to see exceptional wildlife such as giant tortoises, marine iguanas and flamingos.

When?

June to November brings cooler and drier weather, along with a rich variety of marine life. December to May is warmer, with longer days for land exploration and pleasant swimming in the sea.

- READ MORE: Complete guide to adventure cruises - what to expect & where to go -

Who goes there?

It’s not only the local wildlife that has evolved – so have the visiting ships. Celebrity Flora and Silver Origin are two new 100-guest luxury vessels from mainstream operators Celebrity Cruises and Silversea. The first of these also offers Celebrity Xpedition, which carries 48 guests, and Celebrity Xploration, which takes just 16.

Aqua Expeditions is sending its new superyacht, the 16-guest Aqua Mare, to the area in 2022 for itineraries of seven and 14 nights. Also limited to 16 passengers – but equipped with nine kayaks and two Zodiacs – is the new G Adventures catamaran Reina Silvia Voyager. On a bigger scale, Hurtigruten is introducing the 90-guest Santa Cruz II.

Get on board

Celebrity 7-night ‘Galapagos Outer Loop’ cruise aboard Celebrity Flora, round trip from Baltra Island, departing Apri 23,l 2023, from £6,719.

Book a trip on Celebrity Flora and head to the stunning Galapagos. Credit: Celebrity Cruises

Central & South America

Where?

This vast area stretches from the border of Mexico all the way down to Cape Horn and includes the wildlife hotspots of Costa Rica and Patagonia.

Why?

The Pacific coast of Costa Rica and Nicaragua offers beautiful beaches and lush vegetation. Nature-lovers will find everything here, from sloths to incredible birdlife. The Sea of Cortez in Mexico is fast becoming one of the world’s best places to see whales.

When?

The cruise season in Patagonia runs from November to March, while Costa Rica is best visited between December and March. For whale- watching in the Sea of Cortez, go between January and April (February and March are best of all).

- READ MORE: Viking reveals brand new expedition cruises to Americas for 2023 -

Who goes there?

Australis are the local experts in Patagonia, sailing between Chile and Argentina with two ships taking just 210 passengers each (enjoy a whisky with ice cut straight from an iceberg as you sail through fjords and past glaciers). Other operators in Central and South America include UnCruise Adventures, Aurora Expeditions and Star Clippers.

Get on board

Australis 4-night ‘Patagonian Explorer’ cruise between Ushuaia (Argentina) and Punta Arenas (Chile) via Cape Horn, Beagle Channel and Strait of Magellan, departures year-round in 2022 and 2023, from £1,204.

Explore Central America and get up close and personal with wildlife. Credit: Shutterstock

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South Pacific

Where?

Of all the tiny islands in the vastness of this ocean, French Polynesia – centred upon Tahiti – is many travellers’ idea of heaven.

Why?

Where else can you watch a sunset over the Bay of Virgins? The area is known for its paradise beaches, blue lagoons and atolls, with sunshine as warm as the islanders’ welcome.

Activities include tasting local food, horse-riding and 4x4 rides, while snorkellers and divers can enjoy seeing the colourful fish and manta rays.

When?

May to October are the most popular months to visit.

- READ MORE: Best places to cruise in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific -

Who goes there?

MS Paul Gauguin, now owned by French line Ponant, sails from Tahiti but cruisers can also board Aranui 5, a part-cargo, part-passenger vessel that carries supplies to the Marquesas, the Cook and Austral Islands, and even the far-flung British outpost of Pitcairn.

Other cruise visitors include Heritage Expeditions, Lindblad, Scenic, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises (which is currently offering 25 percent off select expedition voyages), Variety and Silversea. For a tall-ship adventure, try Windstar’s Wind Spirit.

Get on board

Aranui 11-night ‘Marquesas’ cruise aboard Aranui 5, round trip from Tahiti, departing June 18, 2022, from £3,722.

Sail on MS Paul Gauguin from Tahiti. Credit: Ponant

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5 things you'll find on an expedition cruise

1. Zodiacs

These rigid inflatable boats carry guests ashore to see wildlife close up. Some ships allow you to board inside a hangar before launching.

2. On-board experts

Guest lecturers share their knowledge of flora and fauna, and some ships also carry working scientists (you may get a chance to help with their research).

3. Boot rooms

These ensure that footwear is perfectly clean before use, so passengers do not carry any foreign organic material to pristine areas such as the Antarctic.

- READ MORE: New expedition cruise ships 2022 - full list of maiden voyages -

4. Parkas

Expedition lines look after their guests, so warm coats with fur-lined hoods (named after the Inuit word for animal skin) are provided to keep you toasty.

5. Hi-tech equipment

A few ships carry helicopters and submarines to get you closer to the local wildlife, and Crystal Endeavor also has a drone to beam pictures back to HD screens on board.

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