Antarctica

When was the last time you spent the afternoon -- all afternoon -- chatting with the captain of your cruise ship, while he's manning the bridge? Have you ever been invited to step behind your ship's bar and help yourself to a drink? How about being encouraged to jump off the stern for a quick dip? Have you tried asking (successfully) your captain to turn the ship around so you could get a better look at an orca or humpback whale? If you've been on an expedition cruise, you've probably done all of these things and more.

Mega-ships might have the latest gizmos, gadgets and high-tech entertainment, but expedition ships have the edge when it comes to up-close encounters with wildlife and venturing into the heart of remote wilderness areas. Your cruise focuses on exploring Mother Nature's secret nooks and crannies and steers clear of highly populated ports. True, you can do a few of these on a more traditional, small luxury ship, such as Paul Gauguin in Tahiti. But unlike small-ship cruises, expedition cruises are so casual and laid back, you'll feel like everyone is family. Plus, expedition itineraries are not set in stone. For the most part, your destination each day -- often each hour -- is captain's choice. You won't get that on a regular cruise.

Are you ready to downsize? If not, let us convince you with these 15 things you can do on expedition ships that you won't be doing with the big guys.

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1. Go Into the Wilderness

Expedition cruises take you places you just can't get to any other way. You'll discover places so far removed from the maddening crowds that you'll feel like you're the first human to set foot on a particular bit of land. In Antarctica, you'll scramble off the Zodiac raft to walk among thousands of penguins. At the other end of the earth, in the Arctic, you might stumble upon the remains of an ancient settlement built of stones and whale bones. There are no roads leading to such off-the-beaten-path spots. No planes land there. The only way you'll ever see these hidden gems is on an expedition cruise.
Whale watching

2. Influence Your Ship's Itinerary

So you think you see a pod of whales spouting over yonder or a polar bear on an enormous iceberg, standing guard over her cubs. What to do? On an expedition cruise, you tell the naturalist -- if he or she happens to be hanging about. Better yet, head to the wheelhouse to tell the captain. If there's a critter out there, he'll steer the ship as close as he's allowed. Chances are, if you want to see wildlife, the rest of the passengers (and crew) do, too.

3. Get Closer to Wildlife

Now that everyone has spotted animals from the deck, it's time to lower the Zodiacs and get even closer. Those leaping spinner dolphins in Hawaii look playful; the orcas in British Columbia not so much. The grizzlies in Alaska? You might be close, but the bears are too busy catching salmon to notice. Besides, your guides carry bear spray and/or rifles for your protection and are always on the alert for the unexpected.

4. Linger Longer

When nature offers up something exciting to see or do, the captain can hang around as long passengers wish. Checking out life in the wild is the stuff of expedition cruises. There's no hour-by-hour schedule to keep. At night you're anchored in a secluded cove, rather than docked in a bustling port. When you're in the middle of nowhere, what time you arrive and depart is pretty flexible. In fact, you'll likely go your entire cruise without ever stopping at a traditional cruise port.
Waterfall cruising

5. Shower in a Waterfall ... Onboard

Don't bother bringing your bath gel or even getting undressed for this bathing ritual. Coastal waterfalls are ideal for splashing the bow deck and willing passengers with cold water. Thanks to your small ship's shallow draft, the captain can position the bow extremely close to shore, directly under the cascading water.

6. Take the Plunge

Jumping ship on an expedition cruise means slipping off the stern platform into the sea. In chilly Arctic waters, they call it a polar plunge and give you a certificate for your bravery. In other destinations (Hawaii, Galapagos, Alaska), you can snorkel, swim, kayak, sail or try stand-up paddleboarding right from your ship. You might find yourself swimming with dolphins and sea turtles in Hawaii or massive whale sharks and seals in Mexico's Sea of Cortez, all without having to book shore excursions. Best of all, use of the water toys doesn't cost extra. It's all included in the cruise fares.

7. Make Use of Complimentary Gear

Think all the rugged activities on an expedition trip make for a hefty pre-cruise shopping list? Not to worry. With as few as 10 or even 40 passengers, your expedition ship carries enough wetsuits, snorkel masks and fins for everyone to use, free of charge. If you're frequently exploring ashore via Zodiac, your ship might loan you a pair of knee-high rubber boots for wet landings and rainforest hikes. Some ships supply rain pants and rain jackets. Cruises to Antarctica often include a puffy parka for each passenger to wear during the cruise, then take home as a souvenir. All you need to do is let your cruise line know your size when you fill out your pre-trip forms.
Fleece jacket

8. Dress Down (Way Down)

The fact that there's no dress code means you can show up for dinner in your fleece or your shorts. If your meal is interrupted by a sighting of dolphins off the bow or a grizzly bear ambling along the shore, you're already dressed for wildlife viewing on the deck or even an impromptu Zodiac ride. And, since there's usually no such thing as room service, no one will look at you funny when you pad around the lounge wearing your robe and slippers to fetch your morning coffee.

9. Help Steer the Ship

Thanks to an open bridge policy, it's easy to get to know your captain and crew. They might even let you take a (supervised) turn at the wheel. You can drop in unannounced at any time, except during extreme weather conditions. They'll let you know when you're not welcome.

10. Have Dinner With the Locals ... Onboard

While exploring Canada's high Arctic, Adventure Canada makes a point of inviting local villagers to the ship to enjoy dinner and visit with the passengers. In a small fishing outpost in Newfoundland, for example, the local folks reciprocate by inviting cruisers back to town for dancing and partying into the wee hours. In remote areas of British Columbia, the Maple Leaf Adventures crew sometimes invites a First Nations elder aboard for dinner and overnight stay. It's like having your own personal cultural guide.
Piranha fishing

11. Fish for Your Supper

Ever tasted piranha? You will if your adventure takes you to the remote reaches of Peru's Amazon. Going fishing is a typical activity at least once per trip. The piranhas you catch appear on the dinner table, along with local fish purchased by your guide during your day's outing. Cruise along British Columbia's coast with Maple Leaf Adventures and fish for cod or halibut. Did we mention the just-caught prawns and crab featured at your picnic? It doesn't get any fresher. What with all the food regulations, this isn't likely to happen on a big ship. Piranhas, by the way, are tasty, but beware of their tiny bones.

12. Lose Touch With the World

No cell phone service. No Wi-Fi signals. Depending on your point of view, being disconnected is either sheer bliss or your worst nightmare. Be prepared to be in the dark, so to speak, for days. Remember, expedition ships go to exceptionally remote places.

13. Night Prowl

Evening excursions take on a whole new meaning when you're exploring such far away destinations as the twisting tributaries of the mighty Amazon. Imagine stepping from your ship into an open motor boat or Zodiac and venturing out into the pitch black night. You're on the prowl for caimans (similar to alligators) and other creatures of the night. A naturalist shines a spotlight on the seemingly lifeless shoreline until a spooky pair of eyes is seen glowing in the dark. Knowing Amazon River guides, yours will probably catch the caiman and lift it into the boat for close inspection.
Milky Way

14. Gaze at the Milky Way

Sure, you can see stars from a big ship -- but the bright deck lights obstruct most of them, making the experience not so different from home. But it's pitch black out there on your little expedition craft, so you can see all the stars, plus the whitish streak of the Milky Way. More than one city slicker has been awestruck when gazing up at thousands of twinkling lights.

15. Pour Your Own Drink at the Bar

Picture this. It's 3 a.m. and there's a total eclipse of the moon in progress. You wander up to the top deck and flop down in a deck chair to watch. You think a snifter of brandy or a liqueur would hit the spot, but the bar servers are fast asleep. No problem. You head down to the bar, slip behind it and pour yourself a nightcap. There's no chit to sign. Drinks are included. Note: Not all expedition ships are created equal. The smaller, more pricy the ship, the more likely you'll be able to help yourself to treats.