Updated January 10, 2019
On the surface, "expedition cruising" is a tough, seemingly contradictory concept to wrap your head around. Christopher Columbus lining up with his shipmates on the Santa Maria for the midnight buffet? Having hardtack and dried salt cod at the captain's welcome aboard dinner on your next Caribbean cruise? Well, no.
As the name implies, expedition cruising is a taste of exploration and adventure in off-the-beaten-path places. It's an experience more likely torn from the pages of National Geographic than Travel + Leisure; in fact, National Geographic, in partnership with expedition operator Lindblad Expeditions, is a prominent player in this niche. Expedition ships are small, with shallow drafts, and are able to inch closer to those less-visited, out-of-the-way ports or scenic wonders. A seven-night expedition sailing in many ways feels more like a weeklong shore excursion than a cruise.
What sets expedition cruising apart from "normal" cruising is the relationship between the voyages and ports. On a typical ship, the cruise experience is made up in equal measure by experiences ashore -- both organized and independent -- and various activities and entertainment onboard, provided by a "cruise staff." When conventional ships add programs of an educational or informational nature, they are defined as "enrichment," an augmentation to, rather than the main thrust of, the cruise experience. They are the seasoning, not the main course.
In lieu of cruise director and staff, expedition ships are led by an "expedition team," with a team leader and sometimes a support staff of naturalists and science-oriented guest lecturers who give presentations on the politics, culture, history, geology, geography, biology, ecology or anthropology of their vessel's destinations. Some even employ photographers to help you take amazing pictures of the wildlife and scenery. In this context, the education becomes the meat and potatoes, with a pinch of entertainment occasionally thrown in to spice things up and keep the trip from getting too serious.
Aboard an expedition ship, the day-to-day scheduling and ports stops are more fluid than in the daily programs of conventional ships. This permits the flexibility of changing course or altering plans on a dime to take advantage of weather, sea conditions, wildlife sightings or any other serendipitous occurrence.
Clearly, this format is not for everyone. One keystone of expedition cruising is the extensive use of Zodiac inflatable crafts instead of conventional tenders. Not only does this require more agility transferring to and from the ship, but often the destination is a beach or rocky shoreline lacking any sort of a pier, necessitating a "wet landing" (having to jump over the side into the water and wade to shore).
Once ashore, groups are often divided up into smaller packs based on fitness level and interest, with the heartier travelers taking off on hikes of various degrees or long kayaking outings and easier-going folks taking a leisurely, naturalist-led walk along a shoreline to look in tidepools or search for rare birds.
A number of cruise lines have attempted to create a fusion between the exploratory aspects of expedition cruising and the civilized perks and service we've all come to appreciate. The upscale Silversea Cruises, for example, created a branch of the company called Silversea Expeditions, that's a model for expeditionary voyaging with high-end luxury touches. Can you see yourself zipping among Arctic icebergs in below-zero weather aboard a Zodiac for a few hours, then being greeted upon your return to the ship by a nattily dressed butler handing you a steaming cup of hot chocolate flavored with Baileys Irish Creme? That's par for the course on a luxury expedition voyage.
If you think expedition cruising is something you'd like to try, you may be wondering what the best cruising regions are, what you should expect to experience and which lines go where. Though there are expedition-type adventures virtually anywhere on earth a boat can float, here's our primer on the most popular locations for sea-based exploration adventures.
Alaska is arguably one of the most popular choices for cruise travelers looking to get their feet wet in expedition cruising. When it comes to the natural world (biology, ecology, geology, climatology -- virtually any "ology" you can think of), Alaska has it all, and there's no better way to capture nature's magnificence. For one thing, the ships are small enough to navigate areas that normally only shore excursion craft could tackle. Also, they almost always anchor overnight in these remote coves so that, at dawn or dusk -- when most animals wander down to the shore to hunt -- you'll be right there to catch a glimpse from your vessel's deck or through your cabin window from a stone's throw away. If the action doesn't take place right next to your ship, there undoubtedly will be daily Zodiac excursions.
Who Goes There?
Expedition cruisers are spoiled for choice when it comes to picking an expedition sailing in Alaska. Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, UnCruise Adventures, Ponant and Alaskan Dream Cruises sail regular cruises in the region, while Zegrahm Expeditions and International Expeditions sail a few cruises each year.
While some small ocean cruise ships offer voyages in the Brazilian Amazon, sailing as far as Manaus, Peru is more popular with expedition lines and their much smaller vessels. Travelers fly into Lima before connecting with flights into the jungle-locked city of Iquitos. (The only way in or out is by airplane or boat; there are no roads connecting Iquitos with the rest of Peru.) Ships embark in Iquitos or the port just upriver in Nauta.
Most Amazon river cruises stop at small villages along the way, where you can interact with locals by visiting their schools and buying handicrafts. Depending on water levels, you might also take walks through the rainforest to look for monkeys, sloths, insects and fascinating plant life. But, plan on little time ashore because the voyages tend to focus on the river itself, with motorboat rides along the water's edge to look for bird life.
Who Goes There?
International Expeditions offers voyages on an intimate teak riverboat that accommodates 31 passengers. For a more chic and modern vessel, Aqua Expeditions cruises nearly the same route on its boutique hotel-like ship called Aria Amazon. Local naturalist guides are onboard both vessels, and all Amazon trips can be combined with pre- or post-voyage extensions to Machu Picchu. Other cruise lines that offer similar experiences are Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, G Adventures, Pandaw and Delfin Amazon Cruises.
Could there be a more inhospitable spot on earth than Antarctica? Unless you're a penguin, orca or seal, probably not. But what could make a place more desirable to the traveler looking for the under-visited than that? There is no native population in Antarctica or within 500 miles of its coasts, yet the sea abounds with life. Expect to see whales of both toothed and baleen varieties, seals of multiple species, birds on the wing, and waddling and diving penguins of varying species and sizes. Not to imply that human endeavors are slighted! You can expect to see various research stations, whose personnel will be surprisingly eager to discuss their work with you.
Who Goes There?
Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic holds a leadership role there, offering Antarctic expeditions since 1966, and even has a few coves named after its founders. But you'll find numerous other choices, as well, including Hurtigruten, Zegrahm Expeditions, Lindblad Expeditions, Quark Expeditions, G Adventures, Polar Latitudes, Oceanwide Expeditions, One Ocean and Noble Caledonia.
Silversea Expeditions, Ponant and Abercrombie & Kent also take travelers on posh Antarctica expeditions, with departures from Ushuaia and Buenos Aires.
Arctic Norway -- specifically the archipelago of Svalbard -- sits higher north than Siberia or Alaska, providing some of the most spectacular scenery on the globe. Like Antarctica, the region requires ships with ice-strengthened hulls and has a very short visitor season. Most tours depart from the Norwegian cities of Tromso or Longyearbyen (though some expeditions embark in Iceland or Greenland) and generally weave among the islands of the Svalbard archipelago, including the largest, Spitsbergen.
Expedition sailings include naturalist-led guided hikes across the spongy tundra to see arctic foxes in their brown coats, molting caribou, lazing walruses and the remnants of this region's beluga whale-hunting history. Be prepared for armed polar bear guards to follow you onto land. (But don't worry -- the chance of an encounter, or a shooting for that matter, is exceptionally rare.) Zodiac rides take you close to icebergs -- and to the smaller chunks of ice known as "bergy bits" and "growlers" -- bobbing on the chilly water. You'll also zoom by the steep, rocky cliffs of islands inhabited by thousands of sea birds, making a cacophony of noise that cannot be imagined.
Who Goes There?
Many of the leaders in Antarctic cruises relocate their ships to the Arctic during the Northern Hemisphere's summer months. Silversea Expedition's Silver Explorer and Silver Cloud offer an exceptionally posh way of seeing the region. Lindblad Expeditions offers at least half a dozen departures each summer, and Zegrahm Expeditions usually offers at least one. Hurtigruten, a Norwegian company, might know these waters better than most, offering several different itineraries, some of which include cruising the fjords of mainland Norway. Other lines offering Arctic cruises are G Adventures, Quark Expeditions, Ponant, PolarQuest and Poseidon Expeditions.
British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest
It's all about nature and First Nation culture in this part of the world, with beautiful landscapes, an abundance of wildlife from whales and sea lions to sea otters and bald eagles, and fascinating Native American heritage sites. Almost all itineraries visit the San Juan Islands, with some going north up British Columbia's Strait of Georgia, while others spend more time closer to Washington, exploring the Salish Sea and even going south to Olympic National Park. On these expeditions, you can go kayaking, perhaps with a seal catching a ride on the back of your boat. Cruise along the shoreline to see bears and sea lions from a safe distance. You can enjoy visiting with Tlingit Indians in their own villages, watching for whales from the deck, staying up late as twilight lasts past 10 p.m. or catching your own salmon and having the fish flash-frozen and shipped to you at home.
Who Goes There?
The main players in this part of North America are UnCruise Adventures and Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, though you'll also find offerings from area-specialist Maple Leaf Adventures.
Costa Rica & Panama
The tropical climate in Costa Rica and Panama gives adventure cruisers the opportunity to experience both land- and water-based exploration, virtually year-round. Costa Rica's rainforests are full of monkeys, sloths and beautiful birds, while Panama's gulfs are crystal clear and perfect for snorkeling. Expect to hike, snorkel, kayak and even try your hand at paddleboarding.
Who Goes There?
Costa Rica & Panama as an expedition cruise destination is still relatively underused, with only Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic and UnCruise Adventures visiting the area on a regular basis. AdventureSmith Explorations also offers sailings there, but does so by chartering boats from the other two lines.
Famed evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin was a naturalist aboard survey ship HMS Beagle, and was fascinated by the variation of similar species evolving in nearby, but physically isolated, Galapagos Islands. Since then, visitors to the archipelago have been equally fascinated by the host of animals that make the islands home. There is so much interest in the Galapagos, in fact, that the government of Ecuador, which administers the islands, has designated 97 percent of them a protected national park, with tourism strictly controlled. Still, visitors come to the Galapagos in droves to hike this unique biosphere, learn about the geology and come face to face with the islands' unique species. Many also brave the unpredictable temperatures of the water to snorkel or dive with sea lions, whales and schools of hammerhead sharks.
Who Goes There?
Lindblad, again, has a historic edge there, but you'll find plenty of other options as well. Metropolitan Touring, Latin Trails, International Expeditions, G Adventures, Quasar Expeditions and Zegrahm Expeditions are just a few of the lines offering adventure in the region. For those who seek a bit of luxury, Celebrity's three-ship expedition fleet -- Xpedition, Xperience and Xploration -- and Silversea Expeditions' Silver Galapagos also offer sailings on small ships that blend five-star pampering with total immersion in the depth and details of the Galapagos.
The Sea of Cortez
At a geologically infantile 6 million years of age, the Sea of Cortez is one of Earth's youngest seas, a long narrow body of water separating the Baja California peninsula from the main part of Mexico. On many maps it's called the Gulf of California; on others, it's printed with the more accurate Spanish name, Cortes. It has also been called "the world's largest fish trap," as fish swept into it are often unable to find their way back to the Pacific through the narrow straits at the tip of Cabo San Lucas. Or, perhaps they stay because of the rich and varied food chain, with an unusually abundant supply of plankton. At the top of the food chain are several varieties of whales, dolphins and pinnipeds (seals and sea lions), not to mention sharks and giant Pacific manta rays. The islands of the Sea of Cortez are stark and arid and though the biodiversity ashore may be subtler than in the undersea realm, it is similarly rich in flora (desert plants, including varieties of cactus and succulents) and fauna (mainly birds and reptiles).
Whale-watching is of prime interest to expedition cruisers in Baja. There are also ample opportunities for both scuba and snorkeling aficionados; up-close-and-personal encounters with sea lions at the island of Los Islotes top everyone's list, though diving with hammerheads, manta rays, moray eels and even the occasional whale or dolphin also rate. For those who prefer dry explorations, there are nature hikes that feature naturalist discussions of the geology and ecology, concentrating on desert flora and close-up encounters with its birds and reptiles.
Who Goes There?
By and large, the same players that ply Alaska's Inside Passage in the summer -- namely, Lindblad Expeditions and UnCruise Adventures -- fill the expedition niche in the Sea of Cortez with at least one vessel during the winter months.
The region is, in reality, a combination of two main areas: the large island nations of Australia and New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands (all the "-nesias": Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia, spread-out groups of small islands differentiated by the indigenous peoples that populate them). South Pacific expedition cruises offer a balance of culture and nature. The islands' relative isolation has protected native traditions there more so than in many other regions. Numerous shore excursions take cruise travelers to visit those whose ancestral lifestyles are part of their day-to-day functioning, rather than a demonstration to educate First World visitors. Natural science exploratory forays in the Pacific Islands focus heavily on marine biology, where snorkeling and diving among the coral reefs is the main attraction. Because these islands were key to the Pacific Theater of World War II, there is much in the way of military wreckage; planes, destroyers and tanks beckon underwater explorers. WWII historical artifacts can be found ashore, as well, adding additional interest for the expeditionary history buff.
Australian itineraries feature a mix of nearly all scientific disciplines, with the proportion of elements of that mix dictated by the region cruised: Trips along the eastern coastline will focus most heavily on the marine sciences with lots of snorkeling and diving, due to the proximity of the Great Barrier Reef, with rainforest ecology a close second. Australia's northern Kimberley Coast provides striking scenic and geologic viewing opportunities -- including amazing horizontal waterfalls created by huge tidal changes -- many of which can be enjoyed from trips by Zodiac rafts.
Who Goes There?
Many expedition cruise operators sail Pacific Islands voyages, though the number of destinations is so vast that all offer multiple itinerary options. Zegrahm Expeditions always offers highly exotic southern Pacific itineraries annually, with snorkeling and shore visits at such faraway islands as Fiji, Palau, Tahiti, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and the Maldives. Other operators in the region are Lindblad Expeditions, Ponant and Silversea Expeditions as well as Australian-run Coral Expeditions, North Star and Captain Cook.