From Antarctica to the Galapagos Islands, you can explore exotic destinations in comfort on these small ships
By Jennifer DavorenFeel free to skip the big ship. When the time comes to book your next vacation, consider an expedition cruise -- one that takes place aboard a small, uncrowded vessel, with plenty of room for relaxation.
Expedition cruise ships are a far cry from the megaliners that populate your favorite port of call. These specialty ships are geared for smaller groups, often less than 700 people. Smaller vessels also mean greater accessibility, allowing guests to call at out-of-the-way ports and secluded destinations that might be off-limits to a larger liner.
These adventure cruises shift the focus from the ship to the destination, with fascinating targets like Antarctica, the Galapagos Islands, the southern Pacific Ocean and the far reaches of Scandinavia. Most expedition ships add a host of experts to their staff roster, allowing guests to attend lectures and join excursions led by artists, historians, scientists and other authorities as they explore their destination of choice.
However, small ships don't necessarily skimp on amenities. Some offer pools, spas, workout facilities and nightly entertainment. Others provide a more low-key, intimate experience, but without sacrificing the top-notch service and comfort that travelers expect in a cruise.
The following are three examples of expedition cruises offered by leading small-ship lines: Celebrity Cruises, Voyages of Discovery and Cruise West. Ships come in a variety of sizes -- the smallest Cruise West vessels, for instance, accommodate just 78 guests, while the MV Discovery can handle 650 passengers. These companies offer embarkation in a number of exciting ports of call across the globe, from familiar domestic cities to engaging international hot spots.
The famed voyages of Charles Darwin inspired the travels of the 98-passenger Xpedition. However, the 19th-century naturalist never enjoyed such a range of amenities.
Darwin explored the Galapagos Islands, a tropical archipelago about 600 miles off the western coast of Ecuador, aboard a creaky vessel known as the Beagle. He spent much of his time on the water battling seasickness and fever. But the Celebrity Xpedition, which sails to the Galapagos year-round, is one of the crown jewels of Celebrity Cruises: a four-deck delight with two bars, two restaurants, a beauty salon and sweeping ocean views for every cabin on board.
The ship's exploration of the islands can include a snifter of cognac in the Discovery Lounge, where guests are treated to lectures by biologists, geologists and historians as well as round-table discussions of the Galapagos' awe-inspiring sights. Passengers can top off a day of intellectual pursuits with a dip in the ship's hot tub, a steam in the sauna or a starlight stroll along the observation deck.
The Xpedition's tours of the Galapagos range from ten to 13 days and depart from the Ecuadorian capital of Quito. Trips highlight the stunning array of wildlife that has flourished in this remote destination. Included shore excursions include bird-watching tours unlike any other, with sightings of the albatross, blue- and red-footed boobies, cormorants, frigates and gulls that nest here. Guests will spot both land and marine iguanas scuttling along the shoreline, as well as sea lions and, depending on the time of year, several whale species.
Lucky travelers might even meet the last of the Pinta Island tortoises, the aptly named "Lonesome George," during a tour of the Charles Darwin Research Station. Xpedition cruises often include a stop at the station, where biologists continue Darwin's quest to survey and conserve the islands' unique ecosystem.
Xpedition cruises offer a panoramic view of the Galapagos with stops on a number of islands, from craggy Bartalome to mist-shrouded San Cristobal. Celebrity passengers can explore the area with a hike along the hardened lava flows of the local volcano, La Cumbre, or a scenic snorkel in a calm, clear lagoon. Most shore excursions can be enjoyed without distraction, as only five of the 13 main islands are inhabited.
Information: To learn more about cruises of the Galapagos Islands aboard Celebrity Xpedition, visit Vacations To Go, or call (800) 338-4962.
Voyages of Discovery
"Classic comfort" is the motto of the MV Discovery, the lone ship of the Voyages of Discovery cruise line. This 650-passenger vessel, fresh from a multimillion-dollar refurbishment, evokes the elegant heyday of the cruising industry. Here, the white-glove treatment -- courtesy of more than 300 attentive staff members -- is the norm.
Guests of the MV Discovery are privy to onboard spa treatments at the health and beauty center, daily exercise classes at the gym and nightly orchestral concerts in the ship's largest lounge, the Carousel. A nightclub, a card room and a movie theater offer a range of options for evening entertainment. Two swimming pools, one with a retractable roof, are ready for recreation.
Two restaurants and five bars tempt the palate, often changing their menus to reflect the cultures and flavors of an approaching port city -- Argentinean beef and New Zealand lamb have proved to be particular favorites. And, like most expedition cruise ships, the MV Discovery offers lectures, small-group discussions and a bevy of experts to highlight the line's favorite destinations.
Voyages of Discovery offers a variety of vacations around the globe, though destinations change seasonally. The MV Discovery explores Antarctica, the Caribbean, South America and the Galapagos during the winter months. In summer, the ship heads for Norway, Iceland, the Mediterranean and northern Africa.
Cruises can be as short as 10 days or last more than a month. One trans-Atlantic trip, for instance, takes a leisurely 37 days as it tours the eastern coast of South America and nearly a dozen Caribbean islands before crossing the ocean.
Excursions are easily the highlight of every cruise vacation, and Voyages of Discovery has crafted a number of engaging activities for their guests. Wildlife-watching is a popular diversion, and while hikes across a craggy glacier or nature preserve offer ideal sightseeing, MV Discovery staff are known to use the onboard intercom to point out the many creatures -- including dolphins, whales and sea lions -- that may pass the ship during a relaxing day at sea.
Information: For more information on Voyages of Discovery, visit Vacations To Go, or call (800) 338-4962.
Founded by adventure travel pioneer Chuck West, Cruise West takes a more down-to-earth approach to expedition sailing. You won't see spas, casinos or discos on any of its 10 vessels. But you will find superbly prepared meals, libraries stocked with books about your destination, an enthusiastic crew, and fellow passengers with a keen interest in the wildlife, culture and history of each port visited.
Carrying from 78 to 138 passengers, Cruise West vessels have shallow drafts that allow them to enter remote ports and secluded inlets that larger ships can't reach. Its ships are more likely to dock next to fishing boats and small private yachts than among the megaliners. Guests often board small inflatable excursion crafts for closer exploration of tiny coves, uninhabited islands and quiet coastal communities.
Expedition guides, called exploration leaders, give daily talks and are always on the lookout for wildlife, pointing out a black bear on shore in Alaska, for example, or a spouting whale or school of dolphins off Mexico's Baja Peninsula. Each captain has the freedom to be flexible and will stop the ship and linger awhile to give passengers time to fully enjoy a wildlife sighting.
Local speakers occasionally come aboard for a day to mingle with passengers. While sailing through Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, for example, you might listen to a talk by a Tlingit cultural interpreter or a local park ranger. At least one shore excursion or cultural highlight is included in each port of call.
Cruise West encourages a casual, congenial onboard ambience. Feel free to wear your blue jeans to dinner every night -- jackets, ties or formal wear are never required.
Cruise West offers sailings around the world, and each itinerary features the line's signature brand of up-close, personal cruising. Explore Alaska's Inside Passage, the California wine country, and the scenic Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest. Visit Kuna Indian villages in Panama and rain forests in Costa Rica, or roam through the clear turquoise waters of Mexico's Sea of Cortez, home to more than 900 species of fish. Cruise West goes farther afield as well, offering itineraries in Asia and the South Pacific.
Information: For more information on Cruise West vacations, visit Vacations To Go, or call (800) 338-4962.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in Fall 2007. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962 for current rates and details.