August 20, 2017

Expedition Cruising, A to Z

These adventures head to distant shores

By Brent Stoller

Vacations Magazine: Expedition Cruising, A to Z
Franco Lucato/Fotolia
While traditional cruises are for relaxation, expedition cruises deliver exploration.

These excursion-focused voyages typically utilize smaller, more agile ships to access some of the most remote and mesmerizing locales on Earth, from the Amazon River and polar regions to the Galapagos Islands. And with onboard naturalists, biologists and other experts leading the way, you're sure to get the most out of every shore landing, wildlife sighting and cultural experience.

Below is an alphabetical analysis of this sailing style, so you know where to go, what to expect and what's waiting to be discovered. Use this breakdown as your starting point, and when your sense of adventure is piqued, contact the cruise specialists at Vacations To Go for more information.

Antarctica
Snow-covered mountains rise above the frozen landscape of Antarctica as humpback whales breach its frigid waters. Despite being home to roughly 90 percent of the planet's ice, the continent has become quite the tourist attraction, with travelers flocking here for up-close encounters with glaciers, leopard seals and Adelie penguins, and to sail into the active volcano on Deception Island, among other adventures.

Birding
Birds often embody the locales they inhabit. The bald eagle, which can be seen on cruises to Alaska's Kodiak Island, has earned its designation as the United States' national bird with its regal features and fearless aura. In the Galapagos of Ecuador, blue-footed boobies and flightless cormorants represent the vast spectrum of wildlife in the region, while the black guillemots and red-throated divers above Breidafjordur Bay are emblematic of the individual beauty of Iceland.

Charles Darwin Research Station
Since 1964, the Charles Darwin Research Station has furthered its namesake's legacy through its protection of the Galapagos' ecosystems. The center, located on Santa Cruz Island, is a common stop. After learning about the organization's efforts, you'll head into nature to experience firsthand what they're preserving. Walk pristine beaches alongside oversize tortoises, sea lions and marine iguanas, or go snorkeling among manta rays and hammerhead sharks.

Destination-focused
From spas and swimming pools to restaurants and roulette wheels, mainstream cruises offer everything you could want on board. But on expedition cruises, the focus shifts to what's on shore. Your ship is a mobile base camp that transports you between stops for discovery, whether that's observing fur seals on Russia's Tyuleniy Island, riding a camel in Morocco or taking in Iguassu Falls' beauty on the Brazil-Argentina border.

Experts
Throughout your travels, experts are on hand to answer questions, provide context and enrich your overall experience. On Amazon sailings, a naturalist likely will accompany you into the rainforest to help you spot sloths, river dolphins and squirrel monkeys, while a historian on a cruise of Australia's remote northwest coast might explore aboriginal mythology during an onboard lecture. Quark Expeditions engages "penguinologists" for its Antarctica adventures.

French flair
Ponant brings Gallic style to expedition cruises aboard its fleet. Most vessels boast interiors from well-known architect and designer Jean-Philippe Nuel and are staffed by a French crew, including chefs who serve pastries, cheeses and entrees that are paired with the perfect wine. Guests also can gather for afternoon tea in a bakery.

Gear
Packing for extended vacations is stressful, and when it comes to expedition trips, standard cruise wear won't suffice. Thankfully, many companies include complimentary apparel and the use of necessary equipment in the price, especially on cold-climate excursions. For trips to the Arctic and Antarctica, Hurtigruten and Quark give passengers a weather-resistant jacket and lend them waterproof boots for shore landings.

Hot springs, volcanoes and waterfalls
Who needs a spa when you have geothermal pools? Iceland's natural hot springs revitalize your skin, soothe sore muscles and inspire mental bliss. On Hurtigruten's May 21 and June 1 journeys from the capital, Reykjavik, a dip in these mineral-rich waters gives you the energy needed to explore the country's landscape. Take a trek through lava fields, snap pictures of puffins and visit the incomparable cataract Godafoss, which translates to "waterfall of the gods."

Ice-strengthened ships
Reaching remote outposts often requires modified vessels. Quark's 50 Years of Victory, the world's largest nuclear-powered icebreaker, features a specialized hull and generates some 74,000 horsepower to churn through frozen sheets of ocean more than 9 feet thick. Between spotting walruses and a Champagne toast on top of the world, guests on the company's 13-night Arctic voyages in July can take aerial tours on the ship's helicopter.

Jan Mayen
Situated between the Greenland and Norwegian seas, this far-flung island has been part of Norway since 1930 and is home to Mount Beerenberg, a 7,470-foot active volcano. A frigid climate and minimal infrastructure make Jan Mayen difficult to tour, but that hasn't stopped companies like Silversea Cruises from trying. With permission from the Norwegian government, the Silver Explorer will navigate past minke whales to the island's black-sand beaches, allowing passengers to visit the local weather and research station on a June 30 cruise from Reykjavik to Longyearbyen, Norway.

Kimberley coast
Stretching more than 8,000 miles along northwest Australia, The Kimberley -- as it's commonly called -- consists of more than 2,600 islands and features 318 species of corals. Its mangrove forests shelter birds such as herons, ospreys and red-headed honeyeaters. One of the world's largest humpback whale populations breeds in the surrounding waters, while the massive Montgomery Reef is a sight to behold as it emerges from the falling tide. Discover this isolated region aboard the L'Austral on Ponant departures from Darwin: July 3 and 23, Aug. 12 or Sept. 1.

Lars-Eric Lindblad
In 1966, Lars-Eric Lindblad gave birth to ecotourism, leading what's believed to be the first group of citizen travelers to Antarctica, a destination previously reserved for scientists. A year later, he organized a trip to the Galapagos Islands. Today, son Sven-Olof has expanded his father's dreams through Lindblad Expeditions, which touts an 11-ship fleet that ferries passengers all over the world, from Machu Picchu and the Mekong River to the Panama Canal.

MS Midnatsol
For family fun, hop aboard this liner for Hurtigruten's Discovery Style Voyages to Antarctica, which debuted in 2016. Though not as physically taxing as typical expeditions, these itineraries are just as awe-inspiring as experts lead you onto penguin-laden coastlines and help you analyze meteorites found on shore. The Young Explorers Program, open to ages 7 to 13, teaches kids about the whales, seals and other natural marvels of the region.

Northwest Passage
For centuries, explorers like Jacques Cartier tried -- and failed -- to traverse the Northwest Passage, the icy waters that hug the northern shoreline of North America between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Now, you can accomplish what they could not on Crystal Cruises' 32-night expedition. Fish for trout in Alaska, hike among harp seals on Canada's Baffin Island and stand before Greenland's Sermeq Kujalleq, one of the most active glaciers in the world. The trip departs Aug. 15 from Anchorage, AK.

Oceania encounters
Oceania's beauty is undeniable, from the turquoise waters of Vanuatu to the rainforests and volcanic mountains of Papua New Guinea. Trips to this South Pacific sanctuary also take time to delve into its history, traditions and people. Board Ponant's Dec. 8 cruise from Cairns, Australia, aboard L'Austral to learn about Melanesian culture: Tour markets in Alotau, attend a dance performance in the Trobriand Islands and investigate the works of wood-carving artists in the Solomon Islands.

Pacaya Samiria National Reserve
At the convergence of the Maranon and Ucayali rivers sits Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, the second-largest protected area in Peru. This tropical preserve features a mix of jungles, lagoons and tributaries that host pink dolphins, monkeys and manatees. On round-trip routes from Lima, Lindblad's 28-passenger Delfin II spends six days here, giving you the chance to take bird-watching hikes and nighttime wildlife viewings aboard a motorized skiff. The nine-night itineraries depart through June.

Quark Expeditions
Raising the bar for polar tourism since 1991, Quark features a highly trained staff that not only has knowledge of the wildlife and wonders you come across, but also respect for ever-changing weather and sea patterns. Safety always is at a premium, and two doctors are on board every departure. Sailing only to Antarctica and the Arctic, the company's ships combine comfortable accommodations with the capacity to thrive under challenging conditions.

Relaxed atmospheres
If many of today's large cruise liners resemble a big-city hot spot, expedition ships recall your neighborhood coffee shop. Smaller by design, their onboard atmospheres inspire intimate gatherings, a laid-back vibe and the forging
of new friendships. Lindblad's National Geographic Sea Lion, for instance, hosts just 62 passengers and features airy public spaces where guests bond over shared experiences along the Panama Canal or in Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.

Svalbard archipelago
Polar bears, anyone? This Arctic Ocean destination, located halfway between Norway and the North Pole, is home to a few thousand of them. The Norwegian territory also is the site of Austfonna, one of Europe's largest ice caps. Though Svalbard roughly translates to "cold coasts," it boasts a relatively moderate climate. Longyearbyen, the region's main city, has an average temperature of 42.8 degrees in the summer, the season in which companies like Silversea and Holland America Line visit for the hiking, kayaking and snowmobiling.

Take your best shot
Want to know how to photograph a blue-eyed shag (a bird you might encounter in Antarctica) or frame that Galapagos sunset? Every Lindblad sailing is staffed with a certified photo instructor, and for trips on its National Geographic Explorer and National Geographic Orion ships, you'll learn from a National Geographic photographer. These experts help travelers of all skill levels, and through the line's partnership with B&H Photo Video, you can purchase weather-appropriate equipment at a discount prior to departure.

Unexpected detours
Between restaurant reservations and spa appointments, traditional cruises can be planned to the minute. Expeditions, however, are far less predictable. While weather may dictate the cancellation of a scheduled shore landing, vessels also have the flexibility to reroute for enticing wildlife viewings, such as breaching whales on the Sea of Cortez or a pack of grizzlies roaming the Alaskan shore.

Ventures by Seabourn
Personal butlers, Egyptian cotton bedsheets and all-suite lodgings are just a few of the amenities that earn Seabourn its six-star rating. Now, the company is sprinkling in a dash of exploration on select itineraries with the Ventures by Seabourn program. Launching from the onboard marina, these expedition-style excursions have passengers kayaking among Antarctic icebergs and cruising in Zodiacs past seals and otters on Norway's fjords.

Wet landings
Often travelers must exit Zodiacs into shallow waters and make their way to land over slick, rocky surfaces. Such shore landings highlight the challenging nature of expedition trips, which typically demand a moderate fitness level and the attitude to embrace sometimes unpleasant conditions. Lindblad cautions guests to pack knee-high waterproof rubber boots and expect slippery terrain for its weeklong Alaska cruises between Juneau and Sitka.

Xpedition
Discover the Galapagos with Celebrity Cruises. Its cozy 98-guest Celebrity Xpedition features a casual restaurant serving freshly caught seafood, a naturalist who educates you on the area's wildlife and a panoramic deck for unfettered sunset views. For an even more intimate vacation, book your spot on the 16-passenger Xploration or 48-passenger Xperience, both of which hit the region's waters this spring.

Yoga on the side
Align mind, body and spirit aboard wellness expedition voyages with Silversea. When passengers on the Silver Discoverer aren't taking in the sights of Asia or the South Pacific, they're stretching in yoga classes, enhancing endurance with water aerobics and training in personalized gym sessions. Several 2017 itineraries remain, including an Oct. 18 departure that offers snorkeling at the Marovo Lagoon in the Solomon Islands and a Nov. 9 sailing that visits Bali and the Great Barrier Reef.

Zodiacs
Where the wild things are, there are few cruise ports with welcoming walkways. The only way to access these locales, be it the banks of the Amazon or the shores of the Seychelles, is by Zodiacs, inflatable watercrafts that shuttle you between ship and shoreline. A surge of adrenaline rushes through you each time you load into these boats. The air is fresh, your fellow passengers are stoked and your next adventure is about to begin. What awaits once you get ashore? You're about to find out.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in Spring 2017. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962 for current rates and details.


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