Travel

EXPEDITION CRUISING RIDING A WAVE OF POPULARITY

Amazon river excursion

While river cruises have enjoyed tremendous growth over the past five years, expedition cruising could be riding the next big wave in water travel. In fact, some 30 to 40 new expedition ships will be launched by 2023 as both new entrants and established cruise lines bring new capacity into the adventure cruise market.

As the name suggests, expedition cruising is all about visiting out-of-the-way places where adventurous travelers can witness scenic wonders and rare wildlife with like-minded ship mates. These types of cruises usually take place on small ships with reinforced hulls, shallow drafts and a low capacity of between 50 to 250 people, and where the main theme of the voyage is discovery, experience and education. They also visit smaller ports where larger vessels cannot go.

Zodiac decants guests on a rocky shore in Galapagos

Expedition cruising is not new – in fact, Hurtigruten has been doing it in Norway since 1893. However, the industry is moving beyond the use of old Soviet-era ice breakers and into an era of purpose built, more eco-friendly luxury vessels that are tapping into the modern consumer’s desire for adventure, respect for the environment and comfort. For example, French cruise company Le Ponant will soon have 12 luxury expedition vessels when its newest ship arrives in 2021 — Le Commandant Charcot  — which will be the world’s first electric hybrid polar exploration ship powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG).

This type of cruising may not be for everyone. For example, most expedition ships use inflatable Zodiac crafts for going ashore to destinations without a pier. This means passengers have to be fit enough to climb over the side of the Zodiac onto a rocky shoreline, or onto a beach where they wade ashore though several feet of water.  Some of the excursions can also be strenuous (kayaking, uphill hiking over rough terrain, etc.) although most expedition ships offer a variety of options that cater to various degrees of passenger fitness.

Scarlet Macaw in Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve

In addition, most expedition ships do not have casinos, production shows and professional entertainers. Instead, they focus on educating passengers through destination specific lectures and seminars led by onboard expedition team leader and a staff of tour guides and guest naturalists.

For those who are attracted to the concept of expedition cruising, there are a good number of destinations from which to choose. Here are some of the more adventurous ones.

Amazon

We’re not talking about the Brazilian section of the Amazon River between the Atlantic Ocean and Manaus, which has been well traveled by regular cruise ships for decades.  The real expedition cruising takes place in Peru’s Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve on the upper Amazon River near the jungle-bound city of Iquitos.

More than a third of the world’s animal species live in or along the Amazon River, where you can see tamarin monkeys, three-toed sloths, scarlet macaws, anacondas, jaguars and fascinating plant life. And shore excursions take passengers deep into the heart of the rainforest to see villages where few outsiders venture.

Cruise companies that operate in this area include International Expeditions, Aqua Expeditions, Delfin Amazon Cruises and Lindblad Expeditions.

Antarctica

For people who love majestic landscapes and amazing wildlife, a cruise to the White Continent is a trip of a lifetime.

Cruising past icebergs in Antarctica

While sailing across Drake’s Passage in a small ship can be rough, the reward is a close-up view of some of the world’s most stunning scenery, including colossal glaciers, giant icebergs, elephant seals, humpback whales and seven species of Antarctic penguins, including the King and Emperor.  The male Emperor penguin is the only warm-blooded animal to remain on the continent through the freezing winter while nesting on the single egg laid by its mate.

Since it lies in the Southern Hemisphere, Antarctica’s summer cruising season is the opposite of the north pole, and runs from October to February.  Summer temperatures average just above freezing.

Cruise lines that specialize in Antarctic expeditions include National Geographic, Ponant, Silversea, Hurtigruten, Lindblad Expeditions and Quark Expeditions.

Arctic

Cruise ships have been travelling above the Arctic Circle from Norway for a long time, many departing from Tromsø, itself several hundred miles above the Arctic Circle. As my fellow blogger Nigel Napier-Andrews reported on this site, the ships then sail north into the Arctic Ocean and towards the islands of the Svalbard archipelago and Kirkenes on the Russian border.

Polar Bear sighting on Silversea Arctic cruise

But with global warming now making it possible to transit the Northwest Passage in summer, a number of cruise lines have also started to offer Arctic Cruises from Canada and Greenland.  Like Antarctica, the Arctic region requires ships with ice-strengthened hulls and has a short sailing season.

On a Northwest Passage cruise, you’ll experience glacier-fed waters, mountain landscapes, rugged coastlines and amazing wildlife, including polar bears. Among the highlights, there’s Jacobshavn glacier, the fastest-calving glacier in the world; Lancaster Sound, the entrance to the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic archipelago; and the Beechey Island National Historic Site, where the ill-fated Franklin Expedition overwintered from 1845–1846.

Cruise lines that sail to the top of the world include Adventure Canada, Hurtigruten, National Geographic, Ponant, and Silversea.

Galapagos

Isolated in the Pacific Ocean some 1,000 kilometres off the coast of South America, the Galapagos Islands are a living museum of evolution and home to some of the most unusual species in the world.

Frigatebird-2

Magnificent Frigate Bird in Galapagos

Considered one of the world’s best destinations for getting close-up views of wild-life, the isolated terrain in this volcanic archipelago provides the perfect breeding ground for a range of rare plant and animal species. Its ongoing volcanic activity, its geographical location at the junction of three ocean currents (including the Humbolt), and its extreme isolation has given the Galapagos  one of the richest marine ecosystems in the world, and led to the development of unique plant and animal life – such as marine iguanas, giant tortoises, and the many different subspecies of mockingbirds and finches.

Like all but four of the 20 Islands in the National Park of the Galapagos, Genovesa is unpopulated and visitors are restricted to narrow pathways and are not permitted to get closer than a few feet to any of the wildlife. And as I reported in Part One and Part Two in recent cruise blogs about cruising through the Galapagos Islands, most of the birds, marine life and tortoises in the islands are not afraid of humans, which allows visitors to get incredibly close to them and take wonderful photos.

Laphroaig Distillery in the Hebrides

Cruise lines that visit the Galapagos include Celebrity Expeditions, Silversea Expeditions, Lindblad Expeditions and International Expeditions.

Scotland

The rugged western coast of Scotland is scattered with hundreds of islands and islets shaped by the relentless pounding of the sea and high winds, and framed by imposing mountains. In particular, the Inner and Outer Hebrides Islands, Northern Isles, and the Firth of Clyde Islands located between the regions of Ayrshire and Argyll offer some dramatic coastal scenery, idyllic beaches surrounded by turquoise waters, rare wildlife such as Golden Eagles and Red Deer, small fishing villages with colourful harbours like Portree, iconic castles, and remote Gaelic-speaking communities.

Hebridean Princess in the Hebrides

The most popular cruising area is the Hebrides, which is an archipelago off the northwest coast of Scotland with a long history dating back to the Stone Age and a culture that has been influenced by Celtic, Norse and English-speaking peoples. This diversity is reflected in the names given to the islands, which include Skye, Lewis and Harris, Mull, Islay, Jura, Iona, Colonsay, Staffa, Benbecula and North Uist.

The archipelago is also known for its marvellous single malt distilleries (Islay is famous for its big peaty whiskies) and distinguished by a number of renowned restaurants among them the Machair Kitchen in South Harris, the Digby Chick Bistro in Stornoway and the Three Chimneys Restaurant at Loch Dunvegan.

A small number of expedition ships cruise these waters, including the Hebridean Princess of Hebridean Island Cruises,  the Glen Massan and Glen Tarsan of Majestic  Line, and the Elizabeth G of Hebrides Cruises.

Feature image — cruising in Antarctica

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2 replies »

    • Yes. And our next expedition cruise will be to the Hebrides this fall. I know you will be on pins and needles waiting to hear how much haggis and single-malt scotch I consume!

      Like

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