Sea change: Six great island destinations for small ships

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If you imagine that all cruising involves megaships, pool parties and predictable port calls then you've missed one of the hottest trends in travel at the moment: the rise of small ship expeditions for the adventurous traveller. On intimate, boutique-sized and all-inclusive ships you can sail into secluded bays and small ports often inaccessible to larger ships, stay overnight in coastal village ports, and actively explore remote destinations on tailor-made shore excursions led by expedition teams or expert local guides.

For even more flexibility and in-depth exploration you might take to Zodiacs, getting you so close to points of interest you can feel waterfall spray on your face and smell the fishy breath of seals. Nothing epitomises the adventure and romance of small ship cruising more than remote islands. Here are six of the best.

Lofoten Islands, Norway

Lofoten Islands, Norway

Photo: lsantilli

WHY WE LOVE IT

These scenic islands lie inside the Arctic Circle but are tempered by the warming Gulf Stream and glimmering midnight sun. Four main islands huddle close together amid a scattering of smaller islands and rocky outcrops, deeply indented with fjords. Cliffs rise a thousand metres and snow-capped mountains even higher, illuminated in constantly changing Arctic light to create one of the world's most dramatic and haunting seascapes.

DON'T MISS

Lofotr Viking Museum on Vestvågøy island presents impressive replicas of Viking boats and the excavations of a dwelling dating around 500 AD. A reconstruction of this 83-metre longhouse shelters its archaeological finds and presents a fascinating short movie about the life of a Viking chieftain's family.

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Keep your binoculars handy: Lofoten's rugged cliffs are a perch for great varieties of birds. Sea eagles drift above and Orca's are often seen below. APT's expedition team are on hand to identify wildlife and explain more about Lofoten's environment. On departure you'll sail through Trollfjorden, and you'll want to be on the ship's deck to photograph the landscape tumbled with waterfalls.

Flores Island, Indonesia

Flores, Indonesia

Photo: iStock

WHY WE LOVE IT

'Flower Island' is one of the hottest up-and-coming Indonesian destinations for adventurous travellers thanks to its combination of glorious tropical landscapes, infamous Komodo dragons and outstanding diving. Shimmering rice terraces and rainforest are topped by smoking volcanoes and cut through by canyons. Even the port of Ende, backed by volcanoes and flanked by a green stone beach, is beautifully scenic.

DON'T MISS

Three deep crater lakes cupped in the embrace of magnificent Mt Kelimutu volcano are an absolute must-see for the strikingly different colours of their waters, so vivid that they resemble spilled paint. Remarkably, the colours frequently change thanks to chemical reactions in the water, though you can probably expect to see green, blue and red.

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Flores is considered a photographer's paradise, and you can get the most out of your camera – and the island's stunning landscapes – with advice from APT's expedition cruise expert Chris Bray, an Australian Geographic Society host and professional photographer.

Saaremaa Island, Estonia

Saaremaa Island, Estonia

Photo: iStock

WHY WE LOVE IT

For those who think of islands as little worlds of rural charm complete with homey villages that exist in a time warp, then Saaremaa off Estonia's western coastline is a highlight of the Baltic. Beyond main town Kuessaare stands a scattering of creaking windmills, lighthouses and ruined churches hunkered amid spruce and pine forest, all bathed in pale northern light and refreshed by brisk sea breezes.

DON'T MISS

Kuressaare Castle sits surrounded by a moat on a little island gazing at the sea, and is the best-preserved castle in the Baltic – indeed, the only medieval stone castle remaining entirely intact. Its surrounding park is a lovely place for a wander or a drink at the Kuursaal, from which you can also hire bikes or rowboats for further exploration.

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If you're a nature lover you're in luck, because Saaremaa is home to beautiful deciduous forests and some 1200 plants species, 120 of which are rare – look out for the dainty flowers of the indigenous yellow rattle. Grey and ringed seals inhabit the coastline.

Bigge Island, The Kimberley, Australia

Bigge Island, The Kimberley, Australia. APT sponsored content

WHY WE LOVE IT

Sail into the uninhabited Bonaparte Archipelago for a quintessential Kimberley experience of rugged orange rock against a sapphire-blue sea. Bigge Island's heavily indented coastline and scalloped bays scattered with reefs will make you feel like Robinson Crusoe as you splash ashore by Zodiac. Deep fissures in the sandstone rock shelter bright green patches of vegetation, and colonies of seabirds wheel against the sun.

DON'T MISS

Wary Bay is a repository of Aboriginal rock art, including 50,000-year-old Gwion Gwion art that is among the oldest on the planet, and later Wandjina figures characterised by elaborate cloud-like halos, large eyes and an absent mouth. You'll also see contact art recording the first encounters of indigenous Australians with Europeans in images of sailing ships and pipe-smoking sailors.

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With its absence of feral predators, Bigge Island is a haven for indigenous creatures. Keep your eyes peeled for the rare northern quoll, monjon (the smallest species of rock wallaby in Australia) and ilangnalya or scaly-tailed possum, which is only found in our northwest.

Yakushima Island, Japan

Yakushima Island, Japan

Photo: iStock

WHY WE LOVE IT

Islands are often refuges for wildlife, and Yakushima is a fine example. It lies off the southern tip of Japan's main islands, has only a small human population and is notable for its sitka deer, red-bottomed macaques, spectacular flowering rhododendrons and giant Japanese cedars, one of which is thought to be 2300 years old. The island's ancient temperate forest is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

DON'T MISS

If you aren't embarking on a major island hike then head to Yakusugi Land, where a series of walks ranges from 30 minutes to 2.5 hours, all leading from the same trailhead and marked with signs in English. The shortest route is on an easily navigated boardwalk and leads past several cedars more than a millennium old.

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Get your waterproofs ready: this is Japan's wettest place, with locals joking that it rains 35 days in the month. Never mind, because the damp cedar forests, abundant mosses and ferns and misty hills are wonderfully atmospheric.

Deception Island, Antarctica

Deception Island, Antarctica. APT sponsored content

WHY WE LOVE IT

Few travel experiences are more thrilling than landing by Zodiac in Antarctica, a barely explored continent of ice and elemental grandeur teeming with wildlife, and also associated with a derring-do history of human adventure. Deception Island epitomises its wonders: it has an active volcano, snowbound landscapes, colonies of harrumphing elephant seals and both an old whaling station and a contemporary scientific research centre at the ends of the Earth.

DON'T MISS

You won't soon forget your animal encounters in Antarctica. Penguins are abundant, fur seals grin and grunt, and you can get close enough to elephant seals to admire their bristling whiskers. Humpback whales and seabirds such as petrels and albatrosses might follow your ship.

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You may be in the harshest environment on the planet and in a destination impossible to visit as an individual traveller, but creature comforts are all provided on your luxury expedition ship. Settle in with a hot chocolate and a blanket and watch icebergs drift past like giant jewels.

UNFORGETTABLE PEOPLE

Chris Bray - Australian Geographic Society

Small ship cruises carry experts in fields such as history, ecology and wildlife on board to share their knowledge and enhance guests' understanding and experience of their destinations. Noted photographer Chris Bray grew up sailing the world and led world-first cart-hauling expeditions across the Arctic. He and his wife, Jess, recently became the first to sail a junk-rig boat through the Arctic's Northwest Passage. Pick up some photography tips from Chris, who is an Australian Geographic Society host aboard APT's Southeast Asia Adventure expedition cruise.

This article is produced in association with APT. Venture where few have gone before while enjoying the style and comfort of a small expedition ship. Experience an all-inclusive lifestyle with all onshore discoveries guided by your exceptional Expedition Team. For more information visit www.aptouring.com.au/traveller, call 1300 290 669 or contact your local travel agent."

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