Expedition cruises: 12 of the most spectacular destination to visit by ship

Not so long ago, the prospect of sailing to Antarctica was beyond the wildest dreams of anyone but the most dedicated explorers. As for Kamchatka, the Moluccas or Kangerlussuaq, who even knew where these places were, let alone how to get there? How things have changed.

Adventure tourism is a multi-billion-dollar business. So is cruising. The lines between hardcore expeditions and "soft adventure" voyages are becoming blurred; ever since Lars-Eric Lindblad led the first tourist expedition to Antarctica in 1966, the appetite for expedition cruising has become positively voracious. And as ports such as Venice and Dubrovnik become flooded by megaships and "ice cream tourists", discerning travellers are looking for destinations far from the madding crowds.

Luckily there are still many remote corners of the world that environmentally aware operators and travellers can explore on small ships – making a contribution to local communities and having a mind-blowing experience at the same time.

WHERE Alaska

WHO UnCruise Adventures

WHAT As passengers streaming off megaships threaten to flood little towns along Alaska's Inside Passage, it's time to go off-piste. Two days of paddling kayaks and scooting around on Zodiacs in Glacier Bay National Park reveals a wealth of wildlife. A National Park ranger comes aboard your small ship to share expert insights, guide you to rarely visited inlets and forest trails – and have fun with it.

HOLD ON TIGHT MOMENT Hearing a bear crunching the bones of a salmon you've just watched it scoop out of a waterfall. Yes, you're that close.

MAKE IT HAPPEN Seven-night cruises, June-September 2018 and April-September 2019; from US$8045. See cruisetraveller.com.au

ADVENTURE RATING ★★★★

WHERE Antarctica

WHO Chimu Adventures

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WHAT The White Continent continues to exert a powerful pull and Chimu's base-camp cruises add an extra element of extreme destination immersion. The ship (MV Plancius or MV Ortellius) drops anchor for two or three days and you can go camping, glacier walking, mountain climbing and kayaking. Zodiac sightseeing and photo workshops are also on tap for the less actively inclined.

HOLD ON TIGHT MOMENT Doing the polar plunge – diving headlong into freezing water – is a charity fundraiser on many of Chimu's Antarctica expeditions. It's considered a rite of passage. Just do it!

MAKE IT HAPPEN 12-day round-trip from Ushuaia, departing March 3, 2018; from $10,600. See https://www.chimuadventures.com

ADVENTURE RATING ★★★★★

WHERE Arctic

WHO Aurora Expeditions

WHAT Expect to see whales, Arctic foxes, musk ox, walrus, polar bears and countless seabirds while sailing along East Greenland's magnificent coastline on the Jewels of the Arctic voyage. Zodiac trips through Scoresby Sund, the world's largest fjord system and birthplace of the world's biggest icebergs, are thrilling; Inuit people offer visitors a warm welcome in the remote settlement of Ittoqqortoormiit.

HOLD ON TIGHT MOMENT Pushing through pack ice on board the hardy, 54-passenger Polar Pioneer while searching for polar bears and bearded seals.

MAKE IT HAPPEN 14 days Spitsbergen to Keflavik (Iceland), departing August and September 2018 and 2019; from $8900. See auroraexpeditions.com.au

ADVENTURE RATING ★★★★★

WHERE Canadian Arctic

WHO One Ocean Expeditions

WHAT Traversing the Northwest Passage, an icy maze between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, was a feat attempted by many explorers and achieved by very few – until the ice started melting. These days, wildlife enthusiasts and history buffs can take expedition voyages through the spectacular Canadian High Arctic that trace the route of the ill-fated 19th-century Franklin Expedition – and expect to come back alive and amazed.

HOLD ON TIGHT MOMENT Observing polar bears congregating in the shallow waters of Coningham Bay, on Prince of Wales Island, to feast off basking Beluga whales.

MAKE IT HAPPEN 12 nights, Cambridge Bay to Kangerlussuaq, departing August 24, 2018; from US$9595. See oneoceanexpeditions.com

ADVENTURE RATING ★★★★

WHERE Central America/Costa Rica

WHO Lindblad Expeditions

WHAT Expedition cruises along the coastlines of Costa Rica and Panama involve hiking through rainforests full of exotic wildlife, snorkelling on brilliant coral reefs and kayaking around remote islands. Transiting the Panama Canal is as exciting for many adventurers as spotting monkeys and sloths in the jungle.

HOLD ON TIGHT MOMENT Hiking from an isolated beach in Corcovado National Park on a jungle trail, crossing streams and swimming under a waterfall. Watch out for crocs – and scarlet macaws might be watching you.

MAKE IT HAPPEN Eight days, San Jose to Panama City, departing March 19, 2018; from $7490. See au.expeditions.com

ADVENTURE RATING ★★★

WHERE Galapagos Islands

WHO Celebrity Cruises

WHAT Ecuador's vast marine reserve, covering 19 islands, is home to a plethora of rare animals and birds that are famously unafraid of humans. It's also a geologist's dream – every island you visit has a different story. Expedition cruises are tightly monitored to conserve the delicate sea and land ecosystems and the rewards for wildlife lovers are simply wonderful.

HOLD ON TIGHT MOMENT Coming face to face with sea lions, seals and turtles when you're snorkelling reminds you that you really are in a wild and beautiful place.

MAKE IT HAPPEN 10-night inner-loop (includes two nights in Quito and return flights from Quito), departing December 2, 2018; from $7869. See celebritycruises.com

ADVENTURE RATING ★★★★

WHERE Indonesia

WHO Ponant

WHAT An amazingly diverse range of cultures flourishes on the thousands of islands making up the Indonesian archipelago. On this expedition cruise you'll visit villages where ancestor worship is practised, see ceremonies performed by Asmat tribesmen clad in feathers and war paint and take in the history of colonialism in the Spice Islands. Zodiac trips to deserted islands and hiking Banda Neira's active volcano Gunung Api are among many magical moments.

HOLD ON TIGHT MOMENT Encountering huge Komodo dragons at close quarters makes the heart skip a few beats.

MAKE IT HAPPEN 14 nights Bali to Cairns, departing January 14, 2019; from $11,120. See au.ponant.com

ADVENTURE RATING ★★★★

WHERE Northwest Australia

WHO APT

WHAT The Kimberley is an emerging hot-spot in the world of adventure travel. A cruise that combines an exploration of this rugged region with Arnhem Land's stunning coastline and the Tiwi Islands ticks lots of boxes. Meeting Indigenous artists and being welcomed to the country are major highlights.

HOLD ON TIGHT MOMENT Watching Montgomery Reef rising out of the sea as the tide drops up to 10 metres is mesmerising. Turtles and sea creatures exposed by the cascading water make easy pickings for keen-eyed birds – keep your camera at the ready.

MAKE IT HAPPEN 18 days Darwin to Broome, departing June 14, 2018; from $15,695. See aptouring.com.au

ADVENTURE RATING ★★★

WHERE Papua New Guinea

WHO Coral Expeditions

WHAT Discover a country of volcanic mountains, mighty rivers, vast tracts of rainforest, coral atolls and a complex tribal culture – just a few hours' flight from Australia. This fascinating cruise encompasses traditional welcome dances and sing-sings, outrigger trips and World War II history. Visiting the Trobriand "islands of love" is another eye-opener.

HOLD ON TIGHT MOMENT Snorkelling in the bubbling Dei Dei springs around Dobu Island. According to local lore, calling up the spirit of Seuseulina will make the geyser erupt in anger.

MAKE IT HAPPEN 12 nights Madang to Cairns, departing November 5, 2018, and November 12, 2019; from $10,650. See coralexpeditions.com

ADVENTURE RATING ★★★

WHERE Russian Far East

WHO Silversea Expeditions

WHAT Vodka and caviar go down very nicely, thank you, on a luxury adventure cruise that takes in far-flung volcano-studded islands in the Sea of Okhotsk, Zodiac river trips on the Kamchatka Peninsula and crossing the Bering Sea. Expert guides share insider knowledge about Russia's complex history and lead tours to spot rare birds; in Nikolskoye you'll learn about Aleut culture.

HOLD ON TIGHT MOMENT Exploring the flooded volcanic caldera on Yankicha island by Zodiac can only be done at high tide. You will be one of the very few people in the world to make this trip.

MAKE IT HAPPEN 13 days Anadyr to Petropavlovsk, departing July 2, 2018; from $15,000. See silversea.com

ADVENTURE RATING ★★★

WHERE South Pacific

WHO Aranui Cruises

WHAT In January 2018, more than 200 years after HMS Bounty landed, local cargo-passenger vessel Aranui 5 will make its maiden call to Pitcairn Island. This isolated speck of land lies between Tahiti and Easter Island and is inhabited by just 50 people, descendants of the Bounty mutineers and their Polynesian companions. Aranui 5 will also call at islands in the Tuamotu, Gambier and Austral archipelagos.

HOLD ON TIGHT MOMENT Making the steep climb to Christian's Cave on Pitcairn Island is not for anyone who has a fear of heights – but the views are sensational.

MAKE IT HAPPEN 13-day Papeete round-trip, departing January 10, 2019; from $7280. Seearanuicruises.com.au

ADVENTURE RATING ★★★

WHERE West Africa

WHO Peregrine Adventures

WHAT Sailing Senegal's Saloum Delta and Gambia River on a sleek 21-cabin vessel is right up there for adventurers – especially birdwatchers – who don't fancy icy Poles. The region is rich in flora and fauna and off-ship trips on pirogues (canoes) transport you to historic sites, traditional fishing villages and wetland reserves. A local group will teach you the kankurang, a dance believed to have spiritual powers to ward off evil spirits.

HOLD ON TIGHT MOMENT Spotting hippos, crocs and monkeys at the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project at Baboon Island.

MAKE IT HAPPEN Eight-day round-trip cruises from Dakar (Senegal), April and December 2018, February-April 2019; from $2525. See peregrineadventures.com

ADVENTURE RATING ★★★

Five new expedition ships on the horizon

  • Australian river cruise company Scenic heads for the high seas with the arrival of Scenic Eclipse in August 2018. The 228-passenger "discovery yacht" will be equipped with two helicopters and a mini-submarine – and butler service.
  • Aurora Expeditions' 104-metre expedition ship, named after veteran Aussie adventurer Greg Mortimer, will launch in 2019. Its revolutionary X-Bow is designed to slice cleanly through heavy seas and improve fuel efficiency.
  • Celebrity Cruises' Celebrity Flora is being purpose-built for environmentally friendly Galapagos adventures. The 100-passenger all-suite ship will have plenty of outdoor spaces for observation, dining and star-gazing.
  • Lindblad Expeditions' National Geographic Venture will begin its life exploring Alaska's coastal wilderness next May, then heads to British Columbia. Meanwhile, the venerable expedition company's first polar-specific ship is due in January 2020.
  • The first two of Ponant's four 92-cabin Explorer-class ships, Le Laperouse and Le Champlain, will join the luxury adventure fleet in 2018, followed by Le Bougainville and Le Dumont-d'Urville in 2019. High-tech underwater observation lounges are a world first.

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