The Best Expedition Cruise Experiences for Every Region
By Janine Devine
If you want to see the world, an expedition cruise is unlike anything you’ll find on-land (or on a normal cruise).
Maybe you consider yourself a serial cruiser who adores hopping on board to tender ports of call around Caribbean island or along a European river cruise.
Time to try an expedition cruise then! Expedition cruising is a different animal and the travelers who relish this cruise experience are a market unto themselves. The best expedition cruise experiences offer totally different types of travel than anything else!
What is an expedition cruise?
Expedition cruises are often aboard much smaller vessels with a shallower draft. This makes them more maneuverable, so they visit more destinations than traditional cruise ships.
Cabins may not be larger than your usual cruise on the Caribbean. However, there are fewer fellow passengers and a better crew-to-guest ratio. That means you’ll enjoy better service and personalized attention.
The experiences focus on the outdoors, not the ship interiors. These cruises are usually more expensive, but itineraries are more developed. Crews include chefs, resident guides, and scientists too. Tour leaders tend to be area locals and community leaders, so their information is uniquely informed. Shore treks and local excursions make these cruises unique to usual port experiences.
There are three key features that attract people to expedition ships:
→ Area itinerary
Visiting places you haven’t been before, experiencing new activities there, and seeing exotic species in their native habitat scratch off a lot off a vacation to-do list.
Unless specified otherwise, the prices we mentioned below are per person and do not include international flights or taxes. All prices are quoted in US dollars at the current rate of exchange. These are subject to change unless a deposit is paid.
Specific cruise dates listed were still available at the time of this writing. At this time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have not yet lifted the Conditional Sale Order which was enacted October 30 last year and is supposed to remain in effect until November 1st this year. We recommend travel insurance for all current bookings.
The Best Expedition Cruise Experiences in the Artic
Itineraries for this region cover a wide range of territories including Arctic, Alaska, Canada, and large sections of Northern Europe. Here you are venturing into some of the most fragile eco-systems on Earth. Beyond the incredible sea- and landscapes, there is wildlife that you’ve only seen before in zoos, unique native cultures, and atmospheric anomalies like the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) at the top of many a bucket list.
Ponant Yacht Cruises and Expeditions
Ponant Yacht Cruises and Expeditions’ newest ship, Le Commandant Charcot, is the first hybrid electric-Liquified Natural Gas polar vessel, it accommodates up to 270 passengers, served by a staff and crew of 190. Christened after a famous French explorer who was first to map a variety of polar region before meeting a tragic end off the coast of Iceland, Le Commandant Charcot was launched in 2020 and now features the Geographic North Pole expedition, a 16 day adventure starting from $32,000, with a departure on August 8, 2021. This price includes roundtrip flights from Paris to Longyearbyen in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago where guests embark on a legendary, almost grail-like destination of hundreds of explorers, a landmass 435 miles away from any visible land. Once there, with zodiacs and hovercraft at the ready to excite shore excursions that include dogsledding, snowmobiling, ice fishing, as well as hot air ballooning.
Hurtigruten, which started as a postal and imported goods carrier with regular routes around the Norwegian coast has taken off in recent years. There used to be jokes among cruise insiders long ago that passengers get to share cabin space with crates of bananas. Not anymore!
In fact, late last year, the line broke off into the regional Norwegian-only counterpart and the Expedition line. Plan ahead for 2023, you can look forward to an exploration of the famed Northwest Passage aboard the 500-passenger MS Roald Amundsun. The ship is a recent new hybrid in their expedition vessels and the first hybrid ship to navigate the Northwest Passage in the footsteps of Amundsen, the explorer who was first to navigate this passage; this is a 26-day itinerary departing August 18,2023 from Nome, Alaska through the Bering Strait and the Beaufort Sea before arriving at Halifax. The focus is on biology and wildlife and a professional photographer as well as an archaeologist, along with one or more Inuit interpreters are on the expedition team. Whales, seals, and, occasionally, polar bears. This is priced from $28,000.
The Best Expedition Cruise Experiences in Oceania
This rather nebulous region of the Pacific Ocean is immense but includes very little land: one continent (Australia) New Zealand, Micronesia, and our 50th United States state (Hawaii) are here. Getting to this destination in the Southern Hemisphere seems like an expedition in and of itself.
With Australia as well as New Zealand currently closed to American travelers, travel here is currently limited.
Discover French Polynesia: Beyond the Postcard
Discover French Polynesia: Beyond the Postcard with this itinerary from National Geographic Expeditions’ Orion, an ice-class vessel that can also cruise polar regions. In this region, though, her shallow draft ensures she can get closer to atolls and islands than other ships her size. She accommodates 102 passengers and with 14 Zodiacs as tenders, no one is waiting behind. A departure on April 22, 2022, starts from $8500. Naturalists and regional specialists in local culture will guide your way through Tahiti, Bora Bora, Rangiroa, and Huahine, among the many islands and atolls traversed. Enjoy snorkeling, scuba, SUP, and kayaking while you explore lagoons and learn about the different native cultures.
The Best Expedition Cruise Experiences in the Caribbean, Central, and South America
Lindblad Expeditions, the first line to popularize expedition cruising and cater to a market hungry for activity and knowledge began in 1966. Today it is still operated by the family of founder Lars-Eric Lindblad. In partnership with National Geographic Expeditions, it currently includes the privately-owned Sea Cloud, a jaw-dropping masterpiece of classic yacht craftsmanship, and the oldest ocean-going passenger ship.
A call back to the golden age of sailing, she has been described as the most romantic sailing ship afloat, her 30 sails on four masts, set by hand (a viewing experience in and of itself) capturing the Caribbean’s famed trade winds. She has a capacity for 50 passengers for eight-day cruises in February and March (2022).
Most of the itinerary focuses on smaller islands and smaller vessels of lower draft make it great to take you up close and personal. This cruise starts from about $10,000 per person, ranging up to $20,000.
Uncruise Adventures makes it easy to discover the world not far from home. Their 7-night Baja’s Bounty cruise takes 36 passengers aboard the Safari Explorer. It starts in January and runs through March 2022. The route is roundtrip from San Jose del Cabo and priced from appx. $6,000 to $9,000.
You may hate the itinerary name, but you’ll love the experiences of touring the UNESCO world heritage Sea of Cortez whose marine life is so exceptional it’s been called the “World’s Aquarium.”
On land, you’ll ride alongside rancheros, enjoy trail hiking and rock scrambling, and go birding to spot incredible hummingbirds, all while learning how the diverse flora adapt to the desert landscapes.
In the water, you snorkel with sea lion pups and explore the colorful sea life of the reefs, watch diverse whale and dolphin species breach the waves, and go kayak around hidden, unspoiled beaches.
Seabourn, the luxury cruise line, has expanded to expedition cruising, with the December 2021 delivery of the opulent 132-suite Seabourn Venture, which boasts 2 custom-built submarines and 24 Zodiacs that will accommodate all passengers at once. All her suites will be oceanfront with verandas. Her inaugural voyage will cover Norway.
After in January 2022, she begins heading south and in 2023 will make her way along Brazil’s coast and into the Amazon, on a 19-day Brazilian Highlights and the Amazon, departing March 10, 2023 from Buenos Aires, Argentina. A veranda suite is priced from $12,300.
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Quasar Expeditions’ specialty areas are explorations of Patagonia and the Galapagos islands. For the latter, Quasar offers the longest cruises. They range from 7-14 night cruises. Riders will follow in the footsteps of Charles Darwin aboard its award-winning Evolution yacht, an all-suite vessel accommodating only 32 guests.
The 15-day itineraries start from Baltra, and there are many departures through 2022, as they operate frequently. Evolution’s sister ship, the Grace, the yacht Princess Grace honeymooned aboard, accommodates even less at 16 guests.
Both vessels make for excellent buyouts if you really want to talk about social distancing and travel bubbles. Quasar sells only through cruise specialists, not the public, but don’t let that commitment dissuade you. They can recommend an agent specializing in cruises – who has likely gone through a rigorous training program — for you to call.
The Best Expedition Cruise Experiences in Antarctic
The Antarctic region represents some of the last untouched wilderness left on earth.
Like the polar regions of the north, explorations of the South Pole will also explore many countries. Many of the expedition cruise lines cover both poles, so we’re focusing on one supplier and just one incredible experience here so we don’t keep repeating brands.
Certainly, have a peek at the Arctic section above, but the journey below by Quark lands in nearly all the key destinations, except for the Falklands.
Quark Expeditions specializes in polar regions which require vessels with polar code compliancy. These boats are safe and stable. Quark’s epic 17-day cruise, Totality in Antarctica – South Georgia that reaches Antarctica during the total Solar Eclipse on December 3, 2021, will be a theme many expedition lines are copying.
We’re including Quark for this rare occurrence in Antarctica because they are repeating the success of an earlier cruise around a total eclipse in 2003 and are bringing back the same eclipse experts to guide for this one.
Of course, there will still be multiple types of penguins and seals, glaciers, and looming icebergs that travelers would expect from an Antarctic cruise.
This cruise is roundtrip from Ushuaia, Argentina. It crosses the iconic Drake Passage and heads to the White Continent of Antarctica. Guests will view the solar eclipse – an event that is over in less than 2 minutes – at sea and then head to South Georgia, known as the Galapagos of the Southern Ocean, before returning. Prices start from $15,300.
The Best Expedition Cruise Experiences in Asia
The exotic lands of this continent are ripe for exploration. Journeys across this vast region are on many bucket lists. But a small ship expedition cruise will take in several countries and maximize your time and your vacation dollars. Have a look at this epic adventure.
Aqua Expeditions’ Mekong Cruise takes passengers on a seven-day journey of discovery along the world’s 12th longest river, reaching more scenic destinations off the tourist-beaten tracks in Cambodia and Vietnam.
This line, which got its start in the Amazon, owns the only private fleet of launch boats along the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia. The Aqua Mekong offers 20 air-conditioned cabins with floor-to-ceiling windows on 2 decks. This tour departing September 17, 2021 features daily excursions with 2 x 10 passenger speedboats to explore the more rural, scenic areas of Cambodia off the tourist-beaten tracks. Biking experiences in some locations (10 – 15km), as well as kayaking, to relaxing excursions on shaded tuk-tuk to get a taste of the authentic life of people around the river.
A seven-day cruise departing September 17, 2021 is priced from $9,700.
The Best Expedition Cruise Experiences in Africa
This area is home to the world’s three great monotheistic religions. Explore their origins and those of many great cultures on these journeys.
Awaken your inner Indiana Jones aboard Zegrahm Expeditions, a sister company to Quark’s polar journeys. The brand’s Caledonian Sky is a 100 guest, all-suite ship featuring single-seat dining, a full-service dive center for scuba diving the Red Sea, and a fleet of Zodiacs to allow even closer access to intimate coastal coves on its itinerary.
The line’s 14-day Crossroads of Empires cruise beginning on October 21, 2021, departing from Larnaca in Cyprus, onwards to Israel, Egypt, and ending up in Amman, Jordan. Prices start from $11,990. This cruise covers a whopping 7 UNESCO-listed World Heritage sites, pyramids and ruins along the Nile, transits through the Suez Canal, and a wealth of religious sites throughout.
Zambezi Queen is part of Mantis Collection, an African brand. It will call to mind Katherine Hepburn’s adventures, but in a much more luxe version than The African Queen. She almost has a 1:1 guest-to-staff ratio with only 28 guests and 22 staff. It is essentially a floating lodge!
The Queen travels up and down the Chobe River in Botswana. Every evening on the water is a safari. Watch hippos and elephants taking a dip near the shoreline as you sip sundowners.
Early mornings are for land-based activities. Since these are regular 3- and 4- night itineraries that operate through the year and Africa does take some time to cover, it’s best to pair the Queen with other lodges and safari experiences that Mantis can recommend or their partnership with AMA Waterways, a river cruise company, to see more of the country.
Prices start at US$650 per person, per night during low seasons
This is only a taste of all the expeditions available. Each one of the ships we mentioned has equally fascinating itineraries in other destinations, along with sister ships with more regions and experiences covered.
Need more inspiration? As borders open across the globe and more people get vaccinated, more itineraries will be added. If you’re limiting travel for safety, try planning a road trip that can be planned safely.
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