Spot seals on an Antarctica expedition. // © 2015 Thinkstock
Feature image (above): Sea lions, along with humpback whales, albatross, penguins, tortoises and boobies are only some of the wildlife guests will see on a Galapagos Islands cruise.// © 2015 Thinkstock
Travel by water was one of man’s first methods of exploring the world and, in many cases, it’s still the best way to travel to remote corners of the globe.
With time perhaps the most limited commodity in life, exploration by water allows modern travelers to make the most of their vacations and concentrate on the destination, unpacking only once. Many cruise lines are also veteran tour operators. With a network of local guides and a history of accessing the most fascinating sights and people, cruise lines can connect visitors with the environment and culture of a region.
Following are five destinations best discovered the “old-fashioned” way.
When travel agents think of expeditions by water, there are two destinations that are always mentioned, and one is the Galapagos Islands.
The Galapagos Islands are one of the rare places where reality eclipses pictures and videos. Some of the remarkable creatures that inspired Charles Darwin are found only on one or two of these volcanic islands, so it is vital to be able to visit several of them. This is where cruising comes in.
Many cruise lines sail with national park personnel who can interpret the history and life of the region. They also bring on local cultural groups for performances, which serves as a bonus to the colorful wildlife guests can see from their cabins: frigate birds suspended in the sky, the famous Galapagos tortoises, boobies with brilliantly colored feet, seals, humpback whales, albatross, penguins and marine iguanas.
The animals of the Galapagos are unafraid and curious, and they go about their business even when humans come quite close. Visitors are told not to touch the enchanting sea lion pups, lest their scent be compromised and their mothers reject them, but nobody told the pups, who come and rub against travelers’ ankles and offer sticks for playing.
Cruise lines have taken into consideration the varying physical abilities of travelers and have created many ways to see the region’s unique life, whether guests want to hike, snorkel and dive or ride in a glass-bottom boat. Less-active cruisers are not shortchanged, either: I tried the boat trip on one island (the least taxing choice) and brought back more, and better, pictures than those who did the more strenuous exploring.
Several lines offer notable Galapagos cruises, sometimes coupled with land stays. These include Celebrity Cruises, Silversea Cruises and Lindblad Expeditions.
Hop onto an Internet cruise forum and you’ll likely read proclamations such as “Antarctica is not a place; it’s an experience” and “no pictures can capture the reality.”
From its spectacular wildlife to its giant calving glaciers and huge icebergs, Antarctica is primal, humbling and unforgettable. The White Continent has become so passionately in demand that cruises are at a premium, particularly given the environmental restrictions that place limits on how many people can explore the fragile environment. It is no wonder that it also immediately comes to mind when thinking of quintessential expedition cruising.
The sea supports the spectacular wildlife of Antarctica and is undoubtedly the best way to experience the region. Sailing through Lemaire Channel is otherworldly, and the dramatic mountains, research stations and their multinational scientists all make for an exotic experience.
As in the Galapagos, cruise lines offer exploration at different levels of physical ability, and they have tapped some of the most brilliant scientists, historians and experts of the region to come onboard. Hurtigruten, Lindblad, Seabourn Cruise Line, Ponant, Silversea and Quark Expeditions are among those that take guests deep into the Antarctic.
From the scenery to the wildlife and local culture, the Norwegian Fjords and the Arctic are magnetic. So much so that more than 6 million people in 148 countries watched a 134-hour television show documenting a Hurtigruten ship sailing the region. Ships are the lifeline of these small, colorful villages, placed against one of the most dramatic backdrops in the world. Cruisers also learn about Vikings, climate change, the Sami people and the Northern Lights.
Even veteran explorers are deeply impressed by the wildlife at the top of the world. When Lindblad’s Northwest Passage voyage had to be rerouted last year because of ice, a trip to 80 degrees North yielded such experiences that the line set up scheduled sailings there this year, visiting Greenland, Baffin Island and Ellesmere Island. It’s safe to say that Far North cruises begin as once-in-a-lifetime experiences and end up habit-forming.
Get there with Abercrombie & Kent, Quark, Hurtigruten, Lindblad, Seabourn and Silversea.
Cruises into expedition territory are not only done by sea; rivers take travelers to exotic spots, too.
Myanmar has only recently opened its doors to travelers. The country is on the cusp between traditional life and modernity, and river cruising in the region is just getting back to its pre-World War II level, when hundreds of vessels sailed the Irrawaddy River.
Because Myanmar’s land-tourism infrastructure is still growing, river cruising is an ideal choice for those who want to go deep into local culture from a base that supplies modern comforts.
Onshore, cruise lines are taking guests to craftsmen’s workshops, small villages for traditional performances and Buddhist monasteries — an especially interesting experience in this culture, where every man is a Buddhist monk for at least one period in his life.
Cruises also explore ancient Bagan’s temples and pagodas and bring passengers to the rural village of Zalon, which draws Buddhist pilgrims to worship at its legendary Noble Mahn Aung Myin Buddha. From the astonishing Shwedagon Pagoda to the mist-wrapped mountains surrounding Inle Lake, cruise lines combine port calls with land packages in Yangon and Mandalay.
AmaWaterways, Avalon Waterways, Haimark Ltd., Heritage Line, Sanctuary Retreats, Scenic Cruises and Viking River Cruises are a few of the lines sailing the Irrawaddy.
Another river that is the lifeblood of exploration in Asia is the approximately 3,915-mile Yangtze, which cuts across the width of China and separates the north and south. Construction of Three Gorges Dam, completed in 2012, reduced the danger of flooding and produced a new source of electricity; however, it drowned towns and archeological and cultural sites, displacing more than 1 million people.
New riverside towns are a testament to the changing landscape of China, and ancient villages that had never seen visitors are now accessible through the newly channeled waters.
Cruises here are generally coupled with land tours. The river portion ranges from three to 14 days, covering some or all of the area between Chongquin and Shanghai, with spectacular scenery and traditional villages. Because the Yangtze is a huge river, the ships that sail here don’t have the size restrictions of those in European waterways, so vessels can be large with lavish amenities.
Among the companies offering Yangtze cruises are Avalon, Sanctuary Retreats, Tauck, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, Victoria Cruises and Viking.
Two Things to Remember
1. Expedition cruising cuts across demographics, making it possible for older travelers to go to unusual destinations. Younger travelers also like it, since it allows them to access authentic experiences in a shorter period of time.
“Myanmar is one of the cruises we think works well for both younger (40-plus) new river cruise customers and for more experienced river cruisers looking for new destinations to explore,” said Rick Kaplan, president of Premier River Cruises in Los Angeles.
2. Be sure to gauge how adventurous your client really is. Some destinations are more of a culture shock than others, so match clients accordingly.
“I love India, and I would go again tomorrow, but life — and death — on the Ganges is only for people who have been there before or who are prepared to see the color and beauty alongside bodies of animals and sometimes people,” said Tom Baker, co-owner of Houston-based Cruise Center.