Expedition Cruises: Going Where the Big Ships Cannot Go
By Stephen Hartshorne
Arthur Frommer, probably the foremost travel authority in the US, wryly observed in his column recently that some large cruiseships now include circus training programs, bungee jumping and clown acts.
"These will be added, presumably, to the rock-climbing walls, boxing rings, bowling alleys, and vertiginous jacuzzis jutting out from the top deck and hanging perilously over the sea," he observes.
"A cruise should be sufficient in itself," Frommer writes. "It is an opportunity to venture out onto a new and unfamiliar area of the world -- the vast oceans.
"It is sufficiently different, sufficiently provocative of eternal questions, that it need not be 'aided' by bungee jumping, amateur boxing, glass-blowing exhibitions, rock-climbing, and wave-surfing.
"Cruiseships are becoming amusement parks," he concludes, "geared to a child's mentality."
While many vacationers will be taking large 'amusement-park-style' cruises this year, others are opting for 'expedition-style' cruises on smaller vessels without a lot of built-in distractions, cruises that focus more on exploration than amusement.
Remote, Unspoiled Places
Smaller, specialized vessels like ice-breakers converted racing yachts and river cruisers can travel "the vast oceans" and take you to places that larger ships cannot. In fact expedition cruises often go to places only accessible by sea, the most remote, unspoiled places on earth.
From these specialized vessels, zodiac boats can take passengers ashore for hikes and up-close interactions with wildlife.
And on an expedition cruise, the focus is on the destination -- the wildlife, the scenery and the local culture.
Companies like AdventureLife.com and ExpeditionTrips.com partner with small ship operators around the world which provide expert naturalists and local guides on every cruise so travelers gain a greater understanding of the place they are visiting.
Some cruises also include artists, photographers, historians and guest lecturers.
Another important feature of an expedition cruise is the opportunity to form lasting friendships with other travelers who share an interest in exploration.
Besides education and enjoyment, expedition cruises build awareness of ecology, conservation and other important global issues and help people become better citizens of the world.
Beth Conway of Adventure Life says the Arctic and Antarctica remain the most popular destinations for expedition cruises. The company offers trips to the North Pole aboard the Russian icebreaker 50 Years of Victory and cruises that sail through the historic Northwest Passage aboard the polar-class icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov.
They also offer up-close views of Antarctica aboard a refitted racing yacht, the Spirit of Sydney.
"Alaska is also very popular," she says, "and while large cruise ships can -- and certainly do -- cruise this area, the areas that the smaller ships can navigate are much more intimate and remote than larger ships."
She says European river cruises are also gaining in popularity aboard ships like the MS Tolstoy built during the Soviet Era for high ranking Kremlin officials to host foreign dignitaries, and the MS Almyra, which carries a fleet of bicycles for exploring European cities.
Another very popular expedition cruise destination is the Straits of Magellan and the Beagle Channel in Patagonia, which is often considered an alternative to Antarctic cruises because it's more affordable, the wildlife experience is "equally fantastic," and passengers have more time to explore the area, and they don't have to cross the Drake Passage, which she says is "sometimes a deterrent to travelers, especially those who don't do well with sea sickness."
One of the experts who accompany Adventure Life's expedition cruises is Dyan deNapoli, aka 'The Penguin Lady,' who worked with penguins at the New England Aquarium and in the wild for nine years and was part of a team that rescued more than 40,000 penguins from an oil spill in South Africa.
DeNapoli authored the penguin entry in the Scholastic Publishing’s New Book of Knowledge. On Adventure Life's 'Antarctic Dream' cruise, operated by their partner Quark Expeditions, deNapoli presents a series of onboard lectures about penguins from their unique biology and behavior to the various environmental issues threatening the future survival of all 17 penguin species.
A Different Clientele
Ashton Palmer, president of Expedition Trips, says that passengers on large cruise ships, while they see some scenery, basically have a "drive-by" experience. On small ships, passengers can really experience the destination.
He says the clientele for large-ship and small-ship cruises are completely different. "The client looking for a big-ship experience is not looking for a small-ship experience."
In fact, for some travelers, Palmer says, "the word 'cruise' conjures up horrible things." That's why, when he founded his company back in 2000, he called it Expedition Trips.
A Different Time in Their Lives
While independent-minded travelers might have an aversion to the very idea of a cruise, when they see that it's a way of exploring and learning about far-flung destinations with likeminded people, they find they really enjoy it.
"They may have backpacked and traveled independently in the past, but now they're at a different time in their lives and they might like a nice cabin and a glass of wine."
Palmer says the most popular small-ship destinations are the Galapagos Islands, Antarctica and Alaska.
One his favorite destinations is South Georgia, which many operators bypass in order to get to Antarctica more quickly.
"In my experience, there are only a handful of places on the planet that offer such an incredible wildlife experience," he says, "and South Georgia is one of those places. Imagine stepping onto a sandy beach and being welcomed by tens of thousands of king penguins as far as the eye can see… none of them the least bit bothered by your arrival."
"Not only is the wildlife abundant, fearless and absolutely stunning, but it inhabits one of the most visually spectacular places on earth. Imagine the jagged peaks of the Swiss Alps, laced with the massive glaciers of Alaska’s Glacier Bay, surrounded by Hawaii’s verdant green valleys, and you might start to understand the visual topographic feast that is South Georgia."
Small-ship tour companies like Adventure Life and Expedition Trips also have a commitment to responsible and sustainable travel practices. Both companies offer carbon offset programs and work with and contribute to conservation and preservation efforts in the communities and scenic areas they visit.