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A voyage of discovery

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Set sail to some of the most far-flung corners of the world, many of which are only accessible by expedition ship. We share our Top Ten


Whether it's Antarctica, the North Pole or a remote archipelago in the South Pacific, sometimes the best – and only – way to get there is by small ship. Expeditions by sea take place on anything from the stern-looking Russian ice-breakers that can cut through the pack ice of Antarctica to a wooden sailing yacht that potters gently around tropical lagoons and coral islands. Maybe you'll choose a voyage on a working ship – combined cargo-passenger vessels bringing essential supplies to islanders in the loneliest corners of the planet. Or splash out on a journey by mega-yacht to the Galapagos, or Russia's fiery Kamchatka peninsula.


What all of these have in common is that they attract like-minded, adventurous passengers. There's often no set itinerary; you put your faith in the captain and are guided by the elements. And that's what's most exciting about this kind of sailing voyage; anything could, and does happen.

 

1. The Russian Far East

 

The Russian Far East is so inaccessible that ship is practically the only way to get around this stark, forgotten landscape. The people who live here are the Chukchi, who depend on reindeer herding and salmon fishing for their living. Expeditions to the region visit tiny fishing hamlets and explore the rugged coast by inflatable Zodiac boats, on the lookout for puffins and albatross, whales and seals.

 

On Compagnie du Ponant's forthcoming series of voyages from the Russian city of Anadyr, there's a chance to stand on Russia's Big Diomede island and gaze across the water at Little Diomede, a curious experience as the water is bisected by the International Date Line and Little Diomede is not only part of the United States, so on another continent, but also a whole a day ahead.


Further south across the Bering Sea, Noble Caledonia offers expedition voyages from Japan, exploring the fiery Kamchatka peninsula and the Kuril islands, an archipelago of active volcanoes, geysers, snowy mountains and dappled tundra, with an excellent chance of spotting bears.

 

Who goes?

Compagne du Ponant; Noble Caledonia; Poseidon Expeditions


2. The Arctic

 

The recent thinning of the ice cap has added a whole new dimension to expedition cruising in that the hardiest ships, strengthened to break through the ice pack, are increasingly attempting to traverse the elusive Northwest Passage, a sea route linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans right across the top of Arctic Canada. The route was successfully conquered by the explorer Roald Amundsen in 1906 but remained impenetrable for many years afterwards. Now, you can sail it in some style on Hapag Lloyd's luxury expedition ship, Hanseatic, voyaging from Kangerlussuaq in Greenland all the way to Nome in Alaska, a 26-day epic departing in August with just seabirds, whales, seals and bears for company, mile after mile of flat, white ice stretching out ahead.


Alternatively, be one of only a couple of hundred people who will stand at the North Pole this year. Quark Expeditions' nuclear-powered icebreaker, 50 Years of Victory, makes the round trip in two weeks from Murmansk (accessed via Helsinki), cutting through the ice to 90 degrees north, where there's a champagne toast and a barbecue on the ice as well as a chance to fly over the Pole by hot air balloon.


There are plenty of other options inside the Arctic Circle. The summer months are the time to visit Svalbard, the remote archipelago north of Norway, and various expedition companies offer a chance to explore the rocky coastline in search of polar bears hunting on the pack ice, beluga whales, sea birds and reindeer. Hike the stony shoreline, climb on the glaciers and kayak into the deep fjords to get closer to nature in this incredible place.
Across the Atlantic, Cruise North explores the Canadian Arctic on a sleek little expedition ship, Sea Adventurer, tracing the jagged coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland as well as exploring Greenland, a vast expanse of deep fjords, immense icebergs and colourful little settlements clinging to the shore. Throughout these voyages, there's a strong chance of seeing whales, walrus, seals and polar bear.

 

Who goes?

Hapag Lloyd; Quark Expeditions; Cruise North; Hurtigruten; One Ocean Expeditions; Poseidon Expeditions; Silversea Expeditions; Lindblad Expeditions

 

3. Antarctica

 

The thrilling White Continent is at the top of many a traveller's bucket list and fortunately, there are plenty of expedition ships sailing here. Antarctica is without doubt a challenging voyage; most ships depart from Ushuaia, at the southern tip of Argentina, and cross the notoriously rough Drake Passage, calling at the South Shetland Islands, home to millions of penguins, some in colonies 100,000-strong, and picking their way through the ice to Antarctica itself, a stark and inhospitable land of towering blue-white ice cliffs, massive, glittering icebergs and a sun that, in summer, never sets.


Although every itinerary is dictated by the ice conditions, there are many permutations. The huge penguin breeding colonies are on South Georgia, location of the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton. The South Shetland islands, their waters rich in krill, are a magnet to seals, penguins and migrating whales. Some expeditions head much further south, crossing the Antarctic Circle. Some include extra activities like sea kayaking, cross country skiing, mountaineering and even the chance to spend a couple of nights in a tent. Others focus on tracing the routes forged by the great explorers, among them Scott, Shackleton, Nansen and Nordenskjold.


For travellers with less time, or a lack of enthusiasm for the Drake Passage, there is a way to see Antarctica without braving the crossing. Antarctica XXI is offering the first fly-in cruises, transporting passengers by air from Punta Arenas to King George, one of the South Shetland islands, where they board the 62-passenger icebreaker, Ocean Nova, for four days' exploration of the icy coastline, looking out for penguins, seals, whales and seabirds. The flights are weather-dependent, though.

 

Debra Taylor joined a voyage to Antarctica with One Ocean Expeditions


It's surprisingly hot as we stand on the deck of One Ocean Expeditions' reassuringly comfortable and sturdy ice-strengthened ship, the Akademik Ioffe, for our 13-day adventure to the great White Continent. We take in the panoramic view of Ushuaia, the world's southernmost city, as the ship sets sail. We are on our way to the last great wilderness on earth. Having crossed the Drake Passage, we are divided into small groups for landings, going ashore by inflatable Zodiac. Cameras whirr as attempts are made to freeze the action of torpedoing Gentoo penguins. Tiny Wilson's storm petrels dance on the water while another humpback is fluking near the mouth of an ice-blue glacier. Two male fur seals battle it out on a coal-black beach and a leopard seal twists up to yawn for the group in the Zodiac before falling back into a slumber. Antarctica's huge mountains glow, lit by the low sun. Thousands of pictures are taken, but we can't ignore the silence. We cut the Zodiac engines and just listen. The only sound is the lapping of waves against the ice with an occasional thunder rumble from the calving glacier. With no camera clicks, we shut our eyes and simply savour the moment.

 

Who goes?

Quark Expeditions; One Ocean Expeditions; National Geographic Expeditions; Lindblad Expeditions;
Hapag Lloyd; Peregrine; Antarctica XXI (sold by Cox & Kings and Kuoni, among others); Hurtigruten; Silversea Expeditions

 

4. Papua New Guinea, Micronesia and Fiji

 

Papua New Guinea may seem like a hostile place, notorious for its savage headhunters and warring tribes, but the country is, in fact, quite magical; a land of volcanic tropical fjords, pristine white sand beaches and dense rainforest, populated by fascinating peoples with over 800 languages between them. Orion Expedition Voyages offers several excursions exploring the coast of this wild, unspoiled place, visiting villages and tribes, volcanoes and crocodile-filled rivers, rural markets and tiny atolls.


Noble Caledonia has an exciting and unusual voyage in 2014 that visits Papua New Guinea and continues to the Federated States of Micronesia, 607 hilly, bottle-green tufts rising out of a turquoise Pacific, fringed by coral reefs. Some 2,500 miles south of Hawaii, this tropical Eden is one of the world's most spectacular spots for diving and snorkelling, with rainbow-coloured coral and all manner of marine life, including manta rays, tuna, dolphins and fascinating reef fish. Life is simple in Micronesia; people are shy but welcoming, some still sporting traditional grass skirts as everyday wear. Activities include hiking, snorkelling, kayaking and birdwatching.


Or take in an even wider range of islands on Hapag Lloyd's wonderful Manila to Fiji expedition this October, calling at the turquoise lagoon of Palau in Indonesia, where sheer-sided, bottle green coral islets rise out of the water to create a haven for tropical birds. The ship then skims the north coast of Papua New Guinea and wends its way through the gorgeous Solomon Islands, all white sand beaches and emerald rainforest, to Fiji.


For an in-depth exploration of Fiji itself, you can't beat the luxury expedition yacht Tui Tai, carrying just 24 passengers and visiting the deserted beaches and dive spots of the north of the archipelago. Try kayaking, paddle boarding, hiking and biking, or join a daily yoga class or even a meditation session on top of a volcanic crater. The ship is crewed entirely by Fijians and offers total immersion in local culture; during the five-day expedition, you'll meet people of Micronesian, Melanesian and Polynesian origins, all of whom have settled on Fiji.

 

Who goes?

Noble Caledonia; Orion Expeditions; National Geographic Expeditions; Hapag Lloyd; Tui Tai


5 French Polynesia

 

The reef-fringed islands and powdery beaches of Tahiti may not seem like the hard-core stuff of expedition cruising but 925 miles away lies the volcanic archipelago of the Marquesas, a group of jagged, saw-toothed mountains rising out of a dark blue sea and reached in an exciting, 14-day expedition on board the cargo and passenger carrier Aranui 3. This working ship carries vital supplies to the Marquesas islanders, bringing back the copra, tobacco and vanilla produced on the islands. The voyage is an adventure; the Marquesas are lonely and beautiful, wild and jungly, the black sand beaches pounded by huge breakers in the absence of a protective reef. There are few roads in the area so activities ashore include exploring by 4x4, or hiking the dense rainforests of banana and mango palms.

Who goes?

Aranui

 

6. The South Atlantic

 

The tiny, tropical British Overseas Territory of St Helena is inaccessible except by ship and it's possible to join the working vessel, RMS St Helena, on its regular scheduled run from Cape Town to the island, via Ascension, for an expedition with a difference. The ship is a lifeline for the residents of St Helena and carries anything from wind turbines to sheep, car spares and Christmas turkeys. Fellow passengers will be Saints (as the islanders are called), curious travellers and Napoleon groupies; St Helena is where the emperor was held prisoner and then exiled from 1815 until his death in 1821. The voyage from Cape Town takes 19 days round-trip, including two nights in St Helena on the way out, a day in Ascension and another night on St Helena on the return. Special themed voyages include stargazing or bird-watching – or you can skip Ascension and spend a week exploring the volcanic island, considering your own feeling of isolation as you watch the ship leave port.


Who goes?

RMS St Helena

 

7. The Sea of Cortez

 

Described as 'the Galapagos of North America', the Sea of Cortez lies between the long finger of the Baja Peninsula and the west coast of Mexico. Only a couple of companies offer voyages here (although there are plenty of private yachts), making it spectacularly remote; just you, the white sandy beaches, desert and mountains and the deepest blue sky imaginable. Wildlife is abundant; you'll often encounter literally hundreds of dolphins cavorting around your ship, or change direction to investigate the spout of a distant whale. Expeditions here include a chance to swim with the world's southernmost breeding colony of Californian sea lions, an experience not to be missed, as well as desert hikes, snorkelling, horse riding and kayaking. There's practically nothing in the way of development once you get away from La Paz, the main town on southern Baja; these voyages are a complete escape.

 

Who goes?
American Safari Cruises (book through Mundy Adventures); National Geographic Expeditions

 

8. The Galapagos


For lovers of wildlife, the Galapagos islands, 620 miles off the coast of Ecuador, is probably the ultimate reward. The sheer spectacle of the abundant birds and animals against a backdrop of stark, volcanic scenery is breathtaking. And expedition boat is the best way to explore. You'll see jagged lava formations, giant cactus forests, sandy beaches and aquamarine lagoons. Most excitingly, the
birds and animals are completely unafraid of humans and you'll practically trip over penguins, basking iguanas, lazy seals and giant, slow-moving tortoises.


The Galapagos is getting busy, partly thanks to broadcasters like Sir David Attenborough capturing its marvels on screen, but tourism is very tightly controlled. Exploration is by small boats and visitors have to be accompanied by a local guide and must stick to the marked trails. But the rewards are enormous, whether you're snorkeling with sea lions or photographing a blue-footed booby at up close and personal range.


There's no shortage of cruise operators here. Most cruises are three to seven nights and some have themes, like family, or photography, or diving. Ultra-luxury cruise line Silversea is launching a new ship, Silver Galapagos, this September, which will offer the last word in comfort for Galapagos adventurers. Sanctuary Retreats operates a 48-guests expedition ship, Eclipse, and a more intimate, 16-passenger catamaran, Athala II, in the islands. Ecuadorian company Gala Cruises, meanwhile, offers a combination of small-ship Galapagos cruising with land stays in a tented camp, adventure sports and soon, volunteering holidays.


Who goes?
Silversea Expeditions; Sanctuary Retreats; Gala Cruises

 

Conrad Combrink is director of Expedition Cruises for Silversea


As Director of Expedition Cruises, I am in charge of the itineraries of our expedition fleet, as well as the entire expedition experience. I get to research all the unique places we travel to, whether it's Antarctica, the Russian Far East, Svalbard or remote ports in West Africa. Our lecture staff form part of an on-board team of 120 crewmembers and are out in the field with the guests, making sure that they have a full understanding of the region in which they're travelling. Our aim is that our guests are not just tourists but travellers.


The Galapagos has played such an important role in the history of the earth and our understanding of how we see the development of life. I am very excited that we will be able to take our guests to see these incredible islands on the new Silver Galapagos. They'll experience close-up encounters with wildlife both ashore and in the water and will have the opportunity to participate in guided natural history walks, snorkel expeditions and kayaking, as well as to attend daily briefings, lectures and workshops, on-board and ashore. We really hope they'll leave our Galapagos voyages with an appreciation of the unique islands they have visited and that they will become ambassadors for the environment as a result.

 

9. Central America


Expedition ships ply the tropical waters on both east and west coasts of the narrow isthmus of Central America. In Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama, the Pacific coasts are wild and untamed, scattered with tiny islands, rich with wildlife both on land and underwater. Be prepared for 'wet landings' – jumping off the Zodiacs that ferry you ashore into knee-deep water. And be ready to embrace wildlife: birds, giant butterflies, reptiles, crabs, anteaters, monkeys and bold raccoons that steal from you on the beach. The snorkelling is spectacular; turquoise parrot fish as well as comical puffer fish, electric blue surgeon fish and orange-and-white striped clownfish, flitting around tentacled sea anemones.
Activities include trekking in the rainforest, horse riding along black, volcanic beaches, zip-lining and inland, white water rafting.


In the far south of Panama, there's a chance to visit the indigenous tribes of the Darien Jungle, an area seen by fewer than 1,000 visitors a year. But the Pacific coast is more about the wildlife; for the stunning Mayan antiquities, choose an expedition that skims the Caribbean coast and heads much further north into Guatemala, Belize and Mexico.


Who goes?

Noble Caledonia; Silversea; National Geographic Expeditions

 

10. The Amazon

 

Expedition and cruise ships sail sectors of the vast Amazon in both Brazil and Peru; even the bigger vessels can get as far inland as the Brazilian metropolis of Manaus. But for a more 'up close' experience, choose one of the smaller expedition ships in Peru like those operated by Delfin or Aqua Expeditions. Both use specially adapted (and very luxurious) river boats to explore the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, the largest protected flooded forest in the world, making it one of the primary intact swathes of rainforest in the Peruvian Amazon. During the day, you explore the tributaries of the river using skiffs and kayaks, searching for flashes of colour as parrots soar over the canopy, or listening for the rustle of monkeys in the trees. Swim with the endangered pink river dolphins, fish for piranha and search for red howler and capuchin monkeys or three-toed sloths. There's a chance to try out one of the world's longest canopy walkways and to take a night safari, when the jungle is a deafening cacophony of croaks and screeches and the river banks are lit by millions of fireflies. Or simply relax on deck, stargazing, with a pisco sour in hand.


Who goes?
Delfin; Aqua Expeditions (both Peru); Amazon Zenith Cruises (in Brazil)

WAY TO GO

Amazon Zenith Cruises

Tel. + 55 92 3613 2114/http://amazonzenithcruises.com.br

 

American Safari Cruises

Tel. 020 7399 7630/www.mundyadventures.co.uk

 

Antarctica XXI

Tel. +56 61 614100/www.antarcticaxxi.com

 

Aqua Expeditions

Tel. +51 1 434 5544/www.aquaexpeditions.com

 

Aranui

Tel. +33 (0)1 43 31 25 34/www.aranui.com

 

Compagnie du Ponant

Tel. 0800 980 4027/http://en.ponant.com/

 

Cruise North Expeditions

Tel. +1 647 729 3568/www.cruisenorthexpeditions.com

 

Delfin Amazon Cruises

Tel. +51 1 719 0998/www.delfinamazoncruises.com

 

Gala Cruises

Tel. +593 9 856 3802/www.islasgalapagos.travel/

 

Hapag Lloyd Cruises

Tel. +49 (0)40 3070 3070/www.hl-cruises.com

 

Hurtigruten

Tel. 0844 272 8961/www.hurtigruten.co.uk

 

Lindblad Expeditions

Tel. +1 212 765 7740/www.expeditions.com

 

National Geographic Expeditions

Tel. +1 888 966 8687/www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com

 

Noble Caledonia

Tel. 020 7752 0000/www.noble-caledonia.co.uk

 

One Ocean Expeditions

Tel. +351 962 721 836/www.oneoceanexpeditions.com

 

Orion Expedition Cruises

Tel. 020 7399 7620/www.orionexpeditions.com

 

Poseidon Expeditions

Tel. +44 870 068 9142/www.northpolevoyages.com

 

Quark Expeditions

Tel. 0808 120 2333/www.quarkexpeditions.com

 

RMS St Helena

Tel. 020 7575 6480/020 7575 6480/http://rms-st-helena.com

 

Sanctuary Retreats

Tel. 020 7190 7728/www.sanctuaryretreats.com

 

Silversea Cruises

Tel. 0844 251 0837/www.silversea.com

 

Tui Tai

Tel. +679 885 3032/www.tuitai.com

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