Expedition Cruises Make a Comeback

  • 9 min read

After a lost year, expedition cruises are preparing for a grand comeback in the second half of 2021. Armed with inspiring itineraries and next-gen hygiene technologies, the industry is pulling out all the stops to make travelers feel comfortable on board. And it seems to be working. When Royal Caribbean put out a Facebook call for volunteers to help test out the line's stringent new COVID-19 protocols, more than 100,000 cooped-up explorers raised their hands. To cope with increased demand, Aurora Expeditions has added a second Total Solar Eclipse Antarctica Cruise scheduled for December 2021. "Travelers are picking up their dreams and trying to make them reality as fast as possible," says Barbara Muckermann, chief marketing officer of Silversea Cruises in an interview with Travel & Leisure. As the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel gets a little brighter with each passing day, we’ve decided to highlight a few once-in-a-lifetime cruise journeys to add to your bucket list.

Tour an Arctic Archipelago

Two polar bears in Svalbard Archipelago

Svalbard, Norway. Photo via Shutterstock.

Svalbard, previously known as Spitsbergen, is a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic ocean that functions as a breeding ground for many seabirds, and is home to over 3000 polar bears, reindeer, and Arctic foxes. A coveted destination for nature-lovers, Svalbard features seven national parks and twenty-three nature reserves that cover two-thirds of the archipelago, protecting the largely untouched, yet fragile, natural environment. In June 2021, Norway-based Hurtigruten Cruises—known for their educational, science-driven expeditions—will be back in action journeying precisely to the Svalbard region. The sailing, titled In the Realm of the Polar Bear, will give voyagers an opportunity to experience some of the most remote and desolate waters and landscapes in the arctic. Departing from Oslo, the cruise visits Longyearbyen—the world’s northernmost settlement, with just 1000 permanent inhabitants—as well as several Arctic national parks, where guests will take in glacial landscapes and surrounding fjords. Mid-journey, the cruise ventures to the Eastern Svalbard Nature Reserve, where guests can “hang out” with polar bears, reindeer, and walruses—all (of course) from a safe, comfortable distance.

Our verdict: You’ll enjoy a Hurtigruten Cruise if you appreciate the simple ways of life. The experience onboard is not particularly luxurious. It’s more of a tastefully furnished ferry that is designed to get you as close to the action as possible. The ship offers no-frills accommodations and quality meals. But apart from a small gym and an occasional geography lesson from the expedition team, you won’t find much in-house entertainment. Pack a good book, bring some binoculars, sit back, and prepare to get acquainted with your new 700lb furry friends.

The Northern Lights at Scoresby Sund

The Northern Lights at Scoresby Sund Greenland

The Northern Lights at Scoresby Sund. Photo, courtesy of Oceanwide Expeditions.

Between late September and late March, Greenland, Iceland, and Norway are dark from early afternoon until late morning, and that's when the Northern Lights frequently soar across the sky. This phenomenon occurs through a collision between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the atmosphere of the earth. Also called aurora borealis, the Northern Lights appear at night, and compose a stunning celestial ballet of light dancing across the night sky, with a color palette of green, blue, pink, and violet.

One of the best ways to experience this phenomenon is on board a cruise from Oceanwide Expeditions. On their 8-night Scoresby Sund tour, travelers cross the Arctic Circle and visit Greenland to take in epic views of whales, fjords—including the world’s largest, Scoresby Sund—giant icebergs, and, of course, the Northern Lights (the tour places a special focus on optimizing a route that offers maximum exposure to this epic, yet often elusive, light show). The journey begins and ends in Akureyri, Iceland, and offers guests the chance to visit Røde Ø, one of the world’s most iconic iceberg attractions, featuring blue-white icebergs set against a backdrop of red sediment slopes.The 10-night cruise also explores a 200-year-old abandoned historic Inuit settlement.

Our verdict: The Netherlands-based Oceanwide Expeditions are pros when it comes to expeditions in the Arctic and Antarctica regions because it’s all they do. Similar to Hurtigruten Cruises, the ships offer a no-frills, comfortable experience where the focus is the destination itself. If you consider yourself a rugged explorer type, then you’ll enjoy this cruise. The ships are considered basecamps, so all activities are geared to going ashore, puttering around in Zodiacs (aka inflatable boats used to transport passengers on excursions away from the cruise ship) and observing wildlife, unusually breathtaking landforms, and geology from the deck.

An Alaskan Adventure

Sunset at Kodiak Island

Sunset at Kodiak Island, Alaska. Photo, courtesy of John Kraus.

The Aleutian Islands are a chain of 14 large volcanic islands and 55 smaller islands in Western Alaska, designated as a “biosphere reserve” by UNESCO in 1976. The islands, with their 57 volcanoes, form the northernmost part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, and some of the farthest islands actually belong to Russia. If you’re into brown bears, whales, dolphins and tundra swans then the Australia-based Aurora Expeditions has a wildlife-focused cruise exploring precisely this part of the world. Boarding at the remote fishing port of Seward, Alaska, the cruise travels along the Alaskan Peninsula coast, with views of volcanic formations, glaciers, fjords and ice fields, and habitat explorations featuring caribou, sea otters, Steller sea lions, orca and gray whales, plus a stop to visit a 25 million-year-old petrified forest. Along with natural scenery and wildlife, guests get a chance to explore historical relics ranging from Aleut villages and Russian fur trade depots to remnants of World War II battles and Cold War bases. The tour ends on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, and from there guests take a chartered flight to Tokyo.

Our verdict: Aurora Expeditions are known for their cosy ships with about 135-160 travelers on board. We suggest waiting until after October 2021 to take this trip, as Aurora Expeditions will be introducing a new ship for this voyage called “Sylvia Earle.” The vessel features expansive observation decks, a wellness center, a mudroom, and a smoother ride. Pro tip: as this expedition ends in the Russian enclave of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, don’t forget to secure a Russian visa before hopping on board.

A Mediterranean Escape

A harbor with boats in Bonifacio Corsica

Harbor of Bonifacio, Corsica. Photo, courtesy of The Thinking Traveller

The Mediterranean, a region synonymous with trade, exchange, and encounter, has attracted travelers for centuries. From Corsica and Sicily to the Cyclades, its islands are simply enchanting. One of the best ways to explore this region is on a Ponant Cruise. The French cruise company has a relaxing-yet-inspiring 8-day cruise from the Aegean Sea to the French Riviera, traveling between Athens and Nice via Corsica. With the Corinth Canal—a man made sea channel dug out in the 19th century—as its first destination, this cruise also features many historic sites, including a stop in Delphi, as well as a jaunt to the Amalfi coast. The cruise also visits the Italian island of Ponza (one of Jacques Cousteau’s faves) before finally disembarking in Nice.

Our verdict: Ponant Cruises is more of a massive sailing yacht than a cruise ship. With only 30 cabins, the yachts are intimate and have an art-deco vibe with blue, white and mahogany furnishings—a throwback to years gone by. The crew is predominantly French, which means you’ll be enjoying French cuisine throughout the day, either in the formal dining room or on the deck. When the yacht is docked, the toughest decision you probably have to make is whether to swim off the back, or go on an excursion into one of the old towns of Corsica.

A Total Solar Eclipse

View of Icebergs in Antarctica with people watching the view from cruise ship.

A cruise in Antarctica. Photo, courtesy of Quark Expeditions.

On December 4th, 2021, a total solar eclipse will be passing over the Weddell Sea, east of the Antarctic Peninsula. Following an east-to-west path, as opposed to the more common west-to-east, the narrow track created by the moon’s shadow falling on the Earth will cross over Antarctica’s waters and one of the best ways to experience this phenomenon is going to be on a cruise ship.

Many legacy and emerging cruises and expeditions are getting in on this rare moment, but we found three itineraries that have us Googling cold weather gear. Quark Expeditions is known for their nearly thirty years of polar expedition experience in the Arctic and Antarctic. Their “Solar Eclipse 2021: Totality in Antarctica, with South Georgia” voyage will take place on a ship equipped with luxury amenities including a heated pool, a glass-domed observation lounge, and viewing balconies from every cabin. The cruise departs from Ushuaia, Argentina and will take in the eclipse on the way to the seal-and-penguin paradise of South Georgia Island, the “Galapagos of the Southern Ocean.”

Ponant’s 15-day voyage aboard Le Commandant Charcot is promising guests the best possible view of the eclipse. The ship charts a course further south than most, and guests will disembark during the eclipse to view the event from atop floating slabs of ice (totality will last about 2 minutes). Amenities include a chance to hot air balloon above mountains and icebergs, while the science-minded are invited to assist on-board scientists with research tasks like collecting water samples or setting up monitoring stations, through Ponant’s Participative Science program.

If cozy and environmentally attuned is your thing, Aurora Expeditions offers small group expeditions and a multi-pronged effort to reduce their environmental impact on every sailing. And here, cozy doesn’t translate to lo-fi or bare bones: Aurora offers amenities including an ocean-view sauna, and the ship itself features a revolutionary bow design that helps combat seasickness. In high demand—one of their eclipse itineraries has already sold out—they’re also offering a 16-day Solar Eclipse: Antarctica Cruise that bops along the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Shetland Islands, allowing guests to see Antarctica in all its glory.

Our verdict: A cruise of this kind pairs mind-blowing astronomy with Antarctica's one-of-a-kind outdoor adventures. You’ll be hanging out with marine biologists, glaciologists, astrophysicists, meteorologists, and photography experts on board. After December 2021, Earth won't experience another total solar eclipse until 2023 — and Antarctica won't see one again until 2039. So, this might just be the perfect excuse to knock Antarctica off your bucket list.

At the end of the world

View of fjords in Chilean Patagonia.

Chilean Patagonia. Photo, courtesy of National Geographic.

In March 2022, New York-based Linblad Expeditions will be offering a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to quite literally travel to the end of the world, via a 16-day trip through Patagonia to the very most southern tip of South America. Offering panoramic, fjord-and glacier-filled views of the Chilean Patagonia, this cruise travels through Beagle Channel to visit the Karukinka Natural Park. The cruise culminates at Argentina’s isolated Isla De Los Estados (Staten Island), an island largely off limits to travelers since 1923, and the inspiration for Jules Verne’s Lighthouse at the End of the World.

Our verdict: Lindblad Expeditions doubles as the information-gathering arm for some of National Geographic’s most precariously obtained content, so you’re guaranteed to find an interesting mix of scientists, filmmakers, and environmentalists onboard. The ship, known as The National Geographic Orion, accommodates 102 guests and features a lecture theater, library, gym, and expansive observation deck. This excursion also includes a 3-day stay in some of Patagonia’s finest lodges. These trips are pricey, but the on- and off-board experience is world-class.

Exploring the South Pacific Islands

Sua Ocean Trench in Upolu Samoa

To-Sua Ocean Trench, Upolu, Samoa. Photo, courtesy of Jana Meerman.

The South Pacific confounds even the savviest map buffs with its splatter of islands spread across the world's biggest ocean. What you can't tell from a map, or even from most tourist brochures, is that these palm-laden pearls are as diverse as the region is vast. Fiji feels wild and exotic with seascapes of soft corals so dense they look like purple and white forests—a diver’s paradise. Tahiti has a French cultural flair with dramatic landscapes, plentiful lagoons, stunning marine life, and waterfalls.

One of the best ways to visit this region is on a 16-day Lindblad Expeditions cruise from Tahiti to Fiji. The trip kicks off with a visit to one of the most important cultural sites in the Polynesian world, Marae Taputapuatea, located near Taha’a. The area was a center for Polynesian seafarers and the location from which they set out for Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Hawaii, and New Zealand. The cruise then heads to Aitutaki and Cook Islands where travelers explore its warm lagoons and mingle with the locals. A few days later, the expedition arrives in Samoa, which features spectacular beaches and dense green foliage, hidden waterfalls, and lava-sculpted landscapes. The tour ends with a visit to Fiji, where guests explore the island of Taveuni, aka the Garden Island, meet the villagers of Waitabu, and witness a firewalking ceremony at Beqa Island.

Our verdict: Although Lindblad Expeditions offers two South Pacific Sea tours a year in March and September, we suggest going in September. While the temperatures in the South Pacific are balmy year-round, the winter season enjoys less humidity. Marine-life explorers will love this expedition—you’ll be traveling aboard The National Geographic Orion equipped with kayaks, zodiac landing crafts, diving and snorkeling gear, two dive masters, and an undersea specialist.