Forget floating hotels with shuffleboard and showtunes – Lonely Planet Traveller magazine brings you five cruises to the world’s most beautiful corners, in a style even the cruise-adverse will enjoy.
Antarctica: the one for wilderness
Antarctica is the last truly wild frontier, barely changed since Roald Amundsen beat his rival Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole in 1911. It remains forbidding: a land stretching across an area larger than Europe in broad snowy plains, craggy mountains and ice sheets more than a mile thick.
The Antarctic Peninsula is the most accessible part of this least accessible of continents, best reached on a hardy ship from Ushuaia at the southernmost tip of South America, after a two-day crossing of the notoriously rough Drake Passage. Once the sole domain of polar explorers and scientists, the vessels that ply the waters around the White Continent today carry adventurous tourists.
The ships run by Quark Expeditions run photography courses showing guests how best to capture Antarctica’s wildlife. Small Zodiac boats carry passengers ashore, where geologists, marine biologists and historians join explorations among the armies of gentoo and chinstrap penguins, while southern elephant seals and Antarctic fur seals wage battle over territory.
Getting started: the 14-day Crossing the Antarctic Circle cruise departs from Ushuaia in Argentina (quarkexpeditions.com). No cruise to Antarctica can be considered ‘budget’ but bargain-seekers may consider travelling to Ushuaia and attempting to find a last-minute deal on the ground. This is a risky strategy, but can result in discounts of up to 25%.
Scottish Highlands and Islands: the one for coastline
Islands stretch out from Scotland’s west coast like great handfuls of pebbles cast into the sea, from the mysterious, red-rocked Orkneys in the north to St Kilda and its towering sea cliffs in the west. The meanderings of the mainland coast run for thousands of miles, along gentle bays of golden sand, around thrusting, bare-rock peninsulas, and rearing up into Highland mountains.
Most cruises depart from the pretty fishing port of Oban and cover no more than a handful of destinations. The Hebridean Princess, however, has itineraries covering a huge range of unexpected and tucked-away places such as the unspoilt beaches of the Ardnamurchan peninsula or the far-west island of Boreray, part of the St Kilda archipelago and thronged with northern gannets. It also explores some of the better-known areas, such as Staffin Bay on the Isle of Skye, close to where the crennellated cliffs of Kilt Rock stand (so named for the 55-metre-high natural stone columns that give the impression of a pleated kilt) and the waters of Loch Mealt thunder in a magnificent waterfall into the sea.
Getting started: Hebridean Island Cruises runs itineraries across the Scottish Isles and up the western coast (hebridean.co.uk). Small-boat jaunts in the Inner Hebrides are available in rather more pared-back surrounds with Cruise Ecosse from May to September.
Caribbean: the one for beaches
Chances are that if you think of the perfect place to enjoy a cruise, the Caribbean springs to mind, but there is a catch: the secret is well and truly out and hulking great cruise ships pejoratively known as ‘floating hotels’ crowd the waters.
A bracing alternative is to take to the waves like the buccaneers did in the Golden Age of Piracy – on a wind-powered clipper. The Star Clipper is a four-masted tall ship with 16 billowing white sails. The vessel is small enough that it can dock in locations that are off-limits to the large cruise ships.
After setting sail from the Franco- Dutch island of Saint-Martin/Sint Maarten, the ship sights Anguilla, which has over 30 beaches crammed into its 35 square miles and a colourful world of coral just offshore. Ninety miles to the west, the Star Clipper docks at Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands, where a jumble of boulders creates a series of secluded grottoes on the beach.
Getting started: The Star Clipper Treasure Islands cruise departs from Sint Maarten (starclippers.co.uk). There are many budget options on large cruise ships, but the cheapest cabins may not have sea views (royalcaribbean.co.uk).
Galápagos: the one for wildlife
When Charles Darwin landed on the Galápagos Islands in 1835, he found a host of endemic species subtly adapted to life on the remote and varied archipelago. His observations helped lead him to his world-shaking theory of evolution and the origin of species.
Almost two centuries later, the 13 main islands of the Galápagos remain unmatched, full of remarkable and rare creatures. A yacht voyage is an excellent way to appreciate them. Ecoventura is an Ecuador-based outfit that keeps the number of passengers low and its commitment to the environment high. On frequent land excursions, passengers can appreciate wildlife as Darwin once did, looking out for lava lizards, land iguanas and waddling Galápagos penguins on the ground, and puff-chested frigate birds and waved albatrosses in the air above. The islands’ geography is equally astonishing. Guided walks reveal white sandy beaches and prehistoric landscapes of black lava studded with cacti and steaming volcanic vents. And many animals still lack any real fear of humans.
Getting started: Ecoventura cruises depart from the island of San Cristóbal all year round (ecoventura.com). The Galápagos can be an expensive destination, so the surest way to reduce the cost is to reduce the number of days spent. Flights reach Baltra and San Cristóbal islands in the Galápagos from Guayaquil and Quito in mainland Ecuador.
Dodecanese Islands: the one for history
Today, the Dodecanese Islands of Greece are a picture of serenity: whitewashed villages tumble down hillsides to boat-filled harbours surrounded by the clear waters of the Aegean. But their laid-back character belies a turbulent history, when the great empires of the Mediterranean fought over the islands, leaving monumental evidence of their rule in their wake. Travel in the archipelago has been undertaken in small sailboats since time immemorial. It’s possible to enjoy the tradition today by taking to the seas in a wooden gulet, Turkish in origin, but well suited to navigating the hidden coves of the Greek Islands.
An archaeologist from Athens is on board the gulets offered by Peter Sommer Travels, guiding passengers ashore and providing expert insights into the ancient fortifications, temples and streets. On the island of Kos, there are the mighty towers of the Castle of the Knights of St John, the medieval order of holy crusaders who went to Jerusalem but never returned home. Further north is the island of Patmos, where visitors can see the grotto where St John the Divine once lived and where, after a series of apocalyptic visions, he penned the Book of Revelation. Still, much of the pleasure of the cruise is being aboard the gulet, lounging on deck and breathing in the sea air.
Getting started: Peter Sommer Travels runs Greek Island cruises from April, and the Northern Dodecanese cruise runs in September, departing from Samos (petersommer.com). For a more economical option, Meander Adventures offers small-boat cruises taking in several Dodecanese and Cycladic Islands, departing from Crete or Rhodes (greece-travel-turkey-travel.com).