An all-you-can-eat buffet dinner aboard a tricked-out ocean liner isn’t the only way to get your sea legs. Small-ship expedition cruises are on the rise as adventurous travellers search for immersive ways to discover far-flung destinations.

Cruises have been bucket list fodder since The Love Boat first sailed from television screens into living rooms during the 1970s. These days, the mere word ‘cruise’ conjures visions of mainstream mega ships that are as much resorts as they are modes of transportation. But exploratory cruises are bucking the trend.

A view of Paradise Bay from the deck of a cruise ship in the Antarctic Peninsula © Artie Photography / Getty Images
A view of Paradise Bay from the deck of a cruise ship in the Antarctic Peninsula © Artie Photography / Getty Images

From alluring Polar voyages to deep jungle journeys, these cruises are ‘explorations’ in the literal sense, as they chart courses to rarely visited lands. But there’s also an element of inner exploration, elicited by thoughtfully crafted itineraries: activities on- and off-board can enable deeper personal reflection and more intentional engagement with nature and local culture. The result is a truly transformative travel experience.

Thanks to a flotilla of ships navigating the world’s waters, travellers are able to explore lands seen by few others with the ease, convenience and security that a cruise – both as a means of movement and an experiential staging ground – can provide.

Some exploratory cruises show popular destinations in a new light, but most specialise in reaching remote places: often, small-ship cruising is the only way to access precious and protected lands. But gone are the days when ‘adventure’ was synonymous with ‘roughing it’. Most conveniences come as standard with on-board accommodation, and amenities range from humble and comfy to superbly sybarite.

But don’t count on lazing the days away by a pool, or sipping cocktails on the deck. The defining experiences of exploratory cruises come from disembarking and exploring, from the moment the anchor drops. This is the traveller’s chance to go deep into enchanting environs by foot, bike, horse, Zodiac boat, kayak or even a stand-up paddleboard...

A Sally Lightfoot crab in the Galapagos © Kevin Alvey / Getty Images
Cruising on a small ship is the best way to experience the unique wildlife of the Galápagos Islands © Kevin Alvey / Getty Images

Sail on – sustainability

Placing an emphasis on responsible, eco-conscious practices, many exploratory cruises enable up-close encounters with wildlife in pristine landscapes. As ambassadors from faraway lands, passengers should leave no trace of their presence behind.

The Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

Explore the origins of Darwin’s theories among the world’s most unique and abundant wildlife on a Silversea voyage around these famed, isolated islands.

The Pantanal, Brazil

Make yourself at home on a Wild Planet Adventures riverboat on an expedition in the heart of South America, where the verdant land is ruled by the tides.

A close-up of a saltwater crocodile in Australia's Kimberley Region ©Johan Rentmeesters / Lonely Planet
Expect to see some giant 'salties' on a voyage through Australia's remote Kimberley Region ©Johan Rentmeesters / Lonely Planet

The Kimberley, Australia

Set sail with Zegrahm Expeditions to glimpse iconic creatures – from giant crocodiles to skittish wallabies – in one of Australia’s wildest regions.

End of the Earth

If you have a penchant for extremes, plan a cruise to the Poles. Setting sail to get there is a thrill – a sojourn to the globe’s distant realms is truly all about the journey and the destination.

The Arctic

The Arctic is a wonderland of ice-laden landscapes and extraordinary animal life. Lindblad Expeditions hosts several voyages, from Norway’s polar bear haven of Svalbard to the Canadian High Arctic’s myriad islands.


No place in the world inspires exploration like the White Continent. Wildlife is spectacular and abundant, and nature dictates all schedules. In addition to Zodiac rides, Quark Expeditions offers excursions such as mountaineering and ice camping.

An aerial view of the vast Mekong River winding through Thailand © jakkreethampitakkull / Getty Images
An aerial view of the vast Mekong River winding through Thailand © jakkreethampitakkull / Getty Images

Epic river adventures

Exploratory cruises aren’t exclusive to oceans and seas – rivers are ideal for reaching remote refuges without roads, or towns and cities too far inland to reach from a seaport.

The Mekong

The Mekong is awash with flourishing nature and kaleidoscopic floating markets. Avalon Waterways offers a spectrum of shore excursions, from visits to local villages to tours of temples.

The Nile

Sail with Viking River Cruises to see Egypt’s many wonders. Stops range from the ancient ruins of Luxor to the famous Pyramids of Giza.

A river boat cruising along the mighty Amazon at sunset © Joesboy / Getty Images
A river boat cruising along the mighty Amazon at sunset © Joesboy / Getty Images

The Amazon

This vast river beckons wildlife-lovers with monkeys, tropical birds, sloths and more. Rainforest Cruises has routes in Ecuador, Peru and Brazil.

Diverse demographics

There are exploratory cruises to suit anyone with a taste for adventure. Families, retirees and solo travellers of all ages will encounter a unique on-board community; some operators enable travellers to engage with local residents, too.

Cross-cultural exchange

Interest in Cuba is booming, and exploratory cruises here can provide opportunities for person-to-person interaction. Globus Journeys pairs sightseeing with chances to meet local business owners, musicians, farmers and baseball players.

Made for millennials

Don’t fancy backpacking across Europe? Take a boat instead. In 2018, U by Uniworld is offering cruises to the 21–45 set who’d rather ditch cumbersome packs in favour of hip ship cabin digs.

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