Expedition cruising: Small ships are venturing beyond the poles this year

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The Santa Cruz II is operated by Metropolitan Touring, which has operated expeditions in the Galapagos for more than 70 years.
The Santa Cruz II is operated by Metropolitan Touring, which has operated expeditions in the Galapagos for more than 70 years. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Hurtigruten

Penguins, polar bears and ice fields aren't the only things cruisers can see from the bow of an expedition ship.

Although the expedition cruise industry often seems synonymous with cruising to the ends of the Earth in Antarctica and the Arctic, other destinations are attracting these nimble ships, as well; places like the Australian region of Kimberley, regions of West Africa and the Amazon and even North America.

The expedition market is attracting cruise lines both old and new to invest in ships that are small enough to maneuver narrow bodies of water and purpose-built for the regions they sail.

These expedition ships are being delivered in droves. For instance, the new line Atlas Ocean Voyages has launched two expedition ships since August 2021; Scenic Luxury Cruises and Tours plans to debut its second expedition ship in April; and Silversea Cruises skipped the building process and added a fifth expedition ship to its fleet by acquiring the Silver Endeavor, which became available when Crystal Cruises ceased operations last year.

"Prepandemic, there was not enough inventory to meet the demand. Now, with an influx of inventory, there is probably more inventory than the market can bear at the moment, but travelers are seeking more experiences off the beaten path," said Ashton Palmer, president of Seattle-based Expedition Trips, which exclusively sells expeditions.

Mitchell Falls, a four-tiered waterfall in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.
Mitchell Falls, a four-tiered waterfall in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Photo Credit: Ralph Hammelbacher

There are approximately 70 expedition ships in service across the globe, according to CLIA. Here's a rundown of where some of those expedition ships that are sailing outside the poles will be operating.

The Kimberleys and New Zealand

Lindblad is introducing two Kimberley expedition itineraries. Calling it Australia's "best-kept secret," the line is offering 14-day Kimberley sailings in June and July with stops that include the King George River and Falls and several coral reefs, including Ashmore Reef Marine Park and the Montgomery Reef.

On a second itinerary, Lindblad will visit northwest Australia and add Indonesia to the mix, concluding in Bali. The voyage includes the Rowley Shoals with atoll-like reefs, the Montgomery Reef, Hunter River and King George River and Falls before arriving in Indonesia for calls at Sawu Island and Komodo National Park.

The line is also venturing on a new 16-day itinerary for New Zealand this year, departing from Auckland and ending in Milford with stops at the Bay of Islands and Great Barrier Island.

The Galapagos 

Hurtigruten plans to increase its offerings to the 19-island archipelago this year with three new year-round itineraries. All itineraries, four total, are on the 90-passenger Santa Cruz II, which is operated by Metropolitan Touring, a company that has operated expeditions in the Galapagos for more than 70 years. Hurtigruten acquired a 24.9% stake in the touring company last March.

The boost in itineraries includes a mix of four- to eight-night voyages: a six-night Eastern Galapagos itinerary, a four-night sailing in the Northern Galapagos, four nights in the Western Galapagos and an eight-night cruise along the northern and western islands. All four voyages are available in 2023 and 2024.

A kayaking excursion in the Galapagos.
A kayaking excursion in the Galapagos. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill

The Amazon

The Seabourn Venture, the line's first expedition ship, will sail a series of voyages on the Amazon in the early spring of 2023. Sailings begin from ports along South America's coastal cities, including Buenos Aires and Rio De Janeiro, or from Bridgetown, Barbados, but all sailings will take guests deep into the heart of Brazil and Peru. The sailings range from 10- to 23-day cruises and will conclude when the ship makes a 24-day repositioning cruise to Portugal on April 7.

Boats along the shoreline of Boa Vista, one of the Cape Verde Islands.
Boats along the shoreline of Boa Vista, one of the Cape Verde Islands. Photo Credit: Arnau Ferrer

Africa and the Indian Ocean

Hurtigruten will launch sailings to West Africa and the Cape Verde Islands in November. The itineraries include coastal West Africa, Cape Verde, the Bissagos Islands and the Canary Islands. The line will offer 13- to 17-day sailings between November and January 2024 with opportunities to see saltwater hippos, sea turtles, manatees, monkeys and migratory birds. 

Originally planned to launch in November 2022, the sailings were delayed because Senegal has yet to reopen its cruise ports following the pandemic.

Silversea Cruises is also sailing an expedition ship around Africa and the Indian Ocean. The sailings range from 12 to 35 days beginning at the southern tip of Cape Town and moving along the eastern coast, with new voyages departing from Muscat, Oman, and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 2023 and Walvis Bay, Namibia; Port Elizabeth, South Africa; Maputo, Mozambique; and Dakar, Senegal, in 2024. 

Sea Lion Rock juts into Lake Superior at Perry Bay just northwest of Silver Islet.
Sea Lion Rock juts into Lake Superior at Perry Bay just northwest of Silver Islet. Photo Credit: Andrea Zelinski

The Great Lakes 

Viking, which launched its first two expedition ships within the past year, with another two ships on the way, sails the lakes from March through September.

Viking sails six itineraries pinballing between Toronto and Thunder Bay, Ontario; Duluth, Minn., Milwaukee; and New York. On a 15-day sailing from Toronto to Duluth, the ship calls at Niagara Falls and big cities like Cleveland and Detroit as well as Michigan's popular vacation spot Mackinac Island and at Gregorian Bay, Ontario.

On a 13-day sailing from New York to Toronto, the ship calls in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, before making its way down the St. Lawrence River, stopping at several spots in Quebec, including Quebec City. 

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