Small-ship expedition cruising is an ideal way to participate in experience-driven adventures. Alison Gardner
The world is not actually shrinking. However, accessibility to just about anywhere on the planet makes it more challenging to feel like a travel pioneer, journeying to a special place that you won’t find half a dozen people at the next party you attend have also visited in the past few years.
While purposeful adventurers are swarming over more land and sea destinations than ever before, there do remain some travel frontiers left to explore that no longer require a Sir Edmond Hilary or a Steve Fossett to risk life and limb to encounter them. Despite their remote nature, destinations have become a possibility for the average traveler with determination and some Internet research capabilities. The most challenging issue is finding who can reliably take you there because many frontier destinations are not accessible to the independent traveler either by land or water.
On Australia’s Macquarie Island, King penguins raise their chicks where human visitors only tread in very restricted numbers. Alison Gardner
Let’s check in with a travel expert on those newly-accessible travel frontiers for curious adventurers of most ages or abilities. In 2012 and 2013, Todd Smith of AdventureSmith Explorations www.adventuresmithexplorations.com was named the top small-ship expedition cruising specialist in Condé Nast Traveler’s Annual Travel Specialists List. “Nearly 20 years ago,” he says, “when I began designing itineraries and guiding small ship cruises, expedition cruising was a radical idea. ‘A cruise with no ports will never sell,’ marketing executives advised. But I knew I was on to something.
Rubber Zodiacs have made expedition nature cruising a reality, with small groups of guests able to go ashore in remote places for “wet” or “dry” landings. Alison Gardner
“We created one of Alaska’s first true wilderness cruises and participants loved the idea of exchanging whales, glaciers, eagles and bears for crowded ports, bus tours and midnight buffets. Expedition cruising was born with Alaska, Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, the Galapagos Islands and Antarctica soon serving as gateway trips that introduce travelers to this unique style of travel.
“It has since spread to every continent, allowing ordinary travelers to immerse themselves in many of the last wilderness frontiers and unspoiled cultural experiences on our planet,” Todd adds. “Given the modern high-tech ships that make up the fleet, participants can do this without sacrificing a hot shower, delicious meals, personalized service and comfortable accommodations.”
In the far north Bering Sea, Russia’s Yttygran Island is home to an ancient aboriginal site known as Whale Bone Alley, constructed from immense whale jawbones and skulls to form arches. The site is of international archaeological importance, visited on a 50-passenger “Across the Top of the World” ElderTreks expedition cruise. K Ovsyanikova, Heritage Expeditions
To illustrate Todd’s observations, let me share my own small-ship cruise aboard the Orion while exploring what UNESCO describes as “the most diverse and extensive of all Subantarctic archipelagos”. In centuries past, the fragile local flora and fauna of these wilderness gems were devastated by the human presence of whalers and a small number of very hardy settlers. In recent decades tens of millions of dollars have been committed to eradicate introduced species and to remove humans in order to allow severely endangered endemic plants, birds and marine mammals to rebound in virtual isolation. This is done under the watchful eye of Department of Conservation officials from New Zealand and Australia who travel with every cruise ship granted a permit to visit. Each year a maximum of 1,000 adventurers, mainly over 50 years old, come humbly from around the world … stepping ashore by invitation only!
No matter how small it may be, bringing any introduced species of flora or fauna ashore or transferring it between Subantarctic islands is strictly prohibited. The clothing of each guest must be carefully vacuumed from pockets to cuffs to avoid doing so during shore excursions. Rubber boots are also given a disinfectant bath with each trip ashore. Alison Gardner
Conservation Officers from New Zealand and Australia travel with each expedition cruise to ensure that guests and guides stick to designated paths and boardwalks on each island and to make sure people keep a suitable distance from the wildlife. They are also a great resource of nature information, willingly sharing their considerable expertise with guests. Alison Gardner
My 16-day cruise sailed southeast from Auckland toward five NZ dots of tundra, permafrost and volcanoes: the Bounty, Antipodes, Snares, Auckland and Campbell islands. Our Australian destination was Macquarie Island, the final landing on our itinerary and the most southerly of our journey. They all occupy predictably stormy latitudes between the Roaring Forties and the Furious Fifties, also known as the Albatross Latitudes.
The nine-year-old expedition cruise ship, Orion, is a purpose-built vessel, 103 meters/338 feet long, hosting up to 106 guests per voyage. Alison Gardner
Each of Orion’s 100 guests was gifted with a hooded winter jacket, but we were instructed to bring our own thermal underwear, a toque or balaclava and winter gloves, rain pants and gumboots for “wet” landings. These were essential for our two- to three-hour Zodiac excursions, sometimes twice a day, going ashore for guided walks or following dramatic coastlines on the water with a naturalist aboard every Zodiac to point out well-camouflaged birds and marine mammals. In the 19th and 20th centuries, some species had declined to only a handful of creatures before beginning celebrated comebacks in their now-protected environments.
On Macquarie Island, hundreds of 3,000 kilogram elephant seal males share beaches with thousands of colorful King penguins. Alison Gardner
On our voyage, an amazing 11 naturalists and historians were on board to share their diverse knowledge with informal chats over a meal or during stimulating lectures. Three, sometimes four, illustrated lectures were scheduled during every “at sea” day in the comfortable theatre on the Orion’s top deck with subjects ranging from wildlife species and plants, to bird migration, island geology, the colorful but tragic (for the animals) whaling history, and attempted human settlements. Attendance was always enthusiastic with plenty of questions for each lecturer, but guests could also watch a lecture on their stateroom TV.
Until the past decade, the continent of Antarctica was near the top of every adventure traveler’s life list precisely because it was an experience few could expect to achieve. Today, with 40,000 tourists annually cruising Antarctic waters, many aboard larger conventional cruise ships, it is now a “been there, done that” check mark on a surprising number of bucket lists.
Near the end of our journey I asked veteran Orion expedition leader, Mick Fogg, how he would rate this Subantarctic cruise among the itineraries he has created and led. He unhesitatingly identified this one as close to his favorite voyage. “Every island is different,” he declared, “unique in its own right, and far more diverse in flora and fauna than the Antarctic. We haven’t passed another ship or seen a plane for 16 days … that really shows how off the beaten path we have been!”
Back from the brink of extinction, seal pups are thriving today on Macquarie Island thanks to vigilant protection by Australia’s Dept of Conservation. Alison Gardner
AdventureSmith Explorations (adventuresmithexplorations.com) is an expedition cruise specialist, matching clients’ interests and abilities to itineraries and vessels like the Orion. It was a perfect match for me!
ElderTreks (eldertreks.com) offers 15 expeditionary cruises from the Equator to the Arctic and Antarctic, popular with clients 50+ in age. “Across the Top of the World” is one of the last great journeys into the far eastern Russian Arctic to observe wildlife and meet the rugged indigenous people.
Quark Expeditions (quarkexpeditions.com) was first to transit vacationers through the Arctic’s Northeast Passage, and to circumnavigate the Antarctic continent. In 2011, it was a recipient of National Geographic Traveler’s “50 Tours of a Lifetime” award for its “Three Arctic Islands” voyage.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.