Beyond the Horizon: Our Top Luxury Expedition Cruises

Koryaksky, an active volcano on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East, can be seen from Kamchatka Krai’s administrative center, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.

Travelers are clamoring for voyages to far-flung, remote destinations. They can’t wait to explore via Zodiacs, hiking, biking, kayaking, scuba diving and off-road vehicles. Not surprisingly, more expedition ships are offering more choices – going farther and faster than in the past. New ships are sailing with helicopters and submersibles, and some even have underwater lounges. Even non-expedition ships are being outfitted with Zodiacs.

While highly popular regions for expedition travel are the Arctic, Alaska and Antarctica, other regions beckon too including the Russian Far East, the islands of Indonesia and northern Australia, Patagonia and the Chilean Fjords and, a bit closer to home, in-depth Cuba. For a fun look at those four regions, Luxury Travel Advisor selected our picks for one robust luxury expedition voyage in each region.     

Komodo Island, Indonesia, home to the Komodo dragons, or massive lizards, will be visited by Crystal Endeavor next year. // Photography: Getty Images / Alfin Tofler

Russian Far East

Certainly, Northeast Passage expedition cruises across the top of Russia create a “bucket list” voyage of a lifetime experience, but for more regionally intensive exploration of the Russian Far East, we’d suggest Silversea Expeditions’ 18-day roundtrip voyage from Otaru (Hokkaido), Japan, on June 18, 2020. Why? It has a hefty destination-intensive quality. This voyage doesn’t call at two, three or four destinations/islands in the Russian Far East, as some do, but instead a whopping 19 destinations, islands or eco-spots. It’s remote, it’s “out there,” yet it’s sailing in the lap of luxury on an ultra-luxury expedition product.

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Departing June 18, 2020, the 144-passenger Silver Explorer, an intimate, ice-class 1A vessel refurbished in 2017, will set sail for a cruise around the Sea of Okhotsk, one of the planet’s least visited areas. Travelers will explore both Okhotsk, a small town from which Vitus Bering sailed for his two 18th-century expeditions to Alaska, and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the cultural and political center of Kamchatka that’s named for Bering’s two ships, Peter and Paul. Silversea’s cruisers can delve into local culture at a museum of ethnography and natural history, an art school, the gold-domed Russian Orthodox Cathedral and a marketplace.

Another highlight is the voyage southward through the Kuril Islands — home to geothermal landscapes with volcanoes and hot springs. Along the route, eco-enthusiasts can possibly spot whales at Piltun Lagoon, Sakhalin Island; Steller sea lions at Iony Island, Russia; and minke whales and orcas around the Shantar Islands. Along the sailing route, cruisers will also likely spot bearded, ringed, largha or ribbon seals and large populations of migratory seabirds. Birdwatchers keep their eyes peeled for Steller’s sea eagles, Aleutian terns, pine grosbeaks, Siberian rubythroats, Northern fulmars, dusky warblers and Brunnich guillemots.

Did you know that the Utkholok Peninsula at the Kamchatka’s western shore produces a large percentage of all wild Pacific salmon and has the world’s greatest diversity of salmon species? It’s true. Simply put, this expedition’s wildlife and birding opportunities are prolific. Onboard, Silver Explorer’s expedition team will conduct enrichment lectures about history, geology, wildlife and botany. Cruisers will set out the ship via a fleet of 12 Zodiacs for landings on beaches and at remote coves.   

For the ultimate digs, we’d suggest reserving the 728-square-foot Owner’s Suite, a stylish apartment with a private balcony; it was still available at press time. Guests enjoy a separate living area, bedroom with a queen bed (convertible to two twins) and a marbled master bathroom with a full-sized bathtub and separate shower. Pampering suite perks include butler service, a refrigerator and bar setup stocked with the guest’s preferences, Bvlgari bath amenities (plus a choice of other European brands, too), a choice of pillows, unlimited premium Wi-Fi, flat-screen television(s) with interactive media library and more. Guests also receive two hours of worldwide phone use from the suite, per voyage segment.

We also like Silversea’s 422-square-foot Silver Suites. Accommodating three guests, they’ve been a guest favorite. They feature a well-appointed sitting area, bedroom, marble bathroom and two French balconies. Travelers who make a reservation prior to March 31, 2019 for any suite on this specific voyage benefit from reduced air fare, plus one complimentary hotel night and transfers.

Crystal Endeavor will sail a 16-day voyage between Bali, Indonesia and Cairns, Australia in 2020. Shown here is the ship’s Penthouse Suite.

In-Depth South Pacific

Many cruise ships sail the South Pacific, but we’ve singled out Crystal Yacht Expedition Cruises’ 16-day “Indonesian Immersive and the Great Barrier Reef” voyage on the new 200-passenger Crystal Endeavor, departing October 15, 2020 from Bali, Indonesia to Cairns, Australia. What stands out? We particularly like this voyage’s line-up of calls. In Indonesia, that includes Sumbawa Island, Komodo Island, Larantuka, Kalabahi, Lucipara, Banda Neira, Raja Ampat Islands and West Papua. Travelers also have a day cruising the Arafura Sea; calls at Thursday Island and Lizard Island, and time exploring the Great Barrier Reef.

Cruisers have daily eco-adventure activities; visit such popular isles such as Komodo, home to the “dragons” (massive lizards) and Lizard Island; learn about Aboriginal and South Pacific cultures; and, most of all, explore many not-often-visited isles. For example, Crystal Endeavor will make expedition stops within the Raja Ampat Islands. For scuba divers, the Blue Magic dive site is a “bragging rights” experience. Located 22 feet to 99 feet below the surface, this site holds the world record for the most species that divers can potentially encounter in a single dive.  

Throughout the cruise, the expedition ship will open its aft marina for watersports play, transport guests ashore via Zodiacs and set up hikes, beach walks and cultural interactions. At Lucipara, Indonesia, which consists of several atolls amid the Banda Sea, the expedition will take guests into a natural preserve that’s home to green turtles, crested terns and seabirds. 

At Thursday Island, one of the Torres Strait Islands and often affectionately just called “T.I.,” guests going ashore will discover a laid-back, tropical destination that’s home to only several thousand residents. We’d opt to visit the Gab Titui Cultural Centre to learn about Asian, European and South Pacific influences, and check out Green Hill Fort, originally built as a defense against Russian invasion and later an Australian World War II military station; here, cruisers can view gun emplacements and stunning views. The island also has a pearl fishing heritage. 

A PC6 Class polar-class vessel, Crystal Endeavor will carry two seven-seat helicopters onboard — for extraordinary views of rainforests and reefs from above — and a seven-seat submersible, which can dive 100 feet below the ocean’s surface, providing a close-up look at marine life. That said, Crystal Endeavor is expected to be an enclave of luxury at sea. 

Guests will return from a day of exploring to such pampering as cocktails en suite by their butler or perhaps dinner in Chef “Nobu’s” (Nobu Matsuhisa) specialty dining venue, Umi Uma. This intimate expedition vessel will have six dining options, a spa and salon, observation deck jogging track, and a two-story, glass-enclosed solarium with a swimming pool, whirlpool and sea views. 

Suite-wise, the most lavish suite onboard is the 1,290-square-foot Expedition Suite with a 735-square-foot veranda; it combines an Expedition Penthouse (No. 700) with a Deluxe Suite (No. 702), forming a two-bedroom, condo-like unit with separate living and dining area, plus a guest bathroom. Or, travelers could choose the opulent, two-bedroom, 1,130-square-foot Owner’s Suite, No. 701, another good choice with a 737-square-foot balcony, separate living and dining area, master bedroom, master bath and more.  

All suites offer king beds, dressed in fine linens, duvets and a choice of pillows; personal butler service with gratuities included; Italian fashion house ETRO bath and shower amenities; master bathrooms with adjustable heated floors, dual vanities with glass-enclosed rain showers, and anti-fog mirrors; spacious closets, integrated cabinetry and storage to accommodate those on longer stays; and such techie amenities as a bedside iPad directory, interactive TV system with complimentary movies on demand and extensive music library. 

Havana Cathedral will be a major attraction for Scenic Eclipse guests taking a walking tour of Old Havana in Cuba. // Photography: Getty Images / okaystephanie2016

Patagonia & Chilean Fjords  

Expedition cruises often depart from Ushuaia, Argentina heading to Antarctica, but there’s another reason to sail from Ushuaia — to view some of the most breathtaking scenery that Argentina and Chile have to offer. Yes, big ships often sail between Ushuaia and Valparaiso, Chile, but it’s a bit different perspective in getting “up close” to glaciers and sailing through narrow fjords on an expedition ship. One appealing expeditionary voyage that we liked is Ponant’s 13-night “Adventure to Patagonia” cruise from Ushuaia to Valparaiso on the 264-passenger Le Boreal, departing March 7, 2020. 

Travelers reach Ushuaia on a domestic flight from Buenos Aires (and that flight is included within the cruise fare). One “must-do” experience? We suggest reserving Ponant’s optional pre-cruise, premium package that includes one night in Ushuaia and an excursion to Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego National Park. It’s a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve not far from Chile’s Puerto Natales; it offers breathtaking scenic views of mountains, lakes, glaciers and rivers. 

In Chile, the ship calls or visits Puerto Williams (considered the most southerly village in the world), the Garibaldi Glacier, Puerto Natales, Estero las Montanas, El Brujo Glacier, Pie XI Glacier, Tortel, Quemchi on Chiloe Island. Le Boreal also spends a day at sea and a day sailing around Cape Horn. Weather permitting, guests will go ashore at Cape Horn and see the albatross sculpture created by Chilean artist Jose Balcells Eyquem. The voyage ends with an overnight stay onboard in Valparaiso, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where guests can soak up the wine country culture. 

Throughout the voyage, guests will go ashore or out to explore via a fleet of Zodiacs carried onboard the ship. Fjords and channels lead to such eco-sites as the Bruggen Glacier and El Brujo. At Tortel, cruisers will see charming stilt houses interconnected via wooden footbridges, while en route to Quemchi, the big draw is the chance to spot sea lions and porpoises. 

For the ultimate in luxury while on an expedition, we’d opt for the Owner’s Suite, accommodating up to two guests. Located on Deck 6, it has incredible sea views, an interior decorated by French designers, a king-sized bed (convertible to two twins) and a bathroom with a tub and shower. Other perks include satellite TV, iPod players, bath robes for guest use during the cruise, French bath products, Wi-Fi access and, most notably, private butler service, one free hour of spa treatments and one private transfer (round-trip) from the airport to the hotel and then to the port.  

The Galapagos Glamping experience on Celebrity’s new Celebrity Flora will give guests a chance to dine, drink and sleep under the stars in luxurious style.

Cuba Calling 

Scenic Eclipse, described by Scenic as a “Discovery Yacht,” will sail its first voyages in April. Carrying two helicopters and one submarine for guests to explore from the air and below the water, the expedition yacht is the first of several 228-passenger (200 in Arctic waters) oceangoing expeditionary vessels planned by the company. For those seeking an expedition a bit closer to home, Scenic Eclipse will operate a 13-day “Cuba In Depth” itinerary between Nassau in the Bahamas and Havana, Cuba, departing October 8, 2019. 

After departing Nassau, the ship will call at Long Island and Inagua Island, which is nice because these two Bahamian isles aren’t on that many cruise ship itineraries. The latter is a birder’s paradise — home to more than 140 species of native and migratory birds, including 80,000 West Indian Flamingos. Going ashore, cruisers can take a birdwatching tour or discover the history of salt mining on the island. Alternatively, they can choose a Scenic Discovery excursion paddling a kayak or heading out with a chef-prepared beach picnic and
then snorkeling. 

The ship, which carries tenders, Zodiacs, kayaks and electronically assisted bicycles or e-bikes, also calls at Port Antonio, Jamaica, before starting its people-to-people expedition program in Cuba, with calls at Santiago de Cuba (overnight), Casilda (Trinidad de Cuba), Cienfuegos (overnight), Maria la Gorda and Havana (overnight). The overnights give cruisers a chance to go ashore in the evening to dine or enjoy the local nightlife. At Maria la Gorda, cruisers can visit the biosphere reserve of Peninsula de Guanahacabibes, relax on local beaches, go hiking or kayak along the coast. 

In Havana, guests can take a walking tour of Old Havana, learn about Hemingway’s Cuba, or visit the house of the famed Cuban artist Jose Rodriguez Fuster. Other options include learning about rum and cigars, riding in a 1950s vintage car on a panoramic city tour or taking a Scenic Discovery bicycle tour. 

Onboard, guests have up to 10 dining experiences, from casual to fine dining, the Scenic Epicure culinary program, complimentary beverages all day, Discover Leaders / Cruise Directors to guide and assist, exclusive Scenic Enrich experiences, a choice of Scenic Freechoice activities and Scenic Discovery excursions. Overnight stays in several Cuban cities allow for exploring or dinner ashore in the evening, as well as local nightlife.

The top digs on this ship, the Owner’s Penthouse Suites, were fully booked at press time, but the forward 1,184-square-foot Panorama Suites, No. 801 and No. 802, were available, as were some spa suites and many categories of veranda suites; all suites have butler service and all gratuities are included, both onboard and ashore.

Quark Expeditions takes guests to the top of the world as it visits the North Pole. // Photography: Johanna Carlo

The opulent Panorama Suites have a spacious curved outdoor terrace with sun loungers; a bedroom with Egyptian cotton linens, a king-size Scenic Slumber Bed, reading alcove, desk and an HDTV; a bathroom with full size bathtub, steam shower with light therapy and dual vanities; and a lounge and dining area with a cinema surround and an HDTV, as well as a dining table for up to four guests. One nice plus? From the bedroom, guests can push a button to “drop down” the balcony window.

As for pampering perks, this suite’s minibar is restocked daily plus a personalized butler bar featuring illy coffee and specialty teas is replenished daily. Guests receive a one-hour complimentary spa treatment per suite; complimentary laundry service (limited); priority dining in specialty restaurants; priority choice of shore options including Zodiacs, kayaks and e-bikes; priority booking for spa treatments and helicopter and submarine experiences (extra charges apply); and VIP embarkation / disembarkation. 

These four in-depth voyages all had availability at press time. The good news is that they’re just a small representation of what’s out there for expedition cruising. Luxury travelers have more options than ever in heading to far-flung spots across the globe. 

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