Five ways to hit the high seas
Fernandina is the youngest and most pristine island in the Galápagos. (Dan Belmont)
Forget floating hotels with shuffleboard and showtunes – these five cruises take travellers to the world’s most beautiful corners in a style that even the cruise-averse 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 have comfortable en suite cabins and libraries and 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. It’s possible to camp overnight, but the views are equally extraordinary on board, particularly in February and March, when whales can often be spotted in the krill-rich waters.
The 14-day Crossing the Antarctic Circle cruise departs from Ushuaia in Argentina (from £4,450 per person with Quark Expeditions). No cruise to Antarctica can be considered ‘budget’, with prices starting at around £3,000 with Discover The World, 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 per cent.
BA flies direct from London to Buenos Aires (from £900), and Aerolineas Argentinas flies on to Ushuaia (from £415). An extra stop in New York or Paris on the UK–Buenos Aires route can bring the total cost to Ushuaia down to £870.
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.
With such a dramatic variety of coastal views, the region invites exploration by boat, as it has done since the time of the Vikings. 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.
While the ship has a range of luxurious cabins and plenty of comfortable areas for taking in the views, there are many opportunities to head ashore and explore on foot. Visitors can wander in Torridon and Shieldaig – settlements on a coast blessed by a mild microclimate that allows pampas grass and cabbage palms to mingle with hardy Scots pines. The meeting point of three lochs just east of Skye is also the setting for the restored medieval stone keep of 13th-century Eilean Donan Castle.
Hebridean Island Cruises runs itineraries across the Scottish Isles and up the western coast (4–10 nights, from £1,250 per person). Small-boat jaunts in the Inner Hebrides are available in rather more pared-back surrounds with Cruise Ecosse from May to September (six nights from £595).