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
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
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.
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.
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).
Oban is three hours by train
from Glasgow (from £19). Glasgow has extensive train and flight connections across the UK (flights
from Stansted from £75).
Caribbean: The one
Chances are that if you think of the perfect place to enjoy a cruise, the
Caribbean springs to mind, with its strings of palm-fringed islands, hidden
coves and beaches lapped by aquamarine seas. But there is a catch: the secret
is well and truly out and hulking great cruise ships pejoratively known as
‘floating hotels’ crowd the waters. A bracing alternative is to take to the
waves like the buccaneers did in the Golden Age of Piracy – on a wind-powered
The Star Clipper is a four-masted tall ship with 16
billowing white sails. Below deck, it fits in a number of comfortable suites
decorated in a jolly nautical theme, with mahogany and brass fittings, but the
vessel is small enough that it can dock in locations that are off-limits to the
large cruise ships. After setting sail from the Franco- Dutch island of
Saint-Martin/Sint Maarten, the ship sights Anguilla, which has over 30 beaches
crammed into its 35 square miles and a colourful world of coral just offshore.
Ninety miles to the west, the Star Clipper docks at Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands, where a jumble of boulders
creates a series of secluded grottoes on the beach. Known as The Baths, the
rock pools are home to turtles and fish, including seahorses, and are a perfect
place to go snorkelling using equipment provided on the ship.
Also in the Virgin Islands, the clipper drops anchor just
off Jost Van Dyke. This island not only has some of the most pristine sandy
beaches in the region, but also beach bars specialising in the favourite local
cocktail – a rum, pineapple juice and coconut cream concoction called the
The Star Clipper Treasure Islands
cruise departs from Sint Maarten (seven nights from £1,030 per person).
There are many budget options on large cruise ships, but the cheapest cabins
may not have sea views (seven nights from £400 per person with Royal Caribbean UK).
Fly to Sint Maarten via the US with American Airlines or United, or via
European hubs with Air
France or KLM (from £645).
Galapagos: The one
When Charles Darwin landed on the Galápagos Islands in 1835, he found a
host of endemic species subtly adapted to life on the remote and varied
archipelago. His observations helped lead him to his world-shaking theory of
evolution and the origin of species. He was struck by the fearlessness of the
island creatures, going for a ride on a giant tortoise and pushing hawks off
tree branches with his rifle.
Almost two centuries later, the 13 main islands of the
Galápagos remain unmatched, full of remarkable and rare creatures. A yacht
voyage is an excellent way to appreciate them. Ecoventura is an Ecuador-based
outfit that keeps the number of passengers low and its commitment to the
environment high on its week-long journeys. A big draw are the after-dinner
lectures on the region given by naturalists, dive experts and even an
underwater archaeologist. On frequent land excursions, passengers can
appreciate wildlife as Darwin once did, looking out for lava lizards, land
iguanas and waddling Galápagos penguins on the ground, and puff-chested
frigatebirds and waved albatrosses in the air above, all pointed out by
Ecoventura’s eagle-eyed naturalists.
The islands’ geography is equally astonishing. Guided walks
reveal white sandy beaches and prehistoric landscapes of black lava studded
with cacti and steaming volcanic vents. And many animals still lack any real
fear of humans. Visitors might find curious sea lions nosing inquisitively at
their camera lenses and flamingos pecking at their shoes. Being aboard a yacht
has other advantages – snorkelling and scuba diving from the vessel allows a
vantage point beneath the waves, where tropical reef fish of all colours give
way to green sea turtles, stingrays and humpback whales.
Ecoventura cruises depart
from the island of San Cristóbal all year round (seven nights from £2,340 per
person). The Galápagos can be an expensive destination, so the surest way to
reduce the cost is to reduce the number of days spent. A three-night cruise
starts at £900 per person with Galapagos
Flights reach Baltra and San Cristóbal islands in the
Galápagos from Guayaquil and Quito in mainland Ecuador. From the UK, fly via
New York, Miami, Amsterdam or Madrid (London-Galápagos from £84).
The one for history
Today, the Dodecanese Islands of Greece are a picture of serenity:
whitewashed villages tumble down hillsides to boat-filled harbours surrounded
by the clear waters of the Aegean. But their laid-back character belies a
turbulent history, when the great empires of the Mediterranean fought over the
islands, leaving monumental evidence of their rule in their wake.
Travel in the archipelago has been undertaken in small
sailboats since time immemorial. It’s possible to enjoy the tradition today by
taking to the seas in a wooden gulet, Turkish in origin, but well suited to
navigating the hidden coves of the Greek Islands. An archaeologist from Athens
is on board the gulets offered by Peter Sommer Travels, guiding passengers
ashore and providing expert insights into the ancient fortifications, temples
and streets. On the island of Kos, there are the mighty towers of the Castle of
the Knights of St John, the medieval order of holy crusaders who went to
Jerusalem but never returned home. Further north is the island of Patmos, where
visitors can see the grotto where St John the Divine once lived and where,
after a series of apocalyptic visions, he penned the Book of Revelation.
Still, much of the pleasure of the cruise is being aboard
the gulet, lounging on deck and breathing in the sea air. Much of the journey
is propelled by motor but there are opportunities to travel by wind power. Keen
sailors can join in, hoisting sails and helping the boat on its way.
Peter Sommer Travels runs Greek
Island cruises from April, and the Northern Dodecanese cruise runs in
September, departing from Samos (seven nights from £2,250 per person). For a
more economical option, Meander Adventures offers small-boat cruises taking in
several Dodecanese and Cycladic Islands, departing from Crete or Rhodes (seven
nights from £1,380 with Greece Travel).
Fly to Athens with Aegean,
or easyJet (from £100), then to Samos
with Olympic Air (from £120).
The article 'Five ways to hit the high seas' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.