Cruises have gotten a bad rap lately, and some would argue that’s justifiably so. One recent study found that air quality on a cruise ship deck was “worse than the world's most polluted cities,” with one ship emitting as much particulate matter as a million cars each day.
The 2016 Cruise Ship Report Card from the NGO Friends of the Earth graded 17 major cruise lines on their environmental impact. Only one (Disney Cruise Lines) scored an A-; four other lines were given a C; and the rest were all rated as Ds and Fs.
Of course, not all cruises are created equal, and not all cruise lines feature behemoth ships carrying 5,000+ passengers. Expedition cruises have become increasingly popular in recent years, offering a more intimate and adventurous experience that focuses less on the ship and more on shore-based activities.
Here we’ll take a look at some of the major differences between an expedition cruise and a “normal” cruise to help illustrate why we believe that small ship cruises offer a better overall experience for travelers.
Expedition Cruises vs. “Normal” Cruises
Expedition cruises are taken on small ships carrying fewer than 170 passengers: Most have around a 10-to-1 guest-to-guide ratio. Their diminutive size and shallow drafts allow these ships to get much closer to scenic wonders and dock in less-visited ports than those massive cruise ships can access. And, because expedition ships are smaller, their scheduled itinerary tends to be more flexible, allowing for last-minute changes due to weather, sea conditions, wildlife sightings, or other unforeseen events.
The experience aboard the best small-ship cruises tends to be very different as well. On typical cruise ships, the primary focus is on the onboard activities and entertainment, from water parks and sports to cabaret, concerts, and shopping. The cruise staff is there to ensure their guests have a good time. Educational programming is typically minimal, sprinkled in as seasoning rather than being the “main course” of the cruise’s offerings.
But on expedition cruises, the staff is typically made up of naturalists and science-oriented guest lecturers. There are often daily (or twice-daily) presentations on the politics, culture, history, geology, ecology, and/or anthropology of a destination. These lectures are designed to help enhance the visitors’ understanding of the places and activities they explore. Some expeditions may even have expert photographers or travel writers on board to help guests learn how to better document their own experience.
These expeditions often offer luxurious accommodations on board the ship, but more rugged adventures when going ashore. Excursions are generally taken on Zodiac inflatable crafts, which presents the option of “wet landings” on beaches or rocky shorelines. From that point, groups are occasionally divided by fitness level or interests. For instance, one of our landing parties in Antarctica hiked up a huge hill in order to get a better scenic vista, while the rest of us hung out along the shore, where we were surrounded by penguins.
Zegrahm Expeditions’ Small-Ship Cruises
Since its inception in 1990, Zegrahm has established itself as a global leader in expedition cruises by offering unique itineraries to remote destinations on all seven continents. Here’s a look at a few highlights of 16 small-ship cruises Zegrahm is offering in 2019 and 2020:
Most people think of safaris when they consider travel to the African continent. But on the eastern side of Africa is the gorgeous Seychelles archipelago that features pristine coral reefs, white sand beaches, and crystal clear water. The 16-day Ultimate Seychelles with Aldabra Atoll expedition aboard the luxurious Le Bougainville takes explorers from Zanzibar, through beautiful and remote atolls, and to the famed beaches on La Digue
Arctic / Antarctic
Polar exploration makes for some of the world’s most memorable expedition cruises. Perhaps this explains why Zegrahm offers five different expedition cruises to the Arctic and Antarctic regions. On the Path of the Vikings, guests get a chance to see the wondrous wildlife of Greenland and Iceland, while Wild Kamchatka with the Kuril Islands offers an opportunity to view explore the rugged and remote coast of eastern Russia. In the Southern Hemisphere, there are two in-depth adventures that offer incredible access to stunning landscapes via our Antarctica cruises.
Australia & The South Pacific
Zegrahm’s small-ship cruises include two very different experiences in the only country that is also a continent. Australia’s Kimberley visits nearly a dozen destinations on the coastline of the northwestern Outback, which boasts unique wildlife and striking desert landscapes. And marine life lovers won’t want to miss the Best of the Great Barrier Reef trip, which provides unparalleled access to snorkeling and diving in some of the UNESCO World Heritage Site’s most pristine coral reefs, far from overcrowded tourist sites
The perfect picture of paradise, the South Pacific boasts white-sand beaches, turquoise-blue lagoons, lush jungle, and sky-piercing volcanoes. Zegrahm’s small-ship cruises take explorers far from popular tourist resorts to remote islands and atolls rarely visited by the outside world. On Zegrahm’s Papua New Guinea expedition, witness the traditional fire dances of the Baining tribe and snorkel and dive amongst dazzling tropical fish. Receive warm welcome from friendly locals and experience time-honored ceremonies on Melanesia, Solomon Islands & Vanuatu, search for striking endemic birds, stroll through tiny villages, and snorkel and dive over pristine coral reefs. Last but not least, embark on an epic adventure while cruising from Tahiti to Easter Island and enjoying stunning landscapes and spectacular underwater adventures along the way
Late spring is arguably the best time to visit Europe, before the heat of summer and the swarms of mass tourism make things uncomfortable for visitors and locals alike. Zegrahm’s Wild & Ancient Britain expedition focuses on the United Kingdom and Ireland, including some of the region’s most beautiful and remote islands. And early fall, when the weather is still comfortable, the Circumnavigation of Sicily trip visits beautiful coastal towns where travelers can visit impressive cathedrals and sample exquisite local cuisine.
Central & South America
Thanks to the Obama Administration’s loosening of restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba, the island has become one of the world’s hottest expedition cruise destinations in recent years. Zegrahm offers two options: The 14-day Circumnavigation of Cuba provides a more in-depth and immersive experience, while the Canal to Cuba excursion gives guests smaller samples of Cuba, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Panama. The Wild Galápagos expedition is a small-ship cruise that should be on every nature lover’s bucket list. And, Hidden Gems of the Caribbean, our final expedition of 2018, offers 56 island lovers a 12-day adventure they’ll never forget.
From verdant rice paddies and skyscraping-mountains to white-sand beaches and futuristic cities, Asia is filled with breathtaking contrasts. Explore Asia’s underwater wonders on Philippines with Palau & Taiwan. The Philippines boasts a variety of pristine snorkeling and diving destinations, including the world’s second-largest contiguous coral reef. Discover Asia’s cultural wonders while cruising Along the Mekong river, soaking in timeless river scenes, stepping ashore in remote villages, and exploring ancient sites and historic cities.
Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.