What You Need to Know Before Going on an Expedition Cruise
Article and photos by Nora Dunn Published 11/5/2019
Adventure Canada's Ocean Endeavor.
Dressed in waterproof and windproof layers, rubber boots, a warm hat, gloves, and more, I climb into the zodiac awaiting me in the frigid choppy waters. I'm about to do an “expedition landing” in a glacial fjord that is one of the deepest points on the continental shelf. Not only is this a first for me, but also for Adventure Canada and everybody else on the expedition cruise. I feel like an explorer, but without all the hardship that accompanies such a title. I have to be truthful. I'm also looking forward to having hot chocolate and warm scones when I get back on the ship in a few hours.
With increasing stories of overtourism and destinations like Venice threatening to ban cruise ships entirely, you might think cruising has seen its heyday. But expedition cruising turns “traditional” cruising on its head and is gaining a lot of traction.
On an expedition cruise, you'll visit places difficult or impossible to reach and explore by land, like the polar regions, the Galapagos Islands, the South Pacific, and more. There's an intrepid nature to the voyage that allows passengers to experience destinations in a meaningful way.
Expedition cruising is more about getting off the ship than staying on it (although there are usually lovely things to do aboard if that's what you prefer on any given day). Shore activities include hiking, kayaking, and interacting with the environment and locals in a more intimate way. On our cruise, we visited small museums, hiked old trails, blazed new ones. We even had a couple of dinners and parties hosted by local communities so small that we effectively doubled their population for the day.
Back on the ship, instead of cabaret shows, we had educational workshops facilitated by a local staff of biologists, historians, cultural experts, photographers, and more. Instead of midnight buffets, we enjoyed locally curated and prepared meals that reflect the culture (“Taste of Place” is a program unique to Adventure Canada that embraces local gastronomy in new ways).
Taste of Place popup—fish chowder and berry tarts made by a local lady.
The Beauty of Small Cruise Ships
Much of this is made possible by smaller cruise ships. These boats can navigate narrow passages and reach harbors that larger ships can't access.
Francois, a town only accessible by boat.
And a smaller contingent of passengers (numbering from less than a dozen to 300 people, depending on the ship) creates a much more intimate feel. On my ship (the Ocean Endeavor, which holds up to 198 passengers), everybody gathered—and fit comfortably— in the lounge for the nightly briefings. While I didn't know every person's name, I certainly shared a kinship with everybody by the end of the 10-day adventure cruise.
Fewer passengers also make more intimate encounters possible. One night in the small town of Conche, we were treated to a home-cooked cod supper followed by local music and a good old fashioned dance. We kicked up our heels again in Francois, a town only accessible by boat whose population of 130 wouldn't survive without community spirit. A ship of 3,000 passengers would never be able to experience small-town Newfoundland the way we did, and the spirit of Newfoundland—and many other remote outposts on expedition cruise itineraries—lies in these small communities.
From the standpoint of cultural and environmental sensitivity, fewer passengers mean less of a footprint. Whether we were visiting local communities or uninhabited landscapes, we left no trace, in addition to providing financial support to the people and towns we visited.
What to Expect When Expedition Cruising
They say a change is as good as a rest, and that's the kind of rest you'll get when expedition cruising. On an Arctic cruise for example, being the land of the midnight sun, the loudspeaker in your cabin may come to life at 4 a.m. announcing a polar bear frolicking on the ice flow beside the ship. While most people aren't thrilled with wake-up calls like these, all is usually forgiven when, adorned in jackets atop jammies, you look over the side of the boat to see something most people only ever see in magazines or on TV.
On the Newfoundland Circumnavigation cruise we didn't have polar bear sightings, but we often had 7 a.m. wakeup calls to allow us enough time to experience our destination at hand before pulling anchor and sailing to the next place.
In our initial briefing, we were assured there were a few things we could count on, which included the morning wake-up calls. (The expedition leader did an excellent job of managing expectations). What we couldn't count on, ironically, was the trip itinerary, because that was dictated in large part by the weather.
During one evening briefing, while rolling about in 2-meter swells, the expedition leader kept us abreast of the fancy footwork he and the captain were doing to minimize the impact of the current weather system on our trip. It necessitated switching the order of two days on the itinerary since we couldn't get into our original destination harbor due to the sheer force of the winds, and so had to take shelter in another. Ironically, this is how we ended up in a glacial fjord never before explored by Adventure Canada or any other expedition cruise ship. The idea was put forth by the local geologist on staff – inside scoops like these being another great benefit that Adventure Canada provides in hiring local expedition teams.
Because many expedition cruise stops aren't equipped for ships, you can expect to go ashore on zodiacs (inflatable boats with outboard motors) rather than gangplanks. In some cases, you'll be doing an “expedition landing” (versus a “dry landing” on a dock) involving wading ashore from the zodiac, often on uneven terrain (rubber boots are provided). So while many levels of fitness and physical abilities are accommodates, those with severe mobility issues may not be able to get the most from an expedition cruise.
Where Expeditions Cruises Go
The expedition cruise concept was arguably born with cruises to Antarctica, which have grown significantly in popularity over the last decade. Given this surge in demand, expedition cruise companies have expanded both their itineraries and their fleets.
While there are a few expedition cruise lines now exploring the (northern) Arctic, Adventure Canada has been doing it the longest and has the greatest selection of trips throughout the region. In 2019, Adventure Canada became the first travel outfitter to bring guests to the famed HMS Erebus Wreck Site on its Out of the Northwest Passage trip, a signature Canadian experience.
But there's much more than the polar regions to explore. You'll have your pick of adventure cruise lines to visit the Amazon river, the Pacific Northwest, Costa Rica & Panama, the Galapagos Islands, Sea of Cortez, the South Pacific, and more.
Why Expedition Cruising is Great for Solo Travelers
Sunrise from the ship.
As a solo traveler aboard Adventure Canada's Ocean Endeavor, not once did I feel lonely or excluded. It was incredibly easy to meet and spend time with other passengers (even couples and families), yet also to spend time in solitude when that's what I wanted. There was no assigned seating at meals, and joining tables with other people (or being joined by others) was welcome.
In contrast, this is not the impression “traditional” cruising evokes, which are so often dominated by couples and families. In chatting with a colleague who had taken a Disney cruise in the past, I plied her with questions about what the experience would be like for a solo traveler. She finally cracked and admitted that while there with her husband she didn't pay the slightest attention to solo travelers—if there even were any on board.
Part of the challenge for the solo traveler when cruising is the cost. Few traditional cruise lines waive the single supplement (an additional fee solo travelers are charged to compensate for the reduced amount a double-occupancy cabin would normally fetch). Without this discount, solo travelers often have to pay up to double the per-person cost.
Supplements for solo travelers are not as prevalent in the expedition cruise industry. Various cruise lines have promotions reducing or waiving the single supplement entirely. Adventure Canada, for example, offers a limited number of single-supplement-free cabins on every cruise. Once these are booked, they offer to match up solo travelers to share a cabin, or solo travelers can simply pay 1.5 times the berth cost to have a cabin to themselves.
What to Pack for an Expedition Cruise
Leave your ball gown at home; casual wear dominates the expedition cruising scene.
Adventure Canada advises packing light, partly because with such remote itineraries, small charter flights (with limited capacity for luggage) are sometimes required to get in and out of the ports where you start and finish the cruise.
And what luggage you have is likely to be filled with practical layers. With itineraries to places like the polar regions, Iceland, Greenland, the Pacific Northwest, and even Newfoundland, the weather ranges from unreliably cool to downright cold, requiring lots of layers. While I seemed to be the only traveler who made a go of it with carry-on luggage only, it was a tight fit with the layers I brought (and needed).
Below is the packing list as recommended by Adventure Canada for their Newfoundland Circumnavigation trip.
Environmental Practices of Expedition Cruise Lines
While traditional cruise ships' environmental practices and carbon footprints range from acceptable to downright illegal, most expedition cruise lines are more focused on reducing their impact across the board. In 2020, Hurtigruten is launching a revolutionary hybrid electric ship. Other companies are designing ships with aqua-dynamic hulls, installing solar and wind power generators, eliminating single-use plastics and unnecessary waste, and more.
If environmental (and cultural) footprint is of concern, you'll have your pick of cruise lines that each have their own approach to environmental sustainability. If the company is a B Corp, such as Intrepid Travel, that's a good sign since they conform to a very high bar. (B Corporations have passed a rigorous accreditation process demonstrating social and environmental performance, transparency, and accountability).
Check out the cruise line's documentation on sustainability. After sitting down with Adventure Canada co-founder Bill Swan, I was presented an overview of a dizzying number of projects and initiatives they're involved in, as well as a series of goals that have them on track to not only eliminating their carbon footprint, but even creating a climate positive/carbon negative environment (meaning they will effectively be taking more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than they are contributing).
Adventure Canada Sustainability Goals.
Why I Would Sail With Adventure Canada Again
Adventure Canada was founded in 1987 by three wilderness guides who wanted to take travelers to “off the map” destinations. They're still doing it today, though on a slightly grander scale. That said, it's still a 100% family-run company (with the co-founders' children at the helm now), and once you've done one Adventure Canada cruise, you feel like an extension of the family. Evidence of the loyalty is the number of repeat customers; the record holder on our cruise had sailed with Adventure Canada 11 times, with dozens of others on board who had sailed two to four times.
They're also the leaders in high Arctic travel, with a variety of trips and itineraries that allow you to follow the routes of the early explorers (such as the northwest passage), see the “Big Five” polar animals (polar bear, narwhal, muskox, walrus, arctic fox), northern lights, alpine terrain, and interact with indigenous communities in a respectful exchange of cultures and values.
In terms of activities and excursions, there's something for everybody. Onshore, we often scattered into different groups. This was most apparent when we did our unchartered expedition landing in the glacial fjord. Some people went on a scenic zodiac ride. Some went ashore and learned about the terrain with the expedition staff (who included a geologist, a wildlife expert, a food forager, and a photographer). A few went kayaking. Others yet went further afield onshore on various discovery missions of their own. And one group (myself included) chose the highest peak in sight and arbitrarily scaled it, often finding ourselves in bush so thick we were walking on boughs four feet off the ground. (Getting down off the mountain was another adventure entirely, and not for the faint of heart, but it bonded our small group together for the rest of the voyage). Lastly, some people stayed on the ship and enjoyed an afternoon reading in the library, soaking in the hot tub, or getting a massage at the spa.
Their commitment to hiring a local expedition staff makes every part of the trip—both onboard and ashore—an educational and cultural experience. (It also supports the local economy, which I wholeheartedly endorse). There was no exclusivity, and spending informal time with these people allowed me to gain a much greater understanding of Newfoundland than I'd ever imagined would be possible on a cruise.
Adventure Canada is the only company with an Inuit expedition leader commanding expedition cruises in the Canadian Arctic and around the world.
The comforts and conveniences onboard are luxurious but not over the top. I appreciated the down-to-earth vibe of the ship's amenities, the crew, and fellow passengers. There was no room (nor need) for elitism.
And with a substantial commitment to partnerships that champion environmental and social causes, I felt that traveling with Adventure Canada meant supporting a network much greater than would be possible on my own.
According to Adventure Canada: “The overall mission beyond delivering life-changing travel experiences for our guests, and broadening the global knowledge of the destinations we visit, is to connect people to each other and to the natural world to help better preserve and facilitate meaning on a personal level.” It's hard not to get behind such a holistic mission.
Hurtigruten (Another huge expedition cruising company with a large selection of destinations and itineraries)
Silversea Expeditions (The expedition cruising arm of Silversea Cruises, and a super luxury experience, with an average guest to staff ratio of 1:1)
Zegrahm Expeditions (Small ship cruises to a variety of destinations with a large presence in the southern hemisphere)
Quark Expeditions (Specializing in Polar expeditions, including Antarctic trips on the Ocean Endeavor – which is the same ship I sailed on with Adventure Canada)
G Adventures (A largely land-based tour company that offers expedition cruises in both polar regions and Norway)
Peregrine Adventures (A luxury overland tour company offering adventure cruises to Europe, Asia, Africa, and Central America)
Nora Dunn (aka The Professional Hobo) traveled full-time for 12 years. While she now has a home base in Canada, she continues to travel for about half of each year, exploring new types of travel like adventure cruises, and speaking at conferences around the world about her travel experiences. As a freelance writer, she specializes in travel, personal finance, lifestyle design, and the intersection of all three.