Gunta and Greg Larsen were looking for an expedition cruise that colored outside the lines when they found a 15-day coastal Japan cruise offered through Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic. And that’s exactly what they got.
“We’ve traveled extensively, and there isn’t much that we haven’t seen,” says Gunta Larsen, a retired administrator for an oil and gas company who lives in Conifer, Colo. “So we were looking for something that was different.”
The Larsens had been to Japan several times. But they wanted to see some of the remote destinations on the National Geographic Resolution schedule, including the famous Itsukushima Shrine, known for its red torii gate that seems to float on the water, and the volcanic island of Kagoshima, with its otherworldly rocky black landscape. And the Lindblad cruise is definitely out of the ordinary, zigzagging between ports along the southern coast, detouring to Busan, South Korea, and then returning to the western coast of Japan before ending in Tokyo.
Normally, ships like the Resolution ply the polar waters such as the Antarctic. In fact, the ship, one of the newest in Lindblad’s fleet, is an ice-class Polar Code PC5 (Category A) vessel that’s designed to navigate polar passages year-round. It looks a little out of place in the warm waters of the Sea of Japan in early September.
A new cruising trend: Getting way, way out of town
The Larsens are part of a new trend in the cruise industry. Expedition cruises, once confined to places like Alaska’s Inside Passage, the Antarctic or the Galápagos Islands, are pushing into less-explored destinations. They can offer five-star accommodations in areas that have little or no tourism infrastructure, allowing passengers to see places they might never otherwise have a chance to visit.
“The joy of an expedition cruise is that the ship operator and crew take care of all the near-impossible logistics to access these remote areas, so travelers can just enjoy being there,” explains Mary Curry, a senior trip planner at Adventure Life, a tour operator. She says some of the 2024 and 2025 itineraries are truly pioneering. Some of them are so remote that “they’ve never been done before.”
The newest expedition cruises are going to the ends of the earth
The newest expeditions are headed to places you may have never heard of:
- Hurtigruten Expeditions, the Norwegian expedition cruise company, is set to launch a West Africa and Cape Verde cruise later this year. It will be the only cruise line to continuously operate in the region and the only expedition cruise line based on the West African coast, according to the company. Among the stops: the pristine Bissagos, a chain of islands known as one of the least visited destinations in the world, and one of the most difficult to reach. It’s home to saltwater hippos, crocodiles and monkeys, as well as endangered green sea turtles,” says Hurtigruten Group spokesman Anders Lindström.
- Swoop Antarctica has added new South Georgia adventures to its lineup. No, that’s not a road trip to Atlanta, or even a cruise to the former Soviet republic. The small island of South Georgia is only accessible by ship, and it’s a two-day trip from either Antarctica or the Falkland Islands. Nature lovers call it the “Serengeti of the south” because it’s home to 5 million seals, as well as an estimated 65 million breeding birds, including 7 million penguins and 250,000 albatrosses. “That includes 2 million fur seals and 50% of the world’s population of southern elephant seals,” says Lizzie Williams, a product and partnerships manager at Swoop Antarctica.
- If you’re looking for something even more adventurous, check out next summer’s Lofoten Islands cruise on the HMS Gassten, a tour offered through Red Savannah. The vessel, a former minesweeper, spent the 1970s finding World War II-era mines in the Baltic and Gulf of Bothnia. Now restored as a luxury liveaboard, she explores the lesser-visited fjords of Norway’s northern reaches. A vessel like the Gassten can access narrow bodies of water unvisited by cruise ships. “In summer, there’s kayaking, paddleboarding, walking, wild swimming, and mountain biking,” says George Morgan-Grenville, CEO of Red Savannah.
Glenn Ringer, director of product development at Geographic Expeditions, says it’s hard to find a part of the world where an expedition cruise hasn’t gone — or won’t go. They include the Svalbard archipelago, halfway between continental Norway and the North Pole, the east coast of Greenland, the Peruvian Amazon, Indonesia, the upper Mekong River in Laos, and New Guinea.
It’s for those who prefer to travel with just a few other intrepid souls, all seeking to explore remote corners of the world, rather than partying with hundreds of others in the dining room or playing the one-armed bandit in the casino,” he says.
What to make of these new expedition cruises
The Larsens say overall, they liked their coastal Japan adventure. The highlights were seeing some of the out-of-the way tourist attractions that few Americans get to visit, such as a ceramic factory and museum in Hagi and Sofukuji, a 400-year-old Ming-style Zen Buddhist temple in Nagasaki.
Greg Larsen, a retired manager for a communication company, says he also liked the opportunities to see the outdoors. His favorite shore excursion was a hike through the Yakushima Island’s famed Cypress forests on the southern tip of Japan.
“I really liked the rainforest,” he says.
The couple said the food and the staff were first-rate. They also had high praise for the guides and photographers who joined them on the cruise and gave presentations every evening that helped them understand what they were seeing.
The couple said they wish they’d taken the cruise a little later in the year, perhaps in early fall, when the weather in southern Japan was not as hot and humid. And Gunta Larsen, who says she is not much of a cruiser, wasn’t keen on the last segment of the journey, which got a little rough. But such are the perils of expedition cruising.
The Larsen’s experiences on the Resolution are fairly typical for the new expedition cruises. Cruise lines are deploying their best ships and promoting these new cruises because there’s an appetite for something different. At the same time, expedition cruising isn’t for everyone, as I noted in a previous story on the topic.
Expert advice for going farther on your next expedition cruise
Reality check: Expedition cruises remain a niche product because the vessels are smaller and more expensive. For example, a cabin on the Lindblad cruise of coastal Japan starts at $26,670 per person, not including flights. And there are a few other things you should know before going to the ends of the earth on an expedition cruise.
Make sure you know what you’re signing up for
Traditional cruising is all about the all-you-can-eat buffets, on-board casinos, and live entertainment. Expedition cruising is the opposite, says Matt Berna, president of Intrepid Travel for the Americas. “It’s all about the hidden islands and inlets that the big ships can’t reach,” he says. “Because a small cruise ship doesn’t have casinos, gyms, theaters and swimming pools, you actually have to venture off the deck of the ship, and the focus is actually on the destination.”
Consult a professional
Work with a knowledgeable travel advisor who knows the ships inside out and has some familiarity with the region you want to explore. “Some expedition vessels have very limited amenities on board, while others offer beautifully appointed staterooms and suites with fine dining, entertainment and complete spa services,” says Teresa Tennant, senior vice president of Cruise Specialists. “Your travel advisor can also help you identify when to go if there is something particular you want to see.”
Remember, it’s an expedition cruise
Some cruise lines will downplay the realities of expedition cruising until it comes time to sign their waivers. But it isn’t called an expedition cruise for nothing. The newest itineraries will take you to some of the most remote places on earth, where the closest medical facilities are days away. You need to be in decent physical shape and have a robust travel insurance policy if you want to consider one of these new cruises.
That said, the experience can be rewarding. Marcaé Ellen, a retired phone company worker from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., took an Antarctic cruise on Hurtigruten Expeditions recently and was mesmerized by the experience. For her, the highlight was a camping trip at Kerr Point on Ronge Island — “starry skies and an eerie stillness only punctuated by the sound of calving glaciers,” she recalls.
So she signed up for an expedition cruise to West Africa.
“I thoroughly expect to be awed by the wildlife in their natural surroundings,” she says. “And being a South Floridian, I want to see where hurricanes are born.”
The newest expedition cruises are untethered from the same old adventure destinations. They’re going farther than they’ve ever gone, to obscure and remote places. They may be less luxurious or more risky than traditional cruises, but for travelers who are prepared, they could be the adventure of a lifetime.