A Galápagos sea lion
Photograph by Michael S. Nolan

Some small-ship cruise lines are offering big-time thrills with active itineraries in exotic locations.

Seeking serious exploration? For adventure travelers, good things — namely, the ability to go wild — come in small ships, right-sized to explore remote channels. And those small ships often carry smaller vessels such as kayaks and Zodiacs that allow the curious to get as close as safely possible to everything from massive icebergs and behemoth blue whales to Amazonian butterflies and jungle sloths. Indulge your appetite for extremes with one of these six cruise lines that angle for adventurers.

Lindblad Expeditions
The National Geographic Endeavor
Photograph by Michael S. Nolan
Lindblad’s history as a leader in small-ship expeditions dates back to 1958 when Lars-Eric Lindblad began pioneering trips to Easter Island, the Galápagos, and the Amazon. Now run by his son Sven Lindblad, the line champions conservation and has an alliance with the National Geographic Society which includes hosting NGS experts, photographers, and researchers onboard and using expedition-ready technology like undersea cameras and hydrophones that focus and amplify the wild.

Spying a giant tortoise
Photograph by Kevin Schafer
You can cruise the Nile, New Zealand, the British Isles, and virtually the entire world with Lindblad, which deploys five ships ranging in capacity from 48 to 148 passengers and seasonally charters another five. But its core destinations are the most adventurous, including the Arctic Svalbard archipelago, Antarctica, Alaska, Mexico’s Baja, Central America, and the Galápagos. Expert in the Galápagos, Lindblad operates two ships there year-round — the 96-passenger National Geographic Endeavor and the 48-guest National Geographic Islander. Naturalist-led excursions include vigorous hikes, deep-water snorkeling with sea lions, and giant-tortoise watches.

Furthering its appeal to inquiring minds, Lindblad’s newly launched Skills@Sea program includes shipboard workshops on navigation, travel writing, photography, and wellness, the latter led by staff from Arizona’s groundbreaking Miraval Resort & Spa. expeditions.com

Quark Expeditions
Quark specializes in polar expeditions with its fleet of ice-crushing ships.
Photograph by John Weller
Cold-water cruising specialist Quark, celebrating its 20th year in 2011, deploys seven ships to the Arctic and Antarctica. Its polar achievements include the first circumnavigation of the Arctic and the first crossing of Russia’s Northeast Passage by passenger ships.

The diversity of Quark’s fleet — including two polar icebreakers equipped with helicopters and Zodiacs for landings and four ice-strengthened adventure ships ranging from 78 to 128 passengers each — allows the cruise line to offer a variety of sailings. Nine itineraries in the North include a 66-day Arctic circumnavigation trip beginning in July from Russia to Greenland to Canada aboard the 112-passenger polar icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov. In June, a 15-day voyage aboard the 128-guest icebreaker 50 Years of Victory will fracture a path to the North Pole.

Quark specializes in polar expeditions with its fleet of ice-crushing ships.
Photograph by Peter Guttman
In Antarctica, from November through March, six different itineraries range from eight to 31 days, offering opportunities to get active by sea kayaking, camping, cross-country skiing, or mountaineering, as well as more passively watching for whales, seals, and penguins. Expedition leaders include university professors and scientists from polar research bases who lead Zodiac landings and lecture on wildlife, the nature of ice, and the history of the seventh continent. quarkexpeditions.com