Most vacation passenger ships use Disney musicals and endless buffets to make you forget you’re out on the open ocean.

Then there’s expedition cruising, in which the boat is simply a vehicle to get you as close to adventure as possible—chasing orca pods, watching glaciers calve, even heading off on day-long hiking or mountain biking missions.

Offered by just a handful of firms, these voyages transport you on ships small enough to slip through narrow straits into pristine, “Love Boat”–free coves but cushy enough to always have a bartender or resident naturalist on hand.
Alaska: Glaciers and Grizzlies
The 36-passenger Safari Explorer and 60-passenger Wilderness Adventurer, used during Un-Cruise Adventures’ eight-day Discoverers’ Glacier Country trip, are basically mother ships, sending kayakers out to paddle among the tufted puffins, sea lions, and jettisoned glacier bergs. Alaska has a tendency to make one feel pretty small, and it’s no different here: It’s not uncommon for a kayaker to witness Dawes Glacier releasing a 10-story-high block of ice into the waters of the Endicott Arm, or a paddleboarder to spot a young male grizzly bear searching for salmon off Baranof Island. During your downtime, you can enjoy a sunrise yoga session, talks by a naturalist, or Alaskan microbrews in the library before your dinner of locally caught halibut steaks.


Galápagos Islands: Jurassic World

Most of us think of the Galápagos as remote, prehistoric-feeling, lizard-laden islands off South America, but they’re so much more than that. There are few places in the world better for wildlife spotting—both on land and underwater—so snorkeling and diving around the islands are particularly exciting. During the 11-day Galápagos Island Explorer cruise, guides from O.A.R.S. will lead you on ocean excursions that get you up close and personal with bat rays and marine iguanas; on kayaking forays, you’ll paddle among the penguins and sea lions; and during hikes on dry land, you’ll walk within feet of red-footed boobies and 200-year-old wild tortoises. For a stark contrast, embark on a rugged trek up the volcanic cinder cone overlooking the barren caldera, then deep into the lava tubes.


Washington: Pacific Northwest Wilderness

Puget Sound is best accessed from the sea, as the native Coast Salish nation has demonstrated for millennia. During Un-Cruise’s eight-day Olympic Wilderness & San Juan Islands adventure, you’ll disembark often to hike deep into Olympic National Park’s temperate, waterfall-strewn rainforest or to explore empty coves in the archipelago (like Sucia Island Marine State Park) via kayak or SUP. You’ll paddle a bit harder as you cruise beside the resident orca pod, but no worries: The whales are much more interested in wayward seals and the summer salmon run than they are in you.


Nova Scotia: Remote Canadian Outposts

During your 10-day East Coast Maritimes: Fins and Fiddles trip, which traverses Canada’s eastern maritime provinces, your home will be the 384-foot Russian icebreaker Akademik Ioffe. First stop: Sable Island, a deadly sandbar that’s been responsible for more than 350 shipwrecks and is approachable only by small inflatable craft. But making landfall each day is the primary objective of this itinerary, as the ship is loaded with mountain bikes, kayaks, and expert guides. Once you disembark, head off to trailheads in moose-filled Gros Morne National Park, or set off to bike through the hillocks and salt ponds of Québec’s Îles de la Madeleine, with a pit stop in former fishing village La Grave for a moules-frites (mussels and fries).