Five Hidden Cruise Treasures

If you say the word “cruise” to someone, chances are good that they’ll picture one of two things: the Caribbean or the Mediterranean. But the world of cruising is so much broader than the sun-splashed destinations of the world. In fact, some of the most rewarding journeys are the ones that will leave you friends puzzled as to where you’ve been – and why you’re going there in the first place.

To inspire you to explore beyond the Caribbean or Mediterranean, we present five of our favorite experiences on cruises. We call them, “Hidden Cruise Treasures.”

The Iguanas of the Galapagos

Set sail for the beautiful Galapagos Islands. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Set sail for the beautiful Galapagos Islands. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

The Galapagos has significant brand-name appeal, but few travellers actually go there. The vast majority of ships plying the Galapagos Islands, which lie off the coast of Ecuador, can hold less than 50 guests, and only two ships – Celebrity Xpedition and Silver Galapagos – can carry 100 passengers. Even if big cruise ships are passing by, forget it: They’ll never be able to stop in the Galapagos. Ecuadorian laws and regulations prohibit foreign vessels from calling on the islands, and particularly any vessel carrying more than 100 passengers.

So the Galapagos is not so easy to get to. That much is apparent. But for those who make the trek from their homes to Quito and then onto Baltra or San Cristobal via Guayaquil, they will quickly discover that the Galapagos offers so much more than they could ever have imagined. And the Iguanas say it all.

The Iguanas of the Galapagos. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
The Iguanas of the Galapagos. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

On most islands in the Galapagos, Iguanas litter the landscape for as far as the eye can see. They’re not bothered by human presence; they look up at you as if you’re invading their territorial space and aren’t entirely sure what they should do about it.

In fact, they don’t behave as you’d expect them to at all. Rather than scattering as a squirrel or a rabbit might, the Iguanas stay perfectly still, content to remain basking in the heat of the equatorial sun even as you gingerly step over them.

...while Silver Galapagos is anchored off Bartolome, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. Silversea has shown me more of the world's most interesting and off-the-beaten-path itineraries than any other cruise line - and it's the reason I sail with them again and again. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Bartolome, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

As day turns to night, they’ll scramble on top of each other for warmth, creating a writhing mass of lizards the likes of which you’ve probably never seen before.

Sure, a cruise to the Galapagos holds many charms – but it’s the unmoving, unblinking, and unbelievable Iguanas that you’ll likely remember most.

In The Footsteps of the Explorers: Antarctica

Seabourn Quest Antarctica
Quest For Adventure: Seabourn Quest anchored within sight of the González Videla Base, a Chilean Research Station on the Antarctic mainland’s Waterboat Point in Paradise Bay. © 2014 Avid Travel Media Inc.

One of the penultimate cruise journeys is surely the exploration of the Antarctic Peninsula.

The seasoned traveller’s ultimate bucket list destination, Antarctica is often overlooked for reasons that have little bearing on reality. The first assumption is that it will be mind-numbingly cold – and this is not the case. Located in the Southern Hemisphere, Antarctica is in full-blown summer during the months of December, January and February, when most voyages to the Antarctic take place. In fact, Antarctica in the middle of December is substantially warmer than many Central and Northern European cities.

Myth Number Two: It will be expensive. While it’s true that cruise lines aren’t exactly giving away voyages to Antarctica, there are more vessels sailing to the famous White Continent than ever before. There is an array of vessels and budgets to suit most anyone.

It's warm enough in Antarctica during their summer months (the Northern Hemisphere's winter) that camping in Antarctica is possible. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
It’s warm enough in Antarctica during their summer months (the Northern Hemisphere’s winter) that camping in Antarctica is possible. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

We could name many cruise treasures in Antarctica. One is the towering, tabular iceberg. Bigger than most expedition cruise ships and longer than a soccer field, tabular bergs are the calling card of Antarctica – and the first encounter you have with one will be a significant one, an event of breath-taking beauty.

Of course, tabular bergs give way to icebergs of all sizes. This, almost inevitably, gives way to penguins. Penguins of all kinds. Waddling like Charlie Chaplin, these creatures serve to populate this beautiful but unforgiving land.

The real reason to visit Antarctica, though, has nothing to do with penguins or icebergs. It is to see this harsh and foreboding climate for what it is. Despite its pristine beauty, many early polar explorers tried – and failed – to make their way through this landscape under what we would consider today to be appalling conditions.

Port Lockroy, Antarctica. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Port Lockroy, Antarctica. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Antarctica is alive with the ghosts of great explorers like Roald Amundsen, James Clark Ross, Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton. The latter would successfully lead his expedition on a desperate nearly two-year bid for safety after his ship, the Endurance became stuck (and later crushed) in the pack ice.

Today, guests sail on specially-built expedition ships designed with every comfort in mind. They’re built to handle the turbulent seas of the Drake Passage in ways that explorers like Scott and Shackleton could only dream of.

And yet, when you first come upon Elephant Island – where Shackleton launched his arduous journey to the safety of South Georgia – its towering mass and imposing landscape brings history to life. He was here. His men were here. Somehow, they managed to survive in this dangerous land to see another day. Many were not so lucky.

Today, a voyage to Antarctica is a bucket-list destination; one that should never be overlooked. It will change your perspective on the world.

Cradle of Civilization: The Middle East

Amazing. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Amazing Petra, Jordan. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Like Antarctica, sailings to the Middle East can be easily overlooked. Also like the White Continent, much of this region – referred to sometimes as the ‘Cradle of Civilization’ – is misunderstood.

Militant groups like ISIS are making things difficult in the Middle East, but the diversity of the countries that make up the Middle East offers up plenty of safe, historically rich ports of call.

One aspect that makes these voyages so hidden is their scarcity. Many cruise lines still offer these sailings because of the convenience of the Suez Canal in repositioning ships between Europe and Asia, but the sailings are not nearly as popular as they used to be.

You can cruise from places like Dubai or Muscat and end up in Athens or Venice in just a couple of weeks.

Unlocking the ancient mysteries of Egypt today with Silversea Cruises. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Unlocking the ancient mysteries of Egypt . Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The term “Cradle of Civilization” isn’t without merit. In Jordan, for example, you can visit the ancient city of Petra that is famous for its architectural marvels literally cut into the rock and cliffs that surrounds them. Once a vibrant city with a booming trade industry, the city was “lost” until its discovery in 1812 by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burkhardt.

In Egypt, few things can compare with a trip to the city of Luxor, with its Luxor Temple that dates back to 1400 BC and is situated on the banks of the Nile River. You can also visit the Valley of the Kings, pay your respects to King Tutankhamun, and even journey out to the tremendous Valley of the Queens.

Guests disembark the ferry in Port Fouad. I turned around and took the ferry straight back to Port Said. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Guests disembark the ferry in Port Fouad,  after arriving from Port Said, |Egypt. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Once on the European side of the Suez Canal, some cruises will include stops in Kusadasi, Turkey so that guests can explore the ancient of Ephesus, inscribed this year as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Others will call on Piraeus, where you can go on excursion to nearby Athens, with its iconic Acropolis and quaint, relaxing Plaka district where Souvlaki is the word of the day.

The Middle East may be turbulent – but it’s as close to a living history lesson as one can get.

Lobster in Maine, Oysters in Nova Scotia: The Canada & New England Voyage

Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Exploring Quebec City, Canada. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

In the fall, cruise lines begin offering voyages to Canada and New England from ports of call like Boston and New York, and Quebec City in Canada. These are done primarily so that you can see the East Coast’s famous fall foliage in all its amber-tinted splendor.

But there’s another good reason you should take a Canada & New England cruise – and it has everything to do with food.

Atlantic seafood is legendary. The small coastal village of Bar Harbor, Maine, is known for its lobster. Nestled in the shadow of Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor is so picturesque that you’ll be tempted to just stroll the streets of this small town all day. That is until you see someone eating the largest lobster you’ve ever seen. They’re massive: They spill over the plate they’re served on. It isn’t just one restaurant either; every restaurant serves some of the best, locally caught seafood you can imagine.

The iconic lighthouse at Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia casts a watchful eye across the Atlantic. Photo © Aaron Saunders
The iconic lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia casts a watchful eye across the Atlantic. Photo © Aaron Saunders

The same holds true in Canada. Most Canada and New England voyages will call on Halifax, the capital of the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. It’s a vibrant city with a hip, trendy feel to it, all wrapped up in brick-and-mortar turn of the century buildings. The seafood here is, as you might expect, delectable.

But those going north to Sydney, Nova Scotia are in for a real treat. Sydney is located in the heart of the Province’s Cape Breton region – and Cape Breton is known for nothing if not its delicious, succulent oysters.

So while everyone else is out to see the leaves change colors, do as the locals do. Take a seat, grab a beer, enjoy the seafood — and relish life on North America’s most colorful coast.

The Transatlantic Crossing

Cunard's iconic RMS Queen Mary 2 is the last true ocean liner at sea. Photo courtesy of Cunard.
Cunard’s iconic RMS Queen Mary 2 is the last true ocean liner at sea. Photo courtesy of Cunard.

Our final cruise itinerary is a hidden treasure simply because most people overlook it. After all, why would you want to take a cruise with many sea days and few – if any – ports of call? But the transatlantic crossing makes our list precisely because of what it lacks: ports. Ports are great, but they’re also distracting. Rather than relaxing during our precious time off, many of us will run around in foreign cities and towns around the world, eager to see more and do more to “maximize” our vacation time.

A transatlantic crossing takes those pressures away, leaving you with only two things: ocean and ship. And for the first few days, chances are good that you’ll run around seeing production shows, guest lecturers, and the performances by live bands that have become the staple of oceangoing cruising.

Some hearty souls brave the wind once the sun returned. Queen Mary 2's boat deck is twice as high off the ocean as most modern cruise ships, protecting the lifeboats from potentially-damaging waves. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Queen Mary 2’s boat deck is twice as high off the ocean as most modern cruise ships, protecting the lifeboats from potentially-damaging waves. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

But then an interesting thing happens: Guests start staying up later than before. With no early port calls and excursions requiring you to be off the ship at a set time, you sleep in later. Suddenly, the entire dynamic of the cruise shifts before your very eyes.

Mornings become a relaxing oasis filled with casual brunch taken poolside. Afternoons are a chance to indulge your passions for reading, writing, or maybe trying your hand at one of the onboard art classes. Crave a cappuccino? Why not head to the coffee bar? Lust after a pool drink? Well, why not: it’s five o’clock somewhere, and you’re not driving.

The evenings, however, are where the transatlantic experience really kicks into high gear. Evenings without commitments the next morning tend to linger, first over dinner, then over one of the ship’s production shows. Maybe you retreat into one of the lounges with your fellow shipmates, or end the evening with a romantic stroll out on deck?

After dinner, it's time to go up to my favorite spot on the ship: the Commodore Club, Deck 9 forward. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
After dinner, it’s time to go up to the Commodore Club onboard Queen Mary 2, Deck 9 forward. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

For the longest time, a transatlantic crossing was the only way to get between Europe and North America. Every North American’s ancestors came across on the ocean liners of their day, and the link that Canadians and Americans still feel for the Atlantic is shared by many Europeans who are eager to find a different way to cross.

The size of the Atlantic is a tough thing to estimate when you’re zipping along at 10,000 meters aboard an Airbus. But on a transatlantic crossing aboard a ship, the journey can take as long as a week or more.

Being out on the vast open ocean is a humbling and inspiring experience, though few think of it when it comes to cruising. And for that reason crossing the Atlantic Ocean merits being on our list of hidden cruise treasures.

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