By Alison Gardner
January 22, 2013
The world is not actually shrinking. However, accessibility to just about anywhere on the planet makes it more challenging to feel like a travel pioneer, journeying to a special place that you won’t discover half a dozen people at your next party have also visited in the past few years.
While purposeful adventurers are swarming over more land and sea destinations than ever before, there do remain some travel frontiers left to explore that no longer require a Sir Edmond Hilary or a Steve Fossett to risk life and limb to encounter them. Despite their remote nature, far-flung destinations have become a possibility for the average traveler– but how do we get there?
Let’s check in with an expert on those newly-accessible travel frontiers for curious adventurers of most ages and abilities. In 2012, Todd Smith of AdventureSmith Explorations was named the top small-ship expedition cruising specialist in Condé Nast Traveler’s 13th Annual Travel Specialists List. “Nearly 20 years ago,” Smith says, “when I began designing itineraries and guiding small ship cruises, expedition cruising was a radical idea. ’A cruise with no ports will never sell,’ marketing executives advised. But I knew I was on to something.
“We created one of Alaska’s first true wilderness cruises, and participants loved the idea of exchanging whales, glaciers, eagles and bears for crowded ports, bus tours and midnight buffets. Expedition cruising was born with Alaska, Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, the Galapagos Islands and Antarctica soon serving as gateway trips that introduce travelers to this unique style of travel.
“It has since spread to every continent, allowing ordinary travelers to immerse themselves in many of the last wilderness frontiers and unspoiled cultural experiences on our planet,” Smith adds. “Given the modern high-tech ships that make up the fleet, participants can do this without sacrificing a hot shower, delicious meals, personalized service and comfortable accommodations.”
To illustrate Smith’s observations, let me share my own small-ship cruise experience with Orion Expeditions while exploring what UNESCO describes as “the most diverse and extensive of all Subantarctic archipelagos.” In centuries past, the fragile local flora and fauna of these wilderness gems were devastated by whalers and a small number of hardy settlers. In recent decades, tens of millions of dollars have been committed to eradicate non-native species to allow endangered plants, birds and marine mammals to rebound in isolation under the watchful eye of Department of Conservation officials from New Zealand and Australia. Each year a maximum of 1,000 adventurers, mainly over 50 years old, come humbly... by invitation only!
My 16-day “Exploration of the Antipodes” cruise sailed southeast from Auckland toward five New Zealand dots of tundra, permafrost and volcanoes: the Bounty, Antipodes, Snares, Auckland and Campbell islands. Our Australian destination was Macquarie Island, the most southerly of our journey. They all occupy predictably stormy latitudes between the Roaring Forties and the Furious Fifties, also known as the Albatross Latitudes.
Orion Expeditions gifted each of its 100 guests with a hooded winter jacket, but we were instructed to bring our own thermal underwear, a toque or balaclava and winter gloves, rain pants and gumboots for “wet” landings. These were essential for our twoto three-hour Zodiac excursions, sometimes twice a day, going ashore for guided walks or for following dramatic coastlines on the water with a naturalist aboard every Zodiac to point out well-camouflaged birds and marine mammals. During the 20th century, some species had declined to only a handful of creatures before beginning celebrated comebacks in their now-protected environments.
Eleven naturalists were on board to share their diverse knowledge with informal chats over a meal or during stimulating lectures. Three or four illustrated lectures were scheduled during every “at sea” day in the comfortable theatre on the Orion’s top deck with subjects ranging from wildlife species and plants, to bird migration, island geology, the colorful but tragic (for the animals) whaling history, and attempted human settlements. Attendance was always enthusiastic with plenty of questions for each lecturer, but guests could also watch a lecture on their stateroom TV.
There were three gourmet-quality meals a day to truly savor at a leisurely pace and an ample tea spread in the afternoon, a well-stocked library, an entertaining musical duo nightly, and surprisingly competitive group games of Trivial Pursuit at teatime. The Orion is, after all, a sophisticated, spit-and-polish 103-meter/338-foot cruise ship minus the casino, the crowds, and glitzy floor shows!
Until the past decade, the continent of Antarctica was near the top of every adventure traveler’s list precisely because it was an experience few would expect to achieve. Today, with 40,000 tourists annually cruising Antarctica, many aboard larger conventional cruise ships, it is now a “been there, done that” check mark on a surprising number of wish lists.
Near the end of our journey, I asked veteran Orion Expeditions leader, Mick Fogg, how he would rate this Subantarctic cruise among the itineraries he has created and supervised. He unhesitatingly identified this one as close to his favorite voyage. “Every island is different,” he declared, “unique in its own right, and far more diverse in flora and fauna than the Antarctic. We haven’t passed another ship or seen a plane for 16 days… that really shows how off-the-beaten-path we have been!"