From Svalbard to Bangladesh, some adventures can only be experienced by boat. Wanderlust correspondents pick their favourite river, lake and ocean trips
It only takes a brief tutorial and a few blistered palms to get underway. As tawny sails bloom overhead, the Noorderlicht cants dramatically and begins to sing with the wind. Svalbard’s capital, Longyearbyen, falls astern, the cluster of brightly coloured wooden houses shrinking to Lego blocks against a dramatic meringue-whip of mountains.
It is only during summer that this remote archipelago struggles from the frigid grip of pack ice – and only then that ships can probe its spectacular fjords.
A 50m steel-hulled schooner with a crew of five and 17 passengers, the Noorderlicht is the smallest and most exciting option, slipping silently past tundra-clad shores where walruses wallow and polar bears prowl. WG
Cast off: Several UK operators offer cruises on the Noorderlicht.Further info: www.svalbard.net
For most of its length the Danube is on its best behaviour, but as the river nears the Black Sea it lets its hair down over a giant wetland the size of Dorset. On the map, the Delta looks like a school science experiment with blotting paper. On the ground, the plain is a web of lakes, channels and canals, skies filled with pelicans and cormorants and waterways busy with Romanian fishermen. AE
Cast off: Government ferries leave daily from the port of Tulcea. The most popular route is the four-hour journey to Sulina, a decaying colonial port straight out of the pages of Conrad.
Further info: www.romaniatourism.com
Lake Malawi feels like a sea. It has sandy beaches and rocky reefs as well as storms that can throw up 9m waves. The only regular transport is the MV Ilala, a cargo ship that circuits the lake every week, shuttling passengers and goods by tender to remote villages in Malawi, Tanzania and Mozambique.
Steerage class has wooden benches and a primitive restaurant, but the upper deck has four private cabins, one en-suite with its own cast-iron bath, a small dining room, a huge timber-slatted sundeck with decaying wicker benches and a bar racked with tonic and Malawi gin. JB
Cast off: The Ilala starts its week-long cruise from Monkey Bay on Friday mornings.
Further info: www.malawi-travel.com
Some of Asia’s mightiest rivers grow old in Bangladesh. Converging on the Bay of Bengal, the Ganges and Brahmaputra fan out into the vast, mangrove-muddled maze of the Sundarbans where a small fleet of podgy, bright orange paddleships, known as Rockets, ply the myriad channels.
Dating back to the British Raj – Glaswegian engines squatting huge and greasy between their paddle wheels – Rockets jostle with a frenzied flotilla of ferries, cargo ships, shrimping canoes and fishing tolars.
There is no better way to experience the daily rhythm of life in this extraordinary water world – and, if you’re lucky, you may catch a glimpse of a rare Ganges river dolphin. WG
Cast off: Board a Rocket in Dhaka for the two-night voyage to Khulna.
Further info: www.bangladeshtourism.gov.bd
“You know what Lao PDR stands for?” a restaurant owner once asked me. “Lao People Don’t Rush!” In Laos, good things come to those who wait, and a sluggish voyage on traditional heua sa (slow boats) offers the best introduction to country life.
On a two- or three-day voyage up the Nam Ou, a tributary of the Mekong, you’ll drift past teak plantations and stilted villages before delving between dramatic karst outcrops. Past Nong Khiaw, woods turn to jungle, then farmland and bamboo forests. Disembark at Hat Sa for the mountainside town of Phongsali, where villagers from hill tribes gather to trade. The pace is languid and transport basic – but the scenery and cast enchanting. PB
Cast off: Check the chalkboard at the ferry dock in Luang Prabang for details of the next sailing to Nong Khiaw or Muang Khua – and be prepared to wait.
Further info: www.tourismlaos.org
6. Join an Alaskan ferry tale
Cracks in crazy paving. That’s what they look like on a nautical chart. Except the slabs of paving are thousands of forested islands, wedged against the mainland of British Columbia and south-east Alaska. And the fractures form a coastal highway stretching 1,600km north from Seattle to the old gold-rush town of Skagway.
The Inside Passage is firmly etched on cruise-ship itineraries, but travel by local ferry and you’ll see a lot more – and spend a lot less. Downsize even further for sensational sea kayaking in Johnstone Strait and Glacier Bay or, for the hardiest seadogs, jump ship at a fishing port such as Petersburg and work your own passage on a salmon troller. WG
Further info: www.hellobc.com; www.alaskainfo.org
There are 17,000 reasons to island-hop in Indonesia but few better adventures than aboard ferries plying the exotic Nusa Tenggara chain east of Bali. I remember Lombok’s vivid rice paddies, dolphin escorts to arid Sumbawa, mad bemo (minibus) dashes to ferry ports and arriving at Labuanbajo one night on deck under starry skies.
Komodo, home of dinosaurian dragons with a potentially fatal bite, is most travellers’ goal. But further to the east, as Christianity supersedes Hinduism, Flores’ own miracle is Kelimutu’s three-coloured volcanic lake. MS
Cast off: Many ferries travel between the islands. However, safety standards often fall far below what you’d expect in Europe; it’s best to go with the national ferry company Pelni (www.pelni.com).
The necklace of volcanic islands strung between Japan and Alaska is a heady mix of Arctic wildlife, tumultuous landscapes and a (thoroughly justified) sense of being at the edge of the world.
North of the Japanese island of Hokkaido are the Russian Kuril Islands, where tiny fishing communities subsist alongside colonies of sea lions and millions of raucous seabirds. Alternatively, head west from Anchorage to visit the Aleutians, where ruined Second World War bunkers provide shelter for Arctic foxes and overlook natural harbours rich with marine mammals.
Can’t decide? See both on a three-week voyage, crossing the International Date Line and, rather satisfyingly, linking the two edges of your world map. DL
Cast off: Anchorage, Alaska, is the departure point for the Aleutians; for the Kurils, Korsakov in Russia is the nearest port.
Further info: www.southwestalaska.com
As it pours into the Atlantic, the less-feted of South America’s two great rivers spreads out into a 25,000 sq km jungle wetland, populated by jaguar, giant otter and the world’s highest concentration of scarlet ibis.
The delta is also home to the Warao, Venezuela’s ‘canoe people’ whose fishing lifestyle in the outer marshes has survived largely intact. With 36 rivers and more than 300 caños (smaller waterways) to choose from, the self-sufficient can pick their own adventure, slipping from village to village by dugout canoe, piranha fishing by day and slinging up a hammock at night. A handful of lodges and tours cater to those seeking greater comfort. DL
Cast off: Tours depart from Tucupita (the regional capital), Ciudad Bolívar and Ciudad Guayana.
The world’s largest coral atoll lies on the outer reaches of the scattered Seychelles. Just twice a day, the tide is high enough to allow Zodiacs to shoot through the narrow channel between the coral islands and into the central lagoon.
Then you’re in – a glassy lagoon where green turtles spin through the waves and 100,000 giant tortoises plod across the islands. And the best bit? You can’t leave until the outgoing tide is high enough to suck your Zodiac back out through the channel. It’s the world’s most spectacular lock-in. LM
Cast off: The nearest airport is on Assomption Island, from where weekly cruises run. Or join a longer exploratory cruise of Aldabra, along with many of the other Seychelles islands.Further info: www.aldabra.org; www.sif.sc
Thanks to global warming, the fabled Northwest Passage through the icy archipelago of the Canadian Arctic was declared ‘fully navigable’ for the first time this year. It’s still an awesome voyage, but real pioneers (with deep pockets) should try the Northeast Passage through the Russian Arctic – an icebreaker-only trip via Franz Josef Land. DL
Cast off: NEP voyages depart from Anchorage in June
Further info: www.quarkexpeditions.com
A splash woke me as a motorcyclist plunged headlong from the gangplank into the Río Paraguay during the melee boarding the Aquidaban. The pigs were next.Two wooden cargo boats ply Paraguay’s great river.
Asunción-based Calcique is rather cramped but Aquidaban’s three-day journey is magical: from colonial Concepción through the thorny forests and withering towns of the Chaco region to the Pantanal’s steamy wetlands.
I recall the journey through a fog of endless mate: a spider’s web of hammocks, the murmur of sweetly spoken Guaraní, cargo-loading mayhem, and horizon-busting sunsets. From Bahía Negra, if a boat could be found, the wilds of Brazil’s Mato Grosso lies ahead. MS
Cast off: Regular cargo boats depart from Concepción and Asunción.
Further info: www.senatur.gov.py
Tasmania’s wild. I mean really wild, in the literal sense, bustling with beasts (wombats, wallabies, whales; penguins, platypus and possums) and one-third covered by protected areas.
As you’d expect in Australia – famed for its say-it-as-you-see-it approach to naming – the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, is, well, the wildest.
If you’re intent on discovering its mountains, dense rainforest, rare fauna and ancient Aboriginal sites, cling to an inflatable and brave the rapids on a white-water adventure. PB
Cast off: Various UK operators offer tours ranging from eight to 14 days.
Further info: Rafting notes are available at www.parks.tas.gov.au/recreation/boating/frankl.html
Probing the largest remaining tract of tropical rainforest in Central America, the Río Plátano is a fine excuse for a challenging river expedition. Heading upstream from the fabled Mosquito Coast, you’ll need expert guiding, copious insect repellent and buttocks capable of withstanding several days’ travel by dugout canoe.
Alternatively you can descend the river from its headwaters in an inflatable raft, grappling with grade III and IV rapids. Whichever route you choose, you’ll experience virgin jungle, visit the remote communities of the Miskito and Pech people and see mysterious petroglyphs that stir rumours of ancient lost cities. WG
Cast off: Several local companies offer river expeditions in the region – try La Moskitia Ecoaventuras (www.lamoskitiaecoaventuras.com).
Further info: www.letsgohonduras.com
15. Join the cargo around the Marquesas, South Pacific
Not many cruises count watching cars, crates and live creatures being craned onto sheer-rock islands as a part of the experience, but such is life on the Aranui. While it boasts plenty of comforts – there’s even a pool – it’s primarily a cargo vessel delivering goods to and between the Gauguin-inspiring Marquesas archipelago.
One minute you’re sipping cocktails on the Pacific, the next the entire population of a lush and craggy speck in the ocean is gathered on shore to welcome you – and their post – to their remote and remarkable home. SB
Cast off: The Aranui has various departure dates, some visiting nine islands in 16 days.
Further info: www.aranui.com
Words by Jack Barker, Andrew Eames, William Gray, Mark Stratton, Sarah Baxter, Paul Bloomfield, Dan Linstead & Lizzie Matthews