Forget predictable, all-inclusive cruises - these sea and river odysseys have adventure and excitement in spades... From the frozen Arctic to the temples of Bagan, where will you end up?
Let's start with The Biggie. Can you think of anything cooler than an emperor penguin riding an ice floe? No, neither can we – and if you're lucky, you'll see just that on a cruise to the big white continent – as well as gentoo and chinstrap penguins, crabeater and leopard seals, and humpback, minke and orca whales.
This is the place to indulge your explorer fantasies: Sir Ernest Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen have all threaded their way between these skyscraper-high icebergs, and wrapped up tight against those biting winds. Snow-capped island-mountains, towering 'bergs in icy, inky water, skies thick with albatrosses and petrels – this is edge-of-the-world stuff.
Falklands, South Georgia & Antarctica cruise, Exodus
Set sail from Ushuaia, and you'll cross the Antarctic Convergence – the biological boundary of Antarctica – and venture towards the South Shetland Islands, South Sandwich Islands and Weddell Sea. Alternatively, depart from New Zealand's Port of Bluff to encounter the Snares Islands, Enderby Island and Macquarie Island.
Falklands, South Georgia & Antarctica via South Sandwich & South Orkney Islands, Exodus
25 days; depart Ushuaia, Argentina (round-trip)
What makes it special: Almost a month at sea, this is the perfect way to immerse yourself in the Antarctic.
Getting to Spitsbergen is an adventure in itself: this windswept Norwegian frontier post is the only permanently populated island in northern Norway. It's the jumping-off point of many an Arctic cruise, and as you forge through the surrounding archipelago you'll spy remote fishing villages, glaciers, mountain-like icebergs, and Ny-Alesund Arctic research station.
Polar bears in Svalbard, Norway (Shutterstock)
Discover glaciers lapped by glassy fjords, spy walruses and seals lounging on sea-blackened rocks, and always – always – keep a keen eye out for polar bears lounging on the land or swimming through the floes.
From Spitsbergen, venture further afield by crossing the Barents Sea – to Bear Island's kittiwake and guillemot nesting areas – or travel west to explore Greenland's Franz Josef Fjords and Scoresby Sound...
Arctic Cruise Adventure 2015: Norway, Greenland & Iceland, Abercrombie & Kent
15 nights; Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen to Reykjavík, Iceland
What makes it special: Travel with an expedition team on this active itinerary, with an on-board polar expert.
Snorkel with sea lions, meet 100-year-old tortoises, spot manta rays from the decks of your boat – a wildlife cruise through the Galapagos isles puts you in the world's most nature-rich waters.
There are few natural predators here, so the wildlife is uniquely friendly – you'll find yourself picnicking next to blue-footed boobies, photographing colourful iguanas up-close, walking alongside Galapagos penguins... Basically, you'll become Mary Poppins, with a decidedly exotic animal entourage.
Galápagos — Central, South & East Islands aboard the Queen (G Adventures)
Cruising the Galapagos is the perfect way to experience its bounteous beasts up-close – and its calm azure waters allow for smaller, more intimate, vessels. You'll spend the days island-hopping, snorkelling and diving, before sleeping on board under a ceiling of stars – with only the hoots of sea birds to break the peace.
Galápagos — Central, South & East Islands aboard the Queen, G Adventures
10 days; departs Quito, Ecuador (round trip)
What makes it special: There's a maximum of 16 passengers on board, so you won't be jostling for the best views.
Ultimate Galapagos, Audley Travel
18 days; departs Quito, Ecuador to Madrid, Spain
What makes it special: You'll visit every major island in the archipelago, at a comfortable pace.
Is there a better way to get to the heart of Egypt than by sailing along its lifeblood, the Nile? The world's longest river has brought prosperity and fertility to the country – and is as essential today as it was during the Pharaohs' reign.
Nile Felucca Sailtrek, Explore
Most trips set sail from Aswan towards Luxor, stopping by the Temple of Kom Ombo, Edfu Temple and riverside villages along the way. This beauty of this trip lies in its intensity – you'll experience the energy of life around the river while sailing on it, and explore relics of Ancient Egypt too. It's a fascinating juxtaposition, and a refreshing change from the landlubbers' pyramid-hopping itineraries.
Nile And Luxor Experience, Abercrombie & Kent
12 nights, Cairo to Luxor
What makes it special: On board you'll find luxury amenities and plenty of space, as well as Egyptologists – on hand to offer their insight during guided tours.
Nile Felucca Sailtrek, Explore
8 days, Cairo to Luxor
What makes it special: The most authentic option. After 2 days in Cairo, you'll fly to Luxor where you'll board a felucca – your trusty steed for 4 days of spectacular sailing.
As river cruises go, a jaunt on the Amazon is arguably the most adventurous. The world's second longest river flows from west to east, from the highlands of Peru to Brazil's Atlantic coast, through the thick, wildlife-rich Amazon rainforest.
Cruising through the Amazon (Shutterstock)
Sign up for a lengthy voyage from the river's source (or as close as you can get) to the sea, and you'll encounter some of South America's most spectacular sights: the sprawling green islands of Brazil's Anavilhanas archipelago, pinky-white Amazon river dolphins frolicking in the swell, and walking trips through forest areas inaccessible by land.
Amazon Wildlife Cruise, Wildwings
16 days; departs Manaus, Brazil (round trip)
What makes it special: You'll canoe on the Amazon, and explore the waters after dark too – keeping watch for pygmy owls, spectacled owls, and goggly-eyed great potoos.
Tahuayo River Cruise, Chimu Adventures
3 days; departs Iquitos, Peru (round trip)
What makes it special: This short trip packs in plenty of action – you'll hike to jungle villages, explore and fish from small boats, and visit a boat-making workshop.
The journey between Mandalay and Bagan takes roughly 4 days – a short but intoxicating journey through Myanmar's spiritual heart. Go now, before the river is clogged with cruise ships: it's becoming increasingly popular with tour companies.
Cruise ship in in Sagaing, Myanmar (Shutterstock)
In Mandalay, the country's second largest city, thousands of monks live among Buddha monuments, giving alms in the temples along the river. You'll quietly motor past domed stupas, along forest-cloaked shores and riverside villages. Bagan, the ancient capital, boasts over 3,000 temples and Buddhist monuments – and what better base to explore them from, than the serene Irrawaddy waters?
Sanctuary Ananda Cruise, Abercrombie & Kent
3 nights; Bagan to Mandalay, Myanmar
What makes it special: You'll get a heady dose of local culture both on and off the boat: expect authentic cooking classes and traditional evening entertainment on board, plus hot air balloon tours of Bagan, lacquerware making in a Myinkaba workshop, and a visit to U Bein Bridge.
Main image: Big cruise ship in Antarctic waters (Shutterstock)
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