1. The Inside Passage, USA and Canada
Best for: Smooth sailing and tumbling glaciers
Timings: Eight to 15 days. The Alaska cruise season runs from May to September, when whale-watching season is also at its peak.
Plan a trip: For 1,500km the frayed western fringe of North America reveals some of the wildest, most dramatic waters on the continent.
Here, the towering mountains and coastal rainforests of Alaska, British Columbia and Washington spill into the Pacific, splintering into mighty glaciers and rocky islets tufted in spruce and fir. It’s an area better known as the Inside Passage, and its sheltered waters make for smooth sailing through the rawest of scenery.
The Passage begins in the south at Puget Sound (Washington, USA), where longer trips offer the chance to hike old-growth rainforest in Olympic National Park or spot pods of orca among the San Juan Islands.
But no one’s going to judge you for skipping to its dramatic frozen finale in Alaska, with shorter cruises typically taking in the likes of Ketchikan and Sitka, which was the Alaskan capital before the US bought the region from Russia for just $7.2 million.
Out on the water here, the true drama of this land comes into focus, as you gaze up in awe at the crashing waterfalls of Tracey Arm Fjord, scan for humpbacks in Frederick Sound and witness sheer ice walls tumbling into the waters of Glacier Bay.
Also try: The other great splintered coastal route is Patagonia’s Magellan Strait, where five-day trips forge the sub-polar forests, islands and glacial alleys between Punta Arenas in Chile and Ushuaia in Argentina.
2. Indonesia, South East Asia
Best for: Discover giant reptiles, volcanoes and crystal-clear waters
Timings: Seven to 14 days. Cruises typically run from April to October; between November and March is monsoon season.
Plan a trip: With 18,000 islands comes a lot of choice. But it doesn’t take long to realise that most cruises exploring the Indonesian archipelago tend to focus on four areas, with longer itineraries simply linking a couple together.
Many routes start in Bali, exploring the volcanic chain of islands known as the Lesser Sundas that stretches off the tip of Java, including Saringi, Lombok, Satonda and Rinca. Here, trips to Komodo National Park let you come face to hissing face with the famous Komodo dragons.
Find further adventures by either heading across the Banda Sea to the remote villages and highlands of South Sulawesi or north-west to the orangutan reserves of Borneo.
The former sees far fewer visitors, and a stop at Palopo, gateway to Tana Toraja’s jungle-clad hills, boat-shaped houses and extravagant funeral rites, is worth the trip in itself.
But if you really want to escape the crowds, head west to the reefs and whale sharks of West Papua, where the pristine coral of Raja Ampat has long been an open secret among divers.
Also try: Longer cruises across the Malay Archipelago cross the Celebes and Banda seas, threading the islands between the Philippines and Australia and taking in some of Indonesia’s rarest sights.
3. Cape Verde, West Africa
Best for: Escape the beaches to explore these wild and cultured islands
Timings: Eight to 10 days. Trips tend to set sail between October and April.
Plan a trip: Because of its location, Cape Verde is one of those places typically written off as a sun trap, yet its volcanic crags, historic villages and lively culture offer far more than sand between your toes.
Just strolling the cobbles and candycoloured buildings of its ports to the floating strains of traditional morna music echoing from the bars is enough to conjure flutters, and with routes typically starting in Dakar (Senegal), there’s also the birding islands of Madeleine and the tragic slave history of Gorée to explore.
Forested mountains and colonial towns are the focus of most voyages here. Cultural capital Mindelo’s (São Vicente) lively bars and creole beats make a good introduction – especially after a fortifying glass of sugarcane grog – before wandering its old pastel façades.
The mountain paths and dragon tree forests of Fajã on São Nicolau show the other side to island life, but you’re more likely to fall in love elsewhere: up among the foothills and gurgling caldera of Fogo or by the white sands and pellucid waters of Boa Vista where humpbacks arrive to give birth every spring.
Also try: Further north, the volcanic islands of the Canaries offer just as rugged country for hiking, while a number of cruises link the two archipelagos as one thrilling week-and-a-half trip.
4. Myeik Archipelago, Adaman Sea
Best for: Visit untouched islands before the resorts take hold
Timings: Three to 14 days. Trips typically run from October to February; monsoon season is May to the start of October.
Plan a trip: While Myanmar opened to visitors a long time ago, the same can’t be said of its Myeik Archipelago. These 800 islands, sprawled out along the Andaman Sea coast, have been left comparatively untouched.
Only a few are open to visitors, and the culture of its nomadic boat-dwelling Moken has changed little. But with the first dive centres, resorts and eco-lodges now opening, it may not stay forgotten for long.
Routes often work their way up from Thailand via the Burmese border port of Kawthaung, taking in Moken villages and remote snorkelling stops en route to Myeik. Visits to the mangroves of Lampi, to kayak among cackling hornbills and pristine waters, are a highlight well worth taking up.
Also try: Further east, India’s Andaman Islands are typically visited in week-long trips from Port Blair. Some are so remote that their indigenous peoples still resist outside contact.
5. The Kimberley, Australia
Best for: Aboriginal culture, endless reef and a landscape like no other
Timings: 10 to 26 days. Cruises operate during the dry season between April and September; June is the best time to see its waterfalls in full flow.
Plan a trip: Sometimes the raw numbers don’t do justice to reality. The Kimberley – Western Australia’s northernmost region – is larger than 75% of the world’s countries, yet that barely hints at the unreconstructed butchness of its wilderness.
Rugged desert, tumescent boabs, washboard mountains and bristly spinifex plains dot most of it. Roads are an abstraction here, best explored in bone-juddering bursts to indigenous villages or the beehive-striped rocks of the Bungle Bungle Range, making cruises the perfect option.
Trips typically inch between Broome and Darwin, past the gravity-defying Horizontal Falls and the shrinking tides of the Montgomery Reef, where it seems as if 400 sq km of coral is rising up out of the water.
How long your journey takes is determined by the number of jaunts ashore you do, and there are plenty to choose from. Classic stops usually include Bigge Island, where ‘first contact’ rock art created by the Wunambal people depicts their encounters with European explorers; expeditions out into Vansittart Bay that take you across its salt flats to see the wreckage of a Second World War transport plane; and boat rides up the King George River that teeter towards its thundering cascades.
Also try: East of Darwin, cruises continue on past the Aboriginal homeland of Arnhem Land to the tropical tips of Cape York and the islands of the Torres Strait, before looping down to the Great Barrier Reef. The perfect mix of culture and wild.
6. The Hebrides, Scotland
Best for: Discover the wild side of Scotland’s coastal islands
Timings: Three to nine days (Inner); 11 to 12 days (Outer). Tours typically operate between April and October; Outer Hebrides trips are highly dependent on the weather.
Plan a trip: Inner or Outer? It’s all about what you’re looking for. These days the Inner Hebrides is well-linked by ferries but (apart from busy Skye) still has enough remote, car-less parts to satisfy any adventurer – Ulva only has six people living on it, after all, and became community-owned last year.
The Outer is another world entirely, though, and those who battle the weather and waves out to the UNESCO-listed ghost island of St Kilda, where relics of its old community still stand, will get north-west Europe’s largest seabird colony (and its dive-bombing skuas) entirely to themselves.
All trips begin from Oban, with Inner routes either drifting north into the Sound of Mull and up the west coast to the 900 or so deer of Rum Island, or explore south to the wind-swept lochs and isles of Bute and Arran.
Outer expeditions typically squeeze in a taster of the former (Eigg, Rum, Oronsay), before forging on to the scenic castle and coast of Barra.
The sweeping dunes of Vatersay mark the last sign of life as you battle past the derelict crofts and seabird-packed cliffs of Sandray, Pabbay and Mingulay en route to the grand prize of St Kilda – the UK’s last great adventure.
Also try: Extend your west coast of Scotland cruise with a stop in Glencoe, where you can turn inland and navigate the lochs of the Caledonian Canal all the way across the Highlands on week-long barge tours.
7. Sepik, Papua New Guinea
Best for: Visit a world utterly removed from the modern one around it
Timings: Three to seven days. Most tours of the Sepik visit between August and December, before the wet season sets in.
Plan a trip: A number of expedition cruises offer a taste of PNG’s Sepik River, but they barely dip a toe into its 1,126km of jungle-clad banks. There are no roads here, and many of its communities exist in complete isolation.
Multi-day river cruises to the lower, middle and upper sections are the only way to grasp a region where ritual skin scarification – to resemble the hide of a crocodile – is still a rite of passage in some villages.
River trips all start in Madang, usually as part of a larger tour of PNG, and village visits often begin with a sing-sing, a colourful dance as much about the history of the community as greeting guests.
Most cruises take in the spirit houses (haus tambaran) of Kanganaman, where initiation rites take place, and the craft villages of the Chambri Lake where life drifts along unchanged.
Also try: Cruises across the rest of Melanesia typically include PNG en route to the remote communities of Vanuatu (home to cargo cults and incredible reefs) or the jungle islands of Fiji.
8. Amazon, Peru
Best for: See the wildlife of the Amazon up close and away from the party boats
Timings: Four to 10 days. Wet season (December to May) allows much greater movement for exploring the tributaries of the Amazon.
Plan a trip: At least 6,400km in length (longer than the radius of the Earth), the Amazon is one of the world’s great natural byways, scything country-sized swathes of otherwise impenetrable jungle. But it’s not short of the odd snarl-up.
On the busier stretches around Brazil’s Manaus especially, boats clog the waters. This is why the shallow-bottomed vessels that journey deep into the slender tributaries of Peru’s upper Amazon (Ucayali, Marañón) are so special.
The waters here are shallow, so large boats can’t manage them, particularly as you journey up into the Amazonian headwaters.
Trips usually go via the reserve of Pacaya-Samiria, a vast stretch of flooded jungle featuring incredible ‘mirrored waters’.
Here, Victoria lilies as large as dinner tables, playful pink dolphins and brownthroated sloths can all be spied as you drift stilt villages and swamps. But perhaps best of all is just how few people you’ll encounter.
Also try: It might be busier but Brazil’s Anvilhanas, one of the world’s largest river archipelagos, is still among the Amazon’s great sights. Take a cruise out of Manaus for a chance to spot its jaguars and manatees.
9. Ganges, India
Best for: Dive into India’s past and present on its life-giving artery
Timings: Eight to 16 days. The Lower Ganges can be sailed year-round, though temperatures are milder from November to April, when water levels are also high enough to traverse the Upper Ganges.
Plan a trip: Spiritual, intensely colourful and utterly chaotic – the Ganges is India in a nutshell.
Historically, trips follow two routes: the upper river where boats chug between the holy city of Varanasi, Patna and Farakka; and the lower, where the Ganges fragments into the world’s largest delta, which usually means taking the Hooghly River distributary to or from Kolkata.
New luxury boats are also launching in 2019 that will combine the two routes for a stylish 1,280km epic.
The big draw of the upper river is labyrinthine Varanasi, one of the oldest cities in the world and a busy pilgrim site where Hindus travel from afar to bathe in the waters and cremate loved ones.
Walking its ghats is one of India’s greatest pleasures, matched only by the river journey itself.
By comparison, the lower reaches tend to be packed with more stops: glimpse old Nawab capitals filled with abandoned mosques and tombs, and the site where the region’s last independent ruler fell to the British, as you pulse slowly into the green fringes of West Bengal.
Also try: Far less chaotic are the canals, rivers and lakes of Kerala, which can be slowly ambled over three days by old kettuvallam houseboats.
10. Nile, Egypt
Best for: Drift past thousands of years of history – and surprisingly few crowds
Timings: Three to 18 days. Boats sail year-round, with October to April being the coolest period; high season (Decembe to February) isn’t as popular as it used to be.
Plan a trip: Despite visitor numbers rising, Egypt is still that rarest of things: a travel icon yet to reach capacity.
The opening of the world’s largest archaeological museum in Cairo in 2020 may change all that, but until then, drifting the Nile in peace while gazing on temples (Karnak, Kom Ombo), necropolises (Valley of the Kings) and the wealth of the pharaohs is no longer a pipe dream.
The bulk of cruises glide the Nile’s upper reaches, setting out from Luxor, where the pharaohs once fought to outspend their ancestors.
From there they thread the Nile Valley in colonial-style steam ships, traditional dahabeya houseboats and tiny felucca sail boats where you can camp on deck under the stars.
‘Long Nile’ routes from Cairo (880km) tend to be on sturdier vessels, but all terminate at the dam at Aswan. Here you can swap boats for the cruise across Lake Nasser to Abu Simbel, an incredible pair of 13th-century BC rock temples.
Also try: The only river to rival the Nile for sheer experience is the Mekong. Visit our website to read last month’s Trip Planner feature on organising the perfect visit.
11. Mosel and Rhine, Germany
Best for: Slake your thirst in Germany’s wine region
Timings: Three to 15 days. Trips run April to December; July, August and October have wine festivals while December has winter markets.
Plan a trip: This is a region with as many faces and routes as it has boats, although low water levels in summer are starting to thin out one of Europe’s busiest shipping rivers.
Even still, you can always find quiet moments. In summer and autumn, villages along the more peaceful Mosel, a tributary of the Rhine, celebrate the year’s wine crop, and it’s a detour worth making.
Most of these trips focus on Germany’s UNESCO-listed Upper Middle Rhine, between Rüdesheim and Koblenz, where boats typically turn off along the Mosel tributary to Trier.
It’s a beautiful spot: the endless castles and fortresses recall just how valuable this waterway has always been, and the detour affords stops at the Mosel’s riesling vineyards as well as ‘wine capital’ Bernkastel and the medieval streets of Cochem.
Also try: Delve into Portugal’s port legacy by drifting the vineyards and villages of the Douro Valley from Porto.
12. Svalbard Archipelago, Norway
Best for: Encounter Arctic wildlife up close and personal
Timings: Six to 14 days. Cruises typically run the summer months between April and October.
Plan a trip: The mining colonies of Svalbard have largely put their pickaxes and drills to one side.
These days it’s more about adventure, from spending the night in the world’s northernmost large town to wrangling a team of sled dogs for a trek across the ice. But it’s on the water, out amid the edges of the polar ice cap, where you’ll spy its greatest prize: polar bears.
Typical ‘highlights’ routes inch up the west coast of Spitsbergen from Longyearbyen, sailing the fjords past rusting whaling stations, sea-bird cliffs and reindeer grazing in the valleys.
But it’s on cruises to the eastern side of the archipelago where you’re most likely to spot a polar bear. Round the north-eastern tip at Kvitøya (98% covered in ice) to see bears teetering on the pack ice of Storfjorden, lit up by the ethereal glow of midnight sun. A fitting symbol for a wild, remote land.
Also try: Wrangel Island in Russia’s Chukchi Sea is a major denning ground home to hundreds of polar bears, which is partly why there are so many restrictions about visiting. The (limited) cruises to its shores reveal mammoth bones and tens of thousands of walruses gathered in its rookeries.
13. Sub-Antarctic islands, New Zealand and Australia
Best for: Tread where few else can and millions of sea birds reign
Timings: Eight to 24 days. The Antarctic cruise season is shorter in the east; ships sail from November to January.
Plan a trip: When it comes to remote escapes, the Southern Ocean’s sub-Antarctic islands are a well-kept secret – not a soul lives here bar the odd researcher. Visit to step where no one else can and spy birdlife impossible to see elsewhere.
Typical routes arc out of New Zealand’s lowest tip, dribbling south past The Snares, a breeding ground for endemic crested penguins that owes its name to the number of ships that used to run aground there.
A big highlight is Australia’s Macquarie Island, a former sealing base and home to some four million penguins, including the endemic royal penguin; and on Campbell Island, walks reveal the nesting sites of the southern royal albatross, one of five albatross species that breed there.
Also try: Typically seen on Antarctic cruises from Chile and Argentina, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands are famed for their colonies of king penguins and elephant seals.
14. Sea of Cortez, Mexico
Best for: Tickle grey whales and snorkel with whale sharks
Timings: Five to 15 days. Grey whales nurse their young between mid-January and mid-March; whale sharks can be seen November to February.
Plan a trip: The lagoons off Baja California’s Pacific Coast offer a heartening tale of conservation.
The grey whales that historically use these waters as a nursing ground were hunted to near-extinction by the early 1900s, only finally receiving protection in the 1940s.
Thankfully, their numbers have now bounced back, and friendly whales will even nudge the sides of panga boats to encourage vigorous scratching from visitors. All is forgiven.
These cetaceans are the undoubted highlights of cruises here, and the nurseries of San Ignacio Lagoon and Magdalena Bay feature high on most routes, which typically loop the peninsula.
But Jacques Cousteau didn’t dub these waters “the world’s aquarium” for nothing, and the chance to snorkel with whale sharks – the world’s largest fish – in Bahia de La Paz is not to be missed, either.
Meanwhile, sperm, fin, pilot and even blue whales can all be spied among the islands, with naturalist guides primed for close encounters.
Also try: Cruises to the Antarctic waters of Wilhemina Bay (December–March) take you to a popular krill feeding ground for humpbacks, where as many as 300 of the creatures have been spied at once. Drift up close on Zodiacs and cherish every sighting.
15. Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe
Best for: A laid-back cruise in search of Zimbabwe’s ‘Big Five’
Timings: Three to four days. Cruises are possible year-round, but dry season (May to October) is the best time for wildlife watching.
Plan a trip: While the white waters of the Zambezi are better forded by those in sturdy fibreglass kayaks, the journey around Lake Kariba is an altogether more sedate affair.
Created in the late 1950s, this is one of the world’s largest man-made lakes, with over 5,000 sq km of water scattered with islands and trees poking through the surface. But location is the key here, as it also borders some of western Zimbabwe’s wildest parks.
Typical cruises take in the winding Sanyati Gorge, where great basalt cliffs jolt up from the water, and the Matusadona National Park.
Back in the late 1950s, around 6,000 animals threatened by the dam project were moved to the latter and, today, ‘Big Five’ safari drives trickle the banks past stoic-looking black rhinos, elephants, buffalo and lions.
As well as visits to the awesome Kariba Dam, common detours include the overland journey to Hwange National Park, home to a clattering 44,000 elephants, or trips further along the Zambezi, where the unholy roar of Victoria Falls will bring a dramatic closure to your voyage.
Also try: Just as Lake Kariba is often included as part of a larger trip, so too is the neighbouring Chobe River and national park in Botswana – in fact you can often do both on one visit.
16. Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
Best for: See the world’s greatest concentration of endemic wildlife
Timings: Four to 15 days. Trips run year-round, but things tend to be quieter outside high season (June to September and New Year).
Plan a trip: The Galápagos is the world’s best wildlife-watching destination for one reason: the animals are well protected. And while that means incredible sightings, it also makes for strict itineraries.
Licensed vessels have to follow set 15-day routes – though these are usually broken up to allow for smaller trips. Any visit is a balancing act: the lesser-seen isles to the west and north require more time at sea, so tend to attract fewer travellers.
If you simply want to pack in as much as possible, stick to the well-trod southern, central and eastern loops, which include more stops, as you snorkel with manta rays and turtles on Bartolomé, scurry after marine iguanas on Española and gaze at the blue-footed boobies on North Seymour.
Also try: An increasingly popular cruise route sidles up from Panama and along Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, where sloths and monkeys are just some of the 500,000 species found there.
17. Danube, Europe
Best for: Waltzing your way across Europe in a week or three
Timings: Eight to 24 days. Danube cruises go year-round, but June to August can see water levels plummet and the odd cancellation.
Plan a trip: From the moment it spits out of Germany’s Black Forest, the Danube snakes 2,850km east across Europe, eventually spilling into the Black Sea.
No other river on the planet captures such a flick-book of cultures as it weaves through ten countries (its basin draws in a further nine), past banks scattered with fairytale castles, baroque streets and scowling Soviet relics.
Many week-long cruises start in Nuremburg and stop short of the Balkans, culminating amid the spas and belle époque villas of Budapest.
It almost feels like a CliffsNotes of European architecture as you brush past the riverside palaces of Vienna. The more adventurous push on through Serbia and the dramatic Iron Gates gorge to the tip of the Black Sea delta at Tulcea (Romania) where the river frays into winding canals, bird-filled wetlands and marshes.
For a true European epic, some routes even extend west along the Main and Rhine as far as Amsterdam.
Also try: If your aim is to cover as many countries as possible, Baltic cruises ping-pong the coasts between Russia and Copenhagen, racking up waterside capitals (Stockholm, Helsinki, Copenhagen) and old Hanseatic towns.
18. Northeast Passage, Russian Arctic
Best for: The Arctic adventure that very few know about
Timings: 25 to 28 days. There’s a narrow window in late summer (July to September) when the sea ice melts enough to allow cruise ships through.
Plan a trip: Running from the Bering Strait to the Barents Sea, what was once the domain of bare-bones expedition ships has opened up.
Prior to 2014, only Russian ice-breakers were permitted to sail this historic Arctic route. Now, thanks to a thaw in both sea ice and Russian bureaucracy, several luxury ice-strengthened ships plough its waters.
Trips begin in Anadyr (Russia) or Nome (Alaska) and veer north across the Chukchi Sea, past the Inuit villages of Cape Dezhnev, the polar bear dens of Wrangel Island and the flora of the Medvezhyi Islands.
From there, ships bite into the ice floes of the Kara and Barents seas and the remote archipelago of Franz Josef Land. There, relics of 19th century explorations, aurora-lit skies and the sight of huge walruses jiggling like opera tenors on the high notes remind you that this is a world seen by very few.
Also try: The western alternative is the Northwest Passage, an infamous route across Canada’s High Arctic that once stymied all but the greatest of explorers, but is now also traversed by increasing numbers of ships in late summer.
19. Atlantic, South America to Africa
Best for: Visit some of the remotest islands in the world
Timings: 21 to 25 days. Cruises set sail late in the western Antarctic season (November to March) between February and March.
Plan a trip: While the ships casting off from Ushuaia (Argentina) bound for the Antarctic often anchor in the southern Atlantic’s frozen fringes, few make these islands their focus, which is why this increasingly popular route is so special.
Whaling relics, wildlife, and explorers’ tales make South Georgia a dream stop – including the chance to pay your respects at Ernest Shackleton’s grave.
Yet while the sight of thousands of king penguins huddled on Salisbury Plain is unforgettable, the rarest encounter is still perhaps Tristan da Cunha, the world’s remotest inhabited archipelago.
From there, routes typically either stop on St Helena, where Napoleon met his end, or carry on to winelands and shores of Cape Town.
Also try: The route between Recife (Brazil) and Dakar (Senegal) offers more wild Atlantic life, stopping at Guinea-Bissau’s Bijagós Islands, famed for their turtle breeding grounds.
20. Polynesia, South Pacific