24 spectacular expedition cruises around the world

From touching the North Pole to reaching Antarctica, some of the best adventures can only be undertaken by expedition cruise – here are some of our favourites

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1: Antarctic Peninsula

A cruise ship sails through Antarctica (Dreamstime)

A cruise ship sails through Antarctica (Dreamstime)

Why go? Visit the White Continent in less than two weeks

Key stops: Ushuaia, Argentina - Drake Passage - South Shetland Islands - Antarctic Peninsula (10-12 days)

The 'classic' Antarctic peninsula expedition cruise sets sail from the tip of Argentina between late October and March via the churning waters of the Drake Passage, a notoriously rough, two-day stretch of sea, which many now choose to fly over and pick up a boat in the South Shetlands (another typical stop). Some would argue that rough seas are a rite of passage, but it does shorten a trip, meaning you can 'do' the Antarctic in about a week.

From the South Shetlands – and their old whaling stations – ships head out to the peninsula. Typical stops (weather permitting) include the Lemaire Channel and the old naval base at Port Lockroy, where you set foot on the peninsula proper. Here, you can grab your Antarctic passport stamp and see the 800 gentoo penguins that waddle Goudier Island (Nov-Feb), as well as kayak, ski, trek and even take a chilling 'polar plunge' – just remember to dress for the occasion.

Other routes: Longer routes take in the islands of the Falklands and South Georgia, home to explorer Ernest Shackleton's grave and a vast array of wildlife, including huge colonies of king penguins.

2: The Kermadec Islands, New Zealand

Why go? That world's-end feeling

Key stops: Tauranga (embark/end) - L'Esperance Rock - Curtis & Cheeseman Islands - Raoul Island - Macauley Island (11 days)

Cruises out to the Kermadecs don't go every year (the next one is in March 2018), which is what makes the Spirit of Enderby's route so special. Lying about 1,000km north-east of New Zealand, this clutch of a half-dozen islands is part of the world's longest chain of submerged volcanoes and encompasses a vast marine reserve. Some 35 dolphin and whale species (sperm, Cuvier's beaked, etc) swim its waters, as well as strong numbers of Galápagos sharks.

Only Raoul Island is manned, with snorkellers likely to encounter 50-year-old black grouper up to 1.8m long. Trails wind the island's palm forests and discreet bays, and it's a good chance for birdwatchers to spy endemic red-crowned parakeets and petrels. A genuine lost world.

Other routes: There's nothing quite like it, though trips out to the Sub-Antarctic islands of Macquarie (the 'Galápagos of the Southern Ocean') and the Snares, south of New Zealand, offer some impressive wildlife.

3: Kimberley, Australia

Why go? Rough-hewn beauty and epic Outback grandeur

Key stops: Broome (embark) - Montgomery Reef - Vansittart Bay - King George Falls - Darwin (end) (8-12 days)

The northernmost tip of Western Australia has a scarred beauty, as if its frontier lands have been scrubbed too vigorously with a Brillo Pad. The result is some rugged landscape spread over a larger area than that of 75% of the world's countries. Many of Kimberley's 'roads' require 4WD (and chutzpah), so skimming its coast is a useful way in, with detours inland to its gorges and indigenous villages.

Cruises start at Broome or Darwin, before making for the region's natural wonders, with side-trips to the Horizontal Falls and the Montgomery Reef, where low tide makes it seem as if the coral is rising up from the ocean bed. Explore Vansittart Bay and the ancient rock art of Jar Island, then Zodiac up the Hunter River for its mangrove and saltwater crocs, pondering how somewhere so geographically inhospitable could be so beautiful at the same time.

Other routes: Plenty of Kimberley cruises combine detours to Asia, including East Timor and voyages across the Timor Sea to the Indonesian islands of the Lesser Sundas.

4: Polynesia, Pacific Ocean

Easter Island (Dreamstime)

Easter Island (Dreamstime)

Why go? Mysterious 'heads' and shipwreck tales

Key stops: Tahiti, French Polynesia - Tuamotu Archipelago - Marquesas Islands - Pitcairn & Henderson Islands, UK - Easter Islands, Chile (end) (20 days)

Polynesia dominates the South Pacific, spread across more than 1,000 scattered islands and forming a vast triangle with Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand. Most cruises focus on the lagoons, coral atolls and powder sands of French Polynesia, but the more interesting ones push the region's boundaries. Take a leap out into the Southern Pacific with Caledonian Sky and combine tiki statues and tales of rum-soaked colonials in cruises out to the Marquesas with a trip to the British-owned Pitcairns, where the scuttled wreck of the famed HMS Bounty still lies in its bay and descendants of the original mutineers reside.

Just as impressive, though, is the neighbouring UNESCO-listed island of Henderson, with trips to spot its endemic crake and Stephen's lorikeet a must. Finish on Easter Island, wandering its 800 moai statues and contemplating just how these figures, carved by the original Polynesian settlers and weighing up to 86-tonnes, were moved.

Other routes: Extend your voyage with the 17-day Fiji-to-Tahiti route, watching humpback whales in Tonga and visiting the Cook Islands.

5: The Bering Sea, Pacific Ocean

Why go? War stories, wildlife and volcanoes

Key stops: Otaru, Japan (embark) - Kuril Islands, Russia - Kamchatka - Aleutian Islands, USA - Seward (end) (17 days)

Once a historic route for traders, the arc of volcanic islands that stretches across the Bering Sea is little populated but much disputed, with Japanese, Russian and US cultures mingled from years of wars and horse-trading. The Kuril archipelago is a cultural and geological hotpot, with old Japanese military bases and Soviet gulags prominent among the fumaroles, calderas and hot springs. Hikes up the Matua volcano reward with auklets, puffins and pigeon guillemots, as well as plenty of war stories.

For something a bit special, the Silver Explorer completes the rare double of visiting the Kurils and the US-owned Aleutian Islands, the bulk of which make up a sprawling wildlife and seabird reserve. Look for sperm whales around Kiska Island and step ashore to find Shinto shrines left by invading Japanese forces in 1943.

Other routes: Alternative fortnight-long cruises through the Pacific Ring of Fire include the Russian-owned Commander Islands, at the westernmost tip of the Aleutians.

6: Federated States of Micronesia

Why go? Megalithic marvels and sunken wrecks

Key stops: Rabaul, Papua New Guinea (embark) - Pohnpei, Micronesia - Chuuk - Ngulu - Koror, Palau (end) (18 days)

As well as sharing a cultural history with its Polynesian neighbour, Micronesia's atolls and islands were similarly devastated during the Pacific War. The scars of battle still dot its dense jungles and waters, with typical cruise routes stopping at Chuuk, where a bay of sunken coral-encrusted Japanese warships lie below its surface and make for some incredible snorkelling.

It's not all war relics, though. Pit stops at sea turtle breeding grounds (Ngulu) and isolated beaches scurrying with nesting megapodes (Tsoi) showcase its natural charms. But the unmissable sight remains Pohnpei's Nan Madol, a series of 92 man-made megalithic islets that were once the ancient residence of the island's 12th-century royalty and priesthood.

Other routes: Many Micronesia cruises include Melanesian Papua New Guinea, with side trips to the narrow channels and villages of Sepik River an option, as well as visits to the Solomon Islands.

7: East Coast Africa

Mahe, Seychelles (Dreamstime)

Mahe, Seychelles (Dreamstime)

Why go? Sweep up the eastern coast

Key stops: Cape Town, South Africa (embark) - Maputo, Mozambique - Nosy Be, Madagascar - Zanzibar, Tanzania - Mombasa, Kenya - Mahe, Seychelles (end) (18 days)

What would take at least a month (and a mountain of paperwork) to do overland can be squeezed into a couple of weeks on a cruise. From the penguins and winelands of South Africa's Cape Town, ships loop up via the Zulu villages and hippo-packed wetlands of Richard's Bay to Mozambique's colonial capital, Maputo – even its train station was sculpted by Gustav Eiffel.

From there, some head on to the lemurs and endemic wildlife of Nosy Be, the Stone Town of Zanzibar and the bustle of Mombasa. Finish deep in the Indian Ocean on Mahe, the largest island of the Seychelles, exploring the region's 'Spice Route' history, as you ponder just how much you've just squeezed in.

Other routes: Work your way in from Mauritius, past Réunion and Madagascar, before reaching Mozambique or Tanzania.

8: The Andaman Sea, South Asia

Why go? Explore the Andaman's 'forbidden' islands

Key stops: Singapore (embark) - Gunung Leuser NP, Indonesia - Myeik Archipelago, Burma (Myanmar) - Phuket, Thailand (end) (10 days)

The Andaman Sea is one of those vast expanses of water that still hides a few mysteries, not least Burma's Myeik Archipelago, where the bulk of its 800-strong islands continue to remain off-limits to travellers. Visiting independently is prohibitively difficult, which makes combining any visit with a longer cruise a good idea.

The Silver Discoverer works its way up the Indonesian and Thai coast to Myeik's Lampi islands, with snorkelling among its fringing coral reefs and chances to meet and learn more about its semi-nomadic Moken people. Hikes into the rainforest interior of Kyunn Tann Shey island even reveal a small herd of elephants – a relic of the logging industry – though stops en route at Sumatra's Gunung Leuser NP is your proper wildlife fix, according a chance to witness its native orangutans up close.

Other routes: The same vessel also sails the Sri Lanka-to-Bengal route via the Andaman and Nicobar Islands – some of which are home to tribes who still refuse all outside contact.

9: East Antarctica

Why go? See the Antarctic that no one else sees

Key stops: Invercargill, New Zealand (embark/end) - Auckland Islands - Macquarie Island - Cape Adare - Ross Island/Scott Base, Antarctica (30-33 days)

Only a handful of ships journey to East Antarctica from New Zealand each year (Dec-Mar), with the route across the Ross Sea being much more unpredictable and longer than its western alternative. It also takes about a month to complete, and carries a risk: conditions mean not all voyages are destined to land on the Ross Ice Shelf (Antarctica).

The Spirit of Enderby follows the 'classic' route, passing the wildlife-packed islands of The Snares and Macquarie, home to endemic crested penguins, an array of birdlife and over 100,000 seals, before making landfall on Ross Island, where the original huts of explorers Scott and Shackleton still stand. Helicopter trips across the Dry Valleys and Ross Ice Shelf from the McMurdo research station are possible in good weather, as you soak in the White Continent from above.

Other routes: The Shokalskiy follows the route taken by explorer Sir Douglas Mawson, making landfall at Commonwealth Bay, west of Cape Adare, where his expedition set up base in 1912.

10: Patagonia & Cape Horn, Chile

Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego (Dreamstime)

Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego (Dreamstime)

Why go? History, penguins and glaciers aplenty

Key stops: Punta Arenas (embark) - Magdalena Island - Glacier Alley - Cape Horn NP - Ushuaia (end) (4-8 days)

A choice of vessels follow the route taken by Charles Darwin's 1831 expedition aboard the HMS Beagle, which lent its name to the stretch of water that rounds Chile's wild southern tip. It takes as little as four days to skirt the coast from Punta Arenas to the Beagle Channel, flowing through the fjords that vein the Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) archipelago and Magellan Strait, fording sub-polar forests, the glacial alleys of Pia Fjord and islands (Magdalena, Tucker Islets) bustling with Magellanic penguins and roaring elephant seal colonies.

Finish among the wilds of Nassau Bay's Cape Horn NP where the Pacific and Atlantic meet, gazing out over the roiling seas of Drake Passage from the continents' southernmost point, just 1,000km from Antarctica.

Other routes: Two-week trips 'rounding the horn' swoop down from sleepy, bohemian Valparaiso on Chile's west coast and up to the bustling Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires in the east.

11: Bohuslan Archipelago, Sweden

Why go? Sail Sweden's coast in a vintage cruiser

Key stops: Gothenburg (embark) - Marstrand - Fallbacka - Grebbestad (end) (5 days)

Not exactly an expedition ship, but no less thrilling. With just 25 cabins, the MS Wilhelm Tham was built in 1912 for the purpose of negotiating Sweden's placid Gota Kanal. It has since been retrofitted for open water travel and now cruises the wistful isles of the Swedish Bohuslan Archipelago, offering a slo-mo, vintage take on this storied coast.

Head out past Gothenburg's New Alvsborg Fortress (its walls still pocked with cannonballs from Danish attacks) to gaze out over the old low-rise wooden houses of tiny coastal fishing communities like Fjallbacka, its centre skirted by a looming 70m-high rock face. Wander the colourful narrow streets of 13th-century Marstrand, visit open-air public baths (the main draw here back in the early 1900s) and meet local oyster and mussel fishermen as you dip a tranquil toe in Swedish coastal life.

Other routes: A more dramatic Scandinavian alternative are the coasts of mainland Norway, with typical routes skimming the dramatic fjords and islands between Tromso and Bergen.

12: Indonesian Archipelago

Why go? Come face to face with a dinosaur

Key stops: Singapore (embark) - Komodo NP (Rinca or Loh Liang), Indonesia - Bali (end)

Given Indonesia has as many as 18,000 islands, it's not surprising that cruises tend to focus on one of just three areas: the wildlife-rich Borneo and mainland Sumatra, the forested islets of Raja Ampat, and the Lesser Sundas, off the tip of Java. It's this last option that perhaps excites the most, as you sail a volcanic arc east of Bali to a land where the last vestiges of prehistoric life still roam.

Here, trips allow for treks on Rinca Island – part of the Komodo National Park – to see its famed Komodo dragons in the wild. These creatures remain an astonishing sight, a hissing, breathing dinosaur, all cinched muscle and flecked spit. From there, voyages tend to veer off in all directions, from rising to the traditional villages of South Sulawesi to continuing on to the crystal waters of West Papua and even Australia's west coast. But most leave plenty of time to soak in the water temples and rice terraces of Bali en route.

Other routes: Raja Ampat is a lush archipelago off the coast of West Papua, famed for its spice production, with cruises typically offering reef snorkelling, forest treks and mangrove excursions.

13: The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Iguana (Dreamstime)

Iguana (Dreamstime)

Why go? Discover what Darwin was on about...

Key stops: Guayaquil (embark/end) - Santa Cruz - Fernandina - Floreana - Espanola

As perhaps befitting one of the planet's most extraordinary regions, the Galápagos is strictly regulated. Licensed vessels get a maximum of 15 days to visit and pick their stops from an approved list, opting to focus on one area ('south and east' or 'west and central' typically), with the main difference being the variety of experts on board.

Trips run year-round, though avoiding the busy high season (summer and new year) makes life easier, while the longer cruises typically allow time to explore the western and northern islands, which attract fewer visitors. Whatever you see, be it lumbering tortoises in the highlands, fleet marine iguanas flitting through the shallows or sun-baked penguins giddy in the surf, this is without doubt the ultimate wildlife destination.

Other routes: Plenty of Galápagos cruises are paired with detours to Peru's Machu Picchu or overland trips to the rainforests and colonial cities of Ecuador, if you want to extend your trip.

14: Melanesia, South Pacific

Why go? Coral, culture and sunken treasure

Key stops: Honiara, Solomon Islands (embark) - Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu - Yasawa Islands, Fiji - Lautoka, Fiji (end) (17 days)

As with the other Pacific island regions, you need a ship to get a true flavour of Melanesia. Most itineraries begin in the old British base of Honiara, its palm-fringed streets now unrecognisable from when the Pacific War rained down on the Solomon Islands in the 1940s. Tours of its markets, museums and war sites reward with a vivid history combined with natural wonders. The same goes for Vanuatu's Espiritu Santo, with great snorkelling found in the iris-like waters of Riri Riri Blue Hole and among the myriad tropical fish of Million Dollar Point – so named for the mountain of US military hardware dumped there post-war and which can still be spotted below the surface.

Sail on to the indigenous villages of Malakula, an island with 30 different dialects, while tours of the region often end in Fiji's Yasawa Islands, spotted by the HMS Bounty's adrift Captain Bligh. These remain sparsely populated even today, as you explore blue lagoons, sea caves, and crystal waters buzzing with curious manta rays.

Other routes: The Silver Discoverer sails from Vanuatu, out past New Caledonia and across the Coral Sea, to Australia's north-east coast and its world-famous Great Barrier Reef.

15: The Russian Arctic

Why go? Polar bears, mammoth bones and traditional Chukchi culture

Key stops: Anadyr (embark/end) - Yttygran - Cape Dezhnev - Wrangel & Herald islands - Chukotka Coast (15 days)

The 50-berth Spirit of Enderby casts its bow out into the Chukchi Sea in late summer, just as the ice fades. Life hasn't much changed on the Siberian coast over the last 1,000 years, whether in Yttygran's eerie Whale Bone Alley or the Chukchi villages of Cape Dezhnev where old traditions thrive. But the big lure here is Wrangel Island, a remote zapovednik (restricted nature reserve) and polar bear breeding ground where as many as 400 denning mothers have been known to arrive over winter.

Elsewhere, the sight (and smell) of its 80,000-strong colony of Pacific walruses is enough to raise flutters, as Zodiacs take visitors out onto the barren steppe. Here trails and overnight stays yield sightings of arctic foxes, preserved mammoth bones, vast colonies of migrating seabirds and, of course, polar bears.

Other routes: Extended trips (28 days) combine the whole of the North-East Passage, arcing all the way up to Murmansk and across the Kara Sea.

16: East Greenland

Greenland (Dreamstime)

Greenland (Dreamstime)

Why go? Visit the Greenland nobody else sees

Key stops: Reykjaví­k, Iceland - Akureyri (embark/end) - North-East Greenland NP, Greenland - Scoresbysund Fjord - Ittoqqortoormiit (14 days)

Typical cruises to Greenland skim its frigid western edges en route to Baffin Bay and the Arctic glamour of the Northwest Passage. Fewer explore its eastern side, but those who do float this way will discover a remote wilderness and scenery on a par with the most far-flung fringes of the world. Trips begin with a pit stop in Reykjaví­k and the chance to warm up in Iceland's hot springs pre-cruise, before transferring to the north coast where ships set out across the Denmark Strait.

North-East Greenland NP is a hard yet beautiful world, with treks across the tundra at Holm Bay and the purple-gold rock of Ymer Island yielding unfiltered views. The vast Scoresbysund Fjord affords a chance to meet the region's most northerly Inuit community at Ittoqqortoormiit, as well as spotting muskoxen on the tundra of Cape Hofmann Halvo and clear views of the northern lights at night. A rare frozen wonder.

Other routes: Most ships extend this route north of Scoresbysund to the frigid wonderland of Norway's Svalbard Archipelago – home to the northernmost settlement on Earth.

17: Central America

Why go? To rediscover this overlooked part of Latin America

Key stops: Panama City (embark) - Darién Gap - Manuel Antonio NP, Costa Rica - San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua - Acajutla, El Salvador - Antigua, Guatemala (end) (17 days)

While Panama and Costa Rica are hardly off the map, the countries either side of them are still unknown territory to many. Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala have dropped off the radars of many travellers, which is a shame because there's so much to discover here, not least in Nicaragua, which you voted into the top five emerging destinations in this year's Wanderlust Reader Travel Awards.

This is what makes the Silver Explorer's route so interesting, as it dips in and out of not just the dense swampland and forest of Panama's Darién Jungle but also the El Imposible NP of El Salvador, so named for the perilous gorge that once claimed the lives of farmers transporting coffee to the coast.

Pit stop at the serene 16th-century Spanish streets of Granada in Nicaragua as well as Guatemala's UNESCO-listed Puerto Quetzal, a gem of a port city sandwiched between a trio of volcanoes. It's a chance to rediscover an all-too-often forgotten part of Latin America.

Other routes: Combine trips to Panama, Colombia and Costa Rica with a voyage across the Caribbean Sea to Cuba, taking in its wetlands, islands and famous bays.

18: The Hebrides, Scotland

Why go? Discover Britain's remote north

Key stops: Oban (embark/end) - Mingulay - St Kilda - Shiant Islands - Iona (10 days)

Nowhere in the UK does isolation quite like the Hebrides, though those going it alone soon discover that travel is not easy, with unpredicable weather and the ferries far from omniscient. So enter the Hebridean Sky, which cruises the waters from Oban up to the isolated fingertips of the Outer Hebrides - pretty much unreachable by any other means.

Zodiac trips to abandoned islands like Mingulay and North Rona reveal a windswept expanse reclaimed by puffin colonies and grey seals. Sola Sgeir is the least-visited national reserve in Britain, with its colony of 5,000 breeding pairs of gannets whipping up a storm of feathers and beaks, though gasps are best saved for the UNESCO-listed archipelago of St Kilda, the remotest part of the British Isles. Its original Gaelic-speaking occupants were evacuated in 1930, leaving behind a – still preserved – settlement and a million rowdy birds.

Other routes: Extended trips take in the historic villages of the Orkneys and wild reaches of the Shetlands, looping up over the northern tip of Scotland between Oban and Aberdeen.

19: The Inside Passage, Alaska, USA

Cruise ship at Glacier Bay, Alaska (Dreamstime)

Cruise ship at Glacier Bay, Alaska (Dreamstime)

Why go? It's like a 'best of' wild Alaska

Key stops: Juneau (embark) - Petersburg - Frederick Sound - Inian Pass - Glacier Bay NP - Sitka (end) (8-10 days)

Arterial waterways vein the ragged fringe of Alaska's southern coast as the land splinters into forested islets and calving glaciers. Many are accessible only by air or sea, which makes cruising the weeklong route through its Inside Passage irresistible, with most ships carrying rangers or naturalists on board to elaborate on the scenery.

From state capital Juneau, strike out past the Tracy Arm Fjord, where waterfalls topple from sheer glacial walls into the seas below. Kayak the coves of Frederick Sound and the Inian Islands to spot Stellar sea lions, and search for humpbacks and orcas in Glacier Bay NP. Most trips end in Sitka, Alaska's former Russian capital (the US bought the territory from them for just $7.2m in 1867), where the legacy of the 'old country' still lingers in its churches and forts.

Other routes: Fortnight-long trips begin in Vancouver, through the orca-rich Johnstone Strait, along the Inside Passage, and out west to Seward and the Kenai Fjords where some 40 glaciers stretch out from the vast Harding Icefield.

20: Svalbard Archipelago, Norway

Why go? Stay in the most northerly town on Earth

Key stops: Bergen, Norway (embark) - Bear Island - Longyearbyen, Svalbard - Bergen (end) (6-16 days)

Located deep in the Arctic North, Svalbard is Europe's great frozen wild: a glacier-cracked land of vast icefields and monster 'bergs. Trips here typically run between May and early August, with ships setting off from Spitsbergen, the Norwegian mainland or Scotland. Some detour to Greenland or the little-seen Jan Mayen island en route, but there's no doubting the main event.

During this season, Svalbard's former mining town of Longyearbyen (the world's northernmost settlement) is perpetually draped in the glare of midnight sun. On land, expeditions out across the polar desert to research stations and mining camps are combined with dog-sledding trips. But it's out on the water, cruising the South Cape and West Spitsbergen, spotting polar bears on the pack ice, that the sheer raw beauty of this place truly comes into focus.

Other routes: A small handful of ships also circumnavigate Svalbard's upper regions, taking in its north-eastern tip (Kvitova Island) and polar bear-spotting on the ice of North Spitsbergen.

21: Sea of Cortez, Mexico

Why go? Some of the Earth's best whale-spotting

Key stops: La Paz (embark/end) - Los Islotes - Magdalena Bay/Bahia de La Paz - Espiritu Santo (4-8 days)

Once dubbed 'the world's aquarium' by Jacques Cousteau, the Sea of Cortez offers some of the planet's finest whalewatching. Most ships here have a naturalist or two on board to explain the sights (check beforehand), as typical routes loop the Mexican peninsula of Baja California from La Paz up to Magdalena Bay. It's the latter where grey whales arrive off its west coast to calve each year (Jan-Mar), playfully nudging the Zodiacs as you reach down to tickle them.

Arrive later in the season (Nov-Feb) and you'll linger in Bahia de La Paz, where huge whale sharks – the world's largest fish – swarm the bay, affording the chance to snorkel alongside these serene leviathans. There's also good birding year-round along Baja's rocky coastline, while scrambling hikes lead up the crags of Los Islotes to spot honking sea lion colonies. But it's the seas that truly takes the breath away.

Other routes: Extended trips take you inland at Mexico's Topolobampo, gateway to the Copper Canyon - four times larger than the Grand Canyon - and hikes into the Sierra Madre mountains.

22: The North Pole

White washout in the North Pole

White washout in the North Pole

Why go? Hoist your flag at 90-degrees north

Key stops: Murmansk, Russia (embark/end) - 90-degrees north (North Pole) - Franz Josef Land (13-14 days)

It's not often you find yourself on a nuclear-powered icebreaker, but when travelling to the North Pole, being underprepared is not an option. Here, the 50 Let Pobedy ('50 Years of Victory') is the only game in town, and as subtle as its name suggests. This is a hulking red-and-black steel monster, with tours of its vast engine room worth taking up. Under the constant glare of midnight sun, it ploughs its way past the glaciated wonder of Franz Josef Land, with side trips out to the mysterious stone spheres of Champ Island and to spy polar bears on the tundra.

Eventually, it arrives at 90-degrees north (the Pole), whereupon 'polar plunges' and hot air balloon rides let its frigid wonders seep into your bones. On the way back, spot bears hunting seals and take time to pinch yourself – you did it!

Other routes: There's only one way to get to the North Pole – and it ain't practise!

23: The Islands of West Africa

Why go? West African culture and volcanic trails

Key stops: Dakar, Senegal (embark) - Santiago, Cape Verde - Sao Vicente - Gran Canaria, Canary Islands - Lisbon, Portugal (end) (10-15 days)

A handful of cruises run the waters of West Africa between the Canary Islands and Cape Verde, typically starting or ending on the streets of Senegal's Dakar. But while both archipelagos are known as flop 'n' drop destinations, that's only half the story: the pair's cultural highs and wild landscapes defy their reputations with zeal.

In Dakar, trips to the UNESCO-listed former slave island of Gorée or the birding haven of the Madeleine Islands set the tone. In Cape Verde, wander the picturesque old town of Praia on lush Santiago, its valleys dappled with tamarind and Albizia trees, then head to Sao Vicente, stopping in Mindelo's bars to catch strains of traditional Creole morna singers or strolling its colourful colonial houses against a backdrop of rugged peaks.

In the Canary Islands, things take a turn for the physical, as these volcanic dots in the Atlantic reveal a wealth of trekking among the hills of La Palma and the laurel forests of La Gomera. You needn't even go near a beach if you don't want to.

24: The Northwest Passage

Why go? Follow in the footsteps of the legendary Arctic explorers

Key stops: Kangerlussuaq, Greenland (embark) - Baffin Island, Canada - Cambridge Bay - Smoking Hills - Nome, Alaska (end) (23 days)

The infamous Northwest Passage connects the Atlantic and Pacific through the perilous waters of the Canadian Arctic, beginning north of Baffin Island and exiting at the Bering Sea. Not too long ago, this was all but impassable. But since 2000, the Arctic climate has changed so dramatically that what once drove even the hardiest of explorers to their deaths is now regularly completed by cruise ships during late summer, when the waters are all but ice-free.

Most trips loop up to the tip of Baffin and back from the west coast of Greenland, or drop down to Cambridge Bay on the Canadian mainland. Only a few ships (Le Soleal, Le Boreal) continue on to Nome, Alaska, completing the historic route first taken by Roald Amundsen in 1906. But it's worth the longer trip just to tick off the sights of Canada's Smoking Hills – rises of bituminous shale that endlessly combust and burn – and the unfettered wilds of Alaska and the Yukon.

Other routes: For an epic twist, high Arctic detours to Ellesmere Island, where rare narwhal and polar bears can be spotted among the ice floes, cross the 80-degrees north latitude – an Arctic badge of honour!

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