A few things come to mind when thinking about cruise vacations: beautiful ports of call; buffet tables covered with cakes, pastries, and pies; and the festive "drink of the day" that's served on the pool deck. These days, though, there's so much more to cruising. Case in point: one of the best ways to get up close and personal with exotic and wild animals in their natural habitat is by boat. These top 5 cruises will get you within a high-five's distance of some of the world' s most beautiful animals.
Wild Orangutans: Borneo
Borneo, in Southeast Asia, is the largest island on earth and is home to the planet's oldest peat swamp forest. Here, all manner of creatures live in the trees, on land, and in the black water rivers that crisscross the island.
Which cruise? Orion Expedition Cruises
Ports of call: This itinerary begins in Bali and ends in Singapore with stops in Tanjung Putin National Park in Kalimantan, Indonesia as well as Kuching and Bako National Park in Sarawak, Malaysia.
What to watch for: You'll see apes like orangutans and gibbons; monkeys such as proboscis, macaques, and lutungs; Bornean bearded pigs; estuarine crocodiles; and, while rare, it's also possible to spy Asian elephants, Sumatran rhinoceros, Bornean clouded leopard, and sun bears in this region. Borneo is also a bird-watchers paradise. Look out for owl, spiderhunters, drongos, hornbills, and malkohas.
Why now? Illegal logging—most often to make way for lucrative palm oil plantations—has caused the deforestation of thousands of acres of rainforest across Borneo. This has put a tremendous strain on species like the Borneo orangutan and proboscis monkey that live in the trees. Visit Borneo now to show your support and convince the government to aggressively defend its natural resources.
2013 Departures: September 29, October 25, and November 18
Big Five: South Africa
Everyone should set out on an adventure-filled African safari at least once in his or her lifetime. There is something special about climbing into a safari vehicle and off-roading into the bush to get up close to nature's most majestic animals. Safaris in South Africa are also quite civilized with all guides and trackers breaking at sunset to offer guests a gin-and-tonic "sundowner" to bid adieu to another gorgeous day on the savannah.
Which cruise? Silversea Cruises
Ports of call: This 10-day round-trip voyage out of Cape Town, South Africa calls on Port Elizabeth, Richards Bay, Durban, and East London in South Africa as well as Maputo, Mozambique.
What to watch for: Look for the Big Five—lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros—as well as cheetah, giraffe, zebra, wild dog, hippopotamus, hyena, crocodiles, and more.
Why now? South Africa is the most stable of all African nations today. Many of the locals speak English and the population welcomes visitors. The national parks and private game reserves are well maintained and have been operating for years so the animals living within them are not afraid of people or safari vehicles. This means you'll see more and get closer to these majestic animals than you ever thought possible.
2013 Departures: January 5, 15, 25, and December 21
Whales, Sea Lions, and Bears (Oh My!): Alaska
Alaska is a national treasure. It's easy to get to with many flights connecting via Seattle, is simple to navigate, and is home to a lush landscape that includes glaciers and fjords, forests, and flatlands, and beautiful coves and bays. If you love fishing, Alaska is the place to be.
Which cruise? InnerSea Discoveries
Ports of call: To get the true flavor of Alaska, select an Inside Passage itinerary that travels between Juneau and Sitka. You'll also visit Glacier Bay National Park, Icy Strait, Chicahagof Island, Baranof Island, and Peril Strait.
What to watch for: You'll marvel at whales (orca, beluga, humpback, right, blue, minke, bowhead, and grey), sea lions and sea otters, mountain goats and bears, moose and eagles, and so much more.
Why now? If you're like most Americans, your life is fast paced and you run from one responsibility to another. A trip to Alaska's pristine forests and small towns will slow you down so you can appreciate the beauty of our 49th state.
2013 Departures: Saturday departures from May 18–August 31
Follow Darwin: Galapagos Islands
Despite the popularity of the Galapagos Islands, the area remains largely untouched by modern development. That means the animals are completely unfazed by humans because they don't see us as a threat. You'll be able to walk right up to a seal on the beach or interact with those funny-looking blue-footed boobies.
Which cruise? Lindblad Expeditions
Ports of call: North Seymour, Rabida, Fernandina, Isabela, Santiago, Santa Cruz, and San Cristobal
What to watch for: Animals of note in the Galapagos Islands include blue-footed boobies and penguins, frigate birds and cormorants, giant tortoises and sea turtles, marine and land iguanas, and sea lions and fur seals—to name just a few. Under water you'll view an incredible array of sea life, including white-tipped reef sharks, rays, eels, and more.
Why now? Galapagos National Park has strict guidelines that cruise lines must follow and that means all ships in the area carry less than 100 people and the largest landing party numbers just 16 individuals. This assures you'll see everything you want during your visit. As demand for adventures in the Galapagos increases, regulations will surely tighten to restrict travel further.
2013 Departures: Friday departures year-round (with a few exceptions in May)
Polar Bears: Arctic Circle
Who doesn't want to see polar bears? An Arctic cruise is the easiest way to catch a glimpse of these vital creatures that are fighting for their lives as their icy habitat continues to lose ground due to global climate change. The Arctic region of Norway is also known for its gorgeous snow-capped mountains and ice fields.
Which cruise? Hurtigruten
Ports of call: Try a round-trip voyage out of Spitsbergen, Norway. The ship will head from Longyearbyen to Barentsburg, Spitsbergen National Park, North Svalbard, and Isfjord.
What to watch for: Polar bear, arctic fox, reindeer, walrus, seals (bearded, ringed, harp, and hooded), humpback whales, and white-beaked dolphins are the animals you'll likely see when touring the Arctic.
Why now? Whether or not you believe in global climate change, it's a fact that the polar ice caps are melting. As ice fields melt, the natural habitat for polar bear and other Arctic animals disappears. Visit these lovely cold-weather creatures to get a sense of the challenges they face day to day.
2013 Departures: August 14, 21, and 28