Cruising’s Next Wave

Aqua Expeditions

Small boats with luxury amenities are bringing travelers to some of the world’s most out-of-the-way waters.

The M/V Aqua might very well embody the future of luxury adventure cruising. Launched this winter in Iquitos, Peru, the 12-cabin ship takes passengers on thoroughly off-the-beaten-tributary itineraries, deep into the Amazon’s nearly inaccessible hinterlands, and provides up-close encounters with local communities and rare wildlife. The boat does so in tremendous style, too, with a Bond-like architectural exterior, haute incarnations of traditional Amazonian food, and interiors featuring contemporary Peruvian furniture and vast floor-to-ceiling windows. Within the cruising community the Aqua is a revelation, to be certain, but it is hardly charting these waters alone.

From the easternmost tip of Siberia to the southernmost points of South America, from West Africa’s culture-rich coast to Central Asia’s inner Black Sea, outfitters are debuting small boats and special journeys that allow well-heeled voyagers to comfortably reach some of the planet’s most remote and pristine spots. “These experiences are for those who want to get under the skin of a destination,” says Pamela Lassers, of Abercrombie & Kent, the luxury tour operator with an ever-expanding portfolio of ultra-access cruise itineraries. “And that’s just not possible on a bigger boat.”

These smaller vessels focus on location and authenticity, with education and cultural enrichment setting the cruises’ tone and speed. “There were Egyptologists with us on board well into the evening,” says Cynthia Peters, of St. Louis, who sailed on the new 27-cabin Oberoi Zahra Nile cruiser in February, journeying to the river’s reaches in southern Egypt. “They provided in-depth historical knowledge of the region—and they were also available for shopping trips or visits to museums, even when these were off the regular schedule.”

Joining the Zahra on the Nile are boats from the London outfitter Atelier Egypt. The company recently restored two small dahabeahs, double-masted wooden ships that date from the 1830s. (The word means “golden one” in Arabic.) These eight- and 18-passenger vessels now ply the river, stopping at the temples of El Silsila as well as Aswan fishing villages and the ruins at Kom Ombo.

By and large, these cruisers act as floating base camps for daily expeditions farther afield—or, more aptly, ariver, asea, and afjord. For those staying aboard the Aqua as it makes its way through the five-million-acre Pacaya-Samiria Reserve, a trio of sturdy 25-foot skiffs helmed by local naturalists glide guests across the water in search of elusive pink river dolphins and black caimans. And next April, when Abercrombie & Kent launches a South Pacific route on the 118-passenger Clipper Odyssey, a highlight will be a small glass-bottom boat that affords prime views of sunken World War II ships. (This itinerary follows the Clipper Odyssey’s first season with A&K, cruising Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, home to the world’s largest concentration of brown bear.)

The two-year-old, $20 million, 28-passenger Atmosphere, meanwhile, operated by Nomads of the Seas, carries 13 speedboats and a Bell 407 helicopter that bring hikers and fly fishermen to remote fjords in Chile’s Patagonia. The Atmosphere’s access to such isolated areas makes you feel “as if you are living like a billionaire for a week,” says travel consultant Betty Jo Currie, who sailed on the boat in February. The crew of 32—among them two former Chilean air force officers and, reportedly, the commander of Augusto Pinochet’s personal bodyguards—likely heightens this feeling.

But how might this new cadre of small ships affect the destination ports? Many, including those in Sierra Leone, Gabon, and Benin (all of which were part of Travel Dynamics International’s inaugural five-week trip from the Cape of Good Hope to Gibraltar this spring and will be journeyed to again in 2009, aboard the Corinthian II), are very rarely, if ever, visited by cruise passengers. According to Ted Manning, president of the ecotourism consultancy Tourisk, the diminutive size of the new ships is at once a benefit and a concern. “Smaller vessels are certainly more manageable and may have far less impact on resource-poor locales, but it’s essential that the boats work with the communities they visit,” says Manning, who has helped develop sustainable destination policies for the United Nations and the World Tourism organization. “There needs to be a participatory process on both sides.”

Aqua owner and CEO Francesco Galli Zugaro—for a decade a specialist in luxury cruises in the environmentally fragile Galápagos Islands—aims to make his ship a model for just this sort of high- contact/low-impact cruising.

He’s brought potable water to the region by installing an advanced treatment system, and he buys seasonal fruits and staples from secluded villages along the route. This keeps the boat relatively light as it travels and allows locals to sell their wares while remaining close to their homes and families. The goal, says Zugaro, is “to marry sustainability with a successful business, giving guests a luxury experience on the Amazon and keeping intact one of the world’s last unspoiled areas.

All Aboard for All Access

Clipper Odyssey

Abercrombie & Kent

Trip Voyage to Melanesia to explore World War II wrecks in the South Pacific
Details From $9,000 for 19 days.

M/V Aqua

Aqua Expeditions

Trip Three- to seven-night itineraries on the Amazon River
Details From $2,100 for three days


Nomads of the Seas

Trip Ultimate Fly Fishing in the waterways of Chile’s Patagonia
Details Weeklong trips from $17,850

Oberoi Zahra

Oberoi Hotels & Resorts

Trips Aswan to Luxor and Luxor to Asman
Details From $13,000 for eight days traveling up or down the Nile

Dongola 1835 & Giraffa 1840

Atelier Egypt

Trip The Great Nile Journey
Details From $2,650 for eight days on the river

Corinthian II

Travel Dynamics

Trip A Voyage from the Cape of Good Hope to Gibraltar
Details From $24,000 for 35 days