Set sail to some of the world’s most spectacular locales that aren’t always top-of-mind. From less-traveled rivers and waterways to hidden-gem destinations and hard-to-get-to islands, these locales below offer something special: inspiring (and Instagram-able) scenery that you won’t have to share with massive cruise-going crowds. Expect to be the envy of your travel-loving pals when you say, “Bon Voyage!” before cruising these destinations.
The world’s largest island is a cruise destination for the truly intrepid traveler. While Greenland won’t come with tropical vibes, it boasts fantastic fjords, abandoned Viking settlements, Arctic wildlife, iceberg landscapes and an intriguing Inuit culture. A handful of transatlantic cruises stop here, usually in Qaqortoq (population: 3,229), and some itineraries will bundle Greenland with Iceland or Scandinavia. However, it’s also become a relatively new expedition cruise destination unto itself. So if you’re keen to focus on Greenland exclusively, companies such as Hurtigruten, National Geographic Expeditions, and One Ocean Expedition can take you there.
This island chain in the South Seas is so pristine and so remote, you’ll feel as though you’ve stepped back in time. The Marquesas are located in French Polynesia about 1,000 miles from Tahiti -- an island that most already consider to be far-flung. Natural wonders abound in this archipelago where just six of its 12 islands are inhabited. Admire 1,000-foot waterfalls that cascade down volcano cliffs; emerald-green forests that frame beaches of white sand and black; and dramatic volcanos that pierce the clouds in the sky. The painter Paul Gaugin spent his final years in this South Seas paradise; you may not want to leave either. The aptly-named Paul Gauguin Cruises is among the lines to sail here roundtrip from Tahiti.
THE PERUVIAN AMAZON
Go on a real-life jungle cruise. Although Brazil is most often associated with the 4,000-mile-long waterway that slices through jungle and rainforest, an Amazon cruise in Peru puts you closer to the source and distances you from the larger ships that tend to sail in Brazil. You’ll experience the world’s largest and most diverse collection of plant and animal life on the planet. (The Amazon is home to more than one-third of all recovered animal species in the world.) Plus, you could easily pair your cruise with a journey to Machu Picchu by train or multi-day hike. Uniworld and Aqua Expeditions are among those to sail the Peruvian Amazon.
WATERWAYS OF HOLLAND & BELGIUM
Tip-toe through the tulips. Join a cruise that sails the canals and waterways that connect Amsterdam, Maastricht, Antwerp, and Brussels. You’ll weave through a wonderland of windmills, castles, bikes, and—of course—tulips. While peak tulip season is mid-March to late-April, next year offers a spectacular gardening event that happens only every 10 years in The Netherlands: Floriade 2022 Expo (April 14 – Oct. 9, 2022). Smithsonian Journeys offers a cruise that incorporates this renowned festival into the itinerary.
You won’t find this island on any Caribbean cruise itinerary. But St. John, which is the smallest of the three islands that make up the U.S. Virgin Islands, is an easy ferry ride from the massive cruise-ship ports of St. Thomas. You’ll be greatly rewarded if you make the 20-minute trip, for what awaits is a slice of what the Caribbean was like before tourism took hold. St. John is home to pristine, uncrowded beaches with names like Maho, Cinnamon and Honeymoon, as well as one of the most photographed beaches in the world: a gorgeous arc of white sand known as Trunk Bay.
The Chilean Fjords
THE CHILEAN FJORDS
While the rest of the world flocks to the fjords of Scandinavia, you could cruise to the fjords of South America. The fjords of Chile will have you venturing off the beaten path, or in this case, away from the well-traveled tourist water of Europe. You’ll sail the same ocean channels long ago charted by Magellan, where a landscape of snowy peaks, massive glaciers, and steep fjords will inspire “Ooohs” and “Ahhhs.” Cruises through the Chilean fjords typically go around Cape Horn and include stops in Argentina and the Falkland Islands, too. Among the cruise lines that sail here: Viking Ocean Cruises and Silversea.
Coco Cay, Royal Caribbean private island
PRIVATE CRUISE LINE-OWNED CARIBBEAN ISLANDS
Talk about exclusivity. Many major cruise lines own private Caribbean islands where only one of its cruise ships can dock at a time—and only those passengers can disembark to explore and play. Most are in the Bahamas, such as Great Stirrup Cay (Norwegian Cruise Line), Half Moon Cay (Holland America Line), Perfect Day at CocoCay (Royal Caribbean) and Disney Castaway Cay (Disney Cruise Line). Fun-in-the-sun opportunities abound on these private island enclaves in the form of kid-friendly water parks, zip-lines, private beachfront cabanas and bars. The biggest perk: You needn’t worry about passengers from other ships invading your private island.
France is more than just Paris. Truly immerse yourself in French culture, cuisine, and wine by sailing the Rhone River. The river winds through the heart of French wine country before flowing into the Mediterranean Sea. Its waters flow past Medieval villages and gorgeous countryside where the sights and sweet smells of vineyards, orange groves, lavender fields, and sunflower fields are sure to leave a lasting impression. Cruises typically stop at Lyon (considered by many to be the culinary capital of France), Avignon (the “City of Popes”), and Arles (a city that inspired Van Gogh). Viking River Cruises and AmaWaterways are among those that sail the Rhone.
The Mekong River
THE MEKONG RIVER
Bundle the best of Southeast Asia on one river cruise. The Mekong River weaves through six countries, including China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Joining a cruise on this river allows you to more easily experience a journey that might prove challenging to DIY on limited vacation time. G Adventures offers an 8-day cruise journey from Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) to Siem Reap (Cambodia) that visits floating markets, fishing ports, rice paddies, monasteries, and a whole lot more.
Sail through Portugal’s Douro River Valley, a winding, vineyard-laden region renowned for its millennia-old tradition of winemaking. While the Douro River—translation: “River of Gold” —is gaining popularity for cruise-goers who are looking for “the next thing,” it remains a less-traveled waterway compared to other rivers of Europe. Most itineraries begin and end in Porto, where you can sample the country’s beloved port wine. (The Douro Valley is the only place in the world that can legally produce “port wine.”) But there’s more to this river than the port. The river weaves through an area that’s earned UNESCO World Heritage Site status for its picturesque towns, medieval castles, archaeological sites, and native farms. Cruise lines such as Tauk,AmaWaterways, Uniworld and Viking River Cruises, sail the Douro.
The island chain that famously fueled Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution remains as remote as it is stunning. Located 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, it wows visitors to this day with a diverse collection of flora, fauna, and wildlife. The best way to experience these islands—each one remarkably, wonderfully unique—is by cruise, no question. Because the Galapagos is one of the most tightly-controlled tourism regions on the planet, there are strict regulations in place to protect the fragile and unique ecosystem: No vessel with a capacity of more than 100 passengers can sail in the Galapagos, and ship routes are governed by the Galapagos National Park Authority. This not only helps to preserve the life here—from the Galapagos penguins to the blue-footed boobies—but it allows you to have a truly intimate visit. Expedition cruises led by Celebrity Cruises are among those that can take you to this real-life Garden of Eden in the Pacific Ocean.