If the word “cruise” brings to your mind cringe-worthy images of older people in towel shorts and Hawaiian shirts stuffing their faces at an all-you-can-eat buffet before making their way to a corny magic show, you’re not alone. Although cruises seem at the antipodes of what adventure travelers usually look for — thrills, wildlife, profound cultural experiences — they are not all one and the same. There are some incredibly cool cruises out there that young, badass travelers will enjoy without losing street cred. Here are seven of them.
1. UnCruise Adventures
It’s not called “UnCruise” for nothing. This company organizes trips that are the opposite of what you’d experience on a traditional cruise ship. UnCruise Adventures operates small ships that take travelers to remote locations around the world to explore nature and check out wildlife. The ships can accommodate between 22 and 86 passengers depending on the trip, so it’s nothing like massive vessels that transport nearly 6,000 people — the experience is much more personal.
If you like a little extra thrill, we recommend their adventure cruises over their river cruises. Depending on your location, you’ll be kayaking, hiking, snorkeling, and looking for wildlife in all types of weather during the day and going back to the ship at night to get to your next spot. The meals are gourmet and the staff will go out of their way to fulfill any dietary needs or preferences you may have. UnCruise provides all the equipment for you to get out there and explore (we at Matador have personally tried and tested UnCruise’s adventure cruises in Hawaii and Alaska and highly recommend them). Check out the full list of destinations here.
2. The Groove Cruise
If Burning Man and Shambhala Music festival are your jam, you’re a good candidate for The Groove Cruise; this short rave cruise is all about costumes, thumping music, and a whole lot of wild party-goers. The Groove Cruise is, according to them, “the largest floating dance music festival in the world.” DJs play music for 96 hours straight for 3,000 people whose goal is to let it all out for one weekend of utter depravity on the water.
The Groove Cruise sails out of Florida and California to destinations in Mexico only once a year, but you won’t be onboard for 4 days straight, as the ships anchor to some great locations along the to party onshore. In 2018 (October 10th-14th), the ship will sail from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas; in 2019 (January 10th-14th), the Fort Lauderdale cruise will stop in Key West before heading to Cozumel, Mexico. Note that there are still spots available for both sailings.
If you want to know what it’s really like to be onboard The Groove cruise before you book your tix, read our account of the experience back in 2015 here.
3. Quark Expeditions
Quark only sails to the Arctic or Antarctica, so straight off the bat, you know that what they offer is not a typical cruise, but a true expedition for travelers who are deeply interested in remote and largely untouched regions of the world.
Quark does not operate cruise ships per say, but small expedition ships and icebreakers, carrying fewer than 200 passengers. You’ll still be comfortable with chef-prepared meals, but don’t think you’ll be sailing on something similar to the Queen Mary 2 — it’s not that type of vessel or trip. Also unlike run-of-the-mill cruises, there’s no sitting around the ship eating and lounging — Quark organizes daily outdoor activities (zodiac cruise, hiking, kayaking, snowshoeing, even some swimming) for those who are motivated.
If you’re into wildlife, you’re in for a treat as Quark organizes penguin safaris, polar bear-focused trips, and sailings dedicated to see birds. Quark is serious about sustainability and conversation and follows very strict guidelines to keep the polar regions are clean as possible, so if you want to visit the Arctic and/or Antarctica, but are feeling guilty about the impact of cruise ships on these regions, know that Quark is super committed to environmentally-responsible tourism.
Traveling with Quark is not cheap, but you’re going to very remote locations on floating hotels for over a week, so that’s to be expected.
4. U by Uniworld
Among young, adventurous travelers, river cruises have a reputation for being boring — and usually for good reason. Uniworld River Cruises’ usual target demographic is baby boomers with traditional tastes, but what millennial want to a go on a dull Bordeaux, Vineyards, & Châteaux Cruise? Thankfully, they offer a fresh alternative for the younger crowd: U by Uniworld.
The U by Uniworld ships are very stylish and modern (complete with a trendy matte black exterior) to suit the preferences of the younger guests. The cruises have clubs and silent discos; rooftop yoga and mixology classes; and daily activities like kayaking, paragliding, street art tours, blokarting, brewery tours, etc. in between city tours and museum/monument visits. Also, no one above age 45 is allowed on these cruises, so you’re sure to be in your cool, millennial bubble the entire time.
5. Lindblad Expeditions — National Geographic
Right away, because they are in an alliance with Nat Geo, you know that some seriously cool traveling is happening with Lindblad Expeditions.
Lindblad operates 11 expeditions ships (not luxury cruise ships) that carry between 28 and 148 guests, so the sailings remain intimate. Also, because of their size, these ships are able to go where huge cruise ships can’t, giving guests the opportunity to get closer to some seemingly unreachable places and the wildlife that lives there.
As you’d expect, Lindbald’s trips are not spent looking at the landscape or the wildlife from the deck. Instead, each ship has exploration tools such as stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, zodiacs, and scuba diving/snorkelling gear to get you closer to what you want to see. Some ships even have glass bottoms, hydrophones, and underwater cameras so the discoveries continue when you’re on the ship.
All Lindbald’s trips have naturalists on board (with specialties such as archaeology and marine biology) to provide as much expertise to the guests as possible. Some of the trips even have Nat Geo photographers and experts to give you tips and lectures. Lindblad’s list of destinations touches every continent and all the sailings look incredible, so it’d be very hard to pick just one. Our personal favorite is their trip on the Amazon River on a gorgeous ship that carries only 28 guests. But the experiences don’t come cheap — you’ll probably need to save up for a while before you can afford a trip with Lindblad Expeditions.
6. Mark Carwardine Holidays
Mark Carwardine is an all-around amazing zoologist, conservationist, and wildlife photographer. He is especially well-known for “Last Chance to See,” the book he wrote with Douglas Adams about their trip around the world observing endangered species. The guy’s incredibly knowledgeable and a relaxed, no-frill adventurer, and you can travel with him to wildlife hotspots around the world.
All year long, Mark Carwardine organizes trips during which he takes a small bunch of people and goes looking for some of the most incredible wildlife on the planet. Carwardine’s most popular and well-known trip is his whale-watching tour in Baja California, Mexico. He’s been organizing this trip about 4 times a year since 1999 and believes that Baja California is the best place in the world for whale and dolphin-watching.
This marine safari takes place on The Spirit of Adventure, a small but comfortable vessel that take guests along the entire 800-mile-long Pacific coast of Baja California and in the waters of the Sea of Cortez in search of marine wildlife. The trip also includes some sailing on Mexican pangas to get as close as possible to the whales. Snorkeling with whale sharks is an option during this trip, but you’ll need to pay extra.
These cruises book up fast, but you can put your name down on a waiting list and/or book one of the several 2019 and 2020 trips. Alternatively, Carwardine organizes other adventure cruises to Wrangel Island, whale-watching sailings in Eastern Russia, and many others.
7. WildPhoto Travel
This one’s for the photographers who like cold, remote places. WildPhoto Travel operates out of Lonyearbyen in Svalbard, an archipelago located between mainland Norway and the North Pole, so they know their stuff when it comes to isolated areas with harsh climates.
WildPhoto Travel organizes trips to Greenland, Alaska, Antarctica, The Falkland Islands, and South Georgia, but their region of expertise and the destination they explore the most is their home turf: Svalbard.
When sailings around the Norwegian archipelago, WildPhoto Travel operates small ships that carry only 12 guests, so you are able to take full advantage of the knowledge of the two professional photographers-cum-naturalists on board. On and around Svalbard (the trip include some time on land), wildlife photographers can easily spot polar bears, walruses, several species of seals and birds, whales, arctic foxes, and the very unique Svalbard reindeers. There are two zodiacs available on each ship for the guests and guides to get closer to the ice, the glaciers, and the animals. Over the years they have had several clients winning international photo competitions with pictures taken on their tours.