Eight new cruise tours for 2021 and beyond

In this new world of sanitation and testing, cruise companies are reinventing the onboard experience and offering new opportunities. From wildlife excursions to cultural odysseys, we bring you the best cruise inspiration for the year ahead.

By Julia Buckley
Published 30 Mar 2021, 16:20 BST
Lofoten in Norway is known for its colourful fishing villages and dramatic mountain scenery.

Lofoten in Norway is known for its colourful fishing villages and dramatic mountain scenery. 


Photograph by Antony Spencer

Let’s be honest: 2020 wasn’t the best year for cruises. But the focus on ships as a point of potential Covid-19 infection has meant that cruise companies have introduced strict protocols for the future — including ones that promise to improve your all-round experience, with smaller groups and spaced-out excursion times, plus booking flexibility that was hitherto unheard of. 

Some companies, such as Ponant, continued sailing throughout 2020; others are returning to the high seas this year. All have used the enforced pause in business to work out new safety rules, and before booking any trip, you should check what the cruise line is doing to protect both crew and passengers. For starters, you should expect pre-boarding Covid-19 tests and regular temperature checks to become routine. Some are going one step further: Saga, for instance, has already insisted its passengers be fully vaccinated 14 days before sailing. Things might change as the year goes on, but it’s likely that masks will be required in public areas, too. And apart from the onboard protocols, all itineraries, of course, will depend on borders being open. 

But it’s an exciting time to set sail, especially since social distancing probably means cruising is about to feel much more boutique. So grab your passport (and negative test results) — we’ve picked some of the most exciting trips to lure you back on board

Gorée is a small, car-free island off the coast of Dakar, in Senegal with narrow streets and colonial-style houses.

Photograph by AWL Images

1. The rivers of West Africa

Best for wildlife

National parks crammed with migratory birds, chimps, crocodiles and stone circles? A fascinating yacht cruise up the Gambia River and along the coast of West Africa packs in no fewer than four natural reserves, UNESCO-protected sites and a sharp dose of Britain’s slavery history in just eight days. 

It’s one for birdwatchers, in particular, with more than 250 species, many of which are found nowhere else, in Kiang West National Park in The Gambia. That’s halfway through your trip, heading down the Senegal coast from starting point Dakar, and then inland eastwards about 150 miles from Banjul to Janjanbureh. Kiang West is home to around half of all The Gambia’s bird species, including 10 kinds of kingfishers, fiery red-beaked bateleurs and the endangered brown-necked parrot. Though that’s not the only stand-out place on the route; Senegal’s Sine-Saloum Delta, a UNESCO-designated biosphere reserve and IBA (Important Bird and Biodiversity Area), is another highlight, known for its migratory birds including greater flamingos, Eurasian spoonbills and royal terns to be found among the 200 mangrove-covered islands. 

It’s not all feathered friends on this trip, of course; there’s marine wildlife including manatees, dolphins and crocs; hippos, bush babies and marsh mongoose; and the 100 chimps living contact-free on three islands as part of the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project, near Kuntaur. Plus trips to fishing villages and UNESCO Cultural Heritage Sites, including the megaliths at Wassu, and Kunta Kinteh Island, a former slave-trading post under the British Empire. 

Variety Cruises offers eight days from £1,200 per person, including three daily meals, welcome cocktail, tea, coffee and water, a captain’s dinner and a themed evening. Excludes port charges, gratuities, shore excursions and other drinks. Departs 22 December 2021.

The colourful houses of the fishing village of Saatut in Greenland stand out beautifully against the snowy landscape.

Photograph by AWL Images

2. Greenland

Best for adventure

Embark on a journey deep into the Arctic, to the most remote community in the Western Hemisphere. This Ponant-run trip sets off from Kangerlussuaq and heads to Ittoqqortoormiit, on the east coast of Greenland, where brightly coloured houses cleave to the shoreline. Frozen in bar the summer months, this region prides itself on its hunting traditions and dog sledding. 

From there, the luxurious expedition ship L'Austral heads into Northeast Greenland National Park, the world’s largest, with sheer cliffs, vast glaciers and wild tundra — and no sign of other humans. There may be a chance to observe wildlife, including polar bears, orcas and Arctic foxes. The boat will then cross into the Arctic Circle, visiting the bird colonies of volcanic Jan Mayen Island, before concluding in Tromsø, Norway.

On board with you is a National Geographic photographer and also a designated National Geographic expert, sharing illuminating contextual information on conservation and geology as you explore. 

National Geographic Expeditions offers a 15-day cruise from £9,508 per person, including all meals, drinks including alcohol and house champagne (excluding premium brands), and most activities, such as zodiac landings. Departs 15 August 2021.

Aboard a Havila Voyages ship, sightings of the Northern Lights often come thick and fast, particularly in Norway’s Lofoten archipelago.

Photograph by Havila Voyages

3. Norway

Best for views

Working with his fisherman father from the age of 12, Per Sævik grew up watching ships slide up Norway’s west coast. Today, he and his children own Havila, a shipping company that’s set to launch four new cruise ships on the classic Bergen-Kirkenes route for 2021. The 12-day return voyage includes stops at 34 ports, slipping through narrow fjords and skimming gargantuan sheer cliffs, ticking off no fewer than four UNESCO World Heritage Sites and crossing the Arctic Circle twice as the boat connects remote coastal communities. Locals will also use the boats as a point-to-point service. The focus is on seeing life as the Norwegians live it, so at each port, the chefs will source local ingredients, from juicy, just-netted cod to golden cloudberries from the far north. 

Highlights include sailing round the tip of Europe at the North Cape plateau; island-hopping in the Lofoten archipelago; and soaking up the sights of Geirangerfjord, with its Seven Sisters waterfall gushing from the cliffside. It’s not just about the natural sights, though: there are city stops, too, including Trondheim, with its medieval cathedral; art nouveau Ålesund; and Honningsvåg, a contender for the world’s northernmost town. Seeking tranquillity? The ships are partially battery-powered, meaning they can glide through the fjords emission-free for up to four hours. You’ll need to join the full 12-day return trip to hit all 34 ports during the day, but one-way trips are also bookable. 

Havila Voyages offers a 12-day cruise from £829 per person, including wi-fi, meals (but no drinks) and some onboard activities. Tipping not expected. Departures from April 2021 (five to six departures a month).

Mekong Delta in Vietnam is an enormous twisting maze of rivers, swamps and islands.

Photograph by AWL Images

4. Mekong River

Best for culture

Cruise-curious? Vietnam and Cambodia have long been a classic pairing, and Viking River Cruise’s Magnificent Mekong is a great choice for those who aren’t sure about spending two weeks on one ship — of this 15-day trip, only eight are spent on board. You’ll start with three days in Hanoi before flying to Cambodia, where Siem Reap’s impressive temples, including Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm, await. A coach journey through the countryside then delivers you to Kampong Cham, where the boat starts its journey. 

A new ship will debut on this route for the 2021 season: the 40-stateroom Viking Saigon, tailor-made to navigate the Mekong, launches on 30 August. For days six to 13 of the journey, you’ll watch one of the world’s most famous rivers glide by through the floor-to-ceiling cabin windows, hopping off to visit holy mountains and quiet villages, docking in Cambodia’s beautiful, chaotic capital, Phnom Penh, and crossing into Vietnam. Life slows down here, with sampan trips down the palm-fronded delta, views of emerald-swaddled hills and the floating market of Cái Bè. Finally, you’ll arrive in Ho Chi Minh City. It may not be one for those looking to maximise time spent on the water, but if your priority is getting the most out of the destination, this is the cruise for you. 

Viking River Cruises offers a 15-day cruise from £5,595 per person, including flights from the UK, a river-view stateroom, all on-board meals (including wine, beer and soft drinks for lunch and dinner), wi-fi, gratuities and an excursion at almost every port. Departs 30 August 2021.

Postcard-perfect Fiji, is a paradise for those after white sand, clear waters and swaying palms.

Photograph by Getty Images

5. South Pacific

Best for remoteness

Keen to put some distance between you and 2020? Try this 24-day cruise through the Pacific, from Keelung to Fiji via the islands of the South Pacific. Hapag-Lloyd bills it as ‘for true explorers’ — and that’s not just because the official language is German (although all crew speak English). Departing Keelung, you’ll sail southeast until the 200-plus volcanic and coral islands that make up Palau start mushrooming from the jade ocean. From there, it’s one island nation after another, with the odd volcano dropped in for effect, until you hit the Gilbert Islands. Next, it’s southwards to Fiji, dropping in on Tuvalu en route.

Excursions include kayaking through mangroves, meeting families who live on remote atolls, exploring an ancient ruined city in the Caroline Islands and a scenic flight in Palau. And if you’re wary about committing to 24 days at sea, take heart — the ship, the Hanseatic Spirit, is new for 2021, and has more open deck space than traditional expedition ships, as well as an observation deck and glass-floored balcony cantilevered over the water. There’s also an indoor observation lounge for when the sun gets too much. We can but dream. 

Hapag-Lloyd Cruises offers 24 days from £15,793 per person, including flights and transfers, non-alcoholic minibar, full-board meals (excluding drinks) and a £181 beverage credit. Departs 15 October 2021.

Commonly known as the driest place on the planet, the Atacama Desert in Chile still bursts with life, home to animals as varied as llamas and viscachas (close relatives to the chinchilla).

Photograph by Getty Images

6. South America

Best for new discoveries

Peru, Ecuador and Chile: together, they’re one of the most traversed tourist circuits in South America — but with this Hurtigruten trip, expect a less-trammelled side of the Andean big-hitters. Even better, you’ll start in Panama, seeing that world-changing canal, before crossing the Equator (complete with a ceremony asking for the ocean’s blessing) and arriving in Ecuador on day four.

As well as major cities like Lima, Guayaquil and Arequipa, the tour visits more remote spots rich in South American history and culture. In Ecuador, you’ll see pre-Columbian art and stroll through the Puyango Petrified Forest. Crossing into Peru, swap the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu for remnants of even earlier civilisations: the crumbling desert city of Chan Chan, once the capital of the Chimú Kingdom, and the Sun and Moon temples of the Moche civilisation. You can fly over the mysterious Nazca Lines, explore uninhabited Peruvian islands and see where the desert meets the beach in Arica, one of the world’s driest cities, just over the border in Chile. The cruise ends in boho Valparaíso, where an optional trip to Easter Island can be added on. 

Hurtigruten offers 16 days from £3,867, including transfers, a pre-cruise night in Panama City, breakfast, lunch and dinner (including house alcoholic drinks), wi-fi, tea and coffee, some excursions and a ‘Citizen Science’ programme. Departs 8 October 2021.

Manhattan is the beating heart of New York, the most densely packed district full of skyscrapers including the iconic Empire State Building.

Photograph by Getty Images

7. Québec City to New York City

Best for history

This journey takes in not just two countries, but two languages, three big-hitter cities and some of the best parts of New England. Brush off your O-level French as you start in Québec City, where you’ll have 24 hours to wander the UNESCO-listed Historic District, see the Montmorency Falls and eat all the poutine you can manage. From there, the boat will wind through the Gulf of St Lawrence and into the Bay of Fundy, before dropping anchor at Saint John, Canada’s oldest incorporated city.

Next up, it’s New England’s greatest hits: you’ll sail along Maine’s coast, visit Boston, and see the stately homes of America’s first millionaires in Newport, Rhode Island, before finally ending up in the Big Apple. 

Silversea offers a 21-day cruise from £9,720, including flights, transfers, one night’s pre- and post-cruise hotel, wi-fi, gratuities, shore excursions and all food and drink. Departs 4 April 2022.

8. Brazil to the Caribbean

Best for planning ahead

April 2022 may seem a long way off, but you’ll want to get planning for this one: a 21-day trip that kicks off in Brazil, continues along French Guiana, Suriname and Guyana, takes in island-hopping in Trinidad and Tobago and finishes off in Barbados. 

But first to Brazil: fresh off the beach at Fortaleza, you’ll sail to Belém, then into the Amazon region for jungle excursions and encounters with giant water-lilies, pink dolphins and caimans, plus a day in Manaus, where the world’s most remote opera house awaits. Sailing north, you’ll combine wildlife with colonial architecture in the likes of Paramaribo and Georgetown, before reaching the Caribbean. And relax… 

Crystal Cruises offers an eight-night cruise from £3,155, including meals, drinks (including alcoholic options), gratuities and wi-fi. Departs 25 September 2021.

Published in the March 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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