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I recently read a cruise line ad that described Nassau and St. Thomas as "exotic." That's like calling Taco Bell exotic. Sure, those islands have some practical draws -- good sun, good sand, decent shopping, and a lot of cheap rum -- but the most exotic thing I've ever seen there was a couple on a neighboring ship, gettin' busy on their private balcony because they thought no one could see them.

Now listen, I have no problem with fun-in-the-sun ports. Me and Key West, we're on great terms. San Juan, beautiful city. Grand Cayman, love them stingrays. But in general I draw the line at calling them anything more than they are: places to unwind and have a good time. Pass the Red Stripe!

If you're looking for something really exotic, though, you're going to have to dig a lot deeper. Go beyond the weeklong Caribbean cruises. Go beyond the Alaska Inside Passage cruises -- because sure, Alaska is America's last frontier, but for pete's sake, Skagway's got a Starbucks in the middle of its historic district. How exotic is that?

According to the Cruise Lines International Association, an industry marketing group, the following are the top twenty cruise regions, by popularity:

  Region Annual % of total cruise passengers
1 Caribbean 40.69%
2 Mediterranean 12.59%
3 Alaska 8.30%
4 Mexican Riviera 7.45%
5 Europe (non-Med) 7.14%
6 Bahamas 5.69%
7 Hawaii 3.76%
8 Panama Canal 3.52%
9 Transatlantic 2.26%
10 South America 1.83%
11 Bermuda 1.72%
12 Canada/New England 1.52%
13 South Pacific 0.85%
14 Far East 0.83%
15 World Cruise 0.60%
16 U.S. West Coast 0.56%
17 Antarctica 0.20%
18 Africa 0.09%
19 Southeast Asia 0.08%
20 Unclassified 0.08%

To me, of course, the most interesting destination on that list is waaay down at number 20: "Unclassified."

How could it get more exotic than that?

So here's a few cruises to consider if you want to go off the grid, cruise style. On some you'll be so far off the normal sea lanes you'll feel like an astronaut, boldly going where no one in your immediate circle of friends has ever gone before. Hell, they might not even know you can go to some of these places. At least not by cruise ship. And that's the beauty of it: not bragging rights, but the sense of really being out there, in a place freighted with the romance of real travel. Now that's exotic.

Abercrombie & Kent: The Nile River

Founded in 1962 to offer tours in eastern and central Africa, Abercrombie & Kent (tel. 800/554-7016; www.abercrombiekent.com) has been expanding ever since, programming custom private tours, escorted small-group tours, and small-ship cruises to some of the world's farthest-flung destinations. The focus is on combining exploratory character with exceptional service, usually on small ships chartered from other small-ship lines but sometimes aboard A&K's own vessels. Though the line sails itineraries from Europe to Tahiti and Antarctica to the Galapagos, I'm gonna go old-fashioned here and talk up the line's Nile River cruises, which is exotic in that old-movie-style, pith helmet and Eyptologists kind of way. Offered aboard A&K's own 80-passenger Sun Boat IV, the 12-day trip sails from Cairo, visiting Alexandria, the Pyramids of Giza, the temple of Ramses, the great temples at Luxor, and other antiquities. Prices start around $4,700 per person.

Lindblad Expeditions: Antarctica, Arctic Norway, and the Galapagos

Another company with a global reach, Lindblad Expeditions (tel. 800/397-3348; www.expeditions.com) was formed in 1979 by Sven-Eric Lindblad, son of adventure travel pioneer Lar-Eric Lindblad, the man who opened Antarctica to travelers. This year, Lindblad cemented its place as the top learning-oriented expedition line by inking an alliance with the National Geographic Society, which will provide scientists and other experts to lecture aboard ship, as well as conducting undersea exploration using newly installed technologies. (See feature article here).

Both Arctic and Antarctic cruises are offered aboard the 110-passenger National Geographic Endeavor. A former North Sea fishing vessel, she was retooled for expedition cruising in 1983 and now boasts a reinforced hull, a fleet of Zodiac landing boats, and a video-enabled R.O.V. (remote-operated vehicle) that can dive up to 500 feet below the ice to record the goings-on for passengers.

Three Arctic cruises are available: an 11-day trip around Norway's Svalbard archipelago, located just 600 miles south of the North Pole; a 15-night version that also sails Norway's fjords; and a 20-day comprehensive Scandinavia adventure, sailing from Copenhagen north along the Norwegian coast to the Lofoten Islands, Tromso, Bear Island, and Svalbard. Prices for 2005 start around $5,300, $7,500, and $8,850, respectively, with departures in June and July.

In Antarctica, Lindblad's 15-day exploration cruise departs from Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world, after a two-night stay in Santiago, Chile. The trip offers six full days of exploration on the Antarctic Peninsula, along with Cape Horn and the islands of Tierra del Fuego. Whenever possible, Endeavor sails into Lindblad Cove, named in memory of Lars-Eric for his pioneering work here. A longer 25-day trip pairs the above trip with visits to the South Orkney Islands, the Falklands, and South Georgia Island, where Ernest Shackleton landed in 1917 after his 800-mile small-boat crossing from Elephant Island, where his ship had become stranded. Antarctic cruises start at $7,990 and $13,990, respectively. Fifteen-day cruises depart in January, November, and December; 25-day cruises depart in December and February.

For something warmer, Lindblad is also one of the most respected companies sailing the waters of Ecuador's Galapagos Islands. Located about 620 miles west of mainland Ecuador, the Galapagos are the habitat that first sparked Charles Darwin's research into the origin of species. They're literally a living laboratory -- an isolated, protected environment boasting an utterly unique mixture of animal life. So removed were they from human influence during most of their history that the Galapagoan animals have no fear of man, and it's common for visitors to have to step around lolling sea lions, basking iguanas, and dancing blue-footed boobies while trekking the islands' beaches and nature trails. It's one of the world's greatest nature experiences. Lindblad offers year-round 10-day cruises aboard the twin-hulled, 48-passenger M.V. Islander (starting from $4,180 per person) and the 80-passenger Polaris (from $3,480 per person). Sixteen-day voyages pair a Galapagos cruise with a land trip to Peru, visiting Machu Picchu (from $6,480).

Quark Expeditions: Arctic Russia & Arctic Canada

If getting 600 miles from the North Pole isn't enough for you, sign on to a North Pole cruise offered by Quark Expeditions (tel. 800/356-5699; www.quarkexpeditions.com) aboard the Russian nuclear icebreaker Yamal or sister-ship Sovetskiy Soyuz. Sailing north from Murmansk, the 100-passenger vessel crosses the Barents Sea and begins slamming through Arctic ice up to five meters thick en route to the Geographic Pole. Stark polar landscapes, towering volcanic mountains, and animals such as polar bear, whales, and walrus are visible from the high bridge, the ship's navigation helicopter, or inflatable Zodiac boats. Sailing in July only, the 16-day trip starts at $16,450 per person.

Quark offers numerous other sailings in the Arctic and Antarctica. Their 19-day Northwest Passage cruise traces the routes of the great 19th and early-20th-century explorers who finally conquered the fabled Northwest Passage after centuries of dreaming. Passengers meets and fly from Anchorage, Alaska, to Anadyr, Russia, to board the icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov, then sail along the Siberian coast into the Chukchi Sea, passing Point Barrow (the northernmost point in the United States) and heading into the ice of the Beaufort Sea and the Northwest Passage, north of Canada's Yukon Territory. Passengers see bowhead, gray, and minke whales; polar bears and musk ox; the ruins of 19th-century whaling stations; traditional Inuit towns; and even the remains of the Maud, a three-masted schooner that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen sailed across the north polar basin in 1922-24. The route winds up in the town of Resolute, on the south coast of Cornwallis Island, in Arctic Canada, from which passengers fly to Ottawa. Rates start at $10,250 for the trip's sole annual sailing, in July.

Cruise West: Bering Sea & Russia's Chukchi Peninsula

Founded by Alaska tourism pioneer Chuck West in the mid-1980s, Cruise West is still a family operation whose core business remains Alaska and the rivers of the Pacific Northwest, with winters spent in Baja, the California Wine Country, and Central America. Though not typically oriented toward true adventure cruising, the line took a step in that direction in 2001, when it purchased the 114-passenger Spirit of Oceanus (formerly of Renaissance Cruises) and began looking beyond its usual coastal routes toward more extravagant ocean voyages.

Oceanus's 14-day voyages to the Bering Sea, for instance, is like sailing off the edge of the earth. Offered June through August and sailing between Nome and Anchorage, the voyage cuts a wide, 2,500-mile semicircle through the Bering, visiting former Soviet cities on Russia's Chukchi Peninsula, wildlife-rich islands like the Pribilofs and Kodiak, tundra-covered outposts like the Shumagins and Nunivak, and native villages on both sides of the U.S./Russian border. Immersion in the culture, history, and natural environment of the region is paramount, with daily trips ashore, regular exploration by Zodiac, and frequent lectures by a team of naturalists and historians. Prices begin at $8,015 per person. In winter, Spirit of Oceanus heads south to the South Pacific and Japan.

Click here for a feature article on Cruise West's Bering Sea cruises.

Glacier Bay Cruiseline: Alaska's Inside Passage, Outdoors-Style

Yep, I said the usual Alaska Inside Passage cruises can edge toward the Starbucks side of things, but this isn't one of those usual cruises. Rather than a quick breeze-by of a few glaciers and stops in touristy port towns, Glacier Bay Cruiseline (tel. 800/451-5952; www.glacierbaycruiseline.com) programs a number of its cruises to focus entirely on kayaking, hiking, and wildlife-viewing. The line's ships are spartan, its onboard vibe so casual you can hardly tell who's crew and who's passengers, and the only towns visited on many of their itineraries are so small they barely make the map, much less rate a double latte.

Most adventurous of all their itineraries are the 7-day cruises offered on the tiny, 31-passenger Wilderness Explorer. It's the most active cruise you'll find in Alaska, with all but one day spent kayaking and hiking in Glacier Bay National Park and nearby Icy Strait. The ship itself serves only as a place to eat, sleep, and get from place to place. You've got to be in shape for this one, but it's worth it. This is the real way to see Southeast Alaska. Cruises start from $1,465 per person, sailing early May through late August.

Trinity House: England, Wales, and the Channel Islands

Ho-hum, Great Britain. People speak English there. How exotic could it be? Pretty exotic, if we're talking about getting away from the usual cruise life. March through October, you can sail aboard the Patricia, a 2,500-ton vessel whose job it is to maintain Britain's system of navigational buoys and attend and refuel its lighthouses and lightships. As a sideline, she has cabins for 12 guests, who meld into the rhythm of the ship's daily routine while enjoying occasional stops along the coast, as the work schedule permits. It's a great experience for real maritime enthusiasts, with pleasant accommodations, dining room, and sitting room that opens onto a promenade deck. Prices start around $2,300 per person, per week. For information contact Trinity House (tel. 01255-245034; www.trinityhouse.co.uk).

Compagnie Polynesienne de Transport Maritime: The Marquesas Islands

Lying eight-hundred miles equidistant from Hawaii and Tahiti, the lush Marquesas Islands are almost the definition of "cut off" -- but that's their charm. Acting as a lifeline to the outside world, the Compagnie Polynesienne de Transport Maritime (tel. 800-972-7268; www.aranui.com) operates the freighter Aranui III on regular 16-day trips round-trip from Tahiti, bringing supplies in and carrying dried coconut meat and noni fruit out. There's also room for 200 passengers, who get to experience life on more than a dozen little-visited Polynesian islands, as well as the daily life of a real working ship. Sailings depart once of twice per month year-round, with fares starting at $3,500 per person for private (two-person) accommodations. Bunks in a 30-person dormitory with shared facilities start at $1,980.

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