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The Rise of Active Cruises: 6 Small-Ship Cruises that Adventure Junkies Will Love

I woke to a stunning sunrise. It was just past 6:30 a.m., and Ponant’s Le Laperouse was anchored in Queen Charlotte Sound just off the small town of Picton on New Zealand’s South Island.  

After fueling up with a fresh-made omelet, it was time to board a water taxi at the expedition ship’s marina and head to a secluded trailhead for our long hike on the Queen Charlotte Track. This is a famous 44-mile-long route, and we set out to attack a nine-mile piece of it. This hike was just one of many highlights of our multi-sport adventure cruise with Ponant and Backroads.  

Ponant is one of several small-ship cruise lines that have partnered with an active travel company like Backroads, which charters space on the vessels for groups of like-minded people who prefer more active ways to connect with nature in destinations like New Zealand. Several other lines also have added programs that focus on fitness and wellness while cruising. 

I joined a group of two dozen travelers and three Backroads guides on challenging hiking, biking and kayaking outings as we sailed from Auckland to Dunedin over nine days on Le Laperouse. Aside from the nine-mile hike in Picton, we biked 25 miles in Napier along the coast and did a biking/kayaking double in Tauranga, among many other daily adventurous activities.

All this exercise was just a heart-pumping backdrop for our journey. We also were able to bond over wine tastings, fresh gourmet meals and the luxurious accommodations onboard Ponant’s 184-passenger ship. 

Wellness-focused cruises are rising in popularity in recent years. To me, they represent the ideal way to enjoy places wonderful destinations that are historically, naturally and culturally rich. This is because you get a mix of intimate experiences off the beaten path and time cruising in pampered bliss — whether enjoying the food, spa services, dancing and other entertainment onboard. 

Check out these six cruises that fitness fanatics will love. 

Hiking Queen Charlotte Track in New Zealand
Adventure cruise itineraries give you chances to go on amazing hikes, like this one in New Zealand with Backroads and Ponant.

Ponant and Backroads 

Ponant features a fleet of six luxury expedition yachts. Le Laperouse was the first in the class, and the line and Backroads use these ships and others from the French cruise line to sail in numerous places that offer great adventures, such as Alaska, New Zealand, Iceland, Japan, Denmark, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Croatia and Italy.  

You can choose from multi-adventure, biking or hiking/walking cruises. 

Hiking cruise on the Danube with Backroads and AmaWaterways
AmaWaterways has partnered with Backroads to offer active cruises. You can do biking or hiking cruises throughout Europe.

AmaWaterways and Backroads 

Backroads began its partnership with AmaWaterways on a few themed sailings in 2016. At the time, they offered the only themed biking cruises on the Rhine, Seine and Douro Rivers. Since then, the partnership has rapidly expanded, adding hiking cruises and full-ship charters for avid cyclists. In 2019 and 2020, Backroads will host more than 120 of these active theme cruises on the Rhine, Danube, Douro and Seine. These include nine full-ship sailings and select voyages on the new AmaMagna, an innovative double-wide Danube vessel.  

Backroads groups average about 26 passengers who join the regular complement of AmaWaterways’ cruisers on the ships. 

Scenic and Trek Travel cycling cruises
Scenic and Trek Travel offer theme cruises for avid cyclists who like to ride for hours daily.

Scenic and Trek Travel 

Like AmaWaterways, Scenic has landed a well-regarded partner to lead biking charter groups on its ships. Trek Travel is an adventure company launched in 2002 from the Trek cycling manufacturer, and it is a world-leading bike tour operator. These cruises ramp up the daily mileage and especially appeal to avid cyclists used to riding more than 30 or 40 miles a day. 

Trek Travel and Scenic offer departures on the Rhine and Danube Rivers, and you get to ride on high-quality carbon-fiber Trek road bikes. 

UnCruise Adventures in Panama
UnCruise Adventures offers intimate expedition sailings that get you out into nature for a range of activities, such as kayaking on small islands in Panama.

UnCruise Adventures 

The cruise line with adventure in its name doesn’t disappoint. UnCruise Adventures sails its fleet of nine ships (ranging in passenger capacity from 22 to 90) to exotic destinations such as Costa Rica, Panama, the Sea of Cortes, the Galapagos, Hawaii, the Pacific Northwest, Columbia and Snake Rivers and, of course, Alaska, where it has been an expedition cruise leader for decades. 

Cruise Compete 

The ships all feature a marina, from which daily adventures are launched. Passengers can expect to kayak up to a glacier in an Alaskan fjord or hike on secluded islands and snorkel in pristine waters. Itineraries also included opportunities to try standup paddleboarding, bushwhacking and biking. Every day offers an array of options for active travelers. 

Lindblad Expeditions National Geographic Venture
Lindblad Expeditions’ National Geographic Venture ship makes a nice home for cruisers who want to get out into the wilds.

Lindblad Expeditions 

The cruise line has a partnership with National Geographic, and these cruises feature daily enrichment and adventure activities led by expert naturalists. The cruises visit places like the Galapagos, Greenland, Baja California, Alaska, the Caribbean, Canada, the Amazon, Peru and Patagonia, where you will interact with nature and wildlife doing activities like long hikes, kayak outings, snorkeling and scuba diving. 

Quark Expeditions World Explorer
Quark Expeditions’ World Explorer is a six-deck luxury ship with a sports marina and fitness center.

Quark Expeditions 

Quark operates a fleet of five small expedition ships, including the deluxe World Explorer that launched in 2019. These ships take voyages to the polar regions of the Arctic and Antartica, with their smaller size offering access into channels where larger icebreakers cannot reach.  

Passengers look forward to capturing amazing photos of wildlife and up-close encounters with unique landscapes while snowshoeing, kayaking, hiking, paddleboarding, mountaineering and cross-country skiing.


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