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Cruise: Adventure Tours : Eco-options, from pole to pole

February 11, 1996|JAMES C. SIMMONS | Simmons is a San Diego-based freelancer. His latest book is "The Big Book of Adventure Travel."

Our expeditionary cruise ship, the Polaris, bobbed gently in the swells. Overhead wheeled thousands of gannets and storm petrels. Rafts of puffins rode the ocean's surface. Just off our bow rose the mysterious Skellig Islands, two sea-besieged citadels steeped in Irish history and legend.

I had come to this remote place with Special Expeditions of New York City. We were a group of 64 passengers, plus a teaching staff of four naturalists, an archeologist and a historian, who had turned our ship into a floating seminar.

Our main destination on this day was the 44-acre Skellig Michael, a deeply eroded rocky thumb about eight miles off Ireland's west coast. We landed and walked along a paved path to a set of 600 stone steps that led up from the sea through spongy mats of the ground cover, seapink. Five hundred feet above the sea, we came upon an ancient stone wall, passed through a doorway, and found ourselves in one of the most remarkable and least visited archeological sites in Ireland--the nearly intact buildings of a 6th century monastic community.

Getting in touch with such different and long-ago ways of life is one of the things that has made expeditionary cruises increasingly popular. "We have seen our expeditionary cruise bookings rise by more than 400% in the past 18 months, while our offerings have jumped from just three different cruises in 1993 to 14 for 1996," said Ben Bressler, the founder and director of Colorado-based Natural Habitat Adventures.

In their search for the remote and exotic, adventure cruise ships face risks no ordinary cruise ship would experience. In the late summer of 1988, for example, the passengers on the 238-foot Explorer found themselves trapped in pack ice 50 miles northeast of Point Barrow, Alaska, as they attempted to navigate the perilous Northwest Passage. A Coast Guard icebreaker finally freed them.

Below, a selection of expeditionary cruise possibilities in 1996. Unless noted, all prices are per person. Air fare not included.

Abercrombie & Kent International operates the Explorer, the first Antarctic passenger cruise ship, built in 1969. From November to February it's stationed in Antarctica; in March and April it plies the Amazon River.

Ships/type: Explorer, 238 feet, refurbished in 1992. Number of passengers: 96.

Typical itineraries/costs: 19-day cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula, Falkland Islands and South Georgia Island from $7,595; 18-day, 2,000-mile Amazon River cruise from $4,590.

Abercrombie & Kent International, 1520 Kensington Road, Oak Brook, IL 60521; telephone (800) 323-7308 or (708) 954-2944.

Alaska Sightseeing/Cruise West pioneered a cruise through Canada's Inside Passage in 1992. The company also operates a wildlife cruise in the Alaskan Inside Passage and another following the route of Lewis and Clark on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

Ships/type: five ships of the 100-ton class, two motor yachts. Number of passengers: 54-107.

Typical itineraries/costs: eight-day cruise along the Canadian Inside Passage from $1,359; eight-day cruise up the Columbia River from $795.

Alaska Sightseeing/Cruise West, 4th & Battery Building, Suite 700, Seattle, WA 98121; tel. (800) 426-7702 or (206) 441-8687.

American Canadian Caribbean Line operates a variety of cruises to the Caribbean, along the coast of Central America and through the waterways of the United States, including a 12-day cruise up the Hudson River through the Erie Canal and along the St. Lawrence Seaway to Montreal and Quebec.

Ships/type: three ships of the 100-ton class. Number of passengers: 80-92.

Typical itineraries/costs: 12-day cruise along the Belize coast and barrier reef from $1,920; six-day cruise of New England islands from $885.

American Canadian Caribbean Line, P.O. Box 368, Warren, RI 02885; tel. (800) 556-7450 or (401) 247-0955.

Clipper offers around 20 cruises, chiefly of America's waterways. These include: the Alaskan Inside Passage; the antebellum South along the Intracoastal Waterway from Jacksonsville to Charleston; the Chesapeake Bay, coastal Maine and the Canadian Maritime Provinces, and the Great Lakes. Clipper also explores the Orinoco River in Venezuela and the coastal rain forests of Costa Rica and Panama.

Ships/type: 207-foot Nantucket Clipper, 257-foot Yorktown Clipper. Number of passengers: 100 and 138.

Typical itineraries/costs: 11-day cruise of the Lesser Antilles and Orinoco River from $2,850; eight-day cruise of the Chesapeake Bay from $1,800.

Clipper, 7711 Bonhomme Ave., St. Louis, MO 63105; tel. (800) 325-0010 or (314) 727-2929.

Journeys International offers several unusual expeditions including exploration of the Amazon aboard a motorized houseboat, yachting around the Galapagos Islands, and running the Mekong River in Laos on a diesel river boat. The six-passenger houseboats include a local captain, cook and guide. The boats navigate the shallow waters of the Amazon's tributaries, inland lakes and island archipelagoes.

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