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Arctic Cruise Adventure: July 17, 2017 - July 31, 2017
July 17, 2017: Arrive is Oslo
The journey begins! Under clear blue skies, our party gathers in the bustling Norwegian capital of Oslo, from which some of the greatest polar expeditions in history have begun. After enjoying a relaxing breakfast at the spectacular Hotel Bristol, those of us eager to explore this charming city set off on guided tours, while others enjoy a relaxing day on their own. Many pay a visit to the Fram museum, where they marvel at the construction of this extraordinarily preserved ship. The first vessel ever built to freeze directly into the polar ice pack, Fram carried the fabled explorers Fridjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen to success on their own polar expeditions. The accomplishments and discoveries of these brave men, and others of their era, are part of the reason we can travel so confidently in these remote regions today!
This evening we are formally welcomed by our expedition team over cocktails and hors d’ouvres, getting a chance to meet our shipmates and excitedly discuss the adventure ahead!
July 18, 2017: Setting Sail
An early start allows our charter flight from Oslo to touch down in Svalbard shortly after noon. The sun is high overhead now, and at 80º latitude, we will not see a proper night sky for the remainder of our trip! As our expedition staff prepare our ship, Le Boreal, for departure, we are provided a glimpse into daily life at Longyearbyen, the largest settlement in Svalbard and the former center of the region’s historic coal industry. Relics of this past are visible everywhere— coal carts and pieces of machinery are still glimpsed among the infrastructure of this remote outpost of humanity.
This evening we board the magnificent Le Boreal, where we are greeted by captain Etienne Garcia and the ship’s officers. Over a glass of champagne we situate ourselves with this state-of-the-art expedition ship and take a few moments to rest in our luxury staterooms. After checking in and conducting the mandatory abandon ship drill, we hear from our cruise director Susana and expedition leader Matt, who briefly discuss our plan for the upcoming few days as we scour the Svalbard archipelago for wildlife. After a long day of travel and our first dinner aboard the ship, the lines are cast free and we are finally at the top of the world!
July 19, 2017: Ny Alesund and the 14th of July Glacier
After leaving Longyearbyen, Le Boreal continues to head North along the coast of Spitsbergen. We sail quietly under the midnight sun, and shortly after a breakfast aboard the ship we arrive in the small colony of Ny-Ålesund. This eclectic village is considered by some the northernmost permanent settlement on the planet, and we are invited to explore its streets while our bear guards patrol the perimeter, wary of any unexpected guests. A few hours in Ny-Ålesund is more than enough time to get a sense of its historical significance; a few buildings date back to the early 1900s, when optimistic coal companies attempted to set up large mines in the area. After several years, however, harsh conditions had claimed dozens of lives, and the settlement slowly shifted its focus to research. The simple, colorful huts that scatter the shoreline now house scientists from around the globe who seek to better understand the Arctic environment, and though life here appears unglamorous by most counts, the work of the hardy folks in Ny-Ålesund is critical in developing our understanding of the changing Arctic.
As we wander the few streets of Ny-Ålesund, many of us are drawn to a tall, steel structure on the outskirts of town, which at first resembles a small radio tower. Our guides, JJ and Russ, reveal this odd tower to be an important relic from the ‘golden age’ of Arctic exploration; an old docking platform for airships! In the mid-1920’s, famed Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen launched two expeditions from this tower in an attempt to cross over the Arctic Ocean via the North Pole. While the first trip was unsuccessful, his second attempt a year later was a resounding success; Amundsen reached Alaska a mere 70 hours after departure, his crew becoming the first to traverse the Arctic by air!
We bid farewell to our last glimpse of civilization for the next several days, and head even further North. After a few hours of scenic cruising along the coast of Spitsbergen, we arrive at the mouth of a small bay, and a spectacular glacier face comes into view. This is Fjortende Julibreen—Fourteenth of July Glacier, named by French explorers after Bastille Day. While Le Boreal drops anchor in the mouth of the bay, we prepare to explore the area by zodiac. To our delight, seabirds abound; colorful Atlantic puffins and elegant Brünnich’s guillemot sit along the rock faces near the ocean’s surface, and often approach quite closely as they fly past!
In the misty peaks far overhead, the silhouettes of several thousand black-legged kittiwake can just be made out. The dense colonies of these birds, always in the rockiest and most inaccessible areas, are like beacons to predators, and a few of us glimpse an arctic fox, sooty brown in its summer coat, skirting between boulders below. In a few weeks time, kittiwake chicks will be leaving the nests — foxes must be cunning hunters if they are to feed their dozen-or-so hungry pups! Far below the colony, the ground is lush and green, fertilized all summer long by the droppings of the birds above. Reindeer are well-camouflaged against the rocks and lichen, though we make out several before heading to the glacier. We spend the final moments of our excursion surrounded by icebergs, and enjoy the atmosphere of this incredible place.
When we are not out on the zodiacs, we have the opportunity to hear our historian, Bob Burton, lecture on the fascinating ‘Race to the North Pole’, a riveting tale of lies, deceit and intrepid adventure of early Arctic explorers. We end our night aboard Le Boreal with the Captain’s cocktail reception and dinner, where we get the opportunity to dine with the senior officers of the ship, including spritely Captain Garcia himself! Tonight, we feel the groaning of ice against the ship’s hull as we enter the notorious pack ice of Svalbard.
July 20, 2017: Torellneset Walrus & Alkefjellet Bird Cliffs
This morning we awake to calm seas and heavy fog; guillemots, puffins and other seabirds are shrouded in mist as they move purposefully by the ship. Thankfully, as we finish with breakfast, the foggy curtain begins to rise, revealing the mountainous hills of Spitsbergen. We marvel at the scenery, where those vigilantly looking for wildlife are rewarded with sightings of bearded seal, ringed seal, and hundreds of seabirds. We enjoy this stunning beauty as the ship drops anchor, donning our A&K parkas while the expedition staff prepares the zodiacs for our first landing on the rocky spit of Wahlenbergøya. Strong winds make for a boisterous ride to shore, though when we first step onto the cobble beach we are met with light winds, clear skies, and an excellent view of nearly three dozen walrus hauled out nearby!
Walrus have historically been hunted throughout the Arctic, and these magnificent creatures are thus understandably wary of our presence. Huge tusked heads turn our way as the animals consider our intentions, though we are quiet and respectful and, luckily, most animals keep to the beach. The walrus’ diet is comprised almost exclusively of shellfish, and though very few walrus have been seen actually foraging in the wild, we know they must eat a tremendous amount of food each day to survive. Both males and females have tusks, though our naturalists identify some of the largest individuals as bulls.
This afternoon, a slow cruise through Hinlopen Strait brings us to the jagged and rocky basalt cliffs of Alkefjellet. We once again board the zodiacs, and, buffeted by a gentle swell, approach this thriving colony of over 120,000 small birds known as Brünnich’s guillemot! Mesmerized, we navigate beneath the sea cliffs these birds have carefully chosen as a nesting site, well out of the reaches of fox and bear. In addition to these penguin-like birds, our naturalists point out the black-legged kittiwakes, black guillemots and glaucous gulls that also call these dramatic cliffs home. On-board, our botanist Dagmar holds an engaging lecture on the plants that we are likely to encounter on our venture into the high arctic. After a long and exciting day on the water, we enjoy cocktails and dinner before turning in for the evening.
July 21, 2017: In Search of Bears
Today, we travel along the northern edge of Nordaustlandet, searching for wildlife among the Arctic pack ice that chokes the archipelago for most of the year. Our expedition team is on the bridge early in the morning until late in the evening, and over the course of the day we encounter several species of birds and marine mammals! Those assisting in the search for wildlife observe long, sausage-like bearded seals and plump, wide-eyed ringed seals swimming among scattered ice floes of every shape and size. It seems fitting that as we travel the ice edge, our marine mammalogist Sabina Mense offers a lecture on pinnipeds, the group of animals which includes the seals and walrus that we have seen. We learn to think of pack ice (which forms as seawater freezes) as critical habitat for these fascinating creatures; without reliable sea ice, many arctic animals could not survive! Appropriately, Sabina’s lecture is interrupted by the announcement that several walrus have been spotted off the ship! We all rush on deck to observe the animals, hauled out on a tiny ice floe that looks as if it could topple at any moment! The massive animals allow us to get quite close before entering the water and swimming into the fog.
This afternoon, our ornithologist Patricia Silva holds a fascinating lecture on auks, small seabirds that have remained ever-present throughout our cruise. We learn about how these black-and-white birds, some only several inches long, manage to thrive in the cold and inhospitable conditions on Svalbard. Questions about their diet and life history are all answered, and this evening, as the search for wildlife continues, we begin to see the intrepid little birds — little auks, puffins, black guillemots and brünnich’s guillemot — in a new light. Sightings of other seabirds, such as the northern fulmar, glaucous gull and arctic tern, also continue late into the night as we sail across the ice edge.
July 22, 2017: Liedefjorden and Idabreen Glacier
This morning, our expedition team lowers several zodiacs into the water well before most of us have awoken, and drivers diligently scan the nearby beaches of Woodfjord for wildlife and interesting places to go ashore. While they search, we enjoy our breakfast against the panoramic backdrop of these magnificent glacial mountains. Suddenly, a much-anticipated announcement is given over the ship’s PA— a polar bear has been sighted! Captain Garcia maneuvers Le Boréal close to the rocky ledges where the creature stands, and we enjoy watching as the bear, a young male, nimbly struts across the shoreline. After allowing for some good looks, the animal takes to the water in its search for food, and we prepare to disembark.
Our morning landing site is the most lush environment we have yet seen in the Arctic, and we hop off the zodiacs near a glacial melt-stream coming from the nearby mountains. Dense mats of purple and yellow flowers cover the ground, and green cushions of arctic plants turn rocky hillsides into verdant fields. Our expedition botanist, Dagmar Hagen, enthusiastically identifies the delicate tundra flora of our landing site, while historian Bob Burton offers insight into the presence of a grave found nearby. Those on their hands and knees are treated to the colorful mosaic that is the Arctic wildflower bloom— the purple flowers of moss-campion and drooping bell-heather make for some stunning photographs under the guidance of our photo coach Richard Harker.
The zodiacs take us from the windy beach, and after a choppy ride back to Le Boreal, we enjoy a delicious lunch while we head further into the fjord. Soon we are back in the zodiacs and (in much calmer weather) making landfall on a cobble beach of beautifully sculpted stones while a spectacular glacier towers in the background. Jason, our expedition geologist, informs us that the structure we are standing on is called a lateral moraine, thousands of years in the making; as the icy river that is the glacier flows, it scours the underlying bedrock, pulverizing and sculpting the landscape around it. This debris often forms large deposits such as the one on which we spend our afternoon.
This evening, our expedition leader Matt Drennan announces that we will spend another day in Svalbard in the hopes of finding more polar bears, which has become the top priority of our naturalists! While our expedition team scans for wildlife late into the night, we enjoy a relaxing evening watching the stunning scenery roll past and prepare for an extra day in this breathtaking wilderness.
July 23, 2017: Raudfjorden and Danskoya
This morning we awake to yet another stunning, panoramic view of the Svalbard coast. “Raudefjord” in Norwegian, this area is so-named for the deep red sandstone that sweeps upwards to our either side. The glistening white of several glaciers only adds to the drama of this stark place as we board the zodiacs and go ashore. Some of us, fascinated with the diversity and beauty of the rocks around us, seek out our geologist, Jason, who explains the complicated processes which, over millions of years, crafted this landscape. For those more interested in the history of the region, a small wooden hut nearby offers a glimpse into the hardships endured by early 20th century trappers attempting to make a fortune on these seemingly desolate islands.
After a beautiful morning, Le Boreal sets sail in the afternoon for Jan Mayen, retracing our route as we cling to the western corner of Spitsbergen on our way South. As we pass by the abandoned settlement of Smeerenburg, an excited Captain Garcia suddenly comes over the ship’s PA; more bears have been spotted! We rush to the bridge and observation decks, watching in awe as three adult polar bears rest on the beach beside a large dead whale. An opportunity such as this is too rare to pass up, and we quickly lower the ship’s zodiac fleet for a closer approach of these Arctic icons. Our expert boat-handlers quietly maneuver through shallow water as we crouch silently in the hull, watching in awe as we approach the resting bears within 200 feet! One lifts his head as we approach, though is obviously too stuffed after a day gorging on whale meat to give us much attention. We are privileged to observe these animals so closely on the beach, and with our quest for the great ice bear now truly complete, Le Boreal makes Southwest towards the open ocean. After dinner, as we cross over the continental shelf break far below, Captain Garcia’s voice once again resonates throughout the ship, announcing that we have come across several blue whales! Parkas back on and cameras in-hand, we rush out on deck to the sight of these whales, the largest animals ever to have existed on the planet. A calf is observed feeding nearby its mother, who offers a spectacular show as she raises her flukes in a dive. As if Svalbard itself has bid us farewell, we return to our cabins and enjoy a peaceful evening.
July 24, 2017: At Sea for Jan Mayen
Today, Le Boreal steams swiftly to Jan Mayen, an incredibly remote volcanic island situated well above the Arctic circle. After a week of excitement in the high arctic, we have the chance to share photos, reflect on the journey already behind us, and get anticipate all the adventure yet to come! Sea conditions remain calm throughout the day, and between meals we are provided ample opportunities to engage with the expedition team. Bob Burton, the expedition’s historian, lectures on the sad but fascinating history of whaling, a topic which is particularly relevant to this region, where Norwegian and Icelandic whaling still occurs. Many of the places we have been to already were originally settled and explored by early whalers, hoping to exploit the rich waters of the Arctic ocean. Whale hunts today are a fraction of what they once were, and most profits go directly to small communities which continue to live off the sea.
After Bob’s lecture, our naturalist and bear guard Brent Houston speaks on his many years of experience working among polar bears, offering us insight into their life histories and the challenges they face in a changing climate. After our close encounter with bears the day before, these animals hold a special place in the hearts of many, and Brent’s knowledge of bear biology and behavior further enhances what was already a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Later this afternoon, Sabina Mense continues with the cetacean theme, discussing the evolution of the oceanic leviathans we have already had the chance to encounter. Many are surprised to learn that whales evolved from a land-dwelling ancestor, and have slowly adapted to an increasingly marine lifestyle over the past 50 million years. Though today they may resemble fish more closely than other mammals, there are several telltale indicators that give away their evolutionary past. Like all mammals, whales breathe oxygen, and must thus return periodically to the surface to take in fresh air. Like a human, they give birth to live young which are nourished by the mother’s milk, and close inspection of the whale’s skeleton will reveal a vestigial pelvic bone, a relic of these animals’ terrestrial past.
We are well-fed and well-rested as we begin our approach to Jan Mayen, eagerly anticipating our visit to this rarely-seen volcano!
July 25, 2017: At Sea for Jan Mayen
Today we enjoy an extra hour of sleep as we set the clocks back, waking up to a leisurely ride on the flat-calm Arctic Ocean. Shortly after breakfast, Captain Garcia announces more whales just off the ship. This time, those on deck catch a glimpse of one of the more uncommon species of Arctic whale: the Northern Bottlenose! Found in the deepest waters of the world’s oceans, the bottlenose whale is a member of the elusive family of beaked whales, notorious for being difficult to find and research. Whales continue to be spotted sporadically as we approach Jan Mayen, and we are also treated to the spectacular view of this oceanic volcano’s summit. Just after noon, we are able to make landfall on Jan Mayen, becoming the first Abercrombie & Kent guests to ever land on this remote island! We explore the beach and walk among gardens of rocky basalt spires formed by cooling magma. Hardy plants cover the barren soil, providing periodic bursts of green among the dark ashen rock. Some of us take the time to visit the Norwegian station, where we collect souvenirs and get an insider’s glimpse into the lives of the researchers — between 18 and 30 — who spend part of their summer on this dramatic island.
In the afternoon, our naturalists Patri, Sabina and Jason lead nature walks around the island, pointing out some of the fascinating creatures that call Jan Mayen home. A colony of a few thousand little auks offers a constant chatter from the rocky slopes above, and groups of red knot, purple sandpiper and ruddy turnstones feed on wave-sculpted shorelines. Northern fulmar and other seabirds speed past us on the zodiacs as we return to the ship, and we finish our day impressed with the abundance of life, despite the fact that we are hundreds of miles from the nearest land! We finish our day by welcoming two Norwegian researchers aboard, who will join us for the remainder of our adventure. Our expedition leader Matt Drennan finishes up our day with a few words on the Greenlandic village of Ittoqqortoormiit, which we hope to visit tomorrow, sea and ice conditions permitting. Visiting this primarily Inuit village will provide a cultural contrast to the research station at Jan Mayen, and we are anxious to visit this incredibly distant community!
July 26, 2017: Ittoqqortoormiit, Greeenland
We awake to the sight of pack ice in every direction. Le Boreal entered this winding maze of ice floes in the early hours of the morning, her captain and officers skillfully navigating toward our new destination; Greenland. Far off, rocky peaks loom above a distant fog bank that stands in our way. The next few hours are spent watching ice floes and icebergs loom through the mist, and we are treated to more lectures by our knowledgeable expedition team. Patricia, our ornithologist, continues with a talk on the seabirds of the arctic, many of which we have seen. We learn more about how these hardy creatures manage to survive in conditions that are often windy, salty, wet and well below freezing! Our geologist Jason later gives a talk on the Greenland Ice Cap, discussing how a natural record of the atmosphere’s greenhouse gasses is kept trapped in our planet’s ice caps, both in Greenland and Antarctica. It was by looking at these ice cores that scientists first noticed that atmospheric carbon levels have been on an exponential rise in recent decades, due primarily to fossil fuel emissions.
As we enter the mouth of Greenland’s Scoresby Sound, the fog lifts and we are treated to the brilliant sight of this wondrous place. A faint haze turns the mountains a soft blue, and we steam quietly across the flat-calm surface of the sea. Soon, we approach the colorful village of Ittoqqortoormiit in the early afternoon, and all boats are ashore soon-after. We are free to spend the rest of our day exploring this small community which roughly 500 people call home; local art shops offer beautiful pieces carved from musk ox horn and reindeer antler, and the local church and museum are highlights as we explore, briefly getting to know the inhabitants of this High Arctic settlement!
July 27, 2017: Hurry Inlet and Scorsebysund
Today we continue our exploration of seldom-visited Greenland, a land of superlatives. The landmass itself is the largest island in the world, and also contains our planet’s largest fjord system, Scoresby Sound, which cuts into the island like a huge scar and provides us with dramatic scenery as we sail through. Greenland also contains nearly all of the Arctic’s land-locked ice, and sports massive ice fields and glaciers which are second only to those in the icy wilderness of Antarctica. After breakfast, our expedition team finds a suitable landing site on Hurry Point overlooking a spectacular glacier in the distance. Our on-shore naturalists point out some of Greenland’s native wildlife; a lone musk ox wanders a snowy hill nearby, ravens soar past lush fields of mountain-avens and bell-heather, and we are treated to the rare sight of a few dazzling arctic butterflies, active only for a few short weeks at the peak of summer. On the beach, thousands of mosquitoes bid us an enthusiastic farewell as we return to the ship!
This afternoon, we find ourselves deep in the scenic fjords of Scoresby Sund, surrounded by a thick garden of pack ice. With perfect weather and a dazzling array of floes, we take this opportunity to launch the zodiacs and explore. As our drivers expertly navigate through the drifting sculpture garden, we get to experience the Arctic as it would have been for the earliest explorers; cold, silent, and wild. Dovekie, or little auk, are everywhere, and tolerate our presence enough to get incredibly close-up looks!From the zodiac, we get a much better sense of these tiny birds, which forage for krill and other plankton by diving underwater using their wings for propulsion. Some of us glimpse ringed seals at a distance, though these animals quickly take to the water, wary that we may be hunters from Ittoqqortoormiit. It is clear that the Arctic pack ice is habitat for a wide range of life and critically important for the animals and humans living in these environments. As we return to Le Boreal and sail back through Scoresby Sound, we reflect on the ice we have seen, and bid farewell to the icy Arctic tundra. Massive icebergs reflect the imposing skyline of Greenland, turning to mere mirages as we sail South, towards another land of mystery!
July 28, 2017: En Route to Iceland
With calm seas and clear skies, Le Boreal sails through the Denmark Strait from Greenland to Iceland, the final chapter in this unforgettable journey. These are rich waters, and we hope to observe some new wildlife as we enter South. Our marine mammalogist, Sabina Mense, kicks off the morning with her lecture “Marine Mammals: The Arctic Cast II — Cetaceans”, discussing the variety of whales and dolphin that are likely to see as we approach Iceland. On cue, our first sighting of the day comes shortly after her talk, as our naturalists spot two fin whales from the bridge! Nearly as large as the blue whale, the fin whale is the second largest animal on our planet and subsists mainly on the schooling fish and krill found abundantly in these waters. Again, we recognize this as a mother and calf pair, noting the large, recurved dorsal fin and streamlined brown body that distinguishes fin whales from others in their family. We are also fortunate to hear from the two Norwegian ornithologists who joined Le Boreal in Jan Mayen. They offer a fascinating lecture on the seabird research that is conducted on this far-off research station, and took some time to highlight one of the greatest threats to oceanic birds today; plastic waste.
This afternoon, naturalist Brent Houston offered an exciting summary of his many years of experience working with polar bears, entertaining us with a few tales from his own time in the Arctic. Our team of naturalists is on deck to assist us in our identification of the seabird species that follow Le Boreal throughout the day, and those of us observing are treated to more sightings of fulmar, guillemot and kittiwake close to the ship. Richard Harker, our expedition photographer, offers a lecture on photographic techniques in the Arctic, referencing the the famed Ansel Adams and inspiring us with his own images as well. Richard also gives us insight as to how we can enhance our images when we return home using software in a way that captures these wild lands as we perceived them.
Just after dinner, our ship crosses an underwater ridge, and we spot the splash of a humpback whale far in the distance! In the span of a few minutes, the ship is surrounded by these 40-foot long behemoths, which offer some fantastic views as they maneuver through the waves, manipulating schools of fish into dense ‘bait balls’ which they can then scoop up with their enormous mouths. Nearly everyone is drawn to the decks by the dozens of whales which surround Le Boreal in the distance, and one even lifts its entire body out of the water in a spectacular breach! For several hours into the night, the spouts of whales can be seen as we enjoy a final drink at the bar and turn in, excited for our arrival in Iceland.
July 29, 2017: NW Iceland
We awake to the sight of something new — dense greenery! As Le Boreal sails through the fjords of the Hornstrandir peninsula, we enjoy our breakfast watching the incredible scenery of the Icelandic coast drift by. We are eager to step foot on the shores of this mid-Atlantic isle, which compared to Svalbard and Greenland is lush with vegetation. White streams of waterfalls cascade from high peaks of ancient lava flows, beckoning us to the shoreline where we soon stand. Our botanist Dagmar and geologist Jason help point out the diversity of plants and rocks that we see. Dazzling stands of purple flowers line the beach, and beautiful sculpted basalt rocks gurgle as the light surf passes over them. This remote peninsula also offers its share of wildlife; whooper swans, common eider and meadow pipit are just a few of the bird species that we encounter as we explore the area.
After a scenic cruise through the fjords of this rarely-visited island, we pry deeper into the peninsula. Originally a whaling community, there is now a small café along the shoreline, and we enjoy a leisurely cup of rhubarb tea, rhubarb cakes and delicious crepes in the Icelandic style. Afterwards, we are encouraged to walk along the shoreline to take in some of the scenery of this place — rushing streams tumble from the high basalt cliffs down into the sea, where oystercatchers, red knot and arctic tern can all be observed in high numbers. After several days of expansive wilderness, we see today the first traces of human civilization since Ittoqqortoormiit. We return to the ship well-fed, and enjoy dinner while watching the dramatic coast of Iceland sail past with its misty fjords and stunning, sloping peaks.
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