A new generation of small, high-tech vessels can reach parts of the planet that others can't, writes John Wilmott.

Until relatively recently, expedition cruising meant boarding a comfy yet fairly basic ship that was originally designed for another purpose, such as scientific research. Today, travellers can enjoy close-up views of polar bears while sipping champagne, or tuck into a gourmet dinner after a swim with sea lions. Places that were once the domain of TV nature programmes are within reach of anyone with deep pockets.

The next generation of ships would not look out of place in Monaco's glamorous harbour. Tough, as well as sumptuous, many convey fewer than 200 passengers, boast spas and plush accommodation and offer fine dining and carry the latest water toys.

Several ships have extendable platforms to enhance the viewing of sea mammals. All carry rubber inflatable craft for shore landings, and some have helicopters or submarines for swooping over glaciers or seeking rarely-seen sea creatures.

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With state-of-the-art technology and innovative hull designs, these vessels can safely sail among the icebergs of the Antarctic or drop anchor off a far-flung tropical island for some paddleboarding or scuba diving. The latest expedition ships are shrinking the world, bringing the far-flung, dramatic or exotic within reach.

THE ONE THAT (might) VIEW TITANIC

Why just admire your surroundings from sea level when you can view them from above and below, too?

The megayacht Crystal Endeavor, due for launch next summer, will accommodate two helicopters and a submarine to give guests thrilling new perspectives on the places they visit. There are plans (to be confirmed) for an ROV — a robot sub — that will bring live views from the seabed, possibly including the wreck of the Titanic 3810m below the surface, off the coast of Canada.

The 200-passenger Endeavor will also carry jet skis, scuba gear and SeaBobs (underwater scooters). After their adventures, guests relax in balconied suites with butler service.

Endeavor will cruise both polar regions and, in between, follow migratory routes of whales.

THE ONE FROM THUNDERBIRDS

One look at the Greg Mortimer and you would be forgiven for thinking it had emerged from Thunderbirds' Tracy Island. It's the ship's upside-down bow that is so striking; the first time this X-Bow design has been used on a passenger ship. The bow smooths the passage of the ship through choppy waters, specifically the notorious Drake Passage crossing to Antarctica.

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Thoughtful features include platforms that pop out of the ship's sides for closer viewing of whales and icebergs and four exits (instead of the usual two) for departures on the 15 Zodiac inflatables.

Launching in autumn 2019, the Greg Mortimer will be one of the most stylish ships yet to plough Antarctic waters.

THE ONE WITH THE WHALE'S EYE VIEW

Few lines are embracing the concept of champagne adventures at sea with more enthusiasm than French line Ponant, whose Le Laperouse is the first of six yacht-style ships. The standout feature is two windows shaped like whale eyes, built into an underwater lounge. Le Laperouse will sail in Northern Europe and the Med as well as more exotic hot and cold destinations such as the Orinoco River and Africa's Bissagos Islands. In 2021 Ponant will launch the first polar expedition ship capable of reaching the North Pole.

THE ONE WITH HELICOPTERS AND SUB

It will seem delightfully incongruous for guests to be enjoying degustation menus or perhaps a massage at the spa, while their vessel nudges through thick Arctic ice. Scenic Eclipse, which makes its debut in January, will have two helicopters and a six-seater sub, perfect for viewing submerged ruins in Greece, colourful reef life in the Caribbean and penguins, seals and walruses in clear polar waters.
With capacity for 228 guests, Eclipse is larger than many expedition ships, but has 10 places to eat, an indoor pool and sumptuous, all-balcony accommodation.

THE SILENT ONE

Due to launch next May, the world's first hybrid-powered expedition vessel, Roald Amundsen, not only looks the part — sporting smart white, black and red livery — but has clever technology, too. Emission reduction was paramount in the build and the near-silent running of Amundsen's engines will also avoid disturbing the wildlife.

Probably the most popular feature will be a two-level, wraparound observation deck above the bow. Passengers will be able to learn more about all manner of nature subjects in the on-board science centre.

THE ONE THAT DOESN'T DROP ANCHOR

Passenger numbers and ship movements are strictly controlled in the Galapagos Islands for good reason — vessels are sailing in one of the planet's unique habitats.

Launching in May, the handsome Celebrity Flora incorporates a "dynamic positioning system", which means it can maintain its position without dropping anchor.

The 100-passenger ship features unusual asymmetric balconies at the stern and, the two impressive penthouse suites (the largest in the Galapagos) are almost wall-to-wall glass. But even those in the smaller suites can benefit from "infinity balconies" that allow sea views from the bed.

THE ONE WITH GLASS BALCONIES

Glass balconies that "float" above the ocean and a terraced deck for improved wildlife viewing are promised on Hapag-Lloyd's new Hanseatic Inspiration.

Kayaks and stand-up paddle boards are carried for mini on-water adventures. Inside, there will be plush cabins, Japanese and Peruvian cuisine and a pool and spa offering massages.

From next autumn Inspiration will take up to 199 passengers on polar expeditions as well as journeys on America's Great Lakes and in the Amazon, the Caribbean and Europe.

THE ONE THAT LAUGHS AT ICE

The first ship to be launched boasting the highest "ice class" — which means it is untroubled by the thickest floating ice — Oceanwide Expeditions' new Hondius is designed for maximum flexibility in beautiful, yet hostile, environments.

The 174-guest ship, due in summer 2019, will have a firm expedition focus, but hotel-style accommodation (including six Grand Suites) and novel features that make exploration more comfortable, such as an indoor Zodiac platform, so you don't have to wait in the cold to board.

The Antarctic, South Georgia and The Falklands will be prime targets for the itinerary planners.

THE SIX-STAR ONE

You will have to wait to embrace Seabourn's six-star style in the chilly Arctic, but it could be worth the wait. The line recently announced two uber-luxe, ice-strengthened expedition ships (the first launching in June 2021), each taking 264 guests in balcony suites. Seabourn's signature fine-dining and refined but relaxed service will complement the 24 zodiacs and two submarines for off-ship excursions. Wilderness experts, scientists and historians will also be on board.