It’s crucial to do your research before embarking on any new adventure, and New-Zealand based travel writer Sue Halliwell has drawn on her 15 years of cruise ship expedition experience to unpack such a trip, and the importance of coming prepared.

I once took two New York socialites shoe shopping in the small New Zealand port of Napier.

Both women had boarded our expedition cruise around New Zealand and its sub-Antarctic islands at Auckland with high heeled shoes as their only footwear, and by Napier it was evident that ‘elegant and elevated’ was actually a liability on nature walks, beach landings and a pitchy ocean.

As the sole female on the ship’s expedition team, I was assigned the job of getting them adequately shod, discovering as I did that they also lacked warm gear and rain jackets. In fact, our A-listers appeared to know little about the nature of an expedition cruise on any level. While watching sperm whales off the South Island coast some days later, one asked me if, “these creatures live all their lives in the ocean?” adding “surely they come to land to give birth?” She looked incredulous when I set her straight, a reminder that appreciation of the natural world is a journey we each take at our own pace.

They were the wives of two even higher profile Americans who were also aboard, and I’m picking the lads booked the cruise. First in line for every off-ship excursion and kitted out in top notch outdoor gear, these guys were onto it. But, somewhere the inter-spouse memo had gone astray, their other halves arriving better prepared for a traditional floating city, casino and cabaret cruise experience.

They won’t be the first or last to make that mistake. So, what should our society gals have understood about an expedition cruise, and how might they have adjusted their expectations and packing lists had the memo actually reached them?

Also known as an adventure or eco cruise, the Travel Industry Dictionary defines an expedition cruise as “typically aboard a smaller vessel, with an emphasis on the natural habitat of exotic destinations and responsible tourism. The term also implies a relatively expensive cruise with onboard experts in the ecology of the destination and a certain level of rigour, such as in Antarctic cruises.”

Translated, that means you’ll be discovering coasts less travelled and their unique wildlife, landscapes and people. The ship will be small enough to nudge close to shore yet sizeable enough to handle mighty oceans. It will likely carry fewer than 200 passengers, and close to that number of crew, ensuring up-market service, dining and accommodation.

Expedition cruise companies place great emphasis on responsible and sustainable travel, and protecting the natural and cultural environments visited. Indeed, many team with organisations such as National Geographic to present high quality environmental expertise, education and experiences, and actively support conservation and social projects in their target locations.

As you would expect of sumptuous travel to remote destinations with the rarest of nature and best of guides, expedition cruises don’t come cheap. These are bucket list holidays at the apex of cruising, so unless money is no object, it pays to make the most of their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Full participation in an expedition cruise involves taking all the off-ship excursions offered, although how actively you participate is up to you. With relatively low passenger numbers, most onshore excursions divide into manageable groups ranging in capability from fitness fanatics to snail’s pacers. Each group is shuttled between ship and shore – or around the coast – on inflatable zodiacs, and accompanied by experienced expedition team members to ensure their members remain safe and informed.

These off-ship activities will be trip highlights, and you make the most of them by being prepared. As our American ladies learned, that includes being suitably dressed.

Appropriate attire differs by destination, but the general rule is comfortable and activity-capable. Your gear doesn’t need to be expensive, but it does need to do the job – especially in cold climates like Antarctica or the Arctic, where not dressing appropriately can put you and others at risk. Check the packing list on your cruise website or brochure, and if there isn’t one, ask. Likewise find out whether large but essential items such as polar jackets and gumboots are supplied, to free up valuable suitcase space.

Throw in a few dressier outfits for dinner, although bow ties and sequins went down with the Titanic. Nowadays, the expedition cruise dining dress code tends toward smart casual, and the after-dinner entertainment is equally low key. Don’t get me wrong, there will be plenty of evening fun for those wanting it; however, after a day of wild and wonder-filled activity, followed by drinks and dinner, most passengers prefer rocking to sleep with the waves to rocking around the clock.

Unless you are a New York socialite for whom dancing the night away in designer get-up may be the reason for booking a cruise. However, our ladies were different people now and about to teach me an important lesson.

Until I met them, I held to expedition cruises being the preserve of nature lovers, photography nuts, eco-travellers, science boffins and adventure freaks; you were made for them or you weren’t. But, as the cruise neared its end and the New Yorkers and I dined together in wild sub-Antarctic weather, a particularly impressive southern ocean swell upended both their wine glasses into my lap. As happens occasionally on a polar ocean cruise, the captain directed us to our cabins to ride out the storm, and as we lurched from the dining room one of my dinner companions drawled to the other, “Hey, I’d much rather go upstairs and watch those albatrosses skim these waves!”

The expedition cruise had done its job. Wherever these ladies sat on the nature appreciation continuum on boarding the ship, they were much further along it now. I was impressed by their efforts to make the most of a situation they obviously hadn’t expected and, who knows, they might even deliberately book an expedition cruise for their next vacation.

At least they now have the gear.

Images: John Cardiner, Doug Gould [supplied, used with permission]

This article first appeared on Over60.