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9 best destinations to see from the water

Courtesy Richard Maack/Lindblad Expeditions

Spot monkeys, macaws and much more from an Amazon River cruise, which provides a touch of comfort as you enjoy seeing the unique flora and fauna of the world's largest rain forest.

We love planes, trains and automobiles as much as the next traveler, but there are some destinations where only a boat will do. Picture yourself gliding between looming icebergs in Antarctica, hopping from one lush South Pacific island to the next or slipping slowly down the Amazon, surrounded by the chattering of tropical birds and monkeys. These trips -- as well as the six others featured in our slideshow -- would be difficult, expensive or even impossible to do by land or air.

Nile River, Egypt
Why take the train along Egypt's historic Nile valley when you could enjoy a leisurely cruise on the famous river itself? Travel at a relaxed pace along this corridor of human history, stopping to explore the temples where pharaohs walked and soaking up views of sand dunes and palm trees along the river banks. Boat trips generally run between Luxor and Aswan, taking either three or four days depending on whether you're headed up- or downstream. You can extend your trip with a further journey to Lake Nasser, where you can visit the famous rock temples of Abu Simbel. Many companies offer Nile cruises, including luxury hotels (Sonesta, Oberoi) and river cruise lines (Viking, Avalon).

Slideshow: See photos of the 9 best destinations to see from the water

French Polynesia
Sure, you could pick a resort on any one of these idyllic tropical islands and flop yourself down on the beach for a week, but if you want to explore French Polynesia in a bit more depth, consider an island-hopping getaway via cruise ship or ferry. Though all the islands have lush foliage and aquamarine waters to spare, each one offers slightly different attractions, from vanilla plantations on Tahaa to ancient Polynesian temples (known as maraes) on Huahine and Raiatea. Papeete, Tahiti, offers the region's only real urban experience with its bustling shops and cafes, while ritzy Bora Bora is home to the famous Bloody Mary's Restaurant & Bar, which has played host to numerous celebs including Pierce Brosnan and Jimmy Buffett. Paul Gauguin Cruises sails year-round in the South Pacific, visiting the Society, Austral and Tuamotu Islands.

Svalbard, Norway
Polar bears are the prime draw to this remote cluster of islands in northern Norway, along with other cold-weather denizens such as walrus, reindeer, seals, whales, Arctic foxes and a wide variety of sea birds. Traveling by ship is by far the best way to experience this region, as land accommodations are in short supply and camping can be a dangerous proposition in a place where 900-pound polar bears roam. Cruises typically focus on the island of Spitsbergen, and are offered by Hurtigruten, Quark Expeditions and Lindblad Expeditions, among others.

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Travelers flock to the Galapagos Islands to ogle the region's one-of-a-kind wildlife, which differs from one island to the next. To see the full menagerie, hop on a boat. Lindblad Expeditions, Celebrity Cruises and Metropolitan Touring are just a few of the companies ferrying passengers to places like Rabida, where flamingos frequently feed; Fernandina, with its large colony of marine iguanas; and Espanola, home to the world's only waved albatross colony. And don't forget the amazing wildlife under the sea. Live-aboard boat companies (such as Aggressor and Buddy Dive) take divers to the northern islands of Darwin and Wolf to swim among hammerhead sharks, green and hawksbill turtles, sea lions, rays and fur seals.

Mekong River, Cambodia and Vietnam
Between poky trains, chaotic buses and iffy roads, getting around Southeast Asia can be difficult for independent travelers. Ease on down the river instead. Several cruise companies, including Pandaw, Viking, Avalon and AmaWaterways, offer leisurely voyages along the southern stretch of the Mekong River between Siem Reap, Cambodia and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. In addition to touring the famed sights at either end of the cruise, including Angkor Wat, you'll also stop in Cambodia's capital city, Phnom Penh; visit small villages and floating markets; and enjoy scenic cruising through the region's lush rice fields.

Inside Passage, Alaska
If you want to explore the deep fjords, icy-blue glaciers, unspoiled forests and quiet fishing communities of Alaska's Inside Passage, take to the seas. Because of the mountainous geography of the region, many of Alaska's coastal communities are inaccessible by road, and traveling by sea (instead of taking pricey flights) gives travelers a chance to spot humpback whales, sea lions and other marine life. Most major cruise lines serve this region, including Royal Caribbean, Holland America and Princess, but travelers seeking a more intimate experience should consider an expedition cruise with small-ship operators such as Lindblad Expeditions or Natural Habitat Adventures.

Greek Isles
Strewn across the shimmering Aegean are hundreds of Greek Isles just waiting to be explored. Whether you're hopping from one to another by ferry, cruising aboard a big ship or enjoying the breezes from the deck of a sailboat, you'll discover that each of these islands has its own charms. Try Rhodes and Delos for crumbling ancient ruins, Syros for isolated beaches, Skopelos for verdant hikes, Mykonos for a gay-friendly party vibe and Santorini for those famously-picturesque views of the sea. (To learn more about which Greek Isles will suit your taste, see Greek Isles Revealed.) There's no shortage of choices when it comes to cruising the isles; GreekFerries.gr is the spot to look for ferry info, and the region is served by cruise lines such as Princess, Celebrity and SeaDream. G Adventures offers sailing trips.

Unless you're a scientist working on one of the White Continent's many research stations, you'll most likely visit Antarctica by sea. Sturdy vessels with ice-strengthened hulls sail from South America, Australia or New Zealand to the Antarctic Peninsula and its outlying islands, giving intrepid passengers a once-in-a-lifetime look at the frigid beauty of this extreme climate. During shore landings, bundle up and bring your binoculars to check out penguins, elephant seals, whales and sea birds; then retreat to your climate-controlled ship to warm up over a hot meal and evening enrichment lectures. Cruise operators in the region include Quark Expeditions, G Adventures, Orion Expeditions and more. (See iaato.org, the website for the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, for a full list.)

Upper Amazon, Peru
It's difficult to visit the Amazon River basin without, well, spending some time on the river. Even if you're looking to stay grounded in an Amazonian jungle lodge, you often need to take a boat to get there. For those who don't want to rough it too much, an Amazon River cruise provides a touch of comfort as well as an intimate look at the unique flora and fauna of the world's largest rain forest. Lindblad Expeditions, Smithsonian Journeys and Aqua Expeditions all offer cruises through the lagoons and tributaries of Peru's Pacaya-Samiria Reserve, where the lines' onboard naturalists help travelers spot monkeys, sloths, macaws, pink dolphins and much more.

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