In a world of Google Maps and Wikipedia, the idea of terra incognita might seem a little old-fashioned. Yet our planet is still scattered with places we know very little about, or that remain so difficult to reach that few outsiders ever step foot there. Many of the world's most remote islands and archipelagos lack even the most rudimentary of airstrips, meaning that the only way to reach them is by boat. Others may be more accessible, but are possessed of a history and a culture still shrouded in mystery and intrigue.
An expedition cruise is the perfect way to explore some of these enigmatic isles, allowing you to travel in comfort - or, increasingly, in the height of luxury - accompanied by expert guides. These are not ordinary holidays, taking you to places that few other travellers have ever even heard of. Here are just a few of the most remote islands that you can visit on an expedition ship…
1. Easter Island
The world's best known remote island, Easter Island is famous for its enigmatic moai statues, built by a Polynesian civilisation known as the Rapa Nui. There are nearly 1,000 of these statues scattered around the island, and theories on how they were transported range from wooden sledges to alien spaceships! Perhaps even more remarkable than the construction of the moai is how the Rapa Nui arrived on Easter Island in the first place: it's believed that the settlers travelled from the Marquesas Islands, some 2,000 miles away, in wooden dugout canoes. These days you can travel to Easter Island in considerably more comfort, however, with cruise lines including Ponant and Silversea Expeditions.
2. South Georgia
The British Overseas Territory of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands lies some 800 miles east of the Falklands, and can be visited on an extended Antarctica cruise or one of the rare transoceanic voyages across the South Atlantic, typically between Ushuaia and Cape Town. The main reason to visit South Georgia is the island's extraordinary wildlife, home to 5 million breeding pairs of macaroni penguins, more than 100,000 pairs of king penguins plus elephant seals, fur seals, black-browed albatross, southern right whales and more. The island also has a fascinating human history, playing a key role in Sir Ernest Shackleton's disastrous Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, and the great explorer is buried here at Grytviken.
3. Severnaya Zemlya
We often talk about heading 'off the map', and the islands of Severnaya Zemlya were quite literally off the map just a century ago, only properly charted during the 1930s. Situated in the Russian Arctic off the northern coast of Siberia, this was the last significant archipelago on earth to be explored; several 19th century expeditions failed to even notice there was any land here, or else were prevented from approaching by sea ice. The islands are uninhabited by humans, other than a small polar research station, but you may spot wildlife including lemmings, Arctic foxes and the occasional polar bear. Expedition cruises in this part of the Russian Arctic are rare, and you will usually need to commit to a month-long transit of the Northeast Passage if you want to visit Severnaya Zemlya.
On 28th April 1789 the crew on board the Royal Navy vessel HMS Bounty rose up in mutiny, and after scouring the South Pacific for a new home the majority of the sailors settled on remote Pitcairn. Today the island is home to around 60 people, descended from the mutineers and their Tahitian companions, and a handful of Pacific expedition voyages give you the chance to step ashore here and learn more about the island's fascinating (and often dark) history. Pitcairn is one of four islands that make up the Pitcairn archipelago (the other three are uninhabited), and the islands are blessed with extraordinary natural beauty, home to a number of endemic plant and bird species.
5. Macquarie Island
This Australian subantarctic island lies almost 1,000 miles to the south east of Tasmania, and only a handful of expedition voyages with the likes of Ponant and Crystal travel to this remote region. Macquarie is a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its unique geology: this is the only place on earth where rocks from the earth's mantle are exposed above sea level. The main reason to come ashore, however, is the chance to see the huge penguin rookeries, with thousands of royal, king, southern rockhopper and gentoo penguins gathering here. You can also see mammals including elephant seals, fur seals, southern right whales and orcas.
6. Gough Island
This remote, weather-beaten volcanic island in the South Atlantic is part of the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, about 250 miles south east of the Tristan da Cunha archipelago. The island is uninhabited except for a small weather station, where just six people work in one of the most remote locations on earth to sustain a continuous human presence. The waters around Gough Island are rich feeding grounds for sea birds, and the island provides a home for large populations of Antarctic terns, brown noddies, Atlantic petrels, spectacled petrels and several different species of albatross. This is also one of the best places to see the rare northern rockhopper penguin.
7. Peter I Island
Peter I Island is an uninhabited volcanic island in Antarctica's rarely visited Bellingshausen Sea, named after Peter The Great of Russia and claimed by Norway. The nearest coastline is the desolate Ellsworth Land in western Antarctica, over 200 miles away, and it wasn't until 1929 that the first landing was made on the island. There are some small seabird colonies here, and you can also see chinstrap and Adélie penguins, but really this a place you come just to say that you have. Expedition ships hardly ever make it to this region thanks to the sea ice and harsh weather conditions, but the launch in 2021 of Le Commandant Charcot, Ponant's revolutionary hybrid-powered luxury icebreaker, promises to open up this part of Antarctica to adventurous travellers.