The year was 1972, and Lars-Eric Lindblad's wanderlust had ground to a standstill. His 2,500-ton cruise ship, Lindblad Explorer, had just run aground on King George Island in the frozen Antarctic, and the normally gregarious Swedish-born travel merchant was grimly calculating the odds on survival. "There were 15-foot swells, 60-knot gales, ice and snow," he recalls. "The great danger was that the ship would turn over." It didn't, of course, but it took the Chilean navy 10 anxious hours to rescue his 167 passengers and crew members.

Far from being discouraged by the mishap—which he chalks up to "human error" on the part of the ship's command—Lindblad regards the occasional snafu as part of his package. And he can afford to. For as the founding father of big-ticket exotic travel, he caters to clients who yearn to go where the action is. "Practically every passenger who was rescued," says Lindblad, "has already been back to the Antarctic."

For travelers with an aversion to frostbite, Lindblad also puts clients ashore on the Pacific's remote Galápagos Islands and on the Indian Ocean's palmy Seychelles. While conventional travel packagers have been sending globe-trotters off for three weeks in Europe, Lindblad's fertile brain teems with plans for Patagonia and Brazil's Mato Grosso. Today he airlifts would-be adventurers into the Himalayas, floats them down the Nile and the Amazon, and hoists them atop elephants lumbering through India. "If British explorer Sir Richard Burton were traveling today," says travel editor Pam Fiori, "he would probably book himself on a Lindblad tour."

Though his own travels have taken him to just about every country but Albania, Lindblad, now 50, did not start off with an explorer's itch. The son of a Swedish civil servant, he majored in economics at the University of Zurich and planned to become a steel company executive. Distracted, however, by a summer job with Thomas Cook & Son, he changed careers. He spent three years with Cook in Europe, then joined American Express in 1951, arriving in the U.S. with his wife, Sonja (from whom he has been separated six years), and their infant son, Sven-Olof, now 27. In 1958 Lindblad boldly struck out on his own. Shunning the mainstream, he organized religious excursions to the Middle East, archeological treks on three continents, garden tours of England and the Orient and, for his pièce de résistance, a jaunt through the hog-breeding centers of Europe. "Except for the religious tours, these were all things I wanted to do myself," he explains, offering no apologies for the hog tour. "I have created travel always for that one purpose: to make me happier."

To share Lindblad's pleasure, clients must shell out from $700 to $7,000 per person, depending on their destination. (His Antarctic expeditions cost up to $6,580 for a 26-day trip.) Last year Lindblad Travel Inc. sent some 50,000 tourists abroad, and reported some $16 million in bookings. Though Lindblad denies being rich—"He is more a naturalist than a businessman," says Sven-Olof, who helps run the company's East African operation—Lindblad maintains homes in Buenos Aires, Nairobi and the Seychelles, as well as in Manhattan and suburban Connecticut.

Rarely, however, does the travel baron linger long in one place. He and companion Cary Butera, an ex-stewardess 20 years his junior, log some 150,000 miles every year. Given Lindblad's penchant for offbeat itineraries, the going can sometimes get hairy. Once, on a trek through Ladakh, in remote northern India, he brought along a food supply made up largely of livestock. "We started out with a whole Jeep full of creatures, and as we went along the Jeep got lighter and lighter," Cary recalls. "When they killed the last chicken—the one I was friendly with—I wouldn't speak to Lars." ("Pigs are the most horrible thing to kill," Lindblad observes. "They start squealing if you even get close to them.") Occasionally, to decompress, Lindblad and Cary stop at a quiet resort under an assumed name, but their real refuge is their New England home. "It's the most beautiful place there is," declares Lindblad. "When you have to travel as much as I do, just being home and not having to see anybody can be quite a wonderful thing."