The changing face of expedition cruising

Expedition cruising has modest roots but, as David McGonigal explains, the modern experience is an unforgettable combination of adventure and luxury.

"To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive."

The words of 19th century travel writer Robert Louis Stevenson certainly have a romantic edge, but he was riding a donkey. When it comes to expedition cruising, the journey is as hopeful as it is inspiring, and arriving in wonderful places aboard remarkable ships is all part of the service.

Until 1966 expedition cruising didn’t really exist. In that year Lars-Eric Lindblad led the first tourist trip to Antarctica on an Argentinean naval vessel. In 1969 he launched his own vessel, the Lindblad Explorer, to explore the world’s wildest places. However, luxury on board wasn’t a vital part of the concept. The real luxury was that you were able to visit those remote parts of the world at all. While that’s still partly true, there’s a new era in expedition cruising that combines comfort and experience.

Expedition cruises visit many parts of the world including the Galapagos, the Amazon, Papua New Guinea and Australia’s Kimberley coast. But the core area remains the polar regions.

Until 1990 the number of tourists to Antarctica was tiny – a mere few hundred each year.  Thn the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet empire collapsed. The ice-strengthened ships of the Russian fleet found themselves underfunded and many were leased to take tourists (mainly from the United States but also Australia, the UK, Germany and Canada) to the poles, helping fund their scientifc programs for the rest of the year. It was the beginning of the polar travel boom.

Today the second stage of expedition cruising has arrived. As many of the Russian expedition ships reached the end of their working lives, or came up against new clean-fuel requirements, they were retired. Meanwhile, travellers were demanding more comfort and expeditions with a butler service became a reality.

A popular destination of choice is the Galapagos Islands (and rightfully so), yet many of the regular expedition cruise operators don’t travel there. That’s because the Ecuadorean authorities restrict Galapagos cruising to local vessels. Standards vary widely, so if you’re looking for luxury, go with one of the established international cruise lines with vessels based in the region.

 

The expedition crew

Quark Expeditions

One vessel still reflects the luxury of simply being able to do it: Quark’s nuclear-powered Russian icebreaker, 50 Years of Victory, can take you through the ice to the North Pole. The ship is comfortable, not luxurious, and the 14-day voyage costs from US$40,000 (about A$53,333) for a twin cabin up to US$60,000 (about A$80,000) for a suite. quarkexpeditions.com/au

 

Hapag-Lloyd Cruises

Among the most highly rated cruise ships in the world, according to the authoritative Berlitz Cruising and Cruise Ships guide, is the Hanseatic, one of the two expedition ships of Hapag-Lloyd. The line’s older expedition ship, the Bremen, is rated four-stars. Hapag-Lloyd is a distinctly German operation, from the quality of its finish to the attention to detail. Also distinctly German is the organisation of local cruisers, meaning the ships are often booked out more than a year in advance. Hapag-Lloyd expedition ships operate mainly in the Arctic and Antarctic with some cruises in more temperate zones. hl-cruises.com

 

National Geographic Expeditions

Many Australians discovered expedition cruising aboard Orion, our own luxury cruise ship, which spent much of its operation around Western Australia’s Kimberley Coast and into exotic Papua New Guinea. The vessel is now the National Geographic Orion and forms part of the Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic partnership.

Others in the National Geographic fleet are National Geographic Explorer, National Geographic Sea Bird and National Geographic Sea Lion. Together, this fleet covers the polar regions, Patagonia, South America, Europe, the UK, Alaska, Central America and beyond. National Geographic Endeavour II and National Geographic Islander operate in the Galapagos Islands. Two new vessels are being constructed: National Geographic Quest (expected to be in Alaska by mid-year) and National Geographic Venture (due to launch in 2018). These vessels all boast the unique selling point of having National Geographic photographers on board, which means plenty of expert advice. au.expeditions.com

 

True North Adventure Cruises

Australia’s Kimberley does have an excellent vessel with a wealth of experience in these waters. True North, the only vessel in the True North Adventure Cruises (formerly North Star Cruises) fleet, is best known for carrying its own helicopter on board, opening up even more exploring options. Besides the Kimberley, True North also offers regular voyages in West Papua and Papua New Guinea as well as occasional cruises around the Australian coastline. truenorth.com.au

 

Silversea

Silversea has three expedition vessels and a fourth on the way. As her name implies, the 100-passenger Silver Galapagos offers a series of seven-day voyages around the Galapagos Islands. The ice-strengthened 130-passenger Silver Explorer is a familiar sight in Antarctica and the Arctic, but turns up in Easter Island and Tahiti too. The 120-passenger Silver Discoverer includes the Kimberley in its largely Pacific schedule that extends from Kamchatka to Guadalcanal. In November the extensively refurbished and ice-strengthened Silver Cloud will be heading to Antarctica for the season with just 200 passengers (though it will carry up to 260 else- where). Then, after some voyages in Europe, she will be in Spitsbergen before returning to Antarctica. silversea.com

 

Ponant

French line Ponant is certainly visible in the Australian market these days. Indeed, Ponant can be found everywhere from the poles to Borneo and the Amazon. With four expedition ships, each accommodating about 260 guests, and characteristic French air, Ponant is rapidly gaining a strong Australian following. Ponant ships can be found in Alaska and Russia as well as the Arctic, Antarctica, throughout the Pacific and in Latin America. au.ponant.com

 
 

Penguin sighting

 

On the horizon

The trend in expedition cruising has shifted from providing acceptable accommodation in exotic places to excellent service everywhere. Stand by for what’s next.

At least 12 new expedition ship builds have been ordered in the past 12 months. Two of these have been for Hapag-Lloyd, three for Crystal Cruises and four for Ponant. Last year, Crystal Cruises announced it will launch “the world’s first purpose-built polar class megayacht” to sail in August 2018. This will be the 200-passenger Crystal Endeavor and it will be as functional as it is beautiful.

The Crystal Endeavor will offer extreme adventures by air, sea and land with a complete range of toys not commonly found on today’s megayachts, including two helicopters and two landing pads for flightseeing expeditions, as well as two seven-person submarines, eight electric amphibious zodiacs, jet skis, wave runners, kayaks, paddleboards, snorkelling and scuba equipment, recompression chamber, dive support tender and a multi-person ATV. The Crystal Endeavor will also be equipped with SEABOBs – the world’s most technically advanced and powerful underwater scooter – that allow you to move gracefully underwater. crystalcruises.com

While Scenic is mainly known for luxury river cruises, it will be launching the very futuristic Scenic Eclipse in August 2018. It will operate at both ends of the earth as well as the Mediterranean and the Americas. A retractable glass roof and helicopters will ensure the 228 guests (restricted to 200 in Antarctica) make the most of their surrounds. scenic.com.au

 

The Crystal Endeavor will also be equipped with SEABOBs – the world’s most technically advanced and powerful underwater scooter – that allow you to move gracefully underwater.

 

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