By Simon & Susan Veness
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before – expedition cruising is the new Black.
It’s true. For all the fact the cruise world continues to develop and add new mega-ships in leaps and bounds, the more adventurous angle to this maritime boom is among the biggest drivers of new tonnage and new itinerary frontiers.
Just consider this little list – in 2019, of the record 23 new-builds to take to the seas, eight were designed for expedition-style voyaging, including several innovative examples that seriously advanced the genre, notably from Scenic Cruises, Hurtigruten and Aurora Expeditions.
In 2020, we will see TWENTY-FIVE all-new vessels launched, continuing the trend for ever more ships in ever more places. And, of that number, fully TEN will be dedicated expedition ships for the likes of Crystal Cruises, Lindblad Expeditions, Mystic Cruises, Quark Expeditions and Silversea.
It is a mind-boggling outpouring of the latest and greatest, and it points to a genuine desire for more cruisers to get off the beaten track and seek out the small-scale ocean-going adventures than ever before.
Which is why the most recent cruise news highlights this trend still further with the announcement by Viking Cruises that they will introduce their own expedition arm in 2022, including the first regular five-star sailings in the Great Lakes region of America as well as Polar exploring.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, either the introduction of a new brand in Viking Expeditions or the fact that it is Viking stretching their wings – again – to create something new and distinguished.
For Viking owner and CEO Torstein Hagen, this is just the latest move in a steady advance on the cruise world, prompted by his failed bid to buy the upmarket Royal Viking Line back in the 1980s. After re-shaping the European river-cruise market since beginning with four ships in 1997, the 77-year-old Norwegian billionaire has set his sights on his original love, ocean cruising.
He introduced Viking’s sea-going offshoot in 2015, and now has six identical, 930-passenger ships offering their own brand of stylish, cultured cruising, “the thinking person’s voyage,” as he calls it. Now he’s looking to create yet another branch of his maritime tree in the expedition genre.
It will initially blossom with two purpose-built 378-passenger ships with ice-strengthened hulls for voyaging in both Antarctica and the Arctic, as well as the St Lawrence River, Brazilian coast, Norway and Great Lakes regions.
And Hagen made no bones about his ambitions to conquer the expedition-cruise genre as well as he has done with both his river-cruise and full ocean options.
He insisted: “Now, in creating ‘the thinking person’s expedition,’ we are perfecting polar expedition cruising and we will usher in a new era of comfortable exploration in the heart of North America. Our guests are curious explorers. They want to continue travelling with us to familiar and iconic destinations, but they would also like to travel further. We began as Viking River Cruises; then we evolved into Viking Cruises with the addition of ocean cruises; today we stand singularly as Viking.”
The mission statement alone is impressive, especially from someone who started in the business by helping to turn Holland America around in the late 1970s and ’80s and then went on to be chief executive of Royal Viking Line before losing out in an attempted management buyout to fellow Norwegian Knut Kloster, who had founded Norwegian Cruise Line.
Undaunted, Hagen turned his sights on the moribund European river-cruise business, and things have positively mushroomed from there. His initial four ships have become a whopping 73, and Viking is the undoubted market leader, spanning Europe, Asia and Egypt. His ocean-cruise arm has plans for another TEN vessels (six confirmed orders and options for four more), and he steadfastly refuses to compromise on quality, insisting that there are no gadgets, gimmicks or other fancy elements that the mainstream lines persist in adding.
There are no casinos, children or formal nights. His clientele remains staunchly over 55, and Viking’s focus is firmly on destination-intensive itineraries that have a high educational content and visit a wide variety of cultural sites.
Now all that will be trained on the company’s new expedition brand – Viking Expeditions – which aims for its formal launch in January 2022 with the Viking Octantis, a Polar Class 6 vessel with 189 staterooms, to be quickly followed by the identical Viking Polaris in August the same year.
Both will be designed for the challenging conditions of the polar regions, but the onboard experience will be in keeping with Viking’s existing chic, upscale style. There will be no fewer than six restaurants, plus a spa, sauna, and the signature feature of The Aula, an auditorium with floor-to-ceiling windows and 270-degree views that acts as the central educational hub.
There will also be several bold innovations, including an enclosed, in-ship marina at the stern, a Nordic balcony with every stateroom (a recent river-cruise adaptation that allows the room to be opened up into a sun-room with a viewing platform), and partnerships with leading scientific experts to provide onboard lectures, hands-on research and immersive experiences.
Viking Expeditions has created an exclusive partnership with Cambridge University-based Scott Polar Research Institute and Cornell Lab of Ornithology (a leading bird research facility), which will match top researchers with each voyage, and partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, whose scientists will join expeditions in the Great Lakes to conduct research focused on changes in the region’s climate and ecosystems.
The line’s own 25-person Expedition Team will also be an essential part of each sailing, with biologists, botanists, geologists and glaciologists, as well as submarine pilots and photographers to host daily lectures and briefings. For shore excursions, passengers will be offered the chance to assist in fieldwork, from tracking migratory patterns of penguins to collecting samples of flora and fauna.
Viking Expeditions has also pledged that its ships will be as eco-friendly as possible, meeting or surpassing the most stringent emissions and biosecurity standards. The striking straight bow design will reduce fuel consumption while a dynamic positioning system will eliminate the need for anchoring.
And their focus on North America will also have strong appeal for the ‘something different’ factor, highlighting new itineraries in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, as well as the province of Ontario in Canada.
All in all, it adds up to yet another ‘new frontier’ in expedition cruising, the fastest-growing segment of the great ocean-going panorama. Are YOU ready to get on board…?
Have you already tried an expedition voyage and does this new development appeal to you? Tell us your experiences in the Comments section below.