The expedition cruise scene has been undergoing a radical change in the past 10 years. Once the preserve of clunky, basic, no-frills ships, the adventuring side of cruising has enjoyed a massive shot in the arm from new tonnage like Silversea’s, Celebrity’s and Ponant’s.
Even some of the mainstream lines, such as Crystal, Seabourn and Holland America, have all added an expedition-type style to a handful of their regular voyages, ensuring maximum comfort while also enjoying extensive new cruise horizons.
Those horizons have typically been to the Antarctic for the short period of the Austral summer (basically late December to February), but now they stretch to the North-West Passage, the Lofoten Islands, Galapagos and even little-seen parts of Alaska.
No longer do guests have to put up with Spartan conditions, shared bathrooms and little or no entertainment, taking their food canteen style in a take-it-or-leave-it manner. Nowadays, the onboard conditions are every bit as swish and luxurious as you would find anywhere else.
So who do we have to thank for this modern phenomenon? Well, it’s hard to be specific as the cruise world has evolved dramatically in virtually every aspect since the mid-1990s. Cruise lines have expanded considerably; new lines have come into being; traditional itineraries have been expanded; and the onboard experience has evolved in ways we couldn’t have imagined 20 years ago (onboard go-kart tracks? Ziplines? 10-pin bowling? The list is almost endless).
But you could certainly point to the significance of the 2004 decision by Celebrity Cruises to create their Xpeditions brand, using a more upmarket vessel than anything previously used in the Galapagos Islands, and making it a distinctly quality-conscious experience. Celebrity now has three ships under their adventuring-style flag.
By the same token, you could also view Silversea’s move to create their own expeditions fleet in 2008 as another major move in this direction, with a far more diverse array of itinerary options than Celebrity.
The purchase and refurbishment of the former World Adventurer and its rebirth as the Prince Albert II (before becoming Silver Explorer in 2011) marked a significant point in the ‘gentrification’ of adventure voyaging, and Silversea added to this process with the purchase – and stylish makeover – of two further vessels in 2013 and ’14, the Silver Galapagos and Silver Discoverer.
Almost at the same time, Crystal Cruises was investigating the possibility of more adventurous itineraries with their Crystal Serenity and came up with the imaginative idea of transiting the fabled North-West Passage, from Alaska through the Canadian Arctic to Greenland and then New York.
The response to their first voyage in 2016 – as announced the year before – was almost overwhelming, and has quickly become an annual feature of the Crystal cruise programme. At the same time, the line introduced the 62-passenger Crystal Esprit, another retread given a sparkling makeover in keeping with the five-star class of cruising.
The Esprit now sails the more exclusive waters of the Adriatic and Caribbean seas, with the added luxury of its own 2-person submarine and other distinctive water toys.
That was all only a minor step on the road, though, compared to their big announcement in 2016 of the intention to build three new mega-yachts, each with a 200-passenger capacity and, more importantly, an ice-hardened hull for polar voyages.
The first of this new trio, the Crystal Endeavor, is due for delivery from the Bremerhaven shipyard of Lloyd Werft in 2019, and it promises to take the luxurious touch to new levels, while still exploring genuine expedition-cruise territory.
“Crystal Endeavor will absolutely set a new bar for expedition luxury travel,” said then-Crystal CEO Edie Rodriguez. “We have proven time and again that Crystal is the pioneer in luxury, and this mega-yacht will change the game entirely. The possibilities for expedition travellers will be virtually limitless.”
Crowning the mega-yacht will be Crystal’s signature Palm Court, with 270-degree panoramic views for whale-watching and wildlife viewing. There will be a combined Spa and Conservatory space of 10,000sq ft, featuring a full-service Spa, Yoga, Pilates, Salon and Wellness Center, plus an infinity pool whose base can be lifted to become a dance floor or alfresco dining area. The Endeavor will feature six dining options, as well a 200-seat theatre, lecture rooms, cinema, card room and computer centre.
It will be outfitted with submarines, helicopters and remotely-operated vehicles. It will cruise in the Arctic, then follow the route of migrating whales along the coast of the Americas and Europe to Antarctica during winter. The additional two expedition vessels will debut in succession in 2020 and ‘21.
Rodriguez has since moved on and is now with Ponant Cruises, and here is another upmarket line with grand designs on making adventure cruising more stylish. As we highlighted in last week’s blog, Ponant already have two new super-yachts ready to take their bow this year, and there are two more to follow.
Each will aim to reach the more exotic cruise destinations of the world, where the big ships can’t go, and they will continue to highlight Ponant’s flair for providing that distinctive style on the small scale but with a big appetite for adventure.
Quoting from a recent article on Ponant and their billionaire owners in Forbes Magazine, Rodriguez says part of what defines a luxury expedition cruise from mainstream luxury cruises is the small-group excursions led by highly educated experts that are combined with onboard lectures. It means more time with exotic wildlife and local cultures and the ability to visit places that aren’t meant for large amounts of visitors. She also insists “the best is yet to come” from Ponant.
It’s an intriguing thought that adventure cruising is set to become even better. So, anyone ready for a (luxury) expedition voyage…?