World’s best expedition cruises
Were you one of those children who always wanted to go exploring? Forever venturing into the bush or forest, catching tadpoles and frogs or just wandering and enjoying nature. In a time before Twitter and Facebook, I bet you even built a cubbyhouse and came home at dinner time covered in mud. Yep, that was me.
I contend that primal adventurous spirit is in all of us. While some of us will suppress that urge to wander and discover by hiding in great big steel and glass towers, others will use every opportunity to escape the rat race and set out for all corners of the Earth to widen their horizons and enrich their lives.
In recent years, urban fugitives have used the world’s growing fleet of modern expedition cruise vessels to set out and cross seas and oceans to unexplored lands in search of adventure. Such has been the surge in interest that great effort and expense has been employed to design a new breed of luxury ship to cater for the growing legions of travellers craving life’s big adventure.
Traditionally it is the vast icy expanse of Antarctica that captures the imagination entirely. Fuelled by tales from the ‘golden age’ of exploration, we marvelled at the impossible exploits of Shackleton, Mawson and Scott, seeking to emulate in some small way the heroics of these legendary men.
Today, in a furious five-month southern summer season, a minor armada of expedition vessels turns the world’s southernmost city into a hive of activity. In Ushuaia, a port with a normal population of 60,000 at the very bottom of Argentina, throngs of eager expeditioners in designer parkas swell the streets, bars and souvenir shops as their departure looms.
Once aboard and under way, the first challenge must be conquered. No odyssey like this comes easy and the crossing of the Drake Passage can test the best of us. The 48-hour crossing can be as effortless as the so-called ‘Drake Lake’ or it can be a bit rockier, but once at the Peninsula, your adventure begins and the childhood dream is reawakened. Feeling queasy? There is even a fly-in-fly-out option.
I’m prepared to bet that even before you’ve photographed your last penguin, plans will be afoot for your next expedition, mark my words. And just where might that next expedition be?
Just like a perfect polar bookend, the northern twin offers a stunning complement to your Antarctic experience with a whole new set of wildlife wonders. Swap Weddels for walrus, penguins for puffins and leopard seals for polar bears and you have the alternate zoological catalogue to add to your brag bag. Sail to the edge of the polar ice pack or recreate the legendary Northwest Passage. The Arctic also offers somewhat easier access. Choose your entry into the northern realm from Canada, Norway, Greenland, Alaska or even Russia. There’s no Drake Passage and you can fly almost to your ship in many locations. Spitsbergen, for example, has the world’s most northerly commercial airport.
The secret of our stunning Northwest is out and the number of vessels plying the crocodile-infested waters of the Prince Regent and Hunter Rivers out of a base at Broome has grown enormously since the first ad hoc cruises were devised almost 30 years ago. With massive tides measured in metres and golden cliffs as old as the world itself, this foreboding environment possesses a humbling beauty that has built a legend for local expedition cruising and a dozen or more small ships work the route to Wyndham visiting the astonishing horizontal falls at Talbot Bay, the majestic Mitchell Falls or the magical Montgomery Reef that comes and goes like some recurring Atlantis. The Kimberley has to be one of the easiest and most enriching passport-free options for Australians looking for a taste of expedition cruising.
Melanesia, Polynesia and the South Pacific
This is the tropical option for those looking for their expeditions with sun, sand, palm trees and beautiful, richly-cultured people. Melanesia incorporates Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Fiji and Polynesia is pretty much the rest, all the way past Tahiti to Easter Island. You’ll rub shoulders with the big ships in some places, but enjoy access to the more remote, undeveloped locations hidden from mass tourism. It’s at these mystical little spots where expedition cruisers meet with villagers who keep centuries old traditions alive with song, dance and lavish costumes. Superbly crafted artefacts are there for the choosing at the many markets as well as poignant historical sites from WWII and the early navigators like Cook, Bligh and Lapérouse.
And there’s plenty more
These popular destinations are just the beginning of your adventure quest. The best small ship operators are looking beyond to uncover new and exciting destinations that include the coasts of Africa, the Indian Ocean islands, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. Realistically, there are few places left in the world not covered by one expedition ship itinerary or another, especially if you include rivers like the Amazon, Ganges, Irrawaddy and Mekong.
The world’s fleet expands with new modern vessels
Ironically, it was the collapse of the former Soviet Union in late 1991 that was the catalyst that set the scene for the burgeoning expedition cruise market we see today. With a fleet of highly capable polar vessels, albeit with somewhat basic passenger comforts, suddenly with nothing to do, enterprising adventure tour operators quickly pounced on ships such as the Akademik Vavilov and Ioffe for use in polar cruises. Several of these sturdy vessels are still in operation today, but are slowly being phased out in favour of new, more luxurious ships purpose built to cater for the huge public interest.
“People no longer want to spend their holiday time being passive spectators. The new adventure traveller is looking for authentic experiences, which is why sedentary, standardised travel packages are becoming less popular and active adventure travel is booming” says Daniel Skjeldam, Hurtigruten’s CEO. “Our experience is that explorers travelling with Hurtigruten crave adventurous activities and mindfulness in combination, therefore Hurtigruten offers active voyages. We offer real experiences in local environments, just steps away from the wildlife.”
In January this year, the venerable Lindblad Expeditions celebrated 50 years since their late patriarch, Lars-Eric Lindblad took 57 pioneering tourists to Antarctica aboard a chartered Argentine Navy supply ship. In 1969, Lindblad commissioned his own vessel, MS Lindblad Explorer, and now the company has more than a dozen vessels either owned or under charter. Lindblad Expeditions – National Geographic remains a benchmark operation for expedition cruise operators and has recently announced two new-build 100-passenger vessels, the first due for delivery in 2017.
From a historical perspective, the Norwegian coastal shipping company, Hurtigruten, has few challengers for maritime pedigree in this regard. Begun as a mail and supply route in 1893, the company now operates 16 vessels, several of which are devoted purely to expedition cruise itineraries in the Arctic and Antarctic. Furthermore, two new-build 600-passenger state-of-art ships were recently announced for delivery in 2018 and 2019, with an option for another two. Always mindful of their historical advantage, two heritage vessels are also maintained on the fleet for special events, the oldest of which is the 1956-built MS Nordstjernen.
For over 25 years, Aurora Expeditions has been taking adventurous passengers into far flung places on the planet, with over 250 journeys into the Antarctic alone. With seven ships, Aurora can take you into the icy world of the Antarctic and the Arctic, Alaska, the Kimberley coast, PNG, Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and Ecuador. On some Arctic or Antarctic cruises, passengers can now do something they would never dream of doing – polar snorkelling. Polar diving has been offered to properly certified divers for a while now, but snorkelling is a relatively new experience and suitable for adventurers who may not have the necessary diving accreditation. Unforgettable.
When Orion Expedition Cruises founder, Sarina Bratton, was left without a vessel after Orion was sold to Lindblad, the ebullient spruiker and entrepreneur was quickly enlisted by French-flagged Ponant as local chairman. Ponant has also been reading the tea leaves and over the last few years, their entire fleet has been overhauled with the addition of almost a brand new 264-passenger vessel every year since 2010 with four more on the books, the first of which will arrive in 2018.
The new series of dedicated expedition vessels will be slightly smaller than the current ones (127m vs 142m), carrying less than 200 passengers but featuring an underwater lounge that offers submarine views while guests sip Veuve Clicquot.
Better known for their superb service and luxurious mid-sized cruise ships, Silversea certainly rattled cages of the more established expedition operators when they introduced first, Silver Explorer, then Silver Discoverer, then Silver Galapagos.
As capable and comfortable as these vessels are, they are older, heavily renovated vessels. Silversea stunned many in the business when they announced the 260-berth Silver Cloud will be converted to ice class and join the expedition fleet in late 2017.
The long-time Tahiti-based cruise and freight line welcomed their newest (and fourth) ship, Aranui 5, to their Papeete base just in time for Christmas last year. This new ship has room for 254 passengers in a wide range of cabin options and a recently revised 14-day itinerary now includes visits to Nuku Hiva, Ua Pou, Tahuata, Fatu Hiva, Hiva Oa, Ua Huka in the Marquesas, Takapoto and Rangiroa in the Tuamotus and the famed Society Island of Bora Bora.
This Chilean-flagged line operates exclusively in the glacial waters of Patagonia between Ushuaia, Cape Horn and Punta Arenas. A new 210-passenger vessel, Stella Australis, was added in 2011, an older vessel, Via Australis, was sold to Lindblad this year and a brand new vessel is due to join the southern fleet in 2017 described only as offering “more cabins in a streamlined, modern vessel, comparable to the Stella Australis.”
This luxury cruise ship line may have been late to the small ship party, but under new owners since 2015, the first steps into this new arena have been made with the acquisition of the former MegaStar Taurus as Crystal Esprit. While Crystal hone their product, a highly sophisticated new-build is due for to begin itineraries in August 2018. To be christened Crystal Endeavor, the line are bragging that the 183m, 100-suite megayacht will be the first-ever to possess a Polar Class 6 designation.
But it doesn’t end there. Guests can also expect 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, paddle boards, snorkelling and scuba equipment, decompression chamber, dive support tender and a multi-person ATV.
Other new ships
Around the same time as Crystal, Australia’s Scenic brand announced their own very similarly specified ship, Scenic Eclipse, due to begin operations in 2018. Australia’s own premium small ship operator, North Star Cruises, has hinted at a new, bigger ship for the last couple of years. Their current vessel, the tiny-by-comparison, 50 metre True North, carries just 36 passengers on what many believe is the best Kimberley program currently on offer. We eagerly await their announcement.
Get expedition cruising
Whether you are planning to book your first expedition cruise now or in the future, the range of ships and destinations is overwhelming and it is this writer’s strong advice to do as much prior research as possible before your first cruise, preferably with an experienced accredited agent with independent knowledge. Expedition cruising is not for everyone, that’s for sure, but if you’ve read this far, I’d say you’re ready! •
• Aranui Cruises: aranui.com
• Aurora Expeditions: auroraexpeditions.com.au
• Australis: australis.com
• Crystal Cruises: wiltrans.com.au
• Hurtigruten: discovertravelshop.com.au
• Lindblad: au.expeditions.com
• North Star Cruises: northstarcruises.com.au
• Ponant: ponant.com
• Silversea: silversea.com
• Active Travel: activetravel.com.au/polar-expeditions
• Hapag-Lloyd Cruises: hl-cruises.com