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If your clients think expedition cruising means roughing it, they haven’t seen the offerings of the current wave of luxury ships as each new expedition ship ups the ante on luxury, in-depth encounters with nature, and sustainability with jaw-dropping new features. “High-end expedition cruises allow travelers to feel as if they are the first to discover a destination, but in far more luxury than explorers of centuries past could have ever imagined,” says Vicky Garcia, COO and co-owner of Cruise Planners.  

In the Chilean fjords, for example, passengers might ride Zodiacs to shore and hike to a remote vantage point where they are met with a champagne reception, notes Edie Rodriguez, Ponant’s America’s brand chairman and corporate special advisor. “It is this combination of active, foot-on adventures and heightened luxury that defines expedition cruising.”

While high-end expedition lines such as Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic and Hurtigruten keep raising their luxury quotient, upscale lines such as Ponant, Scenic, Crystal Cruises and Silversea are adding expedition ships to their mix. Garcia predicts other lines will be stepping into this market, too, as demand continues to grow. 

Exploration cruising is one of the fastest growing trends in travel—and it’s not just adventure-seeking adrenaline junkies, says Kristin Small, a Cruise Planners franchise owner. “In addition to Baby Boomers, we’re seeing both an upward and a downward expansion in our age demographics.” 

Expedition-style travel is definitely gaining speed as the next multi-generational travel genre. There’s a desire to experience these remote destinations before they’re gone; before the icebergs melt and the polar bears become extinct.”

Making the expedition ships even more family- and multi-gen friendly, Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic, Hurtigruten and Ponant all offer special programming for children.

Knowing that a ship might change course due to weather conditions or to catch an unusual experience adds to the sense of adventure. For example, on a recent Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic trip, the captain heard whales on the ship’s hydrophones at 2:30 a.m. and woke interested passengers in time to see a blue whale with two calves right off the bow. Similarly, on a Ponant sailing, the captain was alerted that sea lions were sunning on a glacier, so he changed course and then sent passengers out in Zodiacs so they could see them up-close.

Zodiacs, kayaks, hydrophones (for listening to undersea sounds) and a video microscope, as well as snow shoes, x-country skis and extreme weather clothing are examples of what Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic cruises calls “tools for exploration,” says Jacinta McEvoy, v.p., global sales. These include remotely operated ocean vehicles (ROVs) that send back footage from depths to 1,000 ft. (often documenting undiscovered sites and
marine life for the National Science Foundation) that passengers can watch
from the comfort of the ship. Its newest vessel, slated to launch in 2020, will include a helicopter landing platform. 

For most expedition lines, Zodiac, kayak and other off-ship adventures are a given; the 68-passenger Crystal Esprit, designed for warm-weather cruising, will have a 2-person submersible that takes passengers 1,000 ft. below the surface in comfort, and in 2020, the Crystal Endeavor will translate Crystal Cruises’ signature luxury into the largest, most spacious polar-class ship with features like a warming cabinet for parkas. 

Rendering of the Celebrity Flora.
Rendering of the Celebrity Flora.

Taking exploration into the skies, Scenic’s first discovery yacht, the 114-suite, six-star Scenic Eclipse (launching Aug. 31, with a sister ship slated for 2020) will be equipped with helicopters and submarines for guests. And state-of-the-art, GPS-enabled “anchorless anchoring,” which avoids damaging reefs and the ocean floor, and an open-air stargazing platform are among the wow features on Celebrity Cruises’ all-suite expedition vessel, Celebrity Flora, designed specifically to sail in the Galapagos and launching May 2019.

In true French style, Ponant’s new ships are outfitted with Blue Eye, a stylish underwater lounge where passengers can sip their drinks as they observe undersea life, seated on sofas that sympathetically vibrate with the sound waves transmitted from underwater microphones. The sounds are captured from up to a five kilometer radius. And for foodies, Silversea just converted a second ship into their expedition fleet, Silver Cloud, boasting the only Relais & Chateaux restaurant in Antarctica.

The term “active engagement” comes up a lot when discussing expedition cruises. “From hiking, kayaking and snowshoeing to birdwatching in the Falkland Islands to dog-sledding through the Arctic wilderness, we allow our guests to curate the perfect expedition experience for themselves,” says William Harber, president, the Americas region, Hurtigruten. The line has over 400 optional excursions online, sortable by destination, time of year, and desired physical level.

Depending on the ship and destination, excursions range from landings on isolated, volcanic beaches, to extreme excursions such as Hurtigruten’s polar camping, says Small. “It’s important to match clients and ships carefully. High-end expedition lines differ in the level of shipboard inclusions and the number of landings and type of off-ship explorations and not all dip as deep into the destination. At the same time, not all lines offer a true five-star luxury experience.”

Expedition cruising isn’t just for the super-fit. Many ships are wheelchair accessible. Plus, excursions are offered for all fitness levels, and onboard historians, marine biologists, geologists and other experts are on hand to give lectures and informally share information at dinner and around the ship, says McEvoy. “Thanks to its alliance with National Geographic, Lindblad’s ships actually function as platforms for research and science, with benefits for travelers like our onboard photography program led by National Geographic photographers on every ship.” 

New this year, Base Camp Baja and Base Camp Channel Islands (off San Diego), 4-night sailings in conjunction with Exhale Spa, offers a taste of expedition cruising with a strong wellness component.

Liz Dominguez, Dream Vacations franchise owner and vacation specialist, says she is seeing increased interest in the experiential travel that expedition cruising offers in travelers of all ages. “Knowing that they can leave the ship to experience Kopar Village in Papua New Guinea, but come back to a glass of fine Italian wine and a gourmet meal is very attractive. People aren’t afraid to pay for a brag-worthy experience that their neighbors haven’t likely done (yet!).”

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Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic:

Wellness-Focused River Cruising
River cruising, with its emphasis on cultural exploration, small ships and inclusive pricing, is similar in many ways to expedition cruising. Shipboard entertainment consists of port briefings and cultural and historical programs, says Small. “Looking at these similarities,
it’s an easy transition to shift interest from river cruising to expedition travel. We also see
the redirection in luxury lines like Crystal and Scenic, which are entering the expedition travel niche.”

At the same time, river cruising has been increasing its options for active and immersion-seeking cruisers. “Yoga on deck as you float leisurely past ancient European towns? Yes, please!” says Liz Dominguez, Dream Vacations franchise owner and vacation specialist. It’s part of AmaWaterways’ Wellness Program, which will go fleetwide across Europe and Southeast Asia in 2019, and includes guided hiking and biking excursions, and fitness classes. Led by a dedicated Wellness Host on each ship, the Wellness Program offers guests the opportunity to participate in group fitness classes—stretching, core strengthening and resistance band training—and informative lectures and discussions related to holistic wellness. Additional Signature classes like yoga, Pilates and circuit training may also be offered. On shore, guests can take part in active excursions including guided hiking, biking and running outings through the cities and villages showcased on each itinerary.   

We listen to our customers and know how important wellness is to their daily lives, not only at home, but wherever they are in the world. It’s why we’re so in tune with trends impacting health, fitness and well-being, and committed to offering innovative ways for our guests to continue on their path as part of their Uniworld experience.

Ellen Bettridge, President & CEO, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection

Similarly, Uniworld lets passengers hop on a bike, hike and start their day with yoga on board. The line features an onboard wellness instructor offering TRX and yoga classes, plus its Let’s Go onshore program features guided walking, hiking, cycling, kayaking and golfing tours, as well as gondola rowing and more. Uniworld also offers a Traveling Lite menu that features options from the traditional menu, but with fewer calories. Avalon Waterways’ Active Discovery, meanwhile, features active options such as canoeing and biking as well as cultural immersion activities.