By David McGonigal
“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. Then 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.
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$28,713 (about A$39,400) for a twin cabin up to US$43,154 (about A$59,200) for an Arktika Suite.
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.
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. Their most recently launched vessel, National Geographic Quest, tours Alaska and Costa Rica. National Geographic Venture is currently being constructed and set to launch October of 2018. These vessels all boast the unique selling point of having National Geographic photographers on board, which means plenty of expert advice.
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.
Silversea has four expedition vessels. The Silver Cloud was extensively refurbished and ice-strengthened last year, and in November will head to destinations such as Chile, Antarctica, and Argentina, carrying up to 260 passengers. 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.
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.