By MICHAEL GEBICKI
A decade ago, I cruised from Iceland to the fiords of Greenland and then to Norway on a Russian ice ship. The adventure factor was five-star, but cabins were basic and the first course at dinner was borscht. Today, you can do the same cruise on a super-luxury liner with suites, an array of fine-dining restaurants and a signature spa. How times have changed.
Authenticity, cultural immersion, bespoke tours and fine regional food and wine experiences – the very things travellers are looking for in a land-based luxury holiday – are now delivered in extraordinary style on a cruise. And, according to leading Australian luxury cruising experts, trends are emerging.
The new (and younger) cruise passenger
“Our passengers are not only getting younger, they’re much more active,” says Lisa Pile, Vice President Sales of Regent Seven Seas Cruises. “We’re not quite seeing millennials yet, but the demographics are definitely changing. I’ve seen this on our Alaska cruise personally.
I went down for an early morning spin class and the gym was packed, I couldn’t believe it. Super fit people, it’s just fantastic.”
“Many more people in the 45-plus age group are considering luxury cruising,” says Diane Patrick, a leading Sydney-based cruise specialist for Wiltrans International, representing Paul Gauguin Cruises, which sails in Tahiti, French Polynesia and the South Pacific. “That puts Paul Gauguin in the spotlight because we can offer luxury yacht cruising in some of the most wonderful parts of the South Pacific, all within very easy reach for Australian cruisers. They can fit an exceptional seven-night luxury cruise into an eight-night trip out of Australia.”
Millennials are even getting on board river cruising. “Uniworld has launched a new adults-only river cruise experience in 2018,” says Fiona Dalton, Managing Director of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection in Australia. “U by Uniworld is aimed directly at a younger generation, with its very own sleek black ships and using the ships in a very different way – part waterfront hotel, part taxi, part nightclub, part yoga studio, part café. We’ve had fantastic feedback following our launch in April.”
Extraordinary ships or extraordinary destinations?
“Both,” says Jane Moggridge, General Manager Marketing and Communications of Viking River Cruises. “Many luxury cruisers have travelled extensively and they’re seeking new and immersive cultural experiences. Places that retain cultural integrity and offer an incredible experience untainted by crowds. We’ve seen some lines building bigger and more over-the-top ships, but at Viking we think travel should be about exploration, cultural immersion and personal enrichment. That’s why our ships feature open and airy, serene and unpretentious design, have guest lecturers, a Viking Resident Historian and, on Viking Orion, a Resident Astronomer.”
Other cruise experts agree. “People are looking for something different in the ships they are travelling on, for destinations that are being done differently and there’s a big appetite for completely new destinations,” says Mandy Dwyer, Communications Manager of Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours. “Next year Scenic will be visiting northern Russia, the Norwegian fjords, the White Sea, and do a complete lap of Iceland. But cruisers are also looking at the quality of the ship, the amenities and dining options – those are also major factors.”
Vintage wine and food experiences
In 2018, luxury cruising is all about immersion in both the ship and the destinations it’s sailing to, especially when it comes to quality food and wine. Locally sourced produce, regional menus that reflect the ship’s itinerary, wines from the country, and interaction with the on-board chefs are all in high demand.
“There’s a desire for even more regionally paired food and wine experiences that bring our guests even closer to the destinations they’re sailing in,” says Uniworld’s Dalton. “For example, our ship in Paris boasts a fabulous restaurant, a French bistro and a Parisian supper club, while the SS Beatrice, our newest ship on the Eastern Danube, has a number of new dining venues all reflecting a very Austrian and Hungarian style of dining.”
“It’s all about variety at every mealtime,” says Viking’s Moggridge.
“One of our most popular dining experiences is The Kitchen Table where the ship’s executive chef takes guests on an interactive culinary adventure. They’ll handpick ingredients from local markets and help prepare regional dishes before dining with the ship’s culinary director. These excursions are incredibly popular and the dinners often go late into the night.”
Market tours with the chef are also popular. “We offer the Scenic Culinaire on some of our French itineraries,” says Dwyer. “Guests visit the local market with the chef, help select the produce and back at the ship they’ll reproduce some of the local dishes. That’s always booked out.”
A voyage to health and wellness
In a world of personal trainers, gym memberships and paleo diets, cruise ships are going head-to-head with luxury spa resorts in the wellness stakes.
“Uniworld’s Wellness on the Water program was ground-breaking when it began five years ago and it has been evolving ever since,” according to Dalton. “Every cruise has its own wellness coach and the wellness experience includes morning yoga, TRX or tai chi on the ship extending to our ‘Let’s Go’ ground program.”
Regent Seven Seas is also focused on health and wellness. “Our wonderful spas and wellness centres on are run by world-renowned Canyon Ranch Spa,” says Pile. “They also have a spa menu on board with programs for people who are watching their weight or want to work on specific aspects of their health.”
Aboard some vessels the on-board spas reflect the origins of the cruise line. “The Scandinavian-style spa on board our Viking Ocean Cruise ships is inspired by the Nordic approach to holistic wellbeing,” says Moggridge. “Quality time in a sauna followed by a cold dip in an icy lake is the embodiment of Scandinavia and this tradition is emulated in Viking’s Nordic Bathing Ritual, a traditional hot sauna followed by a cold bucket shower, a cold plunge pool or a visit to Viking’s exclusive Snow Grotto.”
“All of Scenic Space Ships have wellness centres,” according to Dwyer. “Scenic Sapphire and Scenic Diamond feature a vitality pool and a Salt Therapy Lounge and our clients can spend as much time as they like there.”
“People are looking for a more immersive onshore experience, not just seeing the sights…In Naples, some want to see Pompeii, others might want to see Sorrento and the Amalfi coast, and others might want to do a wine-tasting or visit markets and do a cooking class. They want to feel like a local, not an onlooker.” – Lisa Pile, Vice President of Sales, Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Luxury is a shore thing
“People are looking for a more immersive onshore experience, not just seeing the sights, and that’s exactly what Regent Seven Seas offers,” according to Pile. “In Naples, some want to see Pompeii, others might want to see Sorrento and the Amalfi coast, and others might want to do a wine-tasting or visit markets and do a cooking class. They want to feel like a local, not an onlooker.”
Says Moggridge: “Guests want more intimate and meaningful onshore experiences, including private access to privileged experiences. Our Viking Culture Curriculum offers unique experiences, like visiting the home of a local family to break bread and share homemade vodka over a traditional meal, to exploring sealed vaults at the Hermitage.”
And according to Dalton: “Guests want to understand more, and that comes from personal engagement. Usually it’s about understanding local life, significant historical events that have led to today’s world, or exclusive experiences that are only possible with Uniworld, such as early opening visits accompanied by a curator to the world’s great art galleries and museums in Europe.”
Sustainability is the word
In a world where coral reefs, fish stocks, ice caps and shorelines are under threat from climate change, eco-conscious travellers are looking for evidence that their chosen cruise line is operating with the same awareness and integrity.
“Paul Gauguin has a Stewards of Nature program for children and families,” says Wiltrans’ Patrick. “It operates in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society and it’s all about educating guests about coral reef and Pacific islands ecology with naturalist-led island and beach excursions. We’re operating in remote and often pristine places and we take great care to leave as small a footprint as possible.”
At Viking, the relatively young fleet was built with sustainability in mind, explains Moggridge. “Viking’s ocean ships were designed from the start with the environment in mind, feature energy-efficient hybrid engines, streamlined hulls and bows for maximum fuel efficiency, on board solar panels, and equipment that minimises exhaust pollution,” she says.
At Uniworld guests are given metal refillable water cannisters, which saves over 500,000 plastic water bottles per year, according to Dalton. “Our parent company, The Travel Corporation, has announced its commitment to phase out single use plastics in all our operations by 2020, and we in Uniworld are already taking steps to do as much as we can by removing plastic straws and many other single-use plastics,” she adds.
Scenic is also implementing policies to reduce single-use plastic as part of a broader program. “We’re putting funds into local communities to develop clean water initiatives,” says Dwyer. “Cruise operators can set an example for good environmental practice particularly where they visit remote communities, as Scenic does on some of its Asian itineraries.”
Regent Seven Seas Cruises, rssc.com
Paul Gauguin Cruises, pgcruises.com
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, uniworld.com
Viking River Cruises, vikingrivercruises.com.au
Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours, scenic.com.au