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Expedition cruises put a new spin on luxury at sea

The Seabourn Sojourn cruise liner docked in Cape Town harbour. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)

The Seabourn Sojourn cruise liner docked in Cape Town harbour. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)

Published May 6, 2022

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By Danielle Braff

Forget infinity pools, couples’ massages and karaoke lounges; the newest luxury ships are all about scientific discovery.

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Rather than stopping at the usual crowded European and Caribbean ports, expedition ships are taking guests – with scientists, historians and naturalists – to places rarely visited by tourists.

Subtract the discomforts traditionally associated with research vessels, and expedition ships are attracting travellers who may not have considered cruising in the past.

“The expedition segment is the fastest-growing segment of the cruise industry right now,” said Robin West, vice president of expedition operations and planning for Seabourn, a luxury cruise line. Until 2018, few new expedition ships were being built, West said. But about 45 are expected to be constructed between 2018 and 2023.

The reason for the uptick is a regulatory change by the International Maritime Organisation, the UN agency responsible for maritime safety.

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Its Polar Code, which was implemented beginning in January 2017, stipulates that certain ships sailing in Arctic or Antarctic waters must abide by enhanced safety regulations, such as having a specific amount of structural reinforcement to help with operating through thick ice. Many older expedition ships do not meet the new requirements.

“The expedition industry was born out of very old tonnage, and many were polar research vessels, others were Baltic ferries,” West said. “Very few were purpose-built as expedition ships. The change in the Polar Code resulted in new ships being built to comply with all the new regulations.”

Expedition cruises, with their adventure-focused, off-the-beaten-path itineraries and emphasis on scientific inquiry, were historically undertaken aboard rugged ships without amenities such as speciality dining venues, luxurious spas and plush beds, said Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic.

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Their main purpose was exploring the destination, and guests viewed the ships as a means to an end.

“With the growth of expedition cruising, we’re starting to see that change, with new luxury ships joining the sector,” McDaniel said. With the luxury ships can come a luxury price tag, however. Packages tend to start at a few thousand dollars, but they can go up to $20 000 (about R320 000) or $30 000, depending on the cruise’s length and destination, McDaniel said.

So far, those prices don’t seem to have deterred those craving luxury adventure. West said 80% to 90% of Seabourn’s 2023 sailings are booked, and many new cruisers are curious about the expedition ships.

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According to Richard Marnell, the executive vice president of marketing for Viking, the company’s one expedition vessel has sold out faster than the ships in its regular fleet.

And although expedition cruisers appear willing to pay for the increased prices, they shouldn’t expect those fees to cover the same amenities as on standard cruise ships.

You won’t find mini-golf courses, surf pools, slides, concerts, casinos, branded restaurants or Broadway-style entertainment, said Monika Sundem, chief executive of Adventure Life, a travel company in Missoula, Mont.

Instead, in addition to the submarines and other tiny boats such as kayaks designed for further exploration, many of the expedition ships have helicopters, larger observation decks and educators.

Seabourn’s first purpose-built expedition ship, Seabourn Venture, is off for its inaugural adventure in July. In its initial year, it’s planning on taking guests to the Arctic, Greenland, Iceland, South America, Antarctica and the Amazon.

Guests will be accompanied by a 26-person expedition team of scientists, historians, naturalists and wildlife experts, and they will have the opportunity to explore shipwrecks via two custom-built submarines and 24 Zodiacs.

Although scuba divers regularly dive down to about 120 feet, anything beyond this is relatively unexplored. But the submarines can dive up to 1 000 feet below, West said.

“The idea is, it’s like being in a science-fiction spaceship,” West said, although Seabourn’s science-fiction spaceship is equipped with leather seating, air conditioning and a sound system.

“It’s an incredible experience to descend down into a completely new world.”

Viking launched its first expedition ship, Viking Octantis, in January. (Its sister ship, Viking Polaris, is scheduled to launch in November.) In addition to scientists – cruises can include biologists, geologists, glaciologists and ornithologists – the Octantis contains an array of scientific equipment. It includes a 35.3m² science lab equipped with wet and dry lab facilities; a fleet of Zodiac Milpros; two convertible Special Operations boats; and two submarines with revolving seats and 270-degree windows.

Guests aboard the Octantis are seeking an experience they can't find elsewhere, Marnell said. For example, in mid-April, more than 120 guests on the Octantis gathered in the rain at 7am to watch the release of a biodegradable weather balloon.

“One of the scientists gave a live lecture of what data was going to be collected,” Marnell said.

Travellers have many options for more intellectually rigorous cruise experiences. Chris Heckmann, 37, a structural engineer in Washington, DC, went on an Oceanwide Expeditions cruise to Antarctica, the Falkland Islands and South Georgia Island for his honeymoon.

“We typically take non-relaxing vacations where we want to see as much of the world as possible in the time we have,” Heckmann said. “This cruise fit right into our travel type, though the cost was far more than we usually pay.”

Shruthi Baskaran, a global agricultural expert and food blogger in Seattle, took a polar expedition cruise with Quark Expeditions, selecting it for the level of expertise and access on offer.

“We had incredible excursions led by Antarctica glaciologists and wildlife experts, and even had the opportunity to camp outside one night,” Baskaran said.

“It was truly surreal to see how quiet and undisturbed the area was, and I left with memories to last me a lifetime.”

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