Expedition cruises put a new spin on luxury sea travel

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Forget infinity pools, couple massages and karaoke parlours; newer luxury ships are focused on scientific discovery. Rather than stopping at the usual crowded European and Caribbean ports, the expedition ships take guests – as well as scientists, historians and naturalists – to places rarely visited by tourists. Subtract the discomforts traditionally associated with research vessels, and expedition vessels attract travelers who may not have considered cruising in the past.

“The expedition segment is currently the fastest growing segment of the cruise industry,” said Robin West, vice president of operations and expedition planning for Seabourn, a luxury cruise line. Until In 2018, few new expedition ships were under construction, West said. But around 45 are expected to be built between 2018 and 2023.

The reason for the increase is a change in regulations by the International Maritime Organization, the United Nations agency responsible for maritime safety. Its Polar Code, which was implemented from January 2017, stipulates that certain ships sailing in Arctic or Antarctic waters must adhere to enhanced safety rules, such as having a specific amount of structural reinforcement to help navigate in thick ice. Many older expedition ships do not meet the new requirements.

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

Expedition cruises, with their adventure-focused off-the-beaten-track itineraries and emphasis on scientific research, were historically undertaken aboard rugged ships lacking amenities such as specialty restaurants, luxurious spas and beds. fluffy, said Colleen McDaniel, editor of the cruise reviewer. Their main purpose was to explore the destination, and guests viewed the ships as a means to an end.

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“With the growth of expedition cruises, we’re starting to see that shift, with new luxury ships joining the industry,” McDaniel said. However, luxury ships can come with a luxury price tag. Packages typically start at a few thousand dollars, but can range up to $20,000 or $30,000, depending on cruise duration and destination, McDaniel said.

So far, those prices don’t seem to have deterred those looking for the luxury adventure. West said 80-90% of Seabourn sailings in 2023 are booked and many new cruisers are curious about expedition vessels. According to Richard Marnell, Viking’s executive vice president of marketing, the company’s only expedition vessel has sold out faster than ships in its regular fleet.

And while expedition cruise lines seem willing to pay for the price hike, they shouldn’t expect those fees to cover the same amenities found on standard cruise ships.

You won’t find mini-golf courses, surf pools, waterslides, concerts, casinos, branded restaurants or Broadway-style entertainment, said Monika Sundem, chief executive of Adventure Life, an agency trip to Missoula, Mt. Instead, in addition to submarines and other small boats such as kayaks designed for deeper exploration, many expedition ships have helicopters, larger observation decks, and educators.

Seabourn’s first purpose-built expedition vessel, Seabourn Venture, set sail on her maiden adventure in July. In his first year, he plans to take guests to the Arctic, Greenland, Iceland, South America, Antarctica and the Amazon. Guests will be accompanied by a 26-person expedition team made up of scientists, historians, naturalists and wildlife experts, and they will have the opportunity to explore shipwrecks via two submarines built on measure and 24 Zodiacs. Although divers regularly dive down to about 120 feet, anything beyond that is relatively unexplored. But submarines can dive up to 1,000 feet below, West said.

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“The idea is that it’s like being in a sci-fi spaceship,” West said, although Seabourn’s sci-fi spaceship comes with leather seats, air conditioning and a audio system. “It’s an incredible experience to dive into a completely new world.”

Viking launched its first expedition ship, Viking Octantis, in January. (Her sister ship, Viking Polaris, is slated to launch in November.) In addition to scientists — cruises can include biologists, geologists, glaciologists and ornithologists — the Octantis packs a range of science gear. It includes a 380 square foot science lab equipped with wet and dry lab facilities; a fleet of Zodiac Milpros; two convertible special operations boats; and two submarines with rotating seats and 270 degree windows.

Guests aboard the Octantis are looking for 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 7 a.m. to watch the release of a biodegradable weather balloon.

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

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

“We usually take non-relaxing vacations where we want to see as many people as possible in the time we have,” Heckmann said. “This cruise was perfect for our type of trip, although the cost was way above what we usually pay.”

Shruthi Baskaran, global agriculture expert and Seattle-based food blogger, went on a polar expedition cruise with Quark Expeditions, selecting it for the level of expertise and access offered.

“We had amazing tours led by Antarctic glaciologists and wildlife experts, and even had the opportunity to camp outdoors one night,” Baskaran said. “It was truly surreal to see how calm and tranquil the area was, and I left with memories that will last me a lifetime.”

Braff is a Chicago-based writer. His website is daniellebraff.com. Find her on Twitter: @daniellebraff.

Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advisories can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s travel health advisories webpage.

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