There was once a time when those looking to take an expedition cruise were left with few choices. Old Soviet-era icebreakers and decommissioned research ships that were pressed into adventure cruise service offered little in the way of creature comforts, and cruisers had to make compromises on everything from accommodations to food to service in order to take part in a once-in-a-lifetime voyage to far-off lands.
Those days are quickly becoming a thing of the past, and at no time has that been more apparent than right now. The next few years will see expedition ships of all shapes and sizes launched, and most will focus primarily on the luxury expedition cruise market.
Gone are the days when adventure cruising meant squeezing into a two-berth shoebox of a cabin; these new ships have accommodations that rival those aboard the latest Caribbean mega liners and features, such as helicopters and submersibles, that only billionaires could have dreamed of having on their yachts.
No fewer than half a dozen companies are building new expedition cruise ships that will debut between now and 2020.
Front-and-center is Norwegian expedition, ferry and cruise line Hurtigruten. Hot on the heels of the deployment of both Fram and Midnatsol in Antarctica this winter, Hurtigruten signed an order for four new expedition ships that can hold 600 guests apiece.
Due to be delivered starting in 2018, these new ships are designed by Rolls-Royce and will be built specifically for sailing the world's remote polar regions, though Hurtigruten notes the vessels can also be adapted for the line's popular Norwegian coastal voyages as needed.
The first two of four ships will be named after two of the most famous Norwegian explorers, Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen.
"This is the largest investment in Hurtigruten's more than 120-year history," says company CEO Daniel Skjeldam. "It is a milestone for us, the Norwegian travel industry and the Norwegian shipyard industry. We are to build the most formidable expedition ships in the world. We are very glad to note that we have both the skills and the facilities to do so here on the Norwegian coast right next to the waters our ships sail every day of the year."
Hamburg-based Hapag-Lloyd Cruises is also building two new luxury expedition cruise ships, but has already had to extend the contract of its existing ship, Hanseatic, due to popular demand. Hanseatic will now sail a variety of German and English-language expedition voyages through September 2018; a full six months longer than expected.
"We are preparing our fleet for the future with our two new expedition ships," says Karl J. Pojer, CEO of Hapag-Lloyd Cruises. "We are very happy to have largely bridged the gap before the launch of the first ship, by extending our charter for the Hanseatic. This is the best decision in terms of both cost-effectiveness and offering availability to our guests."
Hapag-Lloyd's new, as-yet-unnamed ships will replace the smaller Bremen and Hanseatic. Both are designed to be five-star ships that spare no expense, and will be 138 metres (452 feet) long and carry 230 guests.
One vessel will be designated exclusively for the German-speaking market, while the other ship will sail bilingual German and English-language voyages year-round, much like the line's flagship, EUROPA 2.
Other companies are getting in on the expedition ground floor. In 2018, Australian-based tour and river cruise line Scenic will debut its Scenic Eclipse, a 228-guest luxury expedition vessel that looks like a private yacht and carries nifty toys like a pair of helicopters and its own submarine. Not only is this Scenic's first foray into ocean cruising, it's also the company's first luxury expedition product, which will blend the same level of inclusiveness currently found on the line's luxury river cruises.
Scenic Eclipse will feature six onboard dining options. All beverages – including beer, wine and premium spirits – are provided on a complimentary basis, along with all gratuities, excursions ashore, Wi-Fi, and even onboard butler service that pampers guests with a favorable guest-to-staff ratio.
Scenic Eclipse is slated to enter service on August 31, 2018, where she will embark on a series of Mediterranean cruises throughout Europe before launching discovery sailings to the Americas and Antarctica. Voyages to the Norwegian fjords and the Far Arctic are also on-tap.
More expedition news followed in September of 2016, when Ponant announced it would construct four purpose-built luxury expedition ships.
Known collectively as the Ponant Explorers, these four vessels will be purpose-built for expedition cruises to the Arctic, Antarctic, and regions in between. Named after great French explorers, these new quadruplets will be named Le Lapérouse, Le Champlain, Le Bougainville, and Le Kerguelen.
The first two vessels are due to enter service in the summer of 2018, with the remainder to follow during the summer of 2019. To-date, Ponant has taken no less than 35,000 passengers to the polar regions since the cruise line's first expedition in 2000, and these new ships look to continue that legacy.
Crystal Cruises also has made expedition cruising a priority. In 2016, the line made history when it sent the 1,070-guest Crystal Serenity through the fabled Northwest Passage, becoming the largest passenger ship to ever make the transit. The completely sold-out voyage proved to be so popular that Crystal has added another 32-day voyage from Anchorage to New York, via the Northern Canadian pass, for this year.
Crystal is also in the midst of building four brand-new vessels: three 25,000 gross ton expedition ships that will debut between 2019 and 2021, and a massive, 100,000 gross ton luxury expedition cruise ship known as Crystal Exclusive that will set sail in 2022.
All vessels will be equipped with ice-strengthened hulls for expedition cruises to polar regions like the High Arctic and Antarctica, with the smaller lead ship, Crystal Endeavor, will be the world's first purpose-built, Polar Code compliant yacht with a PC6 Polar Class designation. This means Crystal Endeavor will be able to cruise the polar regions during the summer and autumn in medium “first year” ice, typically off-limits to many expedition vessels.
Not every new expedition ship coming out in the next few years is a newbuild. Silversea Cruises is taking a wholly unique approach to its expedition fleet this fall when it converts its first vessel, the 296-guest Silver Cloud, into an ice-strengthened luxury expedition ship that will sail the cold waters of the High Arctic and Antarctica.
The new Silver Cloud Expedition ship will receive a new black livery with red cheat lines to align her to Silversea's expedition fleet, which also includes the Silver Discoverer, Silver Explorer, and Silver Galapagos. Her passenger count will be reduced to just 260 (limited to 200 in polar areas), and she'll benefit from a new fleet of 18 zodiacs, a new observation lounge, an ice-strengthened hull, completely refurbished suites and public areas, and the addition of several new top-of-the-line Silver Suites that measure 50 square meters (538 square feet), including balcony.
Silver Cloud Expedition makes her maiden voyage to Antarctica on November 15, 2017, on a 16-day journey from Buenos Aries to the Antarctic Peninsula. She returns to her winter homeport of Ushuaia on December 1 and begins her first season of polar cruises before sailing for South Africa in March of 2018, en-route to Arctic Svalbard.
Expedition cruises are the ideal vacation choice for the travel connoisseur. Full of unique and unforgettable experiences, these cruises sail to some of the world's most remote and untouched places.
In years' past, travelling to some of these meant making sacrifices in comfort and quality in exchange for an enriching and memorable journey. Today, you can sail to Antarctica and walk among the penguins in a level of comfort that explorers like Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton could not even have imagined in their wildest polar dreams.
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