When is a cruise not a cruise?

Adventure and expedition cruising expert, Roderick Eime, explains some differences in the expanding cruise market.

Adventure and expedition cruising expert, Roderick Eime, explains some differences in the expanding cruise market.

Anyone in the travel business knows that cruising is on a rocket and with CLIA Cruise Week just around the corner, all travel marketers and retailers are expecting a further spike in interest from the cruising public.

But before the horde of clambering clients come barging through the door, make sure you know your cruises, because all cruises are not created equal.

When someone says ‘cruise’, chances are they’re dreaming of a deckchair by the pool, a cocktail at hand with all-day dining and Las Vegas style evening shows aboard a superliner with around 2000 passengers.

But that’s just the beginning. We know river cruising is going crazy too, particularly in Europe along the Danube, Rhine and Seine. Even Russia and Portugal are opening to this increasingly popular type of cruising.

But how about adventure and expedition cruising?

Many agents, even experienced ones, can confuse this alternative ‘cruise’ product with the glossy palm trees and white sandy beach variety. The two types of cruising (and their clients) are poles apart – pun intended.

Adventure and expedition cruising is really adventure travel by ship. So it is more likely that your clients will come from the group of people who have already travelled extensively on land and are looking to reach places like Antarctica and the remote Arctic regions that can only accessed ship. Berlitz ratings are almost redundant and it is much more likely the destination that has brought them through the door than any particular ship.

Having said that, many of the high-end cruise companies have branched off with their own separate ‘expedition cruise’ business units. The most recent high-profile example is Silversea who have extended their trademark 5-star service to specially commissioned vessels like Silver Discoverer, Silver Explorer and Silver Galapagos.

MS HANSEATIC in Antarctica-s_KarryOn

Hapag-Lloyd’s Hanseatic is the top-rated vessel according to Berlitz

Hapag-Lloyd, who operate HANSEATIC, the only expedition ship with a Berlitz 5-star rating, have traditionally led this sector but competition from Silversea and others like Ponant and now APT are driving standards up and keeping pricing keen, although this sector will never be cheap.

Expedition cruise pioneer, Lars Eric Lindblad, in Antarctica in the early days of polar cruising - Image: Rod Eime

Expedition cruise pioneer, Lars Eric Lindblad, in Antarctica in the early days of polar cruising

Lindblad Expeditions – National Geographic are considered by many to be the benchmark in terms of delivery of expedition experience. They have a heritage that can be traced back to 1966 when the Lindblad patriarch, Lars Eric, chartered the first passenger ship to Antarctica. Lindblad have recently ventured into the unfamiliar territory (for them) of ‘champagne adventure cruising’ with the recent acquisition of Sarina Bratton’s former ship, Orion (now National Geographic Orion). Keep an eye out for reports on this ship, it’s an exciting development.

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Akademik Ioffe, one of the former Soviet research vessels that pioneered the modern era of expedition cruising

Expedition cruising has come a long way since the first vessels were chartered by entrepreneurial operators in the early 1990s. Many of these were strategic and research ships from the former Soviet Union (with names like Akademik Ioffe, Shokalskiy and Kapitan Khlebnikov) and while they are technically ideal, with superior ice-rating and crewed by seasoned polar mariners, they lacked creature comforts and often carried guests in triple- and quad-share cabins with share facilities. Having said that, they remain popular with expedition purists who find them safe, sturdy and reliable. Look to operators like One Ocean, Aurora and Heritage Expeditions for these true adventure vessels in the most remote locations.

Where do you expedition cruise?

Expedition and adventure cruising locations are available on every continent of the planet and are not confined to just the polar regions.

The Russian Far East (aka Siberia) has had ship visits from the more adventurous cruise lines in the past, but nowadays we’re seeing Silversea, Ponant and Hapag-Lloyd venturing into that ultra-remote space.

True North and Bell Jet Ranger helicopter in the iconic Mitchell Falls - Pic Mark Stothard

True North and Bell Jet Ranger helicopter in the iconic Mitchell Falls – Image: Mark Stothard

Australia’s own Kimberley has been on the expedition map for around 25 years, pioneered by such lines as North Star Cruises (True North), Kimberley Quest, Coral Princess and other smaller vessels. Yes, the global luxury brands have their eye on it too, but I contend the local operators deliver the best product based on their vast local experience.

Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Zealand and the rest of Polynesia are perfectly suited to the smaller vessels that don’t rely on large port infrastructure – or any at all. Although it’s not really big time yet, expect to see more of Indonesia, Borneo and Philippines coming on line soon.

Then there are the mighty rivers of Asia like the Ganges, Brahmaputra (yes, look that one up), Irrawaddy, Mekong (upper and lower) and Chindwin that add a generous dollop of adventure to the comfortable river cruise model. Look to such brands as Pandaw, Heritage Line and now Aqua Expeditions, many of which are chartered by the big names.

And this is just scratching the surface. You can even relive the glory days of sail with lines like Star Clippers and Windstar in the Caribbean or Central America. It’s a big planet.

How do you tell an adventure cruiser?

Once upon a time it was easy to tell an expedition cruiser; nowadays it’s a little more difficult.

When matching clients to cruise lines and ships, keep a Berlitz rating guide handy, but don’t become a slave to it. Berlitz doesn’t rate the quality of the expedition experience which many clients view as the most important part of the voyage.

Let’s say you have a client who has done a couple of big ship trips already and is looking for a more active and/or intellectual experience. For example, more frequent shore excursions, expert guides in remote locations with little or no infrastructure eg Antarctica. They have the wherewithal and still want a luxury cabin, maybe room service, with a dining experience in ‘the manner to which they’ve become accustomed’. Steer these clients toward the likes of Silversea, APT, Ponant or Hapag-Lloyd, all of whom rate 4-star or higher and can be relied upon to deliver a decent expedition product.

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Passengers boarding a Zodiac from a gangway. Can be tricky for older, mobility challenged clients – Image: Rod Eime

Clients who are confident, widely-read, already well-travelled with knowledge of geography, natural history and wildlife will enjoy the immersive experiences offered by operators like Lindblad, One Ocean, Heritage or Aurora. Some of the vessels may be a bit tired with limited creature comforts, yet many clients don’t care about that. But make sure you clarify this.

Beyond this there are dozens and dozens of small ship operators working coastal routes and rivers, all with varying reputations. If your clients haven’t already done their homework, make sure you do yours, because this part of the ‘cruise’ business is a lot more involved than just “inside cabin or outside”? Match your clients to their needs and wishes, not your preferred supplier’s quota.

Do you agree or have anything to add to Rod’s advice?