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Expedition Ships 2020: Adventure Has Come a Long Way

When I look at the dazzling array of vessels described as “expedition ships,”

I marvel at how much they have changed since I took a trip to Antarctica–a generation ago in cruise industry terms. I sailed on the MS Explorer, (nicknamed “Little Red Ship”), which had been commissioned by Lars-Eric Lindblad, the pioneer of expedition tours. To say that the 100-passenger Explorer was “basic” is an understatement; meals were simple, served at set times at communal tables; cabins were truly simple, with functional beds and dressers nailed to the floor; a small library which held books about Antarctica; “entertainment” consisted of lectures by geologists, ornithologists, etc. Our off-ship adventures consisted of hikes and a swim in Antarctic waters. The Explorer was my idea of what a real expedition ship, especially one bound for Antarctica should be. Sadly, she sank in Antarctica in 2007. Fortunately rescue was nearby, so there was no loss of life.


However, if the Explorer were still sailing today, I think there would be little interest among American consumers. Just as river cruising didn’t take off in the U.S. until the boats became more luxurious, with many amenities, so, too, the expedition cruise didn’t become popular until cruise lines started packaging adventure with such luxuries as fine dining, spas, butlers, submarines and infinity pools.


In addition to luxury, however, the lines dedicated to polar cruising have focused on kicking up the adventure, with such experiences as heli-hiking and heli-skiing.


All these upgrades have made expedition cruising one of the fastest growing segments of the industry. 



Reflecting the luxury trend, Lindblad Expeditions, known more for serious exploration than for frills have added luxury elements to the 126-passenger National Geographic Endurance. Set to debut in January 2020, the line’s first new polar build in 50 years features such luxuries as twin infinity Jacuzzis, saunas with views and a glass-walled yoga studio.


Scenic Eclipse (2019) and Scenic Eclipse II (2020) have the highest passenger ship ice-class ratings and every technical upgrade available, allowing them to take passengers in unparalleled luxury to exotic destinations from the Arctic to Antarctica. 


Hapag-Lloyd has two ships in their new expedition class-Hanseatic Nature (serving the German market) and Hanseatic Inspiration, with a third coming in 2021, the Hanseatic Spirit.


Hurtigruten has two new (almost twin) ships, the 530-passenger MS Roald Amundsen and the MS Fridtjof Nansen, with a third coming in 2021. These vessels are remarkable for being the world’s first hybrid cruise ships-meaning both batteries and fuel power them. (The MS Fridtjof Nansen can sail longer on electric power.) The third ship will be even more sustainable, as it will have an even larger battery pack.


Ponant has two luxury expedition ships-Le Bellot and Le Jacques Cartier–scheduled for delivery in 2020. By 2021, Ponant will have a fleet of 12 luxury vessels sailing the earth’s seas, to such destinations as Antarctica, the Arctic, Alaska, the Amazon and the Northeast Passage.


Windstar’s recently enhanced 312-passenger Star Breeze will sail 22 different itineraries in Alaska, beginning in May 2020. The ship will carry an expedition team of six experts offering locally-inspired lectures to accompany the Signature Expeditions Program, which has itineraries to smaller ports on longer voyages that bring passengers closer to calving glaciers and wildlife


With a debut set for 2020, Crystal Cruises’ first expedition mega-yacht, the 200-passenger all-suite, all-balcony butler-serviced Crystal Endeavor, will be one of the most spacious and most luxurious polar class ships afloat. Her maiden voyage in August, 2020, is a 17-day roundtrip expedition sailing from Japan though the Russian Far East. Other expeditions range from 12 to 22 days and explore destinations in Japan, Australia (the Great Barrier Reef), the Philippines, Indonesia, Borneo-and, of course, Antarctica and the Ross Sea.


Silversea’s purpose-built 144-passenger Silver Explorer expedition ship combines luxury and adventure with 13- to 19-day cruises in Antarctica and Greenland. Also purpose-built: the all-suite 100-passenger destination-specific Silver Origin (arriving in summer 2020), which will be the most luxurious vessel to sail the region. The all-suite, 100-guest Silver Origin will embark on her maiden voyage in July 2020, traveling the Galapagos with itineraries starting at 7-days. 


The line’s 295-passenger Silver Wind, last refurbished in 2018, is scheduled for another major renovation in summer 2020, to strengthen her hull and give her versatility to sail from the Mediterranean to Polar destinations. Noteworthy are some of the grand expeditions that will be sailed in 2021 by the line’s Silversea’s Silver Cloud, last refurbished a couple of years ago. One example: a 52-day exploration of such bucket list destinations as Antarctica, the Chilean fjords, Easter Island, and the exotic South Pacific isles. Another spectacular voyage: the Grand Northern Expedition from Cochin, India to Tromsø, Norway, covering 47 Ports in 15 Countries


To reach the ultra-luxury expedition traveler, Seabourn will launch the Venture in June 2021, with a second sister ship in May 2022. Both ships will be designed and built for diverse environments to PC6 Polar Class standards and will include the modern hardware and technology that will extend the ships’ global deployment and capabilities. 


Arriving in 2021 is SeaDream Yacht Club’s new “no limits’ vessel, the 220-passenger SeaDream Innovation, carrying the same ice class as the new expedition vessels, but designed to offer global deployment and not just access to the polar regions. 


Scheduled to sail in late 2020 is Quark’s Ultramarine, a polar expedition ship that will significantly up the adventure quotient with an unmatched portfolio of off-ship experiences as flightseeing, heli-hiking and heli-skiing.


SunStone’s Infinity-class newbuild, the 146-passenger Ocean Victory is due in October 2020. She is Ice Class 1A, Polar Code ii6 and is being built (in China), with safe return to port, dynamic positioning and zero speed stabilizers. The Victory will be chartered by Victory Cruise Lines to sail Alaska itineraries in the (northern) summers and Albatros Expeditions in winters.


Bottom Line: Clients seeking expedition cruises have more choices than ever, with luxurious accommodations and options, as well as more immersive adventure experiences.

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