A spirit of adventure and the desire to go where big ships can't is driving the popularity of expedition cruising, writes Kendall Hill.
The arrival of P&O's 1900-passenger ship Pacific Dawn in Papua New Guinea in November signalled a significant new chapter in cruising. Once only doughty expeditioners dared explore this most exotic and untamed region; now it's possible to visit such remote ports as the Trobriand Islands on a Renzo Piano-designed vessel, with live entertainment and a Luke Mangan restaurant. What is the world coming to?
Adventure, that's what. It seems everyone is aching for a little excitement in their holiday lives and this desire is driving the popularity of expedition cruising, a mini-boom within the behemoth cruise industry. While Pacific Dawn's foray into the wilderness does not strictly qualify, it's a telling example of the way intrepid ocean touring is seeping into the mainstream.
True expedition ships require an expert crew, a passion for exploration and a working knowledge of Zodiacs - not the star signs but the rigid inflatable dinghies used to transport passengers into otherwise inaccessible corners of the planet. Expedition cruising is all about Zodiacs. And élite cruising is, increasingly, all about expeditioning.
Luxe Italian cruise line Silversea is leading the new-wave adventure armada. Its fleet of eight includes three expedition vessels. The 132-passenger polar ship Silver Explorer débuted in 2008 (as Prince Albert II). It sparked such a flurry of interest among well-heeled adventurers that the company last year bought the 100-passenger Galapagos Explorer II and, after an extensive refurb to suitably Silversea standards - marble bathrooms, custom-made mattresses, WiFi, - the vessel débuted in September as Silver Galapagos. It will be based in the region, offering year-round island cruising on week-long itineraries.
In March, Silversea will launch Silver Discoverer, a 128-passenger vessel with swimming pool, gym, beauty salon, two restaurants, 12 Zodiacs and a glass-bottomed boat. Accommodation will range from 17-square-metre cabins with viewing windows to the 40-square-metre Medallion Suite with private verandah. Regardless of room category, Silversea provides Champagne on request for the all-inclusive price.
Silver Discoverer will capitalise on the booming Australasian cruise market - it will be based in the Asia-Pacific region year-round with three months in Australian waters. Regional itinerary highlights include an 11-day Kimberley cruise and a 17-day voyage to lesser-visited Indonesian islands including Komodo and Flores.
Upmarket operator Seabourn has also entered the expedition market with its 450-passenger, two-year-old Seabourn Quest, which set sail on its début voyage to Antarctica on 20 November, equipped with the largest luxe spa at sea (and four new penthouse spa suites), dégustation dining and casino. It also carries a fleet of 10 Zodiacs for Antarctic landings. Seabourn will offer six Antarctic options in 2014, from 21-day Antarctica and Patagonia voyages between Valparaiso and Buenos Aires, and an epic 41-day South America and Antarctica Exploration departing Manaus in Brazil.
Boutique Amazon line Aqua Expeditions is scheduled to launch on the Mekong in September with the new, 20-suite Aqua Mekong. Three-, four- and seven-night cruises on this sleek riverboat will begin with sundowners on the deck (overlooking Ho Chi Minh City or Phnom Penh) before sailing to Siem Reap via isolated fishing villages, Buddhist temples and flooded forests.
Given the new competition from Silversea on home turf, WA-based operator North Star Cruises will upgrade its offerings this year with a new itinerary on its 36-passenger, helicopter-equipped vessel True North. The 10-night Wet Season Adventure will sail the Kimberley coastline just after the wet season to view the waterfalls at their most impressive.
Meanwhile, homegrown success Orion has been bought by US-owned Lindblad Expeditions, which cruises in partnership with the National Geographic Society. The 102-passenger ship, which introduced Australians to high-end expedition cruising in 2004, will set sail from March as National Geographic Orion.
While its popular Kimberley and Antarctic cruises remain the backbone of annual itineraries, the ship will chart new waters with inaugural visits to Fiji, Tahiti and Easter Island. It joins a Lindblad fleet of 10 expedition ships visiting seven continents on more than 40 itineraries. The Orion is currently in dry dock in Singapore for renovations, including the addition of serious new expedition kit, including scuba gear for 24 passengers, underwater camera and new kayaking equipment. Anchors aweigh.
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