Until relatively recently expedition cruising meant boarding a comfy yet fairly basic ship that was originally designed for another purpose, such as scientific research. Today, travellers can enjoy close-up views of polar bears while sipping a glass of champagne, or tuck into a gourmet dinner after a swim with sea lions. Places that were once the domain of TV nature programmes are within reach of anyone with deep pockets.
The next generation of ships would not look out of place in Monaco’s glamorous harbour. Tough, as well as sumptuous, many convey fewer than 200 passengers, boast spas and plush accommodation and offer fine dining and carry the very latest water toys.
Several ships have extendable platforms to enhance the viewing of sea mammals. All carry rubber inflatable craft for shore landings, and some have helicopters or submarines for swooping over glaciers or seeking rarely-seen sea creatures.
With state-of-the-art technology and innovative hull designs, these vessels can safely sail among the icebergs of the Antarctic or drop anchor off a far-flung tropical island for some paddleboarding or scuba diving. The latest expedition ships are shrinking the world, bringing the far-flung, dramatic or exotic within reach.
Today, it seems, anyone can be Sir David Attenborough.
The one from Thunderbirds
One look at the Greg Mortimer and you would be forgiven for thinking it had emerged from Tracy Island. It’s the ship’s upside-down bow that is so striking; the first time this X-Bow design has been used on a passenger ship. The bow smooths the passage of the ship through choppy waters, specifically the notoriously rough Drake Passage crossing to Antarctica.
Thoughtful features include platforms that pop out of the ship’s sides for closer viewing of whales and icebergs and four exits (instead of the usual two) for departures on the 15 zodiac inflatables. Launching in autumn 2019, the Greg Mortimer will be one of the most stylish ships yet to plough Antarctic water, but the itineraries, which include the remote Franz Josef Islands in the Arctic, should not be overlooked. (auroraexpeditions.com.au)
The other upside-down one
The second ship with an eye-catching X-Bow design will come from Lindblad in early 2020: the 126-guest National Geographic Endurance, named to honour legendary explorer Ernest Shackleton. As well as the revolutionary hull, stabilisers will make choppy journeys even smoother. Company president Sven Lindblad says the ship will be able to visit “off-the-beaten-path Arctic islands”. These include the archipelago of Severnaya Zemlya, where few people have set foot. Full-height windows and 10,000 sq ft of glass will keep guests connected to the view and there will 12 cabins for solo travellers. (expeditions.com)
The one with the whale’s eye view
Few lines are embracing the concept of champagne adventures at sea with more enthusiasm than French line Ponant, whose Le Laperouse is the first of six yacht-style ships. The standout feature is two whale-eye shaped windows, built into an underwater lounge.
Le Laperouse will sail in Northern Europe and the Med as well as more exotic hot and cold destinations such as the Orinoco River and Africa’s Bissagos Islands. French gastronomy and a pool provide cruise-style comforts, while the hydraulic viewing platform and marina deck will appeal to wildlife fans. In 2021 Ponant will be launching the first polar expedition ship capable of reaching the North Pole. (en.ponant.com)
The one with the helicopters and sub
It will seem delightfully incongruous for guests to be enjoying degustation menus or perhaps a massage at the spa, while their vessel nudges through thick Arctic ice. Scenic Eclipse, which makes its debut in January, will have two helicopters and a six-seater sub called Scenic Neptune, which will be perfect for viewing submerged ruins in Greece, colourful reef life in the Caribbean and penguins, seals and walruses in clear polar waters.
With capacity for 228 guests, Eclipse is a larger than many expedition ships, but has 10 places to eat, an indoor pool and sumptuous, all-balcony accommodation. (scenic.co.uk)
The silent-running one
Due to launch next May, the world’s first hybrid-powered expedition vessel, Roald Amundsen, not only looks the part – in its smart black and red livery – but has some clever technology, too. Low emissions were paramount in the build, and the near-silent running of its engines will also avoid disturbing the wildlife.
Scandinavian materials including wood, granite and wool are used extensively for the stylish interiors, but probably the most popular feature will be a two-level, wraparound observation deck above the bow. Passengers will be able to learn more about all manner of nature subjects in the on-board science centre. (hurtigruten.co.uk)
The one that doesn’t drop anchor
Passenger numbers and ship movements are strictly controlled in the Galápagos Islands for good reason – vessels are sailing in one of the planet’s unique habitats.
Launching in May, the handsome Celebrity Flora incorporates a “dynamic positioning system”, which means it can maintain its position without dropping anchor.
The 100-passenger ship features unusual asymmetric balconies at the stern and, depending how deep your pockets are, the two impressive penthouse suites (the largest in the Galapagos) are almost wall-to-wall glass. But even those in the smaller suites can benefit from “infinity balconies” that allow sea views from the bed. (celebritycruises.co.uk)
The one with glass balconies
Glass balconies that “float” above the ocean and a terraced deck for improved wildlife viewing are promised on Hapag-Lloyd’s new Hanseatic Inspiration. Standout facilities include an interactive Ocean Academy for inquisitive travellers.
Kayaks and stand-up paddle boards are carried for mini on-water adventures. Inside, there will be plush cabins, Japanese and Peruvian cuisine and a pool and spa offering massages.
From next autumn Inspiration will take up to 199 passengers on polar expeditions as well as journeys on America’s Great Lakes and in the Amazon, the Caribbean and Europe. (hl-cruises.com)
The one that laughs at ice
The first ship to be launched boasting the highest “ice class” – which means it is untroubled by the thickest floating ice – Oceanwide Expeditions’ new Hondius is designed for maximum flexibility in beautiful, yet hostile, environments.
The 174-guest ship, due in summer 2019, will have a firm expedition focus, but hotel-style accommodation (including six Grand Suites) and novel features that make exploration more comfortable, such as an indoor Zodiac platform, so you don’t have to wait in the cold to board. The Antarctic, South Georgia and the Falklands will be prime targets for the itinerary planners. (oceanwide-expeditions.com)
The one for wine lovers
The launch of the rakish Adventurer by Coral Expeditions next spring could change the face of cruising in North-Western Australia and Papua New Guinea. There is an accent on gastronomy, with an excellent cellar and communal wine table hewn from local stone, plus an open kitchen where passengers can watch chefs prepare dishes using local produce.
Two purpose-built tenders cradled in the back of the ship and six zodiacs will take the 120 passengers on “sea safaris” while a wraparound promenade deck should prove ideal for keeping track of passing whales. (coralexpeditions.com)
The one with Rolls-Royce engines
Rolls-Royce hybrid engines will help meet environmental needs as well as enhance speed on board Quark Expeditions’ new World Explorer, which launches this winter.
Naval architects were consulted on the build, and all of 176 passengers (limited to 144 in the Antarctic) will benefit from deluxe cabins, with a walk-out or Juliet balcony. Elsewhere on board there will be a glass-domed observation lounge, a lounge, pool and sauna and a lecture theatre. Guests will be invited to camp ashore or go paddling on a kayak or stand-up board. (quarkexpeditions.com)
The one you fly to meet
While some wear the Drake Passage (the body of water between South America and Antarctica) as a badge of honour, the choppy crossing is not for everyone. Chilean company Antarctica XXI is among the first to offer a fly-cruise option, flying guests to the snowy continent from Punta Arenas in Chile to join the Magellan Explorer, launching next year. Built in Chile to the latest Polar Code specifications the ship has a forward-facing glass observation lounge, a hi-tech presentation room and a gym and sauna. (antarctica21.com)
The six-star one
You’ll have to wait a little longer to embrace Seabourn’s six-star style in the chilly Arctic, but it could be worth the wait.
The line recently announced two uber-luxe, ice-strengthened expedition ships (the first launching in June 2021), each taking 264 guests in balcony suites. Seabourn’s signature fine-dining and refined but relaxed service will complement the 24 zodiacs and two submarines for off-ship excursions.
Wilderness experts, scientists and historians will also be on board. According to Seabourn president Richard Meadows travellers can expect “authentic yet luxurious expedition adventures in new and amazing destinations few people will ever see.” (seabourn.com)