What’s all the fuss about expedition cruising anyway?

By Roderick Eime, editor Expedition Cruising (www.expeditioncruising.com)

It’s a question many travellers ask. Is expedition cruising really cruising?

Once upon a time it was easy to tell who the real expedition cruisers were. Dressed up in all their brand name expedition kit, they would hang on for dear life in bucking Zodiacs and sup on rustic Russian fare like borsch and stroganoff in the austere dining room of their repurposed ex-Soviet spy ships.

While this anachronistic vision still exists and the liberated ‘research’ vessels of the ex-USSR are still popular in purist circles, the face of adventure cruising is changing rapidly. Even though there has always been a parallel, softer and luxurious option for those who demand the finer things, this form of ‘champagne adventure’ is quickly becoming the norm as new vessels and operators join the market in ever-increasing numbers.

Russian-flagged ex-Soviet ‘research’ vessel, Akademik Sergey Vavilov, at anchor in South Georgia in 1998 (R Eime)

Traditionally there has been a great divide between expedition travellers and regular cruisers with the former looking down their frostbitten noses at the languid deckchair and cocktail set. But the extraordinary growth in this market segment proves beyond a doubt that the more intrepid adventurers among us are seeking out the smaller, ice-qualified vessels to reach the destination of their dreams.

Small ships go places big ships just cannot. Their compact size and passenger numbers mean these special vessels can visit places with little or no infrastructure and do so without overwhelming fragile ecosystems or smothering tiny communities.

Antarctica, or more specifically, the Antarctic Peninsula to the immediate south of South America, is often the expedition cruise debut for many small ship aficionados. With more ships than ever now venturing across the legendary Drake Passage to the islands, glaciers and ice floes of the Great South, passengers are finding themselves smitten by the experience of sailing to and going ashore at these remote locations.

Expeditioners on Antarctic Zodiac excursion (One Ocean Expeditions)

This polar affliction quite often translates to a burning desire to seek out similar locations around the world. Tiny tropical outposts, mysterious jungle rivers and islands with endangered wildlife and vanishing cultures rise up on the horizon for the growing number of repeat adventurers.

In the recent past, it has been the destination that has driven these new age explorers. Whether on foot, canoe or small ship, it has been the specific allure of each location that has drawn visitors. Nowadays, as new players enter the market, it is possible to explore much of the known (and some parts unknown) world while maintaining loyalty to a particular cruise line or even ship as it traverses the planet’s special places.

Artist’s impression of the Crystal Endeavor, due to enter service in August 2020 (Crystal Cruises)

Even so, if you are enamoured to the massive, resort ship experience with casinos, Las Vegas-style shows and midnight buffets, then this type of travel is probably not for you. If, on the other hand, you long for the wide open empty spaces, seeing animals in their natural habitat and the Earth in all its primordial glory, expedition cruising may just be your ticket.


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