Adventure cruising, and its almost seamlessly interchangeable appellation, “expedition cruising”, has its roots deep in the human psyche. It stems from our innate desire to inquire, explore and expand the boundaries of our environment whilst deriving intellectual rewards from the experience. Expanding on this, one could name great navigators like Magellan, Cook, La Perouse and Pytheas as some of the best known “adventure cruisers”. Often travelling under the veil of commerce, military expansionism, geography or science, these iconic sailors were driven by a desire to expand their own personal knowledge quite apart from obligations to their respective bankrolling empires.
The 21st Century adventure cruiser is transported in vastly different vessels. Complete with state-of-the-art satellite navigation, first rate medical facilities, gourmet cuisine and comfy bunks, gone are the days of deprivation, scurvy and mythical sea monsters.
Just as cruise travel is enjoying a very healthy resurgence despite the woes of the planet, adventure cruising, as a significant sub-set of the segment, is booming. This assertion is backed up by figures and concurs with findings from studies such as the Cendant Corporation’s ‘The World of Travel in 2020’ where their findings indicate travellers are more and more in search of “experience-driven travel”.
But how do you tell an adventure or expedition cruise from the regular fun-afloat type?
That which separates adventure cruising from the regular, big ship, variety is a number of factors, namely;
- Flexible and adjustable itineraries to take account of changing conditions and opportunities.
- Products driven by destination and experience rather than the allure or cachet of a particular vessel.
- Destinations often have little or no tourism infrastructure and focus on natural, cultural and ecological attractions.
- Smaller, more manoeuvrable vessels able to navigate narrow and shallow waterways inaccessible to regular cruise ships.
- Fewer passengers, enabling operators to better deliver a more personal and fulfilling experience. Typically less than 500, but often as few as just a dozen or so.
- Extensive shore excursion programme, often with several disembarkations per day.
- Cruise staff includes lecturers drawn from academia and science able to impart enriching interpretation during a voyage or shore time.
- Premium pricing.
Products Close to Home
Here is a selection of vessels and itineraries within easy reach of Australia or New Zealand, often by simple domestic airline link.
Orion Expedition Cruises
Orion burst onto the domestic cruise scene amid great fanfare in late 2003. Founder and managing director, Sarina Bratton, brought with her many years of top level cruise industry experience and Orion is an amalgamation of her vision for “people who seek the mental stimulation of new experiences, places and discovery, whilst enjoying the comfort of luxurious surroundings.”
By all accounts, MV Orion is a magnificent vessel, crewed by expert mariners and delivering large ship opulence in a gleaming, compact package. Luxury staterooms, fine dining and extensive onboard facilities like sauna, spa, gymnasium and beauty salon set her distinctly apart from others vying for the “expedition” market.
Whilst extolling the “luxury” aspects of this vessel, some criticism has been heard of Orion’s “delivery” of the shore component. This seems to be confined to earlier, or first time cruises to new destinations, and it appears that aspect of the product is improving dramatically.
Many experienced observers of the cruise industry see Orion as something of a “crossover” product, retaining the glamour and facilities of a big ship whilst pursuing itineraries and destinations usually reserved for smaller, more spartan vessels.
Coral Princess Cruises
Coral Princess Cruises bill themselves as pioneers of Australian expedition cruising, beginning in 1984 with an ex-WWII submarine chaser. Currently the company operates three vessels, with the two year old, full SOLAS Oceanic Princess their flagship.
While the two smaller vessels, Coral Princess I & II stay close to home, operating primarily from the company’s base in Cairns to the Great Barrier Reef, Cape York and to the Kimberley, Oceanic Princess ventures much further afield. Since her launch in early 2004, she has circumnavigated New Zealand and Tasmania, visited Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, the Solomons and spearheaded itineraries in the Kimberley.
While she will never hold a candle to Orion for luxury appointments, she nevertheless acquits herself superbly for the intended purpose, namely close-to-shore expeditions and secluded waterways. Without a stabilisation system, she won’t be offering open sea itineraries.
Her all-Australian crew are an asset and are easily amongst the best of the local operators and the specially designed, purpose-built excursion vessel is launched from a raised platform ensuring all passengers embark and disembark from a stationery position.
North Star Cruises
Western Australia’s own North Star Cruises operate the acclaimed and multi-award-winning True North, launched in just 2005. Replacing the company’s older, smaller vessel, the new, sleek vessel now carries 36 passengers in 18 cabins in three classes and an 18-member, all-Australian crew.
A bit of a slow starter in the market, North Star is now truly hitting its straps, regularly pulling off awards for their signature Kimberley cruises, where their March-September voyages are the benchmark product.
The dynamic young company now offers itineraries in Papua New Guinea in November and December and is considering expanding their operations farther into the South Pacific.
World Heritage Cruises
Based in the idyllic former logging port of Strahan on Tasmania’s rugged west coast, this small ship company is best known for their relaxed buffet day cruises along Macquarie Harbour into the pristine Gordon River. Branching out with a new luxury vessel, MV Discovery in 2005, the century-old family company now offers overnight cruises further up the Gordon River (Wilderness Escape Cruise), 5-day expeditions to remote Port Davey and Bathurst Harbour and, during the harsh Tasmanian winter whilst based in Queensland, to Hervey Bay and Fraser Island with a new 3-night product.
< p class="MsoNormal">Chosen by Princess Mary and Prince Frederick for R&R after her hectic Australian tour, the MV Discovery aims squarely for high yield mainland and in-bound clients and carries just 24 passengers in 12 single class cabins. Equipped with zodiacs for shore excursions, the company also makes a fuss of their premium dining experience.
To the Four Corners …
No coverage of expedition cruising would be complete without mention of this truly pioneering company. Spawned from his father, Lars-Eric Lindblad’s ground-breaking company Lindblad Travel, young Sven-Olaf Lindblad launched Lindblad Expeditions in 1979.
The New York based company operates a fleet of vessels of which the 3100 ton, 110 passenger National Geographic Endeavour is perhaps the best known. She travels, quite literally to all corners of the globe including the South Pacific, Antarctica and the British Isles
Arguably the pre-eminent expedition cruising company in the world, Quark transport passengers to truly iconic destinations like the deepest Antarctic, the Canadian High Arctic, Siberia and even the North Pole. Using a fleet of seven, predominantly Russian vessels including the world record holding icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov and the world’s most powerful icebreaker, Yamal, Quark was founded in 1991 and immediately began breaking records and setting new benchmarks in adventure travel.
This Galapagos specialist operates four vessels, each accommodating just 20 passengers or less. Recently self-accredited as “carbon neutral”, Florida-based ecoventura (aka Galapagos Network) claim to offset their vessels’ carbon output with a variety of projects including reforestation and methane recapture.