For some people, "expedition ship" still brings to mind an image of a workhorse vessel navigating ice floes while a captain bellows orders to his crew and passengers huddle for warmth against a gale-force wind.
But that image wouldn't reflect reality, at least not anymore.
Companies that specialize in this niche market readily admit it's all about the destination experience, not the cruise experience, but the promise of arriving there in comfort and style is what keeps affluent, adventure-seeking guests booking their products.
Today's vessels have plush accommodations: spas, gourmet cuisine and fine wines, onboard enrichment programs and, in at least one case, butlers.
Most small ship and expedition lines can claim a global reach, operating in the Arctic, Antarctic and Galapagos and calling at many less-celebrated but culturally significant ports in the Mediterranean, Northern Europe, Asia, the South Pacific and the Far East.
"We feature out-of-the-way ports and onboard naturalists and lecturers, but we do it all with elegance and with a French flair," said Terri Haas, chief commercial officer of Compagnie du Ponant, a Marseille, France-based small-ship line that on April 26 will launch its 264-passenger L'Austral in Marseille.
It's the fifth ship in the fleet and a sister vessel to Le Boreal, which launched about a year ago. Both ships will be deployed to Antarctica next fall, for a series of 10- to 15-night sailings priced from about $4,200 to $6,400 per person. As on other expedition ships, passengers will climb aboard Zodiacs to begin their explorations of the region's fragile environment.
Orion Expedition Cruises will also christen a ship this year. The Sydney-based line operates the 106-passenger Orion I and will add a second ship, Orion II, following a $21 million refurbishment.
Orion II, accommodating 100 guests, is the former Clelia II, which was owned and operated by Great Lakes Cruising of Ann Arbor, Mich.
Sarina Bratton founded Orion Expedition Cruises in 2004 and is managing director of the company. Orion is her second cruise line start-up. In 1997 she founded Norwegian Capricorn Line, a joint venture between Australian interests and Norwegian Cruise Line. It was acquired by Star Cruises in 2000.
"Our interpretation of expedition cruising is a combination of mentally stimulating experiences, often in remote locations rarely visited by others and often completely bypassed by tourism," Bratton said.
"Even though 2009 was a tight year, we managed to generate enough current and forward sales to meet budget and be in a position to commit to our second ship," she added.
Post-recession, Orion's advance bookings are "very strong," Bratton said, and sales for Orion II are "significantly ahead" of her business plan projections, with some expeditions sold out for 2011 and a number nearing capacity. Orion II will sail its maiden voyage, a 24-night cruise, on May 25 from Vancouver to Japan.
A sample 10-night Orion II cruise, Natural Treasures of the Russian Far East, ranges from $6,930 to $13,940 per person for a June departure.
Compagnie du Ponant's Haas said the recession affected her company's plans for L'Austral. That ship and Le Boreal were to have debuted together in early 2010, but the company decided that, mostly due to the economic downturn, it would first roll out Le Boreal and hold back on L'Austral until this year. (Although Le Boreal has been operating for a year, it was never christened in 2010, so it will be officially named next month, too.)
Haas said her company's bookings held steady through the worst of the recession.
"Even though people cut back on long itineraries, we offered shorter options, such as seven-night cruises. In fact, 80% of our itineraries are seven nights," she said.
"Prebooking for L'Austral is off the charts," she added. Compagnie du Ponant began marketing in North America just a year ago, when Le Boreal entered service. "People knew our ships because North American operators had chartered them, but they didn't know our brand."
One of those operators is Abercrombie & Kent, based in Downers Grove, Ill. Bob Simpson, vice president of business development, said the up-market operator chartered Le Boreal last winter in Antarctica and would do so again next December and January.
"We're sold out already for the January cruise, and we expect to be 80% booked for the December cruises by the end of April," he said. "Passengers are typically 55 and up, well educated, highly traveled and with high incomes. We see a lot of hedge fund guys and attorneys. They're adventure seekers who go on safari and stay in luxury lodges. They are not your typical cruise client."
There are two levels of expedition product, Simpson said: "There's cruise only, [meaning] a big, traditional ship that goes to the Antarctic but the passengers don't get off. So there are lines that land people and others that don't."
There's a big difference, Simpson said, between expedition passengers and traditional cruise-ship passengers. "It's a mistake for expedition operators to try and compete against a traditional cruise ship. Expedition ships represent a cruise experience product; we use a ship to deliver an experience."
Simpson predicted small-ship cruising to Antarctica will continue to do well, not only because of the destination's draw but because of an expected reduction in capacity. That's thanks to regulations adopted by the International Maritime Organization that require ships in Antarctic waters to use the lightest and cleanest-burning marine gas oil, effective July 1.
That was great news to Sven Lindblad, the wildlife photographer and founder of New York-based Lindblad Expeditions.
"Some big ships would need major retrofits [to accommodate] light diesel, and I hope that will push them away," he said. "I'd be delighted to see them go. Not everything should be available to everyone. Antarctica sailings should not be part of the mainstream cruise industry."
Lindblad several years ago entered into an alliance with National Geographic that, among other things, enables the organization's scientists and explorers to join Lindblad's cruises, which are operated aboard five ships owned by the company and four that are chartered.
"Expedition cruising is all about personal development, and the people who really want to do this sort of thing consider it an investment and an education," Lindblad said.
Lindblad Expeditions bases two ships year-round in the Galapagos; it's the company's No. 1 destination.
"We bring 6,000 people a year," said Lindblad, the son of adventure travel pioneer Lars-Eric Lindblad, who led some of the first nonscientific groups of travelers to the Galapagos and Antarctica in the mid-1960s.
A 10-day Lindblad cruise in the Galapagos in mid-June ranges from $5,230 to $7,440 per person, double.
According to Lindblad, expedition cruising is a solid niche, but he added, "I'd say 2009 was the worst year for any of us since Sept. 11, 2001."
Last year, he said, was the company's best year, and "2011 is far ahead of 2010."
This year also is shaping up well for Silversea Cruises' expedition vessel, Prince Albert II.
According to Steve Tucker, vice president of field sales for Silversea, expedition customers tend to book much further out.
"They plan ahead. Even for our 2012 voyages," he said, "which were made available for booking last December, the Prince Albert II already is at a much higher occupancy than the other ships." And, he said, guests who book the expedition vessel tend to be about 10 years younger than the typical Silversea guest: 47 vs. 57.
"One thing that differentiates us from everybody else is our butler service, provided in every suite," Tucker said.
The Arctic and Antarctic are the top sellers for the 132-passenger Prince Albert II, but the ship operates across the globe. A 13-night May sailing on Prince Albert II from Leith, Scotland, to Lubeck, Germany, with calls in Denmark and Norway, for example, offers fares from $6,478 per person.
Joe Ewart, vice president of marketing for WMPH Vacations, an agency in Delray Beach, Fla., that specializes in cruises, said he works with a variety of small-ship operators.
"We find that most small-ship cruisers are motivated by the destinations and immersive experiences that are not easily replicated on large ships," Ewart said. "Because the guest is generally well informed in advance of what a small ship does and does not offer compared to larger liners, the satisfaction level is very high, as is the repeat factor." He added, "We believe this market will continue to grow as more soft-adventure enthusiasts discover this niche."