Luxury expedition cruises heat up for cold places, cool gadgets

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The Scenic Eclipse will be equipped with helicopters and a submarine.
The Scenic Eclipse will be equipped with helicopters and a submarine.

The expedition cruise market is heating up, particularly on the luxury end, with several new ships coming that offer a full array of James Bond-type toys to play with.

At least six new ships have been ordered this year or are the subjects of letters of intent to build. In addition, Celebrity Cruises has expanded its Xpedition brand for the first time since it was created in 2004, acquiring two new ships that will sail in the Galapagos.

One agent said the orders amounted to an “explosion” of interest in upscale expedition cruising, which until now has been a very small niche.

“To have this much new inventory coming in essentially all at once is just mind-blowing,” said Linda Allen, an adventure cruise specialist at Cruises by Linda in Harrison, Ark.

The trend kicked off when river cruise operator Scenic announced it would build a 228-passenger vessel that it dubbed an “ultraluxury, mega-discovery yacht.” The ship will be the first oceangoing vessel for Scenic, which since 2008 has been a river cruise line.

Called the Scenic Eclipse and scheduled for delivery in 2018, the ship will offer six dining venues, a 5,000-square-foot spa, a variety of hot tubs and pools and a 2,500-square-foot owner’s suite.

Vaulting Eclipse into another league, however, are items most often associated with private yachts owned by billionaires: two helicopters for excursions as well as a seven-seat submarine. A fleet of Zodiacs and kayaks will be onboard along with scuba diving and snorkeling equipment.

Because some of the most lucrative expedition cruises ply Antarctica and other polar regions, the ship will be reinforced to Polar 6 ice travel standards, which allows for summer/autumn operation in medium first-year ice.

Earlier this month, Crystal Cruises unveiled its version of the discovery yacht, which will carry 200 passengers; it will be Polar 6 rated and will have two helicopters. But in addition, it will feature a second submarine.

The two ships are scheduled to make their debuts within days of each other in August 2018, the Eclipse emerging from a shipyard in Croatia, the Endeavor from yards in northern Germany.

The Crystal Endeavor will be equipped for polar cruising. It will have two helicopters.
The Crystal Endeavor will be equipped for polar cruising. It will have two helicopters.

Also arriving in 2018 will be the first of four new vessels covered by a letter of intent between a Norwegian shipyard and Ponant, the French-owned luxury expedition line. The ships will carry 184 passengers each and be ice-class-rated, said Navin Sawhney, Ponant’s CEO for the Americas.

In Ponant’s case, the demand came in part from repeat cruisers seeking new experiences. “What we’ve seen is that the general cruise market has a small segment of people who are saying, ‘I’ve been to several places around the world. I want to experience something very different,’” Sawhney said.

In other cases, it’s first-time cruisers who are more oriented toward adventure travel than toward ships.

“There’s a surge, I think, of people looking to build experiences, sort of a migration away from [material] things,” said Sven-Olof Lindblad, president and CEO of Lindblad Expedition Holdings, which is also building two 100-passenger expedition ships for delivery in 2017 and 2018.

Another expedition option in 2017 will be Silversea Cruises’ original ship, the Silver Cloud, which will be converted into an ice-class ship during an extensive refurbishment and added to Silversea’s expedition fleet.

The shipbuilding boom comes in the wake of new owners with deep pockets taking control at Crystal and Ponant and Lindblad Expeditions going public. Lindblad said there’s a lot of capital looking for places to go.

One of the signature destinations for expedition cruising is the Galapagos Islands. Celebrity Xpeditions said earlier this month that it would acquire another operator there: Ocean Adventures and its two ships, the 16-guest catamaran, Athala II, and the 48-guest ship, the Eclipse. Late last year Lindblad agreed to acquire the 96-passenger Via Australis for use in the Galapagos later this year.

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