If your perception of cruising is 5,000 passenger ships with ice skating rinks, water parks, luxury vessels with white glove service and butlers or even the now very popular river cruises, there is an entire additional category that is roughly referred to as expedition and specialty cruising. While not new, the segment is definitely in vogue and this weekend in Las Vegas is the focus of over 2,000 luxury travel advisors who are part of the Virtuoso network of travel agencies.
“Everyone wants to attract a younger clientele, and younger clients want activity. The expedition cruises are hot,” says Tony Huffman, owner of Huffman Travel. He says the market is broader than you might think, adding, “Even our 60 and 70-year-old clients want to go to the Galapagos and want adventure.”
These top sellers of luxury travel have taken over the Bellagio and Aria resorts for what is referred to as Travel Week running through Thursday. They are here to expand their knowledge of what different travel providers are offering. Advisors rotate through 10-minute sessions to get a quick briefing on what’s new, and Forbes.com was invited to listen in.
Here’s what’s hot:
If you want to see the Northern Lights, Hurtigruten is extending its three-year old guarantee that runs from November to March. If you don’t see aurora borealis you get a free cruise. So far the line has never had to pay out. The company, which started life in 1893 with postal ships plying the coast of Norway, has 12 vessels still calling on the same ports with daily departures all year.
Quark Expeditions has been around for 25 years and only does polar travel. It has seven ships, none carrying more than 200 passengers, and in Antarctica, you can get off to camp overnight or go cross country skiing. In 2018 it is adding a purpose built luxury vessel the Quark World Explorer.
While Silversea Cruises may be better know for its ocean going luxury ships, it is celebrating its 10th year of offering expedition cruises by adding a fourth ship in November, the Silver Cloud. Next week, the Cloud will begin its transformation from the main fleet with its hull strengthened, the number of guest accommodations reduced to carry just 200 passengers and the addition of a photo studio to help you create those Instagram moments that make your friends jealous. The company says a typical expedition itinerary takes three years to plan and when it ran a trip to Bangladesh earlier this year the infrastructure there meant it needed an advance team at each stop ahead. It is seeking guests who want expedition travel, but don’t want to forgo luxury.
Ponant is part of the far flung empire of Francois-Henri Pinault whose Kering group includes the likes of the Gucci and Bottega Veneta fashion houses, Swiss watchmaker Ulysses Nardin and Puma athletics. Ponant focuses on “very remote” destinations such as Northern Greenland and Papua New Guinea. The company takes great care in creating new itineraries it says, and before it launches a new journey it makes extensive impact assessments and then studies how it can reduce any impact its ships and guests will have. You’ll snorkel and venture out on zodiacs, easily accessible from a rear sports deck that comes to near water level. Guest safety is paramount, and crew members, guides and naturalists are all trained at Ponant University on everything from first aid to minimizing impact when exploring.
Zegraham Expeditions focuses on rolling out new itineraries each year with 20 small ship voyages and 20 more overland adventures. It ventures to all continents and visits off the beaten track places like Samoa and Tonga. Company executives say its mission goes beyond doing the social sharing thing and wants to make its trips meaningful. Guests on one journey earlier this year were surprised by meeting with the Dalai Lama.
Not all specialty cruising means going to remote islands. Paul Gauguin Cruises offers an alternative to those overwater bungalows and a different way to see the islands of French Polynesia, adding a cultural element to the sun and sand appeal. Its ship visits Huahine, home to more Polynesian archeological sites than anywhere else. Until the early 1900s, there were also human sacrifices performed there, and you will visit sites where they took place, which definitely makes for some interesting cocktail conversation when you get back onboard.
Uncruise Adventures has seven ships taking between 22 and 88 guests to Alaska and offers Inside Passage sailings in April and May before the larger ships get there. It’s a good time to see bears who have just awakened from their winter slumber close to the shore looking for the catch of the day. Some itineraries stay in Glacier Bay for three days, giving time to walk on the glacier, hike and kayak. Down south, it is trying to attract younger and more adventurous travelers to its Columbia and Snake River cruises by adding more challenging hikes, kayaking and paddle boarding. It also offers small ship sailings through the Panama Canal all year.
Aqua Expeditions is featuring Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of Jacques Cousteau, and himself an oceanographic explorer, environmentalist, educator, and film producer. He will accompany four voyages next year, two on the Mekong River and two traveling up the Amazon. Aqua is also adding a photography departure from Phnom Penh in December with Francisco Marin, who will teach guests how he blends artistic treatments from fine art into his photography.
Another niche cruise line is Australis, which promises Gauchos, glaciers and penguins on itineraries between Chile and Argentina from September to April. You’ll visit Cape Horn (over 800 ships have been lost in its environs) and Magellan Island, with its 100,000 tuxedo clad birds. You’ll explore smaller fjords accessible due to its vessel’s 11-foot draft. There’s no WiFi, but with floor to ceiling picture windows you won’t need it, executives say.
Specialty cruising doesn’t mean going to the poles or hinterlands. Abercombie & Kent says it is already offering educational small ship itineraries to Japan and plans to expand the concept next year to Greece.
And for first timers to Europe, U by Uniworld, an offshoot of Uniworld Boutique River Cruises and a sister company to Contiki, a tour operator that specializes in youth travel, will launch two river vessels, Ship A and Ship B next year. The minimum age is 21 years old and the maximum is 45. A play to attract Millennials, the ships will have guest DJs, a disco and mixology classes. Shore excursions will start later and include mountain bikes, rock climbing and brewery tours. The company compares it to a floating W hotel and believes the itineraries spanning from Amsterdam to Budapest and round trips from Paris will appeal to honeymooners as well as groups of friends who haven’t been to Europe but want an easy and cost effective way to pack in as much as possible in seven days. In addition to regular staterooms, there will be studios that sleep up to three and the ability for single passengers to room together.
If you are looking for a yacht-like cruise experience, try Seadream Yacht Club, which helped define the yacht cruise market when it launched 16 years ago with small ships and white glove service. You’ll be served lobster, caviar and champagne on the beach by waiters who wade through the surf with iced buckets of the bubbly and silver platters. Its CEO Bob Lepisto says, “We stay away from the places the big cruise ships go.” Its two vessels spend the summers in Europe and winter in the Caribbean, and in 2019 it will offer cruises between Lisbon and Bordeaux as well as itineraries that are entirely focused on Cuba. He says it’s not unusual for past guests to come back and charter the entire ship for celebrations and family events. Also on the luxe level, fast growing Crystal, which just took delivery of its private Boeing 777 last week and has also entered the river cruise market, will bring its 62-passenger Crystal Esprit yacht along with private submarine back to the Med next year, the line announced here in Las Vegas.
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