A decade ago, many expedition ships were retired ice breakers lacking in creature comforts such as nice staterooms and good food. That situation started to change when some traditional luxury small ship cruise lines and charter operators ordered “luxury expedition ships.” These ships combined their usual cruising features with polar-rated PC6 hulls that could handle ice packs in Antarctica and, hopefully, transit the Northwest Passage unassisted.
Many of the ship designers let their imaginations run wild. They added a helicopter and a mini-submarine; and “garages” that permitted the vessels to launch and retrieve Zodiacs and water toys from inside the ship. Most also supplemented the crew with naturalists, professional photographers, and armed polar bear guards—bringing some guest-crew ratios to almost 1:1.
They also limit the guests to fewer than 250, so that they have sufficient Zodiacs to get all guests ashore at the same time. They also want to guide tours with only 10-12 guests in each group. All this makes for very expensive cruises: Often $900 per night for each person.
According to industry sources, at least 36 new expedition ships are scheduled to sail between now and 2023. Some bear illustrious cruising names such as Crystal, Hapag-Lloyd, Hurtigruten, Paul Gauguin, Ponant, Seabourn, Silversea, Swan Hellenic, and Viking. Others take the name of charter companies or are newly formed.
Most are intended to sail in relatively uncharted waters globally; but a few are “purpose-built” to explore emote sections of Australia, the Asia-Pacific, or the Galapagos.
Some of the most promoted new ships that will sail for the first time in 2021-2022 are the Crystal Endeavor, the Ponant Le Bellot, the Seabourn Venture, and the Silversea Silver Origin. These are ships that travel advisors can be booked now through travel consortia such as Signature, Ensemble, and Virtuoso. Hopefully, we can highlight other ships in future columns.
What distinguishes the new breed of luxury expedition ships is their ability to satisfy passengers in Antarctica or Bar Harbor. The Endeavor has a PC6 polar class hull. It also has a helicopter, a submarine, and all-suite accommodations that are served by a butler. Six restaurants, including a Nobu Japanese dining favorite on Crystal, are included.
She carries 200 guests and 206 crew members, making the passenger/crew ratio less than one percent. When they start sailing in October, they will attempt to combine the best of Crystal’s luxury small ships with burly muscle and a fleet of Zodiacs. Their September 16, 2022, cruise from Montreal to Palm Beach, Florida defines what this ship can be when it’s not sailing in hostile climates. The 14-night cruise starts from $13,499 for an S3 Deluxe Balcony Suite. This works out to $964 pp per day, about the same as what the Seabourn Venture charges.
Ponant Le Ballot
The Ponant Le Ballot is one of five French ships owned by a French billionaire. Its emphasis is also on living well. It doesn’t offer rough-and-ready expedition cruises, opting for exploring new areas where most ships don’t go. The ship has 184 guests and 110 crew members. This makes the guest-to-crew ratio 1.7, that’s a bit higher than other luxury ships.
The ship is the essence of French chic in its cheese, desserts, and pastry offerings; but it provides only one indoor and one outdoor dining venue. It has a garage to launch Zodiacs and water toys. For the remainder of 2021, it is offering 7-night roundtrips from Nice that circumnavigates the island of Corsica—a French insider’s destination.
The prices begin at a surprisingly low $4,540, which is only $645 pp per day. While this is higher than minimum accommodations on most Seabourn and Silversea small ships, it’s low for luxury expedition ships. If you grab this bargain, you might take one of the fall cruises and spend at least another week exploring the French Riviera and the Loire Valley.
The Seabourn Venture is Seabourn’s luxury version of an expedition ship. It carries 264 guests and 120 crew, making the guest/crew ratio a high 2.2. It has a P6 polar hull and a “garage” to easily launch a nd retrieve Zodiacs in foul weather. It also has the restaurants and staterooms of the other Seabourn small ships. Like them, it offers complimentary caviar with chilled Champaign or vodka, whenever you wish.
Early 2022 is spent mainly in Norway, permitting guests to cruise above the Arctic Circle and take photos of the Northern lights. The 12-night, January 6th, cruise leaves Copenhagen and ends in Tromso within the Arctic Circle. Prices start at $10,999 for a V1 Veranda Suite. This makes the cost pp per day $917, about the same price as the smaller Crystal Endeavor.
Silversea Silver Origin
The Silversea Silver Origin is purpose-built for exploring the Galapagos Archipelago off Ecuador. She carries 100 passengers and 90 crew members, making the passenger/crew ratio less than one percent. It does 7-10 night cruises year-round, and uses Zodiacs to get all the passengers “on the hard” (ashore) at the same time.
With one indoor and one outdoor dining area, she doesn’t match the dining attractions of some of the larger expedition ships. Still, she carries guides and naturalists who can get all guests off the vessel for several guided excursions each day. A 10-night cruise on December 12 starts at $15,700, which is $1,570 per night for each person. This price is more than three times the daily price on the Silversea small ship, such as the Silver Muse or Silver Shadow.
Summing It Up
The cruises I’d love to take with my wife are the Crystal Endeavor’s East Coast Cruise and the Ponant Le Ballot cruise around Corsica.
We’ve traveled about a half-dozen times on Crystal and love the dining choices, speakers, and general atmosphere on their cruises. The price is a stretch, but hopefully sales or increased competition will reduce it a bit.
The Ponant Le Ballot’s seems to offer a well-priced cruise experience. The problem is that most of its cruises are only seven nights long. Still, I’ve seen articles in International Living, a magazine for ex-pats, that the small villages of Corsica deserve to be on most travelers’ bucket lists. They say Corsica is like the French Riviera, 100 years ago.
The Seabourn Venture’s cruises to Norway makes me eager to cruise on the ship, but mildly disappointed in this year’s destinations. Our cruise on the Seaborn Ovation to Australia this December was canceled and the remaining cruise destinations didn’t excite us. If they scheduled the Seabourn Venture to explore northern or southern Australia in a year or so, we we might happily give it a try.
The Silversea Silver Origin doesn’t excite us, even though the Galapagos is on our bucket list. The nightly cost is too great. We’re booked on the Silver Shadow in May from Yokohama to Seward, at less than a third the nightly price of the Silver Origin. If the Silver Origin was priced alongside the Crystal and Seabourn offering, we might be more interested.
When the new luxury expedition ships from Atlas, Swan Hellenic, Ritz-Carlton, and other companies are sold through the Signature, Ensemble, and Virtuoso networks—and at least a few travel advisors have traveled on them—I’ll look forward to revisiting this domain once again.
The additional ships should exert downwards pressure on pricing. Hopefully, the luxury expedition ships will be no more than 10-20% above the prices of the small luxury ships. At prices like Ponant’s—$650-750 per night for each person—these ships will sell out in a flash.
Dr. Steve Frankel and his wife have cruised on most of the Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal, Azamara, Oceania, Regent, and Windstar ships. He writes a weekly column, Point-to-Point, for Travel Research Online (TRO) that’s read by more than 80,000 travel advisors and industry leaders. Steve is the founder of Cruises & Cameras Travel Services, LLC. He has been recognized as a “2021 Top Travel Specialist” by Conde Nast Traveler magazine and a “Travel Expert Select “by the Signature Travel Network. His specialties are luxury small-ship cruises and COVID-19 safety measures, and has a doctorate in Educational Research with minors in Marketing and Quantitative Business Analysis. He’s also earned a Certificate in Epidemiology from Johns Hopkins University. Previously, he managed qualitative and quantitative research in the private & public sectors. He’s a member of the Los Angeles Press Club, and has written 13 books and hundreds of articles. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.