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Our ultimate guide to expedition cruising

Expedition cruising began in January 1966. Lars-Eric Lindblad took 57 intrepid adventurers on the first ‘citizen explorers’ cruise to Antarctica. Up until that time, the great southern continent had been the domain of pioneering explorers and scientists. In February 1967, he clocked up another first, this time to the Galápagos, and in 1984, led the first tourist expedition through the Northwest Passage. Now in Lindblad Expeditions has sixteen ships, including two PC5 Polar Class icebreakers, conducting 100 itineraries across all seven continents and a strong partnership with National Geographic.

The appetite for expedition cruising is continuing unabated as travellers look to new regions and remote locations. Expedition cruising is an ideal way to reach extraordinary wilderness and undeveloped landscapes, but still travel in comfort. Expedition cruise lines have invested heavily in new and more sophisticated ships that allow guests to enjoy luxury in places that were previously inaccessible or difficult to reach. On an expedition cruise you will learn more about the marine environment, wildlife, climate and remote ecosystems.

a polar bear
© Ophelie Bleunven / Ponant

In the fifth annual Luxury Cruise Awards, 19 Australian cruise and travel industry experts cast their votes on the world’s best luxury expedition cruises.

World’s best luxury expedition ships

1. Silversea Expeditions

Silversea Expeditions takes guests deep into some of the world’s most remote locations while adhering to principles of sustainability and responsible exploration.

Silversea is known for its fleet of elegant ships, and in late 2022, created a ship that was both luxurious and adventurous. Silver Endeavour has one of the highest ice-class ratings in the industry, along with cutting-edge navigation technology and an industryhigh service ratio of one-to-one. Silver Endeavour offers all-suite, ultra-luxury accommodation for up to 220 guests, along with fine dining at restaurants like Il Terrazzino and La Dame, and sublime spaces such as the Observation Lounge and Explorer Lounge. The Otium Spa ensures even pampering is not off the menu.

2. Seabourn

Designed specifically for luxury travellers while boasting all the cruising tech required for Antarctic exploration, Seabourn’s expedition ships are built to master any environment. Travellers looking for a submarine experience should consider sailing on Seabourn Venture, which has two custom-built submarines on board.

3. Ponant

Ponant has 11 ice-rated vessels offering authentic expedition experiences with the high level of onboard luxury and service they are known for. Ponant’s Le Commandant Charcot is the world’s first luxury icebreaker, and the first luxury hybrid electric polar exploration ship powered by liquified natural gas. Not only will the ship take you to rarely visited polar destinations like the geographic North Pole, but you will do it in style. Dine at the first Alain Ducasse restaurant at sea, sit in the Blue Lagoon pools, heated by energy generated by the ship’s propulsion system, and stay in one of 123 suites and staterooms that are exquisitely designed with French flair.

Finalists: Swan Hellenic, True North, Viking Expeditions

Swan Hellenic has three expedition ships, including the SH Diana, launched in 2023 and named after the Ancient Roman goddess of light, the moon, hunting and the wilderness. Propulsion hybrid diesel electric, this PC6 vessel has an expedition laboratory, and an incredible expedition team made up of experts in geology, glaciology, ornithology, marine biology and history.

Viking’s PC6 ships – Viking Octantis, launched in 2021 and Viking Polaris, launched in 2022 – were designed from the hull up for expedition cruising. These ships have submarines that can carry six passengers plus a pilot to explore the undersea world in some of the most beautiful places on Earth. Getting off the ships is easy, with an industry-first in-ship marina. Called The Hangar, it features a slipway that takes vessels into a protected area for guests boarding and disembarking for excursions – protected from the weather. These ships also feature The Science Lab, developed in partnership with the University of Cambridge, where scientists can conduct research with guest interaction encouraged.

Seabourn Venture’s sauna provides stunning vistas
Seabourn Venture’s sauna provides stunning vistas

World’s best four-star expedition ships

1. Quark Expeditions

Pioneering Quark Expeditions’ has the largest fleet of polar-class vessels in the industry. Its ships are suitably equipped for a variety of destinations and provide onboard amenities that appeal to the luxury traveller. But it is the excursions, activities and experiences that set it apart. The newest ship Ultramarine offers all the bells and whistles. Ultramarine has two helicopters that are designed to fly deeper into the polar regions than any other helicopter in its class. These helicopters ensure guests can go further from the ship, for helihiking, ice-sheet landings and more. Ultramarine has an internal Zodiac hangar so its 20 vessels can be utilised quickly for off-ship adventures.

2. Lindblad Expeditions

Lindblad Expeditions seamlessly fuse a sustainable expedition with luxury accommodations. In particular, National Geographic Endurance features a patented X-Bow design that eliminates bow impact to ensure a smooth and quiet ride in all conditions.

=3. Aurora Expeditions

With environmental initiatives informed by partnerships with industry experts and conservation leaders, Aurora Expeditions has always been committed to sustainable tourism. Aurora Expeditions’ impressive ships, Greg Mortimer and Sylvia Earle, were purpose-built and the first in the world to feature the Ulstein X-Bow – cleverly designed to make ocean crossings more comfortable. Sylvia Earle is certified 100 per cent Climate Neutral and also has a fully equipped Citizen Science Centre for guests to broaden their knowledge of the wild places the ship visits.

=3. Hurtigruten Expeditions

Taking adventurous souls to Antarctica, Galapagos, West Africa and many more amazing destinations, Hurtigruten Expeditions has long been a pioneer of sustainable cruising.

Finalists: Antarctica21, Aranui Cruises, Coral Expeditions, UnCruise Adventures

Quark’s Ultramarine glides through icebergs © Michelle Solex
Quark’s Ultramarine glides through icebergs © Michelle Solex

World’s most sustainable expedition cruise lines

Protecting the natural environment is very much a priority and cruise lines are among the pioneers in implementing environmental protections and emission reductions at sea.These cruise lines have a commitment to not only showcasing the amazing destinations they visit but also take high measures to protect them.

Hurtigruten Expeditions

The ships of Hurtigruten’s fleet boast eco-friendly functionality such as hybrid power, heat-recovery systems and cutting-edge hull designs. MS Fridtjof Nansenis is the newest addition and has comfortable cabins with Scandinavian design, three restaurants and a science centre.

Norwegian company Hurtigruten has been sailing the icy waters of Norway since 1895. The sustainable cruise line launched the world’s first hybrid-powered cruise expedition ship – Roald Amundsen – in 2019. Hurtigruten is forging a path towards emission-free travel by 2050 and achieving zero waste by 2030. Hurtigruten’s newest expedition ship, Fridtjof Nansen, has a Science Center, packed with state-of-the-art technology, touch screens and science equipment. Guests can be a ‘citizen scientist’ on a range of onboard programs. Spend time researching the impact of climate change on animal populations and sea ice to better understand migratory patterns of marine life.

Ponant

As the producer of the world’s first luxury hybrid electric polar exploration ship powered by liquified natural gas, Le Commandant Charcot, Ponant continues to uphold its high standards of sustainability.

Fridtjof Nansenis embodies clean cruising © Andrea Klaussner
Fridtjof Nansenis embodies clean cruising © Andrea Klaussner

World’s best luxury operator

Travel Companies that specialise in chartering ships, then add in exclusive offerings.

1. Abercrombie & Kent

Specialising in luxury tours across more than 100 countries on all seven continents, Abercrombie & Kent is a premier travel operator of expedition, river and ocean cruises on the finest vessels in the industry.

2. Tauck

Tauck has been family-owned for 98 years and consistently delivers elevated cruise and tour experiences that take travellers on enriching adventures.

3. Captain’s Choice

Captain’s Choices makes reaching impossible destinations effortless with its excellent selection of ships and itineraries.

Finalists: Latitude 33 Luxury Tours

Live the high life at sea on Ponant, chartered by Abercrombie & Kent © Nicolas Matheus
Live the high life at sea on Ponant, chartered by Abercrombie & Kent © Nicolas Matheus

What is an expedition ship?

An expedition cruise isn’t a standard vacation sailing. An expedition ship is smaller than a traditional ocean cruise ship and is purpose-built for navigating difficult environments, such as the Antarctic. Expedition ships can respond to changing weather quickly, and move more nimbly through difficult routes.

While expedition ships are primarily designed for exploration, the interior of the ship is crafted to ensure guests can relax in comfortable accommodations. Most vessels have cabins with private balconies, and communal spaces that facilitate conversation and the development of a community. Others may have restaurants, spas, gyms, pools and other luxurious features.

What is an expedition cruise?

An expedition cruise is governed by two simple goals: to learn and explore. An expedition cruise takes passengers to remote and pristine destinations, such as Greenland, the Arctic, the fjords of Northern Europe, Costa Rica, the Great Barrier Reef and beyond. These voyages are usually led by conservation, wildlife, science and adventure experts who educate guests on the flora, fauna, geology and culture of their destination through hands-on experiences, tours and wildlife encounters.

What types of excursions and activities happen on expedition cruises?

The types of activities undertaken on expedition cruises are largely dictated by the destination and the cruise line with which you choose to sail. That is, a tropical locale means snorkelling, scuba diving, swimming with whales and stand-up paddleboarding are all on the table. In an icy zone, Zodiac tours, kayaking, or guided tours of a significant site may be more appropriate. Hikes and wildlife watching are other possible inclusions, and some vessels are even equipped with submarines and helicopters.

sea lion on ice
© Morgane Monneret / Ponant

Signature Luxury Travel & Style Luxury Cruise Awards

Read more: 

The world’s best luxury river cruises
The world’s best luxury cruise ships and cruise lines
The world’s most energy-efficient ship

This article originally appeared in volume 46 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style magazine. Subscribe to the latest issue today.

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