Expedition Cruising: Best New Ships Fuse Luxury, Adventure And Learning

Expedition cruising has been soaring in popularity. One reason for the growth spurt in this segment of the cruise industry: Since the pandemic, many new and veteran cruisers are increasingly opting for more intimate experiences—on smaller ships with fewer passengers.

Another unique appeal of expedition cruising: If pandemic-wary travelers are skittish about whether or not to cruise at all, they are more likely to throw caution to the wind when seduced by the exotic, once-in-a-lifetime, bucket-list itineraries only available on expedition ships.

Cruise Critic Editors’ Picks Awards adds new expedition cruising category

Each year, Cruise Critic, one of the oldest and most popular online resources for cruise reviews, recognizes the best cruise lines of the year, as chosen by the site’s international team of seasoned cruise experts.

The awards are traditionally bifurcated between ocean and luxury ships, with numerous sub-categories spanning from best new ship, to best dining experience, to best staterooms, best dollar value, and more.

But for the first time, the 2022 list of Cruise Critic Editors’ Picks Awards includes a new category dedicated to expedition ships.

The sheer number of new ships specifically engineered for expedition cruising afford consumers a greater range of choices than ever before. What all these ships and their forebearers share in common is that they are designed to adapt to changing sea and weather conditions, and to safely carry passengers to remote polar destinations and inland canals.

Some recent trends in expedition cruising

Greater luxury

On the newest expedition ships, cruisers don’t have to sacrifice the lavish amenities and creature comforts associated with conventional cruise lines.

“With the substantial growth we’ve seen in the expedition niche, we’re seeing far more luxury options for travelers to consider,” says Colleen McDaniel, Editor-in-Chief of Cruise Critic to examine some of the new trends in expedition cruising.

As just one example, staterooms on the new Swan Hellenic SH Vega, introduced last July, have electric fireplaces.

“Previously, taking an expedition cruise meant you’d be sailing on a much more barebones ship…not necessarily outfitted with the modern luxuries so many travelers have come to appreciate,” she says. “Now you can travel to just about every corner of the world while feeling as though you’re in a five-star hotel.”

For those seeking indulgent pampering on sea days, some expedition ships offer full-service spas and fitness facilities on board. For example, Viking Octantic has a Nordic spa with saunas and a snow grotto, hydrotherapy, room and massage rooms. The expedition ship, launched last February, also has a heated indoor-outdoor swimming area with a retractable dome as well as a fitness center and beauty salon.

Expanded education and enrichment opportunities

Passengers on expedition cruisers are generally intellectually curious, interested in science and the environment, and lifelong learners.

“Many cruisers choose expedition journeys because they want to learn about places and animals in a new, in-depth way,” says McDaniel. “Lectures have long been part of the experience but more lines are giving cruisers immersive, hand-on science experiences.’

“You can participate in labs designed to help you learn about oceans or track weather patterns thanks to onboard weather-balloon releases,” she says. “Plus, underwater cameras provide live looks at what’s happening below the surface.”

Immersive opportunities abound both on the ship and at remote regions. For example, Quark Expeditions offers helicopter-supported adventure options that allow guests to set foot in polar regions where few other humans have walked.

Right-sizing to allow for more specialized expedition teams

“Traditionally, expedition ships have been small with fewer than 100 guests sailing, and on some ships, less than 50,” says McDaniel.

But to allow for a greater number of highly experienced and skilled specialists (think: geologists, biologists, historians, naturalists and more), the industry is increasing the number of passengers (and cabins) on some of the newer expedition ships.

“Size matters,” says McDaniel. “A lot of new ships are falling into the 200-passenger range. The biggest ships right now come from Viking, which has two expedition ships that carry 378 passengers each.”

While still remaining smallish, these ships are able to take advantage of the economy of scale. “The bigger the ship, the more guides you’ll have, ideally with diverse backgrounds and experiences that will help shape the perfect expedition cruise,” she adds.

Emergence of lighter expedition cruises

Not everyone is interested in or able to participate in adrenaline-pumping experiences so another notable trend McDaniel has observed is the emergence of what she calls “lighter expedition experiences.”

In May, American Queen Voyages launched its first expedition cruise, an immersive cruise to Alaska on Ocean Victory. McDaniel notes that this is one of several new cruise lines that offers the true feel of expedition cruising “without the hard work from sunup to sun down.”

And the Expedition Cruise awards go to…

With choices and options in expedition cruising rapidly expanding, the reviews of Cruise Critic Editors (as well as the online community of Cruise Critic members) can be crucial in helping travelers select the best ships and itineraries to suit their individual needs.

Five Cruise Critic global editors sailed on more than 60 cruises over the past year to flesh out the list of their Editors’ Picks in the three categories: ocean, luxury and expedition.

These are their choices in each sub-category of expedition cruising, all based on first-hand experiences on the ships and overall expertise in the industry. They make a great starting point for planning your next adventure.

  • Best New Luxury Ship: Viking Octantis & Viking Polaris
  • Best for Adventure: Quark Expeditions
  • Best Cabins: Seabourn Cruise Line
  • Best Dining: Scenic
  • Best for Light Expedition: American Queen Voyages
  • Best for Luxury: Silversea Expeditions
  • Best Science Offerings: Viking Expeditions
  • Best Service: Scenic
  • Best Value for Money: Hurtigruten Expeditions
  • Best in Alaska: UnCruise Adventures
  • Best in Antarctica: Silversea Expeditions
  • Best in the Arctic: Ponant Cruises
  • Best in the Galapagos: Lindblad Expeditions

To view the full details of all three Cruise Critic categories, visit the 2022 Cruise Critic Editors’ Picks Awards.

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