Australians are notoriously passionate cruisers, so the prolonged delay in opening our shores to international cruising has been agonising, not just for the cruise industry but for eager passengers.
One kind of cruising that was booming before the pandemic and is poised to really get under steam (or under hybrid electric engines) again is small ship expedition cruising.
The pandemic has given people pause to think about how they might travel better. There's a hunger for remoteness, for unspoiled landscapes, but also a new respect for science. More travellers want to have holidays where they can learn and contribute and, in many cases, they want to do this with their families. They've been thinking about travelling less – investing in "trips of a lifetime" rather than frequent, less memorable holidays.
Done responsibly, expedition cruising can be a boon for conservation, turning passengers into champions of the environment, through interaction with onboard scientists and expedition leaders who have a deep knowledge of nature and have forged meaningful relationships with local people and cultures.
Those companies who have specialised in this form of cruising for decades are upping the ante with impressive new ships that can go further than before into remote regions, powered by advanced, more sustainable technologies, and offering creature comforts such as spas and superstar chef helmed restaurants; all unimaginable a decade ago. The idea of "roughing it" has been blown out of the water.
SYLVIA EARLE, AURORA EXPEDITIONS
This 130-140 passenger purpose-built expedition vessel will be the latest addition to Aurora's small fleet when she launches in November 2022. She is named for Dr Earle, the American marine biologist who founded Mission Blue, which is dedicated to protecting the ocean from threats such as climate change and habitat destruction. In tribute to Dr Earle, Aurora has positioned the ship to be an ambassador for the ongoing protection of the planet. Dr Earle herself will lead an expedition in February 2023 which will address the warming climate and loss of ice in the southern polar region – this will truly be a voyage of a lifetime (100 places available after a registration process.) Aurora has recently been certified as a 100 per cent carbon neutral business. Voyage to consider: Spirit of Antarctica, 12 days, 19 November 19, 2022, from $US9916 ($A 13,400). See auroraexpeditions.com.au
LE COMMANDANT CHARCOT, PONANT
French company Ponant has been cruising to polar regions for more than 20 years but never in such splendid style as now with the launch of its new PC2 polar class ship, named for Jean-Baptiste Charcot, the early 20th Century French explorer who mapped the polar regions. The first polar ship to be powered by liquefied natural gas, it has a uniquely shaped hull and new storage technology for greater range, taking it deeper into the polar regions and allowing it to reach destinations earlier than other vessels, in spring, when the ice is spectacular. On board, guests are busy with lectures by glaciologists, geographers and anthropologists, or taking part in scientific discoveries in the wet and dry labs. There's an Alain Ducasse gastronomic restaurant, and Blue Lagoon thermal baths. Voyage to consider: The Weddell Sea and the South Sandwich Islands, 17 nights, March 13, 2022, from $26,490. See au.ponant.com
ROALD AMUNDSEN, HURTIGRUTEN
The first of two hybrid ships to be added to the fleet, this handsome 528-passenger ship is powered by hybrid electricity engines, designed in partnership with Rolls Royce to substantially reduce fuel consumption and emissions. Named for the first person to cross Antarctica, the ship is specifically designed for polar regions. Sophisticated Scandinavian interiors; all cabins are outside, and half of them have private balconies. The core of the onboard experience is a Science Centre featuring state of the art technology, areas for workshops in photography and biology, and a Young Explorers Program for curious kids. Three restaurants, a spa with sauna, an infinity pool and hot tubs, plus an indoor-outdoor observation deck. Voyage to consider: Galapagos islands and National Parks of South America, 17 days, April 4, 2022, from $11,570. See hurtigruten.com.au
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC RESOLUTION, LINDBLAD
Lindblad's newest ship will begin its inaugural Antarctic season in November 2021. A core feature of the 126-guest polar explorer is a distinctive bow that provides fuel efficiency while significantly improving guest comfort in rough seas. It is also built for access deep into polar regions and the ship's expanded fuel and water tanks provide for extended operations in remote areas. Lindblad is a 100 per cent carbon neutral company, free of single use plastics, with sustainable seafood at the heart of its culinary program. Voyage to consider: Land of the Ice Bears: an in-depth exploration of Arctic Svalbard, 10 days, May/June 2022, from $14,990. See au.expeditions.com