Choosing the Right Expedition Cruise Vessel

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The growing conundrum of expedition cruise ships

These days, making the decision to book a polar expedition cruise is the easy part. The last three decades have witnessed such a profusion of polar travel companies, expanded regions of operation, and modernized activities that it’s easy to understand why some aspiring passengers are quickly overwhelmed.

For instance, should you go to the Arctic or Antarctica? If you go to the Arctic, is it better to book a aurora borealis trip to Northern Norway or a polar bear special to Svalbard or maybe a Greenland tour of Earth’s largest fjord system? But if you choose Antarctica, should you opt for a Ross Sea helicopter voyage or an Antarctic Peninsula expedition or maybe an activity-heavy Basecamp adventure?

Photo by Toine Hendriks

And don’t even get us started on the sub-Antarctic.

But despite all these choices, few are as vital to your cruise experience as the vessel itself. Large or small, motor- or sail-based, the vessel is your voyage’s home base, its prime vehicle, its central constant. Choose the wrong one and it’ll dampen your whole experience.

So if you’re sure of the trip but not of the ship, this article will make your decision a little easier.

Large vessels = more passengers = compromised landings

Just to be clear from the outset, we don’t recommend any vessel that carries more than 200 passengers.

It’s our longstanding opinion that the point of visiting the polar regions is to visit the polar regions, not the inner or outer decks of a ship – no matter how well-stocked its bar is.

And the larger ships just don’t cut it in this regard.

That’s because the bigger the ship is, the harder it is for all the passengers to actually plant their feet in the terrain they traveled so far to see. Larger ships mean more passengers, and in the polar regions there are strict limitations as to the number of people who can taxi to shore at any one time.

Larger ships also mean larger landing groups, which in turn means more chatter, more snapping cameras, and less serenity in which to enjoy the planet’s most serene environments.

Because if you wanted to be surrounded by tourists, you’d have gone to Paris.

That said, we understand these aren’t deal breakers to everyone, and that’s okay. Your holiday is your holiday. But most people interested in polar tourism aren’t standard tourists, and they certainly aren’t satisfied with simply watching glaciers roll by from behind lounge windows. They want to get to shore, see the wildlife, and feel the crunch of the snow under their boots.

For this, you need to stick to ships with fewer than 200 passengers. Our largest vessel, Hondius, only carries 174, which not only enables it to venture into waterways the larger vessels can’t, but also to respond to weather and wildlife opportunities with greater speed and flexibility.

Photo by Caroline Geelhoed

In other words, if someone spots a pod of whales or colony of penguins or family of polar bears, smaller ships can get you closer to them while the larger ones are still turning around.

But even if we’ve managed to convince you that smaller is better, there’s still another decision to be made: motor vessel or sailing vessel? And since this choice also determines many of the places you visit, it’s every bit as important.

The virtues of sailing vessels (s/v)

Sailing vessels primarily operate in the Arctic, as crossing the Drake Passage from South America to Antarctica is too distant and turbulent a voyage for most of them. This fact in itself may help determine your choice of whether to book an s/v or m/v cruise.

Photo by Katja Riedel

Our two sailing vessels, Noorderlicht and Rembrandt van Rijn, are both historic schooners that only operate in Northern Norway, Svalbard, and in Rembrandt’s case, sometimes northeast Greenland. They use a combination of sail and motor power, employing their sails when the wind is right and their engines the rest of the time.

Photo by Jan Belgers

The voyages these ships make commonly focus on whale watching and viewing the northern lights (aurora borealis), with Northern Norway being the most visited area. They still make our standard twice-daily shore landings, but s/v activities are slightly more limited: Snowshoeing, hiking, and skiing are the most popular.

Noorderlicht carries only 20 people in 10 cabins and has a crew of five, while Rembrandt carries 33 people in 16 cabins and has 12 crew workers. Both vessels are thoroughly renovated, yet they still retain their traditional feel.

In fact, these ships are explicitly geared toward giving passengers an authentic experience of early polar exploration. Guests are even welcome (and often encouraged) to help the crew sail. The lounge areas are also small and cozy, inviting you to make friends with the other passengers.

And in terms of polar serenity, there’s nothing quite like hearing only the wind and creak of the masts as you glide through berg-studded Arctic waters. Though motor vessels offer their own advantages, a traditional sailing vessel truly transports you into another time.

Photo by Daniel Höhne

The advantages of motor vessels (m/v)

Limited only by pack ice and the Arctic shores themselves, smaller motor vessels give you the very best in modern expedition cruising. They’re capable of making the widest range of voyages in the Arctic, Antarctica, and even the sub-Antarctic islands of the Falklands and South Georgia.

The chief benefits of motor vessels are, of course, strength and maneuverability.

Photo by Dietmar Denger

Less reliant on the weather than sailing vessels, m/v cruisers can sail most anywhere pack ice isn’t present. They can also weather the less serious storms, and in the worst case scenario, simply divert to an alternative route.

Moreover, motor ships are capable of carrying all the equipment necessary for greater outdoor activities than any s/v. Mountaineering, kayaking, photo workshops, camping, scuba diving, and with Hondius, even onboard interactive workshops are possible. These supplements make fine additions to the usual polar activities of shoreline walks and Zodiac cruises.

Currently we have three small-scale motor vessels in our fleet: Plancius, Ortelius, and our newly built Hondius. The first two vessels will carry only 108 passengers as of 2020, while Hondius carries 174, as mentioned earlier.

Additionally, Hondius is the world’s first-registered Polar Class 6 expedition cruise ship, making it one of the most advanced polar vessels on the seas.

It goes without saying that even small motor vessels come with disadvantages: minor engine noise, more crowds, and less of an historic nautical atmosphere. But this doesn’t mean your voyage will be lessened by account, and indeed the pros far outweigh the cons for both motor and sailing vessels.

After all, you’ll spend most of your time off the ship anyway, immersed in priceless polar adventures that will make you happy you opted for a smaller ship, whether it’s an s/v or m/v.

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