As it sails up the Thames in the early morning hours, en route from the Belgian port of Ostend, Le Lapérouse cuts a chic swathe against the backdrop of Tower Bridge.
London’s iconic waterway is an increasingly popular – and undeniably dramatic – way to end an ocean cruise, but Ponant’s new 180-guest expedition ship, which enjoyed its maiden voyage in the summer, is quite unlike the vast majority of liners that take this route. In fact, you could say this is the Lamborghini Countash of cruisers. As I pop aboard for a peek, I’m taken aback by the beautiful reading lounge, with its objets d’art and designer sofas; by the charcoal and white palette that runs through the elegant decks; by Jean-Philippe Nuel’s classy cabins mixing nautical smartness with soft furnishings; and by the extravagant details: menus by Alain Ducasse, macarons by Ladurée and toiletries by Hermès.
But while the boat may resemble a superyacht, it’s designed for something else entirely. Le Lapérouse is the first of a new fleet of six vessels from Ponant that promise to take travellers on once-in-a-lifetime adventures to far-flung locations across the globe – and to do it in some style. Welcome to the brave new world of expedition cruising. Ponant is just one of a growing number of companies that are shaking off traditional associations of overeating and mass appeal on gigantic vessels with smaller, boutique craft. In the process, they’re making this means of travel fashionable again.
The new cruise brigade wants adventure, cultural integrity, and connection with nature, says Lisa Groome, product manager at Elegant Resorts, a cruise specialist. They also want amazing suites, Michelin-starred cuisine and onboard lecturers. “Expedition cruising is growing but people want a luxury product off the beaten track. People know they can have both,” she explains. Le Lapérouse is not the only ship responding to these new expectations. Another is Scenic Eclipse, a much-vaunted discovery yacht, which launches next year. The first ocean cruiser from Australian river brand Scenic, it’s part of a trend of river companies moving ocean-side, and vice versa. Built with 114 suites, as well as a 550m2 spa and an eclectic range of restaurants, it also offers a real sense of adventure, thanks to two helicopters, RIBs and a seven-seater submarine – perfect for journeys to the Arctic and Antarctic.
Crucial to these new offerings is size. “The advantage of more intimate ships is that you get an exclusive experience,” says Liz Jarvis, editor of Cruise International. “There’s usually a higher ratio of staff to guests, so you feel as if you’re sailing on a private yacht. And of course you can sail into smaller ports, right into the heart of a destination.”
As my time on Le Lapérouse revealed, this new breed of vessel conspicuously takes its cues from high-end hotels, with food from big-name chefs and interiors by renowned designers, but it’s not only small ships following the trend. In May, Seabourn Cruises launched its fifth upscale ship, the Seabourn Ovation, with suite-only cabins for up to 600 and a food offering overseen by Thomas Keller. Elsewhere, Viking Cruises packages smart Scandi looks and ambitious itineraries into an all-inclusive tariff. Their new ship, 930-passenger Viking Orion, has a 92-day world cruise scheduled from Auckland to Vancouver starting next February. No wonder top-end hotel groups also recognise an opening in the market. Next year sees the arrival of the first of a three-ship fleet of Ritz-Carlton 298-passenger superyachts with 149 balconied suites, three pools and a spa, upscale restaurants and a panoramic lounge. It all points to a new breed of passenger. “Cruising is seen as an old crusty pastime revolving around dressing for dinner or drunken disco nights,” says Powell Ettinger, who started The Small Cruise Ship Collection five years ago. “But there is another way. It’s not about going on a cruise,” he says, “it’s about it being the only way to get to Papua New Guinea, North Spitsbergen and much of the Amazon.”
The appeal of cruising is, frankly, logical. You get to visit multiple locations without any effort whatsoever, and there’s a satisfying joy that comes with having everything you need for a holiday right there. I once floated the entire length of the Rhine, visiting its cities by just stepping off the gangplank, without even needing to pack a bag. It was magic. Cruising also offers, in a speeded-up, fast-forward world, the possibility of simplicity and slowness. And in some cases, it is simply the only way to reach certain remote places, such as Antarctica – the kind of destination driving the current boom.
That’s not to say that it’s all positive. With such virgin territories now being opened up for business, environmental concerns are being raised in some quarters. But the cruise companies are responding. The launch of Hurtigruten’s 530-guest Roald Amundsen – now put back to May 2019 – will focus on the Arctic and has a hybrid engine design, and Ponant has ordered the first electric hybrid cruise icebreaker for 2021, powered by liquefied natural gas (sample destination: the geographic North Pole). Old-school cruisers are on board too. Carnival has two new 180,000-ton ships on order that will run on liquefied natural gas, while Celebrity Cruises has confirmed it is building an all-suite ship called Celebrity Flora to sail in the Galapagos Islands from May 2019 that has green thinking in its DNA. “Celebrity Flora will be one of the most energy-efficient ships of its size in the archipelago, says Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, the company’s president and CEO. “This includes anchorless technology which maintains the ship’s position while protecting the sensitive sea floor. Our environmental efforts also extend to guest suites, with features such as in-room water filtration stations to reduce the need for plastics.”
Sustainable tourism isn’t just about cutting down on fuel, points out Powell Ettinger. “It’s about stopping clients buying coral or other non-sustainable products, providing an income for remote communities and funding for other little visited and sensitive tourist destinations to help preserve their ecosystems.” Sail power, he says, is also making a comeback. “Small ships can visit small ports that are close together without cruising for hours to get from A to B, so use very little fuel.”
With all this talk of new trends, it would be easy to imagine that old-fashioned cruising is in decline, but the opposite is, in fact, true.
“Cruise lines are full to capacity,” says Adam Coulter, UK managing editor of Cruise Critic. “Expedition is the fastest-growing sector, but cruising generally is getting a lot more interest. Families know they don’t have to stay in one place for two weeks any more.” Indeed, cruises remain terrific value for money and holidaymakers continue to be drawn by the sheer convenience, with no long road trips and tiresome domestic flights.
Knowing this, almost all the big players had a giant cruiser off the blocks this year. Royal Caribbean’s 230,000-ton family-seducing Symphony of the Seas is the biggest yet with capacity for over 5,200. It’s a truly mammoth vessel, more like a floating city with all manner of attractions to keep guests entertained across seven different sectors on board, including Hairspray, the Broadway musical, Laser Tag, a water park, ice skating rink, and climbing wall. Carnival Horizon (big enough for 3,954) hit the seas with a SkyRide, an IMAX cinema and entire Dr Seuss-themed water park (they carry 800,000 kids a year, and want to please them). Norwegian Bliss, built for 4,004, has a racetrack for go-karts, a water park, a rope course and two musicals. There’s the 5,179-guest MSC Seaview; AIDA’s AIDAnova, taking 5,200 passengers; the 2,860-guest Nieuw Statendam from Holland America Line; and more. At least 10 river cruisers have launched, too.
Of course, the big question is: can the market absorb all these new ships? Carnival Cruise Line Senior Vice President of Trade Sales and Marketing Adolfo Perez is bullish: “Considering only 25 per cent of the US population has ever taken a cruise, the industry has only scratched the surface of its potential,” he says.
But there’s still one largely untapped market for cruise companies: the millennial. And in mid-December Celebrity Cruises is going to take it to the next level in a bid to attract this solvent, younger demographic. Celebrity Edge is a 2,900-passenger vessel that has been designed to combine high jinks, giddy fun and luxurious downtime. Their Magic Carpet is a cantilevered platform 13 decks above sea level, creating the ultimate cocktail joint that floats over the vast, glittering ocean; more fun can be had on the vast pool deck or in the rooftop garden. Picky millennial foodies will be sated with 29 culinary venues. But the piece de resistance is the gargantuan, Kelly Hoppen-designed spa. Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, president and CEO of Celebrity Cruises, boasts to Atlas about its girth: “It’s 22,000 square feet (2,043m2), the equivalent of almost four A380 aeroplanes.” It includes a bungee fit area for adrenaline fitness freaks, a crystalarium for new-age healing types and – for those who simply cannot have a hair out of place on their Instagram feed – a Kérastase Institute. Plus, of course, we imagine, a fulsome supply of avocado.