By David G. Molyneaux, editor, TheTravelMavens.com
Ever since the movie "The Bucket List" starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as two terminally ill men taking off on a road trip with a wish list of to-dos before they die, travelers have been busy compiling their own "bucket lists.”
Satisfying these wish lists – things to see and do before you kick the bucket – has become a major marketing strategy for travel companies and cruise lines.
One result is that demand for trips on small cruise ships – ocean-going vessels that can enter exciting tiny ports around the world – are on the upswing, and new expedition ships, built with hulls to break up ice in Antarctica, are joining the fleet.
Lure of the expedition ships
Baby boomers are taking to small ship cruising not only on fancy luxury vessels – such as those of Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas and Silversea – but also on expedition ships operated or chartered by such companies as Abercrombie & Kent, Lindblad, Compagnie du Ponant, Orion, Quark, and Hurtigruten.
Newer expedition ships, such as Ponant’s Le Boreal, above, are bridging much of the elegance gap between the roughing-it style of some older expedition vessels and today’s demand for modern comfy accommodations with fine food (Le Boreal, for instance, has a seriously French menu).
The luxury gap gets even smaller when Abercrombie & Kent charters Le Boreal for four trips to Antarctica this winter, closing the ship’s inside cabins to reduce the passenger load from 264 to 199. That way, every cruiser gets an outside view, and group forays into the ice are more manageable and personal.
“Le Boreal is almost too nice for Antarctica,” said A&K’s U.S. president Scott Wiseman. A&K appeals to travelers who are looking for extra creature comforts as well as the thrill of facing the elements in nature’s chill – as passengers pile onto small rubber boats called Zodiacs to get close.
Luxury is getting where you want to go
Still, the expedition cruising crowd is more interested in where they go than how they go, said Gary Blake, a cruise consultant for Global Voyages Group in Bellevue, Wash.
For these travelers, he said, the definition of luxury is less about elegant material surroundings, and more about the freedom to experience what they want.
An expedition cruise is not a typical cruise, said Blake. The ship is a floating hotel to get passengers where they want to go. The important thing is what passengers get to do when the ship stops.
“This is not necessarily a group of cruisers,” said Blake. “One year the choice may be a cruise to Antarctica, the next a trek to an eco-lodge in the wilderness.”
These expedition travelers tend to be older and relatively well heeled. That latter characteristic is important, because cruising on smaller ships costs much more money than a vacation on a big cruise ship – a trip on a new expedition ship runs as much as $1,000 a day per person.
Such prices can make selling expedition cruises in the United States more difficult than in Europe, said Blake. Many Americans tend to compare prices first, whereas Europeans tend to take into account the experience first, then determine whether they can afford it.
Other vessels in the bucket list business
Princess Cruises, for instance, is promoting a Travel Bucket List of 50 Essential Experiences
Cruise Critic, the top website for interactive conversations among cruisers, oversees a Bucket List forum, where readers share their dream voyages.
Expedition cruisers can be a touchy-feely group. While lecturers aboard such ships as Le Boreal teach passengers how to touch Mother Nature, the ship also pays attention to the eccentricities of its passengers.
Phaola Philogene, a cruise consultant for Ponant, said that some Le Boreal guests thoroughly check out their cabin with the company before they book, asking about the color scheme and even the arrangement of the furniture. They want to know which direction the bed faces.
“It’s all about feng shui,” she said.
Abercrombie & Kent at AbercrombieKent.com
Compagnie du Ponant at ponant.com
Ships of the niche cruise group at nichecruise.com
Small ships of the world at smallshipcruises.com/alltheboats.shtml
David Molyneaux writes a monthly column about cruising for newspapers around the United States. This column appeared in fall, 2011. Molyneaux is editor of TheTravelMavens.com