There’s a world of adventure out there on small ship cruises, taking curious travelers to once-in-a-lifetime destinations that stretch from the Spice Islands in Indonesia and the jungles of Borneo, to the crystal-clear inland waterways of Southeast Alaska and the breathtaking snow-filled and glacial environments of Antarctica.
And probably nothing illustrates the popularity of that kind of travel more than the incredible growth of Orion Expedition Cruises, a small ship adventure company that launched in 2004 and is already adding its second ship to its inventory in May, with itineraries that stretch from the Russian Far East’s Ring of Fire; Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia; and Borneo, to New Zealand and sub-Antarctic Islands; Papua New Guinea’s ancient and primitive cultures; and Australia’s Kimberley region and the Antarctic continent.
“Since we launched the company in 2004, the growth has been great and we’re taking delivery of our second vessel in May, so it’s been terrific growth for us,” explains Serena Bratton, founder and president of Orion Expedition Cruises. “And now, having the second ship, it’s enabled us to expand into more of these other destinations because we’ve got such a strong repeat business; 35 percent of our business over a year is repeat for us. So we were at the stage where we had to ensure that we wouldn’t lose business to other operators because they’ve been wanting new destinations, so we now have demand for our cruising business all around.”
The company’s varied itineraries are seasonal, with the “Down Under” summer season of December to February featuring Antarctica and New Zealand and sub-Antarctic Islands, March and April focused on the remote and unspoiled parts of Papua New Guinea and Melanesia, and with April to September reserved for the Kimberley and Arnhem Land in Australia. In July of this year, you can book the exotic Spice Islands leaving from Darwin and visiting Kisar (Maluku), Alor, Maumere (Flores), Komodo, East and West Sumba, Savu, Rote and back to Darwin. Starting Aug. 21, you can select from seven voyages to the exotic island of Borneo through to January 2012, while October and November is reserved for a return to Papua New Guinea and Australia’s East & South Coasts.
But it’s important to note that these are not softball adventure cruises. There are activities every day that include visits to remote villages with their exotic cultures, diving, snorkeling and plenty of other active pursuits. “We oftentimes see where people are a little bit reticent about getting into the Zodiacs thinking they’re not going to be as sturdy as they are. Once they realize that we’ve got all the staff there assisting people getting on and off and they realize how sturdy they are, then they’re absolutely ecstatic over the idea of buzzing along the water on a Zodiac,” Bratton laughs. “That’s something that not many people have had a chance to experience and it’s entirely part of their daily expedition.… That’s where you’re taking them to land on a beach or to land on the ice, going up a river or going under a waterfall—whatever you’re doing, it’s probably a unique experience for them.”
And it’s that unique experience that travelers seek out with companies like Orion Expedition Cruises. “I think when there’s such tragic events in the world, it makes one appreciate far more the other cultures that exist around the world and to experience them when and where we can,” Bratton surmises. “Similarly, there’s the wildlife, the wilderness areas, so I think the days of people jumping aboard ships and sitting around drinking their gin and tonics and reading their book—it’s gone. Particularly for people who are very well traveled and are looking for more meaningful and unique experiences, and I think that’s where small ship and certainly expedition cruising has really taken off.” And indeed it has. As of now, in North America alone, she adds, “We’ve got nearly as much bookings for 2012, as we did for nearly all of 2011. We’re very pleased with things here; there’s been tremendous growth in North America.” For rates on these various programs, check online. antarctica with lindblad expeditions
Lindblad Expeditions + National Geographic’s cruises on the Explorer to Antarctica promises what “…might be one of your single, greatest travel adventures of your life,” with naturalists, professional photographers and “ice masters” guiding passengers by kayak, hiking and sharing underwater wonders from the depths of the waters with professional divers who film it all on HD video.