Quark Expeditions is one of the world’s specialists in polar travel, offering small-ship itineraries in Antarctica, Greenland, northern Canada, Norway, Iceland and even the North Pole. Though there are other expedition lines operating in many of these regions, Quark has broken new ground in recent years by introducing unique adventures such as paddleboarding in Antarctica and hot air ballooning at the North Pole.
Cruise Critic recently joined Quark’s “Introduction to Spitsbergen” itinerary, a Svalbard cruise that sails round trip from Longyearbyen, Norway, with a focus on spotting polar bears, walruses, reindeer and other Arctic wildlife. Over eight nights aboard Sea Adventurer, Quark’s oldest vessel, I discovered a few of the qualities that make a Svalbard cruise special — plus a couple of little things that didn’t quite live up to expectations.
Wildlife: Every part of a Svalbard cruise is designed to get passengers as close to the wildlife as possible. When a whale surfaces or a polar bear is spotted in the pack ice, the ship veers off course to get a better look. For a more intimate look, smaller Zodiac boats bring passengers right up to the shoreline for views of nesting puffins or grazing reindeer. In the most incredible moments, the animals came to us — as when a polar bear padded directly across the ice to within about 50 feet of our ship, lifting its sensitive nose to scent us every step of the way. The wildlife is the number one reason that most people book a Svalbard cruise, and it didn’t disappoint.
(For more Arctic Cruise options, read Arctic Cruise Basics).
With three Far East cruises under my (ever-expanding) belt, I’ve come to the conclusion that cruising in this part of the world – as opposed to the well-trafficked Caribbean or Med – draws a certain type of passenger.
That’s not to say that there aren’t differences on each Far East cruise, depending on the line and itinerary. On Holland America’s Zaandam, cruisers tended to be older, and the itinerary was a classic Singapore to Hong Kong route. As you’d expect with Holland America, the feeling was a bit more formal, and the passengers tended to mingle a bit less — although I did meet some fascinating travelers at singles dining tables who had been everywhere.
Aboard Voyage to Antiquity’s Aegean Odyssey, the crowd was far more casual, and uninterested in features like a casino or big production shows, which is good, since those were non-existent aboard this 350-passenger vessel. Rather, these folks were absolute fiends for lectures of any sort — and the ship had plenty of them. On days at sea, it seemed like everyone was parked in a deck chair with a book.
Foodies were at the forefront on my recent Oceania Nautica trip from Tokyo to Hong Kong. Oceania is justifiably known for its cuisine, and loyalists always named it as a major reason for cruising with the line. Passengers fitted the ship’s “country club casual” style, and tended to be more independent, using Cruise Critic Roll Calls to organize their own shore excursions. For its size (just under 700 passengers), Nautica attracted the widest variety of nationalities of any of the three ships.
But what did Far East cruise passengers have in common? Plenty. Here are five types I encountered on every ship.
1. The Seasoned Cruiser
Very few people choose an Asia itinerary for their maiden voyage. Thus, the Seasoned Cruiser, who will let you know — humbly or annoyingly — that they’ve sailed plenty of times before. With prompting, the Good Seasoned Cruiser will give you valuable tips about that Antarctica trip you’ve been dreaming of, or satisfy your curiosity about a Black Sea voyage. The Evil Seasoned Cruiser will drone on, assuming you are a cruise ignoramus, until you manage to escape or nod off in your soup.
I’m currently sailing the St. Lawrence Seaway with Pearl Sea Cruises, a small ship cruise line that made its debut in summer 2014. The company entered the cruise world with one ship, all-balcony 210-passenger Pearl Mist, which promised “luxury adventure.”
I’ve sailed two previous river cruises (including one on Queen of the Mississippi, a boat in Pearl Seas Cruises’ sister fleet American Cruise Lines), so I assumed Pearl Mist would share many similarities with a river cruise. And it did — to a point. Here are my first impressions of the vessel:
Hybrid nature. Like a riverboat, Pearl Mist is small, and the lounges, which are spread across the ship, are comfortable and sometimes downright cozy. Two cruise directors are available to help passengers with their needs, and an onboard expert answers questions about the areas we cruise through. Soft drinks and water are free all day long, with beer and wine offered complimentary at lunch and dinner. Also, as on river cruises, only a limited number of shore excursions is offered (sometimes only one) in each port.
Most of the similarities end there. The clearest difference, though it doesn’t look much different than a river ship, is that Pearl Mist divides its time between the calmer waters of the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence River and wide open coastal waterways of the Atlantic Ocean as it cruises through the Canadian Maritimes, down the U.S. eastern seaboard and into the Caribbean.
From the Cinderella-like disappearance of the once obligatory midnight buffet and lack of lobster to chocolate-free pillows and increased gratuities, any seasoned cruiser is likely to say that life on the ocean isn’t the value it used to be.
While some complain cutbacks have gone too far, the other side of the coin is that more people are being introduced to the world of cruising, thanks to ever-increasing fleets and keenly priced fares to entice passengers onboard. Cruising is no longer, thankfully, the preserve of the wealthy or a once-in-a-lifetime holiday treat.
But do you still believe that a cruise gives you value for money? That is the question posed by Cruise Critic member chromered7: “Given that these message boards are full of reduced portions, less staff, poor quality, customer dissatisfaction, lowering of standards and the growing cost of cruising, does cruising still give you value for money? The methods used by cruise companies to get you on board appear very attractive but when you when you dig down to the small print, are they the real deal?”
It’s certainly struck a chord with some fellow members, who still seem to think a cruise delivers good value. (For more insights, see the ships that were awarded Best Cruise Ships for Value by our readers in 2015 and How to Find the Best Cruise Bargain in 2015).
For the past few months, we here at Cruise Critic have been asking ourselves and our readers: What would YOU do if you ran a cruise line? Apparently British billionaire Richard Branson has the same crowd-sourcing mindset.
At a news conference Tuesday in Miami, Branson and Virgin Cruises president Tom McAlpin said that they wanted potential passengers to leave ideas for the fledgling line on the company’s website. Branson has said that he wants his three ships — set to arrive in 2020, 2021 and 2022 — to have the stylish and design-centric “Virgin touch” seen on his other travel offerings, including airlines and space flights.
Our editors immediately came up with plenty of ideas. Our editor in the UK (where they’ve had some more experience with Sir Richard), Adam Coulter has a laundry list, some of which draws from the company’s airline arm. His wishes include “cool lounges in the terminals with sushi bars, free Champagne and perhaps a hairdresser; free chauffeur service for premium passengers; concerts given by musicians from the Virgin record label; themed decks for families and partiers; helicopter rides and paragliding from the ship; and port stops at Branson’s home base on Necker Island.”
What sounds better than a weeklong Caribbean cruise to a stressed-out, exhausted mom of two? A weeklong Caribbean cruise without the kids! I bet most parents would agree with me that while cruising with little ones can be really fun and creates all sorts of warm memories — my 6-month-old dressed up for Pirate Night, my 2.5-year-old playing on the beach in Hawaii — sometimes you just need a break. So I ditched the kids with dad, called up my friend who lives across the country and we rendezvoused in Miami for a seven-night girlfriend cruise on Carnival Glory.
If you’re tempted to go on a girlfriend cruise, or a romantic getaway with your partner, but are hesitant to take the plunge, let’s explore the difference between my adults-only cruise and my previous cruises with kids. In my experience, the occasional grownup vacation is worth the guilt of leaving family behind.
Here’s what I did with my week on Carnival Glory:
Sleep: When asked, most moms will say the main thing they want in life is sleep (followed by privacy in the bathroom). We went to bed around 1 a.m. most nights and slept in until 9 a.m. That’s eight blissful hours of uninterrupted Z’s. Heaven!
Lie around on a beach: The daytime version of sleep is relaxation, and we did plenty of that. Half Moon Cay was a perfect spot to alternate between camping out on a lounge chair and floating in the crystal-clear warm water. I could even find some Bahamian Zen — rather than worrying about water safety as I chase after two children who can’t swim.
Tip: When you cruise, extras like specialty restaurants, spa treatments and Internet are paid for with a cruise/key card — which you can fund with cash up front or link to your credit or debit card. But did you know you could get “free money” deposited into your onboard account?
It’s called onboard credit, and there are quite a few ways to get it. One is by booking through an individual travel agent or online agency. Most third-party sites offer an average of $100 OBC per cabin, but that varies. Keep in mind: If you work with the same travel agent for every cruise, your OBC is likely to build over time.
Full Article: Read more ways to get onboard credit, and learn how you can spend it.
Want More?: Check out our related links below for more info, tips and advice.
Stay tuned for more Cruise Tips of the Week — revealed every Wednesday!
Like most major cities, each cruise line has its own personality, based on its culture, activities and, of course, people. Below, we’ve made a cruise line comparison that pairs each mainstream line to a city with which it seems to have quite a bit in common. See which line is right for you, based on your favorite city.
Carnival – Miami
Like Miami, Carnival is known for its bright lights, late nights and clubby, lively atmosphere. Its passengers might not all be young, but they’re generally young at heart, making this a great line for anyone who likes to have a great time.
Celebrity – London
Over the centuries, London has managed to strike a balance between historical propriety and trendy vibrancy. Celebrity mimics that vibe well as it mixes an upscale, refined atmosphere with plenty of onboard fun.keep looking »