When Atlas Ocean Voyages debuted in 2021, the small ship cruise line didn't seem to be able to tell people exactly what kind of experience they were going to have.
Its ships -- the 196-passenger World Navigator, followed by sister World Traveller in 2022, with more to come -- were built as expedition vessels, able to handle cruises to Antarctica and the Arctic. Inclusions, such as free alcoholic drinks, shore excursions and gratuities, and the brand's marketing, seemed targeted to a luxury market. Yet judging by reviews on our site, the onboard experience didn't deliver.
Two years later, that's changed. New management on shore has brought the line a better sense of what exactly Atlas should be: a small ship line that punches above its weight at the poles for a value price (with tips and drinks remaining included). Expedition is seen as the cornerstone of Atlas now; summer voyages in the Mediterranean have been rebranded as "Epicurean Expeditions," complete with guest chefs, wine tastings and an included culinary event on shore.
The course correction seems to be working. In fact, the line has been doing so well that it has placed a third ship, World Voyager, in service for the upcoming Antarctica season -- ahead of schedule. The line is also adding a fly-in option, where guests can skip the Drake Passage.
Here's what we've learned at the experience after a few days onboard World Navigator:
We at Cruise Critic have found that expedition lines often suffer during the off-season, when their small ships -- polar classed and built for adventure -- sail into more traditional ports. They often charge premium prices for an experience that isn't all that different or special from what a regular (and cheaper) cruise line provides.
Atlas has decided to take a foodie focus in the Mediterranean so guests could continue the theme of exploration, President James A. Rodriguez told us. The Epicurean Expeditions feature guest chefs, who give cooking demonstrations, participate in friendly competitions with the staff and lend their flavors to the menu. (What's fun is that they are also at the bar at night, mingling with passengers).
"That brings in the educational component that guests normally get in an expedition-type product in the polar regions," said Rodriguez, whose past cruise tenure has been at Crystal and Oceania. "It brings guests into a more immersive experience in the Med than just a regular cruise itself."
About those guests: As soon as we boarded, we were surprised by how many passengers seemed already settled onboard. Turns out an unusually high number of the 170 guests -- 81 -- on our sailing were on their second or third segment.
The price is the main draw. Atlas has positioned their Mediterranean cruises well, with a special "second guest sails free" sale. There is also a discount of up to 15% off each segment if you buy three, 10% if you buy two. We had one couple tell us that their roundtrip airfare from Newark to Nice was more expensive than their cruise.
And second, Atlas wisely created itineraries that scoop around different ports in the Med, without many repeats and no sea days. Most of the ports are smaller than where you'd stop on a larger cruise ship, making the entire itinerary feel more boutique. Our sailing embarked in Nice, as opposed to the larger cities of Marseilles or the prinicipalty of Monaco. The only time we saw other large cruise ships was in Livorno, the port for Florence and Pisa.
Finally, most guests were very pleased that Atlas includes all alcoholic drinks in the fare, including those in your mini-bar and those that you can order from 24-hour room service. "I don't want to be nickel and dimed," one passenger told me -- and while Atlas doesn't have some of the extras of a true luxury line like Seabourn or Silversea, you do get quite a bit for what you're paying.
On our sailing, World Navigator stopped in a new port every day -- and stayed there for a long time. The ship usually arrived around 8 or 8:30 a.m. daily, and guests didn't have to be back onboard until 10:30 p.m. (In Monaco, we had an overnight stay).
From what we saw, Atlas draws value-oriented passengers who appreciate the lengthy port days -- and who don't have trouble making plans on their own. We haven't been on a Med cruise where so many fellow passengers booked their own train tickets, took Ubers and generally just used the ship as a launching pad for their own adventures.
In Porto Venere, for example, we talked to two sisters who were off the ship as soon as possible, taking a ferry to the northernmost town of the Cinque Terre so they could spend the entire day walking on their own.
We also noticed that the excursions that passengers are taking tend to be the less expensive ones; several of the more interesting offerings that came with a higher price tag, such as truffle hunting in Tuscany, were canceled because not enough people signed up. That told us that the Atlas passenger is more independent and value-focused than perhaps you find on other small ship lines.
Because our sailing was billed as an Epicurean Expedition, two guest chefs -- Bobby Marcotte and Peter Campbell, both of whom have appeared periodically on The Food Network -- were onboard for part of the trip. (On the second half, Top Chef Brazil winner Luciana Berry, who is also on the Bravo show's current season, held court).
The two held a cooking demonstration and tasting in the ship's auditorium one afternoon, creating a version of Campbell's specialty pizza. The activity had a thrown-together quality to it -- there was no mirror above the demo table, so most people in the audience couldn't see what was actually going on -- but the duo had enough witty repartee going on that it didn't matter much.
Specialty menu items from their restaurants were also served in the main dining room one night. These did punch up the offerings a bit; we particularly liked Marcotte's New England bruschetta, a combo of lobster and tomatoes on perfectly crisped bread, and his Osso Bucco pasta.
Not so successful, at least on our sailing, was the complimentary culinary excursion. Billed as "The Joy of Pesto" and described as a tasting/demo, the event in Porto Venere was held on a passenger ferry, that oddly stayed at dock. Again, the space wasn't set up well for anyone who wasn't right in the front row to see, seating was cramped and the resulting atmosphere was decidedly not joyful (a shame, considering both how gorgeous Porto Venere is and how delicious pesto can be).
The poor execution of the event came as a surprise to passengers who had been on the previous sailings, however. I was shown pictures of a wine tasting in a lovely Spanish restaurant and heard tales of a French wine tasting that was lots of fun. So, in this first Med season, your experience could vary.
All in all, we found that the culinary focus did give some structure and consistency to days that otherwise focused on the destination, without any other onboard programming. Atlas has no trivia sessions, no lectures, no shows. That seemed fine with most guests, who kept busy in port during the day and then socialized across tables at dinner or in the lovely Dome lounge at night. But if you're expecting a busier daily schedule, you might be disappointed.
To a passenger, raves about the cabins and bathrooms came up in conversation. The rooms on World Navigator begin at 183 square feet for an oceanview; balcony cabins are a lovely 270 square feet.
Since the ships are new, there are plenty of outlets, both American and European, with USB outlets on one side of the bed, as well as in a desk. Beds are comfy, there's a coffee maker in the room (as well as binoculars), and the mini bar and water are replaced daily. An extra set of drawers would have been welcome, but my friend and I found enough space for our things.
And those showers. Exquisitely tiled, with a seat, body jets and a rainfall shower head, as well as L'Occitane products, the glass-doored showers are among the best we've seen at sea. "I want this shower at home," my plus one remarked. We wondered a bit how the open shelving here might work in Antarctica's Drake Passage, but for our Med cruise, it all worked out fine.
Most meals onboard World Navigator are taken in the main restaurant Porto. It's been hit or miss, although as the Med season chefs have gotten their groove, the quality does seem to improve by the day. We overheard the guest chefs saying that they spent time in the galley answering questions and helping out, although that claim could come with a touch of braggadocio.
The pool grill 7 Aft does double duty as Josper's Grill in the evening. You need reservations and in May, we had to bundle up, as the space has no heat lamps. It's a steakhouse experience where you can order surf and turf and while the meat cuts could have been better, it was nice to have a second dining option. The 7 Aft grill makes outstanding burgers during the afternoon, and there's an always available, serve yourself gelato cart that's perfect on sunny days.
The workhorse of the ship is Paula's Pantry, a coffee shop that also has smoothies and pastries in the morning, cold sandwiches at lunch and the afternoon. This became our favorite spot for a morning flat white (two shots, please) and muffin. If you don't want a grab and go option, the main restaurant has breakfast and lunch buffets, with daily menu items available.
After a week onboard, we'd say that Atlas stacks up favorably to other upscale small ship lines such as Azamara, Windstar, Ponant and SeaDream Yacht Club. At 196 passengers, the Atlas ships carry fewer people than those first three lines, and about double the size of the latter.
World Navigator may be smaller than the four ships that make up the Azamara fleet, but Atlas has the same focus on interesting itineraries and longer stays in smaller ports, at a lower price (and with much newer vessels and more alcohol). Azamara is probably a better choice for people who want a more traditional Med cruise experience, however, with trivia, evening shows and fun deck parties.
We'd give Ponant an edge in food, but the service is much friendlier on Atlas than that French-owned line and you're much more likely to be sailing with fellow North Americans. Atlas also has the only L'Occitane spa at sea, as well as a very large sauna with a view (surprisingly, we saw few people using it during our sailing).
That leaves Windstar and SeaDream. Neither of those lines go to the polar regions and so their ships are better suited for warm weather destinations, with more areas to spread out and sunbathe. Windstar's newly stretched yachts have more restaurant choices, and their sailing ships offer a unique experience. Small-ship cruise line SeaDream also attracts a more luxury minded Champagne and caviar clientele. One advantage that Atlas has over both, however, is that their ships are newer -- and again, the bathrooms onboard are hard to beat.
Whatever your preference may be, it's exciting to see a newish cruise line find its niche and start to draw loyal passengers. Giving people the opportunity to sail a small ship at a lower price, without sacrificing too much in comfort, is good for the industry and may persuade someone to try a cruise who might not have considered it before.
And expect the deals at Atlas to continue, at least until brand recognition grows. "We are the best value in expedition cruising right now, simply because we're new and we're trying to get our name out there," Rodriguez said. "Our intention always is to raise our fares as we go along, as occupancy fills. But at the moment, because of where we are, I think the value compared to what else is out there right now is just extraordinary."