On expedition cruises, you won't find typical cruise ship-style entertainment or a casino. The focus on Explorer is enrichment.
The daytime lectures are dependent on the day's itinerary and are specifically geared to the cruising region. In Europe, lectures focus on culture and sometimes nature. Topics will typically be advertised in advance. In the Polar regions, lecture topics will cover wildlife, historic expeditions, undersea exploration and climate change, and presentations will vary based on that day's wildlife sightings and landings. Frequently, National Geographic photographers are aboard to host seminars, often dividing the novices from the more advanced photographers with perhaps further separation according to types of cameras. If wildlife is sighted, the naturalists will be out on deck describing the animals and birds and their likely behavior. When animals are close, everyone on deck will fall silent.
In the evening before dinner, naturalists give a recap of the day's events, sometimes including film footage, perhaps taken from an ROV (remotely operated vehicle), which can dive down to 1,000 feet. They'll also outline the next day's possibilities. Passengers can ask questions and share experiences. After dinner, a film may be shown with live narration to introduce it and a Q&A afterwards.
All of the presentations take place in the main lounge, which comfortably seats all passengers. The speakers hold forth from a central podium, and a half dozen plasma screens are set against the surrounding walls, so passengers may be facing every which way yet still be able to see. The lounge has a bar, as well as table service.
On shore excursions in cultural regions -- such as the Baltic or the Mediterranean, where the selection of ports includes both large cities and smaller, less-visited locations -- the transport may be by bus, Zodiac or on foot. Excursions range from a drive from St. Malo to the Normandy beaches where a historian describes the WWII landings to a walk atop the ramparts of Dubrovnik's medieval walls.
In Polar regions, trips ashore are rated according to how much walking there is, as well as the type of terrain. Often, there will be three levels of difficulty and, perhaps, a fourth that is geared to photography. In areas where there are dangerous animals like polar bears, a sighting will mean no going ashore. If the coast is clear, one naturalist in every group will carry a gun, which rarely gets used.
Wildlife sightings are accomplished in multiple ways. Often, the ship itself can get very close to the wildlife, while at other times, passengers, along with a naturalist, ride out in one of the dozen Zodiacs or set off in double kayaks to get a better view. The organization of these outings is tops, and passengers experience little wait time when boarding Zodiacs and kayaks. Passengers are called to the Mud Room in small groups with 15 minutes to spare before disembarking. Time permitting, a walking trip ashore may be combined with an additional kayaking or Zodiac excursion.
At the top of the ship, a long, glass-enclosed space is shared between a lounge with chairs and tables (also used for light lunches) and a library with armchair seating. The books include titles appropriate to the cruising regions, reference books and atlases, and a paperback section that gets added to and subtracted from by the passengers. The atmosphere is bright and cheerful, and when the sun is particularly strong, shades cover the glass ceiling panels.
Internet access is available at four computers on the lowest passenger deck and two more in the observation lounge. One computer station permits passengers to view their photographs and print them out. The per-minute Internet rates drop as low as 40 cents when buying a package. Reception will rent laptop computers for $10 a day, but in many remote locations, there is poor or nonexistent Internet access and no Wi-Fi onboard.
The navigation bridge is considered a public place, and it is a rare occurrence that it is ever closed to passengers. It is not uncommon for as many as 30 or 40 passengers to be present, and the officers are very happy to chat, answer questions, explain the equipment and share information on the detailed charts. Usually, a couple of the naturalist staff are there looking for wildlife through a telescope or binoculars.
The ship's shop, the Global Gallery, has items for sale that are appropriate to the cruising regions, as well as some Inuit arts and crafts objects commissioned exclusively by Lindblad. It also sells the usual logo clothing.
One public room of sorts is the Mud Room, located on the lowest passenger deck, where passengers may store their cold-weather gear -- parkas, hip boots and rain pants -- in lockers. Benches make changing easier.
An elevator serves all decks, but the lowest one is on B Deck, where the medical facility (staffed by a doctor and a nurse) is located.
The decks forward of the bridge are prime viewing spots, and a raised walkway and benches have been added at the bow, as there are often long intervals before getting close to the wildlife. A linear trough provides a place to store extra camera gear.
Explorer has an expanded version of Lindblad's signature luxury wellness spa, which includes a sauna and steam room. Massages and body treatments are also offered at moderate rates. High up on the ship, a windowed fitness center offers bikes, elliptical machines, treadmills and weights -- along with 180-degree views. Deck chairs are available just outside. As this is a small expedition ship, there is neither a pool nor a jogging path.
Lindblad has had much more success attracting families, especially on the wildlife expeditions, than other expedition lines. However, Explorer has no onboard facilities dedicated to kids. Family groups tend to be multigenerational, often with grandparents and grandkids. When a dozen or so children are onboard, separate excursions ashore will be offered just for families or children, depending on their ages. Naturalists may show young cruisers how to drive a Zodiac equipped with an outboard motor or gather them for viewing wildlife through a telescope. Onboard, there may be a special kids-only lunch or dinner or photo session.
On cruises specifically geared to families, more frequent kid-friendly activities will be offered in conjunction with National Geographic Kids Magazine.
Still, as there are no separate public rooms for small children or teenagers, children must be comfortable in adult company and the confining nature of a small ship.
* May require additional fees