Some background first: my wife and I are retired and in our mid-60's. She's a retired human resources professional and I'm a retired public servant. She's also a professional gardener for a fine dining restaurant. ... Read More
Some background first: my wife and I are retired and in our mid-60's. She's a retired human resources professional and I'm a retired public servant. She's also a professional gardener for a fine dining restaurant. She loves natural science and wildlife preservation and I'm an avid amateur historian. Neither of us are heavy drinkers or partiers although we enjoy a good glass of wine, good food and the companionship of others with similar interests. We're first-time cruisers so we searched for a cruise that we thought would match our personalities and interests. After due diligence we decided that a large cruise ship with thousands of passengers probably wasn't for us for a first cruise, so we chose Lindblad's Canadian Maritimes cruise that circumnavigated Newfoundland aboard the National Geographic Explorer, a smaller ship that accommodates 148 passengers. This was to be our "beta" cruise; we hoped to have a great time and to learn if cruising was a desirable lifestyle choice for us. As you read my review, keep in mind that I have no prior cruising experience so my comments are based on my own subjective conclusions and on thoughts and comments from the very experienced fellow travelers I met aboard the National Geographic Explorer. Your mileage may vary!
The ship: small by cruise standards with a 148-passenger capacity and about 90 officers and crew. Embarkation, orientation and disembarkation were easy, smooth and fast with no complications. Adjusting to the ship's geography is easy and, although the ship is small compared to many cruise ships, it doesn't feel cramped or crowded and one can always find some solitude on a deck if a little time away from a group is desired. We ran into some rougher seas on a few days during our voyage but the ship was pretty stable. I had one experience of sea sickness one day but I was over it in an hour or so. More experienced fellow travelers told me that overall the seas were mild to moderate on this voyage.
Cabin: we were assigned a Category 3 cabin, #317, amidship, starboard side, with a large window. The cabin was well designed and comfortable. The beds were very comfortable with soft comfortable linens. The bathroom was larger than expected with very nice amenities and excellent hot water quantity and pressure. We uncovered the large window at night so awakening to a sea view in the morning was wonderful! There were no power outlets near the beds. The outlets were opposite the beds at the small desk so engineering provided an extension cord to power bedside stuff (I use a CPAP and we had cellphones we wished to keep charged at bedside).
Officers, crew and shipboard experts: absolutely the best I can imagine. All from the Captain to the deckhands were friendly, helpful and knowledgeable. I spent some time on various decks just enjoying the sea views when I’d run into a deckhand performing their duties. Each would invariably smile and offer a friendly “Hello!”, “Good morning!” or “Good Afternoon”, as did every other crew member I encountered. Our room steward, Pilar, was cheerful and pleasant and kept our cabin in perfect order, from squaring away the cabin in the morning to turn-down service at night.
Dining aboard the Explorer is open seating and the number of passengers is small, so the wait staff quickly learned the names and preferences of each passenger no matter where anyone was seated. Not to take anything away from others, but a big thanks to Joel, Lilo and Rosalie who greeted us at every meal with a smile and a personal greeting (and, from Joel, the “automatic” morning and evening double espressos I came to appreciate so much). An experienced long time Lindblad expert told me that the crew and a few officers are Filipino and some are 2nd generation. Apparently Lindblad is a good cruise crew gig and it shows in the high level of personalized service and hospitality.
The onboard historians, naturalists and photographers were excellent, offering lectures about that day’s and upcoming activities that were informative, humorous, lively and entertaining. The experts also hung around the lounge and restaurant and were always available for one-on-one Q & A. I’m not a photographer, but even I hung around for the expert National Geographic photographer seminars. Also a nice expert touch: the daily evening wrapup with undersea videos shot almost every day by the onboard diver/videographer.
Fellow Travelers: we were probably among the youngest travelers aboard, although we did discover one or two couples who were our age or younger. I’d guess that most passengers were about ten years older than us and quite a few were older. Most were from the west coast, east coast and southern US, with one or two couples like us from the midwest. All were experienced cruisers. We didn’t run into anyone who hadn’t cruised several times and many had cruised 12+ times, often with Lindblad. Lindblad cruisers are a dedicated lot!
Don’t let the age thing fool you on a Lindblad expedition cruise. These folks were enthusiastic and tireless, easily boarding Zodiacs and happily hiking past me on daily shore excursions. I did see one or two couples with mobility issues but they were easily accommodated by the crew and guides and were enthusiastic participants along with everyone else, although some activities weren’t designed for the mobility-impaired (and Lindblad’s website is pretty frank about this).
Open seating in the restaurant meant that we had the opportunity to enjoy meals with just about everyone and all were friendly and interesting. Luckily for us, all – and especially the Lindblad veterans – were happy to share their cruising wisdom with us. Because I’m a newbie with no cruising history to draw upon, I’ve incorporated some of their thoughts and comments in this review where I thought appropriate.
Food: Dining takes place in the restaurant and adjacent bistro lounge area, and its an open-seating plan that encourages passengers to meet. Breakfasts and lunches are buffet style with plenty of choices and no delays because the buffet stations are thoughtfully arranged and constantly replenished. Dinners are served at the table. It’s a white linen standard throughout.
The quality of the food was good but frankly the flavor profiles were often bland, especially the soups and broths. My wife and I are experienced fine diners who aren’t afraid of herbs, spices and forward flavors so perhaps our expectations here were a little high. The beef entrees I occasionally selected off the menu were uniformly excellent and perfectly prepared. All selections were served at appropriate temperatures (no warm salads and no cool entrees). The desserts and pastries were delicious!
The standout culinary experience was the day when the ship acquired a boatload of freshly-caught lobster and oysters, straight from the sea to the fishing boat to the Explorer. The oysters were shucked and served in the lounge before dinner after a strenuous day of exploration on shore. A plate of oysters, a pint of Grolsch beer from the bar tap and a view of the sea – it was perfect! Dinner that night featured the fresh lobster which almost everyone ordered and enjoyed. We enjoyed our dinner with a bottle of very good wine ordered from the surprisingly extensive wine list.
Itinerary: our itinerary started at St. Johns, then we circumnavigated Newfoundland in a clockwise direction, ending up back at St. Johns. We stopped at the French territory of St. Pierre & Miquelon, fortress Louisbourg, Baddeck NS, Illes de Madeleine, Gros Morne Provincial Park, St. Anthony, L’Anse Aux Meadows (site of a Viking settlement circa 1000 AD), then down the east coast of Newfoundland to St. Johns. Weather prevented a stop at Twillingate on the east coast of Newfoundland.
Newfoundland’s historic codfishing economy cratered about two decades ago when the codfish stocks collapsed, so Newfoundland is transitioning their economy to tourism and petroleum production. There are still plenty of fishermen (fisherpersons (?), because many are women), but fishing is apparently no longer the bedrock of the economy.
Shore expeditions: this was a short trip and there were shore excursions almost every day. Lindblad’s tariff includes the cost of all shore expeditions so there are no surcharges for daily expeditions.
The shore expeditions were a mixed bag. Lindblad’s apparent modus operandi is to contract with local guides to provide shore expeditions. That means disembarking to busses with local guides at almost every stop. The quality varied. All guides were informative and pleasant, and motoring here and there offered some lovely scenic vistas. Some expeditions, however, were better than others (in our opinion and in the expressed opinions of other more experienced Lindblad cruisers).
For example, the stop at the French territory of St. Pierre & Miquelon was great; lots of historical and cultural information and a charming little town. The next stop the following morning was Fortress Louisbourg, one of the important historical sites that I was particularly anxious to see. We were scheduled to be bussed to Baddeck NS for lunch and an afternoon visit (and to meet up with the repositioned Explorer) so the morning visit to Louisbourg felt rushed.
I should note here that this cruise took place late in the season. Consequently some locations – including Louisbourg – were like ghost towns with few staff (many had apparently been released for the season) and almost no visitors. This became evident at other stops too including Gros Morne Provincial Park, Ille des Madeleine and St. Anthony.
The consensus among many including me was that scheduling was, to put it nicely, unbalanced. Several of us would’ve appreciated more time at Fortress Louisbourg and less time at Baddeck. Baddeck is a lovely community and home to Alexander Graham Bell, whose notable scientific, cultural and humanitarian achievements are overshadowed by his invention of the telephone. A very pleasant schooner expedition in Baddeck harbor enabled passengers to see bald eagles and the Bell estate up close. Despite this, more Louisbourg and less Baddeck would’ve been desirable.
Another stop was Illes des Madeleine, a small island in the gulf. The vistas were interesting but the Island Landscape Tour shore expedition I took consisted of a bus ride and drop-off at a former fishing village whose fishing shacks have been converted into a string of small gift shops by the sea. We were dropped off at the far end of the line of gift shops, the bus repositioned back at the beginning of the line, and we were told to walk back through “town” to the repositioned bus in about an hour, thus ensuring that all would have to walk past each gift shop. If you’re into gift shops, it was heaven. Skeptical guests could construe this as a culture-free trudge through a shopping mall. The other option was a bike tour of the island which, according to those few who participated, was enjoyable despite the rain.
We had a better experience at Gros Morne Provincial Park. We visited a marine research/education station followed by a strenuous but thoroughly enjoyable 5 kilometer hike to an observation point 500 meters up a hill, lead by a very personable and knowledgeable guide. Regarding the marine research/education center: it was interesting and enjoyable, but the director revealed that a) interpretive and research staff had dispersed for the season and weren’t available and b) she herself just learned of our visit that morning and corralled a few staff members to open up the facility for us. It was an experience that would’ve benefited from interactions with interpretive and research staff if they were only there.
The next meaningful stop was L’Anse Aux Meadows, the site of the Viking settlement around 1000 AD. Absolutely great! The museum was fascinating as were the reconstructions of Viking dwellings and workshops, complete with knowledgeable reenactors who explained Viking culture and life. Unlike the Louisbourg expedition, sufficient time was allocated for this expedition.
One really low point: the “Viking Feast” event after the L’Anse Aux Meadows visit. Participants were bussed to a dismal, dark restaurant designed to resemble a Viking long hall. The “feast” consisted of a buffet steam table of shrimp fried rice, moose stew sans any identifiable moose meat and Jig’s Dinner (boiled cabbage, boiled potatoes and very, very few fatty corned beef chunks). At the conclusion I saw that many plates were untouched, a bad sign in food service. Restaurant staff clothed in faux-Viking wear presented an earnest but embarrassingly corny crowd-participation entertainment program. I heard a comment that this was a “Viking minstrel show” with “wretched” food. That might be bit harsh, but it wasn’t far off.
The Explorer then set sail down the east coast of Newfoundland bound for St. Johns. A scheduled stop at Twillingate was cancelled because of weather which gave us a longer day in St. Johns. Lindblad arranged for bus tours of St. Johns which were, for the most part, worthwhile and enjoyable. One bus stop for about two hours was The Rooms, a museum/gallery/meeting space complex. Unfortunately and true to form, parts of the museum were closed as were the galleries (although the gift shop, café and parts of the museum were open). I visited the open portions of the museum (many don’t know of the heroic role Canada played in World Wars I & II) then I struck off on my own for a quick walk around St. Johns while the busses waited for others. Then it was back on the bus to visit Signal Hill and other notable St. Johns sites, then back to the Explorer for dinner, then breakfast and disembarkation the next morning.
Wildlife and flora observation: we expected to see some wildlife but, regrettably, we saw almost none. It was late in the season, so no puffins. We saw a black bear and a few moose at Gros Morne, but they were so distant that they were mere dots on the horizon. My wife was able to pet and feed a tame moose during a separate shore excursion in St. Johns. The only sea life we saw (other than underwater videos) occurred when a crew member spotted a humpback whale. The Captain slowed and turned the ship to maximize this viewing opportunity but the whale failed to cooperate. Only a few caught a very brief glimpse of the whale as it barely broke the surface. We did see quite a bit of interesting flora at Gros Morne and other seaside sites.
Experienced Lindblad travelers commented that this itinerary wasn’t Lindblad’s best and Lindblad’s European, Baja and Alaska itineraries were far better. I have to agree that this itinerary was only mildly interesting with a few strong exceptions. While all Newfoundlanders I met were very friendly, and while all of the local guides were interesting and pleasant, there was the inescapable aura that the itinerary was cobbled together for a late-season cruise with little vetting of the content of local excursion trips.
So – if you’re thinking of visiting Newfoundland, skip this itinerary, fly to St. Johns and rent a car. Want to visit St. Pierre, or Louisbourg, or Illes des Madeleine? Hop a ferry.
Summary: we’re very glad we embarked on this cruise and, despite the weak itinerary, we thoroughly enjoyed the cruise, the ship, the officers and crew and our fellow travelers. Will we cruise again? Probably, and it’ll probably be on Lindblad to Alaska or some other destination. We probably won’t become multi-repeat cruisers like many of our fellow travelers, but Lindblad has set a very high standard for us for shipboard quality and service. Read Less