(11:15 a.m. EDT) -- When Scenic debuted its luxury expedition yachts in 2019, the sleek look of the ship Scenic Eclipse immediately turned heads.
The 228-passenger vessel, along with its almost-twin Scenic Eclipse II, which launched in June 2023, bills itself as a yacht -- and unlike most other cruise ships that do so -- it actually looks like one. With a curved black and white silhouette and equipped with two helicopters, the ships evoke the sexy state-of-the-art vessel that a James Bond villain might own.
But we at Cruise Critic did wonder, would the two ships be susceptible to style over substance? How would they actually perform in the polar regions? After all, the ship's decor, with its dark black and gray boutique hotel feel, eschews the typical explorer and wildlife motifs you find on most expedition vessels. Outer deck space also didn't seem to be a priority.
After a few days onboard Scenic Eclipse II, on a 12-day "Iceland and Greenland Explorer" cruise that began in Reykjavik and is concentrating mostly on the world's largest island, we're happy to admit we're wrong. The ship's expedition experience is among the best that we've had in our cruise career.
And that's not just attributable to weather, although we've been lucky to have clear sunny days and access to landings, something that doesn't always happen in Greenland. A good expedition team sets the tone for an adventure cruise, and their attitude and accessibility can make or break your trip.
Here are some of the things that we believe set the expedition experience apart on Scenic Eclipse II.
On some ships, the guides can keep to themselves and talk to guests reluctantly; you feel like you're bothering them if you ask a question. We knew that wouldn't be the case on Scenic Eclipse II as soon as our sailaway from Reykjavik began. The entire expedition team was out on the Observation Deck mingling with the guests, introducing themselves and making small talk, even snapping photos. It set a nice tone.
And that vibe has carried through the past few days. The speakers are out with the operational staff during the excursions, looking for birds and pointing out plant life. Zodiac drivers are knowledgeable and willing to deviate from their course if a pair of humpback whales or seals pop up. I don't think I've encountered a cheerier, more outgoing team -- and that includes the Discovery Leader Xavier "Xavi" Garcia.
On Scenic Eclipse II, the bridge has a full sofa and coffee table off to the side where guests can relax and observe as the ship sails. Books on Arctic wildlife and birds are available for browsing, and there are binoculars to use (although each cabin onboard has its own). I've particularly enjoyed being there in the morning, when the expedition staff and captain are going over the day's plans. You feel like you're getting a true behind-the-scenes experience.
Speaking of the captain, Erwan Le Rouzic is the master of the vessel. While all expedition cruise captains are charged with developing a course that can change radically depending on the weather, we're struck by how he's gone out of his way to make sure everyone onboard sees wildlife.
On our crossing to Greenland, for example, he slowed the ship so passengers could all get a glimpse of rare blue whales swimming near the vessel. And Saturday night, his voice interrupted dinner, for good reason -- an extraordinary mega-pod of feeding whales had surrounded the ship. We all raced to the bridge and Observation Deck to see whales all around us. Blowhole sprays were going off like fireworks; every direction you turned, another whale appeared.
Le Rouzic was out there with us all, taking pictures and marveling at the natural wonder, which he had never seen before. I think every person on the ship, be it a passenger on their first expedition cruise or an experienced expedition guide, went to bed that night knowing they had lived through something special.
What we’re liking about this cruise is that both sets of people are happy. Our first stop in Iceland at the remote Dynjandi waterfall featured a relatively steep hike up boulders for the agile. But there were plenty of gorgeous views and photos to be taken for those who remained at the bottom (or even on the ship, as you could see the falls from the water).
At another stop near the Thyms Glacier on Greenland’s wild King Frederik VI coast, passengers were offered a rocky scramble for outstanding views. Others, though, could opt for a Zodiac ride that took them for a closer look at the glacier's face. No matter which option you chose, the staff were there with steady arms to get you over the hardest rocks or to give insight into the overall fjord, which featured not just the wide ice expanse, but numerous hanging glaciers.
Speaking of Zodiacs, Scenic Eclipse II carries 12 of the inflatable rubber boats and has enough staff to run them all at the same time, if need be. (Groups usually are staggered, though, to give passengers a better experience.) They are also housed in a garage that’s water level, an important distinction when you’re evaluating expedition ships. Ships that keep the Zodiacs down below, as opposed to the top deck, are generally able to get them out faster, which leads to more time on the water for guests.
It's easy to be skeptical of the fancy "toys" that the newer expedition ships have. Many locations don't allow the ships to use their helicopters or submarines, so their presence can feel gimmicky.
Well, consider us converts. Helicopters are allowed in Greenland for exploration, and our flight over the Fridtjof Nansen ice field was a once-in-a-lifetime event that was well worth the nearly $800 price tag.
From the air, we were able to track humpback whales, witnessing not just a fluke or a fin, but the enormity of their size in the ocean. We could see the full extent of the sculptural floating icebergs -- not just the tip but the huge expanse that lies beneath. And you could see ice and snow extending far to the horizon, giving us a glimpse of just how vast Greenland's wild beauty truly is.
(Scenic Eclipse II will have a submersible onboard once the ship reaches Miami later this year. This will also carry a hefty extra fee. If you can only choose one extra fee excursion, we'd choose the helicopter over the submarine every time.)
We went out for a paddle on our first day in Greenland. The kayak guides, Spenser and Liz, graciously helped us don our dry suits, which is perhaps the most complicated part of the trip. They also made us feel confident about getting into the kayaks from the Zodiac, which can feel a bit nerve-wracking in icy waters.
Once in, any stress about the experience melted away. We paddled among the ice, taking pictures of growlers and bergy bits. The guides made sure we gave the larger icebergs a wide berth, as these can be notorious unstable and often tip.
About 45 minutes into our paddle, the wind picked up and the water became choppier. Liz directed us into a quieter inlet. There, the team made the decision to have us go back rather than fight the heavier current. It was a smart call that enhanced an excursion that had already made us happy. I will always appreciate and call out guides that put passenger safety at the forefront, as opposed to ones that cowboy through a difficult situation. That's the secret to a successful expedition program.
What Scenic Eclipse II does have are the comfiest theater chairs we've seen at sea. No cramped legroom here; every seat is an adjustable posh lounger that swivels; many also recline. While you can watch the briefings and lectures from your sizable in-room TV, we're finding that it's much more fun to grab a drink and sink into these chairs before dinner.
Finally, we need to give a shoutout to the "Critter Club," a nightly meeting that takes place before dinner each night. Naturalists Kirsty and Alice sit down with guests and go over their photos to help them identify the specific bird, whale and seal species that they've seen that day. It's all light-hearted and fun. It's a great way to wind down the explorations outdoors and get ready for the evening activities and dinners onboard.