Scenic Jasper exterior shot in port

(11:40 a.m. EDT) -- In a first for the storied company, National Geographic Expeditions formed a river cruise partnership with Scenic Cruises earlier this year, placing an expert lecturer and a National Geographic photographer on a series of branded sailings.

The cruises with the experts, who also make themselves available for informal chats, impromptu workshops and as ad hoc tour companions, were scheduled on a variety of rivers worldwide, from the Irrawaddy to the Danube. The partnership also promised Nat Geo shore excursions, ranging from hikes and bike rides to in-depth learning experiences that focus on the natural world, culture and history.

We just came back from the second-ever National Geographic Expeditions river cruise -- a seven-night sailing on the Danube from Budapest to Nuremberg on Scenic Jasper. While low waters impacted our cruise -- a planned hike around Budapest became a sightseeing tour, scenic sailing to Vienna became a 3 ½ hour bus ride -- we discovered the following about this brand-new partnership.

Lecture on Scenic Jasper

The Lectures Are Fascinating ...

Our cruise had a total of six scheduled lectures -- three apiece -- from the two experts onboard. Our experts are Teresa Fisher, a UK-based author and guide book writer, who specializes in European cities, and Stephen Alvarez, a National Geographic photographer and filmmaker who produces global stories about exploration, adventure, culture and archaeology; his published credits in National Geographic number more than a dozen feature stories.

A disrupted itinerary due to low water levels along the Danube meant the experts gave two lectures apiece on this cruise, and then two informal sessions. Ms. Fisher gave an A-Z talk on Vienna, and another delving deeper into the art of the city. Mr. Alvarez spoke about his career in his first lecture and then offered more of a photo tips workshop. Both were engaging, amusing, fascinating in parts and useful in others (we've taken on Mr Alvarez's excellent iPhone tips). The lectures were also well attended -- despite the pull of the beautiful weather outside, at least half the passengers turned up.

But They're All Onboard

A number of passengers onboard, who had booked the sailing specifically because of the partnership, said they were surprised that the lecturers did not give the lectures in the field, as they had experienced on other National Geographic Expeditions. One passenger who had visited Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands with Nat Geo Expeditions told us the experts had accompanied the tours and gave tips, advice and in-depth knowledge during the tour itself.

In the field on our cruise, tours were led by the expert local guides, who vary in their delivery and knowledge. On the tours we did, which included the Langenlois Wine Museum, the bike ride and the walking tour of Passau, we were impressed. Still, veterans of Nat Geo Expeditions were surprised by the difference. We asked NGE about this and their response was: "On all National Geographic trips Experts join local guides and guests in the field, but it is fairly typical that they let the local guides lead the excursion. The role of the expert is to further enhance the experience and to give additional perspective on what guests learn from guides."

Biking excursion

The National Geographic Excursions Are a Great Addition...

Scenic is known for its inventive and active excursions, and this cruise was no exception. Don't expect to be herded around small market towns with a running commentary in your ear (though these are available). Instead, think 21-mile bike rides, hiking up to castles, in-depth tours to vineyards followed by wine tasting and watching the sun set from impossibly beautiful castle tops.

The partnership with Nat Geo has added even more to their roster. Excursions that aren't usually found on Scenic's itinerary included a hiking option in Budapest; the behind-the-scenes visit to the Vienna Natural History Museum with the meteorite expert; hiking up to Durnstein Castle; a visit to the Hallein salt mines, outside Salzburg; and a visit to the Kuchlbauer brewery and Hundertwasser tower.

But They Aren't Easily Spotted

While most of the new excursions were hits, it wasn't made clear either in the port talks or in the daily programming which ones are unique to Nat Geo (we had to ask upon our return which ones are specific to this cruise).

We would love to have seen a stamp in the daily program stamp stating: "Nat Geo Special", or something similar. Also, we had no idea which excursion the lecturers would choose to accompany until they were on the bus. If the line designated with a "Lecturer Accompanied" note, interested passengers would be able to choose which ones to take. (Currently, lecturers choose on an ad-hoc basis which trip they will accompany without passengers knowing). While it could create some logistical issues with passengers racing to sign up for the lecturer-accompanied tours, some sort of sign-up system or rotation could make the partnership clearer and meet guest expectations.

National Geographic programming on Scenic Jasper

The Experts Add A Lot ...

On the tours the experts did attend, they were on hand to give advice, tips and history. The Behind the Scenes meteorite tour at the Natural History Museum was especially rich, thanks to Mr. Alvarez accompanying it. Similarly, the unscheduled Passau tour, which Ms. Fisher accompanied.

Back onboard, the lecturers did a fantastic job of making sure they got to speak with everyone, often on a one-to-one basis. They sat with passengers at dinner, held ad-hoc workshops, going into deeper detail on photo techniques or perhaps exploring a different strand of history; spoke to passengers on deck, posed for selfies and generally made themselves extremely available.

But There Were Only Two of Them

Passengers we spoke to who had been on previous Nat Geo Expeditions were surprised that there were just two lecturers onboard (even though this was highlighted online and in all marketing material). One passenger we spoke to said that on the last tour he had been on, there were as many as eight NGE reps, drawn from many disciplines and fields of expertise. That number, and the fact they accompany guests into the field, gives the experience a strong National Geographic Expeditions feel.

When we spoke to Nat Geo about this, they said it was likely the passenger was referring to a Lindblad expedition cruise where there are many guides and naturalists. Adding: "Aside from Private Jets and Ponant expedition cruises, river cruises actually have more NG representatives than other travel styles with two experts on each departure." And it worth emphasising that this link up with Scenic is a partnership, rather than a charter.


Bottom Line

We enjoyed listening to the lecturers and spending time with them. Certainly our photography skills improved as a result of meeting Mr. Alvarez, and our knowledge of the Hapsburgs has deepened as a result of Ms. Fisher's talks (in particular their marriage proclivities).

But the lack of signage and dearth of experts made the experience feel more like a Scenic river cruise that happens to be carrying two company representatives instead of a true National Geographic Expeditions tour or cruise. Perhaps Scenic's reputation for active excursions means the extra Nat Geo ones get lost in the programming; if Scenic merely offered walks around city centers with guides, then it might have been more obvious which tours were unique. While it was a fantastic cruise in many respects, it wasn't what a number of passengers -- those who signed up specifically for the National Geographic Expeditions partnership -- thought it was going to be.

It's still the first season, however. We can't wait to see how this partnership develops, following passengers and lecturers' feedback. Scenic has added more National Geographic Expeditions river cruises in 2019 -- including one with Susan Goldberg, National Geographic Magazine Editor-in-Chief on a Douro River Sailing in -- and it has the potential to become a strong entry toward introducing more inquisitive and history-hungry travelers to river cruising. 

--By Adam Coulter, Managing Editor, UK