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Quirky Cruise
May 2, 2016

Small Ship Cruise Line Review: Lindblad Expeditions

It is hard to beat Lindblad for its creative and professional approach to expedition cruising, so be prepared to pay for the high standards.

Snapshot: Based in New York, Lindblad Expeditions has a long legacy dating back to Lars-Eric Lindblad’s pioneering expeditions to Antarctica, Easter Island and the Galapagos beginning in the mid-1960s. In the intervening years, the firm, under the leadership of his son, Sven-Olaf Lindblad, has expanded its fleet and ship charters to basically blanket the world for those in search of an adventure by sea. Destinations are expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctica; natural history and wildlife cruises to the Galapagos, Indonesia and Borneo; cultural and historical voyages to the British Isles, Greek Isles and Morocco — the list goes on and on. The joint venture with the National Geographic Society established in 2004 expanded Lindblad’s passenger base and drew on the Society’s expertise; especially its photographers who enrich the pages of National Geographic magazine and National Geographic Traveler. As a four-time passenger I have always had the strong sense that the expedition and enrichment staff genuinely want to bring you absolutely the best experience possible. The large number on every voyage makes a huge difference in having them readily at hand when ashore or in Zodiacs and providing a rich variety of expertise. You are also paying big bucks for the best. In December 2016, Lindblad began 11-day cruise tours to Cuba, operating the chartered two-masted motor sailer PANORAMA II through March 2017. In January 2017, Lindblad took delivery of the 96-passenger NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ENDEAVOUR II to replace the long-serving N. G. ENDEAVOUR  in the Galapagos. Then in June 2017, a newly-built 100-passenger NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC QUEST will become the first of two ordered ships to replace the veterans N.G. SEA BIRD and N. G. SEA LION in Alaska, British Columbia, the Pacific Northwest and to reintroduce Belize itineraries. The second, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC VENTURE, is expected to be completed in the second quarter of 2018. Both US-flag ships come from Nichols Brothers Boat Builders, near Seattle.

The ships vary from perhaps the best-equipped expedition ships afloat to the most nimble for poking around confined spaces, along narrow rivers and into tiny island coves. Here, we treat the ships one by one, to see what they offer and where they venture — some go all over and others stay in one region.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC EXPLORER

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers: NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC EXPLORER (148 passengers & built 1982 as the rugged Norwegian coastal passenger and roll-on, roll-off ferry liner MIDNATSOL, enlarged for the same service 1989, and rebuilt into an expedition ship in 2008).

Passenger Profile: Mainly 50+, though younger passengers come on selected expeditions and so do families; Lindblad has a fine program for children, best in the Polar Regions and Galapagos.

Passenger Decks: 6. An elevator serves all decks apart from B-Deck for Internet center, Mud Room and lockers.

Price: $$$  Super Pricey

Included Features: All shore activities, Zodiac and kayak explorations, all alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, gratuities to the crew. So what’s not? WiFi, Spa treatments, shop souvenirs.

Itineraries: (7-29 nights) NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC EXPLORER (NGEX) covers more territory in one calendar year than any other in the fleet. In winter, the polar regions include Antarctica, the Falklands and South Georgia (along with N.G. ORION); in summer the Norwegian fjords, Arctic Norway, Svalbard, Iceland (including a circumnavigation), Greenland, Canadian Arctic and Canadian Maritimes; Fall down South America’s west coast from Peru south to Chile and Argentina (Patagonia) for another Antarctic season; and closing the circle, a spring return to Europe via the Atlantic Islands, Iberia and onto the British Isles and Ireland. Watch for new itineraries. One Iceland and Greenland itinerary includes flights over the latter’s remote glaciers as well as land and sea travel.

Why Go? The NGEX is arguably the best equipped expedition ship afloat with a fleet of Zodiacs and kayaks, as well as sophisticated equipment such as a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) for underwater exploration, hydrophone, underwater video camera, a superb expedition team that provides enrichment aboard and explorations ashore via Zodiacs, and a National Geographic photographer and instructor. On European itineraries, cultural experts and historians are aboard.

When to Go? The ship ventures to various regions in the most suitable season such as Antarctica in the Northern Hemisphere winter and the Arctic regions in summer.

Cabins: All cabins, of mostly moderate size (some larger suites), are outside, majority with windows, eight with portholes, and all thankfully have blackout curtains for 24-hour daylight sailings. Beds are queen-size, twins with some convertible to queens, and seven can take a third person at 50% reduction of the double occupancy rate; 13 have balconies. A nice extra is a World Atlas placed in cabins and open to the page you will be exploring. How about that for service?

Public Rooms: Main lounge (seats everyone) with bar equipped for films, slide shows and presentations; observation lounge on Bridge Deck with domed-roof and adjacent library; navigation bridge is generally open to passengers for meeting officers, learning about navigation and spotting wildlife; chart room for studying the region sailing to; fitness center, spa and sauna, Internet café.

The bridge aboard the NGEX is often another public room for the passengers.

The bridge aboard the NGEX is popular gathering place for  passengers, one of the delights of expedition cruising. * Photo: Ted Scull

Dining: Single seating dining room forward and adjacent Bistro (same menu) has additional seating (some tables for two) in a more relaxed arrangement. Meals also offer buffet items at breakfast and lunch. The food is of good quality and well prepared, though that extra freshness may be lacking in remote regions. Lunch buffets also take place up in the domed observation lounge. Go for it; the view while eating is great!

Activities & Entertainment: Apart from the excursions ashore and in Zodiacs accompanied by the expedition staff, sharing pre-dinner recaps are amongst the expedition highlights — with underwater videos shot that day being shown, a look back at the day’s happenings, and a plan for tomorrow presented by the expedition staff. Unscheduled Zodiac excursions may occur when wildlife appears along the shore. On Svalbard, for example, a polar bear may be spotted as a tiny speck on the ice, and passengers begin to gather, standing in total silence at the bow to watch the distance between the ship nosed into the pack ice and curious bear get ever shorter. I have seen polar bears walk up to the bow and sniff the smells we give off.

This curious polar bear came right up to the bow during a cruise around Svalbard. (Spitsbergen)

This curious polar bear came right up to the bow during an expedition cruise around Svalbard. (Spitsbergen) * Photo: Ted Scull

Special Notes: A full-time doctor is aboard.

Along the Same Lines: Other expedition lines.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ORION

Approaching the Orion from the stern off Australia's Kimberley Coast.

Approaching the Orion from the stern off Australia’s remote Kimberley Coast. * Photo: Ted Scull

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers: NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ORION (102 passengers & built 2003 as ORION for Australian-based Orion Cruises, acquired by Lindblad in 2013)

Passenger Profile: Mainly 50+, though younger passengers and families come on selected voyages. Given the cruising areas, now Antarctica and especially Europe (new for 2016), expect some Europeans and Australians.

Passenger Decks: 5 decks with an elevator connecting all but the Expedition Deck for the Mud Room, Zodiac boarding and Doctor’s Office.

Price: $$$  Super Pricey

Included Features: All shore activities, Zodiac and kayak explorations, all alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, gratuities to crew. So what’s not? WiFi, Spa treatments, shop souvenirs.

Itineraries: (10-21 nights) Antarctica, Falklands and South Georgia from Ushuaia, Argentina (along with N.G. EXPLORER);  in spring, the NGOR heads northeast via the Atlantic Isles for an inaugural late spring, summer and fall European season to Iberia, the Mediterranean, British Isles, Ireland, Scotland, Baltic, Norway and fjords, Orkneys, Shetland, Faroes, and Iceland. In the winter, the ship returns to Antarctica.

Why Go? Here is a prime example of an expedition ship that excels for its comforts, style and travel adventure. The N.G. ORION is particularly well-equipped with a fleet of Zodiacs, kayaks, snorkeling gear, scuba diving gear for 24 passengers (on certain itineraries), a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), hydrophone, underwater video cameras, video microscope, a superb expedition team that provides enrichment aboard and explorations ashore and in Zodiacs, and a National Geographic photographer and instructor. On the new 2016 season European itineraries, cultural experts and historians are aboard.

When to Go? Itineraries are geared to the best season exploring a specific region such as Antarctica in the Northern Hemisphere winter, while most other cruising areas are in tropical waters.

Cabins: Roomy for a small ship and beautifully-designed and furnished; twin beds that convert to queens, all are outside, 19 with oval windows; 9 with balconies, some of which are small and some shared with neighbors (no partitions); flat-screen TV with DVD/CD player, mini-fridge, personal safe, Internet access for laptops, shower except 4 suites with bathtub. Third person pays 50% of double-occupancy rate in triple-bed cabins. 4 single cabins.

Public Rooms: Attractive main lounge with sit-up bar that seats all for talks and films; renovated observation lounge with library collection; open bridge policy makes the navigation center another well-used public room.

Orion: Lunchtime on deck. * Photo: Ted Scull

Orion: Lunchtime on deck.
* Photo: Ted Scull

Dining: Meals are served at one open seating in a restaurant with large-view windows; delightful outdoor café serves buffet breakfast and lunches, and barbecue dinners when the weather is warm. Food is very good and often connected to the cruising region.

Activities & Entertainment: Apart from the guided excursions ashore, including on foot and bicycles, and in Zodiacs, the evening pre-dinner recaps are amongst the expedition highlights with a film of underwater videos shot that day, a recap of the day’s happenings, and the presentation by the expedition and the lecture staff of the plan for tomorrow. Small hot tub aft on Observation Deck. Fitness center, sauna and spa.

Special Notes: A full-time doctor is aboard.

Along the Same Lines: Other expedition lines.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ENDEAVOUR

Ships, Years Delivered & Passengers: NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ENDEAVOUR (96 passengers & built 1966 as a fish factory ship for the North Sea and converted to the rugged expedition-style ship NORTH STAR, then CALEDONIAN STAR, ENDEAVOUR, and now NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ENDEAVOUR). N.B. The present ship will be retired and replaced in early January 2017 by the former VIA AUSTRALIS (b. 2005 & 136 passengers) that after a major refit to be renamed NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ENDEAVOUR II (96p). The family friendly ship will have seven sets of connecting cabins and six triples, and for solo passengers, nine single cabins.

Passenger Profile: Mostly Americans, with some other nationalities, and as Lindblad is well-prepared to handle children, families during the school holidays.

Passenger Decks: 6 and no elevator.

Price: $$$   Super Pricey

What’s included: All shore activities, Zodiac and kayak explorations, 24-hour, coffee, tea, soda, bottled water.

Itineraries: Repeating 9-night (including overnights en route) Galapagos island wildlife cruises with ship departures every Friday; land extensions available to Peru — Lima, Cusco and Machu Picchu.

Why Go? If swimming with sea lions and sidestepping marine iguanas stretched out in the sun sounds intriguing, then think about a week’s small-ship adventure in Ecuador’s Galapagos Archipelago. Even wildlife names and antics are intriguing, such as blue-footed boobies doing their mating dance by lifting one foot, bending their wings and whistling. Days are spent on the water in Zodiacs, in the water snorkeling, and on land hiking with a trained naturalist guide.

When to Go? That requires a somewhat complex answer. The peak seasons, because of the school holidays, last from mid-June to early September and mid-December to mid-January. December through May, the water is warm for snorkeling and swimming but there will be fewer fish to see. Most days in the first months will see some rain. The latter part of the season is spring mating time for animals and birds on land, especially sea lions and turtles, plus wild flowers in bloom. June through November brings on the colder waters of the Humboldt Current, therefore, more fish and sea birds are looking for prey, but snorkeling is going to be less comfortable and the ocean is rougher.

Cabins: 56, all outside with windows or portholes on Main and A decks. Most cabins are smallish and have compact bathrooms with showers. Amenities are a small fridge and video player.

Public Rooms: Lounge with bar seats all passengers; separate library on the deck above; open bridge policy provides another room and fraternizing with the officers; spa, sauna and fitness center.

Dining: Restaurant is forward on Upper Deck with large view windows either side, and the food is of good quality with some local island ingredients, and Ecuadorian fish such as Wahoo and Dorado.

Activities & Entertainment: Apart from the hikes ashore, in Zodiacs and the glass-bottom boat with guides and snorkeling (wet suits in cold weather), the evening pre-dinner recaps are jolly affairs with videos and the day’s results of the underwater camera screened, a look back at the day’s happenings, and a plan for tomorrow presented by the naturalists. Small dip-in pool on Veranda Deck aft. A newly introduced  activity is plein air drawing where a resident artist instructs passengers during regular sessions on board and shore to create images of the wildlife they see, and many are tame enough to pose for you. Look for the departure dates that include this activity.

Special Notes: A doctor is aboard. Naturalists that Lindblad hires are likely to be amongst the best available in a very active cruising area. Crew and most of the expedition staff is Ecuadorean.

Along the Same Lines: NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ISLANDER; other Galapagos operators; other expedition lines.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ISLANDER

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers: NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ISLANDER (48 passengers & built as the twin-hulled catamaran ISLANDER in 1995, first cruised in Scotland, and taken on by Lindblad in 2004 and renamed).

Passenger Profile: Largely Americans and some Europeans; varied ages and families at holiday periods.

Passenger Decks: 4. No elevator.

Price: $$$  Super pricey

Included Features: All shore activities, Zodiac and kayak explorations, 24-hour coffee, tea, soda, bottled water.

Itineraries: See N.G. ENDEAVOUR above

Why Go? See N.G. ENDEAVOUR above, plus the advantage, for some, choosing a ship with half the number of passengers compared to N.G. ENDEAVOUR. Also see this ship above for “Why Go.”

When to Go? See N.G. ENDEAVOUR above

Cabins: 24 outside, mostly compact cabins on three decks, all with windows. Twins may be arranged as a double or as queen beds. Two cabins can accommodate a third person. Eight cabins on the Upper Deck have glassed-in terraces.

Public Rooms: Aft lounge seats all passengers for evening recaps, lectures and films; adjacent library and Internet Café, fitness center, covered seating aft on Upper Deck, open bridge policy.

Dining: Restaurant is aft on Bridge Deck with open seating for all to dine at one time. Food is average to good with some tasty Ecuadorian specialties.

Activities & Entertainment: Apart from hikes ashore, in Zodiacs and glass-bottom boat with guides, and snorkeling (wet suits in cold weather), the evening pre-dinner recaps are jolly affairs with videos and the day’s results of the underwater camera shown, a look back at the recent happenings, and a plan for tomorrow by the naturalists. See additional Activities under the N.G. ENDEAVOUR.

Special Notes: A doctor is aboard. Crew and most of the expedition staff is Ecuadoran.

Along the Same Lines: N.G. ENDEAVOUR; other Galapagos operators; other expedition lines.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SEA LION & SEA BIRD

Sea Lion, whalewatching in the Pacific off Bahia Magdalena. * Photo: Ted Scull

Sea Lion, whalewatching in the Pacific off Bahia Magdalena. * Photo: Ted Scull

Ships, Year Delivered & Passengers: NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SEA LION & NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SEA BIRD (62 passengers & built 1981, later upgraded and reduction in passenger capacity by eliminating lowest-deck cabins).  The NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC QUEST will replace one of the above ships in June 2017. This newly-built U.S. flag ship, a substantial upgrade, will take 100 passengers and carry 24 sea kayaks, a fleet of paddleboat, a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), video microscope, hydrophone and bow camera.

Passenger Profile: Mostly Americans, generally 50+ and few families on the Columbia-Snake itineraries, and more likely on the other trips, especially during school holidays.

Passenger Decks: 3 and no elevator

Price: $$ to $$$  Expensive/Super Pricey

Included Features: All shore activities, Zodiac and kayak explorations, 24-hour, coffee, tea, soda, bottled water.

Itineraries:

  • 7-night one-way Southeast Alaska cruises between Juneau and Sitka from mid-May through August; 14-night one-way positioning cruises early May and early September between Seattle via the Inside Passage along the British Columbia coast and through Southeast Alaska to/from Sitka.
  • 6-night one-way cruises along the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest between Portland, Oregon and Clarkston, Washington from late September through October.
  • 7 nights in Baja California, including both the Pacific Coast and in the Sea of Cortez aboard N.G. SEA BIRD from mid-January through mid-March.
  • 7 nights along the Costa Rican and Panama Pacific coasts and into the Panama Canal aboard the N.G. SEA LION from late November to mid-March.

 

Intense birders on the Costa Rican coast. * Photo: Ted Scull

Intense birders on the Costa Rican coast. * Photo: Ted Scull

Why Go? Every itinerary has its numerous attractions. Alaska: glaciers, fjords, wildlife on land and sea and with the grandeur of Glacier Bay National the highlight, especially enjoyed on such a small ship; Columbia and Snake rivers: modern exploration tracing the Lewis & Clark route to the Pacific Ocean; highly varied landscapes; passage through massive shipping locks in a small ship; vineyards visits; jet boat rides up the rapids into Hells Canyon. Baja California/Sea of Cortez: whales on both coasts; varieties of birds; snorkeling among sea lions; coastal and island hikes. Costa Rica and Panama Canal: national parks for monkeys, sloths, frogs, colorful birdlife, beaches, and passage into the Panama Canal. Both vessels are about as simple as any small ships get, a bit pokey, past their prime, yet well maintained with excellent expedition staffs. So forget any thought of luxury and go for the wonderful experience. The Columbia-Snake rivers route was my first soft-adventure by ship.

Dramatic scenery along the Columbia/Snake Rivers. * Photo: Ted Scull

Dramatic scenery along the Columbia/Snake Rivers. * Photo: Ted Scull

When to Go? The two ships are positioned where the weather is best for expedition and soft adventure activities, so there are no cautions needed.

Cabins: Small and all outside with view windows, some twins may be converted to a double bed, and a few can take a third person at 50% of the double occupancy rate. Cabins on Bridge and Upper decks open onto a side promenade, while Main Deck cabins are accessed from a central corridor. These latter six cabins are also adjacent to the dining room, therefore a convenient, but also trafficked corridor.

Public Rooms: A single forward observation lounge with a bar; forward outdoor open observation deck and partly covered Bridge Deck. Spa and exercise equipment.

Dining: Food is good with buffet at breakfast, family-style service at lunch and served dinners.

Activities & Entertainment: Evening recaps of the day; plans for the day ahead and talks (some illustrated) by the naturalist staff using results of underwater video and video microscope. Depending on the itinerary, kayaking, snorkeling (with wet suits in Baja), and expedition landing craft for going ashore on hikes.

Special Notes: A doctor is aboard on in Baja and Costa Rica/Panama and an undersea specialist in Alaska and Baja.

Along the Same Lines: Other Lindblad Expeditions; Un-Cruise adventures in Alaska and Baja; American Cruise Lines; and American Queen Steamboat Company along the Columbia/Snake.

And in Brief — Partial Year Ship Charters

SEA CLOUD

SEA CLOUD approaching Nice. * Photo: William J. Mayes

SEA CLOUD approaching Nice. * Photo: William J. Mayes

Lindblad charters the 64-passenger SEA CLOUD ($$$), a legendary sailing vessel built in Germany as a private yacht in 1931 and converted to a cruise vessel in 1979. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience to sail in her — on selected dates in the Caribbean, 7 nights from Barbados in late winter; 7-nights in the Greek islands from Piraeus (Athens) and 10 nights along the Greek and Dalmatian Coast between Piraeus (Athens) and Dubrovnik in the late spring and summer. The best, and the most expensive cabins, are the beautifully furnished eight originals on Main Deck when the Sea Cloud was E.F. Hutton’s private yacht built for his wife, Marjorie Meriweather Post (cereal heiress). The added cabins are modern, very attractively fitted and considerably less expensive, though not cheap. The main lounge is beautifully paneled and with parquet floors. Food and service are great, and some meals are taken out on deck.

DELFIN II

Lindblad has chartered the Amazon riverboat DEFLIN II ($$$) since 2010 taking 28 passengers in 14 luxurious cabins on one-week cruises along two of the river’s upper tributaries. The riverboat has an enclosed lounge, an open lounge and bar under a top deck canopy. The dining saloon is the deck below with big windows facing aft, and the food is quite special and sometimes exotically sourced from the rain forest. The cabins, with a desk and chair, are lovely with wood trim, wooden floors, large view windows, twin beds that can form kings; and two suites have king-size beds only. Some can be interconnected for families, and four face forward with terrific views. Bathrooms are roomy. Excursions ashore are made in 10-person skiffs and kayaks, plus some walking where paths exist. A national reserve in remote Amazonia is the highlight, looking out for exotic bird species, monkeys and anacondas of the rain forest, and pink and gray dolphins, piranhas and red-eyed caiman in the dark waters, sometimes decorated with giant water lilies.

Lily pads along the Amazon.* Photo: Ted Scull

Lily pads along the Amazon.* Photo: Ted Scull

JAHAN

The more than comfortable 48-passenger riverboat JAHAN ($$$) cruises the Mekong between Siem Reap (Angkor Wat), Cambodia and My Tho (near Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City) on 13-night cruise-tours from January to March. The famous temple complex, Cambodia’s capital at Phnom Penh, and the teeming life along the river are the highlights.

New ! 1) PANORAMA II – This chartered 49-passenger two-masted motor sailor will begin making 11-day cruise tours beginning in December 2016 and running through March 2017 beginning in Havana. After a hotel stay, passengers motor to Cienfuegos, a port located on Cuba’s south coast, for a one-week cruise. 2) NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ENDEAVOUR II, a completely refitted ship for 96 passengers that sailed South American waters as the VIA AUSTRALIS, will enter service in the Galapagos beginning in January 2017. 3)  The brand new 100-passenger NATIONAL GEORGRAPHIC QUEST will debut in June 2017 in British Columbia, Alaska and Belize.

CONTACT: Lindblad Expeditions, 96 Morton Street, New York, NY 10014;  www.expeditions.com; 800-397-3348 or 212-265-3770

TWS

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Alaska, Amazon Basin, American and Canadian Waterways, Antarctica, Arctic, Arctic Canada, Argentina, Asia: Southeast Asia, Atlantic Ocean, Baltic States, Belize, Cambodia, Caribbean Islands, Central America, Chilean Fjords, Coastal America, Coastal Ship & Line Reviews, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, England/Wales, Europe, Europe, the Mediterranean, Expedition Ship & Line Reviews, Falkland Islands, French Polynesia, Galapagos, Greenland, Iceland, Mekong River, Mexico/Pacific Coast, North America, North Pole, Norway, Pacific Ocean Islands, Panama, Peru, Rivers Ship & Line Reviews, Sailing Ship & Line Reviews, Scotland, Ship & Line reviews, South America, South Georgia, Spitzbergen/Svalbard, Sweden, Uncategorized, Vietnam, West Indies


1 Comment

  1. PR - 3 weeks ago

    Good article on Lindblad – gives me some thoughts for planning my trip to Antarctica next year.

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