Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A Little Luxury Afloat

for SIA Priority Magazine

– Small Packages, Great Things!

Bigger is better, right? Not necessarily so. As the major players in the cruise industry seem obsessed with building overwhelming mega-vessels, this fixation has driven many to seek an alternative. Roderick Eime examines the growing luxury boutique cruising market.

As I stand watching the thousands of passengers disembark from Cunard’s enormous QE2 and disperse into the shopping and dining districts of Sydney’s The Rocks, I imagine troops disembarking from some distant conflict. Her much larger sibling, the QM2, is too big for the berth in Circular Quay. Instead she’s docked in the naval base normally reserved for visiting aircraft carriers and her passengers are transported by every available bus in Sydney. Despite my unkind comparisons, this form of cruising is growing rapidly. Folks still love these enormous queens of the sea.

But just as committed cruisers are flocking to the new breed of floating city blocks, there is a spirited growth of boutique adventurers who prefer the more intimate alternative offered by much smaller, more versatile vessels often catering to just one hundred or so discerning clients.

Travel marketers and analysts have developed the dual terms, “experiential” and “transformational” to describe the motivation behind this emerging group of travellers who seek, not mass market tourism or trademark locations, but exclusive and privileged transport aboard well appointed vessels whose itineraries might include the remote islands of Papua New Guinea or the rugged, uninhabited coastline of Australia’s Kimberley.

They seek, no demand, to be enriched and uplifted by their travel experiences not herded and corralled into tourist traps and shopping malls.

Some of these vessels are basic and utilitarian in nature, particularly the converted Russian spy fleet of ice class vessels that transport wayfarers into the frozen realms of the arctic and Antarctic. But there are also those built expressly for clients who have earned their luxuries and comforts and wish to explore in style.

Imagine a few dozen enraptured guests visiting a remote Melanesian community and sharing, for a couple of hours, their traditional lifestyle and culture while treated to dance and song in a most authentic fashion. Then, back on the ship, enjoying five star dining and fine wines.

This genuine form of travel is now a highly sought after product with today’s modern achievers. A typical cross section of guests would likely reveal retired executives and academics, younger baby boomers and Gen Xers whose lives and motives are more marked by intangible enrichment than crass acquisition. Many carry expert lecturers and guides who help you appreciate the wonders you’ll encounter.

The ships are typically between 50 and 110 metres in length catering for as few as 30 and, at the most, around 150 clients. In terms of appointments, think luxury beach house or intimate resort with attentive and personal service. Often you are free to sit with the captain in the wheelhouse as the vessel negotiates some spectacular fjord or turquoise lagoon.

Adventure cruising itineraries are always elastic and flexible and dictated by prevailing conditions and opportunities. If you’re after predictability and conformity, then stop reading now.

The Small Luxury Flagships

SeaDream I and II
“It’s Yachting not Cruising”

Awarded “World’s Best Small Passenger Shipping Line” for 2006 by Conde Naste, SeaDream Yacht Club is predominantly Caribbean and Mediterranean based and definitely one of the glamour operators in this genre. Their two vessels are immaculately presented, are shamelessly indulgent and pay a great deal of attention to service and fine dining in a casual atmosphere. You won’t need a tuxedo here. Both vessels are regulars in the best magazines and boast a long list of celebrities and Top 100s on their passenger roll. Their pricing includes, well, everything. Food, drinks, activities, the lot.

Built 1985/86, regularly refitted
Length: 105 metres
Passengers: 110
Crew: 95

MV Orion
“It’s in our nature to explore”

Australia’s own small luxury vessel, Orion was built in Germany and launched in 2003. Flagged in the Bahamas, she is leased by a local company and operates itineraries from Papua New Guinea, the Kimberley to Antarctica. Despite her class-leading luxury appointments, Orion is dedicated to expedition cruising and is the undisputed queen of her class in the region. Award winning Sydney chef Serge Dansereau created the truly five star menu.

Built: 2003
Length: 103 metres
Passengers: 106
Crew: up to 80

Oceanic Discoverer
“Dream, Explore, Discover”

Based in tropical Cairns, this dedicated and purpose-built expedition yacht is rarely at home. Instead she can be found cruising the South Pacific, Melanesia, the Kimberley and New Zealand. Perhaps the best true adventure ship in the region, she is superbly equipped for shore excursions and exploring, yet still retains a comfort level that allows her to compete in this lofty arena. Food is superior restaurant or hotel standard and head chef, Brent Nichols, has an impressive hotel pedigree and has been known to produce outstanding meals from almost nothing. Smaller than the queens and without the gold and brass doorknobs, this precocious princess nevertheless delivers the goods.

Built: 2005
Length: 63 metres
Passengers: 72
Crew: 20

True North II
“Go wild in style”

The baby of the luxury adventure fleet, True North II was introduced in 2005 to replace the smaller True North I and is the acknowledged expert in the Kimberley region. The trophy cabinet is overflowing with awards and she most recently received the ultra-prestigious Australian Best Adventure Tourism award. Based in Broome, this sparkling sprite travels as far as Papua New Guinea and has the added bonus of a full-time helicopter.

Built: 2005
Length: 50 metres
Passengers: 36
Crew: 18

MV Ammari
“Free your spirit, fill your senses”

Brand new on the Australian scene, MV Ammari is the latest celebrity vessel to ply Australian waters. Unusual in that she is a catamaran, she was built in 2000 by Austal, the same builders as True North and a world acknowledged expert in small ships and ferries. Bought back by Queensland maritime magnate, Hume Campbell, from a French operator to augment his fleet of Fantasea fast ferries and day cruisers in the Whitsundays, MV Ammari will be his own flagship. Without a track record in this region, she is committed to 12 months of cruising in the Whitsundays and out to the adjacent Great Barrier Reef. Expect a softer, more casual experience with an emphasis on “play” more than “explore”.

Built: 2000
Length: 60 metres
Passengers: 68
Crew: 20

Tu Moana & Tia Moana
"Escape in Style for a world of sensuality"

These two superb 70 metre Austal-built luxury cruise yachts operate in Tahiti and carry just 70 passengers each. Introduced 2003, the twins are the epitome of exclusivity and indulgence in a idyllic tropical setting. Decorated with Polynesian art and artifacts, these ships create the total away-from-it-all experience.

Built: 2003
Length: 70 metres
Passengers: 74
Crew: 37


MV Reef Endeavour

Ideally suited to its home ground on the Great Barrier Reef, the MV Reef Endeavour brings a taste of small vessel cruising to those who may not be on the A-list. More reasonably priced, family-friendly and accessible than some of the others, it still delivers that essential escape. The same company also operates a similar, slightly smaller vessel in Fiji, MV Reef Escape.

Built: 1996
Length: 73 metres
Passenegsr: 150
Crew: 35