Now that I’ve tried expedition-style travel to visit the Galapagos and Antarctica with Lindblad Expeditions, I’d never go back to anything else for adventure destinations in particular. Many of Lindblad’s experiences take place on a ship, where maximum ground can be covered with minimal logistics, and although the ship itself is just the means of transport rather than the destination, the time onboard is consequential and is an integral part of the enjoyment of their journeys.
We traveled to Antarctica on the National Geographic Orion in November and our adventure from start to finish was nothing short of spectacular. Of course, the destination is unbelievable and plays a role in the joy, but together the ship, itinerary and staff complete the experience. And on a voyage to Antarctica, where the itinerary cannot be fixed ahead of time due to the ever-changing nature of the landscape, the ship and staff play an even more important role in all the pieces working well together.
Without a shadow of a doubt, the staff at Lindblad is second to none in the business when it comes to knowledge. Other operators may employ experienced guides, but Lindblad staffs their trips with true experts in their field. The expedition staff on our trip were passionate about the destination and the information they had to share with the guests.
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Every Lindblad trip has an expedition leader who sets the tone for the trip. Ours, Peter Cary, was that rare combination of leader and host, meaning he met guests’ needs while maintaining control in a place where a qualified expert is a must. Peter inspired confidence — something that is important when you are engaging in travel experiences with elevated risk. And likewise, Peter made us all feel like were were part of a team, not just passengers unconnected to one another. This sense of community is one of the big differentiators between a cruise and an expedition.
Lindblad takes safety seriously, but their approach is not so cautious that opportunities for adventures are missed; the expedition staff at Lindblad embody this spirit. They aren’t babysitters — they are facilitators to help guests optimize the experience in a destination.
Both of my Lindblad Expeditions journeys have involved truly exceptional crew. Coincidence? Definitely not. The crew aboard the Orion take pride in their work and consider it their personal mission to make each and every guest feel pampered — not an easy task on a 100-passenger boat. Although the Lindblad ships are well-appointed and comfortable, they aren’t designed to be flashy in a luxurious way, yet the crew could easily fit into any of the hotels of top global luxury brands.
The crew hosts a talent show at the end of the ship; through this show, guests get a glimpse of their off-duty connection with one another and Lindblad as the brand that takes care of them. It makes you want to support them as much as they support you.
Antarctica is exotic and vast. Given the cost and distance, it’s not going to be the first international trip for most families, but put it on the bucket list for one of the very special trips that you’ll take as a family while your kids are still kids. Our son traveled to Africa, the Amazon, Chile and Europe before Antarctica and considers this trip one of his favorite places for awe-inspiring scenery and adventure. And from my perspective, there is no better way to raise a lifelong conservationist than for a child to see what a place on our planet looks like while it is still relatively untouched by humanity. Seeing Antarctica made it really hit home that we can either destroy or protect our planet, and doing one or the other is up to us.
We were on Lindblad’s first sailing of the season down to the Antarctic Peninsula, and we were rewarded with views of an incredible icy wildness just out of hibernation. The tradeoff of going so early is that we didn’t see as much marine wildlife as you may see later in the season. But we did see five species of penguins! These funny creatures do not disappoint — the way they walk and interact with one another in their native habitat is pure pleasure to witness.
We also saw a few species of seals. Most were sleeping, so not that exciting to watch, but it’s remarkable to see how they thrive in such a remote and rugged environment. Wildlife aside, the biggest surprise of the trip was how magical it was to experience the out-of-this-world scenery. The size and drama of it was way beyond my wildest dreams and expectations.
Although the itinerary itself is a moving target, there is a sketch of where the crew wants to go each day and the captain follows ice charts to determine what what is passable at any given time. Venturing into the unknown is part of the fun, and the itinerary is followed with intention so that guests get a variety of scenery and activities and see as much of Antarctica as possible within this limited window of time.
In addition to hiking among a few different colonies of penguins, our itinerary included kayaking, cross-country skiing and a visit to Port Lockroy, a tiny station set up by the British in World War II and later used for research. It’s now a small museum and post office from which guests can mail Antarctica-postmarked postcards.
Most excursions from the Orion use zodiacs for exploration. These trips are lead by a naturalist who provides detailed information about the area and wildlife. Seeing the ice and animals at eye level is an entirely different experience than from the top of the ship. The animals didn’t care that we were there, which enabled close observation and wonderful photos.
Lindblad’s signature trip structure includes daily presentations by a variety of experts about the destination. This is one of the elements that distinguishes an expedition from a cruise. The presentations cover everything from history and geology to current events and political issues. Guests can join presentations in the lounge set up for this purpose (with a full bar) or choose to watch from the TV in their room. Either way, there is no shortage of avenues via which to learn; even my teenager kept the schedule in his pocket and actively sought out different presentations of interest on his own. It’s like school … but better, because you can directly experience what you are learning about.
The National Geographic Orion was built in 2002 specifically for high-end expedition cruising. It’s modern and comfortable, with more than enough room for its capacity of 100 passengers to spread out, even in rough seas when everyone remains indoors. Guest rooms have plenty of light and amazing bathrooms with spacious showers; some of the higher-end rooms have balconies. We were in a suite with twin beds and a sofa bed — perfect for a family of three. Families with two or more kids can get adjacent rooms, but they are not connecting.
The design is upscale with beautiful wood finishes, polished brass and, of course, incredible National Geographic photos lining the hallways. Public spaces are wonderful, with big windows and cozy seating. The dining room is optimally configured so that guests can eat in smaller groups or at larger tables. There’s a buffet but still plenty of room for formal service. Meals on the National Geographic Orion are exceptional. It’s truly a wonder that this ship can feed so many people so well without the opportunity to stock up on additional supplies. Not only is the variety of food unbelievable, but it is fresh. Their salad is as crisp on the last day of the cruise as my lettuce is on the day that I bring it home from the market.
The main lounge on the Orion features a full bar and plenty of sofas, tables and cozy seating. Because the ship was built for expedition travel, the setup is optimal for presentations with multiple screens for multimedia; there’s not a bad seat in the house. The ship also includes a small gym and a book-filled observatory room with floor-to-ceiling windows.
Amazingly, we were able to eat lunch outside two days on our voyage — an unexpected pleasure in Antarctica. There is a sizable deck off the lounge as well as an upper deck for incredible views of the landscape. The Orion has an open bridge, which means guests can feel free to check out what the captain is doing up there. It was a lot of fun to watch the crew navigate the ice and big waves in the Drake Passage. And because they don’t run the ship from a hidden ivory tower, you feel like you are part of the navigation excitement.
Our trip to Antarctica was an A for adventure. I’d do it again in a heartbeat and recommend it to anyone who wants to embark on a true trip of a lifetime in every sense of the word. Want to know more? Call us!
Editor’s Note: Amie received a media rate to review Antarctica with Lindblad Expeditions. As always, all opinions are our own on Ciao Bambino. Photos by Amie O’Shaughnessy and Michael Nolan.
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