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Is an expedition cruise right for your family? It’s certainly a unique experience, nothing at all like a traditional cruise aboard a mega ship. But expedition cruises can be special experiences for the right family. Learn what an expedition cruise is, how to know whether one might be right for your kids and what a Lindblad cruise is like in 2021.
The writer was hosted.
My family and I recently returned from our second expedition cruise — this time, we cruised around Iceland on Lindblad Expeditions’ brand-new ship, National Geographic Endurance.
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Expedition cruising is a different travel experience from traditional cruising in so many ways, from the size of the ship to the amenities offered to the daily activities and ports of call. If you have questions about whether an expedition cruise is right for your family, read on for answers!
What Is an Expedition Cruise?
An expedition cruise is a small ship cruise that’s typically focused on exploring nature and wildlife. Most expedition ships carry a maximum of 200 passengers — the National Geographic Endurance carries just 126 guests when fully booked.
Because the ships are smaller, expedition cruises go to places that large ships can’t reach or aren’t permitted to go. Those destinations include the fragile ecosystem of Antarctica, small coves along Alaska’s Inside Passage, the Amazon River in Peru and the remote Galápagos Islands.
Unlike large cruise ships, some of which can hold more than 6,000 guests, expedition cruise lines like Lindblad-National Geographic, Quark, Aurora and many others, stick to small ships that don’t typically have the bells and whistles of larger vessels. They also explore smaller ports of call.
So while Lindblad’s Sea Cloud — a historic sailing ship — goes to the Caribbean, for instance, it doesn’t call at big tourist ports like San Juan or Montego Bay, but instead explores less-visited destinations like Dominica, Guadalupe and the Grenadines.
Even a cruise to a more touristy destination like the Bahamas (aboard the National Geographic Sea Lion) goes to small towns and uninhabited islands and skips the crowded ports. A Lindblad cruise to Belize and Guatemala explores the reefs and rivers not reachable by big ships.
Going Ashore on an Expedition Cruise
Shore excursions usually happen via Zodiac rafts. Depending on the climate and location, passengers might spend their days exploring a wild coastline, hiking through wilderness areas, paddling kayaks or snorkeling.
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Scientists, naturalists, local history experts and undersea specialists accompany each cruise and provide a wealth of information about the wildlife, geology, ecology and culture of the area. On a Lindblad cruise, expect to have a National Geographic photographer along as well.
Is an Expedition Cruise Right for Kids?
If you’re wondering whether an expedition cruise is right for your kids, my answer is: It depends on the kids.
Our daughter has loved both her expedition cruise experiences — she’s 9 now and did the first one when she was 7. She’s been the youngest aboard both times — on the Endurance she was the only child aboard. This allowed her tons of personalized attention from the crew, all of whom greeted her by name as soon as we set foot on the ship.
She’s kind of an outdoorsy kid anyway, so she was fine with the kayaking, hiking and Zodiac rides that were all part of our itinerary. She even did the Polar Plunge with us, and jumped into 49 F (9.4C) degree water of the North Atlantic!
Will There be Kids Aboard a Lindblad Cruise?
There wasn’t really anything she didn’t like about the experience, though I’m sure she would have appreciated having other kids to pal around and play with.
Select Lindblad itineraries, including Galápagos on the National Geographic Endeavour II, Costa Rica and Panama on the National Geographic Quest, New Zealand (aboard the National Geographic Orion) and South America on the flagship National Geographic Explorer, are more tailored to families with kids.
Itineraries to Baja California and the Sea of Cortez aboard the National Geographic Venture are also very popular with families. My contact at Lindblad told me that Antarctica, which is traditionally a very adult experience — in part because it’s just so darn cold — is also attracting more and more families.
Should You Take a Lindblad Cruise with Kids?
If you’re considering an expedition cruise with your family, here are some points to consider:
- Expedition cruises can really amaze and inspire young kids and teens. Staff are great about making sure kids have rich experiences and discover the wonders of the natural world. A highlight for our daughter was when she got to hold and then release three pufflings — that’s what baby puffins are called — back into the wild. She’s now convinced she wants to work on a NatGeo expedition ship when she grows up!
- There are no kids’ menus, kids’ clubs, water slides or other kid-oriented perks on these ships, though some have small swimming pools. The Endurance has two infinity edge hot tubs that we made good use of. On the rare free afternoon, we’d watch a movie on the in-room entertainment system (some ships have them; some don’t). In the evenings, we played cards and board games in the ship’s lounge until it was time for bed.
- My advice from experience is that if your child is under 7 or 8 years old, wait. Take an expedition cruise when they’re old enough to really remember and appreciate the experience. You’ll also be past the phase when your kids need naps or are prone to meltdowns when they’re tired or crabby.
- You may have your heart set on Antarctica, but don’t discount the Arctic for kids — either Greenland, the Canadian Arctic or Norway. You get a big experience in terms of wildlife sightings and polar climates, without the long trip to South America — Argentina is the point of departure for most Antarctic voyages — and the often very rough trip across the Drake Passage.
- Expedition cruises cost more than traditional big-ship cruises — often a lot more. So take pricing into consideration. Lindblad Expeditions and other cruise lines often offer free gratuities on certain sailings, discounts for early booking or for third and fourth passengers in the same cabin. But a family cruise on an expedition ship is still an expensive undertaking — though one that will imprint lasting memories for a lifetime.
What’s a Lindblad Expeditions Cruise Like in 2021?
In order to sail with Lindblad, we and everyone else onboard had to have our Covid vaccines. In fact, our daughter was the only person on the ship who wasn’t vaccinated. We also had to have negative PCR tests (our daughter included), and have a rapid Covid test when we arrived at the meeting point for the cruise, which was a hotel in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Onboard, we wore masks in common areas, and kept them on unless we were actively eating and drinking. It wasn’t the most fun part of the voyage, but all the passengers seemed so happy to be traveling again that we all adhered to the rules.
Sailing in a Bubble
The Delta variant is present in Iceland as it is just about everywhere else. We sailed around the island in a “bubble.” That meant that for the most part, we had no contact with people who weren’t part of the cruise group.
Even on shore excursions to towns, we were asked to adhere to social distancing and avoid going into local businesses. I’m sure everyone would have appreciated more contact with the people of Iceland but again, we all did what we were asked in order to keep everyone safe.
For the time being, Lindblad Expeditions will continue the same Covid protocols wherever they sail. That is relatively easy to do since so much of the time off-ship is spent exploring unpopulated wild areas.
Is it Covid Safe?
Aboard the ship, we felt very safe. Though I have to say that when we were transiting in and out of Iceland, we didn’t feel safe in crowded airports or on the jam-packed shuttle bus that took us out to the tarmac in Reykjavik.
All About the National Geographic Endurance
Where should I begin…the Lindblad National Geographic Endurance is a purpose-built expedition ship, meaning it was specifically designed to carry passengers to some of the world’s most remote regions, even when that means breaking ice in Antarctica or the Arctic in order to get there.
There is a science center onboard, as well as a “base camp,” from which the Zodiacs and kayaks are launched. That was also where we stored wet or muddy boots and other gear.
Is it a Luxury Experience?
On top of that, the ship is a luxury vessel, with premium staterooms (all with outside windows or balconies) and gourmet food. Additional deluxe perks include a spa, saunas and those hot tubs I mentioned.
A special feature of the Endurance are the two glass igloos at the rear of the ship. Guests can reserve to sleep there for a night. We did it twice, and both nights we cozied up with thick blankets and hot water bottles as the wind howled outside — magical!
Older expedition ships, including many in the Lindblad fleet, are often retired research vessels that have been repurposed for commercial cruising. Many are comfortable and functional, but few reach the level of luxury we found on the Endurance.
Dining Aboard the Endurance
There are two bars and two restaurants on the Endurance. We ate all our meals in the main restaurant, and went to the smaller, more casual restaurant for afternoon tea and snacks. We gathered every evening in the ship’s Ice Lounge for pre-dinner happy hour — where our daughter had her first Shirley Temple! — and a photo/video recap of the day’s activities.
Normally, many meals aboard would be served buffet style. But because of Covid restrictions, we always had table service.
And despite the lack of a kids’ menu or chicken nuggets and fries, our daughter never went hungry. The staff was always ready to order an off-menu item for her. She must have eaten prime rib 10 times while aboard. The waiters would even cut her steak for her! We enjoyed expertly prepared fish and seafood, and there was always a meat or vegetarian option.
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Highlights of Our Time on the National Geographic Endurance
The ship was extremely comfortable — the equivalent of a 5-star hotel at sea. But the real fun occurred off-ship when we went on excursions.
Some of the highlights of our Lindblad cruise to Iceland include:
- Visiting Grimsey Island, Iceland’s northernmost point, hiking to the Arctic Circle and then observing puffin and Arctic tern nesting areas.
- Marveling as our intrepid captain navigated the Endurance — in reverse! — into the narrow harbor at Heimaey, in the remote Westman Islands.
- Watching in delight as a pod of humpback whales dove and resurfaced around our ship for more than an hour.
- Hiking through the bizarre lava landscape of the Reykjanes peninsula to get close enough to see the Fagradalsfjall volcano, which started erupting in March 2021, spewing molten lava.
- Riding a giant ice truck to the top of the Langjokull Glacier, Iceland’s second-largest, and exploring a manmade ice tunnel, which burrows deep inside the glacier.
- Sheep, sheep and more sheep — they’re everywhere in Iceland!