12 March 2021 by David Ward
They're a heritage brand with 70 years' experience in expedition cruising. And this year, Swan Hellenic are welcoming not one, but two brand-new ships to complement their world-spanning collection of voyages, which take in everywhere from Antarctica to the Russian Far East. To get the lowdown and find out what makes them stand out from the crowd, we enjoyed a wide-ranging conversation with Pierre Thomas, Swan Hellenic director of expedition operations. Traveller Magazine editor Amy Sohanpaul asks the questions.
Why is expedition cruising important? Which destinations do you consider most essential, and why?
Expedition cruising allows passengers to explore the most extraordinary places on earth. We also give them the company of like-minded people and renowned experts, who offer eye-opening lectures and are on hand to answer informal questions and discussions throughout the cruise. So, when they choose Swan Hellenic to ‘see what others don’t’, they can be sure they will do so with the full perspective of real insight into the history, culture, wildlife, flora, geology and geography of the place.
Our curated itineraries combine well- and lesser-known destinations. The aim is for our guests to travel deeper into the destination – going as far as possible from the beaten path. Antarctica remains popular, but the Pacific Ocean Islands and Russian Far East are also in great demand.
Wrangel Island, Russian Arctic
What does a typical day on board involve, for both guests and staff?
The exciting truth is that there is no such thing as a typical day of expedition cruising. The most unexpected encounters with incredible landscapes and wildlife can occur at any time and are so often a highlight!
Guests will however wake to a beautiful breakfast, either cooked or continental during which they can enjoy the view. They will then make their way to our Concierge managed full-service changing room ‘Basecamp’ to prepare for the day ahead.
The team will brief all guests on the technical aspects of the day before setting off in small groups for whichever activities are available. Likely options include kayaking, expeditions in zodiacs, snorkelling or hiking all aimed at discovering areas of outstanding interest and beauty.
Back on board, this is always a great chance to exchange stories over lunch. Attendants will take care of all the relevant kit and equipment in Basecamp and the afternoon will vary by destination offering expert lectures or the opportunity of further expeditions or excursions. Destinations will offer quite busy programs but there is always time to lounge on the extensive decks enjoying seascapes and wildlife. We have a panoramic sauna, a salon, retail opportunities and a library, so plenty of opportunity for a little down time when guests are done exploring their interests for philosophy, poetry or photography with our experts.
The evening will be centered around our elegant but informal dining followed by a piano performance, a chance to play a board game, cards or to enjoy stargazing under crystal clear skies.
Tell us more about your new ships. How are they different from other luxury ships, and what went into their design to make them exceptional?
We are excited to welcome two brand-new, 5-star expedition cruise ships, SH Minerva arriving in November 2021 and SH Vega in April 2022. These ships will accommodate 152 guests in 76 spacious staterooms and suites, the majority with large balconies. Unlike the majority of our competitors, we have chosen the Polar Code 5, a class that allows year-round operation in polar water. This ultimately extends our presence in the polar regions while offering increased safety thanks to a highly reinforced hull and propellers.
There is, in fact a real emphasis on safety and sustainability. We exceed all laws and regulations pertaining to pollution at sea. Our Tier III diesel electric engines reduce harmful emissions with battery power used for quiet, emission-free navigation in port and sensitive wildlife areas. Dynamic positioning systems mean our ships can avoid dropping anchor in fragile environments.
For guests reassurance, our ships are all built with the latest hygiene technology and standards, including UV sanitised air conditioning, among other features.
From a design standpoint, the ships will feature a modern Scandinavian-inspired design, showcasing unobstructed views and generous outside space. The aim was to offer large windows, both in staterooms and public spaces, accessible outside decks for wildlife watching at any location and an elegant yet unobtrusive décor. We wanted the centre of attention to be the outside – the ship is simply a tool to get there.
Our third ship a larger P6 ice-class vessel accommodating 192 guests and kitted out with the same distinctive comfort and style will be arriving at the end of 2022.
Which destinations excite you most, and do you deliver your itineraries in a different way from other cruise companies?
Our itineraries have been carefully developed to minimise days at sea, and we aim to take our guests to see what others don’t.
While traditional expedition companies tend to focus on the polar regions, we plan to offer cultural expeditions to all seven continents. In the North, we are working on exclusive itineraries in the Russian Arctic. Other countries on our itineraries include New Zealand, Japan, Papua New Guinea and Canada.
Historically, Swan Hellenic were pioneers, taking guests to places others had only dreamt about. We are meticulous about every aspect of our cruises - and have been for 70 years. Today, we sail to places unreachable by others, seek immersive experiences, and make discoveries that change the way we see the world.
For me personally, I am still excited by the spectacular and yet relatively unexplored scenery and wildlife of Kamchatka and the Russian Far East. The same can also be said for the areas around the Franz Josef Land archipelago. Another personal favourite is to explore Papua New Guinea along with Raja Ampat & The Philippines but there are so many exciting itineraries to choose from.
What memories would he most want Swan Hellenic's guests to take away with them?
In essence we want to bring back the spirit of cultural expedition travel. We want to enrich people’s lives through travel and satisfy a deep-rooted thirst for knowledge.
After exploring a destination or region with Swan Hellenic, guests will return saying that they not only visited, but understood those destinations, making new friends along the way.
Our onboard expedition team plays such a big part in all of this, and I’ve no doubt that our experts will help us to achieve our goals through an in-depth understanding of their particular specialty.
This is an edited version of the full interview, which will be published in Traveller Magazine, due out in April 2021.