Travel is booming again after two years of COVID restrictions, with many top tour operators and suppliers setting records for bookings for later this year and well into 2023. In fact, the industry is so hot that some of the best trips are hard to book ahead of next year, and even those are going fast.
But it’s not just “revenge travel” or pent-up demand that’s changing the leisure travel paradigm, it’s a fundamental shift in the way consumers view vacation time. Because we have all learned in very dramatic and unprecedented ways that from pandemics to wars, you can never be sure of what will happen next, and that life is short, when it comes to travel, many tend to think of “now, not later” approach. According to luxury travel agents/consultants and industry experts I’ve spoken to, that means responding to those epic “bucket list” trips that have previously been pushed to “eventually,” and skipping the average vacation to get to the one-in to arrive -a-lifetime ones earlier.
Because of this, the best tour operators, the high-end, luxury and specialist tour operators, are seeing a huge surge in bookings across the board, as they are the suppliers that usually offer these “world’s best” types of travel that suddenly demand. At the same time, since COVID, there has been a dramatic increase in demand for smaller, more intimate, boutique trips, from accommodation to tour groups and transportation. Another major travel trend that started before the pandemic and is still going strong is the desire for experiential travel, trips that go deeper and allow guests to learn about tanning, known in the industry as “making memories”. is known.
Journeys of a lifetime, more exclusivity and deeper experiences are three of the biggest trends driving vacation choice right now, and now they’re coming together neatly and very timely thanks to a new partnership between two of the leaders in their industries, Smithsonian Journeys and Ponant Cruises.
We all know the Smithsonian Institution, the biggest name in museums, natural history and scientific research. For more than half a century, Smithsonian Journeys has been an educational branch of the venerable institution – through travel. With over 300 trips a year, the company has a long and distinguished track record of expert land, rail, river and sea voyages to all seven continents. If you are a renowned scientist, professor or expert in a natural, cultural or historical field, working with the Smithsonian Institution is a dream job and this gives the organization a huge selection of world-class guides to choose from for their trips. they guide and an educational focus centered on enrichment. At sea, Smithsonian Journeys has always focused on intimate ships that go where large, mass-market cruises can’t, and allow for easy, frequent disembarkation to delve deep into the places they visit. The ships, in turn, are selected for quality of service and accommodations, while offering individual seating, ample open deck space and desirable amenities, from creature comforts to fitness facilities.
Which brings us to Ponant.
Founded in 1988 by several French naval officers, it was the first French cruise line and has since built an excellent reputation for trying to make customers feel like guests on a private yacht. The ships are modern, solid, and very well equipped, from spas to marinas where Zodiacs can be launched, but they’re much smaller than the vast majority of cruise ships, allowing them to go places that others can’t can reach, including polar regions. This is coupled with that uniquely French flair in the form of luxurious accommodation, service, multilingual crew and of course cuisine (think of the famous Laduree macarons, finest Brittany butter and French wines). The line has won dozens of prestigious awards, including titles like Best Luxury Adventure Cruise Line, Best Expedition Line, and Best Ocean Cruise Line Itineraries from the likes of Cruise Critic, Luxury Travel Magazine, Travel + Leisure, Travel Weekly, Time Magazine, British Cruise Awards, Conde Nast Traveler UKand made one of his itineraries National Geographic Travelers “50 tours of a lifetime.”
It’s also a very sustainability-focused travel company, and while there’s a lot of lip service in this regard today, they put their money where their word is, with real action and a detailed manifesto to the Ponant Foundation, which protects ocean habitat and polar regions. They work in partnership with National Geographic and Monaco’s Oceanography Institute and hold a number of important international certifications, including Cleanship and Cleanship Super for polar vessels, won the Eco Blue Charter Trophy in France and were the first European cruise line to be awarded the Green Marine Label. They have just launched the world’s first hybrid-electric polar expedition ship.
In the main fleet, four sister ships each have 132 cabins – large hotel rooms, most with outside decks. There is 145 crew members for a maximum of 264 guests, a full spa, two restaurants, a fitness center, theater, pool, outdoor bar, and multiple lounges and observation decks. Several slightly smaller but fully-equipped Explorer ships each have 92 rooms and suites, all with private balconies, and the newest of these feature a unique multi-sensory underwater lounge, allowing you to enjoy the sights and sounds of the ocean from inside the ship be able.
This is a new partnership that started this year and is already seeing many sold-out trips into 2023. Each cruise carries two Smithsonian Journey Experts, and there are 22 itineraries in total, each “designed to encourage cultural immersion and discovery,” including an excursion or activity in each individual port of call. According to the Smithsonian, “Together, Smithsonian and Ponant offer an enriching cruise experience tailored to a range of interests and deeply rewarding… Ponant ships are designed to accommodate just 184 to 264 guests. And when you take shore excursions, explore the area in small groups so you get up close and personal with the sights and experiences. The smaller vessel size also allows Ponant to follow best practices for environmentally responsible tourism.”
They’re bargains in the luxury travel space, too, especially considering they include all meals, all shore excursions, and an open bar on board, as well as the expert guides, free Wi-Fi, and airport transfers at both ends. Meals can be enjoyed in restaurants, al fresco on deck, or through the 24-hour room service. For example, an 8-day cruise of the currently highly desirable Greek Islands starts at $5,130 per person, or about $650 per day, including luxury accommodation and cuisine, activities, adult beverages and more. That’s hard to beat.
Experts assigned to the partnership include Franklin Knight, professor emeritus of history at Johns Hopkins University, an expert on Portugal and Spain; James Zimbleman, senior geologist emeritus at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum; and Gail Cornell, an architectural historian who teaches at New York University and is an associate professor of architecture, design, and art at the Museum of Modern Art. Trips range from circumnavigating Sicily to cruising the Dalmatian Coast and Ionian Sea to destinations such as Greece, Morocco, Italy, London, Norway, Scotland, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Canada, Panama, Costa Rica, the Caribbean, French Polynesia, Middle East, Antarctica. As well as destination-oriented itineraries, there are also special occasion offerings such as a 2023 solar eclipse cruise from Indonesia to Australia, which includes astronomical observations from a secluded spot, visits with Komodo dragons and a Zodiac ride through gorges to Australia’s towering King George Falls. A trip to Arctic Norway is all about wildlife, including polar bears, as well as giant glaciers and ice floes. There’s something for almost every taste and every eatery you want, but what they have in common, along with surprising value for money, is top-notch leadership and hospitality.
As of today, there are only a few departures available in autumn 2022 (Greek Islands; French Polynesia; Great Lakes; Galapagos; Spain & Portugal). The first quarter of 2023 is similarly tight, with five voyages still available to book and then more available including six all-new departures for 2023. You can download the Smithsonian + Ponant brochure here.