National Geographic Islander II is Lindblad Expeditions’ first yacht product and the most luxurious ship in the fleet. Stationed year-round in the Galapagos, it puts the expedition cruise line on par with some of the more traditionally luxurious operators in the region, including Celebrity and Silversea.
Travel Market Report had the chance to sail onboard National Geographic Islander II with a couple of travel advisors earlier this week. The five-night sailing visited some of the Galapagos’ most iconic locations and featured Lindblad’s top-notch educational and scientific focus.
But it was the ship, as much as the location that had both advisors we spoke to excited to go back and tell their clients about.
National Geographic Islander II, formerly operated by Crystal Cruises as Crystal Esprit, features a one-to-one crew-to-passenger ratio, 26 spacious suites (starting at 225 square feet), two dining venues and a marina for easy access to the Zodiacs that ferry guests to and from the islands.
“I’m pretty blown away,” said Robin Cline, owner of Cline & Co. Travel Consulting, a Virtuoso member agency. “I love the fact that it’s an all-suite ship.”
While the National Geographic Islander II isn’t brand-new, it has a new-ship feel to it thanks to a recent refurbishment, which saw the replacement of all soft goods throughout the ship. The cabinetry in the cabins, leftover from Crystal, is in excellent condition – and plentiful.
The Patio Café, where breakfast and most lunches are served, was expanded to provide more outdoor seating. Few guests on our sailing sat inside, instead choosing the expansive views the outdoor patio provided, even on chilly, windy mornings. (Dinners are served in the Yacht Club restaurant, which has a more formal feel.)
Another new addition is the library, where guests can find a wealth of books on the Galapagos, along with a high-tech coffee machine, water dispenser, and snacks. The shop across the way, also new, features Lindblad branded merchandise, as well as jewelry and crafts made by local artisans.
One fun addition is four colorful handmade hammocks on the Observation Deck. Unfortunately, it was usually too windy and cold on our late October sailing to use them. Similarly, the pool, which is not heated, may be great during warm weather cruises, but not when you’ve already been snorkeling in 64-degree water.
During what limited free time we had – a Lindblad expedition is packed with activities from early morning through dinner – most people relaxed in the lobby or top-deck Cove Lounge. Evening cocktails, afternoon lectures, daily recaps and next day previews were all held in the lounge, which was outfitted during the refurb with multiple screens so you can see presentations from every seat in the room.
The Right Client for Islander II
National Geographic Islander II has been sailing since August. According to Jacinta McEvoy, vice president of global sales for Lindblad Expeditions, so far, it’s been attracting a luxury traveler who is new to Lindblad.
Considering that Lindblad is marketing the ship differently than its other ships, that’s no surprise.
While the line prefers not to use the term luxury in its marketing, it is highlighting the luxury touches onboard, like the fact that it’s an all-suite ship, with double sinks in the bathrooms and marble counters.
The travel advisors we spoke with appreciated these luxury touches and said it gives their clients a choice they didn’t have before. Or, rather, it takes away the forced choice clients used to have to make – between luxury or Lindblad’s exceptional programming.
“There’s a lot of choices out there,” said Carol Flax, an independent advisor with McCabe World Travel. “Usually it comes down to two choices where I’m telling people, if you want a more luxury comfortable full-service experience with great sightseeing, then go X. If you really want the expedition and the adventure and the focus is on naturalist guides, photography, and science, then go to Lindblad, but know that that comes with smaller cabins and that the bathrooms may be a ‘shoilet.’ I don’t think people have to choose anymore.”
“It’s not that it wasn’t a high level of service on previous ships,” she added. “Just a certain luxury comfort that now people don’t have to make that choice.”
“There is a part of the market that wants that aspect [luxury comforts] to a trip and they are going to go to somebody else if they [Lindblad] don’t offer it,” she said. “Their education component and the specialists they have onboard are absolutely second to none, and especially that they keep a couple of cabins open for people that are actually doing scientific work and we’re able to talk to them is an amazing opportunity. Having that kind of product combined with [luxury] is so unique.”
Cline told TMR she’ll specifically sell National Geographic Islander II to “the people that the kind of expedition is important to them… people that are really curious learners, but they also want luxury.”
People who put luxury before the expedition experience, she said she’d send to other brands. “It’s a different feel when you’re talking about a ship that has butlers, that’s luxury before expedition.”
The decision to keep the core Lindblad experience (vs. something like butler-service) was purposeful, McEvoy said.
“Luxury isn’t the point. We don’t want people spending time in their cabins being served by their butler. We want them maximizing their time in the destination.”
Flax echoed Cline, telling TMR that clients that are focused first on learning and engaging during their travels, but who also want comfort are those she’ll market National Geographic Islander II to.
She also said families would be a good target market.
According to McEvoy, Lindblad’s other ship in the region, the 96-passenger National Geographic Endeavour II, has traditionally attracted more families. But Flax said she could see National Geographic Islander II taking some of that demand due to the larger cabins, some of which are connecting.