Aurora Expeditions, a two ship expedition company based in Australia, has impressed me in many ways; especially when it comes to the three most vital aspects of a travel experience: The expedition team, the ship and customer/guest services. There are other strong points that Aurora puts forth, such as solid cuisine and acceptable wines included at dinner…nicely adding to a solid expedition experience.
There is, however, room for improvement in a few areas. But before I get to those, and as the expedition experience really was fantastic, here are my other articles – and I highly recommend you read the two WOW articles, if no others:
As I have visited the Arctic three time, Antarctica six times, Alaska at least three times, the Norwegian fjords as the first trial of the Seabourn Ventures program, plus a few safaris and Amazon journeys, I have experienced all sorts of expedition teams and individual team members. And in all those I don’t believe I have ever experienced a team that not only is highly qualified and able to engage with the guests on such a personal level, but also have so much fun as a group. I mean the Aurora team really liked each other…as a whole; not a few here and there. And that is contagious!
Aurora was able to seemingly always put us in the right place at the right time. Now, I know some of that is luck, but as they say, “You make your own luck!”.
From calving glaciers to fast ice to pack ice, from historical whaling sites to Nazi weather stations, from walks on the beach to six mile hikes in volcanic sand and gravel, Aurora’s expedition team delivered every single day.
One of the biggest challenges can be spotting polar bears; especially when you only have a few days in the area. (Our expedition encompassed Western Iceland, Jan Mayen, and Svalbard and polar bears are only present in the latter.) Not only did the team select great landing areas, but we encountered polar bears every day in Svalbard!
Now, most (definitely not all) of our encounters were at a significant distance – you needed binoculars or long lenses to see them – making me wonder on other expeditions if those teams (one company in particular) were as conscientious…not only for spotting them, but being so aware of our safety. (Polar bear attacks on tourist are very rare so I don’t want to worry anyone.)
There was a definite “expedition ethos” which, as you know, resulted in what will undoubtedly be the closest and most awe-inspiring interaction with a polar bear I probably will ever have. (Sitting above them on a ship isn’t the same as an up close and personal encounter with one swimming by while sitting in a zodiac…with the polar bear looking you right in the eye.)
With wonderfully entertaining and informative lectures that were timed well – generally setting you up before you encounter something so you understand what you will see, rather than not really getting it until later – and covered nature, history, and science, the Aurora expedition team nailed it.
Another strong aspect of Aurora Expeditions is their second ship, Sylvia Earle. The design of the ship and the quality of the furnishings were excellent. It stands testament to how the expedition ships are really pushing into the luxury market from a hardware standpoint. Sylvia Earle has wonderful public spaces with plush, comfortable seating areas that are grouped for conversation; not merely holding volumes of people.
My favorite spaces are the Library on Deck 6 forward and the Observation Lounge on Deck 8 forward. The former is warm and cozy while the latter is bright and brings the outside in; a wonderful contrast.
I stayed in one of the four Junior Suites (there is one Captain’s suite which is slightly larger), but all of the staterooms are well-designed and comfortable. While the junior suite has a few design flaws – such as the small desk being in the bedroom rather than living room and a lack of a vanity and full length mirror…which are curiously provided most all other staterooms – it is a very comfortable space.
I do wish, however, the bathrooms were larger and has more storage.
(Note: There are a few suites with a large window that opens, but I would stay away from them as they are impractical and won’t be used; leaving you with basically an oceanview stateroom with no balcony.)
The dining room is nicely laid out and there being table clothes and cloth napkins for all meals is a nice touch. I wish there were more tables for two. (Curiously, the napkins are changed out each meal, but the tableclothes are not.)
The area around the buffet – used for breakfast and lunch – can get congested.
The second, smaller, informal restaurant on Deck 8 is a wonderful spot with a fixed menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner and great views. Again, not too many tables for two and the limited menu never changes.
Speaking of restaurants, the cuisine was surprisingly good. The options were varied and always included vegetarian choices. I tended to find the main courses at dinner more to my liking, so I would order two and one would come in a starter portion.
Fish is an interesting discussion on Aurora. One day a week there is no fish served, as a reminder not to overfish our oceans. I appreciate the nod, but sustainable seafood chains do exist and should not be shunned as they are important sources of protein…and far less harmful to the environment than cattle farming.
A related issue is the use of the irresponsibly farmed southeast Asian freshwater catfish, Basa, which can have high levels of mercury and other toxins. I noticed it was being served regularly, but under all three names it is known by: Basa,Swai, and Bocourti, as if different fish were being offered. I skipped fish on those days.
Onboard Sylvia Earle I do have a few issues and they are mostly related to CMI, the company that Aurora (and many other lines) hires for hotel and/or deck operations. While most guests didn’t have any idea of who CMI is, the Expedition Team and I most certainly did. It gave the feeling that there were two separate operations: Aurora’s expedition team; and, CMI. For example, I found the CMI branding on all of the deck workers inappropriate (though the uniforms were always quite clean). Why not give them unbranded or Aurora branded gear rather than promoting CMI and the lack of an integrated product?
Now, to Aurora’s credit, there is an Aurora coordinator onboard who does a great job of keeping things in sync between the expedition team and CMI. However, some of the CMI tactics undercut the real quality of Aurora Expeditions. Not a dealbreaker by any means, and easily corrected, but…
As I mentioned, they delivered the dining experience and the staterooms were well-maintained. However, as most of the hotel staff had recently been on other lines (including Princess and NCL), there was an undertone by a few of bartenders “working” me for an additional tip come cruise-end. (On Aurora gratuities are included.)
That said, Aurora’s wine steward – yes, Aurora has them! – actually provided one of the most refined presentations of wine I have experienced. (I would not say he was a sommelier, but that would be an unfair expectation.)
Speaking of wine, CMI also offers a “wine package” that is, plain and simply, something to avoid. It offers three bottles of wine for $99. Fair enough, but as the cruise goes on you realize they are the same the wines included with dinner. Now, if you want a bottle of wine before or after dinner, it might be worth it, but honestly there isn’t much value there. That sort of “pricing scheme” continued into the gift shop where some of the prices were mind-boggling. That said, Aurora does have an excellent selection of quality branded items; something most lines don’t do well.
One other important point that I know Aurora is working on: The ship doesn’t have a true crew area so when they smoke it tends to waft into public areas. I do not think the staff should be permitted to smoke while on duty or where the guests can see (or smell) them doing so.
With the overall performance of CMI not being a significant issue, I think making things function as a more integrated experience would be easy…and elevate Aurora Expeditions.
Now for the one big complaint, but noting it is specific to Iceland and not the normal Aurora Expedition “expedition” experience: The time in Iceland was not described as daily bus tours, but that is what was provided and some of the elements were just too touristic…even for a typical cruise.
Having been to a number of the sites visited previously, some really good ones were provided; making how we got there less relevant. However, I also know some of our time could have been better spent either as to time allocation or subject matter.
For example, visits to an old rusty boat and the “oldest ‘original’ bookstore” (whatever that means) must be eliminated and left to NCL cruise tours. And when the weather wasn’t cooperative (ex. standing in cold dense fog for two full hours while all puffins were smart enough to be hiding in their burrows) cutting the time short is a must…even if the timing of the next stop might interfere with a pre-scheduled itinerary.
When on expedition, there is an expectation of being nimble; changing plans on a moment’s notice. I know the tours on the Iceland days were contracted out and, without question, there are better tour operators in Iceland…and I use them for my clients…as well as better tours.
As it was later explained to me Aurora Expeditions is trying to have “Discovery” and “Expedition” cruises. That is fine, but it needs to be specifically spelled out in the pre-expedition descriptions and documents that is what is going to be offered. (Note: Aurora isn’t the only expedition company that needs to up its game on this.)
Reflecting back on my Aurora Expeditions experience, and casting aside the unusual Iceland experience, Aurora delivered an excellent expedition experience on a truly premium ship. Because of my dealings with Aurora years ago I boarded Sylvia Earle a bit of skeptic (yeah, I know, hard to believe I was skeptical), but disembarked wanting more: