August will see the maiden voyage of the Scenic Eclipse, which has been billed as the ‘world’s first discovery yacht’. With room for 228 guests, the vessel’s small size is compensated for with the promise of visiting exciting locations, including Antarctica. Lisa Bolton, general product manager at Scenic, talks to Ross Davies about what guests can expect.

Who says cruise ships are getting bigger? Well, most of us. After all, this year will see the launch of Royal Caribbean International’s newest vessel, the Symphony of the Seas, which – weighing in at 230,000t and with a capacity of more than 5,000 guests – will officially be crowned the world’s largest cruise ship when it sets sail in the coming months.

Symphony usurps another vessel from the same group, Harmony of the Seas, as the largest passenger ship in the world. Delivered in 2016, it has a gross tonnage of 226,963 and a passenger capacity of 5,479. The ‘floating cities’ trope bandied around about the cruise industry – particularly by the media – remains alive and well, but some operators are looking towards smaller vessels that capture a more intimate experience of cruising.

Australian operator Scenic is one leading player that has decided to make a leap in this direction. In April, the company’s new vessel, Scenic Eclipse, will set off on its maiden voyage from the Mediterranean with room for 228 guests. Labelled as the ‘world’s first discovery yacht’, it will go to far-flung places that were once ‘untouchable to the ordinary traveller’. Having exclusively run river cruises since its establishment in 1987, the Eclipse marks Scenic’s inaugral ocean cruise ship. The vessel is 168m long, with 114 suites and a crew of 176.

An exciting development

According to Scenic’s website, the vessel is “the first yacht of its kind, marrying six-star luxury with unrivalled exploration”. It provides “exceptional and unique experiences”, including ten on-board dining options and a chance to see the Arctic Circle with a member of the ship’s Discovery Team. The company has made a big promise and guests will be hoping that the Eclipse can deliver on it, especially with prices for a place on the maiden voyage starting at $3,295 per head.

High-end amenities aside, the Eclipse’s unique selling point lies in the sheer range of its itineraries. After first sailing from Athens to Venice, its maiden season will take it to Europe, the Arctic and Norwegian Fjords, the Americas and Antarctica.

Equipped with two six-seater, twin -engine helicopters, a seven-seater submarine, 12 zodiac inflatable rafts and kayaks, guests are expected to immerse themselves in excursions above ground and underwater. Expeditions, led by regional experts, include low-flying dashes over the crags of the Scottish Highlands, the volcanoes of Southern Italy and Caribbean coral cays.

In the other direction, the submarine will lower guests to the depths, where Greece and Turkey’s underwater ruins can be found, as well as the coral reefs of the West Indies. Cruisers can also take excursions above water on zodiacs and kayaks atop the Arctic and Mediterranean seas.

Unique locale

Scenic has gone to town on the Eclipse, boldly stating it will be ‘Taking ocean cruising to a whole new level.’ But of all the destinations that it will traverse, it is Antarctica that piques the most interest. Home to some of the most extreme and spectacular points on Earth – with local fauna including humpback whales, elephant seal and penguins – sailing the White Continent requires the upmost safety. Nothing has been left to chance, explains Lisa Bolton, Scenic’s general product manager.

The ship also has a rating of ice class 1A Super (Polar Class 6), the highest of any luxury vessel, which will ensure the safest navigation.

“All due considerations were taken into account when designing our itineraries; in particular, the time of year that we sail to Antarctica,” she says. “Where our itineraries push further, it is because the conditions at that time of the year allow us to do so. We will never risk the safety of our guests.” Consequently, Eclipse has been built in alignment with the new International Maritime Organization (IMO) Polar Code requirements. Its technological features also include custom-built stabilisers, which are 50% larger than those found on other ships, and a strengthened hull to break ice.

“The ship also has a rating of ice class 1A Super (Polar Class 6), the highest of any luxury vessel, which will ensure the safest navigation through Arctic and Antarctic water,” explains Bolton, whose responsibilities include overseeing the Eclipse project.

“The ship features special safe return to port capabilities, guaranteeing essential systems remain operational in the unlikely case of an incident. It is the only ship operating in the polar regions to include this technology.”

The renderings released by Scenic also depict the vessel cleaving close to the Antarctic coastline. How unusual is this for ships sailing in such waters? “Actually, close proximity to the coast is not unusual for vessels operating in the Antarctic,” answers Bolton. “One of the most important considerations when manoeuvring close to the coast is the draft and depth of the vessel. In fact, if you have the ability to do so, it can aid zodiac operations. As aforementioned, we also have the highest ice-class hull before an icebreaker. As a member of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), we adhere to the safety guidelines and standards set by the organisation.”

However, there are no plans to deploy a submarine in and around the Antarctic’s myriad ice flows, states Bolton. The decision, she says, “was made in accordance with the IAATO guidelines for manned submersibles”.

Groundbreaking design

The Scenic Eclipse has been three years in the making. Registered in Malta, it has been constructed by Croatia’s ULJANIK Group, and its contract includes the option for a second ship to be delivered in 2019.

The group behind the vessel’s design is Finnish company Foreship, which had to incorporate state-of-the-art engineering into the sleek exterior of a mega yacht. At 16,500t, the Eclipse’s cruising speed will be around 17k.

The deck plan comprises eight decks, with the first housing mud rooms that make accessing zodiacs easier. On deck six, there is a spa sanctuary, shallow plunge pools and guest suites, while a helicopter hangar and penthouse suites form the ninth deck. The top of the ship features a sun terrace.

There are 114 all-veranda suites on board the Eclipse; the biggest boasts a surface area of 232m², making it slightly bigger than the space taken up by a tennis court. Luxury hotels inspired the interior design of the living spaces that were created by Karen Moroney, co-owner and wife of Scenic founder Glen Moroney.

“It’s very much an all-inclusive, sixstar luxury ship meets expedition ship,” says Bolton.

“There is nothing else like this currently in the market. A number of factors make it unique: the size of the vessel compared to the guest count, the number of dining venues, plus in-suite dining, the guest to staff ration of one to one, the large number of public spaces, the cadence of the itineraries and the intimacy of the experience.”

Environmental leader

With the cruise industry’s impact on the environment being scrutinised more than ever, Scenic has sought to position the Eclipse as a trailblazer for green practices.

The level of excitement and anticipation we are getting from our booked guests tells us we have hit the nail right on the head… we are proud to be able to put forth a ship that we believe will exceed expectations.

Unlike the traditional anchors used by most vessels, the ship is fitted with GPS and a set of thrusters that, together with the main engine, maintains its position in the water. This combination only poses minimal damage to surrounding marine ecosystems.

The Eclipse also features other ecofriendly systems, including advanced water treatment facilities and efficient low-impact engines. The vessel has undoubtedly captured the imagination of the hospitality and travel sectors, with Scenic stating that it has experienced an uptick in interest among travel agents. Public reception has also been favourable, states Bolton. “Interest in the ship’s inaugural season has been high, with strong early sales ensuring the first sailing from Athens to Venice,” she adds. “Several subsequent departures have sold out.”

All of this has led Scenic to believe that it has hit upon a winning formula for expedition cruising.

“The level of excitement and anticipation we are getting from our booked guests tells us we have hit the nail right on the head,” explains Bolton. “The market for true luxury in small ships and expedition itineraries is heating up, and we are proud to be able to put forth a ship that we believe will exceed expectations.”