First look: World Navigator, the stylish new adventure cruise ship from new line Atlas Ocean Voyages
It's a big month for fans of cruising, and not just because some of the world's most popular cruise vessels finally are back in operation after a 17-month shutdown.
This month also has brought the debut of an entirely new cruise line, Atlas Ocean Voyages.
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Based in Fort Lauderdale, the new "luxe adventure" brand is promising upscale, adventurous sailings on small but well-appointed expedition vessels -- the sort of vessels that carry their own landing craft for exploring in remote, off-the-beaten-path places.
Created by a company that's already big in river cruising and operates ocean ships for other brands, it's a line that will focus heavily on voyages to the ultimate playgrounds for small expedition ships, Antarctica and the Arctic. It'll also offer a sprinkling of trips to South America, the Norwegian Fjords, Iceland, Greenland, the Baltic and the Mediterranean, too.
For now, Atlas only is operating a single ship, the 196-passenger World Navigator. But it plans to quickly ramp up in size with the addition of four more sister vessels to World Navigator over the next three years.
TPG is one of just a handful of travel sites getting exclusive access this week to the ship's inaugural voyage -- a nine-night trip from Piraeus, Greece, to Alexandria, Egypt.
As I’m seeing this week, World Navigator is an intimate and stylish ship that's well built for adventure. Atlas is positioning itself as a luxury brand, and it's definitely a vessel that can play in that space, although for now the service level on board isn't quite at the luxury level (something I suspect will change in the coming months as the crew begins to get in a groove).
Here's a first look at World Navigator's overall structure, interiors and onboard atmosphere:
It's a small ship -- in a good way
World Navigator isn't a tiny vessel. Including exterior areas at the top of the ship, it has six decks open to passengers.
But it's designed to hold far fewer people -- as noted above, just 196, not including crew -- than is typical for a cruise ship, even in the luxury space.
Even 196 is a bit of an overstatement, as the line will be using some passenger cabins on every voyage to house entertainers and expedition guides. As a result, executives tell me the ship is unlikely to ever sail with more than 184 passengers. On some itineraries, the maximum passenger count will be even lower.
Only a handful of upscale cruise lines, most notably France-based Ponant and Windstar Cruises, focus on vessels with so few passengers.
Such a low passenger count gives World Navigator an intimacy that is its own type of luxury. This is a ship on which you'll never feel like you're cruising with a lot of people.
It's a stylish ship
You won't find the soaring spaces or diverse array of restaurants and lounges on World Navigator that you'll find on some bigger luxury ships that have debuted in recent years, such as Regent Seven Seas Cruises' 1-year-old Seven Seas Splendor.
But for a ship this size, it offers a generous array of public spaces created with a designer's eye for harmony and detail.
World Navigator has a striking, retro-chic interior decor dominated by glossy mahogany walls set off by white-and-black marble flooring and contemporary furniture. Designed by Portuguese design firm Oitoemponto, it’s sort of a 1940s-meets-modern-times interpretation of glamor.
Most of the public venues are on a single deck (Deck 4) with a flow so seamless you hardly notice you're transitioning from space to space. From front to back, this deck is home to a small theater for lectures; a main lounge with a bar that serves as the ship's central gathering point; a lobby area; a casual café offering espresso drinks, pastries and some heartier snacks; and an upscale restaurant serving regionally influenced gourmet fare.
Hidden away in a corner, there's also a small but inviting L’Occitane spa with two treatment rooms, a relaxing lounge area and a sauna.
Related: Everything you want to know about World Navigator cabins, suites
In addition, World Navigator features a relatively large deck-top pool area — something you don’t always find on a ship carrying fewer than 200 passengers. It's home to a pool, two hot tubs, rows of lounge chairs and a pool grill and bar.
It's built for adventure
As noted above, World Navigator is an expedition ship. That is, it’s built extra tough to go to some of the most faraway parts of the world.
As is typical for ships of this type, it has a polar-class rating that’ll allow it to travel deep into the polar regions in addition to warm-water locales, and it carries Zodiac boats for exploring. It also sails with a floating adventure dock that can be used to launch Jet Skis, kayaks and paddleboards that are kept on board. There's a mudroom with cubbies where passengers can keep their parkas and boots during polar adventures.
But perhaps most importantly for a ship meant for adventures in scenic and wildlife-filled places, this is a ship loaded with indoor and outdoor observation areas.
Among the most notable of these is a perfectly positioned observation lounge. Located at the very front of the ship, on the highest deck, the Dome, as it's called, features a curving wall of floor-to-ceiling windows that offers stunning views in three directions at once (as well as a view straight up through a glass dome that tops the space -- hence its name).
Better yet, doors on each side of the Dome observation lounge lead to outdoor viewing areas that also wrap around three sides of the ship.
World Navigator also offers a close-to-the-waterline outdoor observation area at its very tip that will offer equally stunning views during expeditions in scenery-rich places such as Antarctica and the Arctic. Called The Water's Edge, it boasts a long, curving bench that's heated from within to take the chill off during adventures in such cold-weather locales.
Plus there are two more outdoor observation areas at the back of Decks 5 and 6 -- the two main cabin decks. This allows passengers in cabins a quick place to run outside for a view when the captain announces that wildlife has been spotted.
This abundance of observation areas may seem like a small thing, but for a vessel designed to spend half its year in polar regions, where glimpsing scenery and wildlife is at the heart of the experience, it really is one of the most important things. Unfortunately, not every expedition ship built for such adventures recently has been designed with so much viewing space.
It's not stuffy
Atlas may be positioning itself as a luxury brand, but its founding president, Alberto Aliberti (who is on this sailing), is adamant it not be a stuffy sort of luxury.
He's purposely set the dress code to be casual -- a polo shirt with slacks for men at dinner is just fine (no jacket required). And he's eager to keep the dining and cabin service experience unfussy.
As I'm seeing first-hand, World Navigator isn't a ship that revolves around long, formal meals in palace-like dining rooms where armies of tuxedo-clad waiters hover behind you as if in a scene from "Downton Abbey." Your room steward won't show up in a tailcoat and white gloves with four different brands of luxury soaps from which to choose.
"The feeling we're looking at is kind of like a country club after a round of golf, when everyone is still in their shorts, they're relaxed [and] they're having some drinks at the bar," Aliberti said during a reception for travel agents who are on board to test the product.
Aliberti, notably, arrived at the start-of-the-cruise agent event in a casual shirt, setting the tone. I wore a jacket to the reception and felt over-dressed. It's that kind of cruise vessel.
A veteran of both Seabourn and Silversea Cruises -- two of the world's most elegant luxury lines -- Aliberti was careful not to criticize his old employers. But he makes clear that Atlas is hoping to slide into what he feels is an untapped niche of upscale cruising that is less traditional and more active than what those lines offer (while also being a bit of an upgrade in luxury from what small-ship specialists Ponant and Windstar offer on similarly sized vessels).
It's (mostly) all-inclusive
The initial itineraries Atlas is operating aren't inexpensive. Nine-night Greek islands voyages such as the one I'm on start at $5,799 per person. The line's core expedition sailings to the polar regions are even more. Nine-night Antarctica trips start at $10,599 per person.
But as is typical for cruise lines at the high end, Atlas is including a lot in its base price. In addition to a room on board and all meals, the fares include round-trip airfare from select U.S. and Canadian gateways; drinks, including spirits and wines; shipboard Wi-Fi; prepaid gratuities; and (perhaps most notably) shore excursions in every port.
In addition, Atlas will offer one very unusual inclusion as part of what it’s calling All-Inclusive All the Way pricing: Emergency medical evacuation insurance for every passenger.
Still, the inclusions aren't quite as extensive as is found on some luxury lines. The "drinks included" promise comes with some caveats, for instance. Most notably, the drinks menu found at all of the ship's bars features just one to three mid-level brands of each major type of liquor that is included in the fare, with pricier liquors coming with an extra charge.
There is just one included bourbon whiskey, for instance, Knob Creek, and two included vodkas (Ketel One and Absolut Vodka Citroen). You'll pay $6.50 or $7.20 extra, respectively, for a pour of Tito's or Grey Goose vodka.
In addition, at World Navigator's main restaurant, there is just a single "red" and "white" on offer on a complimentary basis, and on our sailing, the selection hasn't changed from one night to the next.
My take on the included drinks menu is that it offers a nice mix of options and is appropriate for a line at Atlas' price point. But some luxury cruisers who are used to the more extensive included drinks menu of, say, a Crystal Cruises vessel, may grumble.
The included Wi-Fi, for now, also comes with a caveat, as passengers only get a very limited 150 megabytes of data usage for free and then must pay extra for more. The line had intended to offer unlimited Wi-Fi with no data limit on sailings -- and still does intend for this to be the way it operates. But it's struggling with the fallout from a wiring mistake during the building of the vessel that's forcing it to ration bandwidth for now. Executives hope to have this fixed soon, but it's already causing frustration with passengers.
A few passengers on this early sailing also have complained about a lack of a self-serve laundry on board. The line says it's something that will be added for future ships in the series.
It's still working out the kinks
Launching a new cruise ship is never easy, and starting up an entirely new line is even more difficult -- particularly in the midst of a pandemic. Just getting crew from around the world to World Navigator in advance of its debut was a challenge, given the ongoing travel restrictions, and some crew arrived later than hoped for pre-launch training, Atlas executives have said.
The result is that World Navigator's crew still is getting its sea legs, so to speak, when it comes to delivering service at a "luxe" level, to use Atlas' word.
Among little things, water and wine glasses aren't always being swiftly refilled at dinner tables (although this seems to be improving by the day), and the service is halting at times. The delightfulness of food items can be hit-or-miss. It's not yet the sort of polished, anticipate-your-every-need service that is a hallmark of higher-end cruise ships.
Still, it's also just the first week. I've sailed on dozens of inaugural voyages of vessels over many years writing about cruising, and there always are kinks to work out at the start. Atlas still is in startup mode, and it's hard to tell quite where it will land as a brand when it comes to service. But I suspect that within a few months, or even weeks, it'll be as "luxe" as they want it to be.
Related: Why I'm so excited about Atlas Ocean Voyages
Note that Atlas plans to operate the vessel with a crew of around 130 people (not all of whom are yet on board). Assuming a passenger count of 184 at the most, that's a passenger-to-crew ratio of 1.4 to 1 -- right up there with the best luxury lines.
The company that created Atlas Ocean Voyages, the Portuguese tourism company Mystic Invest Holding, is no stranger to operating cruise vessels. It's one of the world's largest river cruise operators, operating more than a dozen vessels in Portugal for a mix of brands including AmaWaterways, Avalon Waterways, Uniworld and Scenic Cruises, as well as vessels around the world under the Nicko Cruises brand.
Mystic Invest Holding also already operates two expedition vessels that are similar to World Navigator for two brands, Quark Expeditions and Nicko Cruises.
There are a lot of reasons to be excited about World Navigator, the first ship from startup line Atlas Ocean Voyages.
Built for adventurous travel to faraway places such as Antarctica and the Arctic, it's a small and intimate ship at a time when small and intimate is what many luxury travelers are craving most.
Particularly on off-the-beaten-path adventures. If it's exclusiveness you want, traveling to a place like Antarctica with just 180 or fewer other people is a lot different than traveling there with 380 or 520 people -- the amounts that some expedition ships currently under construction from top-name cruise brands will hold.
TPG’s Gene Sloan is reporting live from the inaugural voyage of World Navigator. You can find all of his dispatches on his author’s page.
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