Is this the ultimate Antarctica cruise ship? Our take on Lindblad's new vessel
I was about three days into a 10-night voyage to Antarctica on the new National Geographic Resolution when I began to understand just how special a vessel it was.
We were plowing through one of the thickest ice fields that I have ever experienced during a polar sailing. A sea of white surrounded us. And the Lindblad Expeditions ship was bumping through it like it didn't have a care in the world.
From an observation deck overlooking National Geographic Resolution's bow, I watched, mesmerized, as the 126-passenger vessel pushed aside giant slabs of ice with ease.
For more cruise guides, tips and news, sign up for TPG’s cruise newsletter.
Then the two-month-old ship did something even more awesome. It ran right into a seemingly endless sheet of snow-topped ice that stretched off to the horizon.
The vessel slowly ground to a halt, firmly embedded in the ice.
A few passengers standing near me thought it might have been an accident. But it wasn't.
A few minutes later, a little door swung open at the front of the ship and out popped several of our expedition guides.
In a relatively rare and wonderful moment of Antarctica touring, we had made "landfall" on a sheet of fast ice — sea ice that is “fastened” to the coastline. Unlike drift (or pack) ice, fast ice doesn’t move with currents and wind, and it is relatively stable.
Stable enough, it turns out, to walk on.
Soon our guides were calling for us to join them. Bundled up against the cold, we followed them out that little door to romp around in the thick snow that lay over the ice like a blanket.
What followed was an hour-long celebration that included lots of selfie-taking, snow angel-making and a few impromptu snowball fights. Some passengers hiked a circular path stomped out in the snow by our guides. Others just gazed in awe at the larger-than-life scene all around: Snow, ice, glaciers and mountains as far as the eye could see.
Even for people like me who have traveled by ship through polar regions many times, it was a special moment — one made possible by the remarkable abilities of this new vessel.
A faster, more maneuverable ship
National Geographic Resolution is an expedition cruise ship — a type of cruise ship that is specifically designed for adventurous travel to remote, hard-to-reach places such as Antarctica. It's also a particularly hardy and versatile one.
Not every expedition cruise vessel is capable of pushing itself into fast ice in Antarctica to give passengers a chance to walk above the frozen sea. Those that are usually only do it early in the Antarctica cruise season, when fast ice is more plentiful.
Related: An untamed wilderness: Discovering the wild dreamscape of Antarctica
By late January, when I first arrived in Antarctica to test out National Geographic Resolution, the fast ice mostly had melted away in the northernmost areas of the Antarctic Peninsula that draw the bulk of Antarctica expedition vessels. To get us into the ice, the ship had to travel farther south than some expedition ships will go in Antarctica, to an ice-clogged waterway known as Lallemand Fjord.
Lallemand Fjord was so far south that we had to cross the Antarctic Circle — the latitude where the sun never sets at the height of the austral summer — to get there.
We only could do that, and get so deep into the ice, because National Geographic Resolution is tougher, faster and more maneuverable than most existing expedition cruise ships.
Built by Ulstein, a Norwegian shipbuilding company known for producing hardy vessels, National Geographic Resolution boasts an extra-strong hull that lets it bump through ice that would stop many lesser ships. It carries a polar class rating of PC 5 Category A, a notch above most Antarctica cruise vessels.
The ship has powerful engines that let it travel at more than 16 knots even in rough seas — several knots more than is typical for most expedition vessels. This gives it a wider range when traveling in Antarctica.
In addition, National Geographic Resolution can spin completely around in place, thanks to two Azipod thrusters that hang down below the vessel and can rotate a full 360 degrees. This allows it to better maneuver in ice-clogged areas than older expedition vessels with traditional propeller propulsion systems.
The extra maneuverability means National Geographic Resolution not only can get into an ice-clogged area such as Lallemand Fjord, but — more importantly — can also get out.
Wind and currents can quickly pack drifting ice around a vessel that's buried nose-first in fast ice, making backing out tricky. Vessels with traditional propeller systems that try to reverse their way out of such situations risk damaging their propellers.
But when it came time to leave Lallemand Fjord, National Geographic Resolution's seasoned captain, Martin Graser, was able to use the ship's Azipod thrusters to spin it around almost in place so it could break out of the ice facing forward.
A smoother ride across the Drake
The marvels of National Geographic Resolution don't end there.
Another notable — and very noticeable — feature of the ship is its distinctive sloping bow, which looks almost as if it were accidentally put on upside down.
As I saw during my voyage, the patented Ulstein design, dubbed an X-bow, cuts through waves in a way that makes it much more comfortable in rough seas than older expedition ships.
This can be a big deal on Antarctica voyages, which usually begin with a nearly two-day ride across the often-rough body of water between South America and Antarctica known as the Drake Passage.
More than 600 miles across, the Drake Passage often is roiled with waves 10 or 20 feet high, which can bounce around expedition vessels in what Antarctica aficionados call the Drake Shake.
As I’ve experienced myself on a previous trip to Antarctica, the churn in the Drake Passage occasionally can be even more extreme. Waves up to 30 or even 40 feet high at times are not uncommon — something known as the Drake Quake.
On last week's sailing, the Drake was relatively mild on the way down to Antarctica. But it raged for a time on the way back, with waves topping out at nearly 20 feet. It was then that the X-bow's advantage became clear.
While the ship still pitched forward and back in the waves, it was a smoother rise and fall, without the big bow slaps against the waves you get with traditional bows in heavy seas — something that can send shudders through an entire vessel.
For someone concerned about seasickness, that can make all the difference.
Related: These 8 books are must-reads before an Antarctica trip
Faster to the splendor
Our day of walking atop fast ice in Lallemand Fjord came fewer than 72 hours after departing Ushuaia, Argentina, the hub for most Antarctica-bound expedition cruise vessels. But it wasn't our first epic experience in Antarctica.
Thanks to National Geographic Resolution's speediness, we already had had two other major outings even before we dashed south below the Antarctic Circle.
The day before reaching Lallemand Fjord, after a Drake Passage crossing that lasted barely 40 hours, we had pulled into one of the most stunningly beautiful spots in all of the continent, the ice-filled Lemaire Channel.
A few hours later, we landed at nearby Petermann Island, famous for a colony of thousands of gentoo penguins.
Normally, an expedition cruise vessel heading to Antarctica might not reach the Lemaire Channel and Petermann Island until three or four days into the trip. But with an ability to travel at nearly 17 knots, National Geographic Resolution had reached them far faster.
Lined with glaciers and towering cliffs, the 8-mile-long Lemaire Channel and its environs is one of the great sights of Antarctica, and we used the extra time we had gained from our speedy crossing of the Drake to soak it in.
As passengers looked on from National Geographic Resolution's top decks, Captain Graser carefully navigated the ship down the waterway, past ice so heavy he wasn't sure at first he'd be able to make it through.
It was a scene almost too beautiful to comprehend.
The experience didn't end there. After we reached the far end of the channel, the ship's expedition leader, Shaun Powell, announced we would be venturing out in Zodiacs to steal an even closer look at the ice. (As is typical for expedition ships that visit Antarctica, National Geographic Resolution carries a small fleet of the lightweight, inflatable boats for such exploring.)
Boarding the Zodiacs at a side door near the ship's waterline, we soon were darting around ice chunks of all shapes and sizes, from small transparent "growlers" just a few feet across to larger "bergy bits" as big as a house and even bigger icebergs.
Some were all white; some were laced with spectacular streaks of blue. Some, much to our delight, were topped with lounging seals.
The outing continued until late afternoon, when we returned to the ship to prepare for dinner. While we were dining, Graser moved the vessel to a spot just off Petermann Island, for an after-dinner landing to see the penguins.
Thus began seven days of daily landings and waterborne exploring by Zodiac boats that brought repeated encounters with penguins — often in large numbers — as well as sightings of whales, seals and all sorts of petrels, terns, skuas and other birds.
Fewer than 48 hours after departing Ushuaia, we already were in the heart of Antarctica’s wonder zone.
Related: This new luxury tour gets you to Antarctica faster than most
From the Antarctic Circle to the Weddell Sea
As is typical for Antarctica trips, the seven days of exploring mostly took place along the Antarctic Peninsula, a staggeringly beautiful, 800-mile-long stretch of soaring mountains, glaciers, fjords and icebergs.
Thanks to the ship's speed and navigating capabilities, it was a wider-ranging exploration than is sometimes the case.
After pushing south below the Antarctic Circle over the first few days of the trip, we returned northward over the next few days to explore the northwestern parts of the peninsula and, eventually, its eastern side along the Weddell Sea — a part of Antarctica that not all expedition ships regularly visit.
Every day brought something a little different as we stopped at a wide variety of sites. At Neko Harbor, a picture-perfect, mountain-lined bay flanked by a glacier calving into the sea, we landed by Zodiac late one evening to marvel at large numbers of gentoo penguins.
The next morning, in the Gerlache Strait, we ran across an armada of humpback whales. We stopped for hours to watch them — first from the decks of National Geographic Resolution and then from Zodiac boats. Just hours later, we stumbled across a pod of orcas.
Later in the week, after rounding the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula to James Ross Island, some of us kayaked in a tranquil bay fed by waterfalls descending from a glacier, while others explored by Zodiac.
Related: I just went kayaking in Antarctica — and it was the most calm I've felt all year
At nearby Brown Bluff and Devil Island, we gaped at large numbers of Adelie penguins as well as gentoo penguins. At Aitcho Island in the South Shetland Islands, we saw yet another type of penguin, the chinstrap.
It was, no doubt, a very wide mix of experiences.
Maximizing the experience
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention a few more notable things about the design of National Geographic Resolution that contribute to it being able to offer such a wide-ranging exploration.
For starters, it has one of the best Zodiac launch set-ups I've ever seen. The ship's 13 Zodiacs tuck away very close to the waterline, in an indoor "garage" with giant doors that open to the water. This allows them to be deployed more quickly than on some expedition ships.
In addition, Resolution boasts both a rear-facing marina and side doors at the waterline for loading passengers into Zodiacs — a redundancy that gives the ship an edge in running Zodiac operations amid wind and waves. Many expedition vessels have either a marina or side doors, but not both.
Add in the fact that Resolution has a dynamic positioning system that lets it hover in place during Zodiac operations without having to anchor, and the result is a vessel that can land passengers in places like Antarctica much more efficiently than other expedition cruise ships.
Such efficiency plays right into the Lindblad style of expedition cruising, where it's all about maximizing the experience in any given destination, even if that means changing plans on the fly.
As I saw last week during our humpback whale encounter in the Gerlache Strait, the ability to stop the ship on a dime and get passengers out quickly in Zodiacs to take in an unexpected sight can make all the difference in turning an ordinary day into an extraordinary one.
Related: An Antarctica packing list
When Powell, the expedition leader, realized the humpback whales would be sticking around for a while, he was able to make a quick call to put down the Zodiacs to get us out among them. It led to an epic two hours of up-close whale viewing that included the opportunity to watch the massive creatures working together to bubble-net feed on schools of Antarctic krill — a type of coordinated feeding in which they circle their prey with rings of blown bubbles.
The whale encounter went on so long that some of the ship's hotel staff eventually came out in a Zodiac with hot chocolate to pass to passengers looking for a warm-up. They also brought out Kahlua, Frangelico and a few other liqueurs to splash into it — a lovely touch.
An adventure focus
Much to my delight, National Geographic Resolution also is designed with lots of interior and exterior observation areas where passengers can get up-close views of passing scenery and wildlife.
The bow of the vessel, in particular, is awash in outdoor viewing platforms that stretch over three decks. An indoor observation lounge at the bow offers views in three directions, and the ship's forward-facing bridge also is open to passengers.
This may not seem like a big thing. But in a place like Antarctica, it's all about the views, and you want a ship that is open as much as possible to the outdoors. Sadly, not every modern expedition ship has been built with this in mind.
National Geographic Resolution also sails with an impressive stash of adventure gear for exploring, including the previously mentioned kayaks, snowshoes and cross-country skis.
Also on board: a remotely operated underwater vehicle, which a two-person team permanently based on the ship can use to capture images of creatures that are far below the ship.
A stylish and comfortable ship
National Geographic Resolution isn't meant to be a luxury ship. It doesn't offer butlers with every cabin, as one luxury vessel sailing to Antarctica does. Yet it's still a stylish and comfortable ship — more so than many expedition vessels.
For a vessel designed to carry just 126 passengers, National Geographic Resolution offers a generous array of eateries and lounges, all with a soothing, Scandinavian-influenced design. Plus, it features a small but inviting spa and a fitness center that is large for a ship of this size.
The spa, notably, has saunas with glass walls offering views to the ocean as well as a separate yoga studio -- something you don't normally find on an expedition ship.
Just outside the spa, on an outer deck, are two innovative glass-walled "igloos" where passengers can spend the night under the stars on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Related: I just spent the night in an 'igloo' in Antarctica — here's how you can, too
As I experienced during my 10-night sailing, the ship's two main eateries have a focus on locally sourced and sustainable cuisine from South America that is well prepared. The ship also has a high-end chef's table experience, with a six-course tasting menu. Every passenger gets to try it once per sailing, at no extra charge.
National Geographic Resolution's 69 cabins and suites have the same clean-lined, Scandinavian-influenced decor as its public venues and feature lots of cleverly designed storage spaces that come in handy on longer Antarctica sailings. Most come with balconies — something that used to be rare for expedition vessels. About 20% are large suites, with a similar number of solo cabins.
The luxury of small-group exploring
While National Geographic Resolution isn't marketed as a luxury vessel, it does offer a rare and luxurious touch — the intimacy that comes with a vessel designed for just 126 people. This is something that can be a real advantage on an expedition trip to a place like Antarctica.
In expedition cruising, sometimes the ultimate luxury is being in a small group.
Related: The best new cruise ships sailing to Antarctica
Even if National Geographic Resolution is operating at 100% capacity, with every one of its 126 berths filled, its expedition guides can quickly get all of its passengers off the ship onto Zodiacs and on their way to see penguins and other wildlife. That isn’t the case with bigger expedition ships that often carry at least 200 and sometimes even 400 or 500 people.
In Antarctica, in particular, the size of a vessel matters when it comes to the quality of the experience, as expedition ships in Antarctica are limited to landing 100 passengers at a time by international treaty.
The more passengers an expedition ship has on board in Antarctica, the more its expedition guides have to break them up into separate groups for landings, greatly slowing down the process of exploring at any single landing site.
The result is that passengers on smaller ships in Antarctica get to see far more wildlife and scenery up close than passengers on bigger ships.
A costly trip
As is the case with all Antarctica trips, voyages on National Geographic Resolution are expensive. Fares for 11-night Antarctica cruises on the vessel start at $16,780 per person, based on double occupancy — more than $1,500 per day.
That said, the fares bundle together a lot of extras, including a pre-cruise, one-night hotel stay in Buenos Aires, Argentina, or Santiago, Chile; flights from Buenos Aires or Santiago to Ushuaia, Argentina; drinks, including spirits and wines; and prepaid gratuities.
Frequent travelers might be able to ease the financial burden a bit. As part of a 3-year-old partnership between Hyatt and Lindblad, World of Hyatt members can pay for a Lindblad cruise using Hyatt points — or earn 5 base points per dollar on eligible spending (excluding incidentals), plus the standard bonuses for Hyatt elite members, as well as elite tier-qualifying night credits. All members — regardless of status — will enjoy a $250 onboard credit to use on incidentals.
National Geographic Resolution is one of two nearly identical vessels that Lindblad Expeditions has unveiled in quick succession. The other, the 126-passenger National Geographic Endurance, also has debuted in recent months and is sailing in Antarctica. It was built at Ulstein in Norway to the same basic specifications.
Lindblad has built up a lot of expertise in polar cruising over many decades of offering ship-based trips to places like Antarctica — an expertise that shows in the way it designed National Geographic Resolution. Along with its sister vessel, the ship is one of the most versatile around for exploring the destination and other polar regions. After four trips to the White Continent, I'm convinced it's truly the ultimate Antarctica cruise ship.
Planning an Antarctica cruise expedition? Start with these stories: