Charting a New Course for Luxury Explorer Cruises

Repositioning an expedition cruise ship operation in a pandemic is all part of the adventure for the new CEO of Aurora Expeditions.

Article by Shaney Hudson

Kayaking in Cierva Cove, Antarctica. Photography by Emma Evans.

Despite the events of last year, cruising is still considered one of the fastest-growing sectors of the global travel industry, with the dark horse being the growth of luxury expedition cruising. While river cruises and themed cruises have taken a back seat over the past few years, luxury expedition cruising has attracted new clients and arguably higher yields.

In terms of destinations, travel to the polar regions had accelerated in popularity in the years prior to the pandemic; there were more than a dozen new ice-class expedition ships under construction and thousands of passengers booking cruises years in advance. As a result, cruise operators had started to question whether the Argentinian port of Ushuaia, where tourist vessels depart for Antarctica, could service the number of new ships, and there was also a concern about the number of visitors the Antarctic Peninsula could sustain.

Lemaire Channel, Antarctica. Photography by Matt Horspool.
Iceberg Monolith, Antarctica. Photography by Andrew Halsall.

A year on and many cancelled cruises later, several small ship expedition companies have pivoted their operation and repositioned their ships to Australia and New Zealand in order to boost their bottom line. They aim to resume operations to East Antarctica and Australian destinations including the rugged Kimberley Coast. It’s a strategic move by global companies such as Scenic, Ponant and Aurora Expeditions while they wait for the Australian Federal Government to approve guidelines for the safe resumption of cruising in Australia. At the time of print this is expected to be September.

The comparatively low Covid-19 infection rates in Australia and New Zealand, coupled with an attractive coastline, are an obvious drawcard for expedition companies. Additionally, Australians are known to like cruising and with borders currently closed, we’re a captive market. “The business decision to look at the Ross Sea [off the coast of Antarctica] was driven mainly by what’s happening in the world,” says Aurora Expeditions’ new CEO, Monique Ponfoort. “In a pretty bad time,” she says, “it’s a special thing to do.”

Snorkelling, Danco Island, Antarctica. Photography by David Hudson.

Ponfoort, who began with the company in October 2020, spent 17 years working at Qantas and was vice-president of Ponant Asia Pacific. She sees the current challenges as a great opportunity to bring an Australian company back home. This confidence, however, could be a result of the fact that Aurora has sailed the Ross Sea to Antarctica before, and it has the added benefit of senior expedition guides with knowledge of the area, advising on the new route. “When I ask our expedition leaders about the difference between East Antarctica and the Peninsula, they say it’s kind of like the difference between the Swiss Alps and the Australian outback,” she explains. “They are so different, but they’re both so grand and powerful.”

Paradise Harbour, Antarctica. Photography by Matt Horspool.

Previously, the Antarctic Peninsula was favoured by operators over the Ross Sea due to its proximity, favourable ice conditions and landing sites, but Ponfoort says the decision to head south was also driven by customers, many of whom have switched to a Ross Sea departure rather than delay their travel. “What we’re finding with a lot of our loyal guests is that they’re looking for this new Antarctic experience,” she says. “You’ve got the challenge of pushing through pack ice and sailing so far south, the blizzards and the wildness of nature together with the grandeur of the polar ice caps and the curiosity of the emperor penguin. East Antarctica is truly the next level.”

The Changing Role Of Luxury Hotels

In the wake of the global travel apocalypse, our relationship with five-star accommodation may very well change.

Article by Lee Tulloch

A private infinity pool awaits guests at a Beachfront Pool Villa at the new Legian Sire hotel in Lombok, Indonesia.

You enter the hotel room and close the door; what awaits you is a place to lay your head. But it’s much more than that. A sanctuary from the outside world. A theatre in which to enact your deepest fantasies. A zone for sybaritic pleasures like wallowing in the glories of the room service menu. At the very minimum, a place of comfort and safety. At least, that is how many people viewed hotels before the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic. “For me, a really good hotel needs to capture your imagination [and] fully immerse you in its purpose and story, as well as have all the usual trimmings that make a stay so spoiling,” says Tamara Lohan, the founder of Mr and Mrs Smith, an online booking service for boutique hotels.

But some of the wonderful things about a hotel stay – the excitement of mingling in a lobby, the lavish breakfast buffet, the “high touch” luxury of butlers and porters, and the housekeepers who tuck fine Egyptian cotton sheets into pillowy, soft beds – do lose some of their appeal when every crowded lift carries a lethal threat, interactions with staff can make us ill and rooms not clinically sanitised can harbour killer germs. Add to this the new concept of city hotels as quarantine hotels – essentially holding pens for contagious people –  and it’s no wonder some of the thrill has gone from the whole idea of checking in.

It’s not just germophobes who look at their hotel room’s television remote and pillows with suspicion these days. Everyone is paranoid about germs now. “Increasingly, we see travellers asking questions about hotel practices, more so than ever before, because that matters to them now,” says Bill Bensley, the prolific Bangkok-based architect and philanthropist whose beautiful and creative hotels include Bali’s Capella Ubud and Shinta Mani Wild in Cambodia. Lohan agrees, saying the hospitality industry moved incredibly fast across their operations at the start of the pandemic to ensure guests felt safe. “Cleanliness has, of course, always been part of the running of a good and successful hotel, it’s just been a slight change in really communicating that to the customer as a message of reassurance,” she says.

Even so, no-one loves the idea of a luxury hotel looking and feeling like a hospital. It does rather take the romance out of it. When we all made our hotel reservations in 2019, the last thing on anyone’s mind was hospital- grade disinfectants. But it’s not just the fear of infection that has changed since then. Enlightened travellers are starting to demand more from their hotels. “This year has been a time of reflection and I can see people are starting to think about how they travel and what they expect from a stay,” Lohan says, adding that she hopes we’ve seen the end of the Instagram- fuelled quest for the newest, hippest and hardest-to-get-into. “I think we’ll definitely see some lasting changes. More conscious consumers will consider flying less but staying longer, maybe by twinning city, coastal or countryside stays. We’re all much more familiar with remote working, so a blend of work and leisure has become easier than ever.”

The entrance to Aman New York.

She adds that sustainability credentials are becoming one of the most important considerations for consumers when they’re choosing their accommodation. “It’s become incredibly jarring to see single-use plastic, excess waste and any abundance of imported produce,” Lohan says. “For those opening hotels today, for instance, we would hope sustainability is considered from the very outset – and we’re seeing a lot of innovative efforts in that respect.” Bensley agrees. His dream is that sustainability will be “the standard, not the exception” for all hotels.

It’s clear that hotels are in need of careful reinvention, and Lohan believes that might come in the form of “tedious at-the-desk check-ins and check-outs” disappearing altogether. (One can only hope.) “Human interaction elsewhere – chefs, gardeners, mixologists, marine biologists, etc – will become ever more important to a hotel stay,” she predicts. “And an enhanced connection with nature will likely be at the heart of those more rural stays, while city hotels will foster a community atmosphere that benefits both guests and their neighbourhoods at large.”

Bensley says hotel operators will need to create “space” for their guests, with an emphasis on fresh air and Covid-free zones. “I think we are looking at a world which has been turned upside down, where we are all longing to escape into places that are completely different to our daily life,” Bensley says. “We want a change. We want greenery and a connection with Mother Earth — we want escapism!” Not coincidentally, “Escapism” is the name of his latest book.

In addition, Bensley believes hotel operators need to reconsider the role that they play in society. “My biggest hope is that all hotels will bear a purpose and make it their standard, their raison d’être – be it the education of their guests, supporting the local community and empowering them, using the hotel as a means for conservation,” he says. “There are so many ways one can go with this. My dream is that sustainability will be the standard, not the exception, for all hotels. The youngest of consumers are much more aware of important sustainability issues – way beyond the plastic straw.”

So how then, will attitudes towards hotels change? Pre-Covid, it wasn’t enough to visit a hotel – many wanted to live in one. Guests shopped the Four Seasons boutique for mattresses, The Ritz- Carlton for lamps, The Connaught for martini glasses and Firmdale by Kit Kemp for fluffy bathrobes and Wedgwood china. The stylish filled their homes with votive candles and luxe throws, inspired by the opulent interiors of hotel rooms, places that they had either stayed at or spotted in the pages of a magazine. They piled throw pillows onto beds, introduced cocktail trolleys to living rooms and turned humble bathrooms into showcases for souvenired Le Labo amenities.

During the pandemic lockdowns, when the world seemed to shrink, those hotel comforts transformed homes into sanctuaries. And the longing for a five-star getaway was only reinforced. What hotels do best is help their guests make memories, and who doesn’t want more of those? We’ll be back.

A version of this article appears in print in our launch edition, Page 117 of T Australia with the headline:
Destination Unknown
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The Return Of The Great Australian Motel, with Wi-Fi and a Day Spa

Retro drive-up accommodation is popular again thanks to a new generation of savvy, sustainably-minded indie operators.

Article by Katrina Holden

Photography courtesy of Astor Hotel Motel Albury, New South Wales.

Way back before motels and budget hotels, holidaying Australians would typically stay in a local pub, enduring basic facilities and shared bathrooms. Then, in the 1950s, the American-style motel exploded in towns and suburbs across the nation. With their midcentury-modern styling, neon signage and bold colour palettes, they offered a novel and affordable accommodation option for roaming Australians. Guests were introduced to the luxury of ensuite bathrooms, televisions, bar fridges and gimmicks such as coin-operated massage beds, luring open-minded adventurers. At a time of booming car ownership, the motel offered the chance to park the Holden right outside the room door (“motel” is a portmanteau of “motor” and “hotel”).

Enthusiasm for motels was robust until the 1990s, when more affordable traditional hotels knocked the motel from its perch. Now, nearly a century after the first motel was built in the US, they’re undergoing a resurgence in Australia as creative operators transform dilapidated properties around the country. The best of these renovated motels retain their midcentury architectural merits but have polished, modernised interiors with the comforts expected by today’s travellers. Restored motels are also enticing the sustainability-conscious traveller in search of a simple, slow boutique holiday, for whom staying in a large chain hotel might not sit right. With motel renovators retaining the motels’ original footprints and low-rise structures, they have minimal impact on their local environment.

As we begin to emerge from the global pandemic, the appeal of the “bubble” offered by self-contained motel units is likely to increase. (The world’s first motel opened in California in 1925 just five years after the Spanish flu pandemic.) There are no communal lobbies, lift buttons or shared air-conditioning. Motels represent the ultimate social-distancing model while still being centrally located, having a manager on call and, often, with room service and on-site dining facilities.

Behind the breeze blocks, under the retro-font signage, motelgoers perhaps feel nostalgic for the seemingly carefree days of our past glimpsed through a pastel-hued lens and the gently swaying straw tassels of a poolside tiki umbrella. Consider a step back in time at one of these alluring, old-meets-new Australian motels.

Photography courtesy of Mysa Motel, Palm Beach, Gold Coast, Queensland.

Mysa Motel, Palm Beach, Gold Coast, Queensland

The Mysa Motel (pronounced “Mee-sa” ) is the former Palm Trees Motel in Palm Beach on the Gold Coast Highway, a 10-minute drive from Coolangatta and within walking distance of one of Queensland’s cleanest white-sand beaches and a plethora of cafes and restaurants. Husband-and-wife team Eliza and Jason Raine spent two years breathing new life into the seven-room motel, installing solar panels and recycled materials including vintage breeze blocks and original fibreglass pool recliner chairs salvaged from a local building site and restored. The original kidney-shaped pool has been updated and filled with magnesium mineral water. You won’t miss the pink sign with its neon palm trees, the work of a family that specialised in motel signage in the 1960s. 

Photography courtesy of Halcyon House, Cabarita Beach, Tweed Coast, New South Wales

Halcyon House, Tweed Coast, New South Wales

The brainchild of some of the first visionaries of the motel revamp trend, Halcyon House opened in 2015. Brisbane-based sisters Siobhan and Elisha Bickle purchased the old surfing motel The Hideaway in 2011 and evolved the property into what is now known as one of Australia’s prettiest boutique beachside stays, retaining its retro bones including 1960s Spanish-style archways. A 15-minute drive from Gold Coast Airport, Halcyon House has 21 individually decorated rooms adorned with fabric-upholstered walls, antique and vintage curios and eclectic artworks. Popular surfing breaks and coastal walks are within easy reach of the motel, although guests tend to linger at the multilevel day spa, pool and award-winning on-site restaurant Paper Daisy.

Photography courtesy of Loea Boutique Hotel Maroochydore, Sunshine Coast, Queensland.

Loea Boutique Hotel, Sunshine Coast, Queensland

Opposite the Maroochy River in Maroochydore, husband-and-wife operators Lucy and Andrew Pink have revitalised a 1980s brick motel into a bright boutique motel. The white palette is warmed by locally sourced rattan furniture and brass bathroom fixtures. Drinks and food platters made up of locally sourced treats can be ordered poolside from the vintage food truck. Guests can use the complimentary white cruisers to cycle the region, following the bank of the river to swim at the family-friendly beach at Cotton Tree, which hosts a market on Sundays.

Photography courtesy of Kyneton Springs Motel, Macedon Ranges, Victoria.

Kyneton Springs Motel, Macedon Ranges, Victoria

Just an hour outside Melbourne, the historic Gold Rush town of Kyneton has become a creative hub for ex-city dwellers. Due to fully open by August, the 19-room Kyneton Springs Motel on Piper Street will be an ode to the classic California road trip. The 3.5-star restored motel will retain an authentically 1960s feel but with modern enhancements including Wi-Fi and breakfast. Expect a curated edit of 1960s artworks and a custom retro neon sign. The owners hope to offer travellers something different for a pit stop in this popular town, which is renowned for its hatted restaurants, vintage boutiques, art galleries and bars.

The Sails Motel & Pool Club, Brunswick Heads, Northern Rivers, New South Wales.

The Sails Motel & Pool Club, Brunswick Heads, New South Wales

The owners of the 22-room Sails Motel, Simon Johnson and Amanda Newman, set out with the goal of being sympathetic to the property’s 1960s architecture and nostalgic charm, while adopting various eco-friendly initiatives. Ideally their guests will feel as if they are having the type of holiday they remember from when they were kids — only with better food and drinks. The owners collaborated with Old Maids Burger Store next door to open Saint Maries pizzeria and wine bar, which serves as the motel’s restaurant. At the Pool Club, guests can sip fresh juice, coffee and cocktails. In this northern enclave of coastal cool, visitors can choose between the many nearby beaches, cafes, shops and classic pubs, and catching a show at the Brunswick Picture House is a must.

Photography courtesy of Astor Hotel Motel Albury, New South Wales.

Astor Hotel Motel Albury, New South Wales

This 45-room motel has recently undergone a multimillion-dollar refurbishment to evoke a Palm Springs vibe in Albury. Orange, teal and pink wall panels provide a splash of colour to the 1960s facade, the three-star rooms have been modernised and the complex now includes a new contemporary bistro, bar and beer garden with a mix of palm trees, blond wood, custom terrazzo flooring, breeze blocks, brass fixtures and retro paper lanterns.