Just shy of its 170th anniversary, the Smithsonian Institution today comprises 19 museums and nine research facilities. Just as the Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum and research institute, Smithsonian Journeys is America’s largest museum-based travel program.
Smithsonian Journeys brings its namesake’s emphasis on education, knowledge and understanding to its itineraries. The company’s Inside the Russian Space Program trip takes groups to the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center near Moscow, where guests can watch a manned Soyez rocket launch into space. Travelers also have the option to suit up and do zero-gravity training and tour the facilities “with a tremendous amount of inside access,” said Smithsonian Journeys general manager Karen Ledwin.
For the first time this year, Smithsonian Journeys took over the entire ship for the Panama Canal Passage and Costa Rica Cruise, allowing the company to rework the itinerary, which includes an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City. The 90-passenger ship cruises through the Panama Canal, and passengers learn about the canal’s engineering and construction along the way.
Although the company has been traveling to Cuba since the United States allowed “person-to-person” exchanges there, President Barack Obama’s recent diplomatic policy changes will open new doors for travel to the country and have already boosted interest in going there.
“Cuba is extremely popular,” Ledwin said. “We’re already sold out for this year.”
Travelers always marvel at Cuban culture, but because it may be difficult for Cubans to be as open about certain topics as they might like to be, Smithsonian Journeys organizes in Miami a predeparture panel of experts “who provide our travelers with a really solid understanding and appreciation of the world they’ll be walking into,” Ledwin said.
National Geographic Expeditions
“We’re not a tour company; we’re an expedition company,” said Scott Kish, vice president of program management and guest services for National Geographic Expeditions, the nonprofit travel arm of the National Geographic Society.
The travel company ensures that every trip has ties to the work National Geographic is doing, so all of its itineraries are “getting beyond the initial impression of a place and digging in,” Kish said.
Travelers flock to the Holy Land: Past, Present and Future trip because they have a fundamental interest in the religious aspects, as well as the region’s complicated political history, Kish said; the eight annual departures regularly sell out. Guests visit the cities and holy sites of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jericho, Galilee, Nazareth, the West Bank, the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, to name a few. The trip is built around the peace-making efforts of expert and guide Aziz Abu Sarah, who also opens his house to the group for a meal.
In October, National Geographic Expeditions will launch its first Traveling the Sands of Time: Oman to Dubai departure. The 11-day trip will feature mosques, oasis towns and wildlife refuges. Travelers can even visit live archaeological sites where National Geographic is working, Kish said, such as the UNESCO World Heritage site of Bat.
Although National Geographic trips to Antarctica are nothing new, the continent is “a place unlike any other on the planet,” Kish said. Travelers take a National Geographic ship for a 14- or 17-day journey that allows them to walk among thousands of penguins on the icy shores and cruise in a Zodiac raft just feet from icebergs and leopard seals. Guests can also opt for the long program that takes them to South Georgia and the Falkland Islands.
Most around-the-world-by-private-jet trips last roughly 24 days, just shy of a month. Many would say such trips are the height of luxury travel, but if time is money, and if money buys luxury, then around-the-world cruises, which usually last at least 100 days and run up to 180 days, would trump the air version. World cruising is making waves in the market as cruise lines add departures and dedicate more of their fleet to the lengthy trips. Cruise officials are banking on baby boomers. As more boomers reach retirement, the hope is they will have both the money to afford world cruises and the time to take longer excursions.
Several cruise lines offer world cruises. Princess Cruises’ small-ship cruise offers almost 40 destinations in more than 20 countries. Costa is offering two different world cruise routes, with September 2015 and January 2016 departures, and Oceania is running back-to-back 180-day world cruises this year and booking another for January 2016. Cunard Line’s three “Queen” ships depart in January for three different world cruise itineraries, and P&O Cruises offers three 2016 around-the-world departures.
Crystal Cruises recently announced that it will dedicate both its ships — the Crystal Serenity and the Crystal Symphony — to world cruises in 2018. The Symphony will leave from Cape Town, South Africa, and then the Serenity will embark from Los Angeles. Both will feature Asia, India and the Holy Land, as well as lesser-known destinations such as Fakarava, French Polynesia and Robinson Crusoe Island, Chile.