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Quirky Cruise
September 18, 2015

Small Ship Cruise Line Review: Swan Hellenic, an Exceptional Exception

Minerva * Photo Credit: Ted Scull

Minerva * Photo Credit: Ted Scull

Special Note:
On January 4, 2017 All Leisure ceased operating its Swan Hellenic cruises with the chartered MINERVA, and also, though not covered by QuirkyCruise.com, Voyages of Discovery and the cruise ship DISCOVERY
.
Good News (Feb 2017): G Adventures has announced the purchase of the Swan Hellenic brand but not assumed the charter of the MINERVA. It is planned to restart the cruises in 2018 with a smaller ship with a passenger capacity under 200.
Stay tuned! And in the meantime, we will keep the original write up for posterity until the new Swan emerges as
a remembrance of a favorite small-ship line that catered to those who so enjoyed each other’s company in a country house hotel atmosphere while learning about the world, past and present from a scholarly as well as entertaining team of experts.

Snapshot: Swan Hellenic, a long-established British firm that got its start in 1954, is now owned by the British firm All-Leisure Holidays. One-ship-line Swan has traditionally drawn the upper end of the British market, plus a modest percentage of North Americans, to its cultural enrichment cruises that explore the Mediterranean, northern Europe and East of Suez through the Indian Ocean as far as Southeast and East Asia. A team of mostly British lecturers accompanies every voyage, and few other cruise lines provide such an intensive year-round educational program that is offered in a most enjoyable social setting.

Having sailed five times with Swan — to the Middle East, Black Sea, France, Iberia and around the British Isles — I take to the British on-board style, the mind stimulation from the lecture program, interesting fellow passengers, and well-orchestrated visits ashore.

Cottages sloping down to Cobh's harbor, Ireland. * Photo: Ted Scull

Cottages sloping down to Cobh’s harbor, Ireland. * Photo: Ted Scull

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers: MINERVA (1996 & rebuilt 2011-12)

Passenger Profile: Mostly well-educated British 55 and up, and many repeaters (known as Swans)

Passenger Decks: 6, and two elevators, aft and forward of amidships, serve five of the six decks with the forward one also reaches Promenade Deck.

Price: $ – $$  Moderate/Expensive

Included Features: A program of shore excursions in every port includes entrance fees and all gratuities aboard and to guides ashore; wine on the captain’s welcome & farewell dinners. flights and transfers to/from the ship (where noted).

Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Argentina. * Photo: Ted Scull

Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Argentina. * Photo: Ted Scull

Itineraries: Cruises generally last between 14 and 16 days, with some as long as 22; none are repeated within any given year; cruises may be strung together for longer voyages. In the late autumn, the MINERVA will cross the Atlantic to the Caribbean and South America, and then sailing via the Panama Canal, cruise the west coast of South America, southbound to the tip, then return northbound. The route back to Northern Europe is via Panama, Central America, and the Atlantic Isles. By April, the ship will work its way via numerous French ports, Channel calls and into the Baltic. A cruise will circumnavigate Iceland (4 calls) and stop in the Faroes and Shetland. The height of summer is spent in Norway and beyond the Arctic Circle, then via Scotland, Wales, Ireland to Channel Ports. By August 2016 the ship moves south via Portugal and Spain to the Mediterranean. Here the MINERVA remains until January 2017 in the Western Mediterranean, the Adriatic, Greece and as far east as Istanbul. Following a cruise out to the Atlantic Isles, the ship heads up via Iberian ports to be based at Portsmouth, England for the spring and summer 2017. Destinations are France, the Baltic (multiple cruises), Norway, British Isles, Iceland, and Ireland before heading south the Mediterranean in early August for the fall. Inclusive air programs from the U.S. and Canada make reaching the ship more convenient.

Acropolis, Athens. * Photo: Ted Scull

Acropolis, Athens. * Photo: Ted Scull

See Addendum below for two Swan river cruises.

Why Go? Swan Hellenic arguably offers the best cultural enrichment program afloat with a team of speakers whose biographies are listed in the main brochures. Their topics may include the areas of archeology, architecture, art history, geography, horticulture, literature, philosophy, religion, and more. Some lecturers are writers, professors, scientists, broadcasters, (former) diplomats, military experts and members of the clergy. The itineraries are well planned to include the most interesting places in the cruising regions, while the organization aboard and ashore is tops. What may be a plus for some, the atmosphere is thoroughly British; the passengers are generally well educated and table conversation lively and good fun.

When to Go? The itineraries are far-reaching and geared to when the weather is likely to be the most favorable, such as most of the summer and fall in Northern Europe and the Mediterranean and winter months in the warmer climes of Central and South America.

Lisbon's trams climb and descend hills across the city. * Photo: Ted Scull

Lisbon’s trams climb and descend hills across the city. * Photo: Ted Scull

Cabins: Of 190 cabins, 144 are outside, and 44 of these (336-340 sq. ft) located on Sun Deck and Bridge Deck include generous-sized balconies. The standard cabins, Aegean and Baltic decks, both outside and inside cabins are small (140 sq. ft). All accommodations come with flat-screen TVs, fridge, hairdryer, bathrobes, fresh fruit basket, binoculars and personal safe. A communal launderette is free to use.

Minerva's library contains more than 5,000 books. * Photo: Ted Scull

Minerva’s library contains more than 5,000 books. * Photo: Ted Scull

Public Rooms: MINERVA’S country hotel atmosphere is perhaps best typified by Shackleton’s Bar, a roomy U-shaped, light-wood-paneled lounge with polished wood floors and oriental-style carpets. A pianist plays in one corner and a stunning set of black and white photographs depicting Ernest Shackleton’s aborted Antarctic expedition and rescue are mounted on the walls.

Forward on the same Main Deck, the Darwin Lounge, held up by white fluted ionic columns, offers theater-style seating for lectures and evening entertainment and otherwise lounge-type seating, a wooden dance floor, and bandstand. On Bridge Deck portside, the Wheeler Bar pays homage to Sir Mortimer Wheeler, one of Swan’s founders — scholar, intrepid traveler, and later chairman. One section offers wicker furniture set amidst potted palms and another, overstuffed armchairs and couches facing mahogany tables. On the same deck, the long gallery-style library staffed by the lecturers’ spouses, is lined with open book shelves (5,000 volumes), comfortable reading (and perhaps some snoozing) chairs, reference books, and flat surfaces for studying atlases and using the computer stations. If buying an e-mail package, the rates are remarkably inexpensive. Next-door are the paneled smoking lounge with button leather chairs and card room for bridge players. High up on Promenade Deck, the Orpheus Lounge serves as an observatory with 270-degree views, lounge seating and a bar with music at night. An outdoor promenade is ideal for that constitutional and wraps around the Orpheus Lounge.

Dining: Meals are taken at an open-seating restaurant, a boon for meeting fellow passengers and great for single travelers. Meals are invariably lively social events, full of good conversation. In the main restaurant, jacket and tie are de rigueur at dinner, while the informal Veranda, an attractive buffet restaurant, is always casual and offers additional outdoor seating, and barbecues, in fine weather. Food is good to very good and should suit most American and British tastes.

Gathering for pre-dinner drinks on the afterdeck. * Photo: Ted Scull

Gathering for pre-dinner drinks on the afterdeck. * Photo: Ted Scull

Activities & Entertainment: The lecture program is tops with several speakers on each cruise chosen for their knowledge, presentation and appropriateness for the specific itinerary and last 40 minutes with a Q&A. Two lectures are generally scheduled for half days at sea while as many as four are presented when there is a full day. The talks are directly connected to the cruising region and the speakers accompany the shore program. Sampling: Martin Bell, former BBC war correspondant and Member of Parliament; Professor Carole Hillenbrand OBE FBA, current professor of Islamic History at University of St. Andrews with six books published; Dame Jenni Murray, lecturer in Ancient History at Oxford, and an associate priest; and Sir Roy Strong, historian, broadcaster, diarist, and gardener and former Director of the V&A and National Portrait Gallery. All talks may be enjoyed live on the cabin TVs. A pianist, violinist, small band and solo entertainments are also part of the scene before and after dinner. Films are screened and trivia quizzes are good fun. A swimming pool, located aft, is surrounded by wooden chairs and tables under umbrellas. Additionally, the Promenade Deck up by the funnel has blue and white cushioned plastic deck chairs shared with a small glassed-in gymnasium.

Special Notes: An attractive and useful Cruise Book placed in every cabin includes descriptions of the included excursions and the additional shore trips at a supplementary cost; a recommended reading list; guest speakers’ names and backgrounds and introductory articles they may have written.

All-Leisure Holidays, Swan Hellenic’s parent company, also operates the 50-passenger HEBRIDEAN PRINCESS, see the Hebridean Island Cruises website; and the 540-passenger VOYAGER under the Voyages of Discovery banner.

Along the Same Lines: No other small ship line has quite the same high standards nor the number of cultural-oriented lecturers per voyage. Lindblad would be roughly equal in quality on its European program, while it is better known for its expedition-oriented voyages.

Contact Info: US Agents – All-Leisure Holidays, 1800 S.E. 10th Avenue, Suite 205, Ft. Lauderdale, FL 3316;  www.swanhellenic.us ; 866-923-9182.

— TWS

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