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George Coughlin

Small Ship Captain George Coughlin

Interview by Ted Scull.

George Coughlin has been sailing in navigating roles from mate to pilot to captain for many small ship firms such as Coastwise Cruise Line, Exploration Cruise Lines, Clipper Cruise Line, Cruise West, St. Lawrence Cruise Lines, Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic, Alaskan Dream Cruises, and UnCruise Adventures, plus in the deep past, New England excursion boats and ships of the United States Navy.

George Coughlin

Captain George Coughlin

It’s the small ships that he has captained that are of interest here, including Newport Clipper, Nantucket Clipper, Yorktown Clipper, Spirit of Yorktown, Chichagof Dream, National Geographic Sea Bird and Sea Lion, National Geographic Endeavour, National Geographic Quest, and Pilgrim Belle, Colonial Explorer, Victorian Empress and S.S. Legacy. (Note: The last four are the same ship!)

Yorktown Clipper

Yorktown Clipper at St. Lucia in 1993. * Photo: George Coughlin

The small-ship industry has certainly expanded since visionary Luther Blount built, in his own shipyard, the 40-passenger Mount Hope in 1966 then took it out on a first cruise from Blount’s headquarters in Warren, Rhode Island.

The experiment was a success, and more small vessels were added to the line to allow for expansion of U.S. itineraries up and down the East Coast, into the Erie Canal, along the St. Lawrence River and Seaway and into the five Great Lakes. Additional small-ship lines were formed, and some were successful, others made it big, and a few fell by the wayside.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): As you were mainly associated with cruise lines that had American or Canadian owners, in those early years what do you think were main reasons for some of the lines to prosper and others to fail?

George C: You and I could talk about this for hours, but let me attempt to consolidate my thoughts here. Luther Blount started small and basic. He had his own shipyard in Warren, Rhode Island to build his vessels, which saved him from spending much more on construction costs, if an outside shipyard were to build them. He kept everything low key and expanded his small fleet of overnight passenger vessels at a safe pace.

With American Cruise Lines, Charlie Robertson (recently deceased), was clever and saw what Blount had achieved and eventually decided on building his own ships as well, in Salisbury, Maryland. They both knew that shallow draft vessels were needed in order to negotiate the itineraries they planned.

George Coughlin

American Star, American Cruise Lines, Maine Coast in August 2007. * Photo: Ted Scull

American Cruise Lines decided to build larger vessels than Blount and at a quicker pace. This worked for a while until the 1980’s recession hit and put the initial company out of business. American regrouped and returned back on the scene and has been growing successfully ever since, with one major exception. American decided to build an upscale foreign-flag vessel at a shipyard in Canada. There were delays and disagreements with the shipyard and little has been heard about Pearl Cruises since initial sailings began.

Coastwise Cruise Line was formed as a division of Hy-Line Cruises, Hyannis, Massachusetts, and the Pilgrim Belle was launched at Bender Shipyard in Mobile, Alabama in 1985. She was/is a steamboat replica with very comfortable and upscale accommodations. Unfortunately, after an accident, the vessel was taken out of service for nearly a month for shipyard maintenance during her first year of high-season operations in New England, and the consequences called for selling the vessel.

George Coughlin

Pilgrim Belle with a traditional steamboat profile. * Photo: George Coughlin

Barney Ebsworth developed Clipper Cruise Line in the 1980’s. He had a vision for an upscale country club product. Two 100-passenger sister ships were built at Jeffboat in Jeffersonville, Indiana: the Newport Clipper in 1984 and the Nantucket Clipper in 1985. The ships were well received, and passengers enjoyed the modern comfortable onboard surroundings and amenities.

The 138-passenger Yorktown Clipper was built at Green Cove Springs, Florida and added to the fleet in 1988. This is when Clipper realized that having three vessels on similar itineraries was going to be more of a challenge than anticipated. Key upper management changes were made.

George Coughlin

Clipper Cruise Line fleet in 1988. * Photo: George Coughlin

The Newport Clipper was taken out of service and eventually sold to Spirit Cruise Line and renamed Sea Spirit. The focus on the Yorktown Clipper and Nantucket Clipper, with expanded itineraries for the larger Yorktown Clipper, worked so well, that Clipper decided to experiment with some small foreign-flagged ocean-going ships.

First chartering the World Discoverer, they eventually purchased two ships and renamed them Clipper Odyssey and Clipper Adventurer. The future looked bright, the ships were sailing full, but it didn’t last. I believe it was a combination of being overextended and the economy.

Delta Queen Steamboat Company decided to expand into the coastal cruise market with the Cape May Light and the Cape Cod Light, two 300-foot vessels built in Florida. I was offered the first captain’s position on the Cape May Light and went on her builders’ sea trials. I decided not to follow through with the offer.

George Coughlin

Cape May Light at Vineyard Haven, Martha’s Vineyard. * Photo: George Coughlin

The coastal ships had elegant/spacious interiors, but the planning and overall design of the ships had problems from the start. They were too large for the IntraCoastal Waterway and there were no plans for stabilizers while operating strictly coastal and no design plans for bridge wing control stations.

Delta Queen Steamboat company was also building an ocean-going passenger ship with another on the drawing board at the same time. This to me was a prime example of poor planning and too much happening too fast that led to the company’s demise.

Now might be a good time to mention that all of the American-built ships up to this point were new construction. This opened up a whole new chapter of opportunity for existing companies and newly formed companies, to purchase these now-used vessels from firms no longer in business or just downsizing, for very reasonable prices.

I recall walking down Straight Wharf, Nantucket, with owner Robert Giersdorf, as he and his team from Exploration Cruise Lines came out to survey the Pilgrim Belle for purchase. He was interested in the vessel and with me staying with her as captain.

George Coughlin

Pilgrim Belle will become the Colonial Explorer. * Photo: George Coughlin

I asked about his new venture with Anheuser Busch entertainment division. He stated that Exploration Cruise Lines was the operator and Anheuser Busch had the deep pockets. I learned several months after accepting the position as captain on his now named Colonial Explorer, that Anheuser Busch backed out of their agreement with Exploration, meaning that the deep pockets no longer existed. Soon after, Exploration Cruise Lines was no longer in operation.

Wilderness Cruises, later to become Lindblad Expeditions, would on occasion charter the Alaska Explorer (now National Geographic Sea Bird) and the Great Rivers Explorer (now the National Geographic Sea Lion) from Exploration Cruise Lines and would later purchase both of them when Exploration Cruise Lines went out of business. During my time with Lindblad, I sailed as captain aboard the National Geographic Sea Bird/Sea Lion and more recently as pilot aboard the pair National Geographic Venture/Quest.

George Coughlin

Captain George as pilot aboard National Geographic Venture Sept. 2019

There are several reasons why I believe Lindblad has remained successful. They have a family following with expedition cruising. Until recently, they have been successful with older ships because their theme is not the ship, it’s the education aspect of the journey. More than enough expedition staff, photographers, and their connection with National Geographic, all add up to something special.

Colonial Explorer lay idle for a while and was put back in service by Exxon as corporate housing/offices following the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster. When she was no longer needed there, she returned to Seattle from Valdez where she awaited her fate.

Bob Clark, owner of St. Lawrence Cruise Lines, purchased her, renamed her Victorian Empress, and had her repositioned and delivered from Seattle to her new home on the St. Lawrence Seaway. Three captains made that delivery. One from Seattle to Florida; the second from Florida to the Connecticut River; and I captained the third leg from the Connecticut River to the St. Lawrence Seaway.

George Coughlin

Victorian Empress at Kingston, Ontario * Photo: Ted Scull

Bob Clark, being Canadian, and the Victorian Empress being a U.S. flag vessel, caused for questions and complications with his operation, which only lasted a season. I filled in for a few weeks as captain during that season. Once again, the Victorian Empress was up for sale.

Cruise West purchased the Victorian Empress, the Sea Spirit (former Newport Clipper), the Nantucket and Yorktown Clipper, the New Shoreham II from Blount (which I delivered from New Orleans to Seattle) and others, eventually becoming the largest company of used overnight small passenger vessels.

Now they wanted to get even bigger by adding a used ocean-going passenger ship to their fleet. I was sailing as captain on the Yorktown Clipper in the Virgin Islands when owner Dick West visited the ship to make arrangements to purchase her and the Nantucket Clipper. It was obvious from Dick’s comments that this was going to be a big stretch for the company.

I stayed as captain for several months following the purchase, but sensed that Cruise West had got ahead of itself and the handwriting was on the wall. Not long after I left, Cruise West was history and a lot of the small ship U. S. flag fleet lay idle again.

When I first met Dan Blanchard he was director of marine operations at Cruise West. He is now owner of UnCruise Adventures. UnCruise has been successful while now operating many of the ships once owned by Cruise West. Dan is a driving force and motivator. They are continually tweaking their itineraries and focus mostly on off-the-ship hiking, kayaking, with the expedition theme. All but one of their vessels is U.S. Flag.

George Coughlin

SS Legacy, Uncruise Adventures, Glacier Bay, Alaska, August 2013. * Photo: Ted Scull

Alaskan Dream Cruises is an Alaskan family business out of Sitka, Alaska. They have four previously owned small overnight passenger vessels. They cruise only in Alaska. They have their own shipyard, a lodge for passenger stop-overs, an introduction to Alaskan food and hospitality. They operate a fleet of day-passenger vessels as part of Allen Marine in Auke Bay. I filled in as captain for a brief stint a few years ago aboard the Chichagof Dream (formerly Nantucket Clipper). Again, like Blount and American, having your own shipyard is a huge cost savings.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): What affect did the Passenger Vessel Service Act have on operations such as effects on American flag vessels; foreign flag vessels; crews; itineraries?

George C: The Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886 states that no foreign vessels shall transport passengers between ports or places in the United States, either directly or by way of a foreign port, under a penalty of $200.00 (now $762.00) for each passenger so transported and landed. As a result, all vessels engaged in the Coastwise Trade have been required to be Coastwise qualified (ie: US-built, owned, and documented.)

George Coughlin

Small U.S. flag ships can nose right up to the ice in Glacier Bay. * Photo: Ted Scull

Then there is the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, which is similar and applies to cargo vessels. This is most commonly referred to as the Jones Act. Both of these acts have pluses and minuses in today’s world. They need to be revisited and updated periodically.

Some people, like the late Senator John McCain, believed the Jones Act should be eliminated. Both acts have protective measures regarding US shipbuilding, operating between US ports for commerce, and the question of port security with foreign ships and crews. I’m all for revisiting both of these acts and making any adjustments needed.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): As the years passed, what improvements came into being that most affected your position as captain, such as new equipment or the design of the pilothouse or bridge; engine room; hull design; improvements on deck?

George C: We’ve come a long ways with ship improvements. Internet communications have made a world of difference with office-to-ship messaging. Maintenance has improved with advanced cleaning and painting systems, prolonging the life of the ship. Bridge electronics and technology continue to improve. Better, more reliable engineering systems have been a big improvement.

George Coughlin at the helm

Captain George Coughlin has seen so many changes in the small ship industry over the decades. *Photo: Ted Scull

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): What were some of your favorite innovations?

George C: There are many, but to name a few — electronic charts. These have taken the burden of making manual corrections on paper charts away from the navigating officer. Also, the A.I.S. (Automatic Identification System) acts like a transponder for aircraft identification. It tells you all the information you need to know about ships in your vicinity that are required to have this equipment onboard. And, this feature can be overlaid/interfaced with your radar and electronic chart.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): Many small-ships are built for relatively calm waters such as protected passages (Inside Passage to Alaska, Intracoastal Waterway), rivers, and bays, yet sometimes it is necessary to make ocean passages such as along the New Jersey or Maine Coast in the East and Washington, Oregon, California and Mexican coasts in the West and Southwest. What precautions do you consider, and at what point do you say — I plan to wait a few hours or a day until the seas calm?

George C:  Weather information is so important. Forecasts are updated regularly and available from several online sources. I generally check and compare forecasts. I also like to make the ship ready for coastal passages well before getting underway and not while you are already out there. Good communications by informing the passengers and crew what weather conditions may be expected and what to do and not to do, is paramount.

There will be times when you have to wait it out. That’s only prudent. I often look back at the positioning cruise I made as captain aboard the Victorian Empress. It was April and the Strait of Canso, Nova Scotia, had just opened and was free of winter ice. It was clear sailing past Prince Edward Island, but as night settled in, the winds freshened and the seas began to build. On top of that, there was reduced visibility due to snow squalls. I was just off the Gaspe’ Peninsula, so I opted to pull into Gaspe’ and dock until morning. It was just the right thing to do at the time.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): The newer vessels often offer more equipment and diversions for the passengers on and off the vessel. What are some of the tried and true options?

George C: It’s become very competitive out there and everyone is trying to come up with the latest innovation. The tried and proven are Zodiacs and enough of them onboard to accommodate demand. Kayaks, with the option for singles and doubles is very important. Snorkeling is also popular along with paddle boards.

George Coughlin

Zodiacs are one of the most important features to have on any expedition cruise. * Photo: William J. Mayes

Having passenger briefings before each event is very important for safety. Having a passenger feel comfortable enough knowing it might be the first time they ever experienced an event, is also very important.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted):  What are the caveats and suggestions that you give to passengers at the initial briefing, so that they can fully appreciate the week ahead?

George C:  I have a list of important topics that I include in my passenger briefings. I mainly want them to feel comfortable and at ease. I stress safety, security, and good health. I try to point out some of the itinerary highlights and always encourage everyone to have fun, while also knowing their limitations when it comes to hiking or other forms of exercise.

George Coughlin

This Alaskan cruise passenger can enjoy the scenery while relaxing at the rail. * Photo: Ted Scull

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): Choose a couple of different itineraries you know well and share what you have found that gets your passengers excited and eager before a landing, such as Zodiac ride, kayaking excursions, etc.

George C: Southeast Alaska is an amazing place with lot’s to do and see. The 7-day Juneau to Sitka or the reverse, covers a lot of interesting highlights. Tracy Arm is a spectacular fjord that matches those in Norway. The two active glaciers display lots of calving and blue ice.

George Coughlin

Yorktown Clipper crew in Tracy Arm, Sawyer Glacier. Newport Clipper at left.

Safely taking the Zodiacs out and cruising amongst the ice is really special. Or, perhaps an impromptu stop along the way for humpback whales to engage in complex bubble-net feeding as a group.  Baja California is also one of my suggested itineraries. If you would like an option of swimming with the sea lions or touching a baby grey whale, then this might be the itinerary for you.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): Undoubtedly, some passengers may be anxious about swimming in semi-tropical waters or walking through a thick forest. What can you say to help calm them?

George C: It’s very important that passengers attend and listen to the safety briefings. The staff is well trained to answer questions and will be there on their hikes as well as nearby for any water sport activity questions or assistance.

I’m regularly there on the fantail to see guests off and greet them back aboard. On occasion, when time permits, I’ll get out there and join in with the guest activities. I enjoy driving the Zodiacs and kayaking and taking hikes with the guests.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): Having sailed with you several times, I am aware that you join the passengers before and during meals, after dinner, and perhaps after the ship is anchored or tied up. You seem to really enjoy that.

George C: I enjoy being around the guests and making them feel relaxed. There’s a lot more in the day’s work of a captain than just getting the vessel safely from point A to point B.

George Coughlin

Capt. George Coughlin, Green Inlet, B.C.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): What itineraries are nearly always successful?

George C: There are the so-called in-season itineraries. These are usually the most successful. Then there are the shoulder season itineraries. These can sometimes be the more challenging. Then the winter itineraries. They can be either okay or great.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): Are there dull ones from time to time?

George C:  They are all good. Some are just better than others.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): You have strong interests in music and singing. How have you worked that into your working life and your free time?

George C: It’s been a real balancing act. I have to thank my employers and relief captains for working with me on this. I also have to thank the music directors who have allowed me to miss rehearsals and performances and still remain an active choral singer.

George Coughlin

George Coughlin at the Tanglewood Music Center Boston Symphony Orchestra 2018

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): Do you have a few thoughts to share that illustrate how rewarding your life has been as a ship’s captain, and perhaps what challenges or sacrifices there have been?

George C:  As I near full retirement, I look back and think, would I have changed anything along the way? It’s been an exciting ride through time. I’ve been to Africa twice, Antarctica three times, Australia twice, then New Zealand, the Arctic, South Korea and Inland Sea of Japan, Mediterranean, Galapagos, Leeward and Windward Islands, Orinoco River, Panama Canal (a dozen transits), Costa Rica, Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Pacific Northwest, Columbia and Snake rivers, British Columbia, S.E. Alaska, Virgin Islands, East Coast from Florida to Canada and the Saint Lawrence Seaway into the Great Lakes.

Yes, there have been sacrifices along the way, but being a captain has afforded me to go to all of these destinations, whether in command or just because I was in the cruise industry.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): Thank you George. It has been a great pleasure knowing you and hearing your story. See you in person, soon, I hope.

George C:  Thanks for the opportunity to share some of my tales and experiences Ted. I look forward to catching up in person soon. All the Best.

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Safari Explorer in Hawaii

Safari Explorer in Hawaii.

REVIEWER

Leslie Shepherd from the USA.

CRUISE LINE

UnCruise.

SHIP

Safari Explorer.

DESTINATION

Hawaii.

# OF NIGHTS

7.

DEPARTURE DATE & PORTS

November 2018, from Kona, Hawaii.

OVERALL RATING

5 out of 5 stars (5=excellent, 4=very good, 3=good, 2=poor, 1=terrible)

-Food Rating: 5

-Cabin Rating: 5

-Service/Crew Rating: 5

-Itinerary Rating: 5

HAVE YOU BEEN ON A SMALL SHIP CRUISE BEFORE?

I’ve been on 3 small ship cruises.

REVIEW

Unbelievable Thanksgiving holiday!

 

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gorgeous hike in Scotland

Hebridean Princess: Footloose to the Clyde.

By Ben Lyons

Choosing Scotland for a hiking vacation at the end of October admittedly carried some risk. With weather in the Hebrides hardly settled even in the height of the summer, many of our UK friends kindly offered us well meaning, but clearly skeptical, advice.

“The weather can be a bit… off… then. Bring a raincoat!”

It was on our first full day onboard Hebridean Princess’  “Footloose to the Clyde” itinerary, however, when we learned one approach to the country’s fickle fall climate. Towards the end of our first guided walk, up slippery, rocky hills and then along a ridge line bursting with vibrant golden grass and dramatic views to the stoic loch below, the skies opened up with rain.

John, a fellow passenger and proper English gentleman to his core, simply covered his head with his hood, took out the “Wee Dram of Whiskey” provided by the ship, and downed half in a quick swig. Others followed suit, and, properly fortified, on we marched through the rain.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II Charters the Ship

Carrying only 50 passengers looked after by 38 crew, the Hebridean Princess is perhaps best known today as the vessel that Queen Elizabeth II has twice chartered for a family holiday after the Royal Yacht Britannia was retired. (More on that at the end of the article!)

Hebridean Princess

The 50-passenger Hebridean Princess. * Photo: Ben Lyons

A seagoing parallel to a snug yet elegant country home, the ship is the perfect marriage of vessel and destination. Cosseting and cozy, she is one of those rare vessels that is a throwback to earlier times when ships developed a personality and following all of its own.

Hebridean Princess deck shot

The view from deck. * Photo: Ben Lyons

Makeover From A Ferry

Originally built in 1964 as the Columba, the ship plied the Hebrides for several decades as a ferry carrying up to 600 passengers and 50 cars. In 1988 she was purchased for conversion and a year later emerged as the Hebridean Princess following an extensive refurbishment.

Since then, she has been sailing almost exclusively around the maze of Scottish lochs and islands with a loyal, and well-heeled, clientele.

Occasional summer jaunts have taken her as far afield as Norway, England, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales and France.

Hebridean Princess deck

The decks of the Hebridean Princess. * Photo: Ben Lyons

Footloose

While I had sailed the Hebridean Princess almost 10 years before, I had been eager for some time to try out one of the popular “Footloose” cruises.

The premise sounded delightful; approximately four itineraries each year are designed around some of the best walks in Scotland. They combine exercise with scenery; enhanced, of course, by the considerable comforts of the ship. With three experienced guides to lead the way and to help shepherd both the “Strollers” and the more energetic “Hikers,” we set sail from Oban complete with a serenading bagpiper.

Our first morning set the tone for the rest of the week. We had only traveled a few hours from Oban, but found ourselves anchored off the community of Tayvallich on Loch Sween. A few houses and a school up the hill seemed to be the only signs of life to greet us. With the sun peeking through occasional rain clouds, we hearty hikers quickly set off towards the ridge line on what would be a three-and-half-mile stroll.

hiking in the Hebrides

Lovely trekking. * Photo: Ben Lyons

On The Trail

Hebridean Princess passengers tend to be in their 60s and up, and Footloose devotees. Many of whom do at least one, if not two, Footloose trips every year and are almost universally fit and active. They confidently clambered up steep, slippery slopes and navigated uneven ground that would certainly be described as “strenuous” in most mainstream cruise line shore excursion booklets.

gorgeous hike in Scotland

Stunning scenery is business as usual on a Footloose cruise. * Photo: Ben Lyons

Walks were offered at least once a day, including three full-day hikes where the ship provided a boxed lunch and hot soup that we would eat midday.

tea time on a trek

Trekking tea time of course! * Photo: Ben Lyons

As these “all day” hikes were not more than seven miles, my wife and I were eager for a bit more of a challenge. Consulting with the guides when the ship docked in Campbeltown, they proposed that we break off from the main group and hike 12 miles of the Kintyre Way while the ship repositioned to the quaint fishing town of Tarbert. We eagerly accepted.

After the bus dropped off the regular hikers, the two of us were taken further north and turned loose. We began strolling under sunny skies along the coast with the Isle of Arran across the water; in two days’ we would be hiking across that very island.

path on Hebridean Princess trek

One of many gorgeous trails along the way. * Photo: Ben Lyons

Passing through the one-church and one-lane community of Skipness (population 100), my wife was cheerfully invited to a Halloween party the next night. Appreciating the invitation, we had to regretfully decline.

We then turned inland, hiking up through forest and peat bog over the Kintyre Peninsula along a well-marked trail that is popular in the summer. Today, we were the only ones on it. A few hours later, we triumphantly descended into Tarbert, where our fellow passengers, having sailed while we hiked, were exploring the ruins of the town’s castle.

We were greeted with hearty congratulations (and no doubt a bit of relief from our guides that we were safe) before stopping at the local café and bakery. There, Hebridean Princess’ Purser was waiting, hosting an informal tea ashore and picking up the tab for any guests who joined.

It was a wonderful gesture; whereas most companies search for ways to reduce expenditures, Hebridean Princess took “all-inclusive” to another level!

On The Trail To More Adventures

While not all hikes were as challenging as our 12-mile trek, they all provided good exercise accompanied by views invariably well worth savoring. In Lochranza on the Isle of Arran, we climbed out of a valley where sheep and herds of red deer grazed around us. Reaching a pass over the island, we took in a commanding view of the Firth of Clyde stretching below us.

trekking in the Hebrides

The views! * Photo: Ben Lyons

In Holy Loch, a six-mile hike through Puck’s Glen took us along a babbling river with dramatic waterfalls, dripping ferns and verdant foliage that seemed stolen from a Lord of the Rings set.

Puck's Glen in the Hebrides

Puck’s Glen hike. * Photo: Ben Lyons

On our last day, we hiked high above the River Clyde, just outside Greenock, and had sweeping views of farmlands and hedges reaching to the river below.

hearty hikes on a Hebridean Princess cruise

Hearty hikes daily. * Photo: Ben Lyons

guide on Hebridean Princess

One of the knowledgable guides. * Photo: Bey Lyons

The Weather Again

Despite the dire predictions of raging storms and torrents of rain, we found most days to be pleasant and cool with little precipitation. With temperatures in the 50s, it was mostly perfect hiking weather, and any rain that did come was generally short-lived.

The one exception was an afternoon at Largs; there, 40 knots of wind and unceasing rain battered our stout ship at the pier. After a short ferry ride, we felt equally battered as we hiked for three miles over the island of Great Cumbrae. At times, there was scarcely a few hundred yards of visibility, so we had only occasional glimpses of the countryside when the rain temporarily let up.

Still, almost all of the regular hikers joined this walk in good cheer. Not a single complaint was heard; if anything, we all seemed to relish this battle against the elements! It was a tale to tell others onboard, and only made the rest of our drier hikes that much sweeter.

rainy day in the Hebrides

Rainy patches didn’t deter us. * Photo: Ben Lyons

For the approximately one-third of the passengers that preferred a slower pace and a shorter distance, alternatives were offered. One guide always led the “Strollers” on more leisurely excursions. One morning, we were all taken to Ardgowan Estate, exploring a restored 18th-century estate rather than stretching our legs and challenging our stamina.

Those that wanted to go fishing or tour in the ship’s speedboat merely need ask; bicycles were also available free of charge.

Other Cruises

Conventional, non-Footloose cruises often have themes around gardens, manor house architecture or even cycling. All itineraries, however, tend to be geographically compact, rarely covering more than a few hundred miles each week, and always favoring small islands or remote communities over larger towns.

Hebridean Princess zodiac

The ship’s zodiac takes passengers to shore. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

In many ways, the exact itinerary matters little — each small community or loch seems more impossibly charming than the last, and wherever you sail, the experience is often similar.

Hebridean Princess at anchor

The Hebridean Princess at anchor. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

At least one afternoon is usually given over to scenic cruising. Scotland boasts a wild and rugged coastline, and sitting on the aft deck, snug in a wrapped steamer blanket sipping tea or hot toddy, is a very agreeable way to take it in.

Hebridean Princess lounge

The ship offers many cozy spots to relax and enjoy the scenery, outdoors and inside. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

Now For the Cabins & Lounges

Whether stroller or hiker, however, everyone was delighted to have the comforts of Hebridean Princess awaiting us when we returned from shore. Utterly charming, the ship has only 30 cabins (10 of which are for singles), and each is individually decorated. Expect draped window treatments, sturdy wooden desks with a decanter of whiskey, brass-ringed windows, canopied beds and, in many cabins, full-sized bathtubs.

Hebridean Princess single cabin

One of 10 cabins for singles. * Photo: Hebridean Princess

While even the suites are not particularly large by today’s standards (and the smallest cabins are inside and amongst the smallest in the industry), each one possesses so much character that you tend to think of them more as your personal bedroom for a week.

Berneray on Hebridean Princess

The Berneray suite. * Photo: Hebridean Princess

All guests are accommodated in the Tiree Lounge that overlooks the bow through generously sized windows.

Hebridean Princess Kathryn reading nook

Reading time in a cozy nook. * Photo: Ben Lyons

A brick faux-fireplace forms the aft end of the lounge, and a bar, staffed by the ever-personable bartender Toby, dispenses complementary drinks.

There is a natural focus on whiskey; the ship boasts over 70 different types onboard, and tastings can be arranged upon request.

Hebridean Princess bar

A wee dram is always in order. * Photo: Hebridean Princess

Afternoon tea, complete with classic shortbread and clotted cream-filled scones, is served every day, and most guests gather before dinner for cocktails in the lounge.

After dinner, a quiet, low-key atmosphere usually prevails with perhaps the Purser telling a few jokes. However, at least once a trip a local band may perform prompting an energetic round of dancing and singalongs. It is a communal, friendly atmosphere that is readily idiosyncratic to such a small ship.

The Restaurant & The Food

For many, one of the special delights of sailing on Hebridean Princess is taking every meal in the clubby, wood paneled, Columba Restaurant. Each couple has the opportunity to enjoy a permanent assigned table for two for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Solo sailors usually join larger tables hosted — at almost every meal — by a ship’s officer.

Hebridean Princess dining room

Dinner is a high point of the day! * Photo: Ben Lyons

Meals are traditionally Scottish — think Welsh rarebit, or lamb with mint apple jelly — and perfectly prepared. Special requests can be accommodated. Fresh local products are used wherever possible — the wildflower honeycomb at breakfast was delectable — and a seafood buffet one afternoon overflowed with mouthwatering choices of oysters, lobsters, and freshly caught fish.

In keeping with the onboard ambience, the ship is very dressy at dinner, and on twice weekly formal nights, black tie is de rigueur. The formal setting and ambiance is a delightful contrast to modern Freestyle dining.

There is a genuine pleasure in being able to sit at an exquisitely set table with your traveling companion at every meal while occasionally leaning over and gossiping with friendly neighboring dinner tables.

The Last Evening Onboard

On our last night onboard we anchored just outside Greenock following a beautiful, slow sunset that lit the sky in myriad shades of cobalt.

sunset from the decks of the Hebridean Princess

Lovely sunset. * Photo: Ben Lyons

As we settled in for dinner, the Purser paraded haggis around the dining room, before turning the evening’s program over to one of the guides.

Dressed in a kilt and clutching a dagger he recited the traditional “Address to the Haggis” by Robert Burns. Alive with gusto and enthusiasm, his rendition brought us all to applause. It was a charismatically Scottish end to a cruise which exuded that same quintessentially Scottish character on display throughout our time aboard.

In 2021, Hebridean Princess will offer four 7-night Footloose itineraries round-trip from Oban, with sailings in April, June, September, and October. Fares start at £4,300 (British Pounds) per person, including all excursions, alcoholic beverages, meals on board and ashore, gratuities, and transfer to and from the ship. See more details here.

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Sidebar: The Royal Connection

The Ship of Queens

by Robin McKelvie

The legendary Orient Express is heralded as the Train of Kings. If that’s the case then I reckon the Hebridean Princess is undoubtedly the Ship of Queens. And not just metaphorically.

Hebridean Princess

Hebridean Princess. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

This grand British dame is a firm favourite with the British Royal Family and Her Majesty, the Queen, has chartered her on two occasions. I’ve been lucky enough to have been on her four times and have gleaned some inside information on the Royal connections during my voyages.

It is easy to see what Her Majesty, the Queen, finds so beguiling about the privately run Hebridean Princess. This elegant vessel is registered in the UK and is British built too, a rarity for a cruise ship these days. When I first stepped aboard I was struck by how much she echoes Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia. The Royal Family used to take relaxed escapes on Britannia around the Scottish islands most summers before she was retired and the Hebridean Princess plies the same waters.

Britannia departs Cardif

Britannia departs Cardiff for the last time. * Photo: https://en.wikipedia.org/

When I stood watching HMY Britannia sail out of Victoria Harbour on July 1, 1997, with Princes Charles aboard, it was not just the end of an era for Hong Kong and the British Empire. Just months later Britannia was retired too.

Britannia is now an excellent floating museum in Edinburgh. I recommend a visit there as part of your Hebridean Princess vacation as it really opens a window into the similarities between the two and their shared world of understated, calm luxury.

RELATED: The Britannia Floating Museum.

Britannia museum

The Britannia museum in Edinburgh. * Photo: Britannia Museum

The Next in Line

Waiting in the regal wings was the 2,112 gross registered tonne, 235 feet long, 46 feet beam, five-deck Hebridean Princess. The owners of the Hebridean Princess are understandably discreet about their most famous passenger, but I learned more about her time cruising when I was aboard.

Her Majesty, the Queen, booked this independently-run ship for exclusive use her own 80th birthday in 2006 and then again with the same private hire set-up in 2010 for Prince Andrew’s 50th birthday.

Stepping aboard most recently I found the Royal connection impossible to avoid. Her Majesty, the Queen, still stands proud in the form of a signed portrait of her right at the heart of the ship in the reception area. She is pictured along with Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, said to also be a huge fan of the Hebridean Princess.

Hebridean Princess Queen portrai

Hebridean Princess Queen portrait. * Photo: Ben Lyons

Another visible Royal connection comes in the form of a commemorative plaque, dating back to 26 April 1989. This was when the former Columba car ferry was reborn as the Hebridean Princess. Her rebirth gained an immediate Royal seal of approval as the Duchess of York was there on her big day.

Every crew member I spoke to says the Royals are very comfortable aboard. All of her officers are British, including her current Master, Captain Richard Heaton.

Heaton remembers his two Royal cruises fondly: “The first time I was second officer so as the navigator I spent some time chasing the charts they enjoyed poring over in the lounge planning their adventures. The second time I was the Chief Mate in charge of the tenders ashore — I remember they were big fans of a beach picnic.”

Heaton adds with a quiet, modest smile, “Basically they were just a lovely family enjoying a lovely family holiday visiting many of the places they used to enjoy going to on Britannia.”

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SeaDream yacht club new itineraries

American Jazz Arrives & Other Small-Ship Updates

By Anne Kalosh.

A happy note amid the pandemic: American Jazz, the third in American Cruise Lines’ modern-style riverboats, has arrived.

The 190-passenger vessel is the latest to emerge from Chesapeake Shipbuilding in Salisbury, Maryland. It will debut on the Mississippi whenever service can resume.

American Jazz follows sisters American Harmony (2019) and American Song (2018).

American Jazz Riverboat

American Jazz is the latest in American Cruise Lines’ modern riverboat series. * Photo: American Cruise Lines

New wellness/yoga studio

Rising six decks, American Jazz has vast expanses of glass for great views throughout and a multistory glass atrium in the center of the ship. Other hallmarks of the modern riverboat series include a patented opening bow with retractable gangway.

Travelers can spread out in several lounges and a grand dining room. There’s also a fitness center, a new wellness/yoga studio, a casual outdoor cafe and expansive top sun deck. All interior spaces and accommodations have independent heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, with no shared duct work.

Rooms for solo travelers

The roomy standard staterooms range from 300 square feet to 350 square feet, all with sliding glass doors and private furnished balconies. American Jazz also offers suites up to 650 square feet and single-occupancy staterooms of 250 square feet.

The vessel will showcase oil paintings and sculptures by New Orleans-based artist Greg Creason.

“The outlook for 2021 is tremendous and we look forward to American Jazz’s first full season on the Mississippi, as well as the introduction of American Melody, the next new ship to follow in our modern riverboat series,” American Cruise Lines President & CEO Charles B. Robertson said.

Windstar cancels through 2020

Windstar Cruises became the latest line to sit out the rest of 2020. It had planned to re-enter service in Tahiti in October.

“We had hoped that the number of cases of COVID and episodes of transmission would be in decline by now, and that the world recovery from the pandemic would be faster, but based on what we are seeing, we believe the most prudent way forward to keep our guests and crew safe is to postpone all Windstar sailings until next year,” a company spokeswoman said.

Meanwhile, Windstar intends to continue reviewing and updating its “Beyond Ordinary Care” health protocols designed in partnership with the epidemiology department at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Center.

Wind Spirit in Tahiti

Windstar had planned to resume sailing in Tahiti in October but ended up canceling all itineraries through 2020. * Photo: Windstar Cruises

Seabourn’s expedition new build coming later

Seabourn has continued to push back the return dates of individual ships and announced expedition new build Seabourn Venture will be delivered later than planned.

Seabourn Venture delayed

Seabourn Venture is now scheduled to enter service with a Norwegian winter program in late 2021. * Rendering: Seabourn

Due to coronavirus-related shipyard closures earlier this year, Seabourn Venture is now scheduled for completion Dec. 1, 2021, instead of June. Venture had been set to debut in the Arctic, followed by a season in Antarctica.

Quest to assume Antarctica/Venture to Norway in winter

Instead, Seabourn Quest will now take on the 2021/22 Antarctica program, while Seabourn Venture will sail Norway in winter, giving travelers an opportunity to see the northern lights.

Details about the 264-passenger ship’s revised inaugural season are being finalized and will be announced in October.

The interiors and outdoor guest areas of Seabourn’s first purpose-built expedition ship are by hospitality design icon Adam D. Tihany, who’s using tactile materials for a hint of rugged adventure in comfortable spaces like the Expedition Lounge.

Seabourn Venture's Expedition lounge

A rendering of Seabourn Venture’s rustic chic Expedition Lounge. * Rendering: Seabourn

Silver Origin’s Galápagos debut set back

Silver Origin’s inaugural Galápagos voyage is now planned for Nov. 7. Silversea Cruises had hoped to start service Aug. 22 but this was delayed by Ecuador’s coronavirus situation.

Built for the Galápagos, the 100-passenger Silver Origin was delivered in June following an extraordinary effort by the Netherlands’ De Hoop Shipyard, which voluntarily worked through the COVID-19 shutdown. Low water and high water conditions were also overcome.

Silver Origin is currently at the mainland Ecuadorian port of Manta, where crew training and familiarization processes are under way.

Silver Origin will take over year-round sailings from Silver Galapagos.

Silver Origin is delayed

Silver Origin’s start of service in the Galápagos has been postponed until November. * Photo: Silversea Cruises

A-Rosa’s E-motion coming later

European river line A-Rosa reports things have been going well since its restart in mid-June, but the inauguration of its new E-motion vessel will be delayed by a year, according to Seatrade Cruise News. 

The so-far unnamed E-motion-type vessel will be coming in spring 2022. Originally this hybrid-powered boat, designed to approach destinations on silent, emissions-free battery power, was to debut in May 2021.

The revised schedule has the first cruises along the northern part of the Rhine in April 2022.

A-Rosa's E-Motion is delayded

A-Rosa’s new style E-motion vessel has been delayed by a year. * Rendering: A-Rosa

Related: Cruising Restarts in Travel Bubbles.  by Anne Kalosh

No money down to book Crystal Esprit

Reservations opened for 2023 and early 2024 for the boutique yacht Crystal Esprit. This all-suite, 62-passenger gem will sail six-, seven- and eight-night voyages in the Seychelles, Greece, France, Italy, Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Croatia.

Crystal Esprit

Bookings are open for Crystal Esprit’s wide-ranging itineraries in 2023 and 2024. * Photo: Crystal Yacht Cruises

What’s more, travelers can reserve their trip with no money down, as the Crystal Confidence 2.0 program offers a 90-day deposit window, extended final payment and relaxed cancellation schedules for all voyages through 2023. From January 2023 through March 2024, Crystal Yacht Cruises — named the 2019 Best Small-Ship Cruise Line by Condé Nast Traveler readers — will sail 58 active voyages.

During January to March 2023 and 2024, Crystal Esprit will be at home in the Seychelles. From

April to October 2023, destinations include the Greek Isles with a Corinth Canal transit, Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, the Italian Riviera and the French Riviera. In April, November and December 2023, the yacht will explore Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Cyprus.

Fares start at $2,699 per person.

RELATED: Crystal is Not Going Out of Business.  by Anne Kalosh.

SeaDreaming of Barbados

SeaDream Yacht Club is asking its loyal customers what they think about a possible new weeklong Barbados itinerary that would replace the planned Caribbean program this winter.

When looking at the upcoming Caribbean season, SeaDream — which successfully restarted cruises with a novel Norway-Denmark itinerary on June 20 with just four weeks’ notice — thought of again trying something different from its published schedule.

The new itinerary includes St. Vincent and the Grenadines as well as Grenada. If it goes ahead, sailings would start Nov. 8.

Emilio Freeman, vice president, itineraries and destinations, said he chose places where SeaDream will be welcome, that are currently open for tourism and that are more secluded, in line with the brand’s yachting bent.

SeaDream yacht club new itineraries

SeaDream is considering a new itinerary from Barbados that would start in November. * Photo: SeaDream Yacht Club

The proposed itinerary would see travelers embarking at Bridgetown, Barbados (Sunday), calling at Kingston, St. Vincent (Monday), Port Elizabeth, Bequia (Tuesday and overnight), Canouan Island (Wednesday), Mayreau (Thursday), Grenada’s St. George’s (Friday), Tobago Cays and Union Island (Saturday) and disembark in Barbados (Sunday).

Freeman said these destinations all offer friendly people; “smooth, silky sand beaches”; and are places where the rich go to escape. (Bloomberg described Canouan as “where the billionaires go to get away from the millionaires.”)

If this itinerary is approved, travelers most likely will be tested for coronavirus three times before embarking. Barbados requires a negative test taken within 72 hours before arriving at the airport and likely would retest travelers from high-risk countries like the United States on arrival, plus SeaDream would test everyone before they embark.

The line said it would use a “gold standard” PCR test with quick results, capable of processing 50 people an hour. The SeaDream yachts carry just 112 passengers each.

RELATED: Small Ship Cruising Restarts Fitfully. By Anne Kalosh

Lindblad raises $85 million

Cruise operators have been scrambling to shore up liquidity as the pandemic wages on. Lindblad Expeditions Holdings has just secured its future by entering into an agreement with a group of investors for the private placement of $85 million in convertible preferred stock.

This is part of Lindblad’s actions to ensure it is sufficiently capitalized to withstand the COVID-19 downturn and “emerge in a position of strength,” according to Sven-Olof Lindblad, president and CEO.

RELATED: Small Ships, Remote Operations, an Edge for Lindblad’s Return to Service.  by Anne Kalosh

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Aranui 5 sunset

Adventures with Aranui Cruises

By Peter Knego.

All photos by and copyright Peter Knego 2020 unless otherwise noted. Follow Peter on Twitter!

Aranui Cruises Day 1

Fortunately, this was not my first visit to Tahiti, so the pangs of spending just a couple of hours at Papeete’s palm-fringed Pearl Beach Resort prior to embarking Aranui Cruises’ MV ARANUI 5 weren’t too gut-wrenching.

ARANUI 5 Passenger Cargo Liner Adventure

A view of the island of Moorea from the Pearl Beach Resort, Tahiti. * Photo: Peter Knego

Even for my sleep-deprived eyes, the sunrise over Moorea was as dramatic as memory served. And a balmy breakfast with fresh mango, pineapple and papaya in an aural backdrop of gurgling surf was quite a nice way to kick off the first official morning of this cruise adventure.

Combination Cargo Passenger Liner

My home for the next nine nights, Aranui Cruises’ ARANUI 5, is no ordinary cruise ship.

Aranui Cruise in Papeete

MV ARANUI 5 at Papeete. * Photo: Peter Knego

Built in late 2015, she is that rarest of vessels, a bona fide passenger cargo liner with four holds and accommodation for up to 295 passengers on regularly scheduled 12-night voyages to the Marquesas Islands. (Note, Peter did 9 nights of the full 12-night itinerary.)

Aruani cruises map

Aranui 5’s Interisland Route. * Photo: Aranui Cruises

Taking her name from “The Great Highway” in the Maori language, ARANUI 5 supplies the remote island chain with much-needed stores in return for local Marquesan wares like copra (the dried meat of a coconut), dried bananas and lumber.

These days, an actual combination cargo passenger liner (combi-liner) is the maritime equivalent of the dodo bird, but before the advent of the jumbo jet and containerization, the seas were filled with such exotic vessels.

Companies like American President Lines, Messageries Maritimes, Lloyd Triestino and so many more had fleets of fascinating, often fetchingly beautiful combi-liners that linked the most distant of lands.

They were less glamorous than true ocean liners but they were that much more mysterious and enchanting with their myriad cranes, rust-streaked flanks and exotic cargoes of both the human and inanimate kind.

Aranui Cruises welcome aboard

Welcome aboard the ARANUI 5! * Photo: Peter Knego

With the ARANUI 5, all that combi-liner mystique is mashed up with a dose of charming incongruity. The ship was built in China, incorporating architectural elements of Feng Shui, albeit with Polynesian, floral-and-tiki-enhanced decor.

Further, an international passenger mix typically comprises French, North Americans, British, Australians and local South Pacific Islanders, with English being the first language on board. (Typical sailings see about 25% North Americans, 25% Australians/New Zealanders, and 50% Europeans, mainly French and German.)

ARANUI 5 guests enter via the Reception

ARANUI 5 guests enter via the Reception on Deck 3, shown facing aft. * Photo: Peter Knego

Despite her name, this is actually the fourth ARANUI, having just replaced the smaller, 2003-built ARANUI 3.

Because of a Chinese superstition that associates the number four with death, the fourth ARANUI is named ARANUI 5 — sort of how some Western ships just don’t do a Deck 13.

The Cabins

In the weeks leading up to the voyage, I resisted over-studying the cruise documents and forming too many preconceived notions about what lay ahead. And, so it came as a very pleasant surprise when I encountered my stateroom, Deluxe Suite 7319, on starboard Deck 7.

A Deluxe Suite on Aranui Cruises Aranui 5

MV ARANUI 5, Deluxe Suite 7319, facing starboard. * Photo: Peter Knego

In addition to its 45-square-foot balcony, the 245-square-foot space had a wonderfully firm but nicely cushioned king bed (made in Italy, I’m told). There was a wooden screen with inverted tikis separating the bedroom from the sitting area, a large console with plenty of big drawers, a mirror, computer desk, fridge (stocked once with complimentary water and soft drinks) and ample closet space.

The sitting area, which I unfortunately did not even get a chance to use, had a pair of chairs, a cocktail table and a sofa long enough to sleep on.

My WC was all it needed to be — large enough for a shower, sink and toilet. The tap water was not potable but each deck has a handy filtered water and ice machine.

Aranui supplies Tiki Tiare brand toiletries in each cabin and for those in suites. Further, an extra package of sundries, including a bar of starfruit-shaped soap, is provided.

Aranui Cruises Day 1 — The Ship Deck by Deck

With many guests still embarking, I decided to give the ship a quick once-over. There are nine passenger decks connected by fore and aft staircases and lifts.

At the top of the ship on Bridge Deck (10), there is an observation terrace in front of the wheelhouse, which is open for visits, conditions permitting.

Aranui Cruises sky bar

MV ARANUI 5 Sky Bar, facing port. * Photo: Peter Knego

Sky Deck (9) begins with the Sky Bar observation lounge that overlooks the bow. A block of cabins and suites follow, leading to a sheltered terrace at the stern.

Sun Deck (8) is devoted to more cabins and suites that likewise lead to a sheltered stern terrace.

ARANUI 5 Passenger Cargo Liner

Aranui 5 Pool. * Photo: Peter Knego

pool deck on Aranui 5

Another shot of the pool deck. * Photo: Peter Knego

Pool Deck (7) is laid out much like Sun Deck, but with the added pool and lido space at the stern.

The configuration of ARANUI 5’s afterdecks is structured like an amphitheater.

This is not unlike that of the veteran cruise ship MARCO POLO — perfect for viewing deck parties, dance rituals and magnificent sunsets. There is also an al fresco bar here.

Aranui 5 Veranda bar

MV ARANUI 5 Veranda Bar, facing port. * Photo: Peter Knego

Veranda Deck (6) begins with yet more cabins and suites that lead to the Veranda Bar, which has an open terrace, directly aft. Because of its vivid carpeting, we nicknamed this space the Hibiscus Room.

On either side of the Veranda Bar are two small enclosed galleries. To port, there is a card room and to starboard, a library with French, German and English books that largely reference Polynesia.

Aranui Cruises aft deck

MV ARANUI 5 aft Deck 6, facing port. * Photo: Peter Knego

Another nice terrace awaits on aft Deck 6, this one with cushioned rattan chairs plucked from a Somerset Maugham novel.

Aranui 5 conference room

MV ARANUI 5 Conference Room, facing forward. * Photo: Peter Knego

Boat Deck (5) begins with more cabins and the scholarly Conference Room, which would be used on our voyage for port talks for English-speaking guests.

MV ARANUI 5 Lounge, facing forward. * Photo: Peter Knego

The Lounge, an attractive but quirkily laid out space with twelve support pillars in its center, is at the aft end of Deck 5.

It can only be accessed from the starboard side and there is an items-for-purchase snack bar on its port side. On the aft/port side, there is a 24-hour coffee station and on the aft/starboard side, a 24-hour tea station.

Aranui Cruises onboard restaurant

MV ARANUI 5 Restaurant, facing port. * Photo: Peter Knego

Upper Deck (4) has port and starboard promenades that lead to a sheltered terrace at the stern. It also has dormitory-style accommodations and the Restaurant.

In addition to a few staterooms, Main Deck (3) is home to the Reception and the Boutique, which is very well stocked with souvenirs, Aranui gear (t-shirts, hats, etc.) and snacks for those long gaps between meals.

Lower Deck (2) has a few more staterooms and even a deck passenger lounge that is not shown on the plan.

ARANUI 5 not only carries cruise passengers but also locals seeking transport between the islands.

The gym, which is comprised of a separate weight area and a cardio space, is on Lower Deck. There is also a spa with two treatment rooms and a menu of services for a modest fee.

I wrapped up my self-guided whirlwind tour just in time to catch the tail end of a colorful welcome dance on the pool deck.

Stunning sunset behind stern of Aranui 5

A stern sunset. * Photo: Peter Knego

Following boat drill, there was no better vantage for our departure than the various platforms on Bridge Deck. No assistance was required as ARANUI 5 slid past Papeete’s waterfront and into a calm, deep blue Pacific.

A layer of clouds kept the sun at bay as I unpacked and attended a briefing on the morrow’s scheduled visit to Fakarava in the Tuamotus, the island chain of reef-fringed atolls that is midway between Polynesia’s Society Islands and the Marquesas.

The clouds fizzled away in time for a magnificent sunset.

We were assigned first seating dinner at 7:30 PM. The Restaurant is large enough to handle the ship’s entire complement at one time but the meal times are staggered by a half hour to provide a little relief for the Polynesian staff, who couldn’t have been more sweet and engaging throughout our time on board.

Aranui 5 dining

Bruschetta appetizer line up. * Photo: Peter Knego

The cuisine was fresh and delightfully well-prepared with a heavy emphasis on Polynesian specialties like poisson cru (marinated raw fish).

Dining consists of three daily meals that include a buffet-style breakfast and two seatings each for full-service lunch and dinner featuring set menus with an appetizer, main course and dessert.

Red and white wine are included with lunch and dinner.

Vegetarian, gluten-free and other non-kosher dietary choices are happily honored with a little advance notice.

Aranui Cruises Day 2

After breakfast, I headed up to Deck 10 as ARANUI 5 neared Fakarava, the second largest atoll in the Tuamotu archipelago.

Too large to berth at its small landing, our big white ship dropped anchor and began to offload her barges.

barge arriving at Fakarava on an Aranaui cruise

Barge unloading us at Fakarava. * Photo: Peter Knego

As soon as we stepped ashore, we were greeted by the locals with a fragrant tiare. With no scheduled tour and Fakarava’s relatively flat, long (60 kilometers) surface, I chose to run along its long, paved road for a few miles before donning mask, snorkel and fins (provided at Reception, free of charge, to all guests) for a swim through one of its many reefs.

The run went well but then a front blew in, bringing high winds and torrential rain.

rain storm

The rain is coming! * Photo: Peter Knego

I ditched the swim but got caught in the deluge and took shelter under a sprawling banyan tree, hunched over my cameras.

Aranui 5 table setting

MV ARANUI 5 table setting. * Photo: Peter Knego

Once back aboard, a warm, dry lunch was especially appealing. As were the accompanying, fresh-baked breads and a glass of red wine.

With all her guests accounted for, ARANUI 5 hoisted her barges and anchors and continued her northeasterly course.

We would have the remainder of the afternoon and a full day at sea to enjoy our ship, rest up and prepare for an in-depth exploration of the Marquesas.

Aranui Cruises Day 3

Following breakfast, I was able to check out a few of the ARANUI 5’s eight types of cabins. At the bottom of the tier, there are 285-square-foot eight-berth dormitories with two bathrooms and a shower. There are also 135-square-foot four berth dorms.

standard room on Aranui 5

ARANUI 5 Standard Stateroom. * Photo: Peter Knego

Standard staterooms feature a porthole and measure 120-square-feet. They can be configured with two twins or a queen bed.

Deluxe and Superior Deluxe Staterooms have a private balcony and respectively measure 140- or 160-square-feet. In addition to their verandas, Deluxe and Superior Deluxe staterooms have a safe and refrigerator. And, 160- to 200-square-foot Junior Suites have two picture windows.

Premium Suites measure 200-square-feet and have a bedroom with a king or two twin beds and a sitting area with a sofa bed. They also come with a fridge and safe.

Royal Suite on Aranui Cruises

ARANUI 5 Royal Suite bedroom. * Photo: Peter Knego

My favorite staterooms are the 240-square-foot Royal Suites that occupy the forward corners of Decks 5 – 8. They feature a bedroom with two twins or a king-sized bed.

Aranui Cruises Royal Suite living room

ARANUI 5 Royal Suite living room. * Photo: Peter Knego

Royal Suites also have a separate living room with a sofa bed, picture windows overlooking the bow and a walk-in closet. Royal Suite verandahs have a windbreak forward with a window overlooking the bow and an open balcony aft. Their WCs are also a bit larger than those in lower categories.

The largest and most lavish of ARANUI 5’s staterooms is the 440-square-foot Presidential Suite on aft/starboard Sky Deck (9). Divided into three sections, it features a separate bedroom with access to the balcony, which measures 130-square-feet.

Entered via the bedroom, the Presidential Suite has a large full bath as well as a smaller powder room that is adjacent to the living room. The Presidential Suite also has its own in-house coffee maker, among other “perks.”

Its center portion has a dining nook and built-in bar as well as a sofa bed. Ideal for families, it also boasts a living room with a sitting area and enough extra space for a roll-away bed.

Aranui 5 exterior

ARANUI 5 aft from wing. * Photo: Peter Knego

It was a scorching day with just the right amount of clouds to provide a dramatic contrast with the piercingly blue, equatorial sky. I enjoyed the breeze and the hypnotic vantages of the sea from Bridge Deck.

Aranui Cruises ARANUI 5 wheelhouse

ARANUI 5 wheelhouse.  Note open observation platform in front of windows. * Photo: Peter Knego

It was also fun to linger for a while in the wheelhouse and sip a cup of coffee with the ship’s welcoming French first mate, Guillaume Acher. ARANUI 5 has an open bridge policy that is an especially nice plus on her long sea days.

That evening, as the embers of another beautiful sunset began to fizzle out over the ship’s wake, the ARANUI’s crew paraded out to welcome us.

Aranui Cruises welcome party

ARANUI 5 welcome party. * Photo: Peter Knego

From there, it was off to dinner, then to set the clock ahead by 30 minutes to Marquesan time.

A very long and adventurous day at Nuku Hiva loomed.

Aranui Cruises Day 4

Shortly before dawn, the ARANUI 5 had arrived at remote Taipivai on Nuku Hiva, the largest island and administrative capital of the Marquesas, which were discovered by South American tribes some 2,000 years ago before they continued onward to the lower parts of Polynesia.

The Marquesas were first encountered by Europeans on July 21, 1595, when Spanish explorer Alvaro de Medana de Neira stopped at nearby Fatu Hiva. At its peak, Nuku Hiva boasted a population of up to 100,000 prior to its colonization, which basically decimated the local people with disease and rampant alcoholism. Today, the island has 2,600 residents.

Fortunately, our tour host Ita Ata (aka Steven) prepped us for our first excursion and the equatorial heat. It was already hovering near 30 Celsius (well over 90 Fahrenheit) when I stepped out on deck at 6:30 AM.

Aranui 5 sunset

One of numerous lovely sunrise scenes. * Photo: Peter Knego

We clambered into the barges and got ready for our first “beach landing” in the same spot where Herman Melville made his initial Marquesan contact.

Nuku Hiva

The Sands of Nuku Hiva. * Photo: Peter Knego

ARANUI 5 photo from shore

The ARANUI 5 in the early morning light. * Photo: Peter Knego

Steven had also warned us about the “no no’s” (tiny, bloodthirsty flies) on the beach, so we made quick work of debarking that barge, Iwo Jima style.

Moments later, we were off in 4x4s driven by the locals. Our course would take us through a long valley and then up a series of switchbacks over a verdant ridge to the first stop, the archaeological site of Kamuihei.

Aranui Cruises ports feature banyan trees

Under the banyan tree. * Photo: Peter Knego

Kaumuihei boasts a huge banyan tree that was considered sacred in ancient Polynesian culture. The heads of captured enemy soldiers were once propped in its numerous nooks and crannies. Human sacrificial victims and those waiting to be eaten (mainly women and children) spent their last hours tied up in this and nearby tree tops.

We had time to explore the tohua or ancient gathering spot, where numerous petroglyphs were easier to distinguish with a little water poured on them. The mana or spiritual power of this place was almost as prevalent as the heat and humidity.

As we clambered along a short network of trails, I zapped myself with some extra Heiva (a Tahitian insect repellent made from local seed oils and floral extracts) and, for good measure, some DEET-enhanced Off.

Once bitten, forever shy.

Aranui Cruises port experiences

Ritual dancers. * Photo: Peter Knego

Our visit concluded with a ritual dance ceremony underneath that banyan tree.

Beach at Kamuihei, Nuku Hiva with Aranui Cruises

Beach at Kamuihei, Nuku Hiva. * Photo: Peter Knego

From Kamuihei, it was a short ride to the stunningly beautiful beach of Hatiheu, where Robert Louis Stevenson made his first landing in 1888.

We had some free time to wander or just lay back and gaze up at the sky. On the way back to Taipivai for lunch, we paused for a few photo stops but pictures just can’t do the place justice.

local lunch with Aranui Cruises

Lunch, umu-style. * Photo: Peter Knego

The Polynesians and especially, the Marquesans, are fond of umu-style cooking where they wrap the meat (in this case, a hog) in banana leaves and bury it for several hours atop heated stones.

In addition to the hog, there was fried fish, the ubiquitous poisson cru (marinated raw fish), roasted goat and all sorts of other local specialties like purple potatoes, delicious plantains and much more.

beach lunch with Aranui cruises

Purple potatoes. * Photo: Peter Knego

After lunch, we piled back into our various 4x4s and wound our way over yet another ridge to Taoiahe, the Nuku Hiva’s main town.

Stone arch on an Aranui port of call

Stone arch. * Photo: Peter Knego

The final stop on our tour was the Notre Dame Cathedral, which was constructed in 1973, replacing a prior church built in 1848 atop sacred ancient grounds.

Today’s Notre Dame is known for its rosewood carvings and stones from each of the six inhabited Marquesas islands. After a photo-op, our friendly driver Eitan returned us to the ARANUI 5, which was discharging a load of cargo at the far end of Taoiahe.

Aranui 5 cargo

Unloading cargo. * Photo: Peter Knego

Aranui Cruises Day 5

Our host Rani urged us to be up on deck for the ARANUI’s arrival in Ua Pou.

Aranui 5 Approaching Ua Pou

Approaching Ua Pou. * Photo: Peter Knego

Those of us who heeded were so glad we did! You could practically hear the orchestral swells of Dimitry Tiomkin, Basil Poledouris or maybe even a young John Williams as we approached this otherworldly landscape pierced by a series of jagged spires.

Dramatic island scenery at Ua Pou.

Dramatic island scenery at Ua Pou. * Photo: Peter Knego

Look closely and you might spot King Kong or one of James Bond’s nemeses hidden in the mist that slightly obscures the phalluses of Ua Pou.

We joined the 8:00 AM English-speaking hike to the white cross on the neighboring mountain.

ARANUI 5 views

ARANUI 5 overview. * Photo: Peter Knego

It was well worth the view, despite the wilting heat.

Aranui Cruises visit to Ua Pou

Fruity feasting at Ua Pou. * Photo: Peter Knego

From the white cross, we walked to the cultural center in the village of Hahahau where the locals had gathered to sell their wares and provide samples of the native fruits. Once sated, I took the beach route back to the ship.

After a work-out and a refreshing swim, I headed back out for some views of our unique combi-liner, which, by the way, is nicknamed the “Seventh Island” for servicing all six of the inhabited Marquesas islands.

Aranui 5

The perfect frame. * Photo: Peter Knego

It would also appear that her prominent bow bulb sometimes serves as a mini-island, as well.

Kids on bow of Aranui 5

Bow busters of Ua Pou. * Photo: Peter Knego

Aranui Cruises Day 6

The first of two “double island” days began in the anchorage of Puamau on Hiva Oa, where Paul Gauguin and Jacques Brel spent their final years. We rode the barge ashore and waited as supplies were exchanged at the makeshift landing.

Aside from a tractor that did some heavy lifting, everything was done manually.

ARANUI Cruises stop at Puamau.

ARANUI 5 at Puamau. * Photo: Peter Knego

A short 4×4 ride to the I’ipona archaeological site gave us a chance to interact with another friendly resident.

At the best preserved ancient site in the Marquesas (thanks to a massive restoration by French archaeologists Pierre and Marie-Noëlle Garanger-Ottino in 1991), there are numerous stone tikis, including Tiki Takaii, the largest in the islands.

I’ipona archaeological site with Aranui cruises

I’ipona archaeological site with Tiki Takail in left foreground. * Photo: Peter Knego

As with the site in Nuku Hiva two days prior, one could feel the mana or spiritual power.

In one spot that our guide indicated was an altar for sacrificing enemy soldiers, we felt “vibes” just from touching the stones.

It was a reasonable 1.5 kilometer walk back to the ship but because of the heat, we opted to ride back to the landing with another friendly Hiva Oan.

Tekokuu, Tahuata beach

Beach frolic at Tekokuu, Tahuata. * Photo: Peter Knego

As we enjoyed a nice lunch, ARANUI 5 motored her way over to neighboring Tahuata, the smallest inhabited isle of the Marquesas, which is fringed with some spectacular but very remote beaches.

We would have a few hours to swim in the sparkling waters and as a bonus, I was happy to work in a nice little 20-lap run in the sand.

Aranui 5 deck barbecue

ARANUI 5 deck barbecue. * Photo: Peter Knego

That night, while anchored off Hiva Oa, ARANUI 5 hosted her first deck barbecue under the stars.

Aranui Cruises Day 7

In the port of Atuona on Hiva Oa, a school bus transported us to Calvary Cemetery, which overlooks the town where Paul Gauguin spent his final years. Our guides shared that some of the blue-eyed, blondish locals are thought to be his descendants.

This is also where terminally ill French chanteur Jacques Brel arrived in late 1975 aboard his sailing yacht Askoy. Brel was so captivated by the place that he rented a home there but when his condition deteriorated, he returned to France and died in 1978. He is now buried here alongside Paul Gauguin.

Brel may not be as well known outside of France as, say, Piaf but his influence is still very tangible. His songs have been covered by a roster of artists, from Nina Simone and Marc Almond to David Bowie.

Next to his grave were stones with hand-painted messages and several of our French fellow passengers were holding a graveside vigil when I arrived.

seeing Paul Gauguin's grave on an Aranui Cruise

Paul Gauguin’s grave. * Photo: Peter Knego

Gauguin’s resting place is slightly more imposing and yet rather modest for an artist of his renown.

The nearby Gauguin Museum has prints of his works with descriptions in French, while the adjacent Brel Museum has posters and photos covering his career in a hangar-like space that contains his twin engine plane, JoJo, which he bought for easy transport to the Marquesas from Tahiti.

It also helped transfer locals and their supplies between the islands.

Hapatoni, Tahuata greeting on aranui 5 cruise

Hapatoni, Tahuata greeting. * Photo: Peter Knego

As we lunched on board, ARANUI 5 sailed off to nearby Tahuata and dropped anchor off the village of Hapatoni, which is best known for its bone carvings.

After a brief visit, I took an early pontoon back to the ship for a refreshing work out, swim and a nap before dinner.

Aranui Cruises Day 8

We rode the barge to shore from the Omoa anchorage off ruggedly lush Fatu Hiva, which seemed like a Marquesan mini-Kauai.

Throughout the voyage, we had been preparing for today’s Zen-like challenge: a 17-kilometer hike over the ridge to Hanavave on the other side of the island. I donned my red and black sneakers for what would be the last in their series of globe-trotting treks.

Their well-worn treads had imprinted the soils of more lands than I can count, from the sands of Alang to the canals of Amsterdam.

Author Peter Knego on an Aranui Cruises adventure

The author Peter Knego. * Photo by Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon.

It was wise that we were cautioned repeatedly that the hike would be up a steep grade in sweltering heat and humidity with very little shade. For those with second thoughts, after the first half hour, there was no turning back, since ARANUI 5 would be sailing off to meet us in Hanavave on the opposite side of the island.

At the half-way point, some 400 meters above sea level, it was almost refreshingly cool. We were greeted with cheers by members of the ship’s galley team, who were waiting for us with a small deli set-up.

And, oh, did that hard-earned tuna baguette and a bottle of ice cold water taste good!

Trekking back to the ship

Downward ho! * Photo: Peter Knego

Although climbing up was more exerting, going down was actually much more of a challenge.  However, the vistas were stunning, making it hard to not occasionally stumble in distraction.

Past a few bends, the ARANUI 5 appeared as a little speck in the Bay of Hanavave.

ARANUI Cruises calls at Hanavave.

MV ARANUI 5 at Hanavave. * Photo: Peter Knego

Near Hanavave, the remarkable stone formations looked as though they might have been lifted from Easter Island. Towards the end of the road, the incline gave San Francisco’s Lombard Street a run for its money.

Stone formations at Hanavave with Aranui Cruises

Stone formations at Hanavave. * Photo: Peter Knego

At Hanavave, we limped aboard the first barge for the short ride to the air-conditioned comfort of our ship. I immediately tossed the haggard shoes and my scorched/drenched clothing and headed for the pool.

Once there, a fellow passenger waved me over to witness a magnificent manta circling the ARANUI’s stern.

manta ray

Manta ray just next to the ship. * Photo: Peter Knego

Shortly before sunset, the ARANUI 5 sailed off to Ua Huka in the Northern Marquesas.

Aranui Cruises Day 9

Our adventure on the island of Ua Huka began with a 4WD ride to a botanical garden where we encountered numerous, ripe-for-the-picking, local fruit trees.

From there, it was off to the cultural center at Te Tumu to browse local handicrafts and visit a small museum.

The coastline was significantly more arid than what we witnessed on the other islands, almost recalling that of central California.

Our next stop was the village of Hane, where we had time to explore the local marketplace and a scattering of small museums.

Ua Huka coastline with Aranui cruises

Breathtaking Ua Huka coastline. * Photo: Peter Knego

There is a large rock at the outskirts of Hane Bay that bore a strong likeness to California’s Morro Rock.

We stopped for lunch at a local restaurant but well-worn from our 17-kilometer trek on the day prior, decided against the optional, sun-drenched 5K walk back to the ship. After a short 4WD ride through yet more colorful flora, we were back on board the ARANUI 5.

I began the somber task of packing as ARANUI 5 made a westerly course to Nuku Hiva, where a school of dolphins greeted us off the rugged shoreline.

Just before twilight, ARANUI 5 dropped anchor at Taioahe, where she would spend the night. Meanwhile, the only other cruise ship spotted since we left Tahiti nine nights prior, Oceania Cruises’ MV SIRENA, was maneuvering away.

SIRENA asterna near Aranui 5

SIRENA asterna. * Photo: Peter Knego

The preparations for the poolside Polynesian evening were well under way as the SIRENA quietly glided past us on her way to Tahiti.

Aranui Cruises Day 10

We disembarked shortly before the ARANUI 5 finished loading her outbound cargo and sailed off to Ua Pou, where she would take on more local wares before beginning her return leg to Tahiti via Rangiroa in the Tuamotus and Bora Bora.

Meanwhile, we spent the rest of the morning winding through the mountains of Nuku Hiva, en route to the airport.

Tapueahu Canyon

Tapueahu Canyon. * Photo: Peter Knego

Near the summit, there was a fantastic view of Tapueahu Canyon, which is Nuku Hiva’s miniature version of Kauai’s Waimea Canyon.

Hours later, our plane soared over the coral-fringed seas of Tuamotu during the first of my homeward flights, retracing the beginning of this remarkable voyage through Polynesia.

aranui cruises flight home

Until next time! * Photo: Peter Knego

Follow Peter Knego on Twitter here.

Special Thanks: Guillaume Acher, Rani Chaves, Marilyn Green, Cait Langley, Julie Parrotta.

For more info, go to Aranui Cruises.

Note, Aranui 5 has been sailing with local passengers since July 18, 2020, and now with international passengers as well. Fares for 12-night Marquesas cruises in 2021 start at $5,307.80 per person for double occupancy, including three meals daily, one bottle of wine per every four guests, guided excursions, picnic and meals on shore. Optional excursions such as scuba diving, horseback riding, fishing and helicopter tours are not included.
Note, a  new vessel focused on cruising only, the 280-passenger AraMana, is being planned for a mid-2022 launch; see more details from this Jan 2020 SeaTrade Cruise News article.

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Arch in Cabo on a Sea of Cortez cruise

“Searching for the Sea of Cortez” Cruise

By Elysa Leonard.

When I signed up for Windstar’s “Searching for the Sea of Cortez” cruise aboard the Star Legend  last October, from San Diego, California to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, I knew it meant white-sand beaches, crystal blue waters, gorgeous sunsets, snorkeling with sea lions and tropical fish — and if I was lucky, some scuba diving.

Cabo San Lucas in the Sea of Cortez

The iconic arch of Cabo San Lucas in Baja California, Mexico, on the Sea of Cortez. * Photo: Windstar Cruises

Windstar is known for a diverse range of itineraries. Their ships are small and this gives them the flexibility to visit ports that the big ships can’t get to and in turn, enables them to develop creative itineraries that please loyal customers who keep coming back for more.

Star Pride pre stretch

Pre-stretch, the 212-passenger Star Legend in Loreto. * Photo: Windstar Cruises

NOTE: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Windstar has paused all of its cruises through year-end 2020.

San Diego to Puerto Vallarta via The Sea of Cortez

The 7-night Sea of Cortez cruise began in San Diego, and started with two sea days, followed by a day in each port — Cabo San Lucas, La Paz, and Loreto. There  was one last day at sea before the cruise ended in Puerto Vallarta. (For 2021, Windstar’s Sea of Cortez cruise route will be 10 nights and include two additional ports, Mazatlan and Ensenada.)

 Sea of Cortez cruise map

The 10-night Sea of Cortez cruise itinerary. * Photo: Windstar

Our trip was part of a long repositioning cruise for Star Legend as it made its way back to Italy for an extensive renovation and to be stretched. In the cruise ship world, stretching has become a fairly common way to “insert” new life into smaller, older ships.

The ship is literally cut in half and a new section, which was separately fabricated, is slipped into the middle section of the ship, like a puzzle piece. The new and improved Star Legend will have more suites, more dining options, a waterfall pool, more deck space, and overall updated modern feel throughout.

It will carry 312 passengers when it’s re-launched sometime in 2021.

(Due to the COVID-19 situation and subsequent shipyard delays, the stretching schedule has been pushed out; originally the Legend was to have re-launched in summer 2020. Currently the Star Breeze’s stretch and renovation is slated for a Q4 2020 completion, the Star Legend in first quarter 2021, and the Star Pride in Q2 2021.  Stay tuned for updates.)

You can read more about Windstar’s stretching plans for its trio of 212-passenger ex-Seabourn mini cruisers built in the 1990s in a great article by Anne Kalosh, below. (And we look forward to sharing articles about the Legend and her sisters post-stretch.)

RELATED: How Windstar Plans to Stretch 3 Ships.  by Anne Kalosh

While the interior will be vastly changed from what I experienced in October (2019) once Star Legend emerges from dry dock, I jumped at the opportunity to sample the Windstar experience. And so this article focuses on the Star Legend’s overall vibe; its food, service and the quality and nature of Windstar’s shore excursions, which have always been considered top-end.

A Recipe for Relaxation

Having the first two days at sea gave us time to explore the ship and bond with the crew and our fellow passengers. It also helped us get acclimated to our new day job… relaxing. As the ship’s Internet connection was weak while at sea, we took it as a sign to unplug and explore our new home for the week.

Windstar’s Star Legend had exactly the right ingredients for a relaxing small-ship cruise — large and luxurious suites with sliding glass doors, huge bathrooms and walk-in closets.

There were multiple dining venues, including outdoor options on deck, plus a spa, gym, small exercise pool and two hot tubs, perfect for sunset gazing.

The ship had 206 passengers onboard and there was never a moment that felt crowded, never a line to wait in, or a search for a deck chair.

In fact, sometimes you wondered where all the people were.

Below, a video tour of the Star Legend.

The Food — Plenty of Options

The dining options included the formal main dining restaurant, Amphora, where we enjoyed multi-course dinners made to order and paired with wine.

Veranda was a more casual option serving buffet-style breakfast and off-the-menu items for lunch. The Veranda transformed into a reservation-only Steakhouse restaurant called Candles in the evening.

Sea of Cortez Star Legend

Elysa & Bria enjoying Candles Sunset Dinner.

Room service had a good variety of options for breakfast, lunch or dinner and was available 24 hours a day.

On sea days, for those who wanted to dine al fresco (us!), lunch was served out on deck with live music. Delish dishes included Indian curry with rice, a Mexican taco bar with fresh salsa and guacamole, and a burger bar with steak fries and all the best picnic sides.

Sea of Cortez dinner

The James Beard Seared Scallops. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

BBQ Deck Party

Many of the passengers we met were Windstar alumni. They had been on several Windstar cruises all over the world and always looked forward to the famous deck BBQ offered on each cruise. The entire expanse of the lovely teakwood Deck 7 would be laid out for the event with table after table of salads, grills, seafood, hot plates, and saute’ stations.

crab legs served at deck party

Heaps of crab legs served at the deck party. * Photo: Windstar Cruises

There was also live music and dancing on deck.

The crew went to great lengths to make it special, including carving cute whimsical characters made out of vegetables, no detail was spared.

(Note, in the COVID-19 era, food at the BBQ deck party will now be plated and served by the crew.)

Vibrant Cabo San Lucas

Our Sea of Cortez cruise included three Mexican ports on the Baja Peninsula side of the Sea of Cortez, each with its own special vibe. Cabo San Lucas is a vibrant seaport surrounded by many open-air restaurants and bars, and even more luxury yachts and fishing boats.

My friend Bria went on a Windstar snorkeling and fishing excursion (highlighted in my video further on in the article). For me, I couldn’t resist going underwater for some scuba time. I booked a private tour with a highly recommended dive operator, Cabo Private Guide. A private boat with a captain and a dive master catered just to me!

We explored two famous dive sites, Pelican Rock and Neptune’s Fingers, in the waters surrounding El Arco. This famous rocky arch is a landmark at the tip of the Baja Peninsula, where the Pacific Ocean meets the Sea of Cortez.

Arch in Cabo on a Sea of Cortez cruise

The classic Arch in Cabo. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

My tour guide for the day, Adrian, pointed out the beach on the Atlantic side of the rocks was called “Lover’s beach.” The water was calm and perfect for swimming. However, on the Pacific Ocean side, the beach was called “Divorce Beach,” because of its dangerous undertows, rip tides and large waves.

We stayed on the “Lover’s Beach” side for our diving and enjoyed calm seas, beautiful corals and fish.

Sea of Cortez beach stops in Cabo

One of Cabo’s dreamy beaches. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

The World’s aquarium

Jaques Cousteau called the Sea of Cortez, the world’s aquarium, and now I know why.

The two dive sites were only a few minutes boat ride from each other, they were pristine and the amount of fish and sea life was remarkable. We saw more than 50 species of tropical fish, which is more than I have ever seen in one day of diving.

Just to name a handful, we saw pacific trumpetfish, reef cornetfish, leopard groupers, Cortez rainbow wrasse, panamic green morays, jeweled morays, giant hawkfish, moorish idol, yellowtail surgeonfish, finescale triggerfish, three banded butterflyfish, black nose butterflyfish, guineafowl pufferfish, sharp nose pufferfish, Mexican goatfish, porcupinefish, Cortez round rays and golden cownose rays.

The environment was healthy with many baby pufferfish and eels thriving in the corals.

Here is just a small sampling of the fish we saw:

Snorkeling, Sunbathing & Exploring in La Paz

Our second stop was in La Paz, which means peaceful, and it was completely opposite from our first day in Cabo. This small, sleepy Mexican town was much more traditional. We were greeted by a mariachi band and escorted to our small boat for a tour of the area and a stop at a small island to laze around on Balandra beach and  snorkel with sea lions.

There were also blue footed booby birds; yes the same cool birds you can see in the Galapagos Islands — they migrate to Mexico in the winter.  

Beautiful Beach on a Sea of Cortez cruise

Beautiful Balanga Beach in La Paz. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

This Windstar excursion was well executed; the tour operators were great and the tour wasn’t over-crowded. 

We returned to the ship by lunchtime and decided to go out and explore La Paz. We found a small boutique hotel with a restaurant that had a view of the turquoise blue water.

La Paz stop on Sea of Cortez cruise

A view of the sea from this lovely hotel restaurant. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

They served fresh raw ahi tuna with spicy cucumber relish on homemade tostadas.

It was the best of both worlds, a morning excursion and then just enough time to do a little more exploring and get a “taste” of the town. 

Raw Ahi Tuna Tostada in La Paz

Our delicious raw ahi tuna tostada. * Photo: Bria Lloyd

Loreto’s Coronado Island & the Sea Lions!

One of the most exciting things that I thought I would check off my bucket list on this trip was snorkeling with whale sharks. Unfortunately, the Mexican government squashed that dream for now.

We were in Loreto just a few weeks too early and there were not enough whale sharks in the area for the government to open the National Park for the season, so sadly the excursion was canceled.

Instead, we joined a trip to Coronado Island which was 10 miles off the coast of Loreto.

Loreto on a Sea of Cortez cruise

Lovely Coronado Island. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

This was by far my favorite excursion besides my diving trip in Cabo. It was well planned out and included multiple stops and cool things to do.

We started out snorkeling on the edge of the island and then hopped back into the boat and headed to another outcropping of rock formations that was home to a colony of very friendly sea lions.

Sea lions colony, Loreto, Mexico

California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) sunbathing on a rock near Loreto. * Photo: Windstar Cruises

We hopped back into the water and got to swim with them. They were very curious and came within a few feet of us. What an experience!

Here’s a peek:

Once back in the boat, we enjoyed views of the stunning  volcanic rock formations that rimmed this uninhabited island.

We then turned the corner of the island and the captain asked us if we liked dolphins. Just as we all said yes, a large pod of dolphins started swimming alongside our boat, as if on cue. They jumped out of the water to greet us.

He slowed down and let us take photos and enjoy them before heading to an uninhabited sandy beach. There, we spent time sunning, snorkeling and enjoying a feast complete with a grilled freshly-caught grouper.

The fish was served with tortillas, fresh salsa, and guacamole — a lovely lunch. Afterwards, we still had some time to stroll into town and do some shopping.

Below, enjoy this overview of our Windstar excursions: 

We returned to the ship for our last two evenings, with one more full day at sea as we crossed the Sea of Cortez to the mainland of Mexico for our final stop in Puerto Vallarta. Our flight home left early so unfortunately there was no time for a tour of this city, just a taxi ride from our port to the airport.

Windstar’s Loyal Fans

Small-ship cruises tend to have very loyal passengers, as the experience is more intimate and the destinations are special and often off-the-beaten-path. Happy passengers come back again and again to recapture the experience with new destinations.

But the extreme loyalty that we saw with Windstar was quite special. It wasn’t passengers taking two or three cruises with this line, it was 10 to 20 or even more. People were taking multiple trips a year, staying on for more than one week back-to-back and they gushed as they shared stories about past Windstar cruises. 

Don’t just take my word for it, you can listen below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mkGQwDfAyRc

Since returning from the trip, I have spoken to some new passenger friends who have already booked another Windstar cruise. It’s clear Windstar has figured out a secret recipe for success.

They know how to make their passengers feel like the ship is their ship, with a welcoming crew that becomes part of the passengers’ extended family. Imagine traveling the world with a crew that makes you feel safe and relaxed, and knows you like your martini shaken not stirred. 

Why would I cruise with Windstar again? They have the right mix of casual fun and luxury. The small size means interesting destinations and unique excursions.

2021 Windstar Cruise Schedule

(Note, Windstar has paused all of its cruises through year-end 2020.)

The 312-guest Star Breeze (the first to emerge from the lengthening/renovation) is slated to debut in the Caribbean on January 2, 2021. It will sail on several Caribbean itineraries and then through the canal/up the coast of Mexico and the U.S. West Coast before it heads to Alaska for the summer. Here’s a link to Windstar’s Sea of Cortez cruise options for 2021.
The 148-passenger Wind Spirit is to resume sailing in Tahiti starting January 7, 2021.

The 148-passenger Wind Star will restart sailing Jan. 16, 2021, with Costa Rica and Panama Canal sailings and then head to the Mediterranean in April 2021.

The 312-guest Star Legend begins sailing April 7, 2021 in the Mediterranean and then Northern Europe.

The 312-guest Star Pride will begin sailing July 25, 2021 in Northern Europe.

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Blount's Mount HOpe

Blount Small Ship Adventures Bows Out

By Theodore W. Scull.

Once “The World is Our Oyster” literally as well as figuratively contributed to the start of Blount Small Ships Adventures.

Blount Small Ship Adventures Bows out

Grande Mariner & Grande Caribe share a berth at New Bedford. * Photo: Ted Scull

So, it is with great sadness that this pioneering U.S.-flag cruise line has called it a day 51 years after the company founder, Captain Luther H. Blount, set out with 40 paying passengers aboard the Blount-built Mount Hope in 1969 bound from the company’s HQ along the waterfront of Warren, Rhode Island, into Long Island Sound, around New York City’s Battery and northward up the Hudson and through the locks into Lake Champlain.

Blount's Mount HOpe

The cover of the August 1969 “Maritime Reporter Magazine” featured Mount Hope. * Source: https://magazines.marinelink.com/Magazines/MaritimeReporter/196908/page/1

Luther Blount’s Legacy

He pioneered modern-day overnight cruises along the length of the Erie Canal even though the railroads had built bridges in the 19th century to kill the lucrative freight and passenger traffic.

Not to be stopped dead in the water with too low bridges over the Erie Canal, Blount’s answer was to create a pilothouse that could be lowered into the vessel’s main body and the railings folded to the deck.

Captain Luther Blount

Captain Luther Blount on board. * Photo: Blount Small Ship Adventures Facebook page

I recall intensely watching from the bow of the Niagara Prince as the captain inched his way under a railroad bridge with his wife’s eagle eye on the narrowing gap, to within maybe two inches to spare until the vessel was clear. I think I may have stopped breathing for a few seconds.

On another occasion aboard the same ship heading from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi, we passed under a railroad bridge with slightly more clearance, and seconds later Amtrak’s Super Chief bound from Chicago to Los Angeles thundered across the same span. I did notice that one bit of deck railing had a dent in it, from an earlier encounter.

Blount Small Ship Adventures Bows Out

Inches to spare. * Photo: Ted Scull

“Go where the big ships cannot” became the slogan.

However, the two most recently-built Blount vessels, the Grande Caribe and the Grande Mariner, actually had a problem. They were too high in clearance to pass along the western end of the Erie Canal. Hence cruises between the Hudson River and the Great Lakes would enter the canal just north of Albany then switched over to the Oswego Canal near Syracuse leading to Lake Ontario for onward passage through the Welland Canal and into Lakes Erie, Huron, Superior and Michigan.

RELATED: Ted’s Erie Canal Cruise with Blount Small Ship Adventures.

Luther’s Ingenuity

Now back to oysters. Luther Blount, born at Warren, Rhode Island, near the Head of Narragansett Bay, grew into adulthood and joined the family business – oystering – with its base of operations in the same waterfront location where the cruise line and shipyard exist all these many decades later.

Then came the legendary 1938 hurricane, the largest storm to hit the Northeast in modern times, and in a few short hours the oyster beds and the business were in shambles. Luther, a graduate of Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, then set out on a different course — briefly.

With his inventive nature and New England pluck, Luther developed a steaming process for his brother’s clam business that attracted Campbell Soup as big buyers for the firm’s clam chowder.

Luther’s association with oysters returned when he built a highly-successful new type of steel oyster boat and that led to large and more diverse vessels such as small tankers, launches for the Panama Canal Company, passenger vessels for the Circle Line, ferries for owners throughout the northeast, Spirit-class dinner boats, and as reported earlier, the company’s first cruise vessel, the 40-passenger Mount Hope in 1969.

Blount’s Shipyard

Then followed the New Shoreham, New Shoreham II, Mayan Prince and so on, each slightly larger than the previous new builds.

Blount's New Shoreham

New Shoreham. * Photo: Blount Small Ship Adventures Facebook page

Sometimes he would start constructing a hull and if he received an order for a dinner boat, he would complete it as such, and then start another that might end up in his own fleet.

Bllount Small Ship Adventures

Blount Boats – The yard in October 1999. * Photo: Ted Scull

The boats he built for the Circle Line in New York have carried over 75 million passengers.

Blount Marine Corporation eventually became Blount Boats, Inc. and the yard, built on top of a shell dump, has always had a reputation for quality and reliability.

The Blount 65 (a 65-foot passenger boat) was and still is found all over North America in multiple roles as excursion boats, dinner boats and ferries. One of the newest that I am fully aware of is the passenger and vehicle ferry for Governors Island, that separated piece of New York sitting just off the Battery in Lower Manhattan.

Three Daughters

Luther’s daughter Marcia is president and daughter Julie vice president, and Blount Boats has an enviable reputation in otherwise a largely man’s world. His third daughter, Nancy, joined the cruise side.

Blount Sisters

The Blount Sisters Three — Julie, Marcia & Nancy. * Photo: Blount Small Ship Adventures Facebook page

Their father died in 2006 at the age of 90. Nancy had started as a stewardess aboard the boats in 1966, then when she complained about being away from her friends during the summer months, she asked for a job closer to home. Luther made room for her as a welder in his shipyard.

By 1979, she was number two at the cruise line, back then known as American Canadian Line with Caribbean inserted later to form ACCL. The more recent change to Blount Small Ship Adventures came under her watch, to honor her father and more clearly define the cruise line’s mission — “Go where the big ships cannot.”

As Luther, a tried and true Yankee, did not believe in buying or building anything that he could not pay for, the company had no debt and that firm foundation put them in good stead during the last recession.

Blount's Grand Caribe

The Grand Caribe on a fall foliage cruise. * Photo: Blount Small Ship Adventures Facebook page

Go Where the Big Ships Cannot

Luther’s thrust was “go where the big ships cannot,” and the signature itinerary became the inland water cruise between home base at Warren, Rhode Island and Montreal and Quebec in Canada.

Blount Small Ship Cruises Bows out

The morning sun reflected in the Erie Canal. * Photo: Ted Scull

Leaving Narragansett Bay, the route passes through Long Island Sound, skirts by New York City via the East and Hudson Rivers, then above Albany turns west into the Erie Canal and Oswego Canal to enter Lake Ontario and continue on eastward along the St. Lawrence River and Seaway to French Canada. Passengers are never out of sight of scenery, and there is little chance of being seasick. No other line, not even competing coastal cruisers, can do this itinerary as we will see.

Blount Small Ship Adventures Bows Out

Passing West Point sailing south along the Hudson River. * Photo: Ted Scull

He established winter itineraries that cruised amongst the Bahamas, Caribbean islands and Belize and its impressive barrier reef. Then there were the Intracoastal Waterway cruises from Florida and the Deep South, an inland route bypassing Cape Hatteras into the Chesapeake Bay, thence through the Chesapeake and Delaware  Canal, along the New Jersey Coast, past New York and onto Long Island Sound and finally passing through the choppy waters off Point Judith and into Narragansett Bay to the Blount’s HQ.

So “go where the big ships cannot” morphed into landings directly on the subtropical beaches via Luther’s patented bow ramp allowing passengers to go ashore almost anywhere there was a few feet of water and without resorting to tenders.

In fact, his patents eventually numbered 20, a Yankee entrepreneur par excellence.

Luther Blount's bow ramp

Luther’s patented bow ramp. * Photo: Blount Small Ship Adventures Facebook page

Blount bow ramp

The bow ramp was super convenient for passengers. * Photo: Blount Small Ship Adventures Facebook page

Pint-A-Flush Toilets

One device that he was particularly proud of — though not all his passengers might agree — was the Pint-A-Flush toilet, the pint being the minuscule amount of water needed the complete the job. Simplicity reigned and that meant accordion type folding bathroom doors and hand-held showers in the same space as the toilet. Cabins were tiny, and still are by industry standards, but each cabin had its own separate air supply instead of the same stale air being circulated throughout the accommodations.

Most passengers soon got past the diminutive scale and appreciated the comparatively reasonable, but hardly cheap, fares and not being lured into dropping lots of extra money once aboard, other than for gratuities and shore excursions.

There were no casinos, spas, bars, extra tariff restaurants, shopping malls, inches of gold, or art auctions.

The line always had a BYOB policy as it did not sell alcohol. Passengers brought their own wine and spirits, and BSSA provided free storage, ice, set-ups and help about where they can top up ashore. On special evenings, the line offered fancy hors d’oeuvres and complimentary wine. Later wine at meals was included.

Meals were single sitting affairs where passengers freely join whomever they wish. Tables had places for six or eight, setting the scene for the fast-developing social atmosphere. Most came from the U.S. and Canada and occasionally, English-speaking foreigners found their way aboard. Generally, Blount’s clientele was retired or getting there, college educated and either refugees from the mega ships or never had a bit of interest in them in the first place.

Blount Small Ship Adventures Bows Out

Large tables attract those who like meeting and mingle with fellow passengers. * Photo: A crew member

Young American Crews

The crew numbering 17-18 were all Americans, and most of college age or older. They received a wage, shared in the pool of tips, and got medical insurance and a 401K plan. The captains often started as deck hands and rose to mate and captain. Many stewardesses came for the travel experience and training in the hospitality industry. There was no question that they developed a work ethic as well as living in close proximity to one another over long periods of time.

Breakfast times catered to early or late risers, and the buffet set up included juices, cereals, fresh fruit and yoghurt. Once seated the stewardesses brought the hot entrée of the day that might be blueberry pancakes and bacon, omelets and sausages or French toast.

Blount Small Ship Adventures Bows out

The table is set for lunch. * Photo: Ted Scull

Lunch and dinner were at set times, with at lunch, a tureen of soup set on the table and at dinner, a salad at one’s places as one sat down. The main entrée at lunch might be a quiche or make your own sandwich and at dinner, tender roast beef, pork loin, breast of chicken, grilled salmon, and thick lamb chops.

A serving window looked right into the galley, and what passes through the opening was very good American cooking, and the type of food that most North Americans eat at home. Of course, vegetarian, vegan and restricted diets were catered to with advance notice. Over the 35 years that I have known Blount, the food had in more recent times taken a noticeable step up in quality, preparation and presentation.

Since 1986, I have made Blount trips among the New England Islands, along the Intracoastal Waterway between Rhode Island and Georgia, and from Toronto via the canals and Hudson River to New York.

Toronto to New York

For the most recent cruise beginning on Toronto’s waterfront, my wife and I occupied a Grande Mariner twin-bedded cabin on the main deck aft with the new-style bathroom now dividing the toilet and sink compartment from the shower stall. The attractive bed fabrics were dark blue and red, with signal flags decorating the curtains. The picture window slid open to bring in the fresh summer air, and stowage was more than adequate for what is always a casual dress code.

Blount Small Ship Adventures Bows out

A typical double cabin with a window that opens. * Photo: Ted Scull

The lounge had comfortable seating and became the social center where passengers got acquainted, form friendships and have a drink before dining together.

Blount Small Ship Adventures Bows out

The forward lounge is a social and reading center. * Photo: Ted Scull

It’s hard to imagine a more relaxed venue to meet others from all parts of the U.S. and Canada and share what we were all about.

The Grande Mariner sailed across Lake Ontario to spend the day at Niagara Falls on both sides, including a ride on the Maid of the Mist, lunch in the flower-bedecked town of Niagara-on-the-Lake that hosted a summer-long Shaw Festival and ending with a Niagara Peninsula vineyard visit conducted by an excellent tour guide.

Blount Small Ship Adventures Bows Out

A stately Victorian has many impressive neighbors in residential Kingston. * Photo: Ted Scull

Sailing nearly the full length of Lake Ontario, we called in at Kingston, once capital of Upper Canada, docking adjacent to the city center where a jazz festival was taking place and enjoying its lovely commercial and residential architecture on a walking tour. Cruising amongst the Thousand Islands, the captain gave a running commentary of the sights and famous people who frequented the resort region.

At Ogdensburg, we toured painter Frederick Remington’s house and art collection, then entered the Oswego Canal that led to the Erie Canal running nearly the full east-west length of New York State. Sections of the present canal use the Mohawk River, and bits of the earlier 1825 canal. The canal’s completion was a boon to New York City as its port became directly connected to the rest of the then known U.S.

Blount Small Ship Adventures Bows Out

Early travel on the Erie Canal

Near Amsterdam, a member of the Oneida tribe came aboard to give us a talk about the traditional crafts her people are engaged in, and a local historian told stories of early canal travel and introduced us to some of the historic writings and songs of the era. A photographer accompanied the cruise and gave popular talks and private lessons on camera use.

We passed under lots of low bridges and descended through a series of locks to the Hudson River just above Albany. Docking at nearby Troy, the city’s local historian gave us a wonderful tour of this once rich manufacturing center with its important civic buildings, handsome residential architecture and preservation successes.

Blount Small Ship Adventures Bows out

The crew prepare to lower the pilothouse to enter the Oswego Canal. * Photo: Ted Scull

 

Blount Small Ship Adventures

The pilothouse has disappeared into the cavity. * Photo: Ted Scull

There was much to see on the all-day trip down the Hudson, including a top deck barbecue, so we would miss nothing en route. We passed historic houses with glorious Hudson River views, fringing Catskill Mountains, numerous lighthouses in the river and ashore, while sliding by the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and slipping under stately suspension bridges.

Blount Small Ship Adventures Bows out

Buffet lunch while sailing the Hudson River. * Photo: Ted Scull

Then the grand finale, passing Manhattan skyline’s at dusk and docking at the West Side’s Chelsea Piers, with city life less than a block away.

Other Connections to Blount

My direct connections to Blount continued on in an additional manner. When the Grande Caribe and Grande Mariner docked at the Chelsea Recreation Piers, once serving the White Star Line, and latterly excursion and dinner boats, sailing vessels and visiting yachts, I would take the subway from my New York apartment, meet the newly embarked passengers at dinner, then give a Power Point talk about New York harbor and the adjacent neighborhood.

Blount Small Ship Adventures Bows out

Grande Caribe docked at the Chelsea Piers, embarkation and disembarkation port. * Photo: Ted Scull

After a night in one of the vessel’s cabins, I would lead an after-breakfast walk into the fast-changing Chelsea neighborhood and take a hike along the High Line, a former elevated freight rail line. Its new role caused a post-industrial district morph into more of a residential neighborhood and a destination for the art world, including the relocated Whitney Museum, and a bar and restaurant scene.

I have happy memories of all my associations over the years, but as the cruising world kept growing (until the COVID-19 pandemic), the new small- and medium-size cruise vessels being launched were more upscale than Luther Blount’s idea of New England simplicity and down-home atmosphere.

Today’s older generation seems to want larger accommodations, plusher atmosphere and more amenities and willing to pay for it. Those who cannot afford all that, and want to sail aboard smaller and less costly cruises, may now be out of luck. Much lower per-diem fares are readily available — on the big ships with their economies of scale — if that is any attraction.

Finished With Engines. R.I.P.

The current three-vessel fleet is for sale: 68-passenger Niagara Prince (1994), 96-passenger Grande Caribe (1997) and 96-passenger Grande Mariner (1998).

Note: This essay is partly adapted from a piece I wrote for Cruise Travel magazine centering on Blount’s boat building side, a thriving business.

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Scottish cruising on the Red Moon selfie

Cruising in Scotland

By Robin McKelvie.

In these turbulent times the idea of stealing away on a small ship to an uninhabited island or two with just your loved ones has never been more appealing. Handily Red Moon Cruises offer just that and the great news is that they have just started sailing Scotland’s spectacular coastline again.

Join me now as I take you on an adventure aboard Red Moon’s first post-lockdown sailing out of Dunstaffnage Marina last month.

Red Moon in Scotland

The charming Red Moon. * Photo: Red Moon Cruises

The four-passenger Red Moon is a trim, little converted fishing trawler, which was launched by the British Admiralty in 1945 as a general-purpose vessel as World War II drew to a close. She has operated under many guises since and changed a great deal — for example she has lost a machine gun fore and gained a sail!

Red Moon vintage photo

A photo of the Red Moon in her previous life. * Photo: Red Moon Cruises

Today she operates as an ultra cozy small cruise ship, lovingly looked after and operated by husband and wife team, New Zealander Scott Atkinson and English woman Mary Waller. They have clocked up decades of experience of sailing and working on vessels across the world, so you’re in good hands aboard Red Moon.

Covid-19 Cruising on Red Moon

The Red Moon at dock with owner-operators Scott and Mary. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Covid-19 Cruising

This experience and a steady hand have never been more important. On arrival at the marina, Scott welcomes my wife, two kids and me with a broad Hebridean smile, but no handshakes as they are continuing to take COVID-19 seriously.

galley and dining table

Red Moon’s interior galley-dining area. * Photo: Red Moon Cruises

We have the run of the ship, but we’re asked not to touch any of Mary’s cooking facilities in the spacious galley and to give Scott physical distance in the lovely wooden wheelhouse. Our bathroom to be cleaned daily, but not our cozy cabins. There is one double and a pair of twin cabins, which share a roomy bathroom with shower.

double bed on Red Moon

The Red Moon’s double-bedded cabin. * Photo: Red Moon Cruises

twin bed cabin

One of the pair of twin-bedded cabins. * Photo: Red Moon Cruises

Hand sanitizer is readily available alongside wipes and regular gel use is a must, especially when going ashore on the tender.

The precautions don’t alarm us and are actually reassuring. We sail out of Dunstaffnage in our floating cocoon feeling like we are escaping a storm rather than sailing through one, a precious feeling these days.

Robin McKelvie and family

McKelvies on Red Moon. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

As Red Moon is only currently available for use by a single family, and takes a maximum of four guests, we have a great deal of freedom.

Skipper Scott explains he works around ‘themes’ so we tell him what we like and he helps us plan an itinerary that caters to our tastes and the weather conditions.

As a Scot I’m well aware that some of Scotland’s island communities are not too keen on tourists visiting at the moment, especially the Western Isles.

This is the only health board in Scotland not to have suffered a single COVID-19 death and the authorities want to keep it that way.

So, we choose a relatively modest plan for our three-night cruise that keeps us within sight of the mainland, whilst still being able to land on a couple of wee islands.

The 4-passenger converted fishing trawler Red Moon. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Wildlife & islands

Bashing out to sea our COVID-19 worries quickly dissolve as we spot porpoises to port, and then hulking bottlenose dolphins.

porpoise along Red Moon

Thrilling to see a porpoise hugging the hull. * Photo: Red Moon Cruises

As we eke into a deserted bay just off the southwestern shores of the isle of Lismore a massive juvenile sea eagle greets us with a lingering fly past.

The scene is quintessentially Hebridean as we hunker in the shadow of a ruined castle and gaze out towards a sprinkling of other isles and brooding mountain peaks.

Castle Stalker on a COVID-19 cruise

Castle Stalker. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Meals prove to be quintessentially Hebridean too. First up is a heaving platter of boat fresh langoustines. We catch sight of the boat that caught them en route to Lismore. The main is perfectly pink salmon fillet, which we wash down with a local craft ale.

food on the Red Moon

Mary’s cooking is a delight. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Other foodie highlights include delicious venison, plump monkfish and massive king scallops. Mary works miracles in her wee galley including dishes with lots of herbs and spices flavoring the local produce.

dining on deck in Scotland aboard the Red Moon

Depending on the weather, cakes and coffee can be enjoyed outside on deck, while meals are served inside. * Photo: Red Moon Cruises

Our first trip ashore comes the next morning on our second day to the uninhabited isle of Bernera. The revered Scottish saint St Columba is once said to have preached here under a giant yew tree. We walk through the wilds with his ghosts as we make for this tiny island’s highest point.

Bernera Scotland on a cruise

McKelvies on Bernera. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

From here the mists ease for a moment to allow teasing glimpses of Lismore and out west towards the remote Morvern Peninsula.

Scotland's Morvern Peninsula

The Morvern Peninsula. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Onwards to seals & seabirds

That afternoon we make it ashore in Morvern, delving up an emerald glen through the heather in search of red deer and golden eagles

We find them, but don’t see a single soul as we stroll without having to worry about physical distancing for a change.

On our third day we make landfall on another island. Balnagowan is a beauty.

going ashore in Balnogowan

Scott rowing us ashore to Balnagowan. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

We row in so as not to disturb the thriving local seal population. They watch us with great interest, especially the young cubs, as we make it ashore with a beach landing. We wait for the seals to come and check us out as my girls play with seashells.

Balnagowan Scottish cruising

Remote Balnagowan. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

On Balnagowan I strike out for a wee walk on my own and come across the owner of the island. Instinctively I recoil not wanting to offend or worry her. I needn’t have worried too much. She is delighted to see the friendly face of a stranger after what must have been quite a lonely lockdown.

We talk about her — to me — idyllic life on this gorgeous island paradise. She keeps goats and makes it clear I can ramble anywhere I like, but advises quite rightly that I stay away from the nesting birds.

A reassuring return

All too soon that night we are having our last supper.

We had all been nervous about heading out after being shielded away in our bubble during lockdown.

Scottish cruising has been in lockdown too and when we sailed we were the first small ship to get going again.

Red Moon chart house

Robin’s daughter Emma, aboard the Red Moon. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Literally we sailed on the first day permissible by the Scottish Government, July 15. We were reassured, though, by our open and professional husband and wife crew. It was encouraging too that it seems some islanders are keen to see visitors return.

Easing back into Dunstaffnage Marina we have returned with the suitcase full of epic memories that any adventure to Scotland’s incomparable Hebrides offers up in such life affirming abundance.

Scottish cruising is back and it has been a sheer delight being part of its rebirth.

If you’re looking for a heart-warming family-run small ship cruise experience in Scotland, you’ve just found it.

Scottish cruising on the Red Moon selfie

The author Robin McKelvie on the Red Moon in July 2020. 8 Photo: Robin McKelvie

RELATED: Cruising Scotland in the Age of COVID-19. By Robin McKelvie

QUICK FACTS

Itineraries/Fares

Red Moon Cruises have 4-night cruises available in 2020 from £4,800 for four guests all inclusive including all meals, drinks and excursions.

Red Moon is currently only available for single family use with a maximum of four guests.

Getting There

These days there are a number of direct flights from North America to Scotland. Depending on your airline, many flights connect through London. You can choose to arrive in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh or Glasgow. Trains run from Glasgow direct to Oban, which is a 10-minute cab ride away from Dunstaffnage Marina.

Red Moon map

Red Moon’s cruising area.

Tips

Red Moon Cruises offer a Bed & Breakfast option to stay the night before or after a cruise at the marina. This comes in handy for those who have just made a long journey or are about to embark on one.

Weather

Scotland is this green with a reason as it can rain whenever you visit. The cruising season runs from spring in April through to autumn in October. May and September are good choices as they tend to be drier and there is less chance of having to contend with the baleful midge, a harmless but annoying small insect ashore. August is the warmest month, but can also be very wet.

Money Matters

The British Pound is the official currency, with Scottish banks printing their own notes that are legal tender throughout the UK. Credit cards and cash widely accepted.

For more information on cruising with Red Moon Cruises check out www.redmooncruises.co.uk.

Scotland's West Coast

Cruising the West Coast aboard the Red Moon. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

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Crystal Endeavor is not sailing yet

Crystal Not Going Out Of Business

By Anne Kalosh.

With parent company Genting Hong Kong suspending payments to financial creditors and pursuing a restructuring, Crystal tried to calm fears about its own viability by issuing a statement.

Not going out of business

“It is important to understand that the company is not going out of business,” Crystal said. “Whatever option our parent company pursues, it will allow Crystal to operate its business. Additionally, we have always been committed to honoring our contractual obligations with guests and travel partners, including the processing of refunds.

“While we have extended our suspension of global voyages until the end of the year, we are working with government and health authorities in our key markets to resume sailing when it is safe to do so and we look forward to welcoming our guests back on board at that time.”

Crystal Endeavor is not sailing yet

Expedition ship Crystal Endeavor should have been sailing by now. * Rendering: Crystal

$3.4 billion debt

Genting Hong Kong’s cash crunch is due to COVID-19’s impact on its operations, which include Asia’s Star Cruises and Dream Cruises and Germany’s MV Werften shipyards. The company owed a total of $3.4 billion as of July 31.

It expects to report a U.S.$600 million net loss in the first half of 2020 and has delayed the deliveries of giant ship Global Dream and small expedition ship Crystal Endeavor by “about a year.”

Crystal is a highly regarded brand dripping in “world’s best” accolades that expanded from Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity to introduce a yacht, Crystal Esprit, and four identical new European river vessels, Crystal Bach, Crystal Debussy, Crystal Mahler and Crystal Ravel. Crystal Endeavor had been scheduled to enter service in August this year.

Yacht Crystal Esprit is not going out of business

Yacht Crystal Esprit is among Crystal’s small-ship offerings. * Photo: Crystal

Avalon’s river-cruise ‘bubble’

The “good story” for river cruising is that it can operate in a safe “bubble,” according to Scott Nisbet, president & CEO of Globus Family of Brands, which includes Avalon Waterways.

Avalon’s small vessels carry fewer travelers, who’ll stay with the same group and adhere to health checks throughout their trip while seeing Europe from one room (their cabin, with no recirculated air), Nisbet said. They’ll dine in controlled venues with health protocols, skip the lines at sights and will always be just feet from shore should an emergency develop.

Many European countries, he noted, categorize river cruising as a hotel rather than a cruise, making resumption easier.

Travel is back on Europe’s rivers, in a controlled way and only for designated nationalities — not Americans, so far.

Nisbet said Globus is closely watching the continent’s famed Christmas markets, popular destinations for Avalon in November and December.

He’s confident markets will operate, but who knows if Americans will be allowed?

Avalon river cruise bubble

On a river cruise bubble, passengers travel Europe while staying in one room, their cabin. Here, a panorama suite on Avalon Envision. * Photo: Avalon Waterways

Victory’s ‘Come Home to America in 2021’

Victory Cruise Lines‘ new flexible booking policy includes savings of up to $1,400 on 2021 sailings when travelers book and pay in full by Sept. 30, 2020.

The company’s “Come Home to America in 2021” offer gives travelers the option to change or cancel their voyage up to 121 days before departure and receive a full refund. The policy is valid for future and existing 2021 cruise reservations but not for rebookings from 2020 to 2021.

Victory, which isn’t sailing for the balance of 2020, recently detailed health protocols for its 2021 restart. Next year sees new ship Ocean Victory introducing “Discover Beyond” Alaska expedition cruises between Sitka and Vancouver, British Columbia. Other new Victory routes are in the Great Lakes, Canadian Maritimes, New England and the Southeastern United States, including 12-day round-trips from Amelia Island’s Fernandina Beach.

In the coming weeks, Victory will be announcing new winter 2021 itineraries for Victory I and Victory II.

new Ocean Victory

The new Ocean Victory is scheduled to operate Alaska expedition cruises for Victory Cruise Lines in 2021. * Rendering: Victory Cruise Lines

Scenic flights & dives

Luxury expedition ship Scenic Eclipse embarked on its maiden voyage a year ago. During its first eight months (before halting four months ago due to the pandemic), the 228-passenger vessel had journeyed to more than 20 countries across four continents.

scenic eclipse

Scenic Eclipse during its first Antarctica season. * Photo: Scenic

Travelers took to the skies on 290 helicopter flights from the ship’s helipad and experienced more than 200 dives in its submarine, Scenic Neptune, which is able to reach depths of more than 1,000 feet.

Scenic Eclipse submarine Scenic Neptune

The cool interior of Scenic Eclipse submarine Scenic Neptune. * Photo: Scenic

They also participated in more than 500 discovery explorations including kayaking and Zodiac trips around Antarctica’s icebergs. More than 270 daring (or crazy?) travelers took the polar plunge, diving into the freezing waters of the Arctic and Antarctica to earn their polar badges.

Scenic USA is currently offering U.S. customers free and reduced premium airfare for select Antarctica, trans-Atlantic and Arctic sailings in 2021 and 2022 aboard Scenic Eclipse. Free and reduced economy airfare applies to Arctic, Central America and Mediterranean voyages. If travelers pay in full within 14 days of booking, they’ll get an additional $500 in savings.

Scenic’s “Book With Confidence” program gives flexibility and includes a deposit protection plan valued at $250.

RELATED: The New Scenic Eclipse.  By Peter Knego.

scenic neptune

Scenic Neptune at the Trident Wall, Port Antonio. * Photo: f-Stop Movies

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Red Moon Cruises in Scotland

Scottish Cruising in the time of COVID-19

By Robin McKelvie.

Few things are simple in the age of COVID-19. Indeed sometimes it’s just tempting to just give up hope, which has happened to some lovers of cruise ship travel as sailings around the world first fell victim to the virus and then were cancelled en masse.

There are tentative green shoots, however, in a few places including Scotland, where it is small ships that are leading the way.

Scottish Cruising

On the face of it cruise ship travel doesn’t look possible in UK waters.

In a statement issued on July 9 the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advised “against cruise ship travel at this time. This is due to the ongoing pandemic and is based on medical advice from Public Health England.”

They do stress that this advice is constantly under review, but it appears unequivocal.

However I’ve just been out on a cruise in Scottish waters . . .

Red Moon Cruises in Scotland

Red Moon Cruises the Scottish West Coast & Isles. * Photo: Red Moon Cruises

When is a cruise ship not a cruise ship?

I headed out with Red Moon Cruises on the very day that restrictions for general travel around Scotland were eased on July 15. How?

Well, it was possible due to another part of the FCO guidance that is easy to miss. It clarifies its definition of what constitutes cruise travel — “Cruise ship travel means staying overnight for at least 1 night on a sea-going cruise ship with people from multiple households.”

As the husband and wife duo who run Red Moon only take four passengers — in this case me and my immediate family — we did not constitute “cruise ship travel.”

Scottish Cruising with Robin and his family

Robin and his family on the Red Moon. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

So Red Moon is an option if you want to head out right now. They are good value too with exclusive use — including all food and drink — for four people for four nights from £4,800.

>>Watch this space for Robin’s Red Moon Cruises article.

River cruises are go

It is not just small ships running as de facto charters that already have the official, clear go ahead. The FCO makes a distinction between “sea-going” and river cruises as these generally tend to be taken on smaller vessels that do not have the same risks of mass spreading of the virus.

In Scotland a superb option is European WaterwaysSpirit of Scotland.

Spirit of

Spirit of Scotland. * Photo: European Waterways

It is easily the finest way of exploring Thomas Telford’s remarkable Caledonian Canal. They are cruising again on September 6 with a six-night adventure that will be repeated on September 13, 20 and 27.

You can read a full review of my trip on this luxurious river cruiser last year, below.

RELATED: Spirit of Scotland on the Caledonian Canal.  by Robin McKelvie

The rest of Scotland’s small cruise ships

There are yet more green shoots for people desperate to head off on “proper” cruise ships as it were.

Indeed I am booked on two more sea-going cruises next month  on the Majestic Line and SkarvLines. This is possible due to the small nature of the vessels, leading on from the FCO advice on river cruising.

Ken Grant of the Majestic Line explains how they plan to recommence sailing at the end of August: “We are cruising based on our own risk assessment and following all relevant tourism and hospitality guidance issued by the Scottish Government.”

Many matters of policy — especially apparent in the field of public health during this pandemic — are devolved from the UK to Scotland and come under the auspices of the Scottish rather than UK government.

Grant is keen to reassure passengers: “We will have health and safety protocols in place, including weekly testing of staff to ensure they are COVID-free. Passengers can wear face masks if they choose, but this won’t be made compulsory. Before boarding, all passengers and crew will have their temperatures checked and the ship’s public areas and touchpoints will be regularly cleaned and sanitised throughout the day.”

RELATED: Ken Grant is in fact a public health doctor and epidemiologist, and he shares his opinions about travel in the age of COVID-19 in a white paper here.

RELATED: Ken Grant was interviewed for The Telegraph by writer Dave Monk, where he’s quoted saying he’d rather not sail than force guests to wear face masks.

Their first cruise on August 29 was set to be a charter, but now has spaces for the public. The plan is to run using two of their four vessels and make 11 cruises in total this year.

It’s no surprise that they are running their larger vessels, the Glen Shiel and the Glen Etive, which both carry up to 12 passengers and have more space including, I think crucially, indoor public spaces fore and aft, as well as outdoor areas.

Glen Etive Scottish cruising

Glen Etive’s interior. * Photo: Majestic Line

Scottish cruising on Glen Etive

Glen Etive’s stern deck space. * Photo: Majestic Line

Glen Etive Scottish cruising

Glen Etive’s upper deck. * Photo: Majestic Line

A brave new cruise ship this year

There has never been a worse year for the cruise ship industry and it is certainly a terrible year to launch a cruise ship. That is the unfortunate position that SkarvLines have found themselves in. This is the first year for their 11-passenger Nova Spero, a converted fishing boat.

Skarv Lines cruising Scotland

The 11-passenger converted trawler Nova Spero. * Photo: Skarv Lines

For months they must have worried that they would not even be able to make their maiden passenger voyage in 2020, but now they are slated to set sail in September and I will be on one of their first voyages.

I spoke to their owner, who is excited at the prospect of finally getting going.

“Honestly, we can’t wait. We have spent a fair bit of time during lock-down working out social distancing measures and we’re happy that we’ve got it covered. Safety has always been of paramount importance and once the sea air has blown away any thoughts of COVID-19 I am sure we’ll all get along just fine,” said John MacInnes.

MacInnes provides a useful overview of how cruising more generally might be in the time of COVID-19:

“For the remainder of this year, we are limiting the number of guests on board and we’re offering single occupancy of cabins for no supplement. This reduced capacity means we can spread guests out more evenly throughout the boat with the required two-metre distancing enabled. Crew/passengers will be wearing PPE throughout the cruise (masks will be worn by all when outside cabins) and we will have strict cleaning regimens in place for public areas and shared shower rooms/toilets as well as all high-touch surfaces using COVID-effective biocidal cleaning sprays. All towels and linens will be washed at a minimum of 60 °C degrees.”

Lounge of Nova Spero

Nova Spero’s lounge. Photo: Skarv Lines

“Meals will be taken with increased spacing at tables. Payments will all be handled in advance or by contactless card transaction. Guests will be asked to complete a health questionnaire before arrival and as part of this they will need to agree to allow personal contact in the event of an emergency. Other than that, the guest experience will be much as normal and we still strongly believe a cruise on Nova Spero will be truly unforgettable.”

decks of Nova Spero

The Nova Spero. Photo: Skarv Lines

What about the others?

Not everyone has committed to cruising yet. Iain Duncan of Argyll Cruising is being more cautious, but still optimistic.

“We’re not out cruising ourselves at the moment. We too are waiting for word from the FCO and Department of Transport. We are hoping that we will be allowed out come September and resume cruising from 12th Sept to end of October 2020,” Duncan says.

RELATED: Back Doon the Watter, a Cruise on Argyll’s 8-pax Splendour. by Robin McKelvie

RELATED: Check out the Argyll experience below.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eW1icMOPbTA

 

One cruise line that definitely won’t be heading out is St. Hilda Sea Adventures, a company that runs a trio of characterful small ships. They may not be sailing, but they are showing impressive flexibility by now offering their vessels for stationary self-catering breaks.

If you’re not comfortable about cruising at the moment this is an option to get a slice of that romantic cruising ambience.

Seahorse II in Scottish waters

St. Hilda’s 11-pax Seahourse II. * Photo: St Hilda

Good news on the horizon

Hebridean Island Cruises, who operate the glorious 50-passenger Hebridean Princess, may have cancelled all sailings aboard the favourite cruise ship of British Royalty, but they have good news too.

In mid-August they announced that they have bought the plush Lord of the Glens, which cruises Scotland’s Caledonian Canal and isles. Look out for a step up in luxury as they strive to bring her up to a similar level as the Hebridean Princess next year.

Lord of the Glens update

Scottish yacht Lord of the Glens has a new owner. * Photo: Magna Carta Steamship Co.

RELATED: Lord of the Glens is Sold.  by Ted Scull

Looking ahead there is further good news.

All of the cruise companies I spoke to are planning on running full programmes in 2021, COVID-19 dependent of course.

With an eye perhaps on revenue, some are offering earlier than usual booking into 2022 and offering new programmes.

A shining example is the Majestic Line, who have announced that they are to be the first small-ship company (with vessels under 12 passengers) to pioneer trips out to the remarkable Orkney Isles off the northern tip of Scotland in 2022.

Amidst an ocean of depressing cruise news, Scotland’s small ships are plotting an impressively optimistic course for the future. Watch this space.

Cruising Scotland

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

Note

Before booking any Scottish cruise it is essential to check all of the constantly under review COVID-19 travel restrictions not only to the UK, but Scotland too as they can vary. Also it is essential to check the guidelines on spending time in Scotland safely in the time of COVID-19 as regulations again vary from England and other parts of the UK.

Clear advice is available on the Scottish Government website at https://www.gov.scot/collections/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance/.

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UnCruise update

UnCruise Update & Other News.

By Anne Kalosh.

The one traveler who tested positive for COVID-19, ending UnCruise Adventures’ short-lived Alaska program, subsequently tested negative. This led many cruise fans to decry a “false positive,” but UnCruise CEO Capt. Dan Blanchard isn’t going along with that.

Blanchard said the Alaska state COVID PCR test that produced the positive must be respected.

There’s a much higher likelihood of a false negative than a false positive, he explained. The chance of a false positive is very low.

“So I have to call it a positive. I believe this was a positive, not a false positive.”

UnCruise Updates about aboard sailing

Wilderness Adventurer carried just 36 passengers on its aborted voyage. * Photo: UnCruise Adventures

Some validation of safe sailing protocols

Assuming the traveler did have coronavirus — he remained asymptomatic — UnCruise provided some validation of safe sailing protocols since nobody else got sick.

“Our plan worked,” Blanchard said. “It worked flawlessly.”

State epidemiologists and contact tracers thought everyone on a small boat could potentially be exposed if someone became ill. But the way UnCruise designed its program, with people frequently off the boat in small groups for wilderness activities, that wasn’t the case, according to Blanchard.

Travelers were separated so, for example, contact tracing identified a person who shared a skiff ride with the infected man, and that person was among the four who had to remain in quarantine, while others who tested negative and didn’t have close contact were cleared to go home.

UnCruise passengers wearing masks

UnCruise travelers wore masks on a skiff ride. * Photo: UnCruise Adventurers

For UnCruise and other hopeful U.S.-flag cruise operators, though, that positive was a blow.

“Once the word got out, that killed us,” Blanchard said. The line immediately halted operations, canceling the five planned weeks in Alaska and five in the Pacific Northwest to follow. He said other small-ship U.S. companies were impacted, too.

Along with the losses of six other companies that planned to operate, he tallied probably “tens or twenties of millions of dollars” in cancellations due to the one positive UnCruise case.

Call for rapid, reliable testing

What would have prevented this, in Blanchard’s view, is reliable, rapid testing with a four-hour return or less. Rapid testing at the Juneau airport would have made the difference in not boarding the guest, and the trip would have run.

“If I had the president and the Congress in front of me right now, I’d say … Rapid testing, please, if you want to get this economy going. It should be at the airports, and it should be readily available and reliable.”

UnCruise Update

Quick, reliable COVID-19 tests are sorely needed, UnCruise CEO Capt. Dan Blanchard said. * Photo: UnCruise Adventurers

Hawaii looking ‘iffy’

UnCruise is scheduled to start Hawaii sailings in December, but Blanchard said both Alaska and Hawaii have been very cautious about COVID-19, “and whether we’ll be able to start in Hawaii and we’ll have rapid testing, it’s hard to say.”

Alaska 2021

Blanchard thinks the kind of wilderness cruises his company operates — the weeklong Glacier Bay itineraries crafted for this season were chock-full of activities like skiff rides, snorkeling, hiking, kayaking and more, with the only port being the Juneau turnaround — are a safer way to operate.

UnCruise Update

Kayaking during UnCruise Adventures brief return to service earlier this month. * Photo: UnCruise Adventures

“Big ships and maybe small ships that make a lot of port calls, that’s going to be a huge challenge,” he said.

Crystal and Viking cancel through 2020

In other small-ship news, two diversified operators — Crystal Cruises and Viking Cruises — both threw in the towel for 2020. None of their vessels, ocean or river, will be sailing this year because things are just too up in the air.

Both companies are giving incentives for travelers on the canceled voyages to book future dates.

In a letter to Viking travelers, Chairman Torstein Hagen said “recent events have shown us that the recovery from this pandemic will be sporadic, and the ability to travel freely across borders remains some time away. Fortunately, the U.S. State Department has lifted some travel advisories for Americans, but many countries are still limiting tourists. As keen as we may be to get back to exploring, for now, international travel must wait.”

Crystal Clean+ 2.0

Crystal, meanwhile, outlined new health protocols for when the 106-passenger Crystal Bach, Crystal Debussy, Crystal Mahler and Crystal Ravel resume service in 2021. Among the Crystal Clean+ 2.0 actions are online check-in/health questionnaire, assigned arrival time to reduce congestion at embarkation, a second health questionnaire prior to boarding and a temperature check.

Social spaces on board will have reduced capacity, and social distancing will be enforced.

Since all four of Crystal’s river fleet only carry half the number of travelers typical on a 135-meter vessel, there’s been no talk about reducing overall occupancy.

Also, all accommodations consist of balcony suites.

Small ship updates

Crystal river vessels already provide loads of passenger space. Here, Crystal Bach on the Danube. * Photo: Crystal River Cruises

Masks will be provided to passengers and crew and will be required in venues and instances where proper distancing isn’t possible. On shore, Crystal will comply with destinations’ rules about masks.

Enhanced cleaning protocols will include medical-grade disinfectants, electrostatic fogging as an added practice prior to embarkation, 100 percent fresh-air supply and HEPA filters to remove 99.95 percent of airborne pathogens.

Open-seating dining will continue, with distancing. Self-service options will be eliminated and in-room dining choices will be available 24/7.

Tour group sizes will be reduced. Crystal includes tours in most places so it has greater control over the shore experience.

Hebridean Island Cruises adds new yacht

HP Shipping, which fields Hebridean Princess, acquired the 27-cabin luxury yacht Lord of the Glens. As with Hebridean Princess, the operator is Hebridean Island Cruises, which is chartering the vessel.

Commencing in April 2021, Lord of the Glens will offer five- and seven-night jaunts along Scotland’s scenic Caledonian Canal between Inverness and Kyle of Lochalsh, including Loch Ness and Oban.

With its deep blue hull and white superstructure, Lord of the Glens’ livery was inspired by the royal yacht Britannia. The elegant, four-deck vessel’s cabins were recently refurbished.

Lord of the Glens update

Scottish yacht Lord of the Glens has a new owner. * Photo: Magna Carta Steamship Co.

New Windstar routes

Windstar Cruises’ lengthening and update of its three all-suite yachts will come to fruition in 2021. Besides new dining, an enlarged pool deck and added suites, each ship’s capacity will increase from 212 passengers to 312.

Because many of Windstar’s new itineraries for 2020 were canceled due to the pandemic, 2021 has many new ports and routes, including several selections in Alaska (like a shorter, seven-day cruise), comprehensive Black Sea itineraries, sailings to the Holy Land and additional ports and offerings in Canada/New England following a one-year hiatus from visiting the region.

More cruises departing from U.S. ports include two yachts sailing Caribbean cruises round-trip from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Also of note, Star Breeze, the first yacht to emerge from its extensive Star-Plus transformation in fall 2020, will be sailing the new itineraries in California and the Sea of Cortez, along with filling in for the 148-passenger Wind Spirit, which typically sails year-round in Tahiti.

Star Breeze stretch

The Star Breeze with its new lengthened profile at the shipyard a few months ago. * Photo: Windstar Cruises

While Wind Spirit undergoes routine maintenance at a scheduled dry dock, Star Breeze will take over the seven-day “Dreams of Tahiti” itinerary, giving travelers a one-time chance to experience this newly updated all-suite ship in the South Pacific.

On Wind Spirit’s way to Indonesia for its dry dock and back, there are rare opportunities to visit places like Port Vila, Vanuatu, and cross the Coral Sea.

Silver Origin’s enhanced Galápagos itineraries

Silver Origin, built for the Galápagos and just delivered to Silversea Cruises this year, will offer 68 voyages in 2021 that incorporate five maiden calls, including the island of Santa Fe.

Fernandina and Isabela islands will now feature on both of the ship’s itineraries, and each will include improved programs ashore.

These will give travelers more opportunities to admire the iconic wildlife of the archipelago, including the Galapágos penguin, green sea turtles, endemic iguanas and many remarkable birds.

Silver Origin has one guide for every 10 guests and one Zodiac for every dozen or so travelers.

Silver Origin update

Silversea’s new Silver Origin. * Photo: Silverseas

Savings for Emerald Harmony’s 2021/22 Mekong

Emerald Waterways opened bookings for the 2021/22 Mekong River season for its 84-passenger Emerald Harmony with savings for U.S. travelers.

Emerald Harmony Mekong update

The 84-passenger Emerald Harmony plies the Mekong River. * Photo: Emerald Waterways

The vessel offers four itineraries: The eight-day “Majestic Mekong Cruise” sails between Prek’kdam, Cambodia, and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, while the 13-day “Majestic Mekong Discoverer Cruise” travels between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap with time on land to explore Angkor Wat.

The 17-day “Treasures & Temples of Vietnam & Cambodia” cruise-tour adds stops in Hanoi and Halong Bay in the north, and the 21-day “Grand Tour of Vietnam & Cambodia” cruise-tour includes Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hoi An, Hue and Siem Reap.

U.S. travelers who book any program 13 days or longer will receive their choice of $2,000 savings per couple or free, round-trip air to Asia, while those choosing the eight-day river cruise will receive $1,500 savings per couple or round-trip air for $295. This offer is good for bookings made by Dec. 31, 2020.

Additionally, travelers paying in full within 14 days of booking will save $400 per person. This early payment discount expires Sept. 30, 2020. All bookings are covered by Emerald Waterways’ flexible Deposit Protection Plan.

Emerald Harmony, which entered service in 2019, has a shallow enough draft to sail all the way to Ho Chi Minh City, unlike many vessels that use a more distant port and bus travelers in and out.

Emerald Harmony restaurant

Emerald Harmony’s Reflections Restaurant. * Photo: Emerald Waterways

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Lord of the glens

Lord of the Glens Sold

By Ted Scull.

The Magna Carta Steamship Company (UK) has sold the 48-passenger Lord of the Glens to HP Shipping Ltd. It will sail in tandem with Hebridean Island Cruises’ famed 50-passenger “country hotel-style” Hebridean Princess.

The firm had operated the Greek-built vessel for the last number of years.

Lord of the glens

Lord of the Glens. * Photo: Magna Carta Steamship Co

Under the new owners, the “Lord” will offer five- and seven-night Scottish cruises beginning in April 2021 between Inverness and Kyle of Lochalsh across from the Isle of Skye. Highlights are the islands of Eigg and Rhum, the pretty town of Tobermory, Island of Mull, then inland along the Caledonian Canal that passes through Loch Ness en route to Inverness.

The itinerary then reverses back to the Kyle.

Eigg mountains

Eigg with the mountains of Rum in the background. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

When the fickle Scottish weather cooperates, the shimmering lochs, deep glens, and high bens (mountains) are magnificent. Spring brings wild flowers and the autumn, an array of color. The landscapes change very quickly as the ship moves along the Caledonian Canal and crosses long deep lochs.

In June, July and August 2021, the “Lord” is chartered to Lindblad Expeditions for a nine-day package on a similar routing.

More information about the ship’s layout will be available for the next few weeks under the Magna Carta Steamship’s review.

RELATED: Cruising Scotland’s Western Isles — an Overview.  by Ted Scull.

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