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bag piper aboard the Spirit of Scotland

Capturing the Spirit of Scotland

by Robin McKelvie.

Want to taste the spirit and beauty of the Scottish islands, but not sure you’ve the stomach for the rough local seas? That’s where a canal cruise comes in. Even if you’ve got strong sea legs, we’re talking proper luxury, world-class cuisine and an outdoor hot tub aboard the Spirit of Scotland.

There’s a well-stocked (inclusive) whisky collection too to accompany your Nessie spotting as you ease through the mountains and lochs of Scotland’s otherworldly Great Glen.

The remarkable Spirit of Scotland only started plying Thomas Telford’s epic Caledonian Canal a couple of years ago. The aquatic artery was forged in the early 19th century through the Great Glen as a utilitarian project to prevent ships having to battle around Scotland’s northern wilds, but there is nothing utilitarian about the Spirit of Scotland.

The 12-passenger Spirit of Scotland

The 12-passenger Spirit of Scotland. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Canal Cruising in Luxury

This exclusive hotel barge takes Scottish canal cruising to another level. She may be 126 feet in length, but there are only a maximum of 12 passengers. That means decent-sized en suite cabins and lashings (lots!) of public space. There is a large dining room and a comfy bar area too, but the real joy is outside with a small sundeck and hot tub, plus a large sitting area up top.

I join her in Inverness and she soon proves to be the ideal way of discovering Thomas Telford’s engineering marvel, which connects the North Sea at Inverness with the Atlantic at Fort William through a series of Highland canals and lochs.

Scotland's Caledonian Canal

Scotland’s Caledonian Canal. * European Waterways

Map of Scotland

Scotland map. * European Waterways

From the moment the ultra-friendly crew of six welcome me aboard everything is shipshape. The outdoor hot tub offers the surreal experience of cruising through a canal I know well. It is welcome during the day after a canal-side walk, but really comes into its own at night when you can sit bubbling away under the stars.

Spirit of Scotland hot tub

The cozy hot tub aboard the 12-passenger Spirit of Scotland. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

History & Whisky  

We spend six nights gently venturing along a quartet of lochs — Oich, Lochy, Dochfour and, of course, Loch Ness — and myriad locks and canal sections. Handily there are two minibuses at our disposable to ferry us off for excursions twice a day.

On our first morning (day 2) we visit Culloden, where the last battle on British soil was fought in April 1746. It was a battle lost to the British Army, that saw the Highlands ravaged and the scene set for the baleful “Highland Clearances.”

During this time many Highlanders were prized off the land and many sought shelter or were forced to leave for the Americas. It’s a moving experience visiting a battlefield whose excellent museum really brings it to life. It also adds context as the Highlands looks the way it does today as a direct result of that tragic battle — this landscape you cruise through is very much a manmade wilderness.

After that dark experience the afternoon is a lighter visit to Tomatin Distillery, a gem of a Victorian whisky distillery (note not whiskey with an ‘e’ in these parts) in the hills to the south of Inverness.

Our private tour and special tasting even manage to win over the timid whisky drinkers amongst us. Over a dram we talk about how much people are looking forward to tomorrow’s adventure along…Loch Ness!

A visit to Tomatin Distillery on a Spirit of Scotland cruise

The Tomatin Distillery. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Meeting Nessie in Loch Ness

Loch Ness is the reason I find that two of the couples on the cruise chose it. It’s well worth seeing as it’s a remarkable phenomenon. Consider for a moment that if you took all the water in all the lakes in England and Wales together it still could not fill Loch Ness and you get an idea of the depth and scale.

Cruising into Loch Ness on Spirit of Scotland

Loch Ness. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

One Nessie-seeking couple enjoy their monster spotting from the comfort of the hot tub, while I’m more interested in the craggy hulk of Urquhart Castle. This 13th-century castle ruin hangs right on the banks of the loch and swims in history and legend. On this third day, we cruise tight beneath the ramparts, enjoying grandstand views.

Urquhart Castle on Spirit of Scotland

The 13th century Urquhart Castle. * Photo: European Waterways

On the Castle Trail

Our fourth day takes us deep into the pages of Shakespeare, who often used Scotland’s rich history as inspiration. The name “Cawdor” may be familiar to anyone who has read Macbeth. We head for Cawdor Castle, which is instrumental in the English bard’s “Scottish Play.” Unusually, it is privately owned. Cawdor Castle has retained its grand historical appearance, but inside it is alive with all manner of modern art and sculpture.

Cawdor Castle

The 15th-century Cawdor Castle. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Day five brings another castle. Not just any castle. This one lies as deeply scenic drive away to the northwest. It is an archetypal Scottish fortress that has graced many a shortbread tin. Eileen Donan is as striking a Scottish castle as you will find, standing proudly cross a wee bridge at the confluence of three sea lochs with the Skye Cuillin mountains providing a breathtaking background. Its beauty has not been lost on movie makers who have shot scenes for a multitude of films here, from Highlander to Bond.

Cruising Scotland

Beautiful Donan Castle. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

On our last full day (6), I opt out of the excursion to spectacular Glencoe and head off instead on one of their bikes. This is one of the beauties of the Spirit of Scotland. You can enjoy an excursion with a minibus no matter the weather, but can easily break off on your own.

You can just walk, cycle or jog along the tow path heading to the next mooring. As I am Clan Cameron, I instead cycle around the north shores of Loch Oich to make a pilgrimage to the Clan Cameron Museum at Achnacarry Castle.

A Thoroughly Scottish Experience

You could never mistake what country you are cruising through on this voyage. It’s richly Scottish; in a tasteful way that I appreciate even as a native Scot who has lived here all my life. The decor is pleasing with tartan and paintings that don’t go all Brigadoon or Outlander.

I appreciated that the itinerary was focused on culture and history rather than tourist and craft shops. We didn’t waste time with a sonar scanning the depths of Loch Ness for the monster, but instead delved into the depths of Scottish culture. 

The cruise reaches its zenith of Scottishness soon after we are all back onboard when a piper appears on the towpath to serenade us. He then hauls himself aboard in full Highland Dress and poses happily for photos. Afterwards we invite him aboard and treat him to a wee dram, which really gets his tall tales flowing!

bag piper aboard the Spirit of Scotland

A piper to serenade us! * Photo: Robin McKelvie

A special mention goes to the superb young, female French captain and Australian chef. The latter works wonders in the kitchen, with cooking that is a real breath of fresh air. It is often light, always creative and features plenty of delicious local vegetables, such a whole leek, as an unlikely but delicious main, cooked in inventive ways alongside the traditional Scottish red meats the likes of Scottish beef fillet, as well as seafood such as home-smoked salmon impressively smoked right in front of our eyes (and noses) in the galley.

Our skipper is expert at steering us through the canal network and ultra-friendly too.

Freshly smoked salmon aboard Spirit of Scotland

Freshly smoked salmon! * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Scottish beef filet aboard Spirit of Scotland

Scottish beef filet. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

elegant dining area aboard Spirit of Scotland

The elegant dining area aboard Spirit of Scotland. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

If you’re not sure your stomach will enjoy taking on the Hebrides, or just dream of exploring the Scottish Highlands in calm luxury, the Spirit of Scotland is perfect for you. Even as a Scot I am totally won over and will be dreaming of a dram in that hot tub in the gloaming for years to come.

Spirit of Scotland's hot tub

Robin enjoying a soak in the lovely hot tub aboard the 12-passenger Spirit of Scotland. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

QUICK FACTS

Itineraries/Fares

European Waterways’ six-night “Classic Cruise” on the Spirit of Scotland starts from $5,000 USD per person with all meals, drinks and excursions inclusive.

a twin cabin on Spirit of Scotland

A twin cabin on the Spirit of Scotland. * Photo: European Waterways

Scottish whisky

Drinks, including Scottish whisky of course, are included in the fares. * Photo: European Waterways

Getting There

Typically, 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.

Tips

European Waterways also operate another barge on the Caledonian Canal — the Scottish Highlander. There may be no outdoor hot tub, but she offers a similar level of luxury, is slightly cheaper and is handy when the Spirit of Scotland is full.

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, prices are a little cheaper and there is less chance of having to contend with the baleful midge, a harmless but annoying small insect. August is the warmest month, but can also be very wet.

the aft sun deck of Spirit of Scotland

Spirit of Scotland’s aft deck on a sunny day. * Photo: European Waters

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 info, contact www.europeanwaterways.com/destination/scotland.

UK: +44 (0)1753 598555; USA Toll Free: 1-800-394-8630; Canada Toll Free: 1-877-574-3404.

saloon aboard Spirit of Scotland

The comfy saloon of the Spirit of Scotland. * Photo: European Waterways

Spirit of Scotland bar

The bar aboard Spirit of Scotland. * Photo: European Waterways

charming Spirit of Scotland

See you soon aboard Spirit of Scotland. * Photo: European Waterways

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small-ship cruising restarts for Ponant

Small-ship Cruising Restarts

by Anne Kalosh.

SeaDream Yacht Club did embark on the first of 21 Norway-Denmark voyages June 20 as planned, and river cruises are trickling back in Europe. But small-ship cruising restarts in the United States were delayed due to the COVID-19 spike there.

France is expected to allow ocean sailings to begin in the coming days, and Ponant, for one, hopes to be operating nearly all of its ships on coastal cruises in France, in Iceland and the Arctic this summer. Meanwhile, across the globe, Paul Gauguin Cruises’ Tahiti and French Polynesia voyages are imminent.

Americans have the chance to travel to French Polynesia provided, like everyone else under the requirements, they pass a COVID-19 test within 72 hours of the flight.

But while the European Union and Schengen countries are beginning to gradually open their borders to travelers from a number of nations this month, Americans are not on the list for now since the U.S. has failed to control COVID-19.

Other non-E.U. countries have similar restrictions. When it comes to Norway, a member of the E.U.’s European Economic Area, the voyages operated by SeaDream are currently open to residents of Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Faroe Islands. SeaDream said it looks forward to welcoming travelers from the European Economic Area and Schengen Area starting July 15, provided the countries meet contagion criteria.

Norway-Denmark

SeaDream’s cruises are Norway-intensive, but also visit Skagen in Denmark to satisfy cabotage requirements for foreign-flag ships (SeaDream I and II are registered in the Bahamas). Plus, Skagen is a terrific destination with its charming fishing village atmosphere, sandy beaches and fascinating history as an artists’ colony.

Yet, illustrating the complications of travel in the COVID-19 era, on the first trip, SeaDream passengers were not allowed off the ship there. That’s because Denmark enforced a rule that Norwegians needed to book at least a six-night stay in the country. That rule has just been dropped. However, in another Danish regulation, Swedes from most areas need to present evidence of testing negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours.

small-ship cruising restarts

SeaDream I in Norway. * Photo: SeaDream Yacht Club

France

France is expected to allow the resumption of ocean cruises this month, though at significantly reduced capacity. That puts CroisiEurope and Ponant in good positions, since they operate small ships anyway.

CroisiEurope’s new La Belle des Océans (the former Silver Discoverer) carries 128 passengers, and its Belle de l’Adriatique 197 passengers. Ponant’s new Explorers series ships, like Le Dumont d’Urville, have capacity for 184, while its earlier expedition vessels, such as Le Boréal, carry up to 264 passengers.

As QuirkyCruise previously reported, Ponant aims to deploy six of its ships on five different French coastal itineraries, including one to Corsica, a route also planned by CroisiEurope for La Belle des Océans.

RELATED: Ponant Adds a Forth New Ship.  by Anne Kalosh  

small-ship cruising restarts in France

Ponant’s Le Bougainville is scheduled to cruise from Bordeaux. * Photo: Philip Plisson:Ponant

Iceland, Svalbard, Russian Arctic

As Seatrade Cruise News has just reported, Ponant hopes to go further afield this summer, too. Le Bellot, its newest Explorer ship, delivered in March, would circle Iceland on weeklong cruises. Iceland is opening to tourism and courting the return of expedition vessels. Foreign-flag expedition ships are allowed to sail in national waters continuously for up to four months in a 12-month period without violating cabotage.

Like Norway, Iceland is not an E.U. member but is integrated through the European Economic Area and Schengen. It’s letting in some nationalities, but not Americans.

Ponant’s Le Boréal is to operate a series of cruises between Reykjavik, Iceland, and Spitsbergen (as earlier reported, Svalbard is opening to expedition sailings with reduced capacity and numerous other precautions). That is to be followed by a Northeast Passage transit and a Russian Arctic voyage.

According to Seatrade, the bulk of Ponant’s bookings are from French, Belgian and Swiss travelers.

small-ship cruising restarts for Ponant

Le Dumont D’Urville will operate from Le Havre this summer. * Photo: Fred Michel for Ponant

European waterways

Besides the resumption of European river sailings by several brands, including CroisiEurope and A-Rosa, European Waterways is reportedly going to get underway this month. Cruise Critic said the barge operator will ramp up with cruises on more than half of its fleet in July with sailings in France, Italy and Ireland. These will be followed by Scotland and England cruises resuming in August.

According to Cruise Critic, European Waterways will be the first river line to welcome Britons.

French Polynesia

Across the globe, Paul Gauguin Cruises is gearing up for Tahiti and French Polynesia voyages starting this month.

French Polynesia is reopening to international tourism on July 15 and Air Tahiti Nui, part of the cruise line’s regular air program, is resuming commercial flights between Los Angeles and Papeete, Tahiti.

Paul Gauguin will sail seven-night “Tahiti & the Society Islands” voyages departing July 11 and July 18 for the local French Polynesian market. These operate round-trip Papeete, with calls at Huahine and Motu Mahana (the line’s private islet off the coast of Taha’a), Bora Bora (two days, with private beach access) and Moorea (two days).

Paul Gauguin Cruises will welcome all travelers on its 10-night “Society Islands & Tuamotus” voyage departing July 29 from Papeete. This includes the same destinations as the seven-night itinerary and adds Rangiroa and Fakarava in the Tuamotu Archipelago.

Then, in August, the line resumes its previously scheduled seven- to 14-night Tahiti, French Polynesia and South Pacific cruises.

small-ship cruising restarts for Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin will soon be sailing to Moorea again, pictured here. Photo: Paul Gauguin Cruises

U.S. rivers and coasts

If Americans are not widely welcomed abroad yet, they may be able to sail domestically this summer, though the COVID-19 spike stateside has been dashing opportunities so far.

Both American Cruise Lines and American Queen Steamboat Co. (AQSC) had hoped to be operating now.

American Cruise Lines aspired to become the first domestic operator back on the rivers with American Song‘s June 20 departure on the Columbia and Snake rivers. But Portland, one of its turnaround cities, didn’t make it out of Phase One reopening.

American’s plans are unclear.

And AQSC’s American Empress, which turns around across the river from Portland, in Vancouver, Washington, had been scheduled to resume July 6.

AQSC delayed the vessel’s Pacific Northwest program through Aug. 2 and postponed American Duchess’s July 20 start on the Mississippi through Aug. 16. A new date for American Empress wasn’t given; American Duchess is now scheduled to resume with the Aug. 17-23 Lower Mississippi voyage from New Orleans to Memphis.

As previously announced, American Countess and American Queen service is suspended through Aug. 8.

RELATED:  Cruising Restarts in Travel Bubbles on Small Ships.  by Anne Kalosh.

small-ship cruising restarts include American Cruise Lines

American Cruise Lines wanted to be the first to resume service stateside but American Song’s June 20 restart was not to be. * Photo: American Cruise Lines

AQSC-Uniworld offer

Meanwhile, here’s an interesting twist: AQSC is offering special pricing to Uniworld Boutique River Cruises travelers impacted by Uniworld’s suspension of summer cruises.

The two companies called AQSC’s itineraries a perfect match for Uniworld’s culturally minded customers who are looking to take a river cruise closer to home this summer.

“We trust AQSC to take excellent care of our guests while we prepare to resume operations in the near future and look forward to sharing a special opportunity for guests of AQSC to expand their love of river cruising abroad in 2021,” Uniworld President and CEO Ellen Bettridge said.

Uniworld will reciprocate with a special offer for AQSC customers to sail in Europe, Russia, China, Vietnam/Cambodia, India, Egypt or Peru in 2021.

Small ship cruising to resume soon

American Empress is now not expected to begin sailing in the Pacific Northwest until August. * Photo: American Queen Steamboat Co.

Alaska

Seattle-based U.S.-flag operator UnCruise Adventures aims to carry travelers in Alaska starting Aug. 1.

“These initial departures represent a re-framing of what adventure travelers are increasingly looking for: small groups, inclusion and human connection,” UnCruise Adventures CEO Capt. Dan Blanchard said.

UnCruise crafted a seven-night “Glacier Bay National Park Adventure Cruise,” round-trip Juneau. It’s focused on wilderness and nature activities like hiking, kayaking, birding and whale-watching, Apart from Juneau, there are no port calls.

Social distancing since 1996

“How we structure our recovery efforts with new health safety standards, establish partnerships and operate with a small footprint will continue to define our industry and the pristine environments we visit for decades to come,” Blanchard said.

“The market is showing a growing interest in off-the-beaten-path destinations and that is what we do best. We’ve been social distancing since 1996.”

RELATED: A QuirkyCruise Q&A with Dan Blanchard, CEO of UnCruise Adventures.

UnCruise to resume small ship cruising soon

UnCruise expects to begin Alaska sailings in August. Here, Capt. Dan Blanchard, the CEO. * Photo: UnCruise Adventures

Bonus Quirky news:
Whatever happened to Flying Clipper?

Whatever happened to Star Clippers’ new build, Flying Clipper, a near replica of 1913’s France II, the world’s largest square-rigged vessel? It was caught up in a dispute between the line and the shipyard, Brodosplit in Croatia.

According to Seatrade Cruise News, the five-masted vessel is being chartered by Brodosplit, the owner, to the U.K.-based start-up Tradewind Voyages. Renamed Golden Horizon, it’s going to sail from the U.K. to Northern Europe from May to August 2021 before branching out to the Mediterranean, Asia and beyond.

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Cruising Scotland

Cruising Scotland ’s Western Isles – An Overview

By Ted Scull.

Think Scotland geographically and its Highlands and Islands, Lowlands and Lochs, and people with heavy accents, some darn hard to understand at first, or even after a few days, straining and training your ears. They are friendly folks, to most visitors, and there is no need to launch into Brexit (Scots voted NO) or United Kingdom rule vs Scottish independence.

Let’s stick to why some of us love the place and return again and again, in my case approximately dozen times.

Cruising Scotland

Eilean Donan Castle. * Photo: Majestic Line

My Experience

My land travel has mostly been by train with some beautiful rides between Edinburgh and Inverness, either through the Highlands or along the North Sea coast. One of the best rides happened in May 2018 on the scenic route to Glasgow from Oban, cruise and ferry port for the accessing the Hebrides, Scotland’s Western Isles.

On that train, I met the captain of one of the cruise lines we cover — Trinity Sailing. The encounter can be accessed below.

RELATED: A chance meeting on a Scottish train. by Ted Scull.

Cruising Scotland

A pair of former Brixham fishing trawlers that cruise the Scottish Isles in the summer. * Photo: Trinity Sailing

One rail trip hauled me all the way to the north tip of Scotland to the end of the line at Thurso, a short bus transfer down to the port of Scrabster and a 90-minute ferry crossing to Stromness on Orkney for a stay.

Then it was more ambitiously by overnight ferry to Lerwick, located mainland Shetland above Orkney. And once on a three-night ferry cruise to both chains. The “North Boats” as they are locally known carry more than 300 passenger limit, so no special coverage here but do have a look. https://www.northlinkferries.co.uk/

Some of the QuirkyCruise cruise lines also visit these most northern isles with their ancient and visible connections to Neolithic sites and Viking settlements from ports (such as Oban in western Scotland).

Cruising Scotland

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

Cruising Scotland: The Western Isles

Now for visiting Scotland’s Western Isles, the most popular destinations, other than Edinburgh and Glasgow, two very different cities in their upbringing and positions today. They are less than an hour apart by trains with departures every 15 minutes (30 minutes on Sunday). I like both for largely different reasons. Visiting both makes it whole.

Independent visits to the Inner and Outer Hebrides (comprising the Western Isles) can be made by ferry and then on foot, and occasionally by local island bus transit, and by car onto the ferries and independent touring once there.

Most Western Isles ferries, operated by Caledonian MacBrayne or Calmac, require reservations, and they are harder to come by as summer approaches, so advance planning is a must. Go to calmac.co.uk for sailings to nearly two-dozen island ports.

Cruising Scotland

A Calmac ferry leaves Oban for the Isle of Mull. * Photo: Ted Scull

In May 2018, our friends (Somerset inhabitants) had a car but we could not get space on the ferry to and from Oban and the island of Mull even with two weeks’ notice. A few islands are connected to the mainland by a bridge such as highly popular Isle of Skye, the exception rather than the rule.

Cruising Scotland: Islands Galore & More

Scotland counts nearly 800 islands in the four groupings (Inner and Outer Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland), and less than 100 are inhabited. Population shifts to and from the islands are a complex topic, but it is safe to say, most have declined over the decades, others have held steady, and a few, such as the larger close in islands ones have grown in population.

A fifth island grouping is in the Firth of Clyde, the mouth of the river that flows west from Glasgow. The sea (salt water) lochs that branch off are the way to inland beauty spots.

RELATED:  Scotland Cruise — Back Doon tha Watter.  by Robin McKelvie.

Cruising Scotland

Paddle steamer Waverley is often seen in the Firth of Clyde. * Photo: Ted Scull

A completely different destination. yet partly within the same region, is the highly scenic Caledonian Canal. Some 60 miles long, it climbs through 29 locks and cuts across Scotland from the southwest to northeast linking stretches of natural waterways, Lochs Linhe, Lochy, Oich and yes, Ness. Fat chance of seeing the Loch Ness Monster but never say never given the sporadic sightings.

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

Cruising Scotland

Clyde Puffer VIC 32 negotiating the Caledonian Canal. * Photo: Clyde Puffer

Cruising Scotland: A Fleet of Truly Small Ships

QuirkyCruise coverage of the region will center on the small ships, and some really tiny (6-10 passengers) and on up to 50, that are based here the whole season (May to October).

A few included lines also breakaway to Northern Ireland, Ireland, Wales, the South of England or to the Norwegian coast. Lines whose ships that just add a Scottish cruise or two are not included. Scotland based ships know the territory best.

Cruising Scotland

A Majestic Line ship is between trips at Oban, the main departure port for the Western Isles. * Photo: Ted Scull

Cruising Scotland: What’s the Appeal?

So what is the draw and what are these cruises like aboard a fleet that runs the gamut from being a charming conversion from other purposes, such as towing or fishing, or as a ferry, to purpose-built cruise vessels?

Some retain some character from their previous roles. Cabins are small compared to deep-sea cruise ships, but then it is just a few steps to the lounge, dining area or open deck.

Cruising Scotland

An Argyll Cruises’ cabin. * Photo: Argyll Cruises

Cruising Scotland

Alexander Graham Bell cabin aboard Lord of the Glens. * Photo: Lord of the Glens

It’s a social experience, especially at mealtime where it could be a single table for all or several as in a small country inn.

Cruising Scotland

A single dining table aboard VIC32. * Photo: Clyde Puffer

Cruising Scotland: Mal de Mer

Now those with worries about mal de mer should take note. Inland waters will be calm cruising the Inner Hebrides, while on short open sea passages the vessel may move about a bit. If storms are forecast, the route can be altered to a more sheltered passage.

Apart from longer runs from western Scotland to Orkney or Shetland, there are almost no overnight or open sea transits. In fact, most itineraries will see the vessel anchored in a sheltered bay or cove at night. Then after breakfast, passengers go ashore or the vessel spends a few hours en route to another destination.

Cruising Scotland: The Attractions Ashore 

There are colorful island villages such as Tobermory on Mull and nature walks amongst flowers and plants from there.

Cruising Scotland

A private garden in late May open to the public close to Loch Long, Cove, Firth of Clyde. * Photo: Ted Scull

Visit a lovely tearoom on the Isle of Muck or a stately ancestral home on Skye such as Dunvegan Castle, seat of Clan MacLeod, and open to the public as a museum of family history and island living.

Admire the standing stones and stone circles from Neolithic times such as Callanish on Harris as well as Neolithic sites and Viking fortifications on Orkney and Shetland.

And of course, fawn over the loveable Shetland pony and sheepdog.

Marvel at the ancient early Christian site, dating to 563 on Iona, and take a gander at the birds in the thousands such as gannets, fulmars and petrels. Be charmed by animals seen in the water — seals, otters and whales — and maybe have an opportunity for some fishing.

Cruising Scotland

Puffins abound in the Western Isles. * Photo: Argyll Cruises

Some cruises venture beyond the Outer Hebrides to as far out St. Kilda, a beautiful and remote island; expect some chop. (If the weather should blow up into a storm, the trip out in the open Atlantic may be cancelled.)

The island has remnants of a permanent population, one that extended back for a couple thousand years. In the 1930s, the tiny resident population, numbering two score volunteered to leave as life was becoming untenable. Now, St. Kilda is home for a small military base and tens of thousands of birds as mentioned just above.

Cruising Scotland

St. Kilda, the most remote of the Western Isles, is noted for its huge bird colonies. * Photo: Ted Scull

Most cruises are a week or slightly less, others just three or four days, and a few to more distant islands a week plus.

Cruising Scotland: Who Goes There? 

The operators with number of vessels and passenger count:

Operator # of Vessels Passenger Count
     
Argyll Cruising 1 8 passengers
Hebridean Cruises 2 10 passengers
(12 on charters)
Hebridean Island Cruises 1 50 passengers
Magna Carta Steamship Company 2 42 & 54 passengers
The Majestic Line 4 11 passengers (2);
12 passengers (2)
Puffer Steamboat Holidays 1 12 passengers
St. Hilda 3 6, 8 & 11 passengers
Trinity Sailing 2 7 & 12 passengers

Argyll Cruising
(1 vessel; 8 passengers)

Hebridean Cruises
(2 with 10 each; 12 on charters)

Hebridean Island Cruises
(1 with 50 passengers)

Magna Carta Steamship Company
(1 with 42 passengers, 1 with 54 passengers)

Majestic Line
(2 with 11 passengers; 2 with 12 passengers)

Puffer Steamboat Holidays
(1 with 12 passengers)

St. Hilda Sea Adventures
(1 with 6 passengers, 1 with 8 passengers, 1 with 11 passengers)

Trinity Sailing
(1 with 7 passengers, 2 with 12 passengers)

 

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Québec's Baie-Comeau

Canada Bans Cruise Ships Through Oct.

By Anne Kalosh.

Canada extended its ban of most cruise ships through October. This effectively kills the Alaska, Canada/New England, Great Lakes and Canadian Arctic cruise seasons for most operators.

canada cruise ban equals no Northwest Passage cruises

Canadian Coast Guard ship in the Northwest Passage will have no cruise ships to watch over. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

Applies to ships carrying more than 100 people

Only the smallest vessels are allowed, those with overnight accommodations for up to 100 people.

The decision had been expected given that COVID-19 is still not under control, especially in the neighboring United States.

“Large cruise ships will not be allowed in Canadian waters until at least Oct. 31,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced during a daily briefing. “This decision extends the one we made in March, which was taken to protect our coastal communities. COVID-19 is still a very serious threat.”

The new regulation is stricter than the March ban, which had applied to ships carrying more than 500 people, including crew.

Canada ban cruise ships to places like Montreal

CanadaNew-England cruises known for their fall foliage are curtailed. Here Montréal. * Photo: Cruise the Saint Lawrence

RELATED: Small Ship Lines Likely the First to Resume Operations.  by Anne Kalosh.

Expedition operators

Also, passenger vessels with the capacity to carry more than 12 people continue to be prohibited from entering Arctic coastal waters. including Nunatsiavut, Nunavik and the Labrador Coast, until Oct. 31.

This means no Northwest Passage expeditions or Canadian High Arctic adventures that are often paired with Greenland and Iceland.

polar bears in the High Arctic

No expedition ships will be taking travelers to see polar bears in the Canadian Arctic this summer. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

canada cruise ban means no northwest passage cruises

No Northwest Passage cruises this year. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

Victory Cruise Lines

Coastal operator Victory Cruise Lines, which had earlier decided to field just one vessel instead of two on the Great Lakes this year, scrapped the program altogether shortly before Canada’s notice because there had been too much uncertainty.

John Waggoner, founder and CEO of Victory’s parent, American Queen Steamboat Co., called it “a tragedy for us because the Great Lakes were so well-received, with such positive reviews.”

Canada bans cruise ships

Victory Cruise Lines will not be able to sail the Great Lakes this year because of Canada’s cruise ship ban. * Photo: Victory Cruise Lines

Impact on ports

Many ports will suffer economic losses without cruise ships. For example, the nine ports in the Cruise the Saint Lawrence association — Montréal, Trois-Rivières, Québec, Saguenay, Baie-Comeau, Sept-Îles, Havre Saint-Pierre, Gaspé and Îles de la Madeleine — said the overall economic contribution of the 2020 season would have been $1 billion. This includes direct, indirect and induced impact, as well as 7,000 direct and indirect jobs.

The region had been looking at a record season.

Québec's Baie-Comeau

Québec’s Baie-Comeau will not have any cruise visitors in 2020. * Photo: Cruise the Saint Lawrence

U.S. ports suffer, too

Ports in Alaska and New England will suffer, too. Due to cabotage regulations, non-U.S. flag ships sailing round-trip from the United States need to stop at a foreign port. Without being able to call in Canada, those vessels won’t be able to operate Alaska and Canada/New England itineraries.

However, one ray of hope for small-ship fans: U.S.-flag operators like Alaskan Dream Cruises, American Cruise Lines, Blount Small Ship Adventures and UnCruise Adventures don’t need to touch a foreign port, so they could still sail in Alaska and New England, provided states and communities allow it.

Safari Endeavour in Frederick Sound AK

Small ships like Safari Endeavour operated by UnCruise can still operate all Alaska sailings, as there’s no need to stop in Canada and they are not subject to the U.S. no-sail order. * Photo: UnCruise

Also, their ships are exempt from the United States’ current COVID-19-related no-sail order because they carry fewer than 250 people (passengers and crew) each.

RELATED: Alaska Adventures with UnCruise.  by Judi Cohen.

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Kyles ruins in Scotland

Scotland Cruise

by Robin McKelvie.

Scottish travel writer and the author of National Geographic’s guide to Scotland, Robin McKelvie has been cruising his country’s waters ever since he was a wee laddie sailing with his dad.

While Scotland’s famous Hebrides are the islands that traditionally get all the attention on the wildly beautiful west coast, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Firth of Clyde. These comparatively sheltered waters offer up a rich bounty of wildlife, superb seafood and spectacular scenery, infused with a romance that dates from the “doon tha watter” (down the water) years when Glaswegians flocked here for their holidays.

Today the legacy lives on as a family-run small cruise operator plies these waters.

Agyll Cruisings' Splendor

Looking over the bow of the 8-passenger Splendor. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Rebirth of an Old Dame

Argyll Cruising harks back to the glory days of Clyde cruising before the advent of cheap jet travel ended the popularity of the estuary from the 1960s onwards, when holiday seekers started heading for the sun in places like Spain.

Owner and skipper of the 8-passenger Splendour, Iain Duncan, has resurrected a 60-year-old 20m-long (66 foot) former North Sea fishing trawler to fulfil a long cherished dream, a dream of sailing his own wee cruise ship in his beloved Firth of Clyde.

Captain Iain Duncan on a Scottish cruise

Captain Iain Duncan at the helm. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Iain grew up in these parts on the shores of Loch Fyne, Scotland’s longest sea loch and a wild, sinewy loch famous for its oysters and big skies. Joining him on the bridge as we cruise out of their mountain fringed base at Holy Loch (once home to a British and US submarine base), I quickly realise no one knows the Clyde better than Iain.

“I learned to row in these waters just as soon as I could walk,” he smiles as the late afternoon sun reflects off his cobalt eyes and his waft of white hair breaks like a wave over his welcoming smile.

8-passenger Splendour in Scotland

The 8-passenger Splendour. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Sailing Through the Mountains

As the classic Gardner diesel engine chugs us out of Holy Loch the slender finger of the sea loch that splits the rugged mountains lends it more the air of the Norwegian fjords rather than an estuary just a stone’s throw from Scotland’s largest city of Glasgow. The mightiest of the mountains we encounter on our adventure soars over 1,000m (some 330 feet) skywards. That is all the more impressive when you get to see the mountains emerge all the way from sea level, through a thick cloak of emerald forest and swirling mists, up towards often snow-capped peaks.

scotland cruise landscape

The stunning scenery on “Kyles & the Isles” itinerary will take your breath away. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

You won’t forget the Argyll Alps and the Arran Hills. This is the epic land, after all, that gave Scottish-born John Muir a love of mountains that saw him go on to becoming instrumental in founding the US national park network. Muir actually left Scotland in 1849 as a boy by ship for good from Helensburgh, which we cruise near as we spill out into the Firth of Clyde proper.

Scotland cruise map

The “Kyles and the Isles” itinerary. * Map: Argyll Cruising

 Kyles ruins in Scotland

The breathtaking Kyles. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

The Unique Firth of Clyde

Iain’s own enthusiasm for the spectacular Scottish estuary is instantly infectious.

“You just cannae (can’t) beat the Firth of Clyde,” he expands. “The Clyde is sheltered, with little swell and alive with wildlife from dolphins to orcas, castles and a country house (Mount Stuart) built by the world’s richest man [Marquess of Bute]. Then there are the old resort towns, beaches and superb walks.”

Firth of Clyde scenery on a Scotland cruise

The scenic Firth of Clyde. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

It is indeed a varied corner of Scotland. I’m on one of their short three-night cruises, but we cover a massive amount. All at a suitably leisurely pace, though, with plenty of time for lazing around on the ample outside space, including the sturdy solid wood table Iain had built fore during a refit for the 2019 season.

That same refit saw upgraded cabins so the Splendour now sleeps eight in en suite comfort.

Splendour on a Scotland cruise

One of the Splendour’s 4 cozy cabins. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

The Firth of Clyde islands

We spend the first night at a tranquil mooring in the famed Kyles of Bute. It is easy to see why legendary film director Lord Richard Attenborough bought a house here — it is instantly cinematic.

Kyles of Bute in Scotland

A stunning sunset at the Kyles of Bute. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

The mainland and the Isle of Bute ease towards sinewy narrows (kyle means narrows in Scottish Gaelic) as we sneak through safe in Iain’s experienced hands.

I used to sail these waterways with my late father in his yacht and I remember all the isles that to me engendered such a sense of romance — Arran, Bute, the two Cumbraes and the quasi-mystical rock stac of Ailsa Craig.

As we sail between Arran and Ailsa Craig, Iain sums it up neatly as I enjoy a wee dram of Arran single malt: “For me there is no finer place in Scotland to sail. There is such diversity of scenery and wildlife. You won’t find an island more dramatic than Ailsa Craig nor more beautiful than Arran.”

Ailsa Craig on a Scotland cruise

Close up of Ailsa Craig. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

We make landfall on Ailsa Craig, the towering uninhabited granite isle that lies halfway between Glasgow and Belfast, earning it the moniker of “Paddy’s Milestone” (as in St. Patrick). I manage to scramble up the rough ground to the 338m (1,110 foot) peak. From here all the Clyde isles unfurl below and the hills of Antrim beckon beyond the unmistakable peninsula of Kintyre. Remember the romance of Paul McCartney’s mystical “Mull of Kintyre?”

This is the Splendour’s glorious playground.

ruins in Scotland

The ruins of ancient Scotland are everywhere. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

whisky in Arran in Scotland

Robin enjoys a wee dram or two of whisky in Arran.

Epic Wildlife and Delicious Food

The Firth of Clyde may once have launched many of the world’s ships, but today it is more a haven for wildlife. The waters brim with life, from porpoises and dolphins, through to hulking basking sharks and even various whale species. On the (at least) daily trips ashore you can seek out red deer and red squirrels, while seabirds from puffins and gannets fill the skies. Iain stresses you’re always welcome on the characterful old-style bridge — it’s ideal for wildlife spotting.

puffins in Scotland

Adorable puffins. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

dolphins on a Scotland cruise

Watch dancing dolphins right from the boat. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

standing on deck of Splendour in Scotland

Standing on deck spotting for marine life. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

“We recently had a pod of orcas in the Clyde and I’ve had minke whales cutting right under us and humpbacks breaching just ahead,” beams Iain with pride.

Our third night is spent in the wee resort of Millport (our second had been at anchor off Arran), one of the holiday hubs during the “doon tha watter” heyday along with Dunoon and Rothesay.

After a wee trip ashore to a traditional pub to enjoy an ale from a brewery on Loch Fyne, it’s back aboard for another superb dinner.

The meals onboard are memorable, served in the cosy interior or out at that chunky outside table.

dining aboard the Splendour in Scotland

The Splendour’s dining room. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Our chef (who also doubles as the bosun) bustles away, working wonders with delicious fresh local produce such as scallops landed in Oban, lobster from Tarbert on Loch Fyne and smoked fish from Argyll Smokery in Dunoon, washed down with coffee roasted in the Kyles of Bute.

Local Scottish crab and prawns

Local crab and prawns. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Waving a Fond Farewell

Easing out on the deck I share a final dram, this time from Campbelltown, where the Firth of Clyde enjoys a dramatic dalliance with the Irish Sea, in the company of a colony of seals.

As the sun burns down over the brooding Arran Hills there is nothing to break the waters, the calm silence broken only by the call of an oystercatcher, which just adds to the sense of peace.

As my “doon tha watter” Scotland cruise draws to an end I raise a glass in toast with another traditional Scottish phrase — “Haste ye back!”

The Arran hills of Scotland

Looking across to Arran. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

The Practical Stuff

Itineraries/Fares

A three-night “Kyles and the Isles” cruise on the Splendour round-trip from the Holy Loch Marina in Donoon starts from around US$1,200 per person with all meals, wine with dinner and excursions inclusive. The vessel is also available for private hire — contact Iain’s son Jamie for details, at the email below. Argyll Cruising offers 9 itinearies from 3 to 13 nights.

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 (and some Dublin). You can choose to arrive in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh or Glasgow, with the latter an hour’s drive closer to the marina in Argyll.  Or you can train it from Glasgow Central to Gourock and pick up a ferry to Dunoon, where you’d need a taxi to get to the marina.

Tips

If you’ve been to the Firth of Clyde already, or are just keener to check out the Hebrides, Argyll Cruising now also offer trips out beyond Kintyre. (The Hebrides are defined as the islands that lie beyond Kintyre.)

Argyll Cruising

When the weather cooperates, the Scottish scenery is stunning. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

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, prices are a little cheaper and there is less chance of having to contend with the baleful midge, a harmless but annoying small insect. 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 Info

Contact Argyll Cruising www.argyllcruising.com; +44 (0) 7917 858 545; info@argyllcruising.com.

Scottish travel writer Robin McKelvie

Scottish travel writer Robin McKelvie knows his subject!

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Small-ship Sea Cloud Spirit construction

Small-ship Construction & Delivery Updates

By Anne Kalosh.

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing a lot of uncertainty on the cruise shipbuilding front. Some yards have been closed, in line with national rules, or operating at greatly reduced capacity to enable safe distancing among workers.

Subcontractors, the vast web of suppliers who provide the majority of components and highly specialized labor/craftsmanship that go into building ships, haven’t been able cross borders, creating bottlenecks.

And, in this zero-revenue environment, many cruise lines are trying to renegotiate new build deliveries. Anyway, who needs more berths at a time when all fleets are laid up and nobody knows when operations will restart?

Here’s an update on news emerging in recent days about some of the Quirky-sized oceangoing new builds.

It’s a mixed picture, with both delays and progress — but, overall, surprisingly robust with even some new entrants, on both the shipyard and cruise line sides.

Small-ship Construction: Ponant’s Le Commandant Charcot

The hybrid electric, LNG-powered Le Commandant Charcot is one of a kind. Ponant is building this ship to be able to sail in extreme polar regions with the least environmental impact possible. It appears on track for April 2021 delivery.

The new build is now being outfitted at the Vard Søviknes in Norway after arriving from Vard Tulcea in Romania, where the superstructure was built. Towed from Eastern Europe to Norway in a monthlong voyage, Le Commandant Charcot rendezvoused in the Gibraltar Strait with Ponant’s L’Austral, Le Boréal and Le Lyrial as they headed to Marseille for layup during the current suspension of cruise operations, making for some spectacular drone footage.

Le Commandant Charcot’s destinations will include the true geographic North Pole and areas in Antarctica where fewer people have traveled than to the moon.

In addition to carrying intrepid travelers, the ship will facilitate scientific research with laboratories, equipment and dedicated staterooms for researchers, providing a platform for polar observation and analysis.

Le Commandant Charcot (foreground) rendezvoused with three other Ponant ships in the Strait of Gibraltar. * Photo: Loic Jugualt for Ponant

Small-ship Construction: Sea Cloud Spirit Delay

Sea Cloud Cruises’ long-awaited, triple-masted tall ship Sea Cloud Spirit had been scheduled to make its maiden voyage Aug. 29. It will go into service later than planned, the new date still to be advised.

The 136-passenger vessel is under construction at Metalships & Docks SAU in Vigo, Spain, where work stopped for several weeks due to the country’s shutdown. Operations have resumed in small groups, in strict compliance with new public health regulations. However, the European subcontractors and suppliers involved in the project have not yet returned to Spain due to entry restrictions.

Sea Cloud Spirit’s masts, manufactured in Poland, had arrived at the yard when the COVID-19 crisis hit but were not installed due to the work stoppage. Below deck, the interior fittings were also being carried out but not completed.

Small-ship Sea Cloud Spirit construction

Sea Cloud Spirit’s main mast lies ready to be installed at the shipyard. * Photo: Sea Cloud Cruises

RELATED: Sea Cloud Building a New Tall Ship.  by Anne Kalosh.

New Canary Islands Program

Because of the delay, Sea Cloud Spirit will not cross the Atlantic, heading to the Caribbean in mid-November as originally scheduled. Instead, it will remain in the Canary Islands until April 2021.

According to Sea Cloud Cruises, its Sea Cloud and Sea Cloud II are still expected to ply the Caribbean later this year.

The company’s 2021 brochure will be published this summer, including all voyages on the three ships. The upcoming year gives the Hamburg-based line several reasons to celebrate: the legendary Sea Cloud flagship will be 90 years old, Sea Cloud II will turn 20 and Sea Cloud Spirit will be operating its first full season.

Small-ship Construction: Eclipse II & More Polar New Builds for Scenic

Meanwhile, in Rijeka, Croatia, a steel-cutting ceremony for Scenic Eclipse II was held recently, and Scenic Group Owner Glen Moroney revealed plans to turn out five polar “discovery yachts” there in the next six years.

Due in 2021, Scenic Eclipse II is the sister of 2019’s Scenic Eclipse, which carries 238 passengers (200 in polar regions) in all-veranda suites with butler service. Numerous restaurants, an ample spa and nearly 1:1 crew-to-guest ratio make for an ultra-luxurious experience.

RELATED:   Cruising Aboard the New Scenic Eclipse.  by Peter Knego

Yet these are also serious expedition ships, with ice-strengthened hulls, super-sized stabilizers, two helicopters housed in a giant hangar, a submarine, a marina for launching Zodiacs and kayaks and a mud room for gear.

Scenic Eclipse helicopters

The Scenic Eclipse ships have two helicopters each, a hangar, a submarine and more expedition toys. * Photo: Scenic

After the Uljanik Group that built Scenic Eclipse went bankrupt, Moroney formed his own company, MKM Yachts, as a sub-concession at Rijeka’s Maj 3 shipyard. This new entity is taking full responsibility for Scenic’s oceangoing new builds, starting with Scenic Eclipse II.

MKM Yachts reached this agreement with the Croatian government, which is also supporting the redevelopment of the shipyard and assisting in the funding of Scenic’s new building program. Under the plan, MKM Yachts is leasing a portion of the Rijeka yard to use its infrastructure and the knowledge of the Croatian shipbuilders, working in collaboration with Scenic’s expert team.

Scenic small-ship construction

Construction has begun on Scenic Eclipse II, the sister of 2019’s Scenic Eclipse, seen here. * Photo: Scenic

Small-ship Construction: Atlas Ocean Voyages

Atlas Ocean Voyages, the dedicated North American brand of Portugal’s Mystic Invest Holdings, has just opened sales for its inaugural Antarctica program in late 2021/early 2022. The voyages will be aboard new build World Navigator, currently under construction in Portugal.

As a new brand, Atlas faces the challenge of introducing itself amid the global cruise shutdown. However, President Alberto Aliberti said his team can focus on marketing and planning the safest possible entry into service instead of coping with the ongoing challenges facing other lines that have had to repatriate passengers and crew, lay up ships and juggle cancellations and rebookings.

World Navigator is not due to begin sailing until mid-2021, in the Mediterranean. By opening bookings for the subsequent Antarctica season now, Atlas is playing into the dreams of people cooped up at home who have time to plan a future big adventure.

World Navigator Antarctic season

Sales have opened for World Navigator’s 2021:22 Antarctica season. * Photo: Atlas Ocean Voyages

Small-ship Edge

And, echoing the recent remarks of Sven Lindblad — whose Lindblad Expeditions just took delivery of its new polar ship National Geographic Endurance, which awaits entry to service when the global health situation improves — Aliberti believes small expedition ships will have an edge.

They carry fewer people and visit remote places like Antarctica, far from human populations.

Plus, Aliberti said, given World Navigator hasn’t entered service yet, Atlas can design for social distancing from the ground up.

For Antarctica bookings made by June 30, 2020, travelers may make a 50% reduced deposit, save $1,000 and get free business-class air per suite guest or $500 savings plus free economy-class air travel per Horizon or Veranda stateroom guest. Adventure staterooms come with free economy air. Changes to any itinerary departing before March 31, 2022, may be made without penalty.

As well, Atlas is catching the attention of the hard-hit travel advisor community with a “Get Paid Now” bonus gift card of up to $750 per booking, paid immediately, on top of a generous 15 percent commission.

Small-ship Construction: Project Vega Expedition Ships

Steel-cutting for the first of two planned Project Vega luxury expedition ships recently started in safe conditions and as scheduled in northern Europe despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

Helsinki Shipyard, in icebreaker specialist with experience in mainstream cruise vessels such as Carnival Cruise Line’s long-running Fantasy class of the 1990s (and many more), is returning to passenger-ship construction after its sale and reorganization last year.

This first Project Vega order, for a pair of 157-passenger polar expedition vessels, was placed by Vodohod Ltd., Russia’s largest river cruise company and an affiliate of the Helsinki Shipyard’s new owners.

The steel blocks for the ships are being manufactured by Western Baltija Shipbuilding in Klaipeda, Lithuania, and will be transferred to Helsinki by sea. Production in Helsinki is to start in August, with the hull construction to begin with a keel-laying ceremony in September.

Deliveries are planned in 2021 and 2022.

Project vega new construction

Block production started for Project Vega in safe conditions. * Photo: Helsinki Shipyard

Small-ship Construction: New Entrant

Technology group Wärtsilä is developing a customized design for a potential series of six 200-passenger luxury expedition ships for start-up Amundsen Expeditions. These would be targeted primarily at the Chinese market.

Details are sparse for now. However, the design calls for all ocean-view cabins, presidential suites, winter gardens and the latest environmental equipment, according to Capt. Rajko Zupan of Amundsen Expeditions.

Wärtsilä said the ships will be crafted to operate efficiently in both tropical and polar waters.

They’ll be fitted with a complete package of Wärtsilä solutions, including Wärtsilä 32 engines, selective catalytic reduction systems to abate nitrogen oxide emissions, electric propulsion, the Wärtsilä Nacos Platinum bridge system for navigation and communication and Wärtsilä automation solutions.

Amundsen Expeditions small-ship construction

Wärtsilá is creating a customized design for start-up Amundsen Expeditions. * Rendering: Wärtsilä

 

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ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Arctic vs Antarctic

By Ted Scull.

If you are in a quandary over booking an expedition cruise to the Arctic or Antarctic, here are some thoughts about both polar destinations based on a half dozen trips to the two regions.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Ted is about to embark on an expedition cruise around Svalbard in search of polar bears.

Cruises generally take place in June, July and August for destinations above the Arctic Circle.

While cruises to Antarctica have a wider window, November into February. The bracketed end months will be colder, and so lower rates will be in effect.

The geography of the two is vastly different, and they vary substantially in wildlife seen, scenery, excursions, and naturally the seasons.

However, many who visit Antarctica will be pleased how the daytime temperatures and conditions ashore can be most comfortable. Discomfort may come in the open seas between the tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula.

The Antarctic vs Arctic 

Antarctic cruises, the simpler of the two to explain, visit the continent of the same name, and most itineraries embark from a port (usually Ushuaia, Argentina) near the southern tip of South America. The ship heads south to cross seas known as the Drake Passage for a visit the Antarctic Peninsula, a land mass that juts north of the actual Antarctic Circle.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Expedition ship hovers alongside a huge Iceberg in Antarctic Sound. * Photo: Poseidon Expeditions

Longer and more expensive itineraries venture south of the official circular line only at the height of the Southern Hemisphere’s summer season when navigation through the ice permits a safe passage.

While the area visited seems relatively large, it is far more compact than with Arctic cruises.

Overview: The Arctic

The Arctic is a region above the Arctic Circle and not a continent. Its span across the Northern Hemisphere is remarkably long. A few itineraries visit an area that begins in remote northern Russia (Franz Josef Land) and slides west to northern Finland, Sweden and Norway — all attached to the European continent.

After that it’s islands. The main ones are Spitzbergen, the largest part of Svalbard (a Norwegian possession), and Greenland (a self-governing Danish possession) above the Arctic Circle.

Iceland falls almost entirely just below the Arctic Circle, with just a tiny northern tip officially within the region. And because the island is included in many Arctic itineraries, it will be included here.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

This polar bear ambled nearly two miles across the ice to check us out. * Photo: Ted Scull

West of Greenland, the Arctic Circle slices across Canada and encompasses the northern sections of Nunavut Territory, officially created in January 2000, from roughly the eastern half of the North West Territories, then continues across the NWT, Yukon Territory and Alaska into the Bering Sea with Siberian Russia on the opposite side.

Much of the northern Canadian portion is made up of islands, and the main channel through the archipelago is the famed Northwest Passage. A few Arctic itineraries enter this passage via Lancaster Sound to call at Inuit communities on Baffin and Devon islands. The full-length passage is for another day, and its high cost makes it available to so few.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Kayakers amongst the ice. * Photo: Quark Expeditions

The land within the Arctic region has seasonal snow and ice cover and is mainly treeless permafrost and tundra. Ice is present seasonally and may close the passage to navigation in winter.

Some expedition ships with substantial power to achieve a high level of icebreaking capabilities can reach the geographic North Pole during a relatively brief period of the northern summer.

Arctic Cruise map

One of the typical Arctic expedition routes. * Map: Poseidon Expeditions

Overview: Antarctica

Antarctica contains the geographic South Pole and the continent, almost entirely south of the Antarctic Circle, is surrounded by the Southern Ocean. The continent is almost the twice the size of Australia and has a minuscule resident population. Various national-flag research stations house several thousand souls with a seasonal variation. Some itineraries include visits.

Nearly 98 percent is covered by a thick ice cap apart the northern end of the Antarctic Peninsula, the area most visited on cruises.

The continent, on average, qualifies as coldest, driest, and windiest continent and has the highest average elevation with most of its expanse a polar desert with low precipitation on its edges and almost none inland.

An outstanding fact is that 80% of the world’s freshwater resides there. If all of it melted, sea levels would rise 100 feet.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Easing up to a couple of icebergs. * Photo: Ted Scull

Unknown until the start of the 19th century and not stepped onto until the end of the century, Antarctica was not considered important because it lacked valuable resources.

Antarctica may be the best-known destination of the two, identifiable by its clear-air beauty, bird life, including ever-popular penguin species, toothy walrus, elephant seals, whales and, of course, humongous icebergs, some the size of small states.

Right off the bat, one has to honestly say that Arctic wildlife takes second place to the starkly beautiful landscape, iceberg-choked fjords, Inuit culture and the fascinating history of the search for the elusive Northwest Passage.

Its Arctic opposite is generally much less understood, but no less fascinating, and many of the same ships trade to both regions.

Polar expedition-style cruises have taken off in the last decade, and the people who are attracted to them bring aboard wide-ranging interests and expectations, most having little connection to today’s mainstream cruising.

Antarctic map

Antarctica. * Map: Lindblad Expeditions

RELATED:  An Antarctic Expedition with A&K and Ponant.  by John Roberts

 Arctic vs Antarctic — A Comparison

  ARCTIC – Svalbard, Iceland, Greenland, Canadian Arctic ANTARCTICA
Season June, July & August Nov, Dec, Jan & February
Weather Mostly above freezing in the summer up to 60Fs on land. Wind makes it feel colder, possible rough sea days Freezing levels up to the 40Fs. Beautiful clear blue-sky days; gray days; possible rough weather crossing Drake Passage
Wildlife Birds, polar bears, seals, walrus, whales Birds (especially albatross), several species of penguins, seals, walrus, whales
Overall Scenery Ice & some snow, fjords, glaciers (Greenland), rugged terrain, tundra, wildflowers, some forests Ice & snow covers Antarctica, except northern portion of Antarctic Peninsula in summer months. Massive-to-minuscule floating and rooted ice formations
Landscape Highlights Glaciers, iceberg-choked fjords, geysers (Iceland), Northern Lights, spring flowers on some landscapes Giant icebergs (some colors), ice calving, rugged ice fields
Culture Inuit and European communities & culture, fishing villages, ancient ruins, former whaling stations Remnants of past explorers (ie Shackleton) & abandoned research stations; today’s research stations (possible visits); Falklands — villages, farms
Cruising Challenges Possible rough seas, windy conditions Drake Passage sea conditions, cold if windy

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Cruising the Arctic Region

Much of the experiential content here comes from four separate expedition cruises, all on small ships. The first section is based on two 10-day cruises in August to Greenland and the Canadian Arctic.

Greenland

From the air, Greenland, the world’s largest island, appears as a dark forbidding landscape of stony mountains incised by deep blue fjords that carries the eye inland to a snow-covered white cap stretching to the far horizon.

The four-hour flight From Ottawa, Canada’s capital, set down on a gravel runway alongside the Sondre Stromfjord, a long arm of the sea slicing deeply into Greenland’s West Coast. School buses hauled us to a deep-water landing where Zodiacs sped out to the anchored ship, ready to sail because of a rapidly falling tide.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Southern Greenland from the air in summer. * Photo: Ted Scull

Sailing up the West Coast of Greenland, with a high following sea, we first anchored off the fishing port of Illulissat boasting populations of 6,000 people and 60,000 sled dogs. We walked through the brightly painted town, its wooden houses painted blue-gray, deep green, maroon, red and mustard, passing yapping sled dogs straining at their leads and impatiently waiting for winter when they would again go seal hunting.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Colorful villages help brighten the rugged and sometimes bleak landscape of West Greenland. * Photo: Ted Scull

Jakobshavn Glacier

The main attraction here is the Jakobshavn Glacier, the world’s fastest moving ice flow, advancing 65 feet per day and calving a new berg every five minutes. Upon hearing the characteristic crack and thunder, eyes quickly sought the spot where falling ice would send up fountains of spray and ripples across the water.

Chances were pretty good, according to one of the naturalists, that the prolific Jakobshavn Glacier spawned the infamous iceberg that cruised south with the cold Labrador Current to sink the Titanic.

The Island of Umanaq

While the first day had been damp and drizzly, the second dawned crystal clear as the ship dropped anchor off Umanaq, a small island town nestled at the base of two impressive granite peaks.

Zodiacs headed over to the mainland shore for a climb up a spongy slope, carpeted with Arctic cotton and heather, blue harebells, Labrador Tea and wintergreen, to a hillside cave where well-preserved 500-year-mummies of seven women, two boys and an infant had been discovered. Several are now on display in Nuuk, Greenland’s capital city museum.

Most passengers stayed as long as time allowed to take in the magnificent view, white bergs drifting on a blue sea under blues skies flecked with white clouds and rimmed by snowcapped mountains, one closely resembling Japan’s Mt. Fuji.

Reboarding the ship, we moved closer to Umanaq and went ashore to visit the colorful fishing port with its wooden Lutheran church, original log and sod houses and hotel terrace with a million-dollar view and pricey Arctic beers.

Some time ago, a succession of calving bergs just outside the port sent destructive waves sweeping into the harbor and overturning dozens of boats and smashing docks. A local resident caught the high drama in a video shown in the town’s gift shop, and surprisingly no one was killed.

Baffin Bay

During the 24-hour passage across Baffin Bay, we passed close to huge tabular bergs marching south with the strong current, behind which rose a coastal mountain range draped with a half-dozen glaciers feeding into the sea. We then made several landings on Baffin Island, a major component of the Inuit territory of Nunavut that was hived off from the vast Northwest Territories at the end of the last century.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Last call in West Greenland before crossing the Baffin Sea to the Canadian Arctic. * Photo: Ted Scull

We walked the beach at Pond Inlet accompanied by a Scottish-born guide who had spent 29 years in the Arctic, first as a Presbyterian missionary and now a cultural historian and naturalist. We encountered a freshly killed ringed seal and poked around a Thule encampment dating from sometime between AD 900 and 1700, people who were direct ancestors of the present-day Inuit.

Milne Inlet

Cruising Milne Inlet one evening, a pod of narwhals spouted and surfaced, and we kept them in view while the staff grilled steak, sausage, wahoo and caribou ribs for an outdoor meal consumed under the coldest conditions that I have ever experienced. However, the barbecue served as a good primer for what the 19th-century expeditions had encountered when searching for the Northwest Passage extending across the top of Canada.

Beechey Island

On the desolate shores of Beechey Island, three graves marked the site where members of John Franklin’s ill-fated 1845 expedition had met their ends, and as we would learn, they may have been the lucky ones, for the rest of the party died an agonizing death of lead poisoning from cans containing preserved meat. Hundreds of empty tins scattered nearby eventually led researchers to uncover the trail of death.

Devon Island

Landing on Devon Island, the largest uninhabited island in the world, we encountered our first sight of a polar bear and cub, walrus lounging on bergy bits and the bloodied ice where a ringed seal had been recently killed. The closest approach turned out to be a musk ox, a bedraggled looking beast with two layers of fur that pawed the tundra when someone moved in too closely.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

A polar contemplates his next move. * Photo: Ted Scull

Narsarsuaq

The second itinerary got into high gear as not a half hour after we sailed from Narsarsuaq in southern Greenland, we were donning rubber boots for our first wet landing by Zodiac to visit the ruins of the settlement Erik the Red established in 983 AD and the present-day sheep farm.

We explored the foundations of the first Christian church in the New World, had a look into an existing pretty wooden church with a slate blue interior and chatted with some villagers seated outside their homes painted in red, yellow and mustard, enjoying the end of a pleasant long summer day.

Davis Strait

During the choppy passage across Davis Strait, we approached a large pod of spouting fin whales and enjoyed close-up views of their cavorting. At dinner one evening while anchored in a fjord off Baffin Island, a polar bear and her two cubs came down to the water’s edge and began swimming out to the ship, bringing everyone out on deck. With poor eyesight but an especially keen sense of smell — in this instance our grilled salmon steaks —the three came within a hundred yards before turning back to shore and loping off to find another source of food.

On outings ashore, we divided into groups according the length of the hikes, and in polar bear country, our guides carried powerful shot guns and radios. Angelika, arctic white and yellow poppies, blue harebells, cotton grass, mosses, lichen, and one-inch high polar forests of birch, juniper and willow formed the colorful and often spongy tundra underfoot.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Caribou antlers from the Canadian Arctic. * Photo: Ted Scull

We had distant sightings of caribou sporting their huge racks, but more often we were satisfied by the physical beauty of the wild untouched landscape in temperatures that ranged from the mid 40s to the mid 60s.

The Zodiac trips brought us close to a half dozen polar bears one morning, to an island inhabited with lounging walrus, another with ring-neck seals and a steep cliff face where tens of thousands of guillemots waited for their young to make a first flight.

Inuit Villages

Two visits to isolated Inuit villages, Lake Harbour and Cape Dorset, gave us an insight to traditions of bone, marble and soap stone carving, gymnastics and the unusual sight and sound of two women engaged in throat singing.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Inuit mother & child, Lake Harbour, Nunavut. * Photo: Ted Scull

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Intricate carving on display in a Canadian Arctic cultural center. * Photo: Ted Scull

At Cape Dorset we were greeted by a handsome Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman wearing his formal dress uniform. After posing for photographs, he pointed the way to the Hudson Bay Company store where we could see what was available for the local Inuit to buy in the way of food and clothing.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman posses for a snap. * Photo: Ted Scull

Northern Lights

In the middle of one night, the expedition leader woke us up to witness a pulsating display of Northern Lights and most, wrapped in woollies, happily responded. On another night, we slowed to pass through two thick lines of pack ice, and during the day we encountered the wonderful shapes and colors of icebergs drifting south.

Svalbard

These recollections come from a seven-day expedition cruise from Longyearbyen, the main settlement.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Svalbard from the air. * Photo: Ted Scull

Polar Bears          

Liking ice and when a polar bear was spotted, the captain edged his ship as far into the flows as he felt comfortable in doing. These bears are curious creatures, and on two occasions they slowly ambled toward the ship, and with everyone on deck in the silent mode, they came right up beneath the bow, close enough to photograph with little magnification.

The rapid clicks of shutter releases sounded like a presidential press conference.

On another occasion, a large male had killed a ringed seal. After he was satiated, he moved off to take a nap while his off-spring moved in and vied with sibling growls for what remained. Birds strutted impatiently at a safe distance.

The largest number seen at one time totaled nine bears, taking turns at pulling apart the remains of a whale. One mother entered the fray by swimming across the inlet with her club clinging to her back.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Two polar bears fight over the remains of a whale. * Photo: Ted Scull

Excursions on land took place where no bears had been spotted, and even then the naturalist staff took precautions, and every party ashore was accompanied by a staffer with a rifle, happily rarely, if ever, used.

Hikes across the tundra or snowfields were offered as challenging, moderate and easy, with a fourth category for photographers.

Two-person kayaks were available on three of the seven days, often in addition to Zodiac excursions. It was fun circling the ship and inspecting ice that had calved off glaciers.

Ashore we found reindeer herds, walrus sprawled together, others frolicking just off the beach, whale bones, tiny delicate tundra flowers and the stone foundations of trapper’s huts and whaling camps. Early 17th-century whaling was close to shore and then as the herds were decimated, the whalers had to go further afield until the practice was banned by most countries, but not Norway or Japan.

One island’s rocky cliffs provided nesting spots for thousands of little auks while hundreds of others flew around the ship, bobbed on the water and went fishing, a raucous yet highly organized scene.

Near the end of the week, we headed to locations where whales are often found and came close to both fin whales and blue whales, the largest mammals on earth. None breached but their slow arcing movements through the water at close range revealed their immense size.

RELATED:   Svalbard Overview: Exploring the High Arctic.  by Ted Scull

Iceland

The account is based on a 14-day cruise in July that circumnavigated Iceland and called in at the Faroes and Orkney.

As those with a good geographical sense might already know, Iceland could have easily been named Greenland and Greenland, Iceland.

I say “could” rather than “should” as not all Iceland is green by any stretch, but except for one remote section there is very little ice.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Akureyri Falls, Iceland. * Photo: Ted Scull

During over visit, large swaths of open landscape were covered with wildflowers in yellows, blues, purples and reds. At the height of summer, sheep and lambs outnumber Icelanders by three to one, and 85 per cent of the houses in Reykjavik, the capital, are heated and supplied with hot water directly from thermal springs.

Our political lecturer gave us an insight into how fiercely independent the Icelanders are, that is beyond the Cod Wars with Britain. In 1918, with a war raging in Europe, the Danish colony took the opportunity to pass a referendum for a first step to independence, then in 1944 while the Nazis occupied Denmark, Iceland, then under British and American protection, declared complete autonomy!

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Almannagia Rift, Iceland. * Photo: Ted Scull

At three ports in Iceland — Akureyri, Isafjord and Reykjavik — we visited a traditional fishing village meeting some of the local folk, fish still being the country’s largest export. We walked through a deep mid-Atlantic rift that marks the continental divide between Europe and America, skirted boiling mud pools, watched geysers erupt and enjoyed the gentle nature of the towns where we went ashore.

RELATED:  Iceland Circumnavigation with Windstar.  by Sarah Greaves Gabbadon

The Faroes Islands

The Faroes, still Danish, showed a softer but no less dramatic landscape with its mountain, valley and cliffside scenery. The government center in Torshavn was quaintly housed in 19th-century wooden buildings situated atop a largely residential promontory jutting into the harbor.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Thorshavn, capital of the Faroes, Danish island dependency. * Photo: Ted Scull

Shetland Islands

Lerwick, the capital of the Shetland Islands, located well north of the Scottish mainland, is a charming stone town to walk through with Iron Age and Viking ruins not far away.

We chose a boat trip to the island of Mousa, where its 2,000-year-old broch or fortress is the country’s best preserved, a towering stone cylinder some forty feet high where early setters lived with considerable protection from their enemies and the forces of nature. We also enjoyed a two-mile walk around the island to see the nesting guillemots, basking gray seals and those adorable Shetland ponies.

➣Cruising Antarctica

This account is based on a 10-day cruise from Ushuaia in January.

Upon opening a reference book on Antarctica, the very first paragraph indicates that the white continent qualifies as the coldest, driest, windiest, and iciest land mass in the world, and the surrounding Southern Ocean whips up into the stormiest seas.

Antarctica sounded like a prime destination for the masochist. Yet once I stepped ashore there, a completely different set of superlatives came to mind.

The continent is the most pristine and least populated place on earth, and an international treaty signed in 1959 aims to keep it that way. Antarctica’s wildlife is the tamest and least fearful of humankind as in the Galapagos. Its scenery, seen through the clearest air, presents a breathtaking combination of majestic mountains draped by massive glaciers and rugged islands spread across a seascape peppered with icebergs longer than a football field and taller than our ship.

RELATED: Affordable Antarctica, Relatively Speaking.

The Falklands

After two choppy nights and a day at sea, we made landfall off the Falklands — the British islands invaded by Argentina in 1982, precipitating a nasty war. Wearing rubber boots and parkas provided by the ship, we made our first wet Zodiac landing at a private sheep farm cum nature preserve to visit a cliffside rookery of nesting rockhopper penguins, black-browed albatross, and blue-eyed cormorants.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

A rockhopper penguin in the Falkands. * Photo: Ted Scull

On approach, the sounds were more akin to a barnyard of domestic animals than a colony of birds, and with it came the strong odor of guano. Seated on a nearby rock, we watched a well-ordered line of two-foot-high penguins literally hop their way up the steep path from the beach, bellies full of fish and krill (shrimp-like crustacean) for regurgitating into the mouths of their fluffy chicks.

A school of playful dolphins accompanied our second landing, followed by a three-mile walk in bright sunshine through a hillside colony of burrowing Magellanic penguins and across sloping fields of a working farm to the main house for a proper English high tea.

A visit to Port Stanley provided a sleepy bit of old England transferred to the South Atlantic. We visited an eccentric museum packed with historic and natural history exhibits, the world’s most southerly Anglican cathedral, a safe harbor refuge for battered sailing ships, and a handmade woolen sweater shop looked after by local women with an English accent all their own.

We were taken on a personal tour by a sixth generation Falkland Islander who described the Argentinian invasion and evacuation to his grandparents’ farm and showed us the scars of war that included vast off-limit areas of unexploded plastic bombs.

Drake Passage

During the 48-hour crossing of the Drake Passage, a naturalist helped us spot Wilson’s storm petrels, Antarctic terns, and the huge wandering albatross boasting a wingspan of up to nine feet. By the end of the cruise, the bird list would grow to 62 species, but those expecting to see many whales were disappointed by infrequent sightings, generally the spout or tail of the whale.

Antarctic Peninsula Landings

Our first landing on the Antarctic Peninsula had to be aborted because of winds, and instead the captain deftly maneuvered his ship among the ice fields to anchor off volcanic Paulet Island, home to about 200,000 smelly Adelie penguins.

With nearly 24 hours of daylight, we went ashore after dinner.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Elephant oozing rotundity. * Photo: Ted Scull

In brilliant sunshine, low-lying Half Moon Island provided a rocky setting for several colonies of chinstrap (made by a black line of feathers) penguins, Weddell and fur seals in the shadow of 4,000- to 6,000-foot glacier-covered mountains. The temperature rose into the 50’s and remained above freezing every day.

While I was walking alone over a stony beach, a brown skua (predatory bird) flew toward me at a height of about three feet. The bird grazed my outstretched arm, and turning for another attack, the skua hit the piece of driftwood that I grabbed for protection.

Spotting a nearby nest, I quickly retreated out of harm’s way after a third close call. One of the naturalists later said that without protection. the skua might have taken a chunk out of me.

RELATED: Read more about Ted’s skua scare here …. 

Deception Island

In the afternoon, we cruised into the drowned caldera of Deception Island, where we explored the eerie ruins of a whaling station and a British research base, quickly abandoned in 1969 at the onset of a volcanic eruption. Steam and the smell of sulfur rose through the black sand.

Continuing south, we circled a towering conical iceberg estimated to be 250 feet high and later sailed between two tabular bergs measuring thousands of feet in length and generating their own strong winds.

A few weeks after we returned to the US, the newspapers carried reports of an iceberg the size of Rhode Island breaking off into the Weddell Sea. Near a tiny Argentinian base, Zodiacs took us into Paradise Bay, ringed by ragged glaciers, pockmarked with blue ice grottoes, that occasionally calved with a sharp crack.

an ice flow

Breaking through the ice in the Arctic. * Photo: AdventureSmith Explorations

Faraday Research Station

By carrying Her Majesty’s Mail from Port Stanley, we gained permission to call at Faraday research station, a 20-person British base located in a sea of rocky islands and broken ice and cut off for nine months of the year. The base commander boarded for a talk about the greenhouse effect and ozone layer depletion, both phenomena causing world-wide concern.

He also reported that while the ice cap is breaking off at the edges at an increasing rate, it is thickening as snow and ice form in the center. He then accompanied us on a wet and windy ride ashore to inspect the scientific facilities and living quarters. Today the base is run by the Ukrainians.

Two more landings added the sight and far worse smell of a colony of molting young elephant seals, one estimated to weigh 4,000 pounds, a gentoo penguin rookery, and a Russian research station, where we off-loaded three tons of equipment and embarked two German scientists.

Drake Passage Again

Northbound, the dreaded Drake Passage lived up to its well-deserved reputation, as during the night moderate 20-foot waves grew to 50 feet, sending everything not tied down crashing to the floor. By late morning the storm abated, and the visit to Cape Horn was so tranquil that one almost forgot the night before and began questioning the truth about the legendary Cape Horners battling monstrous seas for days on end.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Pounding across the Drake Passage. * Photo: Ted Scull

To the east one looked into the South Atlantic in the direction of South Africa, and to the west across the Pacific to Australia. South was the white continent. Cape Horn, an island, was covered in a mantle of wild flowers. The setting was so lovely that we hesitated to re-embark, because doing so meant the cruise was nearing an end.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Landing at Cape Horn, the most southerly point in South America. * Photo: Ted Scull

Re-entering the Beagle Channel, we sailed overnight and docked at Ushuaia on the 12th morning. Passengers either flew directly home or stopped over in Buenos Aires, a favorite city of mine for its turn-of the-century architecture, street life, restaurants and cafes, and stylish residents.

RELATED:  Exploring Antarctica on a Russian Research Vessel.  by Judi Cohen

South Georgia Option

Located southeast of the Falklands, a diversion to South Georgia, a British dependency, before heading to the Antarctic Peninsula, will add five days to the itineraries and naturally generate a higher fare.

The attractions are numerous as the island is home to large king penguin, fur seal and elephant seal colonies, nesting grounds for wandering albatross, and a former whaling station where the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton is buried and an island history museum.

Arctic vs Antarctic: Who Goes There?

Except where noted, all of these small-ship lines explore both the Arctic and Antarctica regions. Note, it looks like lines will not be cruising in the Arctic this summer, 2020, due to the ongoing COVID-19 situation. Lines are hoping to get back to the Antarctic for the 2020-21 season, let’s see.

Adventure Canada

AdventureSmith Explorations

Abercrombie & Kent

Albatros Expeditions

Aurora Expeditions

Crystal Expedition Cruises  (Arctic only)

Grand Circle

Hapag-Lloyd

Hurtigruten

Lindblad Expeditions

Oceanwide

Overseas Adventure Travel

Polar Latitudes (Arctic only)

Ponant

Poseidon Expeditions

Quark Expeditions

Scenic

Seabourn Expeditions

Silversea Expeditions

Vantage World Travel

Viking (beginning 2022)

Vantage World

Windstar (Arctic only)

Zegrahm Expeditioins

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Sven-Olof Lindblad.

Lindblad’s Return to Service

By Anne Kalosh.

Like all other cruise operators, Lindblad Expeditions‘ ships are laid up to wait out the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The company was fortunate to have no reported cases among passengers or crew. And, while two of its ships were stuck off the Falkland Islands for a week or so, charter flights got people home so the desperate situations that affected some other lines were avoided.

Now, during the global suspension of cruise operations, Lindblad is lining up coronavirus tests and working with a team of outside experts to bolster its health protocols.

Small-ship Advantage

“We firmly believe that the smaller size of our ships, our advanced cleaning systems and robust operating protocols, along with the remote geographies we visit, and the profile of our guests, ideally situates us to be able to resume operations safely and effectively once travel restrictions have been lifted,” the company said in reporting first quarter earnings.

CEO Sven Lindblad singled out its most notable advantage as the “size of our vessels, which range from 48 to 148 passengers, allowing for a highly controlled environment that includes stringent cleaning protocols. The small nature of our ships should also allow us to efficiently and effectively test our guests and crew prior to boarding.”

He estimated it will only take a few thousand tests a month to ensure all guests and crew across the entire fleet are tested.

Sven-Olof Lindblad.

“Lindblad travelers are eager to live their lives and won’t be held back,” says Sven Lindblad. * Photo: Lindblad Expeditions

“Additionally, the majority of our expeditions take place in remote locations where human interactions are limited, so there is less opportunity for external influence,” Lindblad continued.

“Lastly, our guests are explorers by nature, eager to travel and have historically been very resilient following periods of uncertainty.”

Testing is Key

The ability to regularly test crew and, as a condition for embarking, all guests is essential to restart operations, Lindblad stressed. He indicated the company expects access to reliable tests in the near future.

It’s also vital to offer a “verifiable” safe environment on board, to win the crew’s understanding and cooperation concerning new protocols and to have customers’ confidence.

On the latter, Lindblad reported receiving “many messages” about their eagerness to travel. While the company’s age group is older, making them more vulnerable to COVID-19, “They want to live their lives. They won’t be held back,” he said.

RELATED: Lindblad Announces “Self-Disinfecting Fleet.”  by Anne Kalosh

RELATED: Lindblad Expeditions Goes Carbon Neutral.  by Anne Kalosh

Wild & Remote Places

Since Lindblad focuses on wild and remote places, it’s possible to operate without the vast infrastructure the mainstream cruise industry requires. Docks and motor coaches aren’t needed.

“We drop anchor and launch Zodiacs and kayaks to explore … We control the logistics,” Lindblad explained. “We need very little shoreside support so we can keep self-isolated.”

Lindblad use lots of kayaks and zodiacs

The ships can anchor and deploy Zodiacs and kayaks to explore in places like Alaska, pictured here. * Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins for Lindblad Expeditions

In Alaska, for example, cruises sail between Juneau and Sitka with little other port content, “basically, one other place with human community. We will reduce that so there’s less exposure to communities,” he added.

Currently, anyone arriving to Alaska has to self-isolate for 14 days. “By July, I think [communities] will have a completely different view. By June, I don’t think that will be the case,” Lindblad said.

However, ports and borders need to open. For ships to explore the Norwegian Arctic, “Norway needs to invite us to come.” Iceland, Greenland and the Galápagos are also key to expedition programs.

The line is making plans to activate some third quarter voyages should authorities permit, and has already sorted out the charter air arrangements to get people to and from the ships.

Returned U.S. Aid

Lindblad qualified for the Paycheck Protection Program under the United States’ coronavirus relief bill, the CARES Act, but returned the money after the brouhaha over the funding of public companies. Sven Lindblad said the money was given back in the hope it will go to smaller entities like travel advisors, and he called on the U.S. to create additional support programs.

Meanwhile, for canceled voyages, most Lindblad customers are accepting future cruise credits instead of seeking refunds.

Bookings are coming in for 2020, 2021 and 2022, including more than $15 million since March 1.

To keep the business going, the company has acted to shore up its liquidity and cut expenses. Like other cruise lines, Lindblad is taking advantage of COVID-19 debt holidays (loan payment deferrals) offered by export credit agencies that guarantee loans to build ships in their countries.

A Look Inside National Geographic Endurance

Polar new build National Geographic Endurance was delivered in March by Norway’s Ulstein Shipyard. If not for the pandemic, the vessel would have been welcoming passengers aboard inaugural Arctic voyages now.

A video preview shows National Geographic Endurance’s X-Bow, a design patented by Ulstein for a smoother ride and better seakeeping.

The bridge is spacious enough to hold all 126 passengers, according to Capt. Aaron Wood — not that that would ever happen, but Lindblad is one of the few companies with an open-bridge policy. At water level the “Base Camp” houses two sheltered areas to board the Zodiacs.

Lindblad's return with the National Geographic Endurance

The 126-passenger National Geographic Endurance with its distinctive X-Bow. * Photo: Lindblad Expeditions

Endurance interiors have a sleek, modern Nordic look. And artist Zaria Forman curated a permanent polar art exhibit for the ship.

The Ice Lounge provides 39 flat-screen televisions for presentations. Restaurant 270º is named for its panoramic views, with floor-to ceiling windows. Meanwhile, the Sanctuary wellness center offers a yoga studio and infinity Jacuzzis. The very cool-looking transparent twin igloos afford panoramic views and seating on fur-covered daybeds.

Accommodations include 13 extra-large balcony suites — each named for a famous polar explorer. Of the 56 standard cabins, 40 (among them, 12 solo cabins) have balconies.

A sister ship, National Geographic Resolution, is under construction at Ulstein and still targeted for fourth-quarter 2021 delivery.

Hopefully, by then, the world will have awakened from the COVID-19 nightmare and small-ship expedition travel will be thriving again.

RELATED:  Peter Knego’s Adventure Aboard the Nat Geo Venture in Baja California.

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colorful luggage

Colorful Luggage.

By Elise Lentz.

I’m going to start this packing tips article by borrowing a line from one of my favorite movies The Birdcage: “Well, one does want a hint of color.“

colorful luggage

Elise at the Amsterdam train station. * Photo: Tim Lentz

As tour leaders, one of our many tasks is being responsible for the movement of luggage. For us, it is typically accounting for the groups’ luggage being moved from a hotel to the cruise ship. It is not uncommon for us to handle 100+ pieces of luggage in a single move.

Tim and I have often commented, “If we had $1 for every black bag we have counted over the years, we would be gabillionaires.” And YES that is a real word.

It would never fail, that after we accounted for all 100+ bags (which were strategically stacked like a life-sized Jenga game), Mable would approach us demanding that she needed to get something critical out of her bag. It shouldn’t surprise you that my first reaction starts off with my eyes rolling into the back of my skull. This is then followed by the phrase “lady, you’re kidding me…” screamed loudly inside my head.

This exchange is then finished with me actually offering a gentle smile. And in my most congenial tone I ask for a description of the bag.

“It’s black”… REALLY!!! At that time my face writhes in agony as I realize I’m about to dive into the deep, dark abyss of black bags to look for Mable’s needle in the proverbial stack of luggage.

So as I continued to think about this universal invasion of the black bags, my mind began to drift towards the dark side. I became curious as to what was the favorite luggage color of bag thieves? The answer was shocking…basic black.

I found an article by Bob Arno, author of “Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams While Traveling. The article said that when police arrested a Phoenix couple for baggage theft from the Sky Harbor International airport, almost every one of the roughly 1,000 stolen bags found at their home, was black.

He further remarked by saying: “Stealing black bags is a snap. If the thief is caught red-handed by the bag’s owner, he only has to say ‘Sorry, it looks just like mine.’ And he’s out of there, scot-free.”

I always hear travelers explain: “Well Black won’t show the dirt.”

Ok fine, but that logic doesn’t stop you from buying a white pair of sneakers, does it? People, it’s a piece of luggage  meant to offer a utilitarian way of transporting your underwear. Which by the end of the trip will be dirty. So I ask you, do you travel with all black undies so they don’t show the dirt?

Because Tim and I have to transport a lot of work supplies, we don’t travel light. It looks like we are running away from home and it’s not uncommon for us to travel with four large hard-sided bags, two carry-on bags and two backpacks. We have been told that we stand out in a crowd because our multi-hued ensemble looks like the Easter Bunny puked all over our luggage. Sorry, but we swear by colorful luggage.

lots of colorful luggage

Elise & Tim’s colorful collection of luggage.

It is true, when we shop for a bag we look for the brightest, boldest color available. I want to be able to quickly locate my bag. Whether it is coming off the luggage carrousel in the airport or it is a part of the mélange of bags lined up in the cruise ship terminal, the sooner I spot my bag, the sooner I can relax knowing all of my ‘gear’ has arrived.

As you know from my previous article — “Some Like it Hard” — we are also hard-sided luggage fans. It can’t be too hard or too bright for me. And while we are at it, let’s add into the mix — CHEAP.

We typically pay less than $100 per bag and we frequently shop at the discount department store chains like TJ Maxx, Marshalls and Ross. Now I know what you are thinking… ‘Why wouldn’t professional travelers invest in high-end quality bags with lifetime warranties?’

Well, to start, our luggage typically travels on a plane or cruise ship. It is rare that our bags get damaged while sitting in the closet.  So, before you file your damage claim with the manufacturer, you need to identify the perpetrator of the damage. Typically manufacture warranties only cover manufacture defects. The loving, gentle caresses bestowed upon your case by the under-paid, under-appreciated airport baggage handler are not going to be covered by most manufacture warranties.

Additionally, our schedule does not warrant the three weeks (or more) it may take to send our bag to a repair center and wait for its return. So, we chalk up this unpleasant annoyance to just being a part of the job hazard. When damage (beyond our standard home repair of Gorilla Tape and super glue) happens, we hop in the car and drive to TJ Maxx (or similar) and buy another bag. Once back home, we celebrate the arrival of our brightly-colored, new member of our family, with a tasty beverage.

Have we ever filed a damage claim with the airlines? No. However, if you are so inclined, give it a try. If the airlines can’t repair your bag (which is the cheapest option for them), you may be entitled to a reimbursement based on the value of the bag minus its depreciation. If you calculate that the airlines reimbursement value exceeds the value of your time and sanity — go for it!

Bob Hope once said “I love flying. I’ve been to almost as many places as my luggage.”

Venice water taxi

Luggage in a water taxi on route to Venice. * Photo: Elise Lentz

Join us next time when we will share some tips on increasing the odds of you getting your colorful luggage back after the airlines have sent it on an itinerary that is different than yours.

 

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Antarctica Cruising with Abercrombie & Kent

By John Roberts.

This cruise was going to be unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. That much was known.

The rest was a mystery to me.

As the date for our Antarctica voyage with Abercrombie & Kent drew closer [Jan 2020], it started to sink in that I was going to finally get to explore this faraway place.

And I was equally excited to share this adventure with my wife, Colleen. We did tons of research on what we should pack, how the sailing conditions would be and what we could expect to see. It seems that every voyage is different and takes on its own personality, and the accounts or pieces of advice that we gleaned from friends and the Internet ahead of the trip pointed to the fact that each expedition is unique.

This proved to be absolutely true.

John & Colleen share a trip of a lifetime.

Antarctica is a magical, scarcely visited place, and we would have the privilege of spending a couple weeks in the rugged locations that had spawned so many tales of adventure.

We would be following in the wake of explorers like Roald Amundsen and Sir James Clark Ross and tracing the footsteps of legends like Sir Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott.

It’s as unspoiled as any place in the world and a destination that continues to inspire today’s ambitious travelers.

So, our excitement occupied a great deal of our emotions. But I also was concerned about packing the right gear and felt a bit of pressure to ensure I had good enough camera equipment to be able to capture memorable images of the animals and landscapes that I was about to encounter.

Then, there is the sailing itself. I have cruised more than 80 times, and I’ve never battled seasickness. I had heard about the Drake Passage, though, from several friends who have made the trip. This stretch of waterway must be crossed from our departure port of Ushuaia, Argentina, in order to reach the White Continent.

The passage is an unpredictable area that connects the southwestern Atlantic Ocean with the southeastern edge of the Pacific Ocean just above the Southern Ocean. This area between Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands can get quite turbulent and test the constitution of even the most well-weather old sailor.

RELATED: Ted Talks about the Roughest Seas in the World.

So, we had that to look forward to.

It’s the pursuit of adventure, excitement and a sense of the wild and unknown that attracts cruisers to Antarctica.

We were thrilled to get our chance on an expedition with Abercrombie & Kent on the luxury ship, the Le Lyrial from French cruise line Ponant. Our trip started in Buenos Aires just before New Year’s and lasted three weeks.

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Le Lyrial in Drygalski Fjord

Le Lyrial in Drygalski Fjord. * Photo: John Roberts

Antarctica Cruising: With Abercrombie & Kent

Abercrombie & Kent is a boutique outfitter that has been a leader in highly curated luxury travel experiences for five decades. A&K first made its name with African safari expeditions in the 1960s, and the company now leads small-group journeys all over the world.

The company has partnered with Ponant on expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctica. A&K charters the ships and provides the cruise director and expedition guides, and Ponant crewmembers operate the luxury 199-passenger vessel. Passengers are treated to luxurious amenities, attentive staff and all-inclusive food and drinks.

Antarctica Cruising: An Overivew

Our all-inclusive “Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands” adventure comprised four nights pre-cruise in a luxury Buenos Aires hotel in Argentina, 15 nights on board Le Lyrial, and one final hotel night in Ushuaia.

We flew to Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, and from there boarded a charter flight to Ushuaia, the port city at the southern tip of South America’s Patagonia region.

In Ushuaia, we had a few hours before boarding the 199-passenger Le Lyrial. We met a few A&K guides who checked in our group and hosted a lunch at a lodge on a scenic hilltop overlooking the city. After a quick buffet meal, groups headed out for a short hike in the neighboring forest.

Once we boarded the ship, we spent three days sailing toward Antarctica. Then it was three days amid the islands and on the continent, stopping at Danco Island, Neko Harbour, Cierva Cove, Mikkelsen Harbor, Yankee Harbor and Aitcho Islands.

We cruised two more days to get to South Georgia Island, where we would head ashore for three more days of exploration, visiting Fortuna Bay, Grytviken, Drygalski Fjord, Salisbury Plain and Elsehul. After that, we sailed for four straight days to return to Ushuaia to begin our journey back home. (We were originally scheduled to visit the Falkland Islands, but weather disrupted our plans and our captain adjusted — more to come on that!)

Antarctica cruise map

The 21-day Antarctica expedition from A&K aboard Ponant’s Le Lyrial. John & Colleen did the route counterclockwise.

With so many seas days in the itinerary, we were fortunate to be sailing on a well-accoutered ship filled with posh amenities, delightful staffers and gourmet cuisine.

That’s the overview of this 20-night journey. Let’s have a more-detailed look at what we did and everything we got to see.

Antarctica Cruising: Summer in South America

A&K offers pre-cruise extension options to spend time in Buenos Aires or take a trip to Iguazu Falls, spectacular falls on the border of Argentina and Brazil. We would end up with about 170 passengers cruising on our expedition, and about 30 of them did the Iguazu Falls add-on. We met a couple who raved about it.

We chose four days in Buenos Aires, as did about 100 others. A&K’s host hotel for the trip is the historic Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt Buenos Aires, which is conveniently located in the heart of the elegant La Recoleta neighborhood.

Park Hyatt Buenos Aires

The nearly century-old historic Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt Buenos Aires. * Photo: John Roberts

This put us within strolling distance of many of the city’s top attractions, and we took advantage. The end of December is the heart of summer in the southern hemisphere, and it was fabulous to shed our winter coats and walk around the city in the nearly 80-degree temps.

During our time in Buenos Aires, we had a few days of free time and one day where we joined an organized city tour that was included in our A&K program. Colleen and I went for a couple of runs and long walks around the city and noted plenty of pretty urban parks. We also made sure to hit up a couple restaurants to dig into the delicious cuisine including empanadas, and, of course, the savory steaks.

Buenos Aires before an Antarctica cruise

One of John and Colleen’s Buenos Aires runs.

We also made sure to wander through La Recoleta Cemetery. This is one of the most scenic and visited burial sites in the world. More than just a cemetery, La Recoleta resembles a peaceful park, with thousands of graves and ornate tombs connected by winding walkways, trees and plants. The gravesites honor the dead with beautiful carvings and stained-glass accents.

On our city tour with A&K, a guide brought us to points of interest like Plaza de Mayo, which is a main hub of the city and features the Pink Palace residence of the president, as well as the Metropolitan Cathedral.

Buenos Aires touring

The Pink Palace residence of the president. * Photo: John Roberts

The main Catholic church in Buenos Aires is filled with gorgeous altarpieces, statues and stained-glass windows and is where Pope Francis used to perform mass when he was known as Archbishop Joseph Bergoglio, before he became pope in 2013.

Our pre-cruise time in Buenos Aires included a wonderful New Year’s Eve dinner at our hotel restaurant. The festive event put us in just the right frame of mind, ringing in another year before we embarked on a special cruise that had been on our wish list for quite a while.

Antarctica Cruising: Heading South

After a three-hour charter flight, our large group assembled to board buses and head to a lodge in Ushuaia for lunch, hiking and free time before the ship was ready for us. We finally boarded Le Lyrial in the late afternoon, and you could feel the excitement building for our expedition.

Once on the ship, we knew we had a few days to get settled in before we would reach Antarctica. This would allow us time to get our room organized, unpack clothes and gear, check out the ship amenities, and meet our fellow cruisers as well as the crew and guides.

Antarctica cruise gear

The gear issued at the start of the cruise. * Photo: John Roberts

Antarctica Cruising: The Ship

Le Lyrial is an elegant, modern ship with seven decks. All cabins have ocean views and most offer balconies. In ours, suite #406, we enjoyed our balcony, which I consider a must-have feature when sailing in Antarctica.

Suite with balcony in the Antarctic

A standard balcony suite aboard Le Lyrial. * Photo: Ponant, François Lefebvre-1

We spotted all kinds of landscapes, glaciers, ice formations, whales, seabirds and other wildlife simply by stepping out into the fresh air a few strides from our bed.

VIDEO: John gives you a tour of his cabin, #406, below:

The ship has a large spa that offers a range of treatments like massages, facials, and nail and hair services. The fitness center is nearby with treadmills and bikes as well as a weight-training machine. The facility also features a hammam steam room.

A large photo shop allows passengers to book portraits or purchase pictures taken by the ship’s staff of professional photographers. They also shoot a slickly edited video that recaps the entire trip, and that is available to buy.

Le Lyrial’s main theater is home to the enrichment talks, and the program offers movie nights throughout the cruise that you can view on the big screen.

Ly Lyrial lecture on an Antarctica cruise

One of the many enrichment talks in the main theater. * Photo: John Roberts

The lounge is the hub of the ship’s activity. It offers couch seating around the perimeter as well as chairs and tables, so you can sit and gaze through the windows and enjoy the views. This is where passengers spend the majority of their time, chatting throughout the day, reading books, keeping busy with knitting, and ordering beverages from the friendly bar staff.

Ly Lyrial Observation lounge

The observation lounge. * Photo: John Roberts

In the morning, we assembled to put on our gear in the lounge and lined up to get into the Zodiacs, which were reached by heading through the lounge and out onto the back deck before going down to the marina.

Live music was performed by a duet in the lounge, which also has a large dance floor. Passengers also flocked here in the afternoons for tea time — a daily event that offered special accompaniments like tapas, macarons, crepes or ice cream. The ship also features two restaurants: the main dining room, Le Celeste, called a gastronomic restaurant, and the more casual La Comete, a buffet-style grill eatery located on Deck 6 and open to the pool deck. You can also get 24-hour room service.

We tended to eat breakfast in the main restaurant on Deck 2 and dinner at the buffet eatery. The cuisine included a mix of French cuisine and international favorites, such as duck confit, seasoned lamb tenderloins and scallops. We also loved the carving station that featured items like fish, a whole pig, turkey and roast beef.

Le Lyrial in Antarctica

The main dining room. * Photo: John Roberts

Antarctica Cruise with Ponant

Iberico ham at tea time. * Photo: John Roberts

The menu also includes everyday favorites like burgers, chicken breast, mashed potatoes, green beans and french fries. The buffet eatery has a salad bar with plenty of selections. Of course, the wine is free flowing, and most passengers downed several glasses during lunches and dinners.

“The ship itself was very comfortable and cozy — easy enough to explore most nooks and crannies, including visiting the bridge,” said David Marcus, a passenger traveling with six family members. “The food was very good, but way too much. We basically had a floating buffet for the entire trip.”

The pool is heated and has a deep end and shallow end. This makes it great for a relaxing soak, and we took advantage on a sunny day at Neko Harbour in Antarctica. We were joined by several new friends, getting acquainted over cocktails and soaking up the sunshine. (Note: Apply sunscreen. Even the sun in Antarctica can burn.)

Hottub soak in Neko Harbour

A refreshing Neko Harbour soak for John! * Photo: Colleen McDaniel

VIDEO: Follow John on a ship tour of Le Lyrial, below.

Antarctica Cruising: The Beginning

As we pulled away from Ushuaia, we saw a couple of Silversea ships returning from their expeditions. I wondered about all that they had seen and what we would be experiencing over the course of our 14 days sailing around in these remote regions.

Guides and passengers gathered on the aft pool deck area and other outside spaces. Feeling the chill in the air and the winds whipping as we sailed, most of us had already started wearing the red parkas that A&K provided for the trip. Throughout the journey, our group roaming onshore would stand out in bright contrast to the green grasses or white snow.

the deck Le Lyrial in Antarctica

Guides in yellow and passengers in red chatting on deck. * Photo: John Roberts

We were outside right away as we started the sailing. The guides encouraged us to check out the sea birds flying nearby and learn how to identify an albatross from a petrel. We also saw dolphins and a few penguins swimming in the waters.

These were the first glimpses of what would become an incredible display of wildlife in the coming weeks.

The ubiquitous albatross in Antarctica

The ubiquitous albatross. * Photo: Claudia Kirchberger from Pixabay

Antarctica Cruising: Sea Days

During the sea days heading down to the White Continent, Abercrombie & Kent’s program kept us engaged.

To get prepared for the trip, we had the obligatory safety and biosecurity briefings. We learned the procedures that we would use during the voyage to ensure that we wouldn’t adversely affect the environments that we visited.

The main protocol had us washing our boots in a tub of antiseptic called Virkon each time we left the ship and upon our return. I was pleased to see how meticulous the process was to make sure we keep these special places pristine. This meant scrubbing off any trace of penguin poop and picking off even the smallest rock or seed from our pants, gloves, backpacks and jackets.

Antarctica excursion boots

The cleaned boots set outside the cabin to await the next adventure. * Photo: John Roberts

The program was also filled with at least a couple of enrichment talks each day in the ship’s main theater. The expert guides gave talks on the history of the region, as well as the wildlife, with specific topics covering mammals or seabirds or penguins.

There were two photo experts onboard as well, a pair who conducted regular talks in the theater. These well-known photographers, Rick Sammon and Richard Harker, gave excellent tips for capturing memorable pictures and also carved out time to sit in the lounge and meet with especially avid shutterbugs who wanted to show their daily captures and get feedback or learn how to use editing programs.

Antarctica cruising

Rick Sammon’s photography talk. * Photo: John Roberts

© Rick Sammon Antarctica ice

Stunning ice formations. * Photo © Rick Sammon

Enrichment talks are scheduled on sea days and days when visiting a port. We had 170 passengers on our voyage, and regulations place a limit of 100 passengers ashore at a time. Therefore, we were divided into two groups, and we alternated the times when we would go ashore each day.

For example, if we went out at 8 a.m. one day, we would be the 9:45 a.m. group on the next. We would have afternoon and morning shore landings or skiff tours, and this left time for attending talks (or napping!) while the other group was ashore and we were waiting our turn.

Antarctica expedition cruise with Ponant

Climbing in and out of zodiacs is business as usual on an Antarctica cruise. * Photo: Ponant

The daunting Drake Passage had to be crossed on the way down, and this period of sailing presented a certain mystique for most of the passengers, many who were on their very first cruise. I had heard plenty about how the rough waters of the Drake Passage are on another level when it comes to cruising.

So, it was with a mix of relief and slight disappointment that we had an especially smooth crossing. In fact, our experienced captain, Patrick Marchesseau, said it was one of the gentlest crossings of the Drake he had experienced.

The calm waters allowed us to get outside to watch the albatross and other seabirds that would swoop alongside the ship and follow the breezes above our wake.

Antarctica on deck

Guides and passengers mingling on deck. * Photo: John Roberts

We soon arrived to the waters just off the Antarctic continent. The excitement onboard was palpable as we noticed small chunks of ice beginning to float past as we got closer and closer to the islands that we would be visiting for our first forays ashore.

Antarctica Cruising: Sightseeing Adventures in Antarctica

Danco Island

We were in the early group for going ashore at our first destination: Danco Island. I popped out of bed and slid open the glass door and went onto the balcony to see the island, which has a wide sloping cobble beach. I could see gentoo penguins swimming the waters carrying out their fishing activities.

After breakfast, we all gradually geared up and made it down the hallways toward the main lounge.

We were a fine regiment of adventurers, with red parkas as our uniforms and waterproof pants swishing with every energetic stride.

We loaded into Zodiacs and set off to the island. As we approached, the sounds and smells grew louder and sharper. The squawks of penguins and the pungent smell of guano would fill our senses for much of the next 10 days as we visited daily with amazing creatures of Antarctica and South Georgia.

At Danco Island, we traversed the gentle slope of a snow-covered field and watched a colony of delightful gentoos wander up and down a “penguin highway” carrying out their tasks. It was our first close encounter with these endearing animals, and we were all transfixed.

penguins in Antarctica

The “Penguin Highway.” * Photo: John Roberts

“You have the opportunity to interact with the wildlife in one of the most pristine areas of the world,” Dr. Patri Silva Rodriguez said. “Here, they are not scared at all of us, and you can have the best time of your life watching them.”

The temps were mild and the sun started to shine as we wandered back down to the beach to see a Weddell seal resting on a perch, blissfully tolerating the gathering crowd as more penguins plunged into the water to start a hunt. Others waddled out of the surf and past the humans.

We were giddy to be able to witness the whole scene.

The morning at Danco Island set us off and running with memorable experiences.

Antarctica cruising zodiac

Leaving Danco and heading back on board. * Photo: John Roberts

Neko Harbour

In the afternoon, it was a hike to the top of a hill above Neko Harbour. We had officially made it onto the continent during this outing, and several travelers celebrated reaching their seventh continent. One group of friends unfurled a Canadian flag and snapped some pics at the summit to mark the accomplishment.

It was Colleen’s seventh continent and my sixth (I’m missing Australia as of this writing).

Neko Harbour on an Antarctica cruise

A hike to the top of a hill above Neko Harbour afforded a great shot of Le Lyrial. * Photo: John Roberts

The afternoon brought higher temps, and along with the challenge of hiking up the hillside and through steep snow, meant that we were generating even more heat. Most of us stripped off our parkas and enjoyed the sunshine while moving up and down the hillside and past large nesting areas of gentoo penguins.

Le Lyrial was picture-perfect in the harbor, and a few of us took advantage of the favorable conditions to settle into the heated pool once we were back onboard. We ordered some drinks and enjoyed a couple hours with new friends amid the most stunning backdrop you can imagine.

While we were just becoming casually familiar with the penguins and seals at this point, we soon would become experts on their behaviors in the coming days.

Neko Peak

From Neko Peak. * Photo: John Roberts

Cierva Cove

We took a skiff tour in Cierva Cove the next morning. Here, our driver Augie navigated around gorgeous blue ice formations that bobbed in the calm waters.

Cierva Cove in Antarctica

Wispy clouds over the twin peaks of Cierva Cove. * Photo: John Roberts

We saw gentoo and chinstrap penguins, as well as a leopard seal swimming and a crabeater seal relaxing on a floating piece of ice.

 crabeater seal in the Antarctic

An adorable crabeater seal at Cierva Cove. * Photo: John Roberts

Mikkelsen Harbour

In the afternoon, it was Mikkelsen Harbour. The beach was filled with bleached whale bones, a marker of the former whaling industry that proliferated in the region. Also spotted: more penguins and seals. Of course.

Mikkelsen Harbour

Mikkelsen Harbour where the whaling industry once thrived. * Photo: John Roberts

South Shetland Islands

Our final day in Antarctica brought us to the South Shetland Islands, where we went ashore at Yankee Harbor in the morning and Aitcho Islands for the afternoon. Conditions had grown a little wet and blustery, but we enjoyed seeing the different landscapes and habitats where the animals lived. It was amazing to see how much the elephant seals and penguins are thriving in these environments.

Yankee Harbor View on an Antarctica cruise

Plenty of penguins in Yankee Harbor. * Photo: John Roberts

gentoo penguins in Antarctica

Gentoo penguins feeding on the Aitcho Islands. * Photo: John Roberts

elephant seals in Antarctica

Elephant seals doing their thing. * Photo: John Roberts

Back on Le Lyrial for lunch between our two outings, the crew treated us to a special “Southernmost Barbecue Lunch,” to fuel up on hearty comfort food and commemorate our special place in the world — marking a latitude below 62 degrees south. Cooks grilled up burgers, chicken, hot dogs and pork out on the pool deck.

After our time in Antarctica, we had three more sea days on the schedule before we would reach the South Georgia Islands, which we were told would be filled with an even more stunning population of penguins, seals and other birds.

It was good that we had some time to rest up for another set of exciting and active days out in nature. We needed to fully process and appreciate what we had just experienced — up-close encounters with fascinating creatures and a stunning landscape that few travelers are fortunate enough to see.

While sailing toward South Georgia, we spent our time on Le Lyrial getting in a daily workout in the small gym. It was always fairly busy in the mornings, with a group of regulars who all like to keep fit and active, too.

Colleen and I also scheduled a massage and enjoyed a couple post-workout sessions in the hammam. We found this steam room to be quite rejuvenating and an unexpected treat for an expedition ship.

Antarctica Cruising: South Georgia Islands

South Georgia is a British Overseas Territory, and we enjoyed three packed days taking in all the sights, sounds and history available during our stops at Fortuna Bay, Grytviken, Drygalski Fjord, Salisbury Plain and Elsehul.

Fortuna Bay is home to a large colony of king penguins, and we were all delighted to meet these majestic creatures, which are much larger and with their own set of behaviors compared with the gentoos and chin straps with which we had grown so friendly over the prior week.

Fortuna Bay Antarctica

Gorgeous Fortuna Bay. * Photo: John Roberts

penguins of Fortuna bay

The treasures of Fortuna Bay. * Photo: John Roberts

Salisbury Plain sits in the wildlife-rich area on the north coast known as the Bay of Isles, and this spot is home to one of the largest king penguin colonies in the world. We all eagerly snapped photos, as we witnessed the birds feeding young, nesting and caring for eggs, swimming out and returning back from the sea for fishing forays.

We also saw plenty of penguins in the middle of their crucial molting process to refresh their plumage.

King Penguins in Antarcica

Molting Kings. * Photo: John Roberts

Salisbury Plain

Stunning Salisbury Plain. * Photo: John Roberts

Large colonies of fur seals and other seals also share these precious places with the penguins. In fact, 95 percent of the world’s five million fur seals are on South Georgia, and we saw massive colonies of sub-adults and pups all over the beaches, on tussock grass and inland. The number of tiny fur seal pups on display really dialed up the cuteness factor of these days.

Trio of seal pubs in Antarctica

Adorable seal pups. * Photo: John Roberts

Colleen and I made friends with a number of fellow passengers, who, like us, share a passion for adventure. They included an 11- and 14-year-old brother and sister who were traveling with their parents at what was just the start of a seven-months-long worldwide trip.

Most passengers were around 55 to 75 years old and from the United States, Canada or the United Kingdom. All were extremely well-traveled and represented a cross-section of careers (whether retired or still working) in business, law and medicine — some were highly successful entrepreneurs.

David Marcus and his wife, Bilha, from Maryland, were traveling with five other adult family members and friends. I noticed that their group was among the most engaged — enjoying the daily activities onboard and ashore. Before the trip was halfway over, Marcus had already resolved to return to Antarctica with his granddaughter once she is a bit older.

“The Zodiac tours and onshore excursions allowed us to almost shake hands with the penguins and seals,” he said. “And, surprisingly, the weather was warmer in Antarctica than back at home.”

Antarctica Cruising: Grytviken

A former whaling station, Grytviken is one of the most developed places on the island.

Grytviken in Antarctica

Grytviken is a former whaling station. * Photo: John Roberts

We went ashore for a hike and to visit the small church, immersive museum and little post office/gift shop.

Grytviken also has a small cemetery that includes the grave of Ernest Shackleton, who died of a heart attack at the age of 47 while there in 1922.

Shackleton grave on an Antarctica cruise

The grave of the legendary Shackleton. * Photo: John Roberts

The legendary Antarctica explorer made his name during several expeditions on the continent, most notably in an attempt to cross Antarctica beginning in late 1914 that led to a harrowing adventure after setting sail from South Georgia. His ship the Endurance became trapped in ice and ultimately was wrecked and sank. This led to an incredible tale of survival that lasted almost two years before Shackleton and crew returned to South Georgia.

When Shackleton’s fourth-and-final Antarctica expedition ended with his death off South Georgia, his wife, Emily, said that he should be buried there. And so he was buried on the island at Grytviken at the small cemetery that includes graves of several other residents.

shackleton's tombstone

A close up of Shackleton’s tombstone. * Photo: John Roberts

We went for an afternoon skiff tour within Drygalski Fjord and saw seals, seabirds and calving glaciers that filled the channel with thundering cracks and loud splashes and fizzing sounds as the massive chunks of ripped away from the ice field and plunged into the fjord.

Elsehul was our final stop in South Georgia, and we took a Zodiac tour in an especially enthralling place that represents the full menu of sensory experiences. We saw thousands of albatrosses, seals and penguins filling the skies, beaches and sloping grassy hillsides that surround this secluded cove.

Stunning ice formations. * Photo © Rick Sammon

The cuteness is unreal. * Photo © Rick Sammon

We were on a Zodiac with 10 others, and expedition guide Augie was at the helm again as we got our first look at macaroni penguins and marveled at the beauty of the gray-headed albatrosses. Augie had smuggled a medium-sized box onto the small boat, and its presence had gone largely unnoticed until he picked just the right time to slide it close, flip off the lid and reveal several bottles of Champagne.

 Champagne on an excursion

Nice surprise! * Photo: John Roberts

We were nestled along the shore and savoring the scenery as he popped the corks, poured the bubbly and passed around our glasses for a toast to our incredible time together over the past two-plus weeks.

Antarctica expedition cruise champagne

A toast with Augie. * Photo: John Roberts

passengers on an Antarctica cruise

Passengers Dick and Pat in Elsehul. * Photo: John Roberts

One Last Challenge: The Return Home

Remember when I said the ride south was smooth as could be and that many of us onboard were a little disappointed in not getting to experience at least a taste of what the seas can offer when they get angry on these Antarctic cruises?

Well, we got the full seven-course meal on the voyage back north.

The cruise itinerary had called for a stop at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, but that was scrapped as a massive storm crossed our path as we sailed in the South Atlantic Ocean.

RELATED: Ted’s 10 Best Antarctica & Falkland Islands Moments

Our captain informed us as we departed South Georgia that a storm was heading our way.

This resulted in almost 24 consecutive hours of the Le Lyrial and its crew and passengers being tossed about in waves that reached up to 50 feet and were regularly higher than 30 feet.

story seas in the Falklands

Stormy seas kept John & Colleen confined to their cabin for the last few days of the cruise. * Photo: John Roberts

VIDEO: Watching the sea churn during the stormy ride to the Falkland Islands.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSBTx5ax1gc

Services were shut down, and we remained in our cabins for almost the entire time. Crew served us a boxed meal for our dinner, and we did the best to stay comfortable in conditions that were both thrilling and scary. Colleen and I didn’t get much rest, as it was nearly impossible to sleep while trying to hang onto the bed without tumbling to the floor.

Trips to the bathroom were precarious, and items that weren’t fastened ended up scattered all around the cabin.

But we didn’t get sick, so that was a relief. I know many other passengers had a much rougher ride than we did because of seasickness.

We stayed mostly in our bed the whole time and watched a lot of on-demand movies.

Conditions eased as we cruised into a protected area by the Falkland Islands, so we had some relief for much of one day before the waves kicked up again. We sailed for four consecutive days before reaching Ushuaia and our return to land on a Friday evening.

Everyone was quite eager to get off the ship, as cabin fever had set in, and we saw passengers lining up near the gangway to rush off as soon as it was dropped. People headed out to take a walk and find a spot for dinner off the ship.

Though we were all still abuzz about all we had seen and experienced together, people were definitely in the mood for a change of pace, especially after 16 straight days onboard a ship — with the last four being very rough sea days.

Being back on solid ground and amid civilization was just what we were looking for as we joined new friends at a nice restaurant and shared pizzas, beers and lively conversation. It was the final night of the journey and we would be heading off to the airport and on our separate ways back home the next day.

© Rick Sammon ice photo in Antarctica

Serene landscapes (when the weather is good!). * Photo © Rick Sammon

Antarctica Cruising: The Bottom Line

We have enjoyed several expedition-style cruises over the years, and the guides always have been a special part of the trip, helping to bond the group together to share some of the most intense and fulfilling experiences you can imagine.

This part of the experience came up a bit short for us on this trip. A couple of the A&K guides were fairly friendly, and they all were fine when approached with questions, but they didn’t initiate engagement with the passengers in a way that I am used to seeing.

Instead, they tended to disappear or huddle together among themselves when in the main lounge. This was a little disappointing to me.

You never get tired of witnessing penguins and seals in their daily activities up close and in their natural habitat. However, our six days of exploring in the two different regions on the voyage would have been better with a bit more variety in the excursions.

The ship carried kayaks, but A&K did not include kayak tours in its program (and we weren’t really sure why).

Personally, I also would like more options for hikes. I do realize that we were probably in the minority for having these quibbles, though, as most people I asked said they really enjoyed almost every part of the trip — save for the rough sea days.

The program was a rich one, and the guides and staff took great care of us, displaying a true expertise of the region.

The enrichment talks were fascinating, and the animal interactions were intense and more exciting than you can imagine.

elephant seal

Adorably melancholic Elephant seal. * Photo: John Roberts

Our cruise director, Paul Carter, was especially delightful, making us laugh with jokes, always asking how our days were going and keeping us up to date with info needed to effectively navigate each day and destination.

The bilingual Ponant crew speaks French and English, and represent a mix of nationalities. Most officers and managers are French, with the hotel operations staff coming from places like India and the Philippines. The A&K guides come from all over. We had guides from Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, the Netherlands, Costa Rica, the U.K. New Zealand and the United States.

The trip overall was fantastic and a great way to explore such a thrilling destination in style and comfort. Antarctica and South Georgia are places that you have to see for yourself to get a true appreciation for how vital and vibrant they are.

“I am thankful that I was able to witness this remarkable place that most people will never be able to see in their lifetime,” says Melissa Kaplan, who was traveling with her husband, Mike, from Katy, Texas. They also cruised with A&K to the Arctic in 2018, and Melissa feels that the Arctic and an Antarctic cruise that includes South Georgia, are both equally magnificent.

VIDEO: Enjoy John’s overview of his magical Antarctica A&K adventure.

Fares for John’s 20-night “Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands” adventure (four hotel nights in Buenos Aires, 15 nights aboard Le Lyrial, and one final hotel night in Ushuaia), started at $20,995 per person, including round-trip flights between Buenos Aires and Ushuaia, plus all zodiac excursions; all house wines, spirits and drinks; expedition gear (parka etc); tips and port charges; accommodation in a suite; and more (note all cabins have a balcony except for 8 cabins on Deck 3)..

View similar offerings for the 2021-22 season here.  *Note, the “new normal” for cruising, whether small-scale or mass-market, is still to be determined as the travel world adjusts to cruising in the era of COVID-19. 

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RELATED:  Antarctica Aboard a Former Russian Research Vessel.  by Judi Cohen

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Alaska Expedition Cruises with Victory

Alaska Expedition Cruises.

By Anne Kalosh.

This year’s Alaska cruise season is looking more tenuous as time goes by. Due to port closures and no-sail orders, big-ship stalwarts like Princess Cruises and Holland America Line, at this point, plan just Seattle or Vancouver, B.C., round trips, not the one-way itineraries between Vancouver and Whittier or Seward, and no add-on land tours. Cunard canceled its Alaska season outright, and Norwegian Cruise Line is not sending a fourth ship there after all.

Of the small-ship (Quirky-sized) operators, Windstar Cruises scrapped its 2020 itineraries, too, because Star Breeze is still at the Fincantieri shipyard in Palermo, Italy, where work stopped due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As Quirky Cruise detailed earlier, Star Breeze is being lengthened and updated. Instead of debuting in Alaska, the “stretched” ship is now expected to re-enter service in the Mediterranean.

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Victory Heads North

All of this is to say there’s a lot of uncertainty about Alaska expedition cruises for 2020; and about all cruises for 2020. For that reason, many avid cruisers are looking at 2021 instead. And that’s also when there will be a new choice in Alaska to make things even more enticing.

Known best for its Great Lakes itineraries, Victory Cruise Lines (operated by American Queen Steamboat Co.) will introduce its first expedition voyages in The Great Land using a brand-new ship, Ocean Victory.

Alaska Expedition Cruises with Victory

The 200-passenger Ocean Victory with its distinctive X-Bow profile. * Rendering:vVictory Cruise Lines

Vancouver-Sitka Itineraries

These new “Discover Beyond” adventures sail northbound, from Vancouver to Sitka (11 nights), and southbound, from Sitka to Vancouver (12 nights).

A world-class city, Vancouver offers bountiful museums, parks, a noted aquarium and great restaurants and nightlife. Sitka is a picturesque city of Russian heritage and the starting point for pre- or post-cruise adventures, such as a visit to Glacier Bay National Park.

Alaska Expedition Cruises with Victory

The cruises sail between Vancouver & Sitka.

Ocean Victory

Equipped with 20 Zodiacs and dozens of kayaks, Ocean Victory will enable in-depth explorations of Alaska’s natural, historic and cultural treasures. Victory is working with California Polytechnic State University to carry marine biologists, scientists and naturalists among its expedition team of 19 to lead excursions and give lectures.

The 200-passenger Ocean Victory, currently under construction in China, is among the Infinity series of expedition vessels ordered by Miami’s SunStone Ships for charter to a variety of operators.

The Infinity vessels sport Ulstein Design’s patented X-Bow for a smoother ride and reduced noise and vibration. Rolls-Royce zero-speed stabilizers reduce rolling, and a dynamic positioning system eliminates the need for anchors in sensitive areas.

Ocean Victory measures 8,500 gross tons and stretches 104.4 meters/342.5 feet. It has 93 suites, 68 with balconies, nine with French balconies and 16 with panoramic windows.

Ocean Victory cabin in Antarctica

Ocean Victory balcony suite. * Rendering: Victory Cruise Lines

Two restaurants and an open-deck dining area provide choice.

Observation and lecture lounges, a piano bar, library, gym, spa, heated outdoor pool, pool bar and Jacuzzi are among the amenities. A dedicated launching platform will facilitate Zodiac and kayak adventures.

The ship will be served by 100 crew for a high 1:2 crew-to-guest ratio.

Alaska Expedition cruises

With its big windows, the Observation Lounge will be ideal for viewing Alaskan nature and wildlife from the ship. * Rendering: Victory Cruise Lines

Library aboard Ocean Victory in Alaska

And views from the library, too. * Rendering: Victory Cruise Lines

gym on Ocean Victory in Alaska

Workout with a view in the gym. * Rendering: Victory Cruise Lines

Fjordland Conservancy

Itinerary highlights include Fjordland Conservancy, one of Canada’s newest marine parks, home to wolves, deer, eagles, bears and humpback whales. At Kynoch Inlet, a dramatic waterfall drops into a majestic fjord.

Conditions permitting, passengers will explore the Inlet’s Culpepper’s Lagoon with Victory’s naturalists.

Metlakatla & Misty Fjords

Ocean Victory will also visit Ketchikan, “Salmon Capital of the World,” with the opportunity to fish right from Creek Street.

Visit Ketchikan on an Alaska Expedition Cruise

Salmon is big in Ketchikan. * Photo: Seanna O’Sullivan Photography

Metlakatla provides immersion into the rich culture of the Tsimshian people, including a private visit to a long house for a performance by one of Alaska’s best dancing groups. At Misty Fjords National Monument, travelers find lush greenery, granite cliffs and cascading waterfalls wrapped in gossamer mist.

Russian History & Tlingit Culture

Wrangell was originally a Russian settlement, however the Tlingit people were in the region long before Russian traders settled there. Besides learning about Tlingit culture, travelers can look for bears at Anan Creek, take jet boat rides on Stikine River, go charter fishing or see ancient petroglyphs.

Another highlight is Baranoff Island’s eastern coast, where naturalist guides will lead explorations by kayaks and Zodiacs to tucked-away bays at the base of sheer mountains and cliffs.

Also known as “Little Norway,” Petersburg was settled by Norwegians who thought the area looked just like home.

Directly across the water is Kupreanof Island, with hiking trails, while a floatplane experience provides a bird’s-eye view of LaConte Glacier and its dramatic ice fields.

Tracy Arm & Endicott Arm

Rivaling Norway’s fjords, Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm contain the magnificent Sawyer and Dawes glaciers. The 12-night itinerary from Sitka spends two days there, with visits to Tracy Arm, Endicott and Ford’s Terror Wilderness. The 11-night itinerary from Vancouver spends one day and visits Tracy or Endicott, depending on the ice conditions.

Alaska Expedition cruise excursions in zodiacs

Zodiac excursions take you close up to glaciers and ice fields. * Photo: Victory Cruise Lines

Whale country

After a morning visit to the Tlingit village of Kake, Ocean Victory will travel through whale country. As the home of the Five Finger Whale Research Center, the Frederick Sound is world famous for viewing humpbacks, orcas and Dall’s porpoise. A hydrophone will be used to hear the underwater sounds.

Whales on Alaska Expedition cruises

Ocean Victory will travel through whale country. * Photo: Victory Cruise Lines

Fares for the 11-night northbound cruises on May 21, June 11, July 2 and 23, Aug. 13 and Sept. 3, 2021, start at $4,199 per person. The 12-night southbound cruises, on May 31, June 21, July 12, Aug. 2 and 23 and Sept. 13, start at $4,999. A one-time “Hidden Coast” itinerary, 11 nights, from Vancouver to Seattle on Sept. 24, is priced from $4,199.

Port fees, taxes and gratuities are extra.

Ocean Discoverer Joins in 2023

Victory Cruise Lines is chartering a second expedition new build, Ocean Discoverer, to join sister ship Ocean Victory in Alaska in 2023.

For more info on Victory’s Alaska expedition cruises, go to Victory Cruise Lines’ website.

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First Small-Ship Cruise

Ted’s First Small-Ship Cruise

By Ted Scull.

Heading into my senior year in college, I had one empty slot to round out my final academic schedule. Sitting with a good friend one day, we both decided to study Russian, the language. We were bound for Europe in the months after graduation, and the professor, though known to be a tough taskmaster, also had a great reputation.

At the end of the first day of class when we had been introduced to the Russian alphabet and how the letters were pronounced, Dr. B. gave us our assignment. Be prepared for a quiz, and if you passed to his satisfaction, you could continue, otherwise you will have to find another course to complete your credits.

We attacked the task with relish and stayed up half the night testing each other, and the next day we returned to class and passed muster. A few fell by the wayside.

The language study included quite a lot of Russian history and politics, and I became so intrigued by the world’s other superpower, I decided to plan a trip there. After graduation from college, I had six weeks between a summer job and starting an academic year abroad in Paris. My friend Bob planned a motorcycle trip deep into Eastern Europe, and we would rendezvous in Paris in October.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Russian riverboat AMUR, named after a river in eastern Siberia.

Heading off to Europe

After graduation, I sailed over on the German liner Hanseatic and connected to the boat train for Paris where I stashed my belongings, those not needed for traveling east. At Gare de L’Est I boarded an overnight train for Prague, the start of a month and a half of travel. The next day, while I was beginning lunch in the restaurant car, we made a stop at Pilsen. Cartons of Pilsner beer came aboard, my favorite foreign beer at home.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Prague (Praha) Central Station. * Photo: Ted Scull

Arriving at Prague Central Station late in the day, I had failed to look up where my hotel was located. So, I showed the taxi driver the name, Esplanade, and we took a strange meandering route arriving at my destination about 15 minutes later. When I entered my hotel room, I looked out the window and what did I see – the railway station just two blocks away.

I stayed two full days, seeing the city on foot, and while a beautiful and intriguing place, it had nowhere near the bustle and excitement of Paris. The train to Vienna took just four hours and there I teamed up with another college friend and his new wife for a Danube River cruise all the way to the Black Sea and onward by overnight ship to Yalta.

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Ted’s First Small-Ship Cruise: Vienna & Boarding the Riverboat

All travel from now was through Intourist, the Russian government travel agency. One either picked the tourist or first-class level and the hotel charge included three meals a day. It was only permitted to stay in cities on the Intourist list, and the major ones had a limit of five days. Yalta, an inexpensive resort town, permitted up to four weeks. For travel between most cities, you could choose to fly or take the train.

First Small-Sip Cruise

Russian riverboat AMUR at a landing along the Danube, * Photo: Ted Scull

Two nights in Vienna revealed a stunning city of art, music and architecture, and its lively atmosphere would be hard to match in the Czechoslovakian, Yugoslavian, Romanian and Bulgarian cities in route to the Black Sea.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Vienna where private palaces and grounds are opened to the public. * Photo: Ted Scull

The Soviet-owned riverboat Amur (named after a river is eastern Siberia) we boarded had been built on the Danube as one of a pair, qualifying as war reparations for the damage done to Russia in WWII. Its purpose was to bring foreign currency to an economically struggling Russia. The riverboat was white with a red stripe along the main deck and hammer and sickle on the funnel.

Passengers occupied three decks, one full deck of windowed outside twin-bedded cabins with private facilities, and a second higher deck with more cabins, an observation lounge, large windowed dining saloon, and a bar. A wraparound promenade allowed complete circumnavigations. Open space included a large portion of the top (navigating) deck and a small area at the bow one level below.

Danube River

The Danube River & the Black Sea.

Ted’s First Small-Ship Cruise: Settling In

My first riverboat, fairly new and seemingly well-maintained, was a pleasant surprise, but then I had no idea really know what to expect. Upon casting off, we had some 60 passengers, about half capacity but then it was near the season’s end.

Dinner, however, got off to a shaky start. We were amongst the last to board, and there was no place for us to sit together at the long, shared table. As we knew no one and heard no English spoken among the others, we stood there looking helpless. Eventually one of the stewardesses came to our rescue, and I launched into my first attempt with Russian. She smiled patiently and moved around some chairs and set up a table for three off to one side. After that we would be assigned seats together at the main table. We did meet a few of the European passengers, but overall, not much English was spoken.

The food was decent and forgettable: soup, some sort of meat (occasionally fish), potatoes, and a vegetable for lunch and dinner. Breakfast offered a dollop of large lump red caviar, bread and a boiled egg. Drink choices were soda, beer and wine.

Our ports were Bratislava, Budapest, Belgrade, Iron Gate (passage), Giurgiu, and Ismail.

The Iron Gate

The Iron Gate today has been tamed by a dam and locks.* Photo: Ted Scull

The real excitement began the next morning when we were underway. I had never sailed along a major river before, not even in a small boat, and this river was just amazing, taking us from Central Europe through the Balkans to the Black Sea, from democracies to Communist dictatorships. The era was the height of the so-called Cold War — for some, us against them, but it was more complicated than that. One could not simply say that Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania could be lumped together willy-nilly or that all four felt the same toward Moscow, capital of Russia and the Soviet Union.

Communist propaganda

Communist propaganda showing a heroic worker shoveling land mines marked US. * Photo: Ted Scull

RELATED: Mother Russia River Cruising.  by Ted Scull

Tricky Navigation

Back to the Danube. We were going with the flow and moving rather fast. From time to time we came up behind slower traffic such as powered barges and others that needed a tug to push or pull the load. They needed to be overtaken, and at the same time make sure there was enough room to pass, and taking into account the bends in the river, plus if anything was coming upstream.

First Small-Ship Cruise

A twin funnel sidewheel towboat down bound on the Danube. * Photo: Ted Scull

Barges and tows moved very slowly, and for the most part we were faster, bigger and more maneuverable. Cargoes consisted of coal, iron ore, rock, gravel, petroleum products, lumber and grain.

Following a few meets and overtakings, I began to realize that people actually made their homes on the barges. Clothes lines had laundry drying, some carried bicycles, and others an open deck for relaxing, attractively surrounded by plants.

Our vessel had an illustrated booklet of national flags so we could understand where the traffic came from or was going to. The Rhine-Main Canal was not open yet so southern Germany was as far inland as one could go.

During the day we passed the upbound sistership Donau with an exchange of whistles. Curiously, there were no cheers or waves between the sisterships, just people lining the railings. And we never saw another riverboat.

First Small-Ship Cruise

AMUR’s sistership DONAU (Danube) heading upriver. * Photo: Ted Scull

Bratislava

Our first port was Bratislava, a major city in Czechoslovakia, and before that a longtime German city with the name Pressburg. The Ottoman Empire attacked many cities along the Danube using it as the conquering route inland, but Pressburg never fell.

Because we were the only native English-speaking passengers on the boat, we were pretty much on our own, so we made our own way from the landing to the attractive city center and main square, churches that dated to the 14th and 15th century. Making a loop, we passed through small squares and along narrow lanes that led to wide boulevards. A fortified citadel towered over the city, but then there was not the buzz there is today.

Budapest (Two Cities)

Budapest was altogether different. Originally two cities, Buda and Pest were separated by the Danube, with the former overlooking the more important side with an imposing gothic-style Parliament modeled after the British counterpart fronting on the river.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Gothic-style Parliament building, modeled after the Btitish Parliament fronting on the Danube at Budapest. * Photo: Ted Scull taken aboard riverboat AMUR

Impressed by this architecturally rich city, we set out from the Pest side where riverboats dock today. Once a wealthy city, Budapest built the first subway in Continental Europe, had the first public telephone system and first telephone exchange, and stimulated by an order from the Parliament builders, the first mass production of light bulbs.

We zigzagged amongst the monumental buildings, many in Art Nouveau style, crossing to Buda on one suspension bridge to then climb up to the medieval battlements to a viewpoint overlooking the Danube. Winding back down, we took in the famous Gellert Hotel and its spa to then to cross back over a handsome suspension bridge decorated with tongue-less lion statues. The architect was said to have committed suicide when he saw the empty mouths at the opening ceremony.

Belgrade

For the stop at Belgrade, Yugoslavia’s capital, Marshal Tito, the dictator, did his best to keep the Soviet Union at bay. We tied up in a small cove off the main channel and had a bit of a climb to reach the city center. The city has foundations of many previous incarnations.

Belgrade experienced 115 major battles, and since Roman rule, has been completely destroyed 44 times, had 40 different names and served as a capital of five different states. It was a bit much to even try to take but a superficial overview in the time allotted.

First Small-Ship Cruise

It’s a bit of a climb from the Danube to the center of Belgrade. * Photo: Ted Scull

Drama at the Iron Gate

Continuing on down the Danube, we next came to the Iron Gate, a dramatic series of gorges created by the Transylvanian Alps crossing the river. The Danube changes its character to a rapidly flowing torrent with waters roughed up by its narrowing and dropping fast enough to create dangerous rapids. Our pace quickened, and I could sense tension in my body. To the left we passed a pair of steam locomotives standing by to haul the upriver traffic. Now, for safety reasons, that traffic had stopped to permit the downriver traffic to pass.

Today, the rapids have now been tamed by dams and locks providing safe navigation and hydroelectricity. The passage is scenic and safer but no longer genuinely dramatic.

Welcome to Romania (Not)

Cruising overnight, the Amur eased up to a landing marked Giurgiu, a river port with road access to Bucharest, the Romanian capital. Across the river was the port of Ruse in Bulgaria. Our crew had the lines ready to hand over to the Romanian receivers but they just stood there looking at us. With our boat now alongside the floating landing stage, the captain ordered the crew to jump ashore and tie up the boat.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Landing station at Giurgiu, Romania before troops arrived to prevent going ashore. * Photo: Ted Scull

The men hesitated, and then without any warning, a contingent of Romanian soldiers marched around both sides of the terminal and stood at attention. A Romanian officer yelled something across to our captain, now standing outside the pilothouse, first in Romanian (a Romance and not a Slavic language). There was silence, and the Romanian officer gave an order, and his troops lowered their weapons then took several thumping steps forward.

That was it, we were not welcome. Our captain rang the telegraph, and we moved off the landing and made a wide arc to dock at Ruse, across the river in Bulgaria.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Ruse, Bulgaria’s most prominent government, a billboard to post portraits of heroic leaders. The red letters are a salute to the 9th of September. * Photo: Ted Scull

Not Wanted

The Romanian demonstration provided an official snub against Russia, something that increasingly became a pattern prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union many years later. As the Bulgarian stop was scheduled for the upriver transit, nothing was planned, so we simply spent a few hours ashore wandering through a sleepy, medium-size Bulgarian river city.

With a full moon rising above the river, we proceeded in the growing darkness, and during the night, the Danube would turn north and then east through Romanian territory. In the morning we eased over to a landing at Ismail, a Romanian port about 50 miles in from the Black Sea.

RELATED:  Cruising the Danube River on the New AMA Magna.  by Gene Sloan.

RELATED:  Beer & Biking on the Danube River with Scenic.  by John Roberts.

Changing from a Boat to a Ship (Small)

The Amur pulled up astern of the small Soviet passenger vessel Kolchida. Those who were leaving here, including our trio, disembarked and walked forward a few hundred feet to the Black Sea ship and boarded for our one-night voyage.

We sailed about an hour later through the marshy, flat Danube Delta. There were lots of birds about and still enough evening light when the ship sailed out into the Black Sea for the overnight sail to Yalta.

The Kolchida on the Danube

The Kolchida.* Photo: Ted Scull

Chess, and the Winner Is …

Some Russians my age approached me asking, in Russian, if I played chess, and when I indicated yes, they set up a table at the stern. About a dozen others, college students returning home, surrounded the two players. Everything happened so fast, with my Russian opponent moving his pieces very quickly. I did not play that way. I concentrated as hard as I could and tried not to take too long, and after about 20 minutes, I had him in checkmate. I was not sure how it all happened. Did he let me win? Anyway, I was rewarded with a beer with the ship now rolling to the Black Sea swells.

Dinner was just passable as I assume all the ingredients had come from Russia, while the riverboat took on stores in Vienna its turnaround port. It would be an introduction to the Russian menus that would little from day to day and eventually became a non-topic. You just ate what was put in front of you. Then I took to my bunk, and in the morning, when I awoke, we were approaching a steep coastal landscape with Yalta sprawled at its base.

Yalta and Beyond

My friends stayed several days, and I remained in a seafront hotel for two weeks, as it was cheap and I could practice my Russian on anyone who would talk to me. My tourist level included a guide and car every five days, so I managed to see the site of the Yalta Conference and the Valley of Balaclava, the location for the charge of the Light Brigade, a battle between the British and Russians.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Ted atop a large hill overlooking Yalta and the Black Sea. * Photo: Tony Milbank

Leaving Yalta, I then another five weeks, traveling independently by train, and in between, a 21-day tour starting out in Moscow and then to Stalingrad (now Volgograd), followed by a two-day paddle steamer voyage to Rostov, Sochi, Kiev, and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).

First Small-Ship Cruise

Soviet sidewheel riverboat at a landing on the Volga River. * Photo: Ted Scull

Again, on my own, by train to Riga, Latvia’s capital, Moscow, Warsaw and Paris where, in the latter, I resided for eight months. But that story is for another day.

RELATED:  Danube River Cruise with Aboard the New AMA Magna.  by Gene Sloan. 

RELATED:  Beer & Biking on the Danube with Scenic.  by John Roberts.

Looking Back

My basic Russian came in handy when traveling on trains, trams, buses, seeking directions, ordering meals and having a minimal chat. Visiting the Soviet Union was time well spent, if not unsettling at times.

During the group tour, one member, a young English fellow who spoke fluent Russian, vanished about 10 days into the itinerary, and there was no explanation forthcoming from our guide.

Ted in Red Square

The author in Red Square, Moscow.

On the riverboat between Stalingrad and Rostov, some of us apparently fraternized a bit too much with the Russian passengers. We were relegated to one lounge and sat at separate tables at one end of the dining saloon.

When in Moscow, I meet some students in Red Square, and they invited me to their homes. Later, when I returned to the city by train, I was discreetly handed a message as I walked along the platform warning me that my friends would be arrested if I met up with them again.

Ted in Paris

The author on the Pont Alexandre III, Paris, named after a Russian czar,

Soon after settling in Paris, my friend from college, who shared the Russian language class, came to visit for several days. We exchanged stories and there were plenty. He then sold his motorcycle and headed home. We still connect all these years later.

My six weeks in the Soviet Union and eight months in Paris were life changing. I had grown up quite a bit by the time I stepped onto the pier in New York.

Ted’s First Small-Ship Cruise Was Just the Beginning …

Beginning with the Danube just after graduating from college, I became smitten by rivers and river cruising. When I had the time and money, I began to collect them with subsequent travels: Rhine, Rhone, Moselle, Elbe, Soane, Volga, Don, Nile, Yangtze, Mekong, Amazon, and closer to home, St. Lawrence, Ohio, Mississippi, Columbia, Snake and less than an hour’s walk, the Hudson.

Every one is different and has stories galore to tell, and I find them all intriguing in their unique ways.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Pandaw’s colonial design fits well into the Mekong River setting. * Photo: Ted Scull

The growth of river cruising has been a phenomenon, adding a fabulous new way to see our world, and so much of it developed along rivers. They provided routes of discovery, development, conquest, retreat and travel before decent roads and steam railways.

Leisure cruising started first on the Nile in the late 19th century on a river that was the most important geographical factor in the development of early civilization.

Nile River cruise vessel

SS SUDAN recalls the early style of Nile River cruise vessels. 

Modern river cruising has developed so fast, especially in Europe, and the resulting competition has driven innovation and cruise ship-style luxuries. Travelers can still choose between the plain and fancy.

I happen to prefer the riverboats that don’t try to be the be all and end all of the latest luxury cruise package. I like to concentrate on the river, its scenic delights and commerce and to go ashore in ports to see what this river is responsible for.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Today’s much larger riverboats, seen here on Russia’s Volga River. * Photo: Ted Scull

My favorite riverboats have been the 1926-built Delta Queen, built for transportation, then a long life of cruising with a genuine link to the past, the outstanding replica stern-wheeler, American Queen, and Pandaw ‘s fleet of small-size boats with their fetching colonial atmosphere.

I would also be more than happy to sail again in the likes of the Amur, the riverboat that began my story. It gave me the initial entry into a new means of travel and the results are evident. I don’t know what happened to her, but her sister Donau has continued on for decades, most recently housing cyclists who sleep on board and cycle from a different port during the day.

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