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Masks worn by passengers in the Small-Ship Sector

Small-Ship Sector Still Active

By Anne Kalosh.

While most travel remains on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic, dynamism in the small-ship sector gives cause for hope.

Just a trickle of ships are operating, many for local markets only, but it’s a growing trickle. New brands have launched. Ship construction continues.

There are setbacks, too. Delays in restarting service, delays in new build deliveries, ship withdrawals.

But overall things seem a tad more encouraging in the “small is beautiful” realm.

Here’s a rundown of some of the latest developments.

New brands

As QuirkyCruise has recently reported, the venerable Swan Hellenic brand is staging a comeback. Two expedition ships are under construction, the first scheduled for late 2021 in Antartica.

And new brand Atlas Ocean Voyages confirmed its first ship, the 196-passenger World Navigator, is on track to debut a year from now, in July 2021. The line just broke out a new website, here @ Atlas Ocean Voyages,  that emphasizes its adventurous profile, with images of diving, hang gliding and biking interlaced with video clips of Antarctic landscapes and Mediterranean seascapes.

Atlas also recently announced it’s bundling airfare into pricing, making for an even more inclusive product that already had components like gratuities, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, Wi-Fi and at least one shore excursion on every itinerary (in Antarctica, all outings are covered).

Atlas Ocean Voyages'The World Navigator

The World Navigator. * Photo: Atlas Ocean Voyages

First U.S.-based river line to resume Europe cruising

While European lines like A-Rosa and CroisiEurope have restarted river sailings — the latter with Botticelli July 13 on the Seine — U.S. operators’ hopes for sending Americans to Europe this year may be fading. Since the United States hasn’t managed to control coronavirus, most European countries are blocking Americans.

But ever-resourceful AmaWaterways found a way to sail, albeit on a very limited basis and with a different business model. One of its vessels, AmaKristina, is operating charter sailings in Germany, carrying local guests.

“Although many countries continue to have travel restrictions in place, we have begun operating a series of sailings for European guests, in collaboration with an established German tour operator, e-hoi. With these sailings, we have been able to put into practice and perfect our enhanced health and safety protocols while demonstrating that travelers can enjoy our unforgettable river cruise vacations with peace of mind,” said Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-founder of AmaWaterways.

The new procedures reflect the recommendations of E.U. Healthy Gateways, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, IG RiverCruise and other bodies.

Pre-boarding health questionnaires are required, and passengers and crew are subject to daily temperature checks. The crew received in-depth updated training. When more Ama vessels are able to operate, each will have a designated public health officer to oversee protocols.

AmaWaterways normally carry up to 150 passengers per vessel, however current regulations limit European river boats to 100 guests.

Crew must wear face coverings at all times, while guests have to do so only while moving around the vessel. With capacity currently capped, this means the main restaurant and The Chef’s Table easily accommodate the distancing now required. New room service options have been added.

Masks worn by passengers in the Small-Ship Sector

Masks are worn by passengers and crew on AmaKristina, which began sailing in Germany. * Photo: AmaWaterways

AmaKatrina lounges have plexiglass to separate seating groups and, for the time being, there are no live singing performances since the virus can be spread by droplets.

Passengers use the personal portable Quietvox systems that Ama has always provided to hear guides’ commentary while distancing during the included small-group shore excursions. Many tours involve hiking and biking.

Yangtze cruises to restart

China’s Ministry of Transport issued guidelines for the resumption of Yangtze River cruises, which will be available to the domestic market.

Initially, itineraries will be limited to between Chongqing and Yichang, Hubei province. Departure and transit ports and destinations will need to be at low risk for COVID-19, crew will be tested before embarking and vessel capacity will be capped at 50 percent.

Two lines, Chongqing-based Century Cruises and Huaxia Goddess Deluxe Cruise, plan to begin sailing in mid-August.

New Viking vessel for the Mekong next year

Rivers giant Viking will introduce Viking Saigon next summer for its “Magnificent Mekong” cruise-tour. Currently under construction, the 80-passenger vessel is scheduled to debut for the Aug. 30 departure.

Small ship Viking Saigon debut

The 80-passenger Viking Saigon is scheduled to debut in August 2021. * Rendering: Viking

The river portion of this cruise-tour sails between Kampong Cham, Cambodia, and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

While the interiors of many Mekong vessels are dripping in dark mahogany and other local design elements, Viking Saigon will sport the light and modern Scandinavian look characteristic of Viking’s wider fleet. The triple-deck boat will offer a spa & fitness center, infinity pool and open-air Sky Bar on the top deck.

The 40 outside cabins will have hotel-style beds and floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors with a veranda or French balcony. The Explorer Suites are especially roomy with big corner balconies affording sweeping views.

Viking Mekong in the Small-Ship Sector

Imagine gazing at the Mekong from this Explorer Suite balcony on Viking Saigon. * Rendering: Viking

Small-Ship Viking Mekong

Viking Saigon interiors will have Scandinavian design. Here, a veranda cabin. * Rendering: Viking

Viking’s 15-day “Magnificent Mekong” explores the cultural treasures of Vietnam and Cambodia with 16 guided tours. Hotel stays in Hanoi, Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City bookend the eight-day cruise.

During the land portion, travelers can shop in Old Hanoi’s markets; explore the Khmer temple complex of Angkor Wat; visit Ta Prohm, where trees sprout from ancient ruins; and see the sights of Phnom Penh by cyclo rickshaw. The cruise affords visits to silk towns, fishing villages, monasteries and floating markets.

Pricing starts at $5,299USD per person, with discounted airfare from $1,199 per person.

For Asia sailings this year, Pandaw River Cruises plans to restart in September, as separately reported here.

Pandaw's small ship Champa Pandaw

The 28-passenger Champa Pandaw. * Photo: Pandaw

Coral Expeditions to restart Great Barrier Reef cruises

Meanwhile, in Australia, domestic line Coral Expeditions plans to begin operating in mid-October with Great Barrier Reef sailings from Cairns.

These seven-night adventures on the yacht-like Coral Discoverer will be open to Australians (and the crew are Australian, too). The vessel will carry just 72 passengers and adhere to the company’s SailSAFE protocols developed in partnership with health emergency specialist Respond Global.

Coral Expeditions Commercial Director Jeff Gillies told Seatrade Cruise News all permissions and protocols are in place to begin these cruises Oct. 14.

Coral Expeditions is in the small-ship sector

Coral Expeditions’ Jeff Gillies said the line has permission to resume sailing from Cairns. * Photo: Coral Expeditions

Windstar delay in French Polynesia

Windstar Cruises had planned to restart service with Wind Spirit in Tahiti on Sept. 10. French Polynesia opened to all travelers on July 15.

But Windstar just pushed its date back to Oct. 5 in order to respect the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s no-sail order through Sept. 30. The line wasn’t required to do that since the CDC order applies only to sailings to or from the United States.

But a Windstar spokeswoman said the decision was taken voluntarily since most of its customers come from the U.S.

The 148-passenger Wind Spirit will sail seven-day round-trips from Papeete, Tahiti, and a variety of longer cruises that add the Tuamotu Islands.

small-ship sector includes Windstar Tahiti

Travelers will have to wait a little longer to sail Wind Spirit in Tahiti. * Photo: Windstar Cruises

Windstar has developed a “Beyond Ordinary Care” program in partnership with the epidemiology department at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Center to address travelers’ health concerns.

Elements include pre-trip health screening, hospital-grade HEPA filters to clean the air (plus the extra step of of UV-C ultraviolet germicidal irradiation), enhanced cleaning, more open-air dining options and reduced capacity in restaurants and on tours.

Janssonius keel-laying ceremony

In expedition new build news, Oceanwide Expeditions celebrated the keel-laying for Janssonius, the sister of 2019’s Hondius. This marked the start of construction at Brodosplit shipyard in Split, Croatia.

small ship Oceanwide Expeditions' Janssonius

The keel is laid for Oceanwide Expeditions’ Janssonius. * Photo: Oceanwide Expeditions

Janssonius is being built to Polar Class 6 standard and has capacity for 170 passengers in 80 cabins and 72 crew. The ship is named after Dutch cartographer Jan Janssonius.

Netherlands-based polar specialist Oceanwide, which markets its cruises internationally, plans to introduce Janssonius in November next year for the 2021/22 Antarctica season. One expedition features a solar eclipse. This Nov. 25-Dec. 14, 2021 trek visits the Falkland Islands and South Georgia as well as the Antarctic peninsula.

Quark’s Ultramarine due in spring 2021

Quark Expeditions‘ first owned new build, Ultramarine, is also under construction at Brodosplit. It had originally been announced for the 2020/21 Antarctica season but instead is going to start sailing in the northern spring 2021 in the Arctic.

The 199-passenger Ultramarine will be managed by V.Ships Leisure, one of the world’s leading ship management companies, with decades of experience.

Quark President Andrew White touted Ultramarine as an “unrivaled base for polar adventure” with its a pair of twin-engine helicopters, 20 quick-launching Zodiacs and a robust portfolio of off-ship adventures such as heli-hiking, heli-skiing, flightseeing, alpine kayaking and an ice sheet experience.

Quark's small ship Ultramarine in Antarctica

Quark Expeditions’ Ultramarine is scheduled to debut in the Arctic in spring 2021. * Rendering: Quark Expeditions

Bye-bye, Bremen. Hello, Seaventure

Hapag-Lloyd Cruises has decided not to return its oldest vessel, Bremen, to service this year following the COVID-19 suspension of operations.

The German company said it won’t be able to implement strict social distancing rules and new hygiene measures aboard the 164-passenger ship, which has been in service since 1993. Bremen had been scheduled to leave Hapag-Lloyd in 2021, when new build Hanseatic Spirit arrives.

As announced last year, Bremen was sold to Switzerland’s family-owned river-cruise operator Scylla AG to sail as Seaventure for its new VIVA Cruises brand as Scylla branches into ocean cruising.

The ship will be marketed internationally. Its maiden voyage is planned to embark May 15 in Amsterdam, sailing to Warnemünde, Germany. After that, Seaventure will explore the Baltic Sea, then Iceland and Spitsbergen, Iceland and Greenland, Iceland and Canada, and South America.

Scylla is now considering taking Bremen early, but nothing has been decided.

Hapag-Lloyd's small ship Bremen

Hapag-Lloyd Cruises decided not to bring Bremen back into service. * Photo: Hapag-Lloyd Cruises

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Polar Expedition Cruise

Polar Expedition Cruise Expert Steve Wellmeier

Quirky’s Ted Scull has an e-chat with with polar expedition cruise expert Steve Wellmeier, managing director for Poseidon Expeditions USA.

Polar Expedition Cruise

Steve Wellmeier and friends. Photo: Poseidon Expeditions

QuirkyCruise.com: Where were you born and how big was your family?

Steve W:  I was the fifth of six children in a Catholic family in Dayton, OH; strong German heritage and work ethic, as most of my grandparents migrated down in the late 19th century from farm country in central Ohio. In those days, all Catholic families were big!

We all had chores and responsibilities from an early age, helping out around the house, expected to share just about everything, encouraged to get summer jobs, and to learn the value of work and money.

QuirkyCruise.com: That’s pretty far from the sea, so when did you see your first ship, and any reaction?

Steve W:  It was a similar size paddle wheeler to the Delta Queen in Cincinnati that was used for daily and evening excursions, dinner parties, celebrations, etc. Can’t remember the name, but I do remember that the front deck near the waterline was the site of my first kiss ever with a girl, so it was memorable. The romance of the water!

QuirkyCruise.com: What was your educational background and how did it lead to you to a first job?

Steve W:  I loved reading — my siblings and I almost did it competitively (“how many books did you read this week?”) — so I’m not surprised I graduated from Saint Louis University with an undergraduate degree in English Literature. I liked it enough to apply to grad school, and was lucky enough to get a scholarship at the University of Cincinnati, where I was also a teaching assistant for a year. So, critical reading, the ability to synthesize and summarize, and writing were strengths that I was able to take into the job market.

For the first five years after grad school, I was a junior communications assistant and then manager with a publicly traded, diversified industrial corporation in St. Louis. The big thing that I came away from there with was an ability and interest in tackling just about any writing job that presented itself, and there was always something: annual report to shareholders, speeches for financial analysts, advertising copy, press releases, employee newsletters, brochure and direct mail copy for four different company divisions.

That ability to write in different voices to different audiences served me well, and still does.

QuirkyCruise.com: How did working for your first cruise line come about?

Steve W: In 1983, I was caught up in some layoffs resulting from a merger with a larger industrial company, but managed to walk away with a few months of severance pay.  A graphic designer I worked with told me there was a new start-up cruise operation, and that it was looking for a PR person. “Cruise operator in St. Louis?,” I asked. Sure enough, it was Clipper Cruise Line (CCL), which was being financed by Barney Ebsworth, the owner of the well-known and successful affinity tour operator, INTRAV.

Polar Expedition Cruise

Nantucket Clipper. * Photo: Ted Scull

He admired the business model created by Luther Blount, who along with Lars-Eric Lindblad, can probably be considered the two “fathers” of small ship cruising. Clipper’s shallow-draft vessels were designed to cruise the scenic Intracoastal Waterway, Chesapeake Bay, waters of New England and, in the winter months, the Virgin Islands.

I was the sixth employee hired, and was immediately in the thick of it not only with public relations, but advertising, direct mail — virtually anything that needed to be written.

Polar Expedition Cruise

Luther Blount’s NEW SHORHAM II. * Photo: Ted Scull

My success with Clipper came to some degree with my familiarity with direct mail in an earlier job, where we used SIC (Standard Industrial Classification) codes to target potential buyers of steel pipe and tubing. I used the same principles, but using travel magazine subscriber lists and other direct mail lists from SRDS that were widely available at the time, some of which included demographic and psychographic information about those on the lists.

While all this is child’s play in today’s digital marketing world, it was pretty cutting-edge stuff at the time. INTRAV had always done direct mail to affinity organizations like university alumni associations, but I was able to convince Paul Duynhouwer, my boss at the time, to take it in a different direction — direct mail to consumer lists; i.e. individual households with no affinity connection except that they had similar lifestyle interests, demographics, educational levels and so forth. I don’t believe anyone else in the cruise industry was doing this at the time.

QuirkyCruise.com: What did you like about working for a cruise line and especially for CCL?

Steve W:  The cruise industry was going through a big transformation in the mid-1980s. The traditional lines like Royal Viking, Cunard, Chandris, Sitmar, Sun Line and others were either going out of business or merging into conglomerates, and the rise of the mass-market operators like Carnival and RCCL was well underway.

Clipper was definitely a boutique operator in a niche segment of the industry, and I always liked “playing on the edges” of the industry as well as appreciating the diminutive size of Clipper and other operators of that ilk. We focused on our differences from the big boys, working hard to appeal to educated travelers more interested in the destination than the cruise ship as a floating entertainment palace.

Barney Ebsworth also had high standards, and the Clipper vessels were the finest small ships in the business, well, until Sea Goddess came along! But they didn’t last long, did they? Another thing I liked about Clipper was that we all built it from the ground up; we managed the operational side of the ships ourselves — catering, hotel, technical, engineering, bridge team, etc. Quite amazing when I think back on it.

We realized that one of the big draws was the young American crew — mostly college-age kids — with whom the guests really bonded. And the relaxed, unpretentious aspect of this type of cruising.

Polar Expedition Ship

New Shoreham II, Nantucket Clipper and Newport Clipper docked along the Intracoastal Waterway. * Photo: Ted Scull

QuirkyCruise.com: This is where I first encountered you when I came asking for a press trip, and what do you remember about that?

Steve W:  Initially, we worked with a PR firm from Miami, but that didn’t last long as its experience was with larger, mass-market operators like Carnival, and they didn’t really grasp the Clipper small ship concept. So, I took over and started dealing directly with the press inquiries.

That’s when you and I met, I believe, on the phone. Unlike most travel writers, the first words out of your mouth were not “Do you offer press trips?” Instead, you asked a lot of questions and I got the impression very quickly that you knew what you were talking about and were very interested in off-beat and different type of cruise experiences. You “got it.”

Somehow, our relationship evolved to semi-regular Friday afternoon chats where you would call me and lead off with a tough question to which — as I’m told by you anyway — I would answer with a long sigh…

The trouble with you is that I always had to actually think about the answer I was giving you, because you knew your business! But we didn’t actually meet in person until I left Clipper (the first time) in 1988 and moved to New York, your home base.

I honestly don’t remember exactly when you first traveled with Clipper or whether I was even involved in putting you aboard. But I’m sure you remember EXACTLY.

QuirkyCruise.com: How long did you stay at Clipper and what led you to move on?

Steve W:  Change of management of Clipper. Paul Duynhouwer, who was always my mentor in this business, left in 1987 to join Sven Lindblad as VP of marketing & sales at Special Expeditions in New York, precursor to Lindblad Expeditions. I left in 1988 to join TravLtips Cruise & Freighter Travel Association as director of marketing.

Polar Expedition Cruise

Lindblad’s Polaris first served as a Danish-Swedish ferry before being converted into an expedition ship. * Photo: Ted Scull

TravLtips was also in New York, but not on Fifth Avenue like Special Expeditions. I commuted out to Flushing, Queens every day on the LIRR. That was also an interesting 10 years, again “playing the edges” and marketing via segmented, targeted direct mail; not only freighter travel, but tall ships, barges, expedition ships and — in a big way — positioning cruises by the larger cruise operators.

In some ways, we were a remnant marketer, selling long cruises at a heavy discount to older travelers who had the discretionary income and time for such voyages.

QuirkyCruise.com: TravLtips concentrated on what types of cruises, ships and what did you like about that job.

Steve W:  Freighter travel was our specialty and our marketing “hook” to attract travelers into joining our “association” for $15 per year or $25 for two years. What a bargain! It wasn’t really an organization or association per se, but we would mail them a magazine every other month featuring articles written by fellow travelers about their freighter trips.

This first-hand point of view, providing details about freighter travel by the actual travelers gave TravLtips an “insider’s” reputation. The magazine was a gritty, two-color job with half-tone photographs provided by the travelers — Conde Nast Traveler it wasn’t! But people loved it.

We found that lots of our members — we generally had about 30,000 followers at the time — loved the idea of freighter travel, but it wasn’t quite right for many of them. So, we would book them on something else, like a positioning voyage at rates usually starting under $100 per day, the average freighter per diem back in the early ‘90s.

The fun with that job was turning around a direct mail promotional piece in a few hours, getting it in the mail and getting our share of the business before anyone else. We had our 30,000 followers all figured out in the database according to what they liked, who they had traveled with, could they go on short notice and so forth.

So, we could promise cruise operators that we could exactly target the segment that was right for them. It worked well enough that we could usually convince them to pay for the mailing. We weren’t greedy with the commission and would typically pass along some of it to the customer in the form of extra savings.

Again, this sort of segmented marketing is a given today with digital marketing tools, but these were early, exciting times with that sort of travel marketing in the cruise segment.

QuirkyCruise.com: Did you get to travel on any ships TravLtips booked such as Amazing Grace, Aranui or a windjammer and what did you think any about them?

Steve W:  Yes, although I should have taken advantage of more opportunities during those years. The Amazing Grace was the supply vessel that provisioned the Windjammer fleet of tall ships, departing from the Bahamas once a month and traveling two weeks down to Jamaica. Then two weeks back, meeting their sailing vessels along the way in both directions.

The Amazing Grace typically carried between 75-100 and it was a fantastic value. I was able to travel aboard her for 3-4 days and get a first-hand feel for the classically styled combination passenger and cargo ship. I also spent a week aboard one of Windjammer’s schooners.

Polar Expedition Cruise

Amazing Grace, a Caribbean supply ship for a windjammer fleet also carried cruise passengers. * Photo: Ted Scull

Perhaps the most memorable inspection trip while working at TravLtips was a week in the Canary Islands and Coast of Morocco aboard a ship called the Orient Express. It was a converted ferry vessel that was being marketed at the time by Bermuda Star Line.

The Canaries are not a big US destination during the winter months, although they’re popular with Europeans and definitely a place worth visiting. So, the ship was mostly filled with Germans, Spaniards and Scandinavians.

The night before disembarkation, the ship caught fire and we spent the rest of the night in our muster stations. The fire was contained to an upper deck restaurant area, but that didn’t do much to keep many of the guests from getting overly excited. I never felt like we were in danger.

Insofar as actually spending time on a freighter, that wasn’t so easy because the trips were so long and the ports relatively far between. But, we’d check them out when they came into the New York port area.

I was able to spend a few days aboard Ivaran Lines’ Americana between New Orleans and Houston and one of Blue Star Line’s 12-passenger freighters on a stretch between Halifax and Philadelphia.

Polar Expedition Cruise

The Norwegian container ship Americana carried up to 85 passengers between New York and the East Cost of South America. * Photo: Ted Scull

READ Part 2 here…. soon.

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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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Hebridean Princess is on the dream travel list

Places to Travel Next.

By the QuirkyCruise crew.

Many of us miss the ability to travel right now; to plan, book, dream, pine and take a trip with the ease that now seems unimaginable. For those of us who not only traveled for the love of exploring, but because we’re travel writers doing our jobs, it’s been especially trying to adjust to the new normal. We will travel again and are heartened to see travel bubbles emerging. The gradual return to small-ship cruising is on the horizon.

In the meantime, we can plan and dream and noodle on places to travel, and that’s exactly what Ted and I and our quirky contributors are doing.

Here are three places each of us is hankering to go to as soon as the coast is clear.

Ted Scull

I am based in New York City, and my hopes for travel are widely varied as they always have been.

1.  I have contracts, with Cunard, renewed on an annual basis, to serve as a lecturer twice a year aboard a Queen May 2 westbound crossing. Just being at sea for a week is pure joy, and with a purpose. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the recent April crossing was cancelled as has the next one scheduled for October. Prior to the transatlantics, my wife and I had planned to spend a week to 10 days either in the UK and/or on the Continent. I look forward to resuming these land and sea options in 2021.

Ted's Places to Travel

Ted before the Queen Mary 2 at Southampton.

2.  For a completely different experience, I would love a week aboard a small ship, and I mean a wee one, with from less than three-dozen passengers on down to 12, cruising Scotland’s Western or Northern Isles. It’s been my favorite inter-island cruising region since the 1970s. Happily — and Yikes! — there are so many new choices.

Ted's fave places to travel

St. Kilda, a bird sanctuary beyond the Outer Hebrides. * Photo: Ted Scull

RELATED:  Cruising Western Scotland, an Overview.  by Ted Scull 

3.  My most ambitious travel adventure would be an overland train journey from London to Shanghai, with a half-dozen stopovers such as Moscow and a couple of cities along the Trans-Siberian, thence to Ulan Bator (Mongolia), Beijing and finally Shanghai. I would allow a month, and we definitely want to share the trip with at least two or more people for company and security. Several friends have expressed interest. I made a similar-style adventure in 1976 traveling by train, ferry, smallish liner and bus from London via the Balkans, Turkey, Gulf States across India and finally by Toy Train up the narrow gauge to Darjeeling.

Ted's wish list include a London to Shanghai train journey


The end of the train journey: London St. Pancras to the Bund in Shanghai. * Photo: Ted Scull

QuirkyCruise.com co-founder Ted Scull is happiest near water, over water or better still on a conveyance moving through water. Over many decades, he has spent more than five years of his life on overnight vessels of all types — ocean liners, cruise ships, riverboats, night boats, coastal vessels, expedition ships, sailing ships and even a couple of freighters, while traveling to over 120 countries on seven continents. Read more here.

Heidi Sarna

I’m based in Singapore, so some of my “I-can’t-wait-to-go” places to travel are in the region, as regional travel will likely be more accessible for the near-term, as “travel bubbles” open between neighboring countries.

1.  I’ve been dreaming about doing the Upper Mekong in Laos and also the Chindwin River in northern Myanmar, both with Pandaw, one of my favorite small-ship lines. These itineraries are more off-beat and less traveled than Mekong river cruises in Cambodia/Vietnam as well as Irrawaddy river cruises, both of which I’ve done and loved. Ideally, I’d love to combine a Pandaw sailing with a guided Grasshopper Adventures cycling trip before or after.

A cruise on the Laos Pandaw is on Heidi's travel list

The 20-passenger Laos Pandaw. * Photo: Pandaw

2.  Definitely, a sailing cruise in Indonesia is top of my list, either around the Komodo Islands or further east in the stunning Raja Ampat region — both of these remote areas boast some of the best snorkeling and diving in the entire world, not to mention off-the-charts scenery. I’d love to do these trips with Star Clippers, Seatrek Sailing Adventures or Aqua Expeditions.

Komodo islands is a place to travel soon

Sparring Komodo dragons. * Photo: Aqua Expeditions

3.  I’m really eager to do a Douro River cruise with a few days in Porto before or after. I love wine and loved a short visit to Lisbon a few years ago, so looking forward to spending more time in Portugal soaking it all up.

Douro River Valley is on Heidi's wish list

A river cruise through the breathtaking Douro River Valley. * Photo: Ama Waterways

QuirkyCruise.com co-founder Heidi Sarna has explored 78 countries around the world by boat, road, plane, foot, bicycle and camel. She started her travel writing career covering the big ships for guidebooks and magazines, though over the years she realized it was the small ones that really floated her boat. And so QuirkyCruise.com was born.  Read more here.

Peter Knego

1.  My first hoped for choice would be to sail on one of CMV ASTORIA‘s final cruises from the UK to Norway in the fall. Such a special, historic ship. See more about the Astoria here in Peter’s photo essay in USA TODAY.

The historic Astoria is the place Peter Knego wants to travel

Peter in front of the historic CMV ASTORIA.

2.  Second on my list would be to get on a sailing of the 95-passenger MV SERENISSIMA, a former Norwegian coastal liner operated by Noble Caledonia. A perfect itinerary on her would be a round UK cruise.

The MV SERENISSIMA is one of the places Peter Knego wants to go

The MV SERENISSIMA is a former Norwegian coastal liner operated by Noble Caledonia. * Photo: Noble Caledonia

3.  Finally, I’m long overdue to do a Galapagos cruise, ideally one that would include an extension to Machu Picchu.

Blue-Footed Booby birds in the galapagos

The famed Blue-Footed Booby birds of the Galapagos. * Photo: Quasar Expeditions

Peter Knego is a cruise journalist, as well as a historian and collector of ocean liner fittings and art — see www.midshipcentury.com. He writes for top cruise and travel pubs, including USA Today, Travel Weekly and Ships Monthly, and has been interviewed and quoted as an expert in The New York Times, SeaTrade Insider and others. Follow Peter on instagram @Knego.

John Roberts

1.   I’m hankering for a Morocco and Canary Islands cruise with Star Clippers.

Climbing the masts on a Star Clippers Greek Isles Cruise

Climbing the masts! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

2.  Douro River cruise with Uniworld. I’ve never been on this river and have heard so many great things.

Uniworld Douro river cruise is on John's travel wish list

A suite aboard Uniworld’s Douro River boat, the São Gabriel. * Photo: Uniworld

3.  Belize and Guatemala with UnCruise. It’s a new itinerary with great activities on the water and on land that really appeals to active travelers like me!

Belize is one of the top places John wants to visit

John chilling on one of Belize’s cayes.

John Roberts is a freelance writer and operator of InTheLoopTravel.com. He writes about cruising and active travel. He’s been on more than 60 cruises in destinations all over the world, always keeping an eye out for how people can connect with the world and other cultures through rewarding travel experiences. Follow John @InTheLoopTravel on Twitter and Instagram.

Anne Kalosh

I’m not thinking about personal or professional travel yet — by ship, plane or even on the local metro. My thoughts are with how the tens of thousands of crew members still stuck on cruise ships due to port closures can get home safely to their families.

Anne Kalosh

This is an urgent focus for the cruise industry, and I hope governments will have a heart and facilitate passage for the seafarers caught up in this crisis.

I’m also keenly interested in how society and the cruise industry will harness their ingenuity and drive to come up with technological advances, operational changes and innovative solutions to overcome this pandemic.

Let’s hope lessons learned will make travel safer and society more humane. Then I’ll begin to dream again about my own trips.

Anne Kalosh has written about cruises for decades and her favorites involve small ships. She writes a cruise column for Afar.com, is the U.S. editor for Seatrade-Cruise.com and Seatrade Cruise Review, and has contributed to a bazillion pubs, including The Miami Herald, Cruise Travel, USA Today and Cruise Week.

Gene Sloan

1.  Moldova. After my wonderful Ukraine visit last year (on a Quirky Cruise! …. read about it here), I am intrigued by that corner of the world. I hear good things about Moldova.

ukraine

Gene’s visit to the Ukraine last year got him thinking about Moldova next.

2.  Liechtenstein. This is purely a country count play. I had a 48-hour dash to Liechtenstein using frequent flier miles on the books for February that I had to cancel when corona-virus blew up. I want to get it back on the schedule. No idea what I will do there. But that’s the point sometimes. Maybe I’ll extend my timeline a few days and make the trip about hiking. I hear they have mountains in Liechtenstein. From where I am, I can get to Zurich nonstop (from Newark) on United and then be in Liechtenstein by train in a couple hours.

Vaduz Castle in Liechtenstein

Vaduz Castle in Liechtenstein. * Photo: Principality of Liechtenstein Tourism Board

3.  The Jersey shore. Hey, no judgment. It’s an hour away, getting warmer by the day, and I can hunker down in a rental house where no one will infect me in between days at the beach.

Cape May is on the travel list

Cape May, on the New Jersey shore. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Gene Sloan has written about travel for nearly three decades, with a longtime focus on cruising. He spent more than 20 years as a travel writer and editor at USA TODAY, where he co-founded the paper’s travel section and later founded and ran its online cruise site. At last count, he’d sailed on nearly 150 ships. Follow Gene on Twitter at CruiseLog & Instagram!

Ben Lyons

1.  Transatlantic crossing on QM2. For the pandemic, I’ve been (fortunately) holed up in Montana the whole time. Montana is beautiful, but it is also landlocked.

I haven’t gone this long without seeing the ocean for probably 25 years.

So when cruising is back, top on my list is a transatlantic crossing on QM2 — a glorious week just staring at nothing but North Atlantic.

2.  Antarctica. Post COVID, I think we’ll see an interest in getting as far away from large cities and back into pristine nature. And when it comes to pristine nature, you can’t do much better  than Antarctica. I’ve been going to the White Continent every year since 2007; for many, the experience of visiting somewhere without cell phones is a  bit of a reset in life, even in normal times. Post COVID, I think it will be even more welcome.

Ben in Antarctica.

Ben in Antarctica.

3.  Hebridean Princess. Footloose walking cruise in Scotland. I believe when it comes to quirky cruises, the smaller the better. Hebridean Princess, a former Scottish island ferry turned luxury cruise ship, is about as small as they come with only 50 passengers.

Small groups are the way forward in a post COVID world.

And so a week spent cruising the Hebrides, while going ashore for long extended hikes across sparsely populated islands, seems a pretty ideal return to cruising trip.

Hebridean Princess is on the dream travel list

The 50-passenger Hebridean Princess is a great way to travel to the remote western isles of Scotland. * Photo: Ben Lyons

Ben Lyons has been obsessed with ships since he was five years old. Since then, he has spent almost every waking moment figuring out how to spend more time at sea, ultimately deciding on careers as a ship’s captain and travel writer. Follow Ben on Twitter @EYOS.

Lynn & Cele Seldon

1.  East Coast with Pearl. We were scheduled to travel up the East Coast from Charleston to Halifax with Pearl Seas in April, prior to the coronavirus crises. Although we have been to the majority of the ports of calls, we were anxious to try Pearl Seas as a line. And sailing along the East Coast is somewhat reminiscent of river cruising, with easy access to exciting cities without the hassles of larger vessels.

And, now, at least for the short term, there is the added appeal of sticking a little closer to home.

Seldon Ink share their top places to travel

Cele & Lynn Seldon of Seldon Ink.

2.  Iceland. We traveled to Iceland several years ago on a land-based trip, spending the majority of our time in Reykjavik and the surrounding area. And we always said we’d go back. However, this time, we’d like to do it by sea and experience a circumnavigation of Iceland to be able to explore all of the small towns and nooks and crannies of the island.

"Adventure Canada" Specials

Iceland. * Photo: Michelle Valberg for Adventure Canada

3.  Patagonia and the Chilean Fjords. What a perfect place to combine a land and sea exploration of the stunning scenery of such a different part of the world. Add on a few days in the wine regions of Chile and Argentina and you’ve got the makings of a bucket list trip for these intrepid adventurers (and wine drinkers!).

Seldon Ink is the travel journalist team of Lynn and Cele Seldon. Lynn brings their travels to life in words and pictures, while Cele, after a corporate marketing career, writes, edits, shoots, and handles marketing and research. In their 25-year career, they have taken 100+ cruises and have written for more than 200 publications, including Cruise Travel, CruiseCritic, and others. Follow them @Seldon Ink on Twitter & Instagram.

Judi Cohen

My first trip when the border opens between Canada and the USA will be to New York to hug my son and his new fiancé. They got engaged on April 19 in Central Park.

1.  Then, I would like to do a small-ship cruise on Pandaw in Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.

Judi on the Mekong

Judi on the Mekong River with Pandaw.

2.  Another small ship cruise with UnCruise in Panama, Costa Rica or Hawaii would be at the top of my list. I had to cancel a Costa Rica/Panama cruise on UnCruise for March 19, 2020, just as corona-virus was spreading internationally.

Alaska cruise writer Judi Cohen aboard UnCruise's Legacy

Judi Cohen at the bow of the 90-passenger Legacy. * Photo: Lawrence Cohen

3.  I’d also love to do another river cruise with Viking in Europe very soon.

New Viking Einar Impresses

Viking Einar. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Judi Cohen has travelled to more than 80 countries with her family, and as a tour leader. Writing about her off-the-beaten track journeys by train, helicopter, plane and small quirky cruise ships is her passion. Judi is also an inspirational storyteller, social media influencer and speaker. Visit TravelingJudi.com and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @TravelingJudi.

Robin McKelvie

1.Home. In a slightly bigger sense. We’ve been restricted in Scotland to driving within five miles of our homes. I’m desperate to get out further and from July 15 we can. I’m celebrating by heading out on a cruise with Red Moon so look out for the write-up on QuirkyCruise.com!

Caledonian cruise is one of Robin's places to go

Bagpiper plays a tune for Robin’s cruise on Scotland’s Caledonian Canal.

2.  Slovenia. Meant to be updating my Bradt guide to Slovenia this summer, but that’s not happening. Was looking forward to heading back to a wee gem I consider Europe in miniature. Epic mountains, balmy coast, postcard pretty cities, welcoming people and Michelin just issued their first restaurant stars for Slovenia. Brilliant, world class food and wine.

Ljubljana, Slovenia is on Robin McKelvie list of places to travel

The rooftops of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

3.  Canal du Midi. Was booked to cruise along France’s famous waterway with European Waterways in a wash of fine wine, outdoor hot tubs and sheer luxury in May. Desperate to get back after seeing what they could do in Scotland with their Spirit of Scotland — you can read about that superb cruise on QuirkyCruise.com.

Hot tubbing with European Waterways for Robin

Robin loved the European Waterways hot tub on his Scottish cruise and is looking forward to more of the same in France.

Robin McKelvie is a Scottish based travel writer and broadcaster specialising in cruises, especially small ships. A native Scot, he’s the author of National Geographic Scotland and has been published across five continents in magazines and newspapers including CNN Traveller, The Daily Telegraph, Times, The Australian and The Straits Times. On Twitter @robinmckelvie and @scotcruises, Instagram @travelwriterinakilt and @scotcruises.

Elysa Leonard

1.  Bonaire. I have joined the board of directors for a charity called Aquarium Divers for Coral, but had to postpone a trip to the lovely island of Bonaire for a week of diving and learning how to restore coral reefs. I can’t wait to tell that story! Bonaire is definitely one of the places to travel for me.

Scuba Diving in St Lucia

I’ll be back. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

2.  Bermuda. Once my island home, my family and I will be headed there as soon as the coast is clear, to see friends and enjoy every nook and cranny of this amazing tiny country.

Bermuda's Horseshoe Bay is Elysa's next travel place

Horseshoe Bay on Bermuda’s South Shore. * Photo: Bermuda Tourism Authority

3.  A quirky cruise anywhere in the Caribbean where the diving and snorkeling are plentiful, with Island Windjammers or Star Clippers!

Quirky Island Windjammers Theme Cruises

The Vela under full sail. * Photo: Island Windjammers

Elysa Leonard is a scuba diver who sure knows her tropical fish — she can identify more than 100 kinds. Writing about diving and snorkeling while on a small-ship cruise is her new nirvana. When she isn’t underwater, Elysa is CEO of Splash Communications, a global marketing and public relations firm.

Chrissy Colon

1.   My partner Peter and I would love to do a Greek islands cruise on a small ship with outdoor dining, perhaps couples only. Walking the islands and exploring ruins are all safe outdoor activities.

The Greek Isles is on the travel places list

A Greek Isles cruise with Star Clippers. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

2.  We would do another driving tour of English estates, staying at small B&B’s often owned by the family members who inherited these expensive properties. When we’ve done them in the past, we rarely encountered other people, as the tours were often small and some even by appointment only. Audio guides with timed admission would allow for safe distancing between visitors.

3.  Also, we’d plan an overnight driving trip to a stately old private estate in the northeast of the US, with botanical gardens and formal landscapes. We will look for B&B’s that are a stand-alone cottage or secluded motels. We prefer to wait a while before we jump on a plane even after flights are allowed.

Travel places include the estates in Stockbridge MA

A moon gate on the grounds of the Naumkeag estate in Stockbridge MA. * Photo: Peter Barnes

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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

quirkycruise bird

 

 

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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. 

QuirkyCruise Review

 

 

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

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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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Whale Watching Tips

Whale Watching Tips

By Raphael Fennimore of Gotham Whale.

This article aims to provide a basic introduction to whales for small-ship cruisers visiting some of the world’s top spots for whale watching. The article describes some common types of whales and where you’ll likely see them.

What is a Whale & Where are They Found?

Whales are a truly amazing group of large marine mammals classified into the biological Order of Cetacea, a group that also includes dolphins and porpoises.

With approximately 90 unique species, cetaceans are found throughout the world’s oceans — from the warm tropical seas, to the icy poles, coastal areas and the very centers of every ocean basin.

Some of the popular small-ship cruising regions for whale watching include New England, St. Lawrence Seaway, Sea of Cortez, southeast Alaska, western Scotland, southwestern Greenland, Antarctica, South Africa, New Zealand’s South Island, eastern Australia and the Hawaiian Islands.

RELATED: A Lindblad Expeditions cruise in the Sea of Cortez.  by Peter Knego.

Whale Watching Tips

Breaching humpback in the waters off New York City. * Photo: Celia Ackerman

RELATED: Whale populations in New York harbor are booming—here’s why.  by Simon Worrall.

Minke Whale Watching Tips

A Minke whale in Antarctica.

Due to the very large number of cetacean species and their truly global distribution, this brief whale watching tips article will focus on only the most common cetaceans which small-ship cruisers are likely to encounter on their expeditions.

Whale Watching Tips: Two Categories of Whales

Whales can be divided into two categories — toothed whales and baleen whales.

Toothed Whales:
  1. Have teeth
  2. Hunt relatively large, singular prey

Examples of toothed whales include the sperm whale, known to hunt giant squid, and the orca (“killer whale”), known to hunt seals, sharks, and even other whales.

Other toothed whales include pilot whales, the beluga whale, the narwhal (with its famous spiraling “horn,” which is actually a tooth), and all of the dolphins, porpoises, and the little-known “beaked whales.”

orca Whale Watching Tips

An orca whale.

Baleen Whales:
  1. Do not have teeth
  2. Use rows of “baleen,” which look like the bristles of a brush, in their mouths to filter large amounts of seawater for numerous small prey, such as small fish or krill (a type of tiny shrimp)
Baleen whales

Baleen. * Photo: Celia Ackerman.

Examples of baleen whales include the humpback whale, blue whale, fin whale, right whales, minke whales and others.

Fin Whale Tips

Fin whales feeding.

Whale Watching Tips: Identifying the Common Types

If you think you see a whale while on a cruise, keep an eye on it. Alert a member of the crew so the captain can slow down or perhaps stop the vessel and an onboard naturalist can help you identify the species and characteristics.

Like us humans, whales are mammals, and so they breathe air directly from the atmosphere using their lungs (unlike fish, which use gills to filter air molecules out of the water, with the exception of the lungfish).

This means that whales must be at the surface to breathe, and when they exhale, you can often see, hear, or possibly even smell their cloud-like “spout” that quickly rises vertically up into the air.

This spout, or “blow,” is often the first thing observed when looking for whales. Whalers famously used to cry out ‘thar she blows!’ when they sighted this familiar rising cloud, which also resembles a puff of smoke.

Whale Watching Tips

The blow.

Spouting Humpbacks whales

Spouting humpbacks.

In fact, it is sometimes possible to identify a whale’s species based only on seeing a spout. For example, blue whales have very tall spouts (over 30 feet!), right whales have V-shaped spouts, and sperm whales have spouts that are aimed forward and to the left.

Whale spout comparison chart

Whale spout comparison. * Credit: www.north-atlantic-society.com

If you get close enough to see the whale’s body, then there are several features that you can look for to try to identify the type of whale that you are observing. Note the whale’s approximate size; its color and coloration pattern; the size, shape, and number of its fins; and the place, date, and time where you saw the whale. For more precise identification later, take photos or video of the whales you spot.

Consider sharing your data with “citizen science” organizations highlighted at the end of the article, including Gotham Whale and Happywhale.

To help in your whale identification, below are basic descriptions of some of the most common whales, including details about their size, defining characteristics, and areas in which they can be found.

Blue Whale

Blue whale

A blue whale. * Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Size: Up to 100 feet, over 200 tons
Description: Very long and slender body; small dorsal fin; blue or blue-gray mottled skin coloration; underside can appear yellow
Distribution & Habitat: Global, but not as frequently found in the tropics; solitary; prefers deep waters
Behaviors: Swimming at surface; filter feeding; rare other surface activities

 

Fin Whale

Fin whale tips.

Fin whale.

Size: Up to 85 feet, over 80 tons
Description: Very long and slender body; dorsal fin present; gray and black coloration; underside white; light-gray chevrons often behind the head; bottom jaw is white on the right and dark on the left
Distribution & Habitat: Global but not as frequently found in the tropics; prefers deep waters
Behaviors: Fast swimming at surface; filter feeding; rare other surface activities

 

Humpback Whale

Whale watching tips

Humpback flukes.

Size: Up to 60 feet, 40 tons
Description: Predominantly black with varying levels of white on underside, on pectoral fins, and on underside of tail; bumps on head; dorsal fin present; individuals have unique dorsal fin shapes, patterns on the underside of their tails, and shapes of their tails (try to photo!)
Distribution & Habitat: Global; highly migratory; distinct populations; generally give birth in warm regions and migrate to colder regions for feeding
Behaviors: Jumping out of the water (‘breaching’); flipper slapping; tail slapping; interesting feeding behaviors such as bubble net feeding

 

Orca (“Killer Whale”)

Killer whales

A pair of killer whales.

Size: Up to 32 feet, 6 tons
Description: Black with white undersides; white eye patches; gray or white ‘saddle patch’ behind dorsal fin; individual orcas have unique dorsal fin shapes and saddle patches
Distribution & Habitat: Global but less frequently in tropics; distinct ecotypes and populations; hunt in social pods; can be coastal or offshore
Behaviors: Jumping out of the water (‘breaching’); sticking their head out of the water (‘spy-hopping’); tail slapping; many interesting group feeding and hunting behaviors

 

Sperm Whale

sperm whale watching

Sperm whale. * Photo: Humberto Braojos

Size: Up to 65 feet, 60 tons
Description: Dark gray body; large rectangular head (1/3 of their body length); thin lower jaw full of large teeth; dorsal fin present; crenulations (bumps) in a line down the back behind the dorsal fin
Distribution & Habitat: Global; prefer deep water for hunting
Behaviors: Swimming; rare other surface activities (breaching, tail slapping)

 

Dolphins

Dolphin Whale Watching Tips

A Dolphin.

Size: More than 40 species, great variation; 4 – 13 feet, 85 – 1100 pounds
Description: Much variation. Can be solidly colored light to dark gray, pink, black and white, or can be a mixture of these colors in vibrant, streaking patterns. Some have distinctive spots, stripes, or scratches/scars.
Distribution & Habitat: Global, found in shallow waters and far offshore. Typically social and found in groups of a few to over a thousand
Behaviors: Swimming; hunting; jumping out of the water (breaching); and more

 

Learning More: How Can I Help Whales?

To learn more about the whales and dolphins travelers are likely to encounter on a small-ship cruise, here are some great resources and very worthy organizations that rely on public donations to operate, including:

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Mission: “NOAA is an agency that enriches life through science. Our reach goes from the surface of the sun to the depths of the ocean floor as we work to keep the public informed of the changing environment around them.

From daily weather forecasts, severe storm warnings, and climate monitoring to fisheries management, coastal restoration and supporting marine commerce, NOAA’s products and services support economic vitality and affect more than one-third of America’s gross domestic product…”

NOAA whale organizationWhale SENSE

Mission: “Whale SENSE is a voluntary education and recognition program offered to commercial whale watching companies in the U.S. Atlantic and Alaska Regions. The program is sponsored by NOAA Fisheries and Whale and Dolphin Conservation. Developed in collaboration with the whale watching industry, Whale SENSE recognizes whale watching companies committed to responsible practices…”

Whale Watching Tips
Gotham Whale

Mission: “To study, advocate for, and educate about the whales and marine mammals of New York City, through Citizen Science…Citizen Science is a movement to include average citizens in scientific research allowing them to make systematic observations, to collect and process data, and provide general support for scientific study. The Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, running since 1900, is an excellent example. Gotham Whale will emulate that model with the vast citizen pool that is New York City.

The whale watching activities of the American Princess and other boatmen provide a platform to collect data and make observations. The many eyes of the pubic make sightings more probable. Gotham Whale will serve as a depository for that data…”

Here’s info on whale-watching day cruises in the New York area aboard the 250-passenger American Princess

Gotham Whale

RELATED: Humpback whales feast in NYC.  by Dr. Merryl Kafka, Director of Education and Naturalist for Gotham Whale 

Happywhale

Mission: “Happywhale inspires kinship between humans and marine life through whale citizen science.

Happywhale tracks individual whales throughout our world’s oceans. We believe that whale watching guides, naturalists and passengers are vital to our understanding of whales. Scientists can only be in one place at one time; by harnessing the power of millions of whale watching enthusiasts, we can expand our scientific knowledge exponentially.

Our platform empowers whale watchers to photograph whales and tell their stories…”

whale watching groups

The Society for Marine Mammalogy (SMM)

Mission: “To promote the global advancement of marine mammal science and contribute to its relevance and impact in education, conservation and management…”

Whale watching groups

More about Raphael Fennimore

Raphael recently joined Gotham Whale after helping run the world’s oldest whale/dolphin/porpoise conservation group, The Society for Marine Mammalogy. He also worked in the UK in 2019 on the World Cetacean Alliance’s “Global Best Practice Guidance for Responsible Whale and and Dolphin Watching.” The detailed paper is geared to whale- and dolphin-watching boat operators and guides, but may also be of interest to any whale and dolphin enthusiasts.

Raphael is an IAATO-certified Antarctic Peninsula field guide and most recently helped lead an 80-guest “Whales in Antarctica” expedition in Feb/March (2019) with Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris.

“I am a very passionate believer in the small cruise experience!!” —Raphael Fennimore

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Responsible Travel Trends

Responsible Travel Trends

By Anne Kalosh.

Promising news in this era of coronavirus fears: Lindblad Expeditions is implementing “Premium Purity,” a system that fosters a cleaner, healthier ship while drastically reducing environmental impact.

Responsible Travel Trends

Lindblad said it’s committed to defining travel industry standards for sustainability and environmentally responsible operations. Here a ship in Antarctica. * Photo: Michael S Nolan for Lindblad Expeditions

Photocatalytic Process

ACT CleanCoat is a photocatalytic process — that is, it’s activated by light. This antibacterial spray breaks down bacteria, viruses, mold and airborne allergens. It can be applied to all surfaces to make them self-disinfecting.

A transparent and odorless spray, it protects a room like an invisible insulation while purifying and deodorizing the air for up to one year.

ACT.Global A/S, a Copenhagen-based company specialized in sustainable disinfection, said its ACT CleanCoat has been validated as effective against bacteria and viruses such as coronavirus, hepatitis, salmonella and E. coli.

Surfaces still need daily cleaning to remove dust and grease.

Here’s a video that explains more.

Chemical-free & Harmless

So the other component of Premium Purity is the ACT ECA water system. ECA stands for “electro-chemically activated.” This is a process in which salt molecules are split to create hypochlorous acid and sodium hydroxide, also known as lye and caustic soda.

In short, ACT.Global explained, the system turns water and salt into a liquid cleaning agent by destabilizing and elevating the electrical charge of the water. This has been proven an effective disinfectant.

Chemical-free and completely harmless to passengers, crew and the environment, the ACT ECA water can be used to clean rooms instead of toxic chemicals. Gloves, masks and other protective gear aren’t needed, and the water doesn’t need to be rinsed off.

“As the oldest and most experienced expedition travel company in the world, we go to some of the most pristine places on the planet. We are very conscious of the waste we produce, and how the cleanliness of our ship and protection of our guests on board is vital to a healthy environment,” said Bruce Tschampel, vice president of hotel operations for Lindblad Expeditions.

“Premium Purity is unlike anything we have seen out there,” he continued. “Our ships are truly pristine and healthy, and we already have measurable results to prove it from our initial pilot program on one ship.”

RELATED: Lindblad Elminates Single-Use Plastic Fleetwide.

Guest-reported Illness Down 50 Percent

Following a yearlong trial aboard National Geographic Explorer, the system is going fleet-wide. Tschampel said guest-reported illness has declined by 50 percent, more than 1,000 plastic bottles of cleaning products were eliminated, and water usage was dramatically reduced by 1.1 million gallons per year.

National Geographic Explorer

National Geographic Explorer. * Photo: Lindblad Expeditions

“The crew is raving about how much healthier the ship is and how effective it is to use this solution,” he added.

The fleet-wide rollout is another step in what Lindblad called its commitment to defining travel industry standards for sustainability and environmentally responsible operations.

Other Sustainability Initiatives

In 2019, the line went carbon neutral, offsetting 100 percent of emissions from its ships, all land-based operations, employee travel, offices in New York and Seattle and other contributors. Guest-facing, single-use plastics were eliminated fleet-wide in 2018. And Lindblad has operated a sustainable seafood program for many years.

Other initiatives include building ships that increase efficiency to reduce emissions, mandating supply chain solutions to eliminate plastic, sourcing and serving local, organic produce and making crew uniforms from recycled plastic.

Lindblad logo

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ted at sea

International Cruising

By Ted Scull.

Years ago before I settled down to gainful employment, I planned a seven-month west-about trip around the world using eight scheduled passenger vessels that flew the flags of a half-dozen countries. Passenger counts ranged from 25 to several hundred, plus most ships carried general cargo. The one exception was the transatlantic liner SS France that counted 2,000 aboard, plus mail but no cargo.

international cruising

One Yank amidst a score of Tanganyikans * Photo: Dr. Ursula M. Hay

The itinerary starting in the US, continued to Japan with stopovers in Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, India, the Seychelles, East and South Africa, England and a return by sea to New York. Some sea voyages were linked by train such as Bangkok to Singapore and Madras (now Chennai) to Bombay (now Mumbai).

During this January-to-July adventure, with the sea portions totaling 70 days, I encountered Americans (Yanks) on only two of the eight ships, one single soul on the French ship SS Laos from Hong Kong to Bangkok, and then as expected, many hundreds aboard the SS France from England to New York.

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Chinese & Japanese

Was that a problem? Not at all, or nearly so, aboard the SS Oriental Pearl on a 10-day passage from Yokohama to Hong Kong. Passengers were Chinese or Japanese and at the first meal, I knew which place was mine as it was the only one set with a fork and knife. I had never used chopsticks but I asked to have the cutlery replaced. Big mistake.

Dressed for arrival, Hong Kong, British Crown Colony. * Photo by the chief steward

While the other passengers pretended not to stare, they couldn’t help themselves. I ended the meal still hungry with food still on my plate. Happily, the Hong Kong Chinese chief steward, who spoke excellent English, rescued me by suggesting I stay back and share dinner and a chopstick lesson with him.

We both had a passion for Scrabble, and with British and American English words and spellings permitted, we played daily when at sea, quick to cover the words with our hands when the ship took to rolling. He won most of the time.

international cruising

Johnny, the Chinese bartender became my companion ashore. * Photo: Ted Scull

The only other person aboard who cared to speak English was the bartender, a young Chinese my age who had worked for the U.S. Army in the Philippines. His exceedingly thick accent took time getting used to, but we spent fun times ashore together in Japanese and Taiwanese ports.

I ate foods that I had never seen before, but mother said try everything once, so I did and much enjoyed the adventure.

Happily, nothing I ate disagreed with me.

Indians (South Asians) 

On an Indian ship crossing the Bay of Bengal (8 days), almost all passengers were South Indians and the Europeans numbered 12, all overlanders my age who were making the well-traveled trek by surface (bus, ship and train) from Australia to Europe. As one was not permitted to cross Burma (Myanmar) by land, they had go by ship if staying with surface travel, including hitchhiking.

international cruising

TSS STATE OF MADRAS, owned by the Shipping Corporation of India operated between Singapore, Malaysian ports and South India (Madras).

All spoke English as did many of the Indians, and we played Scrabble with some of the officers when they were off-duty.

international cruising

The overlanders bound from Australia to Europe gather on the promenade deck. * Photo: Ted Scull

My cabin mate turned out to be a delightful Indian bookstore owner living in Singapore, and we had nighttime conversations before drifting off to sleep.

I could have flown but money and the absence of any cultural experience easily nixed that. These first two ships were complex (to me) foreign floating countries. All in all, a great experience.

One Remote Island Chain

The stopover in the Seychelles, before airport access, required a minimum of two weeks until the next ship appeared, and I learned a lot about how this ever-so-isolated British colonial dependency operated.

international cruising

On the launch between the Long Pier, Mahe, Seychelles and an Indian ship at anchor bound for Mombasa.

The island chain was beautiful but with the only regular news access to the outside world, BBC Radio broadcasts, everything and everyone turned inward and life became a hierarchical interracial playground with the same participants day in and day out. The lucky ones amongst the Europeans had short-term contracts, yet long-term island living seemed suited to some.

Emigrating

The remaining ships were also rich cultural experiences because of those who were traveling mostly for reasons other than pleasure. Colonialism was rapidly receding, and many had left their jobs and home in East Africa and were heading for somewhere to settle.

international cruising

On board a train to Mombasa to meet the ship for South Africa

Where they planned to go to begin a completely new life varied widely, but as most were English-speaking, the favored choices were Britain, South Africa, Rhodesia, Australia or New Zealand. Some had connections in the arrival country and others none at all, but they had to give somewhere a chance. It was uncertain times for many especially if they had young children.

international cruising

Left, one of three cabin mates and social hostess aboard the RMS Windsor Castle from South Africa to England. * Photo: Ship’s Photographer

South Africans Scatter

On the leg from South Africa to England, there were lots of passengers my age who wanted to experience another country, the way I did when I chose to spend a year’s study program in Paris and another acquiring a master’s degree in London. New worlds opened up living on my own in modest digs, and in the first instance, having to cope with another language.

It took time but I thrived with the challenge, and the years abroad encouraged me to keep traveling when time and money permitted and to develop into a quasi citizen of the world.

Crossing the Line Ceremony

During the 18-day passage, I had a lot of great conversations amongst my age group. And as it turned out, being the only Yank aboard, the chief steward thought me an ideal choice to take part in the “Crossing the Line (Equator) Ceremony.” I had no idea what I was in store for but he indicated it would be fun and to be prepared for some roughhousing.

international cruising

Ted being dragged by Bobbies during the Crossing the Line Ceremony.  * Photo: Ship’s Photographer

The four chosen were subjected to being plastered with all sorts of goo during a mock botched surgical operation, reprimanded for imaginary misdoings, seated in a barber’s chair and messed up some more, then catapulted backwards into the swimming pool to be attacked by London Bobbies.

All this was performed before several hundred cheering passengers. One thing I learned from a few sympathetic souls was you only have to partake once, then you are no longer a neophyte. Good to know, and that became handy when I was offered two more “invitations.”

international cruising

Ted and two Rhodesians arriving Southampton, England

What Now?

So what is all this leading to?

Well, when I go abroad now, I want to be truly in the country I am visiting whenever possible, and sometimes that works just fine and other times it can be very limiting when I don’t even know a smattering of the local language. I do okay with French, know railroad German (can get about by train), and understand a bit of Spanish because it is widely spoken where I live. I can at least pronounce the Cyrillic words and that then might reveal the meaning such as recognizing the correct metro stop in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

Today, with so many people speaking at least some English, you can often have successful conversations that broaden one’s knowledge of the “neighborhood.”

international cruising

Aboard a Norwegian train, many will speak English. Strike up a conversation. * Photo: Ted Scull

Making Choices

With QuirkyCruise hoping to help travelers find a small ship or riverboat to their liking, one needs to decide how deeply to venture into foreign territory. That means choosing a ship with an itinerary you like; one that may be populated with many foreigners. To broaden the situation beyond a Yank and foreigners, let’s also be inclusive with just the reverse.

Germans Visit the Upper Midwest

Let’s say you are a German who speaks some English and wants to go on an Upper Mississippi River cruise because the largest European nationality that populated parts of the Midwest were Germans. If you have done your homework, you will know that few of the descendants speak German today, because much of that settlement happened in the 19th century. Your facility with English will have to do, and you will be most likely sailing with mostly Americans traveling in their own country.

international cruising

Start a conversation, “What do you think that barge is carrying?” * Photo: Ted Scull

Your quest, if you work at it, will unearth some German heritage but you need to be ready for it to be an American atmosphere on board and likely many, after the initial polite exchange, will not want to bother to develop an ongoing conversation unless your English is pretty fluent. Keep at it, as some will respond, and if you are open minded, you can have a more in-depth experience, with minor hiccups, than if you traveled with an all-German tour group.

Countries Full of English Speakers

Europeans from countries with relatively small populations such as the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland, tend to speak English and many with fluency, and it may only be some of the older generations that don’t.

international cruising

Helsinki: Who speaks Finnish other than a Finn? So they learn English and maybe Swedish from the country next door. * Photo: Ted Scull

For Americans, Canadians, Brits, Irish, Australians, New Zealanders, and many Indians, that opens wide access to these countries, so when you want directions on a street in Sweden, find the right tram in Amsterdam, deal with the post office in India or order a meal in Finland, language will likely not be a barrier, though the name of the local fish may not translate at all.

After feeling comfortable that you are not alone with foreigners who don’t speak your language, you can relax and begin to chat with the locals to get a better understanding of their country. You may have to initiate the conversation, so get used to it.

international cruising

You might start with, “What ship is that?” Answer: Aurora – fired the first shot that signaled the start of the Russian Revolution. *Photo: Ted Scull

Returning to Your Roots

In the English-speaking world, Irish, Australians and New Zealanders, in particular, may have very recent connections to the country of their ancestors, so if they are genuinely interested in their homeland culture, they might think of researching a small ship or riverboat line that does not cater heavily to their nationality.

Small-ship travel can be a shared international experience and with most vessels having open seating, you may pick with whom you want to sit – your nationality or other English speakers. Then when you go ashore in your country of ancestry you are more likely to get more out of the visit than if you only palled around with your country folk aboard and ashore. You will have some experiences that are uniquely all your own.

Some Travelers Never Leave Home

One of my least successful riverboat experiences was sitting at a table (fixed seating) with just Americans, who never discussed what they had seen along the Moselle River or looked ahead to the next stop. It was all minutiae about home. I was traveling alone then and I was trapped. Eventually, someone acknowledged that I did not seem to be having a good time. How right they were, and happily I never faced that crushing confinement again.

A close second took place on a 14-day German riverboat sailing from Amsterdam, then across Germany and up the Elbe to Prague. The itinerary was outstanding but as a policy of fixed seating was in effect for all meals, my wife and I ended up having 42 meals with the same six people. Happily, one couple was a delight but…

international cruising

Happily, most riverboats have open seating and occasional buffet meals as here on the Moselle. * Photo: Ted Scull

Luckily, most riverboats offer open seating, and so you can go with your instincts when you are choosing table mates.

My wife and I often stand briefly at the entrance before agreeing on the target table.

Usually, we have made good choices.

Take Some Initiative Going Ashore

Going ashore is often a group experience, and your cruise may include all the excursions, so it makes monetary sense to join in. Then when you have free time, often before or after dinner, as the boat may be tied up for the night, go ashore again on your own or with your traveling companions and explore a neighborhood a bit away from the ship or sit at a café and take in the passing scene.

international cruising

See that black hole on the right, let’s go exploring after dinner. * Photo: Ted Scull

Travel to foreign parts can be as rewarding as you make it, and it requires some research to find the combination that delivers the experience you want. For some, it is staying with the foods you like at home, socializing with people just like you and being carefully shepherded so as not to get lost or confused by people who don’t speak like you.

At the other end, open up a bit and test the local food, look forward to meeting others from another country on the ship and ashore.

Don’t be too timid to break out from your comfort zone in a direction that looks interesting.

You may well come back feeling you have truly been somewhere different, and at enjoyed it at your own pace.

international cruising

Mother said, “Try everything once.” I am preparing to. * Photo: Suellyn Scull

Father vs Mother

When we traveled abroad as a family, father would say, “Your mother likes to strike up a conversation with complete strangers. She is always talking to people.”

When I became less timid, sometimes I would follow her so I could see what I might learn. After she died, father would say when we were away from home and I struck up a conversation with a stranger, “You are just like your mother.”

By then, even if he was reticent to follow suit, I think he liked that I did because he saw I enjoyed it.

Travel is places and people.

international cruising

Plenty of relaxed people to meet. Now to find a seat. * Photo: Ted Scull

Test the Waters

So, don’t be shy and give it a try — test the waters. Strike up a conversation with someone while sharing a meal or in the seat next to you on the coach. If it does not work the first time, look to a second try. You never know what and who you might be missing out on unless you make a little effort.

For some this is a cliché, but Churchill’s pronouncement that Brits and Yanks are separated by a common language is quite true. That may also include Irish, Scots, Aussies, and Kiwis (New Zealanders). Some expressions may be understood right away if they are in context and some not.

Where’s the loo? She’s wasted and he’s hammered. That’s fair dinkum. Do you wear a singlet?

The mozzies are bad tonight. Crack on. He’s a real whinger. Now archaic, let’s go to the bioscope.

Joining a QuirkyCruise ship

While many lines attract an international mix of passengers, the exact demographics will vary.

Here’s a look at some small-ship lines we cover and very roughly who represents their main clientele.

Line & Dominant Nationalities

American Cruise Lines — North Americans

Aurora Expeditions — Aussies & Kiwis

Australis — Europeans & South Americans

Blue Lagoon Cruises — Aussies & Kiwis

Blount Small Ship Adventures — North Americans

Captain Cook Cruises — Aussies & Kiwis

Compagnie Polynesienne (Aranui) — French, Germans, Aussies & Kiwis

CroisiEurope — French & other Europeans

Coral Expeditions — Aussies & Kiwis

Deep Blue Holidays — English speaking & International

Emerald Waterways — Aussies & Kiwis

Gota Canal Steamship Company — Europeans

Hapag Lloyd — German-language-only cruises on some ships with one catering to English speakers

Hurtigruten — Norwegian Coastal Cruises & Antarctic Expeditions – Europeans

Lindblad Expeditions — North Americans

Murray River Cruise — Aussies & Kiwis

Pandaw River Cruises — Europeans, Aussies & Kiwis

Patricia Cruises — Brits

Paul Gaugin Cruises — French & English speakers

Pitcairn Island Link — Variety of English speakers

Ponant — French but not when the ship is chartered for English speakers

Riviera River Cruises — British

Scenic — Aussies & Kiwis

Scotland’s small ships: Argyll Cruising, Hebrides Cruises, Hebridean Islands Cruises, Magna Carta Steamship Company, The Majestic Line, Puffer Steamboat Holidays, St. Hilda Sea Adventures, Trinity Sailing — Mostly British

Sea Cloud Cruises — Germans and English-speaking charters

Sea Trek Sailing Adventures — English speaking & International

Silhouette Cruises — English speaking & international

Silolona Sojourns — English speaking & international

UnCruise Adventures — North Americans

Victoria Cruises — English speaking & international

QuirkyCruise Review

 

 

 

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Viking Jupiter's terrace

Viking Jupiter

By Judi Cohen.

I am a small-ship “connoisseur” accustomed to ships under 300 passengers, which is how QuirkyCruise.com defines a small-ship cruise. However, when presented with the opportunity to cruise on Viking’s new 930-passenger Viking Jupiter in the Baltic Sea I immediately said “yes!”

Having never visited Russia, seeing St. Petersburg on the 8-night Baltic itinerary was a major draw. While it wasn’t exactly a “small-ship,” it featured the advantages of larger ships, while also offering some of the intimacy and highly personalized service of a true small-ship. I like to think of it as a “small big-ship.”

Viking Jupiter

The new Viking Jupiter. * Photo: Judi Cohen

The Viking Jupiter took us from Stockholm to Berlin, with stops at the ports of Helsinki, Tallinn and Gdansk. The historical and gilded riches of St. Petersburg, of course, were the big draw for most passengers.

My two-day visit to St. Petersburg provided just a taste of the city’s rich art, architecture and history. I hope to return to do a true small-ship river cruise, on the Volga River, and see more of Russia, including Moscow.

Russia cruise with Viking

Judi and Lawrence at the Church of the Spilled Blood. * Photo: Judi Cohen

In the spirit of Quirky Cruise’s small-ship ethos, Russia’s Volga River cruises are an ideal way to visit both Moscow and St. Petersburg in combination with a Baltic itinerary. Small-ship cruises to this region are offered by various cruise companies including a 13-day Viking cruise on one of their five 200-passenger boats.

Meanwhile, Ponant Cruises and Tauck both operate 12-day small-ship Russia/Baltic Sea cruises using Ponant’s 184-passenger Le Dumont D’Urville with two full days in St. Petersburg. Emerald Waterways does a 12-day river cruise on the 224-passenger MS Rosia with stops in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

6 “Small Ship” Moments on the Viking Jupiter

While the Viking Jupiter has features you would typically find on larger ships including a variety of dining choices, numerous bars with live entertainment, and a luxurious Nordic spa with gym and treatment rooms, the ship felt intimate and uncrowded giving it a small-ship feel.

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#1: Optional Small-group Shore Excursions

In St. Petersburg we chose to pay for two small-group tours in addition to taking the panoramic coach tour of St. Petersburg that was included at no extra cost (Viking offers one free tour option in every port). We did a full-day “Behind Closed Doors” tour of the 18th-century Hermitage Museums and a half-day walking tour of the 1950-era St. Petersburg metro system, museum-like itself.

With only 13 guests on each tour, they were similar to excursions and tours I have done on previous small-ship cruises.

 Winter Palace Hermitage Museum

The gorgeous Winter Palace Hermitage Museum. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Hermitage museum entrance

Entrance staircase in the Hermitage Museum. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Our Hermitage Museum guide was knowledgeable about architecture and art history, and contributed to our learning and enjoyment. Our guide during the metro tour, which was a highlight for me, led us into the system to see some of the oldest stations that were built as “palaces of the people” rich in Soviet history, with their fascinating art and sculpture.

St Petersburg Metro System

Kirovsky Zavod Station, part of the stunning metro system. * Photo; Judi Cohen

St Petersburg metro stations

Avtovo Station light fixtures. * Photo: Judi Cohen

These small-group excursions felt much like the tours I have enjoyed on other small-ship cruises along the Mekong and Irrawaddy with Pandaw and the Brahmaputra River with India-based Adventure River Cruises. As on these smaller ships, on board the Viking Jupiter, there were many opportunities to immerse myself in the artistic and historical presentations offered on board by local experts. There was even a magical performance one evening in the ship’s Star Theatre by the famous Russian Mariinsky Theatre.

Other passengers told me about the small-group premium excursions they took (ranging from about $75 to $300 per person), including a tour of the Stutthof concentration camp in Gdansk, Poland; reindeer feeding in Nuuksio National Park; and a bicycle tour in Helsinki, Finland. Several premium excursions at additional cost were offered in every port.

#2: Private Balcony in our Cabin

Our cabin had a private balcony that provided a quiet and private place to relax, read and reflect. It reminded me of smaller ships I’ve been on that also had private balconies, including the 195-passenger Viking Einar that I cruised on along the Rhine River in 2019.

RELATED: Cruising on the new Viking Einar … by Judi Cohen

balcony of Viking Jupiter

Judi’s husband Lawrence on their cabin balcony. * Photo: Judi Cohen

#3:  Intimate Dining Experiences

Mamsen’s is a small take-away café aboard the Jupiter named in honor of Viking founder Torstein Hagen’s mother. Located on Deck 7 in the Explorers Lounge, serving light traditional Scandinavian dishes, snacks and pastries, it was never crowded and became our go-to spot for early breakfast and light bites throughout the day.

With comfortable seating in sofas or at tables with chairs, Mamsen’s felt very warm, welcoming and cozy…and the open face shrimp sandwiches and signature waffles were delicious!

waffels aboard the Viking Jupiter

Mamsen’s signature Scandinavian waffle. * Photo: Judi Cohen

 #4: Afternoon Tea

Like many of the small European river boats, traditional high tea was served every afternoon in the Wintergarden Conservatory on Deck 7. Separated from the pool by floor-to-ceiling glass doors, I found the Wintergarden to be one of the most beautiful areas on the ship. The blonde wood ornamentation looked like trees climbing the pillars and covering the roof and created the feeling of being in a forest!

afternoon tea on the Viking Jupiter

Afternoon Tea in the Wintergarden on Deck 7. * Photo: Judi Cohen

#5: Explorers Lounge

The Jupiter had many comfortable and quiet sitting areas with books neatly organized on library shelves. However, we kept going back to the Explorers Lounge on Deck 7 and the upper level above it, called the Observation Lounge, to read, rest, have a snack or drink, or watch the waves through the expansive windows.

While seated in the sofas, complete with fur throws, we could also enjoy the warmth from the faux fireplaces. I never felt like I was on a large ship in these lounges.

Explorer's Lounge on Jupiter

The lovely ocean-view Explorers Lounge. * Photo: Judi Cohen

#6: Musicians in the Atrium

The multi-level atrium typical of big ships, felt cozy each evening when a pianist or a trio of musicians played sweet music there for hours. The Viking Bar and the surrounding Living Room lounge, that actually felt like our own living room at home, drew us back nightly for pre-dinner cocktails  and again following dinner.

After only one night aboard, the musicians welcomed us back warmly and it felt like they were playing just for us! Very few other passengers were there in the evenings, which made it feel even more intimate.

musicians on Viking Jupiter

Musicians performing nightly on Deck 1. * Photo: Judi Cohen

For anyone who wants to get the best of a larger cruise ship with many of the benefits of a small ship, I would recommend the Viking Jupiter.

The Jupiter’s attentive personal service, small-group shore excursions options, cozy and comfortable lounge areas with music, and casual dining all combined to create a wonderful “small-ship” feeling.

The added bonus was having some “big-ship” features such as a spa, gym and multiple pools, plus 24-hour room service so we could enjoy refreshments on our private balcony. Having been teased with the history and riches of St. Petersburg for only two days, I am ready to go back to experience Russia in depth!

Viking Jupiter's terrace

On the Aquavit Terrace leaving Stockholm. * Photo: Judi Cohen

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American Empress wave season offers

Wave Season Deals.

By Anne Kalosh.

Now is a terrific time to plan a small-ship cruise. Wave season, January to March, is the annual peak booking period for the cruise lines, when they typically tout their best deals. Travelers can save on a range of quirky ocean, coastal, river and sailing vessels.

Here are some examples.

Wave Season Deals: Scenic

Scenic Discovery Yacht

Starting at the top, the sumptuous new six-star 228-passenger discovery yacht Scenic Eclipse, which debuted in 2019, is far from a bargain. Yet when Scenic says “all-inclusive,” that means the price covers everything. (Well, almost. Helicopter and submarine rides and spa treatments cost extra.)

All-suite accommodations, butler service, 10 dining experiences and an almost 1:1 staff to guest ratio are hallmarks of the head-turning Scenic Eclipse.

Wave Season Deals on Scenic Eclipse

Everything is included in the Scenic Eclipse pricing, apart from a few extras like helicopter rides. * Photo: Scenic

But if you’re splashing out on a six-star super-yacht, why not save on the flights? Discounts on business-class airfare and free economy-class air are available for bookings made now.

Select departures throughout 2020 and 2021 include reduced business-class fares of $995 and $1,995 and free economy air, or up to $2,500 savings in lieu of the flights.

For a 20-day Antarctica trip in late 2020, free business-class air saves $3,000 per person for the flight to Buenos Aires. Scenic Eclipse’s Nov 20 and Dec 8 sailings explore Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands.

Early bird fare savings of up to $6,950 per person, double occupancy, are also available on some departures.

RELATED: Peter Knego’s Scenic Eclipse Review.

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Scenic Wave Season Deals

The Scenic Eclipse in Antarctica. * Photo: Scenic

Scenic Space-Ships

On the rivers, Scenic’s Space Ships — so named because of their spaciousness — have wave deals including free air or $1,000 per person savings on eight- to 10-day itineraries. Sailings of at least 11 days come with free premium economy air or $1,800 per person savings or $1,995 business-class airfares on select departures.

Standard balcony on Scenic Gem

Spacious standard balcony suite on the Scenic Gem. * Photo: Scenic

Door-to-door airport transfers are included for travelers booking cabins on the highest deck (Diamond) for sailings of at least 11 days. Those booking any cabin on a 15-day Jewels of Europe itinerary departing between July and October will receive free premium economy airfare and door-to-door airport transfers.

Going solo? Scenic is shaving 50 percent off the single supplement rate on quite a few 2020 departures.

Scenic’s website for booking details.

RELATED: 15 Reasons to do the Mekong River with Scenic … by Heidi Sarna.

Scenic Gem offers wave season deals

The spacious Scenic Gem. * Photo: Scenic

Wave Season Deals: AQSC & Victory

Rollin’ on the American Rivers

American Queen Steamboat Co.’s (AQSC) 245-passenger American Countess paddle-wheeler is set to debut on the Mississippi River in April. This fourth vessel in the AQSC fleet has four decks, including a sun deck, and 123 staterooms in four categories. Modern-design cabins, gourmet dining, included shore excursions and Broadway-caliber entertainment are hallmarks.

During wave season, travelers can save up to $2,500 per stateroom ($1,250 per person) on select 2020 voyages.

American Empress wave season offers

The pretty American Empress. * Photo: American Queen Steamboat Co

AQSC is adding new theme cruises in 2020, ranging from Pacific Northwest Wine Cruises aboard American Empress to the American River BBQ Challenge on American Countess, American Queen and American Duchess along the lower Mississippi. Special performances highlight the American Music Festival cruise on American Duchess, while exclusive bourbon tastings and lectures feature on the Bourbon to Blues cruises aboard American Countess and American Duchess.

Bookings made during wave season offer savings up to $2,500 per stateroom ($1,250 per person) on select 2020 voyages.

American Queen Steamboat Company’s website for booking details.

RELATED:Bill Forsstrum Talks about the Steamboat American Queen.

wave season offers for American Countess

The new American Countess’ modern cabins. * Rendering: American Queen Steamboat Co.

Victory is Yours

AQSC’s sister company, Victory Cruise Lines, fields a pair of twin coastal ships and, new in spring 2021, the Ocean Victory expedition vessel will debut in Alaska and British Columbia.

During 2020, the 202-passenger ships Victory I and Victory II will introduce new southern sailings to Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula and the Southeastern United States. These are in addition to their northern sailings in the Great Lakes, Canadian Maritimes and New England.

During wave season, travelers can save up to $3,000 per stateroom ($1,500 per person) on select 2020 voyages.

Victory Cruise Lines website.

RELATED: Great Lakes Cruising Aboard a Replica Coastal Steamer … by Peter Knego

RELATED: American Queen Acquires Victory Cruise Lines … by Anne Kalosh

Victory I wave season deals

The traditional-style Victory I. * Photo: Victory Cruise Lines

Wave Season Deals: UnCruise Adventures

Travelers planning an active trip have until Feb. 28 to save with UnCruise Adventures, whose small ships focus on nature and wildlife. Kayaking, hiking, beachcombing, paddle boarding, snorkeling, skiff excursions and wildlife searches are part of every UnCruise.

The line is offering up to $1,000 per couple on voyages to Alaska, Mexico, Costa Rica & Panama, Belize & Guatemala, Colombia & Panama, and Hawaii. A suite deal gives groups savings on larger suites.

In Southeast Alaska, travelers can save up to $1,000 per couple on weeklong adventures aboard the 84-passenger Safari Endeavour and the 86-passenger Legacy when booking a commander cabin or higher category. Safari Endeavour sails from Juneau and Sitka and Legacy sails from Juneau and Ketchikan.

Savings up to $500 per couple on weeklong Alaska adventure cruises aboard the 76-passenger Wilderness Discoverer and 74-passenger Wilderness Explorer are available when booking a trailblazer cabin or higher category. Both ships sail from Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan.

wave deals for Wilderness Explorer in Alaska

Wilderness Explorer in Alaska. * Photo: UnCruise Adventures

RELATED: Alaska Cruise Adventures with UnCruise … by Judi Cohen.

RELATED:  Rivers of Adventure on the Columbia & Snake Rivers … by John Roberts

RELATED: The Pacific Northwest with UnCruise … by Ted Scull.

Hawaiian Islands & Latin America

Celebrating its first year of full-calendar Hawaii sailings, UnCruise is giving a discount of $700 per couple on weeklong cruises departing between March 7 and Sept. 5. The 36-passenger Safari Explorer yacht visits Hawai’i, Molokai, Lanai and Maui with included activities exploring land and sea. Cultural heritage is a key component in the islands; a full day is spent with locals on Molokai.

Safari Explorer is on sale during wave season

The Safari Explorer now sails Hawaii year-round. * Photo: UnCruise

The 66-passenger Safari Voyager sails adventure cruises in Latin America. Belize and Colombia itineraries are new in fall 2020. Travelers can save $800 per couple on seven-night Costa Rica & Panama, Belize & Guatemala, and Colombia & Panama cruises departing between April 20 and Dec. 5.

Savings of $1,000 per couple are offered on 10-night Costa Rica & Panama cruises embarking through March 29.

In Mexico’s wildlife-rich Sea of Cortés, travelers can save $700 per couple for sailings departing through April 4 when booking a commander cabin or higher category. The 84-passenger Safari Endeavour explores the marine-life rich waters of this UNESCO World Heritage Site on weeklong adventures round-trip from San Jose del Cabo. Activities include snorkeling with sea lions, desert hikes and remote beach explorations, a mule ride with local rancheros, and close-up encounters with gray whales and calves at Magdalena Bay during calving season.

Suite Deal

Families and other groups booking four or more cabins aboard the Legacy, Safari Voyager or Safari Endeavour on select 2020 Latin America or Alaska adventure cruises can save 50 percent on a larger suite as the fourth cabin. Suites provide a private gathering and party space for small groups. Travelers can save 50 percent on the 600-square-foot owner’s suite aboard Legacy and Safari Voyager or a commodore suite on Safari Endeavour.

UnCruise Adventures website for booking info.

Safari Voyager deals

Kayaking is a big part of the UnCruise experience. * Photo: UnCruise

Wave Season Deals: Star Clippers

Here’s your chance to save on a tall-ship adventure with Star Clippers. The line’s “Choose Your Wave” offers apply to 2020 and 2021 sailings in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Asia.

Star Clippers operates three of the world’s largest and tallest sailing vessels. Star Clipper and Star Flyer are traditional clipper ships with modern amenities. Each carries 170 passengers. The 227-passenger Royal Clipper holds the Guinness World Record for being the largest and only five-mast, full-rigged sailing ship in service today.

All three vessels have expansive teak decks, swimming pools, informal dining and convivial tropical bars on deck.

wave season deals on Royal Clipper

The lovely Royal Clipper off the coast of Sromboli, Italy. * Photo: Star Clippers

The “Choose Your Wave” special lets travelers pick the deal that bests suits them. The choices are a $200 on-board credit per person, a one-cabin category upgrade or a complimentary massage and bottle of champagne in cabin plus prepaid gratuities.

This offer is good for any 2020 or 2021 sailing in the Caribbean and select 2021 Mediterranean cruises. Travelers booking any 2020 or 2021 Southeast Asia sailing can choose two of the wave options. Travel must be booked by Feb. 29.

RELATED: Star Clippers Thailand Cruise Rocks … by Heidi Sarna

RELATED: Royal Clipper Med Cruise with a Newbie … by Christina Colon

Star Clippers website for booking info.

Star Clippers deals

Climbing the masts is part of the fun on a Star Clippers cruise. * Photo: Star Clippers

Wave Season Deals: Drifting along the Danube

The Danube River winds through 10 countries, carving a historic path that unites fairytale villages, capital cities, castles and forested slopes for picture-perfect landscapes as far as the eye can see.

Given the exceptional diversity in food, architecture, culture and history, it’s no surprise that nearly 50 percent of Avalon Waterways travelers chose the Danube for their European vacation in 2019.

Avalon provides nearly 30 Danube itineraries that range from four to 27 days, one of the biggest varieties of any line. Another distinction: “Short and Suite” getaways of four and six days. These are priced starting at $874 and provide time-starved travelers and first-time river cruisers the chance to test river cruise waters.

For a limited time, travelers can extend select Danube vacations in Budapest or Prague for free, a value of up to $759. Bookings must be made by March 9 for travel through Dec. 30.

Avalon Waterways website for booking info.

Avalon waterways wave season discounts

Avalon offers nearly 30 Danube itineraries of different combinations. * Photo: Avalon Waterways

quirkycruise bird

 

 

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