Menu
Menu
Kerala backwaters cruise

Kerala Backwaters Cruise on the Vaikundam

By Heidi Sarna.

India is a vast country with a diverse geography. There are soaring snow-capped mountains, dry dusty deserts, tropical jungles and thousands of miles of coastline.

Many first timers to India do the Golden Triangle circuit in the north, visiting the historic and teeming cities of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra, and the holy ghats of Varanasi.

For repeat visitors to India who want to explore a more remote part of the country, the long thin state of Kerala in southern India, with its 400 miles of shoreline along the Arabian Sea, is a great option.

india map

Kerala is in southern India. * Map: https://www.pbs.org/thestoryofindia/resources/map/

Kerala is known for its backwaters, a network of canals, rivers and lakes popular for houseboating aboard the region’s traditional wood and thatched boats called kettuvallam.

kerala houseboat

We saw many other houseboats along the Kerala backwaters. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The barge-like boats were originally designed to transport rice, coconuts and spices to and from the ports of Kochi (also known historically as Cochin by various European powers) and Alappuzha along India’s Malabar coast, for centuries major points in the Europe-Asia spice trade.

Today, a Kerala backwaters cruise has come to be known as an exotic and off-beat travel experience for those who want to go deeper into India’s natural bounty and fascinating history and culture.

Kerala backwaters

The peaceful canals and waterways of the Kerala Backwaters. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Kerala Backwaters

Heidi enjoying the golden hour along the scenic Kerala backwaters.

The Vaikundam

There are reportedly some 1,400 houseboats in Kerala’s backwaters, most with a few basic cabins, dining area, and sliver of open-air deck, that offer tourists short two- and three-day cruises.

The 18-passenger Vaikundam is a Kerala houseboat that stands apart from the crowd.

While it originally offered short cruises when it was launched in 2000, last year after an extensive renovation, Vaikundam began focusing on weeklong backwaters cruises that include narrow canals and shallow passages other boats can’t access.

18-passenger Vaikundam.

The 18-passenger Vaikundam. * Photo: Scott Anderson

I joined a cruise aboard the Vaikundam last October with my friend Harman; it was the kind of unusual quirky small-ship cruise that greatly appeals to me and I wasn’t disappointed.

Heidi and a friend

Heidi & her friend on a village walk in the Kerala Backwaters. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Constructed of teak, wild jack and jack tree wood, Vaikundam has a pleasantly rustic dining area, bar and lounge, and roomy open deck at the bow, all accented with Indian cotton fabrics.

Vaikundam's dining area

Vaikundam’s dining area. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Vaikundam's cozy bar area

Vaikundam’s cozy bar area. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Vaikundam's Interior bar and lounge area

Interior bar and lounge area. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

View from Vaikundam's viewing deck

View from Vaikundam’s bow. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Air-conditioned cabins are cozy with large windows and chunky wooden doors and furniture.

Vaikundam cabin view

The view from our cabin afforded water line views of the passing scenery. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Bathrooms are basic with marble-clad showers. Our beds were very comfy and we slept like logs all week.

Vaikundam cabin

Most of the cabins look like this, our rooms for the week. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Vaikundam cabin door

The cabin door. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

RELATED:  Heidi Reports on Seeing the Remote Side of India by Boat for CNBC.com.  

Cruising for Cruising Sake

A weeklong cruise on Vaikundam covers about 100 miles in total, between Kochi and Alappuzha, but not in a straight shot. The boat slowly zigzags at no more than four or five knots though the flood-prone backwaters, sometimes backtracking, to get to the most scenic areas.

Vaikundam cruising past a village on a Kerala houseboat cruise

A close-up view of village life from the Vaikundam. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

You’ll often feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, pushing through water hyacinths, and gazing out at the ubiquitous rice fields and stands of palm, mahogany, tamarind, banana, and betel nut trees.

One morning, we cruised down one particularly slender canal. At one point, those of us on the open-air bow had to duck so as not to be whacked in the head with a tree branch.

Vaikundam in the narrow Kerala backwaters

Vaikundam in a narrow canal. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

We cruised for several hours each day, greatly enjoying the ride, and then tied up each evening for the night.

Typically, we enjoyed a village walk before dinner with our guide Kabir, treated to glowing orange sunsets nearly every time.

Kerala Backwaters cruise village walk sunset

A village walk at sunset. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The Daily Excursions

One or two excursions each day were done by foot or mini-bus. We visited two Dickensian-like workshops, where metal mirrors and brass bells are made in the old ways — open flames, basic tools and craftsman sitting on the ground hunched over their work.

bell making

Bell making, the old fashioned way. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

On our daily village walks, Kabir pointed out the flora and birds as we walked past locals doing what their families have done for generations in Kerala’s backwaters — cleaning freshly-caught fish along the canal, beating laundry against rocks at the water’s edge and bathing in their white mundus (a Kerala-style lungi).

A woman cleaning freshly caught fish. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Along the way, we visited a boat building yard, where traditional kettuvallums are made by stitching wooden planks together with coir (coconut fiber) rope. Kabir also pointed out the many sail-like “Chinese fishing nets” that are a common sight throughout the backwaters, as are Kerala’s famous snake boats — long ceremonial (and one-time war) canoes now used for special occasions.

Chinese fishing nets in Kerala

Chinese fishing nets. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Traditional performing arts were weaved into the itinerary as well. One afternoon we got a fascinating insider look at the elaborate make-up and costume preparation that goes into a theatrical Kathakali dance performance — a mellow-dramatic dance form that tells stories from the Hindu epics.

Kerala performance prep

The elaborate preparation needed for a traditional theatrical Kathakali performance we enjoyed. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

traditional Kerala dance

This man did an amazing job in his role. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Another day we watched an age-old martial arts performance, called kalaripayattu, some segments with knives and spears. Mid-way through the cruise, a troupe of young girls and their teacher performed classical dances for us on the bow before dinner.

dance performance by a troupe of local girls

A dance performance by a troupe of local girls. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Throughout the week, Kabir framed the region’s history and culture by telling us about the Hindus, Jews, Christians, and Muslims who came to Kerala to trade spices with the Arabs and Chinese, long before the Portuguese, Dutch, and British came to stake their claim in the lucrative business of black pepper, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, chilis and more. And of course, the immigrants brought their religion with them.

village walk in Kerala with guide

Village walk with guide Kabir. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

guide Kabir

Our guide Kabir (in light blue) with our small group on a village walk. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Houses of Worship

In Kochi, we went inside the lovely 16th-century Paradesi synagogue with its beautiful Belgian glass chandeliers.

16th-century Paradesi synagogue

The lovely 16th-century Paradesi synagogue. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

We also saw the 500-year-old Portuguese church where explorer Vasso da Gama was buried in 1524, and in Champakulam, admired the grand old St. Mary’s Basilica with its ornately painted wooden interior.

church Vasso da Gama was buried in in 1524.

Vasso da Gama was buried here in 1524. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Catholic churches were ubiquitous, with many being white-washed, and others painted in pastels.

Catholic church in Kerala

A Catholic church in Kerala. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

We visited several of Kerala’s Hindu temples, most low and flat (in contrast to the tall colorful gopuram towers of some Hindu temples in southern India) with horizontal wooden planks and niches for small oil lamps.

Typical village temple in Kerala Backwaters

A typical village temple. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Pink temple in Kerala

Pink temple gates. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

One temple we visited had a resident elephant who lived under a tall open-sided shed. Its legs were chained and it was fed bundles of fresh grasses by its keeper; captive yet coddled. While it seemed cruel to foreign eyes to see the giant animal in shackles, Keralites revere elephants and for centuries they’ve been an important part of religious ceremonies and festivals.

temple elephant in Kerala India

A chained temple elephant. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The Thuravoor Narsimha Hindu temple we visited at the end of the cruise near Kochi was the scene of such a procession. It happened to be an auspicious day in the Hindu calendar, Pooram, and so we witnessed a dozen elephants adorned in gilded festival regalia being paraded around the temple grounds, accompanied by rhythmic drumming and the squawking of the clarinet-like nadasvaram. A bare-chested priest sat astride each elephant’s neck, and handlers or mahouts were at their beck and call. It was a sight to behold.

Kerala temple elephants

Festival day at the Thuravoor Narsimha Hindu temple near Kochi. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Kerala temple elephants

An auspicious day in the Hindu calendar, Pooram, saw these temple elephants adorned to the hilt. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Daily Life

Maybe most appealing about our week on the Vaikundam, was being privy to a slice of real life along the banks of the backwaters and in the villages and small towns we visited. From markets and stores, to buskers and street vendors, to families and folks out and about on their daily commutes, India is a fascinating place for people watching.

balloon seller in Kerala

Balloons anyone? * Photo: Heidi Sarna

ice cream Arun in Kerala town

Heidi spots an ice-cream that sports her husband’s first name! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

colorful shop in Kochi

Colorful shops every where. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Kerala backwaters chilis

Chilis are ubiquitous! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

village festival in Kerala

Happening upon a village festival. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Avian Delights

For birders, the Kerala backwaters are cause for major delight. Our guide Kabir had an eagle’s eye for spotting birds in trees, flying overhead and fishing in the water. Passengers’ zoom lenses were out in full force.

Zooming in on the birdlife of Kerala backwaters

Zooming in on the birdlife. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

From fruit bats with a wingspan of a meter to brilliant kingfishers and bee eaters, flycatchers, larks, parrots and so many more, our avian friends swooped, called and flapped to and fro across Vaikundam’s bow.

Egrets, heron, ducks, and elegant snake birds (so named for their long thin necks) were easy to spot on excursions in small skiffs, which we enjoyed on more than one occasion.

Kerala birds

The Kerala backwaters are a birders dream. * Photo: Scott Anderson

One early morning we visited the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary on the edge of Lake Vembanad, which was carpeted in brilliant fuchsia water lilies. We traveled in a private sightseeing boat and the mini cruise was a bird and nature lovers’ paradise.

Kerala Backwaters bird life

A morning skiff ride was a bird lovers paradise. * Photo: Scott Anderson

Delicious Home Cooking

For many of us, the biggest joy was eating. A range of Indian dishes were served buffet-style on board, and there was also a delicious lunch and a dinner planned in local homes on shore.

South India’s beloved fresh fish, caught nearby and cooked whole, was always on the menu, from pearl spot to silver mullet, snapper, catfish and other varieties.

For anyone who craves some western comfort food, the chefs will happily comply. The beauty of a small-ship cruise like the Vaikundam, is that service is personal and flexible. “No” is rarely heard and there are few “rules.”

Vaikundam dining

Delicious spread for breakfast, lunch and dinner. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

There were excellent vegetable dishes made with okra, pumpkin, lentils and carrots, and Kerala rice served straight up or as steamed idly and puttu “cakes.” There was butter chicken, mutton dishes and the range of breads India is so well known for, including fried puri and parathas.

Dinner aboard the Vaikundam

Mealtime was happy time for all of us! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Vaikundam lunch in Kerala

Lunch is served. YUM! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

And Kerala’s famous coconut seemed to make its way into nearly everything. The delicious pickled chutneys and relishes were also a big hit with our group.

A full bar on board offers humble Indian wines (including the Sula brand), beers (Kingfisher) and soda (Thums Up) as well as spirits, all at a la carte pricing.

Even if you vow to yourself, you’ll eat less tomorrow, it won’t happen. We always intended to take just one helping at dinner, to skip dessert, to decline a mug of refreshing beer after lunch. Oh well!

mugs of beer on the Vaikundam

Cheers! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

But no, this was a cruise of going with the flow in more ways than one. It was about indulging our senses, all of them, in the sights, the sounds and the tastes of Kerala’s backwaters. And what a sensory adventure it was.

Heidi and Harman on a Kerala Backwaters cruise.

Wonderful memories waiting to be created on a Kerala Backwaters cruise. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

RELATED:  Cruising India’s Brahmaputra River. by Heidi Sarna

RELATED:  Adventures on India’s Brahmaputra River. by Judi Cohen

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

Itineraries/Fares

7-night Vaikundam cruises start at $2,950 USD per cabin per week (for two people) and include all excursions and meals.

Logistics

You must fly in and out of Kochi, in Kerala; many flights from the US would connect through Delhi or Mumbai. Before the cruise, we stayed for two nights at the lovely Taj Malabar Resort & Spa in Cochin.

Taj Malabar Resort in Cochin, Kerala

The Taj Malabar Resort & Spa in Cochin. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Tips

  • Water levels and tides can vary, so the itinerary will be somewhat fluid.
  • To visit temples, you must remove your shoes; many will allow socks, so bring extras if you prefer wearing them to being barefooted.
  • Women should dress modestly and not wear sleeveless or crop tops, or shorts; thin cotton tops are a good option as are cargo pants or leggings with long tops over them.
removing your shoes before going into temples

Removing your shoes is several times a day is par for the course. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Weather

Kerala’s climate is tropical and so it’s warm and humid all year-round. There are two rainy seasons brought on by the seasonal monsoons, in June and mid-October, when there is typically rain for no more than a few hours a day (note the low-lying backwaters are prone to flooding). Temperatures year-round see highs in the 80s (F) and lows in the 70s (F).

Heidi and friends on Vaikundam

Happy campers aboard the Vaikundam. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Cruising Season

The main Kerala backwaters cruising season is October through April.

Money Matters

The Indian rupee (INR) is the official currency; credit cards are accepted in larger shops.

COVID-19 Travel Updates

From Vaikundam’s owner, Sanjay Basu, chairman of Adventure Resorts & Cruises:

“Domestic tourism is already ramping up steadily in India, while international in-bound tourism is expected to revive once a vaccine is available worldwide. The good news is that some vaccines are anticipated to come out by year-end 2020; and whenever the vaccines are available, we expect billions of doses to be manufactured in India where 60% of the world’s vaccines are made.

“I think that in the COVID and post-COVID times, small ships will be more attractive than ever as their smaller numbers along with proper SOPs (standard operating procedures) being followed will contribute to fewer health risks. The smaller numbers can be cross-checked prior to boarding to be infection-free with testing, and so a clean air bubble can be created on-board.”

For More Info

Contact Adventure Resorts & Cruises at www.adventurerivercruises.com.

Kerala backwaters cruise

Chilling out and watching the scenery float by. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

 

Don’t miss great articles, reviews, news & tips about small-ship cruising, SUBSCRIBE to QuirkyCruise.com for updates and special offers!  

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

The Majestic Line's Glen Shiel

Majestic Line’s Glen Shiel

By Robin McKelvie.

Eking into the remote bay the dolphins finally leave us, replaced by a brace of soaring sea eagles, arcing in languorous loops as we marvel from far below. Dead ahead awaits a ramble up a mountain path ashore, followed by a delicious dinner of local lobster risotto and a wee dram under the stars back aboard.

Dining on Glen Shiel

Robin dining on lobster risotto onboard. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Welcome to cruising on the Majestic Line’s Glen Shiel, an ideal cocoon for navigating troubled waters in these testing times.

Cruising in the time of Covid-19

Cruising itself — as COVID-19 ravages the world of travel — is a rare joy. Scotland’s flotilla of small ships, which take a maximum of 12 passengers, are able to sail, but of course nothing is quite the same with COVID.

A Glen Shiel tender to Rum

Robin going ashore on Rum. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

I wouldn’t want it to be as everyone needs to be safe — and I feel instantly safe with Majestic. In the days before we sail we all have to fill in a health questionnaire. That is no surprise as one of the owners, Ken Grant, is handily a respected epidemiologist.

We are temperature checked on arrival and hand sanitizer stations are dotted around the ship, with masks freely available.

Captain Peter Watt explains: “We all have to stay safe and that means using the gel. You must wear a mask at all times in the tender and when entering shops ashore.”

These measures prove both effective and reassuring. We are even given temperature checks every morning and Peter also clarifies that the crew are all regularly tested too. It feels safe as we cruise away from the mainland into a world of sparsely populated, or even uninhabited, islands, where social distancing is not a problem. It feels safer than going to my local supermarket.

There were seven passengers, including me, with one fellow Scot and five English people. All were looking for a safe, secure escape from the stresses and strains of these hard COVID-19 times and they found it aboard the Glen Shiel. Could almost feel their souls unclenching as the days went on.

Getting acquainted

Our six-night adventure is dubbed “Skye and the Small Isles,” but you must forget any firm itinerary when exploring Scotland’s wild and wildly beautiful west coast and its islands. Here the weather and the Atlantic are king and queen of everything you do.

For the first day and a half we seek shelter in brooding bays beneath mist shrouded Highland mountains as vicious winds ravage more exposed vessels. Indeed during the first night another ship moored in the same sea loch slips anchor. We hold fast.

West Coast of Scotland

The brooding west coast of Scotland. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

The inclement weather allows us time both to get to know each other — a real joy with small ship cruising — and the trim shipshape vessel.

Only launched in 2019, the Glen Shiel is a sleek affair, more private cruising yacht than the monster cruise ships many people conjure up when they think of cruising. She was built at the tiny Ardmaleish yard on the Scottish island of Bute, the biggest vessel they have ever built. I know the yard well as my late dad built his own yacht and kept her there.

Majestic Line's Glen Shiel

The 12-passenger Glen Shiel. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

I have my own family connections to the Glen Shiel, but there is a family feel about her in general and cruising with Majestic. It really is so informal. Everyone is on first name terms with our skipper always just Peter, engineer Chris, bosun Jill and chef Molly.

The Majestic Line is a Scottish family-run company too, who have steered calmly through tough times for the industry back in 2001 and 2009 to offer efficient, enjoyable cruises that still feel personal; intimate even.

Glen Shiel's deck

The intimate Glen Shiel. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Over the years I’ve cruised on all three of the Majestic Line fleet, and soon the Glen Shiel, my fourth, becomes my favorite. She is slightly bigger than the Glen Etive, making her the largest in the fleet.

Like the Glen Etive she also has two indoor public areas: an aft dining room with a large hardwood table that you can use by day for reading, and a fore bar/saloon area with chairs, sofas and a bookshelf.

Glen Shiel's dining area

Glen Shiel dining room. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Glen Shiel's lounge

Glen Shiel’s lounge.* Photo: The Majestic Line

Cabins are fairly spacious, with calm not too “twee” décor and everything you need, including showers that are always hot.

Glen Shiel double cabin

A double Glen Shiel cabin. * Photo: The Majestic Line

Into the Sea of the Hebrides

The bridge is always open and comes with its efficient modernity given a more classic feel with a fully functional wooden helm and an equally useable ceiling binnacle.

Glen Shiel wheelhouse

Glen Shiel wheelhouse is always open. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

It is where I stand on the second morning as we make use of the easing weather to funnel down the historic Sound of Mull (checking out the flurry of castles on either flank as we go) in search of Ardnamurchan Point.

Ardnamurchan Point

Ardnamurchan Point.* Photo: Robin McKelvie

Here the Sea of the Hebrides proper unfurls. Mendelssohn always rings in my ears as I round the most westerly point in the UK mainland — he was so entranced by the ethereal Hebrides that he was moved to craft his Hebrides Overture here.

Muck

Our first island is Muck; it proves a perfect choice. While the rest of the passengers ramble around its tiny “capital” and check out the new café, I break west.

I hit Gallanach Bay where I catch sight of a pod of porpoises frolicking in the aquarium-clear waters off a white sand beach. The scene looks positively Caribbean, but you don’t get many otters there. Here one works his way along nearby rocks on the water’s edge.

Muck beaches

The beaches of Muck. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

It’s tempting to stay and hang out with my new animal friends, but I’m determined to haul myself up Beinn Airein, at 137m (450 feet), the island’s highest point.

Muck's highest point

Robin on Muck’s highest point. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

It’s worth the effort as I get a view of the three other Small Isles (Eigg, Rum and Canna), with the massive hulk of the Isle of Skye (the fourth largest island in the British Isles) haunting the background.

Muck looking to Eigg

Muck looking to Eigg. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Onwards to Skye and Canna

We spend the next two days wrapped in the wild charms of these dizzyingly beautiful isles. It’s a land where perspectives constantly change, along with the light. Islands veer in and out of view, while the distant mainland looms in the background.

Somewhere there out west I know the Outer Hebrides lurk too. It feels like sailing through an oil painting: shapes, textures and colors constantly shift with sweeping brushstrokes.

We’re not alone out here as we’re joined by an array of marine mammals. A pod of dolphins skip alongside playing with our bow wave, while porpoises make typically brief cameos.

Dolphins next to Glen Shiel

Dolphins alongside as Glen Shiel heads for Rum. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Then it’s the turn of the Atlantic big guns as we spot a brace of minke whales nearby. At first they look like giant dolphins, but their rear dorsal fin confirms the sighting; less clear are the orcas we spot thrashing around in the distance, but we conclude they are orcas nonetheless.

Homeward bound

We manage time ashore on Rum, Canna and Skye too, but not Eigg as the islanders there are still not keen on day trippers.

Canna

Beautiful Canna. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

With face masks on in the tenders to shore, and in the wee shops and cafes, we’re welcomed by communities who have had very little contact with the outside world since March 2020. It’s a privilege to spend time on the isles and learn about ways of living that seem idyllic — close to nature, indeed immersed in it — but which must be tough to live on in the long winter months.

Beauteous Sky

Beauteous Skye. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Steaming back south all too soon we again have reached Ardnamurchan Point and in the comparative urban charms of the picturesque settlement of Tobermory on Mull.

Tobermory on Mull

Tobermory on Mull. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

An afternoon and night passes here with a trip to the shops and a cozy pub, as well as to the local distillery.

Our last night is spent moored off the southwestern tip of Lismore, where we enjoy a spectacular, lingering Hebridean sunset, as we bob below a brooding ruined castle, then spot shooting stars and even a meteorite on an ultra-clear night.

Castle on Lismore

A castle on scenic Lismore. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Puttering back into Oban we talk about how refreshed we all feel, ready to take on the world of COVID-19, even our local supermarkets, after a life affirming adventure in Scotland’s incomparable Hebrides.

Glen Shiel

Glen Shiel heading back to Oban. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

QUICK FACTS

Itineraries/Fares

The Majestic Line is offering trips on the Glen Shiel until the end of October, then again from spring 2021. Their “Skye and the Small Isles” six-night cruise is priced from US$3,000 per person including all meals, wine with dinner and trips ashore.

Canapes served on Glen Shiel's deck

Canapes served on Glen Shiel’s deck. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Getting There

These days there are a number of direct flights from North America to Scotland. Depending on your airline, many flights connect through London. You can choose to arrive in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh or Glasgow. Trains run from Glasgow direct to Oban.

Tips

The Majestic Line has three other ships in their fleet. The Glen Etive is of a similar size and appearance — she is sailing in 2020 through end October. The smaller converted fishing boats, the Glen Massan and the Glen Tarsan, are available for private charter in 2020. All four vessels are planning on running full schedules in 2021.

RELATED: Reader Review of the Glen Tarsan.

Weather

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

Scottish skies

When the weather’s good, it’s amazing! * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Money Matters

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

Contact

For more information on cruising with The Majestic Line check out www.themajesticline.co.uk.

quirkycruise bird

Don’t miss great articles, reviews, news & tips about small-ship cruising, SUBSCRIBE to QuirkyCruise.com for updates and special offers!  

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

George Coughlin

Small Ship Captain George Coughlin

Interview by Ted Scull.

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

George Coughlin

Captain George Coughlin

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

Yorktown Clipper

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Coughlin

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

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

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

George Coughlin

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

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

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

George Coughlin

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

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

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

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

George Coughlin

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

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

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

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

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

George Coughlin

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

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

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

George Coughlin

Captain George as pilot aboard National Geographic Venture Sept. 2019

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

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

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

George Coughlin

Victorian Empress at Kingston, Ontario * Photo: Ted Scull

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

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

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

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

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

George Coughlin

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

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

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

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

George Coughlin

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

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

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

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

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

George Coughlin at the helm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Coughlin

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

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

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

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

George Coughlin

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

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

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

George Coughlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Coughlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Coughlin

George Coughlin at the Tanglewood Music Center Boston Symphony Orchestra 2018

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

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

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

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

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

quirkycruise bird

 

 

Don’t miss great articles, reviews, news & tips about small-ship cruising, SUBSCRIBE to QuirkyCruise.com for updates and special offers!  

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

SeaDream yacht club new itineraries

American Jazz Arrives & Other Small-Ship Updates

By Anne Kalosh.

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

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

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

American Jazz Riverboat

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

New wellness/yoga studio

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

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

Rooms for solo travelers

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

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

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

Windstar cancels through 2020

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

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

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

Wind Spirit in Tahiti

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

Seabourn’s expedition new build coming later

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

Seabourn Venture delayed

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

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

Quest to assume Antarctica/Venture to Norway in winter

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

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

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

Seabourn Venture's Expedition lounge

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

Silver Origin’s Galápagos debut set back

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

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

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

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

Silver Origin is delayed

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

A-Rosa’s E-motion coming later

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

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

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

A-Rosa's E-Motion is delayded

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

Related: Cruising Restarts in Travel Bubbles.  by Anne Kalosh

No money down to book Crystal Esprit

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

Crystal Esprit

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

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

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

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

Fares start at $2,699 per person.

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

SeaDreaming of Barbados

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

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

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

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

SeaDream yacht club new itineraries

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

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

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

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

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

RELATED: Small Ship Cruising Restarts Fitfully. By Anne Kalosh

Lindblad raises $85 million

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

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

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

quirkycruise bird

 

Don’t miss great articles, reviews, news & tips about small-ship cruising, SUBSCRIBE to QuirkyCruise.com for updates and special offers!  

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

Aranui 5 sunset

Adventures with Aranui Cruises

By Peter Knego.

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

Aranui Cruises Day 1

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

ARANUI 5 Passenger Cargo Liner Adventure

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

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

Combination Cargo Passenger Liner

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

Aranui Cruise in Papeete

MV ARANUI 5 at Papeete. * Photo: Peter Knego

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

Aruani cruises map

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

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

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

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

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

Aranui Cruises welcome aboard

Welcome aboard the ARANUI 5! * Photo: Peter Knego

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

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

ARANUI 5 guests enter via the Reception

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

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

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

The Cabins

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

A Deluxe Suite on Aranui Cruises Aranui 5

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

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

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

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

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

Aranui Cruises Day 1 — The Ship Deck by Deck

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

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

Aranui Cruises sky bar

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

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

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

ARANUI 5 Passenger Cargo Liner

Aranui 5 Pool. * Photo: Peter Knego

pool deck on Aranui 5

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

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

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

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

Aranui 5 Veranda bar

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

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

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

Aranui Cruises aft deck

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

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

Aranui 5 conference room

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

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

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

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

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

Aranui Cruises onboard restaurant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stunning sunset behind stern of Aranui 5

A stern sunset. * Photo: Peter Knego

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

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

The clouds fizzled away in time for a magnificent sunset.

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

Aranui 5 dining

Bruschetta appetizer line up. * Photo: Peter Knego

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

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

Red and white wine are included with lunch and dinner.

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

Aranui Cruises Day 2

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

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

barge arriving at Fakarava on an Aranaui cruise

Barge unloading us at Fakarava. * Photo: Peter Knego

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

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

rain storm

The rain is coming! * Photo: Peter Knego

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

Aranui 5 table setting

MV ARANUI 5 table setting. * Photo: Peter Knego

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

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

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

Aranui Cruises Day 3

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

standard room on Aranui 5

ARANUI 5 Standard Stateroom. * Photo: Peter Knego

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

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

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

Royal Suite on Aranui Cruises

ARANUI 5 Royal Suite bedroom. * Photo: Peter Knego

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

Aranui Cruises Royal Suite living room

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

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

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

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

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

Aranui 5 exterior

ARANUI 5 aft from wing. * Photo: Peter Knego

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

Aranui Cruises ARANUI 5 wheelhouse

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

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

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

Aranui Cruises welcome party

ARANUI 5 welcome party. * Photo: Peter Knego

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

A very long and adventurous day at Nuku Hiva loomed.

Aranui Cruises Day 4

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

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

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

Aranui 5 sunset

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

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

Nuku Hiva

The Sands of Nuku Hiva. * Photo: Peter Knego

ARANUI 5 photo from shore

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

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

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

Aranui Cruises ports feature banyan trees

Under the banyan tree. * Photo: Peter Knego

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

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

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

Once bitten, forever shy.

Aranui Cruises port experiences

Ritual dancers. * Photo: Peter Knego

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

Beach at Kamuihei, Nuku Hiva with Aranui Cruises

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

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

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

local lunch with Aranui Cruises

Lunch, umu-style. * Photo: Peter Knego

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

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

beach lunch with Aranui cruises

Purple potatoes. * Photo: Peter Knego

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

Stone arch on an Aranui port of call

Stone arch. * Photo: Peter Knego

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

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

Aranui 5 cargo

Unloading cargo. * Photo: Peter Knego

Aranui Cruises Day 5

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

Aranui 5 Approaching Ua Pou

Approaching Ua Pou. * Photo: Peter Knego

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

Dramatic island scenery at Ua Pou.

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

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

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

ARANUI 5 views

ARANUI 5 overview. * Photo: Peter Knego

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

Aranui Cruises visit to Ua Pou

Fruity feasting at Ua Pou. * Photo: Peter Knego

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

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

Aranui 5

The perfect frame. * Photo: Peter Knego

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

Kids on bow of Aranui 5

Bow busters of Ua Pou. * Photo: Peter Knego

Aranui Cruises Day 6

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

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

ARANUI Cruises stop at Puamau.

ARANUI 5 at Puamau. * Photo: Peter Knego

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

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

I’ipona archaeological site with Aranui cruises

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

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

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

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

Tekokuu, Tahuata beach

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

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

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

Aranui 5 deck barbecue

ARANUI 5 deck barbecue. * Photo: Peter Knego

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

Aranui Cruises Day 7

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

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

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

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

seeing Paul Gauguin's grave on an Aranui Cruise

Paul Gauguin’s grave. * Photo: Peter Knego

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

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

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

Hapatoni, Tahuata greeting on aranui 5 cruise

Hapatoni, Tahuata greeting. * Photo: Peter Knego

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

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

Aranui Cruises Day 8

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

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

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

Author Peter Knego on an Aranui Cruises adventure

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

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

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

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

Trekking back to the ship

Downward ho! * Photo: Peter Knego

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

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

ARANUI Cruises calls at Hanavave.

MV ARANUI 5 at Hanavave. * Photo: Peter Knego

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

Stone formations at Hanavave with Aranui Cruises

Stone formations at Hanavave. * Photo: Peter Knego

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

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

manta ray

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

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

Aranui Cruises Day 9

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

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

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

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

Ua Huka coastline with Aranui cruises

Breathtaking Ua Huka coastline. * Photo: Peter Knego

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

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

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

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

SIRENA asterna near Aranui 5

SIRENA asterna. * Photo: Peter Knego

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

Aranui Cruises Day 10

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

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

Tapueahu Canyon

Tapueahu Canyon. * Photo: Peter Knego

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

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

aranui cruises flight home

Until next time! * Photo: Peter Knego

Follow Peter Knego on Twitter here.

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

For more info, go to Aranui Cruises.

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

QuirkyCruise Review

 

 

Don’t miss great articles, reviews, news & tips about small-ship cruising, SUBSCRIBE to QuirkyCruise.com for updates and special offers!  

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

Arch in Cabo on a Sea of Cortez cruise

“Searching for the Sea of Cortez” Cruise

By Elysa Leonard.

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

Cabo San Lucas in the Sea of Cortez

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

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

Star Pride pre stretch

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

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

San Diego to Puerto Vallarta via The Sea of Cortez

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

 Sea of Cortez cruise map

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Recipe for Relaxation

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

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

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

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

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

Below, a video tour of the Star Legend.

The Food — Plenty of Options

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

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

Sea of Cortez Star Legend

Elysa & Bria enjoying Candles Sunset Dinner.

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

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

Sea of Cortez dinner

The James Beard Seared Scallops. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

BBQ Deck Party

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

crab legs served at deck party

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

There was also live music and dancing on deck.

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

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

Vibrant Cabo San Lucas

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

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

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

Arch in Cabo on a Sea of Cortez cruise

The classic Arch in Cabo. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

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

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

Sea of Cortez beach stops in Cabo

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

The World’s aquarium

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

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

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

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

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

Snorkeling, Sunbathing & Exploring in La Paz

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

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

Beautiful Beach on a Sea of Cortez cruise

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

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

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

La Paz stop on Sea of Cortez cruise

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

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

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

Raw Ahi Tuna Tostada in La Paz

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

Loreto’s Coronado Island & the Sea Lions!

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

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

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

Loreto on a Sea of Cortez cruise

Lovely Coronado Island. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

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

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

Sea lions colony, Loreto, Mexico

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

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

Here’s a peek:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1qjSGswTspM&feature=youtu.be

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

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

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

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

Below, enjoy this overview of our Windstar excursions: 

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

Windstar’s Loyal Fans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2021 Windstar Cruise Schedule

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

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

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

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

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

quirkycruise bird

 

Don’t miss great articles, reviews, news & tips about small-ship cruising, SUBSCRIBE to QuirkyCruise.com for updates and special offers!  

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

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

quirkycruise bird

 

 

Don’t miss great articles, reviews, news & tips about small-ship cruising, SUBSCRIBE to QuirkyCruise.com for updates and special offers!  

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

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.

quirkycruise bird

 

 

Don’t miss great articles, reviews, news & tips about small-ship cruising, SUBSCRIBE to QuirkyCruise.com for updates and special offers!  

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

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 Hebrides and Outer Hebrides (known as 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 lovable 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
Hebrides Cruises 2 8-10 passengers
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 with 8 passengers)

Hebrides Cruises
(1 with 10 passengers, 1 with 8-10 passengers)

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)

 

quirkycruise bird

 

 

Don’t miss a post, subscribe to QuirkyCruise.com for monthly updates!  

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

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

QuirkyCruise Review

 

 

Don’t miss great articles, reviews, news & tips about small-ship cruising, SUBSCRIBE to QuirkyCruise.com for updates and special offers!  

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

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

SUBSCRIBE to QuirkyCruise.com for updates & special offers!  

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

Secret Atlas (Arctic only)

Silversea Expeditions

Vantage World Travel

Viking (beginning 2022)

Vantage World

Windstar (Arctic only)

Zegrahm Expeditioins

quirkycruise bird

 

 

Don’t miss great articles, reviews, news & tips about small-ship cruising, SUBSCRIBE to QuirkyCruise.com for updates and special offers! 

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

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.

SUBSCRIBE to QuirkyCruise.com for updates and special offers!

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

Don’t miss great articles, reviews, news & tips about small-ship cruising, SUBSCRIBE to QuirkyCruise.com for updates and special offers!

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.