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An expert lecturer on a Lindblad cruise leads passengers on an excursion.

by Ted Scull.

Today’s mainstream cruise ships today have become platforms for nearly everything you are likely to encounter at a beach resort or theme park with gimmicks galore to attract attention and hopefully customers. These giants seem to be drifting further and further away from the places they visit. Meanwhile, small ship cruises tend to focus much more on enrichment and learning.

About 25 years ago, one of my favorite discoveries was not The Love Boat but The Learn Boat, the nickname for Swan Hellenic’s then chartered Orpheus that puttered around the Mediterranean and Red Seas taking mostly British passengers for whom adding to their understanding of the world was of never-ending interest.

Aboard was retired Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie who also happened to be a Byzantine scholar, and in southern Turkey, he sent us up to the top tier of an ancient amphitheater while he spoke from below as if we were mere feet away about what had transpired here all those many centuries ago. Later an Egyptologist demystified Cleopatra so eventually I stopped seeing Elizabeth Taylor as the sole embodiment of her character. A well-known ornithologist, who agreed with his loyal followers that he resembled a hawk, recalled the importance of birds in ancient times as he translated hieroglyphs.

Swan Hellenic, very much with us today, sends the current ship Minerva well beyond the Ancient European World for a winter season in India, Southeast Asia or along the Coast of South America. A sign of how seriously the line takes its mission, the lecture staff, numbering four or five, often hail from British universities, broadcasting, diplomatic service, the military and entertainment world. They are listed in the printed brochures and on the website up to a year in advance. During the voyage, virtually the entire passenger list attends the talks, either live or on cabin TVs, creating a wonderfully shared experience.

Expedition ships generally take great care in providing a team of well-trained naturalists to prepare passengers for going ashore in Zodiacs, kayaks and on foot. During sea time, illustrated presentations recap the day’s activities and lay out the program for the next. The better-equipped ships, such as the Lindblad Expeditions fleet, may carry a remote underwater camera and photographers who record significant wildlife sightings with the results communally shared later in the day.

Small coastal and inland waters’ ships often provide a traveling historian, while occasional special interest lecturers come aboard in ports to talk about the former whaling industry in New Bedford and Nantucket or the building of New York State’s Erie Canal. In Alaska, some lines hire a National Parks Service guide to recall early exploration, the Klondike gold rush or how markedly glaciers have retreated during the last few decades.

River cruise lines vary widely about how seriously they take enrichment programs. Some interpretations are left to local guides ashore while others will carry highly qualified experts in history, politics, and local cultures to offer presentations while the boat sails between ports. Better informed passengers are far more likely to want to hear the rest of the story when they step ashore. Happily, in the last few years, passengers wearing earphones can listen to the guides speaking in a normal voice rather than having to shout above the din created by other guides.

The best historians I fondly remember were aboard the steamboats of the Delta Queen Steamboat Company, the predecessor of the American Queen SB Co. Known as riverlorians, their tales of the great floods before the levees were constructed, traffic jams of steamboats vying for landings, trooping during the Civil War, and pilots memorizing the rivers to avoid sandbars, snags and other boats will stay with me forever. Pandaw Cruises, a river cruise company based in Southeast Asia, is another line whose high quality local guides greatly add to the experience; they sail on the entire voyage, to lead excursions, lecture on board, share personal insights, and generally make themselves available for questions and chat.

If you want a palatable learning experience beyond just ticking off your bucket lists, carefully read the line’s positioning of its enrichment programs. Often the best command higher fares to pay for the additional expenses, salaries, and for expedition ships in particular, special equipment.

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© 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.

By Ted Scull.

For a summer trip, my wife and I hunted for a cruise that would be a complete change of pace, one well removed from mega ships and milling crowds. We chose one that puttered no further than along the rugged coast of Maine. Even more focused, the itinerary concentrated on the state’s Penobscot Region with a diversion east to the popular cruise port at Bar Harbor on Mt. Desert Island.

American Cruise Lines’ 100-passenger American Star that we boarded at Portland, Maine had been built at the owner’s Chesapeake Bay shipyard in Salisbury, Maryland. Spacious for a coastal cruise ship at about 200 square feet, our cabin was furnished with a sofa, chair, coffee table, desk under a window that opened, flat-screen TV, queen-size bed, decent storage space and commodious bath with shower. Internet was free of charge, and for better reception, the captain told us to keep the cabin door open when using our laptop! The balcony cabin was just wide enough for two chairs and a table.

Portland Head Light, Maine. * Photo: Ted Scull

Portland Head Light, Maine. * Photo: Ted Scull

The airy dining room, with meals at open seatings, was located aft on the lowest deck and faced over the stern and to port and starboard. Flying the American flag, the deck hands and staff are American, mostly young and eager to earn a wage to help defray the cost of university or graduate school.

American Cruise Lines does not sell alcohol, and instead invites passengers to the main lounge for hot hors d’oeuvres and a bar setup one hour before dinner. With everyone wearing name tags listing hometown and state, the welcome setting encourages interaction.

American Star, Library Lounge. * Photo: Ted Scull

American Star, Library Lounge. * Photo: Ted Scull

Lobster was the theme of this cruise and it appeared at every meal in many forms, from lobster omelets, rolls, bisque, quiche, salad, Newburg and steamed to mention just a few variations. A bit much perhaps, but most diners come from non-New England parts where real Maine lobster is a rare commodity. Native Americans used lobster as fertilizer and dog food, and prisoners were once fed lobsters, which was considered a cruel and unusual punishment. Imagine that!

Bar Harbor

Bar Harbor: view from Cadillac Mtn. * Photo: Ted Scull

Bar Harbor: view from Cadillac Mtn. * Photo: Ted Scull

The longest water passage took us to Frenchman Bay and Bar Harbor, gingerly picking our way between lobster buoy markers and rocky islands. Our historian told us that the Maine lobster is a cannibal, so every pot must be regularly raised to collect those that found their way into the traps and before they devour a cellmate.

Mt. Desert Island looms as the most recognizable feature, and in the center Cadillac Mountain rises higher than any other point along the East Coast south to Key West. Unlike the big cruise ships that have to anchor and passengers tender in, the American Star tied up at the town landing, adjacent to the green, the tourist information center and the main street leading up the hill.

We took the organized excursion up through Acadia National Park to Cadillac Mountain for its 360-degree of the Maine coast, interior mountain ranges, far out to sea and down to the moored ships. Then back in town, at low tide. which it was, nearby Bar Island became accessible on foot for a nice walk through the woods for views of the mainland on the far side. We chose a different route each way to pass along streets lined with turn-of-the-last-century stone, wood and brick summer houses.

While Bar Harbor is extremely touristy during the day, it quiets down at night as most leave town by car or cruise ship. A coastal footpath makes for an evening stroll eyeing the boats at anchor and the houses facing the water. 

Rockland

After a 24-hour call, we aimed for Rockland, and unlike most of Maine’s coastal towns, it’s a genuine commercial port with a sizeable fishing industry, docks for limestone export and the principal terminal for the State of Maine ferry fleet serving the out islands. In the summer, Maine windjammer cruises are popular one-day to one-week options, and several are based here and at nearby Rockport and Camden.

American Star at Rockland with a Maine Windjammer extreme left. * Photo: Ted Scull

American Star at Rockland with a Maine Windjammer extreme left. * Photo: Ted Scull

Next to our landing, we visited the Maine Lighthouse Museum with its superb collection of Fresnel lenses that gave the lights their distinctive long-range beams. The Maine Coast is littered with beacons, though all are unmanned now, so it is of interest to learn about the keeper’s often remote lifestyle, in some cases raising families in partial or total isolation.

The town’s main attraction is the Farnsworth Art Museum, a complex made up of a purpose-built museum building, the former Farnsworth family house and a Congregational church converted to display art on two levels. The key collection displays Maine’s most famous artistic family, three generations of Wyeths. The youngest, Jamie, painted and still paints landscapes and local residents, while his father Andrew was cast as a twentieth century realist, and his grandfather N.C., was an illustrator whose work included the Far West. Additional artists featured included Andy Warhol, a friend of Jamie Wyeth; Edward Hopper; Rockwell Kent and sculptor Louise Nevelson.

Outside of Rockland, the Owls Head Transportation Museum has an active airfield used to send its collection of antique airplanes airborne and a huge shed housing historic vehicles. One of the most curious was a 1923 popcorn and peanut wagon built on a Model T chassis. Others included a 1948 Buick Special and a varnished wood-sided Ford station wagon. An auction had just taken place, and new owners were collecting the keys to drive away with their new purchases.

Camden & Castine

Red Brick Main Street, Camden, ME. * Photo: Ted Scull

Red Brick Main Street, Camden, ME. * Photo: Ted Scull

The American Star anchored off Camden, a part from Bar Harbor, arguably the Maine Coast’s most popular town known for its handsome brick main street and quality shopping. US Route 1 passes through the center, and as the heavy summer traffic moves so slowly, it is easy to cross the street. Mt. Battie, like Cadillac, affords a fine view down to the town and out to the islands with the ferries leaving a wake in the manner that airliners spew white vapor trails in the sky. A stop in Rockport revealed the limestone industry that thrives to this day, though the coal and wood-burning kilns, steam engines and narrow gauge railroads are displayed as artifacts. However, one standard gauge line still operates to the Rockland docks.

With the Maine Maritime Academy on the summer semester break, Castine exuded an unusually quiet atmosphere. Without a guide, one would have never known that Castine had such a long history that included great wealth based on whaling, salt and timber. Its heyday lasted until the Civil War, and then the summer people arrived with the railroads and steamboats, leaving a legacy of beautiful residential and church architecture.

Castine is home to the Maine Maritime Academy. * Photo: Ted Scull

Castine is home to the Maine Maritime Academy. * Photo: Ted Scull

Belfast & Boothday

The call at Belfast on a river, with the tongue twisting name of Passagassawakeag, gave access to the Penobscot Marine Museum in nearby Searsport. Like many important New England ports, both whaling near and far and the lucrative China trade brought great wealth and important connections to the rest of the world. Successful captains returned from Asia with fine china, furniture and artwork to furnish their opulent houses with some of the treasures presented here in period rooms. Photographs depict life on board during the long voyages out and back, storms at sea, and the British Colony of Hong Kong after the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. An historic video taken by a brave sailor shows mountainous seas sweeping across the open decks and one wondered how the ship survived the pounding. Of course, many did not.

Boothbay Harbor, referred to as the “Boating Capital of New England,” is chock-a-block with pleasure craft and fishing boats. The town is typically very busy in the summer, its streets bordered by flowers and the commercial heart replete with the expected antique and collectible stores and art galleries. If that does not satisfy, then take the excursion to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens two miles out of town.

The last call was at Bath, a venerable shipbuilding town city that found its place back in sailing ship days, building clipper ships, and during World War II, it completed a ship every 17 days. Bath Iron Works, the venerable shipyard, now owned by General Dynamics, is still a major employer building ships for the U.S. Navy, while the Maine Maritime Museum has preserved the earlier days at another now closed shipyard. With its industrial background, the town has city-size buildings completed in Federal, Greek Revival and Italianate styles fronting on the Kennebec River estuary that forms its natural harbor.

Leaving Bath as the fog rolled in, we could hear warning sounds from lighthouses and beacons ashore as well as our American Star’s own horn. After a week of long range views, sunshine and a few drops of rain, the somber atmosphere was almost claustrophobic until we finally broke out of the damp, gray mist to tie up Portland, our disembarkation port.

Congress Street, Portland, Maine. * Photo: Ted Scull

Congress Street, Portland, Maine. * Photo: Ted Scull

 

Click here for more info on American Cruise Lines.

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Pandaw River Cruise on the Mekong

By Ted Scull.

A Taste of Mekong River Cruising.

Throughout my many years of traveling, I’ve found that river journeys have often provided deeper insights into a country’s culture and history than more hectic travel by road or flying from city to city over so much interesting territory.

Outstanding examples that I treasure are cruises along the Upper Amazon in Peru and Brazil; the Danube, Elbe, Rhine and Rhone in Europe; the Volga and connecting waterways in Russia; the eternal Nile in Egypt; the vibrant Yangtze in China, and our own Mississippi, Ohio, Columbia and Snake here in the U.S.A.

Recently, I added the Mekong River in Cambodia and Vietnam to my life-list, and although this river trip is still fresh in my mind, it probably ranks number one when combining all its alluring aspects; the heavily trafficked waterway scenes, varied sights along the banks, intriguing riverside market towns, and the wonderful conveyance, a stylish riverboat that replicated an early 20th century Burmese steamer  with air-conditioning.

The British-owned Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, founded way back in 1865, once operated literally hundreds of river steamers along the Irrawaddy, Chindwin, and Salween and connecting tributaries in British Burma. By 1920, the firm ran the largest privately-owned fleet (650 vessels) in the world with the longest measuring 350-feet and licensed to carry up to 4,000 passengers. When the Japanese invaded Burma in 1942, the flotilla’s officers and crew scuttled the entire fleet so they would not fall into enemy hands.

After the war and Burmese independence, the fleet was slowly rebuilt. Fast forward to 1995 when a Scotsman named Paul Strachan, a Burmese history and literature scholar, seized the opportunity of running river cruises in Southeast Asia. He bought a 1947 Scottish-built riverboat named Pandaw to operate on the Irrawaddy River. As the operation proved successful, he began constructing replica steamers in Myanmar (Burma) and Vietnam and bought the historic name — Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, with the company known commonly as Pandaw Cruises. The fleet, now numbering more than a dozen ships, plies rivers in Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

Pre-Cruise Laos & Cambodia

Prior to joining the 64-passenger Mekong Pandaw in Cambodia, my wife and I visited Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city, followed by Luang Prabang, the former Laotian imperial capital, and Vientiane, its current capital the latter two sited on the upper Mekong. The river’s 3,050-mile journey begins at the edge of the Tibetan plateau, near the source of the Yangtze, passing through or alongside six countries and splitting into nine fingers as it drains through Vietnam’s fertile delta and out into the South China Sea.

Our Mekong river cruising tour began at Siem Reap, Cambodia, near the shores of the vast Tonle Sap Lake, the largest body of freshwater in Southeast Asia one that expands its surface by a factor of six between dry and wet seasons.

Le Grand Hotel d’Angkor, built in 1931 by the French then occupying Indochina, became our luxurious base while visiting the ruins of Angkor Wat, the largest religious site in the world. Constructed in the early 12th century by the Khmers, the temple began as a Hindu site and then morphed into Buddhist, as it is today. We entered via a causeway over a moat that surrounded the 203-acre sandstone complex and passed through the main gate. The place is utterly overwhelming with soaring stone towers, long galleries linking buildings, narrative-scene bas reliefs, and standing depictions of Buddha.

Angkor Wat represents the largest temple in this area that houses many additional temples in styles reflecting the influences of India, China, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Borders here constantly changed over the centuries as invaders and traders came and went, destroying and rebuilding.

Ta Prohm, another ruined complex, revealed what happens when the temples are abandoned and nature takes over. Tree roots and branches worked their way into, over and along walls and penetrated buildings, toppling facades and breaking apart whole structures. The effect was beautiful, exotic and eerie all at once.

Probably the photographed ruin of them all. Photo: © Ted Scull

Probably the photographed ruin of them all. Photo: © Ted Scull

Following two days at Siem Reap, our Pandaw group boarded two half-filled buses for a five-hour drive south across the Cambodian countryside to meet the RV (river vessel) Mekong Pandaw. During the rainy season, Tonle Sap Lake rises sufficiently to allow boats to operate directly from Siem Reap, but this was March, when water levels are at their lowest.

All manner of traffic was vying for space on the main highway trucks laden with goods and riders on top of them; motorbikes with produce piled high for market or with whole families aboard; draft animals pulling heavy wooden wagons; local and long-distance buses; and cars, but not many.

Boarding Mekong Pandaw

Arriving at the river city of Kampong Cham, we drew up to the edge of the Mekong embankment and had our first look at the Mekong Pandaw, home for the next week. The bow had been run up against the bank below, and lines fanned out to be wrapped around tree trunks. Immediately, I thought of the dear old Delta Queen moored along the Mississippi.

Our 200-foot boat below had a three-deck teak superstructure set on a black hull with white wooden sections that enclosed the forward lounge and galley aft. A black funnel rose in the gap between white canvas awnings covering the top deck. Though built only a dozen years ago, it looked enchantingly colonial with accommodations for 64 passengers, while there would be just 35 on our voyage.

With the river level so low, we received assistance from the crew clambering down the embankment to reach the gangway. The captain greeted us, a steward handed out cold towels, and another showed us to our stateroom, where our bags had already arrived.

Cabins were arranged on Upper, Main and Lower decks and ours, 309, was on Upper. The cabin had twin wooden bunk beds with deep drawers beneath, vertical teak paneling, two-tone wooden doors louvered for the closet and bathroom (with stall shower) a vanity with more drawers, wicker stool, wooden luggage stands, two screened windows, and shiny brass handles and knobs. The bulkhead above was painted white, separated into squares by medium tone wooden stripping. For cooling, the cabin had a ceiling fan and air-conditioning with individual controls.

The cabin door opened onto the side promenade, dotted with potted palms and two wicker chairs set at either side, a relaxing location for reading while we made our way down the Mekong from Cambodia into Vietnam.

Ted sitting on the promenade outside of his cabin. Photo: © Ted Scull

Ted sitting on the promenade outside of his cabin.* Photo: Suellyn Scull

For the initial welcome, we all gathered on the Sun Deck (running the boat’s full length) and sat in rattan chairs and settees under the protective awning. A bar was set up at one end and a pool table at the other, with deck chairs in various groupings in between. The Vietnamese purser welcomed us, laid out the plan for the days ahead, and introduced us to the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Burmese officers and crew. We felt in very good hands for the adventure ahead.

Half the passengers were Australians, and the rest were equally divided among Americans, Brits, Swiss, and Germans with the latter two nationalities speaking very good English.

Dining Aboard

Following drinks, hors d’oeuvres, and a briefing about the next day’s activities, the dinner gong sounded, drawing us two decks below to the restaurant, set out with rectangular tables for six, easily expanded to eight. Tall french doors, open at breakfast and lunch, brought in the breezes, while at dinner with the evening rise in humidity, they were shut and the A/C switched on. No time of day was ever uncomfortable here or up on deck as long as one stayed out of the direct sun.

Dinner the first evening produced green papaya seafood salad with peanuts as an appetizer, then broccoli soup followed by three entrees that were put on the table for all to share: two freshly grilled whole fish from the South China Sea, chicken curry, and steamed vegetables. On other nights, we ordered from a menu or again had a choice of three entrees brought to the table. Cambodian and Vietnamese beer and soft drinks were complimentary, and imported wine purchased from a list.

Breakfast, a buffet, had eggs to order. Lunch, also buffet-style, offered stirfry dishes and fresh pasta along with both hot and cold (not spicy) Southeast Asian and Western dishes one treat was grilled crocodile with balsamic vinegar. Everything was well prepared and nicely presented.

One night our table received a bit of a jolt when an English passenger, who had taken lunch in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, returned with a doggie bag. Its contents contained two grilled tarantulas, now considered somewhat of a delicacy but once were a survival food during the Khmer Rouge period (more about that later). I was game to crunch on one of the legs, but not the body nor the head.

Ted Samples the local flavors! Photo: © Ted Scull

Ted Samples the local flavors! *Photo: Suellyn Scull

On the deck above the pilothouse, the air-conditioned lounge bar, attractively furnished with comfortable armchairs and settees, served as the evening venue for films or borrowing a book. Otherwise, most gravitated to the top deck to enjoy the open air, under a canvas cover.

The First Landings

The Mekong Pandaw reversed into the river and headed downstream, tying up below Wat Hanchey, a pagoda complex with a monastery for monks and nuns, school, and recreational playground set high up on a hill. The tree-shaded place was just coming to life for the day with vendors preparing food for lunch and monks sweeping the pavement. We visited a Hindu temple, walking among small Buddhist temples and mausoleums. The children showed us their school, its grounds partially surrounded by colorful statues of animals and fruits that they cheerfully identified for us in English.

Later in the day we visited an orphanage, home for a hundred children supported by the government and private donations. As requested, we came bearing useful gifts from a local market such as pens, pencils, writing tables and notebooks The kids attended a local school and had learned English and French at the orphanage. During the visit, they showed us their paintings, drawings, and handmade clothing that were for sale.

After dark we met the Indochina Pandaw, bound upriver, its powerful spotlight trained on us – and ours on them. The other boat was of a slightly different design with a pilot house high up and forward while ours was on the lowest deck just behind the bow. We exchanged greetings and some needed tools and went on our way.

At Kampong Chhnang the Mekong Pandaw tied up to a pontoon, and we boarded launches to tour the floating Vietnamese community, housing some 1,000 refugees that fled South Vietnam in 1979. The colorfully painted wooden houses, built on rafts, had outboard motors attached to shift them when the rising river required a safer anchorage. Market boats plied the waterway selling produce to the residents, many of whom lived by fishing and operating fish farms.

Boy knows the ropes at a young age • Photo: © Ted Scull

Boy knows the ropes at a young age • Photo: © Ted Scull

The launches dropped us onshore, and we walked through a huge market with purveyors seated behind tables or sitting on the pavement selling food grown in the countryside and brought in by bus, motorbike or bicycle, or fished from the nearby waters. Blacksmiths were busy repairing tools, barbers giving haircuts and roadside cooks preparing meals. At streets that ended down at the Mekong, ferries loaded two- and four-wheel vehicles, heaps of freight, and foot passengers for the river crossing.

Phnom Penh & The Killing Fields

Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s stylish capital, became the most poignant and contrasting stop of the entire week. On one hand we visited the impeccably maintained gilded Royal Palace with its silver-tiled floors and French-era National Museum, a handsome repository for Cambodian history and Angkor period sculpture, and traveled the tree-lined boulevards streets and narrow streets by trishaw. On the other we came face to face with the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979) period, when a communist Cambodia government headed by Pol Pot forced the entire population to vacate the capital for the countryside to take up work as peasant farmers; the resulting starvation, disease, brutal torture, and killings resulted in an estimated two million deaths.

The gilded Royal Palace of Phnom Penh. Photo: © Ted Scull

The gilded Royal Palace of Phnom Penh. Photo: © Ted Scull

 

We learned about the extreme torture treatments at S21, a former school and now genocide museum that was turned into a prison with isolation cells built inside the classrooms. Today, its walls are lined with photos of those who were killed, including most of the female workers. We saw gruesome pictures of the tortures that imprisoned artists were forced to paint.

The revelatory 1984 film The Killing Fields screened onboard our riverboat the previous evening was a grim preparation for our drive out to one of the Killing Fields. Empty pits showed where an estimated 17,000 bodies had been dumped, and the centerpiece was a Thai-style memorial tower housing row upon row of skulls and bits of clothing. Our guide told us that when the Khmer Rouge came to the house to take his family away for execution, one of the executioners recognized his father from when they had been monks together. The immediate family was spared, but not the grandparents, aunts or uncles. It was hard to reconcile such violent recent history against today’s peaceful travel experience.

Crossing into Vietnam

As we entered the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, the now sluggish river split into nine branches and further into a network of connecting channels, resulting in heavily-trafficked river highways crowded with fast and slow passenger boats and barges carrying farm produce, wheat, coal, gravel, bricks, and containers. From the Sun Deck, we watched all manner of stuff slide by, and when passing through towns, the frequent cross-river ferries had the captain hard on his whistle to clear the way. Typically, the ferries did not change course, so we did, to avoid collision.

At Sa Dec, we passed several miles of brick factories, then docked at one to watch the process. Wet clay was carried to machines for turning into hollow bricks, then the excess cut away and individual bricks stacked and carted to kilns for firing. Much of the repetitive work done by hand or by very small machines worked by both men and women. The finished product was then transferred to river barges for distribution.

At Cai Be, the Mekong Pandaw maneuvered its way through a floating market where individual houseboats identified what they were selling by tying a bunch of bananas, a coconut or a dried fish to a bamboo mast. Onshore, we walked along wooded footpaths through a village where residents were working out front of their houses weaving baskets, seated at looms making cloth, or setting dung patties out in the sun to dry into fuel. They looked up and smiled as we paused to watch.

Typical floating market. Photo: © Ted Scull

Typical floating market. Photo: © Ted Scull

Transferring to Ho Chi Minh City

After enjoying a thoroughly insightful week, we disembarked for the 90-minute drive into Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon is still the official name for the city center) and a two-night stay at the InterContinental Asiana Saigon. The bustle and traffic of this energetic city on the move was in sharp contrast to the river’s slow pace and languid lifestyle. Evidence was everywhere that this is a country on the move, most vividly when crossing streets.

Our Pandaw Mekong river cruising experience was just about faultless and as insightful as a relatively short travel experience can be, and I now yearn for a longer trip on the Irrawaddy, the origin of Pandaw’s winsome style of river cruising.

Special Notice: US citizens must have visas for Cambodia (which can be arranged in advance or at most entry points), and for Vietnam (single- or multiple-entry visas have to be obtained in advance). Note: Make absolutely sure of the entry date at the river border from Cambodia into Vietnam there is a financial penalty fee for alterations.

Photo: © Ted Scull

No fun for vegetarians! Photo: © Ted Scull

 

Photo: © Ted Scull

Talk about fresh! Photo: © Ted Scull

 

 

 

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© 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.

By Matt Hannafin.

Welcome to the end of the earth, the place where East lies to the west of West. Sitting just two and a half miles from Alaska at its closest point and stretching over 1,400 miles from north to south, the harsh, sparsely populated, but spectacularly beautiful Russian Far East is unlike anyplace most travelers will ever experience. Going there is like falling off the map, like sailing into the distant past or distant future, like waking up in a world where civilization has barely got a foothold. It seems too fantastical to be real, but at the same time it’s the realest place you’ll ever be.

 

Sailing through the Northwest Passage on the Hanseatic. * Photo: Hapag Lloyd

Sailing through the Northwest Passage on the Hanseatic. * Photo: Hapag Lloyd

Get Your Berings

Twelve thousand years ago, during the last Ice Age, this was a place scientists now call Beringia, a thousand-mile grassland steppe that stretched from Siberia to the Alaskan mainland, forming the “land bridge” by which hunters crossed into and settled the Americas. When the ice age ended, rising seas flooded Beringia, making islands of its volcanic peaks, turning highlands into coast, and delineating the boundary between North America and Asia. Today, the Asian half of Beringia comprises Russia’s Far Eastern territories, from Chukotka in the north through the Kamchatka Peninsula to the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin Island in the south.

Straddling the Arctic Circle, Chukotka is as stark and unforgiving as the face of the moon. Permafrost, strong winds, and the cold, subarctic Oyashio ocean current conspire to keep the landscape treeless, leaving a naked, minimalist tableau of rock, sea, and sky painted here and there by moss-green tundra. Massive, glacier-scoured peaks slope up from a flat silver sea, rolling cloud banks breaking over their ridges like waves about to engulf everything below. In winter, nights here can last 21 hours and temperatures dip to 35 below; in summer there’s enough light to read at midnight, and the tundra blooms with a profusion of wildflowers. Human occupation is sparse: Though Chukotka is larger than France, it is home to only about 48,500 people — fewer than live within the two square miles of New York City’s Chinatown. About a third of the population is made up of Chukchi, Chuvan, Evens, Yukaghir, Yup’ik, Cup’ik, and other native peoples, most of whom rely for their subsistence on fishing, reindeer herding, and whale, walrus, and seal hunting.

One of the Kuril Islands (Wikipedia)

One of the Kuril Islands  *  Photo: Wikipedia

About 87 miles north of mainland Chukotka, Wrangell Island is larger than the state of Delaware but has a population of fewer than 20, all of them rangers or scientists there to monitor or study the island’s flora and fauna. Wrangell and its surrounding waters are a zapovednik, a federally protected nature reserve that functions as a breeding ground for polar bears, walrus, and seals. In summer, thousands of birds nest in its jagged cliffs, and more than 400 plant species spring from the cold soil, more than double the number found on any other Arctic island.

Immediately south of Chukotka is the Kamchatka Peninsula. More welcoming than Chukotka, with a generally subarctic climate that rarely dips below 18°F along the rainy coast, Kamchatka closely resembles Alaska with its rugged landscape of snow-capped mountains, lush coniferous forests, salmon streams, and clear lakes. The wildlife is similar too, with the world’s largest population of brown bears plus moose, reindeer, eagles, and whales. Part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, it is also home to 160 volcanoes (29 of them active) and other geothermal features, including hundreds of mineral springs, hot springs, and geysers. Huge stretches of the peninsula are protected nature preserves, and more than half of the region’s 322,000 people live in its main city, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, located along the southern coast. About 110 miles to the east, the Russian-controlled Commander Islands are the westernmost tip of the US Aleutian Islands chain. Stark, dramatic, treeless, and thinly populated, they’re noted for their marine life and migratory bird population, and for being the final resting place of explorer Vitus Bering, who died here in 1741.

Extending more than 800 miles from the southern tip of Kamchatka to the northern coast of Hokkaido, Japan, the Kuril Islands chain is actually the visible peaks of 56 submerged volcanic mountains, 49 of which are still active. As in Kamchatka, this manifests in numerous hot springs, boiling lakes, and dramatic geological formations. Geopolitics play a big part in the life of the Kurils: For the past 150 years, Japan and Russia have contested ownership of the islands, though Russia has been in control since it wrested the chain from Japanese forces in August 1945, in the very last days of World War II. The usual port of embarkation or debarkation for Kuril Islands cruises is the town of Korsakov on Sakhalin Island, northwest of the southernmost Kurils.

Breathtaking scenery. * Photo: Nobel Caledonia

Breathtaking scenery. * Photo: Nobel Caledonia

See the Sights

  • Watch the wildlife: Wildlife viewing is one of the main draws of Russian Far East cruises, with birdwatchers especially drawn to see the 46 species of migratory seabirds who nest here in summer. Kamchatka’s Koriakskiy Reserve alone sees some 700,000 white-fronted geese, bean geese, whooper swans, little brown cranes, and other birds annually. The cliffs of the Kuril Islands are also home to innumerable rookeries. On land, Kamchatka has the densest population of brown bears in the world, while Chukotka’s Wrangell Island has the world’s greatest density of polar bears, who come her to birth their cubs. Wolves, wolverines, red foxes, Siberian musk deer, musk ox, moose, and reindeer also roam the region, while walrus and blue, fin, sperm, humpback, grey, orca, beluga and other whale species swim in the cold waters offshore.
  • Hike the tundra: Tundra is basically the only thing that will grow in the wet, permafrost-underlaid soil of Chukotka and northern Kamchatka. Essentially a micro-forest ground-cover of grass, mosses, heath, lichens, and dwarf shrubs, tundra can range from a few inches to a few feet thick and make for an unusually spongy hiking experience. Tread lightly to minimize damage, and be extra-careful in the thick stuff, which can hide ankle-turning holes and boot-soaking puddles. Hiking polls aren’t a bad idea.
  • Experience Native culture: At various villages, visiting groups are often treated to programs of traditional song and dance, their storylines depicting heroic tales from the past or traditional activities such as hunting and sewing skins. Songs are sung in unison by the group and include imitations of walrus and seal vocalizations. Underpinning it all is the sharp attack of walrus- or reindeer-skin hoop drums, the only instruments used in the region’s traditional music. Reminders of Native history also dot the region, including the remains of Ainu villages in the Kurils and, on Chukotka’s uninhabited Itygran Island, hundreds of sun-bleached whale ribs and jawbones standing upright in the ground like an Arctic version of Stonehenge.
  • Poke around in Cold War & WWII history: From 1945 to 1990, the Iron Curtain that separated East and West was known in this part of the world as the Ice Curtain, across which alert, suspicious eyes were always gazing. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, many of its Far East bases were simply abandoned. Today you can find remains throughout the region, but especially so in the Kuril Islands, which also hold ruins and remnants of the Russian-Japanese struggle in WWII and before. There are Japanese bunkers on Urup, a Soviet gulag on Atlasova, an abandoned airbase on Matua, and, most evocative of all, the Kraternyy Naval Base, a once-secret Soviet submarine station located within a flooded volcanic caldera on Simushir Island. Built in 1978, it was abandoned just 15 years later. Today, its decaying buildings are littered with maps, charts, broken electronics, and gas masks, while nature gradually reclaims the gun emplacements, half-sunken boats, and other equipment outside.
  • Collect volcano sightings: Kamchatka and the Kuril Islands are together home to more than 200 volcanoes, 78 of them active. If the weather cooperates, you could view dozens. Among the more notable are Kamchatka’s 15,584-foot Kluchevskoy (the largest active volcano in the Northern Hemisphere) and 11,575-foot Kronotsky (possibly the most beautiful, perfectly formed volcano in the world) and 7,674-foot Alaid, the tallest and most beautiful in the Kurils, resembling Japan’s Mount Fuji.
  • Soak in a natural hot spring: Beyond scenic beauty, the presence of all those volcanoes also means Kamchatka and the Kuril Islands are both blessed with hundreds of natural hot springs. Good spots for a soak include the extinct volcanic caldera on Yankicha Island in the Kurils and the hot springs of Kamenistaya Bay in Kamchatka’s Kronotskiy Biosphere Reserve. 
  • See the US from Russia: Technically, Sarah Palin’s chestnut about being able to see Russia from Alaska (and the reverse) is true, but you have to go to impossibly remote Cape Dezhnev to do it, and you have to hope there’s no fog. The extreme northeastern point of the Eurasian continent, Cape Dezhnev is named for explorer Semyon Dezhnev, who was the first European to sail through the Bering Strait. Today there’s a monument to him on a rocky hill, near an abandoned Soviet border guard station.
The local fashions. * Photo: Nobel Caledonia

The local fashions. * Photo: Nobel Caledonia

Culture Shock

The Russian government maintains a restrictive and complicated visa regime for travelers, so be prepared to get your application in on time and filled out correctly. When arriving, expect immigration and customs checks to be thorough and strict, and be sure to keep your passport and visa with you at all times while you’re in-country. On the cultural side, take your shoes off if you’re entering someone’s home, wear a head scarf (if you’re a woman) when entering a Russian Orthodox church, and don’t point with your fingers as it’s considered rude.

Choose a Cruise

A number of exploration-minded cruise lines explore the Russian Far East on ships that carry between 48 and 184 guests, including Aurora Expeditions, Polar Cruises, Heritage Expeditions, Arctic Odysseys, Lindblad Expeditions (which merged with the former Orion Expeditions), and Hapag-Lloyd Cruises.

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By Ted Scull.

Married as I am to an Australian — a Queenslander, to be more specific — we trek out to the old country with certain regularity. After de rigueur family time, we then choose an exciting new domestic destination to expand our horizons in a country nearly as large as the U.S. but with less than seven percent of the population.

My wife wanted to explore the Top End, that is Australia’s upper reaches, located well within the tropic zone that spreads to both sides of Darwin, the Northern Territory’s capital city. I wanted to add a cruise for part of the three weeks we had set aside for traveling.

Top End Geography

In Australia, most people live along the coasts, from Sydney north to Cairns on the east coast; between Melbourne and Adelaide in the south; and to either side of Perth on the west. The Top End, up north, is by far the least populated with hundreds of miles of coastline and vast inland regions virtually devoid of human presence. This is the Outback in its most dramatic presentation, and its considerable delights are poorly appreciated even by the native Aussies. Some destinations we would reach weren’t even mapped when my wife was a schoolgirl.

East of Darwin is known as Arnhem Land, Aboriginal territory with restricted access, and to the west is the Kimberley, a distinctive geological land mass that collided with the Australian continent some 1.8 billion years ago. Uplift and tropical weathering of the sandstone and volcanic rocks have created fantastic landscapes of brilliant colors seen nowhere else. Rivers cut deep gorges, and waterfalls tumble off high plateaus into the Timor Sea.

Caves perched a couple of hundred feet up rocky faces contain Aboriginal rock art dating from a few thousand to as many as 50,000 years ago — the upper range arguably the oldest depictions of human figures known to man. Shoreline mangroves harbor saltwater crocodiles, sea turtles, poisonous sea snakes, and exotic birds. Tides range over 30 feet, the second highest in the world. Road access is primitive or non-existent.

Several small expedition-style cruise lines cruise the remote Kimberley Coast during “The Dry”  the relatively cool Austral winter season of little humidity and mostly blue skies. We chose Orion Expedition Cruises (now Lindblad Expeditions) operating a stabilized 4,000-gross-ton ship. The new renamed National Geographic Orion takes up to 106 passengers, and while the ship is currently operating elsewhere, Coral Expeditions’ Coral Princess makes these Kimberley Coast 10-day March to September voyages between Darwin and Broome, the latter an old pearling port in Western Australia.

Built in Germany in 2003, Orion is designed to handle the world’s roughest seas happily not where we were headed, but from New Zealand south to Antarctica (and now more often from Argentina south to the White Continent). On our cruise to the Kimberley, passengers were mostly Australians, escaping winter in Victoria and New South Wales. A more international English-speaking mix is found on better known destinations such as Papua New Guinea, Melanesia, Southeast Asia and New Zealand’s South Island. The ship’s captain was German and the crew mostly Filipinos. 

The City of Darwin

We arrived in Darwin two days early to see the sights. With a population of fewer than 100,000, the modern city sits atop a plateau overlooking the Timor Sea and serves as a base for cruises, trips into the Outback and to the nearby Indonesian islands. The better hotels look across a leafy cliff-side park to the sea, and one block inland, an arcaded street offers varied restaurants and stores selling Australian and Aboriginal art and crafts as well as cultured pearls farmed locally along the coast.

The Japanese bombed Darwin 64 times during World War II, and there are museums and memorials dedicated to wartime defenses, aviation and naval history. The Darwin Botanical Gardens, within walking distance of the center, spreads over 105 acres replete with palms, orchids, boab trees and mangroves. At the edge of town and accessed by bus or taxi, the splendid Museum and Art Gallery Of The North Territory includes Aboriginal and Indonesian art and natural history exhibits of preserved Australian birds, mammals, and exotic reptiles and spiders that will send chills down your spine. Films and photographs tell the story of Cyclone Tracy, a Christmas Eve 1974 storm that virtually leveled the city.

Introducing the Orion

We awoke early on sailing day to catch the Orion sliding by our balcony to dock less than a mile away. Embarking in mid-afternoon, we found our big-windowed cabin attractive, roomy and with more than enough stowage space. Amenities included a flat screen TV with a good variety of programming, unlimited complimentary bottled water stocked in the fridge, fresh fruit, and a marble bath.

Shortly after settling in, four Australian naturalists, who during a daily pre-dinner ritual, briefed us about what lay ahead and would provide lively PowerPoint recaps of our day.

Ten Zodiacs, (stable rubber inflatables), carried us everywhere. After an initial sea day, the first outing took us to the base of King George Falls, its pencil-thin waters plunging off a thousand-foot high cliff, with colored layers of rock intermingling with the horizontal black and white stone strata. The sprightlier amongst us clambered up a steep, rocky path to then peer over the edge to those bobbing below.

That afternoon, we landed on a sandy beach in Vansittart Bay, then traipsed a half-mile inland over tidal salt flats to a now wooded spot where an American DC3 had crashed landed in 1942 after the pilot became lost. Broken in two, and with both wings severed, the crew escaped without major injury and was rescued some five days later.

The highly entertaining evening cocktail-hour recaps led into convivial dinners either at an open sitting in the main restaurant or often out on deck, given the continuously fine weather that is typical of late July. A daily changing Degustation Menu was featured along with an additional page of alternatives. Given Australia’s top quality produce, meals were invariably a great treat, featuring delicious entrees such as slow-cooked lamb loin, olive-roasted chicken supreme, and grilled yellow-fin bream.

One night under the stars, a seafood extravaganza displayed freshly shucked oysters, grilled prawns, Moreton Bay bugs (a flavorful crustacean), blue swimmer crabs, red claw yabbies (a crayfish), and sea bass. On another occasion, an Australian barbecue produced steak, chicken, sausages and grilled barramundi (a reef fish). The impressive wine list features mostly Australian and New Zealand varieties, and we had no problem with that.

Dangers Lurk, Snagging a Big One & Aboriginal Art

We sailed westward onto the Hunter River, where our Zodiacs cruised amongst mangroves to spot saltwater crocodiles resting on mudflats. Their presence and the additional company of seasonal and highly poisonous box jellyfish, kept us out of the alluring tropical waters. However, a few tidal swimming holes at the base of freshwater falls provided a refreshing dip, once they had been thoroughly scouted out.

With a fast falling tide, water cascaded off Montgomery Reef, and at its edge we saw more crocodiles, sea turtles, lots of colorful fish ad the highly venomous olive sea snake.

Once or twice a day, a naturalist took a fishing party of four out to try their luck. Our boat caught and threw back bat fish, crimson sea bass, scarlet rock cod, Spanish flag, and a dangerous stone fish. My line hooked a 20-pound giant trevally (a good eating fish) and a 50- to 60-pound shark. I fought for an hour, triumphantly reeling it in only to have the line suddenly stream out again. In the end, the shark broke the light tackle, and I ended up with mighty sore muscles for the next two days.

Aboriginal art abounds in thousands of Outback locations, and at Raft Point, we hiked a couple hundred feet up a red limestone cliff to an overhanging cave where on the ceiling we marveled at other worldly whitish figures (spirits), painted with enormous black eyes, rectangular noses, no mouths, and heads surrounded by halo headdresses. The aborigines claim that this so-called Wandjina style was drawn by creator beings of the Dreaming, while the Bradshaw or Gwion Gwion art was done by humans. That latter style, seen at other locations, depict humans often as stick figures accompanied by fish and other wildlife.

Not all mornings and afternoons had us piling into Zodiacs. Down times provided opportunities to read on deck and enjoy afternoon tea in the forward observation lounge. Lectures gave us lessons in Aboriginal art and why there are cassowaries, emus, wallabies, and wombats in Australia and nowhere else.

An exploratory cruise such as this one is a joyfully shared experience at meals, during social hours, in the Zodiacs, and ashore. And while most North Americans have led a life free from venom, Australians from every state seemed to have had brown snake, scorpion, or red back spider encounters in their own gardens. So rooting around the Kimberley may seem less dicey for Aussies than it is for Northern Hemisphere visitors.

Arriving at Broome & Driving Back

Disembarking from the Orion at Broome’s half-mile-long pier, designed to handle the huge tidal fluctuations, we had arrived at a town of about 11,000 originally founded on the pearling industry — once natural and now cultured. More recently, tourism arrived because beautiful Cable Beach, fronting on the Indian Ocean, offers safe swimming and attractive resorts draw visitors from Australia and abroad.

After a day’s pause we climbed into a four-wheel-drive vehicle and took to the two-lane Great Northern Highway for a week’s drive back to Darwin via the Bungle Bungles (Purnululu National Park), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park displays a fantastic landscape with thousands of orange-and-gray-striped beehive-shaped rock formations, plus deep intersecting gorges, riverbeds, and chasms to explore by foot. We did come upon a brown snake, though it stretched barely a foot  no doubt, its much larger parents were lurking in the shadows nearby. Fortunately, our encounter was without incident; the Orion carries a doctor, but we were on our own in The Bungle Bungles.

Click here for more info on Lindblad Expeditions.  See also www.coralexpeditions.com/au/ (copy & paste).

 

 

 

 

 

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Swan Hellenic's Minerva at Nice, French Riviera. * Photo: William J. Mayes

Swan Hellenic’s Minerva at Nice, French Riviera. * Photo: William J. Mayes

By Ted Scull.

Swan Hellenic’s origins, offering culturally rich cruises, date back to 1954 when two brothers named Swan began chartering Greek and Turkish ships to explore the Eastern Mediterranean, the Hellenic world of antiquity. More recently, the year-round program of culturally rich cruises have fanned out beyond the Med. to Northern Europe and through Suez to the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia.

The lecture program always was and still is Swan Hellenic’s great strength. Every cruise hosts three to five onboard guest speakers aboard appropriate to the itinerary. On a recent voyage that called at English, Irish and French ports, lecturers included an historian, writer, military specialist and an Anglican clergyman and nearly all talks were both informative as well as entertaining.

Entertainment is kept low-key to include a pianist, harpist, a classically trained quartet, house musicians, a crew show, a cinema, team quizzes and bridge instruction.

It was on Swan Hellenic’s chartered Orpheus in 1991 that I discovered my favorite style of cruising (vs crossings) on an itinerary that called at Greek, Turkish, Syrian, Egyptian and Jordanian ports. At breakfast on the first morning, the maitre d’ showed me to a table soon to be joined by Robert Runcie, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, and his wife. He was traveling as a guest lecturer on Byzantine history. If this was to be a taste of Swan-style democracy, I was going to cotton onto it.

Subsequently, highlights of that cruise included two-day overland trips to Damascus and Aleppo in Syria, and in Jordan, visiting the hidden valley at Petra and standing amongst Jerash’s fantastic ruins as night fell.

Orpheus to Minerva

In 1996, Swan Hellenic took on the charter of the 352-passenger Minerva, the line’s present ship, a vessel originally designed to serve as a Russian spy ship, then completed to Swan’s specifications.

Gone was the Greek décor and Anglo-Greek food and enter the English country-house hotel. Minerva could boast the largest library afloat, and the main lounge held all passengers for the lecture program that might run to four talks on a full sea day. Attendance, of course, was not mandatory but it might as well have been as most showed up or watched on their cabin televisions. That sort of enthusiasm engenders a shared cruise experience.

Business boomed and by 2003, Swan took on the larger 688-passenger Minerva II (that had formerly traded as Renaissance Cruises R Eight). But by 2007, the giant Carnival Corporation, Swan Hellenic’s owners since the take-over of P&O, had pulled the plug on the one-ship operation.

Never underestimate Swan loyaltists. Sir Jeffery Sterling, former chairman of P&O, came to the rescue, buying the Swan name and passenger list, and All Leisure, a UK holding company, got hold of a ship that turned out to be none other than the original Minerva. The cruise program resumed in May 2008. Most who knew the original Minerva, including me, delighted in the return of the smaller ship and its wonderful collection of paintings, prints, maps and photographs.

Ship’s Tour

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

Forward on the same Main Deck, the Darwin Lounge, held up by white fluted ionic columns, offers theater-style seating for lectures and evening entertainment, and otherwise, lounge-type seating, wooden dance floor, and bandstand.

On Bridge Deck portside, the Wheeler Bar pays homage to Sir Mortimer Wheeler, one of Swan’s founders – scholar, intrepid traveler, and later chairman. One section offers wicker furniture set amidst potted palms and another, overstuffed armchairs and couches facing mahogany tables.

On the same deck, the long gallery-style library, with the lecturers’ spouses in charge, is lined with open book shelves, comfortable reading chairs, reference books, and flat surfaces for studying atlases and using the computer stations. If buying an e-mail package, the rates are remarkably inexpensive. Next-door are the paneled smoking lounge with button leather chairs and card room for bridge players.

High up on Promenade Deck, the Orpheus Lounge serves as an observatory with 270-degree views and a bar with music at night. An outdoor promenade, ideal for that constitutional, wraps around the Orpheus Lounge.

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

Cabins are of mostly moderate size with 100 outside and an additional 44 with balconies. Most have showers (some have full-size baths), fridges, safes, and TVs with BBC and Euro news channels.

A swimming pool, located aft, is surrounded by wooden chairs and tables under umbrellas. Additionally, the Promenade Deck up by the funnel has blue and white cushioned plastic deck chairs shared with a small glassed-in gymnasium.

The passenger list is largely British, 60 and up, and cruise packages, including air and transfers, are available to North Americans. The atmosphere is a well-mannered one, and most passengers enjoy the social life and companionship in the lounge bars and during meals. Days at sea bring out avid readers who find ample places to roost.

Embarkation

On a blustery but sunny afternoon in late July, my wife and I embarked in Dover, southeast of London, for a two-week cruise that would circle Ireland and then visit Northern France before returning to England.

Our cabin was a Superior grade outside with a large mirrored picture-window facing the promenade deck, a walk-in closet and a tub bath for a favorite end-of-the-day soak after traipsing across the countryside.

We set sail at 3 p.m., passing beneath the famous White Cliffs of Dover for the overnight run through the English Channel to Dartmouth. After sailing up the impossibly narrow River Dart, filled with small boats and fringed by steep green hills, the ship anchored for the day below the Britannia Royal Naval College.

Swan Hellenic includes shore excursions in the cruise fares and offers optional extra tours at a fair price. Our destination was mystery writer Agatha Christie’s Greenway, once her home and a repository for her books and travel scrapbooks that gave rise to exotic Eastern Mediterranean and Egypt settings in her novels. The homey Georgian house, set in gardens that tumble down to the Dart, was first opened to the public by the National Trust in early 2009.

During the sea day en route to Cobh (formerly Queenstown) in Ireland, we had our first lectures – on Viking incursions, subsequent military invasions by the Spanish and French, and later Irish emigration from our next port to North America and Australia.

Ireland: South & West Coast

We docked at Cobh’s railway pier, the same spot whence 2.5 million Irish had embarked for new lives in North America and Australia. Today, the station houses the Heritage Centre telling the Queenstown Story using drawings, photographs, Movietone News footage, and models of ships and their accommodations. A separate section recalls the off-shore sinking of the Cunard liner Lusitania in May 1915 by a German U-boat with a loss of 1,198 lives, including 128 U.S. citizens.

As it is Swan policy not fill excursion buses to capacity, we were just 32 on the trip to Kinsale, a historic port during the wine trade days and now a colorful small town best known as Ireland’s gastronomic center and a yachting harbor. Just out of town, we visited the imposing pentagonal Charles Fort, built in the late 17th century as a coastal defense against French invaders.

The Irish theme continued with a day’s call at Glengarriff and a fetchingly scenic coastal drive to Castletownbere, the country’s second largest fishing port after Killybeggs our next port of call. The deep-sea fleets fish for cod, hake, haddock, salmon, sole and tuna, with mussel farming close in shore. It’s a treat to walk amid the activity of unloading the catch and making boat repairs.

During the passage around the top of Ireland, we attended lectures on early Irish art such as elaborate metalwork in gold, silver and enamel and beautiful scrollwork exemplified by the outstandingly beautiful Book of Kells on display in Dublin. Another talk covered the Scottish invaders, English landholders, Anglo-Irish conflicts and the troubles between the Catholics and Protestants that continue up to the present day.

Belfast & Dublin

During our call at Belfast, Swan provided a free shuttle bus to and from the center of town for those who wished to stay ashore following the tour. Once one of the world’s most important shipbuilding centers, the city shows off its architecturally rich Donegal Square and connecting shopping streets.

We took the tour to Mount Stewart, a National Trust property with its owner still in residence. Built between 1744 and 1820, the imposing seaside house, containing beautiful furnishings, is set amongst sloping landscaped gardens that surround a central lake.

Sailing overnight to Dublin, we docked in the container port. As we had been here several times before, we availed ourselves of the free shuttle to Kildare Street. The city center is compact enough to enjoy an on-foot tour of the 18th-century Georgian architecture typified by the lovely residential squares and row houses with brightly painted doors.

For a different sort of outing, we visited 140-year-old Kilmainham Goal where the leaders of the Irish rebellions were incarcerated and sometimes executed. It serves as a museum of the history of Irish nationalism as well as view into brutal social conditions of the day, including jailing children because their parents were also imprisoned.

After a pub supper and a pint of Guinness on O’Connell Street, the city ‘s main thoroughfare, we returned to the Minerva for a late evening sailing through the Irish Sea en route to the Isles of Scilly, strung out off the southwestern-most point of England.

Isles of Scilly

Disembarking by launch, we landed within easy walking distance of Tresco Abbey Gardens, established in the early 19th century as a fabulous repository of sub-tropical plants and flowers, warmed by the Gulf Stream and protected from strong winds by towering stands of Monterey Pines. The various landscaped gardens exhibit colorful species from the Mediterranean, South America and Australasia, creating a delightful botanical medley.

Onto La Belle France

To prepare for our landings at St. Malo and Caen, the military historian described the events of World War II in a talk about the Battle of the Atlantic and another on the Allied landings at Omaha and Utah beaches, beginning with the elaborate preparations for D- Day (June 6, 1944) and how victory was snatched from possible disaster.

We called first at Caen, where the excursion took us on-site to Gold Beach, Arromanches–Les Bains. Here we viewed the coastal military installations, remnants of the artificial Mulberry Harbor that provided protection from the stormy seas during the Normandy landings and a museum housing a scale model of the operations.

St. Malo provided a far more peaceful visit. Squeezing through a lock into the inner basin, Minerva tied up beneath the walls of the old town, faithfully reconstructed after the WWII bombings. Within, the narrow medieval streets led to a lively quarter packed with stalls and outdoor seafood restaurants serving heaps of crabs, langoustines, mussels and oysters.

The day’s outing headed inland through the hilly Breton countryside to Dinan, a medieval river port surrounded by 11th-century walls and with a labyrinth of narrow streets lined by timbered houses. From the ramparts we looked down on the lower town clustered along the River Rance that connects the city to the sea.

Wrapping it Up

In a brief two-week period, Minerva had taken us to a wide variety of small villages and relatively large cities; landscapes that included rugged coastlines, inland farmlands, and river valleys; and an isolated island all accompanied by expert interpretation on the subjects of ancient Celtic and Viking culture, Irish literature and art, European wars and religious conflicts.

As most places seemed so peaceful today, it was sometimes hard to imagine the conflicts, unrest and destruction of the past until we visited Kilmainham Goal, planted our feet on the Normandy beaches or heard the tales of war from one of the veterans aboard ship who had been there as a young man.

A Swan Hellenic cruise has an uncanny way of bringing passengers together to enjoy a shared experience that engenders a lively social life at meals, gatherings on deck and on tour.

Click here for more info on Swan Hellenic.

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Tahiti cruise

Tahiti Cruise

By Heidi Sarna.

Note: Star Clippers isn’t sailing in Tahiti these days (though Paul Gauguin Cruises is), but you’ll get the picture. Read on.

It was as much the prospect of long overdue togetherness as the allure of Tahiti that motivated three busy working women living on opposite ends of the earth to coordinate their schedules. The South Pacific island chain is one of the most mythical, romantic and dreamed about places on the globe, not to mention one of the most remote. To make the trip happen, my husband held down the fort at home in Singapore and played soccer dad; Los Angeles school principal Rachael put the assistant in charge; and Chrissy happily fled the dreary March weather in New York.

Our Tahiti boondoggle came almost 20 years after our first exotic girls-only getaway to Guatemala a year after we graduated from college. A couple of decades later meant our reunion retreat had a slightly different feel, with the chatter of wide-eyed idealists fresh into adulthood replaced with talk of tough times, confidence found and fine lines. But we had traveled so far to do more than dish about husbands, boyfriends, and fat thighs, we trekked to French Polynesia to reconnect with nature too. From the decks of a rugged 19th-century style clipper ship, we set off to explore the Pacific like the Polynesians and the Europeans did centuries before.

We appreciated the creature comforts of Star Clippers’ 1991-built Star Flyer, from carpeted cabins with televisions to a cozy restaurant, but what mattered most was the authentic sailing experience created by the four-masted ship’s full sails, rigging and teak decks. When conditions are right, the Star Flyer shuts off its engines and moves under sail power alone. We spent nearly every evening watching the sun set from the top deck with the wind in our hair and the bow sprit bucking in the surf, clearing our minds and feeding our souls. Before bed, it was back on deck to stare up into the star-dusted inky black sky and listen to Rachael, our very own amateur astronomer, point out the constellations.

The Star Flyer in Tahiti in 2009. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The 170-passenger Star Flyer couldn’t have suited our tastes better. Though our lives have taken their own twists and turns through the years, we’re still in sync on the style of travel we prefer (adventurous), the kind of fun we like (goofy and down-to-earth), and the people we like to do it with (each other). We’re a trio of 40-somethings with a bohemian edge and a strong-as-ever streak to try anything once.

The Itinerary

Our voyage included stops at two of French Polynesia’s five island groups, the Tuamotu and Society islands. A vast area stretching across thousands of miles of the Pacific Ocean, most of French Polynesia’s 118 islands and atolls are what’s left of extinct volcanoes. Many islands are surrounded by gorgeous lagoons, palm-fringed motus (islets) and barrier reefs teeming with underwater sea life. The remoteness of French Polynesia means it’s never over-run with tourists and doesn’t feel over-developed.

Spiritual Snorkeling

From one port to the next, we were continually awed by the stunning color of the teal-blue lagoons. The best snorkeling was near the island of Tahaa. We signed up for the “Coral Garden Snorkel Drift” and were taken via speedboat to a site near a remote motu. In single file, our small group glided atop the clear water, looking down at the spectacular scene. Fuchsia sea anemones exposed their noodle-y appendages and ridged clamshells seem to smile with bright purple and green lips. I’ll never forget the psychedelic colors of the Checkerboard Wrasse fish.

On the way back, we three stared into the horizon lost in thought as the boat zipped through the gorgeous landscape, and were reminded of a similarly magical boat ride we took off the coast of Belize two decades before.

Idyllic Motus

Another highlight was the barbecue lunch the crew prepared on another idyllic motu near Tahaa. After snorkeling a few feet offshore and checking out the long spined sea urchins hiding in the craggy coral, we sat under the shade of palm tree and nibbled on seafood kebabs and sipped Hinano beers as a troupe of traditional Polynesia dancers in grass skirts and coconut shell bras shook their lower halves in impossible ways and a chorus of ukuleles serenaded them. My eyes welled up with tears at the sheer beauty of the scene. The music and the searing blue sky and sea behind the dancers created one of the most amazing moments of my traveling life.

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The classic dancers in grass skirts on a motu in French Poly. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Legendary Bora Bora

In Bora Bora, we signed up for the “Shark and Ray Feeding” snorkeling tour. Our motorboat moved through the azure lagoon towards the reef as we sat soaking up our surroundings and the twin peaks of Bora Bora behind us (unfortunately, our guides didn’t think anything of throwing the anchor overboard into the coral instead of using a mooring buoy). Our small group followed the two hunky guides, each with fistfuls of chum, into the sea. Soon surrounded by stingrays, we giggled and shrieked and latched on to each other like school girls as the creatures rubbed up against us.

At the next spot, we snorkeled near a group of black-tipped lagoon sharks (the Star Flyer’s many optional dive trips led to plenty of shark sightings). The excursion ended at a quiet beach where the pastel sea was as warm as bath water and the sand powdery soft. The guides scaled trees, gathered coconuts and hacked them open and we ate the delicious white meat inside.

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The twin peaks of Bora Bora. * Photo: Heidi a

Another interesting tour was a short visit to a pearl farm on the Rangiroa atoll to see how Tahitian black pearls are farmed and produced; afterwards, we each bought a pendant as a keepsake of our trip.

Onboard Fun

To teach us all something about where we were going, Cruise Director Frederic, a tall charming Belgian with sun-streaked shoulder-length hair, lectured in English, German and French from the open decks about French Polynesia’s geography, history and culture. He was also the MC of evening entertainment, which ranged from campy crew and passenger talent and fashion shows to silly games like the Miss Bora Bora contest that had everyone in stitches.

At the weekly pirate night party, always-creative Chrissy outdid us all with her eye-patch, painted-on beard, and knife-in-mouth spot-on pirate imitation. Some nights, after-dinner entertainment was mellower and mood setting, including a viewing of the 1935-version of the film Mutiny on the Bounty shown on deck and another evening, a fascinating short documentary called Around Cape Horn with footage of a tall ship in a storm in 1929.

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Pirate night theme party on board. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

A big part of the Star Flyer’s appeal is the accessibility and friendliness of the crew. The captain and his staff welcome questions and expect them, and passengers are periodically invited to climb the masts and help heave the lines. We enjoyed harmless flirtations with Frederic and jokes with the poker-faced Vitaliy, a navigation officer form the Ukraine. The three young Swedish water sports assistants were popular, not just for their boy-band looks, but for their helpful attitude; they showed no impatience with three 40-somethings who couldn’t water ski quite as well as they remembered.

The open-air Tropical bar on deck is the ship’s social hub. We were definitely among the youngest passengers on board by a couple of decades, but no matter, it was a young-at-heart, outdoorsy crowd who enjoyed mingling over mai tais and sharing stories of shark sightings and dolphin encounters.

Chilling in the bow sprit net! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

When some down time was called for, we hibernated in our cozy little cabin for a snooze or a gab fest. I claimed the bunk that folded down from the ceiling, while my two friends took the pair of beds below. The nautical décor was cute — navy blue carpeting with golden knots — and the storage space was adequate for Chrissy’s extensive girly dress collection, my mishmash of linen and denim, and Rachael’s practical earth-tone duds.

We didn’t mind the tight quarters one bit, after all togetherness was the whole point and French Polynesia needless to say, was the ideal rendezvous.

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