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The Emmylou plies the Murray River.

Murray River Cruises.

Virtually unknown outside of Australia and New Zealand, the Murray River, navigable for hundreds of miles, threads through the Outback between New South Wales and Victoria and enters South Australia to then empty into a vast lake at the edge of the Southern Ocean.

Its banks were first settled by Aborigines thousands of years ago and in modern times it became the country’s food bowl. By the mid-19th-century the Murray was navigation route for fleets of steamboats.

Today, that legacy is the largest collection of paddle steamers in the world, several operating overnight cruises of up to a week and others offering daytime trips from several different landings.

Read writer William Worden’s account of a recent Murray River adventure, “Two Nights in the Museum.”

The Murray Princess on the Murray River

Murray Princess. * Photo: Murray Princess Cruises

Murray River cruises are operated by several different companies; offering one nighters on up to a week, some year-round.

In this review, we will look at the three most active boats. The largest resembles a relatively small version of Mississippi sternwheelers and the smallest a design all its own.

Visit riverside ports that grew up during the steamboat era and the life of the early settlers, indigenous people’s sights, banks lined with red gum trees, native Australian wildlife drawn to the river and some seen, especially at dawn and dusk, nowhere else.

At night while seated on deck, powerful beams of light help pick out the activity. During the day, local expert guides take passengers on walks to historical sites and local state parks.

The PS Rothbury on the Murray River

Two kids are fascinated by the churning paddle wheel as the P.S. Rothbury docks. * Photo: Ted Scull

The Fleet

The largest, the PS Murray Princess, is a genuine inland paddle wheeler, expressly built in 1986 for the Murray River with a classic design and modern comforts. 120 passengers.

Proud Mary, built 1982 as the Murray Expedition with 28 passengers. Major refit in 1986, now 36 passengers.

Emmylou, a true paddle steamer first built in 1981, is based on the Murray River at Echuca, and is the only wood-fired paddler in the world offering regular overnight cruises. She is powered by a restored 1906 Marshall and Sons steam engine and fueled by redgum logs. Her old-world charm also offers modern comforts in the recently refurbished cabins. Emmylou was named after the country singer Emmylou Harris, and along with the PS Pevensey, PS Emmylou starred in the TV series “All the Rivers Run” as the PS Providence.

Murray River

Proud Mary * Photo:: Murray River Cruises

Passenger Decks

Murray Princess — 5 decks; elevators between some decks; Proud Mary — 3 decks, no elevator; Emmylou — 2 decks, no elevator.

Passenger Profile

For all three vessels — passengers are largely Australian, with some New Zealanders, Europeans and North Americans in the mix.

Ted Scull on a ferry crossing the Murray River.

Ted Scull exploring the Murray River valley, crossing by free ferry at Mannum. * Photo: Suellyn Scull

Price

$ to $$

Itineraries

Murray Princess — 3-night Wetlands Cruise (Friday am to Monday am); 4-night Heritage Cruise (Monday pm to Friday am); 7-night Murraylands Cruise combines both. Departs every Fri and Mon at 4:30 pm, returns Fri and Mon at 9:00am. Cruises depart from Murray Bridge, 1.25 hour from Adelaide, capital of South Australia.

Proud Mary — 2-night Discovery Cruise departs every Friday 8:00 pm and returns Sunday 4:30 pm; 5-night Wildlife Cruise departs every Sunday 8:00 pm and returns Friday 4:00 pm. Cruises depart from Murray Bridge.

Emmylou

  • 1-night Weekend Wine and Dine Gourmet Experience departs Saturday 6:30 pm;
  • 2-night Upper Murray Wine and Eco Cruise departs 6:00 pm;
  • 2-night Mitchelton & Emmylou Gourmet Escape departs Melbourne Friday approximately 9:00 am returns to Echuca dock 9:30 am to be transferred back to Melbourne;
  • 2-night Golf Cruise Package departs 6:00 pm returns approx. 4:00 pm (after 2nd round of golf);
  • 3-night Golf Cruise Package departs 6:00 pm returns approx. 4:00 pm (after 2nd round of golf);
  • 3-night Upper Murray Discovery Cruise departs Monday 6:00 pm returns Thursday 9:30 am;
  • 4-night Upper Murray Explorer Cruise departs Monday 10:00 am returns Friday 9:30 am;
  • 4-night Discovery Cruise Retreat Package Cruise departs Sunday 6:30 pm returns Tuesday where you will be transferred to Talo Retreat for a 1-night glamping experience.

Note: Echuca is located on the Murray River in northern Victoria, three hours by car or train from Melbourne.

The Emmylou plies the Murray River.

Emmylou. * Photo: Theo van Loon

Why Go?

To soak up the river scene, lined with redgum trees, parks, and small- to medium-size towns. Enjoy the Aboriginal history, white settler history, unusual species of birds and animals, and camaraderie between nationalities.

Bird species number 98 including cockatoos, Australian pelicans, parrots, ibis; 53 kinds of frogs; 46 species of snakes; 100 lizard varities; and 7 types of turtles; plus platypus and wombats.

Under the surface lurk yabbies (crayfish), eels, catfish, and perch, and sometimes on the banks, turtles and snakes. Some cruises pass through locks built to tame the river’s flow.

The wildlife along a Murray River cruise.

Azura Kingfisher.

Murray River Cruising

Mistletoe

When to Go?

Australia’s seasons are reversed; summers can be very hot, and winters cool and sometimes cold.

Cabins

Murray Princess — 60 cabins and staterooms (larger) arranged on three decks, with private bathroom, adjustable air-conditioning, electric blankets. Dimensions about 12 sq. meters (130 sq. ft.). Staterooms (6) open onto the outside deck and include a fridge and tea/coffee making facilities. Four have a double and a single bed. Outside Cabins (45) open onto the outside deck and have picture windows (twin/double/triple). Inside Cabins (9) open onto an inside passageway and have portholes facing the outside (twin/double).

A cabin on the Murray Princess.

Murray Princess Stateroom. * Photo: Murray River Cruises

Proud Mary — 18 similar river-view cabins on all three decks open onto the side promenade and have either twin or double beds, private facilities, individually controlled air-conditioning, coffee and tea making facilities and hair dryers.

Emmylou — 9 cabins provide a choice of recently refitted accommodations that range in price. Main Deck 2 cabins with twin beds, shared bathroom and wheel chair accessible; Upper Deck 2 cabins with twin beds, private facilities; Upper Deck 2 cabins with double bed, private facilities; Upper Deck 2 cabins queen bed, private facilities; Emmylou suite with double bed, private facilities. Individually controlled air conditioning units, hair dryers in each cabin. Tea and coffee making facilities are in the bar area. Note: The main deck is accessible by wheelchair after crossing the crank shaft, assistance provided. Upper Deck is not wheelchair accessible.

Public Rooms

Murray Princess — Bar forward, lounge aft; gift shop, library and videos; highest deck, partially awning covered; guest laundry and 24-hour tea and coffee facilities.

Proud MaryWell-appointed bar, lounge, and dining area share a space, book collection. Partly covered open deck space.

Emmylou — Public spaces on one deck, cabins on another. Free WiFi in public areas and cabins.

Dining

Murray Princess — Open single seating in a charming historic steamboat setting, served and buffet dining, and Captain’s Dinner. Australian meals with local produce. Special campfire barbecue on the banks of the Murray River during the Heritage Cruise (on four-nighter only).

Murray Princess Dining Room

Murray Princess Dining Room. * Photo: Murray River Cruises

Proud Mary — One open seating and similar arrangements and menus as Murray Princess.

Emmylou —Dining is open-air with the chef using fresh local ingredients for Australian offerings. Most dietary requirements accepted with advance notice. Also, riverside campfires and BBQ’s. On 3- and 4-night cruises wine and beer included at dinner.

Activities & Entertainment

Murray Princess — Two spas, two saunas, sun deck. Speedboat and guided trips ashore to see small towns and wildlife.

Proud Mary — Explore at leisure from the mooring locations, a walk through the bush land or paddle a canoe along the backwaters; fishing with reels and bait for the asking.

Emmylou — Excursions are included such as winery visits, world heritage wetlands and cultural experiences.

Murray River

Mildura, a town that grew up along the Murray Rover. Here arcaded stores. * Photo: Ted Scull

Special Notes

For information about what to do along the Murray River, visit http://www.murrayriver.com.au/things-to-do/.

For Murray Princess info, go to Captain Cook Cruises at www.murrayprincess.com.au (Level 3, 26 Flinders Street, Adelaide, South Australia 5000); overseas: +618 82202 8698 or within Australia 1 300 729 938.

For info about Murray River Cruises aboard all three riverboats, go to http://www.murrayrivercruises.com.au/; or outside Australia 617 4051 1120, within Australia 1 800 994 620.

The scenic Murray River.

Red banks enclose the Murray River. * Photo: Murray River Cruises

— Ted Scull

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Murray River Steamboat Cruise on the adorable Marion

Murray River Steamboat Cruise.

Introduction by Ted Scull.

Steamboats have plied Australia’s Murray River since the mid-19th century. Today steamers range from wood-fired antiques, the topic of this report below, to modern replica sternwheelers. A handful make overnight cruises lasting from just two days and up to a week.

Murray River Steamboat Cruise aboard the historic Marion

Murray Princess. * Photo: Murray River Cruises

At landings along the way in the states of South Australia and Victoria, additional paddlers make day trips. In total, the Murray River basin boasts the world’s largest fleet of paddle steamers. Both the author of the featured cruise, William Worden, and I have additionally explored more of this fascinating navigable river — Australia’s longest by far — by car.

The cruise report, “Two Nights in the Museum,” provides the introduction to the subject, and here’s a link to additional Murray River trip options. 

The birds and animals, some peculiar to Australia and the Murray River, make for happy hunting.

Murray River Steamboat Cruise map

Map of the Lower River Murray. * Photo: Ted Scull

Two Nights in the Museum

By William Worden

Australia’s Murray River offers several opportunities for cruises, but one is unique: the chance to cruise aboard a museum. The paddle steamer Marion, launched in 1897 as a barge, was converted into a steamer in 1900. She was altered several times and achieved her present form by the mid-1930s, with three decks of accommodations for a maximum of 25 overnight passengers.

She cruised until 1952 when Murray Shipping, Ltd. liquidated and she became a houseboat. The National Trust of Australia bought her in 1963 and she steamed “one last trip” to Mannum, where she served as a static museum for several decades.

In 1989 it was decided that the best way to preserve the Marion was to restore her to operation. After much volunteer labor, Marion returned to steam in 1994.

Murray River Steamboat Cruise on the adorable Marion

Paddle steamer Marion. * Photo: William Worden

A Murray River Steamboat Cruise Based in Mannum

She remains based at Mannum, South Australia and runs day excursions as well as a few multi-night cruises every year.

Marion is a museum piece, preserved as she was in her heyday; luxury is not on tap. Her appeal is not in slick décor, but in the more fundamental pleasure of shipwright carpentry, the kind of appeal most of us find in simple, well-made, solid constructions of wood.

Cabins are typical of the time, about seven feet square with an upper and lower bunk, a small cabinet and shelf, a straight chair and hooks for hanging clothes. Suitcases fit under the bunks, and we packed light for our two-night trip.

Toilets and showers are down the open deck, positioned over the paddle boxes. There is a second deck forward lounge (with bar), and the former smoking saloon on the third deck aft (smoking is not permitted on this all-wood museum piece). The dining saloon is aft on the main deck. Pilot house and engine spaces are open to all to observe and inquire.

Typical of the Murray River boats, Marion’s engine is a Marshall “portable” engine and boiler from England. Originally set on wheels, it had its undercarriage removed and then was placed in the hull. Because the engine runs too fast for paddlewheels, there is a big gear and pinion reduction.

Marion is wood-fired and the wood bunker and the fire hold are open for passenger observation. Pilot house equipment is limited to a big steering wheel (Armstrong power steering), a throttle, and a speaking tube to communicate with the engineer down below.

Murray River Steamboat Cruise aboard the wood-fired Marion

P.S. Marion uses wood for fuel. * Photo: William Worden

100% Volunteer

The crew of the Marion is 100% volunteer. Without exception, they live up to the Australian reputation for informality and friendliness. Their love for their boat is worn on their sleeves. They go out of their way to make a cruise on her pleasant because her cruises raise money that helps to preserve her. Further, one and all, shy and gregarious, they seem to genuinely like their passengers.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in the dining saloon, while a modest baked sweet is laid out for morning and afternoon tea in the lounge. Home cooking is the standard. If the word “gourmet” would not come to mind, “substantial,” “excellently-prepared” and “delicious” certainly would.

The bar in the lounge is stocked with a range of soft drinks, beers, ales, and ciders, as well as stronger alcoholic beverages.

Dining room on a Murray River Steamboat Cruise

Dining room aboard P.S. Marion. * Photo: William Worden

Entertainment is largely self-provided. A couple of very interesting videos about Murray River steamers were played in the lounge. One evening, the purser led games: a form of darts with Velcro instead of sharp points and, believe it or not, blindfolded pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. This seemed lame at the outset, but ended up in tears-down-the-cheeks laughter.

The lounge aboard the Murray River Steamboat Cruise vessel Marion.

Views to all sides from the lounge. * Photo: William Worden

Murray River Steamboat Cruise Itineraries

Scenery varies according to the Marion’s route for a specific cruise. Ours, from Goolwa, where the Murray spills into the Southern Ocean, to Mannum, began in some narrower channels leading to the crossing of Lake Alexandrina, a part of a large protected wetland.

Bird life is abundant on the crossing, both familiar types like pelicans and species unique to Australia. At Wellington, the steamer reached the river proper. We spent the night at Murray Bridge; some found a pub. We did a little shopping.

Murray River Cruise

Nankeen Night Heron

The morning found us upbound again in a narrower stretch of the river where limestone cliffs had been carved by millennia of flowing water. We arrived at Mannum, Marion’s home, not long after noon. After saying our regretful good-byes to Marion, her crew, and our new-found Australian friends, we visited the river museum and then headed off by car up the Murray. There we would experience short day trips on some of the other preserved steamers that proudly sail on Australia’s longest river.

The outside decks of the historic Marion, a Murray River Steamboat Cruise

Cabins open to a side deck. * Photo: William Worden

The Marion’s cruise itineraries vary in direction and length depending on the river events she visits. Ours was one of a pair of two-night sailings to and from the South Australian Wooden Boat Festival at Goolwa, a trip she seems to make every year in late April.

In the fall (Australian spring!) of 2019, she will make a similar pair of two-night trips upbound from Mannum to Morgan, a trip which, the crew assured me, is more scenic. In other years, she has offered cruises as long as eight nights when visiting very distant events.

The tied up Marion, a Murray River Steamboat Cruise

P.S. Marion ties up at night. * Photo: William Worden

The years’ schedule is posted early each year on the website: http://www.psmarion.com/.

To learn more about three additional sternwheelers with overnight accommodations and year-round cruises — Murray Princess, Proud Mary, Emmylou — see our QuirkyCruise Murray River Cruises review. or contact Murray River Cruises directly.

QuirkyCruise Review

 

 

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QuirkyCruise Review of Ponant

Cruising for over a quarter century, this chic French line is a Francophile’s dream. Ponant’s crew is discreet, the décor is subtle and the food is tantalizing. French desserts, French cheeses and French wines accompany passengers on cruises around the world, from French Polynesia and the Caribbean to the North and South Poles, and lots in between.

Passengers are a well-traveled, well-dressed international lot and the handsome captains stroll around the ship in short sleeves chatting to guests as if they are one of the passengers. Ponant is a bit of Europe no matter where the ships are sailing.

In late 2014, the company’s name was simplified from the French Compagnie du Ponant, to just Ponant, a simpler name for the company’s growing international audience, though Ponant still remains the only French-flagged, French-flavored cruise line out there. Ponant is in the midst of building frenzy, with six 184-passenger expedition vessels in the pipeline between now and 2021. As they are delivered, itineraries will be expanded to offer more frequent sailings and brand-new destinations.

A hybrid electric icebreaker is to appear in 2021 and be able to make it to Geographic 90 Degrees North — The North Pole.

Note: Some sailings are directly operated by Ponant and others are under charter to well-known firms for individual sales as well as for special interest groups.

N.B. In August 2019, Ponant announced that the French-owned line has bought Paul Gauguin Cruises, operating the ship PAUL GAUGUIN in French Polynesia and that the ship will continue to operate under its current name.

Ponant's fleet hits the poles and lots in between. * Photo: Ponant

Ponant’s fleet hits the poles and lots in between. * Photo: Ponant

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

LE BOREAL (built 2010, 132 passengers), L’AUSTRAL (b. 2011, 132 p), LE SOLEAL (b. 2013, 132 p), LE LYRIAL (b. 2014, 122 p), LE PONANT (b. 1991, 64 p), LE LAPEROUSE (b. 2018, 184 p), LE CHAMPLAIN (b. 2018, 184 p),  LE  BOUGAINVILLE (b. 2019, 184 p) and LE DUMONT-D’URVILLE (b. 2019, 184 p), LE BELLOT (due April 2020, 184p), LE JACQUES CARTIER, the sixth Explorer-class ship (due July 2020, 184p), and LE COMMANDANT CHARCOT (due April 2021, 270 p), specifically designed for polar explorations.

Ponant's mini cruise ships are dwarfed by the giants. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Ponant’s mini cruise ships are dwarfed by the giants. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Passenger Profile

Mostly Europeans, heavy on French, Swiss and Germans, with a sprinkling of Francophiles from everywhere else — North America, Brazil, you name it. Children are welcome, but are expected to be well behaved; there is a children’s menu, Wii gaming console, and when there are a number of kids on board, a few activities are organized by a staff member.

On a handful of special family-friendly sailings per year (often a Med itinerary in the summer), a Kids Club is offered with kids’ counselors supervising games and activities for ages 4+. Several firms charter Ponant ships, so they will determine the languages, and a number of them are in the English-speaking markets.

Passenger Decks

6 with elevators to all decks (4 on LE PONANT, the motor sailing yatch, and no elevator)

Price

$$  Moderate to Expensive

Included Features

Open bar throughout ship, stocked cabin mini-bar, and all soft drinks. New for 2019 is free WiFi in all cabin categories on all ships.

PONANT                                                                                 LE BOUGAINVILLE delivered in 2019 as the third ship in the explorer class. * Photo: Ponant

Itineraries

The ships, with such an expanding fleet, roam all over the world on one- to two-week cruises (some longer): Mediterranean and Northern Europe, Alaska and Canada, Caribbean, Central America, both coasts of South America, West Africa and Southern Africa, Madagascar, Seychelles, French Polynesia and Oceania, Hawaii,  Indonesia, East Asia and focus on Japan, Eastern Russia, Australia and New Zealand, Antarctica, the Arctic including the Northwest Passage, trans0ocean positioning voyages. A few highlights include (and it’s a moveable feast:

  • 10- and 16-night Antarctica cruises November – February
  • Iceland & Arctic Circle cruises in summer; also Northwest Passage, Eastern Canada, Great Lakes
  • 6- and 7-night cruises out of Martinique to the Grenadine Islands in the winter; also Cuba (Cuban calls suspended due to a US government ban.
  • 7-night Croatia cruises round-trip out of Venice between May and September; also Western & Eastern Mediterranean and Egypt
  • 9-night New Zealand cruises in January and February; also Australia’s eastern coast
  • 7- to 13-night Alaska cruises in June and July; including Aleutian Islands
  • 13-night Chile cruises in November and February; also Amazon and Orinoco rivers, Sea of Cortez
  • New tropical destinations are being added to include the Seychelles archipelago in the Indian Ocean, also Maldives and Madagascar, and the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, also French Polynesia, Easter Island
  • South and Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Japan, Eastern Russia.
Why Go?

The French flare, the amazing food, the gorgeous interiors — tres chic. In 2018 Ponant signed an agreement with National Geographic Expeditions to have the latter’s experts and photographers come aboard in Australia, New Zealand and Asia/Pacific.

When to Go?

The fleet cruises in different regions of the world at the best time to visit.

Cabins

LE PONANT is an 88-meter, three-masted sailing ship with lots of wood and nautical touches such as navy blue and white bedding and fabrics in the rooms. Most cabins are on the lowest of the four passenger decks and have twin beds — two rooms have king beds — and there are a few triples. Five larger cabins are higher up on the Antigua Deck.

LE BOREAL/L’AUSTRAL/LE SOLEAL/LE LYRIAL are nearly identical sister ships with the majority of cabins measuring between 200 and 236 square feet, not including the balconies (which all but eight cabins have). Cabins are designed in stylish neutrals of champagne, smoky greys or blues, and crisp whites with pops of color, like a red border on a bed throw or pillow.

All cabins are stocked with L’Occitane toiletries, bathrobes, mini bars and iPods, and a have a great split bathroom set-up — toilet in one little room and a large shower (and/or tub) and sink in another. They also have a desk and great adjustable reading lights on either side of the bed. Many standard cabins can accommodate three people with one on a sofa bed; ideal for families are the Prestige suites, which are ostensibly two connecting standard cabins. There are four large suites on the Deck 6 near the top of the ship.

A lovely standard cabin aboard Le Lyrial. * Photo: Francois Lefebvre

A lovely standard cabin aboard Le Lyrial. * Photo: Francois Lefebvre

The new 184-passenger sisters LE LAPEROUSE (2018), LE CHAMPLAIN,  LE  BOUGAINVILLE, LE DUMONT-D’URVILLE, LE BELLOT, and  LE JACQUES CARTIER  began arriving in mid-2018 and will continue into 2020. A feature on the new ships is the Blue Eye, an underwater sightseeing lounge. They make up what is termed Ponant Explorer Class with enhanced ice-breaking capabilities.

Public Rooms

LE BOREAL/L’AUSTRAL/LE SOLEAL/LE LYRIAL have two restaurants, one main entertainment lounge, one combination lounge/bar, and a lovely outdoor bar with sea views. There is no casino. Each has a spa with a Turkish steam room, hair salon, and an excellent ocean-view gym with a row of treadmills and recumbent bikes, plus a Kinesis wall with weights, pulls and grips for weight training.

A small library area (with a Wii console nearby) and a boutique round out the public areas, unless you also count the medical clinic. The smaller LE PONANT has two restaurants, two indoor lounges and lots of deck space for sunbathing. All five of the vessels have a platform for watersports when anchored in favorable conditions.

Dining

Cuisine is a big part of the Ponant experience, and I still sometimes dream about the dark chocolate mousses we devoured on a L’AUSTRAL cruise to Croatia (I gained several solid pounds on that cruise). Each of the five ships has two restaurants, one a more formal fine-dining multi-course French gourmet venue for dinner and the other a casual buffet restaurant with outdoor and indoor seating and themed offerings. Some of the chefs are French (the pastry chef was on my last cruise) and no matter where they are from, they’ve been schooled in the French culinary tradition.

Desserts to die for. * Photo: Ponant

Desserts to die for. * Photo: Ponant

Meals incorporate fish and grilled seafood, and plenty of delicious soups and salads of all kinds. When possible, local ingredients are used, from cherries in Kotor, Croatia, to rainbow trout from Nunavut, in the Arctic. Amazing desserts on offer might comprise a hazelnut mousse cake, lemon meringue tarts and that to die-to-for chocolate mousse already mentioned; easily the best desserts I’ve ever had on a cruise ship.

A selection of cheeses from France and Italy are a staple in the buffet and of the complimentary wines generously poured, I remember an especially refreshing French rose at lunch on route to our next Croatian port of call. You can always order a bottle off the extensive menu if you want something extra special.

The more formal of two restaurants aboard Le Soleal. * Photo: Ponant

The more formal of two restaurants aboard Le Soleal. * Photo: Ponant

Activities & Entertainment

The ships are in port every day, or nearly so, but if there’s a sea day, most people enjoy simply sunbathing by the pool and soaking up the scenery. In the French way of doing things, there isn’t an abundance of scheduled activities or group events. There are theme cruises from time to time focused on gourmet food and wine, film and topics like oceanography, with experts on board giving talks and demonstrations.

Evenings, a singing duo moves around the ship before and after dinner to serenade passengers as they sip cocktails and chat about the day’s adventures and the ones that lay ahead. At the top of the tiered decks at the stern on LE BOREAL/L’AUSTRAL/LE SOLEAL/LE LYRIAL is a wonderful al-fresco bar, an ideal place to plant yourself as the ship sails off into the sunset — likewise on LE PONANT’s sun deck. After dinner from time to time, a dance performance or film screening may be scheduled in the show lounge of the four sister ships.

The new and larger 184-passenger sisters LE LAPEROUSE, LE CHAMPLAIN,  LE  BOUGAINVILLE, LE DUMONT-D’URVILLE, LE BELLOT, and  LE JACQUES CARTIER started to debut in mid-2018 and continued into 2020, and the larger 270-passenger LE COMMANDANT CHARCOT will launch polar explorations in April 2021.

Ponant passengers love to be outside on deck. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Ponant passengers love to be outside on deck. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Along the Same Lines

SeaDream is close.

Contact

Ponant Yacht Cruises & Expeditions, 420 Lexington Avenue, Suite 2838, New York, NY 10170; us.ponant.com, 1-888-400-1082.

— HMS

 

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Roughest 8 Cruising Regions

By Ted Scull.

For small ship cruising, it is not always fair winds and calm seas. Some parts of the world see more chop than others, and to be in the know before booking, here below are the regions that have a bit of a reputation.

Now let’s begin with the good news. Advance weather forecasts give ship captains ample warning to steer clear of a hurricane’s track by altering course. A diversion may result in skipping a port or two and substituting others, and while you might still feel the swell from the storm, it is unlikely that the ship’s movement will be more than a gentle rise and fall.

Roughest 8 Cruising Regions

Some major white water in the Atlantic, off Patagonia. * Photo: Ted Scull

Stabilizers help reduce side-to-side rolling, but not the up and down pitching motions into oncoming swells. The smaller the small ship, the less likely it will have the stabilizing fins. Large cruise ships’ massive blunt bows tend to slam into head seas, and to lessen the unpleasant sensation, the captain may drastically reduce his speed to lessen the impact.

The bodies of water below have the potential for the being the choppiest in world; in no particular order:

1)  Caribbean

The Caribbean’s hurricane season (roughly June to October) tops the list in terms of the number of passengers potentially affected because of the large number of ships cruising here. However, with so many alternative routes and ports of call, in most instances, ships can avoid the storm’s fury and still provide a satisfying cruise.

2)  North Atlantic

The North Atlantic is notorious for its storms at almost any time of the year, and the further north the track the more likely it is to encounter some rough seas along the multi-islands’ passage between the North of Scotland, Shetland/Orkney, Faroes, Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland and the Canadian maritime provinces and/or the U.S. East Coast. It is positive thinking to note that all islands have a lee side.

The ships that reposition seasonally via the Atlantic between the Mediterranean/Iberia and the Caribbean/Florida are much less likely to encounter storms. However, ships that sail between Northern European ports, Iberia and the Mediterranean pass through the Bay of Biscay. This body of water, west of France and north of Spain, has a long anecdotal history especially with Brits.

In my experience — 16 passages — only one (Santander to Portsmouth) was truly tempestuous and that was quite enough for everybody on board, including me who likes a bit of chop.

3)  Mediterranean

Speaking of the Mediterranean, the Mistral that roars down the Rhone Valley in France and then across the Western Med can stir up heavy seas in winter and spring as does the Meltemi in summer in the Greek Islands. I was aboard the ROYAL CLIPPER during a powerful Mistral and the sail-laden ship reached its maximum hull speed. It was exhilarating and more than a bit dramatic.

4)  Drake Passage

The dreaded Drake Passage between Ushuaia, Argentina and the Antarctic Peninsula has a well-deserved reputation, and happily any storm that does occur rarely lasts more than 12 to 24 hours. If you are susceptible to mal de mer, be prepared to deal with any eventuality because the expedition is well worth it.

Longer itineraries that include the Falklands and South Georgia expand the chances for stormy weather.

Cowabunga dude!! That's some wave action on the Drake Passage. * Photo: Ted Scull

Cowabunga dude!! That’s some wave action on the Drake Passage. * Photo: Ted Scull

5)  Gulf of Alaska

The Inside Passage to and from Alaska may be well protected apart from a few short-open sea stretches, while ships traversing the Gulf of Alaska to Seward, on the other hand, may encounter North Pacific storms or swells from a more distant storm.

6)  Southeast & East Asia

Typhoons are an occasional worry in Southeast and East Asia from the South China Sea north to Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan, but course alterations can minimize discomfort unless the ship must call at a disembarkation port, then arrivals may be delayed until the waters calm.

7)  Trans-Tasman Passage

The Trans-Tasman passage between Australia and New Zealand and the Bass Strait between Southeast Australia and the island of Tasmania can kick up a mighty storm, but few small ships venture into these southern waters.

8)  Point Judith

The only time I ever felt I might be seasick was standing at the bow of a small ship rounding Point Judith where Narragansett Bay meets Long Island Sound. The sea becomes confused here due to colliding waters, and by simply moving amidships, the unpleasant sensation eased.

Charles Darwin was seasick more than not during his three-year voyage on the Beagle, but back then there were few remedies, and today they are many. A truism is that everyone reacts differently, so there is no easy answer. Still, for the small percentage that do experience mal de mer, it is no picnic. Get professional advice before you go.

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Zegrahm Expeditions

Zegrahm Expeditions got its start in 1990 by a group of men who knew adventure travel with first-hand experience. In fact the company name is derived from their initials. The programs are worldwide and ever changing, and the firm has a very high loyalty factor with many return clients. Some field leaders have their own following amongst past passengers and biographies appear on the website.

While Zegrahm offers land programs in Central and South America, Africa, and Asia, it is the unusually comprehensive expedition cruise programs that are the focus here. Most have one annual departure, while the Galapagos has two, so while we aim to update the changing expeditions and vessels chartered, use the itineraries listed below as a guide of both present and past itineraries.

Nearly every cruise has a land extension. Zegrahm has partnered with the Nature Conservancy to give participants a better understanding of the value of nature. They receive a year’s membership while a percentage of the cost of the cruise goes to the organization.

Zegraham Island Sky

Zegraham’s Island Sky * Photo: Ted Scull

Ships & Years Delivered

As there are many itineraries and multiple ships involved, every destination and the ship used will be treated together as a pair. Zegrahm does not own ships but takes on complete charters of a half-dozen vessels taking from 38 to 110 passengers.

Passengers

Mostly American, active, 50 and up, well-heeled, curious about the world and enjoying sharing the experience with others. Singles are welcome and rates are often favorable, more so than on land itineraries. Children are welcome and families are especially catered for on selected Antarctic and Galapagos itineraries.

Price

$$$ Very Pricey, yet with much included – see below.

Included Features

Zegrahm includes a lot in their pricing, so often there is little else to budget for other than air fare and land extensions, if any. All trips ashore and special events, entrance fees, kayaking, snorkeling and diving (when offered), all gratuities aboard and ashore, and beer and wine with lunch and dinner.

Itineraries (ship reviews following below)

Note: Many itineraries are one-of-a-kind and often not repeated from year to year, so the specific destinations and rotation of ports will change. Here, we aim to show you the numerous and ever-changing possibilities for world-wide small ship travel that Zegrahm has offered, does offer and made offer again. Also, all ships are chartered for a specific cruise or a finite period of time, and other ships may take over. The standards will be high throughout the chartered fleet.  

1) Antarctica: The 22-day comprehensive itinerary embarks and disembarks at Ushuaia, Argentina located at the tip of South America and visits the Falklands, makes five landings in South Georgia, then several islands off the Antarctic Peninsula and as many landings on the peninsula as time and weather permit. Highlights are the huge variety of birds, whales, seals and penguins, former whaling stations, places associated with the explorer Ernest Shackleton and his party, often a research station, icebergs, stunning land and ice formations, and some of the clearest atmosphere your will ever experience.

During the time spent aboard, the expedition staff gives talks, share experiences and show films and recently prepared videos. A second 14-day itinerary concentrates on the Antarctic Peninsula plus a foray south across the Antarctic Circle. N.B. For those who have traveled to Antarctica, Zegrahm offers an itinerary that includes the Falklands and South Georgia without Antarctica.

Ship: ISLAND SKY

Antarctica: Chinstrap penguins are having a noisy discussion over the children. * Photo: Ted Scull

Antarctica: Chinstrap penguins are having a noisy discussion over the children. * Photo: Ted Scull

2) The Philippines: Very few ships visit the Philippines, let along multiple calls, and here is a 17-day interisland itinerary that combines visiting tribal as well as mainstream Filipino communities, beautiful landscapes, a volcano, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, orangutan rehabilitation center, coral reefs and marine life seen from boats and snorkeling activities. The main island of Mindanao and Manila, the capital, are not in the plans.

Ship: CALEDONIAN SKY

3) Japan: A 17-day cruise spring cruise features a voyage through the Sea of Japan and up the island country’s West Coast to visit Honshu Island’s fabulous gardens, landscapes, architectural wonders, Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park, medieval castles, and a sail across to South Korea’s World Heritage Site at Gyeongiu.

ShipCALEDONIAN SKY

4) Australia’s Kimberley: A 15-day coastal cruise embarks in Broome, a port in Western Australia, famous for its pearl industry, transports you to some of the country’s most remote parts (The Outback) reached by sea. Small-boats take you out to reefs, into river gorges, whirlpools, mangrove swamps and under cliff faces to search out some of the world’s most unusual sea, land and birdlife in the world.

Visit several waterfalls, some tidal and reversible, thousands of years old aboriginal paintings tucked away in cliff caves and an aboriginal village at a island port just off Darwin, the disembarkation port and the Northern Territory’s capital city. There are times that you feel you are stepping on shores that have seen very little human activity. The May 2018 Kimberley coastal cruise embarks in Darwin and disembarks in Broome.

Aboriginal cave paintings Kimberley Coast, Australia. * Photo: Ted Scull

Aboriginal cave paintings Kimberley Coast, Australia. * Photo: Ted Scull

Ship: CORAL DISCOVERER 

4A) Australia’s Great Barrier Reef: An in-depth 15-day exploration embarking in Cairns (Queensland) and sailing northward to much less visited Ribbon Reef #3, 9 & 10, Rachel Carson Reef, Cod Hole (giant potato cod), and Lizard Island with focus on seabirds, monitor lizards, and minke whales including close contacts by diving and snorkeling. N.B. The Great Barrier Reef is under threat from global warming.

Ship: CORAL EXPEDITIONS II

5) Melanesia: A 17-day interisland cruise embarking in major South Pacific city of Port Moresby, New Guinea and sailing through the Melanesian islands to Port Vila, Vanuatu. The emphasis is on the local Melanesia culture (customs, ceremonies, dress, art, music, boat building) in several very isolated communities and great variety of exotic sea and birdlife amongst the coral reefs. There will be many chances to snorkel and dive over around coral reefs looking for clownfish, damsels, Moorish idols, and butterflyfish. One dive visits the USS President Coolidge that sank in 1942. From the disembarkation port, fly to Brisbane, Australia.

5A) Micronesia: A truly off-beat 18-day cruise embarks in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea and island hops (with no less than 13 calls) to Palau for diving, snorkeling, meeting the locals, birding, and an archeological site.

ShipCALEDONIAN SKY (5&5A)

6) Patagonia: Two cruises back-to-back feature first an 18-day voyage beginning in the Falklands and exploring the dramatic narrow waterways from Cape Horn into Patagonia and north along the Chilean fjords to Puerto Montt, just south of Santiago, Chile. This portion is nature at its most beautiful and rugged. Leaving penguins sightings in the Falkands, visit one of the world’s great national parks – Torres del Paine – for its birdlife and incredible mountain scenery. Cruise for whales, seals and sail up to the base of South America’s longest glacier, then navigate the fjords northward to Puerto Montt.

Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia. * Photo: Ted Scull

Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia. * Photo: Ted Scull

7) West Coast of South America: The second portion, is an 18-day cruise visiting coastal Chile, Peru and Ecuador to see historic architecture, some pre-Columbian, some Spanish, the Atacama Desert in northern Chile and the driest place on earth, settings of volcanoes and glacier lakes, and unusual South American birds and sealife, some via Zodiacs amongst off-shore islands. The voyage ends near Guayaquil, Ecuador.

ShipSEA ADVENTURER

8) Central America: This 15-day voyage begins in the Costa Rican port of Puerto Caldera via a flight to San José and sails south scouting out the huge variety of birds in Costa Rica via Zodiac cruises and hikes, visiting the Panamanian marine park on Isla Coibe, the Embera Indians of the Darien jungle and the Kuna of San Blas Islands. Linking the two coasts is a Panama Canal transit with views of the second canal under construction. On the Caribbean side, explore the Tortuguero Canals near Puerto Limon for monkeys, sloths, caimans, iguanas, lizards and crocodiles and finish off by visiting the coastal reefs of Honduras’ Bay Islands and Lighthouse Reef off Belize where the cruise ends (Belize City).

Pedro Miguel Locks, Panama Canal. * Photo: Ted Scull

Pedro Miguel Locks, Panama Canal. * Photo: Ted Scull

Ship: SEA ADVENTURER

9) Galapagos: 13 days amongst no less than ten islands may provide one of the most thorough explorations of the islands that Charles Darwin made so famous, as most cruises are three, four, or seven days. As well as the endemic sea and birdlife, there is time to study the land forms, the active and dormant volcanoes and the lava fields. See the section on the Galapagos for more details. In July/August 2018, the Wild Galapagos itinerary lasts 10 days (still longer than most).

Ship: ISABELLA II or EVOLUTION

10) Circumnavigation of Cuba: THIS CUBAN ITINERARY IS NO LONGER OFFERED DUE TO US GOVERNMENT RESTRICTIONS AGAINST TRAVEL BY SHIP TO CUBA . 14 days beginning with two hotel nights in Havana then joining the ship for nine ports calls, one sea day and return directly to Havana. Highlights are Old Havana, City of Bridges at Matanzas, exploring mangrove forest of Cayo Guillermo, snorkeling the reefs, nature reserve at Cayo Saetia to see water buffalo, wild boar and exotic birds, the World Heritage Site at Santiago de Cuba including the famous San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War (1898), the Spanish colonial town of Trinidad also a World Heritage Site, Cienfuegos for Zapata Wetlands and the Bay of Pigs where an unsuccessful American invasion took place in 1961, beaches at Cayo Largo, nature at its most diverse at Isla de la Juventud, and the biological diversity of Maria La Gorda. Note: this cruise is one of the most comprehensive offered by any cruise line.

Ship: HEBRIDEAN SKY

11) Canal to Cuba: THIS CUBAN ITINERARY IS NO LONGER OFFERED DUE TO US GOVERNMENT RESTRICTIONS AGAINST TRAVEL BY SHIP TO CUBA. 16 days embarking in Panama City, Panama thence to the huge marine park at Isla Coiba, the Embera community in Darién Province, a daylight Canal Transit, San Blas Archipelago, Spanish fortifications at  Portobelo, Tortuguero Canals at Puerto Limon, Costa Rica, the English-speaking island of Isla de Providencia, Colombia, then the Cuba ports (see above itinerary for descriptions) of Cienfuegos, Isla de la Juventud, Maria la Gorda and Havana with a hotel night.

Ship: HEBRIDEAN SKY

12) The Hidden Gems of the Caribbean: For the tropical island buff, this 14-day cruise of the Grenadines will show you all aspects of island life, their natural beauty, sea and bird life, coral reef diving and snorkeling, as well as the long histories of individual islands, their conquest by European powers and struggle for independence to today’s varied lifestyles.

Ship: LE PONANT

11) Coastal Europe: A lot of variety is packed into this 16-day voyage that starts out in Lisbon and works its way northeastward calling Spanish, French, English, Belgian and Dutch ports with just one day at sea. Destinations ashore include UNESCO sites at Santiago de Compostela, Mont St. Michel and the Frisian Islands; the wine county upriver from Bordeaux; World War II history on the French coast; three of the Channel Islands – Guernsey, Jersey and the tiny utterly charming Duchy of Sark; medieval Brugge and ending in Amsterdam. The 14-day itinerary has similar ports but does not call at Brugge or Amsterdam and ends in Portsmouth, England. Another all Spanish itinerary (apart from a call at Porto) begins in Barcelona and sails south, around through the Strait of Gibraltar up the west coast, and across the north coast as far as Bilbao.

The village, Isle of Sark, Channel Islands. * Photo: Ted Scull

The village, Isle of Sark, Channel Islands. * Photo: Ted Scull

Ship: SEA ADVENTURER

11A) Wild & Ancient Britain: A 14-day cruise nearly circumnavigates the British Isles leaving from Portsmouth, England and calls at Falmouth, Isles of Scilly, then islands off Ireland, islands off the West Coast and to the north of Scotland, ending in  Aberdeen. The highlights are seabirds galore, numerous Neolithic monuments, unusual natural features, and architectural treasures.

Ship: OCEAN ADVENTURER

12) The Baltic: A comprehensive 17-day itinerary departs London for ports in Germany, and a Kiel Canal Transit, then Denmark, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Russia, Finland and ending in Stockholm.

Ship: ISLAND SKY

13) The Adriatic, Sicily & Malta: The 13-day cruise begins at the Maltese port of Valetta, a World Heritage Site that survived heavy fighting in WWII: visits four Sicilian ports with roots in Greek and Roman times; even more cultural influences with a stop in Albania and another in Montenegro, then successive calls along the Croatian coast, including Dubrovnik and ending in Venice.

Ship: ISLAND SKY

14) Sicily: A more focused itinerary is a 13-day circumnavigation of Sicily calling at ten ports plus Malta and Lipari in the Aeolian Islands.

Ship: VARIETY VOYAGER

15) Black Sea Circumnavigation: A 15-day spin begins and ends in Istanbul and proceeds counterclockwise with three stops along the Turkish coast; a call at Batumi in Georgia, the spas at Sochi, then skipping the Crimea and stopping at the crossroads city of Odessa, two ports in Romania (including seldom-visited Histria, the country’s oldest settlement) and lastly Varna, with its Greek and Roman connections. 10 ports and cruising the Danube delta (home to 200 species of birds) makes this a thorough study of Black Sea history and communities today. All that is missing is Russia (Crimea).

Ship: ISLAND SKY

Livadia Palace, site of the Yalta Conference at the end of WWII. * Photo: Ted Scull

Livadia Palace, site of the Yalta Conference at the end of WWII. * Photo: Ted Scull

16) Iceland & Greenland: A 16-day voyage aims to combine searching in Zodiacs for sea life and birdlife, dramatic scenery that includes glaciers, fjords, icebergs, and vast expanses of tundra, Viking settlements and the colorful modern-day fishing villages and their cultural attributes. In June/July 2018, the 15-day expedition embarked in Narsarsuaq, Greenland by charter flight from Reykjavik and concentrates on Greenland’s south and east coast then crosses to northwest Iceland ending in Iceland’s capital.

ShipSEA ADVENTURER (2017) and HEBRIDEAN SKY (2018)

16A) Svalbard: A-14 day expedition uses flights to and from Oslo to join the ship at Longyearbyen, the island’s  principal port. The emphasis is on wildlife, especially polar bears, seals, walrus, whales and Arctic foxes; seabirds such as kittiwakes, guillemots, dovekies, puffins and ivory gulls, and the natural beauty of the lush tundra, fjords and glaciers. Touring off the ship is on foot, and in kayaks and Zodiacs.

Ship: HEBRIDEAN SKY

17) Indonesia: A 19-day linear voyage begins at the northern tip of Sulawesi and heads along the chain of Indonesian islands to Papua and Papua New Guinea, with a call at Australia’s Thursday Island. Activities are diving and snorkeling amongst the coral reefs, visits to Asmat’s warrior tribes and West Papua’s seafarers, and looking for birds of paradise, doves, parrots, cockatoos, friarbirds and flying foxes.

Ship: CALEDONIAN SKY

18) Vietnam: Zegrahm began trips to Vietnam 25 years ago shortly after travel was permitted. A 16-day coastal cruise begins in Hanoi with a transfer to Haiphong Harbor for embarkation. Eight calls are made en route to Ho Chi Minh City including three UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the Chinese-style “Forbidden City” of Hue and a leisurely sail amongst the sculpted islands in Halong Bay. A special activity is discovering Vietnamese and French-influenced cuisine where passengers tour local markets and vegetable and herb gardens, sample treats at food stalls such as prawn cakes and grilled port patties with sticky noodles, and participate in cooking classes on board. In November/December 2018, a 19-day mostly land and air tour to Myanmar and Laos slotted in a two-day river cruise between Mandalay and Bagan and another two-day cruise on a less visited portion of the Mekong in Laos. Both use Pandaw river boats.

Ship: CORAL PRINCESS, now CORAL EXPEDITIONS I

19) Cuba: Travel to Cuba on a humanitarian project, a 17-day itinerary that includes a partial circumnavigation of the island and then onward land travel returning to Havana. The 56-passenger Le Ponant, a motor/sail vessel provides comfortable accommodations at sea and the nimbleness to get into small ports. Activities combine cultural, water sports and people-to-people encounters. In April 2018, there are two Cuban itineraries, the first one including Costa Rica, Colombia and Panama before sailing north to Cuba for three days, and the second, a 14-night cruise that completely circumnavigates the island calling at 9 ports and with flights to and from Havana.

Ship: LE PONANT or HEBRIDEAN SKY

The Ships

OCEAN ADVENTURER, formerly SEA ADVENTURER: Renewed in 2017, this traditional 120-passenger vessel was built in 1975 for the Russians to operate rugged sea routes especially in the Arctic has been refitted several times to offer a steady, stabilized oceangoing experience, including strengthening for ice. It has two lounges, including a lovely library, and an aft-located dining room with wraparound glass windows. Cabins are of small to moderate size and all are outside. Zodiacs carried.

CALEDONIAN SKY: Built in 1992 as one of the original six small Renaissance ships, she carries 100 passengers in roomy one-room suites with sitting areas, including eight cabins with balconies, many positioned in the forward half of the ship. One lounge is located above the bridge for glass-protected viewing and the other, with a bar, seats all passengers at once for lectures and socializing. In addition, there is a small library and gym. The dining room is aft on the lowest deck with portholes. A lido deck serves informal outdoor meals in good weather. Zodiacs and scuba diving gear are carried.

ISLAND SKY: Built in 1992, she is also one of the original Renaissance ships (100 passengers) though while her roomy one-room forward-located suites are similar (four with balconies), her layout is somewhat different with two aft lounges including a good-sized library, in place of a forward-viewing lounge. The dining room is on the lowest deck with portholes, and the aft-lido deck serves informal meals in good weather conditions.

HEBRIDEAN SKY: As with the two sisters above, the ship was first completed as one of the Renaissance ships in 1992 and most recently refitted in 2014 and 2016. Passenger capacity is 112 and roomy cabins with sitting areas measure 225, 266 and 325 square feet. The owner’s suite is even larger. The sofa bed will sleep a third person. An elevator serves all decks, and an observation platform is popular for spotting wildlife. Zodiacs are carried for exploring near land, edging up to glaciers and sailing into fjords.

LE PONANT: Completed in 1991, with French registry, as a sail-assisted motor ship, she has three masts and takes just 56 passengers in moderate-size outside cabins, most located on the lowest passenger deck and with portholes. Five others are clustered two decks higher amidships. The lounge is aft opening onto a deck at the stern. Dining is either in the forward restaurant, or in favorable weather, one deck above, aft and outside. Zodiacs, snorkeling and scuba diving gear are carried.

CORAL DISCOVERER, formerly Oceanic Discoverer: Built in 2005, this small Australian-registered ship carries 65 passengers in all outside cabins, most with view windows. A lounge, seating all, faces aft to an open deck, and the dining room is on the lowest passenger deck with a long rectangular window on either side. The top deck has a Jacuzzi. The vessel carries Zodiacs, a glass-bottom boat, and a tender taking all passengers ashore at one time.

ISABELA II: Completed in 1979, she was heavily refitted and last refurbished in 2012. Good-size cabins are all outside with two partial-view singles, to accommodate 39 passengers. The dining room, lounge and library are on the lowest passenger deck. The Sun Deck has a covered aft bar and lounge for informal dining. The vessel carries Zodiacs, sea kayaks and a glass-bottom boat.

CORAL EXPEDITIONS I, formerly Coral Princess: Completed in 1988 and refitted 2005, this 4-deck Australian-registered ship carries 65 passengers in all outside cabins. The lounge seats all for lectures, often illustrated on two large plasma TV screens. The open top deck has a Jacuzzi, and for sightseeing, there is a glass bottom boat, Zodiacs, and an excursion vessel that can take all passengers at one time.

CORAL EXPEDITIONS II, formerly Coral Princess II (Completed in 1985 and refitted in 2015, the three-deck ship carries 44 passengers in all outside cabins with the 4 D-Deck units having portholes rather than windows. A glass bottom boat is available for watching tropical fishes.

VARIETY VOYAGER: Built in 2012, this sleek-looking yacht handles 72 passengers in all outside cabins located on three of the four decks. Public areas include a lounge, single-seating dining, outdoor dining, library, gym, spa and top deck outdoor bar lounge.

Why Go?

If you long to visit off-beat places around the world, or popular expedition destinations, you will be in good company enjoying the experiences with other like-minded modern-day explorers. Many Zegrahm cruises offer longer itineraries than other operators giving you more in-depth connections but also increasingly the monetary outlay.

When to Go

All Zegrahm Expeditions are geared to the best season or seasons to travel to a particular region.

Activities & Entertainment

These cruises are designed for the active traveler with lots of destinations and as few sea days as possible. Time aboard, however, will be well spend with lectures and audio-visual presentations presented by the expedition staff who will bring their expertise to you on board and on excursions ashore. Excursions will be in vehicles, on foot and in kayaks and Zodiacs and some itineraries offer snorkeling and diving. Two vessels have glass-bottom boats — ISABELA II and OCEANIC DISCOVERER.

Along the Same Lines

Lindblad Expeditions.

Contact

Zegrahm Expeditions, 3131 Elliott Avenue, Ste 205, Seattle, WA 98121; www.zegrahm.com 855-276-8849 or 206-745-9364

TWS

 

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Aurora Expeditions

Aurora Expeditions.

Australia-based Aurora Expeditions charters expedition-style ships for its far-reaching adventure cruise programs as well as being a full-service travel agency to aid clients with all travel arrangements, including pre- and post-cruise land stays. The firm has been in business for a quarter century and has direct access beyond its Australian home base to colleagues in New Zealand, UK, Canada, US, and the Netherlands.

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

Polar Pioneer will operate in Antarctica, Arctic and Scotland until the end of the 2019 Northern Hemisphere’s summer season. She was built in Finland in 1982 as a survey ship and converted in 2000 to carry 54 passengers with Russian officers and crew. Greg Mortimer (named after the firm’s co-founder), a brand-new high-tech expedition ship, will take over the Polar Pioneer’s Arctic and Antarctic programs in October 2019; capacity 120 passengers. Isabella II takes up to 40 passengers in the Galapagos and was refurbished in 2000. Coral Expedition I is a 42-passenger catamaran, refurbished in 2012 to cruise Australia’s remote Kimberley Coast.

Aurora Expeditions

Aboriginal cave art on the Kimberley Coast. * Photo: Ted Scull

Passenger Profile

Being Australian-based, the majority come from the Southern Hemisphere, and now with offices elsewhere, also British, Dutch and Canadians and Americans.

Price

$ to $$$

Itineraries

Antarctica expeditions (December-April) leave from southern South America, and some itineraries offer the choice of one way or roundtrip flights across the Drake Passage to and from King George Island for those who wish to avoid the possibility of a rough two-day sea journey. Itineraries bound for the Antarctic Peninsula last 11, 12 or 13 days, while adding South Georgia and the Falklands (some itineraries) lengthens the voyages from 18 to 21 days. Special excursions include camping on a mat inside a thermal sleeping bag. No tent provided in order to see the sky and surroundings; don’t expect much sleep in the daylight nights. Extra tariff excursions: sea kayaking, skiing and snorkeling. Ships: 54-passenger Polar Pioneer until end of the 2018-2019 season and then from November 2019, 120-passenger Greg Mortimer.

Aurora Expeditions

The GREG MORTIMER expedition ship arrives fall 2019.

The Arctic (June-September). Excursions include Zodiac exploration (12 passengers max.) close to ice bergs and ice flows looking for seals and walrus, approaching high cliffs where puffins and guillemots nest, visiting Inuit villages, historic sites where Vikings lived and explorers and whalers camped, and tundra hikes for wildlife sightings and summertime wildflowers and berries.

Svalbard circumnavigations last 11 days; Norway, Scotland and Spitzbergen 14 days, Franz Josef Land, a Russian archipelago, 15 days; Spitzbergen, Iceland and East Greenland 14 days, and add more of Greenland (including rock climbing) for 24 days.

Wild Scotland, 11 days (one annually from late June into July), visits the Inner and Outer Hebrides, including Iona, the birthplace of Christianity in Britain; landing at the far-out island of St. Kilda, home to Europe’s largest bird colony; to the top of Scotland for Shetlands’ stone-, bronze-, and iron-age settlements; and finally, the Orkneys for rugged landscapes, 5,000 year-old Skara Brae settlement and WWII artifacts such as an Italian POW-built chapel.

Aurora Expeditions

Lovely rock garden near Cove, Loch Long, Scotland

The 11-day Kimberley Coast itineraries operate in June and July between Darwin, Northern Territory and Broome, Western Australia, along the remote coastline where nature reigns across over 3,000 islands, colorful rocky cliffs, cascading waterfalls, dramatic tidal changes, remote sandy beaches and where it’s an event to see another boat or any sign of human inhabitants. Climb up to cave paintings and swim in waterholes that have been safely inspected and cleared of Australia’s exotic wildlife before you make the plunge. Ship: 42-passenger Coral Princess I.

Aurora Expeditions

Coral Princess I at Raft Point, Kimberley Coast

The 11-day Galapagos itinerary (September and November) includes two days in Quito exploring the UNESCO colonial heritage site before flying to the islands to join the expedition cruise. Kayak amongst the sea life that comes to the surface, snorkel with sea lions, marine iguanas, and colorful tropical fish, visit the Charles Darwin Research Station to learn about the latest conservation efforts, and hike across lava fields. Ship: 38-passenger Isabella II.

Aurora Expeditions

Isabella II in the Galapagos.

Included Features

Daily (sometimes twice) excursions and equipment listed for the specific destination; and beer, wine and soft drinks with meals, but not those ordered from the bar. Onboard extras will be gratuities (varies with the ship) and some special equipment for excursions such as snowshoeing, skiing and believe it or not, snorkeling in the Arctic and Antarctica.

Special Notes

The firm includes short biographies of the expedition staff and backgrounds of the shore-based staff. Evacuation insurance is mandatory for all cruises. For some off-ship optional excursions, reservations are required in advance, and the more challenging ones will require medical and experiential data.

Along the Same Lines

Numerous and ever-growing.

Contact

Aurora Expeditions, Suite 12, Level 2, 35 Buckingham Street, Surry Hills, Sydney, NSW 2010, Australia; Telephone: Australia 1 800 637 688; New Zealand 0 800 424 310, UK 0 808 189 2005; US/Canada 1 888 485 5080; Netherlands 0 800 023 0929. www.auroraexpeditions.com.

 

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quirky-cruise-victory-cruise-lines-ceo-hans-lagerweij-hans-with-crew-aboard-victory-1

QuirkyCruise.com had a chat with Hans Lagerweij, president and CEO of Victory Cruise Lines. It was founded in 2016 with the 202-passenger VICTORY I to ply the Great Lakes and other waterways in the US’s northeast. The line will debut a second nearly identical ship, the 202-passenger VICTORY II, in July 2018. With two ships, Victory will offer cruises to the Great Lakes, Canada and New England, plus Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and Cuba.

 

QC: When was Victory Cruise Lines founded and what was the impetus?
Victory Cruise Lines CEO Hans Lagerweij

Victory Cruise Lines CEO Hans Lagerweij

Hans Lagerweij: Victory Cruise Lines is a relatively young cruise company that sailed its first season in 2016 on the Great Lakes. It was started with the support of some tour operator partners, because there was a lack of capacity in the market, especially in the small ship luxury all-inclusive segment.

 

QC: Tell us a bit about your background.

Hans Lagerweij: I have a marketing and sales background, and worked for the travel multinational TUI Travel with their adventure travel companies back in Europe. In 2010 I moved to Toronto to manage a turn-around at polar market leader, Quark Expeditions. That was my first exposure to cruising, and I loved it. Since then I also managed TUI’s subsidiaries Zegrahm and International Expeditions, until TUI sold all their adventure and travel specialist brands last year.

Victory Cruise Lines CEO Hans Lagerweij

Victory Cruise Lines CEO Hans Lagerweij from his days with Quark.


QC:
What makes Victory special and different from other small-ship lines?

Hans Lagerweij: There are so many things!

  • We are destination focused; all our in-depth shore excursions are included, and we focus on immersive authentic experiences in the places we visit.
  • We are all inclusive, covering food, drinks, shore excursions, and even wifi.
  • We are the market leader on the Great Lakes, offering more voyages, itineraries and departures than anyone else.
  • We surprise and delight our customers with unexpected experiences, local entertainment and exceptional intuitive service on board.
  • We have small intimate ships that are easy to get around on, a friendly atmosphere, and great personal service. It is a home away from home for our guests.

 

QC: Apart from Blount and the relatively new Pearl Seas, the Great Lakes has seen very few cruise lines over the years, often just one season then no return the next year. Why do you think there has been so little sustained interest?

Hans Lagerweij: It is an interesting observation. In the last 20 years Americans have started to travel more globally, but they are only recently discovering the jewels that they have in their “backyard.” The Great Lakes offer a great combination of interesting cities, great cultural experiences and fantastic nature. It is safe and easy to travel to, without tiresome intercontinental flights and multi-hour time zone changes. Destination cruising close to home for mature American travelers 60+ is one of the hottest markets in travel. This demographic loves small, intimate and easy-to-get around cruise ships. These Baby Boomers are staying closer to home in search of new destinations that the Great Lakes certainly provides. We believe in the growth potential of the Great Lakes; for example, our passengers have almost doubled from 2017 to 2018. I would not be surprised if we have to add a third vessel at some point in the near future.

 

QC: Why do you think the Great Lakes will sell? What are the special characteristics?

Hans Lagerweij: The Great Lakes offer a fantastic variety and choice of different experiences — from whale watching in Tadoussac to Niagara Falls, Mackinac Island, and Michigan and Parry Sound in Ontario to the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit to The Rock & Roll Hall of fame in Cleveland.

 

QC: Mackinac Island and Chicago may be known, but do you think there will be interest in Little Current and Thunder Bay?

Hans Lagerweij: We certainly have some education to do, but Thunder Bay is fantastic! It’s at the western end point of the 1,900-mile long Great Lakes to St. Lawrence Seaway, and therefore has an interesting history of fur trading. It is also probably the best birding spot in Ontario.

Little Current is one of my personal favorites. It is located on Manitoulin Island, the largest freshwater island in the world, and part of stunning Georgian Bay’s famous archipelago. It also offers an introduction to the native American Ojibwe culture.

We understand that the above destinations will never be as big as our “backbone” Chicago to Toronto and Detroit to Montreal runs, but they offer an interesting new perspective, ideal for returning clients. As the market leader on the Great Lakes, we believe we have to offer our customers enough choice and variety to come back!

Victory Cruise Lines CEO Hans Lagerweij

Hans with crew aboard Victory I. * Photo: Victory Cruise Lines

 

QC: One of us (Ted) has sailed aboard Victory I as Cape May Light along the St. Lawrence. What non-cosmetic changes did you make to the vessel, and especially to Deck 5 that as originally built, saw little use.

Hans Lagerweij: The ship was completely refurbished and renovated in 2015. Deck 5 is a fantastic observation deck — most expedition cruise vessels would be jealous of the space and views from this deck. We have put chairs and sun beds up there, so guests can relax and enjoy the views.

 

QC: Tell us something about your second ship, the Victory II.

Hans Lagerweij: It will debut at the end of July this year on a Montreal to Detroit trip, an itinerary that due to huge demand will increase significantly in the number of departures in 2019. For this year, we will also visit French Canada, the St. Lawrence River and New England. In the winter beginning in January 2019, VICTORY II will sail from the Port of Miami on a new cruise and land safari to the Yucatan Peninsula — “The Grand Mayan Experience.” This all-inclusive 11-night program features a 9-night cruise and a land safari to Key West, Puerto Morelos, Valladolid, Chichen Itza, Izamal, Merida and Campeche with a full 3-night all-inclusive stop in Campeche.

 

QC: Where will your passengers come from?

Hans Lagerweij: Last year we were 99% from America, but for this year we see a strong interest (with bookings) from Australia, New Zealand and the UK. One source market to further explore for us is Canada; we hope to announce within a few weeks a preferred partnership with a travel consortia that serves this market.

 

QC: Do most of your passengers book directly by calling or going on your site, or do most use a travel agent?

Hans Lagerweij: Most of our business is with tour operators and travel agents, and we offer competitive commissions.

 

QC: How does the Great Lakes Cruise Company, a firm that sells several lines’ cruises,  fit into your bookings?

Hans Lagerweij: They are one of our trade partners. They have one of the most knowledgeable staffs in Great Lakes cruising.

 

QC: We see your two-week Cuba itinerary has 4 sea days and 4 ports. How is the time allocated in the ports?

Hans Lagerweij: We will sail our first cruise to Cuba next month in May. We deliver a full people-to-people experience. All our cruises are complete circumnavigations round-trip from Miami. All ports include a minimum two-night stay (two days for every port we visit), so we spend more time onshore than any other cruise line. Due to that, our program doesn’t feel rushed, and provides enough time to experience the “Real Cuba.” We also offer (and include) lunches in local restaurants, and passengers have the opportunity to go ashore in the evening, or to stay for the entertainment on board.

 

QC: Is two ships your sweet spot? Can you envision a third?

Hans Lagerweij: If demand keeps growing at the current pace, we will need a third vessel in 2021 or 2022. However, I have in my life seen various over-ambitious cruise companies fail, so we will first prove we can run a solid year-around program on two ships.

 

For more information, check out QuirkyCruise.com’s review of Victory Cruise Lines, or go directly to the Victory Cruise Line’s site here.

 

© 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.

oral Expeditions Review

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QuirkyCruise Coral Expeditions Review

Coral Expeditions based in Cairns, Queensland, Australia got its start in 1984 as Coral Princess Cruises by refitting a WWII submarine chaser into a small passenger-carrying ship for Great Barrier Reef cruises. With this initial success, CORAL PRINCESS, a catamaran was added in 1988; CORAL PRINCESS II a second catamaran, in 1996; OCEANIC DISCOVERER, a new small oceangoing ship in 2005; and the largest and newest, a true expedition ship CORAL ADVENTURER (120 passenger), arrived in April 2019. Similar CORAL GEOGRAPHER is expected to be delivered in December 2020. Each new member of the fleet allowed itineraries to reach beyond the Australian coast to Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, South Pacific Islands, Tasmania, New Zealand and Indian Ocean. Along with renaming the line Coral Expeditions, the existing fleet took on new names: CORAL EXPEDITIONS I, CORAL EXPEDITIONS II and CORAL DISCOVERER. The barrier reef cruises mainly frequent what are known as the ribbon reefs where the bleaching we hear about has had little impact. The line’s website has an information section composed by the line’s marine biologist about what is happening to the Great Barrier Reef due to climate change. While there is considerable damage, some sections have experienced recent recovery. In June 2021, the line will completely revamp the Great Barrier Reef cruises by expanding all of them to 7 days and include some more remote offshore destinations that seldom see regular visitors. See below (Itineraries}.

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

CORAL EXPEDITIONS I (built 1988 & 50 passengers); CORAL EXPEDITIONS II (b. 1985/refitted 2015 & 44 p); CORAL DISCOVERER (b. 2005 & 72 p); and CORAL ADVENTURER (b. 2019 & 120 p). The last-named, a true expedition ship, left Singapore on April 24, 2019 on its maiden trip to Indonesia and then onto Australia via a first call in Darwin. 120-passenger CORAL GEOGRAPHER to follow at the end of 2020.

Coral Princess cruises off Cape York, Australia's Top End. * Photo: Coral Expeditions

Coral Princess cruises off Cape York, Australia’s Top End. * Photo: Coral Expeditions

Passenger Profile

The line draws locally from Australia and New Zealand, also Britain, Europe, Canada and the U.S.

Passenger Decks

CORAL EXPEDITIONS I has four decks; CORAL PRINCESS II three; and CORAL DISCOVERER four decks and stabilizers. None have elevators. CORAL ADVENTURER 5 decks and elevator between lower 4; CORAL GEOGRAPHER 6 decks and elevator between lower 4.

Coral Expeditions

CORAL GEOGRAPHER. * Rendering: Coral Expeditions

Price

$$ to $$$ Expensive/Very pricey.

Included Features

All excursions and activities.

Itineraries – A sampling
  • Year-round Great Barrier Reef (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) cruises on CORAL EXPEDITIONS II from Cairns, North Queensland are either 3-night trips out to the reef for snorkeling/diving, private islands for the beaches, resorts, Danetree rain-forest trails 0r 4-night trips head north to the amazingly colorful Ribbon Reefs, going ashore at Lizard Island research station, and visiting historic Cooktown for its botanic gardens and nature walks. 7-night cruises combine the 3- and 4-nighters. Beginning in June 2021, the program will change into longer and more varied cruise that lasts 7 days and concentrates on the reef’s northern sections to include Hope Island and Osprey Reef, the latter a remote isolated seamount located at the outer limits of the Coral Sea Marine Park. Queensland’s coastal Daintree Rain Forest hikes and visits to Cooktown and indigenous cultures will round out the week.Coral Expeditions Review

Glass bottom boat and snorkeling at The Great Barrier Reef. * Photo: Coral Expeditions

  • It’s 10-night cruises in the Australian Outback along the extremely remote Kimberley Coast between Darwin, Northern Territory and Broome, Western Australia aboard CORAL DISCOVERER and CORAL EXPEDITIONS I during the dry season from April to October . Highlights are numerous waterfalls, especially powerful just after the rains in April and May, colorful cliff formations, indigenous Aboriginal rock art, birdlife, beach walking and some swimming. Apart from passing a few other small cruisers and private yachts, you are unlikely to encounter many, if any, people ashore. Much of the coast is inaccessible except on foot or by boat. Darwin is worth a stopover for its WWII and devastating cyclone history, plus a natural history museum showcasing scary and truly weird Australian wildlife. Broome, a former pearl-diving center, has developed into a popular international resort town. Personal Note: On my Kimberley cruise, I hooked an 80-pound shark, wrestling with it for over an hour before it broke the line.
  • Arnhem Land and Cape York expeditions on CORAL DISCOVERER and CORAL EXPEDITIONS I lasting 11 or 12 nights, operate at the beginning and end of The Kimberley season between Cairns and Darwin. The itinerary follows the extremely remote coast with Outback calls at the little visited northern end of the Great Barrier Reef; Cape York, the country’s most northerly tip; a community of Torres Strait islanders; Arnhem Land, home to Aboriginals and ranchers, and the Tiwi Islands, located just off Darwin with a distinctive group of Aboriginals speaking their own native language.
  • Papua New Guinea and the Spice Islands of Indonesia aboard the CORAL DISCOVERER feature in February, March and October with expeditions of 10, 12 and 24 nights. The many aspects are exploring the largest rain forest outside the Amazon Basin teeming with hundred of species of birds, butterflies and insects, Sepik River villages, WWII battle sites, volcanic mountains, and coral atolls. The longest cruise circumnavigates Papua New Guinea with a larger emphasis on WII sites. 13-night CORAL DISCOVERER cruises also operate between Papua New Guinea and South Pacific Islands of New Caledonia, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, visiting local cultures, coral reefs and WWII sites.
  • Tasmania, Australia’s island state located south of Melbourne sees the stabilized CORAL DISCOVERER offering 7-day cruises from January to March (summertime in the Southern Hemisphere) that explore the east, and south coast coasts, some sections inaccessible by any other means than hiking. Visit national parks and World Heritage Area, and sail beneath 1000-foot cliffs, spot albatross, fur seals, dolphins, go kayaking, bush walks through thick forest land, and visit Port Arthur, Australia’s notorious penal colony. Cruises leave from and return to Hobart, Tassie’s capital and largest port. If you like seafood, you will love this place, as well as eating freshly caught oysters during the cruise.
  • N.B. The expanded fleet allows far more itineraries such as to  New Zealand on two different itineraries of 8 and 12 nights from late December through February. The longer one embarks in Auckland and hugs the Pacific coasts of the North and South Islands.  Experience Maori culture, the Art Deco city of Napier rebuilt after a 1931 earthquake, whale watching off Kaikoura, wildlife at Akaroa, Scottish culture at Dunedin, Stewart Island off the tip of South Island for birds and especially kiwis, and the natural wonders of Fiordland National Park. The ship enters less visited Dusky and Doubtful Sounds and finally the grand finale of Milford Sound. A transfer over scenic roads to the lakeside community of Queenstown provides a fitting climax. Spend a night or two here. The shorter 8-nighters ply between Milford Sound and Wellington, calling at all the South Island destinations to Kaikoura mentioned above, and then enter Marlborough Sound, disembarking at Wellington, New Zealand’s capital. The Indian Ocean is another with long cruises to Sri Lanka, Maldives, Seychelles, Madagascar, and Réunion when the CORAL GEOGRAPER arrives at the end of 2020.
Coral Expeditions Review

Cruising past waterfalls along the Kimberley Coast. * Photo: Coral Expeditions

Why Go?

Australia’s 1,400-mile Great Barrier Reef is home to over 1,500 fish species and 30 different mammals, while much of the remote coastal Outback is virtually devoid of human habitation and full of the freaks of nature. Exploring by small ship is the only practical way to access the region. New Guinea expeditions lead to remote coast lines and penetrate deep into the island’s interior via the Sepik River, while South Pacific island hopping takes you to culturally distinct people and pristine atolls where nature abounds in the sea, air and on land. Most of New Zealand’s wildlife and man-made attractions are on or very near the coast. Coral Expeditions’ three small ships carry only 44 to 72 passengers providing truly intimate shared experiences.

Coral Expeditions Review

Coral Discoverer off Manum Island, Papua New Guinea. * Photo: Coral Expeditions

When to Go?

The height of the tourist season along the Great Barrier Reef is June to August after which the humidity begins to build and then the rains arrive in the peak of the summer between December and March. However, the heat is less uncomfortable when at sea and enjoying activities on and in the water. The other expeditions are geared to the best weather seasons.

Cabins
Coral Expeditions

CORAL GEOGRAPHER’s bridge deck balcony suites. * Rendering: Coral Expeditions

All cabins are outside with windows, except four D Deck cabins with portholes aboard CORAL EXPEDITIONS II. Beds are twins or doubles (junior kings on CORAL DISCOVERER). CORAL ADVENTURER has two suites and CORAL GEOGRAPHER has six suites. Many cabins have balconies.

Public Rooms

All five  ships have a lounge (forward facing on the two catamarans), dining room with a bar and ample outdoor deck space for viewing.

Dining

Seating is open for all meals. Breakfast (continental or cooked) and lunch (cold and hot dishes) are buffets while dinner is served from a menu. You partake of Australia’s bountiful fruits, vegetables, seafood and meats. Wines are from Australia and New Zealand.

Activities & Entertainment

CORAL DISCOVERER has a small pool and offers guided engine room tours; and all three have an open bridge policy, Zodiacs for touring and scuba diving with instructors and snorkeling equipment on selected itineraries. Additionally, CORAL EXPEDITIONS I and CORAL DISCOVERER carry excursion boats with capacities to handle all passengers. CORAL EXPEDITIONS II operates a glass bottom boat, ideal for viewing the tropical fishes along the Great Barrier Reef. Lecturers and briefings occur on all itineraries, and two Special Guest Lecturers accompany The Kimberley, Arnhem Land & Cape York, and the South Pacific itineraries.

Special Note: Be sure to read the report on the current condition of the Great Barrier Reef written by Coral Expeditions’ marine biologist.

Coral Expeditions Review

Going ashore along the Great Barrier Reef. * Photo: Coral Expeditions

Along the Same Lines

No other line offers such a comprehensive coverage of Australia, including Tasmania and Papua New Guinea.

Contact

Coral Expeditions, P.O.Box 2093, Cairns, Qld 4870, Australia; http://coralprincess.com.au/home-au/;  in Australia  1800 079 545; rest of the world +61 7 4040 9999.

TWS

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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 Theodore W. Scull. The first river I got to know well was right outside my office window. It was the mighty Hudson and it flowed both ways as the incoming tide from the Atlantic was often stronger than the out flowing river. In fact, the tides reached Troy, just above Albany, some 155 miles from the river mouth. That had to be the limit because of the Champlain Canal locks.

The Hudson was a busy waterway for liners, cruise ships, cargo vessels, tankers, tugs towing barges, ferries, excursion boats, sanitation vessels and sailing craft. At first I sailed only the 75-mile stretch from New York to Poughkeepsie, and not until many decades later in 2010, did I close that gap when I cruised the entire navigable length from Troy to Manhattan.

My first two overnight river cruises took place even before I started working in Manhattan, with the first aboard a Russian riverboat, five days down the Danube from Vienna to the Black Sea. The most exciting portion was riding the rapids through the Iron Gates, a fast-flowing stretch that passed through a narrow gorge between Serbia (then Yugoslavia) and Romania. Steam locomotives were on hand to aid upriver traffic before locks controlled the flow.

A steam locomotive awaits the next ship to tow up through the Iron Gate. * Photo: Ted Scull

A steam locomotive awaits the next ship to tow up through the Iron Gates. * Photo: Ted Scull

The second was aboard an old Russian side-wheeler plying between Stalingrad (now Volgograd) and Rostov, steaming along both the Volga and the Don. I never expected a river trip to be rough but crossing a huge lake in a windstorm was not unlike being on the open sea. Not to send fear into timid hearts and unpredictable stomachs, that was the one and only time on a waterway that I experienced rock and roll.

Then a long gap ensued before I was invited to be a lecturer aboard the venerable sternwheeler DELTA QUEEN. Completed in 1927, she became America’s quintessential steamboat, a living legacy that connected the past directly with the modern versions we have today. I think we may see her sailing again.

Delta Queen in 1990. * Photo: Ted Scull

Delta Queen in 1990. * Photo: Ted Scull

That first cruise covered the Mississippi, Ohio, Cumberland and Tennessee rivers, all so different that I got river fever and was determined to travel on more. At first, all were located in North America: a short stretch of the Missouri; the Kanawha in West Virginia; the Sacramento and Stockton in California; the Columbia and Snake in Oregon and Washington, and along the Salmon River into Hells Canyon in Idaho.

The first international river was the St. Lawrence dividing the U.S. and Canada. It’s referred as La Mer (The Sea) to French Canadians from where it meets the Saguenay to its issue into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. From the Saguenay inland it is both a natural river and a controlled one with locks that create the St. Lawrence Seaway. On different small ships, I have traveled this river from Lake Ontario, along the section where it becomes the St. Lawrence Seaway, sharing the channels with the big lakers (bulk carriers), and on past Montreal and Quebec to the Saguenay.

Meeting an ore carrier on the St. Lawrence. * Photo: Ted Scull

Meeting an ore carrier on the St. Lawrence. * Photo: Ted Scull

Europe entered the picture again exactly 20 years ago when I made an autumn cruise on the Rhine, Moselle and Main. I loved the castles, cathedrals, vineyards fringing the banks, picture postcard towns and the commercial river traffic. Their varied attributes propelled me to study maps of Europe’s navigable rivers; it was staggering where I could go and did: from the North Sea, some 2,123 miles (3,147 kms) to the Black Sea; from Amsterdam across Germany and up the Elbe to Prague in Central Europe; most of the way between the English Channel at the mouth of the Seine and via the Soane and Rhone almost to the Mediterranean, apart from a dry stretch between Paris and Burgundy; and St. Petersburg to Moscow via the Neva and Volga.

Viking River Cruises' riverboat tied up on the Neva just outside St. Petersburg. * Photo: Ted Scull

Viking River Cruises’ riverboat tied up on the Neva just outside St. Petersburg. * Photo: Ted Scull

Beyond Europe, the Nile beckoned and more than satisfied me as a way to see Upper Egypt’s antiquities — the temples, statues, feluccas, and shadoofs, but sadly few people are currently venturing there, though my brother did so as recently as December 2015 and experienced no incidents.

The mighty Amazon is really two rivers, the wide stretch between Manaus and the Atlantic where some of the larger cruise ships go and the really remote road-less Upper Amazon (Solimoes) where the river provides the transportation in addition to dozens of tributaries navigated by small river boats that penetrate deeply into Peru. I made one exciting eight-day journey from Iquitos, the world’s largest city without road access, down to Manaus and the junction with the Rio Negro. I loved seeing how people made their living on and around the river, spotting the exotic birds and animals, also calling the river home, and catching a piranha on my birthday and having it grilled for supper.

Then came the mighty Yangtze in China climbing by riverboat from Wuhan through the Three Gorges to Chongqing and the totally different and culturally-rich Mekong in Cambodia and Vietnam — and one day hopefully the Irrawaddy in Myanmar (Burma) and the Ganges in India.

Boarding the boat on the Mekong River, Cambodia. * Photo: Ted Scull

Boarding the boat on the Mekong River, Cambodia. * Photo: Ted Scull

While the first river I knew was the Hudson, I now have a sneaky view of the East River, but then it’s not what it says it is; it’s only a tidal strait between Long Island Sound and Upper New York Bay. Still it seems to be what it isn’t officially, so I am satisfied, and it sees some of the small ships covered on this website plying between New England and the South and on around the Battery and up the Hudson.

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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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Snapshot: Tauck was founded in 1925 by Arthur Tauck, Sr. ,and the firm is still family-owned with Arthur Tauck Jr. as chairman and son-in- law Dan Mahar CEO. The vast enterprise operates in 70 countries, and for purposes of Quirky Cruise, we’re highlighting their extensive choice of river and small ship cruises.

What’s Included: Quite a lot. On small ship cruises, shore excursions planned for Tauck-only passengers; all gratuities to Tauck guides, ship staff, local guides and drivers, bar and restaurant beverages, port charges, luggage handling, transfers, hotel accommodations and airport transfers upon arrival and departure when noted.

River Cruises:

Tauck riverboat sails into Budapest. * Photo: Tauck

Tauck riverboat sails into Budapest. * Photo: Tauck

-Europe: River itineraries, offered from April through October, include waterways in Belgium and Holland; Rhine and Moselle; Main and Danube; Rhone and Soane, and the Seine. N.B. The Douro will be added in 2020 – see below. In fact, string together cruises and sail from Amsterdam to Budapest (15 days) and even continue on another week to the Danube to the Black Sea.

N.B. Selected cruises aboard the score of riverboats cater to families with activities ashore such as hiking and cycling, riding a cog railway and how about this, a scavenger hunt in the Louvre! On board, kids hear about the legends of the Lorelei and participate in cooking demonstrations and chocolate tasting. Riverboats EMERALD and SAPPHIRE will each have 14 cabins converted to handle a family of four. See the firm’s website for the Tauck Bridges ebrochure for kids that describes the destinations and activities for a family vacation.

Two riverboats carrying just 130 passengers each entered service in 2016 – the GRACE in April and JOY in June, then in 2018 ESPRIT and TREASURES with 118 passengers.

Riverboat Inspire moored at Koblenz on the Rhine. * Photo: Tauck

Riverboat Inspire moored at Koblenz on the Rhine. * Photo: Tauck

Cruise tours include hotel stays and land extensions, such as adding London and Paris to a Seine River cruise, Switzerland to the Rhine, Prague and Nurnberg to a Danube itinerary and the French Riviera to the Rhone and Soane. The Jewel class ships take up to just 118 passengers with alternate dining in the Bistro and on the Sun Deck, weather permitting. The Inspiration class carries up to 130 with alternate dining at Arthur’s and on the Sun Deck, again, weather permitting. Inclusive features include unlimited beverages include beer, wine, spirits; Internet (reception varies); use of bicycles; shore excursions and all gratuities to staff aboard and guides ashore.

-*Myanmar (Burma): 11-day cruise tours, scattered throughout the year, include a three-night cruise on the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River between Bagan and Mandalay aboard the 4-deck, 82-passenger BELMOND ROAD to Mandalay. *N.B. This cruise is currently not operating.

-China: 16- & 17-day cruise tours spend 3 days (downstream) or 4-days (upstream) aboard the 124-passenger YANGZI EXPLORER between Chongqing and Yichang, including passage through the Three Gorges. Tauck reserves 23 cabins, all with balconies, on sailings operating between April and October.

Small Ship Cruises: As Tauck uses a variety of ships, inclusive features vary.

-Europe: A wide variety, and most cruises last 7 days, a few 8 and 9, plus land extensions with hotels, sightseeing and transfers. Spain & Portugal, Aegean Sea, Venice, Croatia & Greece with Windstar ships sail and motor vessels; British Isles & Ireland; Norwegian Fjords, Iceland, Baltic & St. Petersburg; Italy, Sicily, Malta, Corsica & Monte Carlo with Ponant ships LE SOLEAL and LE PONANT. The new purpose-built 84-passenger riverboat ANDORINHA will arrive on Portugal Douro River in spring 2020. May to October itineraries will be 7-night cruise only, 7 nights for families, and 12 nights with 7-night cruise and 2-night hotel stays each in Madrid and Lisbon. Andorinha is a migratory sparrow that returns to Portugal every spring and occupies the same nest with the same mate year after year.

-Cuba: THESE CRUISES HAVE BEEN CANCELLED DUE TO A US GOVERNMENT ORDER FORBIDDING CRUISES TO CUBA. HOWEVER, LAND TOUR ARE AVAILABLE THOUGH TAUCK. 11-day Cuba cruise tours begin and end with flight from and back to Miami using the motor-sail ship LE PONANT (60 passengers) for a six-day cruise between Havana and Santiago de Cuba and calling as three intermediate south coast ports. Dates are December and January.

-Central America: An 11-day cruise-tour, January, February, and March, to Panama and Costa Rica spends 7 nights aboard the 148-passenger WIND STAR passing through the canal and calling at island and coastal ports between Colon, Panama and Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica.

A Cuna boy from the San Blas Islands, Panama comes among side. * Photo: Ted Scull

A Panamanian boy comes among side. * Photo: Ted Scull

-Galapagos: A 8-day cruise tour, March, April, June to August and December, combine a Peruvian tour including Lima, Cusco and Machu Picchu with a 4-night Galapagos cruise aboard the 90-passenger, 5-deck SANTA CRUZ II (Tauck passengers only). Cabins are all outside with twin or double beds. December is a family departure.

-Antarctica: 13-day Antarctica cruise tours, January and December 2017, include 2 nights in Buenos Aires and 10 nights aboard Ponant Cruises’ LE SOLEAL or LE BOREAL (224-264 passengers). These 6-deck ships, built since 2010, have all outside cabins, (most with balconies), twin beds or queen-size, some cabins with bathtubs, two restaurants and two panorama lounges, two viewing terraces, open-air bar, and elevators to all but the highest Deck 7.

-New Zealand: A 9-day cruise of the North and South Islands aboard LE LAPEROUSE (184 passengers) with an Australian component to Melbourne, Sydney and the Great Barrier Reef. adding up to 20 days.

L'Austral. * Photo: Tauck

L’Austral cruises to Antarctica. * Photo: Tauck

-Japan: A week’s cruise aboard Ponant’s L’AUSTRAL (264 passengers) or LE SOLEOL (244 passengers)  makes a loop around southern Japan with a call at Busan, South Korea as part of a 14-day cruise tour with April departures.

Japanese gardens are a major feature of a cruise tour.

Contact: TAUCK, 10 Westport Road, Wilton, CT 06897-4548. www.tauck.com; 800-468-2825

TWS