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bag piper aboard the Spirit of Scotland

Capturing the Spirit of Scotland

by Robin McKelvie.

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

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

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

The 12-passenger Spirit of Scotland

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

Canal Cruising in Luxury

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

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

Scotland's Caledonian Canal

Scotland’s Caledonian Canal. * European Waterways

Map of Scotland

Scotland map. * European Waterways

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

Spirit of Scotland hot tub

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

History & Whisky  

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

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

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

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

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

A visit to Tomatin Distillery on a Spirit of Scotland cruise

The Tomatin Distillery. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Meeting Nessie in Loch Ness

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

Cruising into Loch Ness on Spirit of Scotland

Loch Ness. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

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

Urquhart Castle on Spirit of Scotland

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

On the Castle Trail

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

Cawdor Castle

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

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

Cruising Scotland

Beautiful Donan Castle. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

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

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

A Thoroughly Scottish Experience

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

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

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

bag piper aboard the Spirit of Scotland

A piper to serenade us! * Photo: Robin McKelvie

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

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

Freshly smoked salmon aboard Spirit of Scotland

Freshly smoked salmon! * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Scottish beef filet aboard Spirit of Scotland

Scottish beef filet. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

elegant dining area aboard Spirit of Scotland

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

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

Spirit of Scotland's hot tub

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

QUICK FACTS

Itineraries/Fares

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

a twin cabin on Spirit of Scotland

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

Scottish whisky

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

Getting There

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

Tips

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

Weather

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

the aft sun deck of Spirit of Scotland

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

Money Matters

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

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

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

saloon aboard Spirit of Scotland

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

Spirit of Scotland bar

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

charming Spirit of Scotland

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

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Cruising Scotland

Cruising Scotland ’s Western Isles – An Overview

By Ted Scull.

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

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

Cruising Scotland

Eilean Donan Castle. * Photo: Majestic Line

My Experience

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

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

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

Cruising Scotland

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

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

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

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

Cruising Scotland

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

Cruising Scotland: The Western Isles

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

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

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

Cruising Scotland

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

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

Cruising Scotland: Islands Galore & More

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

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

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

Cruising Scotland

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

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

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

Cruising Scotland

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

Cruising Scotland: A Fleet of Truly Small Ships

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

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

Cruising Scotland

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

Cruising Scotland: What’s the Appeal?

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

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

Cruising Scotland

An Argyll Cruises’ cabin. * Photo: Argyll Cruises

Cruising Scotland

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

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

Cruising Scotland

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

Cruising Scotland: Mal de Mer

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

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

Cruising Scotland: The Attractions Ashore 

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

Cruising Scotland

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

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

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

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

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

Cruising Scotland

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

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

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

Cruising Scotland

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

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

Cruising Scotland: Who Goes There? 

The operators with number of vessels and passenger count:

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

Argyll Cruising
(1 vessel; 8 passengers)

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

Hebridean Island Cruises
(1 with 50 passengers)

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

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

Puffer Steamboat Holidays
(1 with 12 passengers)

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

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

 

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Québec's Baie-Comeau

Canada Bans Cruise Ships Through Oct.

By Anne Kalosh.

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

canada cruise ban equals no Northwest Passage cruises

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

Applies to ships carrying more than 100 people

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

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

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

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

Canada ban cruise ships to places like Montreal

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

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

Expedition operators

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

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

polar bears in the High Arctic

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

canada cruise ban means no northwest passage cruises

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

Victory Cruise Lines

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

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

Canada bans cruise ships

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

Impact on ports

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

The region had been looking at a record season.

Québec's Baie-Comeau

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

U.S. ports suffer, too

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

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

Safari Endeavour in Frederick Sound AK

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

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

RELATED: Alaska Adventures with UnCruise.  by Judi Cohen.

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Kyles ruins in Scotland

Scotland Cruise

by Robin McKelvie.

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

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

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

Agyll Cruisings' Splendor

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

Rebirth of an Old Dame

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

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

Captain Iain Duncan on a Scottish cruise

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

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

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

8-passenger Splendour in Scotland

The 8-passenger Splendour. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Sailing Through the Mountains

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

scotland cruise landscape

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

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

Scotland cruise map

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

 Kyles ruins in Scotland

The breathtaking Kyles. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

The Unique Firth of Clyde

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

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

Firth of Clyde scenery on a Scotland cruise

The scenic Firth of Clyde. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

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

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

Splendour on a Scotland cruise

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

The Firth of Clyde islands

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

Kyles of Bute in Scotland

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

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

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

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

Ailsa Craig on a Scotland cruise

Close up of Ailsa Craig. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

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

This is the Splendour’s glorious playground.

ruins in Scotland

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

whisky in Arran in Scotland

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

Epic Wildlife and Delicious Food

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

puffins in Scotland

Adorable puffins. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

dolphins on a Scotland cruise

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

standing on deck of Splendour in Scotland

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

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

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

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

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

dining aboard the Splendour in Scotland

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

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

Local Scottish crab and prawns

Local crab and prawns. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Waving a Fond Farewell

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

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

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

The Arran hills of Scotland

Looking across to Arran. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

The Practical Stuff

Itineraries/Fares

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

Getting There

These days there are a number of direct flights from North America to Scotland. Depending on your airline, many flights connect through London (and some Dublin). You can choose to arrive in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh or Glasgow, with the latter an hour’s drive closer to the marina in Argyll.  Or you can train it from Glasgow Central to Gourock and pick up a ferry to Dunoon, where you’d need a taxi to get to the marina.

Tips

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

Argyll Cruising

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

Weather

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

Money Matters

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

For More Info

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

Scottish travel writer Robin McKelvie

Scottish travel writer Robin McKelvie knows his subject!

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Hawaii cruise

Hawaii Cruise Expedition

By John Roberts.

Hawaii is a destination that invites and instills a spirt of playfulness, wonder and awe. And I’m convinced that a small-ship expedition is one of the best ways to experience this tropical paradise.

So this is how I spent my summer vacation. Sailing in Hawai’i with UnCruise Adventures. Carefree, barefoot, bare-chested and bold.

This voyage was especially reinvigorating, full of opportunities to cut loose.

Hawaii Cruise

John jumping into a great week! * Photo: UnCruise

We spent our days playing in the water without a care in the world as the 36-passenger Safari Explorer moved from island to island during the weeklong cruise — transporting us to a new place each day to play in our vibrant giant aquarium with sea turtles, reef sharks, octopuses and colorful fish.

Safari Explorer Hawaii

The 36-passenger Safari Explorer. * Photo: John Roberts

Hawaii cruise aboard the Safari Explorer

The 36-passenger Safari Explorer is ideal for cruising Hawaii. * Photo: John Roberts

For a person who loves the water and outdoors, there is no better place than Hawai’i.

It has ideal weather throughout the year and offers an infinite number of activities to please foodies, nature lovers, sporty types, and history and culture enthusiasts.

UnCruise Adventures blends all of these passions in its jam-packed itinerary, sailing from Molokai and visiting the Big Island (Hawaii), Maui and Lanai.

Hawaii cruise with UnCruise

The 36-passenger Safari Explorer 7-night cruise route. * Map: UnCruise

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Hawaii Cruise: The Staff

“I feel that the staff was amazing,” said Sharon Navre, who is from New York and was sailing on her first UnCruise voyage with husband Jeff to celebrate their 35th anniversary.

“We were kept busy, and we like that side of things. We are impressed with how they can take care of everybody, including dietary needs. I would definitely do an UnCruise again.”

The expedition line has been in Hawai’i for more than a decade, and during this time, UnCruise has developed special relationships with members of the island communities. This gives travelers an opportunity to immerse themselves in an experience more representative of authentic “Old Hawai’i” than they would find elsewhere.

Authentic Hawaii Cruise

Experiencing authentic “old” Hawaii. * Photo: John Roberts

Hawaii Cruise: Connected to the Past

Since 2019, UnCruise now sails all year in Hawai’i, offering weeklong one-way expeditions between Molokai and the Big Island (Hawai’i). UnCruise decided it made a lot of sense to keep Safari Explorer running in Hawai’i all year to maximize the number of trips it could offer to this beloved destination.

We joined Safari Explorer for one of the last voyages of the summer — the end of UnCruise’s first season cruising Hawai’i during the summer months (the ship used to spend summers in Alaska).

Though summer is outside of whale-watching season (which is September until June), there is still plenty to do and see.

Hawaii Cruise: Molokai

Our cruise started and ended in Molokai, an island the big ships can’t get to. In fact, UnCruise Adventures is the lone cruise line making regularly scheduled visits to Molokai.

This island is just 38 miles long and 10 miles wide, and is the place most connected to Hawai’i’s ancient roots. A large proportion of the 7,000-plus residents are of native ancestry who proudly live a simple and rural lifestyle aiming to preserve their culture and history.

At the eastern tip of Molokai is the Halawa Valley, a lush place home to the island chain’s oldest continuously inhabited spot; the first Polynesian people arrived from the Marquesas, Tahitian and other neighboring islands around 650 AD. More than 1,300 years later, you can meet with Anakala Pilipo Soltario and his family who welcome visitors to their land and home.

Hawaii Cruise: Family Heritage

Anakala (or Uncle) Pilipo is the last resident of the valley who was born there, and when we arrive, we are greeted by him, his son Greg and two teenaged grandsons. The two teens lead a short hike around the property and up to the home.

In port in Molokai on a Hawaii Cruise

Uncle Pilipo and his grandsons. * Photo: John Roberts

Each member of the family wears a red kihei, a cape-like cloth that is knotted at the shoulder and draped around the torso. Uncle Pilipo and Greg then have us gather in a small grassy area to show us the traditional “welcome ceremony,” demonstrating how visitors from one village would seek permission to enter another village, perhaps to discuss trade.

Greg stands at the head of our group and blows into a conch (pu), awaiting a return call from his father. We may approach only when Uncle Pilipo returns the sound on the pu.

We then all line up for a “Hawai’ian handshake,” the traditional greeting called honi. This intimate custom requires the participants to press together their foreheads and noses while looking into each other’s eyes and inhaling deeply, sharing a breath.

the traditional "honi" on a Hawaii cruise

The traditional “Hawai’ian handshake,” a greeting called honi. * Photo: Colleen McDaniel

The entire group did it with all of our hosts and one another before moving to a set of picnic tables to hear Greg and Anakala Pilipo speak passionately about the customs and culture they are seeking to preserve. When Hawai’i became a U.S. state in 1959, the process of “Westernization” — which had begun decades earlier after the U.S. annexed the islands — became accelerated.

During this culture talk, we learn the traditional term for a Hawai’ian feast is pa’ina and not luau, which is actually a leaf of the sacred taro plant. Greg gathers a large board and a set of stone tools he uses to pound fresh poi from taro roots. These are family implements that have lasted six generations and are meticulously cared for. He pounds the poi and tells us how the food is a staple of the native Hawai’ian diet. He mixes a bit of salted fish into the sticky lump of poi, and we all eagerly grab a serving from the mound, many getting seconds as the fresh delicacy is passed around on a large taro leaf.

Making poi on an Hawaiian cruise

Greg uses stone tools to pound fresh poi from taro roots. * Photo: John Roberts

Hawaii Cruise: Natural Disasters

Anakala Pilipo recounts the days of his youth and the small schoolhouse he attended that once sat on the property — a cornerstone still visible under a tall palm tree. There were thousands of residents in Halawa Valley up until the late 1950s. A massive tsunami flooded the valley in 1946, when Anakala Solatorio was six years old. He recalls seeing a wall of water approaching as his family joined villagers retreating higher into the hills to avoid devastating flooding that killed more 100 people.

After another tsunami in 1957 wiped out the taro fields, most residents left the valley, leaving few remaining families.

Greg gives the culture talks and also leads hikes to a majestic waterfall for visitors (heavy rains left the trails unsafe for hiking during our time in the valley). He says preserving this lifestyle is his passion. The role his father had long held has been passed to him.

“Our culture is sacred, not secret,” Greg says. “When we don’t share our culture, will be the moment our culture dies.”

Hawaiian cruise

Uncle Pilipo and his family greeting UnCruise passengers. * Photo: John Roberts

Whether you start or end your trip at Molokai, you should consider spending an extra day or two there to further explore places like the Kalaupapa National Historical Park, a former leper colony — or just relax in the soothing serenity.

The lone resort on the island is Hotel Molokai, a lovely spot right on the waterfront.

This also serves as the hospitality site for UnCruise Adventures’ passengers beginning or ending their voyages in Molokai.

Below is a video tour of Hotel Molokai.

Hawaii Cruise: Quirky Ship Built for Island Adventures

Safari Explorer is a rugged yacht that carries up to 36 passengers in 18 staterooms spread over the ship’s three decks. There are two Commodore Suites and three Admiral cabins that offer between 200 and 275 square feet as well as amenities like a bathtub and hot tubs. So, you get a bit more space than the other accommodations, which all feature simple layouts, small marine-style bathrooms (with the toilet and shower in the same little space), comfy beds, and TVs with DVD players (DVD library in the lounge).

We stayed in a standard cabin, and our room was a tight fit for couples. The layout meant we had to take turns getting into the bed, which is fit into a tight corner area. There is no wi-fi or cable TV. But for this trip, you only really need a place to store your clothes and lay your head in comfort at night, and the cabins fit the bill just fine.

Safari Explorer cabin

John’s cabin. * Photo: John Roberts

The captain welcomes passengers onto the open bridge to see how the navigation happens or to get a good look at the wildlife at play in the waters.

Hawaii Cruise with Captain Tyler

Captain Tyler at the wheel. * Photo: John Roberts

Open bridge on Safari Explorer

The bridge is open for passengers to visit. * Photo: John Roberts

The top sun deck is a wide-open space that we used for a morning stretch and workout with a complement of free weights and yoga mats available. (Note: UnCruise did away with its wellness program, so no yoga or stretch classes led by staff.)

Hawaii cruise top deck

Morning stretches on deck. * Photo: John Roberts

Safari explorer gym weights

Some work-out equipment is available. * Photo: Colleen McDaniel

Safari Explorer’s main lounge is the heartbeat of life onboard, with a bar area and adjacent dining room serving as the prime gathering spots for cold drinks, hearty meals, snacks and lively conversation.

Safari Explorer bar

Drinks are included! * Photo: John Roberts

Two expedition guides (Lauren and Sophy) conducted enrichment talks in this space, discussing marine life, with a focus on turtles, fish and reef systems. There is a small library and game room with a piano and guitar for any musically inclined passengers.

main lounge of Safari Explorer

The main lounge is the ship’s hub. * Photo: John Roberts

Hawaii Cruise: Food Department

While the ship offers an efficient way to travel around the islands in comfort, the special formula that makes the UnCruise Adventures experience in Hawai’i so memorable is the activities, crew and food.

For a ship with such a small kitchen, it is amazing the array of fantastic locally-sourced fresh food that we were treated to.

Everyone on the ship during our sailing frequently rotated to create new groups at the tables for six, enjoying plated meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Safari Explorer's dining room

Safari Explorer’s dining room. * Photo: UnCruise Adventures

We loved that the portions were moderately sized, so there was very little waste. Many of the offerings were so tempting that we often ordered half portions of two selections (always one meat, one fish and one vegetarian).

Dinner on an Hawaii cruise

Yummy pork belly. * Photo: John Roberts

Check out some of the specialties that the kitchen created:

Thai basil red snapper, chicken curry, Hungarian mushroom soup with paprika oil, Kona coffee-rubbed beef tenderloin, pork belly, corn fritters, seared scallops, marinated rack of lamb, ahi tuna, chickpea tarts and venison loco moco.

Desserts included meringue fruits pavlova (below), ginger lemongrass ice cream and a daily afternoon assortment of fresh-baked cookies.

(I drooled just typing that paragraph.)

Dessert on the Safari Explorer

Dessert is served! * Photo: John Roberts

Check out John’s video tour of the ship below!

Hawaii Cruise: Four Islands & Endless Fun

Aside from Molokai, UnCruise Safari Explorer expeditions in Hawai’i feature stops at three other islands —  Maui, Lanai and the Big Island.

Colleen and I sailed with 18 other adventure-oriented travelers. Onboard was a foursome of friends from Seattle and a pair of best buds from San Fran, with all of these youngsters in their 30s or younger. There was a family of four from California with two college-age kids; couples from Virginia, New York and Florida; and a mom and daughter from Australia.

Hawaii cruise on Safari Explorer

Passengers bonded quickly on the intimate 36-passenger Safari Explorer. * Photo: John Roberts

The group quickly grew tight over the course of the week as we jumped into our exploration.

After departing Molokai, the next morning offered the first of many water activities. We snorkeled in secluded Honolua Bay and spotted green sea turtles as well as an array of tropical fish. In summer, the activities are focused on getting into the water for Zodiac rides, paddling, swimming and snorkeling.

kayaking on an Hawaii cruise

Kayaking is a big focus of UnCruise in Hawaii. * Photo: John Roberts

snorkeling on an Hawaii cruise

Snorkeling fun! * Photo: John Roberts

(In other parts of the year, these sailings will utilize more time for wonderful whale-watching outings.)

The sun was out every day, and the hot temps made the time in the water all the more inviting. So, we all took advantage.

Hawaii cruise swimming

John & Colleen enjoying the water! * Photo: John Roberts

Our expedition leader Lauren and expedition guide Sophy briefed us each night after dinner about the next day’s plans.

Hawaii cruise crew

Lauren and Sophy. * Photo: John Roberts

An UnCruise Adventures itinerary lays out a rough schedule for where the ship will sail, but is always considered an outline and a plan from which we could deviate because of weather or special wildlife activity that the team learns about and is eager to have us experience.

In fact, we depart the Big Island a day early to avoid rough weather that would make it tougher to cross the Alenuihaha Channel and back to Maui.

During the week, we mix time on the ship with time ashore. We snorkel at a green sea turtle “cleaning station” off the coast of Maui (the Olowalu “turtle reef”) and see the turtles as well as numerous white tip reef sharks, a mating pair of octopuses and harlequin shrimp.

green sea turtle on a Hawaii cruise

A big green sea turtle seen on a snorkeling excursion. * Photo: John Roberts

John snorkeling in Hawaii

John snorkeling.

Hawaii cruise snorkeling

Colleen is holding a pin cushion sea star for a moment. * Photo: John Roberts

Hawaii Cruise: Lanai

At anchor just off Lanai, we set out in kayaks at sunrise and get back in time for breakfast and a late-morning snorkel. After lunch, we got the chance to head ashore to explore historic Lanai City and take a hike to Sweetheart Rock.

Lanai is home to just 3,000 people, one of the pristine and isolated places that you visit on this expedition — far away from the crowds, making the overall experience that much more blissful as you can enjoy the natural beauty in its raw form.

Sailing from Lanai, we encounter dolphins eager to swim on the bow of the Safari Explorer. Multiple pods join through the rest of the afternoon as we make our way toward Kona on the Big Island.

I’m pretty sure that we saw dolphins nearly every day.

dolphins on a Hawaii cruise

Seeing dolphins up close! * Photo: John Roberts

Kona is a bigger city, bustling with tourists and resorts along its pretty beaches. Colleen and I go for a run, managing just a couple miles in the heat before we settle on a gentle stroll back to town, taking some pics along the way. We have a set time to join fellow cruisers Chris, Kevin and Garad to try our hands at paddling the traditional wooden canoe, called a wa’a.

Hawaii cruise wooden canoe

Tips for paddling the traditional wooden canoe, called a wa’a. * Photo: John Roberts

We have fun paddling in sync around the coastal waters and into the lagoon off Kona, taking some time to rest our arms and jump into the warm waters for a swim as well. The wa’a is an important boat in Hawai’ian culture. Long ago, these single- and double-hulled canoes with an outrigger were the sole means of transport around the islands. They are carved by hand from a tree, and the process of building one is quite sacred.

Today, Hawai’ians young and old use them for exercise and recreation and for racing competitions.

Hawaii cruise canoe

Paddling in sync around the coastal waters off Kona. * Photo: John Roberts

Our time at the Big Island included a diverse array of activities, indeed. That evening we went for a night snorkel in the hopes of seeing giant manta rays. We came up empty (frowny face) but were enthralled by the spooky illuminated waters filled with plankton and thousands of feeding fish. Some in our group even saw a rare Hawai’ian monk seal darting through the gauzy depths.

The next morning, we set out for a sunrise kayak along black lava cliff sides until we reached the “Blue Lagoon,” an area where black crabs crawled on the lava formations and turtles enjoying the calm waters and quiet shoreline where they rest and mate.

lava formations on an Hawaii cruise

Cool lava formations. * Photo: John Roberts

turtles in Hawaii

Turtle time. * Photo: John Roberts

Those who chose a skiff tour instead of kayaking were met by a curious pod of dolphins for an up-close interaction.

Dolphins on a Hawaii cruise

Dolphins spotted from a skiff! * Photo: John Roberts

In the afternoon, it was more snorkeling and a skiff ride along the shore where we witnessed thrashing waves shoot through lava tubes in a stunning display of the ocean’s force.

lava tubes in Hawaii

Lava tubes. * Photo: John Roberts

Hawaii Cruise: A Bit of Chop

With a storm approaching, Capt. Tyler Manning guided the ship back to Maui, navigating some fairly choppy waters. Colleen and I enjoy being rocked to sleep, while many other passengers were a bit worried about how they might handle rougher seas.

We all emerged the next morning, most of us looking quite chipper despite being tossed around a bit. Back in calm waters off the coast of Maui, we took advantage of the chance to snorkel, swim and jump into the water off the back marina and the second-deck platform, which offers an exhilarating 20-foot drop.

Safari Explorer in Hawaii

Weeee! * Photo: John Roberts

We were anchored off Lahaina Town, and most of us took the opportunity to go into town for some beach time and a refreshing shave ice.

Hawaii cruise snacks

Hawaiian shave ices anyone? * Photo: John Roberts

Safari Explorer stayed at anchor well into the night, and the crew put on a wonderful top-deck cocktail hour and dance party. It was Day 6 of our cruise, and by now, we all were getting along like a big festive family.

Jessica, our bartender mixed cocktails. Jose, our hotel manager and the rest of the crew handed out cold beers, wines and tapas. And most of us danced around the deck while the beautiful sun set.

Hawaii cruise aboard Safari Explorer

Life is good for John and Colleen. * Photo: John Roberts

We didn’t want the cruise to end. That always happens on these small ships, especially when you travel with people who love to stay active and share a passion for adventure.

Here’s John’s video recap of his UnCruise Adventures expedition in Hawai’i.

Hawaii cruise crew

Jose & Jessica. * Photo: John Roberts

Alas, the last day brought as back to Molokai to explore more. That night, we had a farewell pa’ina feast and music and storytelling from a hula master at the Molokai Museum and Cultural Center. A duo played ukulele and guitar music while singing folkloric songs. A hula dancer swayed to the tunes. We dined on pulled pork, seafood and pickled veggies.

Our souls were filled with the true aloha spirit of Hawai’i.

Hawaii sunset

Until next time …. * Photo: John Roberts

For booking info, contact UnCruise Adventures.

The 7-night Hawaii cruises start at $5,200 per person and include all excursions and alcoholic drinks.

SPECIAL OFFER FROM UNCRUISE: In celebration of its first year of year-round Hawaii sailings, save $700 per couple on weeklong Hawaii cruises departing between March 7 – September 5, 2020.  Mention code 700HI20.

Enjoy John’s video recap of his UnCruise Adventures expedition in Hawai’i.

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kayaking in Alaska

Alaska Expedition Style

By Cele & Lynn Seldon.

We have cruised in Alaska quite a bit over the years, but we had never done it expedition-style, on a small ship with few passengers, exploring the nooks and crannies of Alaska’s Inside Passage. So, we decided to pursue just that last summer and chose to take it one step further by sailing with Alaskan Dream Cruises—an Alaska Native owned and operated line—to immerse ourselves completely in the Last Frontier.

Whale watching in Alaska

Whale watching off the bridge deck of the Admiralty Dream, Alaskan Dream Cruises. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Offering both “Signature” and “Adventure” itineraries, we decided to channel our inner explorer and chose the new seven-night “Last Frontier Adventure” from Juneau to Sitka.

Inside Passage itinerary

The new seven-night “Last Frontier Adventure” from Juneau to Sitka.

It offered more wilderness and a higher level of activity than many of their other itineraries,

We were attracted to the idea of hiking in rainforests, kayaking amongst the glaciers and exploring the glacial fjords of Alaska’s more remote locations—places the larger ships don’t go—instead of simply watching from the ship.

And, we weren’t disappointed.

kayaking in Alaska

Kayaking amongst the glaciers of Fords Terror, Endicott Arm, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Our trip started with an overnight in Juneau to adjust to the time change and the light change. Yep, it’s true what they say about close to 20 hours of daylight in the summer.

After a good night’s sleep (with the blackout curtains tightly closed), we dropped off our luggage at the Alaskan Dream Cruises (ADC) hospitality desk in our hotel. Then we had the rest of the morning free to explore Juneau’s compact and very walkable downtown, as well as enjoy a cup ‘o joe and some breakfast at Juneau’s own Heritage Coffee Roasting Company’s Glacier Café.

We met back at the hotel at noon for an ADC-hosted tour of the Alaska State Museum featuring world-class exhibits on the history, art and culture of the diverse people of Alaska’s varied regions. One of the highlights for us was the more than 15,000 Alaska native objects that depicted daily life, as well as ceremonial events. Alaska’s Russian heritage was also well represented with varied objects from the Russian colonial era including one of only two bronze double-headed eagle emblems in the world, a medallion presented to Alexander Baranov by Catherine the Great, and much more from the period. We also enjoyed the extensive Alaskan fine art collection featuring paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures.

Afterward, we boarded a bus and headed 12 miles out of town to what would be the first of many glaciers to come, Mendenhall Glacier. With plenty of time to explore the glacier and take a hike, we knew we were off to a good start when we (and lots of other people) stumbled upon a mother black bear and two cubs off the boardwalk at Steep Creek Trail.

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

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The Cozy Admiralty Dream

Back on the bus, we drove the rest of the short distance to Auke Bay, the location of the 54-passenger Admiralty Dream, our home away from home for the next week. At 143 feet in length and with 27 cabins, the ship is the second largest in ADC’s five-ship fleet. And, with just 32 passengers onboard for this sailing, it was going to feel even more spacious.

The Admiralty Dream

The Admiralty Dream, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

We were escorted to our cabin on the Upper Deck (there are three decks in total) and given a brief introduction to the few amenities. At 95 square feet, it wasn’t the smallest cabin we had experienced, but it was cozy. With two fixed twin beds along two of the walls, the third long wall consisted of a “shoilet” (a combined toilet and shower unit), a sink and vanity, and a closet. There was a small window next to the door that opened to let the fresh Alaskan air in and to watch the scenery sail by.

Although there was plenty of storage on shelves above the beds, underneath the beds and in the closet, there wasn’t a lot of room to move about. So we chose to let one person dress at a time while the other waited patiently on the bed or headed to the lounge for a cup of coffee. Perhaps next time, we’ll consider a larger cabin option or even a suite.

There weren’t any amenities found on most larger cruise ships (like television and copious electrical and USB outlets), but the beds were comfortable, and we slept like babies in our snug abode.

cabin aboard Admiralty Dream

The basic cabin aboard Admiralty Dream. * Photo: Alaskan Dream Cruises

We then headed to the lounge for our passenger welcome which, with such a small ship, wasn’t hard to find. Our expedition leader, also an Alaska native, did the introductions of the entire staff, explained the ship layout and details, gave us a brief rundown of the itinerary and performed a brief safety drill.

The lounge was a utilitarian space, with a well-stocked bar, plenty of seating, a 24-hour beverage station, fresh fruit and granola bars stashed on the bar and games, books, reference materials and a real-time radar map at the bow. The bulletin board leading into the lounge housed the weekly itinerary, staff bios, daily activities and any updates that would need to be disseminated.

bar on the Alaskan Dream Cruises

The Admiralty Dream bar. * Photo: Alaskan Dream Cruises

Related: Ted’s Alaska Small Ship Primer

Related: Big Ships vs Small Ships to Alaska

Mingling & Mealtime

Once we set sail, we enjoyed the first of nightly happy hours, along with featured hors d’oeuvres. It gave us an opportunity to size up the rest of the passengers, most of whom were fit and active 50- to 70-year olds, although there was a smattering of mid-30-year olds looking for a bit of adventure.

We were looking forward to a unique evening, in that the ship was making its first stop at the company-owned Orca Lodge for dinner. Located about 10 miles from Juneau, it is a private retreat along Stephens Passage that hosts a seafood feast for almost all ADC sailings. Since our itinerary was traveling from Juneau to Sitka, it was a wonderful way to kick off the cruise. Housed in a purpose-built resort setting with all the modern conveniences, amidst the idyllic wilderness of Colt Island and the sweeping snow-capped mountain views of Admiralty Island, it was a perfect spot to stop for the evening.

Alaskan Dream Cruises’ Orca Point Lodge, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Featuring an open and bright dining room, gift shop, touch tank, deck with picnic tables, lawn games like cornhole, a simmering campfire and a beach for strolling in the near perfect weather, it had the makings of a quintessential Alaska evening. It was a great way to get to know our fellow passengers, enjoy a cocktail (the ship operates on a cash bar system, settled at the end of the cruise by cash or credit card), play a round of cornhole or listen to the Native interpreter tell Tlingit stories around the campfire.

When the dinner bell rang, it was a feast of Alaskan King Crab legs, salmon, prime rib, salad, sides and blueberry cobbler and chocolate fondue for dessert.

Alaskan King Crab legs

Alaskan King Crab legs at Alaskan Dream Cruises’ Orca Point Lodge, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

For an authentic touch, they even had the fixings for s’mores over the open fire. Once back on board, we settled in for our first night’s sleep aboard Admiralty Dream as we set sail towards Glacier Bay.

Orca Point Lodge in Alaska

Cooking up s’mores over the campfire at Alaskan Dream Cruises’ Orca Point Lodge, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Related: QuirkyCruise contributor Judi Cohen’s UnCruise Alaska Adventure

Alaska — Day 1

Mornings on ADC offer an early riser continental breakfast in the lounge or open seating breakfast with a full menu, including a daily special, in the dining room a bit later.

In the wee hours, we had stopped at Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve where a park ranger and Tlingit culturalist had boarded the ship. So, during breakfast, we enjoyed a birding lesson of what we’d be seeing in Glacier Bay over our eggs and salmon hash. Shortly afterwards, we spotted dozens of nesting tufted puffins, horned puffins, pigeon guillemots, cormorants and more on South Marble Island. There were also seals, sea lions, otters and even a humpback whale welcoming us to Glacier Bay.

This video from ADC highlights the wildlife you’re likely to see in Alaska.

As we continued sailing into 65-mile long Glacier Bay, we spent time chatting with the first mate in the open bridge, listening to a history lesson of Glacier Bay National Park in the lounge, and bird (and mountain goat) watching at Gloomy Knob.

We arrived at Reid Glacier just about noon and enjoyed the view over lunch in the dining room, featuring a daily choice of soup, two sandwiches, a salad or a burger (including a unique and tasty black bean option).

After lunch, we donned our ADC-provided rain jackets, pants, boots and lifejackets and broke into three groups for a Demaree Inflatable Boat (DIB) ride to the gravel mouth of the glacier and a hike along the silt bed up to the mass itself. We were able to touch it and some even climbed its craggy face.

Demaree Inflatable Boat (DIB)

DIB ride, Alaskan Dream Cruises, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Reid Glacier

Exploring Reid Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

After a DIB ride back to the ship, we spent the rest of the day reading, chatting with other guests and quizzing the ranger about the history of Glacier Bay National Park. We asked him why some glaciers look blue (with little internal air or reflective surfaces, the frozen water is free of contaminants and the absorbed sun is transmitted through the ice and returns as blue) and about the mating habits of tufted puffins.

Happy hour featured smoked salmon with tomatoes, red onion and capers on crackers, while dinner was a three-course regional cuisine affair with a nightly choice of two salads, one soup, two entrees and dessert. Baked salmon and roasted chicken breast were available every night as ADC classics. One free beer or glass of wine is served with dinner, but you are on your own after that. As we enjoyed our meal, the increase of icebergs floating by let us know we were getting close to the epicenter of Glacier Bay.

Salmon in Alaska

Alaskan salmon dinner aboard the Admiralty Dream, Alaskan Dream Cruises. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Over dessert, we came into view of the crown jewels—Glacier Bay, Marjorie Glacier and Grand Pacific Glacier—and anchored for the night.

One of the biggest selling points of ADC ships is their ability to navigate and anchor in some of the most spectacular places within the Inside Passage due to their vessels’ small size.

Marjorie Glacier in Alaska

Marjorie Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

The rest of the evening was spent viewing these majestic glaciers on the bow and in the lounge, along with commentary by the park ranger. Although it was nighttime, it was still light enough to ooh and aah over the brilliant blue ice and occasional calving.

Alaska — Day 2

After a hearty Alaskan breakfast (think smoked salmon and blueberry pancakes), we donned our rain gear and went wildlife viewing in Geikie Inlet, where we spotted otters and bald eagles.

wildlife viewing in Glacier Bay National Park

Wildlife viewing at Geikie Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

As we pulled up the anchor to head to Bartlett Cove, we enjoyed lunch and a cultural session—complete with stories, music and regalia—with Mami, our onboard Huna Tlingit cultural heritage ambassador. She shared stories of her ancestors, sang native Tlingit songs and described what it was like to grow up in rural Alaska.

Hoonah Tlingit cultural heritage ambassador in Alaska

Mami, the Hoonah Tlingit cultural heritage ambassador aboard Admiralty Dream. * Photo: Seldon Ink

We spent the afternoon exploring Glacier Bay Lodge in Bartlett Cove. The only commercial property within Glacier Bay National Park, the lodge features two Glacier Bay Visitor Centers, lodging, a restaurant, gift shop and Glacier Bay exhibits.

There are also hiking trails, kayak rentals, boat tours, a Tlingit totem pole and a Tlingit Tribal house with an on-site storyteller sharing history of the Huna people and their relationship with Glacier Bay. The evening was spent over cocktails, dinner and an evening presentation on plankton with the onboard naturalist.

Huna Tribal House, Glacier Bay Lodge, Alaska

Huna Tribal House, Glacier Bay Lodge, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Alaska — Day 3

Probably our favorite day of the cruise was spent surrounded by the waterfalls and icebergs of Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness, a very steep, narrow fjord carved out by glacial ice within Endicott Arm. With sign-ups for kayaking and DIB trips, all guests could take advantage of both throughout the day.

Kayaking lessons in Alaska

Kayak briefing. * Photo: Seldon Ink

We opted to be one of the first groups to kayak in the morning, in case we wanted to go out again in the afternoon. After a brief safety lesson, we boarded our tandem kayaks and were free to explore the massive waterfalls and stunning blue icebergs up close and personal.

kayaking among the icebergs

Kayaking amongst the glaciers in Fords Terror, Endicott Arm, Alaska. * Photo: Bret Love courtesy GreenGlobalTravel.com.

After a late-morning DIB ride deeper into Fords Terror, we enjoyed a second kayak paddle that afternoon and literally had the waterfalls and icebergs to ourselves.

Kayaking in Ford's Terror,

Kayaking in Ford’s Terror, Endicott Arm, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Warm cookies and hot chocolate were waiting back on the ship (as they were every afternoon), along with happy hour, dinner and communal whale watching from the lounge, bow or bridge as we set sail for our next destination.

Open bridge on an Alaska cruise

Open bridge of Admiralty Dream. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Related: Ted’s Alaska Adventures Over the Years

Alaska — Day 4

Hump day was spent in our only true port-of-call, the town of Wrangell (population 2,400). Groups boarded small buses for a morning tour, including a tour of the well-done Wrangell Museum. We paid a visit to the Native American natural rock carvings that depicted whales, salmon, native symbols and faces of the community at Petroglyph Beach State Historic Site and we also did a mile-high hike up to Rainbow Falls.

Petroglyphs in Alaska

Petroglyphs at Petroglyph Beach State Historic Site, Wrangell, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Afterwards, we enjoyed a fish chowder lunch on our own at Hungry Beaver Pizza & Marine Bar (they only serve their scratch pizzas after 4pm) and explored the charming Northern Exposure-esque town.

Alaska — Day 5

Back in natural Alaska, we spent the morning hiking up to Cascade Falls in Thomas Bay—divided into three groups: active, intermediate and leisurely. With a short DIB ride to the shore, each group took off deep into the rainforest for a moist hike following along the pounding waters coming off the mountain. The active group made it all the way to Falls Lake, while the other two groups enjoyed shorter versions and lots of Alaska flora and fauna.

The violent waters of Cascade Fall

The violent waters of Cascade Falls, Thomas Bay, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Cascade Falls, Thomas Bay, Alaska

The crashing waters of Cascade Falls, Thomas Bay. * Photo: Seldon Ink

The plan after lunch was to take a DIB ride to Baird Glacier, but after a failed attempt by the first group—due to low tides—everyone spent the afternoon reading, napping, watching for wildlife or playing games in the lounge. Happy hour and dinner were pleasant affairs and the evening was spent with a Q&A about plankton with the naturalist and a bedtime story about the discovery of Alaska and how it impacts us today by the expedition leader.

Alaska — Day 6

The sun came out on our final day and we enjoyed an unseasonably warm hike through an old growth rainforest to Lake Eva on Baranof Island. Once back on board, a polar plunge was arranged off the stern of the ship for those interested. A hot bowl of smoked salmon chowder or spot prawn boil waited for lunch afterward.

Naturally the testosterone-leaning member of Team Seldon participated and he found himself questioning his manhood afterwards.

Another DIB ride to Basket Beach and a short walk for those interested was the afternoon activity.

After happy hour, everyone enjoyed the captain’s reception in the dining room, with the entire staff in attendance, the captain holding court and a celebratory dinner of Beef Wellington or butter braised halibut. The evening continued back in the lounge with a decadent dessert display and a slideshow recap of our wild week.

And, in fitting fashion, we were escorted by a group of frolicking orcas as we literally sailed into the sunset towards our port of disembarkation in Sitka.

For booking info, visit Alaskan Dream Cruises.

Read more about cruising Alaska on a small ship.

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Great Lakes Cruising with Promenade view

Great Lakes Cruising

By Peter Knego. 

After decades of cruising the seven seas and well over a dozen rivers, I was long overdue for a proper Great Lakes cruise. My introduction to North America’s vast and enchanting inland waterway was via a 10-day voyage this past May aboard Victory Cruise Line’s 4,954 gross ton, 202-passenger Victory I.

Victory I Great Lakes Cruising

Victory I glistens in the Muskegon sun. * Photo: Peter Knego

The replica coastal steamer, with her vertical prow, layer cake superstructure and open promenades was an especially attractive option, one that could easily be taken for a modern version of legendary steamers like the North American and South American, which once offered regular cruises through the five Great Lakes in the first half of the 20th century.

Built in 2000 as the Cape May Light for now defunct American Classic Voyages, the Victory I had a somewhat checkered career for different owners as the Sea Voyager and Saint Laurent until 2016, when Victory Cruise Lines purchased her for Great Lakes, St. Lawrence Seaway and Caribbean cruise service.

Great Lakes Cruising aboard Victory I

In the Victory I’s most recent overhaul, the al fresco bar at the aft end of Deck 4 was transformed into an enclosed buffet eatery called The Grill.  * Photo: Peter Knego

In late 2018, rapidly expanding American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC) scooped up Victory Cruise Lines and infused some much-needed cash into the Victory I and her twin, the Victory II, the former Cape Cod Light of 2001. Their stem-to-stern overhauls saw all cabins fitted with new bedding and soft fittings, the public spaces and decks refreshed and the machinery fine-tuned. In the process, an al fresco bar at the stern was enclosed and reconfigured as a casual buffet eatery and a small gym was added.

Under their new management, the ships operate in a similar fashion to the AQSC river vessels, albeit with an international, versus all-American, crew. AQSC, of course, provides a luxury, mostly-inclusive cruising experience with high-quality cuisine, a strong emphasis on local culture and included excursions in each port.

On the ambiance scale, the Victory ships fit somewhere between the gilded, velvety ornateness of the American Queen and the American Empress and the modern, airy vibe of the recently launched American Duchess.

Guests tend to be elderly, retired, affluent and in the case of our voyage, were mainly from the U.S., with a sprinkling of Canadians, Brits, Australians and Europeans. Evening dress on board is resort casual with men in slacks with collared shirts and ladies in comfortable country club garb.

During the Victory I’s second sailing for her new owners, there were some expected start-up issues but overall, thanks to her tireless, dedicated crew and a culturally rich and scenic itinerary, it was a wonderful experience that I would repeat in a heartbeat.

I am happy that Victory will be sailing from the Navy Pier in Chicago in 2020, so I can spare my tales of woe about the South Chicago pier that was used throughout the 2019 season. The Navy Pier is right in the heart of Chicago’s bustling waterfront and within walking distance of numerous attractions and restaurants. It will be an ideal place to begin this most interesting voyage.

The Layout

The Victory I has five guest decks, beginning at the top with Deck 5, which has open and sheltered deck spaces.

Great Lakes Cruising with Promenade view

Among the Victory I’s most charming vintage features are the promenades on Deck 4. The Category AA staterooms on this level are accessed via the promenade and have first dibs on the outdoor chairs to watch the scenery roll by. * Photo: Peter Knego

Deck 4 is dedicated to Category AA accommodations and has a forward terrace and an open promenade on each side.  At the aft end of Deck 4, the newly-enclosed The Grill is a casual alternate dining venue offering a buffet of limited selections. It is a convenient place to grab a quick bite and provides great views via a panorama of full-length windows.

Great Lakes Cruising

The handsome, mahogany-toned Tavern is located at the forward end of Deck 2. * Photo: Peter Knego

Deck 3 is fully devoted to accommodations while Deck 2 begins with the Tavern, a favorite pre- and post-dinner drink spot with dark beveled paneling and stained glass accents.

Compass Lounge board Victory I

The Compass Lounge is the go-to spot for most of the Victory I’s on board activities. * Photo: Peter Knego

Large enough to accommodate all guests in one seating, the Compass Lounge follows the Tavern. It features oversized crystal chandeliers, hammered tin ceilings, a large stage and a central dance floor and is used for port lectures, quizzes and evening music performances. There is a self-service coffee and tea station with an espresso machine in back and cases with books and games for guests’ use.

The Purser’s lobby on midships Deck 2 has an adjacent gym with two cardio machines and a small spa room/salon. The aft portion of Deck 2 is dedicated to accommodations as is the forward portion of Deck 1.

Great Lakes Cruising on Victory I

Shown facing aft, the Coastal Dining Room is Victory I’s traditional dining venue. * Photo: Peter Knego

The Coastal Dining Room is located on aft Deck 1 and offers buffet style breakfast with select menu items such as eggs to order and a full-service lunch and dinner.  Wines, beers, soft drinks and other non-premium alcoholic beverages are included in the fare and for lunch and dinner, there is a featured red and white selection.

The Cabins

After boarding, I quickly settled into cozy, well-appointed Category B stateroom 317, which measured approximately 146 square feet and featured two large picture windows.

Victory I's Category B cabin

Category B stateroom 317 was my comfortable home for ten days on the Victory I. * Photo: Peter Knego

Each newly refreshed cabin offers a queen or two single beds, plenty of storage space, complimentary Wi-Fi-access, a large flat-screen television with a wide selection of channels, individual climate control and a bathroom with a compact shower and L’Occitaine en Provence amenities.

Great Lakes Cruising in an owner's suite

Owner’s Suites are the largest and most deluxe accommodations aboard Victory I. * Photo: Peter Knego

The Victory I has seven overall categories of cabins from two forward-facing, 335 square foot Owner’s Suites that share a private terrace and boast separate living rooms and bedrooms, a fully stocked mini-bar and complimentary laundry service to 160 square foot Category E ocean views with picture windows and located at the bottom of the ship.

Victory I cabins on a Great Lakes Cruise

Category AA cabins on the Victory I are reminiscent of old steamer staterooms with their exterior access.  Otherwise, their layout is very similar to standard Category B, C, D and E staterooms. * Photo: Peter Knego

Among the most sought out staterooms are the Category AA’s, which measure 166 square feet and are similar to standard outside cabins (categories B through E) but are accessed from outside via the promenade on Deck 4. Reminiscent of staterooms on the old steamer Delta Queen, these cabins are ideal in perfect weather for their proximity to the open air and a deck chair but can be challenged during inclement weather and bug infestations (early Spring).

The magic began that evening when we settled into a booth on the port side of the Coastal Dining Room. From a waterline perspective, we toasted the backlit Chicago skyline as Victory I began to cross Lake Michigan.

Note: our itinerary was slightly altered from the standard published one thanks to another ship being at Mackinac Island on our originally scheduled date. Thus, our second day cruising the Lake was replaced with a previously unscheduled call at Muskegon, followed by a day of scenic cruising before visiting Mackinac Island (in lieu of our originally scheduled call at Sault Ste. Marie).

The Food

As for the food, for the first part of the cruise, it was nondescript but improved significantly when the chef was switched out in Detroit. From the get-go, the service, however, was sterling and within a day or two, the doting staff was effortlessly remembering guests’ names as well as dietary and drink preferences.

dining on a Great Lakes cruise

This is a vegetarian spring roll with chili sauce appetizer served aboard the Victory I. * Photo: Peter Knego

Bay of Muskegon

I awoke at dawn the second morning as Victory I plied through a thick fog in the outer bay of Muskegon. She eventually tied up at the waterfront park, where guests headed off on included excursions to Windmill Gardens in the nearby town of Holland and to visit the World War II vessels USS LST 393 and the USS Silversides submarine.

A local friend took me to the museum ship SS Milwaukee Clipper, a wonderful streamline ferry that used to sail between Chicago, Muskegon and Milwaukee.

Great Lakes Cruising and the Milwaukee Clipper

The Milwaukee Clipper should be prominently featured as a Victory Cruise Lines shore excursion option during calls at Muskegon. * Photo: Peter Knego

The lovingly preserved Clipper should be seen by all who visit Muskegon who have any appreciation for Great Lakes history and Art Deco architecture. Her interiors sport one of the world’s largest collections of Warren McArthur furnishings, which were specially commissioned for the ship in 1941, and there is a terrific museum in one of her former holds dedicated to Great Lakes passenger ships.

The following day “at lake” gave us a chance to ogle the Michigan coastline and get familiar with our ship and fellow guests.

A highlight was the Maharaja-themed tea in the Compass Lounge.

With members of the ship’s staff dressed to the nines in stylish uniforms and tea trays that included freshly made samosas among an array of Mughal-pastries, it was easy to imagine the Bay of Bengal instead of Lake Michigan beyond the picture windows.

Lake Heron

After a day cruising Lake Michigan, Victory I passed under the majestic Mackinac Bridge and entered Lake Huron. * Photo: Peter Knego

Just prior to dinner, I headed topsides to brave a chilly wind as the Victory I approached the magnificent Mackinac Bridge, one of the longest, most graceful suspension spans in the world.

Mackinac Island

With a storm on the way, we were granted permission to berth at picturesque Mackinac Island that evening, well before our scheduled arrival the following day. I walked off dinner on the quaint waterfront — where no cars are allowed and the smell of fresh Mackinac fudge and horse droppings permeated the senses.

Back aboard, as the rain began, I settled in the Compass Lounge to listen to the ship’s band play country music.  Each evening, the four-piece ensemble would take a stab at a different musical theme, from jazz to rock classics and regional folk songs.

A full agenda of excursions on the fourth day began with a horse-driven carriage ride from the waterfront up to the Fort Mackinac in a foggy, drizzle. After stopping at a lookout point called Arch Rock, we had time to wander Fort Mackinac and witness a cannon and rifle firing.

Mackinac Island on a Great Lakes Cruise

No visit to Mackinac Island would be complete without a horse-driven carriage ride along its quaint Victorian streets. * Photo: Peter Knego

Our next stop was the famed Grand Hotel, which boasts one of the world’s longest porches, for an included buffet lunch. On the National Register of Historic Places, it was built in 1887 and is renowned for its romantic Victorian-era architecture and setting. The Grand Hotel Mackinac Island has been visited by no less than five sitting U.S. presidents and was the backdrop for several Hollywood movies, including the 1980 film “Somewhere In Time,” starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour.

Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel on a Great Lakes VictoryI cruise

Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel is world famous for its long porch, which on a clear day offers a beautiful view of the Straits of Mackinac. * Photo: Peter Knego

Eventually, the skies cleared that afternoon, illuminating the charming island, its Victorian style architecture and spring blossoms at their finest. Back aboard Victory I, we enjoyed an engaging talk by the Grand Hotel’s historian Bob Tagatz, before sailing off into Lake Huron, where a magnificent sunset awaited.

Manitoulin Island

Early on the fifth morning, it was all-hands-on deck as the Victory I began her approach to Little Current on Manitoulin Island, the largest freshwater island in the world. After passing seemingly endless vistas of Manitoulin’s meadow-fringed shores, the ship tied up at the tiny town. Once Canadian customs finally cleared the ship, most guests headed off on the included tour of the Church of the Immaculate Conception and the Ojibwe Cultural Center.

That afternoon, as Victory I departed, people lined both banks of the channel to watch her pass through the 1913-built Swing Bridge. We sailed through some of Lake Huron’s most beautiful scenery and past several lighthouses as the sun gently crossed the afternoon sky.

a bridge tour on the Victory I

On lake days, guests can sign up for one of the Victory I’s bridge tours. * Photo: Peter Knego

Our sixth day cruising Lake Huron allowed me to catch up on some needed rest and to take one of the bridge tours offered. This time, the afternoon tea was Viennese-themed with the requisite sweets and strudels.

With its well documented ails, Detroit doesn’t spring to mind as a valued cruise destination, so I was more than pleasantly surprised when we pulled up to its rejuvenated waterfront on day seven and tied up in the shadows of the massive GM building. Victory provided an included morning tour to the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in nearby Dearborn.

Henry Ford Museum excursion

President Kennedy’s limousine is among the many attractions on Victory I’s included tour of the Henry Ford Museum of Innovation. * Photo: Peter Knego

This remarkable site houses among its many attractions the Rosa Parks bus, the chair upon which Lincoln was assassinated and even the limousine that chauffeured Kennedy on his last ride through Dallas.

After lunch on board, guests had the option of a second included tour to the Detroit Institute of the Arts but I chose to catch up with local friends and enjoy a run along the waterfront.

Cleveland stop on a Great Lakes cruise

A trio of vintage trolleys escorted Victory I’s guests on a delightful tour of Cleveland. * Photo: Peter Knego

Cleveland

For me, the big surprise and a key highlight of the trip was Cleveland on day eight. We began with a trolley tour of the city, which boasts world class architecture and numerous parks.

Tiffany windows from Cleveland's Lake View Cemetery

Cleveland’s Lake View Cemetery has a chapel the features stunning glass panels by Louis Comfort Tiffany. * Photo: Peter Knego

After stops in the Lake View Cemetery to admire its chapel adorned with Tiffany glass and a visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art, we were back at the ship for lunch.

Rock and Roll hall of fame on a Great Lakes Cruise

Victory Cruise Lines provides complimentary tickets to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is a short walk from the ship’s berth in Cleveland. * Photo: Peter Knego

Within walking distance were the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Victory provides free admission) and the preserved Great Lakes ore carrier, William G. Mather, which frustratingly hadn’t opened for the season.

Niagara Falls on a Great Lakes Cruise

Victory’s included tour at Ontario’s Port Colborne begins with a close encounter with Niagara Falls aboard a Hornblower Yacht excursion vessel. * Photo: Peter Knego

Niagara Falls

After a smooth crossing of Lake Erie that night, Victory I tied up at Port Colborne, Ontario, where we were shuttled off on a full-day venture that included a tour of Niagara Falls. AQSC’s parent company also owns Hornblower Yachts, which operate tour boats that sail right into the falls’ mist.

Guests on the ship had expedited access to this thrilling, wet venture before heading off to the Chateau des Charmes winery for a lovely included buffet lunch and wine pairing.

Part three of the tour was time on our own to shop in the quaint town of Niagara-on-the-Lake before returning to the ship midway through her transit of the massive and historic Welland Canal, which links Lake Erie with Lake Ontario.

That evening, we crossed Lake Ontario for Toronto, where we disembarked the following morning.

All in all, Victory provided a wonderful adventure filled with scenic and cultural delights. Great Lakes cruising on the Victory I promises to be one of the best options out there, all to be enjoyed without the hassle of long, overseas flights.

For more information, please contact Victory Cruise Lines.

 

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New England Islands Cruising

By Ted Scull.

(Note: updated from an original December 2015 post.)

To visit New England’s enchanting islands, a small ship cruise is by far the best way to sample them as trying to do the rounds independently involves making individual round-trip ferry reservations to each one, a costly proposition and in the height of the season often very difficult to get. Yes, you could leave the car behind in paid parking lots and then when you arrive, you are on your own to get around, while a small ship cruise will offer half-day and full-day trips to the best of the island’s attractions and advice how to do some of your visits independently. When you return to the car on the mainland, you have to drive to the next ferry landing and park the car again.

Two U.S.-flag lines, American Cruise Lines (ACL) and Blount Small Ship Adventures make the rounds, and I have sampled both on roughly similar itineraries. The price difference between the two is staggering. ACL is very expensive (starting at $3,970 per person), and many who could afford the higher fares would be happy right down to the less expensive cabins. Aboard the 84-passenger Blount pair, the Grande Mariner and Grande Caribe, the difference between higher end cabins and the least expensive is quite pronounced, and the lower end are very small and some are inside with no natural light. However, with the lead in per person rate at $2,259,  they allow some people to travel who cannot afford more, and all share the same ship facilities — dining, lounge, deck space and the itinerary. The highest rate on Blount is still less than the minimum rate on ACL.

Note: Blount’s cruise is six nights and ACL’s is seven. However, on many departures, Blount offers a $150 supplement for early boarding that includes dinner, the night and breakfast, a day in advance of sailing and make the cruise seven nights.

Blount’s New England itinerary is to embark in New York then call at Block Island, Newport, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and ending in Boston, or in reverse by starting in Boston. Go to blountsmallshipadventures.com for a description of the two identical vessels, their layout and accommodations.

To get the full flavor of what the New England Islands’ cruise is all about, I will use an American Cruise Lines cruise I’ve sampled, as the example.

American Cruise Lines

Approaching the Independence, the ship shows off a rakish, four-deck profile with a sharp bow, two backward-leaning masts, sloping red, white and blue funnel, prominent sun visors above the pilot house, and square picture-windows punctuating the length of the superstructure. Not a porthole in sight. A wonderful conveyance for New England Islands cruising.

The cruise line’s American Star is similar and together they operate seven-night cruises May to September from Providence, Rhode Island to New Bedford, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Block Island, Newport and Bristol/Fall River, then returning to Providence.

Read Ted’s “12 Irresistible Reasons to Visit New England on a Small-ship Cruise.”

For the passenger seeking roominess on a small ship, the Independence offers space in spades. All double cabins measure 265 square feet, and those with balconies add an additional 48 square feet. They come furnished with two chairs and a table, and the four single cabins on these decks also have balconies.

Unlike most other U.S.-flag coastal vessels, the Independence and the rest of the ACL fleet have multiple lounges, allowing passengers to seek a quiet or social place to read, play games, talk or work on the computer. Two rooms have seating for about eight and often double as entrance foyers in port. The forward Chesapeake Lounge, with good views ahead and to both sides, is arranged like a plush extra-large living room with very comfortable upholstered chairs and couches and occasional chairs.

Forward corner of the main lounge. * Photo: Ted Scull

Forward corner of the main lounge. * Photo: Ted Scull

The dining room is aft on the lowest passenger deck. Breakfast begins at 7:30 a.m. and runs for 90 minutes. All meals are open seating at tables of four, six and eight. The buffet offers a small selection of fruit, cereals and freshly baked muffins. Orders are taken for main courses such as blueberry pancakes, Belgian waffles, and eggs Benedict, or eggs any style, served along with bacon, sausages, toast and bagels.

Dining & Lecturers

At breakfast, passengers check off their choices for lunch and dinner, a preparation guide for the chef rather than fixed-in-stone selections. Typical lunch (12:30 p.m.) items on a New England itinerary are Rhode Island clam chowder, oysters Rockefeller and a mixed green salad as appetizers, plus Maine lobster ravioli, shrimp salad sandwich and corned beef Reuben as the main courses.

Dinner (6:30 p.m.) might be soup of the day and shrimp cocktail as appetizers and then grilled swordfish, beef tenderloin or a whole steamed lobster; a vegetarian selection is always available.

The quality of the ingredients is high and preparation ranges from good to excellent. Complimentary red and white wines are on the dinner table, and if the selection does not please, there are other choices. Wine is also available at lunch for the asking.

Conversation flows along with the wine at dinner. * Photo: Ted Scull

Conversation flows along with the wine at dinner. * Photo: Ted Scull

A lecturer with skills in photography traveled with our cruise, and local guides added regional knowledge. Occasionally, musicians come aboard. Shore excursions by bus and on foot are fairly priced while some are complimentary walks into town or along the waterfront.

Usually the ship is docked by dinnertime and sails to the next port in the early morning or late afternoon. This allows an after dinner walk, often still light enough to enjoy the evening light and possibly a gorgeous sunset with the sun dropping the sea.

Underway

Over a Memorial Day Weekend, my wife and I took a six-night New England Islands cruise from Providence, Rhode Island. The embarkation dock, located at the head of Narragansett Bay, is just 10 minutes by taxi from the Providence railroad station, the city’s airport and several downtown hotels. Passenger boarding started at 9 a.m., and we simply showed a ticket at the gangway and walked aboard with our luggage trailing right behind.

Once all had embarked, the Independence sailed south through Narragansett Bay’s sheltered waters, out into the Atlantic for about an hour, then finally slipping through the flood gates into New Bedford, Massachusetts late in the day, to tie up at State Pier amidst a vast fleet fishing vessels. On a 90-minute harbor tour, we learned that, in terms of value of the catch, New Bedford ranks number one with deep-sea scallops the main source followed by fish, clams, and crabs.

Fishing, especially for scallops, is a lucrative New Bedford tradition. * Photo: Ted Scull

Fishing, especially for scallops, is a lucrative New Bedford tradition. * Photo: Ted Scull

The city rivaled Nantucket during the whaling days and shows off outstanding examples of substantial 19th-century houses built by sea captains and local industrialists. With a street map from the tourist office, we took in the rich architectural variety in the space of a delightful hour. In fact, everything of interest is within walking distance or via a rubber-tire-type trolley, including the outstanding whaling museum (allow an hour or more) and the nearby Seamen’s Bethel (Chapel) that featured in the novel “Moby Dick.” In the evening, a semi-retired fisherman boarded and regaled about it is like to make a living at sea. It’s a tough life but the monetary rewards are there for those who hustle.

Large houses are a legacy of New Bedford's whaling days. * Photo: Ted Scull

Large houses are a legacy of New Bedford’s whaling days. * Photo: Ted Scull

Nantucket

Leaving New Bedford well before dawn, we crossed Nantucket Sound and slipped between the jetties leading to Nantucket Island’s harbor as a regatta of several dozen sailing yachts headed out. The ship dropped anchor just beyond the huge anchored flotilla of visiting yachts, and a launch took us ashore.

The town is a National Historic District and an absolute treasure trove of New England architecture, from simple grey shingle-style salt boxes, some topped with widow’s walks, to large Federal-Style brick mansions. The most prominent are the elegant “Three Bricks” on cobbled Upper Main Street, built in 1836-38 by whaling merchant Joseph Starbuck for his three sons.

Unlike Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket has very few buildings from the wooden High Victorian period. When the whaling industry collapsed, the island became quite poor; hence there was little new building in the last half of the century. Recovery did not start until the summer resort role took hold in the early 20th century.

The Jared Coffin House, built in 1845, offers oeriod rooms and lounges, a tap room and restaurant. * Photo: Ted Scull

The Jared Coffin House, built in 1845, offers period rooms and lounges, a tap room and restaurant. * Photo: Ted Scull

My wife and I planned an all-day trek that would take us to the dozen houses that my family had rented or owned since my grandparents and great aunt and uncle started summering on the island in the 1920s. Situated in town, on high bluffs and close to the beach, most were happily little changed, while two have been enlarged and one torn down to be replaced by something much larger.

One of a string of houses we rented for the month of August, now many years ago. * Photo: Ted Scull

One of a string of houses we rented for the month of August, now many years ago. * Photo: Ted Scull

Meanwhile the other passengers took a three-hour island tour or used the inexpensive local bus system to reach the tiny village of ‘Sconset, eight miles distant on the island’s east side or south to the Atlantic Ocean at Surfside for a beach walk and to watch the breakers.

Some spent their time in the enchanting town center, walking the cobble-stoned Main Street and following a suggested residential district loop. Turn left off Main and follow Orange Street as far as York, then right and right again on Pleasant. The street returns to the upper end of Main Street opposite the Starbuck’s handsome Three Bricks.

The Vineyard & Block Island

During the evening social hour, we sailed around Brant Point Light and across the Sound to Martha’s Vineyard, docking just after dinner at Vineyard Haven. Here we remained for two nights.

Some opted for the island tours to the Victorian village of Oak Bluffs, upscale Edgartown and the dramatic headlands at Aquinnah, while the more independent-minded used the island’s subsidized bus network to visit many of the same places.

We joined friends who own a tiny gingerbread Victorian in Oak Bluffs, one of over 200 built as part of the Methodist Camp Meeting Association in the 19th century and now a National Historic Landmark.

A lovely row of gingerbread Victorian at Oak Bluffs, Martha's Vineyard. * Photo: Ted Scull

A lovely row of gingerbread Victorian at Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard. * Photo: Ted Scull

In the middle of the night, we pushed off for a seven-hour sail to Block Island, a small dot in the Atlantic that a good walker can navigate on foot in a day. The island rose to utterly charming prominence in the second half of the 19th century when several wooden New England-style hotels were built facing the Old Harbor or on high ground just inland. The prominent ones that remain are the National Hotel fronting directly on the harbor and the Spring House set high on a hill overlooking the sea.

The National Hotel facing Old Harbor, Block Island. * Photo: Ted Scull

The National Hotel facing Old Harbor, Block Island. * Photo: Ted Scull

Vans tours set out from New Harbor to explore the hilly island with its lovely freshwater ponds, steep cliffs, bird sightings, and the main attraction — the impressive Southeast Lighthouse overlooking the Atlantic.

As we are walkers, my wife and I followed roughly the same route on foot then found the lighthouse enshrouded in thick fog and doing its thing, sending out a powerful warning that can be heard miles out to sea.

Newport on Many Levels

The short sail to Newport had us tie up at Fort Adams, a military defense built following the War of 1812. We used the launch service to downtown Newport and explored the city’s original 19th-century town center and its narrow lanes, just two blocks inland from Thames Street’s tourist shops.

Scheduled rubber-tire trolleys and a ship’s bus tour operated to the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum and the Breakers, one of the dozen extravagant mansions along Bellevue Avenue that are open to the public.

A former Newport summer cottage, now Salve Regina University, seen from the Cliff Walk. * Photo: Ted Scull

A former Newport summer cottage, now Salve Regina University, seen from the Cliff Walk. * Photo: Ted Scull

After our tour of Touro Synagogue, built in 1763 and the oldest remaining synagogue building in the United States, we walked past the Catholic Church where John and Jacky Kennedy were married. Continuing on, we followed Memorial Boulevard to the start of the dramatic Cliff Walk that I frequented during my boarding school years; it offers front-yard views of many estates. The first section is easily walkable passing the Breakers, Rosecliff, the Marble House and its charming Chinese Tea House to Doris Duke’s Rough Point. The path thereafter, badly damaged more than once by hurricanes, is best left to those who can spring from rock to rock. A section may be even closed but there is plenty to see along the initial two-mile route.

Our final stop at Bristol, Rhode Island, a charming waterfront setting facing Narragansett Bay, put us right across the street from the Herreshoff Marine Museum, the site of the former shipyard that once produced eight America’s Cup defenders, sleek private steam and sailing yachts, fast torpedo boats for the U.S. Navy, and waterline models.

Don't miss the lovely residential district near Brown University in Providence, RI. * Photo: Ted Scull

Don’t miss the lovely residential district near Brown University in Providence, RI. * Photo: Ted Scull

Later in the afternoon, we sailed north to the head of the bay, returning to Providence for disembarkation the next morning after breakfast.

For most passengers, New England was a first-time experience, and with three off-shore islands involved, an itinerary such as this would be awkward and hugely expensive to drive due to the considerable cost of taking a car on the ferries. For us, this is a region we have known over a lifetime, and one that we cannot get enough of.  And the weeklong New England island-hopping cruises offered by ACL and Blount are a great way to travel!

Click here for booking information on American Cruise Lines.  And here for Blount. 

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cycling on a new zealand cruise

New Zealand Cruise Adventure

By John Roberts.

I arrive at the meeting point for the start of our New Zealand cruise and multi-sport adventure a bit bedraggled after about 22 straight hours of travel from New Jersey to Auckland, New Zealand. (Note to self: Next time, arrive a day early when you fly halfway across the globe, in order to properly acclimate for your trip.)

Sure, I may be tired, but I’m also fired up for another Backroads adventure. I’m running on excitement at this point — and maybe a few Diet Cokes.

My fellow travelers and I mill about at the waterfront just in front of Hilton Auckland, gathering our water bottles and a few snacks set out by the Backroads team of Katie, Brandon and Ryan. They are busy checking us all in and gathering up luggage to send over to the 184-passenger cruise ship that will serve as our home for the voyage.

Le Laperouse in New Zealand

The 184-passenger Le Laperouse cruises between Auckland and Dunedin. * Photo: Ponant

I grab a banana and start stretching my legs. Before boarding our mini cruiser, we’re going to head over to Waiheke Island for a short hike and lunch at a vineyard to kick off our 10-day multi-sport adventure cruise.

As things get going, I start meeting some of the 23 others in our group. These strangers would quickly become like family. That happens when you share exciting activities ashore and onboard during an adventure cruise in such a stunning place.

Backroads is an active travel company that has been around four decades. The company started simply — offering biking trips in California. These days, Backroads curates hundreds of adventures all over the world, including sporty small-ship cruises like the one I’m taking part in over the course of 10 days in New Zealand.

New Zealand Cruise & Cycle map

The 10-day itinerary from Auckland to Dunedin by sea and cycle. * Map: Ponant

Luxury French cruise line Ponant has teamed up with Backroads to provide a comfy home base while we sail from the northern part of the North Island all the way to the southern tip of the South Island for our amazing New Zealand cruise and multi-sport combo comprising hiking, biking and kayaking.

Watch John’s video: What’s it like to cruise around New Zealand?

On Day 1, I begin to introduce myself to my two-dozen fellow adventurers (all from the United States) as we make our way over to the ferry for the ride to Waiheke Island and learn that it’s the first time in New Zealand for almost all of them (including myself). More than half in the group have traveled with Backroads before, some with more than 10 trips under their belts, though it will be the first cruise for almost all of them. I tell them that a small-ship cruise looks like a great way to see a lot of this country, which is known as a natural wonderland.

We are all excited to get going and enjoy the luxurious accommodations, food, wines and entertainment on the ship as well as explore New Zealand through activities like hiking, biking and kayaking.

Le Laperouse New Zealand cruise

Le Laperouse is John’s posh home for his New Zealand cruise and cycle adventure. * Photo: John Roberts

Waiheke Island

After a 40-minute ferry ride from Auckland, we arrive at Waiheke Island. This is a place known for its vineyards, and many visitors make day trips to visit multiple spots and sample the wines. We, instead, will take a 2.3-mile coastal hike and then stop for a farm-to-table-style lunch.

Katie, Max and Brandon break us up into two groups of hikers so that we are not too congested on the narrow trails around the island.

The sun is out and the skies are blue and accented with puffy clouds as we hike for a couple hours and work up a nice sweat. Our guide helps us spot silver ferns, palm plants and see the first of many finches and fantails. Seabirds soar offshore.

What we won’t see the entire week is the famed kiwi. Even New Zealanders rarely see these birds most associated with their country. Kiwis are shy and nocturnal, so they prove most elusive. (By the way, the nickname for a New Zealander is a kiwi.)

After a big lunch and a tasting session at Cable Bay Vineyards, some in our group take a walk over to another vineyard and others (including me!) opt for a one-mile steep hike to a high point on the island with great views over the bay. Then, it’s time to hop back onto the ferry and make our way to our cruise ship for the first time.

A hike on a New Zealand cruise

John’s on the coastal hike on Waiheke Island, just off shore Auckland. * Photo: John Roberts

When we board Le Laperouse, our bags are already waiting for us in our cabins. The 184-passenger, 9-deck Le Laperouse represents the first of Ponant’s series of six expedition ships, and was built just last year in 2018.

We begin with cocktails in the Main Lounge which extends outside to the Pool Deck and offers beautiful views of the surrounding skyline of Auckland.

Our group will dine each evening as a group in the main restaurant, Le Nautilus, or at the Le Nemo grill on the Pool Deck. We start with a welcome aboard meal where the wine flows freely as we enjoy the French cuisine, from grilled salmon to entrecote (as in “premium cut of”) steak, while getting to know one another.

It’s an early night for most, and I head to the cabin straight after dinner to finally get some proper rest for the adventures ahead.

Tauranga

This is when the action kicks into high gear. A daily morning briefing in the ship’s theater outlines the activities each day.

Today it’s Tauranga, a charming coastal city to the north of Rotorua along the Bay of Plenty. From here, we take a bus to McLaren Falls Park where we will bike in the morning and kayak in the afternoon.

A support team with Backroads has the bikes ready for us each day, plus water bottles and snacks like fresh fruit, granola bars and sweets.

Backroads support van for a New Zealand Cruise

The Backroads support-mobile is at our beck and call. * Photo: John Roberts

We’re using Backroads Touring bikes, 30-speed titanium mountain cycles. And after getting our helmets and making the proper adjustments of seats and handlebars for comfort, we’re off and riding in the countryside.

The fresh air is intoxicating as we pedal past acres and acres of farmland. We must remember to ride on the left side, a constant battle against our reflexes as residents of the United States used to driving on the other side.

New Zealand cruise and cycle adventure

The Backroads & Ponant cruise and bicycle adventure begins. * Photo: John Roberts

My lungs and quads strain during only a few spots of the ride as I grind up some steep hills. But the reward is always a speedy drop on the descent with wind rushing in my face. We see cows and horses on the 16-mile loop before returning back to the park. We are all definitely ready for lunch after a challenging ride.

cycling on a new zealand cruise

John cycling in Tauranga, New Zealand. * Photo: John Roberts

We have a picnic outside in the courtyard of a small café under a bright sun. A few peacocks are strutting around in the yard of a home next door.

It’s actually getting really hot as we finish up our freshly prepared meal, and I’m eager to get on the water. McLaren Lake is formed by a dam system comprising a series of rivers that work to create hydroelectric power in the Bay of Plenty region.

selife in tauranga

We all mug for a selfie in Tauranga. * Photo: John Roberts

Backroads guide Brandon joins me as my kayaking partner and agrees to sit in the back so I can get the best views and play with my camera up front. This means he does most of the paddling and all of the steering while I snap pics of the waterfowl (so many species of ducks!) and the Jurassic Park-like narrows that we kayak into late in the afternoon.

Kayaking in gorgeous Tauranga on a New Zealand cruise

Kayaking in Tauranga. * Photo: John Roberts

Back on Le Laperouse, we refreshed with showers and cocktails before dinner. The night concluded with some of us gathering for drinks and dancing in lounge with live music — a guitarist and singer — topping off  a thrilling day.

White Island

This is a fairly casual day but still interesting. We take a zodiac ashore to the remote White Island, an active volcano that spews sulfur mists. We hike around one of the most active volcanoes in New Zealand and learn about the former mining activities on the island. You can smell the sulfur hanging in the air even before reaching the beach area where our zodiacs are, but the mists that blow around in the wind are especially pungent when we get closer to the rim of a crater.

zodiac on a New Zealand cruise

Several excursions involve a zodiac ride. * Photo: John Roberts

This requires us to wear face masks and suck on little hard candies to fend off our choking fits.

It’s a fascinating look around a place that appears like it could be on a far-off planet. When we head back to the ship, I get a chance to try the ship’s small gym for a workout and jump into the heated infinity pool.

pool towns on Ponant

It’s great having a heated pool on board the Le Laperouse. * Photo: John Roberts

Max leads a talk in the theater for our group discussing New Zealand currency and how the colorful bills contain unique images that tell a story of the country.

This is the first of a few enrichment sessions that our Backroads guides will offer to help connect our adventures to the rich cultural aspects of the country, including its indigenous Maori people.

Napier

This port stop brings us to an area of the country just south of Hawkes Bay that is well known for its vineyards and agricultural production. Napier is fondly referred to as the “Fruit Bowl” of New Zealand because the fertile lands and long days of warm sunshine yield an array of foods like cherries, peaches, apricots, plums and apples. Plus, those wine grapes, of course.

Cycling from Tauranga, New Zealand

Cycling in Napier. * Photo: John Roberts

We get to explore the region on a 22-mile bike ride that intermittently traces the coast line along rocky beaches and weaves into the fields and groves of the miles and miles of farmland. The day starts a little overcast but clears up to offer brilliant sunshine by afternoon when we arrive at the Black Barn Bistro winery.

cycling in Napier on a new zealand cruise

Biking in Napier. * Photo: John Roberts

Upon arrival, I quickly crack open a beer during my cool-down and stretch my legs. Then, it’s into the winery for a hearty lunch. Most in our group eagerly line up for more wine tasting. Upon completion of their flights, glasses are filled, swirled and knocked back over friendly and energetic lunch banter.

vineyard new zealand

Vineyard tours are business as usual in New Zealand. * Photo: John Roberts

Once back on the ship, we have free time in the afternoon to relax. Many of us grab a nap before gathering for a meal al fresco at the grill on the pool deck.

Wellington

Midway through the cruise, we arrive at the capital of New Zealand. Wellington is a bustling city with a lively port area. A large promenade is filled with residents and tourists enjoying a Sunday in the city.

We have a lot of free time on our own in Wellington, as a morning hike and picnic lunch are the only activities on the Backroads plan for the day. We take a group hike from the serene Karori city cemetery to a trail at Otari-Wilton’s Bush. This leads to a popular nature center that is bustling on the weekend as families enjoy picnics and parties on the grounds, which are filled with lush trees and exotic plants and flowers.

Otari-Wilton's Bush trail

John joins a group hike on a trail at Otari-Wilton’s Bush outside of Wellington. * Photo: John Roberts

After our lunch, we head back to the ship. Max, Katie and Brandon offer maps of Wellington on which they have noted their favorite restaurants, museums and a district full of craft breweries. I join a group that chooses to get dropped off at Te Papa Museum in the city center. This is the national museum of New Zealand and is filled with interesting artifacts and depictions of the nation’s history from old to modern times.

I spend a couple hours before heading back to Le Laperouse for a snack and change into my running gear. I take a jog along the harbor promenade, following the coastline to a beach area where I sit back for a while and bask in the sun.

Next, my plan is to find those craft breweries. Following the map, I land on Little Beer Quarter and try a couple varieties. I take my first pint, an IPA, to the bench outside and sip it down slowly. It’s late afternoon, and I note musicians bringing instruments inside and deduce that my lucky timing means that I’ll get to enjoy at least some of their live performance.

Wellington New Zealand bar

John does some beer drinking research in Wellington. New Zealand isn’t just known for its wine! * Photo: John Roberts

Back inside, I grab an APA for my second pint and slide into a cushioned high-backed chair and watch the trio of ladies dressed in peasant dresses and playing banjos offer up their renditions of American folk classics from the likes of Woody Guthrie and Maybelle Carter.

I figure I better head to the ship for a meal or else I would be here all night. Many people from our Backroads group are having dinner onshore, but I join Fleury and Barry, a couple from Florida, in the main dining room. The three of us share an excellent meal and conversation.

Fleury is on her 20th trip with Backroads, and Barry is on his 10th. I ask why they like these trips so much.

“I like the consistency,” Fleury says.

She says she particularly is impressed with the unique experiences you can find with Backroads, explaining that the company goes to places and gives you experiences that you aren’t usually going to get with other outfitters.

Plus, Backroads is a good fit for all kinds of travelers.

“They seem to have more and more options for people of all ages and abilities,” she says. “I really enjoy the focus on being active. We always have a good experience.”

Arriving to the South Island

The South Island of New Zealand showcases the true wild side of the country. The North Island contains most of the nation’s population, while the South Island is home to some of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the world, with stunning mountains, lakes, waterfalls and glaciers.

Over the final four days of our cruise, we first crossed Cook Strait to arrive at the little coastal town of Picton, situated on a lovely bay leading to Queen Charlotte Inlet and Marlborough Sounds.

A water taxi picks us up at the marina and we head into the sound on a sun-splashed morning. We arrive at a quiet spot on shore about 35 minutes away and find the trailhead for the Queen Charlotte Track. We have options for a short route and a longer hike along a piece of this popular epic hiking path. Ten of us head ashore for the longer, nine-mile hike, which heads high into the hills along forested dirt paths. We see several birds and have frequent views of the sound below.

I carry a boxed lunch and eat on the trail as I walk, making good time on this challenging hike. A water taxi meets us at dock at the end of the hike, and members of our group all finish at different times, so small groups of people share rides back into Picton, where we have time to explore on our own. Some check out the small shops or stop into a café or bar for their favorite refreshments. I find a hiking path at the edge of town and take the chance to get in a few more miles.

Indulging in all the fine French cuisine and craft beers onboard the ship day in and day out, I decide that I better burn a few more calories before dinner.

crafts beers on Le Laperouse

Le Laperouse’s excellent selection of craft beers are included in the fares. * Photo: John Roberts

All aboard is at 4:30 pm, so I tender back and clean up for sunset cocktails on the pool deck. The weather is perfect, and the mood is light as we all relax and look forward to a day at sea before we arrive at Fiordland National Park.

champagne on deck of a New Zealand Cruise

Immersed in nature and fitness by day and luxury and pampering back on board. * Photo: John Roberts

Milford Sound

On the morning that we arrive at Milford Sound, it’s raining. Passengers gather on the top decks at the bow of the ship, as we enter this impressive waterway (it’s actually a glacial fjord and not a sound). The rains create a series of waterfalls streaming down the cliff sides, and cruisers flit about snapping photos throughout the morning.

I join for a bit before ducking inside. I remembered a nice spot in the spa that offers a serene view of the outdoors as we sail into Milford Sound.

milford sound views from the spa

Milford Sound from the ship’s spa! * Photo: John Roberts

After lunch, it’s time to hop on the zodiacs and head ashore where we meet guides on a beach in the national park who will lead us on around Milford Sound on a kayak tour. After morning rains, the skies have cleared and the conditions are perfect for paddling on the calm waters around the edge of the fjord. We look up to see the awesome scale of the region, with a glacier still visible deep into the valley beyond. Waterfalls are still flowing, with some of the streams slowing since the rains ceased.

zodiac in Milford Sound

A zodiac ride to the kayaks in Milford Sound. * Photo: John Roberts

The notorious sand fleas are feasting on our legs and arms, and I’ll return home with some nasty bites from this trip, a souvenir that serves as a constant reminder of this adventure for a couple more months.

When we finish our two hours of paddling and return our kayaks and life jackets, five kea make a ruckus on the trailers and vehicles at the kayaking outfitter’s beachside station. Kea are the world’s only Alpine parrot, and these birds are well known as “troublemakers” because of their innate curiosity and penchant for chewing up anything their beaks latch onto.

Kea on a kayak

A visit from a nosy Kea! * Photo: John Roberts

We ride back in small groups on Zodiacs at sunset. It’s a great way to cap our adventures ashore. Tomorrow, we’ll have a full day sailing, venturing into Dusky Sound for a look at the dolphins, seals and birds in this part of Fiordland National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Before Dusky Sound, though, it’s a farewell gala onboard Le Laperouse. With an easy day of sailing and relaxing on tap for the next day, everyone is in a mood to eat, drink and dance the night away, while re-telling our tales of the past week of exploration in New Zealand.

The Ship

Le Laperouse, which launched in 2018, is a luxury, mostly inclusive sailing experience, with 92 all-balcony cabins and meals and drinks included in your fare. Shore excursions and gratuities are extra.

There’s a small gym with treadmills and exercise bikes, as well as a full-fledged spa on Deck 7. Spa services include massages and other treatments. A large sauna is open and available for passenger use.

Watch John’s video: A virtual tour of Le Laperouse.

oceanview gym on Le LaPerouse

The Le LaPerouse gym has ocean views. * Photo: John Roberts

The Blue Eye lounge is a below-water-level multi-sensory experience on Deck 0. The lounge is bathed in moody blue light, and cruisers can go down to enjoy a drink and soak up the atmosphere that includes a hydrophone that pumps in underwater sounds. Two large portholes give sometimes murky views of the underwater world.

Word is that you just might catch some whale sounds. Also, a 30-minute multi-sensory session is offered regularly throughout the cruise. This is a guided experience with the cruise director who plays recorded video and sounds, and answers any questions about the lounge. Space is limited and requires signing up.

Most in our Backroads group gave the Blue Lounge a try, but many thought it feels a bit gimmicky. I agree.

Le Nautilus, the main restaurant, is an open-seating dinner venue operating at set times (usually 7 pm). Reservations are available for six or more. The menus feature traditional French cuisine such as Nicoise salads and beef bourguignon alongside locally-sourced seafood the likes of New Zealand mussels, oysters and scallops.

The pool grill is called Le Nemo, and it’s a buffet with salads, fruits, small plates, a grill area serving burgers, steaks, chicken and a couple hot dishes available for dinner and lunch.

Le Laperouse seafood

Le Laperouse cuisine was very good and featured lots of seafood. * Photo: John Roberts

This is a spot for a lighter breakfast, too, as it has no egg station but wonderful fresh fruit, yogurts, pastries and breads. Reservations are needed for dinner in this limited-seating al fresco area.

The Backroads team offered a variety of enrichment activities to keep our group entertained and learning about the region while on the ship.

Our little group had the theater to ourselves for a viewing of the highly entertaining “Hunt For the Wilderpeople,” a 2016 film that is set in New Zealand. It’s quite funny and sweet and provides some insight into Kiwi culture; you should try to check it out.

Hunt For The Wilderpeople film

Hunt For The Wilderpeople

We also learned about the currency, had a music and dance performance from a group of Maori entertainers while in Wellington, and were treated to a tasting of New Zealand honey during our last day at sea.

interior of Le Laperouse

A sea day or two is a welcome break to enjoy the lovely interior of Le Laperouse. * Photo: John Roberts

Max, Katie and Brandon did an amazing job of keeping the journey fresh and interesting and created an environment for everyone to get comfortable with one another and enjoy their cruise at their own pace.

The cabins on Le Laperouse offer plenty of storage space in dresser drawers and closets. The washroom and bathroom are separate rooms, which I think is standard for the French design. My cabin had a single sink basin, and a large walk-in shower.

Watch John’s video: A video tour of Le Laperouse’s cabins.

Le Laperouse cabin on a New Zealand cruise

John’s lovely cabin #401 aboard the Le Laperouse. * Photo: John Roberts

Until Next Time …

The Backroads and Ponant partnership works incredibly well for travelers making their first visit to New Zealand. This New Zealand cruise itinerary is packed with daily activities taking place in all kinds of ports, from quiet towns to bustling cities to destinations known for their blissful and serene wilderness.

And the best part is the comfort and convenience of sailing on a luxury ship that offers fine food and a bit of entertainment while serving as your transportation and launching pad for your adventures. 🚲🛳💦🌲

For booking info, visit the companies here: Backroads & Ponant.

sunset on a New Zealand cruise sunset

Until next time … * Photo: John Roberts

 

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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.

Alaska cruise adventures aboard UnCruise's Legacy

Small-Ship Alaska Cruise Adventures.

By Judi Cohen.

The moment I arrived in sunny Juneau where my Uncruise “Glacier Country Adventure” would begin and end, I knew this would be no ordinary 7-night Alaska cruise. As we were welcomed aboard the 90-passenger S.S. Legacy, UnCruise owner Dan Blanchard flashed the cruise brochure and exclaimed: “These brochures are out of date as soon as they’re printed. Everything on the planned route is subject to change based on the weather, park permits and wildlife sightings — Mother Nature will be in charge.”

With no traditional “ports of call” during the 614-nautical-mile cruise, the Legacy would serve as a wildlife and adventure platform and our comfortable home.

Alaska cruise adventures aboard UnCruise's Legacy

The charming 90-passenger Legacy. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Introducing the SS Legacy

The 192-foot S.S. Legacy, built in 1984 (and renovated in 2018) as a replica of a Victorian-era steamboat, would have fit perfectly into an Alaskan Gold Rush movie.

While there was nothing fancy about the Legacy, I found her Victorian-style décor and furnishings exceedingly comfortable and welcoming.

Her four decks include a sun deck with two hot tubs, an exercise room and lounge chairs. An elevator between Decks 1 and 3 makes it easy for those with mobility issues.

Alaska cruise writer Judi Cohen aboard UnCruise's Legacy

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

The dining room and Pesky Barnacle Saloon are on Deck 1, while the lounge and bar are set on Deck 2 along with some cabins. The rest of the cabins line Deck 3.

Most of the 48 passengers on my Alaska cruise were active and fit with an average age of 50. We had options for morning and afternoon excursions including free and guided kayaking, bushwacking, “yak and wack” (combo kayaking and bushwacking), and skiff tours — tours on small 12-passenger inflatable boats. Morning stretch class or yoga was offered on the sun deck.

An Alaska cruise on a small ship

Excursions by skiff were a daily event on Judi’s Alaska cruise. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Wonderfully All-Inclusive

Adventure equipment (kayaks, paddleboards and skiffs) were carried on a portable launch pad called the “Sea Dragon.” Equipment like walking poles and “Alaskan Tennis Shoes,” aka rubber boots, could be borrowed. And lessons and excursions are included.

Alaska cruise and kayaking excursions

Judi and Lawrence being lowered into the water off the Sea Dragon platform. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Wine, spirits, soft drinks, juices, snacks, coffee and tea are also included. Wine could be ordered by the glass or bottle and Kyle the bartender was open to all requests.

There was a signature cocktail in the lounge before dinner that we enjoyed with hors d’oeuvres daily. Coffee, tea and snacks were always available.

The busy Lounge and bar

Lounge and bar: a hive of activity all the time! * Photo: Judi Cohen

Naturalists & Crew

There were five naturalists and experts on board our Alaska cruise. They were our expedition guides, sharing their knowledge and passion about Alaska’s wildlife, plants and history on board and during our many excursions.

In addition, Kate Troll and Bill Hanson, Alaska residents since the 1970’s, were invited onboard to provide a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to live, work and play in Southeast Alaska. Called “Alaska Insiders,” they never ran short of interesting stories shared in the lounge, dining room and the bow, and during our excursions.

They told us about their careers in natural resources, and their lives as hunters and foragers. The pair spoke about changes in the glaciers, wildlife, local people, variety of salmon, and effects of commercial fisheries. I learned, for instance, that Alaskan salmon is the gold standard due to stringent sustainability legislation.

Kate read passages from her book, The Great Unconformity – Reflections on Hope in an Imperiled World, and spoke about the dramatic changes she has seen in Alaska.

Alaska cruise with UnCruise lecturer Kate Judi with Kate

Judi with Kate, one of the cruise’s “Alaska Insider” special lecturers. * Photo: Lawrence Cohen

Bill shared a passionate story during a presentation about hunting for venison, discussing their connection to the land and the necessity to eat what they harvest. I was moved when Bill said “there is some sadness felt about killing a deer.” He explained the ritual of putting their favorite food in the deer’s mouth, placing his hand on the dead deer, and saying thank you for giving them food.

The Uncruise team, notably the expert guides, Sarah, Andrew, Jessie, Teresa, Bobby and the expedition leader, Megan, along with  Captain Tim Voss, were all vital in making our awesome Alaska cruise as memorable as it was. No doubt they loved what they were doing and encouraged us to try everything, going out of their way for first-timers like us.

They generously shared their experiences and knowledge during our excursions and onboard the ship. In the same spirit, the captain welcomed everyone in the bridge whenever we were sailing.

On cruising days, the captain excitedly announced wildlife sightings, as everyone poured out onto the bow or the top-deck of the ship. The guides were as excited as the guests to see and talk about the sightings.

Alaska cruise mountain goat sighting

Guides pointing out bearded mountain goats in Glacier Bay. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Alaska cruise wildlife

Bearded mountain goats in Glacier Bay. * Photo: Uncruise

Cozy  & Compact Cabins

Cabins range from 110 square feet to a 600-square-foot two-room “Owner’s Suite” on the sun deck with its own wet bar and library. All have outside windows, and accommodate singles, triples and quads. Each offers a private bathroom with shower, bathrobes, alarm clock, safe, small flat-screen TV with DVD player, and an iPod docking station.

My cabin (306) on deck 3 was a 145-square-foot “Commander” category, with a private bathroom with shower, and a window and a door opening to the outdoor promenade. With fixed twin wooden beds, storage drawers, small desk, and closet with a safe and binoculars (to borrow), we had room to move around and unpack all of our clothing and gear.

A nice surprise was that we could drink the water from all sources on the ship, including in our bathroom.

Cabin #306 aboard the 90-passenger Legacy

Judi’s cabin, #306. * Photo: Judi Cohen

I loved seeing the sunrise from the bow. It was my favorite place on the Legacy. With my hair blowing and the ship’s flag waving, all I could hear was the movement of the water and the call of seabirds.

There is something romantic about being out front on the bow. Day or night, it’s like having a front row seat to the greatest nature show on earth.

Alaska cruise with writer Judi Cohen on bow

Judi on the bow of the SS Legacy. * Photo: Lawrence Cohen

One night, we were woken up with an announcement to get out on deck if we wanted to see the Aurora Borealis on the port side. Everyone scrambled from their rooms. Some came out in bathrobes, while others quickly threw on some clothes.

Alas, by the time I made it out the colors remained for only a few seconds, replaced by large white streaks of light in the dark sky. I guess seeing the Aurora Borealis will remain on my wish list for a future Alaska cruise.

The Grand Salon Lounge and Bar

The Lounge on deck 2 was the ship’s hub, with its welcoming bar area that comprised a small library with books and DVD’s (a good thing since there is no internet access on the Legacy). It was the gathering area not only for drinks, but also presentations, games and general relaxation. There were comfortable sofas, marble-topped tables, and large picture windows.

The Klondike Dining Room

The dining room on deck 1 was bright and warm with large windows, an old-fashioned tin ceiling, two-tone wooden pillars and carpeted floors. It featured a mix of booths along the windows with larger round tables in the center.

Dining Room with swinging doors into Pesky Barnacle saloon

Dining Room with swinging doors into Pesky Barnacle saloon. * Photo: Judi Cohen

I enjoyed sitting with different guests at each meal since there was no assigned seating. We regaled each other with stories about the day’s adventures and talked about the day ahead.

Swinging saloon doors from the dining room opened to the Pesky Barnacle Saloon with wrap-around windows and a poker room vibe. It was the perfect place to play cards or just enjoy the panoramic view. On our sailing, the space was also used as a place to gather before excursions, don lifejackets, put on sunscreen, and fill our reusable water bottles.

Getting ready in the Pesky Barnacle

Getting ready in the Pesky Barnacle lounge. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Mealtime was Pure Joy

With many active and fit guests on our Alaska cruise, there were healthy options that also satisfied cosmopolitan foodies like my husband and me. All of our meals were served in courses, like dining in a restaurant.

Breakfast was served at 7:30 or 8:00am depending on the planned activities, and always included choices of eggs, yogurt, fruit, bacon, and fresh squeezed orange juice. A daily omelette made with a choice of carmelized leek, manchego, artichokes, chorizo and other ingredients.

And if that wasn’t enough, there were frittatas with roasted peppers and a crispy kale topping, blueberry pancakes with whipped cream, a full English breakfast, and cornflake-crusted French toast with bananas foster topping.

Full Breakfast with all the fixins

Full Breakfast with all the fixins. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Lunch one day included bison chili, vegetarian chili or a mixed salad with hardboiled eggs, shredded chicken and tortilla strips. On another day we had the choice of BBQ brisket, pulled jackfruit with coleslaw, mac ‘n cheese, or a salad with sockeye salmon.

There were no bad choices! Delicious freshly-baked breads, pastries and desserts accompanied every meal.

Following happy hour in the lounge, dinner was served at 6:30pm. Our dinners always started with a homemade bread and an appetizer or antipasti board with cheeses like baked brie, gruyere or blue-cheese custard, nuts, poached apples or other jams and berries.

An appetizer shared board with blue cheese, date topping, carrot butter, fruit, nuts and fig bread

An appetizer shared board with blue cheese, date topping, carrot butter, fruit, nuts and fig bread. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Our plated dinner included a meat, fish and vegetarian option. I found it difficult to choose one night from among beef tenderloin with mushrooms and demi-fried shallots, Coho salmon with rhubarb marmalade and pickled strawberries, or the vegetarian beet Wellington with leek cream and roasted radish.

Two of my favorite meals were the pepper-crusted lamb popsicles with fenugreek curry and the poached ling cod with cilantro basil oil.

Lamb Popsicles with fenugreek curry and charred broccoli.

Lamb Popsicles with fenugreek curry and charred broccoli. YUM! * Photo: Judi Cohen

Our all-you-can-eat Dungeness crab dinner was both a gourmet treat and a learning experience as we mastered how to crack the claws and pull the meat out of the shells.

Dungeness Crab Dinner with guests from Australia, UK,and California

Dungeness Crab Dinner with guests from Australia, UK and California. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Chef Cooper kept bringing out large bowls of crabs. It was quite a messy job and I concluded that it would not be wise to order Dungeness crab on a first date!

Alaska cruise dining on Dungeness crabs

Chef Cooper with Dungeness crabs galore. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Desserts were beautifully presented and always worth saving room for. The pastry chef’s creations included pumpkin cake with fresh whipped cream; fruity pebbles, candy floss and root beer macarons; and salty toffee brownies that could all have come from the finest gourmet bakery!

Dessert, fruity pebbles and candy floss macarons

Delish dessert: fruity pebbles and candy floss macarons. * Photo: Judi Cohen

A Week of Non-stop Adventure 

Map from bulletin board, updated daily

Map from bulletin board, updated daily. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Day 1: Juneau

We were welcomed aboard around 4pm by the captain and crew, shown to our cabins and given a safety briefing. Before we knew it, our Alaska cruise had begun and we were on our way to Glacier Bay National Park.

With almost 15 hours of daylight at this time of year, we enjoyed the golden sunshine on the bow until late in the evening.

Day 2: Tidal Inlet & Glacier Bay National Park

We anchored in Tidal Inlet with breathtaking views of the snow-peaked mountains, rocky shores and the glassy smooth water for most of the day.

Alaska cruise reflections in the waters of Glacier Bay

Stunning reflections in the water in Glacier Bay. * Photo: Judi Cohen

I was very excited that my husband and I, along with nine other guests, chose to take the “Kayak 101” lesson with Bobby from the expedition staff. After 90 minutes we were both confident and comfortable in our kayak.

Judi and Lawrence in a Kayak

Judi and Lawrence at the Kayak 101 training, at Tidal Inlet in Glacier Bay. * Photo: Judi Cohen

We were thrilled to embrace this learning opportunity and could hardly wait to kayak again on our Alaska cruise.

Alaska cruise kayaking

Judi fell in love with kayaking on her UnCruise Alaska adventure. * Photo: Lawrence Cohen

Following lunch, Ranger Caitie, who boarded at Bartlett Cove wearing her National Parks uniform, gave an orientation session on Glacier National Park. She noted that “only two large cruise ships, four small ships, and a few kayaks are allowed in the park at a time.”

So this part of the trip felt like a privilege, especially since we would be in the park for two full days!

Judi with Ranger Caitie before she departed in Bartlett Cove

Judi with Ranger Caitie before she departed in Bartlett Cove. * Photo: Lawrence Cohen

As the Legacy sailed along Tarr Inlet in Glacier Bay, Kate pointed out the partially hidden Grand Pacific Glacier in the distance where Canada meets Alaska.

We slowly approached the majestic blue-veined Margerie Glacier and Ranger Caitie requested a moment of silence. We stood on the bow listening to the glacier grumbling and bergy bits growling and crackling in the water all around the ship; it was a highlight of my Alaska cruise.

Alaska cruise approaching Margerie Glacier

Approaching Margerie Glacier. * Photo: Judi Cohen

With the clear skies, we were able to see the snow-covered jagged peak of Mount Fairweather, the highest mountain in the Canadian province of British Columbia.

Lawrence on the sundeck

Lawrence on the sundeck. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Day 3: Lamplugh Glacier & South Marble Island

A planned morning skiff ride and beach walk near the magnificent Lamplugh Glacier quickly changed to just a long skiff ride after a brown bear was spotted a short distance away on the beach and another bear was swimming towards the beach.

We passed slowly by the odorous South Marble Island with lazy sea lions and seals making belching and farting noises. Meanwhile, loads of seabirds were flying overhead. Humpback whale blows and flukes could be seen in the distance.

Alaska cruise wildlife includes Sea Lions

Sea Lions enjoying the sunshine on South Marble Island. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Before lunch about half of the passengers and many of the staff did a “polar plunge” off the Sea Dragon into the frigid waters of Glacier Bay. The rest of us cheered them on (I have to admit, I hate cold water and couldn’t fathom jumping in!).

Alaska cruise UnCruise Polar Plunge

Polar Plunge in Glacier Bay. Brrrrr! * Photo: Judi Cohen

We then sailed to drop off Ranger Caitie at Glacier National Park headquarters in Bartlett Cove. Along the way we saw many bears digging for food on the shore — and we could see them without binoculars, that’s how close they were (this could never happen on a big-ship cruise!).

The sight of a mother brown bear with two fuzzy cubs was my best Mother’s Day gift ever! My Alaska cruise was even better than I had imagined.

Mama Brown Bear and Two Cubs

Mama Brown bear and two cubs on Mothers Day! * Photo: Judi Cohen

After dinner, we all went for a walk to see the Huna Tribal House on the shoreline of Bartlett Cove. We admired the carved totems and the exterior painting representing the stories of the Glacier Bay clans.

Guests walked along the one-mile Bartlett River shoreline trail or just relaxed on the sandy beach near the dock to enjoy the colors and listen to the sounds of the birds.

Huna House Bartlett Cove in Glacier National Park

Huna House in Bartlett Cove in Glacier National Park. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Day 4: Neka Bay Wildlife Extravaganza

The Legacy was anchored in the untouched wilderness and the quiet calm in Neka Bay. Our morning skiff tour turned out to be a wildlife extravaganza, with eagles, gulls, golden plover, pigeon guillemot, harlequin ducks and sliders.

Alaska Cruise Bald Eagle Sighting

A majestic Bald Eagle sighting. * Photo: Judi Cohen

We were treated to humpback whales blowing and breaching, and harbor seals and porpoises playing near our skiff.

When we returned to the ship, I decided to do some free-kayaking for an hour before lunch in magical and serene Neka Bay.

Judi and Lawrence free-kayaking in Neka Bay

Judi and Lawrence free-kayaking in Neka Bay.

In the afternoon we were dropped off on a rocky beach with an array of spitting clams, starfish that were 10-20 inches across, and red rock crabs. Here we would experience a two-hour bushwack.

Giant starfish on Judi's hat before bushwacking trek.

Giant starfish on Judi’s hat before bushwacking trek. * Photo: Lawrence Cohen

Our guide yelled “aaayo” loudly many times to let any bears know that we arrived. Unlike a hike along a marked path, bushwacking required effort and attention as we made our own way through the forested and mossy undergrowth. We stopped to learn about the moss, fungus and flowers and even tasted some of them.

Judi bushwacking

Judi bushwacking! * Photo: Lawrence Cohen

I worked up quite a sweat and peeled off my layers of clothing right down to a T-shirt! When we made it to a clearing, we spotted a lumbering brown bear and quickly planned a detour back to our skiff.

Our many bear sightings were definitely a very special feature of an Alaska cruise on a small, nimble ship like the Legacy, that can meanuever close to shore.

We sailed all evening and night to Thomas Bay, also called “The Bay of Death” or “Devil’s Country.” As the story goes, early prospectors reported seeing “Kushtaka,” the shape-shifting creatures of Tlingit tribal legend that can take the form of man or otter.

We passed Huna, a fishing village, that is now a cruise ship dock with the longest zipline in North America. Thankfully we did not stop here!

Captain Voss announced that a pod of Orca killer whales were on our port side. He stopped the ship so we could enjoy them bobbing and moving gracefully. The guides even lowered a microphone into the water to hear them better.

Killer Whales portside - binoculars focused

Killer Whales port side: binoculars focused! * Photo: Judi Cohen

Day 5: Scenery Cove & Baird Glacier 

Our morning excursion was a skiff ride in Scenery Cove, just in front of Baird Glacier. We navigated around large oddly-shaped grounded icebergs of many colors, which is only possible in a skiff with a very experienced operator familiar with the changing tides and water levels.

We did an easy guided hike in the afternoon up to Cascade Creek to see a winding waterfall that flowed from the top of the mountain down through rocks and forests. The mist from the waterfalls made the steep rocky stairs very slippery, so ropes were available along the sides for stability.

Hiking at Cascade Creek Alaska

Hiking at Cascade Creek. * Photo: Lawrence Cohen

Day 6: Robert & Crow Islands, Plus Woodspit

This morning our skiff was surrounded by dozens of playful Steller sea lions as we soaked in the lush green surroundings. We spotted Arctic terns, puffins, cormorants and murrelets and other birds.

Lawrence and Earl on a skiff

Lawrence and Earl on a skiff. * Photo: Judi Cohen

On our way to Woodspit in the afternoon, we were on a whale search and sure enough Captain Voss spotted a pod of Humpback whales.

Humpback Whale fluke

Humpback Whale fluke. * Photo: Judi Cohen

The breaching whales put on a show that lasted a couple of hours. The ship turned several times so we could get the best views.

What a show!

On the bow watching humpbacks

On the bow watching humpbacks. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Day 7: Endicott Arm & Dawes Glacier — The Highlight of my Trip!

This was the highlight of the trip for me as we sailed through the sapphire-colored near-frozen waters in Endicott Arm surrounded by turquoise icebergs. I was on the bridge as we sailed through this tranquil paradise with waterfalls, forests and ice.

On the Bridge with Captain Voss heading towards Dawes Glacier

On the bridge with Captain Voss heading towards Dawes Glacier. * Photo: Judi Cohen

On our skiff tour we heard the crackling of icebergs in the water as we moved closer to the face of Dawes Glacier — over 600 feet tall and a mile wide. We witnessed the thundering sound of the calving glacier when giant chunks of ice broke off and crashed into the water without warning, creating waves that rocked our skiff.

It was a sobering reminder of the reality of climate change and a dramatic way to end the cruise.

Day 8: Disembarkation in Juneau

When we disembarked in Juneau, Dan Blanchard took us on a fascinating tour of downtown Juneau pointing out the rich history of prospecting and gold mines. We had succulent Alaskan halibut and chips on the pier and took in our last views of the beautiful cloud-shrouded mountains, lush forest and choppy seas before our transfer to the airport.

Lawrence Cohen enjoying our last Alaskan Fish and Chips on the dock in Juneau

Lawrence Cohen enjoying our last Alaskan Fish and Chips on the dock in Juneau. * Photo: Judi Cohen

End Note

I was grateful for the opportunity to be unplugged and disconnected from my normal wired life, and reveled in reconnecting with my body and curious spirit on this very special Alaska cruise. Blessed with a week of sunshine, I enjoyed all of the adventurous activities and up-close wildlife sightings in the water, on land and in the sky.

My interest has been piqued, and I look forward to seeing more of the untouched wilderness and incredible miracles of Mother Nature in Alaska. I hope to return again one day for more adventure and genuine UnCruise hospitality!

UnCruise’s 7-night “Glacier Country Adventure” cruise starts at $4,795. per person; click here for more details.

Alaska cruise aboard UnCruise's Legacy

The Legacy is an excellent way to explore Alaska’s Inside passage.

QuirkyCruise Review

 

 

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The Pacific Northwest’s Scenic Columbia & Snake Rivers.

By Ted Scull.

Few passengers aboard UnCruise Adventure‘s 90-passenger SS Legacy had the slightest inkling of just how dramatic a river journey could be and how they can become personal explorers.

At dawn on the first morning of the cruise, I awoke to the sight of Pacific breakers pounding the breakwater at the mouth of the Columbia River.

Days later we had arrived at the headwaters of navigation where Idaho, Oregon and Washington borders meet, for a jet boat ride up through the Hells Canyon Snake River rapids. Herds of big horn sheep watched us from the slopes above. We step ashore to become acquainted with our natural surroundings.

Sailing upriver, the soggy coast gives way to the dramatic Columbia Gorge and the flanking rain forests. We stopped at the foot of pencil-thin 620-feet high Multnomah Falls and enjoyed a hike up to a bridge directly opposite the cascading waters that literally spill over a cliff edge from a point high above.

UnCruise guests on the Benson Bridge at Multnomah Falls on a Columbia & Snake Rivers cruise

UnCruise guests on the Benson Bridge at Multnomah Falls. * Photo: UnCruise

The Columbia Gorge, Locks & Dams

Just above the Columbia Gorge, a wide section of the river subject to high winds, became the birthplace for windsurfing and kite surfing, highly popular pastimes in the warmer months.

At Bonneville Dam and Locks, a guide told us about hydroelectric power. She also explained that she counts salmon and shad to keep an annual record of these important fish numbers. While she spoke, lamprey eels and fish passed by the lounge windows to climb the ladders — a series of pools that allow them to make their way upstream.

Many of the eight locks we would pass through have lifts of 100 feet; that’s 15 feet higher than the combined three Gatun Locks in the Panama Canal.

Then at the nearby Columbia River Gorge Discovery Center, the exhibits and a film explained the cataclysmic geological creation of the gorge and the tribal history of Nez Perce.

Explorers such as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark came this way in the first years of the 19th century. They were followed by missionaries and early settlers, using the Oregon Trail and Columbia River.

There are 8 locks on the Columbia & Snake Rivers itinerary.

The Legacy transits 8 locks on the Columbia & Snake Rivers itinerary. * Photo: UnCruise

Out of the Forest and Into Hells Canyon

Leaving the Columbia River and climbing the Snake, the land becomes increasingly arid with colorful plateaus and basalt rock formations flanking the river, taking on a distinctly southwestern appearance.

At times, there was no sign of human habitation. Then a long freight train carrying grain would slide by on the shore, give us a whistle, then disappear returning the landscape to silence.

Docking at Clarkston, Washington opposite Lewistown, Idaho, we boarded jet boats for the white-water 50-mile day trip up into the Snake River’s Hells Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America. Rocky Mountain big horn sheep, recently reintroduced following their decimation in 1926, dotted the cliffs and tiny patches of sand at water level.

Jet Boat Tour into Hell's Canyon on a Columbia & Snake Rivers cruise

Jet Boat Tour into Hell’s Canyon. * Photo: UnCruise

Fishermen were out in force in boats angling for steelhead trout as we passed from Washington to Oregon and Idaho. We stopped three times, for a stroll up to a naturalist site with a great view along the canyon, for a picnic lunch, and for a close-up study of some ancient Indian petroglyphs drawn on a flat rock surface.

Columbia & Snake Rivers

The SS Legacy. * Photo: Ted Scull

Downriver to Maryhill

En route downriver, we made a visit to Maryhill, a mansion-now-museum built by railroad baron Samuel Hill high up a cliff overlooking the river and housing an eclectic art collection. It features Rodin sculpture, chess sets, costumes, Fabergé eggs and jewelry that had belonged to Queen Marie of Romania.

When & What

The one-week Columbia & Snake Rivers trips operate in September, October and sometimes early November with the wine and culinary departures in the later part of the season. Vineyards undulate through the Hood River Valley in both Oregon and Washington.

Overhead view of a vineyard near Hood River on a Columbia & Snake Rivers cruise

Overhead view of a vineyard near Hood River. * Photo: UnCruise

The plethora of activities during the week may include hiking (walking poles available), kayaking, inflatable skiffs, paddle boarding, and of course, presentations by naturalists in the ship’s lounge and ashore. Out on deck look for osprey, white pelicans and bald eagers.

UnCruise Adventures SS Legacy

John & Colleen kayaking in the Palouse River. * Photo: John Roberts

SS Legacy: A Classic Beauty

The SS Legacy provides the perfect stage, both inside and out, to witness the stunning landscape of this region. A 1985-built product of Bender Shipbuilding & Repair, Mobile, Alabama, twin Caterpillar diesels drive her at up to 15 knots, a generous speed for a small coastal passenger vessel.

At 192 feet in length, the SS Legacy carries up to 90 passengers and an All-American crew of 34-35.

Dan Blanchard, Un-Cruise Adventures owner and CEO, has spent his entire life living and working in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, He knows that with the SS Legacy he has a gem on his hands.

In her current guise, the hull at the main deck is black with a thick gold stripe above that. The black funnel has a narrow gold top and is embossed with a gold star. Her three masts are black with gold at the forepeak.

Guests moving to and from the SS Legacy by skiff on a Columbia & Snake Rivers cruise

Guests moving to and from the SS Legacy by skiff. * Photo: UnCruise

Within the Vessel

Both the Main Lounge and the Dining Room have retro patterned tin ceilings, while wooden panels enclose the square columns and surround the wooden dance floor.

The lounge’s wooden bar with its elaborately wood-framed mirrored-glass backdrop is particularly inviting whether taking to one of the five stools or standing at either end to chat up the bartender and fellow passengers.

UnCruise Adventures SS Legacy

Business as usual at the ship’s bar. * Photo: John Roberts

The lounge, seating all passengers at one time, is furnished with formal wood-framed chairs surrounding small marble-topped tables, and by the windows, plush armchairs and settees. The deep blue carpet is studded with symmetrically arranged stylized stars. Views to the outside encompass a 270-degree arc.

relaxing in the lounge on a Columbia & Snake River cruise

Relaxing on board the SS Legacy. * Photo: Ted Scull

Dining

In the dining room one deck below and aft, the seating is banquettes and round tables for six with views through the large port and starboard windows. A handsome dark-wood serving buffet with a mirrored backdrop is framed by fluted wooden pilasters.

All meals are waiter-served with ample seating for all passengers to dine at once. Depending on the daily itinerary, breakfast service starts at 7:30 or 8:00, while lunchtime is between noon and 1:00 and dinner at 6:30 or 7:00.

The Klondike dining room aboard the Legacy

The Klondike dining room. * Photo: UnCruise

The friendly American staff, exhibiting a wide range of ages, provides good service, and the food is varied and very well prepared.

Dinner may start with a chef’s amuse, something creative and tangy, then moves onto black bean soup, smoked salmon chowder or melon with prosciutto chips. The main course (a choice of three entrees) might be seared jumbo prawns, poached arctic char, rack of lamb chops, veal saltimbocca, and for vegetarians, goat cheese and spinach lasagna, linguini with mushrooms or a saffron vegetable risotto.

Freshly made desserts are peach and blueberry Napoleon, citrus cheese cake and, perhaps, Baked Alaska. Complimentary beers from Alaska and Seattle and red and white wines, featuring Columbia River Valley origins, accompany lunch and dinner.

Breakfast service has a daily changing special and always available eggs of any style, along with bacon, sausages, toast, cereal, yoghurt, fresh fruit and juices.

An early riser breakfast is served on the Grand Salon’s buffet, and it includes a couple of daily changing hot dishes. Most passengers who start their breakfast here, then descend to the dining room for the multi-course affair.

Fresh fruit is available all day, with homemade baked cookies in the afternoon and a generous selection of changing hors d’oeuvres before dinner. Wine, beer, soft drinks, cocktails, coffee and tea are complimentary and available throughout the day.

In the corner of the dining room is a wine bar and then keep going aft and you hit the Pesky Barnacle, a gathering space wrapped around the stern for donning life jackets for excursions. From here you step into the Sea Dragon that provides easy access to the inflatable skiffs, kayaks and other waterborne activities.

Other Amenities

Additional amenities are a sauna on the Upper Deck, two hot tubs on Bridge Deck, plus exercise cycles aft and under cover on the same deck. Yoga classes are conducted here as well.

UnCruise Adventures SS Legacy

Yoga session on deck. * Photo: John Roberts

All About Cabins

The 45 cabins on three decks are all outside, ranging from 100 to 297 square feet, with those on Lounge and Upper decks having doors that open onto side decks for super quick access to what’s outside. The Upper Deck promenade provides a circular constitutional walk with 14.4 circuits equaling a mile. Cabins on Main Deck have portholes, and a large 600-square-foot, two-room Owner’s Suite sits in splendor isolation atop the Sun Deck just aft of the bridge. It comes with all sorts of amenities such as a stocked wet bar, private DVD collection, two TVs and a small library.

Bed arrangements are fixed twins, double beds or queens. Two forward cabins sleep up to three and the suite up to four. Cabins have individual temperature control, flat screen TV/DVD and a iPod docking station. All have a vanity-cum-desk, chair, adequate drawer and closet space, and small bathrooms with showers. Antique-style mirrors are attached to the bathroom doors.

The cabins have wood-framed padded headboards, frosted reading lamps, brass window trim with the top pane a drop window, thus allowing a flow of fresh air. An elevator connects three of the four passenger decks.

Columbia & Snake Rivers

Here is a Commander category cabin. * Photo: UnCruise

Topside & in the Pilothouse

Three forward viewing areas are on the Lounge Deck with stairs up to the Upper and Bridge decks. The pilothouse is roomy and open to passengers unless otherwise stated, usually when maneuvering in tight spaces. The captain and the first mate are welcoming and often have company. Converse about whatever is on your mind, perhaps about navigation in still and rapidly flowing waters.

Most impressive are the large wooden wheel and handsome twin brass telegraphs along with all the modern equipment needed to navigate the boat in open and constricted coastal and inland waters.

The SS Legacy’s classic steamboat style and period interiors provide the perfect vehicle for appreciating the historical nature of the trip as well as the spectacular scenery from vantage points all over the vessel.

C’mon in! The Legacy’s bridge. * Photo: Ted

The Best Part?

We’re giving a free cruise for two aboard the SS Legacy — 7 nights on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Click here to enter and sign up today; the contest ends June 30, 2019.

Columbia & Snake Rivers itinerary

The Columbia & Snake Rivers itinerary.

 

Read more about cruising on the Columbia & Snake Rivers in contributor John Roberts’ article!

 

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

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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.