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QuirkyCruise Review of Ponant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

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

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

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

Passenger Profile

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

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

Passenger Decks

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

Price

$$  Moderate to Expensive

Included Features

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

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

Itineraries

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

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

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

When to Go?

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

Cabins

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public Rooms

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

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

Dining

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

Desserts to die for. * Photo: Ponant

Desserts to die for. * Photo: Ponant

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

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

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

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

Activities & Entertainment

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

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

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

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

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

Along the Same Lines

SeaDream is close.

Contact

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

— HMS

 

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Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

By Tony Anderton.

Thinking about a Yangtze River Cruise, but not sure what to expect? Here are some helpful tips and photos to set the mood.

To read about Tony Anderton’s recent Yangtze River cruise with Victoria Cruises aboard the 216-passenger Selina, click here.

The Selina docked just above the Three Gorges. * Photo: Anthony Anderton

When should I go?

Weather on the Yangtze is highly seasonal — foggy in winter and blisteringly hot in the summer months. Late spring or the early fall are the most popular times for international visitors.

Where should I board the cruise?

The cruises can be joined either in Chongqing or downriver above Yichang. My recommendation is Chongqing — and the chance to see the dramatic night skyline lit up by an ocean of neon. A dramatic way to start the voyage

Is there Wi-Fi on board?

We all want solitude, but not too much. I found the on board Wi-Fi very reliable, but you will have to pay a modest supplement for access.

What is the food Like?

The range and quality of meals on board  was very good and seemed to more than satisfy tastes of all the travellers I met, with international, Chinese, and vegetarian options. But for any special dietary needs I recommend to consult with the cruise company in advance of your trip.

Are there any extra activities on board?

If the excursions, passing scenery and the chance to chill out and read are not enough to fill up your time, additional on-board activities include Tai Chi, Mah-jong, dumpling making and talks about traditional Chinese medicine. In the evenings the crew don costumes and put on an array of entertaining live performances — with the chance for some audience participation. If all else fails there is a TV in each cabin and a nightly movie.

Do I need to speak Chinese?

No, but it would definitely enhance your experience! The key members of the crew speak excellent English (and other languages). Cruise Director Marion and River Guide Tom Pang were excellent hosts. On shore all excursions are led by an experienced English-speaking local guide.

What should I know about the Yangtze before I go? What should I read?

There are some wonderful accounts of life and travel on the Yangtze.

➢My pick is “The Yangtze Valley and Beyond” an exhilarating travel narrative by the intrepid Isabella Bird — based on her 1899 journey on the Yangtze.

➢Honourable mentions go to Peter Hessler for “River Town” and Simon Winchester for “The River at the Centre of the World.”

➢Photographer Nadav Kander’s “Yangtze – The Long River”  is a stunning visual interpretation of contemporary life along the river.

What will the scenery and on board life be like?

Have a look ….

 

Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

The Selina’s top deck. * Photo: Anthony Anderton

 

Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

Passengers getting a good spot on Selina’s deck for the transit of the Three Gorges. * Photo: Anthony Anderton

 

Yangtze River Cruise Adventure

A Selina cabin. * Photo: Tony Anderton

 

Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

A view from the author’s cabin. * Photo: Anthony Anderton

 

Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

The Selina’s bridge. * Photo: Anthony Anderton

 

The Selina’s Captain Yang on the bridge. * Photo: Anthony Anderton

 

Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

Onboard cooking demo. * Photo: Anthony Anderton

 

Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

On board entertainment aboard the Selina. * Photo: Anthony Anderton

 

Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

The Selina’s top deck. * Photo: Anthony Anderton

 

Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

The Chongqing Skyline. * Photo: Anthony Anderton

 

Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

Departing from the glitzy city of Chongqing on the first evening. * Photo: Anthony Anderton

 

Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

A shore excursion boat on the Yantgze. * Photo: Anthony Anderton

 

Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

A souvenir hawker in Baidicheng, an ancient temple complex on the northern shore of the Yangtze. * Photo: Anthony Anderton

 

Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

New cities springing up along the Yangtze. * Photo: Anthony Anderton

 

Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

On the river on route to the Three Gorges. * Photo: Anthony Anderton

 

Entering the Three Gorges

Ports along the way; here The Ghost City. * Photo: Tony Anderton

 

Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

Ports along the way …. The Red Pagoda. * Photo: Tony Anderton

 

Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

Panoramic views of the Yangtze from the Red Pagoda. * Photo: Anthony Anderton

 

Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

The creations of the very talented Mr. Huang at the Red Pagoda. * Photo: Anthony Anderton

 

Yangtze River Cruise Adventure

The Qutang Gorge. * Photo: Tony Anderton

 

Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

Approaching the ship lift, as seen from the viewing deck of the Selina. * Photo: Anthony Anderton

 

Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

A moody sunset on the Yangtze River. * Photo: Anthony Anderton

 

QuirkyCruise Review

 

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Yangtze River Cruise Adventure

Yangtze River Cruise Adventure

By Anthony Anderton.

It is one of the great river journeys of the world. For centuries travellers have marvelled at the scenic grandeur of the Yangtze gorges. Still, in over 30 years of living, working and travelling across China, and seeing pretty much every highlight on the tourist bucket list, somehow a journey on the Yangtze — China’s Mother River — had eluded me. Until this year, when on a steamy summer evening I stepped aboard the 216-passenger MV Selina to embark on my week-long Yangtze adventure, cruising downriver to the mighty Three Gorges Dam, and then back upriver to my starting point — the mega city of Chongqing.

Yangtze River Cruise Adventure

The Qutang Gorge. * Photo: Tony Anderton

Day 1:  Chongqing — The Journey Begins

Booming Chongqing is one of the biggest and most dynamic cities in China. It straddles the junction of two rivers — the Jialing and the mighty Yangtze. The city proper boasts a population of ten million plus (and growing) and it pulsates with energy 24 x 7. Most travellers embarking on a river cruise seem to skip Chongqing, but I recommend staying a day or two to soak up the pulsating energy of this riverside giant and sample its legendary fiery hotpot cuisine.

I boarded the MV Selina at the historic Chaotianmen dock — “towards the gate of heaven.” For centuries it has marked the start — or end — of every traveller’s Yangtze journey. But in mid 2018 the “gate of heaven” is a confusing maze of new construction; members of tour groups will be escorted though, but independent travellers might need some assistance to negotiate the chaos.

Yangtze River Cruise Adventure

The MV Selina. * Photo: Tony Anderton

As my passport and ticket were being checked for boarding, a small brass band struck up an exuberant welcome aboard. Comprised of musicians from the Selina’s crew it would be one of several entertaining performances staged for passengers by the very talented crew.

Yangtze River Cruise Adventure

The brass bugle welcome as we boarded in Chongqing. * Photo: Tony Anderton

After a quick inspection of my snug, blissfully air-conditioned cabin (in summer Chongqing is nicknamed “The Furnace of China”), taking in the view from the private cabin balcony, and a familiarisation walk around the ship, I joined the other passengers for the welcome buffet dinner.

Yangtze River Cruise Adventure

A Selina cabin. * Photo: Tony Anderton

After dinner I made my way topside for the dramatic night-time departure from Chongqing. This is when you need your camera or smart phone primed and ready for action. The night-time departure, taking in the futuristic neon-lit skyline of Chongqing, is something not to be missed. With the ship’s horn booming the Selina slipped into the surging current of the Yangtze — and the start of my adventure on what was once called “the river of 100 perils.”

Yangtze River Cruise Adventure

The night departure from Chongqing. * Photo: Tony Anderton

Day 2: The Downstream Journey

River Sunrise &  Fengdu, the City of Ghosts

The Yangtze flows with great force at Chongqing and can flood severely during the summer — but by the time the ship reaches Fengdu Ghost City the surging current has totally abated and the Yangtze is like a vast lake.

The first activity of the day was a shore excursion to visit the historic temple complex of Fengdu, or the City of Ghosts, an important landmark for followers of the Taoist (Daoist) faith. I decided to start the day morning much earlier, with a sunrise photo shoot from the top deck and the chance to take in the stirrings of life on the water. A variety of water craft were already nosing around. A small, local ferry approached from the opposite bank, bringing passengers from new town of Fengdu, one of the urban centres that have sprung up since the dam waters flooded the Yangtze. Dozens of small towns and villages were inundated when water levels rose by up to 70 meters and more than a million people had to be relocated. The old town of Fengdu lies deep beneath the coffee-coloured water.

After breakfast the excursion to the City of Ghosts assembled and was ready to go ashore at 8am sharp — life on a ship runs to a precise and exacting timetable.

(Note: The Fengdu excursion is an optional extra and may not be offered if numbers are too small or if the river conditions are unsuitable.)

Our small group was accompanied ashore by an experienced English-speaking local guide, a feature of all the side trips and excursions during the cruise. As you enter the main ticket hall be ready with your camera. We were greeted by a colourful, energetic troupe of dancers, acrobats and fire breathers. At the foot of the hill you can opt to climb the tree-shaded stairways, or take the chairlift; the latter offering some fine views of the countryside and river beyond. At the top of the hill a small temple complex is believed to be the home of the King of Hell, and contains the gateway to the underworld.

Yangtze River Cruise Adventure

The Ghost City of Fengdu. * Photo: Tony Anderton

After the excursion do not miss the morning talk (delivered in English and Chinese) by the ship’s river guide. I found this both entertaining and informative. Included was fascinating historic film footage, featuring grainy black and white clips of the gangs of trackers who once laboriously hauled ships upriver through the fearsome rapids, shoals and deadly whirlpools of the Yangtze.

In the afternoon the Selina docks at Shibaozhai and I opted to get ashore and visit the famous Red Pagoda, a 300-year-old structure made entirely from wood. On the walk to the pagoda there are dozens of enthusiastic vendors selling all manner of souvenirs. Look carefully and haggle hard (with a smile) and you might well snare a bargain to take home. I discovered the talented Mr. Yang who made colourful, intricate and vibrant action figures, dragons and creations of all kinds out of soft wire.

The climb up the interior of the wooden pagoda is very steep and strictly one way. Once you start the climb there is no way to turn back. But the views from the Pagoda and hilltop were more than compensation for the exertions involved.

Yangtze River Cruise A

Inside the City of Ghosts. * Photo: Tony Anderton

Day 3: The Downstream Journey

Entering the Three Gorges

The City of the White Emperor, or Baidicheng, is celebrated in Chinese literature, folk tales, and historic epics. Like a castle of the Rhine the town occupies a strategic vantage point with some fine views of the Qutang gorge. But this beautiful spot was once a place of harsh exile for those who fell from imperial favour.

Rising water levels have forced the residents to rebuild the old city gate higher up the bank. Although we went ashore in the morning I found the combination of summer heat, steep stairs and the self inflicted burden of heavy camera equipment quite challenging. Make sure you take on plenty of water and buy one of the inexpensive but effective handheld fans from a vendor.

Around midday the Selina approaches the first of the gorges — the Qutang Gorge. As we drew close a ripple of excitement swept through the passengers. It is a good idea to get out on the viewing deck early as the best vantage points are snapped up in a flash.

Yangtze River Cruise A

The reason for a Yangtze River cruise: The Three Gorges. * Photo: Tony Anderton

Although the shortest of the gorges, the narrowness of Qutang Gorge and the imposing height of the encroaching cliffs make it — arguably — the most impressive and picturesque of the Three Gorges.

Soon after leaving the Qutang Gorge we neared the entrance to the second defile — the equally dramatic Wu Gorge. Entering the mouth of the gorge the Selina passed the bustling new town of Wanshan and passed under one of the many impressive new bridges that now span the Yangtze. This bridge also marks the border between Sichuan and Hubei Provinces.

The rest of the day can be spent totally immersed in the grandeur of the mountain and river scenery. The forward and rear observation decks provide excellent vantage points for photography, but many passengers choose to return to their cabins, settling in to watch from their own cabin balconies.

Before entering the final and longest of the gorges — the Xiling — I joined another side excursion, which was a delightful small boat ride up the Goddess Stream, one of the many smaller waterways which join the Yangtze The scenery on this short cruise was stunning, with sheer mountain cliffs flanking the narrow stream.

Day 4: The Downstream Journey — The Final Day

The Three Gorges Dam and Ship Lift

During the night the Selina had exited the Xiling gorge and had berthed upstream from the massive Three Gorges Dam, the terminus point for the downstream cruise. After breakfast I joined a small group of departing passengers for the short boat ride to the base of the dam. Then we sailed into the gaping mouth of an extraordinary ship lift — the only one of its kind in the world. After a dramatic and eye popping descent, which takes almost one hour, our boat emerged into the sunshine and onto the river — 100 meters lower than where we entered the lift.

Yangtze River Cruise Adventure

The approach to the entrance of the ship lift. * Photo: Tony Anderton

Days 5, 6 & 7: The Upstream Journey & Return to Chongqing 
Yangtze River Cruise Adventure

Yangtze River cruises sail round-trip from Chongqing or one way between Chongqing and Yichang.

Many travellers opt to start their cruise in Yichang and then journey back upriver to Chongqing. The upstream journey takes a little longer and the ship reaches Chongqing in the early morning hours of the fourth day. The upstream voyage follows essentially the same itinerary as downstream, in reverse order. It includes a visit to the Three Gorges dam site, the ride in the ship lift, the spectacular passage through the Three Gorges and onshore excursions to the City of the White Emperor and the Red Pagoda. On this trip I was the only downstream passenger remaining on board for the return. As a photographer I enjoyed seeing everything a second time around, and a day of light rain and misty clouds on the mountains only heightened the dramatic appeal of the Wu Gorge.

Yangtze River Cruise Adventure

A bit of rain on the upstream voyage, here the Wu Gorge. * Photo: Tony Anderton

The upriver itinerary offers a couple of interesting variations on the downstream itinerary.

The first of these is billed as a visit to a traditional Tujia ethnic minority village. The bus ride is interesting, offering a chance to see the bustling new city that has sprung up around the dam area and also for some excellent riverside views of riverside scenery below the dam. Arriving at our destination it was apparent the village was built solely as a tourist attraction — in other words a theme park — so do not expect to see an authentic, traditional Tujia community. You will have plenty of other tour groups for company as well. Watch out for a glimpse of the old Yangtze —replica junks and a recreation of how trackers once hauled ships upriver. Although very touristy, the mountain scenery is pretty, and we caught sight of a group of a group of wild monkeys that still roam the steeply wooded hillsides.

The second variation offered on the upstream journey is an excursion on a smaller boat up the Shennong Stream. Again the river and mountain scenery is stunning, and it is possible to glimpse small villages and local fishing boats working the river. At various points the guide will point out the mysterious hanging coffins that are perched high up in the rocks. How they got there, who put them there — and why – largely remains a mystery.

  

Three Gorges excursion along the Goddess Stream. * Photo: Tony Anderton

Day 8: The Final Day of the Upstream Journey

Return to Chongqing

In the early hours of the morning the Selina tied up in Chongqing, marking the end of my Yangtze River adventure. After breakfast it was time to check out, say goodbye and step back on to dry land.

The Chongqing skyline. * Photo: Tony Anderton

 

Life on Board: Personal Highlights

The crew of the Selina were unfailingly friendly, efficient and helpful. Many spoke very good English and the excellent Cruise Director Marion and River Guide Tom were always on hand and available. My fellow travellers on the cruise were all part of larger tour groups; I did not encounter any other independent travellers. I had all my meals in the Yangtze Club dining room, which offered excellent buffet breakfast and lunch fare and evening selections from an a la carte menu. Soft drink, wine and beer were complimentary with the evening meals. The shore excursions were lively and interesting, but the tight timetable leaves little time for personal exploration.

Being able to speak Chinese offered me an extra avenue to engage with the many Chinese travellers on board and led to the most memorable personal encounter of my trip. I was approached to pose in a selfie with a group of animated and very excited Chinese travellers. When they discovered I could speak Chinese this became an open invitation for me, and in turn each one of the foreign guests on deck, to be introduced and invited to pose for a selfie with the whole tour group — all 37 of them. One of the Chinese travellers confided it was the first time she and her friend had ever met Westerners. She told me her companions were from a small city in the distant northeast Province of Liaoning. They had gone to primary school and high school together, and worked together in a large iron and steel complex. Now retired, and in their 60s and 70s, they remain close friends and regularly travel together around China.

During the cruise I was allowed on the bridge to meet the imposing Captain Yang, and watch as he and his crew expertly docked the Selina. Captain Yang has been sailing the Yangtze for almost 20 years and told me the changes he has seen on the river during that time are simply incredible.

Yangtze River Cruise Adventure

The author making new friends at the 3 Gorges Dam; a tour group from Xinjiang province in traditional attire.

➢➢➢ Click here for Tony’s “Yangtze River Cruise Tips” and to see more of his photos.

 

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Avalon Impression

Avalon Waterways

Avalon entered the fast-growing river cruise market in 2004 and is owned by the Swiss-based Globus family of brands that also includes Cosmos. The line aims for the upper end of the river cruise market and is adding new ships with suite features that are unique to the line. Avalon operates a large number of riverboats on a vast range of European itineraries (nearly three dozen) as well as relatively new programs in the Galapagos and along the Peruvian Amazon, the Mekong, the Irrawaddy (not 2019),  Ganges (began 2019) and the Nile (2020).

Avalon Waterways

Avalon Visionary on the Danube. * Photo: Avalon Waterways

European Rivers
Ships, Years Delivered & Passengers

AVALON IMAGERY II (built 2016 & 128 passengers); AVALON PASSION (b. 2016 & 166p); AVALON TAPESTRY II & AVALON TRANQUILITY II (b. 2015 & 128 p); AVALON IMPRESSION (b. 2014 & 166p); AVALON POETRY II (b. 2014 & 128 p); AVALON ARTISTRY II (b. 2013 & 128 p); AVALON VISTA (b. 2012 & 166p); AVALON VISIONARY (b. 2012 & 128 p); AVALON LUMINARY & AVALON FELICITY (b. 2010 & 138 p); AVALON PANORAMA (b. 2011 & 166p); AVALON AFFINITY (b. 2009 & 138p); AVALON CREATIVITY( b. 2009 & 128p) and AVALON SCENERY (b. 2008 & 216 p). An addition to the fleet in 2019 will be AVALON ENVISION (b. 2019 & 166 passengers).

Avalon Waterways

Avalon Artistry II on the Rhine. * Photo: Avalon

Passenger Profile

Most, age 50 and above, hail from the U.S., Canada, Britain and Australia with some younger passengers on the shorter itineraries.

Passenger Decks

All riverboats have four decks, and an elevator connects the two main cabin and public room decks.

Price

$$  Expensive

Included Features

Most shore excursions, WiFi (including in cabins), minibar with bottled water, regional wines and beers with dinner, sparkling wine at breakfast, coffees, teas and hot chocolate throughout the day, cabin TV with English-speaking channels and 100 movie options.

Itineraries

The huge variety offers cruise tours lasting from 5 to 22 nights, generally adding a land portion at one or both ends of the river cruise. Land travel may be by high-speed train such as TGV, Thalys, and Eurostar or coach.

Springtime tulip bulb season cruises along the intricate waterways of Belgium and Holland; French rivers include the Seine, Rhone and Soane; the Rhine with or without the Moselle; combine the Rhine and Rhone between Amsterdam and Cote D’Azur; the Upper and/or Lower Danube, the latter including, on some cruises, sailing all the way to the Danube Delta just in from the Black Sea.

Longer itineraries may cover, for instance, the Upper Rhine and then via the Main, Main-Danube Canal and the Danube all the way to Vienna; with the granddaddy of all from the North Sea to the Black Sea (22 nights).

Avalon Waterways

The Avalon Expression on the Danube. * Photo: Avalon

Why Go?

River cruising conveniently takes you in one conveyance to a vast array of cultural, historic and scenic sites with so many of Europe’s major capitals (Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade) and most picturesque towns growing up along the banks.

When to Go?

Most cruises operate from April through October, while some begin in March and end in November. Christmas markets cruises have increasing appeal.

Cabins

All riverboats, except the five built between 2008 and 2010, are designated Avalon Suite Ships and come with larger cabins and substantially different configuration – for example the 200 sq. ft. Panorama Suites and 300 sq. ft. Royal Suites in which the beds face a large 11-foot glass expanse that slides open to the outside railing, rather than arranging the beds, as most do, parallel to the windows. The sensation gives your entire cabin a feeling of a cozy, protected balcony with a clear view to the outside. The remaining five boats offer four 258 sq. ft. Royal Suites with a similar layout but where the TV interrupts the continuous glass window, and 172 sq. ft. Avalon Deluxe Suites. All Indigo Deck (lowest) deck cabins have small rectangular windows set high in the wall as they are located just above the waterline.

A 200 square-foot Panorama Suite. * Avalon Waterways

Public Rooms

All riverboats share a forward Observation Lounge, forward Panorama Lounge and bar, aft facing Club Lounge, and main dining room. The Sky Deck is laid out stem to stern with open and covered deck space for lounge chairs, whirlpool, Sky Bistro for light meals and navigation bridge.

Dining

The pattern for meals is pretty much the same throughout the fleet of European riverboats, though the boats built in the last few years have more sophisticated alternative meal set ups. The food is geared for those who would like to branch out and taste regional offerings or stick with what one likes to eat at home.

Breakfast has an open window of times to cater to early risers or those who want to sleep in. Breakfast and lunch are buffet with the latter available at the top deck Sky Bistro (a grill), inside the Panorama Lounge (light fare) or in the big-windowed main dining room.

Dinner is served here as well, while those wanting something lighter than a served three-course, can frequent the Panorama Lounge’s more informal setting.

An Avalon meal on a southeast Asia river cruise. * Photo: Avalon Waterways

Activities & Entertainment

Excursions ashore may be on foot when the dock is convenient to the destination or otherwise via bus. On board entertainment will showcase local musicians and singers after dinner and special interest talks while underway. All vessels have a top deck whirlpool and small fitness centers on the lowest decks. Newish are Active Discovery cruises on the Danube that offer hiking, biking and canoeing and opportunities to explore an ice cave or salt mine and take archery lessons.

Avalon Waterways

Entertainment in the Panorama Lounge of the Avalon Artistry II. * Photo: Avalon

Special Notes

While this high-quality fleet is of basically a similar design, and the itinerary likely the deciding factor, having a bed configuration that allows you to wake up and linger between the sheets while watching the river scene pass above your toes just may dictate an Avalon Suite Ship.

Along the Same Lines

Many other European river cruise lines.

 

Avalon’s cruise tour programs to South America, Asia and Eqypt are briefly outlined below.

GALAPAGOS & AMAZON

Avalon Waterways charters the TREASURE OF GALAPAGOS, a catamaran with accommodations for 18 (b. 2009 and refurbished 2017) for a 4-night Galapagos cruise that adds up to a 8-day cruise-tour with the inclusion of sights in and around Quito, Ecuador. It also does a 12-day cruise tour that adds a 3-night Amazon River lodge stay; a 15-day cruise tour that combines the 4-night Galapagos cruise with a land tour to Cusco and Machu Picchu (Peru) and Quito (Ecuador); and a 20-day cruise tour with the addition of the Amazon River lodge including day cruises on the river.

Treasure of Galapagos, Avalonn Waterways

Avalon Waterways, Treasure of Galapagos

Another option includes a 3-night Amazon River cruise aboard the 44-passenger DELFIN III (formerly AMAZON DISCOVERY; b.2015), which Avalon charters. The ship’s cabins are all outside and consists of staterooms measuring 237 sq. ft. , corner staterooms 253 sq. ft. and the owner’s at 537 sq. ft. Departures are January to July and September to November.

There are also 3-night cruises of the Peruvian Amazon from Iquitos, to look for wildlife in the river and the surrounding rain forest landscapes plus village visits both combined with 11- and 13-day land tours that include Lima, the capital of Peru, Cusco and Machu Picchu and the longest, the Nazca Lines.

Avalon Waterways

The Delfin III, seen here when still called Amazon Discovery. * Photo: Steve Cukrov for Globlus/Avalon.

A selection of 18- and 20-day cruise tours combine the Amazon River cruise with the land destinations in Peru and Ecuador plus a Galapagos cruise. The river boat’s 237- and 253-sq. ft. cabins with huge floor-to-ceiling picture windows are spread over two of the three decks. Beds may be configured as twins or king-size. In addition, there is one single and a 597-sq. ft. suite that faces forward. Public spaces are an indoor and covered outdoor lounge, aft dining room with large view windows, a spa, small gym and plunge pool. A 24-hour medic is aboard. Departures are January-June and September to November.

Avalon Waterways

The silt-laden waters of the Upper Amazon. * Photo: Ted Scull

EGYPT
The Nile

(Note: Nile cruises begin in 2020).

Avalon Waterways

A camel watches over its territory, the site of the pyramids at Giza. * Photo: Ted Scull

10-day Egyptian cruise tours, operating year-round, include hotel stays in Cairo for the museum and the Pyramids, Sphinx, Memphis and more that bracket a 4-night Nile cruise to Luxor, Karnak, Aswan, Edfu and Kom Ombo. The MS FARAH, built in 2011, provides the cruise. 58 cabins and two suites provide large picture windows, Internet and bathrooms have bathtubs.

INDIA

Ganges River

Avalon Cruise began Ganges River cruises in 2019, operating the 56-passenger GANGES VOYAGER in the cooler months of January and February and September to November. The shortest 13-day cruise-tour begins in New Delhi or Kolkata and includes a 6-night cruise plus hotel stays in Agra for the Taj Mahal and Jaipur. 16-day cruise tours add Kathmandu, the Nepalese capital, and 18-days add Mumbai and Kochi (Cochin) but not Kathmandu. The riverboat decorated in colonial-era style has cabins measuring 260, 280, 360, and 400 square feet, offer Indian and western menus and includes beer, wine and soft drinks with meals.

GANGES VOYAGER, Avalonn Cruises

GANGES VOYAGER, Heritage Suite Avalon Cruises

 

SOUTHEAST ASIA & CHINA
Mekong River

The mighty Mekong rises in China and passes through three Southeast Asian countries. * Photo: Ted Scull

Avalon Waterways operates the 2015-built, 36-passenger AVALON SIEM REAP and 2018-built sistership AVALON SAIGON cruising on 7-night voyages between Ho Chi Minh City’s waterfront, Vietnam and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The riverboats’ 245 sq. ft. cabins, located in two decks, all open to the outside with 14-foot sliding glass doors and windows. A forward-facing covered lounge give a 180-degree and connects to an interior air-conditioned panorama lounge with bar. The aft dining room seats all at once for buffet breakfasts and lunches and served dinners. The menus offer both Asian and western dishes.

The monumental archaeological site at Angkor Wat, Cambodia is often the first stop on a SoutheastAsia/ Mekong River itinerary.* Ted Scull

The monumental archaeological site at Angkor Wat, Cambodia is often the first stop on a SoutheastAsia/ Mekong River itinerary.* Ted Scull

The wide-ranging itineraries, in time and places visited, combine a 7-night cruise with a hotel stay and sightseeing at both ends that can add up to 13- to 21-day cruise tours to include — your choice of  extensions — Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and Halong Bay in Vietnam; Siem Reap and Phnom Penh in Cambodia, Luang Prabang in Laos; and Bangkok, Thailand. Departures are January to April and July to December.

Myanmar and the Irrawaddy River – N.B. THIS CRUISE IS NOT OPERATING IN 2020.

Avalon operates its own riverboat some 1,300 miles along the Upper Irrawaddy River between Yangon and Bhamo (northern limit if navigation) with a hotel stay in Yangon, Myanmar’s capital adding up to 14 days and an extension to Bangkok that creates a 17-day cruise tour.

The 36-passenger AVALON MYANMAR was completed in 2015 and takes up to 36 passengers. Sights visited along the river are pagodas, Buddhist monasteries, and riverside villages where the local activities produce candy made from palm trees, pottery, and food from adjacent farms. Note: These itineraries operated September-December in 2018, and none are scheduled for 2019.

The well-fitted out riverboat offers 245-sq.ft. Avalon Suites spread over two decks where the twin or king-size beds face a 14-foot-wide wall of glass that opens to a railing and the world outside, similar in layout to many of the line’s European riverboat fleet. A forward open-air covered lounge shares the Mandalay Deck with an adjacent enclosed lounge and an aft dining room. The Sky Deck’s lounge is covered and next to the spa treatment room and gym.

China and the Yangtze River: N.B. THESE CRUISES ARE IS NOT OPERATING IN 2020.

Avalon takes space for up 20 passengers on two Yangtze River vessels that combine a 3- or 4-night, 650-mile cruise between Yichang and Chongqing into 11- and up to 17-day cruise tours that include major sights in China such as Beijing, Xian, Shanghai, and Hong Kong on the longer cruise tours. The 7-deck riverboat CENTURY LEGEND, completed in 2013, handles up to 392 passengers (oops, higher than QC’s 300-pax max!).

To personalize the cruise portion, all meals, apart from the farewell banquet, take place in the Sun Deck VIP restaurant. Meals feature Chinese buffets and a la carte Western dishes. Wine, beer, and soda are complimentary at dinner. Cabins (266 sq. ft.) are all outside with balconies and separate bathtubs and 24-hour access to an Executive Lounge. The boat’s amenities include an indoor swimming pool (unusual feature), library, game room, cinema, and gym.

All land tours are private to Avalon and land extensions do not exceed 20. Itineraries extend from April to October, though some specific tours do not include the searingly hot months of mid-June to mid-August.

Contact

Avalon Waterways, P.O. Box 3219, Highland Park, MI 48203;  Avalonwaterways.com; 877-380-1540

TWS

 

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Zegrahm Expeditions

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

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

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

Zegraham Island Sky

Zegraham’s Island Sky * Photo: Ted Scull

Ships & Years Delivered

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

Passengers

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

Price

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

Included Features

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

Itineraries (ship reviews following below)

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

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

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

Ship: ISLAND SKY

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

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

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

Ship: CALEDONIAN SKY

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

ShipCALEDONIAN SKY

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

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

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

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

Ship: CORAL DISCOVERER 

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

Ship: CORAL EXPEDITIONS II

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

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

ShipCALEDONIAN SKY (5&5A)

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

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

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

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

ShipSEA ADVENTURER

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

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

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

Ship: SEA ADVENTURER

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

Ship: ISABELLA II or EVOLUTION

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

Ship: HEBRIDEAN SKY

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

Ship: HEBRIDEAN SKY

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

Ship: LE PONANT

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

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

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

Ship: SEA ADVENTURER

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

Ship: OCEAN ADVENTURER

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

Ship: ISLAND SKY

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

Ship: ISLAND SKY

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

Ship: VARIETY VOYAGER

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

Ship: ISLAND SKY

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

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

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

ShipSEA ADVENTURER (2017) and HEBRIDEAN SKY (2018)

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

Ship: HEBRIDEAN SKY

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

Ship: CALEDONIAN SKY

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

Ship: CORAL PRINCESS, now CORAL EXPEDITIONS I

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

Ship: LE PONANT or HEBRIDEAN SKY

The Ships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Go?

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

When to Go

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

Activities & Entertainment

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

Along the Same Lines

Lindblad Expeditions.

Contact

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

TWS

 

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Overseas Adventure Travel

Here is a major travel firm that covers the world with land tours and many integrated with a cruise component, some as short as 3 nights and on up to 2 weeks and a bit more. Overseas Adventure Travel (O.A.T.) has been in business for over 40 years and is part of Grand Circle Travel, so there may be overlapping bookings from both sources. The multitude of O.A.T. itineraries are highly creative, and often they are cruises on ships taking between 16 and 210 passengers, many with land extensions, and land tours only. Here we cover a sampling of travel choices where a small ship cruise forms an integral part.

Overseas Adventure Travel

South China Seas sunset. * Photo: Ted Scull

Ships

Because there are so many choices, numerous ships are involved, some owned by Grand Circle Cruise Line, others chartered by Grand Circle or Overseas Adventure Travel, and in two cases, ships that also carry passengers who are not booked through O.A.T. or Grand Circle. These are cruise tours that include the Chilean fjords and the Yangtze River portion of a much longer China/Tibet cruise tour.

Passenger Profile

Americans, mostly 50+ and active. Levels of activities are noted with every departure — most cruise tours rate 2 on a scale of 1 to 6, but overall they range from 1 to 4 in terms of level of how active they are. With every itinerary, there is additional specific information about the distance to be covered on foot, the presence of uneven surfaces, and if significant, the number of stairs to be climbed.

Price

$ to $$$ — A wide range of rates depends on the ship involved, with most moderately priced. Singles are well catered for, and often there is no single supplement, and if there is, it is a smallish extra charge. Passengers who wish to share can apply for a roommate. Every cruise tour has a chart that includes the availability of single accommodations.

Antarctica

250 foot tower of ice. Antarctica * Photo: Ted Scull

Itineraries

O.A.T. offers a huge range of small-ship cruises in the Mediterranean, Northern Europe, Middle East, Central and South America, Egypt, China and Antarctica. Groups of no more than 25 go ashore with separate guides. There are simply too many choices, especially in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe, to list them all here. Where the ship is not specifically named, the number passengers carried is mentioned.

Sample Itineraries

Mediterranean: 16 days from Athens (Piraeus) to six Aegean Islands and Ephesus (Turkey); 16 days beginning in Zagreb to sail along the Croatian and Dalmatian Coasts, calling in at Split, Hvar, Dubrovnik, Kotor, a stop in Albania and onto the Corfu, Delphi and Athens  aboard Grand Circle’s 50-passenger ATHENA. Other regional itineraries include Portugal, Spain, France, Italy (including Sicily), Malta, Adriatic ports, and Cyprus. Groups of 22-25 go ashore with a licensed guide.

New 15-day cruise tour returns to Turkey, including Istanbul and the Turkish coast, the via the Dardanelles to the Greek Islands and Athens. 7 days is spent aboard the company-owned 50-passenger ATHENA.

Northern Europe: 15 days England, Wales (3 ports), Ireland, Northern Island, and Scotland (5 ports including three isles) aboard the 98-passenger CORINTHIAN operated by Grand Circle Cruise Line. Additional cruises feature the Baltic ports, north of Norway (using Hurtigruten coastal ships that generally exceed our 300 passenger limit) and Finland, and Iceland.

Egypt: 16-day cruise-tour includes Cairo and the Pyramids, a 7-night Nile cruise from Karnak to Aswan aboard the privately-chartered 75-passenger NEFERTITI. N.B. The day visit to Abu Simbel facing Lake Nasser involves a very early start and a four-hour bus ride in each direction. Participants have the option to remain in Aswan for the day.

Overseas Adventure Travel

Nile riverboat NEFERTITI takes 75 passengers. * Photo: Overseas Adventure Travel

Israel, Egypt & Jordan: 18-day land & cruise tour begins and ends in Israel with 7 nights aboard the 89-passenger CLIO operated by Grand Circle Cruise Line. The cruise leaves Israel (Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Tiberias, Dead Sea) and sails for Egypt with calls that give access to Cairo and the pyramids, and after a Suez Canal transit, the Nile Valley (Karnak, Luxor) and Jordan, including Petra. Then return to Israel.

Panama: 12-day cruise tour of Panama, the country and the canal, including kayaking on Gatun Lake. Cruise transits the canal, taking 3 nights with stops along the way to view the canal operations, wildlife and local people, plus a land tour to visit indigenous people and Panama City. The privately-chartered catamaran 24-passenger M/S DISCOVERY is operated by Grand Circle Cruise Line.

South America: Itineraries with a cruise element include the Galapagos Islands, a 3- or 4-night cruise aboard an exclusively chartered 16-passenger yacht, plus Machu Picchu and Cusco; a 6-night Amazon and tributaries cruise aboard an exclusively chartered 24-passenger riverboat; and Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego and the Chilean fjords and glaciers aboard either the 100-passenger  STELLA AUSTRALIS or VENTUS AUSTRALIS shared with other passengers, while ashore with a guide it is no more than 25 O.A.T. passengers.

Overseas Adventure Tours

100-passenger VENTUS AUSTRALS. * Photo: Australis

Antarctica: 15-day cruise tour from Buenos Aires includes a 9-night expedition cruise aboard the company-owned 98-passenger CORINTHIAN sailing from Ushuaia.  Groups of no more than 22 passengers go ashore at landings along the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Shetland Islands.

China and Tibet: A 22-day land tour uses air, coach, train and a 3-night downstream Yangtze River cruise. Riverboat (various used) holds from 208-378 passengers, and O.A.T. group never exceeds 25 when going ashore. Itinerary includes Beijing, Xian and the terra cotta warriors, Chengdu (panda sanctuary), Wuhan, 3 nights in Lhasa, Tibet and finishes up in Hong Kong.

Note: New are women only departures, and those that include a small ship cruise component are to Argentina’s Patagonia region and a Chilean cruise aboard an Cuceros Australis ship, and another including the Galapagos and the Peruvian Amazon. .

Included Features

It varies as so many different types of trips are involved, but it is safe to say most meals (all on ships), excursions and most tips are included in fares.

Why Go?

Overseas Adventure Travel and Grand Circle Line are long-time professionals in the travel business, and if you (as an American) prefer traveling with your own country folk, then you have found your operator. The firms offer worldwide itineraries so someone who wants a one-stop shop, here it is.

When to Go?

All itineraries include the best time of the year to go, and also fringe season when the weather may be hot, rainy or cold. Check the climate averages for wherever and whenever you are thinking of going.

Cabins, Public Rooms, Dining, Activities & Entertainment

With so many different ships used, but most under control of O.A.T. or Grand Circle Travel and Grand Circle Cruise Line, the ships will be of a high, if not necessarily a luxurious standard.

Special Notes

The Overseas Adventure Travel website has an abundance of resources to help visualize and understand the part of the world in which you are interested. If you are anxious to know your ship’s reputation, just Google the ship’s name and add “reviews.”

Overseas Adventure Travel

Mekong River fish market, Vietnam. * Photo: Ted Scull

Along the Same Lines

Zegrahm Expeditions with its worldwide itineraries though with decidedly fewer departures.

Contact

Overseas Adventure Travel, 347 Congress Street, Boston, MA 02210; 800-955-1925 for new bookings & information; 800-221-0814 for existing bookings.

 

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Kenrokuen Garden, Kanzawa, Japan

By Ted Scull.

Without a doubt, Japan is one of the world’s most complex countries to fathom and perhaps, without knowing the language, equally hard to travel through independently. Many years ago I ventured there, liked what I saw in Tokyo and Kyoto, but had to leave after a week because of the high cost of almost everything. I pined to return, and for the last half-dozen years, I eyed an annual spring cruise that made a partial circumnavigation of the country’s four main islands. The ship was petite and the ports both familiar sounding — Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Hakodate — and utterly unknown, at least to me — Hagi, Matsue, Kanazawa, Miyajima, Uwajima, Okayama and Sado Island.

Kenrokuen Garden, Kanzawa, Japan

Kenrokuen Garden, Kanazawa, Japan

Of all the stops, these three were my favorites: Nagasaki, Matsue and Kanazawa.

While Hiroshima is a handsome, planned city built on a street grid, Nagasaki ranges around a lovely harbor hemmed in by tree-lined slopes. And as with Hiroshima, Nagasaki’s Atomic Bomb Museum has similar exhibits, further deepening the effect that these two horrific events had on all of us. Because of poor visibility, the second bomb landed north of the heart of the city and steep hills prevented more widespread damage. One-third of the population was killed and an equal number were injured by the blast, heat rays and radiation.

The city’s second major attraction is Glover Garden, a collection of 19th-century western-style buildings. Set in a hillside park, it reveals the influence Nagasaki’s foreign community had in establishing beer brewing, coal mining, railroads, and shipbuilding (Mitsubishi). The current shipyards were in full view in the harbor below.

Glover Garden Nagasaki, Foreign Settlement

Glover Garden in Nagasaki, Foreign Settlement

We had time to explore on our own and clutching 100 yen coins, I rode the city’s trams, walked the waterfront park and visited a covered shopping arcade. With the help of picture menus, several of us had a tasty and attractive lacquer tray lunch of noodle soup with shrimp, octopus, rice and dumplings, plus sweet little extras for only $7.

Up the coast at Matsue, we visited the private Adachi Art Museum and Gardens, instantly becoming my favorite stop. Inside, the art collection included beautiful scroll paintings and screens depicting birds, flowers, and trees in different seasons. The museum’s rectangular windows framed sections of the enchanting garden outside planted with moss, bonsai pine trees, sculpted bushes, flowers and ferns all set amidst swaths of white pebbles, rocks, tiny shrines, streams, waterfalls, arched bridges and stone walkways. The distant hills, referred to as borrowed scenery, formed a backdrop of tall pines, maples and other deciduous trees that are awash with color in the autumn. Sitting down to take it all in, it was hard to leave.

Adachi Art Museum & Garden, Matsue

Adachi Art Museum & Gardens, Matsue

The winding drive back to the ship skirted lakes, flooded rice paddies and seed beds. On all our drives, I saw no aggressive driving, no honking of horns or any impatience behind the wheel. Calmness and polite behavior seemed to permeate our host country, though I know from experience, such is not the case during the big city commuter rush hours. The trains tend to be more packed than the New York City subway, and just to get on, one has to sally forth! But most of our Japanese journey was not in the big cities.

At Kanazawa, we strolled through a beautiful garden that overlooked the city, visited the central market where traveling Japanese have seafood sent home and enjoyed a wonderful Japanese buffet overlooking the Shinto gate entrance to a strikingly modern railway station. In the afternoon, we experienced a traditional Japanese tea ceremony with all the elaborate steps and responses, a most serene and memorable occasion.

Kenrokuen Gardens, Kanazawa, Japan

Kenrokuen Gardens, Kanazawa, Japan

The serenity and beauty of Japan outside the major cities, and the civility shown to visitors made a huge impression on me.

While the ship I took has been sold to another line, the following small ship lines make similar cruises. Spring is a splendid time to go.

Small ship lines that offer cruises to Japan include Abercrombie & Kent, Silver ExpeditionsTauck and Zegrahm Expeditions.

Stay tuned for more of Ted’s Best Small Ship Cruise Experiences, in no particular order, in the weeks and months to come!

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Star Legend heads back to Asia, including Thailand's Ko Yao Noi. * Photo: Windstar Cruises

Star Legend heads back to Asia, including Thailand’s Ko Yao Noi. * Photo: Windstar Cruises

Windstar is Asia bound again after a three-year hiatus, positioning the 212-passenger STAR LEGEND there beginning in November 2017 through April 2018. Offering a varied repertoire of mostly 14-night itineraries, including some brand new routes for the line, the cruises start and end in Asia’s most culturally rich cities, from Hong Kong to Tokyo, Singapore and Bangkok, making it convenient to spend a few days exploring before and after the cruise. Here are some highlights of Windstar’s upcoming Asia plans:

14 nights, Best of the Philippines & Borneo. This brand-new route for Windstar sails between Singapore and Hong Kong via Malaysia and Borneo, with a focus on the beautiful islands of the Philippines, including Palawan, Boracay and Hundred Islands National Park.

10 nights, Grand Japan. Another new itinerary sails between Tokyo and Osaka, with highlights including Busan, South Korea, famous for its beaches and hot springs; Hiroshima to visit the Memorial Peace Arch (a UNESCO historical site); and the sacred shrines of Shingu with their traditional torii gates.

14 nights, Marvels of China & the Japanese Islands. This one cruises from Hong Kong to Beijing via Taiwan, Japan, and Mainland China, berthing in Hong Kong’s  gorgeous Victoria Harbour, which is only accessible to smaller ships. Calls include cosmopolitan Taipei, Taiwan; tropical Japanese islands; and Shanghai via the scenic  Huangpu River, which is only navigable by small ships.

14 nights, Splendors of Japan & South Korea. Cruise between Beijing, China and Tokyo, Japan, and visit South Korea’s Jeju City to see the world’s largest lava tunnels, and Japan’s scenic Shikoku Island, known for its temples. This cruise is offered at the end of the Asia season in spring, the ideal time to see the country’s legendary cherry blossoms in full bloom.

Bangkok's gilded Royal Palace. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Bangkok’s gilded Royal Palace. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

14 nights, Icons of Southeast Asia. Sail between Hong Kong and Bangkok and visit ports in Thailand, Vietnam and China. Highlights include Vietnam’s Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; stops in historic Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City; and a call on exotic Bangkok, docking right in town as only small ships can do.

18 nights, The Wonders of Arabia. This Athens to Dubai repositioning cruise in the fall of 2017 on route to Asia includes a daylight transit of the Suez Canal; time in historic Petra, Jordan; and an opportunity to see the stunning pyramids in Luxor, Egypt. 

16 nights, Pearls of the Indian Ocean. Continuing on to Asia, journey from Dubai to Singapore via India (Mumbai, Mangalore, Cochin), Sri Lanka, Thailand and Malaysia, visiting both pristine natural sites and teeming metropolises.

 

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Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 11.00.16 pmRiver cruise operator Pandaw is building a new ship, the Yunnan Pandaw, to put on the Upper Mekong starting in Sept 2016. Sister to the Laos Pandaw that debuted in late 2015 doing similar itineraries that have been very popular, the Yunnan will offer 14-night cruises on the Upper Mekong between Vientiane (Laos) and Jinghong (China). The new build will have 12 main deck cabins and two upper deck cabins, all with private bathrooms, air conditioning, safe and extras including kimonos and slippers. The Yunnan will be the line’s 16th ship and like all of the others, will be made of traditional teak wood and brass with an ultra-shallow draft and powerful engines to navigate the mighty Upper Mekong.

Pandaw’s founder Paul Strachan said: “The Upper Mekong is one of the most scenic rivers in Asia. Travel through lush jungle and friendly village communities where elephants can often be seen from the ship. In China, we visit the impressive Menglun Botanical Garden, discover Chinese tea plantations and meet some of China’s minority communities that live in Yunnan Province.”

Cruise-only prices start from $ 5,670 USD per person based on two people sharing a main deck twin cabin. For more information go to www.pandaw.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delta Queen in 1990. * Photo: Ted Scull

Delta Queen in 1990. * Photo: Ted Scull

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Grand Circle has the hots for American seniors and solo travelers, often by offering singles low or no single supplements, and no single supplements on pre- and post- trip extensions.

Grand Circle Cruise Line is an arm of Grand Circle Travel, founded in 1958 as a tour operator for senior adults. In addition, another subsidiary is Overseas Adventure Travel catering to the over 50 for land and sea trips, overlapping with the cruise line for adventure cruise programs. The firm concentrates on European river cruising with its wholly-owned fleet of small ships, and otherwise both owned and chartered vessels cruising throughout Northern and Southern (Mediterranean) Europe, plus Egypt, Panama, and Antarctica. Add-on land packages are also a big draw.

Ships, Years Delivered & Number of Passengers: The sizeable fleet is divided between small riverboats and ocean-going ships, either owned or privately-chartered by Grand Circle.

The privately-owned European river fleet numbers eleven: BIZET (built 2002 & 120 passengers) for the Seine; PROVENCE (b. 2000 & 46 p) for the Rhone & Soane; RIVER ARIA (b. 2001 & 162 p), RIVER ADAGIO (b. 2003 &162 p), RIVER CONCERTO, RIVER HARMONY & RIVER MELODY (b. 2000 & 140 p), and RIVER RHAPSODY (b. 1999 & 140 p) for the Rhine, Mosel, Main & Danube; RIVER ALLEGRO (b. 1991/remodeled 2011 & 90 p) for the Elbe; NEFERTITI (b. 2000, 75p) for the Nile.

Bizet passes Andelys, France. * Photo: Grand Circle

Bizet passes Andelys, France. * Photo: Grand Circle

The privately-owned ocean-going fleet numbers four: CORINTHIAN (b. 1990 & 98 p) for Europe, Morocco, South America and Antarctica. ARTEMIS, ATHENA & ARETHUSA (b. 2007 & 50 p) with lots of itineraries in the Eastern and Western Mediterranean. Newly-added is the 89-passenger CLIO (formerly Tere Moana and built in 1988 as Le Levant) that began cruising in June 2016 in Northern Europe, Iberia and the Mediterranean.

Privately-chartered ships: DISCOVERY, a catamaran (b. 204 & 24 p) for 12-day cruise tour to Panama and the Panama Canal (on board 3 nights). NEFERTITI, a Nile riverboat (b. 2000, refurbished 2008, 75 p). 5 decks, no elevator.

Passenger Profile: Grand Circle caters to Americans of the 50 years and up set, including many solo travelers, 3 in 10 according to the line.

Passenger Decks: River fleet (46-162 passengers except where noted): RIVER ADAGIO & RIVER ARIA, RIVER RHAPSOY & RIVER HARMONY (4 decks & elevator between 2 cabin decks); BIZET (3 decks & elevator between cabin decks); PROVENCE (46 p) & RIVER ALLEGRO (90 p) and both 3 decks & no elevator);  CORINTHIAN (5 decks & elevator to all decks); ARTEMIS, ATHENA & ARETHUSA (4 decks & no elevator); catamaran DISCOVERY (3 decks & no elevator).

Cruising Germany's Moselle River vineyards in the autumn. * Photo: Ted Scull

Cruising Germany’s Moselle River vineyards in the autumn. * Photo: Ted Scull

Price: $$ Moderate. For solo travelers, go to www.gct.com/solo

Included features: All cruises of many differing lengths: international airfare, excursions ashore and listed events aboard & ashore; beer, wine and soft drinks at lunch & dinner; Internet (limited to dedicated public areas and certain river stretches); port charges; and gratuities to drivers & local guides but not ship personnel. 5% frequent traveler credit is applied to your next booking. River cruise tour groups are limited to 47; while small oceangoing ships are limited to 25 when ashore.

Itineraries: European river cruises and many pre- and post cruise tours including land travel and hotel stays (9 to 28 days)  take in Belgian & Dutch waterways; Rhine & Mosel; Main and Danube; Elbe; Seine; Rhone & Saone; La Rochelle, Bordeaux and cruise the Gironde, Garonne & Dordogne rivers; Myanmar (Burma) river cruise tour along the Irrawaddy. Small ship ocean-going cruises and cruise tours to North Europe, Iberia and Morocco & Antarctica with the CORINTHIAN; Mediterranean cruise-tours with ARTEMIS, ATHENA & ARETHUSA; Panama and the canal cruise tours with DISCOVERY. CLIO cruises North Europe, Iberia and the Mediterranean. In winter, CLIO offers 11-night cruise tours to Cuba, sailing from Miami for a 7-night cruise calling at six ports, then a 3-night hotel stay in Havana and flight back to Miami. Alternate trips will start with a flight from Miami to Havana for 3 nights, and a 7-night cruise that returns to Miami. Rates include ship and air transportation, all tours, gratuities and visa. China land tour and Yangtze River cruise operate March to May, July, September and October using the 218 passenger VICTORIA SELINA, VICTORIA LIANNA or similar riverboat. Most recently, 15-night Egyptian cruise tours spend seven nights aboard the chartered 75-passenger riverboat NEFERTITI from February to the end of May and again August through December. Passenger go on tour in groups of no more than 25.  Israel/Jordan extensions add another week.

A medieval hill town in Bulgaria is a destination on a lower Danube River cruise.

A medieval hill town in Bulgaria is a destination on a lower Danube River cruise. * Photo: Ted Scull

Why Go? Every region that Grand Circle covers has its own attractions. River cruises are an ideal way to see the cities, towns, castles, palaces, landscapes, cultural sites and river life without packing and unpacking. Small ship cruises allow calls to both popular and less frequented ports, and inshore cruising where big ships cannot go.

When to Go? In Europe, the peak summer months will see the most tourists and some land destinations may be crowded, while before June and after September, the numbers fall off. The earliest and latest dates will be chilly and may have more rain. Bundle up for the Christmas markets on river cruises, a different sort of experience.

Cabins: Riverboats have many shared features: mostly all outside cabins with picture windows, though windows on the lowest deck will not open as there are positioned just above the waterline. Cabins are most often about 160 sq. ft., and some have narrow step out balconies. TVs with CNN and radio are common features. Beds are usually fixed twins with some convertible to sofas during the day. Many cabins are equipped with emergency call buttons.

Adriatic coastal cruise. * Photo: Grand Circle

Adriatic coastal cruise to Croatian and Montenegro ports. * Photo: Grand Circle

The three Mediterranean small ships have Upper Deck double cabins with balconies, Main Deck cabins with portholes that open and measure 150 to 170 sq. ft. Two singles on the crew deck are 140 sq.ft., with fixed portholes. The CORINTHIAN offers what are referred to as suites, measuring from 215 to 285 sq. ft. that in effect means a separate sitting area with sofa, occasional chair and coffee table. Beds are arranged as twins or queens. The top two decks of suites have small balconies and all features windows, apart from seven on the lowest deck with portholes. Cabins amenities are TV, DVD/CD player, mini-refrigerator and telephone. The catamaran DISCOVERY has small windowed cabins with twin or queen beds. CLIO’s cabins range from 194 to 205 sq.ft. and some have balconies. Very attractive open and covered aft veranda for dining.

The Corinthian * Photo: Grand Circle

The 98-passenger Corinthian cruises European waters and Antarctica. * Photo: Grand Circle

Single supplements are often the lowest of any river cruise line and in some cases are waived completely. The line offers pick a travel companion on a site where interested passengers share profiles.

Public Rooms: The riverboats share in common a forward observation lounge with bar here or adjacent to the aft situated dining room, and most have a small library. The Sun Decks will have open and covered lounge spaces. The Mediterranean ships have adjacent lounges and restaurants (with bar) and Sun Deck with bar and grill. The CORINTHIAN’S public spaces are all stacked aft with the dining room on the portholed lowest deck, and lounge and library above that. An outdoor café serves breakfast and light lunches. The top deck offers a Jacuzzi, and massage room is located on the deck below. The DISCOVERY’S single space serves as viewing lounge, bar, library and dining room. Covered deck space is aft on two decks. CLIO has two dining areas, two bars, library, and whirlpool.

Dining: All vessels operate with one open sitting, and the small ships have a reputation for more creative food than the riverboats, aided by the smaller number of passengers and higher per diem fares. Food caters to American tastes with some regional specialties.

Activities & Entertainment: Shared activities ashore are limited to groups of 25 passengers on the small ships and 47 on the river fleet. Well trained program directors, native or local residents of the region, shepherd the groups. Activities aboard the riverboats may include classes on painting or cooking, language lessons, glassblowing and talks on such topics as river commerce, politics and the European Union. Shore excursions may be on foot or use a bus to see the sights and make visits to schools, farms, a private home or porcelain factory. The small ships offer both talks geared to the region, and included sightseeing forays in port are often on foot when the ship docks close to the center, with buses for more distances destinations. The DISCOVERY offers outdoor activities to islands, national parks, small villages and water sports in addition to the cruise tour’s Panama land portion.

Special Notes: Grand Circle often offers some of the lowest fares for its river cruise program. WHAT TO EXPECT outlines physical requirements such as the amount of walking, accessibility for travelers with mobility restrictions, types of terrain, transportation used and climate information. Grand Circle Travel operates world-wide land tours, and China tours include a 4-night Victoria Cruises’ river vessel along the Yangtze.

N.B. If Grand Circle interests you, and even if not!, sign up for the weekly Inside Scoop, a round up of travel news and insights, weekly films, recipes, themed destinations, and travelers’ photos.

Along the Same Lines: Other river operators and Viking’s new ocean-going fleet, though with a much larger capacity.

Contact: Grand Circle Cruise Line, 347 Congress Street, Boston, MA 02210; www.gct.com; 800-221=2610

— TWS

QC copyright

LE BOREAL in the Elbe WJM IMG_0678

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

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

River Cruises:

Tauck riverboat sails into Budapest. * Photo: Tauck

Tauck riverboat sails into Budapest. * Photo: Tauck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

L'Austral. * Photo: Tauck

L’Austral cruises to Antarctica. * Photo: Tauck

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

Japanese gardens are a major feature of a cruise tour.

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

TWS