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bag piper aboard the Spirit of Scotland

Capturing the Spirit of Scotland

by Robin McKelvie.

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

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

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

The 12-passenger Spirit of Scotland

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

Canal Cruising in Luxury

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

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

Scotland's Caledonian Canal

Scotland’s Caledonian Canal. * European Waterways

Map of Scotland

Scotland map. * European Waterways

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

Spirit of Scotland hot tub

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

History & Whisky  

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

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

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

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

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

A visit to Tomatin Distillery on a Spirit of Scotland cruise

The Tomatin Distillery. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Meeting Nessie in Loch Ness

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

Cruising into Loch Ness on Spirit of Scotland

Loch Ness. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

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

Urquhart Castle on Spirit of Scotland

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

On the Castle Trail

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

Cawdor Castle

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

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

Cruising Scotland

Beautiful Donan Castle. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

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

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

A Thoroughly Scottish Experience

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

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

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

bag piper aboard the Spirit of Scotland

A piper to serenade us! * Photo: Robin McKelvie

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

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

Freshly smoked salmon aboard Spirit of Scotland

Freshly smoked salmon! * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Scottish beef filet aboard Spirit of Scotland

Scottish beef filet. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

elegant dining area aboard Spirit of Scotland

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

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

Spirit of Scotland's hot tub

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

QUICK FACTS

Itineraries/Fares

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

a twin cabin on Spirit of Scotland

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

Scottish whisky

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

Getting There

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

Tips

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

Weather

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

the aft sun deck of Spirit of Scotland

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

Money Matters

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

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

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

saloon aboard Spirit of Scotland

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

Spirit of Scotland bar

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

charming Spirit of Scotland

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

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Cruising Scotland

Cruising Scotland ’s Western Isles – An Overview

By Ted Scull.

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

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

Cruising Scotland

Eilean Donan Castle. * Photo: Majestic Line

My Experience

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

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

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

Cruising Scotland

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

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

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

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

Cruising Scotland

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

Cruising Scotland: The Western Isles

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

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

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

Cruising Scotland

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

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

Cruising Scotland: Islands Galore & More

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

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

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

Cruising Scotland

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

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

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

Cruising Scotland

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

Cruising Scotland: A Fleet of Truly Small Ships

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

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

Cruising Scotland

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

Cruising Scotland: What’s the Appeal?

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

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

Cruising Scotland

An Argyll Cruises’ cabin. * Photo: Argyll Cruises

Cruising Scotland

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

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

Cruising Scotland

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

Cruising Scotland: Mal de Mer

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

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

Cruising Scotland: The Attractions Ashore 

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

Cruising Scotland

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

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

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

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

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

Cruising Scotland

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

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

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

Cruising Scotland

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

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

Cruising Scotland: Who Goes There? 

The operators with number of vessels and passenger count:

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

Argyll Cruising
(1 vessel; 8 passengers)

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

Hebridean Island Cruises
(1 with 50 passengers)

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

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

Puffer Steamboat Holidays
(1 with 12 passengers)

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

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

 

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Kyles ruins in Scotland

Scotland Cruise

by Robin McKelvie.

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

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

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

Agyll Cruisings' Splendor

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

Rebirth of an Old Dame

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

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

Captain Iain Duncan on a Scottish cruise

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

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

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

8-passenger Splendour in Scotland

The 8-passenger Splendour. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Sailing Through the Mountains

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

scotland cruise landscape

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

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

Scotland cruise map

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

 Kyles ruins in Scotland

The breathtaking Kyles. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

The Unique Firth of Clyde

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

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

Firth of Clyde scenery on a Scotland cruise

The scenic Firth of Clyde. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

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

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

Splendour on a Scotland cruise

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

The Firth of Clyde islands

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

Kyles of Bute in Scotland

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

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

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

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

Ailsa Craig on a Scotland cruise

Close up of Ailsa Craig. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

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

This is the Splendour’s glorious playground.

ruins in Scotland

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

whisky in Arran in Scotland

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

Epic Wildlife and Delicious Food

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

puffins in Scotland

Adorable puffins. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

dolphins on a Scotland cruise

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

standing on deck of Splendour in Scotland

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

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

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

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

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

dining aboard the Splendour in Scotland

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

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

Local Scottish crab and prawns

Local crab and prawns. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Waving a Fond Farewell

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

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

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

The Arran hills of Scotland

Looking across to Arran. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

The Practical Stuff

Itineraries/Fares

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

Getting There

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

Tips

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

Argyll Cruising

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

Weather

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

Money Matters

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

For More Info

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

Scottish travel writer Robin McKelvie

Scottish travel writer Robin McKelvie knows his subject!

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The Majestic Line

The Majestic Line specializes in small-boat cruises in Argyll, Western Scotland and the Hebridean isles, using two converted fishing boats and two custom-designed steel hulled gentleman’s motor yachts. While there is an outlined itinerary for every departure, the exact coastal and island calls and their sequence are dependent on the fickle Scottish weather. As the boats carry 11 and 12 passengers only, a cruise is very much a shared experience in close quarters. Every cruise has two single cabins offered and the booking chart shows availability.

If you ever wanted to explore Scotland’s coast line and the highly varied Hebridean Islands without fussing over ferry schedules for your rented car or resorting to a confining bus tour with too many others, HERE’s your answer, a local firm with a trio, soon to be a quartet, of wee ships.

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Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

GLEN MASSAN (built 1975 & converted 2005 & 11 passengers); GLEN TARSAN (b. 1975 & converted 2007 & 11p); GLEN ETIVE (b. 2016 & 12p); and GLEN SHIEL (b. 2019 & 12p).

The Majestic Line

Majesty Line’s trio at the dock before the GLEN SHIEL was delivered in 2019. * Photo: Majesty Line

Passenger Decks

Three decks and no elevator.

Passenger Profile

Primarily from Great Britain, ages 50 and up. Children under 12 not accepted unless part of a charter.

Price

$$$ Very pricey

Itineraries

GLEN MASSAN and GLEN TARSAN offer short-break 3-night and longer 6-night cruises and GLEN ETIVE 6- and 10-night cruises from Western Scotland to lochs and town landings in Argyll and trips out to the Inner and Outer Hebrides. In all, 14 different itineraries are offered with departures from April to October.

Nearly all embark and disembark in Oban, a port with ScotRail connections to the rest of Britain. Exceptions are one-way trips between Oban and Inverness and the first cruise of the season leaving from Holy Loch, Dunoon, Majestic Line’s base of operations.

The vessels usually anchor by dinnertime in a secluded setting, and get underway after breakfast. If the next stop is a bit further on, then the boat may depart before breakfast. GLEN SHIEL added the mix of itineraries in 2019, and her slightly higher speed allows for more far-ranging destinations.

In 2020, Argyll and the Clyde will be featured at the beginning and end of the season on 6-night cruises. As most of the route is along the river and into sheltered lochs it should be smooth sailing. Highlights are picturesque town of Rothesay, Loch Fyne’s access to Inverarary, Mount Stuart Mansion House, Carrick Castle and the narrow channel to the Kyles of Bute.

puffins on lunga

Puffins on Lunga. * Photo: The Majestic Line

Included Features

Good selected wines at dinner. The tender may be used for exploring at no extra cost while traditional shore excursions do not exist. With maps and guidance from the crew, passengers go ashore independently to visit towns and take walks.

Why Go?

Scotland is beautiful when the weather cooperates and is noted for its dramatic seascape scenery in many different lighting conditions, deep lochs to explore (similar to Norway’s fjords), a multitude of varied islands, castles and proud Scottish clans.

Wildlife is seen in the air, on the sea and on land during walks. Circumnavigate the Isle of Skye, cross Scotland via the Caledonian Canal and Loch Ness and cruise out into the Atlantic to see the world’s largest gannetry hosting 60,000 pairs living and breading on isolated island of St. Kilda.

Iona. * Photo: Majestic Line

Iona. * Photo: The Majestic Line

When to Go?

With Scotland’s reputation for unpredictable and constantly varying weather, there is no best time. Be prepared for chilly and windy conditions at any time of the year as well as long days of sunlight in May and into August.

Cabins

The vessels are small hence the cabins are compact with either twin or double-bed configurations. Two singles are available on every cruise with no supplement. The newer GLEN ETIVE and GLEN SHIEL (2019) have larger cabins. All cabins are outside and feature en suite showers, toilets and washbasins.

Cabin on Glen Etive. * Photo: Majestic Line

Cabin on GLEN ETIVE. * Photo: The Majestic Line

Public Rooms

A passenger lounge with bar service, dining room, and open deck space. At times, the wheelhouse is open to visitors, and the crew is happy to share knowledge of navigation and geography. You might even have a hand at the wheel.

Dining

Communal table seats all. Typical meal times are: breakfast 8-9am; lunch 1pm; afternoon tea at 4pm; and dinner 7:30pm. Wine is included with dinner. Main courses feature local fish and shellfish (crabs and sometime lobsters), beef, lamb and venison all sourced locally. With so few to cook for, meals are a craft and a treat. An outside table may also be available when the weather is conducive.

Dining on Glen Tarsan. * Photo: Majestic Line

Dining saloon on GLEN TARSAN. * Photo: Majestic Line

Activities & Entertainment

On board, activities are board games, puzzles, and videos or relaxing and reading from the library selections. The tender takes passengers ashore to land on a beach or to a dock with sightseeing aids for creating short walks or longer hikes of one to two hours. Occasionally a one-way hike starts with a drop-off at the start and a pickup in an altogether different spot. Passengers may also fish, mostly for mackerel, or help lower and raise the lobster pots, and most likely the catch will be crabs.

Special Notes

All four vessels are available for charter, and such an arrangement can be researched first by looking at the cabin availability on the annual cruise schedule. No bookings indicate a charter may be possible, and rates are discounted by 10%. GLEN ETIVE and GLEN SHIEL (2019) have stabilizers and is used for longer trips that might encounter some choppy seas such as to the Outer Hebrides and to remote St. Kilda truly out in the Atlantic.

The Majesty Line's Glen Shiel

The Glen Shiel joined the Majesty Line fleet in 2019! * Photo: The Majesty Line

Along the Same Lines

Hebridean Island Cruises‘ 49-passenger HEBRIDEAN PRINCESS also cruises in Scotland’s Western Isles; as does an equally small pair operating for Hebrides Cruises; and the single vessel, LORD OF THE GLEN, for the Magna Carta Steamship Company. Also check out Argyll Cruising and St Hilda Sea Adventures, a pair of wonderful companies with charming vessels cruising Scotland.

Contact

The Majestic Line, Unit 3, Holy Loch Marina, Sandbank, Dunoon PA23 8FE Argyll, Scotland; +44 (0) 1369 707 951 or www.themajesticline.co.uk.

— TWS

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Oceanwide Expeditions new Hondius

Arctic Cruise.

By William J. Mayes, Editor of Sea Lines, The Ocean Liner Society (UK).

Oceanwide Expeditions, a company that has been providing expedition cruises on its own converted ships or on chartered ships for 25 years, finally got its first new ship in May 2019. Appropriately, the maiden voyage of this Dutch company’s new ship, Hondius, started in Vlissingen, in The Netherlands.

Hondius, named after the 16th-century Flemish engraver and cartographer, is the world’s first cruise ship to be built to the new Polar Class 6 specification, designed to withstand exposure to medium first year ice in summer and autumn.

Oceanwide Expeditions new Hondius

Hondius, new expedition ship for Oceanwide Expeditions. * Photo: Oceanwide Expeditions

Joining the Ship in Scotland

On this Arctic cruise, which I joined in Aberdeen, Scotland, we encountered and dealt with ice up to four feet thick, often pushing it out of the way, but just as often by driving straight through it in a spectacular fashion.

Wildlife spotting is a prime activity, and the chart outside the lounge listed all sorts of water and airborne creatures seen (but most of them not by me).

Hondius is not a luxurious ship by any stretch of the imagination, but the basic facilities serve their purpose well. There are faults in the design of the ship, which I will highlight later, but these did not detract from what was a very rewarding experience.

In full expedition mode Hondius carries 170 passengers, serviced by a crew numbering 70, including 14 expedition staff. All meals are taken in the dining room on Deck 4, from breakfast at 7.30 (wake-up call at 7.00 — not possible to switch off), lunch at 12.30 and dinner at 19.00. There is no other option.

Dining, Drinks & Inspecting the Ship

Both breakfast and lunch are served buffet style. If you are going ashore for a full day, to trek up mountains or along glaciers, then you need to make your own packed lunch at breakfast, supplemented with a bar of chocolate from the reception desk just forward of the dining room.

The reception area is where passengers first see the interior of the ship as the gangway on embarkation day is on the open deck, just outside. This deck has high sills and storm doors to protect the inside of the ship from water ingress. There is also a small shop in the reception area.

Forward of this is a block of cabins. Opposite the reception desk is a rather utilitarian staircase linking Decks 3 through 8. There is no lift.

The remainder of the public rooms are on Deck 5. Forward is the large observation lounge with its bar and, perhaps more importantly, the coffee machines. Coffees, teas and typically Dutch packet soup are available 24-hours-a-day. There is usually a decent supply of biscuits to accompany them — all free of charge.

Drink prices in the bar are slanted towards those who prefer alcohol; soft drinks are quite expensive and alcohol is relatively cheap (can of Coke is $3.40 USD vs $3.75 for Aquavit).

The main lounge of Oceanwide Expeditions Hondius

The main lounge. * Photo: William J. Mayes

Lectures & Recaps

Most of the lectures take place in the lounge, where the sight-lines are not good because the floor is level. Two foldaway screens at the front of the room are supplemented with a number of television screens, but even so it is sometimes difficult to see details during the talks.

Each evening there is a recap in the lounge covering the day’s events and a preview of what is planned for the following day. I say planned because this is expedition cruising and things often change depending on weather conditions and wildlife sightings. Adjacent to the lounge, and within easy reach of the coffee machines, is a small library. As the ship had been a few days late in being delivered, this was not yet fully stocked.

The only other public room is the lecture room, with fairly limited seating. Some of the more esoteric lectures take place here, and in the evening, there might be a film. It won’t be a blockbuster, but is more likely to feature wildlife conservation, geography, geology or volcanology.

Boarding partway through the voyage (20 passengers joined in Aberdeen) some of our mandatory lectures were held here, including the general emergency drill, which included instructions on how to don an immersion suit and the Zodiac safety talk, including the dress code for Zodiacs. After our talk it was time to go to the boot room to be measured for the compulsory boots. No boots — no Zodiac landings, and all on this trip were to be wet landings.

The lecture room is also home to the ship’s Internet centre, where wi-fi is available throughout the ship at a price. Packages are available to purchase, starting at $30 for 100MB. A more sensible option is to opt for a ship’s email address at a cost of $18 for unlimited emails without attachments for the duration of the trip. The price varies according to the length of the cruise and seems to work even when Internet satellite coverage is not available.

First Landing at Fair Isle

After leaving Aberdeen the first call of our Arctic cruise was Fair Isle, that sparsely populated island that lies between the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands, and actually part of the latter. Here the most difficult landing beach seemed to have been chosen, presumably to assess our capabilities while still within reach of shore-based medical facilities.

Landing at Fair Isle on an Arctic Cruise with Oceanwide Expeditions

Landing at Fair Isle. * Photo: William J. Mayes

Fully kitted up with boots, waterproof trousers, jacket and life vest we proceeded backwards down the incredibly steep gangway to join the Zodiacs. The ship is fitted with Zodiac embarkation doors on the deck below, but apparently these were not working. Best not to open them if you were not sure that you could close them again.

Fair Isle in the rain is not my idea of a good time, so after suggesting to one of the expedition leaders (I think she was vegetarian) some good uses of mint sauce and redcurrant jelly in conjunction with the freely roaming sheep, we went back to the ship.

Lucky Landing at Jan Mayen

There followed two quite rough sea days as we headed north, across the Arctic Circle to Jan Mayen, a remote Norwegian outpost some 370 miles to the north east of Iceland. The swell was too great to permit safe landing at our planned anchorage, so we sailed to the west side of the island and made our way ashore in the shadow of the magnificent Beerenberg volcano. Now things started to improve.

It was a much easier landing here and a couple of hours were spent on the black volcanic beach examining relics and collecting plastic waste. The station commander from the Norwegian base came and stamped our passports. I wonder how many people in the whole world have that stamp. Hondius was the tenth ship of the season scheduled to call here, but in fact was only the third to have made it due to adverse sea conditions.

Leaving Jan Mayen, we sailed north along the coast, past some imposing glaciers, before leaving land behind us as we headed towards the Greenland pack ice. We encountered ice at around lunch time on the next day, so the lecture programme was postponed to allow uninterrupted searching for wildlife. I saw quite a few seals as we skirted the edge of ice. We were not going into the ice today as it would slow the ship and put us behind schedule.

Heading into the Ice

When we were woken up at 7:30am the following morning Hondius was about to go into the ice, so after a hasty breakfast it was time to go out onto the fore deck in the freezing cold to see what was going on.

This deck is accessible right up to the bow and as we started to hit the ice the sound was amazing, not just as we hit but also as the large slabs of ice scraped their way down the sides of the ship. This was a real test of the ship’s construction.

Moving through the ice on an Arctic cruise with Oceanwide Expeditions.

Heading into the ice. * Photo: William J. Mayes

We remained in the ice all day, only coming out into open water late in the evening to allow a quiet night for sleeping.

Oceanwide Expeditions operates an open-bridge policy, so passengers are welcome on the bridge at any time, unless the ship is manoeuvring in port. Our Russian Captain, Alexey, was very welcoming, and it was clearly giving him a great deal of satisfaction in driving his new and untested ship through quite thick first-year pack ice on this inaugural Arctic cruise.

Open bridge on brand new Hondius

Hondius has an open bridge policy. * Photo: William J. Mayes

On the next day we were back in the ice early. Someone had put a wanted notice with a picture of a polar bear on the main notice board outside the lounge. There was enough evidence of their presence from the footprints in the snow that covered the ice. We were not disappointed.

Polar Bear Sighting

In mid-morning someone spotted the slightly yellow bear on a piece of ice about half a mile away. It didn’t seem to notice us at first and carried on going about its business and having an occasional roll in the snow. Then it spotted us, and I’m sure its first thought was ‘well, I haven’t seen that before,’ followed by ‘canned food, at least that will be a change from seal.’

Polar bear out on the ice at Spitsbergen. * Photo: Ted Scull

I had thought that ice was the highlight, but I think that seeing a polar bear in the wild probably topped that. Soon afterwards someone had added the word “another” to the polar bear wanted notice.

We sailed overnight to Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Svalbard Archipelago, and made two calls before heading to our destination at Longyearbyen. Our first stop was to see walruses at Poolepynten on the island of Prins Karls Forland, just to east of Spitsbergen. The second stop was to get up close to the glacier at Ymerbukta. In the late afternoon we sailed towards Longyearbyen and the end of our Arctic cruise adventure.

Hondius off Longyearbyn on its inaugural Arctic cruise

Hondius off Longyearbyen. * Photo: William J. Mayes

The Passengers & Staff

This cruise, starting in The Netherlands, had a large contingent of Dutch passengers, maybe as many as 75%. There were a few British, fewer Americans and a handful of other Europeans. The food was mostly International, but with a heavy Dutch bias, particularly at breakfast.

The cost of this trip was something of a bargain compared to the ship’s regular prices, due in part, no doubt to the fact that it was a positioning voyage to get Hondius in place for her first summer. Another factor could relate to maiden voyages and ice!

Hondius was built at Split in Croatia and has a gross tonnage of 6,603. The builders clearly wanted passengers to know who had built the ship, as there were probably 10 or 12 builder’s plates around the vessel.

On our voyage there were 150 passengers and the ship seemed uncrowded. She has a capacity for 196, although she is marketed with a limit of 170 in a variety of accommodations ranging from a berth in a shared four-berth cabin, to three-berth and two-bed standard cabins. There are several more luxurious cabins on Decks 6 and 7, including six suites with balconies.

Twin cabin aboard the Hondius

Twin cabin 407 on Deck 4. * Photo: William J. Mayes

The expedition staff, under a Dutch leader, was European, with several British members.  The remainder of the crew were an international mix under the Russian captain, and Dutch hotel manager.

Conclusion

Would I do it again? I don’t think that I would. Why? Well, not because our Arctic cruise wasn’t a great experience, because clearly it was; it might be difficult to equal the trip. Probably price would be a big influence as expedition cruises on small ships are generally very expensive. Mainly, I suppose there are so many ships out there that I would like to try and have only so much time and money.

 

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Viking River Cruises

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QuirkyCruise Review QuirkyCruise Review About Viking (was Viking River Cruises)

Viking River Cruises (now Viking), established by former officials of the old Royal Viking Line, has grown by leaps and bounds, including introducing more ships in one year than has ever occurred before. More than a score of itineraries covers the European waterway network from Portugal’s Douro River that empties into the Atlantic eastward to Russia’s and Ukraine’s canals and rivers, and from the Dutch and Belgian waterways bordering on the North Sea across Europe to the mouth of the Danube as it flows into the Black Sea.

Viking goes most everywhere the other lines go and offers more choices of itineraries, length of cruises and land and air packages. Simply, Viking dominates the European river cruise market because it operates more boats (presently 72) than any other line, by far, and still growing.  In Asia, riverboats explore the Yangtze in China, and the Mekong in Cambodia and Vietnam. Egypt is again offered with cruises on the Upper Nile and Lake Nassar. Viking also operates well-received deep-sea cruise ships to establish Viking Ocean Cruises (now just Viking) but their passenger capacities exceeding 900 are well beyond our small-ship passenger limit. More are under construction and under option along with expedition ships.

Note: In 2020, four 168-passenger Viking Longships (similar features but smaller in size for operations on the Seine) will be delivered and then actively participate on 8-day Paris and the Heart of Normandy cruises. Passengers will embark alongside the Eiffel Tower.

Note: Viking has also long made hints about entering the river cruise market along the Mississippi and its tributaries with a fleet of European-style riverboats. Now, an official announcement was made in April 2020 in New Orleans that the first of a fleet of large riverboats will be built for the Upper and Lower Mississippi. The first five-deck vessel will take up to 386 passengers and appear in August 2022. While the capacity exceeds our 300-passenger limit, all other American Cruise Lines riverboats have been covered by Quirky Cruise, hence this one, the first of several, will be covered too. By law, the vessels must be built in the U.S. to sail along American inland waterways. Stay tuned for the location and progress while construction gets underway.

Note: Without missing a beat, Viking will also enter the expedition market when the VIKING OCTANTIS enters service in January 2022 with a program in Antarctica and the Great Lakes. While the passenger complement of 378 exceeds the QuirkyCruise limit of 300, we will include the most important features on this page.

Viking River Cruises

RELATED:  New Viking Einar Impresses a First Timer … by Judi Cohen.

Passengers

Most passengers are 50+ and American or at least English-speaking who are looking for a relaxed and convenient way to see the regions of Europe. Children under are not permitted.

Price

$ to $$$  Moderate/Expensive/Very Pricey. Huge variations in rates occur, especially when 2 for 1 promotions are offered.

Included Features

Shore excursion in every port; wine, beer, soft drinks at lunch & dinner; bottled water, cappuccino, coffee & tea at a 24-hour beverage bar; Cabin TVs with movies on demand, CNBC, CNN, National Geographic, and other channels, Internet/Wi-Fi (connection speed varies widely); cruise tours include hotel stays and transfers between hotel and ship; airport transfers included when air travel is purchased from Viking.

Itineraries

Europe, Russia, Egypt, Southeast Asia and China, most 8 to 15 days; some cruise tours in Asia extend to 18 days; the granddaddy of all European river journeys stretches from Amsterdam to Bucharest, lasting 23 days. All cruises operate in both directions. See details below when discussing the ships.

Why Go?

Years ago before river cruising took hold in a big way, many travelers desirous of seeing several countries in one trip booked a bus tour and that meant multiple one and two-night hotel stays in a half-dozen, maybe more, cities. With the rivers and canals already in place to move cargo on barges between ocean ports and inland cities, long-distance river travel was a natural outgrowth. Then in 1992 a construction project linked the Rhine and Main to the Danube, and it became possible to embark in a Viking Longship in Amsterdam located just in from the North Sea and sail more less southeast all the way to the Danube Delta on Black Sea coast of Romania.

Riverboats once seen as merely comfy conveyances with mostly picture window cabins, an observation lounge and a windowed dining room, now boast suites, French balconies, true verandas, and alternate dining venues and more activities off the boats than bus and walking tours with such diversions as cycling (independently or in a small group) and hiking.

The bottom line for river cruising is convenience, as in many cases, the riverboat ties up next to the heart of the city and you simply walk ashore. In between, instead of driving along a busy highway, the getting there is via scenic river cruising with some of the intercity travel taking place as you sleep. Sun decks provide 360-degree views while underway.

Opera House, Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. * Photo: Ted Scull

Opera House, Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. * Photo: Ted Scull

When to Go?

Most European itineraries are seasonal with April to October the norm though some cruises begin as early as March and run as late as December for the Christmas markets. Summer months will find many riverboats following roughly the same popular itineraries with busy, and sometime crowded, sites ashore. The fringe seasons have the advantage of fewer boats sharing the same docking facilities and disadvantage, for some, of cooler and less predictable weather. Beyond Europe, the itineraries may be almost year-round, and note that the Yangtze River Valley can feel like a furnace from June through August.

Activities & Entertainment

Applies to all ships. Onboard, the offerings are daytime lectures, demonstrations, cooking classes, wine tasting and light entertainment such as a pianist and/or local musicians in port. Included shore excursions using audio headsets allow participants to hear the guide out-of-doors and inside museums and churches while  speaking in a normal voice. On board, a concierge can arrange ballet and theater tickets, restaurant reservations and help you plan an independent day ashore.

Walking the Charles Bridge, Prague. * Photo: Ted Scull

Walking the Charles Bridge, Prague. * Photo: Ted Scull

Ships & Years delivered

The number of passengers; number of passenger decks; layouts; special features; and cabin details will be outlined for each class of riverboat under the cruising regions that begin below.

European Rivers

The Viking Longships class number almost four score at present dating from a building spree that began in 2012 and continues into the present with six new ships added in 2016 and six more in 2018. In spring 2019, another seven were launched on a single day at different shipyards, with seven more under construction. The list of names runs from Viking Aegir to Viking Vili. These spiffy new riverboats carry 190 passengers on four decks in a bright and airy, understated Scandinavian atmosphere using big picture windows, light fabrics and colors, skylights, atriums and indoor/outdoor lounges, restaurants, and bars.

Cabins number 95 of which nine are 2-room suites with veranda & French balconies*; 39 verandas; 22 French balconies*; and 25 standard (located on the lowest deck and with smaller windows). Note here and for some other Viking vessels that *French balconies are not balconies at all but with the cabins having sliding doors that open to a railing.

The Observation Lounge, located behind the indoor/outdoor terrace, has a sit-up bar, for drinks, daytime activities, lectures, and light entertainment. A library corner and Internet access are located just aft of that and share the second level of the atrium, with the reception and shop below. The Sun Deck has covered and open lounge space spanning nearly the vessel’s full length, plus an oval walking track and putting green. An herb garden is located aft. The elevator connects only the Upper and Middle decks, and not cabins on Main Deck nor the Sun Deck.

Viking has upgraded its menus following the introduction of the new ships, and as the line caters to mostly middle American tastes, don’t expect gourmet meals or rich sauces as one would experience on an ocean-going luxury line or a truly upscale river fleet. The Longships have two dining venues, the main restaurant (buffet & served meals) and the indoor/outdoor Aquavit Terrace (light meals and an alfresco grill). It’s open seating and you dine with whom you wish. Chances are you will be sailing on a Longship in Europe on most all itineraries but the Douro in Portugal and the Elbe in Germany and the Czech Republic where smaller purpose-built ships operate.

RELATED: Viking River Cruise in the Ukraine … by Gene Sloan.

DSC_6134

Viking Longships Deck Plan * Photo: Viking

The following preceded the Viking Longships on European itineraries, plus one trio specifically designed for the confines of the Douro in Portugal and a pair to sail under low bridges for the Elbe.

*Viking Fontaine, *Viking Schumann (older ships/refurbished 2010/2011) carry 112 passengers on three decks with observation lounge forward and restaurant on the deck below. Cabins are all outside with eight having French balconies, while the Upper Deck cabins have picture windows that open while Main Deck windows are fixed.

*Viking Astrild, *Viking Beyla (2015) carry 98 passengers, have three decks and operate the Elbe cruises with low bridge clearances in Germany and the Czech Republic. The observation lounge is forward with the Aquavit Terrace facing over the bow for light meals and refreshments, while the restaurant is on the deck below. Cabins include 2 suites, 19 veranda cabins and 14 with French balconies, all located on the Upper deck. Main Deck cabins have windows.

*Viking Hemming,*Viking Torgil, *Viking Osfrid (2014 & 2016) carry 106 passengers, have four decks and sail exclusively on the Douro Rover in Portugal. The observation lounge is forward with the Aquavit Terrace facing over the bow for light meals and refreshments, while the restaurant is on the Middle Deck below along with an adjacent Al Fresco Restaurant. The Sun Deck has tables for outdoor meals, a small pool, golf putting range, and loungers with covered and open sections. Cabins include 11 veranda suites, 23 verandas, 3 French balcony cabins and 16 window cabins on Main Deck. An elevator connects cabin and public room decks.

Europe note: With such a large fleet, riverboats assigned to specific itineraries are subject to change.

Aquavit Terrace for an outdoor meal. * Photo: Viking River Cruises

Aquavit Terrace for an outdoor meal. * Photo: Viking River Cruises

Below is a healthy sampling of nearly two dozen European itineraries combining hotel stays bracketing a river cruise. If you are a first time river cruiser, good luck deciding which one to take. If a veteran cruise maven, most of Europe is your oyster.

  • Grand European Tour (15-day cruise, April to October) from Amsterdam, Netherlands via the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers and sailing through Germany, Austria, Slovakia to Budapest in Hungary.
  • Romantic Danube (8-day cruise, late March to October) from Nuremburg, Germany via Main-Danube Canal and Danube River through Austria to Budapest, Hungary.
  • Danube Waltz (8-day cruise, late March to October) from Passau, Germany via the Danube through Austria to Budapest.
  • Rhine Getaway (8-day cruise, mid-March to October) from Amsterdam in the Netherlands via the Rhine, calling at Cologne, Koblenz, Heidelberg, Strasbourg, south through to Basel, Switzerland.
  • Tulips & Windmills (10-day cruise, March and April) from Amsterdam including 2.5 days sightseeing via Dutch and Belgian rivers and canals to the Islemeer at Hoorn, Arnhem, Ghent, Rotterdam and more then back to Amsterdam. Additional itineraries include calls at Antwerp and Nijmegen (SE Netherlands)
  • Cities of Light (12-day cruise-tour, April to October) from Paris (2 hotel nights) then coach transfer via Luxembourg (sightseeing) to the riverboat at Trier, then along the Mosel, Rhine and Main rivers to Bamburg, Germany and coach transfer via Nuremburg to Prague, Czech Republic (2 hotel nights).
  • Paris to the Swiss Alps (12-day cruise-tour, March to October) from Paris (2 hotel nights) then coach transfer to Luxembourg (sightseeing) to the riverboat at Trier, then along the Mossel past vineyards to the Rhine and Mainz, Speyer, and Strasbourg to Basel, Switzerland with a transfer to Zurich (2 hotel nights).
  • Passage to Eastern Europe (11-day cruise-tour, late March to late October) from Budapest, Hungary (2 hotel nights) then riverboat down the Danube through Serbia, Bulgaria to Giurgiu and coach transfer to Bucharest, Romania (1 hotel night).
  • European Sojourn (23-day cruise, mid-March to late October) from Amsterdam via the Waal, Rhine, Main-Danube Canal and Danube through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria to Giurgiu and transfer to Bucharest, Romania (1 hotel night).
  • Elegant Elbe (10-day cruise-tour, mid-March to October) from Berlin (2 hotel nights) then coach transfer to the riverboat at Wittenberg and via the Elbe and Vltava rivers through Germany (Saxon Switzerland) and Czech Republic to Decin and coach transfer to Prague, Czech Republic (2 hotel nights).
  • Portugal’s River of Gold (10-day cruise-tour, late March to October) from Lisbon (2 hotel nights) via coach transfer to Coimbra and the riverboat at Porto, then along the Douro River with a full-day coach excursion to Salamanca, Spain and back along the Douro with port calls for lunch and wine tasting, a castle and religious site to Porto, Portugal.
  • Paris & the Heart of Normandy (8-day cruise, mid-March to October) from Paris via the Seine to Claude Monet’s Giverny, Rouen (for the cathedral and Normandy Beaches) then upstream with port calls to visit chateaux back to Paris. New itineraries along the Seine also include WWII sites and D-Day beaches.
  • Lyon & Provence (8-day cruise, mid-March to October) from Marseille to the Rhone at Arles, then Avignon, Viviers, Tournon, Vienne, Lyon and along the Soane to Macon, Cluny Abbey and Beaujolais wine country, ending at Lyon Airport.
  • Chateaux, Rivers & Wine (8-day cruise, late March to October) from Bordeaux along both the Dordogne and Garonne rivers to Sauternes, St. Emilion, Médoc, and Margaux wine regions, two UNESCO sites and Cadillac, returning to Bordeaux.
Russia & Ukraine

Visiting Moscow's Red Square at the end of Viking River cruise along the Russian waterways.

Visiting Moscow’s Red Square at the end of Viking river cruise along the Russian waterways. * Photo: Ted Scull

Viking Akun, Viking Helgi, Viking Ingvar, Viking Truvor (older ships refurbished 2013/2014) carry 204 passengers on five decks and operate the 13-day St. Petersburg-Moscow Waterways of the Tsars itineraries. The Panorama Bar looks forward on the Upper Deck with a large restaurant aft on the Middle Deck below. A windowless library with Internet is on Main Deck. Cabins include 2 suites, 2 junior suites, 67 verandas, and the remaining with windows that open facing the side wraparound promenade. Elevators link the cabin and public room decks. A similar vessel, Viking Sineus, plies Ukraine’s Dnieper River between the capital at Kiev and Odessa facing the Black Sea, and 11-day cruise tour.

Waterways of the Czars (13-day cruise, early May to mid-October) from St. Petersburg (3-day stay on riverboat) via the Neva and Svir rivers, Lake Onega, Volga-Baltic Waterway, Rybinsk Resevoir, Volga River, and Moscow Canal to Moscow (3-stay stay on the riverboat). Ashore, attend dance and music performances, and aboard the guides share Russian and Soviet history and current affairs, cooking and Russian language classes.

Egypt

Mayfair (150p) and Omar El Kayam (160p) form the 4-night and 3-night cruise portions of a 12-day itinerary that includes Cairo for the Pyramids, Sphinx and Cairo Museum, a cruise along the Upper Nile for Luxor, Karnak, Edfu, and Kom Ombo and another cruise just above the Aswan Dam on Lake Nassar for Abu Simbel and other temples. Viking Ra, Viking-owned and operated (52p), made its debut in 2018 as a completely rebuilt riverboat offering all two-room suites (291 sq. ft.), making it one of the most luxurious vessels on the Nile. To follow in September 2020, Viking will begin operating the 82-passenger Viking Osiris , the first European built, owned and operated Nile cruiser, if that is all important to some seeking an Egyptian cruise.

Southeast & East Asia

Viking Mandalay (2012 & 56p) had operated Irrawaddy Cruises in Myanmar (Burma). However, four-deck Viking Mekong (b. 2012 & 56p) plies the Mekong River in Cambodia and Vietnam. The replica-style riverboats evoke an appealing colonial atmosphere with lots of wood paneling and airy public spaces. The indoor lounge is forward and the Sun Deck lounge and bar is sheltered from the sun by a canvas awning. With floor to ceiling French doors that open during cool weather, the restaurant serves Vietnamese and Western dishes at breakfast and luncheon buffets plus served dishes and a served dinner. All cabins are outside, with two of the three cabin decks offering sliding French doors that open to side promenade equipped with rattan style chairs and decorative potted palms.

Mekong River: Cambodia & Vietnam

A Cambodian food market along the Mekong.

A Cambodian food market along the Mekong. * Photo: Ted Scull

Magnificent Mekong (15-day cruise-tour, early January to March then July to October) from Hanoi, Vietnam (2 hotel nights), fly to Siam Reap, Cambodia (3 hotel nights), coach transfer to riverboat at Kampong Cham then 8 days along the Mekong in Cambodia and Vietnam to My Tho and coach transfer to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam for 2 hotel nights. Viking Mekong.

Irrawaddy River: Myanmar (Burma) 

*This itinerary is not now operating. However, details are included for reference in case these trips resume.

Myanmar Explorer (15-day cruise-tour, September to December) from Bangkok, Thailand (3 hotel nights) then fly to Yangon, Myanmar (4 nights) and fly to Mandalay embark in the riverboat for 8 nights along the Irrawaddy back to Mandalay and fly to Bangkok (1 night). Viking Mandalay.

Yangtze River: China

Mother and child pass during a village stop along the Yangtze.

Mother and child pass during a village stop along the Yangtze. * Photo: Ted Scull

Viking Emerald (2011) carries 256 passengers on five decks while operating the Yangtze River cruises. The Sun Deck houses the Emerald Bar with high-up views, a reading room, massage room, sauna, gym and outdoor deck space aft. The observation Lounge with a bar is on the deck below and the restaurant resides on Main Deck aft. The menus include Chinese and Western dishes. Cabin accommodations include 2 suites, 14 partitioned suites, 4 junior (one-room) suites and the rest, 108 with verandas. An elevator serves all decks.

Imperial Jewels of China (14-day cruise-tour, February to October) from Shanghai (2 nights) then fly to Wuhan to join the riverboat for a 7-day cruise along the Yangtze River via the Three Gorges and Three Gorges Dam to Chongqing then fly to Xian (2 hotel nights) and fly to Beijing (3 hotel nights).

Roof of the World (17-day cruise-tour, March to October) from Beijing (3 hotel nights), fly to Xian (2 hotel nights), fly to Lhasa (3 hotel nights), fly to Chongqing , join riverboat for a 7-day cruise down the Yangtze via Three Gorges and Three Gorges Dam to Wuhan and fly to Shanghai (2 hotel nights).

Undiscovered China  (19-day cruise-tour, March to October) from Beijing (3 hotel nights), fly to Xian (2 hotel nights), Chengdu (2 hotel nights}, Lijiang (2 nights) and Chongqing to join the riverboat for 7 days along the Yangtze via the Three Gorges, Three Gorges Dam to Wuhan and fly to Shanghai (2 hotel nights).

Special Notes

Water levels along European rivers rise and fall with the seasons and/or heavy rain falls and long dry periods. Occasionally, if the waters rise to flood stage, the riverboats may not be able to pass under low bridges, or the reverse, insufficient water to proceed without possible grounding. In that case, you may be bused to another vessel on the far side of the blockage and/or put up in hotels.

Along the Same Lines

The stable of river cruise lines is ever expanding, and Viking happens offer the largest fleet.

Contact Info

Viking, 5700 Canoga Avenue, Suite 200, Woodland Hills, CA 91367;  www.viking.com; 877-668-4546

— TWS

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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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Argyll Cruising

Argyll Cruising.

Argyll Cruising is a family-operated, one-ship line that got its start in 2015. Besides being local people, the skipper acquired first-hand training on the Majestic Line, another line covered and operating much the same wee type of ship cruises in the same region. The draws are Scotland’s outstandingly beautiful mountains and island landscapes and the complex system of waterways to explore what’s in and around the sea.

Enjoy the bird life, centuries of dynamic history, Scottish eats and its people with such pronounced accents, most a delight to the ear. The company’s base is the Holy Loch Marina about an hour west of Glasgow. Transportation from Glasgow may be by train, coach or car to Gourock on the Firth of Clyde then crossing by connecting ferry to Dunoon.

Argyll Cruising

Splendour – isn’t she cute? * Photo: Argyll Cruising

Amongst the more than four-score lines we cover on QuirkyCruise.com, Argyll Cruising carries the fewest number of passengers at any one time (eight), and qualifies as one of the smallest vessels, sharing the size category with a couple of competitors in the same waters of Western Scotland. Wait until you learn the size of the crew!

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

In this case, the ship is the former traditional wooden trawler Splendour converted to carry eight passengers in comfortable quarters within and a goodly amount of outdoor spaces. The crew numbers — captain and cook — one and one = two!

Passenger Decks

Three decks, with cabins located on the lowest deck; saloon and galley on the weather deck with multiple viewing areas and kayak and bicycle storage forward; and wheelhouse and open space aft of that on the bridge deck. Given its fishy history, there is no lift (elevator).

Passenger Profile

Most will hail from the UK as Scotland is a hugely popular destination for those living below Hadrian’s Wall.

Price

$$ Pricey, especially with so few passengers.

Included Features

Boat transfers ashore, excursions mentioned in the specific itineraries, and wine with dinner.

Argyll Cruising

Scotland and its Western Isles are beautiful. For the fit, this view is worth the climb. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

Itineraries

With 12 itineraries to choose from, it is a tough choice to make. Some eliminations come naturally as the varied lengths range from 3, 6, 10 on up to 13 nights. With such a small number of cabins, availability is always a factor, and the website clearly shows the latest booking numbers, including the availability of the single single. If 8 appears, then the vessel is also available for a group charter. The charterers may be involved in the planning of the route and the emphasis of the sights and activities.

While the listed itineraries mention specific destinations — islands, lochs, waterways, ports, and sights — there is some flexibility given the weather, wind and tidal conditions.

Examples are 6 nights focused on the Island of Mull for the colorful port town of Tobermory, Duart Castle (seat of the Mcleans), Fingal’s Cave, Iona’s monastery (founded 563 AD) and its association with St. Columba, and sightings of minke whales, sea eagles, dolphins, otters and super picturesque puffins.

Argyll Cruising

Did we say “picturesque puffins”? * Photo: Argyll Cruising

A 13-night granddaddy cruise of the Hebrides includes: Brodick Castle (Arran), Achamore Gardens (Gigha), Loch Tarbert’s beaches, Kissimul Castle high on a rock (Barra), the long stretch of Cuillin Hills often seen with amazing cloud formations above (Skye), and nesting grounds for a quarter million birds (The Shiants).

For those who have limited time or want a sampler, a 3-night getaway visits Mount Stewart House near Rothsay, fishing village of Tarbert, Arran distillery and golden eagles, and picturesque Tighnabruaich village, with an overnight anchorage in steep-sided Loch Striven.

Argyll Cruising

Far out to sea, the island of St. Kilda once had a permanent population. Today, it is a prized destination for its vast bird colonies, and historic remains. * Photo: Argyll Cruising.a

Why Go?

Scotland is so well known for its rugged beauty — mountains, valleys, islands, lochs, lovely villages, ancient sites, sea animals, bird life and warm hospitality — there is not a lot to explain. The weather can never be counted on, so it’s go with the flow — of sunshine, clouds, and the euphemistic Scotch mist that pretty much sums up all precipitation.

When to Go?  

The season begins in early April and runs through to the end of October. The peak holiday season is July and August when the most popular destinations can get crowded and the interisland ferries booked up. A cruise such as this one eases many of the frustrations.

Cabins

All accommodations have en suite (private) washing and toilet facilities, and the two-person cabins have double beds and one twin. One cabin is set aside as a single with no supplement.

Argyll Cruising

A double bed cabin, one of three such, with porthole. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

Public Rooms

The interiors are paneled with solid and veneer hardwoods, with shared inside spaces the dining saloon and pilothouse where the captain welcomes passengers to visit, share his knowledge, and socialize.

Argyll Cruising

Panelled dining saloon. * What’s for dinner? * Photo: Argyll Cruising

Dining

Two tables of four host the breakfast hour commencing about 8am, a half hour after the generator switches on for the day; lunch comes at roughly 1pm, and the pre-dinner hour begins about 7pm with the evening meal a half hour or so later. The vessel rides at anchor for meals, with the first activity after breakfast, unless the day starts with a sail to another location.

Food is a highlight for many. Dinner offers Argyll Hill lamb, Highland beef, local crab, langoustines, lobster, fresh fruits and vegetables. Finish off with sticky toffee pudding and butterscotch sauce. Wine included with dinner. BBQ lunches are held on deck in good weather. All dietary requests accepted, in advance please.

Argyll Cruising

What’s for dinner? Here is a sampling. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

Activities & Entertainment

The vessel carries kayaks, windsurfers, and bicycles. Fishing is an option as is preparing and putting out the lobster pots from the spacious working space on the foredeck. Ashore, there are walks, hikes, cycling, gardens and historic sites to visit, bird watching, and scouting for otters and seals.

Argyll Cruising

Kyles – Stately home and gardens. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

Special Notes

Be aware that the weather may not always cooperate, but it can change rather quickly.

Along the Same Lines

Western Scotland’s other competing high-end small-ship operators covered by QuirkyCruise in alphabetical order:

Contact

Argyll Cruising, 5 Crawford Lane, Dunoon, Argyll PA23 8JP Scotland; UK phone: 07917 858545;

— Ted Scull

 

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Aurora Expeditions

Aurora Expeditions.

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

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

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

Aurora Expeditions

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

Passenger Profile

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

Price

$ to $$$

Itineraries

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

Aurora Expeditions

The GREG MORTIMER expedition ship arrives fall 2019.

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

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

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

Aurora Expeditions

Lovely rock garden near Cove, Loch Long, Scotland

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

Aurora Expeditions

Coral Princess I at Raft Point, Kimberley Coast

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

Aurora Expeditions

Isabella II in the Galapagos.

Included Features

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

Special Notes

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

Along the Same Lines

Numerous and ever-growing.

Contact

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

 

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Scottish Train

By Ted Scull.

In early June at the end of a 10-day visit to Scotland, my wife and I boarded the morning train from Oban to Glasgow, the first of two train journeys down to London. We occupied a pair of assigned seats facing each other while next to me was an Englishman who said he was bound for Brixham on Devon’s South Coast.

I knew Brixham, an important fishing port, as one of my oldest friends grew up there and recently his wife had her ashes cast into the sea nearby.

The man seated to me introduced himself as Toni Knights, a skipper aboard an historic Brixham sail-powered fishing trawler outfitted to take a handful of cruise passengers for a firm called Trinity Sailing. In winter, to make ends meet, he is a commercial fisherman working on a modern diesel-powered fishing boat based in Brixham.

Scottish Train

Ted meets Toni. * Photo: Suellyn Scull

Toni’s just completed trip was skippering the Leader, a two-masted, wooden-hulled Brixham trawler, built way back in 1892, from Falmouth in Cornwall around Lands End and up through the Irish Sea to Oban on the West Coast of Scotland where she would be based for two months for cruises to the Western Isles.

He then opened his computer and showed me a video of his handsome ship under way using all eight sails and taking up to 12 passengers and a crew of six. The firm’s fleet of three sailing trawlers is based in ports largely on England’s South Coast and available for overnight cruises from short getaways on up to a week or more.

Toni then opened an envelope and shared with me a lovely set of watercolors he had painted showing the fleet and the waters through which they sailed. He sells his work to the passengers as a memento of their cruise. On the sailing schedule are cruises offering art classes under his supervision for those interested in painting landscapes, seascapes, bird and animal life.

 

Scottish Train

A Brixham trawler by Toni Kinghts

Most intrigued, I shared my connection to QuirkyCruise, and we started talking business while the two-car Scotrail train wound its way through the beautiful Scottish Highlands.

Thanks to Ted’s chance meeting of Toni, QuirkyCruise has added a review of Trinity Sailing to our roster of small ship cruises. Have a gander as it looks to be great fun if seeking a genuine sailing experience on an historic vessel and happily, not at all expensive.

 

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

Lindblad Expeditions

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Reader Reviews About Lindblad Expeditions

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Reader Review: Lindblad in Alaska's Inside Passage. REVIEWER Elizabeth Moss from the USA. CRUISE LINE Lindblad Expeditions. SHIP National Geographic ...
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National Geographic Endeavour II in the Galapagos REVIEWER Sapna Rao from Singapore. CRUISE LINE Lindblad Expeditions. SHIP National Geographic Endeavour ...
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QuirkyCruise Review QuirkyCruise Review About Lindblad Expeditions

Based in New York, Lindblad Expeditions has a long legacy dating back to Lars-Eric Lindblad’s pioneering expeditions to Antarctica, Easter Island and the Galapagos beginning in the mid-1960s. In the intervening years, the firm, under the leadership of his son, Sven-Olaf Lindblad, has expanded its fleet and ship charters to basically blanket the world for those in search of an adventure by sea. Destinations are expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctica; natural history and wildlife cruises to the Galapagos, Indonesia and Borneo; cultural and historical voyages to the British Isles, Greek Isles and Morocco, revived cruise tours to Ancient Egypt — the list goes on and on.

The joint venture with the National Geographic Society established in 2004 expanded Lindblad’s passenger base and drew on the Society’s expertise; especially its photographers who enrich the pages of National Geographic magazine and National Geographic Traveler.  The relationship has expanded from itineraries in the US, Australia and New Zealand to Canada and Latin America.  As a four-time passenger I have always had the strong sense that the expedition and enrichment staff genuinely want to bring you absolutely the best experience possible. The large number on every voyage makes a huge difference in having them readily at hand when ashore or in Zodiacs and providing a rich variety of expertise.

Lindblad Expeditions

The N. G ENDURANCE represents the latest in Expedition ship design. * Rendering: Lindblad Expeditions

In January 2017, Lindblad took delivery of the 96-passenger NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ENDEAVOUR II to replace the long-serving N. G. ENDEAVOUR  in the Galapagos. Then in July 2017, a newly-built 100-passenger NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC QUEST became the first of two ordered ships to sail alongside the veterans N.G. SEA BIRD and N. G. SEA LION in Alaska, British Columbia, the Pacific Northwest and to reintroduce Belize itineraries.

The second, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC VENTURE, l entered service in October 2018 on the U.S. west coast. Her seasonal itineraries will be in Baja, Pacific Northwest, and Alaska. US-flag ships come from Nichols Brothers Boat Builders, near Seattle. Not stopping there, in mid-March 2018, Lindblad held a keel laying ceremony for the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ENDURANCE (126 passengers) commencing construction at the Crist Shipyard in Gdynia, Poland. This Polar Class 5 rated ship is due to be delivered in the second quarter of 2020, and ENDURANCE recalls the name of Ernest Shackleton’s pioneering Antarctic expedition vessel.

Lindblad Expeditions

N.G. ENDURANCE offers 13 two-room balcony suites. * Photo: Lindblad Expeditions

 

The ships vary from perhaps the best-equipped expedition ships afloat to the most nimble for poking around confined spaces, along narrow rivers and into tiny island coves. Here, we treat the ships one by one, to see what they offer and where they venture — some go all over and others stay in one region.

It is hard to beat Lindblad for its creative and professional approach to expedition cruising, so be prepared to pay for the high standards.

QuirkyCruise Review

 

National Geographic Explorer

Lindblad Expeditions

N.G. EXPLORER. * Photo: Ted Scull

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC EXPLORER (148 passengers & built 1982 as the rugged Norwegian coastal passenger and roll-on, roll-off ferry liner MIDNATSOL, enlarged for the same service 1989, and rebuilt into an expedition ship in 2008).

Passenger Profile

Mainly 50+, though younger passengers come on selected expeditions and so do families; Lindblad has a fine program for children, best in the Polar Regions and Galapagos.

Passenger Decks

6. An elevator serves all decks apart from B-Deck for Internet center, Mud Room and lockers.

Price

$$$  Super Pricey

Included Features

All shore activities, Zodiac and kayak explorations, all alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, gratuities to the crew. So what’s not? WiFi, Spa treatments, shop souvenirs.

Itineraries

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC EXPLORER (NGEX) covers more territory in one calendar year than any other in the fleet. In winter, the polar regions include Antarctica, the Falklands and South Georgia (along with N.G. ORION); in summer the Norwegian fjords, Arctic Norway, Svalbard, Iceland (including a circumnavigation), Greenland, Canadian Arctic and Canadian Maritimes; Fall down South America’s west coast from Peru south to Chile and Argentina (Patagonia) for another Antarctic season; and closing the circle, a spring return to Europe via the Atlantic Islands, Iberia and onto the British Isles and Ireland. Watch for new itineraries. One Iceland and Greenland itinerary includes flights over the latter’s remote glaciers as well as land and sea travel.

Why Go?

The NGEX is  one of the best equipped expedition ship afloat with a fleet of Zodiacs and kayaks, as well as sophisticated equipment such as a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) for underwater exploration, hydrophone, underwater video camera, a superb expedition team that provides enrichment aboard and explorations ashore via Zodiacs, and a National Geographic photographer and instructor. On European itineraries, cultural experts and historians are aboard.

When to Go?

The ship ventures to various regions in the most suitable season such as Antarctica in the Northern Hemisphere winter and the Arctic regions in summer.

Cabins

All cabins, of mostly moderate size (some larger suites), are outside, majority with windows, eight with portholes, and all thankfully have blackout curtains for 24-hour daylight sailings. Beds are queen-size, twins with some convertible to queens, and seven can take a third person at 50% reduction of the double occupancy rate; 13 have balconies. A nice extra is a World Atlas placed in cabins and open to the page you will be exploring. How about that for service?

Public Rooms

Main lounge (seats everyone) with bar equipped for films, slide shows and presentations; observation lounge on Bridge Deck with domed-roof and adjacent library; navigation bridge is generally open to passengers for meeting officers, learning about navigation and spotting wildlife; chart room for studying the region sailing to; fitness center, spa and sauna, Internet café.

The bridge aboard the NGEX is often another public room for the passengers.

The bridge aboard the NGEX is popular gathering place for  passengers, one of the delights of expedition cruising. * Photo: Ted Scull

Dining

Single seating dining room forward and adjacent Bistro (same menu) has additional seating (some tables for two) in a more relaxed arrangement. Meals also offer buffet items at breakfast and lunch. The food is of good quality and well prepared, though that extra freshness may be lacking in remote regions. Lunch buffets also take place up in the domed observation lounge. Go for it; the view while eating is great!

Activities & Entertainment

Apart from the excursions ashore and in Zodiacs accompanied by the expedition staff, sharing pre-dinner recaps are amongst the expedition highlights — with underwater videos shot that day being shown, a look back at the day’s happenings, and a plan for tomorrow presented by the expedition staff. Unscheduled Zodiac excursions may occur when wildlife appears along the shore.

On Svalbard, for example, a polar bear may be spotted as a tiny speck on the ice, and passengers begin to gather, standing in total silence at the bow to watch the distance between the ship nosed into the pack ice and curious bear get ever shorter. I have seen polar bears walk up to the bow and sniff the smells we give off.

This curious polar bear came right up to the bow during a cruise around Svalbard. (Spitsbergen)

This curious polar bear came right up to the bow during an expedition cruise around Svalbard. (Spitsbergen) * Photo: Ted Scull

Special Notes

A full-time doctor is aboard

QuirkyCruise Review

 

National Geographic Orion

Approaching the Orion from the stern off Australia's Kimberley Coast.

Approaching the Orion from the stern off Australia’s remote Kimberley Coast. * Photo: Ted Scull

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ORION (102 passengers & built 2003 as ORION for Australian-based Orion Cruises, acquired by Lindblad in 2013 and underwent a major refit.

Passenger Profile

Mainly 50+, though younger passengers and families come on selected voyages. Given the cruising areas, now Antarctica and the South Pacific, expect some Europeans and Australians.

Passenger Decks

5 decks with an elevator connecting all but the Expedition Deck for the Mud Room, Zodiac boarding and Doctor’s Office.

Price

$$$  Super Pricey

Included Features

All shore activities, Zodiac and kayak explorations, all alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, gratuities to crew. So what’s not? WiFi, Spa treatments, shop souvenirs.

Itineraries

Winter in Antarctica, Falklands and South Georgia from Ushuaia, Argentina (along with N.G. EXPLORER);  in spring, the NGOR heads first to Chile then across the South Pacific via Easter Island and Pitcairn Island for cruises to Tahiti and around French Polynesia. Also, in the summer in Alaska and along the Aleutian Islands to the Bering Sea, and the Russian Arctic and Russian Far East.

Why Go?

Here is a prime example of an expedition ship that excels for its comforts, style and travel adventure. The N.G. ORION is particularly well-equipped with a fleet of Zodiacs, kayaks, snorkeling gear, scuba diving gear for 24 passengers (on certain itineraries), a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), hydrophone, underwater video cameras, video microscope, a superb expedition team that provides enrichment aboard and explorations ashore and in Zodiacs, and a National Geographic photographer and instructor.

When to Go?

Itineraries are geared to the best season exploring a specific region such as Antarctica in the Northern Hemisphere winter November to March, while the rest of the year most other cruising areas are in tropical waters.

Cabins

Roomy for a small ship and beautifully-designed and furnished; twin beds that convert to queens, all are outside, 19 with oval windows; 9 with balconies, some of which are small and some shared with neighbors (no partitions); flat-screen TV with DVD/CD player, mini-fridge, personal safe, Internet access for laptops, shower except 4 suites with bathtub. Third person pays 50% of double-occupancy rate in triple-bed cabins. 4 single cabins.

Public Rooms

Attractive main lounge with sit-up bar that seats all for talks and films; renovated observation lounge and library; open bridge policy makes the navigation center another well-used public room.

Orion: Lunchtime on deck. * Photo: Ted Scull

Orion: Lunchtime on deck in Australia.
* Photo: Ted Scull

Dining

Meals are served at one open seating in a restaurant with large-view windows; delightful outdoor café serves buffet breakfast and lunches, and barbecue dinners when the weather is warm. Food is very good and often connected to the cruising region.

Activities & Entertainment

Apart from the guided excursions ashore, including on foot and bicycles, and in Zodiacs, the evening pre-dinner recaps are amongst the expedition highlights with a film of underwater videos shot that day, a recap of the day’s happenings, and the presentation by the expedition and the lecture staff of the plan for tomorrow. Small hot tub aft on Observation Deck. Fitness center, sauna and spa.

Special Notes

A full-time doctor is aboard.

QuirkyCruise Review

National Geographic Endeavour II

Ships, Years Delivered & Passengers

This ship replaced the long-serving NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ENDEAVOUR  in early January 2017. The replacement started life as the VIA AUSTRALIS (b. 2005 & 136 passengers), and after major refit now carries just 96 passengers. The family friendly ship will has seven sets of connecting cabins and six triples, and for solo passengers, nine single cabins.

Passenger Profile

Mostly Americans, with some other nationalities, and as Lindblad is well-prepared to handle children, families during the school holidays.

Passenger Decks

6 and no elevator.

Price

$$$   Super Pricey

What’s Included

All shore activities, Zodiac and kayak explorations, 24-hour, coffee, tea, soda, bottled water.

Itineraries

Repeating 9-night (including overnights en route) Galapagos island wildlife cruises with ship departures every Friday; land extensions available to Peru — Lima, Cusco and Machu Picchu.

Why Go?

If swimming with sea lions and sidestepping marine iguanas stretched out in the sun sounds intriguing, then think about a week’s small-ship adventure in Ecuador’s Galapagos Archipelago. Even wildlife names and antics are intriguing, such as blue-footed boobies doing their mating dance by lifting one foot, bending their wings and whistling. Days are spent on the water in Zodiacs, in the water snorkeling, and on land hiking with a trained naturalist guide.

                                                                                                                                                      Marine Iguanas. * Photo: Suellyn Scull

When to Go?

That requires a somewhat complex answer. The peak seasons, because of the school holidays, last from mid-June to early September and mid-December to mid-January. December through May, the water is warm for snorkeling and swimming but there will be fewer fish to see. Most days in the first months will see some rain.

The latter part of the season is spring mating time for animals and birds on land, especially sea lions and turtles, plus wild flowers in bloom. June through November brings on the colder waters of the Humboldt Current, therefore, more fish and sea birds are looking for prey, but snorkeling is going to be less comfortable and the ocean is rougher.

Cabins

56, all outside with windows or portholes on Main and A decks. Most cabins are smallish and have compact bathrooms with showers. Amenities are a small fridge and video player.

Public Rooms

Lounge with bar seats all passengers; separate library on the deck above; open bridge policy provides another room and fraternizing with the officers; spa, sauna and fitness center.

Dining

Restaurant is forward on Upper Deck with large view windows either side, and the food is of good quality with some local island ingredients, and Ecuadorian fish such as Wahoo and Dorado.

Activities & Entertainment

Apart from the hikes ashore, in Zodiacs and the glass-bottom boat with guides and snorkeling (wet suits in cold weather), the evening pre-dinner recaps are jolly affairs with videos and the day’s results of the underwater camera screened, a look back at the day’s happenings, and a plan for tomorrow presented by the naturalists. Small dip-in pool on Veranda Deck aft.

A newly introduced  activity is plein air drawing where a resident artist instructs passengers during regular sessions on board and shore to create images of the wildlife they see, and many are tame enough to pose for you. Look for the departure dates that include this activity.

Lindblad Expeditioins

Sea lion and pup in Galapagos Islands. National Geographic Islander in background. * Photo: David Vargas

Special Notes

A doctor is aboard. Naturalists that Lindblad hires are likely to be amongst the best available in a very active cruising area. Crew and most of the expedition staff is Ecuadorean.

QuirkyCruise Review

 

National Geographic Islander

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ISLANDER (48 passengers & built as the twin-hulled catamaran ISLANDER in 1995, first cruised in Scotland, and taken on by Lindblad in 2004 and renamed).

Passenger Profile

Largely Americans and some Europeans; varied ages and families at holiday periods.

Passenger Decks

4. No elevator.

Price

$$$  Super pricey

Included Features

All shore activities, Zodiac and kayak explorations, 24-hour coffee, tea, soda, bottled water.

Itineraries

Repeating 9-night (including overnights en route) Galapagos island wildlife cruises with ship departures every Friday; land extensions available to Peru — Lima, Cusco and Machu Picchu.

Why Go?

See N.G. ENDEAVOUR II above, plus the advantage, for some, choosing a ship with half the number of passengers compared to N.G. ENDEAVOUR. Also see this ship above for “Why Go.”

When to Go?

See N.G. ENDEAVOUR II above

Cabins

24 outside, mostly compact cabins on three decks, all with windows. Twins may be arranged as a double or as queen beds. Two cabins can accommodate a third person. Eight cabins on the Upper Deck have glassed-in terraces.

Public Rooms

Aft lounge seats all passengers for evening recaps, lectures and films; adjacent library and Internet Café, fitness center, covered seating aft on Upper Deck, open bridge policy.

Dining

Restaurant is aft on Bridge Deck with open seating for all to dine at one time. Food is average to good with some tasty Ecuadorian specialties.

Activities & Entertainment

Apart from hikes ashore, in Zodiacs and glass-bottom boat with guides, and snorkeling (wet suits in cold weather), the evening pre-dinner recaps are jolly affairs with videos and the day’s results of the underwater camera shown, a look back at the recent happenings, and a plan for tomorrow by the naturalists. See additional Activities under the N.G. ENDEAVOUR.

Special Notes

A doctor is aboard. Crew and most of the expedition staff is Ecuadoran.

QuirkyCruise Review

 

National Geographic Quest & National Geographic Venture

Ship, Year Delivered + Passengers

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC  QUEST  (built in 2017 and 100 passengers); NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC VENTURE followed in 2018.

Passenger Profile

Varies depending on the itinerary but mostly Americans, and some Europeans and Australians. Family during the school holidays, attracted by special programs and connecting cabins.

Passenger Decks

4 decks with an elevator serving all desks.

Price

$$$ – Very pricey

Included Features

All sightseeing excursions, Zodiac trips and kayaking, snorkeling gear, wet suits, non-alcoholic drinks..

Itineraries

The NG QUEST expedition ship offers many options, depending on the season and in brief they are: Alaska and Inside Passage (along B. C. coast at the beginning & end of season); Columbia and Snake rivers; Channel Islands off California; Baja California; along the Costa Rican coast and islands and Panama, including a canal transit; and Belize for the reefs, rivers and Mayan ruins.

NG VENTURE covers Alaska and B. C. coast; San Juan Islands; Channel Islands off California; and a long stint in Baja California and the Sea of Cortez.

Lindblad Expeditions

Skagway. * Photo:: C&V Bureau

Why Go?

The NG QUEST, completed in 2017, and NG VENTURE in 2018 have many of the latest features for an expedition vessel and a wide variety of destinations.

When to Go?

The itineraries are geared to the best season for visiting  the destinations.

Cabins

50 outside cabins(136 to 185 sq.ft., and 22 of these with step-out balconies). 6 cabins connect providing side-by-side accommodations for families.

Public Rooms

Large lounge for gathering before meals, including the day’s recap, lectures and videos, and leads out to a viewing platform; dining room aft with windows on three sides; gym and spa; open and partly covered sun deck; and open bridge policy, in effect providing another public room.

Dining

All dining is at one open seating, and the menus will reflect the wide-ranging itineraries.

Activities & Entertainment

While the so-called entertainment category includes presentations by the expedition staff before and after dinner and time at sea; the activities ashore will vary according to the specific itinerary; equipment available includes 10-12 passenger landing craft embarked from two landing platforms and 24 sea kayaks and a fleet of paddelboats; remotely operated vehicle (ROV) for exploring the sea beneath the ship and bringing back images; bow camera, underwater camera, hydrophone for collecting sounds that sea creatures make, video microscope, kayaks, wet suits and snorkeling equipment.

Special Notes

This pair was built by Nichols Brothers, Whidbey Island, Washington, the same yard that completed the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SEA LION & NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SEA BIRD. They fly the US flag hence they can sail on domestic itineraries without having to call at a foreign port, although the pair does venture south to Mexico and Central America.

QuirkyCruise Review

 

National Geographic Sea Lion & Sea Bird

Sea Lion, whalewatching in the Pacific off Bahia Magdalena. * Photo: Ted Scull

Sea Lion, whalewatching in the Pacific off Bahia Magdalena. * Photo: Ted Scull

Ships, Year Delivered & Passengers

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SEA LION & NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SEA BIRD (62 passengers & built 1981, later upgraded and reduction in passenger capacity by eliminating lowest-deck cabins.

Most recently with the arrival of the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC QUEST and NG VENTURE the old pair were further refitted with newly redecorated interiors for the lounge and bar, dining room and cabins. They carry sea kayaks, a fleet of paddleboats, video microscope, hydrophone and bow camera.

Passenger Profile

Mostly Americans, generally 50+ and few families on the Columbia-Snake itineraries, and more likely on the other trips, especially during school holidays.

Passenger Decks

3 and no elevator

Price

$$ Expensive but less pricey than the two new US flag vessels.

Included Features

All shore activities, Zodiac and kayak explorations, 24-hour, coffee, tea, soda, bottled water.

Itineraries
  • Southeast Alaska cruises between Juneau and Sitka.
  • One-way positioning cruises early May and early September between Seattle via the Inside Passage along the British Columbia coast, calling at Haida Gwaii (island) and into Southeast Alaska.
  • Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean coast of Baja California for serious whale watching. In the height of whale watching season — gray and hopefully sperm, blue and fin whales in the lagoons along the Pacific Coast, and the islands in the Sea of Cortez.
  • Channel Islands and Santa Catalina from Los Angeles for the beach life, hiking, sea kayaking, paddle boarding and meditation sessions.

Intense birders on the Costa Rican coast. * Photo: Ted ScullIntense birders on the Costa Rican coast. * Photo: Ted Scull

Why Go?

Every itinerary has its numerous attractions. Alaska: glaciers, fjords, wildlife on land and sea and with the grandeur of Glacier Bay National the highlight, especially enjoyed on such a small ship; Baja California on both coasts for the varieties of birds; snorkeling among sea lions; coastal and island hikes.

Both vessels are about as simple as any small ships get, a bit pokey, past their prime, yet well maintained with excellent expedition staffs. So forget any thought of luxury and go for the wonderful experience. The Columbia-Snake rivers route was my first soft-adventure by ship – the Sea Lion, some 30 years ago.

Dramatic scenery along the Columbia/Snake Rivers. * Photo: Ted Scull

Dramatic scenery along the Columbia/Snake Rivers. * Photo: Ted Scull

When to Go?

The two ships are positioned where the weather is best for expedition and soft adventure activities, so there are no cautions needed.

Cabins

Small and all outside with view windows, some twins may be converted to a double bed, and a few can take a third person at 50% of the double occupancy rate. Cabins on Bridge and Upper decks open onto a side promenade, while Main Deck cabins are accessed from a central corridor. These latter six cabins are also adjacent to the dining room, therefore a convenient, but also trafficked corridor.

Public Rooms

A single forward observation lounge with a bar; forward outdoor open observation deck and partly covered Bridge Deck. Spa and exercise equipment.

Dining

Food is good with buffet at breakfast, family-style service at lunch and served dinners.

Activities & Entertainment

Evening recaps of the day; plans for the day ahead and talks (some illustrated) by the naturalist staff using results of underwater video and video microscope. Depending on the itinerary, kayaking, snorkeling (with wet suits in Baja), and expedition landing craft for going ashore on hikes.

Special Notes

A doctor is aboard on in Baja and Costa Rica/Panama and an undersea specialist in Alaska and Baja.

QuirkyCruise Review

 

And In Brief — Partial Year Ship Charters

Sea Cloud

SEA CLOUD approaching Nice. * Photo: William J. Mayes

SEA CLOUD approaching Nice. * Photo: William J. Mayes

Lindblad charters the 64-passenger SEA CLOUD ($$$), a legendary sailing vessel built in Germany as a private yacht in 1931 and converted to a cruise vessel in 1979. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience to sail in her —  in the Mediterranean, the Greek islands from Piraeus (Athens); along the Greek and Dalmatian coasts between Piraeus (Athens) and Dubrovnik; and Sicily and Malta.

The best, and the most expensive cabins, are the beautifully furnished eight originals on Main Deck when the Sea Cloud was E.F. Hutton’s private yacht built for his wife, Marjorie Meriweather Post (cereal heiress). The added cabins are modern, very attractively fitted and considerably less expensive, though not cheap. The main lounge is beautifully paneled and with parquet floors. Food and service are great, and some meals are taken out on deck. The Caribbean offers just the occasional one-week cruise from Barbados in winter.

Delfin II

Lindblad has chartered the Amazon riverboat DEFLIN II ($$$) since 2010 taking 28 passengers in 14 luxurious cabins on one-week cruises along two of the river’s upper tributaries. The riverboat has an enclosed lounge, an open lounge and bar under a top deck canopy. The dining saloon is the deck below with big windows facing aft, and the food is quite special and sometimes exotically sourced from the rain forest.

The cabins, with a desk and chair, are lovely with wood trim, wooden floors, large view windows, twin beds that can form kings; and two suites have king-size beds only. Some can be interconnected for families, and four face forward with terrific views. Bathrooms are roomy. Excursions ashore are made in 10-person skiffs and kayaks, plus some walking where paths exist.

A national reserve in remote Amazonia is the highlight, looking out for exotic bird species, monkeys and anacondas of the rain forest, and pink and gray dolphins, piranhas and red-eyed caiman in the dark waters, sometimes decorated with giant water lilies. Cruises operate year-round except April and September.

Lily pads along the Amazon.* Photo: Ted Scull

Lily pads along the Amazon.* Photo: Ted Scull

Jahan

The more than comfortable 48-passenger riverboat JAHAN ($$$) cruises the Mekong between Siem Reap (Angkor Wat), Cambodia and My Tho (near Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City) on 15-day cruise-tours from January to March. The famous temple complex, Cambodia’s capital at Phnom Penh, and the teeming life along the river are the highlights.

Harmon V  (Note: This ship is not currently operating.)

This chartered 46-passenger ship, with stabilizers, will take 46 passengers in all outside cabins with windows on 11-day cruise tours beginning in December and running through March. Days 1-3 are spent in Havana then 4-11 on board the ship calling at the colonial cities of Trinidad and Cienfuegos, located on Cuba’s south coast, Islas de la Juventud and the Bay of Pigs where a failed U.S. invasion took place in 1961.

First New Ice-Class Polar Vessel

Lindblad’s building its first ocean-going ice-class polar vessel, a 126-passenger ship with the distinctive X-BOW to provide fuel efficiency and significantly improve passenger comfort in rough seas. Delivery for the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ENDURANCE is planned for early 2020.

Lord of the Glens

Lindblad Expeditions

Crinan Canal, Scotland. * Photo: Ted Scull

A Scottish 48-passenger, 4-deck vessel with 52 outside cabins makes 9-day canal, loch and island itineraries in June, July and August between Kyle of Lochalsh (across from the Isle of Skye) and Inverness. The route calls for stops on Skye, Eigg or Rhum, Iona, Oban, Loch Linnhe, Glenfinnan Viaduct, Neptune’s Steps (flight of locks) in the Caledonian Canal, then passing through Loch Ness to Inverness, thus having crossed the Scottish mainland to just short of the North Sea.

Note: For a fuller account of the ship and its itinerary, go to the ship’s owner, Magna Carta Steamship Company.

Oberoi Philae

The newly-rebuilt Nile riverboat with enlarged accommodations for 42 in 22 cabins and nearly floor-to-ceiling windows, including four suites, has two restaurants with one on the Sun Deck, and several lounges. 13-day cruise tours will operate between January and March and September to December.

The land portion begins in Cairo for the museum, Coptic churches in Old Cairo and Ben Ezra synagogue before flying south to Luxor and boarding the 6-day cruise that give access to the temple at Luxor and Karnak, a felucca sail, Valley of the Kings, Edfu, Kom Ombo and the island temple at Philae on the far side of the Aswan High Dam. After visiting the temple at Abu Simbel, fly back to Cairo to stay at the Mena House (the original and now much enlarged hotel adjacent to the Pyramids at Giza), plus step pyramid at Saqqara. A five-day extension is available to Jordan.

Contact

Lindblad Expeditions, 96 Morton Street, New York, NY 10014; 800-397-3348 or 212-265-3770.

TWS

 

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Scotland’s Majestic Line

By Ted Scull.

Majestic Line’s new purpose-built small ship will be ready for the 2019 summer season. Its delivery from Ardmaleish Boatbuilding Co. Ltd., Island of Bute will coincide with Majestic Line’s 15th anniversary.

The new GLEN SHIEL, named after a peaceful glen on the North West Mainland, will come with more powerful engines to expand its cruising range and be roughly similar to its fleet mate GLEN ETIVE. Some 10-night cruises will sail to the distant Outer Hebrides’ West Coast and out into the Atlantic to the fabulous bird island of St Kilda and rugged and remote Wester Ross.

Scotland’s Majestic Line

Majestic Line’s Glen Etive. * Photo: Majestic Line

The new ship’s accommodations include seven double or twin cabins with private facilities to board up to 12 passengers as two of the cabins are set aside as singles, a signature feature of the line. She will be fitted with the same stabilizing system as has the GLEN ETIVE, and her interiors will similarly feature lots of brass and hardwoods to match the character and comfort of a 1930s yacht.

One note of great interest to travellers to Scotland is that Majestic Line cruises are all midge free! Those irrepressible biting insects do not like to travel across water leaving us to enjoy our cruise in peace.

The line also has two other interesting small vessels — GLEN MASSAN and GLEN TARSAN — a pair of converted fishing boats. More details on the cruises can be found at www.themajesticline.co.uk.

 

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