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Expedition Cruise Expert

Expedition Cruise Expert Steve Wellmeier — Part 2

Quirky’s Ted Scull continues his Q&A with polar expedition expert Steve Wellmeier, managing director for Poseidon Expeditions.

QuirkyCruise: Any personal relationships enter the picture, and, if so, how did they change your life?

Steve W: I was still single when I moved to New York City in 1988 at the age of 36. Worked for TravLtips, got passionate about cycling and long weekend rides up to Nyack or Cold Spring, French classes at the Alliance Francaise and hanging out with friends.

In the early ‘90s, I met Anne Bergeron, who was dating one of my cycling buddies and she, in fact, was one of the usual weekend cyclists. We started dating and got married in 1995. As you know, she was, like you, a graduate of Trinity College.

We remained in New York for a couple of years, and then I received a call from Paul Duynhouwer to rejoin him in St. Louis at INTRAV and Clipper, which by that time had merged into one company and became a publicly-traded firm. Anne was happy to escape from New York at the time, so we headed west.

Polar Expedition Cruise

Nantucket Clipper. * Photo: Ted Scull

As VP of Marketing, my first task was to bring together two rather disparate marketing cultures into one cohesive unit. Everything was done in-house: copywriting – now called “content creation” – graphics, purchasing, database manipulation, etc. Millions of direct mail brochures were sent to past travelers, prospects, travel agents, etc. Some people complain about direct mail, but it worked!

We stayed in St. Louis until 2000, when INTRAV was sold to Kuoni UK and we moved back to New York. Anne received a fantastic offer from the Guggenheim Museum, and I was happy to return as well, as we both had many friends.

I didn’t have a job lined up, but the travel industry was still relatively strong and I was able to line up some freelance consulting work, including with Far & Wide, which was a new “roll-up” that had purchased more than a dozen existing tour operations.

 RELATED: Read Part of 1 a QuirkyCruise Q&A with Expedition Cruise Expert Steve Wellmeier. 

QuirkyCruise: What then?

Steve W: The management team of Far & Wide were meeting on the morning of September 11, 2001 in Miami, and I was on the agenda as a possible marketing hire. Needless to say, the management team never got to my name that day. Just as well, as Far & Wide floundered just a few years later.

Anne’s job was secure, but I needed something to do and there wasn’t going to be anyone looking for a travel marketing guy for a while. So, I remember talking with you a few days after 9/11 and asking about your friend Marianne Ann’s role with FEMA, and if the agency might be looking for some temporary assistance with the World Trade Center Recovery Effort.

So, you connected me with her and I was taken on as a “local hire” in the public affairs group. We worked for several months in the cruise ship terminals on the Hudson River before moving to the old post office and then, finally, the Federal Building.

Initially, I was one of nearly 100 public affairs specialists actively working on the FEMA recovery effort, but by the time we moved to the Federal Building, probably late 2002 or early 2003, I was one of just a handful still working in public affairs. Shortly thereafter, I transferred to the Empire State Development Corporation, where I was a program manager for a grant program that distributed federal money to businesses that committed to staying in their premises south of Canal Street.

Well, my time at FEMA was an amazing experience, but that’s another whole story that would take some time to relay…

QuirkyCruise: Describe Elegant Cruises.

Steve W: In 2004, I heard that a small, family-owned cruise operator out in Port Washington was looking for some help with sales and marketing of their new Andrea, a vessel that was converted for expedition-style cruising from its original incarnation as Hurtigruten’s Harald Jarl.

She had been nicely outfitted, and joined Elegant’s other ship, the 60-passenger Monet, which operated week-long cruises in the Adriatic from Venice. The Monet was a successful, popular little ship that helped to establish the company.

The Monet ship

The Monet was the ideal size for cruising the Mediterranean’s small ports. * Photo: Elegant Cruises

I had some experience with polar expedition cruising, as I was brought back to Clipper just as they were purchasing and converting the Clipper Adventurer (now the Ocean Adventurer for Quark) in 1997. She had been the Russian research vessel Alla Tarasova. So, I was able to parlay some of that into helping Elegant market the Andrea.

Expedition Cruise Expert

The expedition ship Andrea was built from Hurtigruten’s Harald Jarl. * Photo: Elegant Cruises

The company was not without its challenges, as the renovation costs considerably surpassed the estimates, and getting on top of those initial capital costs was something the company had difficulties with. It all caught up with Elegant when the recession hit in 2009 and the company went out of business soon thereafter. But, the ship operated six successful seasons in Antarctica.

But, by that time (2008) I had been hired as the new executive director of IAATO, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators. Again, my polar experience paid off, although much of IAATO’s work related to developing best field practices, marine advice, assessment of the members’ field staffs, lobbying at Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings and so on.

I brought some organization and financial management to the association and learned a lot about the various member operations: traditional expedition operators like Lindblad, Quark, A&K as well as cruise-only operators (Holland America, Princess) and a number of yacht operators.

I held the position until 2013, when my wife decided to take a job in Dallas with the Dallas Art Museum. So, I resigned!

Expedition Cruise Expert

National Geographic Explorer in Svalbard. * Photo: Ted Scull

QuirkyCruise: What is IAATO, its importance and your job there and challenges?

Steve W: As the Antarctic segment of the cruise industry has grown, so has the importance of IAATO. It is a member organization that includes all of the Antarctic tour operators, both ship-based and land-based (yes, there are a few of these).

IAATO manages a vital database called the Ship Scheduler, which allows for a reasonable distribution of ships vis-à-vis landing sites on a daily basis. In other words, it provides a mechanism by which the expedition ships are not all trying to be at the same place at the same time, providing a more wilderness experience for the guests.

Expedition Cruise Expert

Preparing to go ashore in Antarctica * Photo: Ted Scull

IAATO also keeps extremely accurate statistics on visitation — numbers, nationalities, which landing sites are visited, activities, etc. — and this data is invaluable in its efforts to lobby effectively within the Antarctic Treaty System, an international treaty-based organization that is responsible for tourism management.

Further, IAATO also regularly publishes best practices for expedition ships, expedition leaders and guides, and guidelines for specific landing sites. All of this is designed to insure there is a minimal or even non-existent footprint from tourism in Antarctica.

Until recently, the challenges for IAATO were related to growth, with many more expedition ships expected to get into the marketplace in the next few years. The consequence of this, naturally, is more “boots on the ground” and the associated questions as to whether the increased visitors can continue to be managed in a way that results in no discernable impact — as has been the case historically with IAATO-managed tourism. IAATO has studied this issue extensively and planned accordingly, with multiple meetings, action plans and operational tactics, all designed to better manage the potential growth.

Of course, this has all now been put on the shelf with the advent and continuing saga of COVID-19. Currently, IAATO has marshalled a COVID-19 Task Force to study all of the ramifications of this issue as to how it might affect Antarctic tourism during the upcoming 2020-21 season; look for more on this as we move into the summer months.

Currently, I serve as the chair of the IAATO Finance Committee and the chair of the Bylaws Committee.

QuirkyCruise: What reactions did you have when you first arrived in Antarctica?

Steve W: Why, the absolute majesty of the place! I had the same feeling decades ago when I first drove into the Rocky Mountains. This was a similar breathtaking experience, but on a ship, with water lapping at the edges of the mountains.

Expedition Cruise Expert

The majesty of Antarctica, * Photo: Ted Scull

The “midnight sun” makes it all the more enticing; you become mesmerized standing on the deck as you approach a strait or an inlet or island off the coast and realize the mountains are 60 miles away. A dark smudge on the snow becomes a penguin colony as you come closer and then you see the non-stop activity of the penguins marching up and down the hills, building their nests, fighting with each other and so forth. Other-worldly.

RELATED: A Comparison of Antarctic vs Arctic Expeditions.  by Ted Scull.

QuirkyCruise: Do you think there are too many ships landing passengers in Antarctica or are they well spread out?

Steve W: I think I’ve addressed this earlier in talking about the IAATO Ship Scheduler. This database has now been in place about 15 years, and it works wonderfully well. IAATO is now working on a next-generation Ship Scheduler, which will work in real-time and which should have additional built-in features that will help ensure that landing sites that have traditionally been popular don’t become “overly” popular.

In other words, it will continue to do what it is supposed to do — spread out the ships and their guests to ensure that tourism has a very limited or even non-existent impact on the natural environment.

From a marketing perspective, of course, an increased number of ships creates more competition and more choice for the consumer. It draws more attention to the destination which — as a seller of travel experiences — is a good thing, as long as it can properly be managed on the ground.

QuirkyCruise: Many of the first ships to make expedition cruises tended to be built for other cruise markets, and others for entirely different purposes such as research, ice breaking, even spying. What do you think of them today vs all the new purpose-built expedition ships, and some of them super luxurious? Is a segment of expedition cruising getting too fancy and maybe losing the plot?

Steve W:  This is an interesting question, and the answer is complicated. Initially, there were a few purpose-built ships — Lindblad Explorer, World Discoverer, Frontier Spirit — that were enough for the relatively limited market and demand. As the market picked up in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, helped along by a pretty good economy overall, tour operators where hankering to get into the business. So, with the fall of the Soviet Union, there was suddenly an inventory of usable ice-class tonnage that could be fitted out for polar tourism.

RELATED: An Antarctica Expedition on a Russian Research Vessel.  by Judi Cohen.

Expedition Cruise Ship

Ocean Endeavour is an example of a standard cruise ship used for Antarctic Expeditions. * Photo: Quark Expeditions

Other ships, too, were drawn into the market, many with lesser ice class capability, but still with the basic requirements to offer limited polar cruises to the Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia, etc.

What changed things considerably were two events: the sinking of the Explorer in November 2007 and the recession and stock market crash that happened shortly thereafter. The sinking chased a lot of ships out of the market for various reasons, mostly having to do with new requirements that no heavy or intermediate fuel oil be burned in Antarctic waters; no open lifeboats; and a few other issues that got a lot of publicity and push back from Antarctic Treaty Parties.

The recession probably had a bigger impact, because suddenly money was very tight. A few companies went out of business, and no one wanted to invest in a ship for which no one was yet certain what the IMO requirements would be (as per the Polar Code, which was being revised during this time).

RELATED: Deciphering the Polar Code with expert Atle Ellefsen of the DNV. 

Expedition Cruise Expert

Ponant’s Bougainville is one of many expedition ships the line built during hard times. * Photo: Ponant

The only company that continued to build ships was Ponant. As the recession started to lift, the market improved, and new ships were announced. Let’s face it: there was a stretch of 5-7 years when no ships were being built and the Russian fleet was getting older and older, less desirable by the younger generation that wanted better accommodations, and weren’t likely to comply with the new Polar Code anyway.

The other factor was that traditional cruise and riverboat operators —Crystal, Seabourn, Silversea, Scenic, Viking — made a business decision that they didn’t want to NOT be in the game, losing their good, loyal customers to expedition operators like Lindblad, Quark, A&K and others. So, they all started making investments into the market as well.

Is the market getting too fancy? Well, some customers want that, especially if they are used to the level of service and treatment they get from Silversea, Seabourn, Scenic, Crystal, etc. Nothing wrong with being comfortable. But I have a hunch that that segment of the market may not hold up with the prices that they want.

There will continue to be demand in the middle ground, for good ice-class ships of a good size (less than 200) that are comfortable, fit and up-to-date, but not necessarily putting all of their resources into luxury features. Not everyone wants or needs it.

PS from TWS: …  or wants to pay for it or can’t pay for it.

RELATED: An Antarctica Expedition with Ponant & Abercrombie and Kent.  by John Roberts.

QuirkyCruise: Tell us about your current job, and how did it come about?

Steve W:  After leaving my position with IAATO in 2013, I started Navilogue, a consultancy to assist ship operators, particularly expedition ship operators, with market issues. This evolved into more and more time spent on my Poseidon Expeditions account, helping them apply for Operator status with IAATO, press releases, marketing strategies and other communications issues.

Once the company chartered the Sea Spirit in the spring of 2015, they wanted a larger US presence and I offered to open and manage a US office for Poseidon. It all worked out, and our sales growth has been steady since Day 1.

Expedition Cruise Expert

Poseidon Expeditions’ Sea Explorer. * Photo: Poseidon Expeditions

So, currently I manage the US office, Poseidon Expeditions USA. We essentially serve as a sales and reservations office for US travel partners and direct customers. I also get involved in a bit of marketing, public relations and other communications issues for the company.

QuirkyCruise: What are some of the best and/or most unusual itineraries?

Steve W: There are two that really stand out — our trip to the North Pole aboard the nuclear-powered 50 Years of Victory, and our Franz Josef Land expedition cruise aboard the Sea Spirit.

Expedition Cruise Expert

50 Years of Victory is a Russian icebreaker that can reach the North Pole. * Photo: Poseidon Expeditions

Anyone can go to Franz Josef Land, but we have the unique ability to go there directly from Longyearbyen, which saves about two days of sea cruising overall. None of our competitors offer this advantage, although more and more of them have announced trips to Franz Josef Land in the past couple of years.

QuirkyCruise: You had a terrifying encounter during a business trip to South Africa?

Steve W: Yes, this happened in late April 2019, while I was just getting ready to attend the IAATO Annual Meeting, in downtown Cape Town. I was staying at a different hotel from the conference hotel, just a block away, and after some preliminary meetings I ran back to my hotel to drop off my laptop, change clothes, etc. before coming back to the preliminary icebreaker or cocktail party.

Expedition Cruise Expert

View from Table Mountain, Cape Town. * Photo: Ted Scull

The street wasn’t particularly empty or particularly dark — it was about 6:30 pm — but a guy walking in the opposite direction on the sidewalk suddenly veered toward me and attacked me with a knife. It was very quick and I didn’t know what hit me, but thought it was a blunt object at first. It struck me on the left side of my face, halfway between my ear and eye. I saw stars, but didn’t fall down, and I think he was probably counting on this; a robbery attempt. I yelled at him, and I think this threw him off his game, so he took off.

I was lucky to be just 40 yards or so from the front door of the conference hotel, so I managed to walk quickly over there. The guys at the front door, the bellmen, van drivers, security guards, etc., were certainly surprised and didn’t quite know what to do. I kept repeating to go get some of my friends at the cocktail party on the 18th floor, and to call an ambulance. Not sure that registered!

But a young American backpacker happened to be at the right place at the right time, and with his nurse’s training, was able to get me to sit down on the pavement and get the bleeding stopped. The ambulance never did show up, so some of my IAATO colleagues commandeered a hotel shuttle van and I was taken to Christiaan Barnard Hospital emergency room, which was fortunately close by.

As it turns out, the knife not only fractured my cheekbone, nicked my esophagus and fractured my topmost vertebrae, it also nicked my carotid artery and created an aneurysm. This was the big problem, and I had emergency surgery the next morning at the University of Cape Town Private Academic Hospital. I had a couple of miracle surgeons who fished a couple of stents up through the artery in my groin, and I recovered in ICU for a few days.

Some facial nerve damage has continued, but that’s diminished over time. While I got out of the hospital in about a week’s time, I had to stay another week before the physicians would allow me to fly home. I must add that I could never have gone through this without my wife Anne and her brother-in-law Butch flying over to tend to me and mind my recovery. They were both fantastic.

It’s helped to talk about this with practically anyone willing to listen, and I haven’t had any lingering nightmares or mental trauma. I was very lucky and had a great support network throughout.

Lessons learned: don’t walk alone on Cape Town streets; the more in your group the better, or take a hotel shuttle or taxi. Second lesson: make sure you have adequate emergency medical, evacuation and repatriation insurance — this paid for nearly all of my wife’s expenses, including business class airfare and all her hotel and meal costs, as well as mine.

QuirkyCruise: Thank you for sharing you story with our QuirkyCruise readers. You have had an amazing full working life and most of it associated with small ships.

Steve W: Thanks for this opportunity to talk about myself and my very enjoyable career in the small and expeditionary segment of the cruise industry. I feel very privileged to deal in a market that caters to people’s travel dreams and discretionary spending interests.

Ted and Steve Cruise Experts

Ted (left) & Steve (right) aboard a Celebrity press trip. * Photo: Steve Wellmeier

 RELATED: Read Part of 1 a QuirkyCruise Q&A with Steve Wellmeier. 

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Hebridean Princess is on the dream travel list

Places to Travel Next.

By the QuirkyCruise crew.

Many of us miss the ability to travel right now; to plan, book, dream, pine and take a trip with the ease that now seems unimaginable. For those of us who not only traveled for the love of exploring, but because we’re travel writers doing our jobs, it’s been especially trying to adjust to the new normal. We will travel again and are heartened to see travel bubbles emerging. The gradual return to small-ship cruising is on the horizon.

In the meantime, we can plan and dream and noodle on places to travel, and that’s exactly what Ted and I and our quirky contributors are doing.

Here are three places each of us is hankering to go to as soon as the coast is clear.

Ted Scull

I am based in New York City, and my hopes for travel are widely varied as they always have been.

1.  I have contracts, with Cunard, renewed on an annual basis, to serve as a lecturer twice a year aboard a Queen May 2 westbound crossing. Just being at sea for a week is pure joy, and with a purpose. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the recent April crossing was cancelled as has the next one scheduled for October. Prior to the transatlantics, my wife and I had planned to spend a week to 10 days either in the UK and/or on the Continent. I look forward to resuming these land and sea options in 2021.

Ted's Places to Travel

Ted before the Queen Mary 2 at Southampton.

2.  For a completely different experience, I would love a week aboard a small ship, and I mean a wee one, with from less than three-dozen passengers on down to 12, cruising Scotland’s Western or Northern Isles. It’s been my favorite inter-island cruising region since the 1970s. Happily — and Yikes! — there are so many new choices.

Ted's fave places to travel

St. Kilda, a bird sanctuary beyond the Outer Hebrides. * Photo: Ted Scull

RELATED:  Cruising Western Scotland, an Overview.  by Ted Scull 

3.  My most ambitious travel adventure would be an overland train journey from London to Shanghai, with a half-dozen stopovers such as Moscow and a couple of cities along the Trans-Siberian, thence to Ulan Bator (Mongolia), Beijing and finally Shanghai. I would allow a month, and we definitely want to share the trip with at least two or more people for company and security. Several friends have expressed interest. I made a similar-style adventure in 1976 traveling by train, ferry, smallish liner and bus from London via the Balkans, Turkey, Gulf States across India and finally by Toy Train up the narrow gauge to Darjeeling.

Ted's wish list include a London to Shanghai train journey


The end of the train journey: London St. Pancras to the Bund in Shanghai. * Photo: Ted Scull

QuirkyCruise.com co-founder Ted Scull is happiest near water, over water or better still on a conveyance moving through water. Over many decades, he has spent more than five years of his life on overnight vessels of all types — ocean liners, cruise ships, riverboats, night boats, coastal vessels, expedition ships, sailing ships and even a couple of freighters, while traveling to over 120 countries on seven continents. Read more here.

Heidi Sarna

I’m based in Singapore, so some of my “I-can’t-wait-to-go” places to travel are in the region, as regional travel will likely be more accessible for the near-term, as “travel bubbles” open between neighboring countries.

1.  I’ve been dreaming about doing the Upper Mekong in Laos and also the Chindwin River in northern Myanmar, both with Pandaw, one of my favorite small-ship lines. These itineraries are more off-beat and less traveled than Mekong river cruises in Cambodia/Vietnam as well as Irrawaddy river cruises, both of which I’ve done and loved. Ideally, I’d love to combine a Pandaw sailing with a guided Grasshopper Adventures cycling trip before or after.

A cruise on the Laos Pandaw is on Heidi's travel list

The 20-passenger Laos Pandaw. * Photo: Pandaw

2.  Definitely, a sailing cruise in Indonesia is top of my list, either around the Komodo Islands or further east in the stunning Raja Ampat region — both of these remote areas boast some of the best snorkeling and diving in the entire world, not to mention off-the-charts scenery. I’d love to do these trips with Star Clippers, Seatrek Sailing Adventures or Aqua Expeditions.

Komodo islands is a place to travel soon

Sparring Komodo dragons. * Photo: Aqua Expeditions

3.  I’m really eager to do a Douro River cruise with a few days in Porto before or after. I love wine and loved a short visit to Lisbon a few years ago, so looking forward to spending more time in Portugal soaking it all up.

Douro River Valley is on Heidi's wish list

A river cruise through the breathtaking Douro River Valley. * Photo: Ama Waterways

QuirkyCruise.com co-founder Heidi Sarna has explored 78 countries around the world by boat, road, plane, foot, bicycle and camel. She started her travel writing career covering the big ships for guidebooks and magazines, though over the years she realized it was the small ones that really floated her boat. And so QuirkyCruise.com was born.  Read more here.

Peter Knego

1.  My first hoped for choice would be to sail on one of CMV ASTORIA‘s final cruises from the UK to Norway in the fall. Such a special, historic ship. See more about the Astoria here in Peter’s photo essay in USA TODAY.

The historic Astoria is the place Peter Knego wants to travel

Peter in front of the historic CMV ASTORIA.

2.  Second on my list would be to get on a sailing of the 95-passenger MV SERENISSIMA, a former Norwegian coastal liner operated by Noble Caledonia. A perfect itinerary on her would be a round UK cruise.

The MV SERENISSIMA is one of the places Peter Knego wants to go

The MV SERENISSIMA is a former Norwegian coastal liner operated by Noble Caledonia. * Photo: Noble Caledonia

3.  Finally, I’m long overdue to do a Galapagos cruise, ideally one that would include an extension to Machu Picchu.

Blue-Footed Booby birds in the galapagos

The famed Blue-Footed Booby birds of the Galapagos. * Photo: Quasar Expeditions

Peter Knego is a cruise journalist, as well as a historian and collector of ocean liner fittings and art — see www.midshipcentury.com. He writes for top cruise and travel pubs, including USA Today, Travel Weekly and Ships Monthly, and has been interviewed and quoted as an expert in The New York Times, SeaTrade Insider and others. Follow Peter on instagram @Knego.

John Roberts

1.   I’m hankering for a Morocco and Canary Islands cruise with Star Clippers.

Climbing the masts on a Star Clippers Greek Isles Cruise

Climbing the masts! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

2.  Douro River cruise with Uniworld. I’ve never been on this river and have heard so many great things.

Uniworld Douro river cruise is on John's travel wish list

A suite aboard Uniworld’s Douro River boat, the São Gabriel. * Photo: Uniworld

3.  Belize and Guatemala with UnCruise. It’s a new itinerary with great activities on the water and on land that really appeals to active travelers like me!

Belize is one of the top places John wants to visit

John chilling on one of Belize’s cayes.

John Roberts is a freelance writer and operator of InTheLoopTravel.com. He writes about cruising and active travel. He’s been on more than 60 cruises in destinations all over the world, always keeping an eye out for how people can connect with the world and other cultures through rewarding travel experiences. Follow John @InTheLoopTravel on Twitter and Instagram.

Anne Kalosh

I’m not thinking about personal or professional travel yet — by ship, plane or even on the local metro. My thoughts are with how the tens of thousands of crew members still stuck on cruise ships due to port closures can get home safely to their families.

Anne Kalosh

This is an urgent focus for the cruise industry, and I hope governments will have a heart and facilitate passage for the seafarers caught up in this crisis.

I’m also keenly interested in how society and the cruise industry will harness their ingenuity and drive to come up with technological advances, operational changes and innovative solutions to overcome this pandemic.

Let’s hope lessons learned will make travel safer and society more humane. Then I’ll begin to dream again about my own trips.

Anne Kalosh has written about cruises for decades and her favorites involve small ships. She writes a cruise column for Afar.com, is the U.S. editor for Seatrade-Cruise.com and Seatrade Cruise Review, and has contributed to a bazillion pubs, including The Miami Herald, Cruise Travel, USA Today and Cruise Week.

Gene Sloan

1.  Moldova. After my wonderful Ukraine visit last year (on a Quirky Cruise! …. read about it here), I am intrigued by that corner of the world. I hear good things about Moldova.

ukraine

Gene’s visit to the Ukraine last year got him thinking about Moldova next.

2.  Liechtenstein. This is purely a country count play. I had a 48-hour dash to Liechtenstein using frequent flier miles on the books for February that I had to cancel when corona-virus blew up. I want to get it back on the schedule. No idea what I will do there. But that’s the point sometimes. Maybe I’ll extend my timeline a few days and make the trip about hiking. I hear they have mountains in Liechtenstein. From where I am, I can get to Zurich nonstop (from Newark) on United and then be in Liechtenstein by train in a couple hours.

Vaduz Castle in Liechtenstein

Vaduz Castle in Liechtenstein. * Photo: Principality of Liechtenstein Tourism Board

3.  The Jersey shore. Hey, no judgment. It’s an hour away, getting warmer by the day, and I can hunker down in a rental house where no one will infect me in between days at the beach.

Cape May is on the travel list

Cape May, on the New Jersey shore. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Gene Sloan has written about travel for nearly three decades, with a longtime focus on cruising. He spent more than 20 years as a travel writer and editor at USA TODAY, where he co-founded the paper’s travel section and later founded and ran its online cruise site. At last count, he’d sailed on nearly 150 ships. Follow Gene on Twitter at CruiseLog & Instagram!

Ben Lyons

1.  Transatlantic crossing on QM2. For the pandemic, I’ve been (fortunately) holed up in Montana the whole time. Montana is beautiful, but it is also landlocked.

I haven’t gone this long without seeing the ocean for probably 25 years.

So when cruising is back, top on my list is a transatlantic crossing on QM2 — a glorious week just staring at nothing but North Atlantic.

2.  Antarctica. Post COVID, I think we’ll see an interest in getting as far away from large cities and back into pristine nature. And when it comes to pristine nature, you can’t do much better  than Antarctica. I’ve been going to the White Continent every year since 2007; for many, the experience of visiting somewhere without cell phones is a  bit of a reset in life, even in normal times. Post COVID, I think it will be even more welcome.

Ben in Antarctica.

Ben in Antarctica.

3.  Hebridean Princess. Footloose walking cruise in Scotland. I believe when it comes to quirky cruises, the smaller the better. Hebridean Princess, a former Scottish island ferry turned luxury cruise ship, is about as small as they come with only 50 passengers.

Small groups are the way forward in a post COVID world.

And so a week spent cruising the Hebrides, while going ashore for long extended hikes across sparsely populated islands, seems a pretty ideal return to cruising trip.

Hebridean Princess is on the dream travel list

The 50-passenger Hebridean Princess is a great way to travel to the remote western isles of Scotland. * Photo: Ben Lyons

Ben Lyons has been obsessed with ships since he was five years old. Since then, he has spent almost every waking moment figuring out how to spend more time at sea, ultimately deciding on careers as a ship’s captain and travel writer. Follow Ben on Twitter @EYOS.

Lynn & Cele Seldon

1.  East Coast with Pearl. We were scheduled to travel up the East Coast from Charleston to Halifax with Pearl Seas in April, prior to the coronavirus crises. Although we have been to the majority of the ports of calls, we were anxious to try Pearl Seas as a line. And sailing along the East Coast is somewhat reminiscent of river cruising, with easy access to exciting cities without the hassles of larger vessels.

And, now, at least for the short term, there is the added appeal of sticking a little closer to home.

Seldon Ink share their top places to travel

Cele & Lynn Seldon of Seldon Ink.

2.  Iceland. We traveled to Iceland several years ago on a land-based trip, spending the majority of our time in Reykjavik and the surrounding area. And we always said we’d go back. However, this time, we’d like to do it by sea and experience a circumnavigation of Iceland to be able to explore all of the small towns and nooks and crannies of the island.

"Adventure Canada" Specials

Iceland. * Photo: Michelle Valberg for Adventure Canada

3.  Patagonia and the Chilean Fjords. What a perfect place to combine a land and sea exploration of the stunning scenery of such a different part of the world. Add on a few days in the wine regions of Chile and Argentina and you’ve got the makings of a bucket list trip for these intrepid adventurers (and wine drinkers!).

Seldon Ink is the travel journalist team of Lynn and Cele Seldon. Lynn brings their travels to life in words and pictures, while Cele, after a corporate marketing career, writes, edits, shoots, and handles marketing and research. In their 25-year career, they have taken 100+ cruises and have written for more than 200 publications, including Cruise Travel, CruiseCritic, and others. Follow them @Seldon Ink on Twitter & Instagram.

Judi Cohen

My first trip when the border opens between Canada and the USA will be to New York to hug my son and his new fiancé. They got engaged on April 19 in Central Park.

1.  Then, I would like to do a small-ship cruise on Pandaw in Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.

Judi on the Mekong

Judi on the Mekong River with Pandaw.

2.  Another small ship cruise with UnCruise in Panama, Costa Rica or Hawaii would be at the top of my list. I had to cancel a Costa Rica/Panama cruise on UnCruise for March 19, 2020, just as corona-virus was spreading internationally.

Alaska cruise writer Judi Cohen aboard UnCruise's Legacy

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

3.  I’d also love to do another river cruise with Viking in Europe very soon.

New Viking Einar Impresses

Viking Einar. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Judi Cohen has travelled to more than 80 countries with her family, and as a tour leader. Writing about her off-the-beaten track journeys by train, helicopter, plane and small quirky cruise ships is her passion. Judi is also an inspirational storyteller, social media influencer and speaker. Visit TravelingJudi.com and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @TravelingJudi.

Robin McKelvie

1.Home. In a slightly bigger sense. We’ve been restricted in Scotland to driving within five miles of our homes. I’m desperate to get out further and from July 15 we can. I’m celebrating by heading out on a cruise with Red Moon so look out for the write-up on QuirkyCruise.com!

Caledonian cruise is one of Robin's places to go

Bagpiper plays a tune for Robin’s cruise on Scotland’s Caledonian Canal.

2.  Slovenia. Meant to be updating my Bradt guide to Slovenia this summer, but that’s not happening. Was looking forward to heading back to a wee gem I consider Europe in miniature. Epic mountains, balmy coast, postcard pretty cities, welcoming people and Michelin just issued their first restaurant stars for Slovenia. Brilliant, world class food and wine.

Ljubljana, Slovenia is on Robin McKelvie list of places to travel

The rooftops of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

3.  Canal du Midi. Was booked to cruise along France’s famous waterway with European Waterways in a wash of fine wine, outdoor hot tubs and sheer luxury in May. Desperate to get back after seeing what they could do in Scotland with their Spirit of Scotland — you can read about that superb cruise on QuirkyCruise.com.

Hot tubbing with European Waterways for Robin

Robin loved the European Waterways hot tub on his Scottish cruise and is looking forward to more of the same in France.

Robin McKelvie is a Scottish based travel writer and broadcaster specialising in cruises, especially small ships. A native Scot, he’s the author of National Geographic Scotland and has been published across five continents in magazines and newspapers including CNN Traveller, The Daily Telegraph, Times, The Australian and The Straits Times. On Twitter @robinmckelvie and @scotcruises, Instagram @travelwriterinakilt and @scotcruises.

Elysa Leonard

1.  Bonaire. I have joined the board of directors for a charity called Aquarium Divers for Coral, but had to postpone a trip to the lovely island of Bonaire for a week of diving and learning how to restore coral reefs. I can’t wait to tell that story! Bonaire is definitely one of the places to travel for me.

Scuba Diving in St Lucia

I’ll be back. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

2.  Bermuda. Once my island home, my family and I will be headed there as soon as the coast is clear, to see friends and enjoy every nook and cranny of this amazing tiny country.

Bermuda's Horseshoe Bay is Elysa's next travel place

Horseshoe Bay on Bermuda’s South Shore. * Photo: Bermuda Tourism Authority

3.  A quirky cruise anywhere in the Caribbean where the diving and snorkeling are plentiful, with Island Windjammers or Star Clippers!

Quirky Island Windjammers Theme Cruises

The Vela under full sail. * Photo: Island Windjammers

Elysa Leonard is a scuba diver who sure knows her tropical fish — she can identify more than 100 kinds. Writing about diving and snorkeling while on a small-ship cruise is her new nirvana. When she isn’t underwater, Elysa is CEO of Splash Communications, a global marketing and public relations firm.

Chrissy Colon

1.   My partner Peter and I would love to do a Greek islands cruise on a small ship with outdoor dining, perhaps couples only. Walking the islands and exploring ruins are all safe outdoor activities.

The Greek Isles is on the travel places list

A Greek Isles cruise with Star Clippers. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

2.  We would do another driving tour of English estates, staying at small B&B’s often owned by the family members who inherited these expensive properties. When we’ve done them in the past, we rarely encountered other people, as the tours were often small and some even by appointment only. Audio guides with timed admission would allow for safe distancing between visitors.

3.  Also, we’d plan an overnight driving trip to a stately old private estate in the northeast of the US, with botanical gardens and formal landscapes. We will look for B&B’s that are a stand-alone cottage or secluded motels. We prefer to wait a while before we jump on a plane even after flights are allowed.

Travel places include the estates in Stockbridge MA

A moon gate on the grounds of the Naumkeag estate in Stockbridge MA. * Photo: Peter Barnes

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Kyles ruins in Scotland

Scotland Cruise

by Robin McKelvie.

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

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

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

Agyll Cruisings' Splendor

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

Rebirth of an Old Dame

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

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

Captain Iain Duncan on a Scottish cruise

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

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

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

8-passenger Splendour in Scotland

The 8-passenger Splendour. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Sailing Through the Mountains

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

scotland cruise landscape

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

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

Scotland cruise map

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

 Kyles ruins in Scotland

The breathtaking Kyles. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

The Unique Firth of Clyde

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

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

Firth of Clyde scenery on a Scotland cruise

The scenic Firth of Clyde. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

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

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

Splendour on a Scotland cruise

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

The Firth of Clyde islands

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

Kyles of Bute in Scotland

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

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

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

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

Ailsa Craig on a Scotland cruise

Close up of Ailsa Craig. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

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

This is the Splendour’s glorious playground.

ruins in Scotland

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

whisky in Arran in Scotland

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

Epic Wildlife and Delicious Food

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

puffins in Scotland

Adorable puffins. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

dolphins on a Scotland cruise

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

standing on deck of Splendour in Scotland

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

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

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

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

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

dining aboard the Splendour in Scotland

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

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

Local Scottish crab and prawns

Local crab and prawns. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Waving a Fond Farewell

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

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

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

The Arran hills of Scotland

Looking across to Arran. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

The Practical Stuff

Itineraries/Fares

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

Getting There

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

Tips

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

Argyll Cruising

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

Weather

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

Money Matters

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

For More Info

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

Scottish travel writer Robin McKelvie

Scottish travel writer Robin McKelvie knows his subject!

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Hawaii cruise

Hawaii Cruise Expedition

By John Roberts.

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

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

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

Hawaii Cruise

John jumping into a great week! * Photo: UnCruise

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

Safari Explorer Hawaii

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

Hawaii cruise aboard the Safari Explorer

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

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

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

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

Hawaii cruise with UnCruise

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

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Hawaii Cruise: The Staff

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

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

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

Authentic Hawaii Cruise

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

Hawaii Cruise: Connected to the Past

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

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

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

Hawaii Cruise: Molokai

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

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

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

Hawaii Cruise: Family Heritage

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

In port in Molokai on a Hawaii Cruise

Uncle Pilipo and his grandsons. * Photo: John Roberts

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

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

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

the traditional "honi" on a Hawaii cruise

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

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

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

Making poi on an Hawaiian cruise

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

Hawaii Cruise: Natural Disasters

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

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

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

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

Hawaiian cruise

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

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

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

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

Below is a video tour of Hotel Molokai.

Hawaii Cruise: Quirky Ship Built for Island Adventures

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

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

Safari Explorer cabin

John’s cabin. * Photo: John Roberts

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

Hawaii Cruise with Captain Tyler

Captain Tyler at the wheel. * Photo: John Roberts

Open bridge on Safari Explorer

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

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

Hawaii cruise top deck

Morning stretches on deck. * Photo: John Roberts

Safari explorer gym weights

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

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

Safari Explorer bar

Drinks are included! * Photo: John Roberts

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

main lounge of Safari Explorer

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

Hawaii Cruise: Food Department

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

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

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

Safari Explorer's dining room

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

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

Dinner on an Hawaii cruise

Yummy pork belly. * Photo: John Roberts

Check out some of the specialties that the kitchen created:

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

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

(I drooled just typing that paragraph.)

Dessert on the Safari Explorer

Dessert is served! * Photo: John Roberts

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

Hawaii Cruise: Four Islands & Endless Fun

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

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

Hawaii cruise on Safari Explorer

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

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

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

kayaking on an Hawaii cruise

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

snorkeling on an Hawaii cruise

Snorkeling fun! * Photo: John Roberts

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

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

Hawaii cruise swimming

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

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

Hawaii cruise crew

Lauren and Sophy. * Photo: John Roberts

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

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

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

green sea turtle on a Hawaii cruise

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

John snorkeling in Hawaii

John snorkeling.

Hawaii cruise snorkeling

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

Hawaii Cruise: Lanai

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

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

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

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

dolphins on a Hawaii cruise

Seeing dolphins up close! * Photo: John Roberts

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

Hawaii cruise wooden canoe

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

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

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

Hawaii cruise canoe

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

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

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

lava formations on an Hawaii cruise

Cool lava formations. * Photo: John Roberts

turtles in Hawaii

Turtle time. * Photo: John Roberts

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

Dolphins on a Hawaii cruise

Dolphins spotted from a skiff! * Photo: John Roberts

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

lava tubes in Hawaii

Lava tubes. * Photo: John Roberts

Hawaii Cruise: A Bit of Chop

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

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

Safari Explorer in Hawaii

Weeee! * Photo: John Roberts

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

Hawaii cruise snacks

Hawaiian shave ices anyone? * Photo: John Roberts

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

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

Hawaii cruise aboard Safari Explorer

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

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

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

Hawaii cruise crew

Jose & Jessica. * Photo: John Roberts

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

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

Hawaii sunset

Until next time …. * Photo: John Roberts

For booking info, contact UnCruise Adventures.

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

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

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

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Viking Jupiter's terrace

Viking Jupiter

By Judi Cohen.

I am a small-ship “connoisseur” accustomed to ships under 300 passengers, which is how QuirkyCruise.com defines a small-ship cruise. However, when presented with the opportunity to cruise on Viking’s new 930-passenger Viking Jupiter in the Baltic Sea I immediately said “yes!”

Having never visited Russia, seeing St. Petersburg on the 8-night Baltic itinerary was a major draw. While it wasn’t exactly a “small-ship,” it featured the advantages of larger ships, while also offering some of the intimacy and highly personalized service of a true small-ship. I like to think of it as a “small big-ship.”

Viking Jupiter

The new Viking Jupiter. * Photo: Judi Cohen

The Viking Jupiter took us from Stockholm to Berlin, with stops at the ports of Helsinki, Tallinn and Gdansk. The historical and gilded riches of St. Petersburg, of course, were the big draw for most passengers.

My two-day visit to St. Petersburg provided just a taste of the city’s rich art, architecture and history. I hope to return to do a true small-ship river cruise, on the Volga River, and see more of Russia, including Moscow.

Russia cruise with Viking

Judi and Lawrence at the Church of the Spilled Blood. * Photo: Judi Cohen

In the spirit of Quirky Cruise’s small-ship ethos, Russia’s Volga River cruises are an ideal way to visit both Moscow and St. Petersburg in combination with a Baltic itinerary. Small-ship cruises to this region are offered by various cruise companies including a 13-day Viking cruise on one of their five 200-passenger boats.

Meanwhile, Ponant Cruises and Tauck both operate 12-day small-ship Russia/Baltic Sea cruises using Ponant’s 184-passenger Le Dumont D’Urville with two full days in St. Petersburg. Emerald Waterways does a 12-day river cruise on the 224-passenger MS Rosia with stops in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

6 “Small Ship” Moments on the Viking Jupiter

While the Viking Jupiter has features you would typically find on larger ships including a variety of dining choices, numerous bars with live entertainment, and a luxurious Nordic spa with gym and treatment rooms, the ship felt intimate and uncrowded giving it a small-ship feel.

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#1: Optional Small-group Shore Excursions

In St. Petersburg we chose to pay for two small-group tours in addition to taking the panoramic coach tour of St. Petersburg that was included at no extra cost (Viking offers one free tour option in every port). We did a full-day “Behind Closed Doors” tour of the 18th-century Hermitage Museums and a half-day walking tour of the 1950-era St. Petersburg metro system, museum-like itself.

With only 13 guests on each tour, they were similar to excursions and tours I have done on previous small-ship cruises.

 Winter Palace Hermitage Museum

The gorgeous Winter Palace Hermitage Museum. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Hermitage museum entrance

Entrance staircase in the Hermitage Museum. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Our Hermitage Museum guide was knowledgeable about architecture and art history, and contributed to our learning and enjoyment. Our guide during the metro tour, which was a highlight for me, led us into the system to see some of the oldest stations that were built as “palaces of the people” rich in Soviet history, with their fascinating art and sculpture.

St Petersburg Metro System

Kirovsky Zavod Station, part of the stunning metro system. * Photo; Judi Cohen

St Petersburg metro stations

Avtovo Station light fixtures. * Photo: Judi Cohen

These small-group excursions felt much like the tours I have enjoyed on other small-ship cruises along the Mekong and Irrawaddy with Pandaw and the Brahmaputra River with India-based Adventure River Cruises. As on these smaller ships, on board the Viking Jupiter, there were many opportunities to immerse myself in the artistic and historical presentations offered on board by local experts. There was even a magical performance one evening in the ship’s Star Theatre by the famous Russian Mariinsky Theatre.

Other passengers told me about the small-group premium excursions they took (ranging from about $75 to $300 per person), including a tour of the Stutthof concentration camp in Gdansk, Poland; reindeer feeding in Nuuksio National Park; and a bicycle tour in Helsinki, Finland. Several premium excursions at additional cost were offered in every port.

#2: Private Balcony in our Cabin

Our cabin had a private balcony that provided a quiet and private place to relax, read and reflect. It reminded me of smaller ships I’ve been on that also had private balconies, including the 195-passenger Viking Einar that I cruised on along the Rhine River in 2019.

RELATED: Cruising on the new Viking Einar … by Judi Cohen

balcony of Viking Jupiter

Judi’s husband Lawrence on their cabin balcony. * Photo: Judi Cohen

#3:  Intimate Dining Experiences

Mamsen’s is a small take-away café aboard the Jupiter named in honor of Viking founder Torstein Hagen’s mother. Located on Deck 7 in the Explorers Lounge, serving light traditional Scandinavian dishes, snacks and pastries, it was never crowded and became our go-to spot for early breakfast and light bites throughout the day.

With comfortable seating in sofas or at tables with chairs, Mamsen’s felt very warm, welcoming and cozy…and the open face shrimp sandwiches and signature waffles were delicious!

waffels aboard the Viking Jupiter

Mamsen’s signature Scandinavian waffle. * Photo: Judi Cohen

 #4: Afternoon Tea

Like many of the small European river boats, traditional high tea was served every afternoon in the Wintergarden Conservatory on Deck 7. Separated from the pool by floor-to-ceiling glass doors, I found the Wintergarden to be one of the most beautiful areas on the ship. The blonde wood ornamentation looked like trees climbing the pillars and covering the roof and created the feeling of being in a forest!

afternoon tea on the Viking Jupiter

Afternoon Tea in the Wintergarden on Deck 7. * Photo: Judi Cohen

#5: Explorers Lounge

The Jupiter had many comfortable and quiet sitting areas with books neatly organized on library shelves. However, we kept going back to the Explorers Lounge on Deck 7 and the upper level above it, called the Observation Lounge, to read, rest, have a snack or drink, or watch the waves through the expansive windows.

While seated in the sofas, complete with fur throws, we could also enjoy the warmth from the faux fireplaces. I never felt like I was on a large ship in these lounges.

Explorer's Lounge on Jupiter

The lovely ocean-view Explorers Lounge. * Photo: Judi Cohen

#6: Musicians in the Atrium

The multi-level atrium typical of big ships, felt cozy each evening when a pianist or a trio of musicians played sweet music there for hours. The Viking Bar and the surrounding Living Room lounge, that actually felt like our own living room at home, drew us back nightly for pre-dinner cocktails  and again following dinner.

After only one night aboard, the musicians welcomed us back warmly and it felt like they were playing just for us! Very few other passengers were there in the evenings, which made it feel even more intimate.

musicians on Viking Jupiter

Musicians performing nightly on Deck 1. * Photo: Judi Cohen

For anyone who wants to get the best of a larger cruise ship with many of the benefits of a small ship, I would recommend the Viking Jupiter.

The Jupiter’s attentive personal service, small-group shore excursions options, cozy and comfortable lounge areas with music, and casual dining all combined to create a wonderful “small-ship” feeling.

The added bonus was having some “big-ship” features such as a spa, gym and multiple pools, plus 24-hour room service so we could enjoy refreshments on our private balcony. Having been teased with the history and riches of St. Petersburg for only two days, I am ready to go back to experience Russia in depth!

Viking Jupiter's terrace

On the Aquavit Terrace leaving Stockholm. * Photo: Judi Cohen

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Quark Expeditions' Ultramarine new ship for 2020

New Ships of 2020

By Anne Kalosh.

For small-ship lovers, a bevy of oceangoing new builds are set to enter service this year. Of the 23 vessels joining the global ocean cruise fleet, a hefty 11 are small enough to be QuirkyCruise size (carrying up to 300 passengers).

In addition to these 11 will be many new river vessels and a few new coastal ships — so plenty of choices for travelers seeking the latest and greatest but not the biggest!

New Ships of 2020: Ritz-Carlton

One of the year’s most-anticipated ships is the first to be associated with a luxury hotel brand. The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection was due to introduce the luxurious, 298-passenger Evrima early this year. However, it has been delayed to mid-June because of issues at the shipyard, Spain’s Hijos de J. Barreras.

Designed as a yacht inside and out, Evrima promises to be a beauty when completed, with its cascade of open decks aft, a marina and spacious suites and lounges. Dining experiences will include Southeast Asian small plates, an alfresco seafood bar/steak grill, a marina spot and a restaurant by three-star Michelin chef Sven Elverfeld of Aqua at The Ritz-Carlton, Wolfsburg.

Evrima is one of 2020's new builds

Evrima has a cascade of open decks aft, ending in a marina. * Rendering: The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection

Evirmas' indoor-outdoor Marina Lounge

Evirma’s indoor-outdoor Marina Lounge. * Rendering: The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection

Pool deck on Evirma, one of the new ships for 2020

Evrima’s main pool deck, aft. * Rendering: The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection

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New Ships of 2020: Expedition Ships

The expedition cruising boom continues, with nine new ships that are Quirky-sized coming in 2020. Among them are the first blue-water expedition newbuilds for several owners: Lindblad ExpeditionsNational Geographic Endurance, Crystal Expedition CruisesCrystal Endeavor, Quark Expeditions Ultramarine and Silversea Cruises’ Silver Origin for the Galápagos.

RELATED: Lindblad goes carbon neutral.

Named in honor of Ernest Shackleton, Endurance sports the patented X-BOW design with its distinctive inverted bow, for better seakeeping. Expanded fuel and water tanks allow for long-range operations, while a Polar Class 5 rating enables exploration in icy areas.

The 126-passenger ship has Scandinavian-style interiors and lots of glass for great views. Each of the 13 extra-large balcony suites is named for a polar explorer.

National Geographic Endurance's X-bow

National Geographic Endurance has an inverted X-BOW design for better seakeeping. * Rendering: Lindblad Expeditions

National Geographic Endurance large suite

Each of the 13 extra-large balcony suites is named for a polar explorer. * Rendering: Lindblad Expeditions

The all-suite Crystal Endeavor will emulate luxury brand Crystal’s hallmarks, including butler service, the Palm Court and specialty restaurants Prego for Italian fare and Umi Uma for sushi and dishes from master chef Nobu Matsuhisa. Additionally, the two-story Solarium pool deck will house the Asian-inspired Silk Kitchen & Bar during the evenings.

Below the Crystal Endeavour is “rolled out” of the covered building dock December 21. 

The 200-passenger Crystal Endeavor has a Polar Class 6 rating and will carry two helicopters and a pair of seven-person submarines.

Crystal Endeavor is one of the new ships for 2020

Crystal Endeavor will sail to the world’s far reaches, including the polar areas. * Rendering: Crystal Expedition Cruises

One of 2020 news builds is Crystal Endeavor

Crystal Endeavor’s versatile Solarium transforms into a dinner venue by night. * Rendering: Crystal Expedition Cruises

Ultramarine is designed for polar operations, Quark’s specialty. It will have an exceptional 70-day operational range and equipment for heli-hiking and heli-skiing, along with kayaks, paddle boards and Zodiacs. The 200-passenger Ultramarine will come with six suites for solo travelers.

Quark Expeditions' Ultramarine new ship for 2020

Ultramarine is Quark Expeditions’ first owned new build. * Rendering: Quark Expeditions

Silver Origin is purpose-built for the Galápagos, with an Explorer Lounge for expedition briefings and Basecamp, an elegant space with a large, interactive digital wall that connects with the Zodiac embarkation area.

This 100-passenger ship has lavish all-suite accommodations, some with sea-view bathtubs and showers, a new feature for Silversea. (Peek-a-boo, boobies!)

new ship Silver Origin

Silver Origin is built for the Galápagos. * Rendering: Silversea Cruises

New Ships of 2020: Continuing Series

French line Ponant continues its Explorers series with Le Bellot and Le Jacques Cartier, distinguished by their sleek, superyacht profiles and a marina platform with three positions, for use as a sun deck, as a launch pad for water sports and as the Zodiac embarkation point.

Each 184-passenger ship also contains the distinctive underwater lounge Blue Eye.

RELATED: Ponant & Backroads adventure in New Zealand

Ponant's new ships for 2020

Le Bellot and Le Jacques Cartier will sport Ponant’s distinctive Blue Eye underwater lounge. * Photo @L.Patricot

Portugal’s Mystic Cruises adds its second 200-passenger new build, World Voyager, which has features like an Observation Lounge topped by a glass dome for stargazing and a lighted glass well that looks down into the sea. Heated seats on the bow add a Mercedes-like touch and comfort for travelers spending extended time outdoors in the cold to view wildlife.

World Voyager is a new ship in 2020 for Mystic Cruises

World Voyager is second in a series of a planned 10 ships. * Rendering: Mystic Cruises

World Voyager is a new ship for 2020

World Voyager has an Observation Lounge with a glass dome to the sky and a glass well looking down into the sea. * Photo: Mystic Cruises

SunStone Ships continues building in China with expedition ship Ocean Victory. It will be chartered by Denmark’s Albatros Expeditions for the Antarctica season and by Victory Cruise Lines for Alaska as this U.S. brand branches into expedition sailings for the first time.

Ocean Victory has capacity for 186 passengers. It uses the X-BOW design and is built to Polar Class 6 standard.

Ocean Victory is a new ship in 2020 for Victory Cruise Lines

Ocean Victory’s lounges include a spacious library. * Rendering: Victory Cruise Lines

The new ship Ocean Victory

Ocean Victory’s elegant dining room. * Rendering: Victory Cruise Lines

Australia’s Coral Expeditions follows up 2019’s Coral Adventurer with a near twin, Coral Geographer. The 120-passenger ship will provide four more bridge deck suites (six total) featuring bathrooms with floor-to-ceiling windows and an infinity bathtub with sky views.

Though Coral Geographer is scheduled for delivery in late 2020, it actually begins sailing the Indian Ocean in early 2021.

the new ship Coral Geographer

Coral Geographer will debut with sailings to remote islands of the Indian Ocean. * Rendering: Coral Expeditions

The new ship Coral Geographer is a stunner

Coral Geographer has six of these roomy bridge deck balcony suites. * Rendering: Coral Expeditions

New Ships of 2020: Classic Sailing Vessel

One of the year’s more unusual small ships is a classic sailing yacht. The three-masted Sea Cloud Spirit of Sea Cloud Cruises will turn heads with its 4,100 square meters/44,100 square feet of sails.

Of the 69 ocean-view cabins, 25 have their own balconies. An elevator will connect the five decks. A fine dining restaurant and a casual dining experience on the lido deck are planned. Sea Cloud Spirit will have a wellness/spa venue, too.

RELATED: Sea Cloud II Cruise to the Canary Islands & Morocco 

Sea Cloud Spirit

Sea Cloud Spirit — a classic yacht style and tons of sails. * Rendering: Sea Cloud Cruises

Sea Cloud Spirit rendering

Shaded deck space on sailing ship Sea Cloud Spirit. * Rendering: SeaCloud Cruises

Fellow sailing ship specialist Star Clippers had been set to introduce Flying Clipper, a replica of the largest square-rigged tall ship ever built, in 2019. The vessel was completed and ready for handing over, according to Croatia’s Brodosplit yard. However, a dispute with Star Clippers drags on in arbitration, leaving Flying Clipper in limbo.

RELATED: Star Clippers in Thailand, This Cruise Rocks

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Affordable Antarctica aboard the Ushuaia

Affordable Antarctica – Relatively Speaking

By Ted Scull.

It is well understood that anyone looking at the QuirkyCruise site will likely have aspirations to travel aboard ships that do not resemble giant floating resorts with thousands of folks aboard. Lots of cruisers love them, but here we prefer to cover ship travel that provides experiences shared with a much shorter passenger list.

The Corinthian in Antarctica

The Corinthian glides by a huge Iceberg in Antarctic Sound. * Photo: Posiedon Adventures

Perhaps it’s a ship that can take us to smaller ports in popular countries that avoids the crowds. Maybe it’s entirely another world, well over the horizon, and in a class by itself.

Antarctica Dreaming ….

One such place is Antarctica. It was once only sought after by trophy hunters with some seeking fame, intrepid explorers, scientists representing many fields of interests, and governments looking after their national interests by establishing bases there.

In the southern hemisphere summertime, it’s a white winter paradise with deep blue skies and amazingly sculptured ice formations. Strutting penguins in the hundreds that may scoot across the ice on their bellies, while leopard and Weddell seals lounge on the shoreline. The volcanic soil from still active Deception Island is surprisingly warm.

Affordable Antarctica

Chinstraps on Half Moon Island. * Photo: Ted Scull

Why so Costly?

Antarctic cruises are expensive because the high costs of operating ships to get there and back. As they are going remote, they must be totally self-sufficient. They must carry special equipment for going ashore and also employ a staff of salaried naturalists who are an integral part of any expedition cruise.

The vast majority leave from the southern extremities of South America with Ushuaia, Argentina handling the most sailings and Punta Arenas, Chile in second place.

International flights arrive at Buenos Aires or Santiago, then it’s an additional 3.5 air hours to the ship at either port. At the minimum, there will likely be one-night hotel stays at the beginning and end of the Antarctic voyage. If you choose additional days in Argentina or Chile, the cost per day will be lower than aboard ship. Hey, it’s worth considering as you have come all this way.

The shortest cruises last about ten or 11 days with four or five days ashore in the South Shetlands and the Antarctic Peninsula. The other half is crossing the Drake Passage twice. The days aboard are anything but a waste of time with the naturalist team preparing you well for what’s ahead and putting everything in perspective on the way back.

Longer cruises add more landings in Antarctica as well as exploring the Falkland Islands (a British dependency) and include extra sea time. Adding South Georgia requires another week and a lot of sea time but for those who can afford it, the rewards are far more birdlife than you are likely to see anywhere else, dramatic landscapes, and connections to the legendary Shackleton Expedition.

So, what are the less expensive ships like, and will I miss something by not being able to spend more for an upmarket ship with all the bells and whistles?

Affordable Antarctica

Breaking ice en route to the next landing. * Photo: Adventure Smith

Let’s Start with the Latter…The High End

The upper end of the cruise market has developed a following that often places the high-end amenities of suite accommodations (with balconies), haute cuisine, fine wines, abundant staff, spas, and some with helicopter rides as de rigueur when they cruise.

Once such luxury was not available on expedition ships and now with the burgeoning popularity of cruising to the White Continent, many cruise lines have built expedition ships with all the creature comforts and even the thrills of diving in a submersible and winging over the ice in a chopper.

All this luxury costs plenty so per diems start at roughly $1,000 per day and continue on up from there.

Now, Let’s Consider the Affordable Antarctica Options

The lowest rates for expedition travel start at about $500 per person per day, maybe lower if promotions appear when cabin space is still available closer to the departure dates. Preparing to make an Antarctic expedition takes some thought, organization and preparation. One does not just pack a suitcase and head to the ship.

The lower brochure rates are generally available on older ships that may have started out as a research vessel or a working ship in Scandinavian waters, while others were purpose-built when Antarctica began to become a sought-after destination.

These sturdy ships, fully paid for and generally debt free, often have lots of character not found on sleek new ships. And what’s equally important, they offer simpler types of accommodations that bring the rates down and offer travelers affordable Antarctica.

The Hapag Lloyd Inspiration

Hapag Lloyd Inspiration, a new ship for polar exploration. * Photo: Hapag Lloyd Expedition Cruises

Affordable Antarctica: Cabins & Amenities

Cabins may be smaller and have a porthole rather than a picture window, beds may be referred to as berths or bunks, some configured side by side with a night table in between. Some may offer an upper berth for a third person.

These cabins may be sold as a unit or to single travelers (of the same gender) willing to share and save a bundle over a single-rate single occupancy cabin. Some few may be inside, that is without a porthole or window, again at an even lower rate. Time in your cabin other than sleeping is minimal because of all the goings on beyond your sleeping quarters.

Most cabins will have private shower, toilet and washbasin, and some few may share these facilities with a small number of other cabins. With the latter, the passage rate drops even further.

The public spaces are shared by all and will invariably include a dining room, a separate bar/lounge, and covered, sheltered and open spaces for viewing from the ship. The shared experience with the others aboard will, for most, will be a major plus for the amazing experience ahead.

Affordable Antarctica

Towering ice formation may not look big but it is 250 feet high. * Photo: Ted Scull

Affordable Antarctica: Expeditions Lines Offering Lower Rates

(As prices fluctuate, rates listed here are a starter guide.)

ADVENTURE SMITH

$4,860 for 10 days (4 days in South Shetland and Antarctica Peninsula).

Vessel: USHUAIA carries up to 90 passengers; ex-NOAA built 1970 and speed of 11 knots. Cheapest rates are in an upper/lower berth double with porthole, washbasin and shared shower facilities between two cabins; also single berth in a triple with three lower berths, private facilities and a window.

Affordable Antarctica aboard the Ushuaia

The 90-passenger USHUAIA was built in 1990. * Photo: Adventure Smith

G ADVENTURES

$6,099 for 11 days (6 days in S. Shetland and Antarctic Peninsula); $7799 for 13 days.

Vessel: G EXPEDITION built in 1972; 134 passengers; speed of 13 knots. Category 1a is 2 upper berths and 2 down with private facilities; porthole; Cat 1 with 1 upper berth, 2 down; full private facilities, porthole; Cat 2 with twin beds, full private facilities; porthole, no single supplements.

G EXPEDITION in Antarctica

The 134-passenger G EXPEDITION. * Photo: G Adventures.

QUARK EXPEDITIONS

$4,800 for 11 days (March 2020); $5,700 for 11 days (December 2020)* (with 4 days visiting Antarctic Peninsula, South Shetlands).

Vessel: OCEAN ENDEAVOUR carries 199 passengers; speed of 15 knots. Triple with 3 lower berths and inside; twin with 2 lower berths and porthole; upper and lower berth (76 sq. ft.). *OCEAN DIAMOND takes 189 passengers; speed 15 knots. All cabins exterior, though some with partially blocked views; single cabins with no supplement, twins and some with a third berth.

OCEAN ENDEAVOUR in Antarctica

The 199-passenger OCEAN ENDEAVOUR. * Photo: Quark Expeditions

Affordable Antarctica: Discounted Sailings

These rates above are all from the brochure (printed and online at the time of writing), so sally forth as it’s the discounted sailings that can bring on other higher-priced lines that may match the per diems above.

And the trio of lines already presented will also offer discounts bringing per diems well under $500 a day, so your budget may be able to spring for a longer cruise that adds the Falkland Islands and maybe even South Georgia.

Yes, some discounts as high as 50% are close-in departures but press on and they may exist much further out with some still 50% off and then a sliding scale 40%, 30%, and 20%.

QuirkyCruise.com covers 22 lines that offer Antarctic Expeditions, so there is a lot of inventory that needs to be sold. Look for last-minute discounts, if you can gather yourself together for an expedition a month or two ahead. There are plenty of options, but it is too changeable to list them here.

Also, if you like to book well ahead — 12-18 months — you can lock in favorable rates.

Affordable Antarctica

Junior Suite aboard Aurora Expeditions’s brad-new Greg Mortimer. * Photo: Aurora Expeditions

 

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Ban Heavy Fuel Oil would help to mitigate icebergs blackened by soot

AECO Lines Voluntarily Ban Heavy Fuel Oil

By Anne Kalosh.

The Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO) has just approved a self-imposed ban on the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil (HFO) there.

The current practice among the association’s members is to refrain from using HFO when sailing in the Arctic. This has now been formalized as a mandatory guideline.

AECO was an early signatory of the Arctic Commitment, which calls for a phase out of polluting HFO from Arctic shipping.

The AECO encourages the Ban Heavy Fuel Oil

.

Sending a Message

According to AECO Executive Director Frigg Jørgensen, the HFO ban enjoys broad support among the association’s members.

“AECO represents the great majority of operators that offer expedition cruising in the Arctic. By formalizing this ban, the expedition cruise industry is sending a message to decision-makers that it is time to act to protect the Arctic from the risk of HFO pollution,” she said.

Ban Heavy Fuel Oil to improve health and air of local communties

Arctic communities’ health can be impacted by air emissions from ships while livelihoods could be threatened by an oil spill. Here, Lofoten. * Photo: ©TRphotos, courtesy of Hurtigruten

Why is HFO so Bad?

HFO, the tar-like sludge that’s left over from the crude oil refining process, is bad news for the environment and human health. Exhaust from HFO includes sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. Scientific studies have linked these pollutants to asthma attacks, heart and lung diseases, and birth defects.

Yet HFO is the standard fuel used by ships because it typically costs 30 percent less than cleaner-burning distillate fuels.

But the Tide is Turning

International, regional and even local regulators are tackling harmful air emissions from ships. The International Maritime Organization, part of the United Nations, has mandated that from Jan. 1, the global sulfur cap in marine fuels will decrease to 0.5 percent. Ships will be allowed to continue using HFO provided they are equipped with exhaust gas cleaning systems, or scrubbers, that remove sulfur oxides from emissions.

In addition, the sulfur limit is already lower, 0.1 percent, in special emission control areas — currently, around parts of the coastline of North America, in the U.S. Caribbean, the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. The European Union Sulfur Directive enforces a 0.1 percent limit in EU ports. And the California Air Resources Board requires ships to adhere to a 0.1 percent sulfur cap within 24 nautical miles of the coast.

Banned in Antarctica, but not the Arctic

The use of HFO is banned in Antarctica, but not in the Arctic. As AECO’s action demonstrates, a campaign is building to change that.

For one thing, people live in the Arctic, so human health is a consideration. In addition, because of HFO’s viscosity, it is much harder to clean up after a spill, and it can be toxic to fish, seabirds and marine mammals. So a spill might decimate a community’s fishing grounds, or harm endangered animals like polar bears and whales.

As well, when large exhaust particles like black carbon (soot) get deposited on snow and ice, instead of reflecting the sun’s radiation, they absorb it, leading to more warming and melting.

Ban Heavy Fuel Oil would help to mitigate icebergs blackened by soot

AECO has imposed a formal ban on the use and carriage of HFO in the Arctic. * Photo: AECO

Hurtigruten Speaks Out

AECO member Hurtigruten, based in Norway, has been a vocal proponent for banning HFO altogether.

“At the same time as shipping increases in the Arctic areas, the emissions do, too. But polluting fuels like heavy fuel oil are still not banned in these vulnerable areas,” Hurtigruten CEO Daniel Skjeldam said.

“Hurtigruten banned heavy fuel oil a decade ago and is working for a global ban.”

Hurtigruten ships have not used heavy fuel oil in years

Hurtigruten ships have not used HFO for years. * Photo: Hurtigruten

Meanwhile, Hurtigruten wants HFO out of the entire Arctic and along the Norwegian coast. “It makes no sense,” Skjeldam said, “to create more pollution and increase the risk of spills and destruction in areas that need to be protected.”

A decade ago Hurtigruten enacted a Ban Heavy Fuel Oil

‘Hurtigruten banned heavy fuel oil a decade ago and is working for a global ban,’ CEO Daniel Skjeldam said. * Photo: Hurtigruten

Hapag-Lloyd Cruises Takes Action

Hapag-Lloyd Cruises stopped using HFO in the Arctic of its own volition in 1993 and only uses marine gas oil (MGO) with a maximum sulfur content of 0.1 percent. The company has announced it will use only MGO with no more than 0.1 percent sulfur on its entire fleet (not just its expedition ships) wherever it operates, from July 2020.

Besides Hapag-Lloyd Cruises and Hurtigruten, AECO members include Aurora Expeditions, G Adventures, Lindblad Expeditions, Oceanwide Expeditions, Origo Expeditions, Quark Expeditions, PolarQuest, 69 Nord, Silversea, Tall Ship Company, Albatros Expeditions, and Hanse Explorer. Members also include Grands Espaces, Abercrombie & Kent, Poseidon Expeditions, Algol Océans, Noble Caledonia, EYOS Expeditions, Seabourn, Boreal Yachting, Aztec Lady, Ponant, Adventure Canada, Zegrahm Expeditions, The World Residences at Sea, and Viking.

Provisional members include Natural World Safaris, Scenic Cruises, Arctic Explorer, Mystic Cruises, Cape Race Corp., Heritage Expeditions, Crystal Expedition Cruises and Cookson Adventures.

quirkycruise bird

 

 

 

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SATW awards

SATW Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award

Ted and I are thrilled and grateful to have been awarded an Honorable Mention in the prestigious SATW Foundation Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Competition, in the category of Travel Journalism Sites. And no less, in the company of National Geographic, BBC and Afar!

We thank you, our readers, and we thank our esteemed pool of contributing writers and early adopters who have helped us build QuirkyCruise into a useful resource for small ship cruise lovers around the world!

SATW Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award

SATW Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award

QuirkyCruise.com currently covers 90 small-ship cruise lines, with vessels under 300 passengers, that operate river, expedition, coastal, sailing and oceangoing boats and ships of many styles and dispositions. We favor the offbeat, small-scale travel experiences that feel authentic and are endlessly enriching.

Heidi & Ted win SATW Lowell Thomas Journalism Honorable Mention

Heidi & Ted loving their many quirky small-ship cruises over the years. Here in Thailand & Germany!

An excerpt of the SATW press release announcing this year’s winners:

SATW FOUNDATION
LOWELL THOMAS TRAVEL JOURNALISM COMPETITION
Awards for Work Published in 2018-2019

Faculty members of the Missouri School of Journalism judged the competition, with Emeritus Prof. John Fennell, Prof. Jennifer Rowe and administrative assistant Kim Townlain coordinating.

There were a total of 1,335 entries across 25 categories.

Category 120:  Travel Journalism Websites (16 entries)

Gold:   NationalGeographic.com/Travel, National Geographic Traveler, Christine Blau, Digital Director; George W. Stone, Editor-in-Chief

Silver:   BBC.com/Travel, Anne Banas, Editor

Bronze:   Afar.com, Julia Cosgrove, Editor-in-Chief

HONORABLE MENTION:   QuirkyCruise.com, Heidi Sarna and Ted Scull, editors

The Judges’ Comments: QuirkyCruise.com has distinguished itself as a destination for people interested in alternatives to the corporate cruise experience. The site offers a deep dive into more than 80 cruise experiences on rivers and lakes, as well as the high seas. Warm and friendly writing invites readers into the experience.

SATW Lowell Thomas award

Some background on the award from the SATW Foundation:

SATW FOUNDATION
LOWELL THOMAS TRAVEL JOURNALISM COMPETITION
30+ Years of Rewarding Journalists for Outstanding Work in the Field

The SATW Foundation sponsors the annual Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Competition. The first contest honored work done in 1984. Today the Foundation awards nearly $20,000 annually in prize money for outstanding print, online and multimedia works and for travel photography and both audio and video broadcast. It is the premier competition in North America in the field of travel journalism. It has gained its stature for several reasons, most notably:

  • it does not promote any particular destination or travel product,
  • it is open to all North American journalists, not just SATW members, and
  • it is judged independently by the faculty at top U.S. schools of journalism.

Read more …. 

 

Learn more about SATW here.

 

SATW

 

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Special offer on barge cruises that include wine

Canal Cruising in France:
Drinking It All In Aboard the Grand Victoria.

Text by Christina Colon. Photos & wine picks by Peter Barnes.

After a few glorious days in Paris, my partner Peter and I were ready to embark upon our first barge cruise adventure. Leaving from the Gare de Lyon, second-class tickets on the national train line TGV (the French equivalent to Amtrak) entailed comfortable seats, a table, armrest and an outlet.

Traveling through the countryside at 168 mph was relaxing, and to see the rolling hills dotted with cows and rustic farms felt like speeding through a French impressionist painting.

Starting in Chagny

In Dijon we were greeted at the station by Lynn, tour guide extraordinaire, waiting for us in a shiny black Mercedes van. She is a fully-trained sommelier and knows everything there is to know about all things wine. Her California girl smile and friendly nature instantly put us at ease as she navigated expertly through 60km of wine country to the tiny port of Chagny.

Here our Burgundy canal cruise aboard the Grand Victoria would commence and cover nearly 100km (about 60 miles) over 6 days along the Canal du Centre and the Saône River; it would end in Auxonne.

QuirkyCruise readers can avail of 20% off full-boat charters booked by Jan 1, 2020, with code QC2020.

Grand Victoria Canal cruising in France

The elegant 6-passenger Grand Victoria. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Immediately on arrival we were greeted by Edward, Cindy and Angus (a frisky Lhasa Apso), owners (and mascot) of the Grand Victoria.

Edward (also the captain) is a font of information about everything from the history of French winemaking to competitive skydiving. Their son Alex looks right at home swabbing the decks and pulling ropes, a job he takes quite seriously.

Grand Victoria crew

Grand Victoria’s passengers and crew say “cheese!” * Photo: Peter Barnes

Once across the miniature gang plank, we were introduced to the rest of the crew. Leticia, the French-speaking hostess who speaks impeccable English, greeted us with her signature broad smile, warm demeanor and glass of Moët & Chandon.

Moët & Chandon while Canal Cruising in France

Christina enjoying a glass of Moët & Chandon aboard the pretty Grand Victoria. * Photo: Peter Barnes

The chef, Phil wasted no time showing his culinary aplomb with some amuse-bouche (tasty treats) before we slowly started down the narrow verdant waterway. Canal cruising in France was definitely pleasing our palates already.

Canal Cruising in France: The Boat

The Grand Victoria feels more like a river yacht than a barge, though it has the typical dimensions and interior of other 5-star canal barges. Built in the 1980s, to the specifications of the heiress to the DeKuyper liquor fortune, it was designed for her private travel around Europe. The current owners redecorated after a gut renovation in 2015.

With amenities in abundance, it boasts a well-stocked bar, deck furniture, chic lounge, and elegant dining area. The eight original staterooms situated near the front of the vessel down a short but narrow half staircase were reduced in number to three. All of them were enhanced in size, allowing for a king-size bed (or two XL twins), double sinks, a full shower and ample storage room. Voila! Three couples can definitely travel in style.

As our cruise began, we settled in and  lapped up our posh surroundings, reclining on the plush outdoor furniture while Edward stood at the helm in the wheelhouse.

driving the Grand Victoria

Edward at the helm of the Grand Victoria. * Photo: Peter Barnes

We glided silently forward under a canopy of black locust trees festooned with fragrant white blossoms and the occasional mistletoe. Birds chirped on cue.

Extra thick insulation in the hull blocks out any external sounds, making for a quiet restful night’s sleep. Unlike regular cruises in open water, there is no rocking aboard this steady shallow-drafted canal boat since the vessel remains stationary at night, only cruising during the day.

No engine hum, no sudden jolts, and the only sound in the morning are those chirping birds. Ahhh, the joys of canal cruising in France.

Canal cruising in France on the Grand Victoria

The peaceful canal view from bow of the Grand Victoria. * Photo: Christina Colon

Locks & More Locks

After traveling a short distance we stopped at the first of many locks which allowed us to drop a vertical distance of approximately 20 feet with as little fuss as riding an elevator. The mechanism is quite fascinating; two dams create a chamber just big enough for the boat to fit inside, which is filled or drained to meet the water level of the next stretch of canal.

VIDEO:  The ups and downs of the Burgundy locks.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BA3CtPECY0

These waterways, built to transport products, are something of a relic. Today they are used almost exclusively for recreational boating, including 50 similar floating hotels.

Canal Cruising in France: Delightful Dining

Dinner was a perfect balance of formal and casual with the dishes being served by Leticia, assisted at times by Cindy. For each course, Phil would appear and describe each course, all of which were amazing without being overly pretentious. Since we were cruising with two other couples, every dinner was a social event.

Grand Victoria dining on a Canal Cruising in France

Dinner on the Grand Victoria. * Photo: Peter Barnes

On the first night, we were joined by Edward and Cindy, but on subsequent meals, dinner was set for just the guests, although Edward always presented and poured the daily vintages. Our appetizer of scallops pan seared in a brown butter sauce paired well with the local white, while the main course of fresh lamb over a puree of cauliflower was served with the local red.

Another night was a delicious pan roasted duck with Asian slaw and honey soy reduction.

Roasted duck aboard the Grand Victoria

A delicious pan roasted duck. * Photo: Christina Colon

Each meal was based on what Phil procured at the local market and what was fresh and in season.

VIDEO:  See Phil in action putting the final touches to a delicious gourmet dish of pork tenderloin, pork belly and potato croquettes.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oz1Ly8YKRoE

If watching Phil prepare the meals in the kitchen was like watching an artist at work, his fresh bread and selection of cheeses were like the mat and frame of his masterpiece.

French cheese on French barge cruises aboard the Grand Victoria

Chef Phil’s exquisite French fromage was out of this world! * Photo: Peter Barnes

French cheese on Grand Victoria

And more to-die-for French fromage! * Photo: Peter Barnes

Grand Victoria cheese board

Cheese is one of the many highlights of a Grand Victoria cruise, as you can see! * Photo: Peter Barnes

Canal Cruising in France: The Glorious Wine

Since wine makes up the most important export of the Burgundy region it comes as no surprise that they take their wine tasting, drinking and winemaking very seriously. Perhaps needless to say, wine (and cheese!) is a major reason to choose canal cruising in France.

wine tasting while Canal Cruising in France

Peter tasting one of many excellent wines during the 6-night Grand Victoria barge cruise, this one at the Chateau de Pommard. * Photo: Christina Colon

Edward explained that in this region there are only two varieties of wine produced. The red wines are pinot noir and the whites are chardonnay. There is no mixing of grapes or alchemy of these varietals. Nor is there any mechanization of the process that has been done by traditional means of hand harvesting for over 900 years.

Application of fertilizers, pesticides or any other enhancements is strictly prohibited by law, and even the number of grapes produced by each vine is limited to a maximum of seven bunches. While quantities are low, quality is king.

So even in years where frosts, draught other environmental factors can wipe out a significant portion of the harvest, these rules are strictly enforced. Surprise inspections are an everyday part of the process.

French vineyards

Burgundy’s legendary vineyards. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Canal Cruising in France: Stops Along the Way

Most days we left promptly after breakfast to do our tours and tastings, then either ate lunch in town or returned to the boat for a light meal. Afternoons were spent inching along the canal, getting to the next port. Thus activities involved lounging on the deck, watching the scenery go by or riding a bike to meet the boat at the next destination. The boat was always docked overnight.

Chagny to Auxonne map

The author’s itinerary, from Chagny via the Canal du Centre then along the Saône River to Auxonne. * Google Maps

The tiny town of Fragnes felt somewhat frozen in time, with sleepy lanes, quiet shops, tidy parks and colorful gardens in front of sturdy stone houses. The main industry appears to be local boat tourism as evidenced by several small rental or private boats occupied by family groups.

Almost as sleepy was the town of Chalon, the highlight of which was a visit to the weekly market with Phil to peruse the fresh produce (look no plastic!), cheeses and cured meats.

fresh produce in port in Chalon

The fresh produce of Chalon. * Photo: Peter Barnes

the cheese of Chalon

Delectable cheeses in Chalon. * Photo: Peter Barnes

This revealed a decidedly elderly populace, all wielding baskets or pulling their little bubby carts filled with Tupperware and re-useable tote bags.

The local grocery store had a stunning variety of excellent wines at rock-bottom prices.

Chalon wine market

If only we had more space in our luggage! * Photo: Christina Colon

The other quiet spots where we tied up for the night were Seurre, which offered abundant and multilingual signage describing the sleepy stories of the sleepy architecture. And Auxonne (where the cruise would end), the site of an ancient waterside fort today used as a playground by local youths. We saw numerous defaced plaques and coats of arms that date back to the French Revolution.

Fortress wall Auxonne on a French barge cruise

The fortress wall of Auxonne. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Canal Cruising in France: Vineyard Visits

Chateau de Pommard, a short drive from Chagny, is a postcard perfect vineyard that offers in-depth narrated tours of the vines, soil types, wine presses, wine cellars and of, course wines. After learning about the process of growing, harvesting and producing the wines, a tasting took place inside the recently renovated chateau.

Chateau de Pommard on a French barge cruise

The lovely Chateau de Pommard. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Chateau de Pommard wine barrel in France

A Chateau de Pommard wine barrel. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Afterwards, we were free to tour the walled fragrance garden and learn about some of the plants often associated with wines such as citrus, honeysuckle, hawthorn, lily and rose. Of course, none of these are in the wines, but are flavors and aromas commonly used to describe the various vintages.

Canal Cruising in France: Medieval Beaune

In Beaune, which was not far from Fragne where our boat tied up, the morning’s excursion had us going to the Hotel Dieu, built-in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, chancellor to the Duke of Burgundy. Dubbed a “palace for the poor,” the hospital’s canopy beds are clad in starched white linens and draped in red velvet curtains. Patients were attended by nuns selected for their medical ability, compassion, and “character,” according to the founder’s charter.

Hotel dieu hospice

The hospital dubbed a “palace for the poor.” * Photo: Christina Colon

Private rooms helped offset the cost of caring for the poor even until the 1980s when a new hospital was built, and continues to be funded by the surrounding vineyards. In addition to an assortment of medical tools on display, an apothecary shows where cutting-edge medicines, many based on herbs and minerals, were prepared.

The large kitchens show the importance placed on good nutrition for patients, which was seen as equal to any other treatment. While water was considered dangerous, and fruits considered unhealthy, wine was freely available and thought to be curative.

After exiting through the gift shop, we emerged onto the square within the walled city, where tourist venues sell wine, postcards, wine, antiques, wine, and books (about wine). One antique vendor sold high-quality French furniture in a shop that itself was quite antique.

Perhaps because Peter knows an extraordinary amount about antique French furniture, we were permitted to explore the inner sanctum. Here, virtually priceless antiques were arranged in a room with carved wood panels and a low-beam ceiling that appears to not have changed for centuries.

15th-century Hotel Dieu in Burgundy

The 15th-century Hotel Dieu. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Canal Cruising in France: Lunch at a Michelin Star Restaurant

Also in the town of Beaune, is the Michelin star restaurant Le Jardin-de Remparts, where a lavish pre-fix lunch was pre-ordered as part of our cruise. We started with a kir royal (champagne and Chambord), then were served some baked amuse-bouche.

Canal Cruising in France includes lunches at Michelin star restaurants

Lunch at the Michelin star Le Jardin-de Remparts. * Photo: Christina Colon

My appetizer of burgundy snail croquet in a garlic butter sauce was followed by steamed cod with squid ink risotto. A palate cleanser of sheep yogurt and green tomato marmalade was a light prelude to a fluffy mango soufflé with passion fruit sorbet.

mango soufflé in France

Fluffy mango soufflé — oui oui! * Photo: Christina Colon

The wine pairings were “on point” of course (aka perfect) and the coffee and petit-fours were too good not to try.

Canal Cruising in France: Chateau de Rully

Next on our voyage was a visit to Chateau de Rully with a fascinating history. The kindly gentleman who greeted us at the entrance to his home looked nothing like the descendant of over 25 generations of French aristocracy. With his warm smile and unassuming demeanor, the Count of Rully (Raoul) was genuinely enthusiastic to share the story of his family and the inner secrets of his estate.

Chateau Rully on a Grand Victoria barge cruise

A visit to the Chateau Rully. * Photo: Christina Colon

What started as a fortified castle, designed solely for protection from marauding neighbors, has over the centuries grown into an elegant chateau.

The original tower was expanded to include walls and three other towers surrounded by a moat and a draw bridge. An ancestral grandfather had the moat filled and the drawbridge removed after his carriage nearly toppled into the brink.

A visit to Chateau de Rully on a French barge cruise

The fascinating and beautiful Chateau de Rully. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Later extensions in the 1800s created elegant living quarters designed for comfort rather than protection (thus now a chateau).

Upon entering, we ascended a circular staircase whose right spiral makes it more difficult for an invader to attack. The design necessitated he must wield his sword in his left hand, allowing the defender above to defend with a sword held in his dominant right hand.

The original walls of this castle where nearly two feet thick and lacked windows. Small slits in the top walls allowed a sentry to watch the horizon while larger gaps permitted a rain of stones down on any intruders. At night, a leather dummy was propped up to create the silhouette of a watchful guard.

The family chapel retains beautiful wall paintings and a carved wooden altar both done by ancestral grandfathers. Written in gold paint are the names of every member of the lineage who was baptized, christened, married or had their first communion in the chapel including the current Duke’s young sons.

Family portraits abound throughout the luxurious well-appointed rooms and much of the furniture can be attributed directly to some of the 18th century’s finest craftsmen. Whereas most other homes of the aristocracy were looted or burned, this family escaped such a fate.

The Duke beams as he tells the tale of his ancestral grandmother who freed her serfs prior to the French Revolution. She was briefly arrested but immediately released when her workers who tended the vines vouched that they were treated generously and with compassion.

While the wines still produced to this day are reputedly good, it is the tour itself that merits the majority of one’s time.

Canal Cruising in France: Chateau Clos de Vogueot

In the Cote d’Or lies the Chateau Clos de Vogueot, a massive vineyard that produces some of the best red wines in the world. Originally made for religious ceremonies by monks in the 12th century, wines from this ancient vineyard have different grades according to the slope, elevation, drainage and orientation of the plots.

The soil or terroire has complex structure and its mineral components also have a big impact, as does the age of the vine. Older vines are considered better. Wines from each plot are categorized into low, middle and high grades; the top being reserved for the king.

Chateau Clos de Vogueot on a French Barge cruise

A visit to Chateau Clos de Vogueot. * Photo: Christina Colon

A tour of this mecca of wine making included a walk past some massive and ancient grape presses, fermenting vats, barrels, and a deep well. Multiple owners now all belong to the cult-like “Brotherhood Knights of Wine Tasting,” who gather annually to don colorful regalia, taste wines, and make merry.

A wine tasting was not on order for us, but instead we made our way to the nearby Moillard Givrot (or negociant, a wine making company that buys grapes then makes bottles and sells wine) where we tasted seven (or was it eight?) excellent wines.

Canal Cruising in France is all about wine

The legendary wines of the ancient Château du Clos de Vougeot. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Peter’s Favorite Wine Picks for the Week
(all served onboard)
Red

Harmand-Geoffroy’s Gevrey-Chambertin, 2015. This great pinot offers up notes of red licorice, cherries and pomegranate in a complex, refreshing and irresistibly approachable package.

Fixin Premier cru Clos Napoleon, 2014. From the northern part of the Cote d’Or, this wine has gorgeous red currant and bing cherry aromas. It’s a very concentrated, refined pinot noir with fine tannins and great complexity.

Chambolle-Musigny Les Charmes, 2011. Our final red of the week was a big, brooding and muscular premier cru. While discreet during the meal, it opened up to reveal almost Rhone-like aromas: first tar, cocoa, then blackcurrant and blueberry compote.

Fine wine while canal cruising in France

Peter fancied the fine Fixin Premier cru Clos Napoleon, 2014. * Photo: Peter Barnes

White

Francois Lumpp’s Petite Marole, 2016. This amazing white burgundy bearing the Givry premier cru appellation shows off aromas of vanilla, lemon, orange, honey with light oakiness on the finish; balanced with a zippy acidity.

Pouilly-Fuisse Les Vines Blanches, 2017. Fruit forward and approachable, this white has aromas of tropical fruits, crème brulé and toasted almonds with a clean cool citrusy finish.

Francois Lumpp’s Petite Marole, 2016 is one of the wines you may enjoy on a canal cruise in France

Peter was impressed by Francois Lumpp’s Petite Marole, 2016. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Canal Cruising in France: Slow & Meticulous

If we could change one thing on this trip, it would have been to spend more time exploring the historic city of Dijon.

Our limited time was split between a brisk walk through the famed covered market, designed by Gustav Eiffel and brimming with French delectables (cheeses, meats, pastries, and prepared food), lunch at a local eatery, and a whirlwind walking tour through the fairy tale streets, romantic squares and central church.

We recommend you stay a night in Dijon before the cruise if time permits.

A stop in Dijon on a French Canal Cruise

The historical riches of lovely Dijon. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Otherwise, the pace of this journey was slow and intentional, reflecting the meticulous attitude of the people and the region. Tours were usually arranged before or after a leisurely lunch on board. Meals were not rushed, as quality food takes time to prepare and to enjoy.

While nearly impossible, restraint on over-eating and drinking at lunch is key to avoiding a post-lunch slump. Our daily tours combined with time to relax aboard the boat ultimately left us feeling enriched and well-steeped in the long complex history of the region.

Like the grapes budding on the short stout vines, we learned that the slow progress of the vessel allowed us time to absorb the character and flavor of the region and build an understanding of the complexity of this area’s history, geography and viticulture.

Breakfast of spectacular fresh local fruits, croissants, pain du chocolat, and an optional hot platter of eggs was served up around 8am.

A coffee pot and/or espresso machine, bowl of fruit and endless fresh macaroons were also available 24/7.

fresh macaroons on a canal cruise in France

Fresh macaroons always at your disposal aboard the Grand Victoria. * Photo: Christina Colon

All this food provided inspiration for an organized tour or a refreshing morning bicycle ride along the tow path adjacent to the river or canal. The comfortable well-appointed bikes handled both smooth surfaces and rough terrain.

Combine bicycling with canal cruising in France

Out for a lovely pedal along the way. * Photo: Peter Barnes

While a lack of Wi-Fi signal can impair ones use of Google Maps to navigate, the general route is fairly straightforward and aligned with the cans. That said, on several occasions we had to cross the river via a bridge when access on the tow path was blocked.

Riding along the flat dirt or paved path lead us past endless fields of winter wheat, sweet corn, and rapeseed that grow tall and flower in June. The incessant sound of chipping birds and the occasional banjo twang of frogs make canal cruising in France simply delightful.

Most of the sleepy communities are populated by retirees who seem to love fishing, many of whom return to a family-owned plot after raising their children in more urban areas.

Grand Victoria Canal Cruising in France

The peaceful French countryside along the way. * Photo: Peter Barnes

When weather permitted, the crew set up lunch alfresco on the deck while moored at a scenic location along the river bank.

Blissfully ensconced, swirling a crisp white, sated by yet another fantastic meal and watching a mute swan glide silently past, pretty much sums up the essence of this trip.

swans along the way on French canals

A swan appeared straight out of Central Casting in Chalon. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Our week aboard the Grand Victoria was the absolute pinnacle of a relaxed, refined, riparian retreat.

So, if you get the chance to book a cabin or decide to charter the whole damn boat, know that the experience will profoundly change you.

You will develop character, you will become bolder, more complex, with hints of cherry and blackcurrant, and a crisp, oaky finish.

For booking details, here’s more info on the “Grand Victoria, The Queen of Burgundy.” 

Chrissy & Peter enjoy Canal Cruising in France

Christina & Peter on board the Grand Victoria. * Photo: Christina Colon

 

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New England Islands Cruising

By Ted Scull.

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Cruise Lines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dining & Lecturers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Underway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nantucket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Vineyard & Block Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newport on Many Levels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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cycling on a new zealand cruise

New Zealand Cruise Adventure

By John Roberts.

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

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

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

Le Laperouse in New Zealand

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

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

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

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

New Zealand Cruise & Cycle map

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

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

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

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

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

Le Laperouse New Zealand cruise

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

Waiheke Island

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

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

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

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

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

A hike on a New Zealand cruise

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

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

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

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

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

Tauranga

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

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

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

Backroads support van for a New Zealand Cruise

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

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

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

New Zealand cruise and cycle adventure

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

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

cycling on a new zealand cruise

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

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

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

selife in tauranga

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

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

Kayaking in gorgeous Tauranga on a New Zealand cruise

Kayaking in Tauranga. * Photo: John Roberts

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

White Island

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

zodiac on a New Zealand cruise

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

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

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

pool towns on Ponant

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

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

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

Napier

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

Cycling from Tauranga, New Zealand

Cycling in Napier. * Photo: John Roberts

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

cycling in Napier on a new zealand cruise

Biking in Napier. * Photo: John Roberts

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

vineyard new zealand

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

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

Wellington

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

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

Otari-Wilton's Bush trail

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

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

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

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

Wellington New Zealand bar

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

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

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

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

“I like the consistency,” Fleury says.

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

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

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

Arriving to the South Island

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

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

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

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

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

crafts beers on Le Laperouse

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

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

champagne on deck of a New Zealand Cruise

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

Milford Sound

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

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

milford sound views from the spa

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

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

zodiac in Milford Sound

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

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

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

Kea on a kayak

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

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

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

The Ship

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

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

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

oceanview gym on Le LaPerouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

Le Laperouse seafood

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

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

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

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

Hunt For The Wilderpeople film

Hunt For The Wilderpeople

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

interior of Le Laperouse

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

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

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

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

Le Laperouse cabin on a New Zealand cruise

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

Until Next Time …

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

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

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

sunset on a New Zealand cruise sunset

Until next time … * Photo: John Roberts

 

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