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Maine Coast Cruise

Maine Coast Cruise

By Ted Scull

For a summer trip, my wife and I hunted for a cruise that would be a complete change of pace, one well removed from mega ships and milling crowds.

After a thorough search using brochures that came in the mail and website links, we chose one that puttered no further than along the highly indented coast of Maine.

Maine Coast Cruise

Lighthouses dot the coast, here near Stonington, with the lighthouse keepers living quarters. * Photo: Ted Scull

Even more focused, the itinerary concentrated on the state’s Penobscot Region with a diversion east to the popular cruise port at Bar Harbor on Mt. Desert Island.

Maine Coast Cruise

Bar Harbor’s main street leading up from the port. * Photo: Ted Scull

Our embarkation point was a park-side landing along the Penobscot River at Bangor, an old lumber town with early 20th-century steamboat connections to Portland and Boston.

Here, I will concentrate on the itinerary we enjoyed that American Cruise Lines offers every year, but with tweaks and boarding now often at Portland, Maine.

maine coast map

Maine coast map. * Photo: American Cruise Lines

RELATED: New England Islands Cruising.  by Ted Scull

RELATED: 12 Reasons to Visit the New England Islands by Small Ship.  by Ted Scull

Away We Go

With all passengers aboard, we sailed at midday down the fast-flowing Penobscot River. White-water rapids appeared at the sweeping river bends and soon the post-industrial landscape gave way to the Maine woods punctuated by an occasional house or camp.

Three hours later the captain, a born and bred Down-easter, eased past moored sailboats to tie up to the Bucksport landing. The setting was lovely, a small clapboard New England town flanked by two highway bridges and a large granite fort built to protect the once important wooden shipbuilding industry. The lumber was prepared in Bangor and rafted down the Penobscot.

Maine Coastal Cruise

One of two bridges over the Penobscot River, replacing a previous one that replaced a ferry. * Photo: Ted Scull

The Other Fort Knox

We boarded a bus for the short two-bridge drive to the far river bank for a visit Fort Knox. It was named like the more famous Fort Knox in Tennessee after Henry Knox, the first Secretary of War.

Constructed in the mid-nineteenth century as a so-called Third System Fort and similar to several others on down the East Coast, this coastal defense was never actually finished as our former enemies no longer posed a threat. A National Parks Service guide showed us what would have been the dark and dank multi-tiered bunk quarters for the rank-and-file soldiers and the more sophisticated design afforded the officers.

Onto Bar Harbor

The longest water passage took us well east of Penobscot Bay to Frenchman Bay and one of the country’s earliest summer resorts, Bar Harbor. My wife and I enjoyed sitting outside on the top deck, some of it under cover, as we gingerly picked our way between lobster buoy markers and rocky islands.

Our historian told us that the Maine lobster is a cannibal, so every pot must be regularly raised to collect those that found their way into the traps and, most importantly, before they devour a cellmate.

Maine Coast Cruise

The battle begins at a restaurant on the shores pf Penobscot Bay. * Photo: Suellyn Scull

Mt. Desert Island soon loomed as the most impressive feature, and in the center, Cadillac Mountain rises higher than any other point along the East Coast all the way south to Key West.

Approaching the landing several hours before the dock master expected us, two vessels needed to be moved just a few feet to make room. Our enviable position was alongside the town green, and near to the tourist information center and the main street leading up the hill and beyond.

A large cruise ship was at anchor, and her passengers had to wait their turn to shuttle in on tenders, while we simply walked ashore.

Maine Coast Cruise

Cruise ships, like Seabourn Quest, anchor off Bar Harbor and passengers tender ashore. * Photo: Ted Scull

 The Sights Ashore

First calling in at the tourist office, we outlined our free time that would follow the organized excursion up through Acadia National Park to Cadillac Mountain for its 360-degree view of the Maine coast, interior mountain ranges and far out to sea.

As it was low tide, nearby Bar Island is accessible, and with the rising tide times written down to avoid being stranded, we passed along a street lined with turn-of-the-last-century stone, wood and brick summer houses to Bridge Street and turned right.

The sandbar forms the bridge and once across, marked paths led up into the woods then more or less left us to our own devices. It was easy to get disoriented, but not for long, as eventually we came to a cliff edge or a high vantage point for reorientation. On the way back to the mainland, the sandbar was already beginning to narrow with the rising tide.

While Bar Harbor is extremely touristy during the day, it quiets down at night as most visitors leave town. A footpath runs along the coast and makes for an evening stroll eyeing the boats at anchor and the houses and inns facing the water.

Maine Coast Cruise

Bar Harbor’s Episcopal Church features Tiffany-designed stained glass windows. * Photo: Ted Scull

Delights of Castine

After a 24-hour call, we set sail for Castine, the most enchanting town of all, where the national flag of the occupying country changed no less than 14 times, between the English, Dutch, French, Canadians and Americans.

Maine Coast Cruise

Pentagoet Inn, Castine, a Queen Anne/Victorian, built 1894. * Photo: Ted Scull

For 200 years, Castine was the most fought over place in the world, and prior to the American Civil War, qualified as the second wealthiest community in the U.S. — after New Bedford — based on whale oil and cheap salt for preserving fish.

Castine is now a quiet, non-commercial, yet upscale summer community of beautiful historic homes. By September, the Maine Maritime Academy is in back in session to train officers for the merchant marine and related maritime industry jobs. Its training ship, the State of Maine, converted from a deep-sea cargo ship, dominates the waterfront.

Maine Coastal Cruise

The training ship State of Maine operates for the Maine Maritime Academy at Castine. * Photo: Ted Scull

On Down the Coast

Onto Rockland, and unlike most of Maine’s coastal towns, it is a genuine commercial port with a sizeable fishing industry, docks for limestone export, and the principal terminal for the State of Maine ferry fleet serving the out islands.

In the summer, Maine windjammer cruises are popular one-day to one-week options, and several are based here and at nearby Rockport and Camden.

Maine Coast Cruise

Sailing yachts and windjammers are seen in abundance along Maine’s coast. * Photo: Ted Scull

Next to our landing, we visited the Maine Lighthouse Museum with its superb collection of Fresnel lenses that gave the lights their distinctive long-range beams. The Maine Coast is littered with beacons, though all are unmanned now, so it is of interest to learn about the past and the keeper’s often remote lifestyle, and in some cases, raising families in partial or total isolation.

The town’s main attraction is the Farnsworth Art Museum, a complex made up of a purpose-built museum building, the former Farnsworth family house and a Congregational church converted to display art on two levels. The line provided a rubber-tire tour train connection, though one could also walk to it in about 10 minutes.

The key collection displays Maine’s most famous artistic family, three generations of Wyeths. The youngest, Jamie, painted and still paints landscapes and local residents, while his father Andrew was cast as a twentieth-century realist and N. C. Wythe, an illustrator whose work included the Far West.

Additional artists featured included Andy Warhol, a friend of Jamie Wyeth, and Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent and sculptor Louis Nevelson.

Rockland & Camden

Outside Rockland, the Owls Head Transportation Museum displays an active airfield used to exercise its collection of antique airplanes and a huge shed housing historic vehicles dating from before 1900 and into the early 20th century.

The most curious vehicle was a 1923 popcorn and peanut wagon built on a Model T chassis used to sell snacks. Others included a 1948 Buick Special and a varnished wood-sided Ford station wagon. An auction had just taken place, and new owners were collecting the keys to drive away with their new purchases.

The ship anchored off Camden, and apart from Bar Harbor, arguably the Maine Coast’s most popular large town, for its handsome brick main street and quality shopping.

Maine Coast Cruise

Camden, a substantial small city, is built with an abundance of brick and less wood. * Photo: Ted Scull

US Route 1 passes through the center, but as the heavy summer traffic moves so slowly, it is easy to cross the street. To be told, it’s the numerous pedestrian crosswalks that are largely responsible for the traffic backing up.

Mt. Battie, like Mt. Cadillac, affords a fine view down to the town and out to the islands where the ferries leave a watery wake the way airliners spew white vapor trails in the sky.

Belfast & Its River

The call at Belfast located along a river, with the tongue twisting name of Passagassawakeag, gives access to the Penobscot Marine Museum in nearby Searsport. I once dated a woman from Belfast, and the locals were impressed that I could pronounce the river’s name with such ease. I might admit, though not always, I knew someone from there.

Like many important New England ports, whaling near and far and the lucrative China trade brought great wealth and important connections to the rest of the world. Successful captains returned from Asia with fine china, furniture and artwork to furnish their opulent houses, some of the treasures presented here in period rooms.

Maine Coast Cruise

One of the rooms at the Homeport Inn, Searsport decorated with Chinese and Japanese porcelain brought back by the original owner in the 19th century. * Photo: Ted Scull

Photographs depicted life on board during the long voyages out and back, storms at sea, and Hong Kong following the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 that allowed the British to establish a Crown Colony lasting until 1997 when it was returned to China.

A thrilling historic video taken by a brave sailor showed mountainous seas sweeping across the open decks and one wondered how the ship could have survived the pounding. Of course, many did not.

Return to Bangor

At the end of our week on the Maine coast, we sailed out of Penobscot Bay and up the twisting river of the same name. The fog rolled in, and we could hear warning sounds from lighthouses and beacons ashore as well as our own horn mounted up forward.

After a week of long-range views, sunshine and a few drops of rain, the atmosphere was almost claustrophobic. Then suddenly we broke out of the damp, gray mist rising from the river and docked alongside Bangor’s waterfront park.

Maine Coast Cruise

Suellyn and Ted enjoy a substantial breakfast before beginning the drive down the Maine Coast.

The previously quiet setting had erupted in an annual folk music festival providing a last night of entertainment before collecting the car, driving across the Penobscot River and on down the coast of Maine.

Southern Maine has beautiful sandy beaches, here at Prouts Neck. * Photo: Ted Scull

Addendum

Boothbay Harbor and Bath are two coastal towns we visited on our own.

Known as the “Boating Capital of New England,” Boothbay Harbor bustles with fishing vessels and pleasure craft in equal numbers. Walk along Boothbay’s flower-lined streets, dotted with art galleries, antique shops and specialty boutiques. Don’t forget to visit the famous Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens.

Bath, long known as the “City of Ships,” then and now finds its identity in shipbuilding at the long-established Bath Iron Works. Founded in 1884, the shipyard has built private, commercial, and military vessels, many of which have been ordered by the United States Navy.

Bath’s tree-lined avenues are lined with classic examples of America’s homegrown architecture, and be sure not to miss the Maine Maritime Museum with exhibits that relate the story of Maine’s long connection with ships and the sea.

 

Don’t miss great articles, reviews, news & tips about small-ship cruising, SUBSCRIBE to QuirkyCruise.com for updates and special offers!  

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

Kerala backwaters cruise

Kerala Backwaters Cruise on the Vaikundam.

By Heidi Sarna.

India is a vast country with a diverse geography. There are soaring snow-capped mountains, dry dusty deserts, tropical jungles and thousands of miles of coastline.

Many first timers to India do the Golden Triangle circuit in the north, visiting the historic and teeming cities of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra, and the holy ghats of Varanasi.

For repeat visitors to India who want to explore a more remote part of the country, the long thin state of Kerala in southern India, with its 400 miles of shoreline along the Arabian Sea, is a great option.

india map

Kerala is in southern India. * Map: https://www.pbs.org/thestoryofindia/resources/map/

Kerala is known for its backwaters, a network of canals, rivers and lakes popular for houseboating aboard the region’s traditional wood and thatched boats called kettuvallam.

kerala houseboat

We saw many other houseboats along the Kerala backwaters. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The barge-like boats were originally designed to transport rice, coconuts and spices to and from the ports of Kochi (also known historically as Cochin by various European powers) and Alappuzha along India’s Malabar coast, for centuries major points in the Europe-Asia spice trade.

Today, a Kerala backwaters cruise has come to be known as an exotic and off-beat travel experience for those who want to go deeper into India’s natural bounty and fascinating history and culture.

Kerala backwaters

The peaceful canals and waterways of the Kerala Backwaters. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9W6184fEyb4

 

Kerala Backwaters

Heidi enjoying the golden hour along the scenic Kerala backwaters.

The Vaikundam

There are reportedly some 1,400 houseboats in Kerala’s backwaters, most with a few basic cabins, dining area, and sliver of open-air deck, that offer tourists short two- and three-day cruises.

The 18-passenger Vaikundam is a Kerala houseboat that stands apart from the crowd.

While it originally offered short cruises when it was launched in 2000, last year after an extensive renovation, Vaikundam began focusing on weeklong backwaters cruises that include narrow canals and shallow passages other boats can’t access.

18-passenger Vaikundam.

The 18-passenger Vaikundam. * Photo: Scott Anderson

I joined a cruise aboard the Vaikundam last October with my friend Harman; it was the kind of unusual quirky small-ship cruise that greatly appeals to me and I wasn’t disappointed.

Heidi and a friend

Heidi & her friend on a village walk in the Kerala Backwaters. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Constructed of teak, wild jack and jack tree wood, Vaikundam has a pleasantly rustic dining area, bar and lounge, and roomy open deck at the bow, all accented with Indian cotton fabrics.

Vaikundam's dining area

Vaikundam’s dining area. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Vaikundam's cozy bar area

Vaikundam’s cozy bar area. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Vaikundam's Interior bar and lounge area

Interior bar and lounge area. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

View from Vaikundam's viewing deck

View from Vaikundam’s bow. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Air-conditioned cabins are cozy with large windows and chunky wooden doors and furniture.

Vaikundam cabin view

The view from our cabin afforded water line views of the passing scenery. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Bathrooms are basic with marble-clad showers. Our beds were very comfy and we slept like logs all week.

Vaikundam cabin

Most of the cabins look like this, our rooms for the week. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Vaikundam cabin door

The cabin door. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

RELATED:  Heidi Reports on Seeing the Remote Side of India by Boat for CNBC.com.  

Cruising for Cruising Sake

A weeklong cruise on Vaikundam covers about 100 miles in total, between Kochi and Alappuzha, but not in a straight shot. The boat slowly zigzags at no more than four or five knots though the flood-prone backwaters, sometimes backtracking, to get to the most scenic areas.

Vaikundam cruising past a village on a Kerala houseboat cruise

A close-up view of village life from the Vaikundam. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

You’ll often feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, pushing through water hyacinths, and gazing out at the ubiquitous rice fields and stands of palm, mahogany, tamarind, banana, and betel nut trees.

One morning, we cruised down one particularly slender canal. At one point, those of us on the open-air bow had to duck so as not to be whacked in the head with a tree branch.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QCnElk41kcU

 

Vaikundam in the narrow Kerala backwaters

Vaikundam in a narrow canal. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

We cruised for several hours each day, greatly enjoying the ride, and then tied up each evening for the night.

Typically, we enjoyed a village walk before dinner with our guide Kabir, treated to glowing orange sunsets nearly every time.

Kerala Backwaters cruise village walk sunset

A village walk at sunset. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The Daily Excursions

One or two excursions each day were done by foot or mini-bus. We visited two Dickensian-like workshops, where metal mirrors and brass bells are made in the old ways — open flames, basic tools and craftsman sitting on the ground hunched over their work.

bell making

Bell making, the old fashioned way. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

On our daily village walks, Kabir pointed out the flora and birds as we walked past locals doing what their families have done for generations in Kerala’s backwaters — cleaning freshly-caught fish along the canal, beating laundry against rocks at the water’s edge and bathing in their white mundus (a Kerala-style lungi).

A woman cleaning freshly caught fish. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Along the way, we visited a boat building yard, where traditional kettuvallums are made by stitching wooden planks together with coir (coconut fiber) rope. Kabir also pointed out the many sail-like “Chinese fishing nets” that are a common sight throughout the backwaters — very eco friendly, they rely on bamboo poles, ropes, big rocks and good old-fashioned man-power.

Chinese fishing nets in Kerala

Chinese fishing nets. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5zZiFUrkAg

 

Kabir also showed us Kerala’s famous snake boats whenever we passed one — long slender ceremonial (and one-time war) canoes now used for special occasions.

Traditional performing arts were weaved into the itinerary as well. One afternoon we got a fascinating insider look at the elaborate make-up and costume preparation that goes into a theatrical Kathakali dance performance — a mellow-dramatic dance form that tells stories from the Hindu epics.

Kerala performance prep

The elaborate preparation needed for a traditional theatrical Kathakali performance we enjoyed. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

traditional Kerala dance

This man did an amazing job in his role. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ywwUBWL-eTg

 

Another day we watched an age-old martial arts performance, called kalaripayattu, some segments with knives and spears. Mid-way through the cruise, a troupe of young girls and their teacher performed classical dances for us on the bow before dinner.

dance performance by a troupe of local girls

A dance performance by a troupe of local girls. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Throughout the week, Kabir framed the region’s history and culture by telling us about the Hindus, Jews, Christians, and Muslims who came to Kerala to trade spices with the Arabs and Chinese, long before the Portuguese, Dutch, and British came to stake their claim in the lucrative business of black pepper, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, chilis and more. And of course, the immigrants brought their religion with them.

village walk in Kerala with guide

Village walk with guide Kabir. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

guide Kabir

Our guide Kabir (in light blue) with our small group on a village walk. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Houses of Worship

In Kochi, we went inside the lovely 16th-century Paradesi synagogue with its beautiful Belgian glass chandeliers.

16th-century Paradesi synagogue

The lovely 16th-century Paradesi synagogue. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

We also saw the 500-year-old Portuguese church where explorer Vasso da Gama was buried in 1524, and in Champakulam, admired the grand old St. Mary’s Basilica with its ornately painted wooden interior.

church Vasso da Gama was buried in in 1524.

Vasso da Gama was buried here in 1524. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Catholic churches were ubiquitous, with many being white-washed, and others painted in pastels.

Catholic church in Kerala

A Catholic church in Kerala. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

We visited several of Kerala’s Hindu temples, most low and flat (in contrast to the tall colorful gopuram towers of some Hindu temples in southern India) with horizontal wooden planks and niches for small oil lamps.

Typical village temple in Kerala Backwaters

A typical village temple. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Pink temple in Kerala

Pink temple gates. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

One temple we visited had a resident elephant who lived under a tall open-sided shed. Its legs were chained and it was fed bundles of fresh grasses by its keeper; captive yet coddled. While it seemed cruel to foreign eyes to see the giant animal in shackles, Keralites revere elephants and for centuries they’ve been an important part of religious ceremonies and festivals.

temple elephant in Kerala India

A chained temple elephant. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

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

 

The Thuravoor Narsimha Hindu temple we visited at the end of the cruise near Kochi was the scene of such a procession. It happened to be an auspicious day in the Hindu calendar, Pooram, and so we witnessed a dozen elephants adorned in gilded festival regalia being paraded around the temple grounds, accompanied by rhythmic drumming and the squawking of the clarinet-like nadasvaram. A bare-chested priest sat astride each elephant’s neck, and handlers or mahouts were at their beck and call. It was a sight to behold.

Kerala temple elephants

Festival day at the Thuravoor Narsimha Hindu temple near Kochi. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Kerala temple elephants

An auspicious day in the Hindu calendar, Pooram, saw these temple elephants adorned to the hilt. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7GSF2i_R5Bs

Daily Life

Maybe most appealing about our week on the Vaikundam, was being privy to a slice of real life along the banks of the backwaters and in the villages and small towns we visited. From markets and stores, to buskers and street vendors, to families and folks out and about on their daily commutes, India is a fascinating place for people watching.

balloon seller in Kerala

Balloons anyone? * Photo: Heidi Sarna

ice cream Arun in Kerala town

Heidi spots an ice-cream that sports her husband’s first name! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

colorful shop in Kochi

Colorful shops every where. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Kerala backwaters chilis

Chilis are ubiquitous! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

village festival in Kerala

Happening upon a village festival. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Avian Delights

For birders, the Kerala backwaters are cause for major delight. Our guide Kabir had an eagle’s eye for spotting birds in trees, flying overhead and fishing in the water. Passengers’ zoom lenses were out in full force.

Zooming in on the birdlife of Kerala backwaters

Zooming in on the birdlife. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

From fruit bats with a wingspan of a meter to brilliant kingfishers and bee eaters, flycatchers, larks, parrots and so many more, our avian friends swooped, called and flapped to and fro across Vaikundam’s bow.

Egrets, heron, ducks, and elegant snake birds (so named for their long thin necks) were easy to spot on excursions in small skiffs, which we enjoyed on more than one occasion.

Kerala birds

The Kerala backwaters are a birders dream. * Photo: Scott Anderson

One early morning we visited the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary on the edge of Lake Vembanad, which was carpeted in brilliant fuchsia water lilies. We traveled in a private sightseeing boat and the mini cruise was a bird and nature lovers’ paradise.

Kerala Backwaters bird life

A morning skiff ride was a bird lovers paradise. * Photo: Scott Anderson

Delicious Home Cooking

For many of us, the biggest joy was eating. A range of Indian dishes were served buffet-style on board, and there was also a delicious lunch and a dinner planned in local homes on shore.

South India’s beloved fresh fish, caught nearby and cooked whole, was always on the menu, from pearl spot to silver mullet, snapper, catfish and other varieties.

For anyone who craves some western comfort food, the chefs will happily comply. The beauty of a small-ship cruise like the Vaikundam, is that service is personal and flexible. “No” is rarely heard and there are few “rules.”

Vaikundam dining

Delicious spread for breakfast, lunch and dinner. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

There were excellent vegetable dishes made with okra, pumpkin, lentils and carrots, and Kerala rice served straight up or as steamed idly and puttu “cakes.” There was butter chicken, mutton dishes and the range of breads India is so well known for, including fried puri and parathas.

Dinner aboard the Vaikundam

Mealtime was happy time for all of us! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Vaikundam lunch in Kerala

Lunch is served. YUM! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

And Kerala’s famous coconut seemed to make its way into nearly everything. The delicious pickled chutneys and relishes were also a big hit with our group.

A full bar on board offers humble Indian wines (including the Sula brand), beers (Kingfisher) and soda (Thums Up) as well as spirits, all at a la carte pricing.

Even if you vow to yourself, you’ll eat less tomorrow, it won’t happen. We always intended to take just one helping at dinner, to skip dessert, to decline a mug of refreshing beer after lunch. Oh well!

mugs of beer on the Vaikundam

Cheers! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

But no, this was a cruise of going with the flow in more ways than one. It was about indulging our senses, all of them, in the sights, the sounds and the tastes of Kerala’s backwaters. And what a sensory adventure it was.

Heidi and Harman on a Kerala Backwaters cruise.

Wonderful memories waiting to be created on a Kerala Backwaters cruise. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

RELATED:  Cruising India’s Brahmaputra River. by Heidi Sarna

RELATED:  Adventures on India’s Brahmaputra River. by Judi Cohen

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

Itineraries/Fares

7-night Vaikundam cruises start at $2,950 USD per cabin per week (for two people) and include all excursions and meals.

Logistics

You must fly in and out of Kochi, in Kerala; many flights from the US would connect through Delhi or Mumbai. Before the cruise, we stayed for two nights at the lovely Taj Malabar Resort & Spa in Cochin.

Taj Malabar Resort in Cochin, Kerala

The Taj Malabar Resort & Spa in Cochin. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Tips

  • Water levels and tides can vary, so the itinerary will be somewhat fluid.
  • To visit temples, you must remove your shoes; many will allow socks, so bring extras if you prefer wearing them to being barefooted.
  • Women should dress modestly and not wear sleeveless or crop tops, or shorts; thin cotton tops are a good option as are cargo pants or leggings with long tops over them.
removing your shoes before going into temples

Removing your shoes is several times a day is par for the course. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Weather

Kerala’s climate is tropical and so it’s warm and humid all year-round. There are two rainy seasons brought on by the seasonal monsoons, in June and mid-October, when there is typically rain for no more than a few hours a day (note the low-lying backwaters are prone to flooding). Temperatures year-round see highs in the 80s (F) and lows in the 70s (F).

Heidi and friends on Vaikundam

Happy campers aboard the Vaikundam. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Cruising Season

The main Kerala backwaters cruising season is October through April.

Money Matters

The Indian rupee (INR) is the official currency; credit cards are accepted in larger shops.

COVID-19 Travel Updates

From Vaikundam’s owner, Sanjay Basu, chairman of Adventure Resorts & Cruises:

“Domestic tourism is already ramping up steadily in India, while international in-bound tourism is expected to revive once a vaccine is available worldwide. The good news is that some vaccines are anticipated to come out by year-end 2020; and whenever the vaccines are available, we expect billions of doses to be manufactured in India where 60% of the world’s vaccines are made.

“I think that in the COVID and post-COVID times, small ships will be more attractive than ever as their smaller numbers along with proper SOPs (standard operating procedures) being followed will contribute to fewer health risks. The smaller numbers can be cross-checked prior to boarding to be infection-free with testing, and so a clean air bubble can be created on-board.”

For More Info

Contact Adventure Resorts & Cruises at www.adventurerivercruises.com.

Kerala backwaters cruise

Chilling out and watching the scenery float by. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

 

Don’t miss great articles, reviews, news & tips about small-ship cruising, SUBSCRIBE to QuirkyCruise.com for updates and special offers!  

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

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 March 30, 2021, with code QC2021GO.

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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