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Arch in Cabo on a Sea of Cortez cruise

“Searching for the Sea of Cortez” Cruise

By Elysa Leonard.

When I signed up for Windstar’s “Searching for the Sea of Cortez” cruise aboard the Star Legend  last October, from San Diego, California to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, I knew it meant white-sand beaches, crystal blue waters, gorgeous sunsets, snorkeling with sea lions and tropical fish — and if I was lucky, some scuba diving.

Cabo San Lucas in the Sea of Cortez

The iconic arch of Cabo San Lucas in Baja California, Mexico, on the Sea of Cortez. * Photo: Windstar Cruises

Windstar is known for a diverse range of itineraries. Their ships are small and this gives them the flexibility to visit ports that the big ships can’t get to and in turn, enables them to develop creative itineraries that please loyal customers who keep coming back for more.

Star Pride pre stretch

Pre-stretch, the 212-passenger Star Legend in Loreto. * Photo: Windstar Cruises

NOTE: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Windstar has paused all of its cruises through year-end 2020.

San Diego to Puerto Vallarta via The Sea of Cortez

The 7-night Sea of Cortez cruise began in San Diego, and started with two sea days, followed by a day in each port — Cabo San Lucas, La Paz, and Loreto. There  was one last day at sea before the cruise ended in Puerto Vallarta. (For 2021, Windstar’s Sea of Cortez cruise route will be 10 nights and include two additional ports, Mazatlan and Ensenada.)

 Sea of Cortez cruise map

The 10-night Sea of Cortez cruise itinerary. * Photo: Windstar

Our trip was part of a long repositioning cruise for Star Legend as it made its way back to Italy for an extensive renovation and to be stretched. In the cruise ship world, stretching has become a fairly common way to “insert” new life into smaller, older ships.

The ship is literally cut in half and a new section, which was separately fabricated, is slipped into the middle section of the ship, like a puzzle piece. The new and improved Star Legend will have more suites, more dining options, a waterfall pool, more deck space, and overall updated modern feel throughout.

It will carry 312 passengers when it’s re-launched sometime in 2021.

(Due to the COVID-19 situation and subsequent shipyard delays, the stretching schedule has been pushed out; originally the Legend was to have re-launched in summer 2020. Currently the Star Breeze’s stretch and renovation is slated for a Q4 2020 completion, the Star Legend in first quarter 2021, and the Star Pride in Q2 2021.  Stay tuned for updates.)

You can read more about Windstar’s stretching plans for its trio of 212-passenger ex-Seabourn mini cruisers built in the 1990s in a great article by Anne Kalosh, below. (And we look forward to sharing articles about the Legend and her sisters post-stretch.)

RELATED: How Windstar Plans to Stretch 3 Ships.  by Anne Kalosh

While the interior will be vastly changed from what I experienced in October (2019) once Star Legend emerges from dry dock, I jumped at the opportunity to sample the Windstar experience. And so this article focuses on the Star Legend’s overall vibe; its food, service and the quality and nature of Windstar’s shore excursions, which have always been considered top-end.

A Recipe for Relaxation

Having the first two days at sea gave us time to explore the ship and bond with the crew and our fellow passengers. It also helped us get acclimated to our new day job… relaxing. As the ship’s Internet connection was weak while at sea, we took it as a sign to unplug and explore our new home for the week.

Windstar’s Star Legend had exactly the right ingredients for a relaxing small-ship cruise — large and luxurious suites with sliding glass doors, huge bathrooms and walk-in closets.

There were multiple dining venues, including outdoor options on deck, plus a spa, gym, small exercise pool and two hot tubs, perfect for sunset gazing.

The ship had 206 passengers onboard and there was never a moment that felt crowded, never a line to wait in, or a search for a deck chair.

In fact, sometimes you wondered where all the people were.

Below, a video tour of the Star Legend.

The Food — Plenty of Options

The dining options included the formal main dining restaurant, Amphora, where we enjoyed multi-course dinners made to order and paired with wine.

Veranda was a more casual option serving buffet-style breakfast and off-the-menu items for lunch. The Veranda transformed into a reservation-only Steakhouse restaurant called Candles in the evening.

Sea of Cortez Star Legend

Elysa & Bria enjoying Candles Sunset Dinner.

Room service had a good variety of options for breakfast, lunch or dinner and was available 24 hours a day.

On sea days, for those who wanted to dine al fresco (us!), lunch was served out on deck with live music. Delish dishes included Indian curry with rice, a Mexican taco bar with fresh salsa and guacamole, and a burger bar with steak fries and all the best picnic sides.

Sea of Cortez dinner

The James Beard Seared Scallops. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

BBQ Deck Party

Many of the passengers we met were Windstar alumni. They had been on several Windstar cruises all over the world and always looked forward to the famous deck BBQ offered on each cruise. The entire expanse of the lovely teakwood Deck 7 would be laid out for the event with table after table of salads, grills, seafood, hot plates, and saute’ stations.

crab legs served at deck party

Heaps of crab legs served at the deck party. * Photo: Windstar Cruises

There was also live music and dancing on deck.

The crew went to great lengths to make it special, including carving cute whimsical characters made out of vegetables, no detail was spared.

(Note, in the COVID-19 era, food at the BBQ deck party will now be plated and served by the crew.)

Vibrant Cabo San Lucas

Our Sea of Cortez cruise included three Mexican ports on the Baja Peninsula side of the Sea of Cortez, each with its own special vibe. Cabo San Lucas is a vibrant seaport surrounded by many open-air restaurants and bars, and even more luxury yachts and fishing boats.

My friend Bria went on a Windstar snorkeling and fishing excursion (highlighted in my video further on in the article). For me, I couldn’t resist going underwater for some scuba time. I booked a private tour with a highly recommended dive operator, Cabo Private Guide. A private boat with a captain and a dive master catered just to me!

We explored two famous dive sites, Pelican Rock and Neptune’s Fingers, in the waters surrounding El Arco. This famous rocky arch is a landmark at the tip of the Baja Peninsula, where the Pacific Ocean meets the Sea of Cortez.

Arch in Cabo on a Sea of Cortez cruise

The classic Arch in Cabo. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

My tour guide for the day, Adrian, pointed out the beach on the Atlantic side of the rocks was called “Lover’s beach.” The water was calm and perfect for swimming. However, on the Pacific Ocean side, the beach was called “Divorce Beach,” because of its dangerous undertows, rip tides and large waves.

We stayed on the “Lover’s Beach” side for our diving and enjoyed calm seas, beautiful corals and fish.

Sea of Cortez beach stops in Cabo

One of Cabo’s dreamy beaches. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

The World’s aquarium

Jaques Cousteau called the Sea of Cortez, the world’s aquarium, and now I know why.

The two dive sites were only a few minutes boat ride from each other, they were pristine and the amount of fish and sea life was remarkable. We saw more than 50 species of tropical fish, which is more than I have ever seen in one day of diving.

Just to name a handful, we saw pacific trumpetfish, reef cornetfish, leopard groupers, Cortez rainbow wrasse, panamic green morays, jeweled morays, giant hawkfish, moorish idol, yellowtail surgeonfish, finescale triggerfish, three banded butterflyfish, black nose butterflyfish, guineafowl pufferfish, sharp nose pufferfish, Mexican goatfish, porcupinefish, Cortez round rays and golden cownose rays.

The environment was healthy with many baby pufferfish and eels thriving in the corals.

Here is just a small sampling of the fish we saw:

Snorkeling, Sunbathing & Exploring in La Paz

Our second stop was in La Paz, which means peaceful, and it was completely opposite from our first day in Cabo. This small, sleepy Mexican town was much more traditional. We were greeted by a mariachi band and escorted to our small boat for a tour of the area and a stop at a small island to laze around on Balandra beach and  snorkel with sea lions.

There were also blue footed booby birds; yes the same cool birds you can see in the Galapagos Islands — they migrate to Mexico in the winter.  

Beautiful Beach on a Sea of Cortez cruise

Beautiful Balanga Beach in La Paz. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

This Windstar excursion was well executed; the tour operators were great and the tour wasn’t over-crowded. 

We returned to the ship by lunchtime and decided to go out and explore La Paz. We found a small boutique hotel with a restaurant that had a view of the turquoise blue water.

La Paz stop on Sea of Cortez cruise

A view of the sea from this lovely hotel restaurant. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

They served fresh raw ahi tuna with spicy cucumber relish on homemade tostadas.

It was the best of both worlds, a morning excursion and then just enough time to do a little more exploring and get a “taste” of the town. 

Raw Ahi Tuna Tostada in La Paz

Our delicious raw ahi tuna tostada. * Photo: Bria Lloyd

Loreto’s Coronado Island & the Sea Lions!

One of the most exciting things that I thought I would check off my bucket list on this trip was snorkeling with whale sharks. Unfortunately, the Mexican government squashed that dream for now.

We were in Loreto just a few weeks too early and there were not enough whale sharks in the area for the government to open the National Park for the season, so sadly the excursion was canceled.

Instead, we joined a trip to Coronado Island which was 10 miles off the coast of Loreto.

Loreto on a Sea of Cortez cruise

Lovely Coronado Island. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

This was by far my favorite excursion besides my diving trip in Cabo. It was well planned out and included multiple stops and cool things to do.

We started out snorkeling on the edge of the island and then hopped back into the boat and headed to another outcropping of rock formations that was home to a colony of very friendly sea lions.

Sea lions colony, Loreto, Mexico

California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) sunbathing on a rock near Loreto. * Photo: Windstar Cruises

We hopped back into the water and got to swim with them. They were very curious and came within a few feet of us. What an experience!

Here’s a peek:

Once back in the boat, we enjoyed views of the stunning  volcanic rock formations that rimmed this uninhabited island.

We then turned the corner of the island and the captain asked us if we liked dolphins. Just as we all said yes, a large pod of dolphins started swimming alongside our boat, as if on cue. They jumped out of the water to greet us.

He slowed down and let us take photos and enjoy them before heading to an uninhabited sandy beach. There, we spent time sunning, snorkeling and enjoying a feast complete with a grilled freshly-caught grouper.

The fish was served with tortillas, fresh salsa, and guacamole — a lovely lunch. Afterwards, we still had some time to stroll into town and do some shopping.

Below, enjoy this overview of our Windstar excursions: 

We returned to the ship for our last two evenings, with one more full day at sea as we crossed the Sea of Cortez to the mainland of Mexico for our final stop in Puerto Vallarta. Our flight home left early so unfortunately there was no time for a tour of this city, just a taxi ride from our port to the airport.

Windstar’s Loyal Fans

Small-ship cruises tend to have very loyal passengers, as the experience is more intimate and the destinations are special and often off-the-beaten-path. Happy passengers come back again and again to recapture the experience with new destinations.

But the extreme loyalty that we saw with Windstar was quite special. It wasn’t passengers taking two or three cruises with this line, it was 10 to 20 or even more. People were taking multiple trips a year, staying on for more than one week back-to-back and they gushed as they shared stories about past Windstar cruises. 

Don’t just take my word for it, you can listen below:

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

Since returning from the trip, I have spoken to some new passenger friends who have already booked another Windstar cruise. It’s clear Windstar has figured out a secret recipe for success.

They know how to make their passengers feel like the ship is their ship, with a welcoming crew that becomes part of the passengers’ extended family. Imagine traveling the world with a crew that makes you feel safe and relaxed, and knows you like your martini shaken not stirred. 

Why would I cruise with Windstar again? They have the right mix of casual fun and luxury. The small size means interesting destinations and unique excursions.

2021 Windstar Cruise Schedule

(Note, Windstar has paused all of its cruises through year-end 2020.)

The 312-guest Star Breeze (the first to emerge from the lengthening/renovation) is slated to debut in the Caribbean on January 2, 2021. It will sail on several Caribbean itineraries and then through the canal/up the coast of Mexico and the U.S. West Coast before it heads to Alaska for the summer. Here’s a link to Windstar’s Sea of Cortez cruise options for 2021.
The 148-passenger Wind Spirit is to resume sailing in Tahiti starting January 7, 2021.

The 148-passenger Wind Star will restart sailing Jan. 16, 2021, with Costa Rica and Panama Canal sailings and then head to the Mediterranean in April 2021.

The 312-guest Star Legend begins sailing April 7, 2021 in the Mediterranean and then Northern Europe.

The 312-guest Star Pride will begin sailing July 25, 2021 in Northern Europe.

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AQSC will return to service soon

First to Resume Cruise Operations.

by Anne Kalosh.

With parts of the United States beginning to open and small passenger ships exempt from the COVID-19 no-sail order, it’s possible U.S.-flag lines will be cruising this summer.

American Cruise Lines hopes it could be the first to resume cruise operations. The aim is to restart service initially on three ships: American Song on the Columbia and Snake rivers, American Harmony on the Lower Mississippi and American Constellation in Alaska.

American Queen Steamboat Co has also just announced they plan to return the American Empress to service on July 6 in the Pacific Northwest.
June 20 from Portland

The plan is for American Song to embark June 20 in Portland, Oregon, on a Columbia and Snake rivers itinerary to Clarkston, Washington. American Harmony would sail June 28 from Memphis, bound for New Orleans. American Constellation would follow in June/July in Alaska.

This plan seems different from the stream of continuously changing cruise line announcements about when operations are “scheduled” and is perhaps a more credible possibility given American’s small vessels and its close relationships with local communities and states.

“We feel our ships are perfectly designed to be one of the first to return to service,” said Paul Taiclet, vice president of hotel operations, American Cruise Lines. He stressed this is a collaboration with ports and communities to “make sure they’re comfortable with what we’re doing.”

Resume Cruise Operations

American Song is targeted to begin sailing from Portland, Oregon, on June 20. * Photo: American Cruise Lines

“We’re working on a safe, comprehensive plan to put ships back into service that will satisfy the communities and keep guests safe and crew safe,” he said.

Customers want to travel

According to Taiclet, American has gotten a “very favorable response” from customers booked on these sailings, along with people on canceled cruises who are eager to travel.

“Our guests like the idea of staying within the United States and some live within driving distance of the ports,” he said.

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Ships carrying under 250 souls not part of no-sail order

Besides American, lines like American Queen Steamboat Co., Alaskan Dream Cruises, Blount Small Ship Adventures, Lindblad Expeditions, UnCruise Adventures and others field ships carrying fewer than the 250-person threshold in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s no-sail order.

As the CDC stated in its April 15 rule:

“Based on substantial epidemiological evidence related to congregate settings and mass gatherings, this order suspends operation of vessels with the capacity to carry 250 individuals or more. Evidence shows that settings as small as nursing homes or movie theaters can proliferate the spread of a communicable disease.

“As the numbers of passengers and crew on board a ship increases, certain recommended mitigation efforts such as social distancing become more difficult to implement. In light of the demonstrated rapid spread of this communicable disease in current cruise ship settings, application of this order to vessels carrying 250 or more individuals is a prudent and warranted public health measure.”

But many factors come into play in order to resume cruise operations

Whether these small ships can resume sailing, however, is up to state health authorities, ports and local communities. Do state health officials deem conditions are safe to allow travel and do governors agree? Would passengers from other states and regions be allowed? Will ports open to these ships? Will communities want these visitors?

Taiclet stressed American will operate only if states want that, too.

“The most important thing is that we do this safely for the guests, the ports and the crew,” he said.

American’s initial three itineraries involve Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana; Oregon and Washington; and Alaska. Depending how the first cruises go and the timeline for opening other parts of the country, American hopes additional ships could resume in July with most of its fleet sailing in August.

Restoring confidence in ship travel

But will people feel it’s safe to travel by ship? Will crew want to return to work?

Lines like American, UnCruise Adventures and others say their loyal customers in particular want to sail and, according to Taiclet, his company’s crew are “eager” and “excited” to get back to their jobs.

Still, as an UnCruise Adventures spokeswoman pointed out: The travel industry as a whole, and particularly cruise operators due to the negative impressions of the pandemic, will need to assure people it is safe to travel.

Small-ship lines are betting people will feel more comfortable on vessels with less crowding, on coastal or inland itineraries that don’t take them far away with the potential of being stuck at sea or in a remote foreign port should a breakout occur.

Anyway, for Americans wishing to roam in the coming months, domestic destinations may be the only ticket available.

“We also have close relationships with the small communities we visit, and we don’t want to go anywhere that would cause uncertainty,” the UnCruise spokeswoman continued. “We are working with local and state municipalities to affirm details and are looking at mid-July to resume operations.”

Uncruise plants to Resume Cruise Operations

Safari Endeavour in Frederick Sound AK. * Photo: UnCruise Adventures

Detailed new health protocols

The fact that small-ship operators are publicly detailing their enhanced health protocols when many big-ship lines aren’t saying much for now suggests these domestic U.S. operators expect a quicker return to service.

All are talking about pre-screening of passengers and crew for health conditions, added screening at embarkation, changes to allow social distancing on board, heightened cleaning and sanitation and special procedures for port visits/shore excursions.

Occupancy reduced to 75 percent

At American Cruise Lines, ship occupancy will be reduced to 75 percent initially to ensure social distancing, and Taiclet said there is plenty of public space, along with private stateroom verandas, on the three ships that would begin first.

American Song would not carry more than 180 passengers, American Harmony would be capped at 190 and American Constellation at 175. This makes 450 square feet of space per guest.

ACL plans to Resume Cruise Operations

American Cruise Lines will initially limit occupancy to 75 percent. Here, American Harmony, which sails the Mississippi. * Photo: American Cruise Lines

American also teamed with a seasoned healthcare provider, Vikand Solutions, to manage medical operations, support shipboard virus prevention, screen/test guests and crew before they embark and collaborate with ports and shoreside healthcare facilities.

On the ships, heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems are independent for each stateroom and public space, so air is not recirculated in different areas.

Restaurant capacity will be reduced, and there will be no buffet service. In-stateroom dining can be arranged. Personal protective equipment will be provided on the ship and for guests at each destination, where recommended. Certain shipboard staff will be required to wear PPE.

Shore excursion motor coach capacity will be held to 50 percent. American charters its coaches for exclusive use and they follow the ship. The vehicles will be sanitized before every boarding. The line includes tours on the Lower Mississippi and in the Pacific Northwest so participation is high, ensuring a more controlled environment.

Adding a medical facility and nurse to each ship

Vikand Solutions will provide each vessel a nurse, supported by a shoreside doctor and other medical professionals, and take care of health situations, assessment and an outbreak plan. COVID-19 testing will be available on board, with protocols to be determined as the science evolves. Rooms on each ship will be set aside for isolation, if needed.

Before COVID-19, American did not have medical centers or nurses. As a domestic, inland operator, it was not required to do so. The company is now taking these extra proactive steps to ensure a higher level of safety.

Additional training for crew will cover the new operating protocols and heightened sanitation practices. PPE will be provided for positions like housekeeping and galley staff.

American Queen Steamboat Co.

AQSC‘s partner is Ochsner Health, a system that serves Louisiana, Mississippi and the Gulf South. (The company plans to announce a healthcare partner for its Pacific Northwest itineraries on American Empress in the coming weeks.)

AQSC has partnered with Ochsner Health.

AQSC has partnered with Ochsner Health.

Ochsner Health will conduct assessments of American Queen, American Duchess and American Countess and work with AQSC to implement disease prevention and mitigation strategies across the fleet. Also, Ochsner will reassess the AQSC vessels on a monthly basis and update recommendations as needed based on scientific data and CDC recommendations.

AQSC wants to Resume Cruise Operations

AQSC plans new dining room procedures to enhance safety. Here, American Duchess. * Photo: American Queen Steamboat Co.

Virtual access to experts

A virtual clinic, powered by TytoCare, will allow employees and passengers access to shoreside healthcare professionals, including infectious disease experts.

In addition, each vessel will carry a certified medical representative to assist with urgent medical care, implement quarantine procedures and coordinate shoreside medical assistance. In an emergency, AQSC and affiliate Victory Cruise Lines have the ability to quickly transfer anyone to facilities ashore by coordinating pick-up at municipal landings and docking facilities.

Ochsner Health personnel will oversee the pre-boarding screening process and assessments for all itineraries embarking in New Orleans, and AQSC plans to identify healthcare partners for its other ports.

Elevated safety protocols include pre-cruise screenings, crew screenings, updated boarding processes, increased sanitation measures and systems like MXP Protect, which incorporates the use of thermal imaging.

AQSC is planning on Resuming Cruise Operations

Embarkation on AQSC vessels like American Queen will include a temperature check with thermal cameras. * Photo: American Queen Steamboat Co.

Sister brand Victory Cruise Lines

Victory Cruise Lines, operated by AQSC, will implement similar health and safety protocols when it resumes its operations on the Great Lakes and Canadian Maritimes in 2021 (Victory just canceled its 2020 season.) Note, Victory’s two coastal ships are flagged to the Bahamas, not the U.S.

Prior to embarkation, all passengers and crew will have to complete a health questionnaire and a medical travel screening survey. At the pre-cruise hotel, medical personnel will screen each guest and conduct a temperature check. Boarding will be denied to anyone deemed to pose a health risk.

There’s a 24-hour window between the pre-cruise hotel stay and vessel embarkation.

Once people are cleared during the pre-cruise process, embarkation will be conducted via one controlled access point with thermal cameras supplementing the manual temperature checks of the pre-cruise screening.

An on-board medical representative will conduct the gangway screening, complete the health and safety survey and provide reports to the master and hotel director.

Monitoring during the cruise

Throughout AQSC voyages, trained staff will maintain protocols and observe passengers and crew for symptoms. Anyone who has an elevated temperature, shows signs or symptoms of illness or who vessel management determine needs further assessment will be sent directly to a local medical partner for evaluation and testing. Anyone testing positive for a contagious condition won’t be allowed to rejoin the vessel.

Using MXP Protect, AQSC will be able to monitor critical areas on board with thermal scanning. All passengers and crew will be monitored by passive thermal imaging when returning to the vessel in addition to random manual screening.

Public room/stateroom cleaning

And there’s more, much more that AQSC is doing.

Increased sanitation of all contact surfaces such as handrails, tables, chairs, desks, work surfaces, door handles, telephones and elevator controls — both front and back of house — will be conducted hourly with an all-chlorine solution.

All public and crew spaces will be fogged twice daily and multi-purpose disinfecting wipes will be made available in staterooms.

Cabin staff will clean and sanitize all surfaces of the room and use an EPA-approved disinfectant spray, as well as Protexus Electrostatic Sprayers to fog staterooms daily.

AQSC will fog cabins daily

AQSC’s heightened sanitation measures will include fogging staterooms daily. Here, an American Duchess suite. * Photo: American Queen Steamboat Co.

Self-service buffets are suspended, and waiters will be stationed at buffets to serve food. Crew will minimize guest touch points by manually entering cabin numbers rather than using guest swipe cards and by replacing communal items such as salt/pepper pots, sugar bowls and butter bowls with single-serve packets.

Tables, chairs and countertops will be sanitized on the hour or when vacated by the guest, and menus will be printed on single-use paper and discarded after each use. All table items will be removed each time a table is vacated. All crockery, glassware and cutlery will be washed even if unused. Self-service areas are suspended in the bars, too, and individual bowls of bar snacks will be available on request.

Deck rails, swimming pools, the gangway and other external hard points will be sanitized at least every hour when in use, with the gangway sanitation occurring every half-hour when in use.

Motor coaches will be reduced to a maximum 52 percent capacity. Bus seats, windows and handrails will be sanitized with an EPA-recommended solution daily before boarding and every hour when in use. Liquid hand sanitizer dispensers will be available at the door. All shore excursions will be conducted within the guidelines of the local municipalities visited.

Alaska will be very different this season

If small-ship lines do resume sailing in the coming months, they may have some places to themselves, given many big-ship cancellations in regions like Alaska and Canada/New England.

“Sailing in Alaska this season will be more pristine than ever, and not likely duplicated anytime soon,” according to Capt. Dan Blanchard, CEO of UnCruise Adventures.

Capt. Dan Blanchard with Wilderness Adventurer in Alaska. * Photo: UnCruise Adventures

He added that Alaska “has always had my heart. I’ve sailed there since I was a boy and I’m excited to get back on board. With anything we do, we will respect local community requests and in part, our sailings are determined by the market.”

RELATED: Alaska Adventures with UnCruise.  by Judi Cohen

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RELATED: A QuirkyCruise.com Q&A with UnCruise CEO Dan Blanchard about the new seven-member US Small-Boat Operators Coalition.

 

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Pacific Catalyst ship Westward

Pacific Catalyst

Pacific Catalyst operates a pair of historic wooden ships that have amazingly long and complex histories. Each carries no more than 12 passengers on primarily Southeast Alaskan itineraries to remote locations along the Inside Passage in search of adventure and wildlife under the sea, atop it, on shore and in the air. One of the vessels also cruises to Baja California.

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

CATALYST II was built in 1931 as a state-of-the-art oceanographic ship for the University of Washington. In WWII she served as an armed vessel with a machine gun paced atop the pilothouse while carrying depth charges and patrolling the Aleutian Islands looking for Japanese submarines. After the war she worked for various companies, including mining operations, carrying an assortment of cargos. Some owners lived aboard the vessel. Then in the 21st century, she was converted to take up to 12 passengers and a crew of 4 or 5. Enjoy the fine craftsmanship aboard this wooden boat.

Alaska Catalyst II

The Catalyst II in Alaska. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

WESTWARD was completed in 1924 for the Alaska Coast Hunting and Cruising Co. and pioneered fishing, hunting and adventure travel in remote regions of Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska.

Well-known passengers included Bing Crosby, Walt Disney, George Eastman, E.F. Hutton, Marjorie Merriweather Post, Hal Roach, John Wayne, and numerous other VIPs of the era.

During WWII, she became a patrol boat stationed off the California coast before returning to the Pacific Northwest, operating for 20 years as both private yacht and charter vessel. She now takes 11 passengers for her present owner; 12 if one is a minor.

Pacific Catalyst ship Westward

The handsome Westward. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Both sail at 8 knots and operate with their original diesel engines that in itself is a fine feature. Battery power allows them to travel silently for up to 12 hours, ideal for silent maneuvers to get close to animals on shore, creatures in the sea and in the air. Portholes may open or not depending on the cabin.

Diesel Engines of Pacific Catalyst ships

Both ships operate with their original diesel engines. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

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Passenger Decks

2 and not surprisingly, no elevator.

Passenger Profile

Adventuresome types who are serious explorers of the world around them.

Price

Pricey $$$

What’s Included

CATALYST: Excursions (including kayaks), plus wine and beer as well as other beverages are included (though not hard alcohol, which is BYOB).

WESTWARD: Excursions (including kayaks), plus on Sea of Cortez cruises, wine, beer and well spirits are included.

Pacific Catalyst kayaks

Kayaks tethered to the Westward in Alaska. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Itineraries

SE Alaska

Both ships spend the summer in Alaska’s Inside Passage.

  • 7 days in the eastern Inside Passage, Juneau to Petersburg and vice versa;
  • 7 days in the western Inside Passage;
  • 8 days from Juneau, Petersburg, and Sitka with anchorages at Admiralty, Baranof and Kupreanof Islands;
  • 7-, 8- and 10-day intensive touring in Glacier Bay National Park, when most small ships only spend one, while the big ships a half day.
Alaska glaciers

Cruising Alaska up-close and personal. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Depending on the destination, game seen may be black and brown bears, humpback whales, sea otters, sea lions, mountain goats, and events such as calving glaciers, plus small isolated villages and the local culture.

Bears on an Alaska cruise

Getting close up to bears on a small-ship cruise. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

San Juan Islands

A 6-day cruise that visits a number of different islands, looking for Steller sea lions, orca whales, harbor seals, minke whales, Pacific Whiteside Porpoises. Drop anchor at Garrison Bay, the site of a British mid-19th-century encampment, to go exploring trails and shorelines. Kayak against the backdrop of stunning snow-capped Mt Rainier, and the Cascade and Olympic Mountains.

Check out Stuart Island for a climb to a lighthouse to watch passing ships and private yachts pass along the channel; Sucia Island with its geological and cultural histories, and also stands of madronas, a broadleaf evergreen tree that keeps its leaves throughout the winter; Matia Island with unique geological and topographical features; and finally a return Friday Harbor hopefully seeing more waterborne species.

Mt Rainier San Juan islands

The backdrop of Mt. Rainier. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Sea of Cortez

These 9- to 12-day cruises, from December to March, explore Baja California with activities such as snorkeling, kayaking and hiking, sometimes on nearby islands. Wildlife to see includes white sharks, sea lions, frigate birds, and gray whales. Lots of whales! Drive over to the west coast, Bahia Magdalena, for migrating whales seen from a panga while moving though a lagoon.

Baja whale watching

Baja whale watching. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Why Go?

Alaska: Serious pursuit of wildlife and while cruising in fjords, bays, narrow inlets, on and near islands, while aboard very intimate ships with personalized service.

When to Go?

Southeast Alaska — May to September.

Sea of Cortez — December to March.

Cabins

CATALYST II has upper and lower bunk cabins, double beds, some with private facilities and others shared.

WESTWARD has single and double bunks, private shower and toilet. Portholes may open or not.

Pacific Catalyst in Alaska

A cozy Westward cabin. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Pacific Catalyst

Another Westward cabin angle (3). * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Public Rooms

Both vessels have a dining-cum-lounge. And there’s a lounging space at the stern.

Pacific Catalyst ships

The back deck is a popular gathering place. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Dining

Where possible, organic food is sourced from local farmers and fisher folk in cruising areas — SE Alaska, San Juan Islands, and Baja California, especially seafood, fruit and vegetables.

fresh fish in Alaska

Smoked black cod fritters. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Pacific Catalyst food

A delicious shrimp chipotle handroll. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Activities & Entertainment

The crew is well versed in local history and know where the wildlife is located. Talks are informal and often on site when game is seen such as sea otters, sea lions, humpback whales, mountain goats, grey wolves, black and brown bears. Kayaking may be with a naturalist and hiking along nature trails.

kayaking

Both boats carry along kayaks. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Special Notes

Two historic vessels that have engaged in many different roles and have been lovingly looked after.

Along the Same Lines

Atlas Ocean Tours with its 6-passenger vessel ATLAS cruising the Inside Passage along the British Columbia coast.

Contact

Pacific Catalyst II, Inc. P.O. Box 3117, Friday Harbor, WA, 98250; 360-378-7123.

Captain Bill

Pacific Catalyst’s Captain Bill. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

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Lindblad’s New National Geographic Venture

Lindblad’s New National Geographic Venture

By Peter Knego.

My Lindblad Expeditions “Among The Great Whales” adventure aboard the brand-new 100-passenger National Geographic Venture began at San Jose del Cabo at the tip of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula. It was a three-hour drive up the Pacific Coast and across rugged desert terrain to the CostaBaja Resort overlooking the Bay of La Paz in the Sea of Cortez.

Lindblad’s New National Geographic Venture

“Among the Great Whales” itinerary. Note the order of ports may vary. * Map: Lindblad Expeditions

A nice buffet dinner under the stars provided an ideal way to unwind and meet fellow shipmates, about 100 well-traveled Americans and a scattered few from other countries.

Nearly everyone on board the 7-night cruise was there to see and get up close to the wildlife, sea lions, birds and especially the whales. Many guests were avid photo takers who appreciated the official photographer‘s tips with techniques.

Lindblad’s New National Geographic Venture

All aboard as the National Geographic Venture prepares to depart San Carlos! * Photo: Peter Knego

On Board

The next afternoon, we crossed to the Pacific Coast to join the brand-new National Geographic Venture; aka NG Venture.

Introduced in early 2019, the 238-foot, 2,380-gt NG Venture is a sparkling, state-of-the-art expedition ship with a fleet of eight zodiacs and 24 kayaks. The US-flag ship is fitted with stabilizers that would come in handy in open ocean conditions.

The ship has four decks connected by a lift and two stair towers. The layout includes a lounge, dining room, shop, gym, an open bow observation platform, an open bridge (conditions permitting), a sheltered stern terrace and a platform for boarding kayaks and zodiacs.

Lindblad’s New National Geographic Venture

The interior portion of Lounge Deck begins with the Lounge, which can seat all guests at once and features a bar, library, numerous LED screens and a rotunda-style podium called the Circle Of Truth for presentations by the ship’s expedition team. * Photo: Peter Knego

Lindblad’s New National Geographic Venture

At the aft end of Lounge Deck, the Dining Room can also seat all guests at once and features floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides. * Photo: Peter Knego

Due to an approaching storm, instead of overnighting for a morning bird-watching excursion in Bahia Magdalena, we sailed off to Laguna San Ignacio, a protected whale feeding ground about 100 miles up the coast. It is a site made famous by the likes of John Steinbeck and Jacques Cousteau.

The Cabin Accommodations

My Category 3 cabin had a comfy queen-size bed, two picture windows, a writing desk, plenty of storage space, and bathroom with shower. Being the most forward cabin, it was a bit bumpy that first night as it took the brunt of the pounding waves and succumbed to some serious “corkscrewing” — that dreaded combination of pitching and rolling.

Lindblad’s New National Geographic Venture

There are no keys to access cabins on the National Geographic Venture, including Category 3 stateroom 202, shown facing port.  All staterooms do lock from the inside and are stocked with eco-friendly amenities (shampoo, conditioner, shower gel — in shower dispensers) and soap. * Photo: Peter Knego

Thankfully, for those like me with motion sickness issues, the ship provided an abundant supply of delicious ginger chews and meclizine tablets. Both were effective.

As for the Venture’s other accommodations, the top-grade Category 1’s have large picture windows that look out to a narrow promenade, a sitting area and an expanded bathroom. Category 2’s are slightly smaller but come with a private balcony.

Lindblad’s New National Geographic Venture

The NG Venture’s Category 1 staterooms have picture windows that look out onto the Observation Deck promenade. * Photo: Peter Knego

Categories 4 and 5 are the most economical, and thus smaller and lower in the ship, which can actually be a good thing when the seas get rough.

The lack of televisions provided a chance to fully disengage from the chaos of the outside world.

 First Excursion Ashore

It was gray and cooler than expected when we finally reached the shelter of Laguna San Ignacio the next afternoon. That first Zodiac ride in the chilling wind and rough surf would add to the sense of adventure and ultimately pay off in spades.

Lindblad’s New National Geographic Venture

Zodiacs are accessed via a platform on the stern of the ship. * Photo: Peter Knego

Strangely, this entire week in the Baja region would be about ten degrees cooler than in California where I live, so I was glad to have brought a sweatshirt and waterproof windbreaker along.

No matter what the weather conditions are, you can never go wrong with layers!

Peter all layered up in Baja! * Photo: Peter Knego

After a beach landing, we transferred from the ship’s Zodiacs to locally operated pangas that buzzed us deep into the gray whales’ turf. All around us, the giant cetaceans were “spy hopping,” or projecting their massive bodies vertically out of the sea to get a peek above the surface and then falling back with a giant splash.

Lindblad’s New National Geographic Venture

A pair of gray whales doing their “spy hop” maneuver at Laguna San Ignacio. * Photo: Peter Knego

Our guides explained that this gravitational shifting also helps them digest the little crustaceans and other tiny creatures they had come to gorge on.

As our panga returned to the beach, a “friendly” (a baby gray calf) surfaced alongside just long enough for us to pat its barnacle-encrusted skin before it vanished back into the bubbly realm.

Click below: When a whale breaches within touching distance, it is called a “friendly”.

 

Sunsets & Sunrises

Back aboard the National Geographic Venture, dinner was slightly delayed so that we could gather on the bow for a startlingly beautiful sunset. For that lingering transition from day into night, our slice of the world was bathed in an almost fluorescent orange and magenta glow.

Lindblad’s New National Geographic Venture

San Ignacio’s sunset over the bow. * Photo: Peter Knego

The next morning, it was all about Zodiacs and pangas and the pursuit of more whales.  The seas were not only teeming with majestic grays, but provided a side show of dancing dolphins, the occasional leaping manta and scores of sea turtles.

Lindblad’s New National Geographic Venture

Pangas, breaching grays and the mirage-like National Geographic Venture at Laguna San Ignacio. * Photo: Peter Knego

With the sun beaming on the jagged purple peaks of the Sierras De La Gigantes in the backdrop, it couldn’t have been more exhilarating. Although there were no more close encounters of the “friendly” kind.

Racing Ahead to Avoid a Storm

For the next 36 hours, the National Geographic Venture made a mad south-by-southeasterly dash for Cabo, where the Pacific meets the Sea of Cortez.  For a delightful interlude on that first afternoon, dolphins frolicked in our bow wave.

Click above to view dolphins escorting the National Geographic Venture on her southbound journey.

Thankfully, as the Venture kept ahead of the storm, it would be a relatively smooth ride. I enjoyed the ship, dining, enrichment lectures and fellow guests, free of the trance-inducing effects of meclizine.

Dawn of a New Day

Day six began with the night sky morphing from ink blue into a lovely shade of pre-dawn purple-essence.

With coffee in one hand and camera in the other, I worked my way up to the bow platform to join fellow guests as the rising sun cast its first rays on Friar’s Rocks. The iconic formation at the tip of Cabo San Lucas is also known as Los Arcos.

Sunrise on Friar’s Rocks, where the Pacific meets the Sea of Cortez. * Photo: Peter Knego

Scores of tiny craft were heading out of Cabo’s small harbor to join us in welcoming the new day and the National Geographic Venture’s transition from the open Pacific to the Gulf of California, or as it is more commonly called, the Sea of Cortez.

After breakfast, the Venture motored to the outskirts of another small marina, that of San Jose Del Cabo, where we boarded zodiacs for a short ride ashore. I opted for the combined bird-watching walk in the estuary and time to wander the old town, with its historic mission, shops and galleries.

Lindblad’s New National Geographic Venture

Birders in the San Jose Del Cabo estuary. * Photo: Peter Knego

Whales Whales & More Whales

Back aboard in time for lunch, we felt the gentle rumble of the Venture’s diesels propelling us into deeper water for an afternoon spent chasing humpback whales. With each breach and fluke, there were gasps, the frenzied clicking of camera shutters, and the occasional groan of someone who just missed capturing the action in pixels.

Another spectacular sunset serenaded us as we gathered on the stern terrace, where the al fresco bar was opened up for the first time during our trip.

On most nights, one of the naturalists would give an excellent presentation on the marine life, history and lore of the region.

Highlights were lecturer Marylou Blakeslee’s readings from John Steinbeck’s and Ed Rickett’s “The Log From The Sea Of Cortez,” describing their pioneering visit to the Baja Peninsula. I also greatly enjoyed expedition leader Bette Lu Krause’s tales of being a young female mariner in a male-dominated sea.

Day seven began with an early morning blue whale sighting as the Venture neared Isla San Francisco. I signed up for the morning kayak ride in the relatively sheltered bay, seizing the opportunity to not only get up close to a rocky outcrop of pelicans but to snap some nice, up-close views of our ship.

Lindblad’s New National Geographic Venture

Kayaking off Isla San Francisco. * Photo: Peter Knego

 

Click above to experience the National Geographic Venture from a kayak’s perspective.

After returning the kayak, I joined a guided walk into the tide pools on the other side of the narrow strip of land linking the two halves of the islet. Expedition team members pointed out numerous starfish species, urchins, crabs, sea cucumbers and other saline fauna.

Snorkeling

Lunch on the ship was followed by a snorkeling expedition. Lindblad provided the gear, including wet suits, as the sea temperature was in the mid-60s.

My adventurous Australian snorkeling partner Haney and I encountered some pretty exciting sea life, including a rare zebra eel, schools of positively fluorescent fish and some adorable yellow puffers.

Another zodiac ride to/from the ship allowed us to change gear for an afternoon hike that unfortunately had to be aborted midway due to severe winds.

Lindblad’s New National Geographic Venture

Isla San Francisco overview. * Photo: Peter Knego

As we kayaked, snorkeled and hiked, our expedition leaders pieced together an exciting last segment of the voyage. Taking advantage of the extra day gained by skipping Bahia Magdalena we would head to Puerto Escondido.

Sightseeing Alternative

Here, the next morning, local drivers took us on a ride back to Bahia Magdalena on the Pacific Coast to board pangas for another chance to enjoy an all-day expedition amongst the whales.

Those, like myself, who opted for the alternate choice, would be driven up into the Sierras de la Giganta for a visit to the historic Mission San Javier.

Lindblad’s New National Geographic Venture

Nestled in Baja Sur’s rugged mountains, Mission San Javier was built in 1744. * Photo: Peter Knego

Then it was off to nearby Loreto, a charming Sea of Cortez resort town, where we could savor a Mexican lunch with time to explore on our own.

Last Full Day

Our last full day would be spent in the Espiritu Santo archipelago where the first morning excursion included a swim amongst sea lions followed by zodiac-ing into their feeding ground, where the rock formations resembled the creatures we had come to witness.

Rock formations versus sea lions in Espiritu Santo. * Photo: Peter Knego

Click below for a leaping sea lion snippet.

 

Late that afternoon, we anchored off Los Islotes where the crew prepared a beach barbecue while many of us headed off on hosted hiking expeditions in search of wildlife and the unique flora of the Baja Sur region.

Hiking at Los Islotes in the Sea of Cortez’ Espiritu Santo archipelago. * Photo: Peter Knego

As the final sunset extinguished itself, we returned to the ship for a slide show recap of the week’s adventure, then ultimately back to our cabins to pack and prepare for our homeward journeys the following morning. 🐋

Click here for a gander at QuirkyCruise’s John Roberts’ photo essay on the Nat Geo Venture.

Weather

This particular itinerary with both Pacific and Sea of Cortez ports operates between January and March.

Weather is typically moderate but it can get very windy in the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific swells can be rough at times, especially for a small ship.

What’s Included

Drinks and tips are not included, but excursions are included in each port. In certain spots, weather conditions permitting, there will be a choice of activities from snorkeling and kayaking to hikes of various length and endurance.

Lindblad provides gear for snorkeling (masks, fins, snorkels and wetsuits), but guests must bring hiking boots and shoes that can withstand “wet landings” in the zodiacs. Layers of light clothing are highly recommended.

Rates for  the 7-night “Among the Great Whales” itinerary start at $5,990 USD per person based on double occupancy in a Category 1 cabin.

All images, text and video copyright Peter Knego 2019

quirkycruise bird

 

 

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UnCruise Adventures SS Legacy

UnCruise Adventures SS Legacy

By John Roberts.

We wake up at the crack of dawn and make our way to the top of the ship. It’s a quick trip from our small cabin on Deck 3 — just one level up to reach the top of SS Legacy. On the first morning of our “Rivers of Adventure” sailing with UnCruise Adventures, we’re getting the day going with a yoga session.

UnCruise Adventures SS Legacy

Yoga session on deck. * Photo: John Roberts

This is my fourth sailing with UnCruise, and there are a few things I’ve come to count on when taking a journey with the expedition line:

  • I’m going to learn some interesting stuff.
  • I’ll be well fed.
  • And I’ll be thoroughly exhausted after days filled with thrilling adventures.

This voyage is carrying about 30 passengers on a ship that can fit 90, so we have plenty of space and all get to know each other quickly. Seven of us, including my wife Colleen, decide that it will be a good idea to warm up our muscles and clear our minds for the day ahead.

The 30-minute yoga session does the trick nicely — and this would be the first of at least three times we take advantage of the morning yoga classes.

The “Rivers of Adventure” itinerary is a new one for UnCruise Adventures, and we have joined one of the first trips for this program on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. I know how active my previous sailings have been, in Alaska, Costa Rica and Panama, and in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington, so I expect this week on SS Legacy cruise is going to be more fun and active than your standard river voyage.

The SS Legacy. * Photo: John Roberts

Here is a day-by-day look at our journey.

Days 1 & 2

The cruise embarks in Clarkston, Washington, on the Snake River. After an overnight on the ship, some of us early birds get up to start our day with a birdwatching walk just along the banks of the river. We are stunned at the number of bird varieties we spot just steps from our ship as we wander for about 45 minutes on the path with guides Bobby and Sarah.

There are California quail, kingfishers, blue jays, finches and other species flitting about — I cannot remember all the names. During the week, we would be in what is known as a rain shadow region. This unique climate and geography develops because the landscape is on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountain range, meaning it gets little rainfall after the moist air climbs up the western slope and the clouds wring out most of their ample amounts of precipitation. Seattle knows what I’m talking about.

UnCruise Adventures SS Legacy

Birdwatching in Clarkston. * Photo: John Roberts

So, the area shows signs of dryness as we venture about all week, with golden grasses and brown shrubs lining our route. But a variety of flowers provide bursts of color here and there as we hike and paddle in the wilderness.

After our birdwatching on that first day, we enjoy a hearty breakfast on SS Legacy before all of us load into a speed boat at the pier alongside our ship. Moments later, we are zooming off into Hells Canyon. This National Recreation Area comprises the steep walls that bracket the Snake River, with Idaho on one side and Washington the other.

UnCruise Adventures SS Legacy

John & Colleen in the Hells Canyon speed boat. * Photo: John Roberts

We see soaring eagles and falcons and stop to look at ancient petroglyphs etched onto large rocks at the river bank. Native American history is rich throughout the region, with the stories of the Nez Perce tribe discussed often during our cruise. (Later this day, passengers very much enjoy a guest interpretive talk onboard by J.R. Spencer, a Nez Perce tribe member, artist, educator and performer.)

J.R. Spencer, a Nez Perce tribe member, artist, educator and performer. * Photo: John Roberts

The boat also takes us past large ranches and a herd of big horn sheep on our way to a picnic lunch at Garden Creek Ranch, which is a fishing camp and preserve located at the junction of Idaho, Washington and Oregon. Here we fill up on barbecue and cold beers and wine, then wander about the property, which is filled with wild turkeys and deer that roam freely among the apple and pear orchard on the hillside.

After lunch, the boat goes deeper into the canyon before heading back to SS Legacy, where a group of us, five to be exact, take up what quickly become familiar positions at the bar to take advantage of the free-flowing drinks and friendly conversation offered by our bartender Dee Dee.

UnCruise Adventures SS Legacy

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

Day 3

We wake up in Lyon’s Ferry at the edge of the Palouse River and start the day with a quick workout at the ship’s small outdoor gym up top, then join the daily yoga session.

It’s a perfectly sunny day, and we are excited to hike at Palouse Falls State Park. Guides lead us down into the canyon and along meandering trails to the river and a small waterfall area. I shuck my clothes down to my skivvies and hop in for a quick swim. My fellow cruisers now think I’m a bit crazy as I emerge from the icy glacial waters. I feel quite refreshed, actually, and quickly dry off in the sun.

John takes a dip in the icy Palouse water. * Photo: John Roberts

This state park is exceedingly beautiful, and the hike is the first of two amazing excursions we would enjoy today. After lunch, we hop in skiffs to ride into the Palouse River, where we meet UnCruise’s mobile launching dock the Sea Dragon. This is where we get into our kayaks to paddle the river until sunset approaches. It is a serene scene as a couple dozen kayaks slice through the water alongside marshy areas and amid the towering canyon walls.

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

Colleen and I join our new friends back onboard in the hot tubs for sunset cocktails (another ritual we will repeat more than a few times). This is the perfect way to rejuvenate our bodies after a busy day.

After dinner, we get the first of three guide presentations we will hear during our cruise. Sarah thrills us and draws plenty of gasps and laughs with her presentation on lesser-known bird species of the region.

Later in the week, Bobby talks about the effects of wildfires and their important role in nature, and Robert gives an in-depth chat about Lewis and Clark’s journey.

UnCruise Adventures SS Legacy

Guide Robert. * Photo: John Roberts

Day 4

We catch a bit of a break today, with a lighter schedule of activities in Richland, Washington, a pretty city located right on the Columbia River. Colleen and I get out of bed nice and early for a skiff tour on the river to spy more birds. We spot egrets, magpies and ducks in the trees and marshy shore areas.

It’s easy to rise nice and early when you find yourselves retreating to your cabin and bed each night by 9 p.m. We have good intentions: “Let’s stay up a little later tonight and play a game,” our group promises one another. Yet, we finish a filling meal, down a few beers and the satisfied exhaustion of another day washes over us, overpowering our wills to keep the party going.

In Richland, UnCruise has set up free rentals bikes for its passengers to sign out from Greenies Bike Shop, a quick walk from the pier.

Biking in Richland. * Photo: John Roberts

 

UnCruise Adventures SS Legacy

To-die-for scenery on the bike ride. * Photo: John Roberts

We take advantage and had a nice late-morning ride for about 12 miles back and forth on the well-developed riverside path. In the afternoon, most passengers go to a vineyard for wine tasting. We stay onboard to get in a nap and spend some quality time in the hot tub.

We don’t regret our decision — at all.

Day 5

Today is a big day. We reach the Deschutes River in Oregon for whitewater rafting and know it’s going to be a blast. More than half of the passengers choose rafting; the rest visit Maryhill Museum of Art to see the eclectic array of items in the Beaux-Arts-style former mansion of entrepreneur Sam Hill.

We get a brilliantly sunny day to enjoy the racing waters of the Deschutes. It lends its name, by the way, to the regional brewery that produces some great craft beers. Over the course of three hours, we scream our way through class 2 and class 3 rapids, and we hear of a few spills that leave some members of our group drenched by the bracing waters.

UnCruise Adventures SS Legacy

Whitewater rafting on the Deschutes River in Oregon. * Photo: John Roberts

In our raft, we all manage to stay onboard (we’re obviously the best at this!) and learn how to surf the waves while synching up our paddle strokes. Our guide Larry also gives us an interesting running commentary on the history of the river and the region.

When we pull ourselves out of the rafts at the end of our journey, our legs are a bit wobbly and our hunger is great. We find a sunny spot at a picnic table and delightfully relive the outing while downing our lunches (complemented by beers and wines) and letting our clothes dry.

Day 6

The action continues in The Dalles, Oregon. A bus ride takes us to Rowena Plateau, which overlooks the Columbia River Gorge. We are among the first people there as we start a challenging morning hike. We startle a small herd of mule deer, which bound away over the grassy knolls to our delight and awe.

After exploring the flat area on the plateau, it’s time to kick it into gear to reach our goal. Our expedition leader, Megan, wants us to be the first group of the season to reach the summit of the hike.

Tom McCall Point is a fairly challenging switchback trail that offers a peak with great views of the region. Mount Adams and Mount Hood are constantly in sight during our hike up, their snow-capped peaks standing sentry over the gorge.

UnCruise Adventures SS Legacy

John and his group at the summit of Rowena. * Photo: John Roberts

We make it up in good time, and our efforts pay off with stunning views that offer an energy boost. Too soon, it’s time to head back to the ship, but we need to get lunch to refuel for the afternoon’s bike ride on the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail.

We start in the town of Hood River, and I know this will be a fun leg-burner of a ride. The guides warn us of some steep sections of the route that takes us to the “Twin Tunnels” and a scenic viewing point over the gorge. We also have fun whooshing along the roads on our descents, and much of the ride takes us through pretty tree-covered sections.

UnCruise Adventures SS Legacy

Biking on the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail. * Photo: John Roberts

A few of us in particular want to complete the 12-mile out-and-back route in a timely fashion to free us up for a walk around the town of Hood River. We have plans to get a couple cold ones as a reward for our work today, and a few blocks into town, we settle in at Full Sail Brewing Co., in time to have a round before rejoining our fellow cruisers on the shuttle back to SS Legacy.

Yes, we slept well again this night.

Day 7

It’s hard to believe the trip is coming to an end as we reach Bonneville Lock and Dam. It’s rainy as we go out for a quick group tour to visit the facility and visitors center. The highlight is the fascinating salmon ladder that helps the fish pass the dam to get upstream.

The fascination fish ladder. * Photo: John Roberts

UnCruise offers a biking tour to a winery, and many guests take advantage of this despite the rainy conditions. Colleen and I choose to go into the town of Cascade Locks on our own to hike a small portion of the Pacific Crest Trail.

UnCruise Adventures SS Legacy

The Pacific Crest Trail. * Photo: John Roberts

The wilderness gives us an immediate embrace just moments after we step onto the trail away from the busy roads in town. We are fascinated to be able to see the remaining scars everywhere in the forest from the large wildfires in 2017.

Then, it’s back to the ship for one last festive night onboard while we set sail to Portland where it’s time to get off SS Legacy.

The SS Legacy arriving in Portland. * Photo: John Roberts

Life Onboard

Cabins

Our stateroom on SS Legacy is functional but with tight confines and a small bed, making the space ill-suited for a couple to enjoy any particular moments of intimacy.

This was not a problem because by the third day, anyways, as we would head back to our cabin around 9 p.m. too exhausted to do anything but plop down and pass out.

From daybreak until dinnertime, our schedules are filled with meals, drinks and thrilling activities. Food and beverages on SS Legacy feature regional varieties, so we have a lot of seafood options and wines from Washington and Oregon vineyards.

Eating & Drinking

Colleen and I try all the beers. The Coco Joe’s coconut porter is a flavorful favorite, and I had at least one Born and Raised IPA and Scuttlebutt amber each day.

The menus always offer one seafood, one meat and one vegetarian option. Passengers routinely would order a half-and-half of two of the entrees because they faced tough choices and wanted to try multiple entrees. Staff also makes painstaking efforts to accommodate dietary needs — preparing vegan and lactose-free meals, for examples, on our cruise.

UnCruise Adventures SS Legacy

A sampling of the week’s meals! * Photo: John Roberts

Our cabin opened directly to the outdoor deck, and it’s especially nice to wake up and step outside into a new wilderness painting each morning. The top deck offers the small gym with cardio equipment and free weights, as well as two hots tubs.

UnCruise Adventures SS Legacy

The author’s cozy cabin. * Photo: John Roberts

A large selection of DVDs is available to take back to your room for viewing, and the ship also has a big collection of games, books and a few puzzles. Snacks like granola bars and fresh fruit are always available, and the pastry chef makes fresh cookies that are set out in the lounge every afternoon.

Drinks are included in your cruise fare.

UnCruise Adventures SS Legacy

Drinks are included in the cruise fare. 🍷🍺 Here’s bartender DeeDee. * Photo: John Roberts

Overall, UnCruise’s “Rivers of Adventure” is a wonderful expedition, as passengers become fast friends while out tackling fun new adventures in incredibly vibrant places each day. This is certainly my kind of quirky cruise!

Making friends on a cruise with so many active excursions is not very strenuous! * Photo: John Roberts

 

➢➢➢ Here’s a VIDEO TOUR of the SS Legacy that John made. Have a look 👀!

➢➢➢ Here’s John’s VIDEO overview of the ACTIVE EXCURSIONS  he sampled!

 

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Lindblad Expeditions’ New National Geographic Venture

Lindblad Expeditions’ New National Geographic Venture

By John Roberts.

Lindblad Expeditions welcomed the newest ship, the 100-passenger, 50-stateroom National Geographic Venture, to its fleet at a ceremony at the historic Treasure Island Pier 1 in San Francisco. My wife Colleen and I joined the inaugural cruise, a quick two-day adventure in San Francisco Bay in early December. The cruise was over much too quickly but gave us a great sense of how wonderful it is to sail an expedition voyage with Lindblad, and in such comfort on a beautiful new vessel.

 

Lindblad Expeditions’ New National Geographic Venture

Photo: John Roberts

Lindblad Expeditions founder and CEO Sven-Olof Lindblad tells a little about the Lindblad story during the christening ceremony of the new National Geographic Venture. Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic have had an alliance in cruising since 2004.

 

Lindblad Expeditions’ New National Geographic Venture

Photo: John Roberts

Crew line the deck in front of the bridge during the christening alongside the historic Treasure Island Pier 1 in San Francisco. The shiny and new NatGeo Venture, which was built in the U.S. at the Nichols Brothers Shipyard on Whidbey Island in Washington, will sail seasons in Baja California, the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.

 

Into the Northwest Passage 2020

Photo: John Roberts

Capt. Andrew Cook — yes, he says he’s proud to live up to his name as a Captain Cook — is master of the vessel.

 

Lindblad Expeditions’ New National Geographic Venture

Photo: John Roberts

There is an open-bridge policy on National Geographic Venture, which means you can stop by to see how the navigation of the ship works.

 

Into the Northwest Passage 2020

Photo: John Roberts

The bow area is the best spot to enjoy scenic sailing. We all rushed out for our sunset sailaway in San Francisco Bay toward the Golden Gate Bridge.

 

Lindblad Expeditions’ New National Geographic Venture

Photo: John Roberts

The bow even has a raised platform in the middle so passengers can better see wildlife in the surrounding waters during the voyage.

 

Lindblad Expeditions’ New National Geographic Venture

Photo: John Roberts

The sun is quickly fading in the distance, just past our view of Alcatraz Island.

 

Lindblad Expeditions’ New National Geographic Venture

Photo: John Roberts

Capt. Andrew Cook welcomes passengers onboard his spanking-new ship. The lounge area is a comfy space and a natural gathering spot for pre-dinner cocktails and to hear talks from the ship’s field staff and naturalists.

 

Into the Northwest Passage 2020

Photo: John Roberts

The dining room onboard National Geographic Venture features a buffet for breakfast and lunch. You can find numerous healthy choices, like organic chicken, salads, red and golden beets, and quinoa. There’s also a carving station and you’ll always find sweets to tempt you at the buffet, too.

 

Lindblad Expeditions’ New National Geographic Venture

Photo: John Roberts

The open-seating dining room on NatGeo Venture offers a moving window on the world.

 

Lindblad Expeditions’ New National Geographic Venture

Photo: John Roberts

This is my healthy breakfast — an omelet with turkey sausage, some kiwi, yogurt and other fruit.

 

Lindblad Expeditions’ New National Geographic Venture

Photo: John Roberts

I was amazed at my first meal, a lunch that was loaded with goodness from the buffet. I typically have trouble finding healthy choices on most cruise ships but not on National Geographic Venture.

 

Lindblad Expeditions’ New National Geographic Venture

Photo: John Roberts

I chose the rack of lamb for dinner. It was a good pick. The menu also always offers a seafood and vegetarian option.

 

Into the Northwest Passage 2020

Photo: John Roberts

Colleen said this avocado mousse with passionfruit, meringue and hint of beetroot and salt was the best dessert she has ever had.

 

Into the Northwest Passage 2020

Photo: John Roberts

Our cabin had plenty of open shelving, which I found nice to organize and have easy access to my camera equipment and other items.

 

Lindblad Expeditions’ New National Geographic Venture

Photo: John Roberts

The bed was fairly comfy in our stateroom No. 217, which has a balcony.

 

Lindblad Expeditions’ New National Geographic Venture

Photo: John Roberts

Binoculars are at the ready in the lounge for when wildlife is within sight.

 

Into the Northwest Passage 2020

Photo: John Roberts

Some of your activities take you into chilly waters, and Lindblad Expeditions has you covered with wetsuits.  There’s also a telescope that sits at the front of the lounge so you can peep out on the scenery as you wish.

 

Lindblad Expeditions’ New National Geographic Venture

Photo: John Roberts

Or, you can just make like you see something at the front of the ship and sneak off with some more goodies from the snack area. No one will judge you.

 

Lindblad Expeditions’ New National Geographic Venture

Photo: John Roberts

There is a well-stocked bar in the lounge, with cocktails, wines and craft beers at the ready. We found the hotel staff onboard to be unfailingly friendly and good at anticipating passenger needs.

 

Photo: John Roberts

On Day 2, we headed out for our adventures. The marina at the back of the ship is where you load into Zodiacs.

 

Lindblad Expeditions’ New National Geographic Venture

Photo: John Roberts

We enjoyed a skiff tour around San Francisco Bay with our guide Emily Pickering.

 

Lindblad Expeditions’ New National Geographic Venture

Photo: John Roberts

National Geographic Venture sits off Angel Island in the bay.

 

Lindblad Expeditions’ New National Geographic Venture

Photo: John Roberts

The Sun Deck is at the back of the ship. It’s a wonderful place for enjoying the views and it’s also where the morning stretch class takes places each day.

 

Lindblad Expeditions’ New National Geographic Venture

Photo: John Roberts

In the afternoon, we went ashore at Angel Island for a hike at Mount Livermore.

 

Lindblad Expeditions’ New National Geographic Venture

Photo: John Roberts

The sunny weather made for ideal hiking conditions on the first day of December.

 

Lindblad Expeditions’ New National Geographic Venture

Photo: John Roberts

Nearing the top of Mount Livermore, we can see the skyline of San Francisco and much of the bay.

 

Lindblad Expeditions’ New National Geographic Venture

Photo: John Roberts

Two happy hikers enjoying reaching the peak. Our hike was five miles roundtrip.

 

Lindblad Expeditions’ New National Geographic Venture

Photo: John Roberts

We made it back onboard before sunset and settled in with a quick walk around the promenade on NatGeo Venture.

 

Lindblad Expeditions’ New National Geographic Venture

Photo: John Roberts

Then, it was time to reward ourselves with well-earned brews after a day of thrills. We quickly fell in love with the friendly Sebastian who was always there with a smile — and our beers.

 

Photo: John Roberts

The author gets another look at San Francisco Bay and breathes in the fresh air aboard the new National Geographic Venture.

Click the photo  ⬆️⬆️⬆️ for John’s VIDEO overview of the Nat Geo Venture!

 

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UnCruise Adventures

UnCruise Adventures

Seattle-based UnCruise operates a fleet of nine expedition vessels taking from 22 to 90 passengers for those seeking adventure cruises in North America’s coastal, island and inland waters from Alaska south to Mexico’s Sea of Cortés, out amongst Hawaiian Islands, Costa Rica and Panama, and in the Galapagos Archipelago off Ecuador.

The American firm, with origins dating back to 1996, has the largest selection of small ship cruises in Alaska, varied enough for return exploratory voyages. UnCruise Adventures is a shared, unrushed experience. For those who like off-season travel, some Alaska itineraries begin in April as the state’s wildlife is waking up, and the spring months are generally drier than later on.

Ships, Years Delivered & Passengers

WILDERNESS ADVENTURER (b. 1984 & 60 passengers); WILDERNESS DISCOVERER (b. 1992 & 76 p); WILDERNESS EXPLORER (b. 1976 & 74 p); SAFARI ENDEAVOUR (b. 1983 & 84 p); SAFARI EXPLORER (b. 1988 & 36 p); SAFARI QUEST (b. 1992 & 22 p) and SAFARI VOYAGER (b. 1982/renovated 2015 & 64 p).

Replica Coastal Steamer: S.S. LEGACY (b. 1983 & 90 p).

For the LA PINTA (b.   & 48 pax), see Galapagos below. The fleet comparison chart  on the website is useful for what features one ship has that another may not such as single cabins and triples.

Safari Quest takes just 22 passengers.* Photo: Un-Cruise Adventures.

Safari Quest takes just 22 passengers.* Photo: Un-Cruise Adventures.

Passenger Profile

A varied lot spanning the ages who come for itineraries that combine popular and off-beat destinations. Cruises are as informal as they come, and the emphasis is outdoor activities and exploring, with activities designed for children. The Columbia-Snake cruises had always attracted generally older passengers for its specific slants on history, cultural traditions and scenery, though now with a big focus on active adventure, the passengers ages should go down. As all but one of these ships are American-flagged, and the crews hail from the US of A. The SAFARI VOYAGER is registered in St.Kitts.

Passenger Decks

3 or 4 and no elevators except for the S.S. LEGACY, connecting the three public decks.

Price
$$ – $$$

Weeklong cruises are typically upwards of $3,200 per person, and include shore excursions, booze and other perks. Some 7-night itineraries command twice that, while early spring dates (14 nights) may begin below $5,000. Peruse the lot to find the price you can afford.

Included Features

Shore excursions; use of the skiffs, kayaks and paddle boards; and non-alcoholic beverages. Spirits, wines and microbrews and a complimentary massage are included on all ships (though no massages on Safari Quest or SS Legacy).

Itineraries

Most cruises last 7 nights, and some Alaska cruises may be combined to create 14-night trips. Some cruises have special themes: marine biology, photography, storytellers, ornithology, craft beer, nostalgic music, wine, Alaska Insiders and a wellness cruise. Here’s the link to UnCruise’s theme offerings. 

The numerous cruising regions are:

Alaska

The 49th state is the line’s prime summer focus involving six ships and 13 different itineraries of 7 nights plus one 8-nighter April to September, in Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage embarking in Juneau, Ketchikan, Petersburg, and Sitka. Beginning and end of season one-way repositioning 14-night voyages between Seattle and Juneau operate in April, August and September.

The emphasis is on avoiding the big cruise ship ports and offering outdoor boating activities in scenic coves and fjords, sea life watching, and Native American cultural life. Glacier Bay is on some itineraries. Some expeditions offer wet suit immersions.

UnCruise Adventures

Kayaking is a big part of the UnCruise ethos. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Land tours of 4- and 5-night may be added to include Denali National Park, Alaska Railroad, Kenai Fjords National Park, Anchorage, Seward, and Girdwood, a small mountain town near the Chugach Mountains. Activities featured are guided hikes, dogsled rides, wildlife viewing, mountain biking, river floats, and scenic train rides. Included features are hotels, meals, transfers between the vessel, hotels and airports, and baggage handling. Check out the land operator at Alaska Alpine Adventures.

Related: UnCruise in Alaska … by Judi Cohen.

Un-Cruise Adventures often spends a whole day in Glacier Bay seeing ice and animals close up.

Un-Cruise Adventures often spends a whole day in Glacier Bay seeing ice and animals close up. * Photo: Ted Scull

Columbia & Snake – OR & WA

From Portland covering almost one thousand round-trip miles along the Columbia and Snake Rivers as far inland as Idaho’s Hells Canyon. The 7-night Rivers of Adventure, running September-October, travel between Portland, OR and Clarkston, and includes an expedition team, kayaking, hiking on the Rowena Plateau, whitewater rafting on the Deschutes River and biking along the Columbia Gorge. Paddle boards and skiffs have been added to the activities.

The 7-night Rivers of Wine and Culinary cruises are offered in November 2018 and  September-November 2019 roundtrip from Portland aboard the 90-passenger S.S. LEGACY and showcasing famed Oregon and Washington State vineyards and produce.

Related: Rivers of Adventure on the Columbia & Snake Rivers  …  by John Roberts

The headwaters of Snake River navigation burrows deep into Idaho's Hells Canyon.

The headwaters of Snake River navigation burrows deep into Idaho’s Hells Canyon. * Photo: Ted Scull

Mexico’s Sea of Cortés

7-night cruises aboard the 84-passenger SAFARI ENDEAVOUR December 2019 to April 2020 and December 2020 to April 2021 leave from San José del Cabo to islands in the Sea of Cortés and coastal towns, along with hikes for viewing wildlife and landscapes, kayaking and snorkeling, and whale watching (January-March) via overland transfer to Magdalena Bay on the Pacific Coast.

Swim alongside sea lions and whale sharks in Bahia de la Paz dubbed the “aquarium of the world.” Take a mule ride into the arroyo with local rancheros. Stargazing and bioluminescence in the water at night.

Hawaiian Islands

From Hawaii (Big Island) or Moloka’i and including Maui and Lana’i. 7-night weekly departures July-August and November December 2019 and year-round in 2020 and 2021 aboard the 36-passenger SAFARI EXPLORER, for water sport activities in the world’s largest marine sanctuary, beach relaxation, searching for Great Pacific manta rays and humpback whales, viewing astounding landscapes and seascapes and taking in cultural activities.

Pacific Northwest – San Juan Islands, Puget Sound and Olympic National Park

Roundtrip from Seattle:

7 nights to the Olympic Peninsula’s mountain wilderness and San Juan Islands for attractive port towns, looking for sea life (seals, sea lions, orcas, whales), and enjoying waterborne activities (hiking, birding, kayaking, paddle boarding). Departures: 22-passenger SAFARI QUEST April-May and September-November 2019 & 2020.

7 nights to Victoria on Vancouver Island, the San Juan and Gulf Islands, exploring deep incisive inlets on the B.C. mainland, and wildlife watching. Departures: 22-passenger SAFARI QUEST April and September to November.

Friday Harbor in Washington's San Juan Islands is a favorite cruise stop when ships leave Seattle.

Friday Harbor in Washington’s San Juan Islands is a favorite cruise stop when Un-Cruise ships leave Seattle. * Photo: Ted Scull

Galapagos

7-night Galapagos cruise in the 48-passenger LA PINTA. Departures April-August & October 2012 & 2020. Optional add-ons: pre-cruise 4-night Amazon rainforest cruise in Ecuador or post-cruise 6-night Machu Picchu, Sacred Valley, Cusco & Guayaquil land extension.

Safari Voyage. * Photo: Un-Cruise Adventures

Safari Voyager. * Photo: Un-Cruise Adventures

Costa Rica  & Panama Canal

7 and 10 nights Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, Panama with a canal transit and Colombia (one itinerary) and visits to islands and national wildlife parks, hiking, kayaking, paddle boards, skiffs, and snorkeling. Departures: 64-passenger SAFARI VOYAGER.  November-March.

Why Go?

The majestic nature of Alaska, the Columbia-Snake rivers, and the Hawaiian Islands are best seen from the decks of a small ship; the varieties of wildlife living in Alaska, Sea of Cortés, Galapagos and Central America; and the cultural connections in all the regions shared close up with less than 100 others (and often below 50) rather than amongst multiple thousands in the mega-ship ports.

When to Go?

The cruises are scheduled for the best weather times of the year, and the UnCruise brochure and website outline with easily understood bar charts the prime months for whale watching or enjoying the wild flowers in Mexico, and in Alaska, wildlife sightings and Northern Lights, plus the optimum driest and sunniest periods. For instance, in Alaska, spring means lots of newly-born animals, migrating birds and whales, lots of snow on the mountains, waterfalls at their peak with runoff, and the best chance to see the Aurora Borealis (other than in winter).

Cabins

The Wilderness prefix vessels have all outside, windowed and mostly small cabins with some double, but mostly queen and twin beds located on two or three decks, TV/DVD players, and iPod docking stations. The Safari-named offer queen, twin or king-size beds, TV/DVD players and iPod docking stations. Larger cabins have sitting areas and a few cabins come with French doors and step-out balconies.

The ENDEAVOUR adds a refrigerator to these cabins. The S.S. LEGACY has all outside cabins with view windows; queen, double or twin beds; TV/DVD players and iPod docking stations. The top two categories add refrigerators, and the 300 sq. ft. Owner’s Suite goes all the way with a separate bedroom and a large lounge with wet bar and media center for entertaining. it’s a wow for a small ship.

Captain-grade cabin on the Safari Quest. * Photo: Un-Cruise Adventures.

Captain-grade cabin on the Safari Quest. * Photo: Un-Cruise Adventures.

Public Rooms

The Wilderness- and Safari-prefixed ships have one forward lounge and a top deck sun lounge or covered area and a hot tub or sauna. S.S. LEGACY adds a second aft-facing bar-lounge.

Safari Voyager's Bar. * Photo: Un-Cruise Adventures.

Safari Voyager’s Bar. * Photo: Un-Cruise Adventures.

Dining

All ships have a single open seating, with a window of time at breakfast and set times for the other meals. The food will be well prepared and reflect the cruising region. Lunches tend to be lighter fare—soups, salads and sandwiches. Occasional barbecues are set up on deck in good weather. Spirits, wine and microbrews are now complimentary at lunch and dinner aboard the entire fleet.

Klondike Dining Saloon. * Photo: Ted Scull

S.S. Legacy – Klondike Dining Saloon and aft lounge and embarkation access through the swinging doors. * Photo: Ted Scull

Activities & Entertainment

All ships carry expedition teams who give (often illustrated) talks, some based on what the bow camera catches and the underwater hydrophone sees and hears. They organize adventures ashore, guided shore walks and rigorous hikes and explain use of the available craft such as kayaks, inflatable skiffs, and paddle boards.

The fleet has stern boarding platforms (now including S.S. LEGACY) with its Sea Dragon landing), and snorkeling is offered in short sessions, even in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, using a supplied wet suit. Note: The line’s website features a comprehensive fleet amenities chart showing what’s available on every vessel.

There are a number of theme cruises including photography, marine biology, ornithology and wellness where experts are on board to offer talks and guidance (see UnCruise’s website). All vessels also have fitness equipment, TV and DVD players in the lounge, and small book libraries.

Hiking in Baja California's Sea of Cortes. * Photo: Un-Cruise Adventures

Hiking in Baja California’s Sea of Cortes. * Photo: Un-Cruise Adventures

Special Notes

The UnCruise Adventures’ 148-page brochure is amazingly well-detailed in all aspects of their expedition business.

For adventure trips, UnCruise has a wide variety of price points and a fleet that includes 22- and 36-berth yachts, 60- to 84-berth small coastal-style ships, and a remarkably winsome Victorian atmosphere aboard the one-of-a-kind S.S. LEGACY. Private charters are available for all ships.

Along the Same Lines

Alaskan Dream Cruises, Lindblad Expeditions.

Related: Small-Ship Cruising with Alaskan Dream Cruises … by Lynn & Cele Seldon

Contact

UnCruise Adventures, 3826 18th Ave W, Seattle, WA 98119; US & Canada 888-862-8881; International (00) 800 12639888.

— TWS

 

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quirky-cruise-pacific-northwest-aboard-american-constellation-woman-standing-on-stern-overlooking-water-wake

By Jodi Ornstein.

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with nature since I was 10 years old. I loved it enough to play in the woods all day as a kid, building forts and swinging on tires that hung from sturdy trees, but hated it when I came down with a horrendous case of head-to-toe poison ivy. I loved it enough to travel across the United States when I was 14, pitching tents at more than 30 campsites along the way and exploring national parks, historic sites, and wonderful waterways, but hated it after that one time I stepped directly on a fallen beehive along a nature trail.

So when this assignment came up to cover an 8-day Pacific Northwest cruise aboard American Cruise Lines’ 175-passenger American Constellation, which, according to the line’s website promised “natural beauty, beautiful sunsets, and magnificent views of the passing landscape,” I figured it was time to reconnect with nature. To finally forget those childhood moments of mayhem and rediscover tranquility. To put away my smartphone and … ok, who am I kidding? How else would I share the experience with those back home as well as curious cruisers who are wondering what all the fuss is about and who want to know more about small ships and their unique, often remote, itineraries.

Pacific Northwest Aboard American Constellation

The 175-passenger American Constellation. * Photo: ACL

This journey would take us roundtrip from Seattle to sail Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands, visiting the ports of Anacortes, Friday Harbor, Port Angeles, Port Townsend, and Poulsbo, Washington, along the way. Each one, we’d find, would be brimming with small town cuteness, fishing heritage, and friendly locals.

Miraculously, my sister, Wendie, was able to join me on the 7-night sailing, something we’ve never had a chance to do together. For two busy moms, this weeklong getaway was unheard of, so we pretty much sought out one thing: relaxation, quality time together, and fun (ok, three things) as we’d soon discover the quaint, small-ship difference aboard American Cruise Lines.

Pacific Northwest Aboard American Constellation

The author & her sister in Friday Harbor with the American Constellation in the background. * Photo: Rachel Livingston, i.e. the third sister

Who’s on Board?

As we boarded the ship in Seattle’s picturesque Shilshole Bay Marina, it was clear that:

A) Two 40-somethings maaaaaaaay stand out in this crowd and

B) This small-ship experience was going to be waaaaaaayyyy different than those on big ships. This we knew quite clearly before we even walked up the gangway.

Check-in entailed our names being ticked off a list as we were handed a lanyard and badge with our names and where we’re from. In all of one minute we were on our way to the Cascade Lounge to await our suite. We grabbed some refreshments and a seat on a comfy, cushiony couch and started to get to know our fellow cruise mates. The panoramic views of a sailboat marina on one side and snow-capped mountain on the other was also a taste of the scenery that would make up the coming week.

Pacific Northwest Aboard American Constellation

A Veranda Suite aboard American Constellation. * Photo: ACL

On our sailing, it was a mostly 70+ crowd, with some passengers in their 40s (such as daughters traveling with their parents and other couples in their 50s to 60s). There were also a handful of single travelers in the mix, including a spunky 94-year-old woman who’s my new travel idol. It also took no time for us to meet Rachel Livingston from Corvallis, Oregon, our newfound BFF and the self-proclaimed “third sister,” who was traveling with her parents from Easton, Pennsylvania. Every passenger was from the United States — from the West Coast to the East Coast and many different states in between. Many were repeat passengers (or Eagle Society members) as indicated on their name badges (one star for every past cruise), so it was easy to strike up conversations and learn what it is about American Cruise Lines (and small ships in general) that they love.

Likewise, many repeat passengers also appreciate the consistency they experience aboard American Cruise Lines, from the routine daily schedules to familiar faces of crewmembers they may see from one cruise to the next.

On their fifth American Cruise Lines cruise, David and Lea Mills, a retired professor and college administrator from Henderson, Nevada, pointed to the cruise’s learning opportunities as one thing that they enjoy on board. In fact, there’s a guest lecture, expert, or historian on every sailing who speaks about the local history, wildlife, and culture of the region you’re sailing.

On our cruise, for example, guest speaker Katie Phillips, an expert in forestry and wildlife, was always nearby to answer questions or strike up conversations about the region. During the week, she presented scheduled talks on topics from salmon populations to Washington’s rainforest. But what was even better were the unscheduled talks, like the one on the very first day of the cruise when Katie came on the PA system to announce, “There are whales off the port side!” as passengers made their way to the Cascade Lounge for an impromptu whale spotting lesson on these magnificent creatures.

The Mills’, who’ve also sailed on big cruise ships, say they also love the intimacy of small ships and prefer smaller groups.

“On big ships, if you meet someone at dinner, you may never see them again,” said David. Impossible on a ship this size.

Karen Freeborn and Jeff Gaudio, who split their time between Ohio and California, were on their third ACL cruise and said they enjoy the small-ship experience because the line is so accommodating, especially when it comes to Jeff’s dietary requirements, which are gluten-free, dairy-free, and soy-free. In fact, on day one of the cruise, any passenger with dietary restrictions or allergies meets with the head chef to go over their food options. Jeff told us there’s even a photo of him hanging in the galley, which indicates his allergies, and that the chef will sometimes even go shopping in port to obtain certain requests, and even whipped up a bottle of specially-made salad dressing.

Small Ship Bonus: The Crew

Since American Constellation is a U.S.-flagged ship, it’s required that it has an all-American crew. And with small, friendly crews come teamwork that often includes numerous staff performing additional roles in ways you don’t often (if ever!) see on big ships: the captain at the end of the gangway helping to on-load the evening’s provisions or pointing to his favorite spot in town, or the cruise director, hotel manager, and tour director behind the bar during cocktail hour.

“Kimberly, the housekeeping manager, makes the best margaritas,” Rachel pointed out one night. And indeed she did.

Picturesque Ports & Stunning Scenery

Along the way, there was no shortage of wildlife spottings, scenic marinas, lush landscapes, and mountain views including of the Cascade, Olympic and Baker mountains.

Pacific Northwest Aboard American Constellation

Scenic cruising the whole weeklong. * Photo: Jodi Ornstein

Anacortes

We were off to a great start in Anacortes, where we elected for an open-air boat tour of Deception Pass, Washington’s scenic strait that offers panoramic mountain views. We easily spotted bald eagles and other native birds, harbor seals, and porpoises, as we traversed the calm water while hearing the area’s history and passing under the Deception Pass Bridge, a National Historic Landmark that connects Fidalgo and Whidbey islands.

Friday Harbor

We hopped on the San Juan Island Adventure tour in Friday Harbor, which included stops at the historical resort area of Roche Harbor, Krystal Acres alpaca farm (they are THE CUTEST!), and a stop at Lime Kiln State Park for great photo opps of the 1919-built lighthouse with views of Vancouver Island across the Haro Strait. Other passengers opted for a whale-watching cruise, a kayaking tour, or a visit to the town’s Whale Museum.

Pacific Northwest Aboard American Constellation

Feeding adorable alpacas. * Photo: Jodi Ornstein

Port Townsend

Sister-sister bonding time continued in Port Townsend, where we didn’t even fight about whose fault it was that we were late for our tender launch and missed our shore excursion to Finnriver Cidery Tour and Tasting (heavy sigh). Instead, we perused the town’s boutiques and art galleries in search of local souvenirs. Luckily for our tastebuds, what they missed in hard apple cider, was made up for in delicious, oversized donuts from Sluys’ Bakery in Poulsbo, another charming town known for its Scandinavian influence.

Butchart Gardens in Victoria

Another sensory highlight was the day we took the 90-minute ferry ride from Port Angeles across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Victoria, British Columbia for a visit to the famous and ridiculously beautiful Butchart Gardens. It covers more than 55 acres of a 130-acre estate that began when Jennie Butchart had a vision to beautify a worked-out limestone quarry that supplied her husband Robert’s nearby cement plant. The gardens began with a collection the Butchart’s had gathered during their world travels, and today the National Historic Site of Canada boasts a Sunken Garden, Japanese Garden, Rose Garden, and an Italian Garden — one even more beautiful than the next.

Pacific Northwest Aboard American Constellation

The sisters at beautiful Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia.

With so many beautiful places to see, not only in the Pacific Northwest, but in other states that ACL visits, I asked Katie, who’ve sailed various itineraries, about her favorites.

“I like this one [the Pacific Northwest] for its abundance of wildlife and active excursions, and also the line’s Maine Coast itinerary for its stunning scenery, local villages and communities, and interesting history.”

(American Cruise Lines also sails the Mississippi River, Hudson River, New England, Alaska, and the Southeast United States.)

Small Ship Bonus: Plenty of Seats & Space on Deck

There are so many spots with great views, that you’ll have plenty of choices when you want to just sit back and take in the passing scenery. The best part? You’ll never have a problem finding a comfortable seat to call your own. Unlike on the biggies, there are no deck-chair hogs on this ship!

Pacific Northwest Aboard American Constellation

Super comfy stern seating. * Photo: Jodi Ornstein

Onboard Ambience & Memorable Moments

Indeed, places to relax were plentiful, including both indoor and outdoor lounges and observation areas that feature lots of cushy chairs, chaise loungers, sofas, and tables, which are all great spots to read a book, chat with fellow travelers, or simply stare at the views, which changed from snow-capped mountains to pretty lake houses dotting the shoreline to picturesque sailboat marinas.  The rooms are another welcoming respite — they range from 226-square-foot cabins for singles (there are a total of six cabins for singles, with and without balconies) to eight 450-square-foot Owners Suites with balconies; the majority of cabins are 350- to 368-square-foot balcony cabins.

The favorite hour of the day — every day — was cocktail hour. Complete with an open bar, passed hors d’oeuvres, tables of cheese plates, local fish, vegetables, and dips, it was the best time of day to connect with other passengers and chat about how you spent your day and what was on the horizon for tomorrow.

And I have to point out that during every cocktail hour, I looked around and noticed something truly astounding: Not one person was on their phone. Ever.

Mealtime

When it came time for meals, we’d head for the one-time open seating for lunch and dinner, where we’d just pick a table, park it, and chat about the day with other passengers. Breakfast has open hours for an à la carte menu and small buffet table; and room service is available for breakfast only.

We really enjoyed the regional cuisine (as indicated on my scale when I got home). Dishes included lots of local seafood like salmon and halibut (shout out to the Dungeness Crab Cake with Lemon Couscous, Sautéed Green Beans, and Roasted Red Pepper Tartar for being one of the best, most memorable crab cake dishes I’ve had); other locally sourced ingredients (think Oregon Bleu Cheese Wedge Salad); as well as wines from Washington, Oregon, and California (wine and beer are included with lunch and dinner — cheers!). There are always vegetarian options on the menu for each meal.

Pacific Northwest Aboard American Constellation

Crab cakes — yum ! * Photo: Jodi Ornstein

Evening Entertainment

The repertoire included local performers such as barbershop music presented by the all-male An-o-Chords singing group; gypsy jazz-inspired tunes by Fidalgo Swing; a zydeco, gypsy jazz, and swing musical mash-up by Delta Rays; and solo singer Sarah Shae. Held in the Cascade Lounge, the shows are also accompanied by popcorn, root beer floats, and ice cream sundaes — in case you’re still hungry! (Tip: If your biscuits are burning from the day’s walking tour, you can watch the entertainment from your room on the TV.) And I don’t care who you are, who doesn’t love a good game of bingo (with prizes!) — cheesy puns about “be-fore” included.

Pacific Northwest Aboard American Constellation

Afternoon tea is held in the Sky Lounge. * Photo: ACL

“You know it’s a good vacation when you don’t know what day it is,” Rachel said one night during dinner when we were trying to remember what was coming up tomorrow.

And I promise this lost-in-time thinking had nothing to do with the free-flowing wine and everything to do with the remote, tranquil escape that is the Pacific Northwest.

Small Ship Bonus: Bridge Tours

You’re not going to be walking the decks of Royal Caribbean International’s Symphony of the Seas — the largest ship in the world — and suddenly hear, “If anyone wants to do a bridge tour, come on up in 10 minutes.” But it is something you’ll hear on American Constellation, where Captain Bryan Hobcroft provides several tours per cruise of where he and first mate spend their time pulling in and out of small harbors, anchoring off shore, or navigating scenic waterways.

Pacific Northwest Aboard American Constellation

Tranquil wake shot. * Photo: Jodi Ornstein

Just the Facts

Ship: American Constellation

Year Built: 2017

Passenger Decks: 6

Staterooms: 90

Guest Capacity: 175

Length: 280 feet

Onboard Amenities: Putting green, fitness room, guest laundry. Among the cabins, there are six for singles and two handicap cabins (both types with and without balconies).

What’s Included in the Fares: Shipboard WiFi, beer and wine at lunch and dinner, open bar at each evening’s cocktail hour, all-day snacks and drinks in the ship’s two main lounges, and select shore excursions. And, according to the line, guests are not expected to leave a gratuity.

Itineraries & Ships: Following the series of Puget Sound & San Juan Islands, American Constellation will sail various Alaska itineraries for the summer season. American Cruise Lines’ fleet of 11 river ships, small coastal ships, and paddlewheelers sail more than 35 itineraries to 25 states in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, New England, the Southeast, and the Mississippi River regions. Two upcoming ships in a new class of modern riverboats, American Song and American Harmony, will debut in October 2018 and 2019 respectively.

 

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Lindblad Expeditions

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Reader Reviews About Lindblad Expeditions

Lindblad in Alaska
Reader Review: Lindblad in Alaska's Inside Passage. REVIEWER Elizabeth Moss from the USA. CRUISE LINE Lindblad Expeditions. SHIP National Geographic ...
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NAT GEO VENTURE in Alaska. REVIEWER Laura Virkler  from the USA. CRUISE LINE Lindblad Expeditions. SHIP National Geographic Venture. DESTINATION ...
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QuirkyCruise Reader Review: NAT GEO ORION in Antarctica (Lindblad) by Anisha M.
Orion in Antarctica (Lindblad). REVIEWER Anisha  from the USA. CRUISE LINE Lindblad Expeditions. SHIP National Geographic Orion. DESTINATION Antarctica. # ...
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National Geographic Endeavour II in the Galapagos REVIEWER Sapna Rao from Singapore. CRUISE LINE Lindblad Expeditions. SHIP National Geographic Endeavour ...
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QuirkyCruise Review QuirkyCruise Review About Lindblad Expeditions

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

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

Lindblad Expeditions

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

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

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

Lindblad Expeditions

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

 

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

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

QuirkyCruise Review

 

National Geographic Explorer

Lindblad Expeditions

N.G. EXPLORER. * Photo: Ted Scull

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

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

Passenger Profile

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

Passenger Decks

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

Price

$$$  Super Pricey

Included Features

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

Itineraries

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

Why Go?

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

When to Go?

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

Cabins

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

Public Rooms

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

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

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

Dining

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

Activities & Entertainment

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

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

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

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

Special Notes

A full-time doctor is aboard

QuirkyCruise Review

 

National Geographic Orion

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

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

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

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

Passenger Profile

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

Passenger Decks

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

Price

$$$  Super Pricey

Included Features

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

Itineraries

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

Why Go?

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

When to Go?

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

Cabins

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

Public Rooms

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

Orion: Lunchtime on deck. * Photo: Ted Scull

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

Dining

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

Activities & Entertainment

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

Special Notes

A full-time doctor is aboard.

QuirkyCruise Review

National Geographic Endeavour II

Ships, Years Delivered & Passengers

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

Passenger Profile

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

Passenger Decks

6 and no elevator.

Price

$$$   Super Pricey

What’s Included

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

Itineraries

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

Why Go?

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

                                                                                                                                                      Marine Iguanas. * Photo: Suellyn Scull

When to Go?

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

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

Cabins

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

Public Rooms

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

Dining

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

Activities & Entertainment

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

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

Lindblad Expeditioins

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

Special Notes

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

QuirkyCruise Review

 

National Geographic Islander

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

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

Passenger Profile

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

Passenger Decks

4. No elevator.

Price

$$$  Super pricey

Included Features

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

Itineraries

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

Why Go?

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

When to Go?

See N.G. ENDEAVOUR II above

Cabins

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

Public Rooms

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

Dining

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

Activities & Entertainment

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

Special Notes

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

QuirkyCruise Review

 

National Geographic Quest & National Geographic Venture

Ship, Year Delivered + Passengers

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

Passenger Profile

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

Passenger Decks

4 decks with an elevator serving all desks.

Price

$$$ – Very pricey

Included Features

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

Itineraries

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

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

Lindblad Expeditions

Skagway. * Photo:: C&V Bureau

Why Go?

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

When to Go?

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

Cabins

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

Public Rooms

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

Dining

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

Activities & Entertainment

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

Special Notes

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

QuirkyCruise Review

 

National Geographic Sea Lion & Sea Bird

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

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

Ships, Year Delivered & Passengers

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

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

Passenger Profile

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

Passenger Decks

3 and no elevator

Price

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

Included Features

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

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

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

Why Go?

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

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

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

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

When to Go?

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

Cabins

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

Public Rooms

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

Dining

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

Activities & Entertainment

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

Special Notes

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

QuirkyCruise Review

 

And In Brief — Partial Year Ship Charters

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

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

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

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

Delfin II

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

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

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

Lily pads along the Amazon.* Photo: Ted Scull

Lily pads along the Amazon.* Photo: Ted Scull

Jahan

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

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

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

First New Ice-Class Polar Vessel

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

Lord of the Glens
Lindblad Expeditions

Crinan Canal, Scotland. * Photo: Ted Scull

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

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

Oberoi Philae

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

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

Contact

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

TWS

 

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quirky-cruise-victory-cruise-lines-ceo-hans-lagerweij-hans-with-crew-aboard-victory-1

QuirkyCruise.com had a chat with Hans Lagerweij, president and CEO of Victory Cruise Lines. It was founded in 2016 with the 202-passenger VICTORY I to ply the Great Lakes and other waterways in the US’s northeast. The line will debut a second nearly identical ship, the 202-passenger VICTORY II, in July 2018. With two ships, Victory will offer cruises to the Great Lakes, Canada and New England, plus Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and Cuba.

 

QC: When was Victory Cruise Lines founded and what was the impetus?
Victory Cruise Lines CEO Hans Lagerweij

Victory Cruise Lines CEO Hans Lagerweij

Hans Lagerweij: Victory Cruise Lines is a relatively young cruise company that sailed its first season in 2016 on the Great Lakes. It was started with the support of some tour operator partners, because there was a lack of capacity in the market, especially in the small ship luxury all-inclusive segment.

 

QC: Tell us a bit about your background.

Hans Lagerweij: I have a marketing and sales background, and worked for the travel multinational TUI Travel with their adventure travel companies back in Europe. In 2010 I moved to Toronto to manage a turn-around at polar market leader, Quark Expeditions. That was my first exposure to cruising, and I loved it. Since then I also managed TUI’s subsidiaries Zegrahm and International Expeditions, until TUI sold all their adventure and travel specialist brands last year.

Victory Cruise Lines CEO Hans Lagerweij

Victory Cruise Lines CEO Hans Lagerweij from his days with Quark.


QC:
What makes Victory special and different from other small-ship lines?

Hans Lagerweij: There are so many things!

  • We are destination focused; all our in-depth shore excursions are included, and we focus on immersive authentic experiences in the places we visit.
  • We are all inclusive, covering food, drinks, shore excursions, and even wifi.
  • We are the market leader on the Great Lakes, offering more voyages, itineraries and departures than anyone else.
  • We surprise and delight our customers with unexpected experiences, local entertainment and exceptional intuitive service on board.
  • We have small intimate ships that are easy to get around on, a friendly atmosphere, and great personal service. It is a home away from home for our guests.

 

QC: Apart from Blount and the relatively new Pearl Seas, the Great Lakes has seen very few cruise lines over the years, often just one season then no return the next year. Why do you think there has been so little sustained interest?

Hans Lagerweij: It is an interesting observation. In the last 20 years Americans have started to travel more globally, but they are only recently discovering the jewels that they have in their “backyard.” The Great Lakes offer a great combination of interesting cities, great cultural experiences and fantastic nature. It is safe and easy to travel to, without tiresome intercontinental flights and multi-hour time zone changes. Destination cruising close to home for mature American travelers 60+ is one of the hottest markets in travel. This demographic loves small, intimate and easy-to-get around cruise ships. These Baby Boomers are staying closer to home in search of new destinations that the Great Lakes certainly provides. We believe in the growth potential of the Great Lakes; for example, our passengers have almost doubled from 2017 to 2018. I would not be surprised if we have to add a third vessel at some point in the near future.

 

QC: Why do you think the Great Lakes will sell? What are the special characteristics?

Hans Lagerweij: The Great Lakes offer a fantastic variety and choice of different experiences — from whale watching in Tadoussac to Niagara Falls, Mackinac Island, and Michigan and Parry Sound in Ontario to the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit to The Rock & Roll Hall of fame in Cleveland.

 

QC: Mackinac Island and Chicago may be known, but do you think there will be interest in Little Current and Thunder Bay?

Hans Lagerweij: We certainly have some education to do, but Thunder Bay is fantastic! It’s at the western end point of the 1,900-mile long Great Lakes to St. Lawrence Seaway, and therefore has an interesting history of fur trading. It is also probably the best birding spot in Ontario.

Little Current is one of my personal favorites. It is located on Manitoulin Island, the largest freshwater island in the world, and part of stunning Georgian Bay’s famous archipelago. It also offers an introduction to the native American Ojibwe culture.

We understand that the above destinations will never be as big as our “backbone” Chicago to Toronto and Detroit to Montreal runs, but they offer an interesting new perspective, ideal for returning clients. As the market leader on the Great Lakes, we believe we have to offer our customers enough choice and variety to come back!

Victory Cruise Lines CEO Hans Lagerweij

Hans with crew aboard Victory I. * Photo: Victory Cruise Lines

 

QC: One of us (Ted) has sailed aboard Victory I as Cape May Light along the St. Lawrence. What non-cosmetic changes did you make to the vessel, and especially to Deck 5 that as originally built, saw little use.

Hans Lagerweij: The ship was completely refurbished and renovated in 2015. Deck 5 is a fantastic observation deck — most expedition cruise vessels would be jealous of the space and views from this deck. We have put chairs and sun beds up there, so guests can relax and enjoy the views.

 

QC: Tell us something about your second ship, the Victory II.

Hans Lagerweij: It will debut at the end of July this year on a Montreal to Detroit trip, an itinerary that due to huge demand will increase significantly in the number of departures in 2019. For this year, we will also visit French Canada, the St. Lawrence River and New England. In the winter beginning in January 2019, VICTORY II will sail from the Port of Miami on a new cruise and land safari to the Yucatan Peninsula — “The Grand Mayan Experience.” This all-inclusive 11-night program features a 9-night cruise and a land safari to Key West, Puerto Morelos, Valladolid, Chichen Itza, Izamal, Merida and Campeche with a full 3-night all-inclusive stop in Campeche.

 

QC: Where will your passengers come from?

Hans Lagerweij: Last year we were 99% from America, but for this year we see a strong interest (with bookings) from Australia, New Zealand and the UK. One source market to further explore for us is Canada; we hope to announce within a few weeks a preferred partnership with a travel consortia that serves this market.

 

QC: Do most of your passengers book directly by calling or going on your site, or do most use a travel agent?

Hans Lagerweij: Most of our business is with tour operators and travel agents, and we offer competitive commissions.

 

QC: How does the Great Lakes Cruise Company, a firm that sells several lines’ cruises,  fit into your bookings?

Hans Lagerweij: They are one of our trade partners. They have one of the most knowledgeable staffs in Great Lakes cruising.

 

QC: We see your two-week Cuba itinerary has 4 sea days and 4 ports. How is the time allocated in the ports?

Hans Lagerweij: We will sail our first cruise to Cuba next month in May. We deliver a full people-to-people experience. All our cruises are complete circumnavigations round-trip from Miami. All ports include a minimum two-night stay (two days for every port we visit), so we spend more time onshore than any other cruise line. Due to that, our program doesn’t feel rushed, and provides enough time to experience the “Real Cuba.” We also offer (and include) lunches in local restaurants, and passengers have the opportunity to go ashore in the evening, or to stay for the entertainment on board.

 

QC: Is two ships your sweet spot? Can you envision a third?

Hans Lagerweij: If demand keeps growing at the current pace, we will need a third vessel in 2021 or 2022. However, I have in my life seen various over-ambitious cruise companies fail, so we will first prove we can run a solid year-around program on two ships.

 

For more information, check out QuirkyCruise.com’s review of Victory Cruise Lines, or go directly to the Victory Cruise Line’s site here.

 

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North American Canal Transits

By Theodore W. Scull.

Digging canals date back to the Ancient World from simple shallow channels for irrigating fields to more substantial waterways to move building stones, crops and people. Wheeled transport, where it existed, was hindered by poor road surfaces and the loads carried could not approach what a canal barge transported.

In Part One of our canals series, we looked at Europe’s contribution to providing useful waterways for QuirkyCruise-type small ships traversing the  Suez, Corinth, Main-Danube, North Sea, Kiel and Caledonian canals.

Now in Part Two, we look at the North American waterways plied by small-ship cruises.

Erie Canal

Historically, in the U.S., the Erie Canal became the most important waterway when completed in 1825 between Lake Erie and the upper Hudson River a few miles above Albany, the state capital. Its construction gave New York City direct water access to the West via the Great Lakes, and in short order, the city’s port surpassed Boston and Philadelphia, both having to contend with mountain ridges to the west impeding freight and passenger carriage.

The Erie Canal was later superseded by a mostly new parallel canal, and for a time it was referred to as the New York State Barge Canal. When the freight pretty much died away due to competition from railways and highways, it reverted to its original name — Erie Canal — and became a recreational waterway. Remnants of the original waterway remain for the historically-minded to seek out.

North American Canal Transits

Sun climbing over the Erie Canal. * Photo: Ted Scull

Once Blount Small Ship Adventures had small enough ships to travel its entire 363-mile length between Albany and Buffalo. Now the line’s vessels cruising between New York and Montreal and New York and Chicago, turn northwest beyond Syracuse and use the 24-mile Oswego Canal (1828) to reach Lake Ontario where they can continue their onward journey to either city. Both canals use locks and dams to maintain sufficient depth and to keep the water flow to a minimum for navigation in areas when the terrain becomes hilly.

The canal transits pass through mostly scenic countryside, and the pilot house has to be dismantled to be able to pass under the low bridges the railroads built to impede canal traffic. The complete route, involving the Hudson River, two canals, Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence Seaway, is endlessly fascinating.

The small-ship lines that ply the Erie Canal:

Blount Small Ship Adventures

 

Cape Cod Canal

On the U.S. East Coast, salt and brackish water canals for oceangoing ships came about in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The most northerly is the Cape Cod Canal that slices seven miles through an eastern portion of Massachusetts about half way between Boston and Hyannis severing Cape Cod from the mainland. The idea for a canal originated with the Plymouth Colony and then was revived during the American Revolution but it did not open until 1914.

The water level waterway shaved off 135 miles for ships sailing between New York and Boston. While the construction was privately financed, the tolls were set too high, so in 1928 the government assumed control.

North American Canal Transits

Aerial view of the Cape Cod Canal.

But soon, the competing New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad rendered it redundant for coastal passenger vessels, while later, road and rail traffic caused a steep decline in coastal freight shipping. While the Cape Cod Canal could handle good-size freighters of up to 825 feet, today’s container ships are much too large to transit it.

It is used mainly by yachts and barges and occasionally by American Cruise Lines and Blount Small Ship Adventures for the New England itineraries. The 7-mile canal is a gently curving link between Buzzards Bay and Cape Cod Bay. Notable points of interest are the Massachusetts Maritime Academy; the elaborate 1935-built railroad lift bridge with twin 271-foot steel towers; and the Bourne and Sagamore bridges, the former most notable for its traffic backups in the summertime primarily because of the traffic circle on the Cape Cod side.

The small-ship lines that ply the Cape Cod Canal:

Blount Small Ship Adventures

American Cruise Lines

Victory Cruise Lines

Chesapeake & Delaware Canal

Further south, the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal (C&D Canal) is simply named as it connects the Delaware River to the Chesapeake Bay. Ships sailing between Philadelphia and Baltimore use the canal to avoid having to travel south along the Delmarva Peninsula, then turn into the Chesapeake Bay and double back north to reach Baltimore.

Both American Cruise Lines and Blount use the canal on transits between the Northeast, the Chesapeake Bay and Intracoastal Waterway, to avoid the potentially rough open sea along the Delmarva Peninsula.

The 14-mile-long C&D Canal is 450 feet wide and has a depth of 32 feet as it cuts across Delaware and Maryland. It is owned and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Philadelphia District.

North American Canal Transits

Chesapeake & Delaware Canal at Chesapeake City.

Construction started in 1804, then halted for lack of funds and restarted and finished in 1829, with locks and 10-foot depth. It was used for barge traffic only until 1919 when the Army Corps began expanding and deepening it, eliminated the locks and raised the bridges to allow deep-sea ships to transit it by 1927. Today there is a healthy amount of commercial traffic (one way only with large ships) bound for and sailing from the Port of Baltimore. The C&D is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Its canal banks are popular for sightseers and summertime barbecues, so expect to exchange greetings. If you are driving in the area, there is a fine canal museum at Chesapeake City, a former coaling port.

The small-ship lines that ply the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal:

Blount Small Ship Adventures

American Cruise Lines

 

Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal

The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway extends some 1,300 miles along the East Coast and at the south end of Chesapeake Bay. Yachts and small coastal cruise vessels use the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal to stay in calm waters. Opened in 1859, the 70-mile sea level water route connects two rivers, the Elizabeth River in Virginia, near Norfolk and the North Landing River in North Carolina. Only 14 miles in between had to be excavated and creating the canal.

North American Canal Transits

Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal

In 1912, the U.S. Government took it over while the Army Corps maintains it to a depth of 12 feet. The route though flat is quite scenic and wooded, passing through swampland and terra firma. The area also includes the more or less parallel Dismal Swamp Canal, and both waterways are noted for many species of birds. The small boat traffic is considerable during the spring and fall boating migration months. South of the A and C, no more canals of any consequence exist until Florida. The Cross Florida Canal begins at Stuart on the East Coast and ends near Ft. Myers on the Gulf of Mexico. It is occasionally used by the coastal cruise companies.

The small-ship lines that ply the Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal:

Blount Small Ship Adventures

American Cruise Lines

 

St. Lawrence Seaway

Some canal-style waterways have different designations, and one such is the St. Lawrence Seaway, a combination of dredged channels or canals, a series of locks and the namesake river itself. The seaway is owned jointly by Canada and the U.S. The end points are designated Montreal in the east and Port Colborne, Ontario in the west, adding up to a total of 370 miles. Hence Lake Ontario and the scenic step-up Welland, with its eight locks, are included.

Construction started on the seaway in 1954 under President Eisenhower and was completed in 1959. From the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River to the far western end of Lake Superior is 2,340 miles. The deep-water route brought high hopes as a major trade corridor, and at first projections were met. However, changing trade patterns, the use of faster railroads to move higher value cargo in containers from the interior of the U.S. and Canada to coastal seaports for onward shipping cut into its use.

North American Canal Transits

President Eisenhower at the opening ceremony of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Today major commodities carried are bulk items such as iron ore, coal, limestone, grain, cement, salt and stone aggregate. Many of the bulk carriers are referred to as lakers, and their unusual design sees the superstructure housing some of crew located all the way aft and the cargo holds stretching nearly the ships’ entire length to the bow navigating superstructure housing the officers.

Some small ship cruises stay pretty much in the channels between Lake Ontario via the Seaway to Montreal and on down river to Quebec and the Saguenay River. Several lines continue on west into Lake Erie via the Welland Canal, Detroit River into Lake Huron, and through the Straits of Mackinac to Lake Michigan and south to Milwaukee and Chicago. Small vessels can use a series of connecting rivers and canals going west to reach the Mississippi River. Blount used to make this trip ending in New Orleans.

Beginning in summer 2018 Victory Cruise Lines will cruise through the Soo Locks — partly two sets of locks (Canadian and U.S.) and the St. Mary’s River — into Lake Superior, the largest of the five Great Lakes.

North American Canal Transits

St. Lawrence Seaway and Great Lakes. * Photo: St. L. Seaway Dev. Corp.

 

The small-ship lines that ply the St. Lawrence Seaway:

American Cruise Lines

Blount Small Ship Adventures

Croisieres Jacques-Cartier

St. Lawrence Cruises Lines

Victory Cruise Lines

 

Ontario Waterways

The lower part of the Canadian Province of Ontario harbors a series of lakes that have been connected to form continuous waterways, while the Rideau Canal connects this region with Canada’s capital to the north at Ottawa. 

A Peterborough to Ottawa trip takes to the Rideau River and the 1832-built Rideau Canal (35 locks), forming one of the great engineering feats of the 19th century. The waterway ends below the handsome architectural setting of Parliament Hill as it steps down and empties into the Ottawa River.

North American Canal Transits

Rideau Canal steps down to Ottawa River below Parliament Hill. * Photo: Ontario Waterway Cruises

A second waterway itinerary begins at Peterborough and takes to the Trent-Severn Waterway, passing through 22 locks (including the great Lift Lock with a 65-foot rise) along the connecting Kawartha Lakes and the Severn River to Big Chute. Here a fascinating marine railway carries small yachts in a cradle down to Lake Huron.

The small-ship lines that ply the Ontario Waterways:

Croisieres Jacques-Cartier

Ontario Waterway Cruises

 

Lynn Canal

As it is likely to come up if you are taking a small ship Alaska cruise, the so-named Lynn Canal is really an inlet (or fjord) stretching 90 miles, and with an impressive depth of 2,000 feet, providing a navigable waterway to reach Haines and Skagway. Along the way, you might spot humpback whales, orcas, porpoise, and Steller sea lions.

 

The small-ship lines that ply the Lynn Canal:

Alaska Marine Highway

Alaskan Dream Cruises

American Cruise Lines

Lindblad Expeditions

UnCruise Adventures

 

Canal Location First
Completed
Length
(miles)
Locks or
Sea Level
Erie Canal New York State 1825 363 Locks
Cape Cod Canal Massachusetts 1914 7 Sea Level
Chesapeake & Delaware Canal Delaware & Maryland 1829

Rebuilt 1927

14 Locks 1829

Sea Level 1927

Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal Maryland & Virginia 1859 70 Sea Level
St. Lawrence Seaway Canada & USA 1959 370 Locks
Ontario Waterways Ontario, Canada Rideau Canal 1832

Trent Severn Waterway 1920

125

 

239

Locks

 

Locks

Lynn Canal Alaska Natural Waterway 90 Sea Level

 

 

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American Cruise Lines New European Design

By Ted Scull.

According to a press release about the new 190-passenger AMERICAN SONG dated November 14, American Cruise Lines (ACL), in a continuing building spree, will look to European riverboat designs for a new fleet of low-slung, shallow-draft vessels that avoid any connections to the historic steamboats, heretofore the mainstays of the Mississippi and Pacific Northwest river cruisers. However, the new breed must still be built in America and manned by American crews, because it’s the law for domestic itineraries.

American Cruise Lines New European Design

Rendering of the American Song. * Rendering: ACL

While there is no reference to European design in the recent ACL press release, the plan certainly reflects a fervent desire to encourage Viking River Cruises, with by far the biggest fleet in Europe, to think twice about entering the North American market. Viking has talked about it for several years, and every once in a while, pipes up that it is coming to America. On verra bien (we shall see, as the French are wont to say).

Equally voracious, Viking* has its Longships design well honed, but the line would have to find an American yard to build the boats that come with high American construction costs, while American Cruise Lines has its own shipyard, Chesapeake Shipbuilding, in Salisbury, Maryland. Considerable retooling will have to take place to shift to the European model, far more than building a current coastal boat or sternwheeler with their similar interiors.  (*In a statement from Viking in early December 2017: “Viking has terminated current discussions to build vessels in a US shipyard for Mississippi River and U.S. coastal cruising.” Read more details here.)

ACL’s particulars will create a new fleet design that is being billed as faster, wider and quieter than the replica sternwheelers the line now operates. When they first came on the scene over the past decade, these steamboat-design vessels were made to be faster than the more authentic AMERICAN QUEEN (AQ) so more ambitious itineraries could be offered. They certainly had none of the fine replica interiors and furnishings that the AQ offered. Such a sister ship, with such attribution to detail, would be prohibitively expensive today.

American Cruise Lines knocks two firms by saying that “while other companies are repurposing old casino boats, American Cruise Lines contracts only for brand new ships.” While ACL did not contract for the QUEEN OF THE WEST, a 1994-built sternwheeler, the firm acquired it out of lay-up to start up a Columbia-Snake program. Perhaps this vessel will be removed from the fleet when the new vessels appear.

The first, AMERICAN SONG, is due to be completed in Fall 2018 for the Mississippi River and then move to the Pacific Northwest for the following year’s season.

The press release states: “Showcasing gorgeous interior design elements, from a four-story glass atrium to spectacular spacious lounges, American Song inspires.”

American Cruise Lines New European Design

Some interior renderings. * Credit: ACL

The three- and four-story atria can be found on some of the European river lines, and is an easier feature to imagine than the vague statement about the style of the interiors. However, ACL will continue its own thrust of offering larger cabins, with a high percentage having balconies, than the other US operators offer. It is less clear what “full-size bathrooms” means, but maybe it is just another way of saying larger than the norm.

To emphasize its multi-faceted operations, the press release read, “With two new vessels being introduced in 2018, the Line will operate the largest modern fleet of 10 small cruise ships, modern riverboats, and authentic paddle wheelers in the country.”

There is no disputing that. Its second coming in 2000, after a sale and bankruptcy in the 1980s, began with a pair of 49-passenger coastal boats. Look at the line now. One cannot be but impressed. They must be doing something right.

From my experience on a half-dozen ACL cruises, there is a healthy market of relatively well-heeled working and partly or fully-retired Americans who prefer (but not necessarily exclusively) to cruise in their own country, with their own kind, and dine on good American cooking while relishing some comforts.

 

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