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Aranui 5 sunset

Adventures with Aranui Cruises

By Peter Knego.

All photos by and copyright Peter Knego 2020 unless otherwise noted. Follow Peter on Twitter!

Aranui Cruises Day 1

Fortunately, this was not my first visit to Tahiti, so the pangs of spending just a couple of hours at Papeete’s palm-fringed Pearl Beach Resort prior to embarking Aranui Cruises’ MV ARANUI 5 weren’t too gut-wrenching.

ARANUI 5 Passenger Cargo Liner Adventure

A view of the island of Moorea from the Pearl Beach Resort, Tahiti. * Photo: Peter Knego

Even for my sleep-deprived eyes, the sunrise over Moorea was as dramatic as memory served. And a balmy breakfast with fresh mango, pineapple and papaya in an aural backdrop of gurgling surf was quite a nice way to kick off the first official morning of this cruise adventure.

Combination Cargo Passenger Liner

My home for the next nine nights, Aranui Cruises’ ARANUI 5, is no ordinary cruise ship.

Aranui Cruise in Papeete

MV ARANUI 5 at Papeete. * Photo: Peter Knego

Built in late 2015, she is that rarest of vessels, a bona fide passenger cargo liner with four holds and accommodation for up to 295 passengers on regularly scheduled 12-night voyages to the Marquesas Islands. (Note, Peter did 9 nights of the full 12-night itinerary.)

Aruani cruises map

Aranui 5’s Interisland Route. * Photo: Aranui Cruises

Taking her name from “The Great Highway” in the Maori language, ARANUI 5 supplies the remote island chain with much-needed stores in return for local Marquesan wares like copra (the dried meat of a coconut), dried bananas and lumber.

These days, an actual combination cargo passenger liner (combi-liner) is the maritime equivalent of the dodo bird, but before the advent of the jumbo jet and containerization, the seas were filled with such exotic vessels.

Companies like American President Lines, Messageries Maritimes, Lloyd Triestino and so many more had fleets of fascinating, often fetchingly beautiful combi-liners that linked the most distant of lands.

They were less glamorous than true ocean liners but they were that much more mysterious and enchanting with their myriad cranes, rust-streaked flanks and exotic cargoes of both the human and inanimate kind.

Aranui Cruises welcome aboard

Welcome aboard the ARANUI 5! * Photo: Peter Knego

With the ARANUI 5, all that combi-liner mystique is mashed up with a dose of charming incongruity. The ship was built in China, incorporating architectural elements of Feng Shui, albeit with Polynesian, floral-and-tiki-enhanced decor.

Further, an international passenger mix typically comprises French, North Americans, British, Australians and local South Pacific Islanders, with English being the first language on board. (Typical sailings see about 25% North Americans, 25% Australians/New Zealanders, and 50% Europeans, mainly French and German.)

ARANUI 5 guests enter via the Reception

ARANUI 5 guests enter via the Reception on Deck 3, shown facing aft. * Photo: Peter Knego

Despite her name, this is actually the fourth ARANUI, having just replaced the smaller, 2003-built ARANUI 3.

Because of a Chinese superstition that associates the number four with death, the fourth ARANUI is named ARANUI 5 — sort of how some Western ships just don’t do a Deck 13.

The Cabins

In the weeks leading up to the voyage, I resisted over-studying the cruise documents and forming too many preconceived notions about what lay ahead. And, so it came as a very pleasant surprise when I encountered my stateroom, Deluxe Suite 7319, on starboard Deck 7.

A Deluxe Suite on Aranui Cruises Aranui 5

MV ARANUI 5, Deluxe Suite 7319, facing starboard. * Photo: Peter Knego

In addition to its 45-square-foot balcony, the 245-square-foot space had a wonderfully firm but nicely cushioned king bed (made in Italy, I’m told). There was a wooden screen with inverted tikis separating the bedroom from the sitting area, a large console with plenty of big drawers, a mirror, computer desk, fridge (stocked once with complimentary water and soft drinks) and ample closet space.

The sitting area, which I unfortunately did not even get a chance to use, had a pair of chairs, a cocktail table and a sofa long enough to sleep on.

My WC was all it needed to be — large enough for a shower, sink and toilet. The tap water was not potable but each deck has a handy filtered water and ice machine.

Aranui supplies Tiki Tiare brand toiletries in each cabin and for those in suites. Further, an extra package of sundries, including a bar of starfruit-shaped soap, is provided.

Aranui Cruises Day 1 — The Ship Deck by Deck

With many guests still embarking, I decided to give the ship a quick once-over. There are nine passenger decks connected by fore and aft staircases and lifts.

At the top of the ship on Bridge Deck (10), there is an observation terrace in front of the wheelhouse, which is open for visits, conditions permitting.

Aranui Cruises sky bar

MV ARANUI 5 Sky Bar, facing port. * Photo: Peter Knego

Sky Deck (9) begins with the Sky Bar observation lounge that overlooks the bow. A block of cabins and suites follow, leading to a sheltered terrace at the stern.

Sun Deck (8) is devoted to more cabins and suites that likewise lead to a sheltered stern terrace.

ARANUI 5 Passenger Cargo Liner

Aranui 5 Pool. * Photo: Peter Knego

pool deck on Aranui 5

Another shot of the pool deck. * Photo: Peter Knego

Pool Deck (7) is laid out much like Sun Deck, but with the added pool and lido space at the stern.

The configuration of ARANUI 5’s afterdecks is structured like an amphitheater.

This is not unlike that of the veteran cruise ship MARCO POLO — perfect for viewing deck parties, dance rituals and magnificent sunsets. There is also an al fresco bar here.

Aranui 5 Veranda bar

MV ARANUI 5 Veranda Bar, facing port. * Photo: Peter Knego

Veranda Deck (6) begins with yet more cabins and suites that lead to the Veranda Bar, which has an open terrace, directly aft. Because of its vivid carpeting, we nicknamed this space the Hibiscus Room.

On either side of the Veranda Bar are two small enclosed galleries. To port, there is a card room and to starboard, a library with French, German and English books that largely reference Polynesia.

Aranui Cruises aft deck

MV ARANUI 5 aft Deck 6, facing port. * Photo: Peter Knego

Another nice terrace awaits on aft Deck 6, this one with cushioned rattan chairs plucked from a Somerset Maugham novel.

Aranui 5 conference room

MV ARANUI 5 Conference Room, facing forward. * Photo: Peter Knego

Boat Deck (5) begins with more cabins and the scholarly Conference Room, which would be used on our voyage for port talks for English-speaking guests.

MV ARANUI 5 Lounge, facing forward. * Photo: Peter Knego

The Lounge, an attractive but quirkily laid out space with twelve support pillars in its center, is at the aft end of Deck 5.

It can only be accessed from the starboard side and there is an items-for-purchase snack bar on its port side. On the aft/port side, there is a 24-hour coffee station and on the aft/starboard side, a 24-hour tea station.

Aranui Cruises onboard restaurant

MV ARANUI 5 Restaurant, facing port. * Photo: Peter Knego

Upper Deck (4) has port and starboard promenades that lead to a sheltered terrace at the stern. It also has dormitory-style accommodations and the Restaurant.

In addition to a few staterooms, Main Deck (3) is home to the Reception and the Boutique, which is very well stocked with souvenirs, Aranui gear (t-shirts, hats, etc.) and snacks for those long gaps between meals.

Lower Deck (2) has a few more staterooms and even a deck passenger lounge that is not shown on the plan.

ARANUI 5 not only carries cruise passengers but also locals seeking transport between the islands.

The gym, which is comprised of a separate weight area and a cardio space, is on Lower Deck. There is also a spa with two treatment rooms and a menu of services for a modest fee.

I wrapped up my self-guided whirlwind tour just in time to catch the tail end of a colorful welcome dance on the pool deck.

Stunning sunset behind stern of Aranui 5

A stern sunset. * Photo: Peter Knego

Following boat drill, there was no better vantage for our departure than the various platforms on Bridge Deck. No assistance was required as ARANUI 5 slid past Papeete’s waterfront and into a calm, deep blue Pacific.

A layer of clouds kept the sun at bay as I unpacked and attended a briefing on the morrow’s scheduled visit to Fakarava in the Tuamotus, the island chain of reef-fringed atolls that is midway between Polynesia’s Society Islands and the Marquesas.

The clouds fizzled away in time for a magnificent sunset.

We were assigned first seating dinner at 7:30 PM. The Restaurant is large enough to handle the ship’s entire complement at one time but the meal times are staggered by a half hour to provide a little relief for the Polynesian staff, who couldn’t have been more sweet and engaging throughout our time on board.

Aranui 5 dining

Bruschetta appetizer line up. * Photo: Peter Knego

The cuisine was fresh and delightfully well-prepared with a heavy emphasis on Polynesian specialties like poisson cru (marinated raw fish).

Dining consists of three daily meals that include a buffet-style breakfast and two seatings each for full-service lunch and dinner featuring set menus with an appetizer, main course and dessert.

Red and white wine are included with lunch and dinner.

Vegetarian, gluten-free and other non-kosher dietary choices are happily honored with a little advance notice.

Aranui Cruises Day 2

After breakfast, I headed up to Deck 10 as ARANUI 5 neared Fakarava, the second largest atoll in the Tuamotu archipelago.

Too large to berth at its small landing, our big white ship dropped anchor and began to offload her barges.

barge arriving at Fakarava on an Aranaui cruise

Barge unloading us at Fakarava. * Photo: Peter Knego

As soon as we stepped ashore, we were greeted by the locals with a fragrant tiare. With no scheduled tour and Fakarava’s relatively flat, long (60 kilometers) surface, I chose to run along its long, paved road for a few miles before donning mask, snorkel and fins (provided at Reception, free of charge, to all guests) for a swim through one of its many reefs.

The run went well but then a front blew in, bringing high winds and torrential rain.

rain storm

The rain is coming! * Photo: Peter Knego

I ditched the swim but got caught in the deluge and took shelter under a sprawling banyan tree, hunched over my cameras.

Aranui 5 table setting

MV ARANUI 5 table setting. * Photo: Peter Knego

Once back aboard, a warm, dry lunch was especially appealing. As were the accompanying, fresh-baked breads and a glass of red wine.

With all her guests accounted for, ARANUI 5 hoisted her barges and anchors and continued her northeasterly course.

We would have the remainder of the afternoon and a full day at sea to enjoy our ship, rest up and prepare for an in-depth exploration of the Marquesas.

Aranui Cruises Day 3

Following breakfast, I was able to check out a few of the ARANUI 5’s eight types of cabins. At the bottom of the tier, there are 285-square-foot eight-berth dormitories with two bathrooms and a shower. There are also 135-square-foot four berth dorms.

standard room on Aranui 5

ARANUI 5 Standard Stateroom. * Photo: Peter Knego

Standard staterooms feature a porthole and measure 120-square-feet. They can be configured with two twins or a queen bed.

Deluxe and Superior Deluxe Staterooms have a private balcony and respectively measure 140- or 160-square-feet. In addition to their verandas, Deluxe and Superior Deluxe staterooms have a safe and refrigerator. And, 160- to 200-square-foot Junior Suites have two picture windows.

Premium Suites measure 200-square-feet and have a bedroom with a king or two twin beds and a sitting area with a sofa bed. They also come with a fridge and safe.

Royal Suite on Aranui Cruises

ARANUI 5 Royal Suite bedroom. * Photo: Peter Knego

My favorite staterooms are the 240-square-foot Royal Suites that occupy the forward corners of Decks 5 – 8. They feature a bedroom with two twins or a king-sized bed.

Aranui Cruises Royal Suite living room

ARANUI 5 Royal Suite living room. * Photo: Peter Knego

Royal Suites also have a separate living room with a sofa bed, picture windows overlooking the bow and a walk-in closet. Royal Suite verandahs have a windbreak forward with a window overlooking the bow and an open balcony aft. Their WCs are also a bit larger than those in lower categories.

The largest and most lavish of ARANUI 5’s staterooms is the 440-square-foot Presidential Suite on aft/starboard Sky Deck (9). Divided into three sections, it features a separate bedroom with access to the balcony, which measures 130-square-feet.

Entered via the bedroom, the Presidential Suite has a large full bath as well as a smaller powder room that is adjacent to the living room. The Presidential Suite also has its own in-house coffee maker, among other “perks.”

Its center portion has a dining nook and built-in bar as well as a sofa bed. Ideal for families, it also boasts a living room with a sitting area and enough extra space for a roll-away bed.

Aranui 5 exterior

ARANUI 5 aft from wing. * Photo: Peter Knego

It was a scorching day with just the right amount of clouds to provide a dramatic contrast with the piercingly blue, equatorial sky. I enjoyed the breeze and the hypnotic vantages of the sea from Bridge Deck.

Aranui Cruises ARANUI 5 wheelhouse

ARANUI 5 wheelhouse.  Note open observation platform in front of windows. * Photo: Peter Knego

It was also fun to linger for a while in the wheelhouse and sip a cup of coffee with the ship’s welcoming French first mate, Guillaume Acher. ARANUI 5 has an open bridge policy that is an especially nice plus on her long sea days.

That evening, as the embers of another beautiful sunset began to fizzle out over the ship’s wake, the ARANUI’s crew paraded out to welcome us.

Aranui Cruises welcome party

ARANUI 5 welcome party. * Photo: Peter Knego

From there, it was off to dinner, then to set the clock ahead by 30 minutes to Marquesan time.

A very long and adventurous day at Nuku Hiva loomed.

Aranui Cruises Day 4

Shortly before dawn, the ARANUI 5 had arrived at remote Taipivai on Nuku Hiva, the largest island and administrative capital of the Marquesas, which were discovered by South American tribes some 2,000 years ago before they continued onward to the lower parts of Polynesia.

The Marquesas were first encountered by Europeans on July 21, 1595, when Spanish explorer Alvaro de Medana de Neira stopped at nearby Fatu Hiva. At its peak, Nuku Hiva boasted a population of up to 100,000 prior to its colonization, which basically decimated the local people with disease and rampant alcoholism. Today, the island has 2,600 residents.

Fortunately, our tour host Ita Ata (aka Steven) prepped us for our first excursion and the equatorial heat. It was already hovering near 30 Celsius (well over 90 Fahrenheit) when I stepped out on deck at 6:30 AM.

Aranui 5 sunset

One of numerous lovely sunrise scenes. * Photo: Peter Knego

We clambered into the barges and got ready for our first “beach landing” in the same spot where Herman Melville made his initial Marquesan contact.

Nuku Hiva

The Sands of Nuku Hiva. * Photo: Peter Knego

ARANUI 5 photo from shore

The ARANUI 5 in the early morning light. * Photo: Peter Knego

Steven had also warned us about the “no no’s” (tiny, bloodthirsty flies) on the beach, so we made quick work of debarking that barge, Iwo Jima style.

Moments later, we were off in 4x4s driven by the locals. Our course would take us through a long valley and then up a series of switchbacks over a verdant ridge to the first stop, the archaeological site of Kamuihei.

Aranui Cruises ports feature banyan trees

Under the banyan tree. * Photo: Peter Knego

Kaumuihei boasts a huge banyan tree that was considered sacred in ancient Polynesian culture. The heads of captured enemy soldiers were once propped in its numerous nooks and crannies. Human sacrificial victims and those waiting to be eaten (mainly women and children) spent their last hours tied up in this and nearby tree tops.

We had time to explore the tohua or ancient gathering spot, where numerous petroglyphs were easier to distinguish with a little water poured on them. The mana or spiritual power of this place was almost as prevalent as the heat and humidity.

As we clambered along a short network of trails, I zapped myself with some extra Heiva (a Tahitian insect repellent made from local seed oils and floral extracts) and, for good measure, some DEET-enhanced Off.

Once bitten, forever shy.

Aranui Cruises port experiences

Ritual dancers. * Photo: Peter Knego

Our visit concluded with a ritual dance ceremony underneath that banyan tree.

Beach at Kamuihei, Nuku Hiva with Aranui Cruises

Beach at Kamuihei, Nuku Hiva. * Photo: Peter Knego

From Kamuihei, it was a short ride to the stunningly beautiful beach of Hatiheu, where Robert Louis Stevenson made his first landing in 1888.

We had some free time to wander or just lay back and gaze up at the sky. On the way back to Taipivai for lunch, we paused for a few photo stops but pictures just can’t do the place justice.

local lunch with Aranui Cruises

Lunch, umu-style. * Photo: Peter Knego

The Polynesians and especially, the Marquesans, are fond of umu-style cooking where they wrap the meat (in this case, a hog) in banana leaves and bury it for several hours atop heated stones.

In addition to the hog, there was fried fish, the ubiquitous poisson cru (marinated raw fish), roasted goat and all sorts of other local specialties like purple potatoes, delicious plantains and much more.

beach lunch with Aranui cruises

Purple potatoes. * Photo: Peter Knego

After lunch, we piled back into our various 4x4s and wound our way over yet another ridge to Taoiahe, the Nuku Hiva’s main town.

Stone arch on an Aranui port of call

Stone arch. * Photo: Peter Knego

The final stop on our tour was the Notre Dame Cathedral, which was constructed in 1973, replacing a prior church built in 1848 atop sacred ancient grounds.

Today’s Notre Dame is known for its rosewood carvings and stones from each of the six inhabited Marquesas islands. After a photo-op, our friendly driver Eitan returned us to the ARANUI 5, which was discharging a load of cargo at the far end of Taoiahe.

Aranui 5 cargo

Unloading cargo. * Photo: Peter Knego

Aranui Cruises Day 5

Our host Rani urged us to be up on deck for the ARANUI’s arrival in Ua Pou.

Aranui 5 Approaching Ua Pou

Approaching Ua Pou. * Photo: Peter Knego

Those of us who heeded were so glad we did! You could practically hear the orchestral swells of Dimitry Tiomkin, Basil Poledouris or maybe even a young John Williams as we approached this otherworldly landscape pierced by a series of jagged spires.

Dramatic island scenery at Ua Pou.

Dramatic island scenery at Ua Pou. * Photo: Peter Knego

Look closely and you might spot King Kong or one of James Bond’s nemeses hidden in the mist that slightly obscures the phalluses of Ua Pou.

We joined the 8:00 AM English-speaking hike to the white cross on the neighboring mountain.

ARANUI 5 views

ARANUI 5 overview. * Photo: Peter Knego

It was well worth the view, despite the wilting heat.

Aranui Cruises visit to Ua Pou

Fruity feasting at Ua Pou. * Photo: Peter Knego

From the white cross, we walked to the cultural center in the village of Hahahau where the locals had gathered to sell their wares and provide samples of the native fruits. Once sated, I took the beach route back to the ship.

After a work-out and a refreshing swim, I headed back out for some views of our unique combi-liner, which, by the way, is nicknamed the “Seventh Island” for servicing all six of the inhabited Marquesas islands.

Aranui 5

The perfect frame. * Photo: Peter Knego

It would also appear that her prominent bow bulb sometimes serves as a mini-island, as well.

Kids on bow of Aranui 5

Bow busters of Ua Pou. * Photo: Peter Knego

Aranui Cruises Day 6

The first of two “double island” days began in the anchorage of Puamau on Hiva Oa, where Paul Gauguin and Jacques Brel spent their final years. We rode the barge ashore and waited as supplies were exchanged at the makeshift landing.

Aside from a tractor that did some heavy lifting, everything was done manually.

ARANUI Cruises stop at Puamau.

ARANUI 5 at Puamau. * Photo: Peter Knego

A short 4×4 ride to the I’ipona archaeological site gave us a chance to interact with another friendly resident.

At the best preserved ancient site in the Marquesas (thanks to a massive restoration by French archaeologists Pierre and Marie-Noëlle Garanger-Ottino in 1991), there are numerous stone tikis, including Tiki Takaii, the largest in the islands.

I’ipona archaeological site with Aranui cruises

I’ipona archaeological site with Tiki Takail in left foreground. * Photo: Peter Knego

As with the site in Nuku Hiva two days prior, one could feel the mana or spiritual power.

In one spot that our guide indicated was an altar for sacrificing enemy soldiers, we felt “vibes” just from touching the stones.

It was a reasonable 1.5 kilometer walk back to the ship but because of the heat, we opted to ride back to the landing with another friendly Hiva Oan.

Tekokuu, Tahuata beach

Beach frolic at Tekokuu, Tahuata. * Photo: Peter Knego

As we enjoyed a nice lunch, ARANUI 5 motored her way over to neighboring Tahuata, the smallest inhabited isle of the Marquesas, which is fringed with some spectacular but very remote beaches.

We would have a few hours to swim in the sparkling waters and as a bonus, I was happy to work in a nice little 20-lap run in the sand.

Aranui 5 deck barbecue

ARANUI 5 deck barbecue. * Photo: Peter Knego

That night, while anchored off Hiva Oa, ARANUI 5 hosted her first deck barbecue under the stars.

Aranui Cruises Day 7

In the port of Atuona on Hiva Oa, a school bus transported us to Calvary Cemetery, which overlooks the town where Paul Gauguin spent his final years. Our guides shared that some of the blue-eyed, blondish locals are thought to be his descendants.

This is also where terminally ill French chanteur Jacques Brel arrived in late 1975 aboard his sailing yacht Askoy. Brel was so captivated by the place that he rented a home there but when his condition deteriorated, he returned to France and died in 1978. He is now buried here alongside Paul Gauguin.

Brel may not be as well known outside of France as, say, Piaf but his influence is still very tangible. His songs have been covered by a roster of artists, from Nina Simone and Marc Almond to David Bowie.

Next to his grave were stones with hand-painted messages and several of our French fellow passengers were holding a graveside vigil when I arrived.

seeing Paul Gauguin's grave on an Aranui Cruise

Paul Gauguin’s grave. * Photo: Peter Knego

Gauguin’s resting place is slightly more imposing and yet rather modest for an artist of his renown.

The nearby Gauguin Museum has prints of his works with descriptions in French, while the adjacent Brel Museum has posters and photos covering his career in a hangar-like space that contains his twin engine plane, JoJo, which he bought for easy transport to the Marquesas from Tahiti.

It also helped transfer locals and their supplies between the islands.

Hapatoni, Tahuata greeting on aranui 5 cruise

Hapatoni, Tahuata greeting. * Photo: Peter Knego

As we lunched on board, ARANUI 5 sailed off to nearby Tahuata and dropped anchor off the village of Hapatoni, which is best known for its bone carvings.

After a brief visit, I took an early pontoon back to the ship for a refreshing work out, swim and a nap before dinner.

Aranui Cruises Day 8

We rode the barge to shore from the Omoa anchorage off ruggedly lush Fatu Hiva, which seemed like a Marquesan mini-Kauai.

Throughout the voyage, we had been preparing for today’s Zen-like challenge: a 17-kilometer hike over the ridge to Hanavave on the other side of the island. I donned my red and black sneakers for what would be the last in their series of globe-trotting treks.

Their well-worn treads had imprinted the soils of more lands than I can count, from the sands of Alang to the canals of Amsterdam.

Author Peter Knego on an Aranui Cruises adventure

The author Peter Knego. * Photo by Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon.

It was wise that we were cautioned repeatedly that the hike would be up a steep grade in sweltering heat and humidity with very little shade. For those with second thoughts, after the first half hour, there was no turning back, since ARANUI 5 would be sailing off to meet us in Hanavave on the opposite side of the island.

At the half-way point, some 400 meters above sea level, it was almost refreshingly cool. We were greeted with cheers by members of the ship’s galley team, who were waiting for us with a small deli set-up.

And, oh, did that hard-earned tuna baguette and a bottle of ice cold water taste good!

Trekking back to the ship

Downward ho! * Photo: Peter Knego

Although climbing up was more exerting, going down was actually much more of a challenge.  However, the vistas were stunning, making it hard to not occasionally stumble in distraction.

Past a few bends, the ARANUI 5 appeared as a little speck in the Bay of Hanavave.

ARANUI Cruises calls at Hanavave.

MV ARANUI 5 at Hanavave. * Photo: Peter Knego

Near Hanavave, the remarkable stone formations looked as though they might have been lifted from Easter Island. Towards the end of the road, the incline gave San Francisco’s Lombard Street a run for its money.

Stone formations at Hanavave with Aranui Cruises

Stone formations at Hanavave. * Photo: Peter Knego

At Hanavave, we limped aboard the first barge for the short ride to the air-conditioned comfort of our ship. I immediately tossed the haggard shoes and my scorched/drenched clothing and headed for the pool.

Once there, a fellow passenger waved me over to witness a magnificent manta circling the ARANUI’s stern.

manta ray

Manta ray just next to the ship. * Photo: Peter Knego

Shortly before sunset, the ARANUI 5 sailed off to Ua Huka in the Northern Marquesas.

Aranui Cruises Day 9

Our adventure on the island of Ua Huka began with a 4WD ride to a botanical garden where we encountered numerous, ripe-for-the-picking, local fruit trees.

From there, it was off to the cultural center at Te Tumu to browse local handicrafts and visit a small museum.

The coastline was significantly more arid than what we witnessed on the other islands, almost recalling that of central California.

Our next stop was the village of Hane, where we had time to explore the local marketplace and a scattering of small museums.

Ua Huka coastline with Aranui cruises

Breathtaking Ua Huka coastline. * Photo: Peter Knego

There is a large rock at the outskirts of Hane Bay that bore a strong likeness to California’s Morro Rock.

We stopped for lunch at a local restaurant but well-worn from our 17-kilometer trek on the day prior, decided against the optional, sun-drenched 5K walk back to the ship. After a short 4WD ride through yet more colorful flora, we were back on board the ARANUI 5.

I began the somber task of packing as ARANUI 5 made a westerly course to Nuku Hiva, where a school of dolphins greeted us off the rugged shoreline.

Just before twilight, ARANUI 5 dropped anchor at Taioahe, where she would spend the night. Meanwhile, the only other cruise ship spotted since we left Tahiti nine nights prior, Oceania Cruises’ MV SIRENA, was maneuvering away.

SIRENA asterna near Aranui 5

SIRENA asterna. * Photo: Peter Knego

The preparations for the poolside Polynesian evening were well under way as the SIRENA quietly glided past us on her way to Tahiti.

Aranui Cruises Day 10

We disembarked shortly before the ARANUI 5 finished loading her outbound cargo and sailed off to Ua Pou, where she would take on more local wares before beginning her return leg to Tahiti via Rangiroa in the Tuamotus and Bora Bora.

Meanwhile, we spent the rest of the morning winding through the mountains of Nuku Hiva, en route to the airport.

Tapueahu Canyon

Tapueahu Canyon. * Photo: Peter Knego

Near the summit, there was a fantastic view of Tapueahu Canyon, which is Nuku Hiva’s miniature version of Kauai’s Waimea Canyon.

Hours later, our plane soared over the coral-fringed seas of Tuamotu during the first of my homeward flights, retracing the beginning of this remarkable voyage through Polynesia.

aranui cruises flight home

Until next time! * Photo: Peter Knego

Follow Peter Knego on Twitter here.

Special Thanks: Guillaume Acher, Rani Chaves, Marilyn Green, Cait Langley, Julie Parrotta.

For more info, go to Aranui Cruises.

Note, Aranui 5 has been sailing with local passengers since July 18, 2020, and now with international passengers as well. Fares for 12-night Marquesas cruises in 2021 start at $5,307.80 per person for double occupancy, including three meals daily, one bottle of wine per every four guests, guided excursions, picnic and meals on shore. Optional excursions such as scuba diving, horseback riding, fishing and helicopter tours are not included.
Note, a  new vessel focused on cruising only, the 280-passenger AraMana, is being planned for a mid-2022 launch; see more details from this Jan 2020 SeaTrade Cruise News article.

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cycling on a new zealand cruise

New Zealand Cruise Adventure

By John Roberts.

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

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

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

Le Laperouse in New Zealand

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

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

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

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

New Zealand Cruise & Cycle map

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

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

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

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

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

Le Laperouse New Zealand cruise

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

Waiheke Island

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

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

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

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

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

A hike on a New Zealand cruise

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

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

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

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

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

Tauranga

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

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

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

Backroads support van for a New Zealand Cruise

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

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

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

New Zealand cruise and cycle adventure

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

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

cycling on a new zealand cruise

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

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

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

selife in tauranga

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

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

Kayaking in gorgeous Tauranga on a New Zealand cruise

Kayaking in Tauranga. * Photo: John Roberts

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

White Island

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

zodiac on a New Zealand cruise

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

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

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

pool towns on Ponant

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

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

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

Napier

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

Cycling from Tauranga, New Zealand

Cycling in Napier. * Photo: John Roberts

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

cycling in Napier on a new zealand cruise

Biking in Napier. * Photo: John Roberts

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

vineyard new zealand

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

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

Wellington

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

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

Otari-Wilton's Bush trail

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

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

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

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

Wellington New Zealand bar

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

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

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

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

“I like the consistency,” Fleury says.

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

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

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

Arriving to the South Island

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

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

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

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

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

crafts beers on Le Laperouse

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

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

champagne on deck of a New Zealand Cruise

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

Milford Sound

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

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

milford sound views from the spa

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

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

zodiac in Milford Sound

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

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

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

Kea on a kayak

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

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

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

The Ship

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

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

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

oceanview gym on Le LaPerouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

Le Laperouse seafood

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

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

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

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

Hunt For The Wilderpeople film

Hunt For The Wilderpeople

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

interior of Le Laperouse

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

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

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

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

Le Laperouse cabin on a New Zealand cruise

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

Until Next Time …

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

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

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

sunset on a New Zealand cruise sunset

Until next time … * Photo: John Roberts

 

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Small Oceangoing New Builds of 2019

Small Oceangoing New Builds of 2019

By Anne Kalosh.

Small-ship fans are in luck. 2019’s crop of oceangoing new builds offers a huge selection, ranging from a sail-powered tall ship and a luxurious yacht to expedition vessels of varied designs and features.

Of the 25 oceangoing ships sailing into service for the global cruise industry this year, an astonishing 13 are small enough to be Quirky Cruise size (carrying up to 300 passengers).

They include the highly anticipated Azora, the first vessel of The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, with all-balcony suites, a specialty restaurant by a three-star Michelin chef and a wide range of warm-weather destinations.

Small Oceangoing New Builds of 2019

The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection’s Azora. * Photo: The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection

Sailing specialist Star Clippers Flying Clipper, meanwhile, is a replica of the largest square-rigged tall ship ever built.

The rest of the Quirky-sized new builds are expedition ships.

Of those, French line Ponant continues its impressive 184-passenger series with Le Bougainville and Le Dumont d’Urville, chic and sleek and with a unique feature: Blue Eye, an underwater, multi-sensory lounge. There, hydrophones pipe in the sounds of the sea and “body listening” sofas softly vibrate.

Small Oceangoing New Builds of 2019

A diver swims up to the Blue Eye lounge, a unique feature of Ponant’s new builds. * Photo: L.Patricot:Ponant

German operator Hapag-Lloyd Cruises Hanseatic Nature and Hanseatic Inspiration will have terraced observation decks, a marina platform that drops down for paddleboarding and snorkeling, and electric-powered Zodiacs. A pair of glass-bottom balconies extend over the side of each ship.

Small Oceangoing New Builds of 2019

Hanseatic Nature is one of two new expedition ships this year for Hapag-Lloyd Cruises. * Photo: Hapag-Lloyd Cruises

Scenic Eclipse will be the first of two planned “six-star discovery yachts” from Australia-based tour operator Scenic. All veranda suites, 10 dining options, two helicopters and a six-person submarine are some of the features of the sleek new build.

The Scenic Eclipse nearing completion in the shipyard. * Photo: Scenic

Australia’s Coral Expeditions will introduce the 120-passenger Coral Adventurer to the world in April 2019 in Singapore, before heading off towards Australia for her first cruise, an 18-night “In the Trail of Tasman” voyage. It will then expand the company’s itineraries in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Representing Coral Expeditions’ 34 years of experience building and operating expedition ships, Coral Adventurer will boast the latest advances in marine and environmental technology. For instance, its lightweight dual Xplorer expedition tenders, a trademark feature of all Coral Expeditions vessels, will allow fast trips to shore and deeper exploration into rivers and beaches.

The soon-to-debut Coral Adventurer. * Photo: Coral Expeditions

Another Australian company, Aurora Expeditions, will introduce Greg Mortimer, with its novel X-BOW (pronounced “crossbow”) design. This inverted bow cuts through the waves more efficiently and gives a smoother ride in rough seas.

Small Oceangoing New Builds of 2019

Aurora Expeditions’ Greg Mortimer has a novel X-BOW design. * Rendering: SunStone Ships

Celebrity Flora is designed specifically for the Galápagos Islands, where it will sail year-round. With huge suites, a star-gazing platform and four top-deck cabanas for glamping, this Celebrity Cruises ship will bring new style to one of the world’s most fascinating destinations.

Small Oceangoing New Builds of 2019

Celebrity Flora for the Galapagos Islands. * Photo: Celebrity Cruises

Magellan Explorer will be positioned on the White Continent for Antarctica21’s fly and cruise program, where travelers fly from Puntarenas, Chile, to join the ship, avoiding the often stormy Drake Passage. After their cruise, they fly back to Puntarenas.

Small Oceangoing New Builds of 2019

Magellan Explorer is specially built for long stints in Antarctica. * Rendering: Antarctica21

Polar specialist Oceanwide Expeditions is debuting its first new build, Hondius, designed for Antarctica and the Arctic.

Portugal’s Mystic Cruises is building World Explorer, which will be chartered seasonally to another polar veteran, Quark Expeditions, for austral summers in Antarctica and sail for Germany’s Nicko Cruises or Mystic itself the rest of the year.

Better late than never!

Flying Clipper, World Explorer and Scenic Eclipse had been scheduled to debut in 2018, but all were delayed. That’s not unusual when it comes to a particularly novel design or a shipyard new to the game.

Star Clippers’ Flying Clipper, for example, a replica of 1911’s France II, will be rigged with 35 sails spanning a total area of 6,350 square meters/68,351 square feet. It’s slated to debut in early summer 2019.

World Explorer is the first of what’s envisioned as a series of 10 new builds for Mystic Cruises, whose parent company is a seasoned Douro River operator now branching into ocean cruising.

And, having built up river fleets under the Scenic and Emerald Waterways brands, Scenic is dipping into ocean cruising with Scenic Eclipse, whose delay is related to financial troubles at the shipyard, Uljanik in Croatia.

➢➢ Read about the 25 new expedition ships in the pipeline (under 300 passengers) over the next three years — 2019-2022 — including more details of the ships highlighted in this post.

 

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JetSetSarah Circumnavigates Iceland

JetSetSarah Circumnavigates Iceland

By Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon.

The mountain range, as jagged as an electrocardiogram readout, is the color of chocolate pudding. Rising sharply from a navy blue sea, each peak is capped with an ivory crown of snow and punctuated with patches of grass so vividly green that they almost vibrate against the chalky sky. As seagulls swoop across the horizon and caw their welcome, I can’t help but feel fortunate to be here, almost at the top of the world, seeing Iceland for the first time.

And I know I’m luckier still to be witnessing all of this majesty snug in the warmth of the queen-sized bed in my oceanview suite aboard Windstar Cruises’ Star Pride, the rugged beauty of Seydisfjordur unfurling just beyond my stateroom’s Juliet balcony. If there’s a more comfortable way to see Iceland, neither I ­nor the 211 other passengers on this 106-suite ship have found it.

Waking up to mountain landscapes that seem cut and pasted from a jigsaw puzzle is just one of the perks of cruising with Windstar, whose Star Pride plies Iceland cruises round trip from the capital of Reykjavík each summer. The five-week season offers seven-night circumnavigations of the 40,000-square-mile island, stopping at five ports. The itinerary is among the line’s most popular, due no doubt to Iceland’s “bucket list” status for many cruisers.

If you’re eyeing this cruise for next season, here’s what you need to know.

STAR PRIDE STYLE + CHARACTER

With six yachts (carrying a maximum of 310 passengers) Windstar Cruises markets itself as a laidback yet luxurious line, suited to the active curious traveler. And the relaxed atmosphere on board this former Seabourn yacht (the sail-less 212-passenger vessel joined the line in 2014 and was renovated in 2016) bears that out. Star Pride Iceland passengers (mostly American couples in their 60s and older) are clearly sophisticated and well-traveled, fit enough to enjoy the active shore excursions offered.

The vibe is very “winter at the country club,” with passengers dressed in sporty-casual style (think jeans, sweaters and puffy vests with hiking boots) during the day, with slacks and button-down shirts or sweaters for men in the evenings, and smart separates or dresses for ladies. Since there are no formal nights, leave your tux and gown at home, but know that jeans are discouraged in dining areas in the evening.

Know, too, that while the Windstar experience is by no means mass-market (budget about $6,500 per person for a balcony cabin; $4,600 per person for an oceanview), neither is it the most luxurious of cruising experiences. In some cases we found the service and amenities to skew more toward laidback than luxurious (paper coffee cups in the Yacht Club restaurant; slow service in the Amphora restaurant at lunch time, for example). If you board with expectations of service at the level of, say, Regent Seven Seas Cruises or Crystal Cruises, you may be disappointed. But if warm and friendly staff; a relaxed and un-stuffy atmosphere; and a fascinating Iceland itinerary are your priorities, this is your cruise.

Editor’s Note

In November 2018, Windstar announced its impressive plans to stretch and upgrade its trio of ex-Seabourn sister yachts, including the Star Pride, between October 2019 and November 2020. Sisters Star Breeze, Star Legend and Star Pride will be cut in half so a midsection can be added. This will extend the ships by 25.6 meters/84 feet, bringing the total length to just over 159 meters/522 feet. The passenger capacity will go from 212 for each ship to 312; there will be 50 suites added per ship and dining choices, the spa, fitness center and pool deck will be expanded. In the summer of 2019, sister Star Breeze (pre-overhaul) will offer five weeklong cruises plying the same Iceland itinerary featured in Sarah’s story. Here are more details. Watch this space for future updates.

Windstar to Stretch Three Ships

This shows how the ships will look after their lengthening. * Rendering: Windstar

 

STAR PRIDE SERVICE + AMENITIES

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more friendly and welcoming crew than on Star Pride. From stewards to boutique staff, everyone we encountered was eager to please.

At 440-feet-long, the ship lacks the square footage to accommodate the bells and whistles you’ll find on larger ships (though with the upcoming stretch of the ship, this will be change). But on an Iceland itinerary you’ll likely spend most of your time exploring the destination anyway, and once back on board there are still plenty of diversions.

Interior amenities include the WindSpa on deck 7, which has three treatment rooms, a sauna, steam room and salon. You’ll find the fitness center, with weights and cardio machines, here too. The Yacht Club and Compass Rose lounges (on decks 8 and 6, respectively); a screening room (deck 5); and small but handsome library on deck 6 are popular spots to read, and play cards and games. A tiny casino (two gaming tables and some slot machines) is tucked into a corner of Compass Rose, and the petite boutique offers a place to spend your winnings.

Given the weather during our sailing, the plunge pool on deck 7 didn’t see much use, but several brave souls took advantage of the two heated whirlpools (it’s easy to miss the one forward on deck 5). On the penultimate day of the cruise, Star Pride’s watersports platform was the venue for the polar plunge into the frigid Greenland Sea, but it gets more use during warm-weather itineraries, when kayaks, paddleboards and other water toys are launched from this ship’s aft marina.

Windstar’s open bridge policy means that cruisers are free to visit the bridge at any time (except during docking and sailaway) to meet the captain and staff and to get a glimpse of how the ship operates.

JetSetSarah Circumnavigates Iceland

Circumnavigating Iceland in 7 days.

After the stretch and refurbishment: 

With more space, there will be a larger pool and more outdoor deck area, and a bigger and upgraded spa and fitness center, including a new yoga/Pilates studio. Staff and crew areas and accommodations will also be expanded and improved, enabling Windstar to maintain its high 1.5:1 passenger-to-hotel staff ratio.

STAR PRIDE CABINS

Star Pride’s 106 suites are divided into four categories (64 oceanview, four classic, 36 balcony and a pair of owner’s suites), with most measuring 277 square feet (and the largest, 575 square feet). Regardless of size, each feels more like an elegant hotel room than a traditional cruise ship cabin, a welcome oasis at the end of a day spent exploring Iceland’s rugged landscape.

Our balcony suite, decorated in blue, gold and neutral tones, impressed with a granite-clad bathroom complete with a bathtub; plenty of storage space (there’s a walk-in closet with two rods, shelving, drawers and wall hooks; a dressing table and bedside table drawers); a separate living area with sofa and armchair seating (separated from the sleeping area with curtains); and, of course, a balcony. Compact (there’s no room for outdoor furniture) and accessed through floor-to-ceiling sliding doors, the “Juliet” balcony is the perfect spot for morning coffee with a coastal view. And with the doors open to let in the salty tang of the sea, the cabin becomes an open-air oasis. Blackout curtains ensure a good night’s sleep — crucial during Iceland’s summer, when the sun doesn’t set until midnight (and even then it never gets truly dark).

Common to all staterooms: walk-in closets; TV and DVD player; stocked fridge and mini bar; robes and slippers; and hairdryers. Fresh fruit and flowers en suite are thoughtful touches that are a Windstar standard.

JetSetSarah Circumnavigates Iceland

Life is good on the “Juliet” balcony. * Photo: JetSetSarah

After the stretch and refurbishment: 

The 50 new suites will include new categories and open-floor-plan configurations. Two new, larger owner’s suites include one that combines with neighboring suites to create up to a three-bedroom, two-balcony suite, ideal for families. All bathrooms will be modernized, and new sliding doors will be installed in balcony suites; otherwise most existing suites (like in Sarah’s video) will keep the same interior design.

STAR PRIDE DINING + DRINKING

Begin the day with buffet or cooked-to-order breakfast at The Verandah, aft on deck 7. The airy space has indoor, deck and courtyard seating, but in inclement weather when passengers are forced to dine inside, space is cramped. If you want a seat on a rainy morning, either arrive soon after opening or head down to deck 3’s Amphora, Star Pride’s main dining room. This is a classically elegant space with open seating and tables for two to eight, serving à la carte breakfast, lunch and dinner. The Yacht Club, forward on deck 1, serves continental breakfast for early risers (as well as all-day snacks) with sea views on the side.

At lunchtime, your options are the buffet at The Verandah; a la carte options at Amphora; and once a cruise, weather permitting, a buffet of grilled meats, seafood, and salads at Star Bar, aft on deck 8.

In the evening, enjoy cocktails in the Star Bar, at Compass Rose or in the main lounge. Amphora serves dinner until 8 p.m., and The Verandah is transformed into Candles, a popular and intimate dining experience. Like all Star Pride’s dining venues it is complimentary, but available by reservation only once to each cruiser per voyage. Room service is available around-the-clock.

Windstar typically gets raves for its dining (the line partners with the James Beard Foundation and there are Beard selections on every dinner menu), though for us, none of the meals were particularly remarkable or superior to what we’ve encountered on less expensive lines.

JetSetSarah Circumnavigates Iceland

The Amphora, Star Pride’s main dining room as it appears currently. * Photo: JetSetSarah

After the stretch and refurbishment: 

There will be five different and updated dining experiences with new partnerships in addition to James Beard. A 42-seat alternative restaurant will be introduced, providing a cuisine (to be announced) that Windstar doesn’t currently offer, and a casual barbecue space will be added near the top deck Star Bar. This will enable grilling during Windstar’s “Signature Onboard Barbecue.” The Veranda Restaurant will be enlarged to offer significantly more ocean-view seating, with an upgraded dining area. A revamped Amphora dining room will have a new floor plan with more window seats.

STAR PRIDE ENTERTAINMENT

Don’t expect Broadway-style shows, ice rinks or bowling alleys at sea — Star Pride’s entertainment options are decidedly old-school. During the day, almost everyone goes on tour, but there are trivia competitions, movie screenings, and board games for those who stay behind. Back on board in the afternoon, most cruisers gather for cocktails outdoors at the Star Bar (weather permitting); read or chat in one of the lounges; or retreat to their staterooms to nap after a rigorous outing.

Windstar’s much-loved signature sailaway, when sails on its masted ships are hoisted to Vangelis’ theme from the movie 1492, is modified on its sail-less motor yachts such as Star Pride. Instead, crew members raise the vessels flags, watched with delight by passengers gathered on the Star Bar’s deck.

Evening port talks are followed by performances by a musician or duo in the Compass Rose and main lounge. Once a cruise the captain hosts a cocktail party, and the staff talent show is a passenger favorite. Some highlights: A solo (and quite suggestive!) dance by the ship photographer; a traditional Indonesian dance by members of the dining room team; and the grand finale, a comedic “synchronized swimming” performance featuring a fabric “sea” and bare-chested “swimmers” sporting goggles and swim caps.

JetSetSarah Circumnavigates Iceland

The Lounge was renovated in 2014-2015 and won’t be re-done in next year’s stretch and facelift. * Photo: Windstar

After the stretch and refurbishment: 

Many public spaces on Pride, Breeze & Legend were completely renovated in 2014-15 when the the trio was transferred to Windstar, including the Lounge, Compass Rose, Yacht Club and Atrium, and so they will not be re-done.

ICELAND EXCURSIONS

Iceland of course is the main reason people book this cruise.

Of the 200 people or so on board our cruise, an impressive 188 booked at least one excursion in each of the five ports. And that speaks not just to the adventurous spirit of Star Pride’s passengers, but also to Iceland’s allure.

With an area of 40,000 square-miles and with just 350,000 people (two-thirds of them living in the world’s most northerly capital, Reykjavik), Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe. Visitors can expect to see vast deserted tracts of farmland, craggy glacier fields, volcanic mountains, spectacular fjords and, of course, the thermal pools and natural geysers for which the country is so famous.

Most cruisers opt for a pre- or post-tour stay in the compact capital, allowing time to take in city sights; to tour the Golden Circle (a roughly 200-mile route that comprises Pingevillir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall and the Geysir and Strokkur geysers); and, of course, to see the Blue Lagoon.

TIP: If you decide to visit the Blue Lagoon (and you should), consider visiting on the day you arrive. It’s only 20 minutes’ drive from the airport (as opposed to 50 minutes from Reykjavik); there are lockers large enough to store your luggage; and your ticket allows you to say as long as you like. Most flights from the U.S. touch down at KEF early in the morning, and soaking in a steaming turquoise pool certainly beats pacing the hotel lobby waiting for your room to be ready.

In its 2018 Iceland season, Star Pride offered 40 excursions in five ports of call — Heimaey Island (Vestmannaeyj); Seydisfjördur; Akureyri; Ísafjördur and Grundarfjördur. They range from two-hour bus tours to half-day rough-and-tumble 4X4 safaris, whale watching boat tours, and strenuous six-hour glacier hikes. The most popular picks are anything puffin-related — Iceland is home to 60 percent of the world’s puffin population — and flying tours that take sightseers over glaciers and waterfalls.

TIP: Whichever excursions you choose, wet-weather clothing is essential because even in the summertime, Iceland’s weather is notoriously unpredictable. During our sailing, the country was having its worst summer in more than a century, which meant temperatures in the 40s Fahrenheit, daily rain, heavy winds and frequent fog. Waterproof outerwear and shoes (water-resistant won’t do) and hiking boots are essential. But leave behind the umbrella. High winds render them useless, and carrying one is the quickest way to stand out as a tourist.

There are hiking opportunities in every port. Two standouts:

Ísafjördur — the short but steep climb 738 feet up to the Troll’s Throne, where the beauty of Iceland’s fjords, hills and waterfalls are revealed.

Seydisfjördur — a three-hour ramble over mountainside punctuated with the island’s iconic purple lupine flowers and waterfalls cascading toward the frigid sea.

JetSetSarah Circumnavigates Iceland

On Star Pride’s Chasing Waterfalls excursion in Seydisfjordur. * Photo: JetSetSarah

When the ship crosses the Arctic Circle, passengers are given commemorative certificates inducting them into the Order of the Blue Nose. And intrepid cruisers (count me among them) who dare to take the polar plunge into the icy waters of the Greenland Sea receive hot chocolate and their own certificate of accomplishment as a reward.

But no doubt passengers’ most precious souvenir will be the memory of this adventure to one of the most enchanting and diverse destinations on the planet.

Sarah takes the polar plunge! * Photo: JetSetSarah

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New Victory II Great Lakes Adventure

New Victory II Great Lakes Adventure

By Judi Cohen (on Instagram @Travelingjudi)

Having lived on Lake Ontario for my entire life, it never crossed my mind that the Great Lakes could be a cruising destination. Until August, that is, when my sister-in-law Marla and I sailed aboard the newly overhauled 202-passenger Victory II for an inaugural 9-night sailing on the Great Lakes. This was a unique opportunity to experience both the challenges and the successes of a new launch, and a great deal of learning along the way.

New Victory II Great Lakes Adventure

Judi & Marla sailing away from Montreal!

We cruised through the St. Lawrence Seaway and Great Lakes system, including passing through a total of 17 locks along the way, starting in French Canada’s Montreal and Quebec City, followed by Kingston, Toronto and Niagara Falls in Ontario, and ending in Cleveland, Ohio and Detroit, Michigan in the United States. The food, alcohol and shore excursions were all included, which contributed to a relaxed vibe.

New Victory II Great Lakes Adventure

The itinerary, from Quebec City and ending in Detroit.

Most of the passengers aboard for this inaugural trip were from Canada and the United States. It was interesting how many of the Americans from Texas, North Carolina and Oklahoma had never been to Canada before, and had booked this cruise to satisfy their curiosity about the Great Lakes and the ports on the Canadian side of the border. Some also mentioned that they were attracted to this sailing because there was a low risk of getting seasick.

 

Victory II

TheVictory II is a small vessel, just under 300 feet in length, with a maximum capacity of 202 passengers and up to 74 crew members. She was built in 2001 in Jacksonville, Florida, sailing for a time as the Sea Discoverer, before being refurbished and re-christened Victory II. 

New Victory II Great Lakes Adventure

The Victory II. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Bruce Nierenberg, the chairman of Victory Cruise Lines, was aboard and said Victory’s cruises were ideal for “experienced travelers, over 55, looking for premium non-mass market vacations.” He explained that because Victory’s two small ships are intimate, guests can actually get to know one-another. In my opinion, Bruce really got that right.

The ship has a comfortable, traditional feel with lots of wood paneling and velvet upholstery. I felt almost as if I was sailing in my own living room. There were no line-ups for dining with flexible dining hours generally starting from 7 to 8:30pm in the dining room, and the option of booking the upstairs Lighthouse Grille for 7 or 7:30pm seatings. We could be very casual on the ship generally and in the dining rooms. We did get dolled up a little for the night that we were invited to the Captains Table!

New Victory II Great Lakes Adventure

Captains Table in the Victory Dining Room. * Photo: Judi Cohen

It was convenient to move around from one deck to the next to access dining, lounges, observation decks, the gym, the spa and the pursers desk which were all located next to a central staircase and elevator. I never needed a deck plan or directions to find anything. It was simple and intuitive. A welcome change from some larger ships I have sailed on.

Cozy Cabins

Our beautiful cozy Ocean View Stateroom with twin beds and two large windows was located on Deck 1, the lowest deck for passenger accommodations. While it was relatively small (158 sq. ft.) compared to larger mainstream ships, it was very well designed with lots of drawers, closets shelves and a desk. Even with the two of us sharing (and considering that we each brought enough clothes and shoes for 6 months!), everything found a place without difficulty. I brought my own wire hangers to supplement those provided on the ship, impressing my sister-in-law with this travel trick I learned a long time ago.

New Victory II Great Lakes Adventure

Judi’s cabin with 2 twin beds. * Photo: Judi Cohen

The bathroom was quite generous with a large shelf below the sink that we found convenient for all of our toiletry items. I must say the shower was quite small with a clingy shower curtain, however the powerful water pressure more than compensated for that.

Our room and bathroom were kept immaculately clean with ample supplies of soap, shampoo, shower gel, fresh drinking water and soft fluffy towels, bathrobes and slippers. It was nice to have a hairdryer and a safe in the room as well. Our beds were very comfortable with crisp white linens and a choice of pillows. When I got into bed I had a better night’s sleep than I get at home in my own bed.

A category A cabin aboard Victory II. * Photo: Victory Cruise Lines

Pretty Public Rooms

The Great Lakes Lounge on Deck 2 is where the entertainment and presentations were held. With comfortable, plush velvety upholstered seating and small wood tables, we spent most of our leisure time in this inviting room. This is also where they served High Tea three times during our sailing.

New Victory II Great Lakes Adventure

Judi and Marla enjoying their High Tea!

The Whale of a Tail Tavern became very lively in the evenings when we were entertained with embarrassing Karaoke and dancing….and cocktails. We ended up in the bar every night to hear about everyone’s day and getting to know all the guests.

New Victory II Great Lakes Adventure

Judi in Whale of a Tail Tavern. * Photo: Marla Hertzman

I’m pretty sure that I spent time with every single guest either on the ship or on our excursions, something that would have been unthinkable on the larger ships that I’ve been on.

Lounge chairs and other seating were available on both of the observation decks, ideal for enjoying sail-aways and the starry night skies.

New Victory II Great Lakes Adventure

A new ship being unveiled; peeling plastic from the observation lounge windows. Photo: Judi Cohen

Dining Delights

The Victory Dining Room, located on Deck 1, provided open seating at varying sized tables. Mornings featured a plentiful buffet breakfast with many healthy choices including fresh fruits, yogurts, muesli, nuts, cheeses, meats and breads, along with custom orders of eggs. I enjoyed medium-poached eggs on toast most mornings. For lunch, there were several menu items, served French style, including soups, salads, mains and desserts. Dinner was also served French style with choices of soups, salads, fish, meat and vegetarian mains, as well as dessert choices. My favorites were the poached salmon, lobster tails, Caesar salad, tenderloin and the fine cheeses from Quebec. The service was a little spotty initially as the staff was getting used to the new ship and the menu, as one would expect, but every team member went out of their way to make our meals enjoyable.

New Victory II Great Lakes Adventure

Lamb chops. * Photo: Judi Cohen

The Lighthouse Bar and Grille located on Deck 4 was a lovely room with glass all around for a panoramic view. It was particularly special to have breakfast there at sunrise or dinner at sunset, the later which we did, enjoying a mixed grill of lamb chops, steak and salmon, brought out raw on a hot lava stone. We cooked the meat and fish to our liking before removing them from the stone. Reservations were required here, but it was never a problem to find a table.

New Victory II Great Lakes Adventure

The Lighthouse Grille. * Photo: Victory Cruise Lines

Onboard Activities

Dr. Gloria Auchey, a professor English and communications from George Washington University, was the sole lecturer on board, giving several PowerPoint presentations about memory, personality and brain power.

Dr. Gloria Auchey presenting in Lounge. * Photo: Judi Cohen

What we would have preferred were experts lecturing about the ports and the seaway lock system. I found myself in many conversations with other guests, not familiar with the Seaway and Great Lakes, and curious about French versus English Canada. Providing reading materials or inviting destination experts on board would help to make this cruise a more enriching learning experience for everyone. A spokesman for Victory Cruise Lines says there will indeed be expert destination lecturers on board all future cruises to give talks about the history and culture of the ports.

When not exploring in port, a visit to the spa and/or  gym was always an option; I enjoyed a relaxing facial treatment and even managed to hit the gym twice. There was also a galley tour, karaoke, a Name-That-Tune contest and other trivia games.

New Victory II Great Lakes Adventure

Drinks before our galley tour! * Photo: Judi Cohen

 

The Victory II Passengers

Most of the guests were well traveled and between ages 55 and 85; however there were many travel and cruise industry people from Canada and the United States who were much younger. The majority of the guests were retirees who have turned their focus to seeing the world, learn new things and enjoy wonderful food!

New Victory II Great Lakes Adventure

Quebec City sail-away with other guests on the observation deck. * Photo: Marla Hertzman

Only three passengers had physical limitations including Jane Ann who has macular degeneration and was accompanied by her husband and her guide dog named Sarge. Jane Ann made a presentation on the first day about her limited vision and her close relationship with Sarge, a beautiful black English Lab. She requested that we not play with Sarge unless we let her know first and then she would make an adjustment to her grip on his collar which magically gave him permission to be just a regular playful puppy and signaled to Sarge that he was “off duty.” The crew even placed patches of sod outside of the doors on a lower deck for Sarge to do his thing! We all loved having Sarge along on our shore excursions, during our meals and in the lounge areas.

New Victory II Great Lakes Adventure

Sarge being introduced in the Lounge. * Photo: Judi Cohen

 

Ports & Excursions

The most interesting aspect of this cruise was visiting all the various port cities and experiencing the many locks we maneuvered through. Our routine was similar each day with shore excursions in the morning and afternoon, and lunch in between, served either on or off the ship. All excursions were included in the cruise fares.

Montreal, Quebec

On Day 1, we boarded the ship in one of North America’s oldest cities, Montreal, and had a full day to visit. Starting with a city tour, we saw the bustling Old City of Montreal with its galleries, boutiques and restaurants set in stone buildings. The highlight was visiting the majestic Notre Dame Basilica and the architectural gems outside in the square. My jaw dropped at the deep blues in the intricate stained-glass windows and dome at the Notre Dame. I could have sat for hours just staring up.

Montreal’s Notre Dame Basilica. * Photo: Judi Cohen

But there was so much more to see including the views from our drive towards Mont Royal, the 20-storey high mural of poet and Canadian music legend Leonard Cohen, and the campus of McGill University. In a strange way, I felt as if I was carried back to Japan during our visit to the Botanical Gardens, with its pagodas and bonsai garden.

After lunch on the ship, we meandered through the streets of Old Montreal and along the vibrant carnival-like waterfront boardwalk before returning to the ship completely exhausted from the 95-degree heat. We gathered on the observation deck with cocktails in hand and sailed away, passing the site of Expo 67, with its few remaining structures, including architect Moshe Safdie’s cube houses and the United States Glass Sphere Pavilion, so that was a trip back down memory lane.

New Victory II Great Lakes Adventure

Montreal’s Botanical Gardens. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Quebec City, Quebec and Kingston, Ontario

I fully embraced our next two ports, Quebec City and Kingston, which tell the vibrant story of French and English Canada. Visiting the historical Plains of Abraham and a few stops in the only walled city in North America, followed by a walk across the top of the Montmorency Falls, provided a taste of this compact, hilly and cobblestoned city. Stopping at the castle-like Chateau Frontenac Hotel poised on top of the city provided a full panoramic view of the walled city and the waterfront.

New Victory II Great Lakes Adventure

Lovely Old Quebec. * Photo: Judi Cohen

By contrast, Kingston tells the tale of the British and Upper Canada. In addition to touring the early-19th-century Fort Henry, we were taken to the inner sanctum of the Royal Military Institute and allowed to walk on Parade Square before heading to the Kingston Penitentiary Museum. The storied maximum-security penitentiary once housed legendary prisoners like convicted mass murderers Paul Bernardo and Clifford Olsen. I can’t say I enjoyed seeing the old prison cells and the disciplinary equipment, but I left with a visceral sense of the harsh and lonely existence for prisoners languishing in their cells.

Visiting the Rideau Canal’s Kingston Mill Lock on a beautiful sunny day was a true highlight. It’s hard to believe that this UNESCO site, with its massive wooden gates, is still operated manually. As we watched the operation to let two small boats through the locks, one of the hundreds of the iconic Canadian Pacific trains thundered across the iron bridge directly over our heads. A truly Canadian experience.

New Victory II Great Lakes Adventure

Kingston’s Rideau Canal. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Toronto, Ontario

The largest Canadian city we visited was Toronto. A bus tour in the morning took us past the Bay Street skyscrapers in the bustling financial district and Yorkville’s chic shopping district, with a stop at City Hall followed by a walk from the newly installed “Doggy Fountain” to the historic St. Lawrence Market. Hearing all the comments from other guests made me very proud of my hometown.

New Victory II Great Lakes Adventure

Judi at Toronto’s Doggie Fountain. * Photo: Marla Hertzman

Some guests went back to the ship for lunch. I joined Sheila and Tom from Greenville, Texas, for lunch in Yorkville followed by a stroll along Toronto’s “mink mile” for a little shopping therapy. We then took an Uber to the Art Gallery of Ontario to rejoin the other cruise guests for a tour prior to returning to the ship through heavy traffic and sheer chaos in the downtown core. What a welcome to Toronto.

Welland Canal

As we retired for the evening after our stop in Toronto, we were told that the captain would be up all night with his crew to navigate through several locks on the Welland Canal. Built in 1829, this canal links Lake Ontario and Lake Erie (lakes teeming with freighters) and provides a detour around Niagara Falls. Not unlike the lock we visited along the Rideau Canal in Kingston, Ontario, these locks use gravity and water as the lock gates are opened and closed. Unfortunately, we passed through the locks during the night. All we could hear was the bumping and creaking noises as the ship entered and exited each lock.

During the crossing of the lakes, we watched the huge freighters pass as we had dinner. When two giant CSL freighters passed very close to our ship, I pointed out to my sister-in-law that Canada Steamship Lines (CSL) was bought by our former Prime Minister Paul Martin.

New Victory II Great Lakes Adventure

Ship inside one of the 17 locks. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Port Colborne – Niagara Falls, Ontario

In the morning, after our successful passage through the Welland Canal, we disembarked in Port Colborne and took a bus ride to Niagara Falls. I’ve been going there since I was a child, visiting dozens of times with friends and family. To be honest, Niagara Falls never gets old.

One of the older passengers told me that she specifically chose this Victory II cruise because she wanted to see Niagara Falls before she dies. I could feel the excitement and anticipation as we waited in line with our bright pink plastic rain ponchos to board the small boat, named the Hornblower, that would take us to the base of the US and Canadian Horseshoe Falls.

As the warm spray engulfed us, I heard squeals of sheer joy as we all tried to take pictures and videos without having our phones and cameras destroyed by the water. Nobody left the Falls disappointed.

New Victory II Great Lakes Adventure

In Niagara-Falls, pink raincoats on the Hornblower boat. * Photo: Judi Cohen

We then drove to the Chateau Des Charmes Winery for a delicious lunch with paired wines, including Niagara Ice Wine. As if this wasn’t enough, we then carried on to the quaint city of Niagara-on-the-Lake for a nice walk along its main street that is just brimming with cafes, clothing boutiques, candy stores and ice cream shops, plus beautiful small hotels and B & B’s.

All in all, a spectacular day in the Niagara region, with its fruit trees, grape vines, wineries, theatres, shopping, fudge shops and small colorful restaurants. Two thumbs up.

New Victory II Great Lakes Adventure

Niagara on the Lake is bursting with flowers. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Cleveland, Ohio

Our first port in the U.S. was Cleveland. This city absolutely “rocked.” Not just because of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where I ambled for hours, enjoying musical flashbacks to my hippie days, but because of the rebirth that is evident in all of the city’s neighborhoods.

New Victory II Great Lakes Adventure

Our welcome at the Port of Cleveland. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Welcomed by a local choir, and people holding up “Welcome to Cleveland” signs, we boarded “Holly the Trolley” for an open-air tour of the city. The historical West Side Market, dating back to 1912, was buzzing with food vendors and shoppers. I stopped at every bakeshop to carefully study the cupcakes, candies, breads, cookies and assorted colorful delicacies. I experienced sensory overload and loved every second of it.

New Victory II Great Lakes Adventure

Judi and Marla in Holly the Trolley for our City Tour in Cleveland.

Cleveland has many old iron bridges from all eras crossing the Cuyahoga River (referred to as the crooked river), that allow ships to pass through the inland waterways that serviced the industrial factories and warehouses. The abandoned warehouses are slowly being converted into cool hipster loft housing, all part of the recent transformation of the city.

Who knew Cleveland had a theatre district that is allegedly second only to New York City and a fabulous Art Gallery currently hosting the Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors exhibit. (So interesting, I didn’t know!)  I tried buying tickets to see the popular play Hamilton and the Kusama exhibit, but unfortunately both were sold out.

I wondered why we were being taken to the Lake View Cemetery. I have been to Pere Lachaise in Paris to see Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde’s graves and to La Recoletta Cemetery in Buenos Aires to visit Evita Peron’s  grave, but I have never seen anything like the Wade Memorial Chapel in Lake View Cemetery.

Built in 1901, the centerpiece of the small chapel is a 9-by-7-foot stained-glass window called “Flight of Souls,” depicting the consummation of the Divine Promise, designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany (of Tiffany and Co.). It showcases his signature “favrile” method of layering translucent and opalescent pieces of glass to create rich, deep colours. Prior to being installed in this chapel, the piece won first place at the 1900 World Exposition in Paris. Presidents and numerous celebrities are buried in this beautiful cemetery.

I could have easily spent another couple of days in Cleveland.

New Victory II Great Lakes Adventure

The Tiffany stained-glass window “Flight of Souls” inside Cleveland’s Wade Chapel. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Detroit, Michigan

Our last port along the Detroit River was Detroit, often referred to as “Motor City” for its rich automobile history. This is the home of Ford Motor Company, and the shiny glass “Oz-like” General Motors Building sits prominently on the waterfront near the port. It is also the home of Barry Gordie Jr., the founder of Motown Music.

New Victory II Great Lakes Adventure

Judi made sure to visit the Motown Museum on her own. * Photo: Marla Hertzman

While Victory Cruise Lines did not have any planned shore excursions in Detroit, a few passengers that I spoke with had made arrangements for private tours of the city. I stayed overnight in Detroit before driving home to Toronto and visited the Motown Museum and had a famous Coney Hot Dog at Duleys Place, made famous by the late Anthony Bourdain.

Most other passengers took taxis to Detroit Airport and boarded flights home. I hope they will one day return to see the revitalized Detroit with its iconic buildings, music and food.

New Victory II Great Lakes Adventure

Sailing along the Detroit River at sunrise. * Photo: Judi Cohen

 

Until Next Time ….

Warning:  If you enjoy giant cruise ships with thousands of passengers and loads of onboard entertainment and shopping, this cruise is not for you. If you are looking for a small, comfortable, casual, hassle-free and intimate ship, Victory II is right up your alley.

What I loved about the Victory II was the absence of line-ups, the freedom and flexibility to dine when, where and with whom I wanted to, the family feeling among the passengers and with the staff, and the ease with which I could access all of the ship’s services from just one central staircase.

The unique St. Lawrence and Great Lakes itinerary took us to interesting cities characteristic of the regions on our route with ample time to explore both as part of the included excursions and independently. The food was outstanding with a nice variety of menu items and our room was cozy, clean and comfortable. I recognize that this was the inaugural sailing and, while yes, there were some hiccups that were irritants for some passengers — minor things like key cards not working and pictures to be hung — I expect these minor issues will be quickly corrected for future sailings. After all, this was the first opportunity to really unwrap this ship and unveil her beauty and services on the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes, an area not often seen from a small cruise ship.

New Victory II Great Lakes Adventure

Captain Waving as we approach the Port of Detroit. * Photo: Judi Cohen

 

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new small ships of 2018

By Anne Kalosh.

There’s a building boom in ocean cruising and, lucky for small-ship lovers, plenty of new choices are coming their way. The new small ships of 2018 range from a square-rigged tall ship to coastal vessels to ice-strengthened expedition ships stocked with cool exploration tools.

Ponant

French luxury operator Ponant is introducing two expedition ships of a new style that’s slightly smaller than those of their existing fleet to give added flexibility in deployment. The 10,000-gross-ton LE LAPEROUSE and LE CHAMPLAIN will carry 184 passengers each.

new small ships of 2018

A rendering of Ponant’s Le Champlain. * Credit: Ponant

Perhaps their most exciting feature is an underwater viewing lounge, Blue Eye. French architect/oceanographer Jacques Rougerie designed this spot so passengers can become modern-day explorers, following in the wake of Jules Verne and Jacques Cousteau. They’ll be able to hear underwater sounds, too, thanks to hydrophones installed beneath the keel.

For their inaugural seasons, LE LAPEROUSE and LE CHAMPLAIN will sail from North America to the Mediterranean and Northern Europe via Asia, Australia and the Arctic in the northern summer. One voyage will visit Iceland, following in the footsteps of the Vikings.

Scenic

Australian tour operator Scenic, which has made a big splash in the river-cruise sector in recent years by building up its Scenic and Emerald Waterways fleets, breaks into ocean cruising with what the company touts as a “discovery yacht.” At 16,500 gross tons but carrying just 228 passengers, SCENIC ECLIPSE will be extraordinarily spacious and the most luxurious of 2018’s new small ships.

new small ships of 2018

Scenic Eclipse will have two helicopters and a submarine for exploring. * Credit: Scenic

Travelers will have nine dining options (Italian, French, Asian fusion, steak, a cooking emporium and more) plus 24-hour room service. Among the lounges is a Champagne bar. A nearly 5,000-square-foot spa, indoor and outdoor Jacuzzis, and plunge pools are other features.

new small ships of 2018

One of nine restaurants aboard Scenic Eclipse. * Credit: Scenic

But with an ice-class hull, two helicopters and a submarine, SCENIC ECLIPSE is definitely an expedition ship and will sail widely throughout the Americas, Antarctica, Europe, the Mediterranean, the Arctic and Norwegian Fjords.

Mystic Cruises

Another new operator with river cruise experience who’s branching into the ocean sector is Portuguese entrepreneur Mário Ferreira. His Mystic Cruises is building WORLD EXPLORER, a 9,300-gross-ton ship that will carry 200 passengers in mostly all-balcony-suite accommodations.

new small ships of 2018

Mystic’s World Explorer will operate for Quark Expeditions and Germany’s Nicko Cruises. * Credit: Mystic Cruises

An expedition ship with an ice-class hull, WORLD EXPLORER will sail on charter to Quark Expeditions for the 2018/19 and 2019/20 Antarctica seasons and for Germany’s Nicko Cruises, a company owned by Ferreira, the rest of the year.

The vessel has an energy-efficient Rolls-Royce hybrid propulsion system. A bow observation deck, mudroom and lockers for passenger gear are among the expedition features. Further facilities include a theater/lecture hall, main lounge, observation bar, restaurant, library/chart room, small casino, fitness room, outdoor pool and jogging track.

Star Clippers

Surprisingly, it’s the sailing ship that has the greatest passenger capacity of the year’s crop of small new builds: Star Clippers‘ FLYING CLIPPER, a replica of 1911’s FRANCE II, the largest square-rigged tall ship ever built, can carry 300 travelers. (Though at 8,770 gross tons, it’s not the largest in volume.)

new small ships of 2018

Flying Clipper will be equipped with 35 sails. * Credit: Star Clippers

FLYING CLIPPER will unfurl 35 sails with a whopping total area of 6,350 square meters/68,351 square feet. Among its facilities are a water sports platform in the stern and three pools, including one that funnels sunlight through the atrium into the elegantly appointed double-deck dining room.

FLYING CLIPPER will also have Star Clippers hallmarks including a cozy library, bowsprit net and the alfresco Tropical Bar, where evening entertainment takes place. The ship will sail the Mediterranean in summer and the Caribbean in winter.

Australis

Chilean expedition operator Australis, a specialist in adventure cruises around the southern tip of South America, has just introduced its new ship, the 210-passenger VENTUS AUSTRALIS (Latin for “southern wind”). It features all ocean-view rooms, three lounges and a restaurant.

new small ships of 2018

Ventus Australis sails the tip of South America. * Photo: Australis

VENTUS AUSTRALIS plies the Chilean Fjords, Patagonia and Tierra Del Fuego, but what’s really extraordinary is the opportunity for passengers to step ashore at Cape Horn. The ship also offers a new expedition to Condor Glacier.

American Cruise Lines

Connecticut-based American Cruise Lines, which fields U.S.-flag river and coastal vessels, is introducing AMERICAN CONSTITUTION in the spring. The 175-passenger coastal ship is the sister of 2017’s AMERICAN CONSTELLATION. Roomy balcony accommodations and modern appointments characterize these vessels, and their sun decks offer a fun diversion: a putting green.

new small ships for 2018

American Constitution will sail the U.S. East Coast. * Photo: American Cruise Lines

AMERICAN CONSTITUTION will debut with an “American Revolution Cruise” that charts historically significant places around Chesapeake Bay, including Washington, D.C., and Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate. Other itineraries are “Maine Coast and Harbors,” round-trip from Portland, “New England Islands,” round-trip from Providence, Rhode Island, “Grand New England Cruise” from Boston, and Hudson River sailings from New York City.

Lindblad Expeditions

Completing 2018’s new small ships roster is Lindblad Expeditions’ NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC VENTURE, the sister of 2017’s NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC QUEST. Like the ships of American Cruise Lines, these coastal vessels are U.S.-built, fly the U.S. flag and are staffed by U.S. crew.

new small ships for 2018

National Geographic Venture will be the sister of 2017’s National Geographic Quest, pictured here. * Photo: Ian Strachan for Lindblad Expeditions

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC VENTURE sports special design features, from an innovative bow to customized Mark V Zodiacs, that maximize wildlife-viewing and expedition adventures. Other exploration tools include 24 sea kayaks, paddle boards and snorkeling equipment. In addition, the ship will be equipped with a remotely operated vehicle, video microscope, hydrophone and underwater cameras.

The 100-passenger ship has 22 balcony cabins and six sets of connecting cabins for families and groups. It will enter service on varied Alaska, San Juan Islands and British Columbia voyages.

What a selection of new choices for small-ship enthusiasts! And—great news—even more new small vessels are coming in 2019. Stay tuned !

 

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five types of small ship cruises

To help you browse, search, dream and plan your next small-ship cruise, QuirkyCruise covers five different types of small ship cruises that ply the waterways of the world carrying fewer than 300 passengers — coastal, expedition, oceangoing, river and sailing ships.

 

To see our full list of small ship cruise lines, click here.

Coastal Ships

Coastal small ship cruises

Safari Voyage. * Photo: Un-Cruise Adventures

Perhaps the hardest category to pin down, coastal ships cruise in open waters, but usually stay close to land so they may call at numerous ports and islands, and enter bays, canals, lakes, and rivers. Examples are the Norwegian coastal service linking many towns and cities facing the North Sea, and US-flag coastal ships plying between the New England Islands, the Intracoastal Waterway and Alaska’s Inside Passage. The Croatian coast (Mediterranean) and the islands of Japan make excellent coastal cruising itineraries.

 

 

 

Expedition Ships

Expedition small ship cruises

The Stella Australis. * Photo: Australis

These have a distinctive learning element and bring to mind a sense of adventure whether it’s visiting remote peoples in the South Pacific or plying the Upper Amazon; looking for rare birds and exotic animals along Australia’s Kimberley Coast or in Central America; cruising amongst amazing, and often colorful, ice formations in Antarctica; and encountering dramatic landscapes in Patagonia. Trained experts give talks aboard and lead active outings ashore

 

 

 

 

Oceangoing Ships

Star Pride. * Photo: Windstar Cruises

Designed for the open seas, travel between continents or from the mainland to islands well out to sea, oceangoing ships also offer port-rich cruises such as between the Western and Eastern Mediterranean or from Great Britain to Baltic Sea ports. Some oceangoing ships are also used for expedition itineraries

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

River Vessels

River going small ship cruises

The River Empress * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Easy to identify, they offer a hugely popular means to get into the interior of a country or continent. As a matter of course, river boats may also ply canals and cross bays and lakes to cover many hundreds of island water miles. Europe, Asia, and North America offer the most diverse opportunities for river cruising, while South America brings to mind the Amazon and its numerous tributaries, and Africa the Nile but not much else of any great popularity.

 

 

 

 

Sailing Ships

Sailing small ship cruises

Sagitta * Photo: Island Windjammers

This group comes under a broad umbrella, from the sails providing the main means of propulsion, to using wind power when the conditions are ideal, or as window dressing with the principal push coming from diesel engines. Sailing ships of all three variations have a majesty and beauty all their own. Most are found amongst islands in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and in the South Pacific and Indonesia, with repositioning transoceanic crossings such as between Europe and the Caribbean drawing the most ardent sailors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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QuirkyCruise reader review

Reviewer: Chrissy from New York.

Cruise Line: Windstar Cruises.

Ship: Star Pride.

Destination: Vietnam.

# of Nights: 10.

Departure Date & Ports: January 2015, from Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, visiting Halong Bay, Hanoi and Da Nang.

OVERALL RATING: 5 out of 5 stars.

Have you been on a small ship cruise before? I’ve been on 5 small ship cruises.

Review: Best Little Ship on the High Seas

My initial impression that bigger is better was quickly dispelled almost the moment I came aboard. The difference felt like going from a shopping mall to a yacht. The VIP reception, champagne welcome, dancers, back rubs and authentic music, set the stage for what would be the most spectacular small ship experience to date. The ports of call made me chuckle at my former self thinking the Caribbean had everything I could ever want in a cruise destination. The mesmerizing spectacular cultural and natural beauty of Southeast Asia was jaw-dropping and inspiring. As a veteran traveler, this was nothing new, but the small ship difference was that coming back to the ship allowed me to appreciate all the beauty of Asia without the logistical hurdles and cultural frustrations of land-based travel. It also provided a serenity and calm experience entirely lacking on large ships.

See more QuirkyCruise Reader Reviews here, honest feedback from real passengers!!

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By Ted Scull.

Alaska: Routes of the Alaska Marine Highway – Southeast (Inside Passage & Panhandle), Southcentral (based at Whittier) & Southwest (Kodiak Id. to Aleutian chain).

Alaska: the Last Frontier, Seward’s Folly and the 49th state was once upon a time such an alluring prospect to conquer for anyone who loved geography and off-the-charts travel. Airplanes do their best to eliminate geography and deathly dull drives on Interstate Highways are a close second. So when there are more interesting ways to get some place far far away, I like to nab the opportunities.

My best friend in high school loved geography too so we put our minds together to determine where best to go with our graduation money and a car at our disposal. We started with the furthest possible place to drive to from Philadelphia and came up with Alaska.

Ted putting his toe into water from the melting Portage Glacier. * Photo: T. Wistar Brown

With the car packed with food and camping gear, including jungle hammocks, courtesy of my friend’s father who had been in the New Guinea jungle during WWII. We headed north to Canada, across the country to Alberta, then arrived at Mile Zero of the Alaska Highway at Dawson Creek. While hundreds of miles thus far were over gravel roads, leading to one smashed windscreen, only the first 49 miles of the famed 1,523-mile route ahead were paved. The highway was hurriedly constructed during the Second World War to provide road access to Alaska for military equipment to protect the territory from a possible Japanese invasion. It officially begins in northern British Columbia near the border with the adjoining province of Alberta, almost 800 miles from the U.S. Montana border. The highway passes through the Yukon Territory and its capital, Whitehorse, the largest town (just over 23,000 people) en route and crosses into Alaska, where at a town called Tok Junction, motorists have the option to drive northwest to Fairbanks or southwest to Anchorage. Today, the road is entirely paved and its condition widely varies.

Alaska Highway Mile Zero, Dawson Creek, British Columbia. * Photo: Ted Scull

We traveled as far north as Fairbanks and as far west as Mt. McKinley (now Denali). To reach the Alaska Panhandle, we had one choice only as the Alaska Marine Highway ferry fleet did not yet exist. A small ferry (for people and cars) called the Chilkat operated from Haines near the top of the Inside Passage to Juneau, the only state capital without road access to the outside world — still the case to this day.

And we returned triumphant to the Lower 48 much the same way, arriving home after driving 15,219.5 miles!

1956 Ford station wagon takes to the high road. * Photo: Ted Scull

The second trip to Alaska 10 years later involved a combination of trains across Canada, a ferry to Vancouver Island, a train north to an overnight ferry connection to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and then the Alaska Marine Highway to Skagway. Traveling on the cheap without advance reservations, I spent the nights sleeping on a deck chair in the ferry’s heated solarium, and the days standing at the railing and watching the passing scene of majestic mountains, thick forests, and deep fjords. On the ferry, I met a couple of people to join for continuing travel.

Alaska Marine Highway, camping in the heated solarium. * Photo: Ted Scull

At Skagway, we took the Yukon and White Pass train (not a cruise ship excursion then) all the way to Whitehorse in the Yukon for a stopover, then returned south by bus along the Alaska Highway and finally to Prince George, before hopping trains to Vancouver, Seattle and back across the US of A.

I was so intrigued by the snappy-looking blue and white Alaska Marine Highway ships that I vowed to take the full route the next time. By now I was a travel writer and always looking for something different to interest an editor. I bet no one had written about taking the ferry in winter, and, why would they?

After spending Christmas with my brother and his family, I boarded a train for Seattle and booked a week’s round-trip voyage up the Inside Passage to all the usual Panhandle ports with a turnaround at Skagway. This time I had a cabin and all to myself. The sheer luxury of it all!

I am pretty sure I was the only tourist aboard the Matanuska (less than 300 cabin passengers) as everyone I met were either Alaskans returning home after the holidays in the Lower 48, truck drivers making deliveries or young folks looking for a job up the Inside Passage. Once we reached Ketchikan, Alaskans over 65 rode for free, so a number piled on and they were great resources for stories about Alaska as a territory back in the old days.

Matanuska at Ketchikan in winter. * Photo: Ted Scull

Colorful dawns came about 10am and dusk followed some five hours later. There was snow but not a lot of it at water level, that is, until an announcement came for the motorists leaving at Haines, the highway that I had used two decades before, was closed with drifting snow. Until it reopened there was no way to drive to Anchorage and Fairbanks. The passengers disembarked in their vehicles and stayed in motels or their camper vans until the highway and the border with Canada reopened.

Wintery dawn at 9:30am approaching Juneau. * Photo: Ted Scull

At the turnaround port of Skagway, the snow-covered main street was almost empty and the shops, hotels and attractions all closed. What a contrast to a summer day during the height of the cruise season. On the trip south, the boat was lightly loaded, and it snowed hard enough that when returning to Seattle the streets were impassable, and I had to hoof it, happily not that far, to the railway station.

That adventure made the Sunday travel sections of 13 newspapers. The good ‘ole days.

The fourth Alaskan trip was aboard a large Princess cruise ship as by now the cruise industry was well developed. I liked the ship and the passing scenery, but found the ports of call so crowded with roaming tourists, and on this big ship, we were so high above the water that everything nearby still seemed far away. I hated the land extension as the hotels were isolated with no suitable safe walks and land travel involved a bus amidst lots of others doing the same thing, converging on the same sights and lunch stops.

Finally, on the fifth venture, I came to my senses and took the opportunity to try a small ship! And a quirky one at that, the Spirit of ’98, a ship that resembled a handsome old-fashioned steamer operating for Cruise West, a firm that had been in the Alaska tour business well before the modern tourist onslaught. I asked my brother to join me for a one-week voyage from Seattle north to the Alaskan Panhandle ending in Juneau.

Spirit of ’98 at Skagway. * Photo: Ted Scull

Being with less than 100 others, rather than 20 times that, not only were we not sharing the outer decks with a milling mass of humanity, but one felt like a tiny speck amongst the majestic scenery. We sailed close enough to a waterfall to have those standing at the bow get wet and near enough to lounging sea lions to not even need a telephoto lens. On the night of a full moon, the little ship stopped among a raft of ducks and with the engines off, it was utterly silent except for sounds of nature. Magic!

Adrift on a full moon night in Icy Strait, Alaska. * Photo: Ted Scull

My brother, who had gone on a canoeing trip in these waters a few years earlier, remarked that he saw more wildlife on this small ship trip than he had roughing it camping and paddling. The captain and naturalist staff knew where to go.

Two brothers, Glacier Bay, Alasaka. * Photo: fellow passenger

Then a decade later we went again on the same ship, now the S.S. Legacy of Un-Cruise Adventures, and had much the same wonderful experience, feeling a part of the scene, especially when we sat off the Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay watching the ice break off with nary another ship in sight. Then moving to Johns Hopkins Inlet, we nosed up to a glacier of the same name, and this one was still growing! Again, there was no one else about; we were alone in this wonderful world of nature, bergy bits, sea lions, and clear blue skies.

S.S. Legacy, Un-Cruise Adventures at Glacier Bay Lodge. * Photo: Ted Scull

In the lounge, the National Parks Service guide spoke to us as one small group, and at the bow, she did the same with the passengers gathered around or listening from one and two levels up.

Let off at the Sitka National Historical Park we walked amongst the tall totems set in a peaceful forest and strolled along the fishing piers of Petersburg where fisher folk shared their life’s work going after the catch, in one of the best places to make a living from the sea.

Would I go a seventh time? Yes, perhaps on a small ship to Southcentral Alaska, the Kenai Peninsula and maybe the Aleutian Islands. Small cruise ships and the Alaska Marine Highway (newly added to our ship lines) head that way too.

For information about the small ship cruise lines specializing in Alaska, go to American Cruise Lines, Lindblad Expeditions, Alaska Dream Cruises, UnCruise Adventures and the Alaska Marine Highway.

White Pass & Yukon Route, historic railway based in Skagway, Alaska. * Photo: Ted Scull

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small ship cruises with Seadream

SeaDream Yacht Club

by Heidi Sarna.

While I am partial to all kinds of small ship cruises, one of my favorites is SeaDream Yacht Club and its twin 112-passenger SeaDream I and SeaDream II. The duo spend most of their time in the warm climes of the Caribbean and Mediterranean, with occasional seasons elsewhere. I’ve cruised with them twice, once round-trip from San Juan to St. Barts and St. John some years ago, and another time more recently, in Southeast Asia from Singapore to Bali.

Here’s why I love this line and why you might too.

small ship cruises with SeaDream

Visiting Bonifacio, southern Corsica, Italy. The SeaDream twins can dock where the biggies can’t. * Photo: SeaDream

1. Casual but still elegant. It’s nice to be around people who care about how they look, but not that much. SeaDream’s clientele make the effort to get out of their flip flops and safari pants (you know, the ones with zippers that can be transformed into shorts) and dress up a bit for dinner without going overboard. Ladies wear flowy dresses or pants, and men, smart trousers or jeans with nice shirts and maybe a brightly colored sports jacket, though they’re not required. It certainly isn’t impossible to pack everything you’ll need in a carry-on!

2. Champagne & caviar beach party. One of the highlights of a SeaDream cruise is the line’s signature beach party held along a remote stretch of sand and surf on every voyage. Passengers in their bathing suits easily morph into their younger carefree selves to enjoy champagne in plastic flutes from smiling waiters wading through the water with trays. Giggling merry makers hover around crew serving dollops of caviar from a silver bowl atop a floating surfboard. It’s a silly and wonderfully indulgent romp in the surf.

small ship cruises with SeaDream

The highlight of the week, champagne and caviar in the surf! * Photo: SeaDream

3. Water sports. The ships’ mini stern marina gives easy access to kayaking, sailing, paddle boarding, banana boating and swimming when at anchor in some ports. There is also a pair of wave runners to use. You’re often able to hop in the water right from the marina, or if not, the crew will set up the water toys on a nearby beach. For landlubbers, a fleet of mountain bikes is carried on board for use in some ports.

Oceangoing

4. Open bar. No need to sign chits all day long, SeaDream is all inclusive. Sip a Prosecco or sauv blanc, or “buy” a round for new friends whenever the mood strikes. It fosters a carefree environment and makes you feel like you’re on a rich uncle’s yacht and not a commercial cruise.

Fares are all-inclusive. Drink up! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

5. Polished staff. The gracious, hardworking crew of 95 strikes the perfect balance between being friendly, chatty and at your beck and call, while not being cloying or obsequious. On my SeaDream cruises, the handsome ex-model waiters were as smooth and skilled as you would encounter in five-star hotels in Europe.

6. The other passengers. Worldly and well-travelled, yet unpretentious, SeaDream cruisers tend to be people who appreciate adventure and off-the-grid experiences as well as good food, wine and service. Most are couples in their 40s to 70s, so there’s a nice wide range of people to meet and mingle with.

7. Classic decor with lots of wood. I don’t know about you, but I’m over the generic St. Regis brand of marble and brocade luxury and prefer the SeaDream yachts’ nautical flair; they look like ships with the generous use of real wood and brass fittings, from the decks to the cabins, furniture, doors and bar tops.

small ship cruises with SeaDream

The ships’ al fresco watering hole. * Photo: SeaDream

8. Lunch buffets. The food is good at every meal, but I particularly enjoyed the lunch buffets up on deck enjoying the views and the fresh sea air. On my SeaDream cruise in Asia, I gravitated toward the heaps of chilled shrimp, and various healthy salads and fruit, plus the option to try one of the featured dishes from the ala carte menu, like a yummy Pad Thai noodles or steamed dim sum dumplings.

small ship cruises with SeaDream

Delicious food, especially the lunches. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

9. Open decks. To me, the point of a cruise is to be out on deck enjoying the wind in your hair and the water all around you. The ships’ comfy futon-style sun bed loungers up top are a great place to catch some rays and chill out (though depending how the wind is blowing, the ash from the nearby funnel may rain on your parade). Nearby, the open-air Top of the Yacht Bar is an appealing spot for drinks all day and into the evening; after dinner some folks head up there to dance to the bartenders’ favorite playlist and enjoy nightcaps under the stars.

small ship cruises with SeaDream

Feels like your rich uncle’s private yacht. * Photo: Chrissy Colon

10. Pool & hot tub. Many small ships don’t have the space, but the SeaDream duo each have a hot tub and a small deep pool on the open stern deck. They’re excellent places to soak, especially in the late afternoon and early evening hours as the sun begins to set and a glass of bubbly seams most apropos.

small ship cruises with Seadream

Relaxing by the pool with stunning views. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

11. Spa & gym. Though the ships carry just 112 passengers, they still make room for an impressive little spa with five treatment rooms and an ocean-view gym with treadmills, weights and more.

12. The cabins. The identical 195-square-foot cabins are smart and comfortable, and not over done with veneers and fussy fabrics. The rooms are bright with a large window, blond wood panelling, sitting area and long wooden credenza where the electronics and mini-bar reside. The bedding is plush and the bathrooms with showers are small, but efficiently designed, as you’d expect from a yacht.

small ship cruises with SeaDream

Cabins = simple beauty. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The SeaDream ships may be more than 30 years old, but they’re well maintained and appealing all the more for their classic lines and solid build. They’re not super over-the-top-luxurious and neither are they cerebral (expert lectures are rarely offered), SeaDream excels at offering a high-end island-hopping party on a yacht. Sunbathing, watersports and drinks on deck are most people’s main focus when they’re not off exploring some sexy port the likes of Jost Van Dyke and Saint John in the Caribbean, or Monte Carlo and Saint-Tropez in the Med.

➢➢ Read about SeaDream’s brand new build, the SeaDream Innovation to debut in Sept 2021.

 

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How to Pick a Small Ship Cruise

KID-FRIENDLY (age 12+) small ship cruises

Thanks to sporty activities like kayaking, hiking and snorkeling, these lines are great for families during summers and holidays. 

Alaskan Dream CruisesAmaWaterways (Disney charter); AustralisBlue Lagoon Cruises; Captain Cook Cruises; Celebrity Expeditions; Coral Expeditions; EcoventuraG Adventures; Island WindjammersLe Boat Lindblad Expeditions; Ponant; SeaDream Yacht Club; SeaTrek Adventure Cruises; Silolona Sojourns; Star Clippers; Tauck; Un-Cruise Adventures; Uniworld Boutique River Cruise CollectionVariety Cruises

WILDLIFE-focused small ship cruises

These lines offer the most opportunities to spot wildlife relatively close up, whether in the sea, up in the sky or on the shoreline.

Abercrombie & Kent; Alaskan Dream Cruises; Aqua Expeditions; AustralisBlue Lagoon Cruises; Captain Cook CruisesCelebrity CruisesEcoventuraG Adventures; GreenTracksHapag-Lloyd Expeditions Cruises; Lindblad Expeditions; Oceanwide Expeditions; Poseidon Expeditions; Quark Expeditions; Silolona SojournsUn-Cruise Adventures

HISTORIC small ships (50 years +)

These ships are all more than 50 years old, though some have been rebuilt to varying degrees.

Hurtigruten (Lofoten 1965); Gota Canal Steamship Company (Juno 1874, Wilhelm Tham 1912, Diana 1931); GreenTracks (Rio Amazonas 1899); Hebridean Island Cruises (Hebridean Princess 1964); Oceanwide Expeditions (Rembrandt Van Rijn early 1900s and Noorderlicht 1910); Sea Cloud Cruises (Sea Cloud 1931)

TRADITIONALLY-DESIGNED small ships

These lines’ ships are based on traditional ship-building styles, but are not actually old in age.

American Queen Steamboat Company (American Queen  19th century steamboat design); Island Windjammers (Diamant  brigantine schooner); Pandaw River Cruises (entire fleet  British colonial river steamer style); Sea Cloud Cruises (Sea Cloud II  three-masted barque); SeaTrek Adventure Cruises (Katharina & Ombak Putih  Indonesian schooners); Silolona Sojourns (Silolona & Sidatu Bua  traditional Indonesia two-masted cargo schooners); Star Clipper (Star Flyer & Star Clipper four-masted barkentine-rigged clipper ship, Royal Clipper  full-rigged five-masted clipper ship); Un-Cruise Adventures (S.S. Legacy  American coastal night boat); Variety Cruises (Galileo only)

Small ship cruises to ALASKA

These lines spend summers in the Inside Passage and Gulf of Alaska.

Alaskan Dream Cruises; Lindblad Expeditions; PonantSilversea Expeditions; Un-Cruise Adventures 

Small ship cruises in the GALAPAGOS ISLANDS

These lines offer year-round (or nearly) cruises in the Galapagos (with reviews of more Galapagos-bound QuirkyCruise lines coming soon).

Celebrity CruisesEcoventuraG AdventuresGreenTracksLindblad Expeditions; Silversea Expeditions; Tauck; Un-Cruise Adventures; Zegrahm Expeditions

Small ship cruises in the CARIBBEAN

These lines all spend part of the year cruising the islands of the Caribbean; mostly the southern and eastern regions.

G Adventures; Island Windjammers; Lindblad Expeditions; Pearl Seas Cruises; Ponant; Sea Cloud Cruises; SeaDream Yacht Club; Silversea Cruises; Star Clippers; Swan Hellenic; Un-Cruise Adventures; Variety Cruises; Windstar Cruises; Zegrahm Expeditions

Small ship cruises going to CUBA

These lines offer cruises focused on Cuba, the hottest cruise destination on the high seas.

Abercrombie & Kent, G AdventuresLindblad Expeditions; Pearl Seas Cruises; Ponant; Sea Cloud CruisesStar Clippers; Swan Hellenic

Small ship cruises in ASIA

These lines have ships in Asia all or part of each year on river and oceangoing cruises.

AmaWaterwaysAqua ExpeditionsG AdventuresHapag-Lloyd Expeditions CruisesLindblad ExpeditionsPandaw River CruisesPonantSeaTrek Adventure Cruises; Scenic CruisesSilolona SojournsSilversea ExpeditionsStar Clippers; Tauck; Vantage Deluxe World CruisesZegrahm Expeditions

SHORT small ship cruises ITINERARIES of less than a week

Below are lines that offer 1- to 5-night itineraries, ideal to tag onto a regional land trip.

Aqua Expeditions (3-4 nights); Australis (3-7 nights);  Captain Cook Cruises (3-4 nights); Gota Canal Steamship Company (1-5 nights); GreenTracks (3-4 nights); Island Windjammers (6 nights); Magna Carta Steamship Company (5 & 7 nights); Majestic Line (3-6 nights); Marine Link Tours (5 nights); Ontario Waterway Cruises (5 nights); Pandaw River Cruises (1-4 nights); SeaDream Yacht Club (4-6 nights); St. Lawrence Cruise Lines (4 nights)

ACTIVE small ship cruises

These lines offer opportunities for water sports like kayaking, canoeing, water skiing, sailing, snorkeling and diving; on land, cycling and hiking.

Alaskan Dream CruisesAqua ExpeditionsBlue Lagoon Cruises; Captain Cook Cruises; Celebrity Expeditions; Compagnie Polynesienne de Transport Maritrime (C.P.T.M.), Coral ExpeditionsEcoventuraEmerald WaterwaysG Adventures; GreenTracksIsland Windjammers; Lindblad Expeditions; Oceanwide ExpeditionsPandaw River CruisesPonant; Poseidon Expeditions; Quark ExpeditionsSeaDream Yacht Club; SeaTrek Adventure CruisesSilolona Sojourns; Star Clippers; Un-Cruise Adventures; Variety CruisesZegrahm Expeditions

Cruising with NORTH AMERICAN PASSENGERS

These lines see an almost entirely North American passenger contingent.

Alaska Dream Cruises; American Cruise Lines; American Queen Steamboat Company; Blount Small Ship Cruises; Grand Circle Cruise Line; Island Windjammers; Marine Link Tours (mostly Canadians); Ontario Waterway Cruises (mostly Canadians); Pearl Seas Cruises; St. Lawrence Cruise Lines; Tauck; Un-Cruise Adventures

Small ship lines cruising UNUSUAL WATERWAYS

By design, most small-ship cruises focus on off-beat routes, but these lines particularly so.

American Cruise Lines (Eastern Seaboard Intracoastal Waterway); Australis (Tierra del Fuego); Blount Small Ship Adventures (New York State rivers and canals, Eastern Seaboard Intracoastal Waterway); Gota Canal Steamship Company (Cross-Sweden canals); Hapag-Lloyd Expeditions Cruises (Philippines and eastern Indonesia); Le Boat (canals, lochs, lakes and tributaries of 8 European countries); Magna Carta Steamship Company (canals of Scotland); Majestic Line (Argyll, Western Scotland, Hebridean isles); Marine Link Tours (British Columbia fjords, inlets); Ontario Waterway Cruises (Ontario’s canals, rivers, lakes); Pandaw River Cruises (Upper Irrawaddy, Chindwin, Upper Mekong); SeaTrek Adventure Cruises (eastern islands of Indonesia); Silolona Sojourns (eastern islands of Indonesia); St. Lawrence Cruise Lines (Ottawa River)

Small ship cruises with multiple CULTURE-FOCUSED LECTURERS

While most small-ship cruises are led by an expert guide/lecturer, these lines carry multiple experts, often with audio-visual presentations about the destinations and related topics.

Lindblad Expeditions (Europe with NG Orion); Silversea ExpeditionsSwan Hellenic

Best small ship cruises to access by RAIL CONNECTIONS  

The following ports are served by multiple daily passenger intercity rail services  Amtrak for the USA and Via Rail for Canada. If a port is served by only one train a day, it is not included. A short taxi ride will be all that is required between the railroad station and the port.

USA Ports
Boston, MA American Cruise Lines, Blount Small Ship Cruises; Portland, Me — American Cruise Lines, Pearl Seas Cruises; New York, NY American Cruise Lines, Blount SSA, Pearl Seas Cruises; Baltimore, MD American Cruise Lines; Charleston, SC — American Cruise Lines, Blount Small Ship Cruises; Jacksonville, FL American Cruise Lines, Blount Small Ship Cruises; Chicago, IL Blount Small Ship Cruises, Pearl Seas Cruises; St. Louis, MO American Cruise Lines, American SB Co.; Portland, OR American Cruise Lines, American SB Co, Lindblad Expeditions, Un-Cruise Adventures; Vancouver, WA American Steamboat Co; Seattle, WA American Cruise Lines, Un-Cruise Adventures.

Canada Ports
Kingston, ON Ontario Waterway Cruises, St. Lawrence Cruise Lines; Ottawa, ON Ontario Waterway Cruises, St. Lawrence Cruise Lines; Quebec, QE Pearl Seas Cruises, St. Lawrence Cruise Lines; Toronto, ON Pearl Seas Cruises.

Absolutely STUNNING SCENERY to ogle from the decks of small ship cruises

All small-ship cruises go to some really attractive places, but these are the prettiest of them all.

Alaska Glacier Bay National Park; New York Hudson River in the fall; Argentina Patagonia, Torres del Paine National Park; Antarctica — on a blue sky day; Austria Wachau Valley of the Danube River; France Burgundy along the Soane; Germany Moselle River in fall; Vietnam Halong Bay; Pacific Ocean French Polynesia and Fiji Out Islands; Norwegian Fjords Geirangerfjord; Greek Isles — Santorini; Alaska Misty Fjords; Thailand Phi Phi Islands; Malta Valletta harbor; Caribbean St. John; Caribbean St. Lucia; West Papua, Indonesia Raja Ampat Islands; Russian Far East Kamchatka & Kuril Islands

— TWS & HMS

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By Randy Mink.

To anyone smitten with wanderlust and dogged by a desire to travel to the ends of the earth, the maze of fjord-indented islands at the tip of South America beckons with undeniable allure. As one of the relatively untouched areas left on the planet, the remote, windswept archipelago of Tierra del Fuego is a bucket-list destination that calls out to starry-eyed globetrotters, enticing them to the “farthest corner of the world.”

Close up views. * Photo: Australis

Close up views. * Photo: Australis

The scenery — rocky islands and islets, mountain-backed inlets, isolated channels and bays, and huge glaciers slowly making their way to the sea — seems to belong in Alaska or Scandinavia, not South America. Wild and majestic in some ways, it’s bleak and forboding in others.

The vast emptiness and chilly weather appeal to nature fans, like those who sign up for three-, four-, and seven-night cruises on the 210-passenger Stella Australis, an expedition ship launched in 2010 by the Chilean cruise line Australis. Sailing between Punta Arenas, Chile, and Ushuaia, Argentina at a speed of no more than 14 miles per hour, the ship plies the Strait of Magellan, Beagle Channel, and other waterways in Tierra del Fuego, going as far south as Cape Horn, the point where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet.

Park near glaciers, WOW! * Photo: Australis

Park near glaciers, WOW! * Photo: Australis

The very name Patagonia, as the largely undeveloped region of southernmost Chile and Argentina is called, suggests adventure travel. Tales of explorers Ferdinand Magellan, Sir Francis Drake, Charles Darwin and Ernest Shackleton pop up during shipboard and on-shore commentary by Stella Australis lecturers and guides.

While cruise travelers venture to the foot of the continent to satisfy a general curiosity, most also have two specific goals in mind — to see penguins and to reach Cape Horn. Those were certainly my priorities.

The Stella Australis cruise season runs from September to April, which is spring to fall in the Southern Hemisphere. When I sailed in early December, most days were in the 40s and 50s, but brisk winds often made it feel colder, and occasional rain posed another challenge. Because it stayed light until after 10 p.m., we really got our money’s worth, scenery-wise.

I chose a four-night itinerary that started in Punta Arenas and ended in Ushuaia. (The seven-night roundtrip was tempting, but repeats two stops.) Just getting to Punta Arenas was an epic undertaking, as I spent 15 hours in the air on three flights from Chicago. An inconvenient connection necessitated an overnight stay in Santiago, the capital of Chile, but I had such a good time there that what I initially considered to be an annoyance turned out to be nice bonus.

Before boarding the ship, I had five or six hours to poke around Punta Arenas, a city of 133,000 on the Strait of Magellan, a passage that separates the mainland from Tierra del Fuego. Tourists can fill their time visiting museums, shopping for woven crafts and other souvenirs in the central square, and touring the Sara Braun Municipal Cemetery with its extravagant mausoleums dedicated to prominent early settlers, many of them Croatian. The Naval Museum’s exhibits got me in the mood for the upcoming journey to Cape Horn.

On the first morning we reached Almirantazgo Sound and put in at Ainsworth Bay, where the ship’s six inflatable Zodiac boats were lowered to ferry us to Alberto de Agostini National Park, a wilderness rarely visited by anyone but Stella Australis passengers. (Australis has exclusive landing rights at some of the stops and has built boardwalks to protect fragile habitats.) Our young Chilean guide took us on a leisurely, 1½-hour nature hike along the boulder-strewn beach and through the sub-polar forest, pointing out mosses, lichens, three kinds of beech trees and other vegetation, like the firebush with its reddish-orange flowers. At one point we stopped for a moment of silence — birds and raindrops the only sounds. With temperatures in the mid-50s, there was no need for gloves or hats, though I did take out my poncho during a brief drizzle. Some people wore tall rubber boots, but my beat-up hiking boots worked fine on the damp trails. From the shoreline we could see Marinelli Glacier in the Darwin Range, an extension of the Andes, and in the bay a lone fishing boat trolling for king crab. Upon returning to the Zodiac landing area, refreshments — hot chocolate and whiskey — were waiting for us.

Getting your feet wet is part of the fun. * Photo: Australis

Getting your feet wet is part of the fun. * Photo: Australis

After lunch in the ship’s Patagonia Dining Room, we arrived at Tucker Islets for the much-anticipated penguin watch. Zodiac boats took us right up on the stony beach on Santa Cruz Island, a spring breeding ground for Magellanic penguins, one of 16 species of the flightless bird found only in the southern seas — and the most common kind in Patagonia. We couldn’t leave the boat, but had a field day taking photos of the clumsy, tuxedoed creatures we had only seen in zoos and aquariums. There were hundreds of them preening and waddling about, just 10 feet from us. Our guide explained their nesting, mating and feeding habits as we snapped away. The one-hour Zodiac excursion, a trip with choppy waves and tranquil interludes, also took us close to islets populated with rocky and king cormorants.

Exploring the Tucker Islets. * Photo: Australis

Exploring the Tucker Islets. * Photo: Australis

The next day we navigated the Beagle Channel on the southern shore of the Darwin Range. To get there, though, we had to leave a sheltered channel around 4 a.m. and for about 20 minutes endure the commotion of the Pacific Ocean while trying to sleep. A warning the night before advised us to take cameras and other things off counters and shelves. It was smooth sailing after that and by afternoon we arrived at Pia Glacier, where Zodiacs took us ashore for a glorious two hours to take in the wall of bluish ice backed by jagged mountain peaks. Hiking up smooth rock, we got within several hundred yards of the glacier and feasted on panoramic views of ice chunk floating in the fjord’s milky green waters. There were even periods of blue sky, and at one point some of us shed our coats until the clouds rolled back in.

After this up-close encounter with a real live glacier, we spent some time cruising Glacier Alley, a stretch of the Beagle Channel with Darwin Range glaciers named after countries in Europe — Germany, France, Italy and Holland. As we passed each one, the narration was accompanied by appropriate snacks in the Darwin Lounge — sausages for Germany, wine and cheese for France, pizza for Italy, pofferjtes (mini-pancakes) for Holland. (All announcements on the public address system were done in Spanish and English.)

The Darwin Lounge is the ship's hub. * Photo: Australis

The Darwin Lounge is the ship’s hub. * Photo: Australis

About 60 percent of passengers on a Stella Australis sailing are European, expedition team leader Mauricio Alvarez told me. Another 30 percent are North Americans, the rest from South America. The Chilean guides who speak German accompany the Germans and Austrians on Zodiac excursions, while others can lead French-, Italian- and Portuguese-speaking groups. Though passenger capacity is 210, the five-deck ship rarely sails with more than 190, Alvarez said, and our departure had only 144, representing 16 nationalities.

In the dining room I shared a table with an Irish couple visiting a son working in Santiago and a trio of Austrians doing on-ground Patagonian adventures before and after the cruise. Dinners, usually with a choice of fish and beef or lamb, were not too exciting, but the rolls were excellent. The culinary highlights were the bountiful Italian-, Japanese-, and Chilean-themed lunch buffets. On Chile day I filled up on delectable stews, empanadas, and king crab chowder, saving room for calafate ice cream (made from a berry we saw on one of our nature hikes) and mote con huesillos, a concoction of barley, peach juice and canned dried peaches served in a glass (something I tried at a street stand in Santiago).

Dining with a view. * Photo: Australis

Dining with a view. * Photo: Australis

The ship’s layout is rather uncomplicated, its simple décor in a blue-beige color scheme with nautical motifs. All cabins are outside and have large picture windows for viewing the passing parade of Patagonian splendor. Or share the panoramas with fellow passengers in Darwin Lounge, the main gathering spot, with its five-stool bar and plenty of sofas and chairs positioned for looking out the windows that wrap around it. You can order liquors and Chilean wines from the bartender or help yourself to a mini fridge stocked with soft drinks and beer, including brews from Patagonia. (The cruise fare includes all drinks.)

The aft Sky Lounge features a self-serve station with coffee, juices, pastries, cookies, and finger sandwiches. It’s decorated with black-and-white photogrpahs of sailboats and museum-quality models of the 1820 HMS Beagle and 1912 HMS Endurance, expedition ships associated with Darwin and Shackleton, respectively. The smaller Yamana Lounge (named after the indigenous people who inhabited these islands before the Europeans arrived) has three writing/card tables. All three lounges have a GPS chart tracking the ship’s course and schedule of events in six languages.

Aside from bingo one night and karaoke another, there wasn’t much in the way of organized social activities. But we did have some excellent talks by Alvarez and others on the glaciers, flora and fauna, and human history of Tierra del Fuego. In the Sky and Darwin lounges I enjoyed documentary films like Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure and National Geographic’s Eden At The End Of The World.

The final leg of our expedition would culminate in what we’d all been waiting for — Cape Horn. During our briefing the night before, we were told that big waves or fierce winds sometimes prevent the Zodiacs from making the trip to Horn Island, the last in the chain and southernmost point of the Americas. A scouting party made a test run early the next morning and, thank goodness, gave us the okay for boarding the sturdy inflatables. (Every day I marveled at how these sailors maneuvered the boats and kept us safe from ship to shore and back.)

Our pre-breakfast visit to the island started with a trek up a 161-step wooden staircase snaking to the top of the craggy, green cliff. Then we had a choice of taking the boardwalk to the Cape Horn monument or going in the opposite direction to the lighthouse and chapel. The temperature was 43 degrees, but a brutal wind made it the coldest we’d felt so far. Only our orange lifejackets added any color to the desolate landscapes of brownish grasses and gun metal-gray waters on this overcast, but rainless morning. The monument of black, gray and white steel plates, forming the silhouette of an albatross in flight, commemorates navigators who have lost their lives in these treacherous seas. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the discovery of Cape Horn by Dutch explorers looking for a shipping route to the Pacific. They named it for the Dutch town of Hoorn.

The Cape Horn monument. * Photo: Australis

The Cape Horn monument. * Photo: Australis

After posing at the monument for the obligatory picture, I headed toward the lighthouse, stopping to look at some of the stone monuments (with descriptions in Spanish) that honor individuals like Captain Robert Fitz Roy, who commanded the Beagle on Darwin’s research voyage in Patagonia. At the lighthouse some of us had a chance to chat briefly with the Chilean naval officer who lives in the lonely outpost with his wife and two young children. Except for adventure-seeking navigators and cruise ship passengers, he doesn’t get much company. Rounding Cape Horn was once the only way to sail from the eastern coast of North America to the Pacific, and it was a well-traveled route from 1850 until completion of the Panama Canal in 1914.

The Cape Horn Lighthouse. * Photo: Randy Mink

The Cape Horn Lighthouse. * Photo: Randy Mink

Besides being blessed with the right conditions to set foot on Cape Horn, we also were fortunate enough to be able to sail around the island, something that’s usually not possible. But it involved some serious rocking and rolling on the infamous Drake Passage, a rough patch of water familiar to those who have cruised to Antarctica, 500 miles away. We swayed while walking through the lounges and held onto to our hats on deck.

During my time on Horn Island and while dealing with the Drake Passage, I had recalled the Cape Horn exhibit at the Naval Museum in Punta Arenas. A signboard there summed up the trepidation and exhilaration associated with reaching the tip of the continent: “Rounding the Horn gave a man the craved status of ‘real seaman’ and the unquestionable right to be listened to everywhere with respect and awe.”

Though our tourist experience was not exactly heroic, later that day we found in our cabins a souvenir certificate signed by the captain, a “diploma” for “having reached Cape Horn, the world’s southernmost point, on board the Expedition Cruise Stella Australis.”

Later that day we reached Wulaia Bay for our last shore excursion before a nighttime arrival in Ushuaia. This time we learned about European settlers and their interaction with the Yamana people. After an easy coastal walk with our guide, we visited a museum that Australis built inside an abandoned two-story house dating back to the early 1900s.

Our trip (covering 586 nautical miles) came to a festive conclusion that night in the Darwin Lounge, where we enjoyed a farewell champagne toast and slideshow of passengers’ photos. In the auctioning of the captain’s navigation chart used for sailing to Cape Horn, the winning bidder paid $320, but it has gone for as high as $5,700.

Cruising in Patagonia attracts a particular type of traveler, one who can go for a few days without shopping, city life, television or internet access. As someone always looking for a real escape, this journey to the bottom of the world suited me just fine.

Seeing adorable Magellanic Penguins is a cruise highlight. * Photo: Australis

Seeing adorable Magellanic Penguins is a cruise highlight. * Photo: Australis

Australis recently sold the only other ship in its fleet, the 136-passenger Via Australis, to Lindblad Expeditions, but has plans to build a vessel similar to the Stella Australis. The new sister ship should be completed by the end of 2017 and will do the same route between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia.

For more info, go to QC’s Australis line review or contact Australis at www.australis.com.

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