George Coughlin

Small Ship Captain George Coughlin

Interview by Ted Scull.

George Coughlin has been sailing in navigating roles from mate to pilot to captain for many small ship firms such as Coastwise Cruise Line, Exploration Cruise Lines, Clipper Cruise Line, Cruise West, St. Lawrence Cruise Lines, Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic, Alaskan Dream Cruises, and UnCruise Adventures, plus in the deep past, New England excursion boats and ships of the United States Navy.

George Coughlin

Captain George Coughlin

It’s the small ships that he has captained that are of interest here, including Newport Clipper, Nantucket Clipper, Yorktown Clipper, Spirit of Yorktown, Chichagof Dream, National Geographic Sea Bird and Sea Lion, National Geographic Endeavour, National Geographic Quest, and Pilgrim Belle, Colonial Explorer, Victorian Empress and S.S. Legacy. (Note: The last four are the same ship!)

Yorktown Clipper

Yorktown Clipper at St. Lucia in 1993. * Photo: George Coughlin

The small-ship industry has certainly expanded since visionary Luther Blount built, in his own shipyard, the 40-passenger Mount Hope in 1966 then took it out on a first cruise from Blount’s headquarters in Warren, Rhode Island.

The experiment was a success, and more small vessels were added to the line to allow for expansion of U.S. itineraries up and down the East Coast, into the Erie Canal, along the St. Lawrence River and Seaway and into the five Great Lakes. Additional small-ship lines were formed, and some were successful, others made it big, and a few fell by the wayside.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): As you were mainly associated with cruise lines that had American or Canadian owners, in those early years what do you think were main reasons for some of the lines to prosper and others to fail?

George C: You and I could talk about this for hours, but let me attempt to consolidate my thoughts here. Luther Blount started small and basic. He had his own shipyard in Warren, Rhode Island to build his vessels, which saved him from spending much more on construction costs, if an outside shipyard were to build them. He kept everything low key and expanded his small fleet of overnight passenger vessels at a safe pace.

With American Cruise Lines, Charlie Robertson (recently deceased), was clever and saw what Blount had achieved and eventually decided on building his own ships as well, in Salisbury, Maryland. They both knew that shallow draft vessels were needed in order to negotiate the itineraries they planned.

George Coughlin

American Star, American Cruise Lines, Maine Coast in August 2007. * Photo: Ted Scull

American Cruise Lines decided to build larger vessels than Blount and at a quicker pace. This worked for a while until the 1980’s recession hit and put the initial company out of business. American regrouped and returned back on the scene and has been growing successfully ever since, with one major exception. American decided to build an upscale foreign-flag vessel at a shipyard in Canada. There were delays and disagreements with the shipyard and little has been heard about Pearl Cruises since initial sailings began.

Coastwise Cruise Line was formed as a division of Hy-Line Cruises, Hyannis, Massachusetts, and the Pilgrim Belle was launched at Bender Shipyard in Mobile, Alabama in 1985. She was/is a steamboat replica with very comfortable and upscale accommodations. Unfortunately, after an accident, the vessel was taken out of service for nearly a month for shipyard maintenance during her first year of high-season operations in New England, and the consequences called for selling the vessel.

George Coughlin

Pilgrim Belle with a traditional steamboat profile. * Photo: George Coughlin

Barney Ebsworth developed Clipper Cruise Line in the 1980’s. He had a vision for an upscale country club product. Two 100-passenger sister ships were built at Jeffboat in Jeffersonville, Indiana: the Newport Clipper in 1984 and the Nantucket Clipper in 1985. The ships were well received, and passengers enjoyed the modern comfortable onboard surroundings and amenities.

The 138-passenger Yorktown Clipper was built at Green Cove Springs, Florida and added to the fleet in 1988. This is when Clipper realized that having three vessels on similar itineraries was going to be more of a challenge than anticipated. Key upper management changes were made.

George Coughlin

Clipper Cruise Line fleet in 1988. * Photo: George Coughlin

The Newport Clipper was taken out of service and eventually sold to Spirit Cruise Line and renamed Sea Spirit. The focus on the Yorktown Clipper and Nantucket Clipper, with expanded itineraries for the larger Yorktown Clipper, worked so well, that Clipper decided to experiment with some small foreign-flagged ocean-going ships.

First chartering the World Discoverer, they eventually purchased two ships and renamed them Clipper Odyssey and Clipper Adventurer. The future looked bright, the ships were sailing full, but it didn’t last. I believe it was a combination of being overextended and the economy.

Delta Queen Steamboat Company decided to expand into the coastal cruise market with the Cape May Light and the Cape Cod Light, two 300-foot vessels built in Florida. I was offered the first captain’s position on the Cape May Light and went on her builders’ sea trials. I decided not to follow through with the offer.

George Coughlin

Cape May Light at Vineyard Haven, Martha’s Vineyard. * Photo: George Coughlin

The coastal ships had elegant/spacious interiors, but the planning and overall design of the ships had problems from the start. They were too large for the IntraCoastal Waterway and there were no plans for stabilizers while operating strictly coastal and no design plans for bridge wing control stations.

Delta Queen Steamboat company was also building an ocean-going passenger ship with another on the drawing board at the same time. This to me was a prime example of poor planning and too much happening too fast that led to the company’s demise.

Now might be a good time to mention that all of the American-built ships up to this point were new construction. This opened up a whole new chapter of opportunity for existing companies and newly formed companies, to purchase these now-used vessels from firms no longer in business or just downsizing, for very reasonable prices.

I recall walking down Straight Wharf, Nantucket, with owner Robert Giersdorf, as he and his team from Exploration Cruise Lines came out to survey the Pilgrim Belle for purchase. He was interested in the vessel and with me staying with her as captain.

George Coughlin

Pilgrim Belle will become the Colonial Explorer. * Photo: George Coughlin

I asked about his new venture with Anheuser Busch entertainment division. He stated that Exploration Cruise Lines was the operator and Anheuser Busch had the deep pockets. I learned several months after accepting the position as captain on his now named Colonial Explorer, that Anheuser Busch backed out of their agreement with Exploration, meaning that the deep pockets no longer existed. Soon after, Exploration Cruise Lines was no longer in operation.

Wilderness Cruises, later to become Lindblad Expeditions, would on occasion charter the Alaska Explorer (now National Geographic Sea Bird) and the Great Rivers Explorer (now the National Geographic Sea Lion) from Exploration Cruise Lines and would later purchase both of them when Exploration Cruise Lines went out of business. During my time with Lindblad, I sailed as captain aboard the National Geographic Sea Bird/Sea Lion and more recently as pilot aboard the pair National Geographic Venture/Quest.

George Coughlin

Captain George as pilot aboard National Geographic Venture Sept. 2019

There are several reasons why I believe Lindblad has remained successful. They have a family following with expedition cruising. Until recently, they have been successful with older ships because their theme is not the ship, it’s the education aspect of the journey. More than enough expedition staff, photographers, and their connection with National Geographic, all add up to something special.

Colonial Explorer lay idle for a while and was put back in service by Exxon as corporate housing/offices following the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster. When she was no longer needed there, she returned to Seattle from Valdez where she awaited her fate.

Bob Clark, owner of St. Lawrence Cruise Lines, purchased her, renamed her Victorian Empress, and had her repositioned and delivered from Seattle to her new home on the St. Lawrence Seaway. Three captains made that delivery. One from Seattle to Florida; the second from Florida to the Connecticut River; and I captained the third leg from the Connecticut River to the St. Lawrence Seaway.

George Coughlin

Victorian Empress at Kingston, Ontario * Photo: Ted Scull

Bob Clark, being Canadian, and the Victorian Empress being a U.S. flag vessel, caused for questions and complications with his operation, which only lasted a season. I filled in for a few weeks as captain during that season. Once again, the Victorian Empress was up for sale.

Cruise West purchased the Victorian Empress, the Sea Spirit (former Newport Clipper), the Nantucket and Yorktown Clipper, the New Shoreham II from Blount (which I delivered from New Orleans to Seattle) and others, eventually becoming the largest company of used overnight small passenger vessels.

Now they wanted to get even bigger by adding a used ocean-going passenger ship to their fleet. I was sailing as captain on the Yorktown Clipper in the Virgin Islands when owner Dick West visited the ship to make arrangements to purchase her and the Nantucket Clipper. It was obvious from Dick’s comments that this was going to be a big stretch for the company.

I stayed as captain for several months following the purchase, but sensed that Cruise West had got ahead of itself and the handwriting was on the wall. Not long after I left, Cruise West was history and a lot of the small ship U. S. flag fleet lay idle again.

When I first met Dan Blanchard he was director of marine operations at Cruise West. He is now owner of UnCruise Adventures. UnCruise has been successful while now operating many of the ships once owned by Cruise West. Dan is a driving force and motivator. They are continually tweaking their itineraries and focus mostly on off-the-ship hiking, kayaking, with the expedition theme. All but one of their vessels is U.S. Flag.

George Coughlin

SS Legacy, Uncruise Adventures, Glacier Bay, Alaska, August 2013. * Photo: Ted Scull

Alaskan Dream Cruises is an Alaskan family business out of Sitka, Alaska. They have four previously owned small overnight passenger vessels. They cruise only in Alaska. They have their own shipyard, a lodge for passenger stop-overs, an introduction to Alaskan food and hospitality. They operate a fleet of day-passenger vessels as part of Allen Marine in Auke Bay. I filled in as captain for a brief stint a few years ago aboard the Chichagof Dream (formerly Nantucket Clipper). Again, like Blount and American, having your own shipyard is a huge cost savings.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): What affect did the Passenger Vessel Service Act have on operations such as effects on American flag vessels; foreign flag vessels; crews; itineraries?

George C: The Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886 states that no foreign vessels shall transport passengers between ports or places in the United States, either directly or by way of a foreign port, under a penalty of $200.00 (now $762.00) for each passenger so transported and landed. As a result, all vessels engaged in the Coastwise Trade have been required to be Coastwise qualified (ie: US-built, owned, and documented.)

George Coughlin

Small U.S. flag ships can nose right up to the ice in Glacier Bay. * Photo: Ted Scull

Then there is the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, which is similar and applies to cargo vessels. This is most commonly referred to as the Jones Act. Both of these acts have pluses and minuses in today’s world. They need to be revisited and updated periodically.

Some people, like the late Senator John McCain, believed the Jones Act should be eliminated. Both acts have protective measures regarding US shipbuilding, operating between US ports for commerce, and the question of port security with foreign ships and crews. I’m all for revisiting both of these acts and making any adjustments needed.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): As the years passed, what improvements came into being that most affected your position as captain, such as new equipment or the design of the pilothouse or bridge; engine room; hull design; improvements on deck?

George C: We’ve come a long ways with ship improvements. Internet communications have made a world of difference with office-to-ship messaging. Maintenance has improved with advanced cleaning and painting systems, prolonging the life of the ship. Bridge electronics and technology continue to improve. Better, more reliable engineering systems have been a big improvement.

George Coughlin at the helm

Captain George Coughlin has seen so many changes in the small ship industry over the decades. *Photo: Ted Scull

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): What were some of your favorite innovations?

George C: There are many, but to name a few — electronic charts. These have taken the burden of making manual corrections on paper charts away from the navigating officer. Also, the A.I.S. (Automatic Identification System) acts like a transponder for aircraft identification. It tells you all the information you need to know about ships in your vicinity that are required to have this equipment onboard. And, this feature can be overlaid/interfaced with your radar and electronic chart.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): Many small-ships are built for relatively calm waters such as protected passages (Inside Passage to Alaska, Intracoastal Waterway), rivers, and bays, yet sometimes it is necessary to make ocean passages such as along the New Jersey or Maine Coast in the East and Washington, Oregon, California and Mexican coasts in the West and Southwest. What precautions do you consider, and at what point do you say — I plan to wait a few hours or a day until the seas calm?

George C:  Weather information is so important. Forecasts are updated regularly and available from several online sources. I generally check and compare forecasts. I also like to make the ship ready for coastal passages well before getting underway and not while you are already out there. Good communications by informing the passengers and crew what weather conditions may be expected and what to do and not to do, is paramount.

There will be times when you have to wait it out. That’s only prudent. I often look back at the positioning cruise I made as captain aboard the Victorian Empress. It was April and the Strait of Canso, Nova Scotia, had just opened and was free of winter ice. It was clear sailing past Prince Edward Island, but as night settled in, the winds freshened and the seas began to build. On top of that, there was reduced visibility due to snow squalls. I was just off the Gaspe’ Peninsula, so I opted to pull into Gaspe’ and dock until morning. It was just the right thing to do at the time.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): The newer vessels often offer more equipment and diversions for the passengers on and off the vessel. What are some of the tried and true options?

George C: It’s become very competitive out there and everyone is trying to come up with the latest innovation. The tried and proven are Zodiacs and enough of them onboard to accommodate demand. Kayaks, with the option for singles and doubles is very important. Snorkeling is also popular along with paddle boards.

George Coughlin

Zodiacs are one of the most important features to have on any expedition cruise. * Photo: William J. Mayes

Having passenger briefings before each event is very important for safety. Having a passenger feel comfortable enough knowing it might be the first time they ever experienced an event, is also very important.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted):  What are the caveats and suggestions that you give to passengers at the initial briefing, so that they can fully appreciate the week ahead?

George C:  I have a list of important topics that I include in my passenger briefings. I mainly want them to feel comfortable and at ease. I stress safety, security, and good health. I try to point out some of the itinerary highlights and always encourage everyone to have fun, while also knowing their limitations when it comes to hiking or other forms of exercise.

George Coughlin

This Alaskan cruise passenger can enjoy the scenery while relaxing at the rail. * Photo: Ted Scull

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): Choose a couple of different itineraries you know well and share what you have found that gets your passengers excited and eager before a landing, such as Zodiac ride, kayaking excursions, etc.

George C: Southeast Alaska is an amazing place with lot’s to do and see. The 7-day Juneau to Sitka or the reverse, covers a lot of interesting highlights. Tracy Arm is a spectacular fjord that matches those in Norway. The two active glaciers display lots of calving and blue ice.

George Coughlin

Yorktown Clipper crew in Tracy Arm, Sawyer Glacier. Newport Clipper at left.

Safely taking the Zodiacs out and cruising amongst the ice is really special. Or, perhaps an impromptu stop along the way for humpback whales to engage in complex bubble-net feeding as a group.  Baja California is also one of my suggested itineraries. If you would like an option of swimming with the sea lions or touching a baby grey whale, then this might be the itinerary for you.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): Undoubtedly, some passengers may be anxious about swimming in semi-tropical waters or walking through a thick forest. What can you say to help calm them?

George C: It’s very important that passengers attend and listen to the safety briefings. The staff is well trained to answer questions and will be there on their hikes as well as nearby for any water sport activity questions or assistance.

I’m regularly there on the fantail to see guests off and greet them back aboard. On occasion, when time permits, I’ll get out there and join in with the guest activities. I enjoy driving the Zodiacs and kayaking and taking hikes with the guests.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): Having sailed with you several times, I am aware that you join the passengers before and during meals, after dinner, and perhaps after the ship is anchored or tied up. You seem to really enjoy that.

George C: I enjoy being around the guests and making them feel relaxed. There’s a lot more in the day’s work of a captain than just getting the vessel safely from point A to point B.

George Coughlin

Capt. George Coughlin, Green Inlet, B.C.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): What itineraries are nearly always successful?

George C: There are the so-called in-season itineraries. These are usually the most successful. Then there are the shoulder season itineraries. These can sometimes be the more challenging. Then the winter itineraries. They can be either okay or great.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): Are there dull ones from time to time?

George C:  They are all good. Some are just better than others.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): You have strong interests in music and singing. How have you worked that into your working life and your free time?

George C: It’s been a real balancing act. I have to thank my employers and relief captains for working with me on this. I also have to thank the music directors who have allowed me to miss rehearsals and performances and still remain an active choral singer.

George Coughlin

George Coughlin at the Tanglewood Music Center Boston Symphony Orchestra 2018

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): Do you have a few thoughts to share that illustrate how rewarding your life has been as a ship’s captain, and perhaps what challenges or sacrifices there have been?

George C:  As I near full retirement, I look back and think, would I have changed anything along the way? It’s been an exciting ride through time. I’ve been to Africa twice, Antarctica three times, Australia twice, then New Zealand, the Arctic, South Korea and Inland Sea of Japan, Mediterranean, Galapagos, Leeward and Windward Islands, Orinoco River, Panama Canal (a dozen transits), Costa Rica, Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Pacific Northwest, Columbia and Snake rivers, British Columbia, S.E. Alaska, Virgin Islands, East Coast from Florida to Canada and the Saint Lawrence Seaway into the Great Lakes.

Yes, there have been sacrifices along the way, but being a captain has afforded me to go to all of these destinations, whether in command or just because I was in the cruise industry.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): Thank you George. It has been a great pleasure knowing you and hearing your story. See you in person, soon, I hope.

George C:  Thanks for the opportunity to share some of my tales and experiences Ted. I look forward to catching up in person soon. All the Best.

quirkycruise bird



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Expedition Cruise Expert

Expedition Cruise Expert Steve Wellmeier — Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

Polar Expedition Cruise

Nantucket Clipper. * Photo: Ted Scull

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

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

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

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

QuirkyCruise: What then?

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

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

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

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

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

QuirkyCruise: Describe Elegant Cruises.

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

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

The Monet ship

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

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

Expedition Cruise Expert

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

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

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

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

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

Expedition Cruise Expert

National Geographic Explorer in Svalbard. * Photo: Ted Scull

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

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

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

Expedition Cruise Expert

Preparing to go ashore in Antarctica * Photo: Ted Scull

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expedition Cruise Expert

The majesty of Antarctica, * Photo: Ted Scull

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expedition Cruise Ship

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

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

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

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

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

Expedition Cruise Expert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expedition Cruise Expert

Poseidon Expeditions’ Sea Explorer. * Photo: Poseidon Expeditions

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

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

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

Expedition Cruise Expert

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

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

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

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

Expedition Cruise Expert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ted and Steve Cruise Experts

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

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

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Polar Expedition Cruise

Polar Expedition Cruise Expert Steve Wellmeier

Quirky’s Ted Scull has an e-chat with with polar expedition cruise expert Steve Wellmeier, managing director for Poseidon Expeditions USA.

Polar Expedition Cruise

Steve Wellmeier and friends. Photo: Poseidon Expeditions Where were you born and how big was your family?

Steve W:  I was the fifth of six children in a Catholic family in Dayton, OH; strong German heritage and work ethic, as most of my grandparents migrated down in the late 19th century from farm country in central Ohio. In those days, all Catholic families were big!

We all had chores and responsibilities from an early age, helping out around the house, expected to share just about everything, encouraged to get summer jobs, and to learn the value of work and money. That’s pretty far from the sea, so when did you see your first ship, and any reaction?

Steve W:  It was a similar size paddle wheeler to the Delta Queen in Cincinnati that was used for daily and evening excursions, dinner parties, celebrations, etc. Can’t remember the name, but I do remember that the front deck near the waterline was the site of my first kiss ever with a girl, so it was memorable. The romance of the water! What was your educational background and how did it lead to you to a first job?

Steve W:  I loved reading — my siblings and I almost did it competitively (“how many books did you read this week?”) — so I’m not surprised I graduated from Saint Louis University with an undergraduate degree in English Literature. I liked it enough to apply to grad school, and was lucky enough to get a scholarship at the University of Cincinnati, where I was also a teaching assistant for a year. So, critical reading, the ability to synthesize and summarize, and writing were strengths that I was able to take into the job market.

For the first five years after grad school, I was a junior communications assistant and then manager with a publicly traded, diversified industrial corporation in St. Louis. The big thing that I came away from there with was an ability and interest in tackling just about any writing job that presented itself, and there was always something: annual report to shareholders, speeches for financial analysts, advertising copy, press releases, employee newsletters, brochure and direct mail copy for four different company divisions.

That ability to write in different voices to different audiences served me well, and still does. How did working for your first cruise line come about?

Steve W: In 1983, I was caught up in some layoffs resulting from a merger with a larger industrial company, but managed to walk away with a few months of severance pay.  A graphic designer I worked with told me there was a new start-up cruise operation, and that it was looking for a PR person. “Cruise operator in St. Louis?,” I asked. Sure enough, it was Clipper Cruise Line (CCL), which was being financed by Barney Ebsworth, the owner of the well-known and successful affinity tour operator, INTRAV.

Polar Expedition Cruise

Nantucket Clipper. * Photo: Ted Scull

He admired the business model created by Luther Blount, who along with Lars-Eric Lindblad, can probably be considered the two “fathers” of small ship cruising. Clipper’s shallow-draft vessels were designed to cruise the scenic Intracoastal Waterway, Chesapeake Bay, waters of New England and, in the winter months, the Virgin Islands.

I was the sixth employee hired, and was immediately in the thick of it not only with public relations, but advertising, direct mail — virtually anything that needed to be written.

Polar Expedition Cruise

Luther Blount’s NEW SHORHAM II. * Photo: Ted Scull

My success with Clipper came to some degree with my familiarity with direct mail in an earlier job, where we used SIC (Standard Industrial Classification) codes to target potential buyers of steel pipe and tubing. I used the same principles, but using travel magazine subscriber lists and other direct mail lists from SRDS that were widely available at the time, some of which included demographic and psychographic information about those on the lists.

While all this is child’s play in today’s digital marketing world, it was pretty cutting-edge stuff at the time. INTRAV had always done direct mail to affinity organizations like university alumni associations, but I was able to convince Paul Duynhouwer, my boss at the time, to take it in a different direction — direct mail to consumer lists; i.e. individual households with no affinity connection except that they had similar lifestyle interests, demographics, educational levels and so forth. I don’t believe anyone else in the cruise industry was doing this at the time. What did you like about working for a cruise line and especially for CCL?

Steve W:  The cruise industry was going through a big transformation in the mid-1980s. The traditional lines like Royal Viking, Cunard, Chandris, Sitmar, Sun Line and others were either going out of business or merging into conglomerates, and the rise of the mass-market operators like Carnival and RCCL was well underway.

Clipper was definitely a boutique operator in a niche segment of the industry, and I always liked “playing on the edges” of the industry as well as appreciating the diminutive size of Clipper and other operators of that ilk. We focused on our differences from the big boys, working hard to appeal to educated travelers more interested in the destination than the cruise ship as a floating entertainment palace.

Barney Ebsworth also had high standards, and the Clipper vessels were the finest small ships in the business, well, until Sea Goddess came along! But they didn’t last long, did they? Another thing I liked about Clipper was that we all built it from the ground up; we managed the operational side of the ships ourselves — catering, hotel, technical, engineering, bridge team, etc. Quite amazing when I think back on it.

We realized that one of the big draws was the young American crew — mostly college-age kids — with whom the guests really bonded. And the relaxed, unpretentious aspect of this type of cruising.

Polar Expedition Ship

New Shoreham II, Nantucket Clipper and Newport Clipper docked along the Intracoastal Waterway. * Photo: Ted Scull This is where I first encountered you when I came asking for a press trip, and what do you remember about that?

Steve W:  Initially, we worked with a PR firm from Miami, but that didn’t last long as its experience was with larger, mass-market operators like Carnival, and they didn’t really grasp the Clipper small ship concept. So, I took over and started dealing directly with the press inquiries.

That’s when you and I met, I believe, on the phone. Unlike most travel writers, the first words out of your mouth were not “Do you offer press trips?” Instead, you asked a lot of questions and I got the impression very quickly that you knew what you were talking about and were very interested in off-beat and different type of cruise experiences. You “got it.”

Somehow, our relationship evolved to semi-regular Friday afternoon chats where you would call me and lead off with a tough question to which — as I’m told by you anyway — I would answer with a long sigh…

The trouble with you is that I always had to actually think about the answer I was giving you, because you knew your business! But we didn’t actually meet in person until I left Clipper (the first time) in 1988 and moved to New York, your home base.

I honestly don’t remember exactly when you first traveled with Clipper or whether I was even involved in putting you aboard. But I’m sure you remember EXACTLY. How long did you stay at Clipper and what led you to move on?

Steve W:  Change of management of Clipper. Paul Duynhouwer, who was always my mentor in this business, left in 1987 to join Sven Lindblad as VP of marketing & sales at Special Expeditions in New York, precursor to Lindblad Expeditions. I left in 1988 to join TravLtips Cruise & Freighter Travel Association as director of marketing.

Polar Expedition Cruise

Lindblad’s Polaris first served as a Danish-Swedish ferry before being converted into an expedition ship. * Photo: Ted Scull

TravLtips was also in New York, but not on Fifth Avenue like Special Expeditions. I commuted out to Flushing, Queens every day on the LIRR. That was also an interesting 10 years, again “playing the edges” and marketing via segmented, targeted direct mail; not only freighter travel, but tall ships, barges, expedition ships and — in a big way — positioning cruises by the larger cruise operators.

In some ways, we were a remnant marketer, selling long cruises at a heavy discount to older travelers who had the discretionary income and time for such voyages. TravLtips concentrated on what types of cruises, ships and what did you like about that job.

Steve W:  Freighter travel was our specialty and our marketing “hook” to attract travelers into joining our “association” for $15 per year or $25 for two years. What a bargain! It wasn’t really an organization or association per se, but we would mail them a magazine every other month featuring articles written by fellow travelers about their freighter trips.

This first-hand point of view, providing details about freighter travel by the actual travelers gave TravLtips an “insider’s” reputation. The magazine was a gritty, two-color job with half-tone photographs provided by the travelers — Conde Nast Traveler it wasn’t! But people loved it.

We found that lots of our members — we generally had about 30,000 followers at the time — loved the idea of freighter travel, but it wasn’t quite right for many of them. So, we would book them on something else, like a positioning voyage at rates usually starting under $100 per day, the average freighter per diem back in the early ‘90s.

The fun with that job was turning around a direct mail promotional piece in a few hours, getting it in the mail and getting our share of the business before anyone else. We had our 30,000 followers all figured out in the database according to what they liked, who they had traveled with, could they go on short notice and so forth.

So, we could promise cruise operators that we could exactly target the segment that was right for them. It worked well enough that we could usually convince them to pay for the mailing. We weren’t greedy with the commission and would typically pass along some of it to the customer in the form of extra savings.

Again, this sort of segmented marketing is a given today with digital marketing tools, but these were early, exciting times with that sort of travel marketing in the cruise segment. Did you get to travel on any ships TravLtips booked such as Amazing Grace, Aranui or a windjammer and what did you think any about them?

Steve W:  Yes, although I should have taken advantage of more opportunities during those years. The Amazing Grace was the supply vessel that provisioned the Windjammer fleet of tall ships, departing from the Bahamas once a month and traveling two weeks down to Jamaica. Then two weeks back, meeting their sailing vessels along the way in both directions.

The Amazing Grace typically carried between 75-100 and it was a fantastic value. I was able to travel aboard her for 3-4 days and get a first-hand feel for the classically styled combination passenger and cargo ship. I also spent a week aboard one of Windjammer’s schooners.

Polar Expedition Cruise

Amazing Grace, a Caribbean supply ship for a windjammer fleet also carried cruise passengers. * Photo: Ted Scull

Perhaps the most memorable inspection trip while working at TravLtips was a week in the Canary Islands and Coast of Morocco aboard a ship called the Orient Express. It was a converted ferry vessel that was being marketed at the time by Bermuda Star Line.

The Canaries are not a big US destination during the winter months, although they’re popular with Europeans and definitely a place worth visiting. So, the ship was mostly filled with Germans, Spaniards and Scandinavians.

The night before disembarkation, the ship caught fire and we spent the rest of the night in our muster stations. The fire was contained to an upper deck restaurant area, but that didn’t do much to keep many of the guests from getting overly excited. I never felt like we were in danger.

Insofar as actually spending time on a freighter, that wasn’t so easy because the trips were so long and the ports relatively far between. But, we’d check them out when they came into the New York port area.

I was able to spend a few days aboard Ivaran Lines’ Americana between New Orleans and Houston and one of Blue Star Line’s 12-passenger freighters on a stretch between Halifax and Philadelphia.

Polar Expedition Cruise

The Norwegian container ship Americana carried up to 85 passengers between New York and the East Cost of South America. * Photo: Ted Scull

READ Part 2 here…. soon.

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Dan Blanchard

Benefits of Small-Ship Cruising

By Heidi Sarna & Ted Scull.

We had an e-chat with Dan Blanchard, CEO of UnCruise Adventures, about the benefits of small-ship cruising in the COVID-19 era.

QuirkyCruise: Why did you, along with David Allen of Alaskan Dream Cruises, launch the “US Small-Boat Operators Coalition?”

Dan Blanchard: Our exchange officially started March 3, 2020, as early indicators showed COVID-19 would have a growing effect on travel and that action would be needed. It matured into a larger conversation with other small boat operators to amplify their voice in Congress, help each other through this challenge and navigate the CARES Act. This included a need to carve out enhanced definitions for U.S. flagged ships in the federal government’s newly formed CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act.

There is a need for us to be defined separately and there have been many letters and conversations with Congress on our behalf that have worked in separating us from large cruise ships. Going forward we have an interest in both educating the public on the differences and getting involved in how the CARES act is being designated by the treasury.

I was the architect behind bringing the members of the coalition together. As a lifetime mariner and small-ship expedition pioneer, I’m dedicated to the ocean, adventure, and bringing meaningful travel to people from all walks of life.

Dan Blanchard

UnCruise CEO Dan Blanchard

The seven coalition members are:

QuirkyCruise: What do you most want the traveling public to know and understand about the seven coalition members?  

Dan Blanchard: Every member of the coalition has been in the industry for some time; they are experts and dedicated to their brands. The formation of the coalition allows us to collaborate, to have more clout in governmental discussions, and to fly the flag for the small-boat operators in the U.S. The coalition members are working through an industry restart and we have more work ahead of us. But we are confident we will all be able to adapt to the changes.

QuirkyCruise: What makes small ships and boats different than the mega-ships of the mass market cruise lines?

Dan Blanchard: You won’t find a giant waterslide or several restaurants onboard our vessels because our waterslide is outdoors, snorkeling, or swimming with wildlife. Our dining is tailored to create a connection with other travelers in real conversations about the day’s hands-on adventure.

As a small-boat operator we are able to visit small ports, connect with local tribes and communities, provide a smaller travel footprint and provide a hands-on adventure experience that others can’t. People come to us because they want off-the-beaten-track exploration in an environment where everyone, including the captain, knows your name.

a small footprint is a benefits of small-ship cruising

Small ship cruising leaves a small footprint. * Photo: UnCruise

QuirkyCruise: What makes small vessels a good option when the general public is ready to travel on “cruises” again?

Dan Blanchard: We don’t say small is better than big, as there is a market for both. A voyage aboard one of our vessels is a very different experience than the traditional idea of cruising.

  • In contrast to large ships, we are able to have a lot more diversity in our itineraries. We like to say our itineraries can change on weather, whales, or whim.
  • We are easily accommodated in small ports and communities with an advantage of our local partnerships and we can also hunker down in our favorite secret adventure spots. We are all about wild Alaska and being with the critters.
  • With the new era of travel, our smaller company is able to pivot quickly in critical moments and make decisions throughout our operations that will benefit our crew and guests going forward.
  • When guests are ready to step back into travel, our vessels offer the ability to stay in the wilderness, which eliminates exposure to large crowds, shoppers, or virtually anyone outside the small group of 22-86 guests onboard.
  • Our small number of passengers and crew onboard, means we operate in a contained environment aboard and with a dedicated American crew completing high-frequency sanitation rounds.
  • We are utilizing real-world applications of social-spacing and are reviewing opportunities for available testing for guests and crew on the day of departure.

RELATED: UnCruise Adventures in Alaska. by Judi Cohen

QuirkyCruise: How do you aim to redefine the small boat industry?

Dan Blanchard: We understand it won’t be the same market going forward and that we have an opportunity to explore new ways of doing things here. That includes educating the consumer about small-boat adventure travel.

While this will continue to be fluid, the coalition has allowed us a platform to be heard and distinctly defined. This is vital for the small-boat industry going forward to rebound and recover.

QuirkyCruise: What language do you want to see being used to describe small boats like the ones that make up the coalition? How do you want to be seen and perceived by the traveling public?

Dan Blanchard: One of the initial interests in developing the coalition was to focus on a voice for micro-ships. We also include terms such as boutique yachts and small boats. Here at UnCruise Adventures we also like to think of ourselves as a sea lodge. A place to hunker down in a quiet cove or fjord and wake up to experience our up close and personal outdoor operations.

We look to help the traveling public understand the range of different small boat categories, including specialist expeditions and adventure itineraries with naturalist guides like ours.

kayaking on a small ship

Kayaking is a big part of the small-ship experience. * Photo: UnCruise

QuirkyCruise: Do you not want to use the word “ship” or “cruise” at all? Why?

Dan Blanchard: We have specifically steered away from the term ships to lessen the confusion of the general public who may not be familiar with boutique yachts and small-boat adventure travel.

While we do “cruise,” we don’t fit into the industry’s current description of cruise lines and that has become more obvious during these times of COVID-19.

Instead of focusing on the negative we highlight the positives and during this time more travelers are finding us because of the media negativity around large ships, and have come to us looking for education on new travel options. This opens up the opportunity for new discussions and alternatives for travelers.

RELATED: An UnCruise Expedition in Hawaii.  by John Roberts

QuirkyCruise: The CDC’s no-sail cruise moratorium applies to passenger vessels 250 passengers and above, why did you voluntarily cease operations when the big lines did?

Dan Blanchard: For UnCruise, the decision to temporarily suspend operations included direct conversations with local officials, postponed bookings and mandatory quarantines affecting sail dates.

QuirkyCruise: When do you realistically see the 7 members operating itineraries of any kind?

Dan Blanchard: I’m sure we are all hopeful for the 2020 Alaska season, but are looking at things realistically and assessing them daily. The coalition members are not currently operating on coordinated departures, but each will gauge their departure viability individually.

UnCruise Adventures is currently scheduling to resume operations mid-July in line with current state and governmental mandates. This continues to be reviewed daily, and we will continue to update our guests with changes. Alaska is one of our most popular itineraries during the summer months to capture the pristine beauty of remote places and wildlife. We look forward to being out there again.

QuirkyCruise: What protocols will be in place?

Dan Blanchard: Many onboard protocols involving sanitation, cleaning, food service and taking temperatures will be implemented for all guests and crew. In addition, PPE gear for certain activities such as boarding kayaks and skiffs, will be added to ensure safety.

QuirkyCruise: When cruise operations resume and booked passengers are allowed to enter the US and other countries (for instance, Mexico, Latin America/Ecuador) to board your vessels, how will you know if they have been vetted for communicable diseases? What would the hypothetical procedure be?

Dan Blanchard: This is a more multifaceted question and answer than it seems on the surface and one we are vetting with our partners in each of our destinations. This may in part be determined by local legislation and protocols for foreign passengers. We are looking at availability of rapid testing prior to boarding.

QuirkyCruise: What information do you think will be needed before they board at certain ports?

Dan Blanchard: This again will be determined more locally in addition to our advanced priority measures internally and across our fleet.

QuirkyCruise: Obviously, you have had to deal with passengers who become ill aboard your vessels for a whole host of reasons, but will you need to do anything different for potential COVID-19 incidences?

Dan Blanchard: We have protocols in place for illness and emergencies and will continue to look at rapid testing, and what will continue to evolve with pre-vaccine and post-vaccine modifications.

UnCruise Adventures has a talented team of captains, crew members and onboard EMTs, along with a highly experienced executive and operations team to support potential challenges. And in contrast to other adventure operators, we sail in the wilderness with no exposure to outsiders during most voyages themselves. [QC Note: Most sailings are round-trip from Juneau or between Juneau and Sitka, where there of course are other people.]

QuirkyCruise: Do you want to have some testing kits aboard that your trained first-aid crewmember can use if some symptoms are manifested?

Dan Blanchard: We are looking at all options for availability of approved testing for our guests and crew and have had recent discussions with Alaska’s representatives on rapid COVID-19 testing priority for U.S.-flagged small boat operators.

QuirkyCruise: If the result is positive, what will be your action if the vessel is in Glacier Bay or Mexico’s Sea of Cortes?

Dan Blanchard: These would be in line with our emergency protocols already in place including emergency evacuation if needed. We have isolation cabins set aside, and a guest or crew would be isolated in this situation. Anyone running a temperature, for any reason, would be isolated and if deemed a concern would be tested. Evacuation depends on the level of severity.

Of course, guests will be expected to be traveling in good health and will be asked to comply with our pre-embarkation procedures and onboard sanitization and safety measures.

QuirkyCruise: If it’s the common flu, or specifically COVID-19, what steps will be taken on board that vessel?

Dan Blanchard: We’ve always taken health and safety onboard all of our vessels seriously. As with the common flu or any infectious disease, we have isolation protocols for anyone who shows signs of possibly having an illness. This will be heightened for COVID-19.

Additionally, we sail with sufficient PPE gear to accommodate all guests and crewmembers if this situation arises. We will introduce additional advanced sanitization, new physical distancing guidelines and a thorough 360-degree cleaning approach to provide our guests with a comfortable experience every step of the way.

QuirkyCruise: Let’s say the ill passenger upon reaching the hospital is tested positive for a communicable disease, do you (HQ and the ship) automatically get a report?

Dan Blanchard: We are in constant contact with our Seattle HQ regarding any information around a guest’s needs from our vessels. Communication and decision making are immediately coordinated across teams. We have daily vessel reports as a common practice along with emergency and contingency protocols.  

QuirkyCruise: Will you add any new information on your website for passengers who may have medical questions before they decide to book or not?

Dan Blanchard: This information will be updated to our website as new information arises and will address the top FAQ’s. We already spend a decent amount of time working with guests prior to any departure to learn about their trip motivation, endurance/agility/energy levels, and needs of each experience seeker individually.

Additional measures will include required information and questionnaires on personal health, and we are continually looking at approved testing availability to include in our protocols.



More about Captain Dan Blanchard from

“We’ve all heard a tall tale or two, but when it comes to Captain Dan Blanchard — well, he’s the real thing. Growing up in Washington State, he has always been around boats. Even as a kid, Dan worked restoring the family’s wooden tug. And the reward of all that hard work paid off in a big way — he has spent a lifetime exploring winding waterways, beachcombing, skin diving, and sailing the world in search of incredible wildlife and cultural encounters.

Dan is a natural storyteller (2012 winner of Seattle’s annual “Stories of the Sea” contest), and who better to tell stories than an enthusiastic skier, cyclist, hiker, sailor, and world-explorer of off-the-chart places? One who fell in love with nature and the wilds of Alaska and beyond. In 2013, he was adopted into a native Alaskan Tlingit tribe, whom we still visit on UnCruise itineraries to this day.

Dan’s unassailable career began early. He was a Sea Scout, earned honors as Regional and National Boatswain when he was 16, and received his Master’s Ships License at 18. He owned Blanchard Marine; captained sightseeing vessels at Glacier Bay Lodge in Alaska; and grew through the ranks from captain to director of marine operations to VP of operations at Cruise West.

In 1999, he joined American Safari Cruises. Dan acquired the company in 2008 and as CEO, launched InnerSea Discoveries, now known as UnCruise Adventures with a new style of small-boat expeditions specializing in active adventures on the water. He’s living the dream and wouldn’t have it any other way. As a lifetime mariner, it can’t get much sweeter for Dan with both of his kids working in the business beside him — it’s safe to say it’s in their genes too.”



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Edward & Cindy Anderson operate the French Canal Barge Grand Victoria

French Canal Barge Q&A

Barge cruises are an excellent way to indulge in fine French wines, cheeses and cuisine while moving at a snail’s pace through historic and beautiful regions of France. Like floating boutique hotels, French barge cruises offer an intimate and personal connection to the culinary and cultural riches of France.

To find out more about this small-ship niche,’s Heidi Sarna had an e-chat with Edward Anderson, owner-operator of the luxury canal barge, the Grand Victoria “The Queen of Burgundy.” 

Edward & Cindy Anderson operate the French Canal Barge Grand Victoria

Edward & Cindy are the owner-operators of the Grand Victoria (and their cute Lhasa Apso “Angus” is the adorable mascot!). * Photo: Edward Anderson

Q: What makes the Grand Victoria special?

Edward: While it offers the same luxurious amenities and features of other 5-star canal barges in France, the Grand Victoria isn’t technically a barge. It is a purpose-built one-of-a-kind private river yacht commissioned in 1986 by the famous Belgian liqueur family “De Kuyper.”

Madam De Kuyper had the yacht built for her and her family to cruise the rivers and waterways of Europe. It was later repurposed as a cruising hotel, very similar to the canal cruise barge boats seen in France and other parts of Europe.

French Canal Barge Grand Victoria

The lovely 6-passenger Grand Victoria. * Photo: Grand Victoria Cruises

Q: Why should a traveler consider a French barge cruise?

Edward:  It is a magical way to experience a carefree vacation with friends and family

Everything is taken care of so you can just sit back and relax, while learning about the food, wine and culture of a region in France.

Further, a barge cruise allows you to unpack once and spend a week visiting different regions of Burgundy. It sure beats packing and unpacking as you go from one hotel to another.

Q: Why did you choose to be based in Burgundy?

Edward:  Having travelled extensively in France before, Cindy and I knew that the wines and food of Burgundy would be very attractive to visitors. The region is well known for its famous Burgundy wines, delicious food and rich culture and history, from the gorgeous château and medieval towns, to verdant vineyards and vibrant village markets.

special offer on cruises with cheese plates

The ubiquitous cheese platter aboard the Grand Victoria! * Photo: Grand Victoria Cruises

Q: What is your most popular Burgundy itinerary?

Edward:  Our cruises on the Burgundy canal used to be our most sought after cruise, but over the past few years, we have seen an increase in interest to cruise the Saône and Petit Saône rivers. I think the growing interest is because they offer a combination of small canals and twisty river sections as well as the ability to cover some distance and see more of Burgundy than one would normally see on a canal only cruise.

A lock house on a French Canal Barge

Going through locks, and passing quaint lock houses, is part of the fun of a canal cruise. * Photo: Grand Victoria cruises

Q: Where do your French canal barge cruises start and end?

Edward:  Our most popular itinerary between Pontailler-sur-Saône and Tournus covers approximately 130 kilometers.

This allows guests to cruise the magical and scenic Petit Saône with its narrow waterways and locks (much like a canal) and then gradually enter the Saône River to visit places like Chalon-sur-Saône (the birthplace of photography) and Tournus with its impressive Abbey St. Philibert dating back 1,000 years.

French canal barge map

The popular Tournus to Pontailler-sur-Saone River intinerary. * Photo: Google Maps

Meanwhile, another route passenger enjoy is the 100-km journey between Chagny and Auxonne. [You can read more about this itinerary in a recent QuirkyCruise article by Christina Colon.]

Q: How do guests get to the Grand Victoria?

Edward:  We pick our guests up in Paris by chauffeured vehicle or from the Dijon train station, for those who prefer to cut down the journey time in the car and travel on the comfortable high-speed TGV train.

French barge cruise

Most guests spend a few days in Paris before or after a Grand Victoria cruise. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Q: Describe your typical guests.

Edward:  The Grand Victoria tends to attract a slightly younger barge customer than most barges. Perhaps it’s our chíc décor or our cruise itinerary, we’re unsure exactly why.

We’ve had customers from all walks of life, from Hollywood producers to farmers, New York attorneys, Californian thrill seekers, Louisiana oil industry and Montana ranchers.

Most of our guests come for the culture, the food and the wine, combined with a little bicycle riding and walking, visiting new and interesting locations and experiences. Of course our guests’ over-riding goal is to have a relaxing time with family and friends on a luxury French barge cruise.

special offer for a grand victoria barge cruise

The lovely sun deck of the 6-passenger Grand Victoria. * Photo: Grand Victoria Cruises

Q: What is a typical dinner on board like?

Edward:  To really whet your appetite, I’ll share two sample menus with you:

Sample Menu #1


Seared scallops with truffled potato purée and sweet ginger chili, served with a Chablis 2013 Blanc.

Main Course

Roasted duck breast with prosciutto, roasted vegetables, fennel purée, parsnip crisps, and veal demi-glace, accompanied with a glass or two of Santenay 1er Cru “La Comme” 2014.


Neufchatel cœur fermier AOP, Morbier AOP lait cru and Fourme d’Ambert AOC.


Lemon tart with Italian merengue.

French cheese on French barge cruises aboard the Grand Victoria

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

Sample Menu #2


Spiced duck wontons in a lime and chili broth with cashews and cilantro, accompanied by a bottle of Rully 1er Cru “La Pucelle” 2015 Blanc.

Main Course

Fillet of charolais beef with wild mushroom ragout, baby carrots and parsnip gratin, served with Chambolle Mussigny 1er Cru “Le Charmes” 2010.


Saint Agur, Tom Tomme de Savoie fermière, and Mimolette extra vielle.


Summer fruit Millefeuilles.

French barge cruise aboard Grand Victoria

Meals are a highlight of a Grand Victoria cruise. * Photo: Edward Anderson

Q: Are most of your cruises full charters?

Edward:  Yes, most of our cruises are full charter as we accommodate just 6 guests. However we do offer open cruises during the low season, in July and August, when we require a minimum of 4 passengers to set sail.

French Barge cruise is a great option for small groups of friends

A group of 3 couples enjoying a week on the Grand Victoria. * Photo: Edward Anderson

Q: What is your role during a cruise? Are you and Cindy present on every cruise?

Edward:  One of the nice things about the Grand Victoria is we are owner-operated. This means Cindy and I are on board with you as your hosts, and are always there for you when you need us.

I captain the vessel and serve as the tour guide and wine steward.

driving the Grand Victoria

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

Cindy does an amazing job of keeping the operational and logistical side of the operation running, from managing the interior, to provisioning the vessel. She also manages the chefs and hostess’s daily duties, and handles bookings and guest inquiries.

As owners and operators, it allows us to tweak or customize an itinerary at a moment’s notice. We don’t have to ask permission or check in with corporate offices. We take care of our customers first-hand and are on site always to do so.

Q: Where are you from and how did get into the canal cruise business?

Edward: Cindy is originally from Rochester, New York, and I am originally from southern Africa. I was born in Livingstone, Zambia, famous for the “Victoria Falls.” I then lived in Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe) and South Africa, before immigrating to the US. Today we live in Tampa, Florida, where we spend our winters.

The catalyst for our starting on this adventure was when our son Alex was involved in a serious car accident whilst riding his bicycle, suffering a traumatic brain injury. We decided to change our careers, and create a new life that allowed us all to work together operating a beautiful boat in a beautiful part of the world.

And so, we operate the Grand Victoria as a family venture with our son Alex as the deck hand adding to the team. Alex has recovered, going from strength to strength, and Cindy and I have fallen in love with our life aboard the Grand Victoria in Burgundy.

Q: Do you have special offers to share with QuirkyCruise readers?

Edward:  In fact we do! We’re offering QuirkyCruise readers an exclusive 20% off full-boat French barge canal charters when booked before Jan 2, 2020. Mention code QC2020. Here are more details.

QuirkyCruise Review



Going through locks, and passing quaint lock houses, is part of the fun of a canal cruise

Vineyard visits and wine tasting are a big draw. Cheers! * Photo: Grand Victoria Cruises

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AmaWaterways Kristin Karst

A Chat with AmaWaterways Kristin Karst

By Anne Kalosh.

Aboard AmaDara recently for a week cruising on the Mekong River,’s Anne Kalosh spoke with Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-owner of AmaWaterways. Anne also interviewed tour leader Son, a nine-year company veteran and Mekong River expert.

Here’s Anne’s full story about her Mekong River adventure.

QuirkyCruise: How do you ensure authenticity?

Kristin Karst: It’s very important to offer our guests the opportunity to get immersed in the region, not just being tourists getting bussed around. In Vietnam we use smaller boats to visit floating villages, and trishaws, where we also become the attraction for the villagers. It’s a very historical way of traveling. In Cambodia we use tuk-tuks. Using local transportation supports the economy as well.

The first year we were here, for some reason we couldn’t do a tour. Our local partner looked for alternatives. Oudong is the biggest Buddhist center in Cambodia, and it’s surrounded by villages that work with oxen. So we took everyone for a ride in the ox carts. It was such a success that we continued. We use 45 ox carts. There are enough available, and the farmers like to do it.

We built the ship in Saigon using all local materials including teak wood. We employ crew from Cambodia and Vietnam. Our crew like to go the extra mile. The guides share their personal stories.

We purchase vegetables and fruits from the local markets, while meat and fish come from certified suppliers.

Mekong River Cruise Adventure

An ox cart driver in Kampong Tralach. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

QuirkyCruise: AmaWaterways is best known for its Europe cruises. How much experience do you have on the Mekong?

Kristin Karst: Cambodia has been open for tourism only since about 1999, and it started very slowly. When we started, only Pandaw from Scotland was here, and that’s not a luxury product. AmaWaterways put the Mekong on the map for luxury travelers by building this standard of ship and the service we offer.

We started in 2009 with La Marguerite with our partner, APT in Australia. In 2011, we introduced AmaLotus. AmaDara came in 2015. Since then AmaLotus has been fully committed to APT and La Marguerite to APT’s Travelmarvel.

Now there is more competition, but that’s good because it drives improvement.

QuirkyCruise: Why should people see Vietnam and Cambodia by riverboat?

Kristin Karst: The floating hotel is much better than going these distances by bus. There are not many good hotels along the way between Saigon and Phnom Penh.

The Mekong is fantastic and offers everything from good water conditions to different countries.

AmaWaterways Kristin Karst

AmaWaterways co-founder Kristin Karst and her brother pay their respects at Oudong Monastery, Cambodia. Photo: Anne Kalosh

QuirkyCruise: Who is the typical Mekong cruiser?

Kristin Karst: They are well-educated, well-traveled, open, interested in seeing the world, interested in history and interested in food. People who come here are looking for more exotic adventures.

We have some very educated clients: doctors, teachers or jobs to do with education. It’s a good mix of people. If you look at how many people choose the history tour in Phnom Penh (to the Killing Fields and Security Prison 21) instead of the market, that’s very telling. Only seven people on this cruise went shopping instead.

The majority of our guests here are North Americans, including Canadians. Quite a few people from the U.K. heard about us on the “Cruising With Jane McDonald” TV show. A lot of people have sailed with us in Europe. In the end, it’s all about the trust [they have in AmaWaterways].

Others are just interested in the region; they are not experienced river cruisers. They know it’s hard to get around in Cambodia. There are no trains.

I always encourage families with children to come here. It’s such a transformational experience. Children take it all in. A child will have fun here. It’s so experiential.

The majority of the people choose pre- and post-cruise tours in Siem Reap and Angkor Wat because that’s such a highlight, along with Hanoi and Halong Bay.


quirkycruise bird


Anne also asked tour leader Son about Mekong River cruising …

QuirkyCruise: Are there misperceptions about the Mekong?

Son: Some people think the Mekong is jungle, mosquitoes and crocodiles, or they expect to have a negative reaction because of the [Vietnam] war. But there’s a lot of cultural interaction, and everyone feels very comfortable.

Mekong River Cruise Adventure

Tour leader Son (left), Anne Kalosh and guide Fin at Angkor Wat. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

QuirkyCruise: Any tips for travelers?

Son: Travel with an open mind. If you do so, you’ll have a great journey. There are some very interesting differences. Embrace the world the way it is.

There’s so much we can learn. It works both ways. There’s no pretense here. Everyone wants to grow and wants to know about the world.

Try to take the tours, because everything is so different.

Talk to the crew. Find out about them, their life history.

Try new things. You’re in safe hands here.


Here’s Anne’s full story about her Mekong River adventure.


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Expedition Cruising

Expedition Cruising

By Heidi Sarna & Ted Scull.

The QuirkyCruise duo had an e-interview with Ben Jackson, co-founder of the Expedition Guide Academy (EGA), discussing the burgeoning expedition cruising scene and the inherent challenges of sourcing and training competent, professional guides that come along with the boom.

With 120+ trips in the Polar Regions, New Zealand-based expedition guide Ben Jackson has an intimate knowledge of the Antarctic Peninsula, Greenland and Svalbard and a passion for teaching and instructing. Working as an educator, instructor and guide for 20 years, for the past decade Ben has worked extensively in the Polar Regions as a kayak guide, zodiac driver, lecturer and expedition leader. He holds a degree in Outdoor Education and Adventure Recreation.

Ben co-founded the EGA with Denmark-based Pernille Søegaard, a Senior Polar Guide who has a degree in Anthropology and has worked as a guide and instructor for 12 years, with some 80+ trips under her belt. Australia-based Graham Snow is an additional instructor for the EGA.

The trio are passionate about teaching, training and empowering companies and guides through knowledge and skills.

Expedition Cruising

Ben Jackson and expedition staff member Jens Wikström making plans for an upcoming excursion. * Photo: Ben Jackson


QuirkyCruise: Why did you start an expedition guiding academy? 

Ben Jackson: The Expedition Guide Academy was established in 2018. It came into being because Pernille and I, as experienced expedition staff, identified a need that isn’t being met.

The expedition industry is currently going through its biggest ever period of growth and is scrambling for experienced, competent and professional guides.

We’re already seeing increasing pressure on the industry and on operators from a human resources perspective. It’s already reaching a point where we’re seeing less experienced or inexperienced staff entering operations more and more. In the past, this has been manageable due to the high level of experience and knowledge within the guiding teams. It was possible to pass on learning in the field, but this model is struggling.

Staff experience, skill and expertise are starting to become diluted as fleets grows. In the past, a strong guide team could carry new staff while they got up to speed. This is becoming more and more difficult due to the pressures on teams and operations.

We’re also seeing more discerning travellers on expedition ships. The guests are typically very well-travelled and have clear expectations for their trip. They know a good guide when they see one.

With all the investment in ships, operators are going to have to pay close attention to the quality of their guides as it’s the guides who shape experience and set the tone for the voyage.

The reality is that with the introduction of 25+ new ships into the fleet we’re going to see a real crunch when it comes to quality guides. From a pure risk perspective, companies, staffing managers and expedition leaders are going to need to be very careful about who they’re putting in the field. (Read Quirky’s overview of the 25 expedition ships coming on line in the next few years.)

Staff need to be equipped with the right training so they can make safe, educated and justifiable decisions in the field. From an insurance and litigation point of view, the old school thinking isn’t going to cut it. As the industry grows, so does the need for specially trained, professional guides.

Until now, there hasn’t been anywhere to go to develop the skills required beyond learning on the job.

Expedition Cruising

Operating a Zodiac safely and respectfully around whales and other wildlife requires many skills. * Photo: Ben Jackson


QuirkyCruise: Are you connected to the Polar Tourism Guides Association (PTGA)?

Ben Jackson: The PTGA is currently the only body to provide a transparent and universal set of qualifications that are specific and relevant to the expedition cruise industry. I am a certified Senior Assessor for the PTGA

At the EGA, we utilise some of the PTGA frameworks for assessments and qualification. In other words, the EGA’s courses align with the universal qualifications the PTGA has designed, though I’ll point out that both the EGA and PTGA are independent entities.

(Click here to learn more about the PTGA.)


QuirkyCruise: Tell us about the polar guiding courses you offer.

Ben Jackson: We design and deliver a customised series of courses to cover the core elements of professional guiding, to suit both individuals and companies. Despite a strong polar focus, these skills aren’t only limited to the higher latitudes, and apply to warm-weather expedition destinations as well.

Aside from some snow and ice specifics, most of our courses are relevant and applicable throughout the industry and around the globe. Field safety (situational awareness and risk management), guiding essentials (radio communication and navigation), and zodiac driving are as essential in the Amazon, British Isles or Galapagos as they are in the polar regions.

Expedition Cruising

The student is practicing rope handling and throw bagging skills for Zodiac driving and sea ice landings. * Photo: Ben Jackson


QuirkyCruise: Who was offering courses like this before you guys came along?

Ben Jackson: Historically, companies have embarked on in-house training initiatives that are designed to fit in around regular operations. Often, they can be simple box ticks for standard operating procedures (SOP’s); for example, starting an engine, checking inflation values and maneuvering a Zodiac to the gangway.

Sometimes there’s the ability to add some additional depth to develop guides. Some larger operators have more formalised induction and training, but primarily it’s informal and opportunistic.


QuirkyCruise: Where are the courses offered?

Ben Jackson: One of our training bases is Vindekilde, Denmark (just outside Copenhagen). It’s a geographic hub for Arctic operations with staff heading to Svalbard through Oslo and Greenland/Iceland from Copenhagen. Our campus is beachside and has the perfect infrastructure for hosting and running our courses.

We also offer training based out of Hokitika in New Zealand and are currently exploring options in South Australia, Argentina and Victoria (BC, Canada).

Having staff up-skilled and refreshed en route to their next assignment allows us to deliver focused training pre/post season and simplifies logistics for expedition cruise companies.

We can also deliver specific courses “in situ” — for instance, staff can be trained during an expedition cruise or while the vessel in port for the day. We also deliver programs for companies when they gather staff for guide conferences and annual meetings.

Expedition Cruising

Advanced Zodiac driving is a course offered by the EGA . * Photo: Ben Jackson


QuirkyCruise:  Are your clients the expedition lines sending their guides for training?  Or are your clients individual guides willing to do this on their own?

Ben Jackson: Our clients are a combination of both. Expedition operators send their guides for training and up-skilling. This can be a pre-season refresh, or if they’re looking to add additional skills and knowledge to the team. We also cater to individuals looking for the same, both established guides and newbies.

We’re seeing an increase in the number of individuals seeking training so that they can join the expedition cruise industry as guides. Historically, it has been hard to join the industry because training simply hasn’t been available.

One of our biggest requests is for Zodiac and small boat training that is used for day-to-day operations.

Our core courses range from US$169 per person to US$699 per person depending on the content and duration. We’re currently designing a full guide course that will be 6 days long with costs to be confirmed.

Dependent on the individual needs, we’re able to customise the delivery of the course, with accommodation and catered meals available.

Expedition Cruising

Zodiac training course. * Photo: Ben Jackson


QuirkyCruise:  What do you want to achieve by the end of 2019? In 5 years? 10 years?

Ben Jackson: That’s an excellent question. By the end of 2019, we want to cement our place as the leading training provider for the industry. We’re currently in discussion with a few companies who have identified the challenges of a small quality guide pool and growing fleet.

In the medium term, we want to solidify our training locations in North and South America, Europe and Australasia. We’re looking at expanding our instructor and assessor pool which will be key. Having EGA doing staff training for companies allows for structured, focused and consistent training, and this is of great value for money in the long run.

The quality and content of our courses are one of our strengths, and this will be in front of mind as we move forward.


QuirkyCruise:  What are the main challenges facing polar tourism?

Ben Jackson: Growth and climate change.

Guests are seeking to step into the wild and off the beaten path. Increasingly, this will become harder and harder to do.

In the Antarctic, we’re already looking at lots of traffic in the Southern Gerlache Strait. Not only does this put pressure on the limited number of landing sites, but it begins to affect the wilderness experience of passengers.

Similarly, in the Arctic, we see increased traffic in areas such as Svalbard. The difference being, you have a greater ability to spread out and explore different sites.

In Svalbard, we encountered a problem this past season with the distance to the pack ice in the north. With the ice edge sitting close to 82 N, it meant that many voyages were staying south around the archipelago.

The likes of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) and Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO) have identified the growth of the industry as a significant potential impact on the environment and are working with the industry for ways to mitigate this issue.

As noted earlier, growth and human resources will be a significant challenge facing the expedition cruise industry, not just in the polar regions, but globally.

Expedition Cruising

Pernille is looking at a polar bear skeleton with a passenger in Nordaustlandet in north-east Svalbard. * Photo: Ben Jackson


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Liveaboard Dive Boats

Liveaboard Dive Boats

Quirky’s Heidi Sarna had an e-chat with Sandro Lonardi, head of marketing at PADI Travel, to discuss what liveaboard dive boats are all about.

1) What is a liveaboard dive boat and how is it different than other yachts and boats?

Liveaboard boats allow dive travelers to reach remote and undeveloped areas not easily accessible by day trips. A liveaboard is a boat specifically designed for diving trips that usually last longer than one night. The boats offer sleeping accommodations and a comfortable diving deck where divers can prepare scuba equipment. Liveaboards usually have one, two or more tenders to take divers to and from dive sites.

Liveaboard Dive Boats

Emperor Leo with tender. * Photo: Emperor Divers

2) Do liveaboard dive boats tend to be a certain size and kind? What is the passenger capacity range?

Usually the liveaboard dive boats host between 12 and 30 divers, but you can also find both smaller and larger vessels.

3) Are liveaboard boats always crewed?

Yes. You can also charter liveaboards and plan your own itinerary, but always with the crew.

The 14-passenger Mutiara Laut. * Photo: Mutiara Laut.

4) Where do the vast majority of liveaboard boats go? What regions of the world?

Liveaboards operate across the globe — in fact PADI Travel offers hundreds of liveaboards in destinations all around the world including Central America, South America, the Caribbean, Europe, Red Sea and the Middle East, Indian Ocean, South-East Asia, Australia and the Pacific Islands. You can learn more about some of the top liveaboard destinations from PADI Travel here.

5) What is the average length of a liveaboard dive boat trip? How many dives per day?

The average duration of a liveaboard dive trip is 7 nights, but you can find both shorter and longer trips. Most liveaboards offer between 2 to 5 dives per day (3 dives per day is the most common).

Liveaboard Dive Boats

Photo: Charles Park for PADI

6) Are liveaboard dive boats luxury or basic, and what is the general price range? Where do the least expensive options tend to be? And where are the most luxurious?

In most cases, the diving, food and drinks are included in the price of the trip. Most of the liveaboards range between $1,000 to $2,000 per person for trips in the two- to seven-day range. PADI Travel offers both luxury and budget-friendly liveaboard options to meet the needs of every dive traveler. Learn more about luxury liveaboard dive boats here and budget-friendly options here.

7) Are liveaboards geared to experienced divers? Are there any for newbies? What is the minimum age?

Usually, liveaboards are more popular among experienced divers as they offer a unique “eat, sleep, dive” vacation. The scuba guides who work for PADI Travel offer insight as to the level of training and experience required for particular destinations. Here are some of PADI Travel’s top liveaboard destinations for advanced divers.

Many liveaboards do not have a minimum age, and children as young as 10 years old can become a certified PADI Open Water Diver. You can learn more about kid-friendly liveaboards on PADI Travel here.

Liveaboard Dive Boats

Photo: Charles Park for PADI

8) What equipment is supplied and what should divers bring?

As with most dive centers and resorts, divers can usually rent or bring their own dive gear. PADI recommends bringing your own mask, snorkel and fins at minimum. Here’s more info about dive equipment. Divers will also want to check with the dive operator to see if specialized equipment is needed for the particular location or type of diving they will be doing on their trip.

9) What are the food and accommodations like? 

Food and accommodations vary widely depending on the style of the boat, from high end to budget. See the luxury vs budget-friendly articles above for more detail.

The lounge aboard the Mutriara Laut. * Photo: Mutiara Laut

10) Please share some of your most memorable liveaboard dive boat experiences. 

Cocos island, Costa Rica — 36 hours sailing from the coast, very remote, great shark diving.

Raja Ampat on a Phinisi — stunning scenery in a pirate-style wooded boat.

Maldives on a luxurious boat — top service and top dive destination.

Liveaboard Dive Boats

Diving in the Maldives. * Photo: Emperor Divers

11) What is your new PADI Travel all about, briefly?

PADI Travel is the ultimate online tour operator for scuba divers. With liveaboard trips and sleep and dive resort packages available in more than 300 destinations across the world you can be sure to find the perfect option for your needs. When you book with PADI Travel you get the lowest prices, with no hidden charges, as well as free dive insurance. Our scuba travel experts, available 24/7 via chat, email and phone, will help you research, plan and book your next trip. Browse the list of all the available liveaboards on PADI Travel here.

Liveaboard Dive Boats

What are you looking at?? The cheeky undersea life of the Maldives. * Photo: Emperor Divers


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Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

By Tony Anderton.

Thinking about a Yangtze River Cruise, but not sure what to expect? Here are some helpful tips and photos to set the mood.

To read about Tony Anderton’s recent Yangtze River cruise with Victoria Cruises aboard the 216-passenger Selina, click here.

The Selina docked just above the Three Gorges. * Photo: Anthony Anderton

When should I go?

Weather on the Yangtze is highly seasonal — foggy in winter and blisteringly hot in the summer months. Late spring or the early fall are the most popular times for international visitors.

Where should I board the cruise?

The cruises can be joined either in Chongqing or downriver above Yichang. My recommendation is Chongqing — and the chance to see the dramatic night skyline lit up by an ocean of neon. A dramatic way to start the voyage

Is there Wi-Fi on board?

We all want solitude, but not too much. I found the on board Wi-Fi very reliable, but you will have to pay a modest supplement for access.

What is the food Like?

The range and quality of meals on board  was very good and seemed to more than satisfy tastes of all the travellers I met, with international, Chinese, and vegetarian options. But for any special dietary needs I recommend to consult with the cruise company in advance of your trip.

Are there any extra activities on board?

If the excursions, passing scenery and the chance to chill out and read are not enough to fill up your time, additional on-board activities include Tai Chi, Mah-jong, dumpling making and talks about traditional Chinese medicine. In the evenings the crew don costumes and put on an array of entertaining live performances — with the chance for some audience participation. If all else fails there is a TV in each cabin and a nightly movie.

Do I need to speak Chinese?

No, but it would definitely enhance your experience! The key members of the crew speak excellent English (and other languages). Cruise Director Marion and River Guide Tom Pang were excellent hosts. On shore all excursions are led by an experienced English-speaking local guide.

What should I know about the Yangtze before I go? What should I read?

There are some wonderful accounts of life and travel on the Yangtze.

➢My pick is “The Yangtze Valley and Beyond” an exhilarating travel narrative by the intrepid Isabella Bird — based on her 1899 journey on the Yangtze.

➢Honourable mentions go to Peter Hessler for “River Town” and Simon Winchester for “The River at the Centre of the World.”

➢Photographer Nadav Kander’s “Yangtze – The Long River”  is a stunning visual interpretation of contemporary life along the river.

What will the scenery and on board life be like?

Have a look ….


Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

The Selina’s top deck. * Photo: Anthony Anderton


Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

Passengers getting a good spot on Selina’s deck for the transit of the Three Gorges. * Photo: Anthony Anderton


Yangtze River Cruise Adventure

A Selina cabin. * Photo: Tony Anderton


Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

A view from the author’s cabin. * Photo: Anthony Anderton


Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

The Selina’s bridge. * Photo: Anthony Anderton


The Selina’s Captain Yang on the bridge. * Photo: Anthony Anderton


Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

Onboard cooking demo. * Photo: Anthony Anderton


Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

On board entertainment aboard the Selina. * Photo: Anthony Anderton


Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

The Selina’s top deck. * Photo: Anthony Anderton


Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

The Chongqing Skyline. * Photo: Anthony Anderton


Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

Departing from the glitzy city of Chongqing on the first evening. * Photo: Anthony Anderton


Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

A shore excursion boat on the Yantgze. * Photo: Anthony Anderton


Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

A souvenir hawker in Baidicheng, an ancient temple complex on the northern shore of the Yangtze. * Photo: Anthony Anderton


Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

New cities springing up along the Yangtze. * Photo: Anthony Anderton


Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

On the river on route to the Three Gorges. * Photo: Anthony Anderton


Entering the Three Gorges

Ports along the way; here The Ghost City. * Photo: Tony Anderton


Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

Ports along the way …. The Red Pagoda. * Photo: Tony Anderton


Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

Panoramic views of the Yangtze from the Red Pagoda. * Photo: Anthony Anderton


Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

The creations of the very talented Mr. Huang at the Red Pagoda. * Photo: Anthony Anderton


Yangtze River Cruise Adventure

The Qutang Gorge. * Photo: Tony Anderton


Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

Approaching the ship lift, as seen from the viewing deck of the Selina. * Photo: Anthony Anderton


Yangtze River Cruise FAQs

A moody sunset on the Yangtze River. * Photo: Anthony Anderton


QuirkyCruise Review


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Crystal Cruises Tom Wolber

5 Questions for Crystal Cruises Tom Wolber

By John Roberts.

Crystal Cruises Tom Wolber

Crystal CEO Tom Wolber

It’s been just about a year since Tom Wolber was appointed president and CEO of Crystal Cruises.

The cruise industry vet had spent 28 years with The Walt Disney Co., including his final decade in the company with Disney Cruise Line.

Crystal Cruises parent Genting Hong Kong placed Wolber at the helm to help steer the brand toward the future. Wolber arrived at Crystal Cruises during a period of rapid growth, and a bit of turbulence, as he says, with three new brands coming online: Crystal River Cruises, Crystal Yachts and Crystal Air.

QuirkyCruise recently caught up with Wolber in Amsterdam to check on how his first year running the ship at Crystal has been going. He sat down for five questions during a break in preparations for the christening of Crystal Debussey, a new ship for Crystal River Cruises.



QuirkyCruise: What is your overall vision for the brand, now that you have become well acclimated with everything during your first year?

Tom Wolber: I think the overall vision for the brand is to continue to widen and deepen the Crystal appeal for guests that fit into the Crystal profile. Within luxury, there are many different niches. So, what we are doing is broadening our appeal, with the introduction of river cruises and expedition cruises — on three new mega-yachts dues in 2020 and 2021, and on the yacht Crystal Esprit that debuted in 2015 — so that people can find the Crystal experience in more places. Maybe you’ve done ocean cruises a couple of times, but want to go inland a little bit more and explore that. You can do it with Crystal.

We’ve had turbulent times, as you add a yacht, river ships … big growth after 25 years of relatively stable ocean-going business. So, the immediate strategy now is to stabilize what we have. Let’s focus on them, iron them out so they perform at the level they should.


QuirkyCruise: What excites you the most everyday about getting up and working for Crystal?

Tom Wolber: Our segment of the luxury market is still growing quite well, and there are still so many destinations we can take passengers to. Designing those experiences so that they are truly what you expect from Crystal is something that excites me. We have inclusive tours in every port (for river and yacht cruises), and we design them so they are not the same tours as everyone else’s. That they are unique and not crowded is the biggest Crystal advantage.

Crystal Cruises Tom Wolber

The Crystal Bach. * Photo: John Roberts


QuirkyCruise: How important are the people and crew and their roles to the success of Crystal?

Tom Wolber: I have always maintained that the most beautiful architecture, the most-exquisite finishes, it is all just stuff. You can have great technology, a beautiful ship; it’s an empty body and a beautiful body. What brings it alive and puts the heart and soul into it, is the crew.

The crew are what creates the memories for our guests. Yes, you have a wonderful restaurant, but it’s the waiter that you remember. It’s that experience about how you were talking about your day ashore and maybe about how they are from a little village near there and how that all connects.

I think this is what Crystal does better than anyone out there. To allow the crew to interact with the guests in a professional way, but in a way that is also personable.

Crystal Cruises Tom Wolber

A Crystal crew member. * Photo: John Roberts


QuirkyCruise: What challenges or opportunities do you see coming for the company?

Tom Wolber: Obviously, we have to step up our game when it comes to our footprint. I mean footprint in multiple ways. The environmental footprint. We have to get cleaner as an industry.

We also have a “volume” footprint. We are bringing passengers to port, and as an industry, overcrowding is going to be a massive issue as we move into the next 10 years. It is opportunistic, as well. There are lots of ways to fix it.  We have to start getting really smart about that, and we have to start working more hand-in-hand with the local authorities. We can bring expertise. I think that is something that will be really important for us to push for.


QuirkyCruise: What’s next for Crystal, whether it be shipwise, excursions or other?

Tom Wolber: The next big thing is going to be introducing Crystal Endeavor to the fleet. (Crystal Endeavor is a polar-class expedition yacht that carries 200 passengers and is due to set sail in 2020.) Then, we’re going back to the Diamond-Class ships, back to the ocean, introducing ships around the size of Crystal Serenity — 800 to 850 passengers max. We also will be looking to maintain that edge of generosity and space, feeling uncrowded. That is what no one else can copy.


Crystal Cruises Tom Wolber

A rendering of the Crystal Endeavour.


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Q&A with Crystal Yacht Expedition Cruises' Mark Spillane

Q&A with Crystal Yacht Expedition Cruises’ Mark Spillane

By Anne Kalosh.

Q&A with Crystal Yacht Expedition Cruises' Mark Spillane

Mark Spillane, manager, sales & marketing, Crystal Yacht Expedition Cruises. spoke with Mark Spillane, Manager, Sales & Marketing, for Crystal Yacht Expedition Cruises. This was the first brand extension after Crystal Cruises was acquired by Genting Hong Kong, which also owns Asia’s Star Cruises and Dream Cruises. Under Genting’s ownership, Crystal began operating the luxurious yacht Crystal Esprit and is building the 200-passenger Crystal Endeavor, to enter service in 2020. Two more expedition new builds are planned.


QC: Tell us a bit about yourself.

Mark Spillane: I worked at Silversea, another luxury cruise line, for three years and came to Crystal last year. I’m fortunate to have the expedition background from Silversea, and Crystal Endeavor will be our first expedition yacht. There’s a lot that goes into that, and having that insight is great to make sure we offer our guests a true luxury experience.


QC: What are your responsibilities?

Mark Spillane: I oversee a lot of different departments. My main focus is sales and marketing, but I do sit on the itinerary planning team and I work closely with the on-board team to see if there are things we could be doing shore-side to further enhance our product.


QC: Have you sailed Crystal Esprit? What’s it like?

Mark Spillane: Twice, in the West Indies. One of my favorite things starts right when guests get to Esprit, the embarkation process. Typically, on a cruise ship you arrive at a terminal and go through security, and you may have a line — not so much with Crystal. But with Esprit, you arrive and are greeted in the reception area with a glass of champagne by one of our staff members and walked to your suite, which is ready for you. The staff member checks you in on an ipad, and that’s the extent of the process. So you’re left to enjoy the ship or the port of call.


Crystal Esprit’s marina is stocked with water sports ‘toys.’ * Photo: Crystal Yacht Expeditions Cruises


QC: Tell us about an adventure you had on board.

Mark Spillane: Saba’s a unique port in the West Indies. It’s not that typical beach experience. It’s a marine park. Not many cruise ships go there, and there are fewer than 2,000 people on the island. It’s a big mountain. When you wake up in the morning, we’re anchored right up against the island and you look out and see the dramatic landscape. There we offer a hiking adventure and it is true hiking for those who enjoy that physical adventure. It’s about a three-hour hike, which ends at a hotel on the other side of the island, where guests can have a beverage or two. From there a transfer takes them back to the ship. It’s a real adventure experience. It’s not paved. You’re hiking through the mountains and you have the canopy overlay of all the trees and you see the wildlife.


QC: What’s the dining like on Esprit, and which is your favorite dining spot?

Mark Spillane: The cuisine on board is superb. The executive chef puts out the sublime and a work of art, each dish. What you can do when you only have 62 guests on board is à la minute preparation of each dish. We even have an on-board pastry chef for our breads and desserts. That seems to be what really sticks with the guests. From their perspective, and mine as well, it’s the best food they’ve had, on land or sea. We like to call it Michelin-inspired cuisine.

I love to dine alfresco. On Esprit we have the patio grill and it’s typically open all day for fresh fish, salads, wraps, burgers. We have a great fritto misto, usually shrimp, calamari and some vegetables. It’s a phenomenal place to dine when you’re heading back from an excursion. You freshen up and head up to sunset deck and enjoy lunch while you’re anchored in these beautiful harbors around the world.


QC: Tell us about the service.

Mark Spillane: The crew on board is really what sets esprit apart, and that’s what we look to bring to Endeavor. On Esprit we have 90 crew for just 62 guests and that leads to this perfect balance of professionalism and camaraderie. You quickly become a family, not only with the fellow guests but with the crew. They come to know you, your likes and your dislikes. They have things prepared for you. For example, I sleep with three pillows. They picked up on that. So the next day, when they made up the bed, there were three pillows on one side. All these little details that you don’t even tell them, they pick up on.


QC: Who cruises on Esprit?

Mark Spillane: People who want an adventure. We don’t typically offer sea days on Esprit. There are some, but for most itineraries you’re in port every day. You’re up in the morning, going on hikes or kayaking. We have jet skis. It’s an active experience. So that typically means in the evenings, it dies down a little sooner because guests are going to bed because they’re preparing for the next day’s adventure.

Q&A with Crystal Yacht Expedition Cruises' Mark Spillane

Crystal Esprit provides an active experience, including water toys. * Photo: Crystal Cruises

For Crystal, Esprit has the youngest demographic of all our ships. The average age is 56, 57. They’re working professionals who have had success. They don’t have a long time to take off, so our itineraries are shorter, seven to 10 days. We offer free, unlimited Wi-fi on board, so they can still be connected if they need to work.

It’s also typically more international guests. And it’s good for multigenerational families. I met a family consisting of two teen-age boys, two adult couples and the grandparent, and this was their third time on the Esprit. This was the only Crystal experience they’ve had, and that’s what we find: it brings in new-to-Crystal guests and they absolutely love it. As that family grows, they can grow into river and ocean ships as well.


QC: It sounds like you should be somewhat fit to sail on the Esprit?

Mark Spillane: There is no elevator on Crystal Esprit so guests have to climb the stairs between the decks, and climb into and out of the Zodiacs and tenders as needed. And children under 6 aren’t allowed on the tenders, so Esprit is really for older kids.


QC: How far ahead do people need to book?

Mark Spillane: For this summer in the Adriatic, we just have a couple of suites still available. In 2019, we have plenty of availability at this point for the Adriatic. Guests who want to experience the West Indies this winter should definitely look into it now because we just announced that in fourth quarter 2019, we’ll be in Dubai. So for our current itinerary set, this coming November will be the last season, for now, in the West Indies.


QC: Esprit launched in the Seychelles. You’ve really been expanding itineraries. What’s hot?

Mark Spillane: When we had our last season in the Seychelles, at the end, when we went to the Adriatic, we were sold out. The Esprit is all about offering options to our guests, and many of them do return so we’re trying to offer as many unique destinations as we can.

We have a great Holy Land sailing with some great ports in Israel and it’s really selling very well, I think because it’s unique, and Esprit has never offered something like this. It’s only one voyage. We don’t plan on offering it again in 2019, possibly in 2020. It depends on where the ship goes from the Seychelles.


QC: How much do the cruises cost?

Mark Spillane: The West Indies cruises tend to be priced at about $4,500 per person, double occupancy, for the week. The Adriatic tends to be slightly more, around $5,500 per person for the week. And that’s all-inclusive, so transfers are included if you fly in and out on the days of embarkation and debarkation, wi-fi is included, and beverages. Really the only extra costs on the esprit are our submersible experience and optional shore excursions. We typically offer two shore excursions in each port, included in the price. One is more active, like the hike in Saba. The other is a panoramic city tour for those who don’t want to be as active. We do offer a handful of optional shore excursions that guests can purchase for an additional charge.


QC: Tell us about some of the included excursions.

Mark Spillane: In St. Bart’s we have a catamaran. It’s a really nice way to see this chic French island. We take our guests on a tour around the island, then we anchor in a bay where there’s a beach. Guests can snorkel, there are water noodles. They can enjoy the water and the beach. We serve light hors d’oeuvres and beverages on board. Then we sail back to the ship.

We have exclusive rights to Moskito Island [Richard Branson’s private hideaway in the British Virgin Islands] during our calls. It’s a great beach day. We do a fun wet landing, bring our guests to the beach in Zodiacs and they hop out. We do a beach barbecue. We have sun-loungers, everything down to the details of sunscreen and bug spray, should you need it. I’ve been there; there’s actually no mosquitoes. We bring all our water toys, kayaks and snorkeling gear for our guests to use. It’s a peaceful retreat.

We have a wider speedboat and we offer a complimentary champagne cruise on that for our guests. We do need permission from the local port authorities to use the wider so it’s not offered in every port, but typically once per sailing. It’s a fun experience.

Q&A with Crystal Yacht Expedition Cruises' Mark Spillane

A ride in Crystal Esprit’s submersible costs extra but makes for a great adventure. * Photo: Crystal Expeditions


QC: Have you gone on the submersible?

Mark Spillane: I have, and it’s an absolutely phenomenal experience. For those who may not be scuba divers and haven’t had the experience of going under the water, it is quite surreal because you’re almost surrounded by glass. I did it in St. Kitts and there’s a shipwreck right off the coast that you visit. It’s so unique to see something like that up close. Of course you have marine life swimming around. It’s surreal to be in this bubble that’s comfortable and air-conditioned. It’s driven by the Esprit’s vice captain. It’s usually about a 30-minute experience and the cost varies. In the west indies, it’s currently $599 per person, and in the Adriatic it’s currently $350 per person.


QC: Turning to your new build, Crystal Endeavor, what excites you most about it?

Mark Spillane: The space. The expedition market is really booming now, and we’re starting to see new builds for luxury expeditions, which have been missing in that segment. The Endeavor will be almost 20,000 gross tons and will only have a hundred suites and 200 guests. So that really offers the space to have all the amenities the Crystal guest has come to expect and that includes a full spa, sauna and gym. These types of amenities aren’t offered on expedition ships. We can take this amazing Crystal experience that’s been perfected, and our loyal followers love, to the ends of the earth. We can take it to those bucket-list destinations that our guests haven’t had the opportunity to go to, in Crystal luxury.


Crystal Endeavor’s solarium by day. * Photo: Crystal Cruises


QC: Is it a real expedition?

Mark Spillane: Yes, we will have expedition leaders on board, a fleet of Zodiacs as well as water toys and equipment that we’ll be able to talk about in the near future. And we’ll be going to true, off-the-beaten path, unspoiled destinations, including the arctic and the antarctic.


QC: When will you announce the itineraries?

Mark Spillane: The itineraries for Crystal Endeavor are going to be announced today on July 31. Bookings will open to past passengers (Crystal Society members) on Aug. 8 and to the public on Aug. 22.


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Steamboat American Queen

Steamboat American Queen.

Ted had a chat with Bill Forsstrom, a retired banker, who has found his ship and tells QC all about his cruises aboard American Queen Steamboat Company‘s fleet.

Ted: Bill, you live in Cincinnati, a city that developed along the banks of the Ohio River, and you also lived in Pittsburgh where two rivers come together to form the Ohio. Being river cities, did where you grew up and where you worked have an influence on your interest in steamboats?

Bill: Now that you ask, there was an event when I was young that I remember quite well.  I don’t recall if she came to Oakmont, PA where I grew up or simply in Pittsburgh, but I saw the old steamer Sprague, also known as Big Mama!  It made quite an impression. Also in my younger days the American Wind Symphony made annual visits to Oakmont for a concert on the river from their barge.

In Cincinnati during the 1990’s we had a big event every three or so years called Tall Stacks where most of the existing steam boats and those that looked like steamboats would come for a one-week riverfront festival.  The Delta Queen, Mississippi Queen, and American Queen would always be there as well as the Belle of Louisville, plus other boats from New Orleans to Pittsburgh.

Steamboat American Queen

Bill Forsstrom on an American Queen cruise

Ted: What was the first steamboat that you sailed aboard?

Bill: The first was the American Queen in 2012 after she came back into service.

Ted: What factors led you to making a first cruise?

Bill: I always wanted to take one of the river cruises on a steamer, but the Delta Queen Company had gone bankrupt once I could afford it. Once the American Queen came back into service, I wanted to sail her.  Luckily, you and your wife were sailing through Cincinnati that first year back in service and I came aboard. Once I saw her beautiful interiors, I knew I had to book a cruise.

Steamboat American Queen

America Queen tied up at Marietta, Ohio. * Photo: Ted Scull

Ted: What was the itinerary and did you have favorite stops?

Bill: That first year they offered a short three-day cruise so I booked it to see if I liked it.  It was round trip St. Paul and went to Wabasha, MN; cruised Lake Pepin, MN; Red Wing, MN; and back to St. Paul.  The top stops that cruise were the National Eagle Center in Wabasha and the time we spent cruising Lake Pepin.  I had no idea that the Mississippi was that wide.

Ted: Tell me your very first impressions when you boarded the American Queen?

Bill: The first impressions were the beauty of the vessel and the Victorian feel of her interiors — from shiny wood floors, ornate ceilings, beautiful wall coverings, and her décor……set off by the Mark Twain Gallery with her antiques and feeling of warmth and comfort.  Seeing the dining room was also impressive.  The vessel felt classic and old, yet she was built in 1995 and is not old.  The charm is of another era and is beautifully executed.

Ted: Did some public rooms have a wow factor?

Bill: The Mark Twain Gallery was a total WOW!  The dining room is stunning in every way and true to her heritage — it is called the J.M. White Dining Room after the grand steamer of the same name.  The Grand Saloon, the show lounge, is also exceptional with the private boxes on her second level. It is said that she is modeled after Ford’s Theater in Washington.

Steamboat American Queen

Mark Twain Gallery at Christmas. * Photo: Bill Forsstrom

Ted: Did you experience any “Antique Roadshow” moments?

Bill: Furnishings in the Mark Twain Gallery definitely were antiques — including those in the Ladies’ Parlor and the Gentlemen’s Card Room. The chandelier over the stairs down to the Main Deck Lounge is also quite exceptional and was given to the boat by the Anheuser Busch Company.  I do not recall where it was originally used.

Ted: What type of cabin do you prefer and why?

Bill: I like all the outside cabins, but my favorite in terms of price and features is a B-grade outside with open veranda and also an entrance from the interior corridor.  This makes it ideal in good and bad weather. A grade B also has plenty of room. The grade C’s are a bit smaller but fine and no second entrance.

Steamboat American Queen

Veranda cabin open to the side deck. * Photo:: Ted Scull

Ted: How many cruises have you made aboard the American Queen?

Bill: I have completed 11 cruises on her and one on the American Empress (Snake and Columbia Rivers) for a total a of 80 nights.   

Ted: What keeps you coming back?

Bill: The boat is very relaxing and the staff, all American, is excellent.  The food is delicious in the J.M. White Dining Room, and fellow passengers are very friendly. Days cruising the rivers are so pleasant when sitting outside. Entertainment by the American Queen Ensemble is first class as is the talent of the orchestra, the Steamboat Syncopators.

Ted: Rate your itineraries and add if you have a favorite preference for the time of year you like to go. 

Bill: Favorite itineraries include the rivers of Tennessee, the northern Mississippi, and the Ohio River (though cruises are rare here).  All are good if you have not done them before.  The fall is a nice time to travel when the trees are changing colors, but the weather is still warm.

I have twice done a Christmas Markets Cruise in December and that is a treat as well, though the weather may not be as nice on the lower Mississippi. A surprisingly good port offered on some Mississippi River and some Ohio River cruises is Paducah, KY.  It is on the Ohio near to where it joins the Mississippi.  It is a very scenic town, has great restaurants, and a surprisingly good museum called the National Quilt Museum.

While it does not sound like a museum with universal appeal, it really is.  It is truly an art museum in every sense of the word — but in fiber art and quilting from around the world.

Ted: Do you always get off at each port?

Bill: I get off at every port, even if I think I have seen everything.  There is usually something I have missed. 

Ted: Do you use the coach that makes a loop through town or do you go on your own?

Bill: The River Coaches, as they are called, are unique to this company and are painted to look like the American Queen. They have designated stops around each town and are included in your fare.  I usually don’t go through town on my own, but in the future, I may want to see other than the scheduled stops.  The River Coaches have local guides that provide insight to the town. 

Steamboat American Queen

River Coaches for local sightseeing run on a fixed route while the steamboat is in port. * Photo: Ted Scull

Ted: Do you ever book an optional excursion? If so, what were they like?

Bill: I have not yet booked an excursion, but now that I have seen so much of the included stops by bus, I may.  Some sound quite interesting and the cost is a reasonable optional.

Ted: We can’t leave out the dining, so what do you like or not like about the food?

Bill: The J.M. White dining room has exceptional meals. Before I sailed, I thought it would be “down home” country cooking, but this is not the case at all.  There are good varieties of meats, fish, and vegetarian meals.  It is rare to find something that is not delicious.  Also wine and beer are complimentary at dinner.  Soft drinks and bottled water and numerous other beverages are complimentary all day.

The Front Porch is the casual dining venue on Deck 3 forward.  All three meals can be taken there, but the selection is not as good as the main dining room.  I have never had dinner there, but it looks very good — especially the prime rib that they seem to have all the time.  The staff there is very friendly and there is a bar there with exceptional service all day.

Ted: Do you eat some or all your meals in the J.M. White dining room?

Bill: I take all dinners in the J.M. White dining room. I enjoy having the same table mates each evening; I am a fan of assigned seating.  If I have breakfast it is usually at the Front Porch and most lunches are there too. Be warned, when the weather is bad, typically too cold or windy, people don’t eat outside at the Front Porch, and it can be difficult to get a table inside.

There is no such problem in the J.M. White Dining Room.

Steamboat American Queen

J.M. White dining room. * Photo: Ted Scull

 Ted: Where do you like to sit?

Bill: I prefer a table for 6 (sometimes 8 is okay) on the starboard side of the J.M. White Dining Room, second seating.  The first night, dinner is at 8:00 PM and after that at 7:45.  Early seating is too early — 5:15 PM after the first night.

Ted: If you also eat elsewhere, what draws you there?

Bill: I can catch a late breakfast at the Front Porch as late as 9:30 and the fare is the standard American cooked and continental breakfast buffet.  I don’t eat a big breakfast.  If I want a quick lunch and there are tables available inside or out, I like the Front Porch.  The advantage of dining in the J.M. White for lunch is to be seated with other people who may soon become your friends.

Ted: When the American Queen is underway, what are your favorite spots to enjoy the scenery?

Bill: Daytime, most outside cabins have space with table and chairs on the open veranda outside the stateroom door.  If I have enjoyable fellow passengers around my cabin, it is nice to pull chairs together and chat. Outside at the River Grill up on Deck 5 aft it is nice to sit and watch where we have been.  Looking out from the open deck at the Front Porch on Deck 3 or outside the Chart Room on Deck 4 is very nice too.

In the evening, sitting out on the Front Porch or outside the Chart Room one deck up is very pleasant.  If the River Grill stayed open at night that would be a nice place to sit as well and maybe have a beverage, but they usually close it early.

On my last cruise, a number of us complained and they kept it open a bit later. At night on the narrower stretches of river, it is interesting to follow the boat’s searchlights as they scan for buoys and/or the river banks.  This is most dramatic on the upper Mississippi.

Steamboat American Queen

Front Porch * Photo: Ted Scull

Ted: Is here anything that you do not like or you feel could be improved or even changed?

Bill: Lighting could be better in the staterooms.  I’ll often ask a cabin steward if she can find me an extra desk lamp.  Also, I ask for a table beside the easy chair or sofa in the room. They usually can find something in the way of a table – extra lamps are more rare.  Worst case you can bring your outside table from the deck into the stateroom, but I don’t like to do that.

Ted: Have you been aboard the American Duchess?

Bill: The Hotel Manager on the Duchess is a friend of mine from the American Queen, and I was invited on her while in Madison, Indiana earlier this year, given a tour top to bottom, and had lunch in the main dining room. 

Ted: What do you think of her?

Bill: The American Duchess is not particularly good looking on the outside, but better in person than in pictures. I assumed she had very little outside deck space for sitting, but she actually had more than I thought.  Still there is nowhere near the outdoor space of the American Queen.  Interiors are glitzy and modern. The boat is said to be all suites — well yes and no.  I did see a two-level loft suite with private balcony with a very elegant bathroom on the second level and the standard Duchess bathroom on the first level.

The interior décor of the public rooms is very modern with high ceilings.  I liked it, though it is very different from the American Queen.  The inside cabins are called interior suites and would be very nice if they had a view, but they don’t.  All cabins have a Keurig Coffee maker and mini refrigerator.  These are nice touches also found aboard the American Empress on the Snake and Columbia Rivers. From looking at the prices for the Duchess, she is quite expensive.

Steamboat American Queen

American Empress cruises the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest.

Ted: I believe you are about to sail again.

Bill: I will soon be sailing from Pittsburgh to Louisville.  This is a cruise that has not been done in a number of years and will not be done in 2019 on this vessel.  The Duchess will probably do it next year.  This year’s trip should be popular as many people who I met on a round-trip Louisville cruise in 2017 had booked it.

I booked it since it will be from my original home of Pittsburgh, past Cincinnati where I live now, and terminates in Louisville.  The stops along the way should be interesting since I have not seen them from the water before — particularly Marietta, OH.

Steamboat American Queen

Bill with friends in his home town of Cincinnati, Ohio. * Photo: Ted Scull


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