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Richard photographing a breaching whale in Antarctica. * Photo: Kristin Braisted

Heidi and Ted posed more questions to polar expedition guide Richard White, an expert who has spent years at the ends of the earth as a guide, educator and wildlife lover. Currently Richard works for EYOS, a purveyor of luxury yacht cruises to the world’s most coveted and remote places. In the past he’s also guided for Lindblad Expeditions. Richard’s an excellent photographer as well; click here for a sampling of his Antarctica photos. Read Part 1 of our Q & A with Richard.

Connect with Richard on instagram @richthebirder or richard@eyos-expeditions.com.

 

QC: Tourism is your bread and butter (and ours too), but do you have reservations sometimes about too many people ruining the world’s pristine places?

Richard: I don’t worry about people ruining the world’s pristine places. That happened long before I was born. I don’t believe that any part of the world that I have been to is pristine.

For example, those of us visiting Antarctica will never know what the Southern Ocean looked like before commercial whaling wiped out the vast majority of large whales in the region. Numbers have recovered, and we get some great whale watching opportunities during our trips, but it is only a shadow of what was once there and certainly not pristine.

But I do worry about the loss of wilderness, but that is another question and a longer and more difficult answer.

 

Richard photographing a breaching whale in Antarctica. * Photo: Kristin Braisted

Richard photographing a diving whale in Antarctica. * Photo: Kristin Braisted

 

QC: How do you justify tourism?

Richard:  I didn’t know that I had to justify tourism. It was around before I started working in the industry and will be there long after I retire (or die, whichever comes first). And if I stopped working in the industry because there was some part of it that made me unhappy, the industry would not grind to a halt.

I do think it is important that people are given the rare and special opportunity to experience wilderness areas at least once in their lifetime; and the polar regions offer that chance on a grand scale. The experience of wilderness changes people. It makes us aware of our insignificance in the bigger picture. And at the same time, I hope the experience will help people to appreciate and value such places, and that the remaining wilderness areas should be protected.

That would be my justification for introducing people to the polar regions through tourism.

 

QC: If you come across a passenger who  likes to go off on his/her own when ashore, how do you deal with this if it’s not allowed at a particular landing?

Richard: If it is not allowed, then it is not allowed. I don’t bend rules for individuals. If there is an option, I might choose not to make that landing. But if there is no option, then it simply needs to be a conversation that explains the circumstances of that location and the reason why no solo wandering is allowed.

 

A lone visitor exploring Neko Harbour in Antarctica. * Photo: Richard White

A lone visitor exploring Neko Harbour in Antarctica. * Photo: Richard White

 

QC: And if it is permitted to go off one’s own, do you have a set of guidelines or safety warnings depending on the animal life or ice and snow conditions at a particular site?

Richard: Yes. On a site-by-site, day-by-day basis. And it will also depend on the person. As you can understand, it is complicated.

 

QC: Are there new landing sites in Antarctica that you would suggest to add to an itinerary that would offer something different, and to avoid crowding at exiting popular landings?

Richard: Every Expedition Leader has “new” or “alternative” landing sites in mind. This is not just about avoiding crowding, but may also provide added diversity of experience whether in terms of landscape or wildlife.

These sites also serve their purpose when primary sites may be blocked by ice, or blown out by weather.

In some cases we might like to think of these as “secret,” or known only to a few. But in reality, there is little out there that is not known by the wider community.

But there are good reasons that existing landings are popular, and as an industry we need to be able to share access to these and “play well together.” Until now this has generally worked well, but it is likely to be a greater challenge in the future.

 

Orne Harbour Antarctica. * Photo: Richard White

Orne Harbour Antarctica. * Photo: Richard White

 

QC: What are some of your non-technical guidelines when photographing the wildlife — i.e. creating interesting still photographs?

Richard: The simplest and I think the best, is to get down to the same level as the subject, i.e. shoot penguins at eye level, not just the top of their heads.

And second do not always aim for close up portrait shots — go wide. Try to place the subject in the environment. It is not as easy, but very satisfying when it works well.

Curious Adelie penguin. * Photo: Richard White

Curious Adelie penguin. * Photo: Richard White

 

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Richard White

Heidi posed some questions to polar expedition expert Richard White, who has spent years at the ends of the earth as a guide, educator and wildlife lover. Richard works for EYOS, a purveyor of luxury yacht cruises to the world’s most coveted and remote places. In the past he’s also guided for Lindblad Expeditions. Richard’s an excellent photographer as well; click here for his Antarctica photo essay. Read Part 2 of our Q&A with Richard.

Connect with him on instagram @richthebirder or richard@eyos-expeditions.com.

 

QC: Do you have a favorite part of the poles?

Richard: The sub-Antarctic islands — whether places like South Georgia or the islands to the south of New Zealand. There is more biological diversity in those regions, and as wildlife is my main interest, diversity will always be a draw. It’s a perfect day if you get lucky with a great wildlife encounter or great weather and beautiful light.

They are also less visited than the Antarctic Peninsula, so that is an added attraction.

 

QC: What still makes you gasp in wonder?

Richard: A killer whale surfacing next to a Zodiac…

Killer whale surfaces next to zodiac driven by Richard. * Photo: Sean Todd

Killer whale surfaces next to zodiac driven by Richard. * Photo: Sean Todd

QC: How many trips have you taken to Antarctica?

Richard: I have never kept a count of how may trips I have done. In part because there is no simple way to measure. For example, how does a six-week research voyage compare with four 10-day trips? Or five weeks with eight people on a 20-metre sailboat compare with 10 days on a 200-passenger vessel?

All I can tell you is that my first trip was in 1998 as a researcher, my first as a guide in 2003, and I have missed two seasons since 1998.

So probably more than 25…

 

QC: If you have one golden message for small ship cruise passengers in Antarctica, what is it?

Richard: The one golden message is go. Don’t debate whether it is worth it, just go. And go for as long as you can afford (both in financial and temporal terms), and on as small a vessel as you will feel comfortable.

And then when you are there, seek out your own moments and your own experience. You will be with others, some of whom will be strangers, in close proximity, for days, maybe weeks. But don’t just accept their experience or the shared experience. Make the effort to find some personal space, or with a partner, and try to hold that moment and take in the scale of what you are experiencing.

Gentoo penguins nesting at Neko Harbour, Antarctic Peninsula. * Photo: Richard White

Gentoo penguins nesting at Neko Harbour, Antarctic Peninsula. * Photo: Richard White

QC: Do you get stir crazy if you’re “home” for more than a month or two?

Richard: No. It is a holiday, I can do my own thing, why would I go crazy? And assuming I can get out and walk in some kind of green space, or open space, then I can be happy anywhere.

 

Rafflesia plant. * Photo: Richard White

Rafflesia plant. * Photo: Richard White

QC: What’s packing like for you? You must be expert by now.

Richard: Packing is easy, yes. A few items of favourite tried and tested gear. And so much relies on an efficient laundry system on board.

 

QC: Can you imagine not traveling and guiding? Do you want to do it until you can’t physically handle it?

Richard: I don’t have a retirement package, so I guess I will die in the saddle…

 

QC: “Who” is your favorite kind of passenger? Least favorite?

Richard: There is no simple answer to this, but I will try.

Favourite — engaged. And then the opposite end of that spectrum. Everyone finds their own level of engagement, so it is not that one approach is “right” or “wrong.”  I guess another way to answer would be “happy” and “grumpy.”  But some people are happy when grumpy, it is their “normal.”

 

QC: After working for a few months straight, do you want to hide from people?

Richard: It really depends on the people. See above.

 

QC: How many airline miles do you have?

Richard: Not as many as you might think. I might only fly six times a year with work if I work three times, two-month contracts each time.

 

QC: If you weren’t doing what you do, what would you be?

Richard: Probably living on an island studying seabirds. And I have a passion for island restoration programmes — getting rid of non-native species to restore island ecology. It can be very effective conservation work, although not cheap. We are all hoping that South Georgia has been cleared of rats through recent efforts by the South Georgia Heritage Trust — this would be a huge result.

Stork-billed Kingfisher in the Hindhede Nature Park. *Photo: Richard White

Stork-billed Kingfisher in the Hindhede Nature Park. *Photo: Richard White

QC: Besides your college degree, do you have other certifications?

Richard: I have qualifications as a Zodiac driver and in gun handling and first aid.

They are necessary — it is getting harder to find work without the relevant pieces of paper. One of the challenges the industry faces as it grows is finding new talent. Qualifications are one way, but should never replace relevant experience. But it is easy to get caught in a classic Catch 22 where you cannot get one without the other.

 

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The VIC 32 has got to be the most adorable little ship in the world. * Photo: Puffer Steamboat Holidays

A quirky cruise does not get any more offbeat than spending five days cruising canals, lochs and amongst islands aboard a tiny steam-powered, coal-fired Scottish coastal cargo boat built at the height of WWII maintaining the original design and concept that dates largely from the 19th century.

Snapshot: Meet VIC32, of Puffer Steamboat Holidays, a lifetime project for Nick and Rachel Walker, who during the first year of marriage in 1979 bought what is well-known in Scotland as a Clyde Puffer, once the backbone for supplying the islands and outlying areas in Scotland with everyday needs as well as heavy bulk cargo. Almost continuously since then, they have operated VIC32 as a cruise vessel. Since 2002, she has been owned by the Puffer Preservation Trust as one of about a half-dozen left, with most in stationary roles and none in cruise service. Friends of VIC32 help maintain her along with the passenger fares. The letters VIC translate to Victualing Inshore Craft.

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers: VIC32, built 1943, 12 passengers. Its length is just over 66 feet, the maximum size to fit the canal lock chambers.

Passenger Decks: 3 decks, including the pilot house. Because of its historic nature, there is no elevator, and those with limited mobility will find it difficult to get about and on/off vessel into small launches.

Passenger Profile: They mostly hail from Great Britain, while drawing steam preservation buffs and the adventuresome worldwide.

Price: $ – Moderate rates

Itineraries: Cruises operate from late April into September with two to four 5-day cruises each month. Embarkation is Sunday afternoon after 3:30pm and disembarkation Friday afternoon. The start on a Monday morning and finish is most often at the tiny harbor village of Crinan (located on the west coast of Scotland in the region of Argyll), but also sometimes Ardrishaig, Glasgow, Corpach and Inverness. if the disembarkation port is different from the embarkation port, then arrangements are made, when required, to return to the originating port. An availability chart is available during the booking year.

Many itinearies include canal cruising

Many itineraries include canal crusing. * Photo: Puffer Steamboat Holidays

Included features: Three meals daily, plus morning coffee and afternoon tea. Fishing, birding and sightseeing in small launches are included. A few boiler suits are available. Drinks are extra.

Why Go? There is nothing quite like sailing with just over a dozen souls (including crew) in a tiny, authentic coal-fired steamboat amongst the gorgeous Hebridean islands of Western Scotland and into its lochs and canals.

When to Go? Anyone who knows Scotland at all is aware that the fickle weather can be wet and windy for several days or just the opposite, or change every hour. An availability chart lists what cabin berths are still open. Space sells out quickly, so don’t wait too long to decide on dates.

Cabins: Six cozy double cabins in the hull, with four having double beds and two with upper and lower berths. Two shared washrooms have showers, WC, washbasin and electrical shaver points.

Double bed cabin. * Photo: Puffer Steamboat Holidays

Public Rooms: A cozy single lounge with comforts for rainy or cool days. The pilothouse is nearly always open as is the coal-fired engine room.

Dining: A single dining table seats 12 and at night lighting is by oil l lamp. Breakfast is continental with fresh-baked goods; lunch is buffet; and dinner a served three-course meal. Drinks are bought at the bar. The food is reportedly very good with local Scottish produce available as well as fresh local fish and cockles, a common bivalve throughout northern Europe. Morning coffee and afternoon tea with fresh pastries are daily rituals in this part of the world.

Activities & Entertainment: Routinely, VIC32 sets off each morning to puff at about six knots amongst the Inner Hebrides to then tie up midday or early afternoon. Passengers then may go on hikes, birding outings, visit small towns and fishing villages, castles and craft centers, or perhaps fish from VIC32’s launch or use it to reach a special picnic spot. Fit souls who don’t mind coal dust can feed the hand-fired boiler; budding captains can have a turn at the wheel or handle the lines when docking.

Shoveling coal onto the adorable VIC 32. * Photo: Puffer Steamboat Holidays

Shoveling coal onto the adorable VIC32. * Photo: Puffer Steamboat Holidays

Special Notes: To learn about Clyde puffers as well as this particular one, consider reading The Last of the Clyde Puffers by Keith McGinn and also Puffer Alphabet – 32 years of anecdotes by Nick Walker. Be aware that the season usually sells out, hence an early booking is highly recommended. The website features an availability chart. Payment in GB Pounds only. Casual clothing is the norm with perhaps a few garments you don’t mind getting soiled; dress in layers because of the temperature changes. You are requested to bring your own towels, and no laundry facilities available. Check out The Puffer Cookbook, full of recipes generated on board, photographs within and the scenery beyond the railing, and personal anecdotes..

Along the Same Lines: Nothing comes to mind that is remotely close except in size — Hebrides Cruises and Majestic Line — with both far more expensive. The maintenance of the Clyde Puffer is an ongoing project requiring constant funds beyond what the vessel raises during the cruise season..

Contact: Puffer Steamboat Holidays Ltd., Crinan Boatyard, Crinan, Argyll PA31 8SW Scotland; UK 01 44 1546 830 133. Savethepuffer.co.uk.

— TWS

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Tahiti silver discoverer

By Art Sbarsky.

The Silver Discoverer cruise I took was titled “Peaks and Atolls of French Polynesia” and the 10-night voyage roundtrip from Papeete, Tahiti, was a perfect example of the far-out, off-the-beaten-path experience you get on a Silversea Expeditions trip.

Art Sbarsky Tahiti arieal sea

Tahiti from above. * Photo: Art Sbarsky

The names of places we visited on this cruise don’t fall trippingly off the tongue: Ahe, Rangiroa, Hanavave, Puamau, Tahanea, Fakarava and more. None of them would be considered prime cruising destinations, but that was part of the fascination and excitement of being in this area. They’re all part of the Tuamotu Archipelago and the Marquesas Islands located northeast of Tahiti. Adding to the remote and undeveloped nature of the voyage is the fact that we never docked anywhere; we took zodiacs (high-quality solid-riding ones) to get from the ship to either a snorkeling/diving site or to the small villages ashore. When you see pictures of the gorgeous South Pacific water or the amazingly green volcanic mountains in the region, these are the places you see.

Tahiti silver discoverer

The Silver Discoverer in remote French Polynesia. * Photo: Art Sbarsky

An expedition cruise is the same as a regular cruise in that it goes places, feeds it guests, pampers them, gives them a very comfortable place to stay, and makes the entire operation seamless. But the whole vibe, especially when going to the far-flung places reached by Silversea Expeditions, is different; just reading the massive brochure creates interest in so many places for true travelers, not just tourists. People I spoke with on board from places like Seattle and Lake Arrowhead, CA, as well as various folks from the UK and Australia, had an affinity towards expedition cruises that makes them quite loyal to this type of cruising. There were lots of 60+ guests on board, and a good number went back and forth between Silversea’s smaller ships and their larger ships. The level of repeat guests to the brand was quite high, regardless of where and how they traveled. The largest percentage of guests came from the United States at about 21% with slightly lower numbers from Australia/New Zealand and the UK. Most of the rest were from Europe, making for a nice mix of accents on board. Because of the sufficient numbers from Germany, special lectures and slide/video presentations were set up for them.

The Silver Discoverer, the ex-Clipper Odyssey (Clipper Cruise Line/Intrav) taken over and refurbished by Silversea Cruises in May 2014, carries 120 when full and with its 5,218 tonnage, the space ratio is a comfy 43; not as spacious as the regular Silversea ships, but it never felt crowded. With 101 crewmembers, service was exceptional. Bar and wait staff got to know everyone quite quickly and service became personalized to an impressive degree.

A Veranda suite. * Photo: Silversea Expeditions

A Veranda suite. * Photo: Silversea Expeditions

The superb 15-member expedition team was responsible for snorkel and dive guidance, driving the zodiacs, handling logistics, conducting lectures and video presentations, and running everything else that went into making the local stops easy to enjoy. They really got to know individual guests and made beginner snorkelers (such as me) and experienced divers all capable of enjoying the marine life. And this is important because a major reason to go to a place like French Polynesia, where the waters are so clear, is to see and experience the abundant fish life and coral.

Off to explore a remote spot via Zodiac. * Photo: Art Sbarsky

Off to explore a remote spot via Zodiac. * Photo: Art Sbarsky

Here’s a typical wonderful day in the Marquesas Islands:

Breakfast was served in the Discoverer Lounge from 6:30 – 8:30am. It was a lovely buffet and there were specialty items cooked to order for guests sitting inside or outside at the aft pool deck dining/drinking location. Then it was a visit to the Tahanea Atoll, part of the Tuamoto Archipelago. It’s only about 28 miles in length with a maximum width of 9 miles and we stopped inside the atoll itself. A snorkeling platform was set up and the colors were simply amazing and the fish life and coral fascinating.

Excellent snorkeling and diving are big reason to visit French Polynesia. * Photo: Art Sbarsky

Excellent snorkeling and diving are a big reason to visit French Polynesia. * Photo: Art Sbarsky

After a morning of water adventures the ship left and headed toward the Motutunga Atoll, even smaller than Tahanea. On the way, of course, we had lunch, one of many great buffets with a set menu as well. We had to zodiac to the snorkeling platform because there were no entries large enough for the ship to get inside the atoll ring itself. Hard to believe, but here the ship’s crew brought ashore beverages, snacks and even ice cream for a sunset cocktail celebration at the end of the day. We sailed for Fakarava at about 6pm. Dinner of course followed on board with guests enjoying terrific cuisine in the main dining room; menus were more than sufficient, but the staff was also flexible when guests wanted something as simple as an unlisted pasta dish — if they had it on board, they cooked it. Hot Rocks was another option, a truly fun outside dining experience where guests mostly cook their own steaks, shrimp and more. After dinner, it was quiet music in the lounge, conversation, strolling the decks and enjoying the weather/stars or, in most cases, making it an early evening to get ready for the next day’s outings.

Normally, in the early evening, there was a talk by members of the expedition team about what we had seen that day and what to expect tomorrow. This was a very knowledgeable group of guides, catering to all skill levels and making it easy to enjoy the experience. Virtually every place we went ashore where there was a village, locals entertained us with music, song and dance. The welcomes were warm and friendly and the villages interesting. In at least one case, there was an opportunity to choose from many kinds of hiking, from relatively simple strolling and birdwatching to some extremely strenuous hikes. I chose the middle walk to a waterfall. Didn’t quite make it all the way, but the pictures looked great.

Friendly locals perform folk dances and demonstrate their arts and crafts. * Photo: Art Sbarsky

Snorkeling equipment is supplied on board for everyone, but many guests seemed to bring their own. Lifejackets, mandatory for all zodiac rides, aren’t the normal clunky type on big ships; they aren’t lightweight, but they are compact and give guests a real feeling of safety should the need arise. Happily, it didn’t.

On a cruise aboard a ship like the Silver Discoverer, guests need to realize what an expedition cruise is all about. For example, traditional evening entertainment and casinos don’t exist on board such a small ship as Silver Discoverer. Two nights, however, the evenings were particularly enjoyable with a great BBQ on deck about halfway through the cruise and then a crew show scheduled nicely on Halloween night. Both evenings were among the very best I have ever experienced at sea.

And now that the line has converted one of its smaller ships, Silver Cloud, to expedition cruising, there are four Silversea expedition ships to offer up an even wider and more exciting range of places to go all over the world. Perfect for guests who want to steer clear of ordinary cruise destinations.

Click here to read more about Silversea Expeditions.

Gorgeousness at every turn. * Photo: Art Sbarsky

Gorgeousness at every turn. * Photo: Art Sbarsky

 

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Seabourn Order Two New Expedition Ships

These stark, stunning, moody, life-affirming, surreal, melancholic, breathtaking …  (should we go on?) images of Antarctica were all shot in January and February 2017 by Richard White during his frequent journeys to the Great White Continent.

A polar expedition leader and guide, these days Richard works for EYOS, a purveyor of luxury yacht cruises to the world’s most coveted and remote places. In the past he’s also guided for Lindblad Expeditions. As you’ll see, Richard’s an excellent photographer as well.

See more of Richard’s beautiful photography on instagram @richthebirder and reach him directly at richard@eyos-expeditions.com. All images were taken with a Leica X U camera kindly provided by Leica Singapore and are the sole property of Richard White.

To find out more about Richard’s fascinating job and outlook, read our recent Q&A with him: Part 1 and Part 2.

 

The M/Y Hanse Explorer dwarfed by tabular icebergs in Antarctic Sound. * Photo: Richard White

The M/Y Hanse Explorer dwarfed by tabular icebergs in Antarctic Sound. * Photo: Richard White

 

Iceberg arch off the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. * Photo: Richard White

Iceberg arch off the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. * Photo: Richard White

 

Curious Adelie penguin. * Photo: Richard White

Curious Adelie penguin. * Photo: Richard White

 

Chinstrap penguins nesting at Orne Harbour, Antarctic Peninsula. * Photo: Richard White

Chinstrap penguins nesting at Orne Harbour, Antarctic Peninsula. * Photo: Richard White

 

Gentoo penguins nesting at Neko Harbour, Antarctic Peninsula. * Photo: Richard White

Gentoo penguins nesting at Neko Harbour, Antarctic Peninsula. * Photo: Richard White

 

M/Y Hanse Explorer "parked" in shore-fast ice. * Photo: Richard White

M/Y Hanse Explorer “parked” in shore-fast ice. * Photo: Richard White

 

MY Hanse Explorer still "parked" in shore-fast ice. * Photo: Richard White

MY Hanse Explorer still “parked” in shore-fast ice. * Photo: Richard White

 

Hiking over shore-fast ice. * Photo: Richard White

Hiking over shore-fast ice. * Photo: Richard White

 

Adelie penguins on shore-fast ice. * Photo: Richard White

Adelie penguins on shore-fast ice. Kind of reminds you of that Beatles Abby Road shot. * Photo: Richard White

 

Humpback whale diving along the ice edge. * Photo: Richard White

Humpback whale diving along the ice edge. Can you fathom being this close?! * Photo: Richard White

 

South end of Lemaire Channel, Antarctic Peninsula. Photo: Richard White

South end of Lemaire Channel, Antarctic Peninsula. * Photo: Richard White

 

Again, the south end of Lemaire Channel, Antarctic Peninsula. * Photo: Richard White

Again, the south end of Lemaire Channel, Antarctic Peninsula. * Photo: Richard White

 

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Icy Svalbard

EXPEDITION CRUISES are one of the five types of small-ship cruises covered on QuirkyCruise.com.

Expedition cruises have a distinctive learning element and bring to mind a sense of adventure whether it’s visiting remote peoples in the South Pacific or plying the Upper Amazon; looking for rare birds and exotic animals in the Galapagos Islands, along Australia’s Kimberley Coast or in Central America; cruising amongst amazing and colorful ice formations in Antarctica and the Arctic; or encountering dramatic landscapes in Patagonia.

Here are some things that set expedition cruises apart:

  • A team of trained experts gives talks aboard and leads active outings ashore.
  • Expedition cruises are often longer than a cultural or scenic cruise, from 10 days to three weeks.
  • Most expedition cruises require a certain level of fitness to get in and out of various landing craft when going ashore in remote places and also a degree of stamina to trek across ice, through rain forests, along rocky shorelines and so on.
  • Typically they’re expensive — many, not all, in the range of $500 to $1,000 USD per person a day — in part due to their length, the remoteness of the region, often requiring pricey flights, and because of the number of high-quality onboard experts and the logistics of operating remote shore explorations.

    — HMS

 

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Serenity at the bow, heading north to Alaska

By Ted Scull.

Over the years, I have made six trips to Alaska, five of them by ship and one by car. The waterborne voyages north to Alaska have been via a large cruise ship, twice by the Alaska Marine Highway and twice by small ships taking less than 100 passengers. The Inside Passage en route to the 49th state is a scenic wonder, bracketed by steep cliffs, high mountains snowcapped most of the year, narrow waterways providing deep routes into the interior, and isolated settlements, for some, the only access may be by boat. The scenery on the voyage north may be appreciated from any size ship. However, enjoying the sight of wildlife in the sea and on land is altogether another matter once you are in Alaska.

Serenity at the bow, heading north to Alaska

Serenity at the bow, heading north to Alaska. * Photo: Ted Scull

The benefits of taking a small ship cruise in Alaska are pretty overwhelming, but decide for yourself if small trumps big:

WILDLIFE

  • Whales and dolphins are likely in these waters, and the big ships must stay well away from a pod of whales, while a small ship, much less threatening and more maneuverable, can quietly move closer allowing passengers standing one or two decks above the sea to observe them at close range without disturbing them. Dolphins may follow just off the bow and you can often look straight down at them.
  • A small ship’s itinerary is usually more relaxed, so the captain has more time allowed for finding wildlife and staying with it.
  • When wildlife is spotted ashore, small ships with shallow drafts can edge up to slumbering sea lions lounging along the shoreline, while a deeper draft ship has to remain well away.
  • Such proximity provides a major thrill and small groups can more easily keep the silence allowing an undisturbed observance of sea lions interacting with each other. Bears are another sight to watch out for from the decks of a small ship.
  • I have been able to get great pictures without a telephoto lens.

Close up to lounging sea lions at the entrance to Glacier Bay. * Photo: Ted Scull

GLACIERS

  • Some Alaskan glaciers are located at the far end of narrow fjords, hence big ships can sail up only so close and still be able to turn around.
  • A small ship has much more room to maneuver, and if a large piece of glacial ice should calve, you will feel the wave that it creates.
  • In Glacier Bay, mornings are set aside for the large ships, and the number each day is limited, while the small ships have the morning to get close to wildlife near the entrance to Glacier Bay and maybe sail into a narrow bay where more wildlife is located.
  • Then in the afternoon, they have the glaciers to themselves or perhaps with another small ship.
  • Captains often speak to each other so they choose not to follow exactly the same itinerary. In addition, they may exchange wildlife information.

Close to Margerie Glacier, Glacier Bay. * Photo: Ted Scull

PORTS

  • Some Alaskan towns have just a few thousand inhabitants, some even less, so a massive cruise ship may have a larger population aboard than ashore.
  • Either the passengers and crew inundate the town or simply do not call at all, while one with just 50 to 100 on board will be able to go ashore, more easily blend in, meet people on the street, and if a performance is planned, see it at a local meeting hall, gym or theater.
  • When visiting Petersburg, Alaska with strong Norwegian ties a couple of years ago, for instance, the locals demonstrated their culture using ancestral musical instruments and dancing. The town is also one of the richest fishing ports in the world, and its citizens are proud to describe their life at sea and fleet maintenance. It was easily done with a small group and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
  • From a small ship, you may be able to go directly into the ship’s own Zodiacs for a wildlife excursion to a nearby island or to a landing almost anywhere for a hike ashore, no docking facilities needed. The big ships on the other hand will probably have you join a local land operator who first has to get you to the wildlife site by bus.
  • Both large and small ships call at tiny Skagway, for example, and there’s no avoiding the tourist crowds in the streets, though other parts of the visit will feel saner for small ship cruisers. On the Yukon and White Pass trains, the small ships offer a single reserved coach for its passengers, and similarly, other excursions won’t entail mustering groups of hundreds.

Peaceful evening port call at Glacier Bay Lodge. * Photo: Ted Scull

ONBOARD LECTURES & ACTIVITES

  • The National Park Service is often hired by the cruise line to come aboard, give a talk or be out on deck to identify wildlife and answer questions. On a big ship, the commentary may have to be given over a loud speaker while on a small vessel, passengers gather round and have a personal chat.
  • The small ships will also often carry their own naturalist staff who are also available throughout the day.
  • If the weather turns nasty keeping you inside, the big ships will have many more on board diversions such as bars, musical entertainment, movies, shopping, gym, spa and where permitted, casino gambling.
  • The small ships offer solitude: a naturalist lecture, film, maybe a small gym and spa and perhaps the best chance you will ever get to read that book that has been sitting by your bedside.

Up close and personal with a National Park Service guide. * Photo: Ted Scull

COST

  • While the big ships usually have cheaper fares, shore tours are extra and can be quite expensive in Alaska, while many small ships have excursions included in the fare and that helps narrow the gap. They may also offer optional trips, such as flightseeing, for a charge.
  • There is no question that the big ships offering economies of scale, and with 2,000-5,000 passengers, they can charge less than a ship carrying just one hundred or fewer. If considering both, make sure you compare what is included up front to give you a fair appraisal.

While Alaska on any size vessel is a supremely worthwhile trip, we’re personally besotted with seeing Alaska on a small ship. Whatever you choose, happy cruising!

Free to join the first mate in the wheelhouse. * Photo: Ted Scull

 

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QuirkyCruise reader review

Reviewer: Catherine from Singapore.

Cruise Line: Australis.

Ship: Stella Australis.

Destination: Patagonia.

# of Nights: 3.

Departure Date & Ports:  December 28, 2016, from Ushuaia, Argentina.

OVERALL RATING: 5 out of 5 stars.

Have you been on a small ship cruise before? No.

Review: Highly Recommended.

We had an incredible multi-generational holiday in ARGENTINA and Chile which included three nights on this fabulous cruise. I did not think that I was a cruise person at all – but I cannot recommend this intimate, special cruise enough. The boat was lovely – big bright rooms, the side trips were well executed, the staff was fantastic and the scenery looks just like the photos in the Randy Mink article on QuirkyCruise – they could easily be our photos!

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

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Swan Hellenic

Swan Hellenic, a long-established culturally-oriented British firm that got its start in 1954 was most recently owned by the British firm All-Leisure Holidays until it ceased trading in early 2017. Sold to G Adventures, the line, using Swan’s past passenger lists was expected to resume operations but never did. Now a consortium of international ship-related businesses have vowed to restart the line using two expedition-style ships (152 passengers) that is expected to produce ship number one in late 2021 and the second in the second quarter of 2022. The English-speaking market is expected to be British, US, Canadian, Europeans who speak English, Australians and New Zealanders. While the culturally-oriented thrust is to be continued, there is an initial heavy emphasis on the Arctic and Antarctic polar regions and then the Far East, including Japan and the Philippines, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and South Pacific Islands. The Mediterranean World and Northern Europe, the heart and soul of the old Swan Hellenic, are not mentioned. Until more is known, what follows below the photo is the story of the original Swan Hellenic concept.

What Was Swan Hellenic

One-ship-line Swan had traditionally drawn the upper end of the British market, plus a modest percentage of North Americans, to its cultural enrichment cruises that explore the Mediterranean, northern Europe and East of Suez through the Indian Ocean as far as Southeast and East Asia.

A team of mostly British lecturers accompanied every voyage, and few other cruise lines provided such an intensive year-round educational program that was offered in a most enjoyable social setting.

Having sailed five times with Swan — to the Middle East, Black Sea, France, Iberia and around the British Isles — I took to the British on-board style, the mind stimulation from the lecture program, interesting fellow passengers, and well-orchestrated visits ashore.

Cottages sloping down to Cobh's harbor, Ireland. * Photo: Ted Scull

Cottages sloping down to Cobh’s harbor, Ireland. * Photo: Ted Scull

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

MINERVA (1996 & rebuilt 2011-12); 2 NEW BUILDS (2021 & 2022, 152 pax)

Passenger Profile

Mostly well-educated British 55 and up, and many repeaters (known as Swans)

Passenger Decks

6, and two elevators, aft and forward of amidships, serve five of the six decks with the forward one also reaches Promenade Deck.

Price

$ – $$  Moderate/Expensive

Included Features

A program of shore excursions in every port include entrance fees and all gratuities aboard and to guides ashore; wine on the captain’s welcome & farewell dinners. flights and transfers to/from the ship (where noted).

Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Argentina. * Photo: Ted Scull

Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Argentina. * Photo: Ted Scull

Itineraries: Cruises generally last between 14 and 16 days, with some as long as 22; none were repeated within any given year; cruises may be strung together for longer voyages. In the late autumn, the MINERVA crossed the Atlantic to the Caribbean and South America, and then sailing via the Panama Canal, cruised the west coast of South America, southbound to the tip, then returned northbound. The route back to Northern Europe is via Panama, Central America, and the Atlantic Isles. By April, the ship will work its way via numerous French ports, Channel calls and into the Baltic. A cruise will circumnavigate Iceland (4 calls) and stop in the Faroes and Shetland. The height of summer is spent in Norway and beyond the Arctic Circle, then via Scotland, Wales, Ireland to Channel Ports. By August 2016 the ship moves south via Portugal and Spain to the Mediterranean. Here the MINERVA remains until January 2017 in the Western Mediterranean, the Adriatic, Greece and as far east as Istanbul. Following a cruise out to the Atlantic Isles, the ship heads up via Iberian ports to be based at Portsmouth, England for the spring and summer 2017. Destinations are France, the Baltic (multiple cruises), Norway, British Isles, Iceland, and Ireland before heading south the Mediterranean in early August for the fall. Inclusive air programs from the U.S. and Canada make reaching the ship more convenient.

Acropolis, Athens. * Photo: Ted Scull

Acropolis, Athens. * Photo: Ted Scull

See Addendum below for two Swan river cruises.

Why Go?

Swan Hellenic arguably offers the best cultural enrichment program afloat with a team of speakers whose biographies are listed in the main brochures. Their topics may include the areas of archaeology, architecture, art history, geography, horticulture, literature, philosophy, religion, and more. Some lecturers are writers, professors, scientists, broadcasters, (former) diplomats, military experts and members of the clergy.

The itineraries are well planned to include the most interesting places in the cruising regions, while the organization aboard and ashore is tops. What may be a plus for some, the atmosphere is thoroughly British; the passengers are generally well educated and table conversation lively and good fun.

When to Go?

The itineraries are far-reaching and geared to when the weather is likely to be the most favorable, such as most of the summer and fall in Northern Europe and the Mediterranean and winter months in the warmer climes of Central and South America.

Lisbon's trams climb and descend hills across the city. * Photo: Ted Scull

Lisbon’s trams climb and descend hills across the city. * Photo: Ted Scull

Cabins

Of 190 cabins, 144 are outside, and 44 of these (336-340 sq. ft) located on Sun Deck and Bridge Deck include generous-sized balconies. The standard cabins, Aegean and Baltic decks, both outside and inside cabins are small (140 sq. ft). All accommodations come with flat-screen TVs, fridge, hairdryer, bathrobes, fresh fruit basket, binoculars and personal safe. A communal launderette is free to use.

Minerva's library contains more than 5,000 books. * Photo: Ted Scull

Minerva’s library contains more than 5,000 books. * Photo: Ted Scull

Public Rooms

MINERVA’S country hotel atmosphere is perhaps best typified by Shackleton’s Bar, a roomy U-shaped, light-wood-paneled lounge with polished wood floors and oriental-style carpets. A pianist plays in one corner and a stunning set of black and white photographs depicting Ernest Shackleton’s aborted Antarctic expedition and rescue are mounted on the walls.

Forward on the same Main Deck, the Darwin Lounge, held up by white fluted ionic columns, offers theater-style seating for lectures and evening entertainment and otherwise lounge-type seating, a wooden dance floor, and bandstand. On Bridge Deck portside, the Wheeler Bar pays homage to Sir Mortimer Wheeler, one of Swan’s founders — scholar, intrepid traveler, and later chairman. One section offers wicker furniture set amidst potted palms and another, overstuffed armchairs and couches facing mahogany tables.

On the same deck, the long gallery-style library staffed by the lecturers’ spouses, is lined with open book shelves (5,000 volumes), comfortable reading (and perhaps some snoozing) chairs, reference books, and flat surfaces for studying atlases and using the computer stations.

If buying an e-mail package, the rates are remarkably inexpensive. Next-door are the paneled smoking lounge with button leather chairs and card room for bridge players. High up on Promenade Deck, the Orpheus Lounge serves as an observatory with 270-degree views, lounge seating and a bar with music at night. An outdoor promenade is ideal for that constitutional and wraps around the Orpheus Lounge.

Dining

Meals are taken at an open-seating restaurant, a boon for meeting fellow passengers and great for single travelers. Meals are invariably lively social events, full of good conversation. In the main restaurant, jacket and tie are de rigueur at dinner, while the informal Veranda, an attractive buffet restaurant, is always casual and offers additional outdoor seating, and barbecues, in fine weather. Food is good to very good and should suit most American and British tastes.

Gathering for pre-dinner drinks on the afterdeck. * Photo: Ted Scull

Gathering for pre-dinner drinks on the afterdeck. * Photo: Ted Scull

Activities & Entertainment

The lecture program is tops with several speakers on each cruise chosen for their knowledge, presentation and appropriateness for the specific itinerary and last 40 minutes with a Q&A. Two lectures are generally scheduled for half days at sea while as many as four are presented when there is a full day.

The talks are directly connected to the cruising region and the speakers accompany the shore program. Sampling: Martin Bell, former BBC war correspondant and Member of Parliament; Professor Carole Hillenbrand OBE FBA, current professor of Islamic History at University of St. Andrews with six books published; Dame Jenni Murray, lecturer in Ancient History at Oxford, and an associate priest; and Sir Roy Strong, historian, broadcaster, diarist, and gardener and former Director of the V&A and National Portrait Gallery.

All talks may be enjoyed live on the cabin TVs. A pianist, violinist, small band and solo entertainments are also part of the scene before and after dinner. Films are screened and trivia quizzes are good fun. A swimming pool, located aft, is surrounded by wooden chairs and tables under umbrellas. Additionally, the Promenade Deck up by the funnel has blue and white cushioned plastic deck chairs shared with a small glassed-in gymnasium.

Special Notes

An attractive and useful Cruise Book placed in every cabin includes descriptions of the included excursions and the additional shore trips at a supplementary cost; a recommended reading list; guest speakers’ names and backgrounds and introductory articles they may have written.

All-Leisure Holidays, Swan Hellenic’s parent company, also operates the 50-passenger HEBRIDEAN PRINCESS, see the Hebridean Island Cruises website; and the 540-passenger VOYAGER under the Voyages of Discovery banner.

Along the Same Lines

No other small ship line has quite the same high standards nor the number of cultural-oriented lecturers per voyage. Lindblad would be roughly equal in quality on its European program, while it is better known for its expedition-oriented voyages.

Contact Info

US Agents – All-Leisure Holidays, 1800 S.E. 10th Avenue, Suite 205, Ft. Lauderdale, FL 3316;  www.swanhellenic.us ; 866-923-9182.

— TWS

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An expert lecturer on a Lindblad cruise leads passengers on an excursion.

by Ted Scull.

Today’s mainstream cruise ships today have become platforms for nearly everything you are likely to encounter at a beach resort or theme park with gimmicks galore to attract attention and hopefully customers. These giants seem to be drifting further and further away from the places they visit. Meanwhile, small ship cruises tend to focus much more on enrichment and learning.

About 25 years ago, one of my favorite discoveries was not The Love Boat but The Learn Boat, the nickname for Swan Hellenic’s then chartered Orpheus that puttered around the Mediterranean and Red Seas taking mostly British passengers for whom adding to their understanding of the world was of never-ending interest.

Aboard was retired Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie who also happened to be a Byzantine scholar, and in southern Turkey, he sent us up to the top tier of an ancient amphitheater while he spoke from below as if we were mere feet away about what had transpired here all those many centuries ago. Later an Egyptologist demystified Cleopatra so eventually I stopped seeing Elizabeth Taylor as the sole embodiment of her character. A well-known ornithologist, who agreed with his loyal followers that he resembled a hawk, recalled the importance of birds in ancient times as he translated hieroglyphs.

Swan Hellenic, very much with us today, sends the current ship Minerva well beyond the Ancient European World for a winter season in India, Southeast Asia or along the Coast of South America. A sign of how seriously the line takes its mission, the lecture staff, numbering four or five, often hail from British universities, broadcasting, diplomatic service, the military and entertainment world. They are listed in the printed brochures and on the website up to a year in advance. During the voyage, virtually the entire passenger list attends the talks, either live or on cabin TVs, creating a wonderfully shared experience.

Expedition ships generally take great care in providing a team of well-trained naturalists to prepare passengers for going ashore in Zodiacs, kayaks and on foot. During sea time, illustrated presentations recap the day’s activities and lay out the program for the next. The better-equipped ships, such as the Lindblad Expeditions fleet, may carry a remote underwater camera and photographers who record significant wildlife sightings with the results communally shared later in the day.

Small coastal and inland waters’ ships often provide a traveling historian, while occasional special interest lecturers come aboard in ports to talk about the former whaling industry in New Bedford and Nantucket or the building of New York State’s Erie Canal. In Alaska, some lines hire a National Parks Service guide to recall early exploration, the Klondike gold rush or how markedly glaciers have retreated during the last few decades.

River cruise lines vary widely about how seriously they take enrichment programs. Some interpretations are left to local guides ashore while others will carry highly qualified experts in history, politics, and local cultures to offer presentations while the boat sails between ports. Better informed passengers are far more likely to want to hear the rest of the story when they step ashore. Happily, in the last few years, passengers wearing earphones can listen to the guides speaking in a normal voice rather than having to shout above the din created by other guides.

The best historians I fondly remember were aboard the steamboats of the Delta Queen Steamboat Company, the predecessor of the American Queen SB Co. Known as riverlorians, their tales of the great floods before the levees were constructed, traffic jams of steamboats vying for landings, trooping during the Civil War, and pilots memorizing the rivers to avoid sandbars, snags and other boats will stay with me forever. Pandaw Cruises, a river cruise company based in Southeast Asia, is another line whose high quality local guides greatly add to the experience; they sail on the entire voyage, to lead excursions, lecture on board, share personal insights, and generally make themselves available for questions and chat.

If you want a palatable learning experience beyond just ticking off your bucket lists, carefully read the line’s positioning of its enrichment programs. Often the best command higher fares to pay for the additional expenses, salaries, and for expedition ships in particular, special equipment.

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Swan Hellenic's Minerva at Nice, French Riviera. * Photo: William J. Mayes

Swan Hellenic’s Minerva at Nice, French Riviera. * Photo: William J. Mayes

By Ted Scull.

Swan Hellenic’s origins, offering culturally rich cruises, date back to 1954 when two brothers named Swan began chartering Greek and Turkish ships to explore the Eastern Mediterranean, the Hellenic world of antiquity. More recently, the year-round program of culturally rich cruises have fanned out beyond the Med. to Northern Europe and through Suez to the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia.

The lecture program always was and still is Swan Hellenic’s great strength. Every cruise hosts three to five onboard guest speakers aboard appropriate to the itinerary. On a recent voyage that called at English, Irish and French ports, lecturers included an historian, writer, military specialist and an Anglican clergyman and nearly all talks were both informative as well as entertaining.

Entertainment is kept low-key to include a pianist, harpist, a classically trained quartet, house musicians, a crew show, a cinema, team quizzes and bridge instruction.

It was on Swan Hellenic’s chartered Orpheus in 1991 that I discovered my favorite style of cruising (vs crossings) on an itinerary that called at Greek, Turkish, Syrian, Egyptian and Jordanian ports. At breakfast on the first morning, the maitre d’ showed me to a table soon to be joined by Robert Runcie, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, and his wife. He was traveling as a guest lecturer on Byzantine history. If this was to be a taste of Swan-style democracy, I was going to cotton onto it.

Subsequently, highlights of that cruise included two-day overland trips to Damascus and Aleppo in Syria, and in Jordan, visiting the hidden valley at Petra and standing amongst Jerash’s fantastic ruins as night fell.

Orpheus to Minerva

In 1996, Swan Hellenic took on the charter of the 352-passenger Minerva, the line’s present ship, a vessel originally designed to serve as a Russian spy ship, then completed to Swan’s specifications.

Gone was the Greek décor and Anglo-Greek food and enter the English country-house hotel. Minerva could boast the largest library afloat, and the main lounge held all passengers for the lecture program that might run to four talks on a full sea day. Attendance, of course, was not mandatory but it might as well have been as most showed up or watched on their cabin televisions. That sort of enthusiasm engenders a shared cruise experience.

Business boomed and by 2003, Swan took on the larger 688-passenger Minerva II (that had formerly traded as Renaissance Cruises R Eight). But by 2007, the giant Carnival Corporation, Swan Hellenic’s owners since the take-over of P&O, had pulled the plug on the one-ship operation.

Never underestimate Swan loyaltists. Sir Jeffery Sterling, former chairman of P&O, came to the rescue, buying the Swan name and passenger list, and All Leisure, a UK holding company, got hold of a ship that turned out to be none other than the original Minerva. The cruise program resumed in May 2008. Most who knew the original Minerva, including me, delighted in the return of the smaller ship and its wonderful collection of paintings, prints, maps and photographs.

Ship’s Tour

Minerva’s country hotel atmosphere is perhaps best typified by Shackleton’s Bar, a roomy U-shaped, light-wood-paneled lounge with polished wood floors and oriental-style carpets. A pianist plays in one corner and a stunning set of black and white photographs depicting Ernest Shackleton’s aborted Antarctic expedition and rescue are mounted on the walls.

Forward on the same Main Deck, the Darwin Lounge, held up by white fluted ionic columns, offers theater-style seating for lectures and evening entertainment, and otherwise, lounge-type seating, wooden dance floor, and bandstand.

On Bridge Deck portside, the Wheeler Bar pays homage to Sir Mortimer Wheeler, one of Swan’s founders – scholar, intrepid traveler, and later chairman. One section offers wicker furniture set amidst potted palms and another, overstuffed armchairs and couches facing mahogany tables.

On the same deck, the long gallery-style library, with the lecturers’ spouses in charge, is lined with open book shelves, comfortable reading chairs, reference books, and flat surfaces for studying atlases and using the computer stations. If buying an e-mail package, the rates are remarkably inexpensive. Next-door are the paneled smoking lounge with button leather chairs and card room for bridge players.

High up on Promenade Deck, the Orpheus Lounge serves as an observatory with 270-degree views and a bar with music at night. An outdoor promenade, ideal for that constitutional, wraps around the Orpheus Lounge.

Dining is open seating, a boon for meeting fellow passengers and a boon for single travelers. Meals are invariably lively social events full of good conversation. In the main restaurant, jacket and tie are de rigueur at dinner, while the informal Veranda, an attractive buffet restaurant, is always casual and offers additional outdoor seating in fine weather. Food is good to very good and will suit most American and British tastes.

Cabins are of mostly moderate size with 100 outside and an additional 44 with balconies. Most have showers (some have full-size baths), fridges, safes, and TVs with BBC and Euro news channels.

A swimming pool, located aft, is surrounded by wooden chairs and tables under umbrellas. Additionally, the Promenade Deck up by the funnel has blue and white cushioned plastic deck chairs shared with a small glassed-in gymnasium.

The passenger list is largely British, 60 and up, and cruise packages, including air and transfers, are available to North Americans. The atmosphere is a well-mannered one, and most passengers enjoy the social life and companionship in the lounge bars and during meals. Days at sea bring out avid readers who find ample places to roost.

Embarkation

On a blustery but sunny afternoon in late July, my wife and I embarked in Dover, southeast of London, for a two-week cruise that would circle Ireland and then visit Northern France before returning to England.

Our cabin was a Superior grade outside with a large mirrored picture-window facing the promenade deck, a walk-in closet and a tub bath for a favorite end-of-the-day soak after traipsing across the countryside.

We set sail at 3 p.m., passing beneath the famous White Cliffs of Dover for the overnight run through the English Channel to Dartmouth. After sailing up the impossibly narrow River Dart, filled with small boats and fringed by steep green hills, the ship anchored for the day below the Britannia Royal Naval College.

Swan Hellenic includes shore excursions in the cruise fares and offers optional extra tours at a fair price. Our destination was mystery writer Agatha Christie’s Greenway, once her home and a repository for her books and travel scrapbooks that gave rise to exotic Eastern Mediterranean and Egypt settings in her novels. The homey Georgian house, set in gardens that tumble down to the Dart, was first opened to the public by the National Trust in early 2009.

During the sea day en route to Cobh (formerly Queenstown) in Ireland, we had our first lectures – on Viking incursions, subsequent military invasions by the Spanish and French, and later Irish emigration from our next port to North America and Australia.

Ireland: South & West Coast

We docked at Cobh’s railway pier, the same spot whence 2.5 million Irish had embarked for new lives in North America and Australia. Today, the station houses the Heritage Centre telling the Queenstown Story using drawings, photographs, Movietone News footage, and models of ships and their accommodations. A separate section recalls the off-shore sinking of the Cunard liner Lusitania in May 1915 by a German U-boat with a loss of 1,198 lives, including 128 U.S. citizens.

As it is Swan policy not fill excursion buses to capacity, we were just 32 on the trip to Kinsale, a historic port during the wine trade days and now a colorful small town best known as Ireland’s gastronomic center and a yachting harbor. Just out of town, we visited the imposing pentagonal Charles Fort, built in the late 17th century as a coastal defense against French invaders.

The Irish theme continued with a day’s call at Glengarriff and a fetchingly scenic coastal drive to Castletownbere, the country’s second largest fishing port after Killybeggs our next port of call. The deep-sea fleets fish for cod, hake, haddock, salmon, sole and tuna, with mussel farming close in shore. It’s a treat to walk amid the activity of unloading the catch and making boat repairs.

During the passage around the top of Ireland, we attended lectures on early Irish art such as elaborate metalwork in gold, silver and enamel and beautiful scrollwork exemplified by the outstandingly beautiful Book of Kells on display in Dublin. Another talk covered the Scottish invaders, English landholders, Anglo-Irish conflicts and the troubles between the Catholics and Protestants that continue up to the present day.

Belfast & Dublin

During our call at Belfast, Swan provided a free shuttle bus to and from the center of town for those who wished to stay ashore following the tour. Once one of the world’s most important shipbuilding centers, the city shows off its architecturally rich Donegal Square and connecting shopping streets.

We took the tour to Mount Stewart, a National Trust property with its owner still in residence. Built between 1744 and 1820, the imposing seaside house, containing beautiful furnishings, is set amongst sloping landscaped gardens that surround a central lake.

Sailing overnight to Dublin, we docked in the container port. As we had been here several times before, we availed ourselves of the free shuttle to Kildare Street. The city center is compact enough to enjoy an on-foot tour of the 18th-century Georgian architecture typified by the lovely residential squares and row houses with brightly painted doors.

For a different sort of outing, we visited 140-year-old Kilmainham Goal where the leaders of the Irish rebellions were incarcerated and sometimes executed. It serves as a museum of the history of Irish nationalism as well as view into brutal social conditions of the day, including jailing children because their parents were also imprisoned.

After a pub supper and a pint of Guinness on O’Connell Street, the city ‘s main thoroughfare, we returned to the Minerva for a late evening sailing through the Irish Sea en route to the Isles of Scilly, strung out off the southwestern-most point of England.

Isles of Scilly

Disembarking by launch, we landed within easy walking distance of Tresco Abbey Gardens, established in the early 19th century as a fabulous repository of sub-tropical plants and flowers, warmed by the Gulf Stream and protected from strong winds by towering stands of Monterey Pines. The various landscaped gardens exhibit colorful species from the Mediterranean, South America and Australasia, creating a delightful botanical medley.

Onto La Belle France

To prepare for our landings at St. Malo and Caen, the military historian described the events of World War II in a talk about the Battle of the Atlantic and another on the Allied landings at Omaha and Utah beaches, beginning with the elaborate preparations for D- Day (June 6, 1944) and how victory was snatched from possible disaster.

We called first at Caen, where the excursion took us on-site to Gold Beach, Arromanches–Les Bains. Here we viewed the coastal military installations, remnants of the artificial Mulberry Harbor that provided protection from the stormy seas during the Normandy landings and a museum housing a scale model of the operations.

St. Malo provided a far more peaceful visit. Squeezing through a lock into the inner basin, Minerva tied up beneath the walls of the old town, faithfully reconstructed after the WWII bombings. Within, the narrow medieval streets led to a lively quarter packed with stalls and outdoor seafood restaurants serving heaps of crabs, langoustines, mussels and oysters.

The day’s outing headed inland through the hilly Breton countryside to Dinan, a medieval river port surrounded by 11th-century walls and with a labyrinth of narrow streets lined by timbered houses. From the ramparts we looked down on the lower town clustered along the River Rance that connects the city to the sea.

Wrapping it Up

In a brief two-week period, Minerva had taken us to a wide variety of small villages and relatively large cities; landscapes that included rugged coastlines, inland farmlands, and river valleys; and an isolated island all accompanied by expert interpretation on the subjects of ancient Celtic and Viking culture, Irish literature and art, European wars and religious conflicts.

As most places seemed so peaceful today, it was sometimes hard to imagine the conflicts, unrest and destruction of the past until we visited Kilmainham Goal, planted our feet on the Normandy beaches or heard the tales of war from one of the veterans aboard ship who had been there as a young man.

A Swan Hellenic cruise has an uncanny way of bringing passengers together to enjoy a shared experience that engenders a lively social life at meals, gatherings on deck and on tour.

Click here for more info on Swan Hellenic.

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By Anne Kalosh.

One day aboard the AMERICAN EMPRESS paddlewheeler began with a bald eagle sighting from my veranda, continued with a forest trek, waterfalls and Washington state wines and wrapped with one of the best meals I’ve eaten on a cruise.

American Empress is a real looker. * Photo: American Queen Steamboat

American Empress is a real looker. * Photo: American Queen Steamboat

Seeing the Pacific Northwest by riverboat was a revelation. As a kid, I’d spent summers in Washington and Oregon, but I didn’t appreciate the full majesty of the Columbia River Gorge, the rich history of the river towns or the region’s thriving artisan food culture until I sailed on this vessel that re-entered service in 2014.

Steep cliffs, dramatic rock formations, towering Douglas firs and sweeping waterfalls formed the scenery. We sailed past islands swirling in the morning mist and Indian fishing camps along riverbanks blazing in yellow and purple flowers. Railway bridges swung open to let the American Empress pass. We transited locks and tied up in the heart of towns and cities.

We learned about Indian history, the Oregon Trail, the Gold Rush and the Lewis and Clark Expedition. We explored top-class museums, sipped great local wines and savored dishes prepared with Pacific Northwest delicacies. On an excursion, I got to ride in some vintage automobiles and would have flown in a vintage airplane past Mount Hood if the cloud cover hadn’t been too low.

The AMERICAN EMPRESS sails along the Snake and Columbia rivers between Clarkston in eastern Washington on the Idaho border and Vancouver, Wash., an underappreciated city just across the river from Portland, Ore. Seven-night cruises operate each way.

Rocking chairs on deck were coveted for scenery watching. * Photo: American Queen Steamboat

Rocking chairs on deck were coveted for scenery watching. * Photo: American Queen Steamboat

The return of a great paddlewheeler

Built in 2003 as EMPRESS OF THE NORTH, it was brought back to life after a five-year layup. It had sailed for Majestic America Line, which ceased operations in 2008.

The current owner, American Queen Steamboat Co., has a record of reviving riverboats. In 2012, it brought back the largest paddlewheel steamboat ever built, the AMERICAN QUEEN, on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. In 2014, the company acquired and put more than $6 million into upgrading the 360-foot AMERICAN EMPRESS as the Pacific Northwest’s largest riverboat. It carries up to 223 passengers.

It’s not a steamboat but is powered by CAT diesel engines, Z-drives and the sternwheel.

The refurbishment brought new furniture, lighting, amenities, galley equipment and an upscale alternative dining venue. The original Russian imperial decor (think “Romanov red”) was toned down.

The Victorian-era charm remains in the flocked wallpaper, ornate ceilings and cut-glass lamps, but there are contemporary boutique hotel touches. All the accommodations have Clarins toiletries, Keurig espresso makers, high-thread-count linens and fluffy duvets. The pillow chocolates are Godiva.

The show lounge is a real looker. * Photo: American Queen Steamboat

The show lounge brings the past back. * Photo: American Queen Steamboat

The Pacific Northwest cuisine was a treat

Tasty meals were served in the open-seating Astoria Dining Room where opulent crystal chandeliers grace an elegant space of light green with gold accents.

Breakfast choices ranged from hearty oatmeal to salmon hash and scrumptious home-fried potatoes. Lunch favorites included Idaho rainbow trout, a pulled pork barbecue sandwich, fried oysters and a grilled vegetable sandwich with homemade parmesan potato chips. Soups like tomato basil bisque, cream of forest mushroom and Walla Walla onion were outstanding. The homemade marionberry sorbet merited seconds.

No one went hungry on this cruise, breakfasts were wonderfully hearty. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

No one went hungry on this cruise, breakfasts were wonderfully hearty. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

Each cruise features a wine pairing dinner. On mine, a 2012 Birdie Riesling Columbia Valley was poured with Tillamook cheddar fondue, a 2011 L’Autre Pinot Noir Willamette Valley went with mushroom risotto and a 2011 Kingpin Cabernet Sauvignon Red Mountain with New York strip steak.

All the meals were memorable, but my favorite was a dinner at the River Grill & Bar, where cascading glass doors are opened in fine weather. I watched Chef Paul Wayland-Smith cook at the open galley, pulling miracles out of his shiny new combi oven. His menu offered hot or cold dungeness crab, smoked salmon with blinis and a crispy pastry purse of local shiitake mushrooms with truffle cream sauce. Entrees were grilled lobster tail, filet mignon, a double lamb chop and British Columbia king salmon topped with Oregon crayfish. Dessert was fresh berry cobler.

The local sourcing extended to the bars. The Paddlewheel Lounge, which overlooks the big red sternwheel, stocks brands like Wild Roots Marionberry Vodka, Portland Potato Vodka, Below Deck Silver Rum and Crater Lake Gin made with Oregon juniper berries.

“We went with a lot of local and a lot of craft spirits. Even our well brands are local,” bartender Patrick Mulvaney said.

The star of the cruise was the river

The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area spans 292,500 acres across southern Washington and northern Oregon. It’s a spectacular canyon 80 miles long and up to 4,000 feet deep that cuts through the Cascade Mountain Range.

Gorgeous gorge scenery. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

Gorgeous gorge scenery. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

Destinations were easy to explore since the AMERICAN EXPRESS is trailed by the company’s own deluxe motor coaches. In each port they operated hop-on, hop-off tours, included in the cruise fare, that circled around to destination highlights. Local guides rode the buses.

In The Dalles, for example, the tour stopped at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Museum, the Original Courthouse Museum, The Dalles Visitors Center, Fort Dalles Museum and the Sunshine Mills Winery. This is a pretty town of wooden houses, flowering trees, a bookstore dating to 1864 and a 1929 theater said to have been the first west of the Mississippi to show a “talkie.”

“Lewis and Clark passed right by here. They camped here three days to repair and dry out their goods before heading to the ocean,” said one of the guides, Linda, who works for the Forest Service. She told us we were surrounded by thousands of acres of cherry orchards, apple trees, grapevines and wheat fields.

The boat also offered premium tours, at an extra charge.

In the afternoon during our day at The Dalles, I took one to the Western Antique Aeroplane & Automobile Museum at Hood River ($59). It was great. There, hangars house 130 antique cars and the airplanes date as far back as 1917. Some of the enthusiastic volunteers who restore these machines took us for spins. I jumped into the rumble seat of a 1931 Model A Ford Roadster, luxuriated in a champagne-colored 1941 Lincoln Continental and a roomy 1948 Chrysler New Yorker, then puttered along in a crank-started 1914 Model T Ford.

The next day the AMERICAN EXPRESS pulled into tiny Stevenson, where I spotted the bald eagle. The hop-on, hop-off tour visited the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center and Bonneville Dam.

“This was a dangerous part of the Columbia with rapids before the dam. Early steamers would stop to restock,” said Rick, the local guide. In the old days, logs were floated down on flumes. Now, Rick said, Stevenson is “an artsy-craftsy community.”

The afternoon’s premium tour ($49) was another high point. We crossed the Bridge of the Gods to Oregon and drove along the river past sheer cliffs; Beacon Rock, with a top that resembles a fedora, and Rooster Rock, shrouded in trees.

Our motor coach climbed into the forest on a steep, winding road, the Historic Columbia River Highway. When the highway system was established in 1926, it was incorporated into U.S. Route 30, stretching all the way to Atlantic City, N.J.

There were spectacular lookouts at Chanticleer Point and Crown Point. Driving through a beautiful forest of moss-covered trees, we passed seven waterfalls in an eight-mile stretch including 620-foot Multnomah, second highest in the United States.

It was a gorgeous tour, and back at the AMERICAN EXPRESS, we were in for another treat: a wine tasting with the generous pours of winemaker Lin Scott of Washington’s Sparkman Cellars.

Wine tasting was on of many cruise highlights. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

Wine tasting was one of many cruise highlights. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

Feeling joyful and tipsy on deck

I joined others on deck as we sailed away on a sparkling afternoon. The captain folded the stacks so we could pass beneath the Bridge of the Gods. We got second glimpses of Beacon Rock and Multnomah Falls, and transited Bonneville Lock.

We all went snap-happy — every glance revealed a photo-worthy scene.

Next day it was drizzly in Astoria, where the Columbia empties into the Pacific. Sea lions barked all around. We docked near the Columbia River Maritime Museum, blocks from coffee houses, a brew pub and the opulent Flavel House, a Queen Anne mansion built by the late George Flavel, a bar pilot on the Columbia and Astoria’s wealthiest man. A premium tour took in the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.

Our last morning, beautiful views continued as mist rose off the river. A railroad bridge swung open, and we arrived at Vancouver, the end of the trip.

I spent a day after disembarking and was surprised by all there is to explore, from interesting Fort Vancouver National Historic Site to the budding arts scene, parks, bike trails, brew pubs, wineries and fine restaurants.

I enjoyed another day across the river in Portland, where American Empress passengers stay during their included pre-cruise hotel overnight on eastbound sailings. It’s a lively, walkable city, where food trucks sell everything from Kalua Pig Sliders to Smoked Salmon Pot Pie, and the towering Portlandia statue is not to be missed.

FAST FACTS: American Empress

The boat: The largest sternwheeler west of the Mississippi, it stretches 360 feet and rises 83 feet from keel to stack. Top speed is 14 knots (16 mph).

Public spaces: The Show Lounge, with live entertainment; a small gift shop; the Paddlewheel Lounge, with a pianist, library corner and four computers. Wi-Fi is free throughout the boat.

Cabins: The American Empress has 111 double occupancy staterooms and suites and one solo occupancy room. All are outside and all but seven have verandas. Most accommodations are 180-square-foot deluxe veranda staterooms. Superior veranda staterooms are 210 to 250 square feet. The eight suites range from 310 to 410 square feet. Two rooms are wheelchair-accessible with roll-in showers. A pair of elevators serve all four passenger decks.

Cost: The nine-day (seven nights on board, one night in a hotel) program between Vancouver and Clarkston, Wash. (departures both ways) is priced starting at $2,649 per person, double occupancy, including hop-on, hop-off excursions and wine and beer with lunch and dinner. Port charges are $149 extra. Gratuities of $16.50 per day are added to accounts.

Port calls: The same ports, eastbound and westbound, are Astoria, Ore., at the mouth of the Columbia; Stevenson, Wash., at the heart of the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area; The Dalles, Ore., the end of the Oregon Trail; and Richland, Wash., near the confluence of the Columbia and Snake rivers. Daily hop-on, hop-off tours are included, with a selection of extra-cost premium tours.

American Empress sails from mid March through November.

Entertainment: A daily “river chat” with the Riverlorian, arts and crafts, trivia, lectures, wine tastings, close-up parlor magic and tours of the pilot house. In the evenings a quartet plays dance music in the Show Lounge and there are performances by comedians, guest singers or instrumentalists (folk, bluegrass, country, cowboy, swing). A pianist/vocalist entertains in the Paddlewheel Lounge.

Click here for more information on American Queen Steamboat Company.

 

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