I recently asked one of the world’s leading authorities on cruise ships if he would recommend a few aspirational ships for avid cruisers who have “been there, done that.” Douglas Ward is the author of Berlitz Cruising and Cruise Ships. With more than 45 years of experience and spending some 200 days a year aboard cruise ships, Doug evaluates ship facilities, inspecting each like a maritime Sherlock Holmes. Facilities count, of course but just as important are the standards of food, service, staff and hospitality. In his quest, no stone is left unturned, from the fluffiness of the towels to the quality of the china, and from the welcome aboard to the disembarkation process. He is also a lover of gins, and I happen to know that Monkey 47 is his favorite. Thanks to Monty Python for inspiring the title of this post.
I am sure you’ve heard about all the large resort ships that have been introduced in the past year or so (Norwegian Breakaway, Norwegian Getaway, Royal Princess), but perhaps some of the smaller ships may have escaped your attention – mainly because they simply don’t have big marketing and advertising budgets. So I thought I would tell you about a few of the ships that you might consider for your next cruise vacation. I have selected five ships that are a little bit different.
Aegean Odyssey (Voyages to Antiquity)
Although this small ship was born a long time ago – in 1974, it has been skillfully refitted and refurbished for its rather special role as a cultural ship. Accommodating a maximum 378 passengers (with 26 cabins for single occupancy), it has a classical feel, and a totally relaxed ambience.
Aegean Odyssey operates 14-day cruises within the Greek islands and Turkey, with several overnight port calls so you can go out and sample the local dishes. It’s all about classical civilizations, and you’ll be totally immersed in history, architecture, and other cultural delights.
One big draw is the company’s list of academic-type lecturers who are specialists in their chosen field, so you’ll return culturally revived and enriched. The ship has oodles of open deck space, and the ladies can be pampered rather well in the neat new spa.
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Europa 2 (Hapag-Lloyd Cruises)
This very new (in April 2013), contemporary ship caters to an international clientele of affluent, trendy types who simply want the best when it comes to cuisine and dining choices.
Designed for sophisticated travellers – including families with children – the 42,830 ton, 516-passenger ship is all about relaxation. There are no formal nights, no captain’s cocktail parties, and no casino. There is no assigned seating anywhere – it’s like going out in any town – and choosing where you want to eat. I tried steak tartare in the French restaurant – where it’s created at your tableside and cutlery is laid with white-glove service, with style.
Speaking of style, there is no formality aboard Europa 2 – it’s all about smart casual and comfortable, relaxed (no ties needed) luxury. Art lovers will find a wonderful collection of 890 paintings and sculpture pieces aboard Europa 2, including some by Damien Hirst, David Hockney, and Gerhard Richter.
The ship has entertainment that appeals to a wide range of international tastes, but one of the most popular rooms is the Jazz Club, with constantly changing bands that are simply excellent.
Unusual for a ship of this size is a full walk-around deck – ideal for promenading and whale- and dolphin watching (not to mention people-watching). Overall, though, I have to say that this ship is really for foodies – and you really will be spoiled for choice! Europa 2 features 7-day cruises in the Mediterranean during the summer, with many different itineraries, which are combinable.
Check out our Europa 2 review.
Hebridean Princess (Hebridean Island Cruises)
This pocket-sized gem of a ship is very British and traditional. Built in 1964 and extensively refitted, it’s like a miniature floating country house that carries just 50 passengers. It’s about as far away as you can get from large resort ships. Every cabin is decorated in Laura Ashley style with some fine fabrics and furnishings that are worthy of a fine mansion. There are no cabin numbers, and, refreshingly, no door keys, although cabins can be locked from the inside. Agatha Christie’s Inspector Hercule Poirot would be very much at home here, particularly in the Tiree Lounge, with its Adam brick fireplace. Who needs megaships when you can take a retro-cruise aboard this little gem?
The Queen has chartered the little ship twice – probably because the food is so good (all the meat comes from a local Scottish butcher). The Purser is often seen in the dining room carving meats for lunch and dinner.
Hebridean Princess sails from Oban in Scotland, and operates mostly 7-day island-hopping itineraries in Scotland, together with the occasional jaunt to Norway and an occasional sailing around the coast of the British Isles.
National Geographic Orion
You may have to travel a little to get to this gem of a ship – to Australia, in fact. But, once there, you’ll be wowed by the casual, intimate little vessel, and the anticipation of a private expedition, perhaps to the Kimberley region of north-west Australia, or perhaps to Papua New Guinea, for a taste of the native life – and then some!
Although National Geographic’s other ships may be known, the 2003-built National Geographic Orion is actually a new acquisition – part of the growing Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic fleet of specialist boutique-sized ships. Carrying just 106 passengers (participants), the ship also carries snorkeling equipment for all, and enough diving gear for up to 24 diving participants. Typically, biology and other specialist lecturers are carried on each cruise. When the ship was built (in Germany), the furniture for each cabin was crafted individually – none of the modular copycat cabins found today aboard larger ships!
Sea Cloud (Sea Cloud Cruises)
Not new by any means, this 83-year-old tall ship (no modern cruise ship will last this long!) has 32 billowing sails measuring more than 32,000 square feet on three masts (the main mast stands 174 feet above the main deck). It was originally a private yacht – ordered by E.F. Hutton for his wife, Marjorie Merryweather Post, of Post Cereal fame. But what a yacht! This super-lady was crafted in 1931, and is a superb example of resilience, preservation and prestige, now operated by Hamburg-based Sea Cloud Cruises for an international clientele. During World War II the ship became a weather observation vessel for the U.S. Navy under the code name IX-99.
The tall ship now carries up to 64 passengers. About 10 of the original cabins still exist, and these have been beautifully restored. They each have a (now non-working) fireplace. I sailed aboard it in the Caribbean recently, and found it to be a beautiful experience (there were several American passengers aboard, as well as several from Australia, the UK, Austria, Switzerland and Germany), and the cuisine was excellent. What was so appreciated by other passengers was the complete lack of television – there simply isn’t any!
Fully updated and revised and now in its 29th year, the 2014 Berlitz Cruising and Cruise Ships (752 pages, $24.99) as well as an eBook, is now available in the U.S. through Amazon and many bookstores. The app, which is $9.99, is available worldwide from Apple through the iTunes App store. Information: www.insightguides.com/berlitz/berlitz-cruising.
An avid traveler and an award-winning journalist, Ralph Grizzle produces articles, video and photos that are inspiring and informative, personal and passionate. A journalism graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ralph has specialized in travel writing for more than two decades. To read more cruise and port reviews by Ralph Grizzle, visit his website at www.avidcruiser.com