Discover Yacht Charter in the Caribbean
Swan Hellenic Minerva II offers exploratory cruising in a refined English country-house setting
Aug. 12, 2006 10:45 AM
The first Swan Hellenic Mediterranean cruise traveled to the Greek Islands in 1954, and in 1983, P&O purchased the company and furthered its development as a destination-rich cruise line, visiting numerous international ports of historical and archeological interests. Since 2004, Swan Hellenic is part of the Carnival Corp, along with the Yachts of Seabourn, Cunard, NCL, Princess, Costa and Windstar.
However, Swan Hellenic is a distinctive product and a premium brand. Perhaps the first thing guests notice when they step onboard the 600-passenger Minerva II is the richly-appointed furnishings and interiors set in a cozy, country-club atmosphere reminiscent of an English manor house. Thankfully devoid of the distasteful aspects of conventional cruising, there are no long lines onboard the Minerva, nor are there raised voices, piped elevator music, or glitzy atriums which belong in a suburban mall but not while sailing the high seas. Everything is very civilized yet relaxed, with well-trained, attentive staff and a 2:1 guest/staff ratio.
Minerva’s public spaces are designed with comfort and elegance in mind featuring plush carpeting, Oriental rugs, trompe l’oeil ceilings, rich wood paneling, and artwork gracing the walls. To support the enrichment focus of the ship, there’s a Regency-style library with a magnificent glass ceiling of painted flowers, leather armchairs, a fireplace, and over 4,000 books on history, archeology, wildlife, politics, art and biographies.
Dubbed “the most scholarly ship afloat” by travel veteran Arthur Frommer, Swan Hellenic is the market leader in discovery cruising. Expert guest speakers are chosen to bring to life the history, culture, and notable aspects of the destinations visited. For instance, a cruise of the Amazon basin might have onboard a former British Ambassador to Brazil; a lecturer on volcanology might explain St. Lucia’s sulfur springs; and a wine connoisseur might lead a discussion on the wines of the Iberian peninsula.
Both the lectures and the evening performances are held in the Lounge. In lieu of flashy Las Vegas-style musical numbers, Swan Hellenic opts for more refined entertainment such as acclaimed classical guitarist Adrian Azeulo, the Shakespeare Revue Company, and members of London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Other onboard diversions include an outdoor swimming pool, two Jacuzzis, a sunbathing deck, golf-driving net, jogging track, a fully-equipped spa fitness center and spa, a card room and an observation lounge.
The clientele is mostly British with a mix of North Americans and other nationalities, and about 40% of them are repeat guests who know exactly what they want while at sea. In addition to the draw of the academically-oriented programs, they are attracted to Minerva’s unusual itineraries which offer hidden-gem destinations as well as must-see sites.
Over the course of the year, the Minerva II sails to destinations in Northern Europe and the Baltics, the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, Northern Africa, the Caribbean and South America. Some new, off-the-beaten track destinations for 2006 and 2007 include Alta, on the Northern tip of Norway - a world UNESCO Heritage Site with 6,000-year-old rock carvings, as well as Sarande in Albania, and the Falkland Islands.
With the exception of certain itineraries, all Swan Hellenic fares include charter flights from London to the port of embarkation and return flight to London. Inclusive are transfers, accommodation and meals on board, port taxes, tailor-made shore excursions at each port of call, entrance fees to places visited, and tips and gratuities to staff onboard and ashore.
On my Caribbean sailing, the itinerary included the Mayan sites of the Yucatan Peninsula, Cayman Islands, Port Antonio in Jamaica, Venezuela, Curacao, Trinidad and Barbados. I chose to disembark and spend extra time exploring Curacao, the largest island in the Dutch Antilles. Located 60 km north of Venezuela, the mainstays of the economy are petroleum refining, offshore finance and tourism.
The multi-ethnic cultural legacy of Curacao is reflected in many of its distinctive historic buildings, which meld African and Jewish influences along with European styles. The local dialect is Papiamentu, the best developed of the Creole languages in the Caribbean – a mix of languages from African slaves imported during the slave trade, and the island’s Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, French and English colonizers.
The capital Willemstad is divided into the Punda district in the east and Otrabanda in the west by St. Anna Bay, which leads to Schottegat Harbor. The Queen Emma Pontoon bridge, first opened in 1888, connects the two sides of the channel. Affectionately known as “The Swinging Old Lady”, this 168-meter pedestrian bridge swings open to allow for ship traffic at the bay. Perhaps the quintessential picture-postcard shot of Willemstad is the row of strikingly colorful Dutch-style gabled houses along the Punda waterfront – the earliest of which are precise copies of mid-17th century Dutch buildings. Nearby Fort Amsterdam is now partially converted into a bustling promenade of seafront restaurants, duty-free international shops, and a floating fruit and vegetable market. Completing the picturesque waterfront scene are schooners which are tied up along the narrow canal leading to the Waaigat, a small yacht basin in Punda.