From our arrival by car at Dover cruise terminal it was clear that this cruise was going to be a well organised experience. We drove into the terminal under the overall roof of the former Dover Marine railway station, our luggage was collected and we parked the car, still under cover.
After the usual entry controls by the friendly Swan Hellenic staff, we boarded the ship and were accompanied to our inside cabin. As we expected, the cabin was compact, but there was adequate space to put way and hang clothes, and to stow our suitcases. The only complaint was the distance between the two single beds and the restricted headroom above one of the beds, caused by the stowed upper berth above it (careful not to bang your head when getting into bed!).
The first impression was of a liner with a traditional appearance, as it only accommodates a maximum of 325 passengers across 5 decks. It feels like a real ship where passengers are not shut away from the sea, as they are on some megaliners. We investigated the ship and were impressed by the brass-work and comfortable furniture in the public rooms, and the ease of getting around on a small ship. There are two bars, the Wheeler on the bridge deck, and the Shackleton on the main deck, and two restaurants, one of which was self service with the option of eating on the open aft deck. Afternoon tea was available in the main dining room soon after embarkation, and so the pattern was set for a programme of regular feeding opportunities throughout the holiday. The main dining room had the more formal dress code, expecting a jacket and tie at most dinners, but with two black tie dinners during the cruise. The food on board was consistently excellent with a good choice (in general the same menu was served in both restaurants) and there are no allocated tables – you sit with someone different for every meal. The service at meals was consistently excellent and professional by the mainly Filipino staff; even in rougher seas they still managed to balance six meals on a single tray.
The ship has a small swimming pool (using heated sea water) and a gym on the top deck. There is also a promenade deck where 8 laps equate to a mile walk to work off some of the eating experiences.
The Minerva is a liner built for leisurely cruising rather than speed, so after leaving Dover in the evening of the first day, the next day was spent cruising the North Sea off the coast of Holland in warm and sunny conditions on the way to the Kiel canal. One of the main aspects of cruising with Swan Hellenic is the programme of lectures from learned speakers (I think that the Americans call it “enrichment”), so we had the opportunity to learn about the Vikings and the original development of St Petersburg.
On the following morning we awoke to find forests, and cows grazing in fields on each side of the ship as we traversed the Kiel Canal. The really keen passengers could have seen the ship enter the canal at 4.30 am. By lunchtime the ship had reached the city of Kiel and its first port of call. We took one of the inclusive excursions (most of the excursions during the cruise were inclusive) to Lubeck. Unfortunately, heavy traffic around Lubeck delayed our arrival, so time to explore was restricted. However, it is a fine city with some very impressive mediaeval buildings constructed by the Hanseatic League, though also with some fairly ugly modern in-fill to replace those buildings destroyed by the RAF during the war. The ship sailed from Kiel in the evening and headed into the Baltic.
The next morning we arrived through the narrow entrance to the harbour at Rønne on the Danish island of Bornholm: larger ships would have to anchor outside the harbour. We took the option of a coach tour of the island, which is a popular holiday spot for Danes: the weather was certainly hot on the day of our visit. The island is very rural with pleasant rolling wooded hills and a largely agricultural economy. It is, however, suffering from depopulation as younger residents find it too isolated.
The next day was spent at sea with the opportunity to attend lectures on the Hanseatic League and the adventures of the Romanov dynasty. The age profile of the passengers was what one might call “senior”, and although there are no Saga-type age restrictions Swan Hellenic do state in their brochure that there are few facilities for children. In our early sixties, we found ourselves as apparently the youngest passengers. About a third of the passengers attended the drinks reception for first timers with Swan’s, showing that they have a loyal customer base. Many passengers had travelled on Minerva before, and its predecessor Minerva II (yes, that is correct – Minerva II replaced Minerva for a couple of years).
The next day we arrived at the Estonian capital, Tallinn, for which I have written a separate port review. Again, there was a choice of inclusive excursions.
The following morning the ship passed the new barrage to protect the city from storm surges and the island of Kronstadt with its naval base on the approach to St Petersburg. Less attractive, but interesting, was the final approach to one of the cruise terminals through the vast commercial port area with terminals for oil tankers, container ships and bulk carriers. We had a two night stay in St. Petersburg with a full programme of excursions to the opulent palaces and other magnificent buildings in this unique city. The weather was very warm and sunny throughout our stay, an indication of the high temperatures that Russia is suffering from this summer.
Following our stay we left St Petersburg at lunchtime after a morning tour of the city by boat on its waterways, and headed out into the Gulf of Finland. In the balmy evening on a calm sea we enjoyed one of the highlights of the trip in the form of music from the ship’s dance band out on the open rear deck as we saw the moon rise and passed two other cruise liners in the night. Music during the cruise was provided by an excellent dance/jazz band quartet, a group of 3 opera singers with a pianist, a singer/harpist and a “cocktail pianist”, but by the end of the cruise they were all singing and playing together in a variety of genres. Formal concerts and the lectures were held in the Darwin lounge on the main deck.
On the next day at sea the passengers were invited to visit the bridge to see how the ship is sailed, and we were re-assured to view the range of equipment used to aid safe navigation.
Early risers on the next day could enjoy sunrise over the many islands of the Stockholm archipelago, although the weather was now rather cooler (see separate port review).
We enjoyed dinner as the ship threaded its way out around Stockholm’s islands and the next morning we arrived at the small harbour at Visby on the Swedish island of Götland. I noticed that a larger cruise liner was anchored outside the harbour. After a tour of the island we returned to the ship for lunch and the departure of the ship. The captain revealed that he and the port pilot were in discussion about the wisdom of setting off given the tricky manoeuvre to get out of the harbour and the wind that had risen to 40 knots. There was a significant swell out to sea and the cruise liner anchored in the bay was now hardly visible in the fog – not ideal conditions for its passengers to return by tender. However, we did set off, and for a while with a following sea the ride on the ship was remarkably smooth. However, the captain warned that later in the evening he would have to turn at the south end of Öland island to observe lane separation and that we would then be beam-on to the swell.
The turn came as we were finishing dinner and the ship was now rolling much more, to the extent that a few diners were thrown from their chairs. The ship’s medical officers were soon on the scene and the casualties were taken to the medical centre, thankfully none with any serious injuries. The rolling continued for some time but then abated as the ship reached the lee of the island. An impromptu sing-song in the Shackleton bar with the opera singers leading the singing helped to keep spirits up.
The next morning we approached Copenhagen in much better weather.
We set sail again in the late afternoon and looked forward to the two days at sea before we returned to Dover. The sea was now much calmer, and it remained so as we crossed the North Sea back to Dover. The programme of lectures and entertainment continued to keep us all occupied until our return.
We awoke on the final day to find the ship already in Dover harbour. A programme of disembarkation had been planned (we could select our preferred time) and the facilities of the ship were available until that time. At the appointed time we disembarked to a farewell handshake personally from the captain and walked into the terminal building where our luggage was waiting. It was put onto a barrow by a porter and taken the short distance to the car.
Overall the cruise was very enjoyable and well-organised by a ship’s team who are clearly very experienced in what they do. It is aimed at those who want to travel to deepen their knowledge of the history and culture of their ports of call. Overall, with service, excursions and shuttle buses included in the fare, it represented excellent value for money.