No, it wasn't a bizarre dream, but an event at London Zoo, courtesy of two cruise lines -- Voyages of Discovery and Swan Hellenic. The Brit lines -- both owned by All Leisure Group (which also recently acquired Hebridean) -- teamed up for the event to give members of the media a sneak peek at Voyages' Asia programme for winter 2009/10 and Swan's Antarctica itineraries, also for this winter.
First stop: Drinks in the Zoo's Komodo Dragon house, where Raja the Komodo sat -- dead still, eyes open -- watching us. A fun fact for you: Komodo dragons, the world's heaviest living lizards, spend the first four years of their lives in trees. This encounter set the mood for a presentation on Voyages of Discovery's cruises in Asia.
This will be the 20,216-ton, 650-passenger Discovery's first time to Asia. The ship will visit some fascinating ports of call, including Halong Bay in Vietnam and Sihanoukville in Cambodia. Guest speakers -- including Sir James Hodge, a retired diplomat and ambassador to Thailand -- will be onboard to talk about their Asia experiences.
Hodge spoke to journalists at the event last night -- and anyone booked on this cruise should be sure to attend one of his lectures. His passion for the region came through as he described eyeing orangutans in Borneo, sipping a Singapore Sling at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore (where the drink was created) and catching the Hong Kong Island Star ferry.
Discovery will depart from Barcelona on 28 November, 2009 and head out on its 65-day voyage to Asia, via Egypt and India. It will finish up in Hong Kong on 30 January, 2010. Sectors are available, with prices starting at £1,795 per person for a 24-night "Passage to India" cruise. There are also free cabin upgrades offered, depending on availability.
Moving away from the mystical Far East, it was time to head to the vast south -- to Antarctica. To get into a white-continent frame of mind, we headed out to the penguin enclosure, where we watched the tuxedoed creatures waddle up for feeding. Though these Blackfooted penguins (plus Ricky the Rockhopper penguin) were from South Africa (not Antarctica), they definitely gave us a feel for what to expect!
Interestingly, a number of cruise lines are pulling out of the region -- and Swan Hellenic is, indeed, following suit after this season. Its 12,500-ton, 352-passenger Minerva will return to the white continent for the last time this winter, in December 2009, for a series of sailings from Buenos Aires to Antarctica, the Falklands, South Shetland Islands and South Georgia.
Minerva does not sail at capacity on its Antarctica cruises, taking just 200 passengers. Prices for a 16-night Antarctica cruise start at £2,995 per person.
It is also interesting to note that Minerva cruise director, Paul Carter, urged people to visit the region before tourism is no longer allowed. There are no plans in place to halt Antarctica cruises right now, but the U.S. recently passed an amendment to limit tourism in the future -- and a potentially detrimental fuel ban is looming.
Next summer, Minerva will visit both the Mediterranean and Northern Europe. It will also revisit the ports of Arabia and Syria -- a region that hasn't been included on Swan's lineup for years. The ship is then set to head to the Far East for winter 2010/11. Swan Hellenic plans to publish itineraries in the next few weeks, so stay tuned.
--by Kelly Ranson, U.K. Editor
Image of penguins at London Zoo appears courtesy of Kelly Ranson.