Swan Hellenic's oceangoing fleet includes only Minerva I. At 12,500 tons, she takes up to 352 passengers and 157 crewmembers at a moderate cruising speed of 14 knots. The navigating officers are European, the cabin stewardesses are Ukrainian, and the restaurant and bar staff -- as well as the deck hands -- are Filipino. The cruise staff is mainly British.
More than £10 million will be spent on Minerva over the winter of 2011-2012. The ship will be taken out of service from November to March while 32 balconies are added to the cabins on the Sun Deck and new bathrooms are installed in all 181 cabins. A new wrap-around promenade is being created on the top deck, as well as a new observation lounge, the Orpheus Lounge. Shackleton's bar is being extended, and a new Internet lounge will created. In addition, the gym and beauty salon are being moved down to the Aegean Deck, and the pool deck will be covered with a canopy, so that outdoor dining can be introduced.
Six cabins are being removed to make space for the improvements, but the number of passengers carried (350) will remain the same.
Swan also seasonally charters riverboats belonging to A-Rosa Line, a German company formerly owned by P&O. The 86-cabin A-Rosa Stella operates on the Rhone and Soane in France, the 100-cabin A-Rosa Aqua plies the Rhine, and the 100-cabin A-Rosa Riva sails the Danube.
Swan Hellenic has been around since 1954, when two enterprising British brothers named Swan started Swan Travel. Soon, they began chartering secondhand ships to operate port-intensive cultural cruises for the British market. Their itineraries focused mainly on Greece -- hence the name Swan Hellenic -- but also included ports throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. The company prided itself on offering nonrepeating cruise itineraries, top lecturers and an included shore program.
In the late 1950's, Swan Hellenic took a longtime seasonal charter of Turkish Maritime Lines' 6,178-ton Ankara, which was built in 1927 as an American coastal passenger ship with bare-bones cabins and male and female dormitory space. In 1974, Swan signed a charter agreement -- that lasted some 22 years -- for the small, 4,145-ton Orpheus, owned by Epirotiki Lines. That ship was originally built for the Irish Sea overnight trade and was then rebuilt to carry slightly more than 300 passengers in small cabins with private facilities. Orpheus proved extremely popular, and the line developed a large and loyal following, affectionately known as "Swans." They, in turn, dubbed first-time Swan travelers "Cygnets."
Swan added riverboat operations in Europe and on the Nile, with cruises sailing the full navigable length between Cairo and Aswan. But, periods of low water, followed by the threat of terrorism along the more remote stretches, persuaded the line to eventually drop the Nile program.
While most passengers continued to be British, North Americans typically made up between five and 10 percent of the passenger list.
In 1983, the firm, now operated by Kenneth Swan, one of the sons of the original owners, was sold to P&O (the venerable Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company). The one-ship company was kept separate and maintained its singular identity.
Then, in 1996, Swan Hellenic chartered an unfinished Ukrainian spy ship and turned it into the 12,500-ton, full-time cruise ship Minerva. Although the ship was not owned by Swan, the firm and its passengers had a lot to say about its design and decor as the shipbuilding process was completed. The new ship carried 352 passengers (double occupancy) in accommodations that are best described as English country hotel style.
By 2003, Carnival Corporation owned P&O and, therefore, Swan Hellenic. In that year, the former R-8 of Renaissance Cruises replaced Minerva I and became the 30,277-ton Minerva II, with a passenger capacity nearly twice that of the original Minerva. Some veteran Swans grumbled that the large new ship -- with its balcony cabins, multiple restaurants and other big-ship amenities -- was diluting the Swan style. The previous Minerva, in the meantime, served as Saga Pearl for Saga Cruises, Explorer II for Abercrombie & Kent, and Alexander von Humboldt for Phoenix Reisen.
In April 2007, Carnival Corporation pulled the plug on the one-ship Swan Hellenic operation, and the line vanished. Minerva II went to Princess Cruises as Royal Princess. Shortly thereafter, Lord Jeffrey Sterling, who had been chairman of P&O, bought the Swan name and valuable passenger list and went looking for a ship.
Eventually, he teamed up with All Leisure, a U.K. holding firm, which had bought the original Minerva I. Sterling sold the Swan Hellenic name and concept to All Leisure, and the company resumed Swan Hellenic operations in May 2008 with Lord Sterling as Chairman. (All Leisure also owns Discovery World Cruises' 710-passenger Discovery and Hebridean Island Cruises' 49-passenger Hebridean Princess.)
With Minerva's charter obligations ending in spring 2010, the ship can sail entirely for Swan Hellenic, and the company has returned to the small-ship, country-hotel experience that its fans adore.
Minerva's atmosphere is like that of a country-house hotel, and the decor features wood paneling and understated colors. A valuable collection of paintings, prints, drawings and maps lines the corridors, most with scenes of the regions visited.
Public rooms include a main lounge for talks and musical entertainment, two lounge bars, a smoking room outfitted with leather chairs, a card room and a large library with ample seating and tables for opening atlases. There's also a small gym, boutique and hair salon that offers spa treatments. The swimming pool is located aft, and there is a wide, circular promenade for constitutional walks and lounging on deck chairs.
Minerva has two dining venues, a restaurant and a cafe -- both with open-seating dining. In the main restaurant, breakfast and lunch include both menu and buffet items, while dinner is ordered solely from a menu. Jackets and ties are required in this venue at dinner only. The Verandah cafe has a casual dress code and buffet dining, with the same dinner entrees as those served in the main restaurant.
Of the 178 cabins, 126 are outside, 12 have balconies and a generous number are set aside for single passengers. Most have showers, refrigerators, safes and TV's.
Cruises are geared to learning experiences with a staff of specialty speakers who are drawn from universities, the clergy, media and government services to provide in-depth understanding of the areas visited. Areas covered include culture, religion, history, politics and the natural sciences. Each talk typically lasts 40 minutes, and the speakers are available afterward for further discussion, as well as during meals. Additional entertainment is limited to live music from a classical music troupe, a house band or soloists; a crew show; and films screened in the cinema and on cabin TV's.
Tips for staff onboard and guides ashore are included in the fare, as are flights from the U.K.
The river fleet offers buffet dining restaurants with indoor and outdoor seating, all outside cabins (some with Juliette, or French, balconies to step out on), lounge and bar, ample open deck space, and spa and sauna facilities. A guest speaker accompanies every cruise.
The overwhelming number of passengers is British, ages 55 and older. The average age on cruises departing from British ports is about 10 years older than on fly-cruise itineraries. Some cruises are targeted to North Americans, featuring packages that include air, transfers and pre-cruise hotel stays. The numbers, however, remain small. The atmosphere is well-mannered, and North Americans who have Anglophile leanings will be quite happy aboard this ship.
The line has a very high past-passenger rate. On average, 60 to 70 percent of passengers on a given sailing are repeat Swan Hellenic cruisers. Most passengers are quite social and enjoy lively conversations at meals and in the bar lounge before and after dinner. Many are great readers, as is evident during the days at sea. Lectures are always well-attended.
The river fleet attracts mostly British passengers, with convenient fly-to and train-to options for cruises based in France and Germany.
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