Because lecture programs are Swan Hellenic's great strength, there is little in the way of typical cruise-ship entertainment. In the Main Deck's expansive Darwin Lounge -- featuring a wooden dance floor; bandstand; lounge seating; oriental-style carpets and fluted, white, ionic columns -- a young, classically trained quartet sings and plays a variety of instruments in the evenings. One or two may also put on special solo concerts. The house band plays after dinner, and the crew puts on one show during the cruise. Team quizzes also attract a following.
But the main attractions in the Darwin Lounge are the lectures. Most cruises carry four or five guest lecturers to cover several disciplines appropriate to the cruising region and theme. They give 40-minue talks during the time at sea, and if there is an entire day of cruising, there will be three or four talks to attend in the Darwin Lounge or to watch in the new Livingstone Lounge on big screens.
On a trip that included English, Irish and French ports, speakers included a historian, writer, military specialist and an Anglican clergyman. Destination-specific presentations covered Ireland's Catholic-Protestant and British-Irish conflicts, Viking and Celtic culture and religion, Irish literature, the Tresco Abbey Gardens on the Isles of Scilly, wars between England and France (beginning with 1066 and the Battle of Hastings), the Channel Islands during World War II and the Normandy landings at the end of World War II. On cruises to the Mediterranean and Middle East, onboard lecturers may specialize in topics like archeology, architecture, mythology, ornithology, language, maritime history, food and wine. On my cruise, the lecturers were both informative and entertaining, though, despite the lecturers' best efforts, a couple of topics remained beyond the understanding of most of the audience.
One of the biggest aspects of the refit is the new Orpheus Lounge on the Promenade Deck, a comfortable observation lounge with a bar, stage and big dance floor, as well as soothing burgundy and cream decor. Lighter music -- jazz and sometimes pop and rock tunes (geared to the age group) -- is offered there in the evenings for dancing.
A popular spot for pre-dinner drinks is Shackelton's Bar on the Main Deck, best typifying the ship's unhurried, country-hotel atmosphere. The roomy, light-paneled lounge features polished-wood floors and oriental-style carpets. Red-and-cream striped and olive green, wood-framed chairs and reddish couches face glass-top tables, while the bar is surrounded by five stools. On the walls, a large set of stunning black-and-white photographs depicts Ernest Shackleton's aborted Antarctic expedition and rescue. A pianist provides entertainment and background music. The lounge was extended in the refit and has a more open, welcoming feel now.
On the Bridge Deck, portside, opposite the Veranda Cafe, the Wheeler Bar pays homage to Sir Mortimer Wheeler, a scholar and intrepid traveler, who was one of Swan's founders -- and later its chairman. The aft section of the room contains a bar area with stools for barflies and a set of wicker chairs, set on a polished, wooden floor amidst potted palms. The larger portion of the room is taken up with groupings of armchairs and couches in three shades of green, surrounding low mahogany tables. Sir Mortimer Wheeler's portrait at one end faces a stunning half-model of P&O's SS Caledonia at the other. A harpist plays before and after dinner.
Drinks prices at all the ship's bars are reasonable, with a 175 ml glass of Sauvignon Blanc (Vanel) setting you back £3.50, a Gordon's Gin & Tonic at £ 2.75, a pint of Carlsberg at £2.60 and a bottle of beer (330 ml) at £1.75.
Also forward of the library on this deck is the new Livingstone Lounge, the former cinema. This refurbished venue hosts events like wine-tasting or singles' parties and shows lectures from the Darwin Lounge on a big screen.
On the same deck, next to the library on the port side, is the card room. Its seven tables are often filled with bridge players, and instruction in the game is offered onboard. A paneled smoking room sports seven brown leather chairs and two couches.
Shore excursions are included in Minerva's cruise fares, often with multiple options per port. Extra-special tours are offered in certain ports for an additional cost, though I found them fairly priced. However, most passengers lean toward the included tours or, if time permits, take a free tour, followed by a for-fee excursion. Shuttle buses between the ship and city or town center are always complimentary. In general, passengers choose their excursions in advance of embarkation, rather than booking onboard. After attending the onboard lectures, I found that visits to such sites as the Normandy beaches, the Bayeux tapestries, Celtic stone circles and illuminated manuscripts (such as the Book of Kells) took on far more meaning.